Sunday, December 11, 2016

That time when Gordy Ainsleigh helped me out at Michigan Bluff

Lately, I've been reflecting a lot on my experience at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run earlier this year. I am still a bit astonished I had the potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run that legendary race.

With the passage of time, the rugged experience from Squaw Valley Ski Resort to Auburn, California has become that much more special to me. With reflection, my disappointing 26-hour finishing time stings just a bit less. The narrative from that race has changed from a disappointing bronze buckle to a hard-fought, gut-testing finish in the greatest ultramarathon on Earth. The fact is that I got a chance to run Western States, and I finished it. If I'm lucky, I'll get one more chance to run it in my lifetime (my friend of 36 years, Matt Curtis, just got his second ticket back to Squaw).

With Western States founder Gordy Ainsleigh at the pre-race meeting.
Little did I realize that we would meet again......

For me, the crux of the race came down to the canyons, that notorious middle-third of the course where the mercury hits truly epic levels. Coming into the appropriately named Last Chance aid station (mile 43), we were warned about the high heat in the canyons ahead, especially Deadwood Canyon. "It's 110 down ready," a volunteer said. Was I scared? A little, yeah. Over the years, I've read a lot of stories about depleted, emotionally and physically broken runners ending their races at Devil's Thumb (mile 47), which is atop Deadwood Canyon on the other side of that inferno. So, leaving Last Chance, I made sure I had plenty of ice in my Buff and in my hat and lots of cold water to sip on (they have lots of ice at Western States!).

Karl Hoagland, publisher of UltraRunning Magazine, left Last Chance at the same time as I did, saying to me, "24 hours is going to be close." Karl had run this race many times, and I so I knew that from here on out every second counted. Game on!

The drop into Deadwood was incredibly steep. That famous scene from "Unbreakable," when Kilian Jornet rips past Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka going down into Deadwood, does the canyon's steepness no justice. It is an insanely steep drop, much of it covered with leaves. When the day comes that I return to Western States, I will be ready for the drop into Deadwood. Man, was it steep...and hot...and dusty.

Making my way down into the canyon, I ran conservatively (looking back on, too conservatively), trying to protect my quads and stay as cool as possible. But the heat was rising. I felt I would be OK. In the weeks prior to race day, I'd done a good bit of heat training in 180-190-degree saunas--textbook Western States training. At no time in the actual race did I feel overly "hot," except for a few really sunny spots that came and went with the tree cover. I felt OK. The heat training had me ready, or so I thought. Only later on did I learn that the heat was really a silent killer...........

When finally I got to the bottom of the canyon and crossed the American River by bridge, I saw two guys wading in the water. I remembered then what a race veteran had told me a few days prior. "When you get to the bottom of Deadwood," he implored, "get in the river. It will save your race," the reason being that the cold American River water will lower your core body temperature, which in turn will do your gut a big favor.

With my Buff still a bit icy, I kept moving, skipping the opportunity to cool off in the river. I felt fine! This would turn out to be the single biggest mistake I made--and it would cost me. Feeling physically okay, I started the viciously steep climb out of Deadwood Canyon and up to Devil's Thumb--a climb that nearly destroyed me. I have done some steep ones in my day--Jemez in 2011, the backside of Hope Pass at Leadville quite a few times (to put it mildly)--but that climb out of Deadwood was in a league of its own, and I think it was not because of the sheer vertical but because my body temp started to rise.

Coming into the Devil's Thumb aid station, I was sweating profusely. My shorts were soaked all the way through. I had never sweated so hard in my life! And my stomach was starting to go south, probably due to overheating. Damnit! I should have gotten in the river! But it was too late for that. Now in the Devil's Thumb tent, I sat down and immediately had a handful of volunteers attending to me like I was an Indy car driver in a pit stop (this is the Western States way).

At Devil's Thumb, it was easily over 100 degrees and yet there I sat, shaking like a leaf and wrapped in a thick blanket! I couldn't control myself. They handed me some soup and I spilled it everywhere because I shook so badly. Then came the vomiting after I had some broth. Concerned, they asked if I had crew on the course and I said I wife and son, my mom and dad, and a few buddies, Mike and Kenny, who would be pacing me after Foresthill. Thinking about my wife and son, I started to choke up. I felt as if my race was crumbling.

After checking my vitals, the aid station crew felt I could continue but instructed me to avoid taking any salt capsules. They thought maybe I'd taken in too many S!Caps. I needed salt, they said, but not that much. I heeded their advice and left with lots of water and a handful of salty snacks (which they gave me) that I could barely get down.

Incredibly, I rallied just a bit after Devil's Thumb and started running, making my way down into El Dorado Canyon, which was again very hot but not quite as hot as Deadwood Canyon. There's an aid station at the bottom of El Dorado Canyon and I stopped at it briefly but could barely get any calories in me. So I started the long climb up to Michigan Bluff, which sits at mile 55. There, I would finally see my family.

