Friday, July 2, 2010

Western States 100

Western States 100. The grand daddy of 100 mile trail racing. The big mamba jamba. The big ouch.

For those that don't know, Western States started as a horse race in 1955 in part to show that horses could travel far across tough terrain. In 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh showed up without his horse, helping start the modern sport of ultra trail racing and became a legend. Gordy is now in his sixties and still participates in the most prestigious 100 mile race in the world.

From the Western States website: "The trail ascends from the Squaw Valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. From the pass, following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850’s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn. Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory, accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters." I have run races at altitude, races in the heat and races in the snow. This was the first race which combined all three.

My training going into this race was patchy. I was injured most of the winter with an ankle injury. For most of April and May I had some good training, doing 50-60 mile runs on the weekends, getting speedwork in, and doing the best I could with hill training by running up and down a small sledding hill next to Soldier Field for hours and hours on end (ick). With about 5 weeks to go until the race, I had a knee injury come up in my right knee, which basically forced me to do non-impact workouts like bike and stair machine right up to the race. I knew I wasn't really in the shape I needed to be for a big mountain 100 like this, but running Western States is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I already had my crew of Abby, Eric Bell, and Bob Cox booked and ready to go.

The race:
We started in Squaw Valley at 5:00am and up the mountain we went. The first part of the race involved a lot of hard packed and slippery snow. I think I fell 6 or 7 times, including one doozy in which I went sliding down the mountain headfirst on my back, desperately trying to stop myself from falling off a ledge, ended up hitting a tree and came to hard, butt-spreading sideways stop. Ouch. Not a great start, I knew I was going to be running the rest of the race with a knot in my bum. Good thing my butt's so skinny it doesn't matter much anyway. I did the first 20 miles in around 10:30 pace, not bad considering the terrain.

Once we made it past the majority of the snow, the running got much easier. In fact, this race surprised me by how runnable most of the course is. With a few very significant exceptions, most of the downhills are relaxed enough you can really let it fly. The uphills were a little bit of a different story, there were at least 3 times in which there were very steep 3 mile+ sections, although there was quite a bit of runnable uphill terrain to be found. At 30 miles I was feeling good, I met the team at Robinson Flat in an upbeat mood with only a ghost of a twinge from the old knee injury. I was starting to think I might get lucky and be able to push past the injury and lack of adequate training to win the coveted under 24 hour silver belt buckle. Unfortunately, It wouldnt be long before things would go downhill fast.

After the Last Chance aid station around mile 45 there is the first real steep downhill section that drops over 1500 feet or so, followed by a steep uphill to Devils Thumb. At some point during the downhill section, the knee injury came back with a vengeance. Every step shot sharp pains through my whole leg and my range was seriously limited both uphill and down. Also, my quads were totally shot. The combined pain from the knee and quads was truly unbearable, nearly the worst feeling I have had. After the long, slow climb up to Devils Thumb, I had gone 48 miles in around 10 hours, well ahead of 24 hour pace, but I knew that it would be impossible to maintain speed with a bum knee. The smart thing to do would have been to stop and save myself for another race, another day. However, running Western States is a once in a lifetime thing, I didn't come all this way to quit, and besides, this is what I came for: truly testing my mettle when the going gets tough. The thought to quit was quickly put away, I was now in a fight to finish.

I saw my crew again around mile 55, it was wonderful to see everyone, I needed all the support I could get. They were extremely helpful but I think they could see that I was in a world of hurt. In fact, at almost every aid station the volunteers would ask me if I was all right as soon as they looked at my face. I must have looked awful. I certainly felt awful. Either the pain or the heat or both was causing dizzy spells, and I couldn't see clearly. At times I had trouble keeping my eyes focused and on the trail.

At mile 62 I was thankfully joined by Bob Cox, my pacer and Executive Director of the wonderful non-profit, Impossible 2 Possible. For the last 7 miles I had been doing barely more than a swift walk, but after some coaxing from Bob and a few teeth clenching screams, I was able to put together an ugly but somewhat effective run. We went that way for 10-15 miles with tears streaming down my cheeks while the sun went down.

The sun going down helped my head a bit, but my pace continued to slow. By the time we got to the river crossing at mile 78, we were well behind 24 hour pace and I was now seriously worried about making the 30 hour cutoff. The next 10 miles were a blur, with many people passing us, including Amy Palmiero-Winters, the first amputee to successfully complete the race. One seriously tough woman.

Interestingly, Bob was the first one of us to have hallucinations. At some point he asks me: "Did you see that? I think I saw a.. I think I am seeing things, I just saw a woman in a purple dress cross the path." There was definitely no one in a purple dress crossing our path in a middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. We both had a good laugh and got back to the task at hand.

We got to Brown's Bar at mile 90 around 5:00am, with the second sunrise of this run on the horizon. I was basically limited to a shuffle from this point on, but I knew as long we didn't stop too long at the aid stations, a finish under the 30 hour cutoff was likely.

We got to see Abby and Eric one more time at No Hands Bridge, quickly refilled our bottles, and (slowly) pounded out the last 3 miles.

Getting to the track at Placer High School was wonderful. I had pushed through and survived one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. I crossed the line in just over 28 hours and 30 minutes.

I must not have been drinking enough the last 10 miles, because I was 140 pounds at the finish line, over 7 pounds less than at the start. The world started spinning and my blood pressure quickly dropped. I went to the aid station and got my first ever IV bag. Another new experience! I was quickly feeling better, although a lot of damage was done.

I really paid the price for this one. As I write this blog post almost a week after the start I still am walking with a major limp (A big improvement from not being able to walk at all Sunday and Monday). I am guessing my knee will take at least a couple of months to heal.

Was it worth it? I would have to say a resounding hell yeah! While my speed and placing left much to be desired, fast races and high places are not what this sport is about. I was able to face the darkness and come out the other side with the knowledge that if you put your mind to it, you really can accomplish almost anything.