“I Will Finish”
2014 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report
The shot gun blast cut the cold pre-dawn air and the 363 runners were off. The first three miles climb straight up the Squaw Valley ski slopes right under the chair lift. In those three miles we would be climbing approximately 3,000 feet up and over the top of the Squaw Valley Ski Mountain. The crowd took off in a holler and a cloud of dust, but quickly formed a single file line going up the mountain. The fastest at the front actually ran while most of us did a power hike.
My legs were already burning climbing that steep slope and the lack of oxygen at barely 9,000 left my lungs screaming and my head dizzy. But soon I was approaching the final vertical were you ac.tually had to get on all fours and climb – in the snow! Luckily the California drought and a heat wave left little snow that year.
Once at the top I took a moment to turn around and take in the majestic beauty of the sun coming up over the Sierras and casting shadows on the foggy surface of Lake Tahoe, just stunning. But I couldn’t stay long. I had climbed the first mountain, but had 97 miles to go. It was June 27th, 2014, the day before my mother’s birthday, and I was running the legendary Western States 100 mile Endurance Run.
The Westerns States 100 is the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile trail run in the world. It started the sport of ultrarunning. Originally a horse race, one year (1974) one of the race horses showed up to the lame. So the owner, Gordy Ansleigh, decided to attempt the race on foot. And ultrarunning was born. The race attracts one of the strongest fields comprised of some of the top elite ultra-runners in the world. It is famous for the variety of terrain and climates. Starting at Squaw Valley and traversing mountains and canyons in the middle of the California summer. A total of 18,000 climb and 23,000 drop, from snow to 100+ degree canyons.
In 2012 I found myself at the WS100 to pace my friend Vishal. Sitting at that finish line and seeing everyone get their name called and go up to the podium and individually receive their famous belt buckle as the finisher’s trophy (it did start as a horse race). I had just completed my first 50 mile mountain trail race and felt proud of myself. That was nothing compared to what these athletes had just accomplished. Sitting there I thought to myself, “I got to get me one of those buckles!”
In order to toe that starting line in the mountains you first have to qualify by running a 50 or 100 miler in specific qualifying time. Only after that do you get to put your name in the lottery. My year there were over 6,000 qualifiers in the lottery for 300 spaces If you don’t get drawn you have to requalify the next year. Some people take 10 years or more in order to get selected to their dream race.
I miraculously was selected in my second year, with only a 6% chance, hey the race was on my mother’s birthday! After getting into this crazy sport and setting Western States as my final goal I figured it would take me six or seven years of nonstop hard ass training to get in. And here I was in year three.
My race preparation had gone smoothly (other than a patella dislocation 6 weeks prior to the race) until right after the race check in. My father had come with me to tahoe to crew and we were on our way to pickk up Vishal, who was going to pace me, in Reno. I was sitting in the passenger seat reading through the race materials. My heart stopped when I read the words “Drop bags collection closes at 4pm.” Double shit! In all my excitement about being at the race I had forgotten to drop my drop bags. They were still in the car. Drop bags are use to strategically position supplies and dry socks along the course and I had completely forgotten mine. Panic set in. Luckily had crew and a pacer, but I would have to adjust my entire race plan the night before!
The night before was nervous and frantic as I packed and repacked my drop bags and adjusted my schedule. Re-arranging my race plan and repack my support bags. And getting to bed early, luckily I was able to sleep. All that mattered at that point was getting to the starting line at 5 am.
The Escarpment – Lyons Ridge 10.3 miles
After the shotgun start and the charge up the mountain I had taken a moment to watch the sunrise over The Sierras and Lake Tahoe and feel gratitude for the experience. But only a moment cause I had 97 more damn miles to cover.
The back side of the mountain the snow had mostly melted with only little pockets reaming. That left frozen tundra and almost thawing puddles everywhere, quite an obstacle course when trying to keep the feet warm and dry early in the race. At this point the runners were starting to settle into their place in order, each according to their own pace. We passed through mountain meadows and hopped over tiny bubbling streams. Every once in awhile I would raise my eyes to take in the view but ost of the time was spent searching the ground for a dry place to land my next step.
This point in the race is a pretty steep down hill, but you want to hold back. With that altitude I still hadn’t caught my breath from the climb, the footing was slick, and mostly I tried to remember the number one rule of ultra-running: Start slow and taper!
I had longed for this aid station, as of course I long for all of them. But after the ascent and then the back of the mountain this is that seemed kinda normal, you know for a hundred mile race in the fucking Sierras. But at the first aid station I made a mistake. I got caught up in the energy of the early race and rushed through the aid station. I took my proper refuel and left. Less than a mile later I began to pay for it. I felt it, I somehow forgot to use the facililties.
