Sunday, July 14, 2013

Western States Endurance Run Race Report 2013

It all began in Squaw Valley. The sport that has captured my interest and kept me pushing for the next biggest and toughest challenge began when a horse went lame. That is when a man said, "why not?" Gordy Ainsleigh decided to race against horses using his own two feet to cover the 100 mile Western States course. He made it. This year there were no horses; it was far less historic, but Gordy and I both toed the line in Squaw Valley.
Arriving in Squaw Valley With Some Awesome Team 5K Shirts

The journey to the hallowed grounds of ultrarunning is long and tough. Only the fortunate few get their names drawn and go from lottery hopeful to racer sharing a trail with some of the most legendary runners in ultrarunning. I am lucky enough to not only have my name drawn, but to have an amazing crew of five friends want to share the adventure with me.

Almost 400 trail runners and their crews descend on Squaw Valley on the last weekend of June the tackle the demanding course. When you arrive the atmosphere is very overwhelming. Shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in trail running. All the rookies spend the first day bumping into each other as they stare awkwardly at Timothy Olson, Hal Koerner and Mike Morton.

Once I was able to get over where I was, my nerves subsided. I did my Friday pre-race medical check in.
Medical Check In... 120 over 84
This went surprisingly smooth.

Afterward we watched several members of the crew participate in the Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge.
John Gregg, Greg Wingo, and Stacy Barr

Brad Siegal and a Hill That Only Gets Steeper
We followed that up with a trip to the bar across the street. Alternating between water and Moose Drool Brown Ale seemed to be the perfect mix. I was more than relaxed for the mandatory race briefing early that afternoon.
Chia Seeds in the Beer
There are tons of Q and A sessions and information meetings in the days leading up to the race, but I felt like most of the information was a rehash of what I had already discovered online. I took away a few nuggets of knowledge and we retired to the condo a couple miles away.

Changing your routine before the race is generally not advised, but for this race I decided to go completely vegan the week before the race. I'd recently read Scott Jurek's book Eat and Run. I figured a little healthy eating wouldn't hurt. I enjoyed some vegetable pasta, mixed vegetables, roasted potatoes and a salad and I was ready for an early bedtime.

Being that I was still somewhat on Central Time, two hours ahead, I had been sleeping really well and waking up really early. It was no different the night before the race. When 3:30am rolled around I was up and ready to run.
Fun Times Before 5AM
On race morning you still had to check in and pickup your bib number. The process was really easy, so I had plenty of time pre-race to stand around with the crew and waste some nervous energy dancing.

The race starts sharp at 5am. A gun is fired and off you go, straight up. The first four miles take you straight up and over with around 2,500 feet of climbing. Unless you are elite, you are walking. It is just a matter of how fast your walk is. I passed Gordy early on the climb, that was neat to look over and see him. The sun rises at your back and it was incredibly beautiful to look over your shoulder and see the dawn of what was sure to be a long hot day.
Almost to the Top of the Escarpment
My pace was a little faster than mid-pack and once over the top I kept a brisk pace running with a good sized group along the ridge line. This section was the prettiest part of the whole trail. Technical single track over rocks and steams created by the melting snow. I was in awe of where I was and what I was doing.

Heading into the Lyon Ridge Aid Station
Approaching the Lyon Ridge aid station at mile 10.5 I knew the pace needed to slow down so I backed it down refueled and enjoyed the ridge. The next section was pretty exposed and even though it was early morning the sun began to heat things up.
The forecast this year was for heat, potentially 100+ degree record heat.

One of the Tough Ridge Climbs
This section of the trail was more difficult than I expected. Several steep climbs made for a slower pace than I had expected. I let a lot of runners go by me in these miles, but I had a plan to protect my body and I
was doing a good job sticking to the plan.

Runners don't get to see their crews until at least mile 23.8 at the Duncan Canyon aid station. The decent to this aid station is the first real significant downhill. After dropping almost 1,000 feet in a mile and a half you see that friendly crew for the first time.
John Gregg, Katie Gregg, and Foot Doctor Brad Siegal greeted me with smiles and cheers. You may not need any of their food, or fresh socks, but seeing them and hearing them cheer for you makes a huge difference. I grabbed my extra water bottle, threw some ice in my hat and grabbed some calories before taking off.
Ready to Serve... Me Fig Newtons

Creek Between Duncan Canyon and Robinson Flat
I knew the other half of my crew was waiting for me at the Robinson Flat aid station just six miles away. I didn't realize how tough, hot and uphill this six mile section would be. The heat was getting intense and my water supply was running dry before I reached the top of the climb and my awaiting crew. In spite of the tough going, I found my legs performed better than most and I passed several people.

