Western States – The Rest of the Story
At the end of the last week’s article a battered Gary Griffin rolled into Michigan Bluff, having covered 55 miles. While 55 is numerically more than half of the 100 mile Western States Endurance Run, it is nowhere near halfway through the suffering. First, there is a long night ahead; remember how you felt the last time you just tried to stay up all night. Then add the cumulative effect of relentless pounding on the legs and feet that makes each new mile longer and tougher.
From Michigan Bluff, the trail leads to Foresthill and an aid station where I would start running with Gary. It would be my job to join Gary and help him battle to the finish. But to get to Foresthill Gary still had to get through Volcano Canyon and at least one more tough climb. On a fresh set of legs, it may not have been much of a challenge, but with pain ricocheting back and forth between burned up quads and severely blistered feet, he was reduced to walking much of the way. Peg, MJ and I worked our way back up the trail from Foresthill to meet him before he arrived at the Foresthill aid station. Peg was the first to reach him. When MJ & I joined them, despite being exhausted, Gary’s sprits were high and his determination to beat the blisters strong. But even fast walking was painful and so at the aid station it was time to seek medical help before starting our 38 mile journey together. As Gary sank into the chair in the medical tent, a doctor helped him take off his shoes and remove his bloody socks. The look of pain on Gary’s face as the doctor began opening and treating the blisters spoke 10,000 words. It hurt just to watch. It may have been an unlucky draw, but just as he sat down the experienced foot doctor was called to deal with a medical emergency and a clearly much less experienced doctor began working on Gary’s feet. While I am sure he did all that he could, I will always wonder “what if” the other doctor had treated Gary’s feet?
With feet bandaged and the sun setting fast we left Robinson Flats a little after 9:00 at night. The next goal was Rucky Chucky and the river crossing. Yes, in the middle of the night runners had to cross a fast flowing American River, just above a set of rapids. On the other side of the river the crew, Peg and MJ would be waiting. We began by alternating short periods of running and walking as the trail plunged downhill. I personally experienced a small part of the quad bashing Gary had endured during his first 15 plus hours. It didn’t take long for Gary to shift strategy and return to power walking. At first, I had trouble keeping up with the walking pace and would fall behind, then jog slowly to catch up. But once again his quads and feet began playing ping pong with pain, each one smashing it a little bit harder on each swing.
The skies were dark and we relied on our headlamps to see the trail. It was a surreal evening. The overriding goal was to keep moving forward, every step taking us closer to the finish. In retrospect, maybe some down time to recover would have been a better idea. Stop and let rest do its magic healing, but we pushed on instead. Aid stations were plentiful and the goal was to eat and drink enough to get to the next one. We fell behind in this task as Gary dropped six pounds between the weigh in at Foresthill and Rucky Chucky. We traveled for awhile with a couple of runners who had completed 24 Western States races between the two of them. Their constant banter back and forth helped smooth out the rhythm of our effort. Eventually though they left us behind and soon only the sound of the distant river broke the silence of the night.
The ups and downs, the heat, the distance and the altitude combined with badly blistered feet to make the load too much and soon it became clear that Gary’s first try would not be the magic one. I tried walking in front of him and “pulling” and walking behind him and “pushing.” But when the needle hits empty and your feet cry out so loudly they simply can no longer propel the body forward fast enough to beat the clock – the end of the journey follows quickly. On this brutal day only 238 of 399 starters would finish. As we made our way over the last few hills before the river, Gary began to stagger and the pace became noticeably slower. The right decision was to cross the river and call it a night. By the time we reached the river at 2:00 a.m. the water was waist deep. More than an hour late, we could see the relief for Peg and MJ when they spotted us. A rope stretched across the top of the water and made our way over the boulders and through the water. A water bottle floated out of my pocket and downstream. A volunteer quickly shouted – “let it go, there are rapids just below you.”
It was no less an amazing journey than if it had ended in Auburn. Just short of 80 miles. We owe our bodies more than simply destroying them in a race and I have little respect for those who will destroy their kidneys and other body parts just to avoid stopping. Gary gave 100% on this journey and that was enough. There will always be pain and sadness about not making it the full way, but there can be no regrets about making the journey. And there will always be another chance if we want it. The courage it took and the amazing strength and endurance shown by Gary, makes him no less the hero for what he accomplished.