In the last installment, Jeremiah and I safely arrived at the Highway 49 aid station. When he began pacing me way back at Foresthill at mile 62, I was 45 minutes over the 24 hour cutoff. We spent the last 31.5 miles hammering away at that time. Per my request, I did not know how close we were to the cutoff when we arrived here. I was coming off my first serious low of the race, which threatened to completely derail Jeremiah’s Herculean pacing efforts throughout the night.
Now Jeremiah was handing the pacing duties off to Shelly. She’d be responsible for getting me through the next 6.7 miles to the finish line on the Placer High School track. This was Shelly’s first-ever night run on trails, but her unshakable confidence allowed me to trust her to do what she does best- make me run faster than I think I can.
A year earlier, Shelly managed to coax me into running the last section of the Burning River 100 harder than I have ever run in a 100 miler. Much to my surprise, it felt good AND shaved a ton of time off my overall finish.
I was relying on her to elicit the same effort here. I would need it. I knew I was really close to the 24 hour cutoff, but didn’t have a number. I assumed I was still slightly over it and had to make up more time. We had a 3.3 mile stretch from Highway 49 to No Hands Bridge. My rational side told me to play it cool and not blow up. After all, I had just recovered from a horrible low. If I ran myself into another low like that, any hope of earning that silver buckle would be destroyed.
This scenario was playing out in my head while Shelly was talking to me. Honestly I have no idea what she was saying; I was trying to assess my own state. Did I have enough to hammer the last 6.7 miles, or should I play it safe?
At that point, Shelly asked me if I wanted her to stop talking. I immediately made my decision. I told her something to the effect of “No, keep talking. I just might not respond.”
With that, I put my plan into action.
Fuck being safe! I was 6.7 miles from the end of Western States and I had a chance to finish under 24 hours. There’s no way I was going to miss the 24 hour mark by a matter of minutes because I was afraid to push it.
So we ran.
Well, fast for having just covered about 94 miles.
This part of the course was mostly downhill with numerous stream crossings. None were large enough to get our feet wet, which was welcomed. At this point I could feel my feet… I knew they were getting pretty beat up since I had largely ignored them since the superglued blister earlier in the night.
Shelly DID remind me that I was complaining about the frequent downhills. I’m also pretty sure I complained about them to Jeremiah, too. Sorry guys.
When we were approaching No Hands Bridge, we ran along a ridge overlooking a road. We’d see the lights of the cars whizzing past. It was then that we both realized we were running a) along a pretty steep cliff, and b) it was a pretty long drop to the road below. This sure beat the trails we have here in Michigan!
Before we knew it, we came to the festive lights of No Hands Bridge. The bridge itself was decked out in lights, which looked pretty cool. Shelly filled my bottles as I downed some Coke, broth, and an S! Cap. Shelly convinced me to take a few seconds to eat a banana. Within a minute we were ready to go!
As we were about to leave, one of the aid station volunteers said “You have 3.4 miles to the finish, and you have an hour and 10 minutes to buckle.”
I somehow instantly did the calculation and realized I only had to maintain a 20 minute pace to finish under 24 hours.
As I stood there blankly staring at the volunteer I had the epiphany- I was going to finish under 24 hours at Western States.
I can’t describe the feeling. It was a mixture of overwhelming joy mixed with a strange sense of humbleness and gratitude toward Shelly, Jeremiah, the rest of my crew, the volunteers, my fellow runners, and even the course itself. I felt a deep inner-connectedness to the collective history of this race. It was reminiscent of the feeling I had seeing Gordy and Cowman on the hike up Emigrant Pass almost 23 hours earlier.
I’m not sure how long I stood there. I’m sure it was only a second, but time stood still.
Eventually Shelly pulled me out of my trance and led me toward the bridge. She commented that it was quite romantic. I’m not sure if we walked across or ran, but I was basking in the experience. I was overcome with joy to share this moment with Shelly. We’re crossing a beautiful bridge in the pre-dawn night at the greatest ultrarunning event in the world. This moment seemed like a perfect microcosm of our budding adventures we’re just starting.
