My story with the Western States Endurance Run begins on the Thursday afternoon before what should have been the start of the 2008 running of the race. That afternoon I received a phone call at our catering company from one of the ladies involved with the race, I believe it was Shannon Weil (considered the “Mother Superior” of the race), letting me know that the race had been cancelled due to fires and smoke and that they were looking for someone to cater a BBQ the next day for upwards of 300 people. The WSER folks are such a class act that they wanted to make sure they ended the WS festivities, or lack there of, on a positive note. Fortunately, we were available and our crew was willing to pull an all nighter to prepare food for this group, who had just been delivered a devastating blow to their dreams of running this iconic route.
While I was excited to be catering for a group of fellow endurance athletes, I expected to show up that afternoon to a somber attitude, since all the hard work and money that people had invested into coming to Squaw Valley had just been burned away. However, we instead arrived to one of the most gracious group of folks that we had ever had the honor of serving! Sure, I heard a few remarks of disappointment, but really it was just a celebration amongst exceptional people that realized how fortunate they were to be there in the first place.
At the end of the BBQ, at which we ended up serving 375 people, Shannon and the legendary 25 time WSER finisher Tim Twietmeyer, brought our whole crew up to recognize us for pulling off this catering with such short notice. They also presented me with a really nice WSER Mountain Hardwear Jacket and coffee mug. I have met so many great people over the years, but I was really taken aback by the special group of people that I met on that particular day.
The Challenge is on!
I had known about this crazy 100 mile running race that went from Squaw to Auburn for many years. Every June I would start to see the runners arrive as they would be, very slowly, running around our town. I had long been a fan of getting out for 20-60 hour sleepless endurance days. I had run the Lake Tahoe Marathon a couple times BITD, and had long wondered if I could actually run the 100 mile distance, but had yet to set it as a serious goal. So when Shannon and Tim handed me that jacket and mug, I immediately knew that I would be finding out the answer to my question. That was my introduction to the world of ultra running!
We have since sold our catering business and moved on to enjoying a lot more free time in the summer!!!
Six years, two Ironmans, one 100 miler, three 50 milers, four 50ks, countless training miles and three lotteries later I was finally going to toe the line in Squaw Valley. I was excited beyond words to be bringing this chapter of my life full circle.
Let the Festivities begin!
I arrived to check-in on Friday morning and was immediately handed a clipboard by a smiling woman, with a couple of releases to sign. She then offered a comfy chair to sit in, rather than standing or bending over a low table to read and sign the papers. From there, I was whisked through about 20 other stations, with many more happy volunteers, including DPMR Board Member Gretchen Brugman. This was a check-in experience like no other. So that’s how it going to be, huh?!
Though short, I slept solid Friday night and arrived to Squaw Valley feeling feeling rested and calm. I was surrounded by family and friends while we waited for the gun to start the long day ahead.
As we slowly ascended Squaw’s Mountain Run, I met and chatted with JB Benna (fellow Tahoe 200 entrant), spent some time and with my friend, Sean Ranney and began seeing the first of many DPMR members that would be providing me energy and inspiration throughout the day. I was feeling great and made it to the Escarpment at the top of Squaw Valley feeling warmed up, relaxed and ready to throw down a solid run. Just before topping out, I took the obligatory moment to turn around and soak in the sunrise over Big Blue. There were several DPMR members at the Escarpment to really boost my energy, not that I was needing much boosting at this point.
Descending the back side of Squaw felt effortless as I made sure to control my speed and save myself for the many miles ahead. The wildflowers were lighting up the mountainside through this section as I fell into the train of runners descending towards Auburn. I wound up behind someone in particular that I was hoping to be able meet this weekend.
My “A” goal for this race was 20 hours and I was feeling decently confident that this might possibly be a realistic goal. My fantasy goal was to run sub 20, so I wrote down and brought along the splits of a gentleman, by the name of Andy Jone-Wilkins or AJW, who ran a smart and consistent 19:25:47 at last year’s near record hot race. AJW is a storied character of the WSER and has a self proclaimed love affair with the event. He calls it Statemas, is fortunate to have a family that shares his passion and achieved his 1000 mile buckle this year. I have been following his weekly column on IRunFar.com, that has been dedicated to his personal experiences surrounding Statemas and knew that he would have been at the cancellation BBQ in 2008.
After a few minutes of being on the heels of AJW, I finally introduced myself and told him the story of my introduction to WSER back in 2008. We chatted for a few and continued down the narrow and often scrappy and loose single track. In an effort to make sure that I paced myself well, I made sure to NOT pass AJW anytime soon as the running still felt easy and we came in to Lyon Ridge AS at mile 10.5. We arrived a few minutes under AJW’s 2013 split.
