June 27, 3:50am
This is it. The culmination of more than 18 months of anticipation and preparation. I can’t quite believe it but I’m climbing out from Robie Point and feeling strong. 18 days earlier I had run this section, visualizing this moment with 3 main hopes: that it will still be dark, that I will not be vomiting, and that my body will still be (more or less) in one piece. Miraculously I’m doing great on all counts.
My crew (more on them later) is waiting for me just above the aid station, and together we pick up the pace. That final stretch is everything I expected it to be. The footprints on the pavement, the rows of seats set up for spectators to watch the runners coming through, some still occupied despite the time of day. A few people stretched out on the road in sleeping bags, desperate not to miss a moment.
‘You look like you could run another 20!’ someone calls out. I’m not sure about that, but I do feel good. Everything has stood up to the challenge – physical and mental – remarkably well. I take a moment to think back over the last few months. It wasn’t always like that…
April 27, 4:45am
Searing pain shoots up the rear left side of my upper body. My eyes blink open and I take a deep breath, only for a repeat of the same agony. Still half asleep, I start to roll onto my other side, stopping myself mid-maneuver as I remember through a sleep-filled haze that I have 3 broken ribs. The slightest movement is potentially disastrous.
I lie back gingerly, trying to decide what to do next. If I don’t move, it doesn’t hurt. If I don’t breathe, it doesn’t hurt. Other than that, it hurts…a lot. I tilt my head to the side, just enough to look at the time. It’s 4:45am on Tuesday morning, exactly 3 days since I was toeing the startline at the Canyons 100K. Or in my case, the Canyons 58K. More importantly, it’s 8 weeks and 4 days until Western States.
This is a new feeling for me. Not the ribs…well actually yes the ribs. But that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the DNF. I’ve never dropped in an Ultra. Ever. And I know I could have carried on. I got to mile 35, and could have likely got to the finish. But I did the ‘smart’ thing. I looked at the bigger picture – that picture being States – and made sure I didn’t do anything that might have made it worse. Ever since I’ve been beating myself up for it. I could have finished, but I gave up.
And so here I am. Lying in the dark feeling miserable. Looking back is too painful. Looking forward is too depressing. And being in the moment…well that just fucking hurts!
June 26, 5:50am
I’ve just passed the top of the Shirley Lake Express lift and I’m on to what can at best be described as a goat track. As I climb, my feet regularly slide back, struggling to gain purchase in the loose dirt. I look at my heart rate again – 147. Too high. I know elevation affects me badly, and I’m really trying to keep it below 140 while in the mountains. Everyone has warned me how tough the heat will be later in the day, so not spiking the heart rate is critical early on.
As we emerge from the single track I look up and all that is forgotten. The rich, red hues of the escarpment, lit by the early morning sun, are contrasted perfectly by the deep blue of the sky above. This is an iconic moment in the race. As I get closer I start to hear the voices – hundreds of people started out at Squaw in the dark to be at the top to greet the runners, along with the sunrise. There are goosebumps on the back of my neck as I crest the ridge to cheers and high-fives. And so many familiar faces – my coach Adam, Tara, Karen, Alison, Jack, Aude, Jon and many more. I turn briefly to take in the view – Lake Tahoe in the background, Squaw Valley and the beautiful Sierra Nevada spread out below me – and then it’s back at it, following the conga line as it winds its way deep into the Granite Chief Wilderness and beyond.
The high country is tough for me. I spend a lot of time up here, I love running up here. But I’ve realized over time that it takes a lot out of me, even at slower paces. Having run to Robinson Flat previously I know it’s technical and will beat me up if I overdo it. So it’s slow and steady, keep the heart rate down, and make it to Robinson in one piece. Before then there are friendly faces at Lyon Ridge aid station, and the first half of my crew waiting at Duncan Canyon. Dan and Mike, my own personal bomb squad – parachute in, deal with it, move on. Hot tea, toast and marmite, gels, fluids, ice in the bandana. Job done. A quick dousing and I’m on my way, recharged for the climb to Robinson.
May 12, 8pm
I step through my front door into the house and sit down, stooping to take off my running shoes. Even doing that still hurts. But through the pain, I am smiling, for probably the first time in two and a half weeks. I’m running again! And more importantly, despite most things still being painful – sleeping, laughing, coughing, sneezing (Oh..My…God – sneezing is AGONY!) – bizarrely running isn’t too bad. I can breathe deeply without triggering huge spasms of pain, and mechanically everything seems to be more or less functioning. Provided I can stay upright I might just be able to do this thing!
