Last weekend I finished a race that — for me — started a decade ago: The Western States 100.
This race meant a lot already, but this one had an extra layer because Sara and I headed out with a much larger group than we were used to. We had my son, my dad, Grandma T, Sara’s parents, and friends Kelley and Tristen. We’ve been racing primarily alone for a while, so having our friends and family with us made this experience even more special.
We arrived on Wednesday and spent Thursday and Friday soaking up as much of the Western States community as we could. We made it to the flag raising ceremony, the Truckee Food Truck festival, and spent a full day at the event check-in.
In those days leading up to Saturday’s 5 a.m. start we chugged as much water and tried to get as much sleep as we could. When Saturday morning rolled around, both of us were feeling pretty good as we showed up to the Squaw Valley Ski Resort for the start of the Western States 100.
The actual start was a surreal experience. After years of thinking about starting this race we were finally here.
It was going to happen, we were going to run the Western States 100.
Just before the countdown, Sara and I gave each other our customary good luck kiss and then we were off.
Start To Robinson Flat
The first four miles of the race take you from the Squaw Valley Ski resort, which sits at about 6,200 feet, up a winding dirt path to Emigrant Pass just below 9,000 feet. My strategy was to maintain a heart rate of 150 beats per minute or lower, and this four-mile climb made hitting my heart rate goal easy.
For the most part, I felt terrific during these early miles. The delight of starting my dream race, combined with the scenery as the sun rose over Lake Tahoe behind us, and the positivity of other runners was slightly overwhelming.
I felt great, but I’d started to notice some tightness in my calves. I figured that was just my legs needing to knock off some taper rust, but it didn’t end up turned out that easy.
I was surprised by how technical it was at the top of Emigrant Pass — there was a section near the top that was almost hands-on-ground climbing. But I was even more surprised and impressed with the number of spectators who had made the same climb to cheer on the runners. These people had woken up as early as I had and already made the climb up Escarpment to support the runners.
This first section of the course is known as the High Country. I still felt pretty good through most of this section, or at least I thought I did. I was running well and keeping my heart rate between 145 and 150 beats per minute. I even was able to share some trail time with Kaci Lickteig as she talked about seeing a bear on this section a few years ago.
And then I fell.
I mean I had an epic fall. I tripped over a rock and managed to fall into a ninja roll and spring right back up.
Both my calves locked up.
They didn’t lock up enough that I couldn’t run, but enough that I purposefully leaned into the next few climbs to try and stretch them a little. This was another warning of things to come.
Our coach, Carmichael Training System’s Adam St. Pierre, had run from the start to Robinson Flat (Mile 30.3) the day before. We had woken up to a text warning us that this first section was more technical and had more loose rocks and terrain than he had remembered from his race. Usually, I consider technical terrain one of my strengths, but I had a difficult time in this section and I found myself tripping every half mile or so. And each trip resulted in my calves tightening up. The worst one included coming into Rest Star Ridge (Mile 15.8) in front of a large crowd. It looked a little dramatic and got me a little extra attention from the volunteers.
The shit hit the fan at Duncan Creek (Mile 25). I had been fighting cramps for 10 miles. They had started in my calves and grown to include my hamstrings. I was trying to maintain long enough to reach my crew and coach at Robinson Flat. But as I crossed the creek, I leaned over to dip my hat in the water and my legs lit up. It was debilitating and by far the worse cramps I have ever had while running. I immediately fell over into the creek. I tried twice to stand up before deciding to relax in the water.
I spent the next few miles mostly walking to Robinson Flat. My legs were done. Anytime I tried to stretch or push my pace, my they would cramp, and I’d limp for a few yards. It was mentally defeating. During a few of the cramps, I saw my Western States turning into my first DNF, and I choked up a little.
I’d wanted to be here for so many years.
My family had come all this way.
It couldn’t end like this.
I tried to put that out of my mind, told myself to keep moving forward and troubleshoot my way out of this situation.
The only thing I could come up with was a need for salt. I spent that walk downing 200 calories of Tailwind hoping that I could turn this around.
