My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. and I struggled to remember why. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I realized that it was Saturday morning and the 45th Annual Western States Endurance Run was starting in an hour. I threw on some clothes and made my way to meet Dan Brounstein and Steve Rowbury to drive to the start at Squaw. I had a long day ahead of me but I was excited to see the start and hopefully to wish Godspeed to a few of the DPMR racers who were toeing the line. The drive to Squaw was comprised of chatter about how we would spend the day. Dan and Steve were pacing Frechman Jo Thery during his first attempt at States. They had run with him and his crew during the week leading up to the race and the 10th place finisher at CCC 2016 was in good shape and was aiming to be among the top finishers. (He would end up finishing M14 and 15th overall in 18:15:04, which is clearly attributable to his outstanding pacers.) Unlike the two of them, I would spend the day at the opposite, decidedly unglamourous end of the race.
For a second year in a row, I had the opportunity to be a member of Sweep Team 3, which would be responsible for patrolling the 17.5 miles from Robinson Flat to Devil’s Thumb. For those who have never experienced Robinson during States, it’s a unique aid station for several reasons. 1) it’s the first really big aid station. 2) It is relatively easily accessible by car and shuttle, which means that crews show up in large numbers, many seeing their runners here for the first time during the day nearly a third of the way through the race. 3) For the first time in the race, the cutoff starts to become a factor for runners whose day is starting to slip away from them. My fellow sweepers and I arrived at Robinson after meeting at Forresthill Elementary School at 10 a.m. We had a solid 2 plus hours until the cutoff so we were able to watch the mid-packer runners come through, have lunch, help out at the aid station and wait. I was excited to get back to Robinson due to the festive scene there. Large numbers of crew members and spectators line the course cheering on runners, socializing, catching up with friends, and talking about how the leaders looked when they passed through. One hears multiple languages spoken, Spanish, French and Portuguese among them, but it’s clear from the intonation and the smiles that a good time is being had at Robinson Flat.
As the 2:10 p.m. cutoff approached, Sweep Team 3 assembled its gear, ensured that supplies such as the first aid kit and radios were in hand and working and met by the medical tent. The atmosphere had changed considerably over the course of the last hour. The bulk of the race had passed through and most of the crews had departed for the next appointed rendezvous points. The excitement of the day had moved west in Jim Walmsley’s wake. As the clock’s longhand inched towards 10 after two, the discussion amongst the sweep team turned to which runners we would need to keep an eye on based on their time in the medical tent or our observation of their rate of travel and body language. While a few short hours ago, runners had high fives and fist bumps for the orange-shirted sweepers, at this point none of the runners who were fighting to beat the cutoff wanted to see us. An aid station crew member positioned herself by the last bend in the course before the straight away that brought runners into the heart of Robinson Flat. She yelled out “runner!” as the hour neared 2 p.m. as much to encourage the approaching racer as to advise her fellow volunteers to make ready. As runners came into sight, the crowd, which was now almost exclusively made up of volunteers, cheered loudly and shouted out the number of minutes remaining before cutoff. The focus was now on getting these stragglers refueled, replenished, bolstered and on their way out of the aid station so they could continue their journey. NASCAR’s finest pit crews had nothing on the Robinson Flat Aid Station workers as they found drop bags, re-filled bladders and bottles, offered all-manners of sustenance sweet and salty, and dispensed medical advice and encouragement all with the goal of keeping the runner ahead of the cutoff that was bearing down like a freight train. As the time turned from 2:09p to 2:10p, the aid station captain blew the horn to signify the cutoff had come and gone. In all there were nine runners who dropped at or didn’t make it to Robinson in time for the cutoff.
The horn that ended the day for some started it for Sweep Team 3. We headed out at a measured pace along the 4.1 miles to the next aid station at Miller’s Defeat. While we were excited to finally be underway, we were experienced ultrarunners and sweepers who knew that all runners from here on out would dread seeing our bright orange shirts, as we were the physical representation of the end of the race. Our instructions were to stay together unless medical circumstances such as tending to an ill or incapacitated runner necessitated splitting up. We alternated between a slow jog and a walk as we came upon the first runners who had just beat the horn out of Robinson Flat. Our pace that would take us through Miller’s Defeat, Dusty Corners, Last Chance and finally up to Devil’s Thumb was decidedly un-Walmsleyian. My Strava data says that we averaged 15:19 per mile. There were times when we moved at a good clip and times when we were at a standstill with runners. In case you were wondering, sweeping States is not an opportunity to get in a speed workout!
Sweeping is a delicate task. The reactions a sweeper gets from runners are as varied as one might imagine. There are those who don’t want to see you or even acknowledge your presence while other seem to appreciate the gentle inquiries about how they’re doing and information about how far it is to the next aid station. Some runners are understandably dejected as one of their bucket list races, and perhaps their major running goal of a lifetime, slips away with the setting sun. Others are at peace with the situation, knowing that they gave Western States all they had to give on this day. At this point in the race a few will be able to rally and stay ahead of the steadily advancing orange-clad cutoff but there are also those whose bodies are simply overtaxed and no longer functioning as they had intended. In 2017, we came upon a runner at the bottom of Devil’s Thumb who was dehydrated and couldn’t walk as a result of full body cramps. Four of us rotated in pairs using the two-handed seat carry to get her up the 1.4 mile 1,600 foot climb. I was hoping that there wouldn’t be a reenactment this year. In fact, just after Swinging Bridge we would encounter three runners. The first was lying prostrate on the trail, unable to keep down fluids and dry-heaving. One of the nurses on the team assessed his condition but it was clear would not make the cut off. We poured water over his body to cool him down and offered hiking poles to assist his climb. The team split here with half staying to help him up the Thumb and the rest of us moving on as we knew that there were still runners making the ascent. The second runner encountered was also having stomach issues but was able to boot and rally. While he too would miss the cut off, he did make it to the Thumb under his own power. The third runner simply ran out of time. She was in good spirits and moving reasonably well but had been slowed by the heat of the day and a lack of nutritional intake. This veteran ultrarunner knew what did her in and I had the feeling that she would refine her game plan and seek to qualify for States again.
As the team reassembled at the Devil’s Thumb Aid Station, the volunteers took over caring for the runners who would not move on and Sweep Team 4 took over our duties. Sweep Team 3 as a whole was done for the day. We were exhausted, dehydrated, and in desperate need of the cold beers that we had strategically stashed earlier in the day. The six of us said little during the ride back to Forresthill, each reflecting on the day’s events. I was impressed that some of my team members had pacing duties and additional sweeping to do that night and the next day! We wished each other well at the elementary school and went our separate ways bathed in the warm glow of the aid station lights.
As I reflect on Western States 2018, I am of course thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this historic and unique event that in many ways defines our community. I have great respect for the runners whose States experience literally takes place as far from the front of the pack as possible. Sweepers spent the day with runners who were fighting cutoffs, drawing upon every ounce of energy they had to stay in the race, and often coming to grips with the premature end to a dream they worked for years to make a reality. One day I’d like to experience the hoopla of the Auburn High School track but in my mind the efforts of these back of the pack runners are every bit as inspiring and compelling as those who earn a buckle.