It’s about time.
In the summer of 1977 or 78, I can’t remember which, I’m camping down at American Canyon Creek near Auburn Lake Trails with my brother and step brothers when we see a very tired dirty looking guy running on the trail. He stops at the creek and wets himself down. He is very tired and asks us where the next aid station is, but we have no idea what he is talking about. All night people come through and most ask the same question to which we have no answer. We eventually found out that we were camping at about the 82 mile mark of a 100 mile run that had started in Squaw Valley at 5:00am (later measurements determined the course was only 91 miles). It was crazy but I knew someday I would do that race. For the next 23 years or so I either crewed, paced, worked at an aid station (Dusty Corners the last 10 years) or just followed the race and watched. Each year I’d get asked when I was going to run it. Each year I said, “I’m not ready yet.”
So finally on June 23, 2001, 8 months after completing my first 100 mile trail run in Arkansas, 4 years since my first ultra, and after 23 years of running, I’m at the starting line in Squaw Valley for the 2001 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. I’m as pumped as I’ve ever been for a race. I hadn’t slept a wink that night and I was very anxious to finally get this thing started. The doubts of lack of preparation seemed to ebb and flow with an eerily almost overly-confident calmness. Did I train enough on the downhills? Am I ready for the heat? After studying and watching the race for all these years and running the most miles in a year that I have in a long time (3250 miles), of course I’m ready. I’ve run a 100 miler, done numerous 17-24 hour mountain climbing and big wall climbing adventures, and trained specifically for this race. I spent 8 days in April running on the trail, and 7 days in Idaho in May running in the heat. If I wasn’t ready, I’d never be ready.
I wasn’t expecting to go out and win, but I figured I could run around 19 hours if all went well and that might get me in the top 10 or 15. Top 10 would be nice because they get into next year’s race automatically instead of going through the lottery process. In some years they’ve had more than 800 applicants for the close to 400 they expect to start on race day.
The gun finally goes off and I jog slowly and walk some of the steeper sections of the 2500′ climb to the top of Emigrant Pass. Close to the top, I catch up to Twietmeyer (aka Mr. Western States) and run and chat with him to the top. He runs his 20th WS this day – all under 24 hours. We pass Ann Trason (aka Mrs. Western States) very close to the top. She runs and wins her 12th WS this day. We can’t see the leaders as we crest the top, but as soon as we top out Twietmeyer is gone, hammering down the hill passing everybody. I’m probably in about 30-35th place as we make our way down the pass. The views up there in the high country were spectacular but I couldn’t look too long as the trail was very rocky.
Steve Smucker from Portland and I run within sight of each other for the next 30 miles. I knew he was hoping to improve on his 20:21 and 14th place finish and is a trail veteran so I figure I’m OK with the pace we’re running. It is suprisingly easy even though the first 30 miles are at an average of 7000′.
We cruise through the early aid stations easily and eventually we make it to Duncan Canyon (24 miles) where we can see our crew members. My incredible crew consisted of 8 people. The “A” crew was Laurie (the wife), Chris (the bro), Alanna (the sis-in-law), and Ma (the mom). They were meeting me at Robinson Flat(30) and Michigan Bluff (55). But it was my “B” crew here at Duncan Canyon. The “B” crew consisted of Michael (friend from Portland & 2 time WS finisher), Lynn and Gary (my white trash friends from Boise), and Pops (Mike’s fake dad from Portland – aka Roger). I didn’t need much from the crew at this point other than refilling the bottles and replinishing my gu stash. But it was great to have my friends there for me.
At Robinson Flat is where the “A” crew went to town. I arrived there at 10:20 just 5 minutes slower than I estimated and moved through the aid station to where my crew was. I sat down and they went after it like an Indy car pit crew. They removed my shoes, powdered my feet, changed my socks, got me shod again, fed me a can of my favorite pork and beans, wet me down, iced my hat. Each had a job and they were incredible. I got out of there in about 3 minutes.
Again I see Smucker just out of the aid station and we run within sight of each other for the next few miles until, believe it or not I get off the trail. I come to a junction on these fire roads and see ribbons marking both roads. I can’t see Steve in front of me as I wonder which way I should go. Unfortunately, I go left following the old yellow ribbons and am quickly greeted by more yellow ribbons. Must be the way to go. I thought the newer ribbons on the right looked like they had been placed there to block the right fork but had fallen down. It wasn’t very long when I realized I wasn’t seeing any footprints. I stopped, looked around and decided to run back up the hill to the fork. Sure enough, I get back there and I see John Robinson from Portland and Ann taking the right fork. I’m a little too excited at this point and try to quickly get past them. Probably not a good thing. I only lost about 4-5 minutes which is nothing in a 100 miler, but it did give me a chance to run with Ann a bit. This stretch to Dusty Corners (40) is on open forest roads and it was feeling very hot. Ann eventually drops me and John as we walk up what should be an easily runnable hill. I see my “B” crew again here and they get me ready for the canyons. I leave the aid station quickly and completely wet – cool for the moment.