The carnage going up to Michigan Bluff was pretty epic. I saw a number of runners in distress, and I felt like I was among them...depleted to the core. All I wanted was to lay down and take a nap--a clear indicator of heat exhaustion. One foot in front of the other...... Finally, coming into Michigan Bluff after what felt like a never-ending climb, I saw my wife and son. I teared up a bit and said to my wife, "I'm having a tough race." When I saw the aid station, I immediately went for the cot and laid down--a first for me. My stomach was in horrid shape and I need to close my eyes and push the "reset" button. So I laid down and asked the staff to let me nap for 10 minutes, which they did. My wife and son were allowed into the tent with me, while my parents looked on, concerned, from behind the barrier separating the runners from the spectators.

When I woke up 10 minutes later, my stomach turned south and once again I started vomiting. It was an ugly site. The Ginger Runner actually mentioned how horribly sick I was in his interview with Brian Morrison not long after Western States. I was so sick. It was at about this time that a friend of mine had gotten ATV'd into Michigan Bluff with kidney issues. His race was over. Was mine over, too? I didn't know.

Laying there in the cot, I didn't know what to do. I was sicker than hell and had 45 miles in front of me. Then, out of no where, I saw this huge man walk under the tent and look at me. "What's going on here?" he asked the medical team. It was Gordy Ainsleigh, who founded this crazy race 40+ years ago! Gordy, a chiropractor and true living legend, asked if he could work on me for a bit, to see if he could get my stomach in a better place (he had dropped from the race earlier in the day due to, I believe, IT band issues). I said yes. So he got to work, pressing on my gut and even doing adjustments to my neck. Meanwhile, my wife and son stood there, watching.

Gordy at work on yours truly at Michigan Bluff.
It looks like he's choking me with my Buff but I promise he's not!

After about 10 minutes, Gordy got me off the cot and walked me to the nearby food table. He told me I could--and would--finish this race, but admitted that 24 hours was probably now out of reach. I grabbed some salty snacks but he said to put them back down. Instead, he gave me some grapes and watermelon, saying I needed the sugar and water, not salty, fatty snacks. I thanked him. I even asked if he'd stand for a photo with my son, who had been wanting a picture with Gordy ever since seeing "Unbreakable." Gordy agreed, posing for a photo with my boy--a photo that I know my son will treasure one day.

As I left Michigan Bluff, I felt distress in my parents. I had spent easily a half-hour in the tent and had 45 miles in front of me. My dad, walking with me out of the crew zone, got choked up. He said to me, "Let's get this thing done, OK, son?" He was emotional. I was emotional. "I will, Dad," I replied. But I was more than emotional. I was in distress. Yet I knew I had experience to deal with tough races. I knew I had more than enough endurance to cover the distance. I had the requisite toughness. I knew deep down I could finish this race no matter what it threw at me.

The third canyon, the ominous-sounding Volcano Canyon, wasn't nearly as bad as the first two. No matter, it would take some time (I knew this) to come back from what Deadwood and El Dorado had done to me. And so my race in many respects hit rock bottom at Foresthill (mile 62), where I once again found myself down for the count with vomiting, chills and extraordinary fatigue.

But I got out of Foresthill, mostly because my wife ordered me out ("It's time to get going, Wyatt," she said firmly), and had a very solid stretch running down to the American River with my pal, Mike. That's a 16-mile "mostly downhill" stretch that I ran quite well on. Yet the damage had been done. From the river (mile 78) to the finish was something of a death march. Oh, I ran a good bit of it, but I was absolutely depleted, coming into Brown's Bar (mile 90) having battled hallucinations and insanely painful chafing. So I slept at Brown's Bar for 10 minutes, hoping some shut-eye would stop the hallucinations (which it did).

From there on, it was all about "staying the course," as I said repeatedly to myself and my crew.  "Stay the course.... Stay the course."

My Western States didn't go as planned. It was a long, long day in rugged country and on punishing trails--a day-plus that I'll never forget. The so-called "Western States Killing Machine" had done her best to grind me up into nothing, but I refused to give up. I just kept putting one foot  in front of the other until I crossed that finish line with my son.

And that is how I finished Western States--one step at a time. I grinded it out.

If your name got pulled from the hat last Saturday, I congratulate you. You have earned a spot into a race that will change your life. If you didn't get pulled, don't give up. If you stay patient and committed, your day will come--just as it came for me.

Crossing the American River, mile 78. See, I came back!


  1. What a great race report - way to rally and get through the lows. I work at the Last Chance aid station and took a lot of pictures of the runners coming through - I'm not sure whether I got one of you or not, but you might find one here:

  2. Great report! I got pulled this year on my fourth lottery, so I'll be reading as many of these as I can find over the next six months!

  3. Oh man. Thanks for this, although it frightens me. My name got pulled (one ticket!) so I'll be going in 2017. I'm very weak at downhills - they tend to destroy me, and I've actually done almost no ultras in heat. I do almost all of them in Fall/Winter/Spring. So, this should be fun.