I made a "public prediction" of 26 hours and a private prediction of 25:20. I struggled for the first 25 miles, feeling weak and light-headed, presumably affected by the altitude as I didn't remember having been from 2002; at that point I was a full 40 minutes behind my 2002 time. Snow on the course, which lasted all the way to mile 34, slowed me down, but it wasn't my major problem (although I did manage one beautiful 6-foot slide down a small mound). On Little Bald Mountain I suddenly came alive, running (and walking, as appropriate where the course turns steeply uphill like at Devil's Thumb) through the middle portion of the race; by Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) I had trimmed that deficit to 14 minutes (of course I had gotten injured and started walking at mile 45 in 2002). After a very bad patch between Michigan Bluff and Bath Rd., during which my gas tank was hitting empty, I regrouped and refueled in Foresthill (mile 62), and from that point on, had the run of my life.
Throughout the night (which for me started a half hour or so after leaving Foresthill), I was running like a man possessed, literally blowing by people on the trail like they were standing still. I kept that up almost to mile 85, when, just outside the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, I caught my foot and took a very hard fall on my left side. That knocked the wind out of my sails both literally and figuratively for a few miles, but by the time I left Brown's Bar at mile 90 I was back in the groove. Unfortunately so much so that, on the climb to Highway 49, having just passed a half dozen runners (walkers, actually, as was I), and with my head down and hands on my quads as I poured all my energy into getting up that hill as fast as I could, I missed the last turn, and proceeded to go probably ten minutes up the fireroad I was on until I reached a quarry and realized I was off course. Amazingly undepressed, I ran back down the hill, found the clearly marked turn, and continued on course, the group I had recently passed long since gone.
After a quick climb to the plateau above the highway, and the relatively short jaunt across it, I proceeded to fly down the descent to No Hands Bridge as if I were running down the Steep Ravine Trail at the Dipsea. After a strong climb to the last aid station at Robie Point, and walking the first steep road uphill, I was then able to run strongly to the track and finish in a "sprint", crossing the finish line in 25:47:54, one hour and 40 minutes faster than my previous effort. With 15 minutes or so lost to getting lost, my "real" time was more like 25 1/2 hours, and with probably 30 minutes lost to the slower going over the snow, in the end it was probably an "effective improvement" of 2 1/2 hours.
The bottom line - it was truly an amazing race. I have never run so hard for so long in my entire life, and in many ways it may well have been the best race of my life at any distance. It's not that everything went perfectly, and not that I also didn't have a little luck (the fall at mile 84 could have easily ended my race), but my ability to sustain a level of effort over time was truly amazing to me (what is also amazing to me, when you look at my splits, is how slow you can be going when you think you're practically sprinting!).
After a very satisfactory 100-mile race at the Angeles Crest 100 in mid-September, I recovered quickly with nothing worse to show than a badly damaged toenail, and was expecting to build from there. Then one thing after another intervened - trips, illness, another illness (we're talking colds/flu here, nothing major), and suddenly my conditioning had gone to hell, and I wasn't able to put together a 50+ mile week until the first week of March. From there until the race I managed a total of six 50+ mile weeks and three more 40+ mile weeks. Much of it was noticeably slower than in past years, but things did finally come together. The key efforts were my own Stevens Creek 50K on March 20, a "Saratoga Fat Ass 50K" training run on April 2, a "Rancho double" the following weekend (20M on Saturday followed by 28M on Sunday), a 40M run (the Stevens Creek 50K route coupled with the Castle Rock loop) the following weekend (April 16), the Quicksilver 50M race on May 7, and my "Steve's to the Sea" 46M training run on May 21, my last "long" long run. So, although I wasn't putting in that high mileage, I did get in two and a half months or so of consistent "long" long runs. And all of the "long" long runs were done on routes which have altitude gains around 2000'/10 miles, comparable to the Western States course (18,000' climbing over 100 miles), and almost all the other runs were as well.
My Quicksilver 50M was some 30 minutes slower than back in 2002, which didn't augur well for this year's Western States, but I felt decent the whole race, and put in a "finishing kick" over the last six miles or so, so I wasn't discouraged, and my "Steve's to the Sea" run was actually 30 minutes faster than my 2004 run on the same route, which was definitely encouraging, and I also finished that run strong. So I came into Western States feeling like I was trained, and ready for a decent effort. I knew I had slowed down since 2002, but considering my injury in that race, I was pretty sure I could finish considerably faster if I didn't get injured this time; the only question was by how much. Two weeks before Western States I ran the Dipsea for the 11th straight year. Some people may think that it was a risky thing to do, considering the possibility of injury, but I was willing to take the chance, and as it turned out I had a very satisfactory race (except for the sad result of finishing 751st in a race where the top 750 qualify for automatic entry for next year!) which I decided had been a great "speed workout" for Western.
