From the race website:
“Beginning in Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, the trail ascends from the 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, a small town in the heart of California’s historic gold country. Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory.”
This is my third attempt at a 100 mile trail race. Previously I’ve managed to finish under 29 hours and hope to do the same here at Western States but knew there would be major challenges for making any finish less than inevitable. The race takes place in the mountains with elevations up to 8700 feet and there is generally a lot of heat during the run. Since I live at sea level we planned to spend about a week prior to the race camping at elevations ranging from 5500 – 6500 feet. We went to Willamette Pass in Oregon, past Crater Lake then on to Lassen National Park before arriving in Squaw Valley on Wednesday before the race. For the heat – sauna training and running overdressed was all I could do to simulate the sweating rates more typical for California in the summer.
I again took with me my trusty crew: Karen, my sister, and Leslie, her running buddy. This combination helped me to finish my first 100 mile race and I knew that their experienced help would be invaluable to me on race day. They helped me organize my drop bags and helped with much of the pre-race logistics. During the race they stayed up with me all night and soldiered through endless hours of waiting not to mention the hiking they did, laden with supplies, to reach me at remote places along the trail. Not being slouchers, I heard later that they also lent themselves out to others for impromptu crewing and technology support (they had the only working i-phone at some spots). Karen would also run with me for a while if I came in after 8:00 pm at the Michigan Bluff aid station.
This time I also enlisted the help of Glenn, aka Mudrunner (or Muddy as we affectionately call him) as my primary pacer. I enticed him to come all the way from Vancouver, B.C. (yes, that’s in Canada). I also had my husband Rodney along for the ride and as my post race driver and general support person. He even knew it would be hot as blazes in Auburn and still wanted to come and help me out. As my faithful readers may remember, my first 100 mile run was paced by my now good friend Russ, who this time was producing a radio piece on the event, including some interviews with yours truly. He wasn’t able to pace for me this time but participated in some of our pre and post race festivities. During our get together time pre-race we all finally realized we knew each other and introduced ourselves by our online names to made the final connection: Fatozzig, Rustyboy, KateMD, Mudrunner. We had all “known” each other for a long time, we just didn’t realize it. Rounding out our happy crowd was Russ’ newest running friend and helper, as well as an acquaintance of mine, Gary (no online name he will admit to).
It’s 4:30 am and I’m just about dressed and ready to go. Deep breath, others stir in the room and we quietly leave to assemble outside. It’s dark but won’t be for long. It’s a little chilly, but won’t be for long. Soon I’m in a sea of people: runners, crews, spectators, all milling around before the beginning of the race. The race clock ticks down the final minutes. I quickly check in and do my number pinning routine (fold it up first so it fits better – race voodoo) then the pre-race weight for the medical research team and I’m back outside trying to find everyone again.
Russ spots me and continues the interview we started last month. “Are you nervous?” he asks. “I wasn’t until I got out here.” The excitement is palpable and it’s a replay of videos of the start of this race I’ve seen over and over. Only this time I’m in the crowd of runners that will pass under the timing clock and be illuminated by hundreds of camera flashes and enveloped in the whooping and cheering as we count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 gunshot!
Positioned in the last third of the pack I’m hopeful this will be my finishing placement as well. Of course, a finish further up in the pack would be great but I’m realistic and hope to just survive this run to make it to the end. After a short jog we’re hiking up the lighted ski slopes getting steeper and steeper as we ascend. I feel like I’m keeping up a decent pace, not too fast, not too slow. The week we just spent at elevation has really helped and although it’s not like being back at sea level it certainly is doable. The runners all start their early race chatter amongst themselves. Conversations between old friends and introductions with new ones float in the air as the sun starts to rise. WE pass the first aid station and refill water bottles in anticipation of a 10 mile stretch before the next aid station. Then there’s Gary up ahead! He hiked up all that way just to say a big “Hi, Howdy” to me as I passed by! See you again in Auburn, buddy!