Shortly after leaving Lyon Ridge I fell back in right behind AJW and also Nikki Kimball, another WSER and ultra running legend who was last year’s second place female finisher. Those two were chatting away and catching each other up on their lives when Nikki mentioned working with a blind bi-athlete skier and so I chimed in about how we catered for a group of blind cross country skiers for about 10 years, Sierra Regional Ski for Light. It turned out that Nikki works with the Ski for Light organization of Montana, so we talked about this for a bit as we made our way to Red Star Ridge AS, 16 miles in, still a few minutes under AJW’s splits. I felt comfortable with the pace so far and hoped things would continue in this fashion.
I shared some more miles and fun conversation with Nikki as we ran our way to Duncan Canyon AS and mile 23.9. I discovered that Nikki also had lots of experience in the food service industry and had even catered a few parties/weddings for some close friends. As much as I was enjoying the miles and dialogue with Nikki, I stayed with my comfortable pace as she eventually inched away from me, making sure to not try to keep up with someone else’s pace. I made it to Duncan Canyon still under the split and feeling good.
My Super Crew Awaits!
The next AS that I had to look forward to was Robinson Flat at mile 29.7, where my Super Crew led by my wife Liz, along with Jessica Zimlich, Karyn Stanley and my pacer Frank Aldana, would be waiting to pamper me with whatever way I needed. I made my way uneventfully to Robinson Flat, arriving just about even with Andy’s 2013 split and just starting to feel a little fatigue from my legs. I had hoped to not feel any fatigue quite this early, but nothing to be very alarmed about. My crew immediately velcroed the neoprene ice pack around my neck, as I had instructed them to do each time I came into an AS. I only left this on for about a minute as I wasn’t really hot yet. They did not have much time to take care of me here because I left quickly, not wanting to stop for long this early in the race.
After I left Robinson Flat my thoughts turned to gearing up for the mental and physical battle that laid ahead of me. The running still felt fairly easy as I made way to Miller’s Defeat at mile 34.4 of the race. About a half mile before reaching Miller’s, I noticed a twinge developing in my left hip flexor, but didn’t think much of it since these things tend to happen on long runs and always seem to work themselves out over the miles. I made it to Miller’s, now just a few minutes behind the fantasy goal split, which was no big deal considering how far I still had to go. I had slowed a little, but felt I had a lot of strong miles left in me before really slowing down.
Things take a turn for the worse….
After I stopped for about a minute to refuel and let the volunteers refill my water bottles. I slowly started running out of Miller’s, still feeling the little bit of pain coming from below my hip. Within about half a mile, the pain dramatically increased and started shooting towards my knee, so I started walking and stopped a couple times to do a little active stretching, confident that this would pass. Still walking and playing it cautious, the pain increased and I began to develop a limp.
By the time I reached mile 38 and the great volunteers at the Dusty Corners AS, including my friend Sarah Kane who greeted me as I entered, I was really questioning continuing on. I feared creating a real injury. I hung out there for 20-25 minutes getting iced, fed and stretched by a multitude of volunteers. I tried jogging a couple of steps in the AS and it didn’t seem to be getting better, but the volunteers kindly talked me in to gearing up and leaving, to see what would happen.
The long gradual downhill to Last Chance and mile 43.8 escalated the pain to a level that made me realize that this was likely going to get intolerable rather work it’s self out. I tried to convince the volunteers that I needed to drop. All the while they pampered me with food, advice and encouragement. Simultaneously, they once again talked me in to continuing on. They cleverly explained that it was best to make it to the Devil’s Thumb AS, telling me I would be more likely to get an early ride out from there. I am pretty sure they weren’t being entirely forthcoming about my chances of getting a ride from Devil’s to Michigan Bluff, where my crew was anxiously awaiting my tardy arrival.
Hobbling down the steep trail to the river crossing at the burned out Swinging Bridge turned the pain level up another notch or two. I was certainly in no hurry at this point, so I hung out in the river for about 5 minutes. Convinced I was going to drop at Devil’s Thumb to end my day, I decided to roll with the fact that the uphill felt much better than the down, and put it in high gear for one final push in what was turning out to be a long training day. I felt better and better as I ascended, though still knowing that I needed to drop, and ended up passing about 20 people en route to the top.