I start to rebuild my training plan. I talk to my coach Adam. He’s amazingly upbeat, and is fantastic at keeping me positive (and sane!). I have a good base, with plenty of miles earlier in the year, including two races of 50K or longer. So ten days build-up, followed by 3 big weekends. Plenty of vert, and ideally some heat if I can find it. I go away to start planning my calendar for the next month.
I also start to think about my goals for the race, and a strategy to hit them. To be honest, there are only two. First, to finish within the cutoff and not do any (more) lasting damage. Second, if I have a good day, to break 24 hours. I think both are doable, depending on how things go. I know there are going to be 3 critical factors for me – elevation, heat, and nutrition.
In my past races, nutrition has ALWAYS been the issue. In more than 25 ultras I have never gone more than 50 miles without huge GI issues and nausea, with resulting problems in energy levels. Recently I’ve been experimenting with Spring Energy, trying to get away from sugar-based products. And I have a theory that I’ve not been taking in enough salt, so frequent salt tablets will be added to the mix.
To prepare for the elevation, I decide to spend the last few weeks in Tahoe. I’m fortunate to have a cabin there, at 6600 feet. And one of the few upsides to Covid is the ability to work from anywhere. The other strand to my elevation strategy is heart rate. When I look back at previous races I think of how often I’ve pushed the hills really hard, even in the earlier part of the race. Could that constant spiking of heart rate be a factor in how things so often fall apart later in the race?
And then there’s the heat…
June 26, 5:20pm
…which is like a physical force bearing down on me. Each time I lift my foot to slog upwards, it’s as though the rock beneath me is fighting to hold me back, the Canyons refusing to let me escape from their grasp. I look at my brand new Garmin. I swear the elevation hasn’t changed in the last 5 minutes – even the latest technology is doing it tough!
I’m halfway up the climb out of Eldorado, the second of the day’s toughest two climbs. A refreshing but all too brief dip in the creek is now a distant memory. And it hurts, physically. I didn’t realize heat could do that to you. My shoulders ache and my head is on fire… As I crest the top and start the shuffle into Michigan Bluff I look again at my watch. Damn! I’m still 15 minutes behind pace. I’ve been consistently 10-15 minutes off 24-hour pace all day and I just haven’t been able to close the gap. I’m hurting, and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it. Have I blown it?
I see the turn ahead of me, with Jason IPA-Man waving and grinning. We jog together through the Aid Station and on to the rest of the second half of my crew – Kane the Kiwi and Erich ‘the Freezer’ – along with all the creature-comforts that you could imagine. A welcome sit-down, ice, water, fuel, and blessedly, hot tea! This is my secret weapon. It’s 110F and I’m drinking hot tea…as hot as possible. With milk… except…there’s no milk. The guys forgot the milk. Fuck!
This is the closest I come all day to losing it. In fact there is still debate whether I actually did lose it, but apparently, the look of anguish on my face was more than enough. Suddenly that 15-minute gap feels like an hour. I take a deep breath and suck it up. Tea without milk will be fine, I tell myself.
May 29, 1pm
It’s States Training weekend. A month before race day they organize 3 training runs to help runners get acquainted with the course, and potentially the heat. Great idea, except I’m not doing it. I’m still concerned about the ribs, which have a minimum 6 week recovery time, and a 50K on technical trails seems too risky at this point. You’d think this would be demoralizing, and I guess it is a little. However, I have a secret plan and I’m going to try it out today.
Although I may not be running on trails, I am running…on pavement. And I’ve devised what I think will be even better preparation than being on-course this weekend. As well as being the finish of the race, Auburn is perched high above the American River, and is already hot by the end of May. There are two paved roads that stretch from there down to the river. Plenty of climbing, and lots of fast pavement downhill. And it’s the latter that is so critical for States, which is a (net) downhill race. Today’s 35 mile run, in temperatures close to 100 degrees, includes more than 7,000 feet of descent. And was one of several similar routes during my 5-week training block post-Canyons.
Weirdly, my injury created an opportunity that proved to be hugely beneficial on race day.
June 26, 7pm
As you climb from Volcano crossing, the third and final ascent out of the Canyons, the first sign of civilization is Bath Road. Waiting there for me is Alex, my close friend and training partner. Alex will be pacing me to the river, a role he is so good at that he named his dog ‘Pacer’. Seeing him is a huge boost. The Canyons are behind me, it feels as though it might be a degree or two cooler, and I’m feeling good.
Did I just say that? Actually no, I’m not feeling good…I’m feeling GREAT! Nutrition, check. Legs, check. Energy, check. Holy Crap. I’m at Foresthill and I’m ready to rock. That is the goal for every runner at States – to survive the first 62 miles: the high country, the canyons, the heat, plus more than 15K feet of brutal downhill. Get to Foresthill and, if you’ve got anything left, put the hammer down from there. Alex and I start to run up Bath Road.
