July 22, 2012

Western States: Zero to 100 in Six Months

Twelve months ago I had never even heard of Western States.  After a two and half year hiatus from running in college, I jumped in the Mohican 50 just to see if I could finish.  In 2011, the Mohican races were held on the same day as "The" Western States 100.  It seemed no one at this event was concerned about the race they were about start, rather they were all buzzing about Western States.  Midway through the race I asked the guy I had been racing with all day, Jay Smithberger, what the hell is a Western States?  Twelve months later I was toeing the line at Squaw Valley (with Jay).  After grabbing an automatic qualifying spot from the Montrail Cup's Ice Age 50, I was "in" for my first 100 mile race.  Western States 100 officially started the same way all other ultramathon races start - with a really, long road trip.  Driving through the Bitterroot Valley is always inspiring!  Ok, I want to climb that peak and that peak and that one over there.  Did I mention that I love living in Montana?

We cruised South through the beautiful Bitterroot Mountain Range and into the twisty roads of Northern Idaho.  My entire crew, Lisa, posed for a picture alongside the Salmon River.  Without Lisa none of this would be possible!

We broke the driving into two days and spent a night at a casino/hotel in Elko, Nevada.  I jogged for 30 minutes around the hotel, grabbed a Starbucks breakfast and then we made our way to California.

Lisa and I navigated through the Truckee traffic circles and into Squaw Valley just in time for a quick medical check-in and the official pre-race meeting.  The volunteer who took my blood pressure was a bit concerned when my systolic and diastolic readings were off the chart.  I know from experience that those blood pressure machines need to be re-calibrated every 10 minutes but the volunteer medic was convinced that I was extremely nervous.  I don't think I have ever been more calm before a race...

The pre-race meeting was quite long and some jerk next to us kept asking Lisa to move out of his way.  I got Lisa out of there before she belted him.  We headed back to the hotel and ordered take-out from the only Italian restaurant in town, Zano's.  While shoving down some pasta and garlic bread we went over the game plan.  I had all of my gu's and electrolytes in zip-locked bags with aid station names marked on them.  Lisa went over the course maps and prepared herself for another long day of driving.  3:30 A.M. always comes early!  Before I could appreciate what was happening I heard the crowd chanting " 3 - 2 - 1...ahhh"  Spectators and runners alike bursted into the darkness.  The clock was ticking...

My race plan was simple - figure out a way to race 100 miles.   Stay 4-5 min back of the leaders for the first 30 miles.  Climb hard and protect the quads in the canyons.  Then see what I had left the last 40 miles.  The initial climb was awesome as I found a good climbing rhythm.  I could see the leaders but I was content with my placement and watched runners come back to me after their initial adrenaline induced spasm.  After watching "Unbreakable" in Missoula this past Spring I was really excited to see Lake Tahoe from the top of the climb.  Unfortunately that never happened as we would be racing through the clouds for the first 30 miles.  All the hard effort of a tough climb and no rewarding views.  I still have never seen Lake Tahoe!

* Photo by Facchino Photography

The first 30 miles were relaxing although the terrain was rough.  We ran through creek beds up and down the high country.  I ran mostly alone in this section although I could hear runners near by.  So here I am at Western States, it is 40 degrees, hailing and the wind is gusting into my face.  During this section I laughed about all the "heat training" I had done back in Missoula.  There was no heat to be found in those first 30 miles - only the soft pattering of rain and feet.

* Photo by Facchino Photography

Around mile 30 I passed through Robinson Flat feeling smooth and chatted with Tom Crawford, we were around 12th and 13th place.  The cold, misty high country was over and I was eager to see the big canyons.  I had gone out conservatively thus far and it was all about to backfire.  As we descended towards the canyons something felt off.  Downhills became increasingly difficult to run but I could still fly up the climbs.   Ok lets see, calories - check, salt - check, water - check; what the hell is going on?  For the next 5 miles I would fight my body and the terrain while yo-yoing with Yassine Dibuon, Zac Bitter and David Riddle.  They would fly past me on the downhills and I would easily catch back up on the climbs.  That was until the first big decent of the day - Deadwood Canyon.  Both IT bands were now fully locked up and I could not extend my knees.  On any downhill or flat section I was limited to a slow jog or fast walk.  Alright just relax maybe it will go away... positive attitude and it will loosen up, right?  Yeah, that didn't happen.  I counted all my lucky stars, even twice for good measure.  The only thing I was positive about was that I was in trouble - early.  

Walking down those steep canyons seemed like an eternity and destroyed whatever pride I brought with me to the race.  Groups of runners passed by me effortlessly while talking about how great it was to be at Western States.  Somehow I managed to get myself to the bottom of that canyon and approached the "feared" climb to Devil's Thumb.  I took a deep breath and blasted that climb.  Just being able to run again felt amazing - it was almost like I was actually in a race.  That excitement ended rather quickly though when I reached the top.  So much for the big, bad Devil's Thumb that never ended.  Thus began my long, painful walk down to El Dorado Creek.  I was falling even further into obscurity and questioned every footstep.  "How am I going to get to Auburn like this" and "Why the hell is that guy smiling" played over and over in my mind.  Even the beautiful views of the canyons couldn't change the fact that I was a-walkin'.  That 25 mile stretch from Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff was brutal.  What ever I imagined Western States to be was over now and I had no idea what was to come.  