Huge mounds of snow reveal gushing streams at their bases and as we ascend to the snow fields we have to start hiking over them. Dirt gets tracked onto the snow from the myriad of feet and it gives us a sanded effect to help grip better. This is an advantage to not being a front runner. As we get to the top of the climb we hear the gong player (Chris Thorney) playing along the side of the trail to greet us and the rising sun. I pass by with a thanks and turn to look where we’ve come. As small line of hikers strings below, beyond is the fog valley in Squaw and beyond that Lake Tahoe and purple mountains stretch off into the distance. I’m further back in the pack now than when I started.
Deep breath and I plunge over the side onto the single track trail on the backside of the mountain. Now it seems real. Now it seems like my personal quest to get to Auburn sometime on Sunday has begun for real.
Not too far along we hit the snow and at first it’s runnable. Eventually the snow trail gets more technical and I begin to curse my shoe choice. They seem much more slippery than I had anticipated. Some steep areas send my feet out from under me and I’m unto my butt for what won’t be the first time. My goal is to get through this section without injury. My arm sleeves keep me from getting snow rash from the frequent falling. I don’t feel steady enough to ski down as I see some people around me doing. Drat! I purposely butt slide down the steeper places. Eventually as we descend we get to the snow melt run off and then the streams, many of which inhabit the trail itself as a stream. Now I’m at home. In the Pacific Northwest we know how to run in the wet. We do it most of the year. I plunge ahead right into the streams and skip around people who try to keep their feet dry.
Then there is mud but I’m used to that as well. What I didn’t anticipate was the cold plunges into the water followed by snow running followed by more mud or water. I worry about the potential for frost bite as my feet start to go numb. Luckily time and trail passes and we’re below the snow line again and to the second then third aid stations along first a dirt then a paved road. I manage to get through without much fuss and the trail eventually takes a gentle downhill trek towards the French Meadows reservoir. We pass by camp grounds and campers getting up for morning coffee. If anyone needed to there were plenty of pit toilets to stop at right off the dirt road.
The trail next takes a turn back onto single track and it’s divine running along the reservoir with a deep blue lake and trees all around. What a beautiful view we’re privileged to witness. Then we start to climb into a new area that was affected by fire a few years ago. Trail workers have recently brought in a bush hog and cleared a way through but we have to be careful of the 2-3 inch stubs of stems sticking up just high enough to trip us.
Up over the top and then down the over side and we’re at the Duncan Canyon aid station – mile 23.8. A guy in a Bishop’s outfit takes my bottle to refill it. He treats me like I’m the Mother Superior; with deference and respect. I grab some snacks and down some fluids and off I go on the climb to Robinson Flat.
The trail rolls up and down and we start crossing more streams. Eventually we reach Duncan Creek and a rope strung across helps us to stay upright in the thigh deep water of mid stream. It’s starting to heat up a bit so people are splashing around like elephants and there’s still lots of camaraderie and high spirits among them. Then the climbing begins. Then we’re back into the snow after getting above 6500 feet. I pick up some snow to hold in my hands to keep them cool. I notice someone behind me does the same thing. The trail flattens out and despite the snow we’re able to run again. Then we hear the unmistakable sounds of an aid station ahead at Robinson Flat, mile 29.7.
A volunteer takes my bottle and pack while I get weighed. I’m 5 pounds up. But I already know I was 2 pound heavier this morning compared to the race weigh-in the day before. And I need to use the porta-potty, which I did. Then I found my crew and they got me the rest of my things and sent me off on my way.
I returned my sunglasses since the snow was on shaded slopes and I hadn’t really used them to this point. But, shortly after leaving Robinson Flat the snow started again and I was in the bright sun. I squinted and cursed my decision briefly but the snow petered out before too long and the trail continued on its generally downhill meander.
By now I was running alone and I was happy to do so. I’m not asocial but find that running with others alters my pace and generally I run faster than I should and regret it later. I really wanted to run my own race at this point. There were some puffy clouds overhead accumulating in greater numbers so we got to run in the shade some of the time. I had my ice clothing on (bandanna and hat) and my body temp was comfortable even though it was warming up so I was able to keep up a consistent speed and soon enough I was at the next aid station at Miller’s Defeat, mile 35.3. Restock the ice clothing and grab some food and drink and off I go.
