Western States Race Report

My race report follows.  Warning – It is long. 

Western States 2009 – Unexplored Resilience

Western States 2009 was epic.  Not because I had the race of my life (I didn’t) and not because I reached some higher consciousness (just a little confusion and inability to think); but because I went to new places with my mind and my body.  Places to which I had been fortunate enough not to visit previously.  As I write this, I am still digesting those places as well as evaluating my strengths / weaknesses that reared up over my 28 + hour journey.

I really cannot describe the phenomenon that is Western States.  The lead-up to Saturday morning is exhilarating, nerve wracking, and fantastic.  The buzz is electric – even the animals felt the energy of Squaw Valley.  Thursday morning, all four of the HURT runners and their respective crews hiked the 2,040 foot climb to the Escarpment for the flag planting ceremony at Emigrant Pass. 

The gathering was very nice, especially Cheryl sharing memories of Ed Fishman and his contribution to HURT and ultrarunning.   The afternoon was spent relaxing and going over gear, drop bags, and race plans.  We shared a great dinner and got a good night’s sleep. 

Friday was a series of weigh-ins, medical checks, goodie-gathering, drop bag depositing, and pre-race meetings.  It was an early dinner and early to bed for me.  Unfortunately, sleep wouldn’t come until about one hour prior to the alarm ringing to wake me!  I felt somewhat rested and very anxious to get going.  After checking in, we went to the start line and before I knew it, we were counting down the seconds to the start. 

The gun went off and 399 runners headed up the climb to the Escarpment.  I jogged until I felt my heart rate rising, and then walked the steep stuff.  The temperature was in the 50’s and I knew I should enjoy it while I could.  The forecasts were for blazing hot both days, so I knew that heart rate and body temperature both needed to be kept low and moderate or there would be trouble later.

Forty or fifty of the top runners took a wrong turn on the way up the climb, and it was pretty amusing to see them merge with the masses after they got back on track.  They put in an extra ¼ mile or so, but it didn’t seem to throw any of them off of their game.  After cresting the top, the trail started down through some gorgeous landscape.  The wildflowers were in bloom and the vistas were breathtaking – or was that just the elevation???  This high country section was nice, but not quite the stroll through the woods that Steve had led me to believe it would be.  There were some tricky sections, plenty of snow-melt and mud, and some pretty good climbs.  I reminded myself to be patient with my pace as my plan was to take the first 30 miles very easy and try to save my legs for the canyons. 

My race plan also included eating and drinking early in the race, and I was able to empty both bottles between Escarpment and Lyon Ridge aid station.  I went into Lyon Ridge, filled both bottles, grabbed a piece of pbj sandwich and continued on.  By the time I was on my way to Red Star Ridge, it began getting warm.  It was in this section that both feet began talking to me.  I have had neuromas in both feet for years and they flare up intermittently.  Unfortunately, they decided this would be the day they would both get angry.  I got a haunting feeling that this was going to be a tough race.

I refilled at Red Star Ridge, grabbed a bite, and headed on my way to Duncan Canyon.  This section is so incredibly dusty and rocky that words do not even begin to adequately paint a picture.  There was about 12 inches of fine powder dirt coating the trail and a constant fog of dust in the air for the entire descent into Duncan.  Between the dust and my feet-o-flames, it was slow going down this canyon.  The pain in both feet was significant and more than once I wondered how I would be able to endure for the remaining 75 miles.  The aid station was very upbeat and people were eager to help, but I was already wrapped up in my own discomfort and I went through without trying to cool down.  By this time, it was approaching triple digit temperatures, and cooling my body would soon become a crucial part of my routine. 

After Duncan Canyon aid station, there was yet more screaming downhill and choking dust.  Every rock that I stepped on sent a lightning bolt of pain through my body – enough that I actually cried out in pain and was reduced to walking afterwards.  Digging deeper…..going to new places.

