Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Staying the Course at Western States

I’m not sure I’ll write a blow-by-blow report from my race at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. So much has already been said about this event over the years. Where could I possible add any value?

As with all ultras, you will never finish unless you have a Why. Going into the race, the big Why was simple: It’s Western States. As the race wore on and things turned south, the Why expanded to not just finishing the “big dance” but also to setting a good example for my son, honoring the training I’d done, and making this whole adventure worthwhile for my family and crew. Quitting was never an option.

And so in the final 300 meters when I was running around the Placer High School track, over 26 hours into this madness (I had thought sub-24 was very realistic going into the race), I talked with my 8-year-old son, who was by my side and holding my hand. I cried. I told him that you never quit, even when you’re being kicked in the teeth repeatedly. You never give up, especially when you know perseverance and resilience will lead you to the promised land. 

It was a moment with him that I will never forget. He saw me suffer. He saw me fight to the finish. He saw me show kindness to my family and crew when the chips were down. He saw me incoherent at Highway 49 but nonetheless moving forward, mumbling “stay the course.” He saw others shower me with love and care, including the race founder himself, Gordy Ainsleigh, at Michigan Bluff. My hope is that one day all of this will help make him a better man. I am his father and in that race I refused to fail him and come up short in my responsibilities as a man who is obligated to mold him into the best man he can be.

In that regard, it was a tremendous experience.

As far as the race itself, the vibe at Squaw Valley Ski Resort (where you start) is electric. The course itself is beautiful. The first 30 miles, which feature the climb up and over the Escarpment and some gorgeous running through the Granite Chief Wilderness area, is alpine running at some of its finest. The second third features the canyons—Deadwood, El Dorado and Volcano. The third section is “mostly” downhill, featuring the fast California Street trail which takes you from Foresthill (mile 62) down to the American River Crossing (mile 78). From the river crossing, it’s mostly rolling terrain to the finish, with a few good climbs mixed in.

The volunteers and aid stations are spectacular. The aid stations are well-stocked with what you need—not just food and drink but also ice, cold sponges and sprayers. The volunteers are helpful and caring. The medical staff, who I’d rather not have gotten to know (but did), are professional and compassionate.

The organization of the race is phenomenal, save a few sections where course markings were a bit sparse. But, then again, I am originally from back East, where we tend to over-mark courses with pie plates, lime and billions of streamers. The sparse markings in areas, such as the long downhill stretch from Robinson Flat to Last Chance and a few turns going up to Robie Point (the latter of which could have been sabotage), never rattled me but it would have been nice to see some more confidence markers.

Western States has built a big, strong community. The community puts this race on, with excellent leadership from the board and the race director, Craig Thornley. Few races have such a tight-knit community. This is what makes Western States unique, in my eyes.

Looking back on it, while the result certainly wasn’t what I’d hoped—I still feel I am fully capable of finishing under 24 hours—I know I ran a smart race. I went out conservatively. At no point was I pushing beyond my limits. What seems to have done me in were the canyons and the silent killer that was heat in excess of 100 degrees (which everyone experienced, of course). I fell well short in my descent of the canyons. By the time I got to Devil’s Thumb (mile 47), I was nauseous and soon after starting vomiting—probably the product of the heat, though I’d been using ice all day long to stay cool. More vomiting ensued at Michigan Bluff (mile 55) and Foresthill (mile 62). In each of those three aid stations, I was laid up in a cot receiving medical attention.

In the descent to the river from Foresthill, I had some good stretches and seemed to be coming back a bit. But by the time Brown’s Bar (mile 90) appeared, I was hallucinating. So I closed my eyes there for 10 minutes and then we got going again. The hallucinations abated and I mostly jogged and walked my way into the finish, seeing a second sunrise for the first time ever in a 100-miler.

As far as what’s next, I don’t know. I have signed up for the Leadville 100 but I am going to give it some thought. Putting myself through this process in every 100 seems absurd to me. And it takes the fun out of it. Why should I sign up for a puke-fest when instead I could race shorter distances, do fairly well and actually have fun? Running 100 miles used to be fun but in every one of them of late I go in with a great attitude only for my stomach to completely go south on me. So at this point Leadville is doubtful and that’s OK. I have finished ten 100-milers, winning one of them, and I am proud of that. Forgoing Leadville wouldn't be quitting; it would be deciding that my running has gone in a new direction. I will never quit running.

In lieu of Leadville, I would instead gun for a fall marathon where I can get re-qualified for Boston. But that decision isn’t final; I definitely realize I need a cooling-off period.

I am indebted to my family and crew for their support: my wife and our son, who are like my heart and soul; my mom and dad, who I’m sure struggled to see me in such shape mid-way through the race; Mike, who paced me from Foresthill to Green Gate; Kenny, who paced me from Green Gate to the finish; and Kenny’s lovely wife, Jonnie, who is a wonderful person and was there the whole way to help. 



  1. This may have been my favorite of your entries thus far. Congratulations on a smart and well-run race!

  2. I LOVE the title! If only I had video. ;)

    Way to flip the script and gut out the finish. I had a great time pacing you from FH to GG (all weekend, actually) and was in awe as I watched you turn things around.

    Take a few days away from this and let the dust settle before making any rash decisions in regard to LT100. No matter what you decide make sure the decision is for you and no one else. If you eat a little crow in the process so be it. :)

  3. Thanks for sharing, a humble reminder why we continue to run!