My one major problem in training were some minor injuries. For the last couple weeks before Western, possibly starting at the Dipsea, my left arch had been quite painful while running, and for nearly two months I had had a muscle strain in my right buttock (probably not sciatica, I've been there, but in this case just a plain muscle pull) which was also really bothering me. As it turned out, although these problems had been evident in every single training run, there wasn't a trace of either problem during the 100 miles of Western States. A little Advil and a little adrenaline works wonders, not to mention a wonderful massage from Debi on Friday night!
For my taper, my last long run (>20 miles) was the Steve's to the Sea 46-miler, done a full five weeks before the race; after that my longest run was 13 miles. Two weeks before the race I did just two runs, one 8- and one 9-miler, and the week before the race, a 12-mile hike on the weekend (around Lake Chabot on the course used for the Skyline 50K), and just one 3-mile run. I was well rested when race day came.
On race morning I was relaxed and ready to go. It was colder than it had been even the day before, so I decided to start with a long-sleeve shirt on top of my trail shirt. The first light is just visible when the race starts at 5:00 a.m., and the last time I started without lenses in my sunglasses, only the prescription inserts, but this time I decided that's just one more thing to futz with later in the day (having to click the lenses back in), and the first few miles are only fireroad anyway, so I started with sunglasses on, probably the only person in the field of 400 to do so. I did choose a "lighter" color (rose), since so little of the race is actually fully exposed to the sun anyway, and much more of it is in shaded woods where the darkest lenses can actually be a disadvantage.
Awaiting the start
After a quick goodbye to Debi, I (and the rest of the field) were off at 5:00 a.m. The Squaw Valley road ascends fairly steeply, and I took most of it at a walk, but a brisk walk. A couple miles up I found myself as usual in the company of much faster runners, in this case Joe McDonald, someone who although 50 years old is capable of winning races outright. But I don't worry about things like this - I know I'm both a fast starter and a fast uphill walker, and I don't know what Joe's situation is - maybe he's coming off an injury, or maybe he starts slow, who knows? I have to take the day at my own pace.
Although a lot of snow had been visible in the mountains from the bottom, the fireroad was pretty much clear, and even after we passed the first (relocated) aid station at mile 2.5 and head onto a short single-track section, there was no snow and I was beginning to wonder what was up with the snow we were told to expect. Back on the fireroad I arrived at the normal location of the first aid station at mile 4.5. I was there in 58:58, compared to 57:40 in 2002. At the time I didn't know the exact number from 2002, but I thought I was close but a little slower, which is about what I expected; all in all right I was on schedule. Immediately after that point in the course there's a very steep uphill, and if I remember correctly this was not only some of the first snow we encountered, but was actually an ice ladder - steps (perhaps 10-15 of them) had been kicked (or cut with an ax) into a nearly vertical section that we ascended, carefully. Also at this point we started to encounter long sections of snow, which at this point in the morning were basically ice. With all the sun, and the consequent melting and re-freezing that occurs, the ice forms a series of parallel channels about the width of my foot, and, for me at least, the going across this section was slow. I didn't want to slip and break something or twist something this early in the race!
Right around this section I find myself running alongside Mike Sweeney. Now this was a bit troubling because Mike, who like Joe is 50, is really fast. He also wins 50K and 50M races outright; he was 26th at this race last year! I shouldn't be running with him, unless he's really injured or really taking it easy for some reason. Mike soon pulled away, but, unfortunately for him, he, like Joe McDonald who had pulled away from me earlier, were both headed for a DNF. The finishing rate in this year's race will turn out to be a record high (318 finishers out of 400 starters), but there are still a lot of people, and not just slower runners who don't make the cutoffs, who don't make it as far as the finish for one reason or another. A finish is definitely not guaranteed!
Near the top of the Escarpment (first climb), 6:15 a.m.?
The High Country
What goes up must come down, and after reaching the high point of the course at 8,700', we headed down into the "high country". There was a lot of snow in this section, mostly still icy. Some of it came in longer sections (say, 50-100 yards), other times it was just a small mound that had to be run up and then down the other side, but it was frequent and was definitely slowing me down. And when it wasn't snow or ice, it was melted snow, and there were also long sections where we were running along stream beds with healthy streams flowing down them. I was more tentative than most of the people running in my section of the pack, and some of them pulled ahead. This turned out to be a bad thing, because at a couple points I found myself with no one in front of me, and the way forward not completely clear. The actual trail was, for long sections, completely invisible, and although there were both footprints in the snow/ice/slush and occasional yellow ribbons, even with that there were a couple times when I had to stop and figure out where to go, and at least one point where I took the wrong "line" and ended up going slightly longer than I needed to. Even with all my care, at one point crossing a patch of snow my right leg went out from under me, and I ended up sliding down a six-foot (or so) mound of snow on the outside of the right leg, looking like I was sliding into second base (although in this case what I was sliding into was a tree, fortuitously situated to stop my slide). I ended up with a large "raspberry" on my right hip, but except for a few minutes when the cold ice/snow itself was stinging me, I didn't even know it was there until another runner mentioned it.
