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Friday, January 11, 2013

Western States 2012 - Race Report

Western States 2012 –June 23/24
               Starting at 5:00 am in Squaw Valley, there was an awesome energy among both the participants and spectators alike.  This race is bigger than Boston for the likes of the subculture of running that is ultra-marathoning.  It is one of the oldest and most challenging ultras in the country.  Originating from a horse race known as the Tevis Cup, this run covers 100.2 miles and includes over 18000 feet of climb and 22000 feet of pounding descent.  The day was going to be much cooler than anticipated – actually down right cold for June, far colder than anticipated temps.  As the clock counted down to 5AM and we were started with a shotgun blast, I began the trek up to Escarpment with a little under 400 other ultra-marathoners.  Where usually people worry about going too fast in a race, the only folks going out hard here were the Elites.  Everyone else set out at a steady hike up the side of the mountain to Escarpment - a 3.5 mile climb of 2550 feet.
               Less than halfway up the climb it began to sink in that the race is more about enduring than finishing fast, especially if this is your first time taking aim at 100 miles, as it was mine.  About 1.5 miles in the wind picked up substantially and the gusts must have been without exaggeration upwards of 40 mph.  I couldn’t hike straight.  And then around mile 2, the hail started.  Driving wind, fog, and hail – this was the story for the first part of the race.  After 55 minutes of strenuous hiking I reached Escarpment.  After another short, but extremely steep climb I was over the ridge and on the backside of the mountain running on the most beautiful single track imaginable and finally semi protected against the biting wind.
Heading into Duncan Canyon AS - The volunteers were amazing!
               The next 7 miles to Lyon’s ridge, is a bit of a blur.  I felt great. The run was beautiful, and for once I felt like I hadn’t started too fast.  I reached the 10.5 mile mark right at 2:20. Not bad considering the first hour was almost exclusively hiking.  Miles 10.5 to 23 were a quite similar.  No snow on the course due to the dry and mild winter, and some amazing trail and beautiful landscapes.  That plus the amazing aid stations well stocked with chicken broth and Oreos were making my day – even if the temps were in the 30’s, the hail stuck around a bit, and I couldn’t see the valley from the high elevations due to the fog. 
               Then around mile 24 or so I began the trek up to Robinson Flat, mile 29.7.  This marks the end of the first 1/3rd of the race, the first weigh in, and the first point at which I would meet my sister, Kristi, to restock, and change socks.  Somewhere on those miles, maybe around mile 26 is the first real creek crossing.  I misstep and fall in.  Entirely soaking the left side of my body and completely zapping my energy and focus.  After several minutes of being upset at myself for falling and hiking / running towards Robinson I finally regain my mental game, but my hand is frozen and I notice both of my hands are swollen.  Finally, after 6hrs and 44min I reach Robinson Flat.  Still averaging my anticipated pace, things are looking up.  And then I weigh in.  Lucky for me the girl misreads the scale and records that I am only 3 pounds up from my starting weight; I’m actually closer to 5.  Knowing that this plus my painfully swollen hands that look like balloons means that I am retaining too much water and salt, I make a mental note to watch my sodium, and lower my fluid intake while the weather is still cold.  Then I head over to meet my sister for a change of socks.  Dry socks when you’ve already run 30 miles and are soaked and freezing can make you feel like a million bucks.  After some help from Kristi, since my hands aren’t working too well, I am ready to go.  At 11:51am I check out of Robinson Flat and am determined to make the next segment go better than the last 6 miles.
The next segment goes pretty well.  It’s very runnable.  I’m starting to warm up, and the swelling in my hands is beginning to decrease.  I’m feeling pretty good and the downhill doesn’t seem to be beating up my quads too badly.  Until I hit the two steep canyons -   two extremely steep, technical, downhills.  Each followed by an equally steep uphill with minimal flat between.  The steepest part of the canyons is a couple miles of knee jarring downhill into the first canyon followed by 36 switchbacks to get back up to Devil’s thumb on the other side.  After this climb, I know the steep trail and hills are really beginning to wear on me.  Somewhere in here I hit 50 miles around 11:30, too slow to meet my dream of 24 hours; but definitely still on pace to finish.  I make it to the bottom of the second Canyon, and give in to the fact that I’m going to spend a bit of time bandaging my foot at the top of the next climb, as all the steep downhill has obviously caused some serious damage to one of my toes. But I start the hike up to Michigan’s Bluff with gusto after stopping for watermelon and animal crackers at the bottom of the final canyon, Eldorado Creek.