Robinson Flat was a straight up party. So many people and I swear I heard music. It made me dance a little bit. This is the first place your weight is checked. The goal is not to loose too much weight, but certainly not to gain any weight. Weight gain is a sign that your kidneys are not working a a sure fire way to get pulled off the course. I was already down five pounds. That was a little concerning, but I took noticed and loaded up on food a fluids at the aid station.

On the exit to the aid station I saw the other half of my crew. Greg Wingo and Stacy Barr were joined by members of another local runner (John Cobbs) crew. I sat on a log and chatted with Greg, Stacy, Ali Edwards and Owen Bradley, but I can't remember what I did or what was said. All I know is I was told the trail went immediately up, but then really down.  

The climb up is vague in my memory, so it must not have been too bad, but the downhill was great. My legs felt okay, I was handling the heat, and I was looking forward to seeing my crew at Dusty Corners. I took two Aleve at Miller's Defeat and cruised into Dusty Corners in great spirits ready for a shoe and sock change.
Living Like a Diva

I started the race wearing Hokas. The strategy there was to minimize the downhill abuse on the quads before switching to my Saucony Peregrine 3's, a shoe that fits my foot perfectly. I had a slight blister rubbing my heel, but nothing that was a problem. Foot Doctor Brad lubed me up, slid on some new socks and with the new shoes on I was off into the heat again.

I ran into a local named Don during the next section. He gave me the 411 on what to expect with the upcoming trail. It was runnable and I hung with Don for a good bit. He had run Western States in close to 20 hours in the past and  and clued me into the fact that locals refer to this race as "States" and not "Western". He was also quick to point out how well I was doing and that was a huge confidence boost before I let Don slip ahead of me.

Devils Thumb is one of the iconic parts of the race. A big climb in the heat of the day that takes a major toll on many a runner. The climb is just less than a mile long, but you climb up about 1,300 feet. Again, I was shocked at how much better I did on this climb than most of the people around me. I passed Don and about 10 other runners on the way up. It was complete carnage for a couple folks and I could tell more than a few races were ending on this brutal climb.

Coming into the Devil's Thumb aid station, I had one minor concern. I was starting to feel chilled and with the hot temperatures that was not good. To fend off an possible heat exhaustion, I got an ice water towel draped around me and a popsicle at the aid station. The medical staff must have thought I was in good shape because they kicked me out after just a few minutes.

With a handkerchief filled with ice and tied around my neck I took off for a nasty decent down to El Dorado Creek. Five miles down with a drop of almost 3,500 feet will put a beating on the body. I ran hard for the first part of the decent before easing up when I realized exactly how far we were going down. This decent was very exposed and the sun was baking us as we dropped to the low hot canyon of El Dorado Creek.

Rolling into this aid station I was hot and for the first time all day there was no volunteer to greet me and ask what I needed. I grabbed a bottle refill, grabbed some fruit, a glass of ginger ale, and I left for the long climb up to Michigan Bluff. I left the aid station too soon. I was still hot and after about 500 feet into the climb I knew I needed to stop. I found a downed tree and popped a squat.

The Michigan Bluff climb is not as steep as Devil's Thumb, but it is two and a half miles and goes up 1,700 feet. I was in rough shape and stopped again to lay on a big log after about half a mile. This rest as well as being passed by two runners was enough to get me back on my feet and climbing again. I was cooled down and began to knock off switch backs one by one. By the last mile of the climb I was not only feeling better, I was gaining strength and looking forward to my crew who was waiting just ahead.
Cruising Into Michigan Bluff, Then Eating Some Roast Beef

Before I could see my crew, I needed to weigh in again. Consistent fluids and regular food had not only kept my weight steady, but I had actually gained a pound. Brad and Katie were waiting for me with a chair and a roast beef sandwich. The vegan thing was out the window because during the race you eat whatever you can. I find an Arby's Roast Beef sandwich has a good mix of salt, protein and carbs.

