The Toughest CALM I’ve Ever Experienced – 2018 WS100 – My Journey
This would be the first time ever in my running career, I’ve had so much on the line, so much invested, such a large audience of supporters and feel such a great sense of calm that day, June 23rd and into the next day, June 24th 2018.
When did this journey begin for me? I guess the early days(circa 2012/2013) when I was still green to the sport and learning, listening to TRN(Trail Runner Nation) podcasts and asking peers about what was the single race out there that they wished they could do. Invariably, “Western States” kept coming up. Sure, there were other, “harder” races out there Hardrock 100, The Bear 100, Wasatch 100, Ouray 100 and even the UTMB circuit in France, Italy and Swiss Alps, which I still yearn to do soon.
For those that don’t have the history with Western States, here is a reader’s digest version.
“The Western States® 100-Mile Endurance Run is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race. Starting in Squaw Valley, California near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics and ending 100.2 miles later in Auburn, California, Western States, in the decades since its inception in 1974, has come to represent one of the ultimate endurance tests in the world.
Following the historic Western States Trail, runners climb more than 18,000 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet before they reach the finish line at Placer High School in Auburn. In the miles between Squaw Valley and Auburn, runners experience the majestic high country beauty of Emigrant Pass and the Granite Chief Wilderness, the crucible of the canyons of the California gold country, a memorable crossing of the ice-cold waters of the main stem of the Middle Fork of the American River, and, during the latter stages, the historic reddish-brown-colored trails that led gold-seeking prospectors and homesteading pilgrims alike to the welcoming arms of Auburn.” Source: wser.org
2018 would be the 45th year for the WS100.
To gain entry to this race, runners have to 1st qualify by running a race designated as a WS100 qualifier which includes a coveted list of 100 milers with a smattering of 100K’s and even a tough 50 miler or two out there. Once you’ve run a qualifying race, one must enter a lottery which is held every year in December for the following year. Chances of getting drawn increase the more Tickets you have(accrued each unsuccessful year of entering). Historically, numbers for entry have been on the rise with almost 5000 entrants in 2017 for the 2018 race. Out of this, they will often award +/- 380 runners an entry to the prestigious and historic race. Going into this draw, I had applied for the 3rd year and had a total of 4 Tickets. Last year, they introduced a waitlist which is great for those that are considered “next in line” for those who drop last minute, get injured, cannot attend, etc.. Vendors gain entries as part of their financial contribution and sponsorship levels with wser as well. These are given away to various athletes leading up to the race.
Western States 100 is considered the BIG DANCE if you talk “ultra” with those in our sport. Most if not all know right away which race you are talking about. This race draws entrants from across the globe. The statistics and data collected for this race is quite awesome and interesting. A data geek like me gets into that stuff!
December 2nd, 2017. A day I will remember where I was, when I got drawn and all the feels I had that famous day. I was at another race not racing but spectating, and supporting friends. My name was announced by Aravaipa Running over their loud speaker and my phone started blowing up. I was drawn for Western States!!! Anxious and excited, I still had numerous friends still in the draw so I was hoping very much that one of them would get drawn. Each year, there has historically been a select group of Arizonans who get picked. After the dust settled, I would learn of the others who got drawn and cheered them on, congratulated them in some form or fashion and went for a run with my training partner who’s husband was racing that day. We ran out to see him on the course.
Great, now what? Do I put in for any more Lotteries? What does getting drawn “really” mean?!? How would I plan my 2018 racing season? All these talks I’ve heard from others about 80-100 mile weeks to train for something as grueling as this race? What team would I assemble for this? Who would I train with? For about a week or two, I pondered all kinds of scenarios. I had two more lottery options in front of me. CCC 101K in Europe and another crack at the Leadville 100M in August. I went ahead and applied for both.. Odds are kind of stacked against us in this day and age with the gaining popularity of this sport. Getting drawn for all 3 would be nearly impossible right?!? OK, luck was on my side I guess. I would have another successful lotto win with Leadville 100 which means a WHOLE bunch to me. You can read why here.
2018 was shaping up to be an EPIC year!! The big question now was, which races would lead me to Western States? Would I use races as part of my training? I have before so, yep, let’s start signing up for them!!! 3 races would lead me to WS. Black Canyon 100k in February, Mesquite Canyon 50m in March and the famous and rugged Zane Grey 50m at the end of April. Oh and of course throw a 3 day back to back Western States Training Camp in there as well the weekend of Memorial day. This would prove to be a MAJOR advantage for race day! I am SO happy I attended that camp. 45 years down the road, the veteran staff, volunteers and support staff REALLY know how to put these camps on. I truly felt whatever the cost, whatever the obstacles I was going to go to this camp! In fact, my entire crew went to this camp! I highly suggest it if you are considering this race. It is open to those who are not running the race as well.
January came. Fear. Feelings. Depression. Surgery. Big things… Now that I’ve signed up for a race in about 6 weeks(Black Canyon 100k), what would January entail? Well, 1st, I had a scheduled surgery for Basil Cell Carcinoma on my nose. I would be out essentially for two weeks and even after this, a slow transition back. Wow, what the heck? Is this a big enough deal to postpone Black Canyon? OK, well, if that wasn’t enough, I had developed Hallux Rigidus (a disorder of the joint located at the base of the big toe). It causes pain and stiffness in the joint, and with time, it gets increasingly harder to bend the toe. X-rays below give you an idea of what the heck was going on there. During my training runs for Black Canyon I was starting to have great pain. I had been dealing with it on and off for the last couple years. Before Leadville last year, I had a cortisone injection in between the joint which gave me temporary relief.
So, Jan 4th, I get the X-rays and meet with the foot guy. January 9th, I go in to have a large disk shape similar to that of a small flying saucer cut right the heck off the tip of my nose!! Oh man that was fun! Here we go.. Surgery AND the Toe thing. When I met with a foot doc, we determined a modified orthotic would offer some relief and keep my toe from bending and grinding causing more bone spurs. Both docs I met with went the conservative route which I like but when I asked one the big ? about surgery to fix the joint, here’s the gist of what was said.. Me: “Knowing you had the dream race of a lifetime in June coming up would you do surgery before”? Doc: “No, I wouldn’t suggest it.. the surgery is pretty major and the recovery is at least 6 weeks “non weight” bearing and no activity”. SO.. there was my answer. Deal with it! Suck it up and move on for now. One more cortisone shot to get me through Black Canyon and Mesquite Canyon and potentially go back for another before Zane Grey and WS.
Black Canyon 100K. This would have been the 3rd year I’ve raced this race. I lOVE this race.. It has a lot of meaning for me and I may continue to keep this one on my list. It’s a Western State Qualifier. This was not the reason I put it on the list. I primarily chose this for two reasons.. A. To give the big toe thing a true “test”.. Enduring the race for 14+hrs on it would give me a reality check for what to expect for WS. 2. The course profile if one was to look at it models a “mini” Western States look and feel with the Canyons and net downhill. Net downhill simply means over the course of the race, you would have covered more descent in elevation and finish well below where you started the race. There would be a total of 7200’+ of descent and 5200’+ of gain(ascent). The stats for WS are above. Not quite the same but, a little “taste” of what I may come to expect in June.
Back in December, I assembled my team for Western States. Some thoughts ran through my head leading up to the big lotto draw on December 2nd but, I had my loyal team(Tara, Brian, Meghan) already mentally “on the hook” so to speak. I would come to add 4 new members to said crew. David Bliss:(a revered and accomplished ultra runner who raced, crewed, volunteered and knows folks at Western States). Alicia Judy: a good friend here in the ultra running community and weekend adventurer, she would prove to bring her mad Nursing skills to the team. Brad Person, the best way I could come to describe Brad is a man with a HUGE sense of determination and optimistic outlook on life. Oh, and also an accomplished ultra runner who by ultra standards is still a newbie but a BEAST on the trails. His 1st Hundo was Javelina Jundred after only doing one other ultra(Crown King) and finished his race in an amazing 20:15 AND the top 20! Simply amazeballs! Susie Kramer: Most veterans here in AZ know Susie. She is quite the athlete and on the Aravaipa racing team. She’s got multiple hundo’s behind her including last year’s Mogollon Monster AND the Bigfoot 200 just one month before! Epic accomplishments and resume for her!
