Given all that and my preference for less-commercialized events, I went into Western States a bit cynical and not expecting the experience to match what I had at Bighorn in 2013. I honestly expected the event to have an inflated ego and be a bit full of itself, from its past success. I am happy to say that I was proven wrong and Western States deserves its place at the top. Though I still think Bighorn had better scenery, Western States felt like the Super Bowl of 100-milers (from back when the Super Bowl didn't have over-the-top halftime shows and commercials every five minutes.) It was the Boston Marathon of Ultras--rich in tradition and possessing a certain aura of "hallowed ground."
We flew out on Thursday and made the drive from Sacramento to Squaw Valley, roughly paralleling (in reverse) the course I'd be running on Saturday. When I say "we," it was just me and my wife, Leslie. Originally, our friends, Paul and Evelyn were coming, but a lawnmower accident forced us to change plans. To fill in for Paul and Evelyn, and help Leslie crew, another friend, Donna, came from Michigan and met us in Sacramento.
|The Olympic Village|
|Pre-Race Mug Shot|
I had a humorous brush with "celebrity" as I took my two drop bags (Ziploc bags with gels, waffles, etc...) to their respective locations. I was talking with a guy who was there to pace a friend as we walked down a side street. A white, compact pickup truck suddenly backed out into the road, not even looking. If we hadn't anticipated him, it would have been a near miss, but we stopped in time. As the front of the vehicle pulls out even with us, we look through the driver's window and who should be driving, but the person who started it all--Gordy Ainsleigh. We waved him on as he seemed to be anxious to get somewhere. But what a story I'd have had if I had just let him bump me!
While I did all this, Leslie and Donna took part in the Montrail Uphill 6K Challenge, which covered the first four miles of the course. It was for both runners and walkers, free, and they got lots of stuff for participating. Plus, it was a good way for them to see a bit of the course, and some great views from the top of the first hill.
|Mandatory Pre-Race Briefing. It was hot in here!|
Supper for me came early and was takeout spaghetti and garlic bread while Donna and Leslie explored the Village a bit more. One good thing about traveling west for a race is that it's easy to go to bed early, with your body clock three hours ahead of the west coast time. I should add that we stayed in the Squaw Valley Lodge. We had a room with a loft, since the original plan was to have more than three people coming. While the building looks rather plain from outside, our room was extremely nice and looked to have been recently remodeled, with granite countertops, new appliances, and tiled bathrooms.
|The starting line...less than five minutes to go!|
The race starts with a 2550' climb in the first four miles. I let adrenaline get the best of
|The first four miles are up...|
I arrived at Robinson Flat sixteen minutes ahead of my goal 24-hour pace. This was the first GI-study stop and weigh-in. According to their scale, my weight was already down five pounds. Some of this loss was sweat, I felt certain, but I obviously couldn't continue that rate of loss (1 lb / 6 miles) or I'd really be in trouble. As they requested, I recalled everything I had to eat and drink since the start. I then skimmed the aid station tables and went looking for my crew. I couldn't find them. I didn't really have plans to get anything from Leslie and Donna here, but not seeing them was troublesome. I began to wonder if something had happened. I waited for several minutes and decided it was best to go on. If they were late, I felt certain they could ask and learn that I had already left.
|A bonus river crossing that felt really good.|
I think "Devil's Middle Finger" is probably a better term for this climb that rises 1600' in 1.6 miles and has 38 switchbacks. I didn't know these details until a lady at the aid station on top told me, but it certainly seemed to go on forever and completely dried me of the drenching I had taken in the river. One slightly worrying thing started happening during this climb. My left ear "popped" (like you get in airplanes) and I couldn't hear through it, but each breath I took was resonating in that ear very loudly. It was pretty unnerving. A friend of mine actually lost hearing in one ear during a run and that was in the back of my mind as I did everything I could to get it back to normal. Somewhere near the top, it went away, but it would happen again off and on during the race. We were not at very high elevations at this point--maybe what I'd find in Blowing Rock or Boone.
