Saturday June 24th was the 44th running of the WSER100 and it promised some of the more intriguing storylines in several years. Agree with it or not, much of the media limelight has focused on the return of talented runner Jim Walmsley and his strong prediction of crushing the CR, while attempting to go under 14hours. Add to this story that this winter was one of our biggest snow packs with storms starting early, often and continuing late into the season. RD Craig Thornley held out strong hopes to maintain the original course running, which required late trail work right up to race day. Clearing debris, locating and marking the trail and requiring aid station supplies to be hiked in to both Lyons Ridge and Red Star Ridge by the volunteers had many of us a little concerned and curious as to what we could expect on the other side of the Escarpment. In the week before the race everyone began to redirect their anxiety as weather reports started to reveal triple digit heat for several days before and into the weekend.
Ice. Fire. Grit. has become the moniker for this year’s running and I am here to personally attest to its appropriateness.
This would be the second time I would have the privilege to run what many consider to be the most prestigious endurance event in the world, and I was not about to take it casually. I had unfinished business from 2010 when I completed the event on a stress fractured foot causing me to hike in the last 15miles and dashing my dreams of a silver belt buckle. From the moment my name was called at the lottery this time around, my planning began to take place. I would hire a Coach; Bob Shebest. I would focus on a strong, but intelligent training schedule which included appropriate nutrition, miles, taper and mindful focus. There would be no rock unturned in what likely could be my last opportunity to race Western States. I even carved out two months of Wednesdays off from work to get an additional day of big miles on the course each week; peaking with the month of May and approximately 375miles. My training philosophy was focused and designed around HRM (heart rate monitoring) and RPE (rate of perceived exertion) with the vast majority of those weekly miles run below 138hr and RPE 4/10 or lower. It was amazing how quickly results began to come through. Paces were increasing, efforts were stabilized, weight was dropping and confidence was soaring. At 47 years old, my primary goal and purpose of joining forces with Bob Shebest was to stay healthy and avoid the pitfalls so often seen with those toeing the line for this race. Too many runners (the vast majority) come in hot, over trained or injured in hopes of gaining that last nugget of speed that one thinks they need. This would not be me! Instead I increased my energy into mindful attention within my runs and daily activities, directed daily by an app recommended by Coach called Headspace. (I strongly recommend it for any aspect of your life that you would like to improve upon.) This kept me grounded, less anxious and centered on the process and journey rather that the dangling carrot of expectation, ego and destination.
So, race week comes and I feel amazing. Ideal weight; 145lbs check! Injury free with bouncy legs; check! Multiple days running in +100* temps and sauna training; no problem check! 45days of mindful practice; check! 50mile self-supported training run on the middle miles of the course in under 9hrs30min with a HR below 130b/min; check! I felt confident that I had centered myself for a day to stay focused, present and appreciative. In doing so I also felt like my day might involve somewhere between 20-24hrs of running comfortably with 369 amazing athletes from around the world. And so my day began……
With the historic 5am shotgun start on the ski slope backdrop of Squaw Valley, we were off to the Escarpment and I found myself pleased that the snow I had traversed just two weeks prior had mostly melted. It wasn’t until the last mile or so below the summit that we found consistent snow. Friends were found along the way and spectating from above. I was committed to a comfortable pace that would keep me honest. I stopped at the top, turned to appreciate the view of Lake Tahoe, wave to friends and venture off into the Granite Chief Wilderness on my way back to Auburn, some 97miles west from here.