Even in the training runs I did here I found the sections between Robinson Flat and the climb to Devil’s Thumb to be all fairly similar. It’s pleasant there but I don’t remember much detail about it. I did start to have some blistering on my left foot so when I got to Dusty Corners aid station (mile 38)I spent some time in the chair taping up. I hopped over to a volunteer and got my mud infused sock rinsed out a few times. There was mud caked on the inside right where my toe was bothering me. I should have changed socks at Robinson Flat. Maybe shoes, too.
After the sock change I headed out again and eventually was directed onto the trail that leads to Pucker Point, one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever seen and I paused briefly to appreciate the view: a steep wooded canyon with a roaring river plunging steeply down it.
The trail was perched right on the edge of a cliff with a shear drop off below. Stunning, if a bit scary…don’t fall here. I was still running alone and enjoying myself. Then I got to the downhill section leading to the bottom of the first canyon. I don’t mind this section but note that my quads are starting to feel tired on the steep descent. This is seriously too early in the race for my legs to start barking at me.There’s not much to do about it at this point, though.
The trail heading down had a sea of black and orange butterflies flitting here and there and accumulating around the few puddles in the trail. As I ran by I’d disturb them and they’d all fly up and surround me with their colorful flapping wings. They’d dance around for a while until I out ran them. Then I’d flush out another flock at the next puddle and they’d run with me for a while, too. It was enchanting.
When I get to the bottom of the canyon and over the bridge, just beyond it there’s a small waterfall along the trail and I douse myself in it before I start the climb to the Devil’s Thumb aid station. This climb does not intimidate me. I feel I’ve trained well for climbing and I actually have a way of doing the steep stuff that somewhat rests my legs. During the training runs I managed to get up the hill in 40 minutes. This time I’m at the top in 47. I pass quite a few people here and see more than a few struggling on the way. I’m not over heated at all and I get my ice clothing refilled at this aid station (mile 47.8) before the next drop into the canyon at Eldorado Creek. And hour and 15 minutes later and I’m there refilling my water bottles and ice clothing at the aid station. I’m at mile 52.9 and just over half way done. I snag a Popsicle on my way “out the door.”
Likewise I don’t find the next climb up to Michigan Bluff climb intimidating. Just take it one step at a time and with 1/4 mile to go a volunteer is there to tell us we’re almost to the top and ask if we want mosquito repellent spray. Why certainly! And thank you! What great service. I wish my feet we’re feeling as spry as my bugless attitude. Shortly I’m on the short road leading to the Michigan Bluff aid station and enter the party there 40 minutes ahead of my pace chart – mile 55.7.
Time now to submit myself to the fawning by my crew and a foot check and blister care conference. My sister Karen is ready to run with me the next section to Foresthill since we’re leaving after 8:00 pm and I’m grateful to have the company. As we run I encourage her to keep up the chatter to distract me from my growing fatigue. I’m still happy to be doing this but the task is far from easy at this point. Luckily this is expected so I don’t fret. Likely I will find a second wind later.
As we run darkness starts to fall and we switch on our headlamps. Suddenly a small animal darts between my feet and I leap out of the way with a small shriek. It’s mouse sized but had a big bushy tail and it’s black. I tell Karen to watch out and then she sees it too and screeches as she leaps out of the wasy. Then I see another and it finally hits me. It’s just the shadow of my headlamp against some grassy puff balls along the side of the trail. A mouse illusion. We have a good laugh about the phantom rodents since both of us were fooled. My excuse is that I was getting tired and her’s is that she’s suggestible.
We make our way to Bath road with a few more “mouse” encounters and start the short hike up to the road towards the big Foresthill aid station. Soon we’re nearing the aid station and Karen has to resume crewing. But I do get to pick up my pacer, Glenn, who has finished the race himself and just two years ago paced for a mutual friend. In addition he has run many much harder 100 milers. It was a race report he wrote of his first 100 mile race that introduced me to this type of distance running long before I ever tried it myself. I feel lucky to have such an experienced ultra runner with me and it is destined pay off. I don’t think I looked at my pace chart again after Glenn joined me. He was the keeper of time, strategy, spunk and reason.