We followed Devil's Thumb with another descent and then a long climb back up to Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7,) where I'd finally meet my crew for the first time. They said that they had just missed me at Robinson Flat by several minutes. Knowing that it was a relatively short gap between this crew spot and the one at Foresthill, I didn't linger long. I did have my second GI-study check-in and another mandatory weigh-in. My weight loss had tapered off and I was maybe down one more pound. I reached Michigan Bluff 19 minutes ahead of my 24-hour goal pace. I had gained only three minutes in the last 26 miles, but at least I hadn't lost any time.
|The typical view from higher elevations.|
|Another picture from up high. I can't remember where.|
According to Bill, we lost a bit of time at this aid station, but we still had a 30+ minute buffer. We walked all the way up to Green Gate aid station at 79.8, hoping to calm my stomach. It didn't really work, but after a while, I realized I'd have to run at least some to stay on pace. So, I did a shuffle run wherever the trail was smooth enough, since it kept me from bouncing too much--the main irritant of my stomach issues. You'll have to forgive the lack of trail description in this area, but with it being dark, it all looked roughly the same. I'll note that with the extremely dry conditions, having a runner in front of you created dust clouds that rendered headlamps fairly ineffective.
Between fast walking and shuffle running, I maintained my margin. At the Brown's Bar aid station, mile 89.9, amidst all the bustle, someone who looked slightly familiar spoke to me in support (you know, the "good job" type comment.) A bit foggy headed, I acknowledged the support and headed on. Since all the aid station volunteers had been supportive during the race, I really didn't think much about it. It wasn't until slightly down the trail that I realized who that familiar face was, or at least I thought I did. It was Hal Koerner, from "Unbreakable," and the 2007 and 2009 WS 100 winner. Bill later confirmed this for me via e-mail. Bill also mentioned that the Brown's Bar aid station used to have a very party-like atmosphere but, for whatever reason, it was toned down this year. Honestly, a subdued aid station is perfect for me as anything more intense than what it already was would be sensory overload in my addled state. I've noted that I lose my appetite later in races and that nothing appeals to me. I found myself going after fruit late in Western States and not having any issues with it, other than it probably wasn't enough calories. Strawberries, oranges, and bananas worked best. Out of desperation, I had some cantaloupe at one station but I've never liked it, it wasn't good, and I was still tasting it an hour later. I'll also add that I was drinking a cup or two of Coke and Mountain Dew at every aid station. It was just sugar, but I didn't care, as long as I could tolerate it and it kept me going.
The Highway 49 aid station (mile 93.5) is the last spot Leslie and Donna were to originally meet me, but since I had Bill with me, I told them at Rucky Chucky to go on to the finish and try to get some sleep. We somehow managed to pad our time even more through this section, increasing it to 46 minutes, to the point where Bill started talking about breaking 23 hours. I felt that this was a bit of a stretch because I knew there was a decent uphill left near the end. Still, the pace charts we were going off of took hills into account. It wasn't strictly based on a 4.167 mph pace, but on the past splits for runners who ran right at 24 hours. I filed sub-23 away as "great if it happens, but fine if it doesn't."
So, here I was with 6.5 miles to go and just over 2.5 hours to get there. By now, despite not wanting to jinx myself by saying it out loud, I knew that I would finish and that I should be reach my goal. I actually felt pretty good, minor stomach issues aside. Now it was simply a matter of execution--ticking off each mile safely. There was quite a bit of downhill leading out from the Highway 49 aid station, but it was a little technical. It was the type I would have no trouble with early in the race and/or in daytime, but one wrong step at this point could change a certain silver buckle (sub-24) into a bronze (sub-30.) Indeed, just a couple hours earlier, we saw a guy ahead of us take a nasty spill and twist his knee pretty badly. Not wanting that for myself, I took extra care to lift my feet as I made my way across the rocks and roots down to "No Hand's Bridge," a massive bridge that crosses the American River at mile 96.8. The entrance to this aid station was lined with Christmas tree lights and the station featured a giant screen on which they were playing some sort of WS 100 documentary. I didn't linger long enough to see what it was--it could have even been footage from earlier in the day. I didn't care. I had to get on to the finish.