Red Star Ridge – 15.8 miles
When running in the mountains one must not by shy! Even if only a half mile after an aid station. Seriously regretting not taking more time at the aid station I looked for some dense brush and pulled over. What a relief. Feeling fresh and energized I rejoined the race down the mountain.
We settled into a pace at this point, people doing about them same times, sometimes slowing sometimes speeding. I do admit at this ridge I did pullover, stop, just to look. Squaw seemed so far away…the valley so awakening with the sun just hitting the far side, the ridges runinng down down down, with which I would be following.
Devil’s Canyon – 24.4
For several miles the course traced the ridge line descending quickly from the peak. A vast valley ran along the right as the trail gently undulated from one mini peak to the next. This is where I began to get into a groove, reminding myself to take it easy.
I always train with an ipod, hell I don’t think I would have been able to train for a marathon without it. After 4 miles I would just get too damn bored. However, I never raced with one. For races I want to be completely present in the experience. For 100s though I do bring my ipod along in my back just in case for the long long dark night. At this point in the race it is sufficient to look around and take it all in and forget that what the hell we just passed marathon length! Only three more to go.
Devil’s Canyon aid station comes on you fast as you drop off the ridgeline. This is the first heavily populated stop and the speakers were blaring some classic rock. The energy was off the charts and the volunteers were swarming. One came up to me and took my camelback right off of my back, another wiped my face with and icy sponge as the sun was high and it was starting to get hot. I grabbed my normal fuel: Orange slices, bananas, and pb&j squares. With my pack refilled and my bandana iced I was back on my way. We were done with the ridge now came the first of the infamous steep as hell sections: Devil’s Canyon.
Robinsons Flatt – 30.3
I was feeling strong, even as the heat began picking up. After all I am an Arizona boy, born and bred in the desert. I cross the creek without getting my shoes wet. An important part of keeping that damn blister hell away. The blisters had been my nemesis at the San Diego 100 and I didn’t even have to cross any rivers during that race.
I spotted several runners ahead, doing that power hike up the canyon walls, but I was on fire I was pulling them in. And I did. One by one I passed them. All still looking strong, but this desert boy feeling stronger. One by one I passed them, hiking strong and running in the few very few almost flat portions. This was another big climb. I was getting that famous runners high at this point, a combination of endorphins and adrenaline pushing one faster and feeling high and elated. I was cruising past people climbing Devil’s Canyon at the Westerns States 100 damn it!
Then the blessed crest – this short one at least and back to all out running. Then my strength and confidence started to fade…had I expended too much energy on the climb? My head began to get light and I couldn’t focus on anything..other than keep going forward. At that point the only thing keeping m going was knowing I as only a mile away from Michigan bluff aid station and my first rendezvous with my crew, my father and Vishal. As I rounded that corner and saw the people cheering I felt elated. Mile 30! But then as I slowed into the aid station I stumbled side ways and all that exertion and exhaustion hit me. I got dizzy and had to be helped forward.
They asked if I was ok, and of course I said I was, but I knew something was wrong. As I stepped on the scale I saw, 174??? I had already lost 9 pounds in the first thirty miles. I quietly freaked out. If I didn’t get some back they would pull me from the race. There was no way on hell I was going to let that happen I had to finish!
I stumbled a few feet and spotted my crew. Immediately Vishal and my father started yammering on some gibberish about getting lost and almost missing me. Apparently, they had tried to go cross country in my Mustang and ran out of gas. Great, thanks crew! I’m trying to run a hundred miles here. Focus!
I knew I was dehydrated and had spent my reserve energy stores so I had to take a couple of extra minutes here to rehydrate and fuel. Soon I was back on my feet and heading up the gentle slope out of the stop.
Millers Defeat – 34.4
Coming out of Robinsons Flatt I was scared. Yes, I had seen my Dad and Vishal and I had taken a rest to rehydrate, but my weight loss and the reality of this race hit me square in the face. This was mile 30, there was 70 to go and it was just starting to get hot. This is where the race becomes all mental.
As I have mentioned the race was on my mother’s birthday, however she was not there to cheer me on as she had died almost exactly a year prior.
She of ear onset Alzheimers less then a year before and this day, this very day was her birthday. There was no way I could stop, there was no way I could quit, this was my mother’s birthday.
I wish I could tell you my thoughts on those turns, I wish I could explain my feelings on thoose swithbacks, all I can say is my mind was straight: there was no way in hell I was stopping, there was no ay in in the world they could take me of this course, better yet, there was no way I was not finishing this fucking race.