The snow, showing about as large a stretch as we encountered (photo by Peter Foxall)
My biggest worry at this point wasn't the snow, which was slowing me down but there wasn't much I could do about that, but my energy level. Despite my appearance in the picture below, which I believe was taken just as I left the Red Star Ridge (17M) aid station (I say that because it's late enough in the morning by that time, 9:08 a.m., that I've removed my long-sleeve shirt) with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my hand, I was feeling weak, a bit light-headed, basically sub-par, and a bit depressed. Rationally, I attributed it to the altitude, although it's nowhere near Pike's Peak levels, and I also didn't remember feeling this way in 2002. I only half-jokingly told myself I'd drop from the race if I hadn't told so many of my friends and family to watch the race on the Internet, but I had the gnawing feeling it was going to be a long day at this rate. It was also a bit of a bummer that, with all the snow on the ground, I couldn't enjoy the views as much as I might have otherwise, having to look down continuously; fortunately this was my second time on the course, and I was able to enjoy those views in spades the first time (and even take pictures).
Leaving Red Star Ridge (?) aid station with two PB&J sandwiches;
note the snow in the background (and foreground!) 9:10 a.m. (?)
After Red Star Ridge I experienced a minor setback. I had been running so far with my iPod, but not listening to it, wanting all my attention both on the footing on the snow and also knowing I'd probably do a bit more talking with other runners during the first miles of the race than later, when things thinned out. But finally I decided it was time to listen to some tunes, so I took out the iPod, only to discover...it was dead. I had even "locked" it, so it couldn't be turned on accidentally (which sometimes happens), but somehow in locking it I must have hit "play", and it spent the whole night before the race quietly playing to itself in its case. Oh well. Instead I found myself chatting a bit, first with a young woman named Shan (Rooney) from Austin, who knew my Dead Runner friends Sid and Cilla, and later with a guy who was one of the handful of people in the race (top finisher Brian Purcell being one of the only others) to have risked their life on the Dipsea two weeks before this race. I told him my sad story (finishing one place out of the qualifying slots). I don't usually do too much talking during races. It's not that I'm antisocial, but in general my pace rarely matches that of other runners; most people who will finish near me are faster on the flats, but slower on the uphills. Plus I prefer to focus. Some runners like to dissociate to help the time pass, but I prefer to concentrate on every step, every breath, which doesn't lend itself to conversation.
What goes down must come up...
...also known as "it doesn't always get worse". I arrived at Robinson Flat, 24.6M, at 5:46:46 into the race, 41 minutes slower than in 2002. To make matters worse, as I was being weighed in, the "Mutt Strut" bandana looped around my waist (see pictures above) fell off, never to be found. Not only did that bandana have important memories of my racing Welsh Terrier Nicky, with whom I took second in my age group in the 1995 5K Mutt Strut (a Davis, CA race), but it was also something I really needed to be able to deal with sweat dripping into my eyes (and other purposes), and I didn't have another one in my drop bags until well after the climb to Devil's Thumb, where I was really going to need it.
Adding to my minor annoyances , I encountered a bit of a hassle at my first weigh-in. During the pre-race weigh-in I had preposterously weighed in at 177 pounds. My "real" weight is 170, and even with heavy shoes and clothes, it shouldn't have been more than 173 or so. But they recorded my weight on my wrist band (the yellow band on my right wrist in the picture below) as 177, so when I weighed 172 at Robinson Flat, I had to put up with a warning from the aid station personnel, and repeated for the first of about seven times that day, "no, 172 is right, that's my real weight, that 177 was crazy" and then listened to them say "yeah, yeah, that's what they all say, be sure you keep drinking blah blah." They were just doing their job, and it's an important job, but it gets annoying when it happens again and again and again. During the day I kept saying, "look, I was 172 at the first aid station (Robinson Flat), and I'm still 172, and really, honestly, I'm not losing weight." Sigh. Anyway, I ditched my long-sleeve shirt and my dead iPod in my drop bag, and off I went.
The good news is that, following Robinson Flat, a miracle occured. Okay, perhaps not a miracle exactly, but about a half-mile out of the aid station, I suddenly came back to life, just as the course starts uphill towards Little Bald Mountain. I started passing a person here and there, and generally my spirits had lifted, as this picture shows:
On top of Little Bald Mountain, 11:30 a.m.