A drop and DNF that almost happened…. Speaking of crew, David and Alicia met me at the Black Canyon aid station 37miles in. Needless to say, I was already ready to throw in the towel due to the toe pain. I had not started the race with my orthotics. I didn’t want to rely on them for the entire race and I had only just gotten them. SO, not a lot of testing on them yet. Spending a lot of time in Aid Stations is detrimental for many reasons. It can cause the body to seize up and “think” it’s done, you can get cramps, cold/hot depending on weather variables and too comfortable not allowing your mind to mentally press on. You can say, I had all of these feels. It was just crappy. David and Alicia helped do EXACTLY what I needed them to do. Build me back up. I remember David saying, “you need to get through this since you will face this at States..”. Alicia helped get my toes wrapped, put my orthotics in, changed my shirt, got me some caffeine and I took two excedrin. Got my tunes going and they shoved me out and down the trail. This next section would prove the best section of the race for me. The Canyons are brutal, the river crossing and the relentless ups and down for the next 13mi would normally give me hell. I felt SO much better! Passing 38 people in this section and considerably moving faster gave me a HUGE boost of confidence! THIS is what ultra running is about! The highs, the lows, persevering through the pain, experiencing highs and lows and having a crew at your back to help you accomplish your goals! David was on the hook to pace me through the rest of the race of about 12ish more miles which I was really looking forward to! Special Thanks to my team, oh and of course, my wife ALWAYS there to crew(even though she volunteered for hours at this same race earlier in the day). Thank You Dear! 🙂 Black Canyon 100K was another finish for me and couldn’t have been happier they were all there for me.
Getting through January and February given I had those obstacles and a few more to deal with, I pressed on. I thought about augmenting my training with some formal athlete training programs from places like Exos and hiring a coach. Up to this point, I had not used a coach for any of my training and kind of did my own thing based on what’s worked. Luckily(knocking on wood) I have been able to get away with no injuries, have stayed healthy, have no real issues with nutrition and have a good track record behind me for finishing races. Was I OK with this? Yes. But, I was only OK with it. I wanted more. I was willing to seek the advice of pro’s, friends, coaches and others as this was a very very unique and rare opportunity.
Coaching: My 1st coach was a long distance coach which got me off on the right foot. It gave me more structure, some conversation and he was someone I have much respect for. He has a reputable past and actually does coaching for a living. I would find out, approaching Exos and stalking other formal training centers would not prove right for me. For one, they are VERY costly and two, they really do not specialize on “Ultra” runners. Runners, maybe, athletes, yes, organized sports, yes but not us rare breeders. We are in a crazy sport. Our bodies endure extremes and are not a one size fits all. I did introduce an agility and running performance analysis test using a Dorsa IV system on two different occasions at the advice of my good friend and PT., Dr. Trent Nessler. As a result of this, I knew exactly where I stood with weaknesses and worked on strengthening them for the next couple months. I also paid a long time childhood friend(Damon Shelton), gym owner and well known Personal Trainer in north Scottsdale(Method Athlete) for some work for a couple of months. I was super glad to have the multiple options going to help address my weaknesses and that dang toe!
Then, March came. I was already at high mileage weeks(see my chart below for reference), enduring some rugged terrain here locally in AZ and now comfortable my toe was under some pretty good pain management. Things were working. I was confident going into the Mesquite Canyon 50mi mid March. I did this race last year and did well for an old guy! Again, the goal here was to augment my training and “test” the toe again. It would prove a huge success and the orthotics came to my rescue again. That race is a pretty brutal and technical course in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park west of Phoenix. Around 7500’ of gain/loss over the 50 miles.
April. This was an interesting month to say the least. I should mention I had stopped cold turkey with alcohol starting Jan 1. Zero drops since Dec 31st. I had done this a couple times in the past for a few months leading into Leadville and San Diego 100 last year. It was something I already planned on. I never found myself craving it. Zane Grey 50mi was at the end of the month and I needed to get some more climbing in whenever possible, stick to technical trails and keep pressing on. Zane has a history of eating up and chewing up runners due to the altitude, rugged nature of the trails(Mogollon Rim, Payson AZ) and the unpredictable climate/weather. It’s been virtually “snow free” this year in that area and the course would be modified for an out and back due to some forest fires recently. A lot of my friends who I train with often were doing this race and many were crewing, volunteering so I was really looking forward to it.
Death. Dealing with death when your plate is already completely full can be overwhelming. Putting life on “hold” to address it/deal with it/experience it/process it. Without going into gory detail here in my blog, my Mom passed away on Easter. For about 3 weeks, my life was turned upside down. Watching her dwindling down to her final days (6 days in hospice, no IV’s, no nutrition, nothing except morphine and other meds) was not pleasant. I found myself weeks and months later using that for a little inspiration and correlate it to my dark times on the trail when the tough got going and would use this during WS as a huge motivator! If there was a silver lining to this experience.. it allowed me to gain perspective, slow my life down for a few weeks, spend quality time with family and use her death as a devotion to the “WHO” I was doing the WS for. More on that in a bit.
Zane Grey, another successful race! This would be the final race for me leading into WS. Tons of climbing, technical, heat and all of that. Most of the conditions I would see in June. The race unfolded, had a great time, the toe held up, my friends did great and Tara and I had a nice little weekend getaway up north in the cool pines. I was super happy I did this race! I’ve also been eyeing this one for many years now.
My new coach: April had me off the rails with formal training although I still got miles in, I couldn’t afford to keep my long distance coaching relationship on and in “limbo”. I was ready to start May with a new approach and long time veteran Coach and athlete Cheryl Miller of Miller Endurance Coaching. She’s great! It was through Brad Person(mentioned earlier) I got introduced to her in combination with having some of her athletes joining on my AZ TraiLegger Sunday group runs. She’s done the Tevis Cup race(100mi Horse Race on the famed Western States course) 5 times, trained athletes and has experience on that course. She also has experience doing Leadville and many other races including multiple Ironman events. She’s a beast and great mentor/coach!! Her style and workouts for me would payoff BIG time during this race!
Western States Training Camp: Absolutely mandatory in my opinion if you are fortunate to get into this epic race! They’ve been running this for years around Memorial Day weekend and it’s a great way to do the course recon, learn the crew points and get some back to back long runs in some of the most beautiful and rugged mountains I’ve run in to date. The cost is minimal in comparison to what you gain($148 for all 3 days or $50/day). You DO NOT have to be running the race to do this camp. If you are an aspiring and up and comer to the Ultra scene and want to experience these historic trails, this is a great experience. They really have all of the logistics down after all these years.. At times, I felt like I was in a race with the checkins, wristbands, school bus shuttles to start points, fully stocked aid stations and overall atmosphere. Another benefit to this is you get to experience Auburn and surrounding area. This is a really really spectacular city. The entire surrounding area has knowledge of this race and no matter where you are in town, a clerk, a waiter, a bartender will talk to you about it. It’s simply amazing. Tough back to backs (31mi the 1st day, 18mi the 2nd and 22mi on the 3rd). Now, you have more you can plan for and educate your crew/pacers should you decide to par take. Most of my team went to this epic training camp and we spent more time discussing the race. It was awesome and I would do it again!
Meetings and Planning with the JonSquawd: Putting a team and crew together for something of this magnitude takes some thought. Most of us in this sport would have already had the experience of a crew of some sort, perhaps a pacer here and there. For this race, I’ve heard two approaches. 1st year: Put the team together(have multiple members) and for the 2nd and subsequent years:(Yes, there are runners who keep applying and participating in this race over the years), you would have already experienced the course, the logistics and are fine with one crew mate, a single pacer or two. Should you decide to put your dream team together, please please decide on their respective roles going in. Meet as a group. Talk out loud about the race, determine who’s strengths can help get your bad self from Squaw to Auburn. My team and I had at least 2-3 meetings, the training runs and then a final get together before we departed for the race. I MAY have had a spreadsheet or three for this race! I really enjoy the strategic planning aspect the most. If you are open to feedback, ask for it throughout the process! Remember, these people are those you trust, maybe related maybe a spouse, another set of eyes and perspective. You will find some things are well though of and others are perhaps forgotten since you’re caught up in the enormity of everything. It will pay off! Trust me! Preparation is a large large part of this journey and execution is the other. Not only are YOU executing on the physical and mental portion of the race itself, your team has to execute their respective responsibilities. I had ZERO complaints with my planning, training, my team and well, all of it on race day! You want to ensure ZERO regrets at that start line!! ZERO!
Race Week: We chose to fly in mid week. The festivities and things start on Thursday with a full line up. We flew into Sacramento as we did for the Training Camp and drove up through South Lake Tahoe doing the touristy thing since we had the time. There is such beauty from the moment you leave the immediate Sacramento area on up. We planned a chill day on Wednesday while the rest of the crew was coming in on Thursday. Our VRBO Cabin we landed was a 4-5 min drive from the start in a well established neighborhood and was perfect! I was so glad to have found this! I didn’t want the added stress of driving from Truckee or Tahoe City each day and race morning. The town starts buzzing on Thursday! The day gets kicked off with a visit to the Western States store.. They have some really cool things in there.. I would pick up a thing or two for my team as Thank You gifts there. You start to see and hear friends coming into town and you have a choice of climbing up the big hill (our start line route) to Watson’s Monument for a dedication ceremony. I consulted with the coach and she OK’d it as long as I didn’t run/hike down. Her comment “you’ll get plenty of downhill, save those legs”. It was beautiful! Weather was perfect and our ride down the Skylift would provide stupendous views of the mountains, Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area. Squaw Village hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics so, it was really cool to see all of the leftover structures, signage and the torch at the entrance! The rest of the day, we attended some sessions like crew orientation, and others which we elected to not go so we could get to the store and unpack some more.