Before leaving there was more time in the chair for foot repair and sock changes. We were outfitted with glow-lite bracelets and necklaces which added to the festive atmosphere. Rodney was there to wish me luck into the night.
He was going to follow online at the hotel throughout the rest of the night and again in the morning until he walked down to the track to see me finish. He would provide IT support to the crew (call them with my splits w from the online webcast). Now it was time for the long descent to the River – 62 miles down, 38 to go! Take me to the River. Drop me in the water. Except we knew the river crossing this year would take place in inflatable Zodiac rafts piloted by rowers rather than the usual rope crossing because the river was running so high from the late snow melt off. Glenn had done this for his WS race year and noted to me that the wait time was about 30 minutes to get a spot on the boat. Ouch. I know I was still ahead of the 30 hour pace but that could be getting uncomfortably close. But no time to worry about that and off we go, me with my increasing quad soreness but with a fresh pacer in tow to keep me going. Despite the sock change, my feet are really talking back, too.
Somewhere along here I fall. I don’t even remember tripping but there I am on the ground, skidded to a halt on my right shoulder. Nothing but scrapes and bruises so up I get and we go on. Later I see the face of my (borrowed) watch is cracked. Sorry Karen
One of my goals for this race was to keep running. Ah, sounds like a given in a running race, doesn’t it? But all too often we succumb to the desire to walk “for just a while”, even when the trail is flat or downhill or only gently sloping. Even a good hike up a steeper hill will frequently lead to a continued walk after the hill is long gone if the tired runner isn’t observant. I lost a lot of time in previous races to this phenomenon. And the funny thing is, running actually feels fine if you just keep doing it. Walking gives the illusion that you’re able to rest. It’s not usually true. It just takes more time to get where you’re going and that will make you more tired anyway.
So I’m keeping up a “running” pace most of the time and Glenn and I get into a rhythm at the aid stations. He waits on me hand and foot. I look at the food and shun it all. He cajoles me to try to eat something. I turn up my nose. He urges me to try the soup. I do. Soup is good. So soup it is. My pre-race dreams of all the junk food you can eat on race day plays out like the cruel trick of all-you-can-eat ice cream after a tonsillectomy. Sigh. Aid station after aid station it’s the same: refuse to eat, force feed, repeat. I keep trying to remember the conclusion of a recent medical study done at the race: finishers of the race tended to eat 300 calories an hour. Non-finishers consumed 150 or less. “I must eat to finish” became an internal mantra.
Having been on this part of the course before I remember the particularly steep up and down sections on the way to the river. As we get closer to the river bottom we can see a glow in the canyon up ahead indicating the lights of the two aid stations on either side of the crossing. I remember the steep “paradoxical run down to the river” where they put in a steep uphill switchback section that takes us on a U-turn to our previous progress. But it’s over sooner than I expect and we’re on the last section before the crossing. The moon is full and helps illuminate our path and the temperature is dropping to a comfortable level.
I remember there’s a concrete spillway we cross…there it is. And we start passing a few runners and pacers here and there. One couple is within striking distance before we get to the aid station and I turn to Glenn and say “are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “Yes, I am” and we surge a bit to pass them so we can get ahead in line to the boats. A quick weigh-in at the aid station (I’m right on target) and we dash down the steps to the boat launch area. Volunteers support me on the steep stairs and we ask how long the wait is – “loading right now” so we snag 2 seats in the back of the boat and the oarsman hauls us to the other side in less than a minute. I don’t even get a full rendition of “Yo-ho, Yo-ho a pirate’s life for me!” before we’re on the other side. My crew is there again and Glenn brings me more food.
My feet have been increasingly tender over the last 20 miles and I know I need to seek advice from the podiatrist here. So I sit myself down on the examination chair. I drill a hole in my left toenail to relieve the pressure of a blister under that nail while I await a professional opinion about the big blister on my left pinkie toe. The whole toe is essentially one giant circumferential blister. So is another toe on the other foot. The constant wetness has macerated my skin, turning the soles white and soft which makes everything prone to sloughing off. He shakes his head and sighs at the trench foot condition of my hooves. He works to tape the worst toe while I drain the other then he tapes there as well. After he’s done I notice a few more that I drain and tape. New socks and back into my shoes. OUCH. Ouch. Each step is a searing pain of “OUCH!” This joins the increasing pain of my quads which accompanies all my downhill steps – it’s like the quad soreness a day or two after a really hard training run or race. You know, the kind that makes getting on and off the toilet or walking downstairs an ordeal. Glenn assures me that it will get better once I’m moving again and I know it’s true. The blister pain does improve a little but it never really goes away much more. I have to learn to tolerate it.