Evaluating the myriad food choices at Little Bald Mtn. aid station, 11:50 a.m. (photo by Pavan Ramarapu)
Across Little Bald Mountain and down into Deep Canyon, I ran steadily. Downhill helps, of course, and although there was still snow on the ground, it had become more sporadic than regular, so it wasn't slowing me down nearly as much. Coming out of Deep Canyon I walked and ran strongly, passing a few more people on the way to the top. At the top, a pleasant surprise. I had missed Debi at Robinson Flat; it turns out she had misjudged the timing and hadn't been able to get there. Instead, she made her way to Dusty Corners (a very long drive), where I wasn't expecting her. In addition to the treat of seeing her, when I mentioned my loss of the bandana, she quickly ran to the car and grabbed one of her own, which solved my only real problem. Off I went.
Leaving Dusty Corners, 1:48 p.m.
From Dusty Corners (38M) it's off to Last Chance (43.3M). For the last 18 miles, ever since Robinson Flat, I had been more or less holding steady with my 2002 race, 45 or so minutes behind. In 2002 it was dropping down into Deadwood Canyon that I had injured my knees and had to start walking so, although not a superstitious person, I took it easy on the descent into Deadwood, chatting with a young woman named Molly (Zurn) from Sacramento about, what else, various ultras. Once I passed the point where I had had my problem, though, the superstition abated, and I left Molly behind as I started pushing the pace harder until I hit the bottom, crossed the swinging bridge across Deadwood Creek, and started up the dreaded Devil's Thumb climb.
Unlike many runners, I don't dread climbs. In fact, I look forward to them since they are my strength (compared to other runners of my ability, at least). But a strange thing was happening today. Although I was, and continued to be throughout the day, strong on the milder climbs, walking faster than anyone around me at all times, and frequently running when they were walking, on the steeper climbs like Devil's Thumb I just didn't have it. Oh, I moved steadily forward, and held my own, even passing people occasionally, but I just didn't have my usual pep. Actually a bigger problem developed on this climb, which was that it appeared that a stone had lodged itself under my left big toe (gaiters notwithstanding), and since going up a steep hill was putting a lot more pressure on my forefoot than other kinds of running, it was really annoying, so much so that I finally sat down on a rock and removed the shoe. However no rock appeared to have been there, so I put the shoe back on, and started back up the climb, only to feel the same rock in place. Damn! A minute wasted for no reason and now I'm going to have to do it again! At the top I sat in a chair and decided this time to take off my shoe and sock, in case the stone was inside the sock. I did that, comically cramping up trying to put the sock and shoe back on (eventually getting some assistance with the task), and still didn't find the damned rock! I also took the opportunity to change to a dry shirt, since my forward motion was already stopped, but eventually pushed on. I had wasted 9 minutes at the aid station and had nothing to show for the effort, since as soon as I started running - yup, the rock was still there. Tough it out, pal.
I ran strongly down the beautiful singletrack trail to El Dorado Creek (52.9M) and then alternately walked and ran strongly up the gentler climb to Michigan Bluff (55.7M). As I came into Michigan Bluff my foot was still bothering me, but I was feeling pretty good about the run:
Entering Michigan Bluff, 6:30 p.m. (photo by Phil Zinsli)
Well, once again what goes up must come down, and in this case it wasn't the course, but my spirits. At Michigan Bluff, I removed my shoe for the third time, having convinced myself by now that the alleged stone must be under the insert of the shoe. A couple small stones indeed fell out, and that was encouraging, as was a hello from Debi, who was there to meet me, but no sooner had I left the aid station that I realized that the alleged stone was still there. Now I was convinced it must be embedded in my foot, but again I was just going to press on, regardless. My real problem came outside the aid station. This section is a lot of fireroad, and fireroad is my weakness. I may not run faster on singletrack, but I certainly feel faster (the trees and bushes definitely go by faster when they're closer!).
My fundamental problem, however, was an energy low. When I started the race, I had been planning to supplement the race food with my own GU, plus a Clif Bar (250 calories) every 15 miles or so, which is how I got through the "Steve's to the Sea" run, plus one or two strategically placed ProMax bars as a special treat. Well, my first ProMax bar at Robinson Flat was melted when I got there (I had been assuming it would be cooler, I guess), and after consuming two or maybe three Clif Bars, I had had to give up on the fourth; my mouth was just too dry to handle something like that. I had tried boiled potatoes early in the run and couldn't stomach them; that left me with "mini-sandwiches", first PB&J and then switching to turkey or turkey and cheese. By now I had realized there was nothing I could count on but GU, and I was forcing down a couple per segment. It was keeping me going, but clearly without much reserve.