Leaving Dusty Corners I feel pretty good and run well down to Last Chance (43) the starting point for the canyons. I drop into Deadwood Canyon and I realize that my feet are indeed going to be a problem today. Blisters are beginning to form. But now I’m a long way from my crew. I get to the bottom of the canyon just as John catches me, hammering down the hills like he did all day. There is no aid station at the bottom so off we went walking up the brutally steep Devil’s Thumb. Wow was it hard. I put a couple of minutes on John, but when I got to the top I was dizzy and feeling very weak and very hot. This is the only place that dropping out entered my mind. How could I be this bad this early (47 miles). But the aid station people got me cooled off and fueled up and off I went into the next canyon. This one is about 2800′ to the bottom and John eventually passes me again before the bottom. My feet are definitely blistered now and the downhills suck. This time there is an aid station at the bottom, but before I leave, Kevin Sawchuck arrives and there are more people right behind him. I power walk up most of the climb to Michigan Bluff and again catch John before the top. This climb is not as steep as the last but it is longer (2.7 miles) and it is definitely hot. My stomach also didn’t enjoy the heat of the canyons as it was now complaining a bit. No puking, just the yucks.
I get to Michigan Bluff which is loaded with cheering people and my “A” crew. They wet me down, ice me up and off I go toward Foresthill. As I leave Michigan I’m told Nate McDowell is just in front of me and to go run with. I see Nate walking and catch him and chat with him. We had trained together several times in Oregon. His quads are worked and doesn’t feel very good. My feet are getting trashed and my stomach isn’t feeling great, but my legs are actually OK. I get passed by several people at this point including the second place woman, Emma Davies, who is feeling great. John, Nate, Emma, Koerner(?) all drop me as we go downhill into Volcano Canyon. I power-walk up the canyon to Bath Rd. and eventually catch Nate again as we get into the aid station. At this aid station I was greeted by several of my crew members (they are all one from this point on) and my brother-in-law Wally, my nephew Jordan, and my niece Amber. We power walk up the hill as I eat another can of pork and beans. At the top of the hill is my sister and my late dad’s wife, Sue. My god, everybody is out here watching me. We jog into Foresthill with Jordan sprinting ahead of us. I get weighed and ask for a Podiatrist to work on my feet. They lance some blisters and apply some 2nd skin to the balls of my feetand tape it on. Wow. It feels pretty good. I spent 9 minutes at the aid station, but I think it was worth it. I think I was in about 22 or 23 place at that point.
Only 38 miles to go and I’ve now picked up Gary who paces me to the river crossing. I’m about 30-45 minutes slower than my predicted time through Foresthill. When I think about it, it really is pretty good considering how crappy I had been feeling since the canyons. Gary and I start down the Cal St. loop to the River and of course we get passed by more fast downhill runners, including Nate who is now with his pacer Justin. My feet feel better but I’m still concerned about them, especially since we have to cross the river soon. And my stomach hasn’t come back from it’s unhappy little state. But Gary and I just chat it up and enjoy each other’s company. Sometime around the middle of Cal St past 70 miles I feel better and am actually able to run almost normally. Nobody else passes us and before we get to the crossing we catch up with Nate and Justin. We’re in the water at the same time.
The river crossing is one of several classic features of this race. It comes at 78 miles and in most years the water level is lowered by an upstream dam and ropes are stretched across the water with volunteers standing in the water for hours. This was awesome. Gary and I worked our way across the river with the water coming up to about my waist. I’m pretty jacked again at this point as my stomach is feeling better and I actually hadn’t been passed in more than 8 miles.
I’m greeted at the crossing by my crew and Michael takes over pacing duties from Gary. I decide not to take the shoes off and to just gut it out to the finish with the socks and shoes I have on. I think this was a good decision. Again, we power walk up the 2 mile hill to the Green Gate. I pass Nate, but he passes me again as he runs. I get about 1/2 can of beans down. It is still not dark but is getting close. I’m only about 1 hour off the pace I estimated for a 19 hour finish. Gary had been trying to get me to go for sub 20 hours for the last few hours but I wasn’t really into pushing it then. But after crossing the river and walking really fast up the hill it now seemed that I could at least get close to 20 hours. I could finally smell the barn. Lynn handed me my waist pack with my lights and off I went on the part of the trail I new best and had run many many times.
