The last installment ended as Jeremiah and I were leaving the Foresthill Aid Station. For the first time in the race, I realized I was making MUCH better time than I thought. I was 45 minutes over the 24 hour pace. If I could manage to make up that 45 minutes over the last 38.2 miles, I could finish Western States in less than 24 hours and earn the elusive silver buckle!
I was feeling really good. My muscles were fine, my stomach was good, my feet were surviving. Aside from some rock-battered toes, I felt as good as I had in the first ten miles of the race.
I knew I would have to run faster than I ever have in previous 100 milers to make it, but a fire had been lit within. The challenge of making up that time this late in a race is exactly the kind of challenge I love! If I was reading Jeremiah’s demeanor correctly, he was also excited about the challenge.
Also, I had the specter of Brandon’s runner somewhere behind me. Over the last few days, Brandon had continuously made veiled (and not so veiled) references about his runner a) finishing under 24 hours, and b) beating me. As we were leaving Foresthill, Brandon yelled out that he’d see us on the trail.
Jeremiah and I set out for the next aid station, Dardanelles. Picking up a pacer in a 100 is something I enjoy. It changes the feel of the race. The race goes from an individual endeavor to a team effort. Jeremiah is an experienced ultraruuner with multiple 100 mile finishes (MUCH far faster than my own finishes), so his expertise was welcomed.
We discussed general strategy. I’d take the lead down the trail as long as I was running well. I’d power hike the hills, run the flats, and do my best to run the downhills. We devised an aid station routine. I told him what to look for as indicators that I may be in trouble (i.e.- when I get quiet, I’m going into a serious glycogen depletion phase, which leads to a serious low.) I had him remind me to eat a Gu packet about every 30 minutes as had been my pattern earlier in the race. He would also make sure I took S! Caps on a regular basis, monitor my urination, and occasionally run through the checklist of how I was doing:
- Stomach okay?
- Legs okay?
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded?
- Hot or cold?
In short, he understood what the pacer needed to do. Best of all, Jeremiah had spent all day with Shelly. She was well-versed in my late-race mental state and knew what it took to keep me running. The combination of that and Jeremiah’s own sadistic tendencies would lead to a Hell of a night run!
After we discussed strategy, one issue remained: time. I knew Jeremiah was wearing his Garmin. He knew exactly how fast we were going, what time it was, and where we were in relation to the 24 hour cutoff. I made a decision- I didn’t want to know anything related to time or our progress.
That unknown was far more motivating for me. For the entire time Jeremiah was pacing me, I had no idea if we were making progress. His only feedback was an occasional “We’re doing well” or “Excellent!” comment when I would start running after the climbs. I took that to mean we were chipping away at that 45 minute deficit. I even went as far as to ask him to tell aid station volunteers to keep me in the dark.
<Jason’s inner douchiness>
Aside from that race against the clock, I also started playing a mental game with myself involving Brandon’s runner. I assumed he was behind us and making up ground. There were a few times when that competitiveness led me to run a little faster than I may have otherwise. I was reminded of the Pre quote:
“Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
I was feeling great and had a lot left in the tank… I was confident I could run someone into the ground at that point.
</Jason’s inner douchiness>
The next few miles were enjoyable. I was in great spirits as we floated up and down the hills and around the rocks. The details of the next few sections blend together, but Jeremiah and I talked about the usual ultra runner/pacer fare: the race, running in general, our future plans, great movies from our youth, etc. We were also treated to the magnificent views of the American River canyon below. I left my camera at Foresthill, which was a disappointment. Part of me was obviously still in the “enjoy the course” mindset.
As the evening wore on, the shadows on the trails grew longer. We would occasionally pass a runner or runner/pacer tandem. When it became difficult to see, I switched on my headlamp. We ran about a mile before I almost killed myself on a large rock in the middle of the trail. The angles of light and shadow created by the headlamp made it difficult to discriminate the height of obstacles. It was time to bust out my trusty Fenix L2D handheld flashlight. It’s the one piece of gear that has accompanied me for all four 100 milers.
As night fell, Jeremiah was having some difficulty. His headlamp had broken and he was using an alternative. I think it may have been the headlamp Shelly was using- a $5 headlamp I bought at a gas station. The poor lighting combined with having to follow close behind me resulted in less-that-ideal night running conditions. He stumbled about twice as often as I did. At one point, I thought I saw him plummet off a cliff. Luckily it was just a weird angle. Ah, the sacrifices pacers make!