How bad was this section? Laura Yasso, who came into Michigan Bluff with me and was actually sitting in a chair when I left, beat me to Foresthill, just 6.3 miles away, by 12 minutes! I struggled, but eventually emerged out of Volcano Canyon onto Bath Rd. At first this was a steep uphill paved road, and I worked up a head of fast-walked steam and passed a couple people; eventually the road levelled out and I took off at a pretty good pace, soon to be joined by Debi who ran with me into the aid station. Once there, it was time to regroup. I sat down, took off my running cap and put on a headband with my headlamp over that, which I'd be needing in another forty minutes or so. The aid station people tried to convince me to have some soup, and I did drink some of the broth, but couldn't handle the noodles. Nothing appealed to me, until I wandered over to the aid station and spotted the M&M's. I scarfed down a handful right there, and then grabbed a big handful to eat as I left town. Aside from the M&M's, I did have one other special treat - Debi was letting me borrow her new iPod Shuffle, which I had filled with 100+ "high-energy" tunes (playlist here for the curious), tunes intended to keep me alive and perking through the night.
I left Foresthill at 8:20 in the evening at a slow jog, eating my M&Ms and accompanied by Debi for a couple blocks until finally turning off for the "California Street" section of the route. I was still pulling myself together, but after a couple blocks on the road when I hit the trail, it all came together and from there, almost all the way to the finish ten hours or so later, I was running like a man possessed - I have never run so hard, for so long, in my life. I don't know where it came from, other than my love of single-track running and my enjoyment of night (which soon fell) running at first, and, later, my ability to "smell the barn" from a long way off, but wherever it came from, I was flying. OK, I wasn't flying like race leader Scott Jurek. He was undoubtedly flying too, like a jet plane. In my case it might have been more like a single-engine prop, but it was still flying. I flew by runner after runner like they were standing still (which, momentarily, they actually were, since trail protocol on a narrow trail like this one calls for a runner who hears footsteps to stop and step aside).
Through the Dardanelles (65.7M) and Peachstone (70.7M) aid stations I raced, flying along, pausing at each aid station only long enough to refill my two bottles (one water, one GU2O), grab a couple GU, and possibly a little melon or other fruit, which was the only thing that appealed to me at this time. A very steep uphill fireroad to "California 3", Ford's Bar (73M), slowed me to a fast walk temporarily, but from there I resumed running hard as I headed down to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky (78M), where the slightest of setbacks awaited me. Normally, racers ford the river here in water that is knee to waist deep, holding on to a rope (with safety personnel stationed nearby). But this year, due to water flows ten times above normal, we were going to be rowed across in a raft. After racing hard to the river, and passing a couple more people just in the last few hundred yards, I arrived at river's edge just as a full raft (four runners) was about to leave. This meant I had to stand around for several minutes while the boat rowed across, let its runners off, and then rowed back across the river. Well, as I said, only a minor setback, and soon enough I was in the boat (complete with safety vest) and then stepping off onto the far shore.
Reaching the far shore of the American River at Rucky Chucky
Stepping onto dry land, 12:30 a.m.
At Rucky Chucky I was about to do something which for most ultrarunners is truly unthinkable - switch to racing flats (very lightweight running shoes) for the last 22 miles of the race. Two weeks before this race I ran the Dipsea race, 7.1 miles over rocks, roots, steps, and terrain much rougher than most of what was ahead of me at Western States. Running that race, I realized how much faster I not only feel, but how much faster I am with lighter shoes on my feet - 1 pound, 7 ounces for the pair I was switching into, vs. 2 pounds 2 ounces for the pair I had been wearing for 78 miles, a full 11 ounces or just about 3/4 pound lighter. That's a lot of weight to be moving back and forth, up and down for 22 miles. Even though my feet weren't wet as they normally would have been if I had had to ford the river, I still had that supposed "stone in the shoe" problem, so between hoping that the shoe change would alleviate that, and the psychological and physical boost of the lighter weight, I thought it was worth a couple minutes to do the shoe change. Thinking ahead, I had even equipped my racing flats with elastic laces, which means they could just be pulled on - no lace tying required!
I sat down in a chair and immediately my friend Clem Choy was at my side, offering help. In truth, I could have done things more efficiently myself, but one doesn't refuse help at 12:30 in the morning, so I allowed him to dig out my towel, and my fresh socks, and my new shoes, out of my drop bag as I changed gear. I also pulled out a yellow windbreaker, which I expected to tie around my waist just as a precaution in cause it got cold. In 2002, it had stayed there the whole time; this year, it wasn't long before I put it on because it was much chillier than I had expected. Other runners on the trail took to calling me the "glow-stick guy" since, in the light of their flashlights, the glow of my jacket resembled that of the glow-sticks which hung periodically along the trail.
Unfortunately, with Clem taking things out of my bag for me, I totally forgot to take my "supplies" bag - some special food and a resupply of pills (Advil and salt tablets), something I didn't realize until much later. The salt tablets were my biggest worry, since I had now consumed all I started with (8 or so), but I was still drinking one bottle of electrolyte drink (GU2O) along with one bottle of water in between every single aid station, so I wasn't all that concerned.