Thursday’s Hike up Escarpment to Watson’s Monument
Emotions: The months(6-7) have passed now. All of the work has been put in. Nothing and I mean nothing was out of order for me. We had no snags, everyone was happy and getting along and the messages from everyone started pouring in. Words of encouragement, people I hadn’t really talked to much reaching out, social media heating up and a call or two along the way. The nighttime entertainment once we settled in would prove to be one of the most tearful and emotion unraveling for me of this entire journey(OK, one other episode when I crossed the finish line in Auburn). Brian and Meghan had compiled small video clips of various montages and words from all my friends and loyal AZ TraiLeggers over the last couple weeks. It was melded together in a 20min video with songs, special guest appearances and it simply was AMAZING!!! I was overcome with emotion. Looking back now, I think for me personally this was the kettle finally “whistling” with pressure.. Relief came over me. Letting the last months of training pressure, my mom’s passing, the emotions along the way, friends discussions all of it just built up with no real outlet. I was glad this happened when it did! Had I brought that to the race, I am sure the physical drain, the “pain cave”, that dark time would have just possibly stopped me in my tracks or perhaps slowed me down to a crawl. Us ultra runners do go through a period of dark times often during these 24-30 hours of “fun”. I would re play that video ten times over during race day. I would use it to lift me and help fuel my fire. The fire that from Mile 24 would stoked and burning bright all.the.damn.way.to.the.finish at Auburn.
My team(aka JonSquawd): Locked and loaded: Tara Christley – My rock, wife and loyal Crew Captain. Cindy Deason – A great friend was added late to the team for her ability to capture the moments and provide the social media updates for the next couple of days and provide medical aid. David Bliss – A veteran to this event as mentioned above. He was responsible for helping with the logistics and his promptness paid dividends making sure everyone got to where they needed in time. Brad Person – Pacing and Crewing. He’s the beast I spoke of earlier. He would pace me from Green Gate to Pointed Rocks(about 13ish mi). Susie Kramer – Another great friend and beast would be crewing and pacing from Forest Hill down to Green Gate(about 16 mi). Brian Slavin – Great friend, crew support, gear monger and nutritionist who helps get my grub on, Tailwind mixed and all of that. Meghan Slavin – The husband/wife duo of Brian and Meghan have pretty much been there crewing, pacing and supporting all my epic races to date and Meghan is my training partner of 4yrs and would be pacing me from Pointed Rocks into the Finish(about 6mi) here at WS. I am forever grateful to all of them! They were awesome!
Friday, 1 day Before: This is where all hands are on deck. A mandatory check in for runners is required. Drop bags are dropped off and the race meeting at 2:00 was also mandatory. Starting each day at Coffebar was SO epic! This coffee shop seemed to be runner central. We would see the likes of the Altra crews, And Shartel, Scotty Mills and crew, many others throughout the two days there. They had great service and great coffee!! The days events were intermingled with checking out more of Squaw for those that came in Thursday night. Everywhere we drove through the immediate area was littered with elite runners and crews, pacers and tourists running around shaking the legs out. It was epic to see the elite lineup at the 2:00 meeting. Jam Jam (Jamil Coury) was there doing some filming and waiting for his pacing duties with Zach Bitter on race day. It was cool to cruise the expo.. These vendors put up big money to sign on with wser.org to be part of this race. The entire village was buzzing with professional photographers, crews, volunteers and the like. Once we got through the mandatory meetings, we went back to the Cabin for an easy afternoon, I kicked my feet up and started putting a music list together. Brian and Meghan had plans to make dinner and allow me to pack the rest of my stuff. One of the things I like to do is a mock “dry run” the night before with my pack and gear with the crew. I felt due to the fact we had two vehicles(Crew A and Crew B) and 8 of us, it would be best to get everyone on the same page. With the gear laid out and the books, maps and plans finalized we walked through the day. This is again a point where final checks and input can be made. Racers can’t possibly think of everything logically with an event of this magnitude. We ate, chilled out a bit, I got into the compression boots one last time and we set a wake up time: 2:30a. Yep, that’s right. Race go time was set for 5:00a!!
RACE day: Alarms go off. Everyone is getting ready and getting their coffee on.. Of course, I did my routine of Bulletproof coffee and a Honey Stinger Waffle with Almond Butter and one yes, ONE banana. The gear was laid out and I jumped in the shower. LUBED completely up with Runner’s High Herbals says and stuff. They’re stuff is amazing! I can honestly say I have used this stuff daily for almost the entire 6 months of training.. A somber quiet but excited buzz was happening in the cabin now. It was almost GO time! For Crew B, it would be a hectic morning right from the start. They would have a 3hr drive leaving Squaw and down through Auburn and up a narrow windy road to Duncan Canyon. Team A would be on the Foresthill side heading up to Robinson Flat. The thing about this race is although there are 21, yep 21 aid stations, I wouldn’t see the crew until mile 24.4 at Duncan. My expected arrival time there was 10:00am.
369 Runners would start this race. The field was stacked. Picking a position on that start line and a strategy for the big climb up escarpment would prove important as the day played out. Usually, in large crowds, I like to start mid pack, sometimes even farther back. I train with a very gradual warm up for many reasons. Getting into fight or flight mode(anaerobic) early causes a lot of calorie burn, stress and does not prove anything to me personally. I would much rather play the conservative route and start gradually and aerobically and have the ability to come on strong as the race progresses. Well, this climb had all of us in anaerobic mode. We climb almost 2600’ from the start up to the peak at Watson’s Monument before we descend on single track to the west.
The large clock under the famous Western States sign was counting down to single digits now. I ended up very near the front.. In fact, so close, I was standing right next to Courtney Dauwalter, the one who would race to the 1st female. The elites were one row ahead of me, Sally McRae was giving her friends her last words of encouragement, it was quite energetic being that close!! The last pics were being taken, the sun was barely making it’s way up and the day lay ahead. CALM set in over me. I was not nervous. Why was this? Usually I have a certain amount of nervous energy. I had a million thoughts running through my mind. Like I said earlier, ZERO issues, NO regrets and I had my Team in place. They literally catered to me for the last 2 days making sure I had what I needed, ate what I wanted, and so much more. I couldn’t had had more confidence going in. Bang, 5:00 was here and we charged up the hill!! I made sure to do what John Medinger asked us to do when we got to the top. Look over and soak in the views towards Lake Tahoe to an amazing sunrise. It was epic! Clear skies for as far as I could see. I made it up in one hour and saw Melissa Ruse and Jamil Coury at the top. The amount of photographers was unreal. 100 ish to my guesstimate, drones flying around.. It was like nothing I had ever experienced!!
Bottles or Pack? Nutrition? Drop Bags? 21 Aid stations lined this course. Crew can access 11 of them. I wandered back and forth between bottles and pack for almost two days. Not stressing over this, I bounced it off David and Meghan a few times and decided I would do bottles for the 1st 30 miles! I had already been used to training with dual bottles and even raced with them before. I had decided a SpiBelt would carry a Tailwind Pack and a gel. I was also pre loaded with Tailwind from the start. After all these years, I am still loyal to this company and their products! I have always had success using it and the last thing I wanted to was introduce unknowns during an epic race such as WS. My plan was to stick to 200-300 calories per hour to the best of my ability. Our high point in the race would be around 8500’ for about 30 seconds and then descending down through an average of about 4000-5000’ for the 1st 50mi of this race. Fueling in this range is something I’ve experienced with no issues before. The heat would be ON big time so we stuck to 1 TW stick pack per 20oz throughout the day. My strategy has always been get through the 1st hour on water only(my morning routine covered earlier was BP Coffee and the HS Waffle and Almond Butter). Plenty of calories to get me through that 1st hour and beyond actually. We had a huge climb ahead of us up escarpment so I took full advantage of lighter weight and less variables to deal with. I was concentrating on getting to Duncan Canyon with the least amount of stop time and issues with gear. I decided on only two drop bags which would absolutely be perfect for me! I had one at Red Star Ridge(15.8mi) and Devil’s Thumb(47.8mi).
The dark hours SO early?!? This wasn’t a pain cave at all (for me, I usually enter the cave between either miles 25-40 or sometimes 60-75). How could it be happening already? I was only about 10mi in. Uh oh.. As soon as we crested near Watson’s Monument and started our descent down the beautiful single track to Lyon Ridge I had a sense of an “awkward coordination” issue come over me. At first it was OK, just a trip here and there and nothing major.. I did not panic but instead focused on keeping pace. I knew starting near the front would have quite the crowds behind me and the last thing I wanted was to lose time in a conga line. I pressed on. It wasn’t hunger at all. I was fine in that department. Maybe I needed more caffeine? Substantial climbing and not a lot of “runnable” sections here may have caught me off guard. Remember, this 30mi section was not covered during our camp. David Bliss gave me some tutelage in this area as “it’s no joke”.. I would have climbed about 4400’ before coming into Duncan Canyon at mile 24. One real quick observation was the fact we had zero snow on this route. I cannot imagine the thoughts of dredging through melting snow and mud for the 1st 25miles like they did last year. Many drops and cutoffs were missed due to this and now I can fully see why. Some steep and exposed climbs met us after Lyon Ridge.. The beauty up there reminded me of Colorado. Running along ridge lines, Sierra Nevada mountain range in every direction, Noble Fir forests and French Meadows Reservoir in the distance down towards Duncan Canyon. Two very quick stops at the first two aid stations to grab more Tailwind and refill the bottles real quick and I was out! On my way down to Duncan. Knowing my crew would be there was SO huge. I was ready for them. My quads started cramping pretty bad. Again, did not panic, rather slowed things down and took in more fluids. I wanted to make sure I was close to drained of fluids when I rolled into Duncan.