From there on in, I ran everything flat and downhill and slightly uphill, and power-walked the steeper hills. Right after Green Gate Michael and I passed Sawchuck and his pacer, but he maintained contact. We left the aid station earlier than Nate and he soon passed both Sawchuck and me. All 3 runners and our pacers ran close to each other for a couple of miles as we began our night section. I knew I was walking the uphills faster than anybody so I pushed pretty hard after crossing American Canyon Creek (the same creek I was camping at 23 years ago). We passed Nate and Justin and never saw them again. Sawchuck stayed close but we never saw him again either. I was fully expecting Nate and Sawchuck to make another charge, but I was moving pretty well and the mind was set on “no more getting passed”. I kept asking Michael if he could see any lights. “Pitch black” he kept telling me.
I had paced Michael in both his first WS (he dropped at 70) and his second WS (finished in 26 hours). Both times I was pretty hard on him. The second time, we ran this same section and Michael was so tired he was falling asleep while walking. He wanted to find a cot and take a nap for an hour or two. I said no way and wouldn’t have anything to do with his whining and kept pushing him. I told him he could sleep after he had finished. When our friend Kyly took over pacing duties at 49 she was just as “mean” as me. Michael told us there at the finish line that we’d never pace him again. So this year at my first WS Michael was looking for a little payback time. He was gonna ride me hard. Fortunately, he didn’t have to. I was focused and fully mentally prepared to push to the end. Michael fed me “Code Red” which is basically red mountain dew. My stomach was better probably because it had cooled off so much and the energy level was steady thanks to the Code Red. My feet still hurt but they are just “flesh wounds” and are tolerable. I continually asked Michael if he could see lights behind me. Nothing.
We saw no other runners after leaving Nate and Sawchuck at 82 miles until right before 49 crossing (93 miles), the last major checkpoint before the finish. I thought we might see some runners at ALT or Brown’s Ravine since every other time I’d been there there were runners hanging out. But as Michael said, not too many people had been through. I think I was in 20th place after crossing the river in 22nd. Michael kept telling me that I was moving really well but where were the runners coming back? Finally on the climb up to 49 we saw a light. We power walked past a guy who was really struggling. He said he was OK so we continued. Then another light. I’m getting really jacked, but this guy was only the pacer. We run into 49 to the loud screams of all the people there. Before arriving at each aid station I’d always make a list of things I wanted to do or get at the station. This one was a little tricky as I needed to get a new flashlight and Chris was going to pace me from there to the finish so Michael and Chris had to exchange the pacer number. I get there and weigh-in, then hand my bottle to a volunteer to fill with water. I also ask for a cup of soup. Somehow I get the flashlight and Gary yells out, “Go with Koerner”. I’m very excited discovering that I’ve caught somebody else and so I leave just ahead of Koerner, without my water bottle or the soup that I asked for. Chris is ready, too, somehow, and off we go. There is a little uphill after 49 and with the way I’m power walking I like that. Koerner stays in light contact for about 5 minutes and then we never see him again. Now it is me and the bro for the final 7 miles. We run slowly but steadily down to the no hands bridge. He says there are people ahead who were not looking real good so that makes it easy to keep pushing. Little did I know that I had also passed Smucker at the 49 aid station. So now, I’m in 17th.
Having watched this race for so many years I know how quickly things can change and how close to the finish people have been passed. I’m not running very fast on the flats and downhills, but I’m walking very fast up the hills. I figure if we are going to pass anybody else it will be on the climb to Robie or just after Robie. We get to no-hands bridge and I see my sister out there! Holy cow, it is 12:30am and my sister is hanging out at no-hands bridge in the cold. It kinda blows me away, but my mind is set on the finish. Wally tells me there is another runner 2-3 minutes ahead (which he later told me was actually 5 minutes) so Chris and I continue on the chase. I continually ask Chris to look back for any lights and to look ahead for any lights. Nobody is catching us as we run the flat section before the climb to Robie. As we climb, I’m working hard and beginning to sweat again. Finally, he sees a light ahead. I figure I have to pass him on the uphill and put some distance on him because I won’t be running very fast down the hill to the track. We catch him just before Robie Pt. I’m now in 16th place after crossing the river in 22nd or 23rd. Not going to get in under 20 hours but it will be close. Laurie, Alanna, and Michael join me and Chris for the final 1.3 miles to the finish. We pass nobody else and nobody passes us. I get to the track at Placer HS feeling awesome and still moving well. Running the final lap on that track is something I’ve dreamed about for many years and it was surreal when it was finally happening. (I’ve also had dreams about running that lap to win the race, but that will have to come later).
Thanks to my super crew, great pacers and friends and family who watched or followed the webcast from home, I had an awesome first experience at Western States. I am truly a lucky man to have so many people wanting to help me. This is what life is all about for me. The only sad thing is that my dad didn’t get a chance to enjoy it with us. He would have had a blast.
My final time was 20:20. I was 16th overall and 14th male. Not quite the time or the place I wanted but pretty close and I’m very pleased with my effort.
Yes, I’m applying to run next year.