We turn the corner and within a couple of minutes I see (and more significantly hear!) the Aid Station. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Foresthill is one big party. Volunteers, spectators, and crews, all sacrificing their weekends to cheer and support the runners. And let’s be clear – crewing a runner, or running an aid station, is like doing an Ultra in its own right. Up in the middle of the night, hours and hours on the road, schlepping gear into and out of remote locations, a second sleepless night, and ultimately still going strong 30 hours later. None of us could do this without the incredible community around us – it’s simply phenomenal.
I run through the aid station and on to my crew. Everyone is there, including my wife Belinda and daughter Eva. I need to thank them more than anyone. They put up with this crazy obsession, and have shown up numerous times, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Without them, I definitely wouldn’t be here now.
Once again we go through the process. Grab a chair, hot tea (with milk this time), fluids, gels, salt tabs. I even get a re-supply of band-aids for the nipples from Jeff, aka ‘Quadzilla’, who will take over pacing duties at the river. And I never knew he had that gentler side to him! Another quick dousing and I’m off. I head down Cal Street with Alex, Jeff, and Sean Flanagan – my other training brother. It couldn’t be more perfect – a last bit of strategizing among the four of us before Alex and I peel off onto the trail.
And then there’s Gordy, to provide possibly the most bizarre moment of the day. As we head out of town, standing there next to his worn-out old truck is Gordy Ainsleigh, founder of the race back in 1974. ‘Last chance for a massage!’ he calls out cheerily as we head off towards the river, wondering what just happened.
June 27, 2:15am
It’s been a long, tough day. We’re closing in on Pointed Rocks and everything hurts (except my ribs!), but I’m still feeling strong. Jeff and I have been moving well since the river. Passing through the aid stations we’ve been starting to get updates. At Foresthill I was in the 60s. By the river I was ‘maybe top 50’. Eva had surprised me to be there. Somehow she’d managed to unearth that latest statistic. Certainly in the second half of the race I’d been passing plenty of runners. A lot had struggled in the heat and started to feel the effects later in the race.
Jeff and I keep pushing. At Foresthill he’d told me I was ‘on the bubble’ – the 24-hour bubble. Since then I was pretty sure I’d been gaining time, but you can never be sure. We come across a runner and his pacer. ‘Nice job, keep pushing’, we call out as we pass. A few seconds later the response comes back: ‘Hey Rowbury, you realize you’re gonna beat Jorge Maravilla!’. I stop dead in my tracks, confused. What? Jorge is a friend, ex-neighbor, and more importantly San Francisco Marathon champion and Top-10 States finisher. I can’t remember what I said in reply, I was in shock. In these races, unless you’re one of the elites, you have no concept of what’s going on, and who is ahead of or behind you. You focus on your own race and whatever happens, happens. I turned and pushed on, a new spring in my step, doubly incentivized knowing Jorge was now behind me.
A couple of post-race reflections here. We all have good days and bad days. This day was brutal for many, including Jorge. After the race I told him I was super-impressed that he kept going, as many elite runners would drop in that scenario. His response: ‘Respect the Bib’. What more needs to be said? On a more personal note, Jorge and I are good mates, he used to live a few doors along the street. Along with his partner, Stephanie Howe, they make a pretty super-powered ultra-running couple. With yet another elite runner living across the street, I used to joke that I couldn’t even make the ultra-running podium in my 10-house street! I feel after today that I at least climbed one step higher.
Jeff and I pull in to Pointed Rocks, where Sean is waiting. One last re-supply and we are on our way. We talk about pushing the pace but I just want to enjoy it. By now I know I’m comfortably below 24-hour pace. I’ll save pushing hard and risking a bonk for another day.
June 27, 4:03am
I can see the lights of the stadium. I’m surrounded by my crew, we’re moving nicely, and yes – it’s still dark! Eva is beside me as we roll onto the track. The stadium announcer starts to speak, reading the resumé I provided a few weeks ago. But I don’t really hear what he’s saying. I’m trying to take everything in, trying to make the most of the moment. This is the culmination of a long road (or trail) that started more than 18 months ago. There’s been a global pandemic since then – lockdowns, vaccine rollouts, 2nd, 3rd and even 4th waves – and a lot of people have had it a whole lot worse than me.
I think of my brother-in-law Richy who is fighting a battle with cancer. This has been a minor skirmish by comparison, but still I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I set some goals, I created a strategy, I worked hard, I dealt with some ups and downs, and I executed. This day has been everything I expected it to be and more. An incredible 23 hours on the trail, surrounded and supported by my family and some of my best mates.
I couldn’t have asked for more.