The heat was growing, I had just been as dehydrated as I had ever been, but I felt calm. This was mine. This was my moms. This is happening.
When it comes to 100s there is training and there is toughness, but what it really comes down to is will. When I was at my weakeast point, easing myself down that gentle burnt out down slope and thinking about my mother it wasnt a decision, it wasnt a choice, everything that she had put into me in my life was going to propel me to that finish line. I would will it to be so, she had already willed it to be so.
I was actually following one of the aid groups that run the course sweeping for runners in trouble. up that hill and I recognized Petra, the famous Petra from all the 100s. I would just take it easy, constantly hydrate and follow them. I crested that ridge and saw the vast valey below, not too step but many many many switch backs. It was then that I began to think of my mother.
This aid station was called Miller’s Defeat but I had decided there was no way I was going to be defeated on that day. “I will finish.”
Dusty Corners – 38
With the sun high overhead, I hit some gentle fire roads. This offered smooth sailing, but no protection from the blazing sun while the temperature shot up. After starting in the snow covered mountains running in direct sunlight and over 100 degree heat just zaps your strength. I had taken it easy through this stretch and was hydrating constantly so my head was beginning to clear.
At Dusty Corners aid station came the next scale. I was nervous but confident. Back up to 179! Only 4 pounds down. A wave of relief flowed over me. There was not even a hint of pulling me off the course now. All I had to do was keep hydrating, fueling, and run another 62 miles!
Back on the course my left foot began to burn. Not bad, just felt a little funny. Despite the powder, and liner, and toe socks I felt I was developing a hot spot. But after the pain of the San Diego 100 furnace I had learned the lesson of the blisters. Prevent them at all costs!
Last Chance – 43.3
So I sat down, and let them look at my foot. Nothing showing they said, but I feel a hot spot coming and in this heat I want to be careful. Blisters. The nemesis of all distance runners. When it comes too 100s, they are the number one enemy. We run on trails, in the mountains, through rivers, in snow and then in hundred degree heat. Its not a question of if blister, it’s a question of when blister.
During my previous 100 my blisters had gotten so bad that I could barely walk the last 10miles and running any more than 100 meters was completely out of the question. I knew with the heat and river crossings during Western States, blisters were starring me in the face. I took eveyr precaution I could think of. During my previous race I had regular running socks, this time I wore the injini toe socks with injini toe liner. And on top of that I used ample amounts of the anti-blister powder. I had five pairs of both socks and liners as well as a dry pair of shoes to switch into. But nevertheless forty miles in I could feel the hot spot coming. However, this time I was proactive and sat my ass down to have my feet looked at.
So, the wonderful volunteers at WS100 took the time to wrap my foot. What saints they all are too take a look at our funky flesh ravaged, peeling blistering oozing toes and feet. True angels.
I took the time to not worry about time. This is the Wesern States 100, this is not about time, this is about finishing. The volunteer also said that they had a podiatrist working at Forest Hill (mile 62). Never in my life had I been soo excited to meet a podiatrist.
Devils Thumb – 47.8
Just a gentle slope down followed until…….
When they say Last Chance, they aint joking. After having both of my knees reconstructed in high school due to patella dislocations playing basketball I can still do just about anything, but super steep descents kill my knees. And this fucking descent was a super steep with constant switch backs and double secret extra descent. I knew I had to go extremely slow to avoid race ending pain and I did, even walking down at some points. The urge to run those downhills was oh so strong as many runners raced past me. But I held back as the pain mounted.
This was by far the most painful part of the course, physically. I took it like an old lady going down the steps at a mall and it still made my knees scream. In an ultra you can never get into the I’m gonna beat you mind set, but it is natural to gage yourself against those you have seen coming and going over the last couple of hours. So it is disheartening when you see everyone that you have passed start passing you. You remind yourself why and try to stay focused on running your race, but this is just part of the mental highs and lows of an ultra – and there are many over the course of twenty four hours.
Finally, the river. I hobbled down the slope and gently stepped in Usually there was a bridge at this river crossing, but it had recently burned down during a forest fire. So, this year we got the pleasure of two crossings of the American River. America, Fuck Yeah! Crossing the river might be a huge slow down, but once that icy cold snow melt hit my burning legs it felt like heaven. Or well you know like the movie frozen where everything is ice but people still seem to like it. The ice cold water was perfect therapy for my aching knees after that terrible descent.
In order to cross the river there is a volunteer standing in the freezing cold snow melt holding a line to help everyone across. The balls on this man!