I knew my chance to pick up my pacer was just ahead at the Forest Hills aid station. The problem is, I really had no idea how far away that was. For some reason I thought it was 10 miles from Michigan Bluff to Forest Hills. Turns out its about six miles. This stretch had a nice drop into Volcano Canyon, which as you might guess is hot. Out of the canyon the trail rises a little on some rolling hills. Eventually there was a sign indicating an aid station just a quarter mile ahead. The sign was a lie. At least a half mile later at the top of a jeep road was the next aid station. it was small and I noticed a lot of people hanging out. After a few questions someone told me it was less than a mile up the road to the main aid station of Forest Hills where my crew and pacer were waiting.

During this stretch crews and pacers are allowed to walk/run with their runners. As I hiked up the steep paved road I began to chat with another runner's crew. A nice local named Scott gave me some good encouragement. He had run the race in 2012 and was here to pace his friend Mark this year. I would see Mark and Scott several more times before Auburn. Within a few minutes I see my first pacer Greg Wingo trotting down the road. I was excited to see him and together we mostly walked the remaining half mile into the Forest Hill aid station.
So Happy to See the Crew

The relationship between a runner and his or her crew can be difficult. Runners are often tired, cranky, delusional among other things. Telling, convincing or tricking a runner to do what the crew wants can be similar to babysitting a four or five year old. My crew was hell bent on me eating partly because they knew I needed to, and partly because I told them before the race to make sure I did. After a few minutes of arguing and a sock change, Wingo and I took off.

It was more than 15 hours into the race so the sun was beginning to set. The temperature dropped a little, but not much and it seemed to be getting more and more humid. Luckily this section of the course was pretty runable and my legs felt pretty good. We were moving at a good pace and passing a lot of people as the sun slipped away and our headlamps began to light the way. I like night running and I was enjoying the trail and the company of my pacer.

In the back of my mind I was trying to do math. I suck at math, but it is necessary when trying to figure out when you might be able to finish. Wingo and I were talking a little about whether I had a chance to beat the magic 24 hour cutoff. We both had figured out that it was possible, but we didn't openly discuss it. The goals was kind of just understood. We kept a fast pace but I was cognizant enough to try and save my legs a little.

This section is capped off by the famous American River crossing. That marks mile 78 on the course. Over the almost 17 mile stretch from Forest Hill to the river I had improved from 154th place to 115th. I felt good and focused. Crossing the river is a great experience.
Wingo and I Take a Swim in the American River
They have a rope and lights that help to illuminate big slick rocks. The water is cold, but on a hot humid night it felt great. I dunked my body on the far side and hurried out of the water.
In a Hurry
It was almost two miles up a nasty jeep road to the next aid station called Green Gate. My other two pacers met me about half way up the hill and we all power hiked into the aid station.

Something happened in that two mile climb to Green Gate. I went from being focused and strong to exhausted and tired. I just wanted to lay down. I grabbed a cup of ginger ale and a quick bite in the aid station and then I went to find my crew. I remember seeing people laid out all over the place. I think it was mostly other people's crew members trying to sleep. My crew had a chair set up for me, but I was going to lay down and I grabbed the chair and threw it aside. This flying chair proved to be a rude wake up call to the guy sleeping as I'm pretty sure it landed on his face. I apologized as I laid down and instructed Brad to fix my left foot. I had a blister on the top of my fourth toe, but all I knew was that I wanted him to remove the toe nail. He couldn't do that, but he duct taped it and gave me a fresh sock. John Gregg and I departed a few minutes later.

The rule of thumb in ultras is when you feel bad just keep moving forward and you will likely start to feel better. Sometimes it happens a couple miles later; sometimes it happens ten miles later; sometimes it doesn't happen.
Walking Somewhere After Mile 80
We walked for awhile then I ran a little section. It was a good run, but it wore me out and made me feel real sick to my stomach. By mile 87ish I was stopped on the trail and vomiting. This made me feel better, but not much better. It was clear my stomach was not going to get better, but luckily I had less than 15 miles to go.

Part of a pacers' job is to do whatever it takes to keep the runner in a positive (or as close to positive) mindset as possible, and to keep them moving forward. Somewhere along the way I lost my bearings and had no idea where I was mileage wise. John decided it was in his best interest to lie to me about how far I had till the next aid station. I had no clue, but I kept marching on at a reasonable pace all the way to Brown's Bar.