When we reached the end of the bridge, I instinctively started to power hike up the hills leading to Robie Point, the last aid station. Even though I knew we would make it with time to spare, I couldn’t contain my excitement. We covered the 2.1 mile climb quickly in what felt like my best hiking since Emigrant Pass.
Like the last section, this section was a bit of a blur. It seemed to pass in an instant. Before I knew it, I crested a hill and there was Robie Point! My crew yelled something I don’t remember. I think there may have been hugs, and Mark may have asked me a silly question or two. I still had plenty of time to spare thanks to our fast hiking. Still, I didn’t linger long as I was eager to get to the finish.
After leaving Robie Point, we were met with a fairly steep uphill climb… on asphalt. Damn, I hate roads!!! Still, I continued with the power hike. The crew was jovial and made several jokes, half of which I didn’t understand. I think I may have been close to another glycogen-induced low point, but the sheer adrenaline kept it at bay.
At several points during this climb, Shelly coaxed me into running. I was pretty sure she was just toying with my competitiveness at that point. I doubted I was in danger of not finishing. She knows me well!
After reaching the summit of the asphalt mountain, we turned left and ran down some streets, around a few more curves, and finally the stadium lights were in sight!
All of a sudden, I didn’t want this to end. As we approached the stadium gate, I slowed my pace. I ran through some sort of staging area, then out on the track. It was strange to go from the complete darkness of night to the bright lights of a football stadium.
When my feet hit the track, I slowed even more. I wanted to bask in this feeling; absorb as much of the experience as I possibly could. Two runners appeared on the track after me. I moved to an outer lane to let them pass. It was no longer about competitiveness. I knew I’d finish under that magical 24. I went back to my original goal of savoring the event.
I may have set a record for the slowest 200 in Placer High School history, but I didn’t care. As I made the final turn, the finish chute was in sight. My crew veered off to the right as I crossed the finish line.
My time: 23:39:59.
I put my hands on my knees and exhaled… I actually did it! The overwhelming emotions were momentarily cut off.
I was immediately surrounded by a crowd of people. Someone placed the finisher’s medal over my head. Another led me to a chair to take off my timing chip. Somebody gave me a bottle of water. Several people congratulated me and patted me on the back. They weighed me and took my blood pressure. All this happened in the span of about 30 seconds. As soon as they appeared, they vanished. I turned around and saw my crew.
I immediately hugged Shelly. I don’t remember exactly what we said, but it brought tears to my eyes.
I hugged Jeremiah and thanked him for pacing me to this finish, hugged Mark and thanked him for being there, and finally hugged Michael.
It was only then that I started to really comprehend what we did. Western States. One hundred miles. One day.
Even though a week has passed, I’m still humbled by the whole experience. This has been an experience that has no parallel. When I started running ultras, someone told me “Make sure Western isn’t your first 100. Get a few under your belt. Once you do, you’ll understand why Western States is special.”
This isn’t the toughest 100, but it is part of American ultrarunning lore. In a silly karmic sort of way, I like to think one of my keys to success was approaching the course with a profound respect. While I was confident I would finish, I didn’t set out to chase the silver buckle. I didn’t set out to “conquer” the race or harbor other selfish goals. In my own weird way, I like to think the mountains were good to me in the latter half because I took the time to really appreciate the first half of the course.
Or maybe I’m still drunk from the altitude change.
At any rate, I am proud of my accomplishment and thankful to have had this opportunity. This journey taught me more about myself as a runner than any previous running experience. I hope I can take these lessons learned and translate more amazing adventures.
More importantly, I hope this race report helps persuade others to try ultras. Contrary to popular belief, these races don’t take spectacular athletic ability, world-class conditioning, or any other special quality. All they require is the ability to listen to your body and learn to overcome the obstacles you’ll face. If a Hobby Jogga like me can do this, anyone can. Give them a shot, you will not be disappointed.