Coming into Robinson Flat, I met a volunteer who asked me what they could get me. I took a bottle of electrolyte drink on ice and looked around for my team. Adam and the rest of CTS’s team had a tent just beyond the aid station. I waved off any other assistance from the volunteers and pushed through to Adam. I explained my cramping issues and ran a theory about electrolytes by him.
I spent 17 minutes at this aid station — I won’t call this a regret as I needed to recalibrate — but it’s a data point I will hold on to. I spent the majority of that time working through my issues with Adam and the CTS team. My family stood on the side, and I could see the concern in their eyes. They hadn’t expected me to show up at Mile 30 looking this bad.
Adam gave me a pep talk and told me to take salt caps every hour; two to three are good but seven an hour will kill you. He poured ice over me and shoved it into my arm sleeves. He went through my drop bag and loaded me up. Then he told me it was time to leave.
On the walkout, CTS coach and legendary Western States runner Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW) appeared at my side. As I walked out, he advised me that if I felt a cramp as strong as I had when I fell in the river, to immediately pop a salt cap.
The CTS team at that aid station saved my race.
Robinson Flat to Foresthill
The next portion of the race is known as the canyons. And damn it was hot.
A month before, at the training camp, I had flown through the downhills during this section. But during the race, every mile just seemed to be creeping by. I would try to push the pace, but my legs felt heavy. Which sucks, between Robinson Flat and Last Chance would have been a great section to make up some time after the High Country.
Instead, my quads were still cramping. Every time I’d try to stretch my quad, my hamstring would cramp. It was a no-win situation that was frustrating the hell out of me. I took stock of my salt caps and started to take them every thirty minutes. I also started trolling the aid stations looking for salt caps. If they had them in stock, I’d take another. I was taking more than Adam’s recommended one an hour, but I was also way off from the “seven will kill you.”
Somewhere in these miles, I began to craft a post-race narrative. I started telling myself that it was OK to have had a bad day. The goal was 24 hours, the original time goal of 20 hours involved having a perfect day. I accepted that my heart rate could be in the 130’s and below. The only thing that I regret from my Western States run is letting myself slip into this negative mental state. There was too much race left to hit acceptance this early. Maybe my original goal was out of hand, but I could have run the second half of the race with a harder effort.
Adam had given me a bottle and instructed me to fill it with water at the river crossings at the bottom of the canyons. Then on the hot and exposed climbs up Devil’s Thumb and the other accents, I could trickle the water over myself to cool off a little. That little bottle of water was fantastic on those climbs.
Those climbs are also where I really started to feel good again. By the last big climb — a steady 2.8 miles up into Michigan Bluff — I was singing AC/DC, “Its a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.”
It felt appropriate on that climb.
Coming into the Michigan Bluff, I first saw my son. I aimed straight for him and gave him a giant hug and then I walked through the aid station buffet. Thankfully they had pickle-juice. Pickle juice is an old stand by in the heat for getting my stomach and electrolytes going in the right direction, but I hadn’t been able to find any before Michigan bluff.
After a few shots of pickle juice and some snacks, my son ran me to the rest of my crew. I didn’t stay long, but I joked with my dad and Grandma T while chugging root beer. My dad commented that according to the car it was 102º. I wasn’t doubting that and had them shove some ice down my arm sleeves and back.
Before leaving I got an update on Sara, who was having a lot more fun than I was. Then they threw me out.
I was able to maintain the present mood all the way through to Foresthill. I had been looking forward to the section after Foresthill. It was mostly downhill or flat, perfect for making up some time.
I also hoped the cramps were finally behind me.
Foresthill to Rucky Chucky
I came out of Foresthill feeling the best I had all day. My legs felt heavy, but they were no longer attempting to sabotage my day. And other than my legs being heavy, I felt about as good as I could feel 100K into a race.
The aid stations after Foresthill get closer together. I had harbored hopes of skipping through a few of them. But, as I came into each one, I would stop and try to put some actual food into my system. I had been living off of Honey Stinger gummies and Tailwind all day. Unfortunately, the gummies were so sweet that my teeth were now killing me. I could no longer chew on my left side without intense pain. At each aid station I would troll through the line and look for anything that looked like it wouldn’t hurt and that would also give me some additional calories.
