No Tears This Year – The 2009 Western States 100
At least I didn’t have to endure the hardest part.
No, it wasn’t another mountain to climb or another canyon to descend or another rock-strewn single track along some precipitous ridge in the middle of the California night.
No. I didn’t have to deal with the tears of joy in front of my crew and friends as I ran the last 330 yards on the Placer High School Track in Auburn. That was going to be the hardest part of the Western States Endurance Run.
I was reading a book loaned to me by Gordon Cherr – Rachel Toor’s “Personal Record” (a great read, by the way) – about 2 months before the race and came across her account of pacing a friend over the last 38 miles at Western States. Pacing a tired but determined runner is hard work, for the pacer has been through a long, long day – just as the runner has. I read that short chapter three times and each and every time, it wasn’t her runner crossing that line, but David Yon and I, and all three times I read it, I lost it. How was I ever going to keep it together when the real moment arrived? No way on God’s Green Earth would I be able to. But, I didn’t have to endure that.
If you sense a bit of “woe is me” here, lose it right now. Over the past 5 weeks I have run 155 miles on the Western States course and seen every official step of it with the exception of those last 330 yards. I won’t pretend that each and every one of them fit into my plan to “just have fun out there,” but it was one great journey that I was fortunate enough to take. I had an amazing crew (a/k/a C.R.E.W. – “Cranky Runner, Endlessly Waiting”), and again (like I should ever need a reminder!) was so fully aware throughout that long day and night that a great number of friends from Gulf Winds TC and the Darkside Running Club and from other aspects of my life and the nationwide ultrarunning community were out there urging me on. What a supportive family!
So, here’s the brief story of what happened – at least as brief as I can tell the tale of the last 6+ months of my life. I found out in late 2008 that I had been chosen to be a WS 2009 participant. As a qualifier, I had been on the “wait list” for 2 years and when the 2008 race had been cancelled at the last minute because of horrific fires near the course, every runner on the 2008 start list was automatically rolled over to the 2009 list thereby setting all of those on the wait list back another year. My date with Western States would have to wait until 2010. As fate would have it, a small percentage of those who were on the start list for this year opted out and my name was miraculously pulled to give it a go. I should have bought a lottery ticket that day. When I read the congratulatory e-mail from the race director I about fell out of my chair. My first thought was unbridled joy, followed a millisecond later by unrestrained fear. Although I had run my share of ultras and had some 100 mile experience I was now going to be on a bigger stage, amongst the best field I had ever run with, and on one of the toughest courses anywhere.
I decided to keep a diary of thoughts, thinking that after nearly 60 years I would make some personal discoveries. That never came to pass, I can assure you, and the “diary” became nothing more than a backup GWTC training log. But, an excerpt from the initial entry dated 7 January 2009 may help to get us started:
“I want to keep this brief, I think.
First off, my goals:
- Finish, first and foremost.
- Finish in less than 28 hours and be very, very satisfied.
- Finish in less than 28 hours and be very, very satisfied.
- And more than anything – enjoy the journey. “
In effect, the journey began 25 or so years ago, I suppose. That first time that I “went for a run” and felt whatever it was that called me to do it again, well – that was the start. My Senior Class motto at South Dade High School in Homestead, Florida reminded us back in 1967 that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It seems that the Western States journey began then. Now, 102 marathons or ultramarathons later – including Comrades in South Africa and two Bostons and three 100 milers and any number of other adventures, I am now faced with the one that everyone talks about – Western States.”
You’ll notice that the first three of those “goals” mentioned above includes the word “finish.” That did not happen to me at Western States 2009. I thought that it would. I was injury-free and as physically prepared for a race as I have ever been, having spent 3 days at a Western States camp over Memorial Day Weekend in which I ran 74 miles of the course, followed by 8 days and 80 miles of running mostly the rocky and rugged Appalachian Trail near Carlisle, PA with Col. Fred Johnson while attending the U. S. Army War College National Security Seminar. My mileage was at 70+ mpw, I had raced a hot 50-miler in April and two north Alabama 50Ks before that. During our 2 weeks of 100 degree daily highs I ran at 2 p.m. and was as heat trained as I would ever be and far more so than my competitors – most of who reside in the western U.S. Furthermore, I was mentally and spiritually ready – confident, yet cautious, for I knew that Western States has a high DNF rate and that first-time easterners – especially first time 59 year old Floridians – aren’t the sort that you would put your money on to make it onto the track in Auburn after 100.2 miles.
The one troubling thought that I had as this thing approached was that it had become far too big in my mind. It had become, as I told my friend Scott Ludwig, “like the first time you fell in love.” It was the first thing I thought of every morning and the last thing I thought of every night. I didn’t like that at all. I love to run but I hated the way this thing consumed me. It was not this important but I could not shake it. As you would imagine, I was frequently asked if I was ready. Yeah. I was ready. Ready for it to be over so that I could become normal again!