At the bottom of the canyon, I crossed a good stream and soaked my feet, my bandana, and my hat in the cold water.  What a wonderful feeling that was!  I climbed up out of Duncan with great anticipation of seeing my crew at Robinson Flat.  This was the first medical check of the day and my weight was right on the money.  I got my bottles refilled by the volunteers, grabbed my drop bag, and was then subjected to the most incredible experience I have ever had.  I now know what the most elite race car drivers or professional cyclists must feel when they pull into the pit or get refueled during a race.  My crew and the crews of the other HURT runners worked furiously and efficiently on me to change my shoes, socks, ice me down, massage me, feed me, hydrate me with such precision that I didn’t even know what the heck was going on.  They were the ultimate professional crew and before I knew it, I was on my feet, smiling, cool, happy, and ready to rock and roll.  I cannot tell you how much of an effect this had on my race….HUGE!!!

I left Robinson a happy girl.  For a while, I ran with a woman from Cool, CA. named Diana Lundy.  She and I would end up seeing each other repeatedly for the rest of the day and night.  We had a nice conversation and it helped me to have the distraction.  From Robinson to Miller’s Defeat was rather mundane – jeep road for a good part, exposed, and getting very warm.  But it was a good opportunity to relax and since it was relatively gradual downhill, my feet got some temporary respite. 

At Miller’s Defeat, I refueled, ate some fruit, put ice in the baggy that I was keeping in my hat (thanks, Steve!) and headed down toward Last Chance.  This section is a great trail with pretty quick descent through pleasant forest and some welcome shade.  It was about mid-way in this section that I came upon Luis Escobar on the side of the trail not looking good at all.  I asked him what was wrong.  He said he had been puking and was very weak.  I asked if he wanted ice.  He just stared at me.  I took the ice from my hat and handed it to him.  He put it under his hat and I told him to take it easy as I went on my way.  I quickly had some regrets about giving away the thing that had been saving me from the heat just before hitting the dreaded Devil’s Thumb, but I knew that he needed it much more than I did at that point.

I made my way into Last Chance and remembered that Cheryl had handed me a good luck charm early this morning….and it was in a plastic baggy.  I scrounged in my pack for the charm, removed it and tucked it safely away, then got the baggy filled with ice for my hat.  Saved once again!  I weighed in (on the money!), refilled bottles, ate some fruit, and started onto the steep descending switchbacks to the swinging bridge.  My feet were on fire and the pain forced me to go slow down this section.  I crossed the bridge, was able to soak my hat and bandana in the stream, and started the trudge up Devil’s Thumb. 

Baby steps seemed to be the technique of the day for me.  I slowly and methodically worked my way up the 1,300 feet ascent over about ¾ of a mile.  I kept me head down and put one foot in front of the other and before I knew it, I had a Popsicle in my mouth enjoying the frozen treat.  The Devil’s Thumb aid station was M.A.S.H. central.  There were casualties everywhere.  Yuck….I couldn’t look at them.  I weighed in (on the money – 3 for 3) got more ice, grabbed another Popsicle, and was getting ready to head out, when someone said, “Sorry I couldn’t see you back there.  Thanks!”  I turned, and it was Luis, standing at the food table, looking pretty darn good.  He said that his vision was messed up and he didn’t know who I was.  I complimented him on his recovery and he said that he still had a long way to go.  Unfortunately, I found out later that he didn’t make it.

I headed out of there thinking 2 down, 2 to go (canyons, that is).  The descent into El Dorado Canyon is long, relentless, but not too hairy.  However, the condition of my feet did not allow me to enjoy it at all.  Each step was an attempt to avoid landing on a rock, bump, or anything hard that would send a shockwave of pain through my body.  Not fun.  I was able to get more ice and soak my hat and bandana again at the El Dorado aid station at the bottom, and begin the longest, hottest climb of the day up to Michigan Bluff.  It was a 1,700 foot climb over 2 ¾ miles…think Ahuilama on steroids.  Not radical, but seemingly going on forever.  As I reached the top, Frank, a friend and former Marine buddy of Gil’s, ran me down into the Michigan Bluff aid station, got me on the scale (once again – right on the money – 4 for 4) and helped me get to my amazing pit crew.

