As one might expect, since the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) evolved from the Western States Trail Ride (a.k.a. The Tevis Cup ride) – after Gordy Ainsleigh started and finished the 1974 ride without a horse – many of the traditions from the horse race found their way into the run. There’s the 5 a.m. start, the silver belt buckles for sub-24 hour finishers, an absolute cut-off finish time, perpetual cup trophies (Wendell Robie and Drucilla Barner) for the winners, medical checks where runners can be “pulled” from the race, etc. And it’s interesting how many of these traditions are now pretty much the norm for all 100-mile runs even if they don’t make much sense today. For example, I think they’re cool and I’m proud of my collection of 100-mile belt buckles, but I’ve never worn one and don’t expect to (6/18/12 update: I have been wearing my buckles regularly now – see youtube video of how they are made). There is one notable exception that didn’t make its way into the run and that is the Haggin Cup trophy.
Don’t know what the Haggin Cup trophy is? I didn’t either until a few years ago. The Western States Trail Ride, which began in 1955 by Wendell Robie as a “ride” not a “race,” started becoming especially competitive after the first Tevis Cup trophy was awarded to the fastest finisher in 1959. With increasing attention from groups like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which argued that the ride threatened the health of the horses by allowing them to be ridden to exhaustion and even death, an award was created to recognize the horse that arrived at the finish in “the most superior physical condition.”
Dr. Richard Barsaleau, a veterinarian who joined the race in 1961, was instrumental in creating this distinction, which he saw as an objective award that would recognize horsemanship, conditioning and respect for the health of the mounts. But it would also honor a great performance. Starting in 1964 the top ten horses would be judged for the Haggin Cup. In her book, “The Tevis Cup: To Finish is to Win,” author Marnye Langer wrote:
“Many people, especially noted horsemen, have come to regard the Haggin Cup as the most prestigious honor one can earn, and the award remains unique in both the sport of endurance and other equestrian pursuits as well.”
It’s rare to win both the Tevis and Haggin cups. Since 1964, there have been 43 winners of the Haggin Cup, but only six of those riders have also taken home the Tevis Cup the same year.
Should we have a similar award for the WSER? Maybe the Dr. Bob Lind Cup? We could compile the CPK levels, weight change from start to finish, blood pressure, pulse, condition of feet/blisters and other indicators from the top ten men and women. Runners would be eliminated from judging if they received an IV or were admitted to the hospital.
I know the race already has a long awards ceremony, and there are those who will say offering this kind of recognition would simply not be feasible. But even if we don’t implement such an award, I think it can be useful to consider such a prize. Imagining what it would take to win this distinction, makes us think about all the ways we push ourselves at WS and at 100-mile races in general. It makes us ask about the difference between good pushing and destructive pushing. Unlike riders who can push their horses, we runners push ourselves. We decide whether to continue grinding it out or whether to back off when things get really hard. For many of us, that is why we run 100 milers.
Andy Jones-Wilkins, a five-time WS finisher with 21 total 100-mile finishes says, “pushing myself hard at the end is what makes the experience so meaningful and ultimately difficult.” I agree with AJW. Much of the joy I get from running 100-mile races is pushing when the physical and mental load is tremendous. We get to tap into a drive or mental tenacity that is seldom tested in regular life. And we honor, respect and encourage runners to be mentally strong and persevere. As a volunteer or crew member, what do we do when a runner comes into Michigan Bluff exhausted, struggling and wanting to quit? We say, “Fix your problems and get heading to Auburn.” As a runner, that’s exactly what I want aid station volunteers, my crew, and my pacer to do. And it is what I expect of myself.
But what if we push too hard? What if we damage ourselves to the point where we end up in the hospital or worse? AJW knows about pushing too hard as he ended up in the hospital with renal failure after the 2004 Angeles Crest 100. Brian Morrison also knows about pushing too hard . “The scary thing,” Morrison writes in an email to me, “is that sometimes our drive to succeed, which we have to have to win, pushes our bodies to a dangerous place. I can speak from personal experience on this, because I did push too hard at Western States in 2006, and it put me in the hospital.”