There was music blaring here, and despite the name there was no kegs or cocktails (not that I could have stomached one). I got my foot looked at here, but there was little that could be done. I now had a blister on my forefoot and it made each step somewhere between uncomfortable and painful. I thought Brown's Bar was at mile 91, but it was actually mile 90. That meant the Highway 49 aid station at mile 93.5 was actually 3.5 miles up the trail and not the 2.5 I expected. No amount of lying by John could convince me that we had only traveled 2.5 miles, so he just convinced me that this section of the course wasn't accurate.

When we finally got to Highway 49 my crew was there in full force. I was in bad shape. I knew I would finish but any expectation of a finishing time had gone way out the window. I got no foot attention or shoe or sock change. All of that seemed pointless. Food and drink also seemed pointless. I was moving so slow and resigned to the fact that I was death marching to the end so no food, drink, salt, socks or whatever could make a difference now.

I left for the final seven miles with Stacy Barr. He was so excited to be there and he gave me a nice lift. He kept talking about how epic the whole experience was and that I was about to finish the Western States 100. We climbed up to an open ridge top where we were meet by the rising sun. I picked up the pace for a brief moment and joked with Stacy that he was going to get to run a little bit. At this point my run may have been more of a shuffle, but it was quick enough to pass by at least one person.

This part of the trail drops down to the No Hands Bridge, which is one of the epic landmarks on the Western States course. I thought I saw the bridge about five times before it actually appeared through the trees. It was underwhelming to me but that could have been more a reflection of my state of mind. I was tired and exhausted.

It is only a two mile climb up to Robbie Point from here. I thought it was going to be longer, tougher and steeper. I stumbled along the trail waiting for it to make a turn up the ridge. Finally we started to go up. It was just a few hundred yards before we were on a paved road with aid station volunteers cheering me and Stacy toward the top. At the top there is the Robbie Point aid station. They ask you if you need anything, but I have to imagine that they were left with coolers full of fluids and trays full of food at the race's end. Who would stop there when there is just a mile left to go?

Stacy and I powered on and were met by Ali here. The three of us climbed up for about an eight of a mile before the road tilts downhill toward the Placer High School track and the finish line. I was encouraged to run by Stacy, Ali, people on the street and even a runner who ran by me at what seemed like a 5k pace to me. Moving fast hurt and I was content to take my time until I saw the actual track. A fought back tears on what may be the longest mile of the course, but eventually you make a turn and end up on the high school track.

The track was underwhelming. I guess every time I had read about this place I picture it as a grand stage. In my mind it was a grand colosseum and not an average high school football stadium. I saw my crew, and I began to muster up a shuffle that resembled something of a run.
The Final Stretch With an Amazing Crew Cheering Me On!
Shortly after this another runner came onto the track and he was moving much quicker than me. Without thinking I increased my speed and covered the last 200 meters in what seemed like just a few seconds. I crossed the finish line 25 hours, 54 minutes and 19 seconds after I left Squaw Valley.

I was given a medal. I spoke to the medical staff and answered some questions about something. Did I weigh in again? All I wanted to do was lay down in the football field and after hugging and thanking the crew, I did.
So Happy to Be Done

One of the big prizes you get for finishing is the big silver or bronze buckle depending on how fast you finish. You aren't given this buckle when you finish, but rather at an awards ceremony at 12:30 on Sunday. It was hot, and the big tents in the football field were filled with exhausted, worn down hobbly runners and crews. I laid on the grass eating popsicles just like some of the biggest names in the trail running world. Eventually, they called my name and I got my hands the prized Western States finishers buckle.

I never expected to be in Squaw Valley to run this race. I was lucky to have my name drawn. I certainly never expected to have an incredible crew of people (Katie Gregg, John Gregg, Brad Siegal, Greg Wingo, Stacy Barr, and Ali Edwards) who actually want to travel across the country to put up with my crap. I am a luckier to have them. I will always treasure the memories of our epic Western States adventure and I look forward to future chapters on life's adventure.
I Don't Always Go to Squaw Valley, But When I Do I Go With Amazing People


  1. what an amazing account of your experience,what memories to carry with you, I am not a runner, but thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog about the race, congratulations on such an accomplishment!

  2. I got in for 2014 and really enjoyed reading this, as I prep for my race. Congrats on the finish, sounds very well-deserved!