I stumbled into Michigan Bluff aid station with 100% certainty that I was done.  My scenic walk-tour through the canyons had sold me - race over.  For the next 30 minutes I would sit, drink soup and argue with the volunteers.  In my mind there was no way I was walking the next 45 miles to Auburn.  The guys who I came thousands of miles to race against were hours ahead of me.  How do you justify 70 miles of walking when you spent thousands of miles and hundreds of hours "running" to prepare?  The volunteers disagreed with my reasoning and set out to destroy it.  They saw a young, inexperienced face who could "easily finish in sub 24 hours" while I saw some guy with a walking stick meandering aimlessly all day and all night to the finish line.  Each volunteer had their try and did tried their best to get me out of the chair and back on the trail but my heart was hardened.  Not having it - where's the car - do we still have those fruit snacks?  Just as I was about to rip the off the chip that had been digging into my ankle for 8 hours, a race volunteer found my weakness.  When someone makes an offer to me I can't say no.  He simply asked me if I would walk with him down the trail.  I guess I just needed someone to walk with because I couldn't say no.  So I got up out of that chair and walked to the weigh-in station.  The aid station volunteers started going crazy. They had turned me.  Before they started popping champagne bottles I reminded each and everyone of them that I would be cussing them out the entire way to Auburn and... they loved it.  And so it began.  Just out for a lovely little stroll to Forest Hill.  

I walked and walked and walked almost the entire way to Foresthill.  As I got to the road my knees started to bend a little and all of a sudden... I was running.  What an amazing feeling it was to be running in a race...  People were lining both sides of the road and their excitement was driving me on.  I started to forget about the problems I was having and just ran.  It honestly felt like the Tour de France out there.  Didn't see Phil Liggett though.

Now that I was able to run I wasn't going to hold back.  With my legs finally functioning, I literally flew from Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky river crossing.  Running perhaps a little too hard in sections but I didn't care - I was running.  I learned my lesson about holding back in the high country. 

Like everyone else I was a little disappointed to find out we were taking the rafts across the river.  So much for cooling the legs down.  Where the hell is the raft?

Waiting for the boat sucks when you are finally feeling good.  That guy in the green hat who rowed the raft was powerful.  I can't believe how fast he got us moving in that thing.  Alright get me out of this thing and onto some trail.

* Photo by Facchino Photography

The climb to Green Gate was ridiculous.  I love climbing but that was awful.  Out of nowhere the sun started to set.  I made it to the ALT aid station just as darkness fell upon the race.  In some weird battle against the dark I ran without my headlamp for as long as possible.  Maybe I didn't want to acknowledge the fact that I had 2-3 hours of running left.  Maybe I didn't want to acknowledge the fact that my race had gone terribly wrong and I was 2-3 hours behind "the race".  Maybe I just wanted to race or battle something.  Either way some rather well placed sharp rocks and a face plant made me aware of the reality that I wasn't going to win this battle with the dark.  The other reality was that I had no pacer and that I had never stepped foot on this course before.  Reality blows.

The trail to highway 49 was by far the worst part of the course.  My black and blue toenails did not appreciate being slammed into rocks that I couldn't see on the uneven, steep terrain.  Darkness makes your 10 minute pace feel like 4 minute pace and I kept thinking no hands bridge was just around the corner.  I could see headlights in front of me and behind me but I was alone with my thoughts.  What time would I finish?  Who won? Where the hell is this damn bridge?  I can hear cars and water that must mean bridge - no.  After some painful switchbacks with my knees and IT bands screaming I was spit out abruptly on the bridge - yes.  My being on the bridge excitement quickly wore off when I heard some cheers from the other side.  Things were about to get painful.  The last 5k ended up being an agonizing uphill sprint.  

As I came into Robie Point (mile 99) I saw a headlamp behind me and against the wishes of my body - I started to sprint again.  Flying towards the track I managed to pass a guy (Karl) with less than 1/2 mile to go.  Karl passed me on that awful climb to highway 49.   Upon seeing me again he said "you asshole!"  The last time he saw me I was cursing at a rock in the dark while he and his pacer passed by like ghosts.  I laughed at how this whole day had played out.  Up and down. Back and forth. Passing people and then getting passed.  No real logic or flow to it all.  Just random motion for hours and miles.  As I entered the track I was excited to finish but was quickly reminded "the race" ended over 3 hours ago.  The stadium was empty.  Only a few brave souls remained; worried family members, some photographers, the Assistant RD, Craig Thornley, who passed out the medals and Lisa.  

* Photo by Facchino Photography

So I finished just under 19 hours.  What does that mean?  I don't know.  It's hard to feel good about what happened out there but it felt good to be done with whatever it was.  With my first 100 mile race completed all I could do was sit and think.  What the hell just happened?  What was I supposed to learn from this?  Why can't I get out of this chair?  How am I going to get to the hotel?  I'm still trying to answer these questions.  

Lets just say I didn't sleep at all that night.  It felt like I had poisoned myself and then there was my feet.  I don't even know how to explain the battle that was raging in my toes.  The next day we went back to the Placer High track and celebrated with the rest of the runners.  Living in Montana means really long drives back home.  We don't normally have enough time off work to stay for the award ceremonies.  However, there was no way in hell we were going to drive 18hrs straight home.  It was nice for a change to relax and take in all the smiling faces.

My race at Western States sums up my ultrarunning career so far.  The ability, focus and training are there but my body is not ready to commit.  It amazes me that I can run 150 miles a week with 30k of climbing and descending but I still can't "race" 50 or 100 miles without a complete blowup.  Maybe the twelve years I spent as a fast-twitch, middle distance runner is the problem.  Maybe six months of ultramarathon training is not enough time to become a competitive 100 miler!  Each of the ultramarathons I have raced so far have broken me down.  Perhaps that is the reason why I keep coming back.  One day I will figure this out.  

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Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.