“When you see grown men crying at the finish, you know you’re doing something that is important,” said Western States Board President Tim Twietmeyer at the start of the awards ceremony on Sunday after the 2009 WS 100 Mile Endurance Run. I imagine it sounds corny or ironic to some that a 100 mile run can be important as it is just a recreational activity, but I wholeheartedly agree with Tim. It is important. Western States strips you down to your core and reveals your character whether you exceed your expectations, struggle to a less than stellar finish, or drop. Many start the race full of strength, hope, desire, but somewhere out there on the trail find themselves just completely exposed physically, emotionally, and psychologically. And it’s in those dark testing moments when you’re puking, exhausted, or your feet are just trashed that you find out something about yourself. How you interact with your competitors, aid station volunteers, crew and pacers, and dare I say yourself in those moments reveals your true character. There is nowhere to hide.
This was my 6th WS as a runner. Many of you know that my connection to the race started 30+ years ago as a young kid who lived in Cool. I’ve crewed, paced, or worked at aid stations for most of those other 24 years. I love the trail, the history, the people, the energy, the hype, the competition, the camaraderie, etc. I love putting it all out there myself, but I also love watching others do it for the first or 25th time. This year it seemed like I had more invested in others’ races—maybe even more than my own. Can you believe that Oregon had the most starters of any state (24) save California? There were eight of us from the Eugene area alone (including Coburg). And then there were many people I had met electronically whom I was interested in meeting in person, both competitors and volunteers.
I wasn’t shy about announcing my pre-race goal of placing in the top ten, and I thought 18:30 was needed to do that. I didn’t know if the increasing temperature forecast for race day (102 by Friday afternoon) would help or hinder my chances since my heat training consisted of sauna sessions at the YMCA (cultural experiences for sure) and running with the bank robber suit on. But everybody was in the same boat since it wasn’t even hot in California in the weeks leading up to the race. Having lived and trained in Phoenix for eight years at least I know how to run in the heat—slow down and don’t let that core temp get too high. Don’t get behind on sodium, fluids, or calories or you might not be able to catch back up without taking a long break.
The race finally started at 5 am, and the incredibly deep field headed up Squaw Valley. Within a half mile I looked up and noticed the leaders were going up the wrong road, and everybody was following them. I told Jeff Riley that they were going the wrong way, but I was hesitant to start yelling because there had been other changes on the initial 2500’ climb so maybe we were going up a different road. When we got to the intersection in question I saw the ribbons on the other road and yelled to everybody “WRONG WAY.” Wow, I was leading the race. Not exactly a feeling I enjoyed, but a few others who were near me surged to the front to take their five seconds in the lead and be able to say they actually led WS too. Soon enough the 50 or so that went the wrong way came charging by. When Hal Koerner went by I told him if there were any other intersections he was unsure about later in the day to just wait for me to come along and I’d tell him which way to go. He just looked at me and gave me that big Hal grin.
It was not hot in the early morning hours, and I end up running most of the first 16 miles with first timer from Eugene, Scott Wolfe, a.k.a Monkeyboy. He had never been on this part of the trail before, and I was excited because he was so excited about what we were doing. We were running the Western States 100 miler with 400 runners, 1500 volunteers, and maybe the same number of crew. There was granite everywhere, flowers, huge trees, expansive views. It was a pretty nice morning. Yes, this is a big deal.
At Red Star Ridge (16 miles) I picked up a third bottle thanks to advice from AJW, and dropped off my gloves and Moeben sleeves. I wasn’t going to need those anymore as it was already starting to feel warm in the sun. The word from somebody was that we were in about 50th place. 7:52 am at Red Star in 50th place? Yeah, it was a deep field. Don’t think I’ve ever been farther back than 25th or so at that point, and I was not running slow. There were lots of fast guys behind me too.
The running to Duncan is easy, but I encountered my first problem: chaffing. Having a third bottle in this section was good; however, because of the two waist belts my shorts were staying completely wet, and it was apparent that the balls didn’t want to be wet. [Lord Balls’ balls were not happy.] So I dropped the bottle, and began what would be the norm at each station—a dip in the Vaseline jar. At one aid station (can’t remember which one) I had a volunteer tell me that I should wear a Speedo so I wouldn’t get any chaffing. I thanked him but told him I didn’t bring a pair. Duncan Canyon is not that big of a canyon, but for some reason it brings some of those fast starters back. It delivers a good beat down to many. Without even trying I passed about 10 people and got to Robinson Flat (29.7 miles) at 10:21 am, one minute off my projected splits for an 18:30 finish. I pounded a can of pork and beans. I was feeling really good about my time, my effort, my stomach, my head. It was all good, except there were 40 runners ahead of me!
I continued feeling great on the easy but exposed section from Robinson to Last Chance (43.3) and spent time talking with Tracy Moore, Tony D’Alessio, Krissy Moehl, and others. It was getting warmer and I was running steadily, but I wasn’t really making any move on the field. When Tracy and Tony left me I ended up running a good seven miles completely alone. It did cross my mind that maybe I was the only one running Pucker Point Trail while everybody else was running the road, but at Last Chance I finally start seeing folks. Fast folks. Lots of them. I chatted with a few of them like Brian Morrison who said he couldn’t keep any food down. I encouraged him to stay in the game. I reminded him it would get better when it got cooler, but as soon as I said that I realized that it hadn’t even gotten hot yet —dumb!
