In the last chapter, I gave a rough outline of the time before hitting the Last Chance Aid Station. Actually, I’m not even positive my memories before the Last Chance aid station are correct. At that point in a 100 miler, I tend to focus inwardly and ignore the details like the sequence of events. I rely on my crew to remember important (i.e.- funny) details from the race at this point. Since we couldn’t see our crew until Michigan Bluff at mile 55, I had to rely on my own memory.
Lucky for me, the next 12-13 miles of the Western States course is pretty memorable. From Last Chance, runners climb down Deadwood Canyon to a bridge, then climb the infamous switchbacks of Devil’s Thumb (1.7 miles, 1500′ of elevation.)
I worried more about the descent than the climb. In previous 100’s, the downhills had killed me. At Burning River in ’10 I was reduced to 30 minute-per-mile “hobble” down the stairs late in the race.
When Shelly and I were in Boulder, Jesse helped me develop better downhill technique. I shorted my stride, increased cadence, and lifted my shoulders up and back. The net effect was about a 50% increase in speed, much less stress on my knees and quads, and better control. Not only was it easier on my body, but it helped me traverse technical downhills. The long switchbacks heading down toward the bottom of Deadwood canyon offered the perfect opportunity to master this new technique.
I was purposely exercising restraint on the first mile or so towards the bottom. Since I was feeling good, I opened up my pace a bit. The only real negative- my shoes were a little too loose and my toenails suffered.
I was still going relatively slow downhill as several other runners passed me. It was interesting to see the other runners’ techniques. Some were bombing down hill. Others were being more conservative. I did pass one dude that was clearly struggling. I asked if he was okay. He was having an issue with heat, which didn’t seem too bad at that point. I would have guessed it was in the low 80’s. Several of the aid station workers told me the temps in the canyons approached 95°, but I like the heat. If it were that hot, it didn’t seem to affect me.
As I was descending, I could hear the roar of the river getting closer and closer. I turned a corner of a switchback and a bridge appeared before me. Finally- the bottom! After crossing the bridge, I was met by a small group of runners submerging themselves in a pool of water created by a small stream. I was still feeling good and did not want to get my shoes wet, so I settled on dunking my hat and buff in the cool water. Now the climb…
Many people had warned me about the climb up Devil’s Thumb. My friends Roger and Brandon talked about these climbs at length. Several other course vets also talked about this dreaded climb. All of them made the climb seem like a nearly-impossible hurdle that routinely broke runners both physically and emotionally. I heard stories of runners puking repeatedly, passing out, even crying.
Needless to say I was VERY eager to experience this climb. I love hills. If I had a choice, all of my training would consist of running up and down mountains. Would these 33 switchbacks prove to be my breaking point?
In fact, this may have been my favorite part of the course. I power-hiked the entire climb. It was long, but was significantly easier than the sometimes-technical climb up Green Mountain I did a week earlier in Boulder. The most difficult part of the climb was water- I ran out about 2/3 of the way up. By the time I got to the Devil’s Thumb aid station, I was quite thirsty.
I drank A LOT of water here, which probably wasn’t the smartest strategy. I’d run into a weight issue at the next aid station, which was one problem I hadn’t planned to encounter.
I refilled my water bottles, lubed my feet with Aquaphor, and chatted for a few minutes with the gentleman that was helping me. He gave me some recon on the next section- it was very similar to the last. I’d have a long descent to the Eldorado Creek Aid Station, then a climb back up to Michigan Bluff where I’d see part of my crew for the first time (second canyon below.)
I felt good throughout the five mile descent down to the Eldorado Creek aid station. I went through my now-standardized routine. I sat in a chair for about five minutes and chatted with the volunteers. Most of the other runners here looked horrible. I was feeling pretty lucky to be in such good shape.
I downed a bunch of strawberries, then hit the trail for the climb up to Michigan Bluff. This entire section was uneventful… I just lost myself in the intrinsic joy of running up the switchbacks.
Before I knew it, I heard Brandon’s booming voice. I was a little shocked I had already covered the ground between Eldorado Creek and Michigan Bluff, but it was comforting to finally see someone I knew.