What else are you going to do? I’m now almost at mile 80 and I don’t want to make all my previous effort be for nothing by giving up now, just because it hurts. Pain is temporary. I know I’ll have blisters to contend with later but I know it’s not doing serious damage. The quads will repair themselves over time as well and I know I’m not injured so there’s nothing more to do but suck it up and keep moving the best I can.
So, 30 more minutes are lost to the chair, probably an hour total by now if I count up all the aid station breaks for foot repair. My crew packs up and we get moving up the hill.
I am fed a chocolate donut but stupidly refuse to take one “for the road.” We finally climb up to the Green Gate aid station, make a quick soup stop then we’re out into the wilderness again with 20.8 miles to go.
I had imagined this next section happening in the dark but, alas, it soon became light and by the time we made it to the next aid station at Auburn Lakes Trail even the bonfire was burning down. More soup, more picking at the food supplies and we take off to Brown’s Bar. The short steep (and not so steep) downhill sections continue to take a toll on my feet and legs.
Glenn keeps my spirits up by telling me how I’m progressing and how we’re managing to stay on schedule. He estimates our next split and how easily we will be able to make it in under the 30 hour cut off, as well as all the intermediate cut offs. I find this hopeful but I don’t feel like I’m moving very fast. I try to pick it up now and again, telling myself over and over that it doesn’t hurt any less to run slower. Sometimes I tell myself the corollary: that it doesn’t hurt any more to run faster. But about the only refrain I have in my head is that I’ve never been so exhausted or in so much pain in my entire life. I’m not lively company. I doubt I have said anything at all in miles and miles.
We get to Brown’s Bar aid station (mile 89.9) and it’s more soup, fluids and we move along. Glenn calculates my split for the next section right as we’re hitting a fairly steep downhill and I tell him “I can’t do this.” What I mean is, “I have to walk this steep section because my quads are not cooperating and I think I’ll fall if I try to run.” What he hears is, “I can’t finish this race.” He immediately tries to reassure me that all will be well and I’m doing fine and when I realize the misunderstanding I assure him I’m not that far gone – yet! I do try to walk backwards downhill to see if it helps but it doesn’t really. And I haven’t practiced that in training so I forgo this new option for falling. Glenn reminds me that at the end of the race my pain will magically subside and I’ll run in like I’m fresh and blister free. That’s something to hold on to and incentive to get to the end as soon as possible.
I have generally assumed that I could suck up discomfort in the run no matter what. But a few times I began to feel my legs actually tremble and buckle on me like they wouldn’t do what I asked them to do even if I was willing to put up with the pain. That scared me the most but luckily is was intermittent and short lived so all I had to do was suck it up some more. That seemed the better option now after 90 miles.
We started the short climb up to the Hwy 49 aid station, the last point my crew would see us before the end (now mile 93.5). Glenn seemed to remember every nook and cranny of the course and it reinforced my memory of it as well. Sure enough we made it up a hill then down again towards the aid station. The runners before us were being cheered in and there’s nothing better than to hear an aid station up ahead well before you see it. What a relief to know you’re almost there.
I knew that at the most it could take about 2 hours from here to get to the end of the race. Since we arrived at 8:15 am I figured I’d make it in well before the 11 am final cut off and I was relieved. My crew were all smiles and encouragement. I got my ice bandanna refilled since the temperatures were starting to climb again. I drank a fruit smoothie while Glenn had a peanut butter and bacon sandwich. That sandwich sounds good now but at the time I thought it was disgusting. After a bathroom stop we were gone.