The descent into Deadwood was where I first started to feel that it might be a hot day. I crossed the Swinging Bridge stopping at the spring to dip my head and fill up my bottle. Immediately after heading up the first few switchbacks I said to myself that it is hot. I passed one more fast guy on the slow but steady climb up to Devil’s Thumb (47.8) to get into somewhere just under top 25, and that was pretty much the end of my big move up in the field for the day. From the Thumb to Michigan Bluff (55.7 miles) I just tried to survive the heat. I wasn’t running or walking fast, but I wasn’t losing any ground to the field. I ran/walked a lot with Dan Barger who wasn’t very talkative. Arriving in Michigan Bluff is always fun for me since I’ve spent a lot of time there the last few years. This year was no exception. Lots of people I know were there. I took my planned sit-down break, and I tried eating a sandwich but couldn’t—only soup and Mountain Dew. My crew loaded my bandana with a ton of ice, and off I went to tackle an even hotter Volcano Canyon.
Volcano Canyon was hot, but nothing significant happened there. Arriving at Foresthill (62), I see a pukey Monkeyboy. He was having stomach issues. I didn’t stay long. Picking up my first pacer Nathan Blair, who is running his first 100 this September, we began running the steep downs to Cal 1 and we’re suddenly around a lot of runners: Victor Ballesteros, Dan Barger, Krissy Moehl, Kyle Hoang. I can’t remember ever being around that many runners on Cal St. any other year. Again, I think it was a testament to the depth of the field.
The lack of solid food and the fact that I was drinking only water were beginning to show in that my energy levels were fluctuating. I was still running the downhills well, but we got dropped by everybody in the little group and arrived at Cal 1 (Dardanelles) alone. Nathan and I slogged to Cal 3 (Ford’s Bar 73), and were pleasantly surprised there. Ford’s Bar had obviously gotten a facelift. Lights, music, friendly people, and most importantly ice. I asked the volunteers what happened to the old Ford’s Bar. A woman who I assume is the captain said, “Welcome to the new Ford’s Bar.” They get my vote for most improved aid station.
When you leave Ford’s Bar you’re finally at the river bottom, somewhere around 1000 feet elevation. It was friggin’ hot down there, and my stomach was still on the edge like it had been since Michigan Bluff. I coughed from who knows what, and I got that familiar feeling that I just might puke. Shit! Yep, I puked. I even puked up the noodle soup I drank way back at Cal 2. I was pretty mad at my stomach as it continued to dry heave long after everything was gone. “What do you want me to do?” I yell at my stomach. Not pretty, but, a good experience for Nathan who got to watch me deal with this.
We eventually got to the River Crossing (78), which was the aid station I was most looking forward to, somewhere around 8 pm in somewhere around 25th place. Surprisingly, I was only down about two pounds. I quickly introduced myself to the Godtfredsen’s, and into the water we went. Now, I would have expected the cool water to feel good on my hot tired legs. And it would have if the water level had been below my package. Oh yeah, the chaffing was still there. Yowza that burned!
Nathan and my brother Chris switched the pacer number on the climb up to the Green Gate, and from there on in I just tried to keep plugging away. The thought was maybe we could break 20 hours, but I told Chris we needed to be at highway 49 at 11:30 pm in order to make it. We continued to move forward “running” everything except the uphills. We passed a few people, but the pace just didn’t seem to be fast enough. It was dark and warm and the ground just wasn’t moving very fast under my feet. Along the Quarry Road,, with about eight miles to go in the race, I got a great surprise. I heard from behind, “Hey old man, wanna race to Auburn?” Holy cow, it was Lewis Taylor, a.k.a lowercase, who was running well. I was very happy to see him run so well this late. I warned him to look over his shoulder on the track in the last 250 meters of the race. Lewis had struggled in his first attempt at WS and then dropped out of his second 100 miler at Leadville last year. I am happy for him.
Almost immediately after the high from getting passed by Lewis, we saw another runner stumbling on the road. It was another Eugene runner, Dan Olmstead, a.k.a. Tapeworm. He was not looking good. We were competing in a race. I wouldn’t think I could feel excited to get passed by a runner and then totally bummed to pass another runner, but that was the situation I found myself in. I had spent a lot of time talking with Lewis and Dan (and Scott) about solving problems during the race. About not quitting when problems crop up. But we also talked about not pushing too far. About keeping a Haggin Cup mindset. I didn’t stay around to talk with Dan much since he did have a pacer and, hell, I was racing Lewis to Auburn. When I got to Highway 49 (93.5) I told some of the Oregon crew not to let Dan get an IV or he’ll be out of the race. I didn’t know his quads were shot and that he was indeed at the point of doing serious damage to his body. It wasn’t until after I finished that I learned Dan was transported to the hospital via ambulance. Good thing they didn’t listen to me.
I cruised into Auburn after 1 am and the party near the top of the Robie climb that is usually wrapped up before midnight was unbelievably loud. There were a good 20 or 30 people yelling my name and congratulating me. It was crazy loud. My whole crew was with me (Greyson, Renee, Katie, Nathan, Chris) as we ran to the track. I ran the last 250 in 54 seconds to finish in 20:18, 20th place (full results here).
So did I cry at the finish? Nah, not this year, but I sure enjoyed watching all the people I know finish the race. And there were lots of them. I didn’t cry until Monday and Tuesday after the race while reading and responding to all the post-race congratulatory emails and blog comments. Am I happy with my race? Absolutely. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed not to have run faster, but the race is much bigger than my finish time or place. Tim is right, WS is important for many more reasons than that.