The warm fuzzies only lasted a second, then I had a “WTF?!?” moment. Why was Brandon here at Michigan Bluff? At this point, I had no idea what time it was, nor did I have a clue where I was relative to the cutoffs.
Brandon had predicted his runner would be well ahead of me at this point, so he shouldn’t have been there. As I approached him, I didn’t even consider the possibility that I was ahead of his runner at that point.
When I met Brandon, he explained his runner was having some problems. I was thoroughly confused… and it only got worse. As I was trying to figure out how close I was to the absolute cutoffs, the aid station folks ushered me to the scales. I weighed in almost four pounds over my weight the night before. Damn that extra water at Devil’s Thumb!
I wasn’t exactly sure when they would force me to sit if I gained too much weight, but I was worried. I had intentionally consumed less fluids over the last few aid stations. I was taking enough S! Caps and my urine color was a little darker than it should have been. How the Hell was I gaining weight?!?
When I stepped off the scales, Mark and Michael were there to greet me. Seeing those two gave me a boost of energy. I had really missed seeing my crew for the first 55 miles of the race. I hadn’t needed them, but I definitely missed them.
I went through my same routine, except I had them replace the Gu Brew I had been using with Heed, which they carried. I also changed shoes as I had been wearing the same pair since Poppy Trailhead. When I took off my old pair, I noticed blisters forming under my second toenail on each foot. That was probably a result of the long downhills into the canyons and shoes that were not tied tight enough. They didn’t hurt at that point, so I decided to wait until Foresthill to pop them.
While I was lubing up my feet, I was trying to ask one of the doctors for recommendations to reverse the weight gain. At the same time, I was trying to estimate which lights I should carry out of this aid station. I had originally planned on coming in around 8:00 and picking Mark up as a pacer, but I knew it was too early. I wouldn’t be able to get a pacer until Foresthill. I decided to wear my headlamp and leave my handheld with the crew. I could pick it up at Foresthill. I also changed from my lightweight cotton white shirt to a heavier dark brown cotton shirt.
I had a ton of things going through my head- the weight issue, the blisters, trying to remember to eat, trying to remember when the sun set, and this whole time issue… GAAAHHHH!!!
As I was leaving, Michael made a comment about time. I thought he said I was about an hour under the 24 cutoff, but I convinced myself I misheard him. I assumed I was an hour under the absolute 30 hour cutoff. As I left the aid station, I was thoroughly confused as to where I was in relation to time. I overheard someone say it was 6:10 when I left.
I knew Roger (my friend that ran the race last year) came in just before 8:00, so I was well ahead of that pace. I also knew I was ahead of Brandon’s runner, and he was shooting for a sub 24 hour finish. For the only time during the race, I was questioning my decision to leave my Garmin in my gear bag.
My concern was simply having enough time to finish. In my “I’ve been running for 55 miles” mental state, I somehow concluded that I had about an hour cushion before running into danger of being pulled from the race. Furthermore, I calculated I had 10 hours and 50 minutes to run the remaining 45 miles. I knew I could do that if I kept running consistently throughout the night, but I couldn’t let up.
Of course, I didn’t have 10 hours and 50 minutes… I had 16 hours and 50 minutes. Even though I felt really good, I managed to forget the race ended at 11am, not 5am.
I hit the gravel roads after Michigan Bluff with renewed vigor. My competitiveness, even though it was misguided, kicked in. I power hiked the hills and ran the flats and downhills. I was making good time until I hit a short section of downhill technical trail. In my haste, my concentration waned.
In the span of three minutes, I kicked three large rocks with each foot. The pain was immediate and all-encompassing. From experience, I knew the pain would subside if I just keep running. So I did.
About a half mile after the stone-kicking incidents, I looked down at my feet. The toebox of my left shoe was covered in what appeared to be rust. That’s weird…
Anyway, I kept plugging along. This part of the day was pretty hot, but my shirt choice made it infinitely worse. The light cotton white shirt did an excellent job of reflecting the sunlight and kept me cool. The brown shirt had the exact opposite effect. I was drenched in sweat within 10 minutes of leaving Michigan Bluff. The Heed I had taken wasn’t agreeing with me, which made the situation worse. Heed had been my default ultra drink, but I was actually preferring the sweeter Gu Brew.
