Read part one here: Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report Part One
In the last chapter, my crew and I were hanging out in Squaw Valley having a good time while waiting for the start of the race. I had just gone to bed the evening before the race.
I opened my eyes. The room was dark except for the creepy shadows cast by the permanently-installed night light wired to the hotel wall. I felt well-rested so assumed I had gotten around six hours of sleep. I checked by phone and the digital numbers confirmed my feeling. It was 2:30am; I had been sleeping since about 8:30 the night before. Perfect.
I have a well-worn pre-race routine. I made my way to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. I think I may have accidentally kicked Jeremiah in the head as the kitchen was the territory he staked out a few days earlier. I took a shower, stuck Band-aids to my nipples, and began the intricate lubing process necessary to prevent chafing over the next 30 hours or so.
As I was cooking my pre-race meal of Spanish rice and fried eggs, the rest of my crew slowly awoke. By the time everyone was up, I was fully dressed and ready to go. I checked my gear one last time, noted what equipment was in which crew backpack for later in the race, adjusted the tension on my shoe laces, and headed out the door to pick up my race bib and timing chip.
Since the starting line was only about 50 yards from our room, it was a short trip. The race headquarters was abuzz with obviously nervous runners milling about. I found the line for my number- #323. I got the bib and chip, grabbed a mini-muffin, and headed back to the room to pin the bib on my shorts.
By the time I got back, Brandon had already left. He was hiking to the top of Emigrant Pass to take pictures of the passing runners. The rest of the crew was up and joking around. Once I affixed my number, we headed out to the start line. We took a few pictures, then I found a spot at the back of the pack.
The start of ultras is always interesting. The sheer amount of time we’d be out there seems to deflate the excitement of the start. As the timer ticked below one minute to start, people were still wandering around. I suppose the fast dudes were lining up in their best sprinter’s stance, but the rest of us were more or less standing there.
With about 20 seconds to start, there was some kind of announcement. By the time I deciphered it, a small cannon went off and the race began! It was 5am. It took almost a minute for the entire crowd to get through the starting chute since the vast majority of my cohorts were walking. The first 3.5-4 miles consists of a climb up Emigrant Pass, so there’s not a lot of urgency.
Within about 100 yards of the start, I passed Shelly, Mark, and Jeremiah. Their enthusiastic cheering pumped me up! That was the last I’d see of them until mile 55.7 at Michigan Bluff.
This was also about the time when the history of Western States really hit me. Seeing Gordy and Cowman was surprisingly emotional. I thought of the thousands and thousands of runners that hiked past this very spot over the years. Each one harboring dreams of finishing Western States. It was both humbling and empowering at the same time. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of ultrarunning lore. I could feel myself being transported to the golden early years of this sport when the runners didn’t rely on expensive technology or engineered food. It was a different era, and for a brief moment I felt like I became part of that intricate mosaic. Suddenly I knew why Western States is special.
The rest of the early climb was uneventful. It was dark, but the giant ski hill lights illuminated the gravel road. I was settling into a decent power hike up the hill. Earlier in the week I decided to leave my Garmin in my gear bag, so I have no idea what kind of pace I was pumping out.
I enjoyed some idle chit-chat with a few people around me. Most of the runners surrounding me were running Western States for the first time. For some, this was their first 100 miler. Some expressed confidence, some self-doubt. Some were visibly scared. Most were just basking in the moment.
After about 15 minutes, the sun began to create a silhouette over the surrounding snow-capped mountains. It was the single most beautiful sight I had ever experienced in a race. I know it’s a cliche, but this literally took my breath away. Of course, that could have been an altitude issue, too.
Within a few minutes, I caught up to James Barstad. I had met him at last year’s Burning River 100 miler. We ran together for a few miles at the beginning of that race. He lives around Sacramento and had told me some awesome stories of the Western States trail… his training grounds. We talked about teaching (his wife is a teacher), real estate (always looking for possible relocation sites), and of course running.
Before I knew it, we reached Escarpment, the first aid station. According to the course guide, this was 3.5 miles into the race. I think it may have been earlier due to the snow blocking the road. I filled up my two Nathan handhelds, grabbed a handful of M&M’s, and kept hammering up the hill.
Within 50 feet, I felt some unwanted movement in my shoe. Knowing foot care is a critical component to finishing a 100 miler, I stopped to tie my shoes. I snapped a few pictures around the aid station, then continued into the first snowy section.
The night was cold enough to freeze the snow, so there was a slippery, divoted crust. At this point, the hiking was easy. The snow was slippery, but the grade was gradual enough to prevent slipping.
Around this time I began to wonder how long this climb really was. If the aid station was at 3.5 miles, we should have another half mile to the summit. I’m pretty sure the hike to the top was longer. It wasn’t difficult and my legs felt great, but I was eager to start running.
Within minutes I could see the summit… or so I thought. I had been stopping every few minutes to take some pictures, but forgot about the camera when I saw the climb to the summit. It was a steep, technical trail. OH YEAH! This is gonna be fun!