The stretch immediately after No Hand's Bridge is runnable but I was still walking. It soon gets steeper and the climb up to the last aid station is roughly a 300'/mile incline. But, it's a smooth road, so if you have the legs, it's "easy" to run. I just walked it as fast as I could and finally made it to Robie Point. All I did here was check-in with my number. My bottle was plenty full and I really didn't need any food for the last 1.3 miles.
It was almost more a feeling of relief than overwhelming joy when I crossed the line. The clock read 23:18, so I lost a little of our margin toward the end. Some of that was probably backing off when I knew sub-23 was out of reach and didn't want to push and irritate my stomach further. I always seem to have post-race GI issues (the reason I was happy to participate in the GI study) so it was safer to just finish than to push hard to gain a few minutes.
|My medallion, bib, and trusty yellow shirt.|
The Silver Buckle -- Came with a polishing cloth!
I was so happy to have Western States exceed my expectations. As I noted earlier, I was a bit skeptical that it might suffer from its own success and have lost touch with caring about the regular runners. I need not have worried. Everyone I came into contact with was awesome. Every aid station bent over backwards to help us, the RD, Craig Thornley answered e-mails pre-and-post-race very quickly and thoroughly, the course was well marked, I really can't come up with anything to complain about.
I think, had I not participated in the GI study, I'd have had a shot at sub-23. And I'm sure had I done a better job of staying fueled (always an issue for me) I might have shaved more time off, but in the end, I was where I wanted to be. Like all races, I could have done better, but I very easily could have done much worse.
It's funny that by finishing I requalified for next year. I don't know that I will register again. I could do so, hoping to go with a friend, but what if I get in and the friend doesn't? I don't feel the need to go again alone. It is nice to know that I have the points needed for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which some friends have mentioned in passing. Beyond UTMB, I don't really aspire to any other 100-milers. They take their toll and the missed night of sleep is almost worse than the beating from the race itself.
Though, it does seem like I said the same thing after Bighorn.
BLOOD TEST RESULTS
They sent me an e-mail late Sunday with the results of my post-race bloodwork. It only measured the following four levels:
Measurement Level Normal
Sodium 138 mmol/L 135-145
The last number really scared me, but they did include a description of each reading and how to interpret it. All of the abnormal values can be attributed to extreme activity and so long as I was urinating normally, they would self-correct in a few days. I think the S-Caps helped maintain the sodium level within the normal range.
2014 RACE STATS
376 Starters / 296 Finishers -- 78.7% Finish Rate
129 Sub-24 Hour Silver Buckle Winners
Highest Finish Line Temperature = 89 degrees
Aid Station Mile Elev. 24-Hour Pace Place
Escarpment 3.50 8322
- Paul Wardzinski
- Robert Vasile
- Ray Burris
- Darlene Cockman
- Dennis Norris II
- (Bill Johncock should be here, but we just aren’t running together enough—need to change that.)
- Derek Cernak
- Lee Starnes
- Bill Johncock
- Evelyn Wardzinski
- Jeanene Burris
- Phyllis Neriah Tsang
- Alisha Little
- Jake Edmiston
- Caleb Steedly
- Martin Thorne
- Dennis Norris II
- Adam Hill – Pitchell
- Brandon Thrower – Various Mountain Runs and the new TRU course
- Sean Blanton – Georgia Death Race
- David Lee – For hosting Freedom Park Ultras one last time. Not a hard course, but a chance to stay on my feet for 24 hours...well, 23 hours this time.
- Ray Burris – Valdese – Linville run, with the terrifying part being running into traffic with little to no shoulder in places.
- (Derek misses out here by the “long” criteria.)
- Phyllis Neriah Tsang
- Leslie Rostan
- Donna Thackwray
- (Paul & Evelyn Wardzinski get credit for wanting to crew, but a lawnmower mishap forced a change of plans.)
- Bill Cotton
- Denis's Country Kitchen - In Lodi, CA. The best omelet I have ever eaten.
- Leslie Rostan