Once again, I was massaged, iced down, fed the best Popsicle known to man, hydrated, and sent quickly on my way.  One more canyon to tackle and I was able to move down the switchbacks pretty well.  I was feeling more upbeat in this section and although it was about 7:00 p.m., it was still about 100 degrees.  I made the climb up to Bath Road and was greeted by a very excited Huddy with his video camera rolling.  It was at this point that his runner, Jim Eckert, overtook me.  Jim was not having the day that he was hoping for and I got the feeling that he was determined that I not be ahead of him.  Huddy ran with me until Neal came running down the road to escort me into Foresthill.  Huddy then took off ahead to warn Jim’s crew that he was coming in.  Kelly McPherson joined Neal and I running on the road to Foresthill and I got so energized seeing and hearing all of the people at this aid station.  Neal got my drop bag while I weighed in (once again spot on – 5 for 5).  The amazing pit crew went to work on me – massage, ice, shirt change, headlamp, hydration pack, flashlight, food, drink – all within the blink of an eye….a coordinated chaos of loving care.  

Neal and I took off running to get back on the trail and make our way through the nice trail known as Cal Street.  This trail is great and I was able to run all of the flats and downs.  There were quite a few bumps to climb, but nothing terribly long.  The first aid station in this section is Dardanalles.  It is lit up with Christmas lights and very cheery.  By this time, my tummy did not want food, so I was just drinking water and Ginger ale.  We moved through this aid station quickly and not long after leaving, we hit a screaming downhill followed by some significant climbing.  This seemed to take the starch out of me and my energy level really tanked.  I probably was low on calories, but my tummy wasn’t happy.  I took ginger, Tums, and electrolytes.  This triple whammy worked and I would rely on it several more times throughout the night.  We came into Peachstone aid station for a weigh in (once again on the money – 6 for 6) and left quickly.  I still wasn’t eating, but was able to drink soda for some sugar. 

Leaving Peachstone, there was a lot of downhill running.  In places where it was rocky, I was forced to take it slowly to try and protect my feet.  I was trying very hard to remain positive, but the hours of pain were taking a toll on my attitude.  We got into Ford’s Bar and this aid station was really fun.  Two years ago, this is where I got scolded by the grouchy men who told me they were in the middle of nowhere and how dare I ask for something like ice!  This year, not only did they have ice, they actually offered to brush my teeth!  I did not take them up on it but was very impressed at the big improvement in amenities!

Neal and I then started to make our way to the river crossing.  I had been looking forward to this all day long.  It was still hot at midnight and the cool water of the American River was calling my name.  This section is bizarre.  You can hear the river for the entire 5 miles, and logically, you think you should be descending down to a crossing, but instead, you actually climb.  It is not a lot of climbing, but it seems counter-intuitive.  Finally, you make a left turn and you know the crossing is close.  The aid station is lit up and the volunteers are great.  I weighed in (on the money – 7 for 7), put my pack around my neck, and took the plunge.  Ahhhhhhhh!  The water was wonderful.  I followed the glow sticks on the rocks and the volunteers along the cable gave me hints about my footing.  There were a couple of neck-high spots (well, only for us vertically challenged runners) and my pack ended up getting wet.  In the center of the river, the volunteer told me that I was in the middle of the American River and to look up at the stars.  Oh my heavens…literally!  It was absolutely gorgeous. 

I climbed out of the water, got my pack on, drank some soda and broth, and we started the climb up to Green Gate.  This 800 foot climb over 1 ¾ miles seemed much longer than the last time I did it.  I couldn’t believe that it was not even slightly cold.  I would not need any of the warmer clothing that was waiting for me at Green Gate.  Sarah was waiting for me there with a change of shoes and socks, while Cheryl and Kelly assisted with the fluids and broth.  I said goodbye to Neal as Sarah and I headed off down the trail for the last 20 miles.  I told Sarah that I would run as much as possible, but that I didn’t have much left in my legs and that my feet were still screaming.  My hip flexor and lower back were also joining in the chorus by that point and it would require some deep strength to keep focused. 

The next section to Auburn Lakes Trails may have been one of the more difficult sections for me.  I seemed to lose my desire.  I think I was tired of the discomfort and had difficulty with staying in the moment.  I just wanted to be done.  Sarah did a great job of encouraging me to run and I feel like I did the best that I could at the moment.  She did everything right, but I know she was questioning why she was unable to get me going faster.  We pulled into the ALT aid station and the weigh-in was off for the first time in the past 24 hours (7 for 8).  They told me I was 3.5 pounds over.  I was confused by this, but they told me not to worry about it.  I still think it was the scale – this was the only scale the whole time that was digital.  I drank mushroom soup and as we were just about to leave the aid station, Gil and Steve came in looking great.  Sarah and I took off and I think knowing they would soon overtake me pulled me into a little bit of a funk.  I was beating myself up for not having more fight in my legs.