Western States is just one of those races. As you come into aid stations there are 2way radio volunteers calling ahead for them to announce you coming into the aid station and to have them pull your drop bags should you have them. They also police the crews entering the aid stations to help reduce chaos and to have a sense of order. They are not allowed into the main aid station(s) but only designated areas either in front of or behind the station itself. Priority is given to the runners. Especially in this heat, the amount of attention you get is unrivaled. I did see an example of this at Leadville last summer as well.. It’s quite the experience!! Never have I seen so many rules about not only runner and pacers but crew as well.. Each vehicle had printed copies of the rules and the actions of either, pacer and or crew can actually get the runner disqualified. This is where pre meetings and experienced crew really shine! They simply know what to do, when to do it and HOW to do it properly.
ICE, ICE and more ICE. Pounds, buckets, truckloads, like thousands and thousand of pounds of ice for the day. This day was to expect the 9th highest recorded temps in the history of the race. Some of us have jumped into a cold lake, pool, maybe ice baths, and exposed to the cold elements. I cannot describe the RUSH one feels when they have ICE water sponges squeezed over their entire body! It is quite the experience! If anyone was half awake or in the tank before, they would sure wake up as a result of this numbing, chilling and life changing experience! Having arm sleeves on allowed them to stick ice into the top portions on the inside of the arm. Boy, this was like injecting an IV full of crunchy glass into your veins. Whoa!!! C.O.L.D! A soak of my Headsweats hats along the way was key was well throughout the day! A sweet girl volunteer came up just then too and offered me a cold and almost frozen Blueberry Otter Pop! She cut the top off and I handed it to Meghan while I got my bottles in my hands. Poof! Otter Pop down! It slipped through her hands and onto the dirt and of course the tip that I was to put my mouth on had dirt on it! In true spirited crew fashion she grabbed it quickly and bit off the top and wipe it off and handed it back to me! What a friend! We would joke about the dirt pop later knowing she swallowed said dirt! What a friend! When I left Duncan Canyon aid, I may have actually looked forward to the heat of the upcoming climb into Robinson Flat where Crew A was awaiting my arrival. This would be the 1st of the 4 brutal Canyons we would need to climb during the race.
The long stretch to Robinson Flat, OK it was only 5.9 miles BUT it was approaching 11 o’clock and the heat was coming on. The cramping. Oh the cramping. The quads were not cooperating. This would be the 1st “pause” I would have on the trail. As I gazed across to the west, I would see runner/ants crawling up the trail towards Robinson Flat. This would be the first real time I thought of my Mom. I told myself before this race when the going gets tough, think of what she went through. The long days, 6 of them with no nutrition and no fluids in her home in her final days. This would allow me to calm down, re group and think about what was happening. It couldn’t possibly be that bad and whatever IT was, it would either A. get worse or B. eventually subside. Eventually, it did. Not completely but almost once I got into the final stretch around mile 30. With no other major issues at this time, I was honestly looking forward to the downhill that would await me when I leave Robinson Flat.
DOWNHILL. I’ve never been great at downhill running. It takes an extreme amount of fearless and reckless abandonment, ok and a lot of skill to just “bomb” the downhills. There are people that are really really good at this. WS would have around 23,000 feet of it and it was going to start at Robinson Flat for a continuous amount of miles, about 15 straight miles of it until the next big Canyon(Devil’s Thumb). Since my legs were cramping pretty bad for the last 20 miles or so, I actually welcomed this change. It would allow the muscles to work much differently and after I would fuel up and get through the aid station it would prove this is just what I needed.
What are the things that LIFT ultra runners spirits when they are down? I could probably go on for a while here but I can try and explain real quick some of the ones I felt coming into Robinson Flat. For the “Crew A” people and those who elected not to go to the far east side of Duncan Canyon and Dusty Corners, this would be the 1st time they’ve seen their runners. It was a big big welcoming committee and a significant aid station for every runner on that course. Coming in around mile 29, the cheers in the distance gives runners motivation. Remember, we just came up the flaming hot and exposed Duncan Canyon. As you approach Robinson Flat, both sides of the road are lined with tons of people cheering, signs of encouragement everywhere, people cheering your name. David would great me at RF and point out the crew spot just past the main aid. Water and ice buckets were on the ready. J-Jons lined the station as well. It would be the 1st time I would see Tara too!! She was helping manage this side of the course. That was great! Brian was ready with the re filled bottles and everyone was trying to accommodate my needs. It was awesome.. Just when you think you remember what you were supposed to get at an aid station, the mind is often in a fog. It was great to be offered a pickle, ginger beer and some other things that were perfect at that moment. Tara would tell me I was doing great along with David and Brian. Everyone back at home is cheering you on, she would say! David would remind me I could take advantage of the downhill coming up which he had been talking about for a week now. Getting sprayed down with sunscreen was quite cold with all the ice and water being poured over me but this was all a great thing to help the body “wake” up. One last and mood lifting boost was Tara walked with me for a bit past the aid station with some white 3×5 cards. She took the time to solicit quotes from my close friends. She would read these as we walked away.. Some were quite funny actually.. A couple examples: “There will be a day when you will not be able to do this. TODAY is not that day”, Encouragement is for p*ssies. YOU picked this fight. Harden the f*ck up”!! and “If Brittany Spears can get through 2007, you can get through today”! I would have reflected on these for the next many miles, laughing and smiling. I LOVED that she did that for me!!
TIMING. I had forecasted an arrival time into RF around 11:30a. I would leave and start heading out at 12:21 (8min Aid Station Time). I had forecasted a 24hr goal to help keep me focused and on track. For reference I was 45min behind that time at this point. While I may have verbalized this a couple times throughout the race each time I was “behind” I didn’t let it get me down. I knew I would be getting the A Team pacers starting at Mile 62, the temps would cool off and I just need to keep a CALM and cool head. Literally!! This would pay dividends the entire race! There was no benefit to trying to stress about the math and such. I am already pretty bad with #’s so this would be a futile exercise to keep up with. After all, I was participating in an EPIC race with such coveted spots and such awesome support I would rather use that to fuel my fire.
I realized coming into the next aid station, I made a minor mistake.. One I quickly corrected. I didn’t pack a Tailwind stick with me when I left Robinson Flat. For some reason, I didn’t have it with me. I had just gone through my whole pre mix and quickly grabbed what they had at Miller’s Defeat. This would be a smaller aid station and fairly remote so not a huge crowd there.
Running SOLO. When I first thought about the enormity of this 62mi section until getting a pacer, I anticipated a friendly conversation here or there with fellow competitors but was completley OK with isolation so I could literally “connect” with this race and the experience. Often in Ultras, we run into those we follow on social media, we meet along the way, or just get introduced to someone new. This community rules!! It is one that has all of us conversing about our backgrounds, where we are from, what got us here, how many “hundos” we may have run, and the like. They are very un assuming conversations, very open and we share a sense of cooperation to ensure everyone is doing OK. Seeing downed runners stops us in our tracks to find out what is wrong, do they need medical, etc.. It is pretty amazing. Most of my miles in this race, like 90% of the 1st 62m would be solo. I was fine with this. I had one earbud in thanks to Cindy for grabbing my iPhone and the earbud so I could jam out. I did end up running into a running friend, Constance Wannamaker at this aid station. She is a beast and has a long history with ultra running. Another familiar face, an Arizonan now living in TX and someone I spent a great amount of time running with her during the Zane Grey 50m in May. We caught up quickly as she is doing the Grand Slam(running 4 hundos in one year) and I wanted to see how the 1st went for her(Old Dominion 100 just a few weeks prior to WS). Off we went and would separate again very soon after that. I would later chat with her at the finishing line ceremonies.
Coming into the next aid station(Dusty Corners) would be fastidious.. I knew my pack would be ready and since I had a gnarly section of downhill and a huge climb coming up Devil’s Thumb, it was now that I needed the pack and give the arms a rest. My awesome crew had everything ready. I think it was here that I was was looking for cold ginger ale. Just sounded great! Sometimes, certain aid station goods stand out. This would definitely be a fav of mine through the rest of the race! Up to this point I was really trying to average 200 cal/hr minimum. I knew one more aid station was ahead(Last Chance) and what lie ahead though and didn’t want to push the solids! I didn’t spend much time at all at Last Chance as it was a smaller station. Nevertheless, still awesome! Even one of the station volunteers asked me as I left if I knew what was ahead?!? I said “yep, sure do”!