How do we recognize when we’re going too far? Do we instinctively know? Twenty-five-time finisher and WS President Tim Twietmeyer learned this lesson quickly and says he’s only been close to self-destruction once in his 25 sub-24 hour finishes. “In 1982, I went from 168 pounds to 157 pounds and was in big trouble as I approached White Oak Flat,” he recalls. “I stopped there for 90 minutes to rehab the rig. I knew I had to stop or I wouldn’t make it the last 25 miles. That’s about as close as I’ve gotten to self-destruction.”
“WS is a bit unique in that it poses a variety of challenges, the most unpredictable being the heat and its impact on pace and performance,” Twietmeyer continues. “For me, the secret sauce at WS is handling the heat and still being able to run at peak capacity. Figuring out the metabolic game with hydration and electrolytes always seemed to be the toughest thing to get right. The training for the race and preparation is simple compared to getting the hydration plan dialed.”
If you’re a student of WS you know that Tim has arguably had the most impressive career at WS. He won (five times) when his best was better than everybody else’s that day. He never seemed to have to force it.
Things were different for Morrison at WS in 2006, an abnormally hot year. He didn’t see his problems coming the way Twietmeyer did in 1982. He was also a WS rookie with little 100-mile experience, but with a drive and determination that might not have been matched that day.
“I definitely was not the fittest or fastest runner out there that day,” Morrison recalls. “But I was so determined and solely focused on that goal that I was able to rise above my shortcomings.”
And oh how close he came.
Morrison’s body shut down when he entered the stadium in first place. Unable to complete the lap on the track under his own power, he was assisted by crew and pacers and later disqualified. He was hospitalized for 36 hours. His CPK count (a marker for how much dead muscle tissue is in the bloodstream) was measured at 450,000 at the hospital, as compared to the average WS finisher CPK count of about 15,000. A normal CPK count is 150-200.
Morrison’s bloodwork was studied by many and nobody has been able to give him an exact reason for why his body shut down 250 yards from the finish, but he has his own theory: “I believe that I collapsed once inside the stadium, because mentally I felt that I’d done it,” he says. “Physically, I think that I’d been on the brink since the climb up Robie, but mentally I was able to override the physical desire to pass out.”
What are the implications of pushing too hard? First and foremost, is our own health, but we also might consider the impact on our families and friends, the race organizers, the race, and the sport in general. If you have a partner or kids, do you want them to see you lying in the hospital with IVs sticking out of your arm? Sure, WS has the infrastructure to deal with just about anything, but is it good for the race to have people air-lifted off the course with hyponatremia (or to be hypothermic and wrapped in a shower curtain the way one pacer was while training for the race in 2008)? Our sport is growing and getting more and more attention. We have many more eyes looking at us.
What effect did renal failure after the 2004 Angeles Crest have on AJW? “These days I don’t think about the AC experience during races,” he says. “But I do bring it up in my memory in training so that I am sure to obtain a level of fitness which will prevent it from happening again.”
And what about Morrison? “For me that experience forced a great deal of character building, and I believe I’m a stronger person for it,” he says. “I’m hopeful that, as the saying goes, ‘What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.’ For as hard as we push ourselves and abuse our bodies, the human body is an incredibly resilient thing.” Brian is fine now and entered in the 2009 race.
I’ll end this with a quote from John Ticer, a three-time WS finisher and a guy who has run with broken feet and dislocated fingers. “There is no glory in pushing yourself to the point of near obliteration. Did you actually run a smart race if you are carried off to the medical tent and revived with I.V. fluids? I think not.”
What do you think?
This is the 3rd installment of the 2009 Western States Synchroblog Project. See what other ideas my fellow synchrobloggers have to make Western States better.