Coming into Rucky Chucky was a dream come true. I had thought about crossing this river for 10 years and had watched more video’s on YouTube than I could count. My family was also there waiting for me. I grabbed some quick food and drank a root beer. I also got Grandma T and my dad to dig a tube of Sensodyne tooth paste from our luggage. It was thankfully travel sized. I applied toothpaste liberally every few miles while running down the trail the remainder of the race. This tube will now be a regular part of my running kit.
As I crossed the river, I got a little emotional about the event. When asked how I was doing, I replied, “I am crossing Rucky while running the Western States, I have thought about this shit for 10 years and watched it every year on YouTube. I’m great, how are you?” This caused a man to walk over, hug me, and welcome me to the Rucky Chucky.
Rucky Chucky to Placer High School Track
For the next 14 miles, I managed to get it into my head that I was running short on time. Leaving the Auburn Trail Lakes, there was a sign indicating that the 24-hour cut off time for that aid station was 1:05 a.m. It was 11:45 p.m. I had an hour and twenty-minute buffer, but I was convinced that wouldn’t be enough. I was also sure that I was aiming for 23-hour race, at best.
I thought back to the training I had done leading into the race. The number of workouts that Adam had us run where we would vary our pace. He had told us this would be for when we needed to find that extra gear after a slower portion of the race. And I was convinced I needed that gear. I pushed the pace when I could. Even running hills that I had been happy to walk a few hours before.
The decent into No Hands Bridge was a relief. I knew that from there I would only have a little over a 5K left. I also knew that the climb up from No Hands would be a bitch, but it would be the last climb of my Western States. I came into the aid station, thanked the volunteers, and took a few shots of Mountain Dew to fuel my ascent.
As I crossed the bridge, I glanced down at my watch: 21:29.
At first, I was dumbstruck. I was sure that I’d be well into Hour 22 by this point. That was why I had pushed those last few sections. But 21:29 meant something else to me. I had 50 minutes to get across the finish line and I’d have a PR. That had been my “B” goal.
I cussed. I cussed some more. I cussed the remainder of the bridge, and then I tried to gather my thoughts. A few miles of substantial effort and I’d have a PR. All I needed to do was make it up the climb, and the rest would be easy. I cussed some more and started to climb.
The climb sucked. My mantra up the hill became “shut up and run, fuck you, hill.” But it worked. My effort on the climb up to Robie Point (Mile 99) during the race was significantly faster than during training camp.
Even at 3:00 a.m. I was surprised to find people still sitting in their drieways as I made my way down the last mile toward the track. It was the middle of the night, and these folks were still cheering runners on with enthusiasm and smiles. Some were even playing a game in a driveway. The community around this race is fantastic.
My son ran the majority of that last mile with me. We talked about how his day had been as we ran toward the track. He had been awake pretty much the entire time and still seemed wired. He was also making me push my pace. As we rounded our way into the track, I asked him not to judge me if I started to cry.
The Placer High School track is a magical place after 100 miles. Running those 200 meters around the track with my son was everything I wanted from a Western States finish. I had worked hard. It hadn’t been the perfect day, but it was ending all right.
I finished the Western States in 22:09 with my son cheering and clapping as we crossed the finish line together — and I managed to not cry.
After I finished, I spent time on the inside of the track with Sara and my crew. It was awesome watching other runner’s finish the race while trading stories about the day. Our family and friends had been on an adventure that had included perilous bus rides, snakes, puking runners, and many twisting roads. Not only was it fun to hear their stories, but seeing the bond that had grown between the group was pretty cool.
Sara finished her race in 25:25. She, as always, is amazing. Her race had started in March when she broke her wrist. Her dedication, tenacity, and stubbornness will always amaze me.
I spent ten years thinking about this race. The entire trip was everything I had wanted it to be. My Western States run wasn’t what I would call a good run, but it was a great day. I also walked off with a shiny new silver buckle and shiny new PR.
Look for more on lessons learned in an upcoming post.