Once across I go to change my socks. Since blisters were a huge problem for me so I had extra prepared and had extra socks and liners in my pack specifically for this river crossing. Except when I take them out: two right toe socks. These aren’t just normal socks that are inter changeable, these are injinji toe socks, designed for each foot. Fcuk!!!!!!!
After the wonderful soothing of crossing the river I am left with just one dry left sock. So I decide to put the liner on, throw the wet sock over my shoulder and hope it dries. Then begin one of the steepest climbs of the race.
The swinging arm power climb? I still lift bro.
The climb is slow, but luckily I am right behind a woman with an amazingly beautiful behind, and we are going about the same pace. This was the perfect motivation for me to keep up! We chat for a few minutes and then I tell her my sock dilemma. She replies simply and without hesitation, “Why don’t you just turn it inside out.” Genius! I was staggered, it hadn’t even crossed my mind, not even a flicker.
Just turn the toe sock inside out. Really, could that work? So I stopped, sat on a rock and tried the method. Oh my god, it worked! To this day, thank you brilliant woman with a great ass and even better ideas!
After switching my sock around I made it to the top of Devils thumb in pretty good shape. I had the aides look at my feet for blisters after having to ford a river and where an inside out sock, but they said ok, so I said Ok. And on I went. On to another descent, this one may have seemed steep on paper, but after surviving Deadwood Canyon this one is not so bad.
Holy Crap! I just passed 50 miles and barely even noticed. You have to be some sort of masochistic psycho to run 50 miles without noticing. Oh well, ultra runners… They say you run the first 50 with your legs and the last 50 with your heart. Well I ran the first 50 with my heart so legs you better not fail me now!
The gentle down slope in this small canyon, still hot and even a it humid? My right foot is definitely starting to warm up now, I know I’m getting a hot spot. I hope I can get some treatment soon, this is way too damn early to blister up.
Michigan Bluff – 55.7
Topping that climb and rounding that corner going into Michigan Bluff I can only describe as sublime. You have made it through the canyons! There are people! There are people cheering! There are people to help you!
Getting blister treatment is a great excuse for to relax and rest for five minutes. As I was sitting my head was on a swivel looking for my crew. Where were they? Did they get lost again? After crossing the river and not having matching socks I really needed my drop bags! Finally they appeared as the aid was taping up my foot. A change of both fresh socks and shoes was so energizing at this point. Combined with the five minutes’ rest and my taped foot I was ready to go! I hoped up and pushed ahead. Forest hill was next.
Bath Road – 60.3
One steep climb before pulling up to the paved road. This segment is very motivating as you know once you power up this little climb your pacer will be waiting for you and then it is a flat start sprint into the crowds waiting at the little town of Forest Hill. And yes here he is everybody, my pacer Vishal!
Pacers are not required, but highly recommended, some races do require them. Yes pacers are there to help pace you, but mostly they are they to make sure you don’t die. When running through the middle of the night after 70 or 80 miles one can die pretty easily. You can become dehydrated. You can fall of a cliff or be eaten by a mountain lion. In case of a mountain lion, Vishal was here to be eaten so I can continue with my race.
Forest Hill – 62
Forest Hill is the party, if you count mile 63 as a party. As I was coming in, seeing the people energy flowed through my bones. Vishal meet me early to run with me that last little section before the school. And then in. I hit the weight station and was only 3 down! I had hydrated! But now I needed a bathroom. For some reason they directed me into the school. After 63 miles the last thing you want to do is navigate a school looking for the boys room. I took 4 wrong turns before I found it. Damn that sucked.
I came out and they had the podiatrist working on people, so even though the balls of my feet werent killing yet I knew this was a good time for pre-emptive therapy. He took the previous wrap, off treated it with some sort of magic balm and then re wrapped. It lasted the rest of the race.
I got up and looked fr my pack. It was nowhere to be found. I went up and down the line asking questions, nobody knew. No hydration pack, no light, no support crew, WTF? After about 5 minutes of frantic searching – now I cant even explain how long five minutes of searching during a race feels – I see Vishal calling my name.
He had grabbed my pack but not seen me apparently. Any hoooo. I get with my crew And change p my socks, I have new foot wraps, and now I have Vishal, the veteran as a pacer. Its on!!!!
Dardenelles – 65.7
Coming out of the crowds at Forest Hill you feel like it’s a different race now. This is the unofficial half way point. You have your pacer and only 35 miles to go, but it is starting to get dark.
Vishal is a much more experienced ultra-runner than me, but a much less experienced driver and navigator. He began to tell me the story of how he and my dad got lost on the way to the race and he blamed it all on Google Maps. Two lawyers driving in a Mustang in the Sierra Nevada mountains decide to go off roading and run out of gas, but yes I’m sure it’s all Google’s fault!!!