Sarah and I were still running the downs and flats, but it didn’t take long to hear some runners behind me.  I knew it was Gil, but he didn’t say anything.  I asked if they wanted by and his reply was, “it is up to you”.  Smart ass!  I pulled off and let them by.  He was feeling great and I was glad that he was having such a great day.  At the same time, my attitude really started to suck.  I was having an internal battle to pull myself up out of the funk and focus on getting to the next aid station.

The next section of trail to Brown’s Bar is nice, but it seemed to go on forever.  The sun came up and surprisingly, I did not get the boost that I normally would feel with the sunrise.  Pulling into Brown’s Bar was fun.  The men were all in red dresses and the volunteers were all very positive.  It did pick up my spirits a bit.  I had soup and left pretty quickly.  My tummy started to feel bad again so I did the triple whammy.  It helped, but I needed to take a nature break.  Finding a place where I could be 10 feet off the trail without falling to my death was a little challenging, but I did and felt much better afterwards.  We jogged and walked to the Highway 49 crossing which was a welcome sight.  Here, I weighed in (back on the money – 8 for 9), got rid of my night gear, changed into a clean shirt, drank a little coffee, got ice, and headed out feeling better. 

I was still fighting my impatience to finish this thing and to stay in the moment.  Aid station to aid station!  It was already getting very hot again and the finish line seemed so close but so far!  We finally got to No Hands Bridge and Neal was there to meet us.  He would jog and walk us into the finish.  That was great!  I knew I had one more bugger of a climb to tackle and I was not looking forward to that as the heat increased.  We were just about to get to the 1,000 foot climb over 1 mile up to Robie Point when Sarah put her bandana that she had doused in ice water around my neck to keep my temperature down.  That helped as I employed the baby step technique once more.  Head down, left, right, left, right, all the way to the top.  Halleluiah!  We bypassed the aid station at the top but thanked the cheering crowd for their support.  Now I was feeling as though this would finally be coming to an end.  We just had to climb this asphalt hill and make our way through the neighborhood to that wonderful bridge leading to the track entrance. 

Kelly was on the street waiting for us and telephoning our approach to the gang waiting at the stadium.  Kelly joined us and the four of us turned onto the bridge to enter the stadium.  I made my way the 300 yards around the track, being careful not to go outside of my lane (wouldn’t want to be dq’d this late in the game), vaguely heard my name being called, and raised my arms as I crossed the finish line.  The hugs were so wonderful; I couldn’t hold the tears back.  They wanted to weigh me, but I had too many people to hug.  I felt so grateful for so many things right at that moment, but primarily for being able to stop.  I stepped on the scale and was spot on 110 pounds once again.  My blood pressure was almost identical to Friday’s reading.  I had managed my body well through some very tough conditions and for that I was proud. 

Ernest came in right behind me not looking well and not so much into the whole hugging thing.  I was still hugging everyone in sight.  I was happy for Gil who had a phenomenal 2nd half and for Ernest who gave it his all.  The three of us really worked for our finishes, but that is what makes it even sweeter.  The disappointment of last year’s race cancellation, the struggle to get to the starting line this year, and the battles on the course all faded away with the medal around my neck and the smile on my face.

My crew once again took great care of me.  They removed my shoes, got my feet in the ice bath, got my slippers, got me water, and helped me walk to the car.  I have never before felt the incredible boost that good teamwork can provide and am eternally grateful for the hard work the HURT family that made up that crewing machine of support.  Many times over the 28 + hours I felt the support of HURT family in Hawaii and all around the country.  

My feelings that I take away from Western States are very conflicting.  I am disappointed in my inability to will my body to do things, yet I am proud I was able to control the clinical processes of my body.  I am disappointed that my desire and attitude faltered, but I am proud that I persevered and overcame the discomfort that plagued me for most of the race.  Most of all, my feelings of gratitude overwhelm my disappointments and I hold that shiny buckle with pride.