Devil’s Thumb is a pretty extreme vertical canyon that no one wants to mess around with especially in this heat! Speaking of heat, the time was just after 2pm. The hottest part of the day was smack right in front of me! I got some great advice from a veteran ultra runner friend Michael Miller who the day before made sure I soaked in the river at the bottom of Devil’s Thumb. The famed hanging bridge was there. Off to each side were nice beach like sandy areas. After I had a series of switchbacks and aggressive downhill I would arrive there around 4:00. I took my pack off real quick and soaked my entire body in that river. If I had to guess, the water temp felt like it was around mid 40’s maybe a tad higher. The reality of it is the half way point was just ahead at the top of DT and only one more canyon lie ahead (El Dorado). If anyone has watched any of the Western States flicks, they would learn this is an extreme and pivotal climb in the race. Many people either drop here and or just plain don’t make the cutoff here due to extreme heat and the brutal climb up. The evidence was there. Puke on the trail a few times from runners before me. I had a handful of folks pass me by while I was doing the river soak but I felt like I had created quite some space between myself and other runners at this point and just pressed on. I really do enjoy the climbs! I try and just push on. Knowing I did this in training camp, I still had ice from Dusty in my bandana and cold clothes from the river and was just ready to take it on! Calm. I was estimating a 4:45 arrival at this point. With about an hour space now off the 24hr pace, I tried to stay calm and the help from Devil’s Thumb aid was unreal. This was a pretty large aid station with a lot of runners spending time here cooling down.
Devotion to the runner. I had seen the younger generation volunteer plenty at other races. This race was different. I experienced this at each station but this one would stand out. Again, the advanced calling of my number ahead meant the volunteers would have pulled my drop bag for me. Not only pulled it but had the contents neatly displayed out flat for me on the table. It was easy for me to get done what I needed. There has to be coordinated training that is clearly evident here. The drop bag crew did a specific thing and that was it. The young girl that greeted me took my pack and she stayed with me as I perused the aid station offerings. Popsicles, fruit jumped out at me so I grabbed watermelon and salted it up and there she was again. After filling my bottle with Tailwind, she took my pack, helped me put it back and walked me to the exit of that station. I thought, this girl is SO nice! That is their thing. They stay with the runner. It was awesome! Off I went!! I really felt good so I ran most of the way over to the next aid station at El Dorado Creek. Passing a handful of runners here I got a recent surge knowing I would see the entire crew soon! Like real soon!!
From pines and green forests to high desert terrain. Dry AF. This area was really drying out. I felt like, damn, a forest fire in here would NOT be good! The terrain was changing a bit. We had run quite a way in the pines but the trees, the foliage just everything started looking a tad different as we approached El Dorado Canyon and the creek. The aid station would be a small one at the bottom. BUT, a good one.. OMG. I was really looking for water but as soon as my eyes set in on those fruit bowls I was SO happy! Huge fresh blackberries, mangos and PEACHES! Yes, the gal had just cut up an entire peach and was working on her second one. I gladly took probably more than I should have. It was awesome!! An older gentleman with a bandage on his finger was struggling to get my bladder put back together and I offered but he had no part of it. He said “no, I got it”. I didn’t interrupt. He was an extremely nice guy. I loaded my pack on after only a few minutes and started up the climb. The last of the large climbs into Michigan Bluff. Speaking of plant life, there would be a section in here that had the largest manzanita bushes lining the trail that I have ever seen. We have a lot of manzanita up in northern Arizona but nothing “Paul Bunyan” style like these. Mind you, I had wet feet and a really wet outfit from the rivers and sweat. I would feel good knowing I was going to change my shirt and pull these arm sleeves off finally! The last thing I wanted was to get cold at an aid station stop.
Michigan Bluff: An amazing aid station and community! I would feel tired coming up the last hill into this station but overall still felt great.. I started to hear the cow bells and see David just ahead waiting to grab me and direct me to the crew! My arrival time there would be right at 7:00. There was still plenty of sunlight out. I was to get my headlamp there and David was to hook up my watch battery. During ultras, most GPS watches start to dwindle and run down to almost no power at the 50m mark(I was at 55.7 and less than 20% juice remaining). This aid station stop was awesome!!! I was getting tended to by everyone! Brad and Susie were not at this aid station but I was so happy to see everyone!
Back/Shoulder Cramping: I had developed some pretty severe cramping between my right rear scapula and my spine. Ever since last year when I had the C6-C7 disk flareup, that area has never felt the same. That episode effected my right upper arm, shoulder and down into my arm. The remnants of that nerve pain was felt this time. I had Meghan work on it while everyone was filling me full of my fav’s.. Rebbl Maca Cold brew, Ginger Beer, a pickle, and I think I had some other quick snacks too. Just getting a new shirt, taking off my wet shirt and sleeves really felt so good! I would grab a couple buffs to throw on my head for the headlamp and be ready to go!
Leaving Michigan Bluff was incredible.. Just glancing down the street which was lined with what looked like thousands of spectators, crews, locals and volunteers was amazing! People cheering for me, yelling my name “go Jon, you got this” and even having a filmmaker running along side of me and Meghan was really quite exciting! The crew had their gear just behind me and they had to walk the same direction as me to get to their bus ride so that part was cool! I popped into the J-Jon real quick, said my goodbyes and took off all in a matter of about 12min.
OTHER THINGS my amazing Wife does for me: During my packing Friday night, I realized I didn’t have my UCANN packets. Normally, around mile 30-40, I get a UD bottle(hard one that I carry) full of UCANN, and my other concoction of goods (BCAA’s, Creatine and Arginine, see below) with Tart Cherry Juice. Well, Tara researched where could she get the UCANN packets and found Sprouts south of Auburn in Roseville and went completely out of their way to get me a couple packets for my race. Ahhh my heart was full. I love her! 🙂 Oh and she was still telling me people were sending their love and cheering me on from afar! One of the other very special things she did was ordered by a special bracelet I would wear the entire race! It has a Dig Deep phrase engraved into it and she wrote a nice note to go with it.. See below 🙂
Dusk: As I was heading out of Michigan Bluff, I overheard one of the volunteers telling my crew I was looking good and that I could make it into Forresthill before dark! I was SO stoked about this!! I would also get caffeine! I had Green Tea caffeinated Tailwind waiting for me, espresso beans and all kinds of Caffeine! *YAY* This strategy has worked real well for me during hundos. Besides this, I would get Susie as a Pacer!!! Yeah!
The next section was a forest service road for a while up and what seemed like forever but only for about a mile and a half. On the way, I got to see the grave site of the famed Tonto, Scott Jurek’s dog he buried there after his win at Western States in 2003. Tonto passed away during Scott’s race. That was pretty special to see that cross in a field of grass along side that road. I chugged along. Doing a lot of power hiking and jogging when I could, I really wanted to be strong for Susie when I got to Foresthill. I’ve heard on many occasions from others “you want to be able to run when you get to Foresthill”. Since the Canyons and the heat of the day would be behind me, and given the terrain and profile, running would feel pretty good after smashing the downhill and climbing all day!
Bath Road: Knowing I would arrive at Bath road with some light out made me super happy! This road is a paved, somewhat steep road(ok, probably not that steep but, it sure felt like it) that leads up for about 1mi(connecting to Foresthill Rd) for another .7 mi and into the HUGE aid station at Foresthill Elementary School. The crew and anyone can meet you and run you into the aid station. This popular aid station/town is seen during most if not all the running movies about Western States. It’s a fan mecca and amazing scene to experience! David was letting me know where we stationed as it related to where we parked for the camp so I got my head wrapped around where I was going.
SURPRISE!!! Once I got to our spot, I was a little overcome with joy. A video would show me for a second not even realizing WHO was standing directly in front of me as I came into that area. Four VERY special people to me were standing there with signs bright as day and cheering me in!! My heart probably skipped a beat. This was unreal to me. I was overcome with joy and happiness. Courtney, Misty, Lin and Susie from Phoenix and my trail running group drove all the way to see me and my race. COULD THIS DAY have gotten any better?!?!? In this moment, you realize what you may mean to others. What they did was so special. I had just the day before been chatting with Courtney and she didn’t mention anything to me at all.. What a SURPRISE!! They had been planning this for a while apparently. For those, that are not aware, the drive from Phoenix: Depending on exactly which route, a mere 825ish Miles ONE WAY!!! They made a mini vacay out of it. I am SO grateful for them! They would also go to the Finish line and cheer me in! Simply.Amazing.