After a short reprieve from the snow we quickly found the trails essentially lost to a blanket of white stuff that varied from ice, soft melting snow and cambered snow bridges that left you cautious about every hiking stride or glissading effort. There was no consistent running over next several miles. It was the exception for most to come through the other side without falling at least once. Personally, I was pleased with three semi-controlled falls which, in comparison to my 2010 effort with similar conditions, was half as frequent. If the snow was not slowing folks down enough, the next obstacle of seemingly endless miles of mud bogs and streaming snow melt cascading from above was debilitating to all. At best, you escaped with stressed accessory muscles, eccentrically working to stabilize your footing and at worst your day was over within the first two aid stations due to injury or timing out. I was part of the first group, arriving at Lyons Ridge and then Red Star Ridge with plenty of time to spare, but already very much out of sorts. My heart rate was essentially in check, but my focus was scattered. So much time focused on footing and stability had clearly drawn my attention away from hydration, nutrition and staying present. I was light-headed, scattered and a bit frustrated that my game plan was already severely challenged. I could only imagine how those concerned with cut offs must have felt. I attributed my light-headedness and lack of clarity to elevation that I often struggle with. I had hoped the gingko biloba I took for two weeks preceding the event would help more, but I tried to focus on the positive and anticipate it would improve by Duncan Canyon when the overall elevation was lower.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. The climbing and descending through downed trees and snow banks quickly transitioned into hot dusty trails and I found myself at the back end of a more than one short conga line with runners continuing to fall from fatigue, adding to the lack of any centered focus.
Time to state it as it is…… My race was already beginning to slip away from me!
Duncan Canyon was a war zone and I was one of its downed soldiers. I generally find myself in and out of aid stations quickly. They stress me out with overstimulation but I needed to regroup. Amy Burton was working there and she made sure I received the attention I needed. That being said, I was no better off when I left, than when I arrived. What is going on? I am less than a quarter of the way through this event and I am mentally exhausted and scattered. I see Karl Hoagland and I latch on. I needed his expertise and calming ways to settle me. He attempted to assure me we were just fine even though he too was feeling the early increased efforts. Karl and I managed most of the climb up to Robinson Flat together and I hoped that seeing my family and crew would settle my restless ways. I arrived at my crew location and everyone was spot on. Socks changed, bottles refilled, cold beverage down and sponged off. In and out under 10 minutes and hiking up Mosquito Ridge with a tortilla wrap for the road. Why was I no better off? I couldn’t get the food all the way down, I was working too hard yet my HR was in the proper zone. Something was off, I was running well but I was out of it. It was about this time, 8hrs into the run and I realize I haven’t really peed. My muscles feel off and Karl is seeing my concerns and demanding I take some of his SportLegs supplements. I agree and realize my electrolytes have likely been way off from the start. Not long after that I sent him on his way so he could focus on his race, I start having my first episode of vomiting; all of my acquired nutrition and fluids wasted and feeling more drained than ever.
My hopes of tackling my home section of the canyons was clearly slipping away. I took every opportunity to rely on my friends working each aid station. Bob Crowley, Matt Keyes, Lee McKinley were all there with encouraging words and assistance. Without them I was lost, literally. I did not know what aid station I was in; it was all a blur. Their only bit of advice was that Craig Thornley was just minutes ahead and I should use it for motivation. Catching up to Craig at the same time that Scotty Mills did was kind of funny but the humor was short-lived. The next time I saw Craig I was looking up at him as he climbed up Devils Thumb and I lay on the trail covered in ants trying to avoid blacking out. This was one of four times during the climb that I resorted to this posture, I was certain it was my last resting spot. I hate any form of attention, so finding myself in this situation was one of medical necessity. I could not catch my breath, my muscles were unresponsive and I was passing out. Multiple runners came up on me, offering assistance, and I simply asked them to send medical down from Devils Thumb.
Looking back at my splits it took me an hour and fifteen minutes to summit a section that I did in training multiple times in 35minutes. Once I reached the aid station accompanied by a medical chaperone, I laid on a cot for close to another hour trying to right my body, but essentially hoping that Elke Reimer and others would officially drop me. I was certain I needed direct medical attention. My entire lower extremities were in complete muscle spasms. My body was uncontrollably shaking while under two blankets during temps exceeding 100 degrees and I was throwing up what little I could be convinced to take in. All sense of performance had long since passed, survival and concern for my family was the only thing I could focus on. Cell reception was unavailable and I was certain they could see through tracking that something must be substantially wrong. I was at Devils Thumb at a time when they were expecting me in Foresthill and I could do nothing to alleviate their concerns. So, I had three popsicles, three cups of broth and three glasses of electrolyte drink and gathered the energy to work my way eventually to Michigan Bluff where my crew would certainly see this shell of a man and drive me home after having my wristband cut.