Having a pacer is such a comfort and motivator during those long dark night time hours. My first 100 I didn’t have one and it makes all the difference. Thank you Vishal.
Peachstone – 70.7
Ouch my knees! After 70 miles of pounding and the constant uphill-downhill course, and particularly those steep canyons my knees are shot. I can barely walk downhill.
Ford’s Bar – 73
I puked. I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine so I always save to Coca Cola till the late night for a little extra energy boost. I just take a little cup full for sugar and energy. And the I puked. Yes coke made me puke and Vishal made fun of me. Coincidentally enough he had puked at almost exactly the same place two years ago. Yea, puke brothers! I had never had coke or that bother me before, but while trying to figure it out you just keep going, and no more coke.
Rucky Chucky – 78 miles
Hey, are we at the God damn river crossing yet? Damn.
Say it with me: Rucky Chucky. Rucky Chucky. Isn’t it just fun to say?
Once you reach Rucky Chucy, the American River crossing you start thinking: I’m gonna Finnish. As with much in this race, I can barely describe the feeling you have when you reach Rucky Chucky. That damn river has been teasing you for many miles, just below, calling your name. Come to me. Stop running, bathe! When you reach the Rucky Chucky crossing you know you are in for both a soothing ice cold bath…but more, it is the last big mark on the trail.
By the time the American River hits the Rucky Chucky crossing it is a pretty strong fast flowing river. It is all snow melt coming off the same Sierras I have just traversed. Unlike the previous improvised crossing, this one has people, aid, and supplies on both sides. The water is deep and fast, you have to be sure to hold onto the steel line while crossing, but it feels oh so damn good. Your body is beaten and stretched and the cold cold water is the perfect tonic.
Once you bathe in the soothing waters of Rucky Chucky you are invigorated, not only do you feel you might finish, you feel you will finish strong. And on the other side of the river, waiting: my father.
Green Gate – 79.8
Getting to the Green Gate aid station is kinda of one off. I felt invigorated from my dip, I have new clean and dry socks and shoes and we climb a steep fire road while chatting.
After the river and green gate I am feeling refreshed, but still now this is a long dark stretch through the middle of the night. I can’t start thinking about the finish yet, but the thought begins to creep in as you now if you survive the night the morning light will bring the finish line. I will finish.
Auburn Lake – 85.2 – Brown’s Bar 90.7
Which one is this? Honestly, I don’t even remember this aid station. It was the middle of the night and I was probably delirious. Auburn Lake and Brown’s Bar have kind off merged in my mind. So lets ust say I was hallucinating at this point or it doesn’t exist. Conspiracy!
Highway 49 – 94
Leaving Browns Bar is a nice down slope back to the American River. We then make a little turn and hit a dirt road that follows the river. The morning sun is now getting stronger and the air is heating up. Following the river does seem to clam things down, but damn the gentle rolling hills on the road seems like each one is another fucking mountain at this point. And then I see the dreaded turn off.
The climb to the highway is steep and rocky. My legs are not happy, but hearing the cars on the road above pull me forward.
I cross the highway and enjoy a Strawberry smoothy.
No Hand Bridge -95.8
This might be the toughest stretch of the race mentally. My legs ache, each step shots pain through my feet, know the end is close but that just makes each painful minute seem to last that much longer.
Once I hit the canyon I desperately hope to see the bridge around every turn and with every turn more disappointment. But that makes the site of the bridge all the sweeter. A quick down hill to the bridge and this is the home stretch. My hearts skips, but the pain in each step reminds me that this is not over yet and this will nto end quickly.
I stop here for a short rest, water, and fuel. Several people pass me, but I am running my own race and right now I care only about finishing. So I am sure to get the proper fuel and then head across the bridge.
Robbie Point – 98.9
After the pain and stiff of the legs take hold while pushing along and following the river, I know the end is near but each step hurts so damn much. And then those bastards put in one last climb. This is definitely knee pushing time and I think my arms are doing more work pushing my knees up this hill than my legs. Once you hit the top you hit the town of Auburn and the cheering beings.
Only 1 mile to go and the adrenaline starts pumping, but even with that I can only run in short bursts before the pain is too much and I have to slow to a walk. A gentle downhill slop helps. But once you spot the school my emotions over power my thoughts and my legs seem to working on their own and then you hit the track.
Finish – 100.2 Miles!!!
As I crossed the finish line the emotion washed over me, relief, gratitude, disbelief, but mostly at that point I just wanted to sit down.
In 27 hours and 47 minutes I Finished The Western States 100…Happy Birthday Mom.