The Fall that Goeth After the Pride
From Rucky Chucky there's a steep 1.8M uphill to the next aid station at Green Gate (79.8M). I took the uphill at a fast walk and even ran some of it, passing several people on the way up. At the top I blew through the aid station and headed off to Auburn Lake Trails (85.2M). Once again I was flying along, passing people, feeling great (and amazed!) about my ability to keep running hard for mile after mile. Suddenly, listening to Bob Dylan singing "Tangled Up in Blue" and on top of the world, my left foot caught something on the trail and I went down. Hard. It's not uncommon when running trails, and it had happened to me a couple times on this run, to catch my foot on something which causes my body to lean way forward, followed by rapid footsteps which either result in my feet catching up with my body (a "save") or sprawling on the ground. But this was one of those very rare cases where there were no "catch-up" steps, no three or four seconds before I finally hit the ground to brace myself. This was an immediate, no time to think, slam onto the ground, and it was hard, and it hurt.
My earphones had come out, but there was no other external damage (i.e., no bleeding). Amazingly, my left foot didn't even hurt where it had obviously smashed into something. But my ribs on the left side had taken a real "shot", and the wind had been knocked out of my sails quite literally (and, for the next few miles, figuratively as well). I got back to my feet, brushed myself off, put my earphones back in, and started back along the trail. I walked for a short while, just to regain my composure, but pretty soon I had resumed running, although without the same "gusto" as I had had a few minutes earlier. Reaching Auburn Lake Trails, I had my usual hassle with the weigh-in, where I was now 169 (which they looked at as eight pounds down, whereas really it was just three pounds down), so I had to convince them that yes, I was eating and yes, I was drinking two bottles of fluid between every aid station, and I was just fine. They did eventually let me go, and I left with a real treat. I had eaten the mini-turkey sandwiches at several aid stations before this, but this one had real turkey in the sandwiches, not just turkey roll, and I really appreciated it. And really appreciating a sandwich in this case means something, because, at this time of night, with this little saliva left in my mouth, it takes me a full ten minutes to eat the 2" square sandwich, one mouse nibble at a time.
From ALT to Brown's Bar at 90M was a low point for me. I was hurting physically from the fall and at a mental low as well. I was still running every step of the way, but I had clearly slowed, and was actually passed by two or three runners in this section for the first time all evening. But my "high-energy tunes" kept me going, as did the need to stay alert enough to avoid what seemed to be poison oak lining the trail. At Brown's Bar I took a couple Tylenol (they didn't have Advil) and pushed on, not taking the time to appreciate the "wacky hasher hijinks" going on around me. I was focused.
Smelling the Barn and Missing a Turn
I took the initial downhill out of Brown's Bar tentatively, but pretty soon I was on a fireroad, starting on the climb to Highway 49. Suddenly I came back to life and started pressing hard, walking hard on some sections and running when I could. This was a section which had killed me in 2002, when I was taking it in the daylight, but in the cooler night temperatures I was having no problem taking it aggressively.
Although I had spent large portions of the last eight hours running alone, or seeing people only occasionally, suddenly there was a large group strung out in front of me, probably a dozen people - probably a half dozen runners and their pacers (almost every other entrant runs through the night with a pacer; I think I saw one other person like me who was running alone). I worked my way past the group and was all alone again, on a steep fireroad that I was taking at a fast walk, head down, hands on my quads as I poured all my effort into pushing up that hill.
Alas, the words "head down" in that last sentence were an ominous key. Because it was at this moment that I missed the last turn on the way to the aid station - the first time in any race I had ever done so. Not too far after that, I came to a gate across the fireroad, but that didn't cause me any alarm, because there were one or two other places on the route where we had to go around a closed gate. Neither did the lack of ribbons, because the route was not exactly overmarked with "confidence ribbons". It was well enough marked, but not overmarked, so when I had gone a ways without seeing a ribbon, I didn't get too worried. At one point I did turn around, and thought I saw a light behind me (and maybe I did, way behind), so I kept going. And going. At one point I swear I did see a ribbon, so I kept going, until finally I reached a quarry area where it become abundantly clear that this was not, in fact, the way.
Well, to say the least that was not a conclusion I wanted to reach, and it could have been a source of tremendous depression. Indeed, a few miles back, my weakened mental powers had convinced me that I had a chance at finishing under 25 hours, and if this wrong turn had blown that, I probably would have been very unhappy, but by now I had realized I didn't have the slightest chance of breaking 25 hours, so it didn't get to me quite as much. I was, of course, kicking myself, but what could I do? I turned around, and started running back down the hill I had just come up, until I came to the clearly marked turn that I had simply missed. I made the turn and pushed as hard as I could up the last stretch until I reached Highway 49 (93.5M). All of the people I had worked so hard and used up so much energy to pass were long gone; my best guess is that I lost 15 minutes to the wrong turn.