I knew the trail went up for about a half mile then it was the most pleasant rolling trail, all essentially gentle rolling downhill from there to the next and final aid station. And so it went. My feet and legs protested but I tried to ignore them and we moved along as best as I could. The open meadow grasslands were as lovely as I remembered and then we were on the rolling trail under the tress again. Now we’re near the river again and as we run up a small rise there’s a volunteer to tell us the aid station was just 100 yards away. He commented that we were the only ones he saw still running up that small hill. Great! All this suffering isn’t for nothing! At least we look good.
We’re in and out of the No Hand Bridge aid station probably the fastest of the whole run. Who wouldn’t be at mile 96.8? I know this next section of trail fairly well. I try to do my run:walk combo on the ups and try to run harder on the downs and we pass some people here and there. “What am I saving it for at this point?” I observe and I try to run harder. Eventually we’re on the steep single track switchbacks on the final pitch to the road at Robie Point and we find a place to pass a runner and his pacer. Then we pass another and then we see a whole line of them and I decide we will just have to follow the train at this point.
When we get to the top we sneak around the whole lot of them and head up to the gate at Robie Point. Russ is there with Gary and he has his microphone all warmed up and the two of them fall in beside us as we trudge up the paved hill for the final climb. I doubt I remember any but the fuzziest of details of that last 1.3 miles, but Russ recorded it all. I do remember we started running when it got less steep. I did my run:walk intervals when we weren’t going downhill. Then we hit the last turn and it’s all downhill to the finish. No, really, this time it’s true. It isn’t just “downhill” – it all really is downhill. And not too steep.
As Glenn had previously predicted, at this point I was feeling remarkably less pain than before and I commented on that. Then Glenn looked at his watch and noted that I had a few minutes left to break 29 hours. I was incredulous. I figured that milestone was long gone and I was happy to just finish before they turned off the clock! Now I have motivation to really move.
Glenn strategized that he’ll grab my fanny pack as soon as I get onto the track and I should haul ass around the track to the finish line unencumbered. I’m saddened that he won’t finish with me but I don’t have the time or strength to argue.
So I hit the track and start running a good strong pace. I pass a runner and his entourage. I speed up a bit because it miraculously feels good. Then I do start to get a little winded and think about slowing down right as I start the last corner and I hear the announcer say “28 hours 59 minutes and…. Oh crap! I have only seconds to finish under 29 hours?! I though I’d have a few minutes buffer. Oh crap, look at the clock: 35, 36, 37, 38….ahhhh!….a full on sprint as hard as I can….49, 50, 51…I hear the wind in my ears as I sail down the final straightaway towards the finish banner and in my mind the crowd is roaring and I stride out as far as I can and….28:59:56 I cross the finish line with my hands over my head in victory!
What an exhilarating end to a long and painful run. And it was true. My feet didn’t hurt much, my legs didn’t hurt much, I was laughing and happy. I popped into and out of the examination chair to have my BP taken and then my weight measured for the medical study. Hugs and kisses all around and then a huge sense of accomplishment and relief.
Not long after we went to the hotel to check in and I showered, then decided to soak in the tub where I fell asleep. We all made it back to the track in time for the awards ceremony which was just another opportunity for a nap in a chair.
Karen laid curled up in a ball practically at my feet, Rodney was by my side and even though it was over 100 degrees in the shade, I felt great walking over to collect my buckle and a congratulatory hand shake.
I now have a buckle and some really dirty running clothes that will never be completely clean again. I also have new proof that I can overcome physical adversity if the goal is imprinted in my psyche deep enough. And as I knew all along, my feet and legs are recovering – pain is temporary, but success is forever.
It goes without saying but won’t here, that without the help of crew, family, pacers, paparazzi, and volunteers, I wouldn’t have the privilege of doing this race and finishing it despite the abuse I subjected my body to. To Karen, Leslie and Glenn: a huge debt of gratitude. To Rodney: my continued appreciation that you put up with all this. To Russ and Gary: I couldn’t run as well without adoring fans and the audio chronicle will be priceless to me. And a special THANKS to my friend Roy who took on my professional burdens during some of my training and during this race week so I could get away and participate in my passion of ultra running. Thank you all!!
Many more photos of the weekend can be found here thanks to Leslie, also my personal photographer.