Foresthill: Making it here just before dark was really great! I also had plenty of legs left in me! When we did the training run day 2, our starting point was here. We would run a bit down the streets over by Mosquito Ridge and drop immediately down a series of downhill switchbacks. Remembering what that felt like during training when my legs were already thrashed from day 1 and 31 miles I thought this would actually go better because I was in the moment and not as sore as I was back in May when we did this section. My time here with the crew was only 11min but Brad kept me on track. The excitement of having the girls show up, me wanting to “socialize” with my friends had Brad a little nervous. I could tell. That was fine. That was their job to get me in and out of these aid stations! For some quick math: 21 aid stations lined this course. If one was to spend say 5min at each(about 1hr, 45min), just go ahead and tack that time onto your moving time and it makes achieving a time like 24 or 25hrs that much more critical! I rolled in unofficially around 8:47 and officially out at 8:57. We did a sock change, pack was refreshed and ready to roll, threw down some caffeine and I got some chicken broth and avocado rice balls/rolls from the aid stations. Did I just say Avocado Rice Balls?!? OK, these gems were awesome! At San Diego last year, about 60-70mi in, the aid station had fresh rice balls. They are heaven! The texture is just right, you can roll them in salt and like I did, I threw them in with chicken broth.
Susie Kramer: Where can I start with this girl?!? What a beast!! I had been thinking about this moment for the better part of the afternoon. Knowing I felt strong at FH and was still within reach of a 25hr finish, I knew she would keep me moving at a good clip. After all, she ran a 200 miler last year up in Washington. This 17mi section would be a cake walk for her! She had her pack ready and we bolted down the road. She would stay in front of me the entire stretch which is what I preferred. As we were leaving, I would see friends, Mark Cosmas from iRun Phoenix, James Bonnett(famous to WS) and a couple others. I though wait, James may be waiting for his dad Paul still. I had thought I saw him but couldn’t remember where. I was so impressed to see Paul(56) killing it at Zane Grey 50 last month coming in at 21st place and James 2nd. Simply amazing athletes!
Single Track: I love single track! The next 15 miles down to the river would be entirely on single track save for a couple miles of dirt roads(steep leaving the Ford’s Bar area) and then again for a bit right at the Rucky Chucky side of the river. Western States single track gets a lot of use and has over the many years of existence. From miners and journey men, women, horses and everything in between. There were plenty of ruts to contend with, sharp turns to navigate, and very dusty! This section hadn’t seen rain probably since the weekend of memorial day when we went to camp. With so many runners on this trail, the dust give the “poofing” factor a boost. As soon as we jumped onto it, there was already a mist of dust in the air from the runners just ahead of us. Turing on a headlamp magnifies this effect. It takes a strong mental game to cut through this and focus on not rolling an ankle or falling. We would have to deal with those conditions all the way down to the river crossing.
Full Moon: The section down to the river was very dark and descends away from civilization so much that all sounds and things you may or may not see along this stretch may involves wild animals and random things. This night, we would run for almost 4-5 miles along a side of the canyon with the Middle Fork of the American River just below us. I kept looking down and seeing a light. It was the full moon reflection following us around every turn. One of the things they did for us runners and soon to be river crossers was tightened up the dam above to decrease the flows as the race went on. The elites would see flows somewhere around 1100 cfs and by nighttime, they were reduced to around 200-300 cfs. The sounds from the river were muted just a tad going through the sections between Peachstone and Ford’s Bar. During the training runs, you could hear the sounds from the rapids below and when one looks down into the river, I cannot being to describe how crystal clear that water was. You could make out all the rocks on bottom even from our vantage point.
As we made our way meandering down and cruising at about an 11-12 min per mile pace and less at times, Susie was doing a great job of making sure I kept moving. While I was staying on top of getting my Green Tea Tailwind on, taking in Ginger Ale here and there, grabbing a small snack (mostly chicken broth), she always asked me “you drinkin”? She was very accommodating. Because of her competitive nature, the sight of the next runners lights were a goal for her. “Let’s get them”, “runners ahead” she’d say. Turns out a couple of those were very famous and highly regarded in our sport. I have such respect for them! Scotty Mills(this would be his 19th Finish at WS) with Ang Shartel his training partner and another famous runner most of us heard of, Dean Karnazes. “Legends” as Susie put it. We said our “hello’s” and “mind if we sneak by’s”.
River Crossing: After hitting the aid stations very briefly and running a lot of downhill, I knew and feared the cold water. Not the act of crossing but rather the though of having cold clothes, shoes, and hearing the stories of either making the change directly across the river or waiting until the big climb another mile and half up to Green Gate. I hate getting cold! Sometimes, I get uncontrollable shivers and that was the last thing I wanted since we had just made really good time coming in. The scene at Rucky Chucky(78mi) and the river (they are one in the same) was quite unreal! Lights, camera, action was how I felt down there. Crews were shuttled down to meet their runners at the “near side”, the Rucky Chucky side and only drop bags were allowed across the river. I contemplated for a while during the week whether I would have either or both here. Eventually, I decided since I would be with Susie, the last thing she wanted to do was “doddle” around down here. That was completely fine with me! People don’t realize the amount of time it takes to get through two stops like that so close to each other. I had run all day with wet clothes, pack, socks etc.. The volunteers (very safety conscious BTW) where great at the River! They put required PFD’s(personal floatation devices) on and guided us across the river. People were in waders, floating in boats and staff were spread across the river at what seemed like about every 5-7 feet. Glow sticks were also put around our necks and in the water showing us where the large rocks were. I started across with Susie behind me. We had no lines and such to deal with so, that was good. Once we got across, a sandy beach and a climb up grabbing a rope would get us to the “far side” drop bag area. That part blew me away with how much they had for runners. Drop bags, cots, towels to dry off, lights, chairs, and medical personnel. It was pretty amazing. Susie kept us going and up the hill we went!! This was a slow slog up the hill. As I mentioned, 1.5 miles UP HILL, like a steep hill. It was relentless and dark. I would soon be getting Brad as a new and hopefully energized Pacer at around 2:45am. Susie had just done an amazing job for me! 🙂
Wait, I forgot my Orthotics!!! Later, over celebratory beers and pizza, this would be a phrase Brad would bring up as one of the things you “may not hear during Ultra”. We all lol’d on that one!!! Since these little things(that cost a LOT of $$) pretty much became a permanent fixture in my trail shoes since January(to help with that dang toe thing), I ran all my miles with them! Up to this point in the race, I had not ONE single issue with said toe. At green gate, I sat down while the crew went Nascar on me! Seriously, I’m not even sure what took place there! New socks(do NOT try and put Drymax socks on when your feet are wet), new shirt, refreshed pack and shoes. Brad was ready! We took off and one of the things one does at aid stations is “check’s in”. The big ultras have runners call out there #’s when entering and leaving the aid. We left the aid station around 3:00am(the 1st time) and started running. About 100 yds in, something wasn’t right! When the team put my new shoes on me, they didn’t transfer the all important and critical orthotics into the new pair. I yelled up to Brad, Oh F*ck! The thing about Brad, he is very determined and set. Just when I contemplated for one half of second, he had us charging back to the aid station. Some races do not allow re entry back into the aid stations once you leave. We would approach these nice two older volunteers and Brad asked “could we go back real quick since we forgot something”? They said sure!! We’ll just need your time again when you leave. So, back we went which in total was only about .25 miles and a total of about 10 extra min on both sides, so I wasn’t even concerned. I was more concerned about running with zero insoles at all for the next 15 miles. I was SO glad Brad pulled me back in. Off we went(the 2nd time).
Into the wee hours….
Getting through the next section would be slower. I knew it would be. The trail in this section has some overgrowth and large ruts with some rocky sections. Not a ton of climbing actually. I remembered it quite vividly from the training runs. One has to be careful with the ruts. Large ones. From years of use and horses some of the ground lining the trails were a foot or more deep. Turning an ankle would not be good going into the final stretch! I was feeling OK overall but at this point, it’s the darkest, sometimes the coldest and things just seem to move much slower. The body really really wants to go to sleep AND the famed 24hr timeframe is knocking on your door. Brad did a great job of keeping conversation going an he ran in front just like Susie did. Always checking to see how things were going and keeping track of my time. I heard him on numerous occasions tell me our running pace was under the “24hr” pace. The next two aid stations (Auburn Lake Trails and Quarry Road) would be smaller and low key from a crowd perspective. These were the wee hours of the morning and the bright white moon was even going into the burning orange color phase which was really stunning to see at this point. Reality set in during this section. For time sake, IF I were to hit the famed 24hr time, I would have to actually finish the race at 5:00am. We rolled into the Quarry Road aid at 4:30a. I did NOT let this get me down. After all, my day went without a hitch, I was happy and CALM.
Snakes and critters: So, I had forgot to mention earlier when I was with Susie, I glanced over at one point and saw the small bobcat kitten in the grass just after we left Ford’s Bar before Rucky Chucky. I knew momma was probably lurking nearby! Mountain lions, bears, snakes, you name it country! The road leaving Quarry aid was on a gradual up slope and we powerhiked most of it. Old, downed leaves lines each side of the trail. Outside of an occasional scorpion on the trail, millipedes, and that bobcat kitty, I had not encountered any snakes! Until now! A slither out of nowhere was happening immediately to my left and in the leaves. That woke me up! I was still walking a good pace but no more than 15-20 yards ahead it happened again. I didn’t hear any rattles but the snakes skin was light in color and not a huge one. On we went up the hill towards Highway 49.