I took my last re-supply at the Highway 49 aid station as quickly as I could and headed out for the finish. There's an initial uphill, which I took strongly, and then a plateau. After crossing the plateau, I started downhill, and then ran into two horse's asses. Literally! There were two horses on the trail (I think they were safety patrol people associated with the race, although I'm not sure) and when I caught up with them they refused to get out of they way and let me pass (I couldn't go around them) for what seemed like the longest time (but was probably only a minute or less). Well, finally they stepped into the brush and let me by. It was starting to get light (just over 24 hours had passed since I started the race), and there I was wearing my Dipsea shoes, and the trail was starting to head downhill, and I took off down that trail like I was running the Steep Ravine downhill at the Dipsea. Once again, I was flying, in this case almost literally as I leaped over the various rocks and steps on the trail. Near the bottom I passed another runner and did a double-take. Could that have been Pam Reed, two-time winner of Badwater I just passed? (Yes, it was, as I confirmed later).
With the smell of the barn growing that much stronger in my nose, I didn't even slow down at the No Hands Bridge aid station, just shouted my number as I passed through. In 2002, reaching this section much later, this had been the hottest part of the entire course, but now, at just six in the morning, it was quite pleasant. I was tiring a bit from the effort, and definitely slowed to a jog from a run (and was even passed in here by another runner), but continued to move forward steadily. My brain (and my vanity) were still functioning: walking up one of the steeper sections, I took the opportunity to pull the eyeglass lenses from my pouch and replace them on my glasses so I wouldn't look quite so dorky for the finish line photo (little did I know they would be taking the picture from so far away it would hardly matter; see below). At the top of the climb I again moved right through the Robie Pt. aid station, figuring nothing I ate or drank could help me now. I was able to run the gentler uphill sections of the remaining road, but pretty soon the steepness had reduced me to a walk, plus I had decided to "save something" for the finishing stretch in the stadium. So I walked along with Debi, who met me here. Eventually the road does turn downhill, and I ran slowly to the stadium; once I had entered, I "turned on the jets" (meaning I was probably moving at a whopping ten minutes/mile pace) and took my finishing lap (actually 2/3 of a lap or so) around the track to the finish.
Heading up from Robie Point, 6:35 a.m.
Just after the finishing sprint, 6:47 a.m., 25 hours, 47 minutes, 54 seconds after starting out from Squaw Valley
Being welcomed by Race Director Greg Soderlund
The finishers' medal
I did it! Finished strong, in a time that not only beat my previous time by an hour and forty minutes, but a time which beat my "best guess" time by 15 minutes and would have beaten it by 30 minutes had I not made a wrong turn. My "private prediction" (in times I gave to Debi showing when I would pass through different aid stations) was remarkably accurate. But far more than the time itself was the way I felt about the race, which was that it might have been the best race of my life. I simply amazed myself with the level of effort I had been able to put out over such a long period of time. I was very pleased.
And not that much the worse for wear! Yes, I was tired (as in sleepy, although not nearly as much as I had been after Angeles Crest), and yes, I was a bit stiff and a bit sore, but not nearly as much as I had been the last time I did this race. My rib definitely hurt from the fall; really, that was my only significant problem. No blisters, no other foot problems to speak of (I think that "stone in the shoe" problem, which had been plaguing me half the race, was just a tiny cut on the bottom of the toe, but I'm still not 100% sure of that).
I tried to eat the nice breakfast that was available (eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruit, and more), but, as seems to be the case about half the time when I finish a long race, I simply had no appetite whatsoever (the other 50% of the time, I'm ravenous). There was a lot of time to kill until the awards ceremony at 12:30, so I spent the time chatting with friends, cheering on finishers, and eventually taking a shower as well (something I was able to do without any evidence of cramping, further evidence of how well my muscles were doing).
After the shower, still with time to kill, I wandered over to the massage area. The organization was a bit haphazhard, but I spotted someone wearing a Dipsea shirt - not just a Dipsea shirt, but a black Dipsea shirt, indicative of someone who has finished in the top 35. Since I was wearing my 100th Anniversary Dipsea shirt from the race two weeks ago, I just said "Hey Dipsea runner, got room on the table to massage another Dipsea runner" and she was delighted to say yes (it may have helped that at first she mistook me for multiple Dipsea winner and Dipsea legend Russ Kiernan, thanks to my gray hair and straw hat). Well, the honor was all mine, because I was to learn this was not just any Dipsea runner, or even any Dipsea black shirt, but Peggy Smythe, holder of the Dipsea women's course record! So I not only had a very nice massage, but also a very nice chat with Peggy about her racing career and the Dipsea in general. Peggy and Debi both carried on about how my feet were better looking than any of the other ultrarunners; practically perfect and barely showing evidence of 100 miles of wear and tear (not to mention the hundreds of training miles). Well, I may be a middle-of-the-packer, but at least I'm tops at something!