At 8pm I staggered into Michigan Bluff, after another long climb and multiple breaks lying again on the side of the trail. I waved down Curt in a gesture to say it was over! I was done and I needed to go home, if not the ER. We bypassed the aid station and I collapsed into the crew chair. The sun was starting to go down and runners more prepared than I, had gathered their pacers at the alternate start location. I had dreams of being halfway down Cal Street by now and here I sit in Michigan Bluff. Long story short, my crew of Drew and Curt as well as friends Chaz, Abbey and Nattu would not entertain my thoughts of dropping at Michigan Bluff. Next thing I know, my two bottles were filled with water, a headlamp placed on my head and I was left on my own to proceed to Foresthill. There, I could drop – in front of my family and pacer……. just not here!
It was a long, lonely walk as the sun set and the fire in sky slowly dimmed along with my hopes of finishing my 2nd WSER. Trains of runners came by with their pacers sharing the details of the early hours while I tried to keep some semblance of focus and clarity, but honestly, I was lost. I did not know where I was along the course. No nutrition, no ability to process what was happening to me, no control of why my body had not been responding for hours. As I cross Volcano Creek in the dark and begin the climb to Bath Rd, I walk right past my dear friend and pacer, Molly Knox, who was waiting on the trail to try to pick up the pieces.
I have paced Molly here and at other 100s and this was to be her opportunity to return the favor, and it was not going to happen. The early discussions, turned to persuasions, the persuasions turned to arguments, the arguments turned to silence all along as she tried desperately to put something in my mouth; anything. This woman spends her life motivating hundreds of people daily in her Cycle/Spin classes. She has mad skills! You don’t say no to Molly and you seldom budge her in opinion. The beauty of our friendship is our mutual respect and common similarities on so many topics yet here we are at odds on a topic we both feel passionately for and we could not have been further apart in our opinions. I was dropping, out of concern for my health and safety, and she was endlessly disagreeing with that fact.
“You are finishing what you started!” “Your daughters want to see their dad do this!” “You just need to eat and we will have a magical night, I promise you!”
It was a lost cause the entire climb up Bath Rd and into Foresthill. I had one final hope to convince my crazy friends that they were just not understanding what I had been through. I grabbed John Trent as we walked through the check point and asked him to talk sense into them and not force me down the trail. He assured me he would follow me to our crew location along with Derek from medical.
Finally, I had the resources I needed to call it a day with dignity and respect. Clearly, the wisdom and charisma of John Trent and the knowledge and authority of Dr. Beenfeldt would cause the now twenty plus friends to finally acquiesce. I threw my water bottles to the ground, fell to the crew chair and began to sob uncontrollably. It was over, I knew it. I was a broken man exposed for the failure I sometimes feel I am. My wife and my daughters were there to see it all unravel. As I sat with my head in my hands I did not even have the strength to articulate to anyone what I was feeling, what was wrong with my body and why continuing was simply an impossibility. They placed every possible food in front of me, they offered every possible line of motivation to flip the switch. I knew, if nothing else, only minutes were left and soon the decision would be taken from their hands as I would time out at Foresthill and that would be it.
Coach Bob had stressed how everyone here wanted to see me finish. My wife and girls held my hand and offered embraces. The doctor cleared me that my heart was in normal rhythm and yet my perspective and focus had not switched. All I could see, when I visualized any further effort, was a selfish man (and I am not that man) who would take up the time and concern of his family, friends and race resources to simply fail miles down the trail at a location too difficult to exit.
Things got silent, everyone began giving me space, allowing me some time and the next thing I feel the warmth of someone at my right side. Head on my shoulder, hand on top of my sweaty head and she is carefully and precisely breaking me down – it’s Lhia Casazza, wife of my crew member, Curt. She is telling me in a very stern yet compassionate way that enough is enough!
“I have heard all your issues, all your analysis of what is wrong. It is time to stop the talk. I have read all your emails to my husband about your training, your dreams. Now you are going to get up out of this chair, you are going to drink this broth and you are going to rely on Molly to get you to that track. Do you hear me?”