We came to the first aid station, Dardanelles (or Cal 1.) Since time was now an issue, our goal was to get in and out in less than a minute. We developed a fast routine of Jeremiah filling bottles, I’d down two cups of Coke and chicken broth, take an S! Cap or two, and we’d replenish the Gu supply. Each aid station stop became a little more streamlined. We became the epitome of aid station efficiency. It was a huge improvement over my “sit and chat with the volunteers for 10 minutes” routine I used for the first half of the race.
The next two aid stations were a blur; all the memories run together. We seemed to be making good time. I was still feeling strong and moving well. The one hickup- I seriously biffed it at one point.
I took my eyes off the trail to look ahead and BAM! I tripped on a large rock. One second I was running, the next I was lying on the ground. I think I jumped up quickly and tried to assess the damage. I had a lot of acute pain in my legs and arms. My immediate fear was that I had broken something and would be forced to DNF.
A quick flexing of body parts revealed the pain to be topical. My knees were fine and I had a scraped elbow. Whew! Disaster averted. The pain dissipated after about a quarter mile or so.
As we neared the fabled Rucky Chucky river crossing, Jeremiah and I joked about looking forward to the romantic boat ride. The running joke (pun intended) got me through the five miles between Ford’s Bar and the Rucky Chucky aid station.
The Rucky Chucky area is pretty cool- we rolled into the aid station, weighed in (weight was a pound over… good enough), went through our normal routine, then were ushered down to the bank of the river. A line of volunteers helps us (me) navigate down the bank without falling, placed a life vest over me head, then helped me into the raft.
The entire area was illuminated with white Christmas lights, which actually gave it a romantic feel. Another runner joined us in the raft, to which Jeremiah (or me, I don’t really recall) commented “Ah, a Ménage à trois!” The volunteers let out nervous laughter. Apparently they didn’t share our late-night Hobby Jogga humor.
It only took about three strokes to get to the other side of the raging river. The volunteers on the other side helped us out of the raft and up the opposite bank. At the top, we were surprised to see another fully-stocked aid station. Damn! Since we had just refueled, we continued on toward the Green Gate aid station.
The climb up to Green Gate consisted of a long 1.7 mile climb up to the aid station. We’d meet the rest of the crew here for the first time since Foresthill. I was feeling great, so I only had one pressing need: change the batteries in the Fenix.
The light sucks batteries very quickly on the highest setting. It usually lasts about six hours, which requires one change during 100 milers. A change at Green Gate should suffice for the rest of the night.
In my last 100 miler, we didn’t change the batteries when we should have, which resulted in a perilous situation. Jesse Scott, who was pacing me during Burning River, had to use a small LED key light to illuminate our trail. I didn’t want to repeat that scenario here, especially considering we were probably on pace to finish around 24 hours.
When we came to the aid station, Jeremiah went about doing his typical routine. I went to the food table and ate my now-predictable foods. As I was eating, I mentioned I needed the batteries. Shelly grabbed a plastic bag I had packed in the crew’s gear backpack and got two batteries from the bag. I could see they were standard AA alkaline batteries, which only have about two hours of sable life in the Fenix. I needed lithium batteries which I forgot to add to the baggie. The lithiums were somewhere in the two gear bags, so I told the crew to look for them.
The clock in my head was ticking away. I knew every minute spent standing in the aid station put us further from the 24 hour finish. I was fiddling with the light. When I looked up, Shelly was digging through one of the bags. Michael was filming me and Mark was just standing there looking at me. In my mind, I remember an anger-filled rant that went something like:
“I NEED THE LITHIUMS! CAN YOU GUYS HELP HER LOOK FOR THE FUCKING BATTERIES!!!!”
Shelly later assured me that wasn’t what I said. Still, I feel bad for getting angry considering the crew actually went to a laundromat to dry my shoes and clothes (which I didn’t use) and carried all this gear and set it out (I didn’t use anything besides the batteries.)
At any rate, we got the batteries changed and Jeremiah and I set off. Soon after leaving Green Gate, I felt a hot spot on the middle side of my left foot. I had not taken off my shoes since Foresthill in an effort to save time. Until that point, they felt good. Within 50 yards, I could feel a blister developing. It caused enough pain to interrupt my gait. Returning to the aid station would take at least 10 minutes, which I couldn’t afford. I made an executive decision- blister surgery in the field!