That short climb didn’t disappoint. At multiple points, I had to use my hands to catch myself from falling. Unfortunately, this was pretty much the only point on the course with this type of extreme terrain. The view from the summit more than made up for it, though.
Once I got to the top, I was met with another snowy climb. THIS had to be the summit.
Words cannot capture the sheer beauty of the scene from the top. The warm rays of the sun illuminating off the snow-crusted mountains was nothing short of spectacular. I was frozen with awe as I looked out over the valleys and mountains below. I’m not sure how long I stood there, but I was vaguely aware of the runners passing me. I’m sure it was only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
I was finally snapped back to reality by a lady that commented “Amazing, isn’t it?” That was the understatement of the day.
Once I was awoken from my mountain-induced trace, I made my way down the snowy, muddy trail. Within a few hundred yards I came across Brandon snapping pictures of the passing runners. I yelled something to the effect of “Yeah, Hobby Joggas!”, ran up, and kissed him on the head. That elicited a chuckle from the lady behind me.
The next eight miles or so was a snow-running adventure like I’ve never experienced. I’m pretty good at running on snowy trails thanks to our shitty Michigan winters, so this was a welcome addition. My barefoot trail running techniques allowed me to dance over the berms and divots with minimal slipping, which allowed me to pass quite a few runners. One lady even commented “Wow! You’re really good at dancing over this snow!”
Any guesses what happened 10 seconds later?
Yeah, I slipped and slid down a 15 foot slope. Luckily a pine tree caught my slide. Note- when sliding on your ass down a hardened snowy slope, running shorts do nothing to protect your skin. I ended up with some painful scrapes from my knees to my cheeks. It took a few miles before that pain subsided. At least the lady that commented on my snow running prowess had a good laugh.
The snow running was easier than expected, but still a little scary. For several miles, we were running along a sloped surface. If you were to slip and didn’t catch yourself on a tree, you’d slide about 100 feet to the edge of the snow. In many places, you’d then fall into a ravine with a raging river at the bottom. The roar of the water was a constant reminder to make sure each step was taken with care.
Once the slopes ended, the trail appeared to follow an access road. It was mostly covered with snow, though there were a few muddy pits where the snow started to melt away.
By this time, the warm air started melting the snow. It went from hard and crusty to soft and slippery. Another runner likened it to running in mashed potatoes. I think that’s an apt description.
Another had stairs cut into the snow to allow runners to safely climb down to the water level.
Another was just a typical water crossing.
My shoes of choice for the snow, mud, and water were a pair of prototype Merrell Sonic Gloves due to be released in the fall of ’11. I had used the shoes since about February, so I was able to test them in snow. They’re essentially a soft-sided version of the Trail Gloves, my preferred trail shoe. This shoe was waterproof, which made it an excellent choice for the early miles here. The traction was good for the snow and mud conditions, and my feet stayed warm. The biggest benefit- they don’t alter my natural form, which was what allowed me to dance through the snow.
Immediately after the snow ended, I came to the Talbot Creek aid station. The first 16-17 miles went by in a flash! Best of all, I was feeling terrific at this point. My knee, which had been a constant source of worry leading up to the race, felt fine. Muscles were good, mood was good.
It had been over nine miles since Escarpment and both water bottles were drained. I had also eaten four of my five Gu’s. I needed to resupply.
The aid stations at Western truly set this race apart from all others. The actual offerings are pretty typical, but the service is second to none. Talbot Creek was incredibly busy as runners were still bunched together on the course. Despite this, a woman met me as I entered the aid station, introduced herself (embarrassingly I cannot remember her name) took my bottles, and asked what I needed. I had her fill them with Gu Brew for electrolytes and calories. I them proceeded to empty the spent Gu packets from my pocket. At that point, the woman gave me my bottles and asked what else I needed. I asked her where the Gu packets were. She grabbed a bunch and helped me stuff them in my handheld pockets. I asked for a few other things and she immediately produced them. It was amazing!
Every other aid station provided this same level of service. One volunteer would help you take care of all your needs. I was feeling great at that point, but if I were in a low, that would definitely help!
Once refueled, I headed out toward the Poppy Trailhead aid station. I don’t have any pictures of this section. Quite honestly, it was boring. It was a predominantly gravel road that passed a campground and a river. I did talk to a few other runners, including a girl that was running her first 100. She caught up to me and slowed to my pace. As we talked, she slowly sped up. Of course, I kept pace. After about 10 minutes, I could feel myself starting to tire as I was reaching my threshold for speed at this altitude. I pulled off to take a leak just to save myself from her speedy pace.
At this point, the snow had ended. My feet were wet from the snow and stream crossings, and I was eager to change shoes. I had a drop bag at Poppy Trailhead with a pair of fresh Trail Gloves, which provided much better ventilation for the building heat of the day.
The Poppy Trailhead aid station was a little more laid back as the runners were a little more spread out. Another woman met me and handed me my drop bag immediately (they used walkie-talkies to alert the aid station of runners coming in… again, GREAT service!) She filled my bottles and got refreshed my Gu supply, got me a cup of water and two S-caps, and ushered me over to the med-tent.