Eventually I came to the Bath Road aid station, which is about a mile and a half from Foresthill. Crew and pacers were allowed to hike down the asphalt road to meet their runners here, so there were quite a few people milling about.
Even though I only had a short distance to go, I still insisted having both bottles topped off. I needed to get rid of the Heed even though I only had a little over 1.5 miles left. The road from Bath road up to Foresthill consisted of a power hike interspersed with some easy running.
This road eventually meets up with Foresthill Highway. After a short jaunt, you come to the party that is the Foresthill Aid Station. There were a ton of cars, runners, volunteers, pacers, crew members, and music.
Jeremiah ran down the road about a half mile or so to meet me before I arrived. I hugged him and gave him an update on how I was feeling, the weight issue, what I would need, etc. At that point, he told me my time was excellent. I was still under the impression I was fairly close to the 30 hour cutoff, so I assumed he meant I wasn’t in immediate danger of DNFing due to missing a cutoff.
As we approached the aid station, I met Terry Orsi. He is a fellow barefoot and minimalist shoe runner that had been volunteering at Foresthill. We’ve communicated via the Interwebs for awhile, and it was cool to meet him in person.
We chatted for a bit as I went through the weigh-in process. My weight finally went down; I believe I was one pound under. Excellent! I’m sure my brown shirt had something to do with that…
The rest of the crew had to wait for me to exit the aid station before providing assistance, so Jeremiah and I exited with Terry right behind. Shelly had met us at the exit and led us to our minivan “mothership.”
Seeing Shelly immediately perked me up. I was feeling pretty good anyway, but it was still a boost!
When I sat down, I immediately pulled off both shoes and went to work popping the blisters under my nails. That rust I thought I had gotten all over the toebox of my left shoe? It wasn’t rust. It was blood. The nail had actually been torn off a little bit. Treating toes was a routine I had done many times, so it went smoothly.
Lance blisters with needle.
Soak up bloody puss.
I slathered some Aquaphor on my feet, laced up the fresh shoes, and was ready to go!
As I was preparing to leave, I realized I hadn’t eaten. I think I may have downed a can of Slim Fast and eaten some other solid food, but I didn’t want to linger. I quickly changed out of my soaked brown shirt and chose Shelly’s white t-shirt.
Ultra tip of the day: women’s clothing brings good luck.
Soon after, Jeremiah and I were heading out. As we were leaving, I heard Brandon comment that his runner was catching up and he’d see us on the trail. That little comment would provide some excellent fuel later as darkness fell…
Within 200 yards of leaving the car, we both missed the turn we were supposed to make. Luckily a group of spectators caught us before we continued down the wrong road. That was the only time all day I came close to going off course.
While I was at Foresthill, someone mentioned where I was time-wise. I wasn’t flirting with the 30 hour cut-off… I was 45 minutes over the 24 hour cut-off.
Two thoughts immediately popped in my head:
1. I had about 15.5 hours to run 38 miles. I wasn’t in danger of DNFing due to a missed cutoof time. I could walk the rest of the way and still finish. This was the first time during the race I knew I would finish Western States. And…
2. I had 9.5 hours to run 38 miles… or about a 15 minute/mile pace to finish under 24 hours and earn that coveted silver buckle. How the Hell I did that calculation in my head is beyond me. Moments earlier I was convinced the race ended at 5am.
In my two previous 100 milers, anything over 60 miles was more or less survival. I felt great today, but I would need to more or less run a negative split to buckle. I was 45 minutes over the 24 hour cutoff. Could I really chip away at that kind of deficit and make up 45 minutes this late in a 100 miler?
My previous experiences would lead to a resounding “No!” After all, I had never entered a 100 in worse shape. I spent the entire first third of the race lollygagging between aid stations snapping pictures. My original goal was to simply have fun and enjoy the experience.
It was then that I felt my inner-competitiveness spring to life. I could tell by the gleam in Jeremiah’s eyes that he had already made up his mind… we’re shooting for the buckle. At that moment, I decided to hang on for what would become the ride of my life.