The end is near: Highway 49 is a famous road crossing at mile 93ish and connect you to Cool, California. How “cool” is a town called “Cool”?!?!? Brad would txt ahead to let Meghan know we were a couple miles out. Those miles were almost all uphill. Not a daunting climb, but rather gradual enough to not allow me to run much. Energy levels were OK but I realized I needed and wanted to run almost that entire last 6 miles into Auburn! Knowing the journey I took getting here from one day ago at Sunrise almost 100 miles northeast in Squaw, had me thinking all kinds of things. Almost so much that the next mile or so were the most quiet for me. Sometimes, a million thoughts go through your head in these events that you lose track of exactly where you are, how many miles you covered and all of that. This race for me would be over somewhere in the 25hr range. EPIC! 25hrs was my un advertised B goal. My A goal much to my surprise would be something I could push to but probably not attain without “blowing up”, getting injured or just not really “enjoying” the race as much as I had. For comparision, my other 3 hundos except for one would be far north of the 25hr timeframe with not as much climbing and descent! I was happy with where I was at, real happy.
Sunrise: Faint glistening of stars were still visible now, skies were changing from pitch black to that dull black and headlamps were of no use anymore. As I would approach Pointed Rocks(94.3mi) aid to pick up Meghan at 5:37am, my focus was to get rid of my pack, do a quick shirt change, grab a bottle and get out as fast as possible! Glancing over to the aid station volunteers and their spread had me like “bacon”??? “sausage”?? and well, wholly sh!t, I can’t grab any of this and still run fast and get out of here! I felt bad for them but a job had to get done! A quick swig of Rebbl Cold Brew and we took off! Sun’s out, Jon’s out! “147 out”.
Pacers: Choosing your pacers just isn’t something you do “willy nillie”. Pacers help you achieve your goal and your dreams. They are with you during good and bad. Ultras cause us to morph into bastards and different people at times. The pain, the weather, the feelings and mood swings. The fact they may have to do things they never have done before. It’s a big job. A lot of responsibility goes into it and I prefer to have one when I can. Anyone that knows my history, knows I run with Meghan Slavin during training and quite a few other races. We’ve run many miles together over the last 4 years. She’s paced me up to 50+ stints at a time and at all my hundos so far. Leadville was an exception as I was just about to get her but missed the cutoff at mile 71. This was a critical section of the race. I was excited to get her and have her bring me in!
The temps had cooled down quite a bit, but I’m thinking it was still in the mid to high 70’s and I had a black 3/4 sleeve Christopher Bean Coffee racing jersey on. Temps at the finish still wouldn’t be that bad and in fact, my black and white Runners High Herbals cool trucker hat was on the noggin’. The feeling of running light was awesome. Sometimes, completely filled packs can not only weigh you down(some at around 5-6lbs) but can cause some unwlecomed chafing and lower back pain. I was glad to get through all of that now. The end and the culmination of the years, the 3 years waiting to get in, all the training, the journey, the beauty, the pain, the people’s chanting, support, just everything would be coming to an end within an hour or so.
Iconic Landmarks: Experiencing Western States provides quite the range of history for the lay person who may only know about those seeking Gold and having to cross major mountains getting there. I won’t mention all the things here but the few that you see and experience going into the final stretch are pretty awesome! The single track and some dirt roads and paths take you along the meadows heading in and down towards the North Fork of the American River, the famous No Hands Bridge and from our vantage point, looking up to see the massive bridge up and to the northwest that leads vehicles over to Foresthill. In most of the films you’ve probably seen about WS, you may have seen the lights draped across No Hands Bridge, the famous streets of Auburn, the last “white bridge” as a you round the corner towards Placer High School. All of these are available to us in this section. One is left thinking of all the famous and wold renowned athletes that have walked, powerhiked, limped, jogged and ran through these epic few miles leading to the finish. It helped ease the pain, the long many hours I would have traveled up to this point and reminded me of the WHY I did this race. More on the WHO and WHY in a bit.
As we approached No Hands Bridge, I would see the aid station(most of the lights had been taken down at this point) and a small group of volunteers and spectators. Meghan and I would be running most of this entire section except for the “hill” ahead of us. We paused for a quick pic here at No Hands, got a tad more water and ran over the rest of the bridge. The river raging below. The rapids in this section were pretty wild! The sounds coming from it this early with the quiet morning just touches your soul. The sun was now hitting almost everything in every direction. We wouldn’t see many runners in this next section. I can honestly say I had not been passed by anyone in a really long time. We did start to see what I think where some of the locals coming in the opposite direction, those walking dogs and perhaps some other spectators. Not one of them that went by didn’t say something like “congratulations”, “nice job 147”, “way to go runner”, it was awesome! Again, this event alone is probably the single most important and historic event for all of Auburn and surrounding communities. Who’s that? A runner was coming up fast on my heels. Wasn’t sure if it was a runner girl or guy, pacer girl/guy, it was a guy and a girl coming up. Come to find out, it was a runner dude pushing and grinding out his finish. It was awesome! Meghan and I watched them pass and to an extent, it gave me a short boost of energy.
Time wise, I was getting into the acceptance phase. My 25ish hour finish would most likely not happen at this pace and knowing what we had in front of us. The river and this area is at around 1000′ in elevation. Mind you, we started in Squaw at 6200′ and would finish on the track at about 1600′. The climb coming up to Robie Point(98.9mi) is on any normal day, a pretty good climb(+/-600′). How practical at this point in the race would it be for me to gut it out and “rush” in under 26hrs?? Not practical. In typical Meghan fashion she did turn to me and gave me a little speech which I needed. She reminded me not to have any negative emotions about time and that I had been asking more than I should about my time throughout the day. She reminded me about my feelings and early even gave me a “hey, remember when you were running Western States”? reminder. It was an epic reminder to tell me to think about what I was getting reading to accomplish. It was awesome. Funny though, 30 seconds later I said “f*ck we’re not going to make it”. That elusive 25hr time goal. I really did listen to her. Honest!
An option for us runners was to have any of our crew meet us at Robie Point aid station. It’s another thing you can sometimes see in the films about WS is groups running that last mile or so. I was looking forward to everyone being there! We really didn’t spend any time at the Robie Point aid. We said our hello’s and thank you’s and pressed on. We changed from a dirt road to asphalt at this time. On this asphalt going all the way into the finish are the painted shapes of two runner feet about every 50 yards or so with the WS 100 painted on them. Such a cool thing to see that far into the race.
“Welcome to Auburn”: A tad farther up the hill past the aid station, a man was standing in front of us looking at us as we approached. He pointed to the ground and said “This is the top of the Hill”.. as we approached he smiled and said “Welcome to Auburn”. Let’s just say, a few emotions went flying through my head! Brad and Brian met us here. Brian was doing a Facebook Live video for us running alongside of me. There is also a famous sign designating Robie Point and stating; “Welcome Western States Runners Mile 99 Robie Point City of Auburn CONGRATULATIONS. When one looks at this, it causes a flood of emotions whether you are a spectator, runner, pacer, whoever, it’s a sign that says a lot!
The rest of my crew was here! Other crews were there as well greeting runners and anxiously awaiting theirs. Everyone met me just in front of this sign and we all ran in together.. OK, not gonna lie, there was some walking in this section. I was starting to concentrate more on the final track miles and my time. I don’t know why but, there was a “you’ve got to run like you stole it” feeling I had wanted to experience when stepping onto that track!
Here comes Jon Christley from Phoenix, Arizona: One of the things Craig Thornley, WS Race Director does is send us updates periodically leading up to the race. One of them included a link to a website whereby runners complete a quick series of questions that are asked so the announcers(John Medinger, WSER President) can ensure they read the important things about you when you enter that track and run the last leg of this iconic race. They want to give a shout out to your crew, your family, your reasons why you ran this race and a couple other background goodies and nuggets.
The WHO am I running for: My Mom
The WHY. Because I’ve worked my ass off to get here. I want to push myself like I have never pushed before. Proving to myself age is just a # and anything can happen that you set your mind and heart to!!
These two objectives were written down days before the race. They were front and center of my plan and printed in both crew manuals for everyone in my group to digest and understand. John M. announced the story of my mom’s passing on easter which I heard while running on that track in that final minute or two. Although I heard him mention the other important things I filled in, I was thinking mostly about how she may have impacted my race that day. As I focused on that finish line and the arch, words cannot express the feelings I had. There was a moderate sized crowd there, some on the bleachers, in the grass, in the food lines, and scattered about. My favorite foursome of girls there as well to see me finish(the same ones that surprised me at Foresthill).
26:04:33: My finish time. Am I proud of this? Hell yes! Did I feel strong at the finish and happy? Hell yes! Was I able to execute on my plan and truly “experience” this race? Hell yes! Did I ever feel sad or allow that race to consume me? NO. Was I in the presence of the most important people helping me in every way possible to reach that finish line. Hell YES! How about the hundreds of friends, my family, my sponsors? Did I appreciate and “feel” their support every step of that race? Hell F*cking Yeah I did!! Did I ever take the race for granted? (ie. Was I “owed” a perfect day)? F*ck No! Did I ever think of throwing in the towel when the tough times came? Hell NO!