All I could do was nod my head, and something shifted. I had been given permission to be slightly selfish. I looked to my wife and girls and asked if they wanted me to continue. They cautiously nodded their heads. I got up, finished the broth and quickly went behind the tree and threw up for the fourth time since the start of the race. I grabbed my handhelds, looked to Molly for support and we walked out of town along with my Coach and #flowbrother (Chris) minutes before the cutoff.
As we took the left hand turn onto California St. before hitting the trail access we began to RUN!
I got a final shout out and cheer from Bob and Chris and a reminder that all I had to do was stay present and all would be right. There were 38 miles to go, but we had 12 hours. We likely would not be in jeopardy of cutoffs if I simply and consistently hiked the miles away and Molly was more than happy to do just that. At this point, the mind turned off and I simply became a vessel to the direction of my dear friend. If she said run, we ran. If she said drink, I tried. If she shared intimate stories, I listened. If she counted off yet another headlamp that we passed, I smiled. In the last five years, we have spent countless hours running every step of this trail together. We have isolated segments, their distances and what pace they could be run and here we were revisiting those steps and it no longer mattered that it was hours later than we both anticipated. I was finally present, I was focused and I was Finding Flow.
“Flow” had been the defining focus of my training. I centered on it in runs, I meditated on it each morning. I longed and searched for it in times of need, knowing it was my one and only barrier to success before the start of the race. There are many beautiful depictions of what the state of flow actually is and I have read about many of them. It seems a bit comical that I quote Siri here,
Flow: “the gradual permanent deformation of a solid under stress, without melting.”
Over the next nine hours this was the state I finally found myself in. I can’t say it was effortless, I hurt beyond all measures. I can’t say the ship was entirely righted, because I continued to throw up rather violently throughout the night. I can’t say my body was back to functioning in rhythm because I was actually peeing blood for the last four hours. What I can say is, I was done “melting”. The resistance was lifted and the focus returned to one step in front of the other. As the sun began to rise with about ten miles to go we had long before developed a rhythm; a dance with the trail. No longer did Molly have to call out requests for a little bit more. The shirt came off, the passion to run had returned and the desire to demonstrate the fitness I had little opportunity to reveal was on show. I was running, not enduring. I was embracing my space and it was “magical”! When all was said and done we had graciously and respectfully overcome 90 runners and made up over three hours on the clock. As we came off the trail at Robie Point and summited the last climb in town we were greeted by many of my crew and friends. We ran down the roads approaching the famous white bridge and we heard spectators say they have not seen a finish kick like that in the last four hours.
I had dreamed for months of entering the track in the dark of the night, collapsing at the finish and wearing my new silver buckle like a proud peacock. Yet, instead here I was joined by my daughters and wife after 8:30am running stride for stride in unison to the internal sounds of applause that did not come from the crowd of spectators, but instead from that smaller internal voice of judgement that is always with me. Today, if just for today, I may have finally made a crack in that armor of self-doubt and protective ego that I carry all too often. Today I showed my daughters that you finish what you start and start what you think is not possible. You wash out all that attempts to take it away from you and only surround yourself with love and positivity.
Most importantly though, every one of you that I crossed paths with along the way reiterated to me, and demonstrated to them, nothing quite as glorious as this is ever possible alone. I needed each of you at every step along the way to not only enter that track, but to more importantly realize who I really want to be. I do not want to be the fastest, strongest, most righteous father they know. I want to be the most caring, empowering and present dad they can have.
I recall early on in a phone conversation with Coach Bob a very key philosophy that he shared: “90% of the time you get the race you deserve!” I happen to believe that, but more importantly believe that 100% of the time you get the race you NEED!
There is no better place on Earth on the fourth weekend of every June, than on the track at Placer High School in Auburn, CA.
(Three days removed from the race and I await the blood results and urine analysis that might reveal some insights of my early challenges. I have my opinions of things that might have preceded the race that were responsible but the reality is I am exactly where I should be.)