“So, they told me at Last Chance I might be able to get a ride from here to Michigan Bluff?” The look on the volunteers face instantly said, “Fat Chance!” I tried to hang out there and mentioned that maybe I would just wait for them to close and catch a ride then. The kind and smiling volunteer, just like at the last 2 aid stations, proceeded to talk me in to convincing myself that the easiest way out was to just follow the path of yellow ribbons only another 7.9 miles (burly and hard miles) to my Super Crew in Michigan Bluff.
I had taken a couple ibuprofen way back at Miller’s Defeat since I was plenty hydrated and not really fatigued enough to worry about over stressing my kidneys. These took the best effect when I finally got into a groove and ran a solid few miles of downhill to El Dorado Creek and another welcome AS. I enjoyed some quality deep life type of conversation with James from South Carolina on the descent, which also helped in making the downhill running a little easier to bear. Once again, the steep uphill to Michigan Bluff felt great and I pushed hard up the hill, passing many people on my way to what I thought was the end of day.
I hate to disappoint, but I am DONE!
Dropping from the WSER is a very difficult thing to convince the volunteers and your crew to let you do! As somewhat expected at this point, I get whisked away again by volunteers that bring me and my crew to a massage table in the back. Julia Millon, who moved to Truckee just the week before and has already connected and ran with the DPMR crew, happened to be the talented therapist that went to some serious work on trying to get my hip and leg to loosen in an effort to release the sharp pain that was hindering me. Also back there, were Founding Members Bill Hunter and Zachary Carter to help my crew in encouraging me to continue on.
I tried to explain to my crew that this was not fatigue or a low point, that this was something different. I told them it was becoming excruciatingly painful and that I feared real injury. This is when Karyn Stanley took over and did exactly what your crew is supposed to do. She told me what I was going to do and how I was going to continue on to mile 62 at Foresthill and that they would see me when I arrive there. She could not let me quit without challenging my will, making sure that I was truly ready to throw in the towel. My crew then led me to the little station they had set up for me and proceeded to feed me, clean up my feet, change my socks and send me hobble running on my way.
Just after I turned the corner from my crew’s sight I started walking and let the pain get inside my head for a short while, still walking as quickly as I could. I just wanted to get to Foresthill as soon as possible so that I could finally end my run. The steep downhill into Volcano canyon had me grimacing and holding my breath to control the pain. However, once I got to the creek at the bottom and began to ascend, I felt strong again and kicked it back in to high gear for the last final push.
The AS volunteer at the base of Bath Road hurried me through so I could get up the road and to my crew sooner than later, now just 1.4 miles of uphill asphalt away. Immediately after leaving the AS, I tested the running legs on this smooth and moderate uphill. They seemed to be receptive so I continued running and looked up to see my pacer, Frank, approaching me from above. We ran the final 1.3 miles up to Foresthill, with the girls joining us for the last 1/4 miles. This is where I finally convinced all those concerned, in to believing that it was finally time for me to drop.
After leaving Miller’s Defeat and first realizing that I would likely have to drop from the race at some point, a wave of thoughts rolled through my head, from mine and my crews disappointment of not completing the goal, to all the explaining that I would have to do as to why I pulled the plug on something that I had trained and so hard for. I expected that Monday morning would dawn a gray day in my own selfish world. Today is Monday, it has turned out to be a fine day for me and my leg is already feeling better than expected.
My attitude from mile 34.4 to mile 62 was changed from being ready to cry and hold a self-pitty party, to being amazed at and grateful for what a truly classy event the Western States Endurance Run really is. For me personally and for my crew, it was the right thing to do, to continue my run to my finish at Foresthill. I have absolutely no regrets for continuing this far and no regrets for also dropping from the race here.
We ended up camping, since none of us were awake enough to drive back home to Tahoe, on the lawn at the end of the track field and finish line in Auburn. We awoke to some tasty breakfast served by more kind and smiling volunteers. We all hung out and enjoyed the morning and festive, yet exhausted atmosphere. I was able to catch up with several of my friends that completed the race and met another fellow entrant of the Tahoe 200, Ken Michal.
I knew that I was in for a special experience through my running and participating in the Western Sates 100, but I really had no idea just how “over the top” every single aspect of this race is! As a former catering business owner, I am more than aware of just how difficult and complicated putting on events of this nature is. Attention to detail is a must and the all of the great folks involved with this race make sure no stone is left unturned in this department. They even asked the runner’s who did not finish to stand up at one point during the awards ceremony, as they wanted to acknowledge us for our effort. I humbly stood to an incredible ovation!
I look forward to completing this race in the future and getting the “monkey off my back”, as they say. I also look forward to crewing, pacing and volunteering over the years to soak in all the components of this special event.
Thanks again to all my family and friends for the support, encouragement and energy you provided me with!