After 2.7 miles of climbing and 7 switchbacks later, I see asphalt for the first time all day.  I have reached Michigan’s Bluff, the weather has finally warmed up to a nice 55 or so degrees, and I again meet my sister for a new pair of socks and a change of shoes.  Upon taking off my shoe, I realize that I was right about needing some foot attention and hobble over to the medical tent as my toenail is detaching from the base, and has caused a massive blister.  OUCH!  After what seemed like an eternity of poking, lancing, and taping I am on my way again.  I tell Kristi that I will see her in about an hour and a half at Forest Hill. Who knew blisters could be so incredibly painful!
Heading into Michigan Bluff Aid Station at Mi. 55
The next 7 miles are uneventful and eventually after 15 hours and 13 minutes, I make it to the 100k mark that is Forest Hill.  Here I pick up my pacer, Greg, a guy from San Fran that digs ultra-running, and has volunteered to run with me for the last 38 miles.  Man am I happy to see him!  We meet up with Kristi to grab headlamps and head back to the woods.  After updating him on how I feel – hiking is solid, flats and moderate downhills are still runnable, steep downhills have beaten down the quads pretty good, and I’m in good spirits about the race in general, we continue pressing on.  He’s a good distractor telling me about his recent trip to Spain and Italy, and how he got into running.  He’s also extremely motivating and patient as I start having a similar blister situation on my other foot and have to see the podiatrist a few more times before the end of the night.  And as the sun sets, Greg becomes my second set of eyes for rocks and roots on the trails.  Eventually, even with our pace slowing as the clock ticks on past midnight, and I really begin to feel the effects of the hours and the miles, we reach Rucky Chucky, the infamous river crossing and mile 78. 
The Rucky Chucky river is low enough this year to be crossed on foot with the help of some amazing volunteers and a cable to help us stay upright during the crossing.  The water feels like an ice bath on my quads, and comes up to the middle of my stomach.  It is refreshing on the legs, but very cold at the same time.  Once across, we towel off as best we can and start the 1.9 mile hike to Green Gate. 
At Green Gate, we see Kristi for the last time until the finish, and slowly squirm out of our wet clothes and into dry shirts, jackets, compression socks, and a final pair of fresh shoes and socks.  At 12:34am we head off down the trail, ready to endure the last 20 miles.
Although I had been tackling the whole day by getting to the next aid station, from here on out the next aid station became a goal versus a midway point.  All of the nighttime aid stations were lit up like little cities in the forest, and the volunteers were amazing.  The one that stands out the most is Brown’s Bar, mile 89.9.  We hit this aid station right around 5am, and the next segment might have been for me the toughest part of the entire race.  It was certainly, one of the slowest.  I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted at this point and had been downing everything from Mountain Dew to 2x Caffeine Gu packets and even coffee to keep moving – this in itself became difficult as at some point during the night I started becoming nauseous which forced more walking and more slowing.  Thinking that perhaps my salt intake was finally going in the other direction, I tried righting the situation with salt, that didn’t seem to help. I also tried eating less, eating more, drinking more, drinking less, but nothing seemed to really cure it. So I just kept moving slowly towards the goal.
At some point the sun came up.  I think I was still on the segment after Brown’s Bar.  And at some point after that we finally finished this segment and I realized that if I didn’t start making it hurt some, it was going to be a long morning.  I think with the sun, I finally got a little energy back maybe; but either way I started jogging more eventually making it to No Hands Bridge, and I knew that with a little over 3 miles left I was going to make it.  And once I reached Robie Point at 98.9, I thought I might tear up a bit.  And I think I would have, had I the energy to do so.  And then finally, Greg and I reached the track.  And Greg being as unassuming as he is, split off and I ran, and actually ran somehow, the last 200 m, managing to pass a guy on the track and finishing my first 100.2 mile race in 27 hours 17 minutes and 29 seconds. 
I didn’t ask Greg why he didn’t run in with me; but I think it was just another example of how incredible of a pacer he had been over the last 12 hours.  How his only goal was to get me to finish.  I felt really fortunate to have him as a pacer, my sister on the course for me, and all of the amazing volunteers over the course of the race.  I could not have done it without them.  But with them, I managed to accomplish something that a few years ago seemed impossible, and for several years had been my goal – I had finished the Western States Endurance Run, and had covered over 100 miles of difficult trail without stopping in a little over a day.  And now, I cannot wait to start training for another one.

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