One interesting addition at this year's race was CPK testing. CPK (Creatine phosphokinase) is actually a series of enzymes which reflect a number of biochemical functions, but in the case of ultrarunning it is largely a reflection of muscle damage. On a voluntary basis at this year's race, you could have a blood sample taken and tested, with the testing in most cases being done immediately (I'm not sure how they were doing it). Anyway, mine turned out to be a reading of 7,850, compared to a normal level of 55-170. Yikes, you might say! Well, not if you knew that the average reading among 207 finishers who had their blood tested was 20,175! So I was well below average, and glad of it!
Eventually came the awards ceremony and the awarding of the buckle.
Getting my buckle at the awards ceremony
The bronze buckle
"Post-mortem" may not be the best choice of words for this section, since I not only didn't "die" during the race, I came alive. How well did I do in this race? The splits were posted at the race site and aren't online yet, so this is from memory, but at Robinson Flat, 25 miles into the race, I was in 263rd place. At the finish - 137th (and I would have been 124th were it not for the wrong turn)! Now some of those places were gained as people ahead of me dropped out for one reason and another, but a lot of them were people I passed, particularly between Foresthill at mile 62 and the finish. So that's one measure of how good a race it was. I was 23rd out of 78 finishers (and 103 starters) in the men's 50-59 age group, which is quite good for me. Ultras don't have 5-year age groups, but if this one did (its size certainly could justify them), I would have been 5/25 in the 55-59 age group, which again is quite a satisfactory performance for me.
What about the switch to racing flats? They definitely made me feel faster, and presumably go a bit faster too. Did it make up for the couple minutes it took to put them on? Impossible to know, but I'd say yes, and I'll most likely do it again.
Physically, this has been an unbelievable recovery. My urine was actually clear (or light-colored) before I even left the race site, and has been fine ever since, evidence that I was drinking properly through the race. My legs were back to 95% on Monday (slight difficulty going up and down some stairs), and 100% on Tuesday; better than I felt two days after the Dipsea! Only a continuing pain in my ribs (which was pretty severe for a few days, but has become much milder by week's end) kept me from running, although in fact I had always planned to take a break and do some biking and swimming anyway, with the thought of possibly doing some triathlons later this year. And on a bike ride on Wednesday, I was feeling perfectly normal, and riding along just fine.
Did I really run as hard and fast as I thought I did? The numbers say otherwise. This race has a lot more climbing (and descent) in the first half than the last half, plus I was plagued during the first half of the first half (the first 25M) with general weaknesses and light-headedness. Despite all that, the first 50 miles of this race took me 11 hours 45 minutes (average pace, 14:06); the second 50 miles took 14 hours (average pace, 16:48). Sections like the ones I ran in the night which I would have bet money I was running at 11 minutes/mile turn out to have been run at 14 or 15 minutes/mile; even the section from Highway 49 to No Hands Bridge, over a signficant portion of which I would have said I was running 9 minutes/mile, averaged greater than 14 minutes/mile according to the data. Clearly, one's perceptions of speed are severely skewed both by nighttime, and by just being tired. It's also interesting to see how fast it is possible to walk; during a couple of the segments, my 2002 time compared to, or was even faster than, my 2005 time, even though I was running in 2005 and walking in 2002. But, overall, running was faster, as the bottom line shows.
But, whatever the details of the analysis, I couldn't be more pleased with the result. I honestly feel like, except for the wrong turn and the snow, I simply couldn't have gone any faster. And that's a very satisfying feeling.
Postscript: Debi's Story
Debi Jamison is my wife and accompanied me on this adventure. She wasn't "crew" in the classic sense, in that I wasn't depending on her for anything in particular at any of the aid stations, just general support and encouragement. Her story is found here.
For further reading...
A report of my 2002 race, complete with a lot more pictures of the course than are found in this report (since I was carrying a camera in 2002) is found here, and the photo essay alone (sans tiresome verbiage) is here. The Western States website itself is here.
Two weeks after running Western States and winning by a half-hour, Scott Jurek ran the even more brutal Badwater race (135 miles across Death Valley and across the Panamint mountains and partially up Mt. Whitney), winning by two hours and setting a new course record by a half-hour. Pam Reed, who I passed just before No Hands Bridge, finished in 5th place, 1st woman. Mike Sweeney, who I ran with ever so briefly at mile 6 of Western States and who later DNF'd, actually led Badwater for the first 82 miles, but faded to finish 12th. It all goes to prove quite clearly that you need to run your own race, and ignore people around you, no matter how good they might be, and it also goes to prove that predicting the results of one ultra race on the basis of the results of a previous one is fraught with peril.
As for my own recovery, although my rib stopped hurting under "normal circumstances" after a few days, attempts to swim even a couple weeks later brought about sufficient pain that I had to curtail my plans to start swimming. A 10-mile run three weeks later, the first long run I attempted after Western States, revealed some lingering pain, enough to slow me down a bit. It seems safe to assume the rib was either cracked or at least severely bruised, and will take some time more to heal.
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