With Jeremiah illuminating my foot, I took off my shoe, took a pin from my race bib, and lanced the blister. Once drained, I had Jeremiah hold the flap of skin open with the pin. I squirted some superglue in the blister and pressed down for a few seconds. Problem solved! The whole process took about a minute and I was able to run pain-free. That’s the type of thing I love about 100 milers… the need for ad hoc solutions!
At this point, I still had no idea where I was time-wise. I sensed we had chipped away at that 45 minute deficit. Jeremiah never told me we had to speed up, he just let me keep running. I was still feeling great, so we just kept running.
The time between Green Gate to the Auburn Lake Trails aid station to the Brown’s Bar aid station was a blur. We continued doing exactly what we had done earlier- power hike the hills and run the flats and downhills. Jeremiah would also encourage me to run some “strides” where I’d pick up the pace for a short time. It was a strategy I got from Jesse earlier in the year. Jeremiah used it on his runs, too.
The theory is simple- it works slightly different muscle groups, which keeps you loose. The technique worked marvelously, and it shaved a little time off our otherwise deliberate pace.
Everything was going well as we left Brown’s Bar. I had finished 89.9 miles. I was feeling pretty good, though the lack of sleep was beginning to take a toll. Our strategy had worked well up to that point. I stayed ahead of any sort of calorie deficit, had stayed hydrated, and was physically and mentally strong. I hadn’t experienced a single low at any point in the race.
Any guesses what happened?
That’s right- I hit a low. It was completely unexpected. I was chugging along without issues. As if often the case, I didn’t anticipate the low. I didn’t even recognize it. I remember hiking up one particular climb and feeling unusually winded at the top. I walked a hundred yards or so before breaking into a trot. Within minutes, my chipper optimism was replaced by overwhelming pessimism. I felt drained. My legs heavy. Unusual stuff started to hurt.
I retreated into my own inner world as I fought the overwhelming urge to quit. This feeling was familiar- it has dominated the latter stages of all my previous 100 milers. I was able to rationalize continuing, but was content to just finish. I abandoned my goal of a 24 hour finish and was preparing how to tell Jeremiah I was going to walk this one out.
I have few memories of the next few miles. I vaguely remember another runner telling me we had X number of hours to run Y miles, but the calculation was too complex for my fatigued brain. I also remember mentioning what we’d do when we got to the Highway 49 aid station. Shelly was supposed to pace me, but we didn’t anticipate me being this fast. It was still dark, and Shelly had never run on technical trails at night. I think we also discussed Red Bull.
This low is where Jeremiah’s experience really shined. He immediately knew I was entering a low by my silence. He knew the low was a glycogen depletion issue, and managed to convince me to down some packets of Gu. I also told him repeatedly that I had nothing left. Knowing myself, I was waiting for him to give me permission to throw in the towel and walk the last 10+ miles.
Lucky for me, he would have none of it. By the time we got to Highway 49, I was starting to come out of the low. I stumbled into to the aid station, got weighed, and downed a Red Bull. The sugar and caffeine seemed to help immediately.
While I was downing my Red Bull, Shelly and Jeremiah were discussing my condition.
I have no memory of the rest of the crew at this point, I just remember seeing Shelly and asking her if she would be able to pace me in the dark. I should have known the answer, but I blame my diminished state. She assertively told me she was going to finish the race with me. The combination of the Red Bull and her determination gave me a blaze of energy. Suddenly the cloud of negativity was lifted and we were off to conquer the last 10 miles.
I still didn’t know where I was time-wise. I had been feeling really good before the post-Brown’s Bar crash. I wasn’t sure how much damage that section did. I thought I was still in the ballpark of the 24 hour cutoff because Jeremiah told me to just keep doing what I had been doing. By this point, I had forgotten about Brandon’s runner. My renewed enthusiasm was focused on one goal- getting to that track at Placer High School before 24 hours.
But the worry remained- how much time did I lose during that low? Was there another low waiting around the corner? I couldn’t possibly pull out of another one before the end of the race. These last 6.7 miles would require a crazy sprint-to-the-finish ending if I had any hope of finishing under the 24 hour mark. With Shelly by my side, I was up for the challenge!
Next Chapter- The End is in Sight!