I was unaware of it, but I had cut my knee somewhere in the snow section. I didn’t even feel it until she mentioned my leg was covered in blood. As I changed my shoes, the med crew washed the area and asked if I needed it to be wrapped. It didn’t hurt and I didn’t want to impede movement, so I declined. As you can see from the picture below, it was just a flesh wound.
The next 4.2 miles to Duncan Canyon were really… forgettable. The course was more or less the same- a gentle downhill run on smooth gravel roads with occasional small hills. There were some cool rock formations and moss-covered trees, but the mountains were pretty much obscured.
I did pass a group of guys that were discussing a critically important issue- do you buy Western States swag from the WS store before the race? The entire time we were in Squaw, the Western States store sold WS merchandise. Their dilemma was the same I faced- do you risk spending the money? If you finish, it’s no problem. However, if you DNF, per ultrarunning rules, you cannot use or wear any of the swag.
I hedged my bet and bought a bunch of stuff the Thursday before the race.
The Duncan Canyon was like the previous aid stations. I had settled into a predictable routine- fill bottles, replenish Gu, pop two S-caps. I’d occasionally grab a piece of fruit or candy just to get some solid food. The day was starting to heat up at this point, though I had no idea what time it was. The aid station volunteers offered to douse me with ice water, so I partook. FYI- ice water when not necessarily hot kinda sucks.
At this point I was at mile 23.5. I felt awesome! I had no fatigue or tightness. I felt energetic, hydrated, and optimistic. My “enjoy the experience” philosophy was paying off in spades. I DID have to consciously avoid asking the aid station volunteers what time it was. I knew I was well below the 30 hour cutoff simply because they never warned me. At this point, I knew I could speed up without ill effects, but I decided to stick to my plan. Besides, the next aid station, Mosquito Ridge, was another 7.5 miles away.
The first half of this section was pretty easy. It was flat and shaded on non-technical dirt trails.
I did snap a picture of a sweet lake in this section:
About half way through this section, I left the shade of the forest and entered a new-growth area that had burned a few years ago. This made the trail a little more dusty and the lack of shade boosted the temperature. I like rnning in heat, so it wasn’t an issue… until I started to run low on liquids.
Immediately after that second picture, I fell in behind two dudes and a lady to begin the first serious climb since the hike up Emigrant pass. This was also the first time in the race I was worried… I was almost out of Gu Brew, thirsty, and climbing up a very long dusty trail completely exposed to the sun. The climb was fun and the scenery was cool, but I was still concerned.
This is where my memory gets fuzzy. I think I came to the Mosquito Ridge aid station after this point, then set out for Miller’s defeat. At some point in there was a 1.25 mile downhill run on asphalt (worst part of the race), a long climb up an asphalt road, and another fairly long climb up a rough gravel road. There was also some snow running mixed in here somewhere. I usually rely on my crew to remember parts of the race at this point, but the snow course wouldn’t allow me to see them for almost 20 more miles.
Oh, and Mosquito Ridge was the first weigh-in. I was one pound over my weight the previous evening, which was a bit of a concern. At that point, I should have lost about a pound.
Before I got to the Last Chance aid station and plummeted into the canyons, I came across Kevin Green. Kevin is a fellow Michigander and is attempting the Grand Slam this year. After WS, he’ll do Vermont, Leadville, then Wasatch. I believe he would be the second Michigander to accomplish the feat.
We chatted for several miles, including some running with two of the aid runners scouring the course for runners in trouble. Both lived in the area and gave us the 411 on the rattlesnake situation. Apparently no WS runner has ever been bit, but I didn’t want to be the first. Since Kevin needed to finish to maintain his Grand Slam bid, he asked if being bitten would disqualify someone (the rules state you cannot have an injection of any kind.) I thought he was referring to the actual snake bite, but he was referring to an injection of anti-venom. The aid runners informed us that 20% of all bites are dry bites where no venom is injected. That didn’t help alleviate my rattlesnake phobia…
I snapped a few pics when running with Kevin as we approached Pucker Point. This was probably the scariest part of the trail as we ran along a steep cliff leading to a deep ravine:
I felt really good throughout this whole period, which was surprising. By the time I got to Last Chance, I was over 43 miles into the race. I knew I still had the dreaded canyons, but was still feeling very optimistic. Everything was going great! I felt a little fatigue, but that was it.
I still had no idea where I was time-wise. I guessed I was on about a 28 hour pace at that point, which would be a finish time I’d happily accept. My goal was to thoroughly enjoy the experience, and I was loving every minute! I had never felt this good this far into a 100 miler, so I was in uncharted territory.
I DID have a nagging question echoing in my head… what if I were closer to the 24 hour pace than my estimated 28 hour pace? Based on how I felt, could I possibly have at least an outside chance at that silver buckle? I managed to suppress my inner competitiveness… at least for a little while longer.