Celebration: How is this over? I know I’ve been running and variations thereof for 26hrs. My whole crew was there at the finish as well as the girls who came from Phoenix. I wanted so bad to have a beer with them! Since it was early morning when I came across that finish line(a tad after 7am), I knew everyone would be tired. When I crossed that finish line, I was given a small medal hung proudly around my neck and the photographers had a front row seat. Someone handed me an orange bottle filled with cold water and I progressed through the transition area. Melissa Ruse was there as well as Jamil Coury… A very tired Jamil. I think we have a pic of him face down sleeping in the grass in the infield. We caught him for a few minutes just before that to chat a bit. My wife, Tara came over before I was out of the transition area. Just before that, I looked to the sky as if my mom was there somehow, somewhere, and I said “I did it Ma”. Then I lost it. Finally, cried happy tears when I hugged Tara for what seemed like 5 minutes. Telling her how much I loved her and thanking her for EVERYTHING. See sacrifices below. I walked through the medical tent and over to each of my crew giving each one a hug and exchanging as many words as I could muster up. Wandering aimlessly for a few minutes and looking for others I recognized and wanted to say Hi to was something I did for a few minutes. I just wasn’t ready to sit down. Breakfast was being served so we walked over towards that area. We bumped into Adam and Andrea Danks of Runner’s High Herbals. They are SUCH a nice couple!! I am so happy to be associated with such a great company and use their products heavily! I feel like I’ve bumped into them at all of my races leading up to this day so, it was not a shocker to see them but a special treat to have them awake at this moment. We made our way over to grab some grub before heading over to the car. Tons of eggs, bacon, sausage and potatoes/hash browns were there.. I tried to eat.. It’s real hard to get solids down immediately following these races. Bacon.. Yeah, that went down just fine.. the rest of it, not so much. The hotel we picked was a short drive away in Roseville. The plan.. SHOWER, Snooze and come back for the awards presentation at 12:30pm. Then, go get Pizza and Beer in downtown Auburn at Old Town Pizza!
Summary: This was single handily the most epic experience! Total class act. I would highly recommend anyone yearning to do this race, continue to put in for the lottery! Those wishing to experience it without running it, there are plenty of options! Find a pacing role, a crewing role, come out to the Training Camps, hop on the volunteer waiting list and the like. Hold dear to you the things, the tools and the people that you want on your team to help you reach your goal. This race changes you. It opens up opportunities you didn’t think were possible. It stimulates conversations you would not normally have. Your name may get published. People you don’t even know will walk up to you and say “wish you the best at States this year”. Your team will make race week about YOU! They will accommodate your every need if they even seem trivial or way out in right field. Your friends who train with you WILL alter their own personal training to train with you. They will lift you up and help you focus. Those sacrifices you make to make this dream happen will need to be made. COMMIT to the dream and you will reap great rewards personally and perhaps professionally too! To ALL the runners, the volunteers, the support personnel, organizers, film makers, photographers, town peeps, friends and just plain everyone a HUGE heartfelt Thank You from the very deepest part of me. This was a race of epic teamwork and not individual. I have been asked a few times and will no doubt be asked, “Would you ever do this race again”? My personal answer is NO. This was a once in a life time experience for me and a dream come true. It was an opportunity earned and awarded. “But you have your qualifier again”? Doesn’t matter. Why would I rob a close friend of mine or the ultra community of a chance to realize the very dream I just realized? How would I feel knowing that people put in for this for years and I get drawn again? Nope, that’s not how I work. I will be just as happy giving back to this race in the form of supporting my close friends and anyone that should have their day at the BIG DANCE.
Closing Items: I am often asked after I do these hundos, very similar questions by friends and others so, I thought I would share for those aspiring to tackle a 100 someday.
Nutrition: During the race, I stayed true to what I knew worked. I didn’t throw any curve balls in there except an avocado rice ball or two seemed to look really appealing to me. Except for my Bulletproof style coffee I had in the morning before the race(and every morning for that matter, thanks to Christopher Bean Coffee), I had zero caffeine until Foresthill(headlamp time). From that point, I stayed with caffeine through the finish. I used Tailwind Naked flavor mixed as prescribed at 200cal/20-24oz per hour. There may have been an hour here or there where I supplemented with gels and waffles. Honey Stinger gels and waffles were always in my pack and this time around, I introduced a few Spring Energy gels and Muir. I say introduced because that was the only modification I made to my plan but had already raced and trained with them prior to WS. There were fruits at the aid station which I took in when I felt I needed it(Watermelon, Blackberries, Peaches and Pineapple) and an occasional pickle here and there. It was extremely hard to get down solids(I tried a piece of Pay Day and a Date and it worked “ok”). Calorie intake was around 200-300/hour. Occasionally, I would pop one Excedrin and a salt pill with caffeine here and there. Again, my sodium source was Tailwind. Fortunately, I never dealt with the feeling of nauseous and only one time did I actually feel “hungry”. Ginger Ale when it was cold was awesome into the later afternoon and nighttime and so was my other go to, Chicken Broth. The only other race day nutrition I had was the UCANN bottle concoction I mentioned above. My feedback: Stay with what works for you! Each person’s nutrition needs vary and a huge race like this is not the day you introduce new or unknowns.
Sleep: I try and average at least 7 hours a night of sleep at a minimum. Since January, I really only averaged about 5-6 restless hours/night. One would think with such high mileage weeks(some athletes are much higher than me) your body would be exhausted and yearn for sleep. That is not always the case. Often, I would have calf twitching for days on end which I eventually got under control but the body gets used to being “on” more than off. Rarely, I would pop a melatonin pill when I really felt I was lacking good sleep. Yoga was something I introduced on a fairly regular basis which helped me calm down. I also experimented with CBD oils(non THC versions) once in the am and again at night. That seemed to work as well.
Training: I’ve included my training chart leading up to this race. At the beginning of the year, maybe just a tad before, I had to determine what I would do differently, how I would fit it all in and would I use races to help prepare me for the race. The 3day training camp was a for sure! I had heard on numerous occasions I should “get a coach”. So I did. Super glad for that. The coach I landed on would have the experience and resume to lead me to that finish line! Looking back, I do wish I had her as of Jan 1 but it didn’t work that way and I’m ok with that. Weekly volume hovered between 30-80mi/wk with some grueling races thrown in there(100K, and 2 50milers). Cross training was key. Personal Training was key. Exercises I did at home and at work during lunch hours locked in a conf room. These all kept me injury free, helped with getting kinks worked out and stabilized those “other” muscle groups we runners often take for granted.
Expenses: If you plan to go down this road, expect to invest big $$. And when I say big, I probably didn’t include everything. When I got home I took the receipts, the bank statements, the registration emails, all of it and added it up. I stopped when I reached $5,657.93. Yep! That’s right. A family of four could have gone on a pretty nice vacation for that amount. Bills could have been paid off, the list goes on. My only comment here is the amount you invest from your heart and your bank account will directly impact your ability to stay CALM on race day. We are never ever guaranteed a great day, a finish or success by the amount of $$ we put into anything. If you minimize the stress by investing in yourself, taking smaller chunks of buying your gear along the way, booking flights early, securing VRBO’s for eight people, do this AS YOU GO ALONG. Do not wait until the final 30 days to scramble, make last minute decisions, etc.. Correlate this to anything else in life that you may be dreaming of accomplishing. The more you can see yourself approaching that finish line, completing that project, getting that promotion, paying off debt, buying that new house, the more you can rest assured knowing you’ve put in all the work and carefully planned your big day whatever that may be!! The rest is EXECUTION.
Sacrifices: This type of commitment will no doubt test your every ability to make sound decisions and put things “on hold” along the way. No one knows this more than my wife and family, close friends and friends of friends. Even at work, your colleagues, managers and others will be effected by your decisions and musings of this big 100 miler. You may lose friends in the process. Your family often will not understand. Your physicians and medical resources will not quite understand the scope of what you are attempting to do.. Believe me, the phrases “are you insane”?, “I don’t drive that far in one day”, “you run on the road right”?, “you sleep during these correct”? will all come to the surface. When you really stop and think about the every day things you need to do just to get through life and now introduce the “Western States Training” variable into it, you may get overwhelmed. Gain agreement to this commitment from your spouse. Make sure she/he knows exactly what is involved. Ensure they support your dream to the core. When there is mis understanding, ambiguity and uncertainty, these can lead you into a vicious “justification” conversation. You will put family on hold. Those functions, those happy hours, those warm beds in the winter will have one side empty, the kids won’t quite understand why you’re gone so much and on and on. Appreciate those who take this journey with you! Know who your friends are when they question your plan. Determine why they are questioning things. Try not to jump to conclusions.. Your TRUE friends will do this because they share similar values and dreams. They will be there through thick and thin. They too will make sacrifices and to them, I owe that in return when they get drawn for this epic race they call the Big Dance!!
Thank You for reading 🙂