So, Peg and Mary Jean Yon and David and I went to Squaw Valley, CA 2 days before the race, did the mandatory pre-race meeting stuff and tried to relax. My dear and loyal friend, Scott Ludwig and his wife Cindy came out from Peachtree City to offer further support. Scott knew what was out there in those 100 miles. He finished 6th at the Badwater 135 mile race through Death Valley and up to Mt. Whitney in 2003 and was of the opinion that, at least for him, Western States was harder. That right there was enough to put an edge on any confidence that I might have had.
It was odd to have the day arrive, finally. There was trouble in Paradise though. David was sick. Real sick. He had suffered a recurrence of a virus and didn’t eat the night before and slept haltingly. He came to the start with us but was clearly weak and not well. We went through the formalities of start line photos. As the final seconds ticked down on the start line clock I gazed at the snow-covered Escarpment that we would climb some 2400 feet in the first 4 miles. I uttered a final prayer, and beyond that, all I could think was, “Well, I guess this is it. You wanted this and you wanted it over and now in less than 30 hours it is going to be.”
The race went very well. It really did. My plan was to run the first 30 miles of the high country into Robinson Flat in 7 hours and I came in around 6:45. I wanted to run the next 32 miles of heat-scorched canyons – the most dreaded part of the course to many – in 8 hours. On this day of 100+ degree temperatures, I was pleased to arrive in Foresthill, the 62-mile mark, at 15:15, an 8:30 split and only 15 minutes behind my hoped for 24-hour pace. Mentally, I was far better than I ever expected to be. I wasn’t even the “Cranky Runner” that my crew had expected to have to deal with. My energy level was fine, my spirits were high and I was dead solid certain that with David now miraculously (or supposedly) recovered and leading me though the night, together with the fact that we would have 4 opportunities to hook up with Peg and MJ, that I would be on that track in Auburn in due course. In reality though, everything wasn’t perfect from a physical standpoint. My feet and quads were wrecked. I never have had blister issues but developed some good ones by mile 40 – a combination of running in melting snow, grit and dust, extreme heat, and some horribly steep and long downhills. In retrospect, I should not have done what I did next but it seemed wise at the time. I asked if I could get some quick medical help for my feet at Foresthill and was ushered to the tent. 45 minutes later – not exactly my definition of “quick” – David and I were off on our 16 mile journey to the North Fork of the American River and the Rucky Chuck River Crossing. (You marathoners know about the journey past Wellesley? Tell an ultrarunner that you’ve done the Rucky Chucky Crossing. Same thing.) No less than a minute into our trek towards the river I knew that the blister surgeon at Foresthill had not had a lot of success in alleviating my discomfort, and within 5 miles the discomfort had turned to out and out pain. We pressed on and I still had no doubts that we would be OK but with each step the pain became more and more intense. From mile 75 on, as we neared the river, it was a struggle to even walk at times. More than once David grabbed my arm to keep me from falling backwards as I struggled up a rocky grade. Reality set in. This was it. My race was nearing a very unexpected end. David kept encouraging me: “Just get to the river,” and we did so but it was an hour later than expected. Furthermore, the joy of that experience was lost in the fact that Rucky Chucky was going to be the final nail in my Western States coffin. Before we crossed, I was weighed at the mandatory point and was questioned about the fact that I had lost 6 pounds in the previous 16 miles. I told them that it was OK, that I felt fine except for my feet and that my day was done once we got to the far side. So, we crossed the chilly river, met the ladies, and I gave them the word. I was a mess. When I told the aid station workers on the far side of the river that I was getting out, I was informed that I could not drop there. No – I had to climb another 1.7 miles to the Green Gate station and do so there. Peg went ahead another 1.3 miles past Green Gate to get the car, and Mary Jean – after not sleeping for 24+ hours herself – basically held me up as we climbed up from the river.
The 2009 Western States journey ended at 3 o’clock in the morning in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains under a star-filled sky. I was at mile 79.8. There were 20.4 miles remaining and I had another 8 hours to get them done and it was a hopeless task. Crazy, huh? I learned the next day that the finish rate was the second lowest in the 35 year history of the race, but that was immaterial. The heat that brought so many of my competitors down had not bothered me. My undoing was what makes ultramarathoning such a fascinating sport, for it is a sport of great unknowns. There are lots of obstacles – so many little things that can become big things and it never ceases to amaze me how I am continuing to learn. On this day and night, I learned some more and even at this stage of the game I will put it in the memory bank and seize upon it when the need arises somewhere down the road. This Western States journey fell short but there will be others – journeys, that is. Some may even end in tears.