Sunday, August 14, 2016

2016: a Western odyssey & the many States of being


The start of the Western States 100 is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of but somehow at the same time completely familiar in many ways. The tradition of the run and the ride is so storied and it is so clear how much people care. The Trek to Emigrant Pass and the moments of reflection and remembrance at Watson’s monument at 8800 feet was something to behold. The trail, the run and the ride bring people together as family and I am honored to now consider myself one of them. I wrote something I thought meaningful or inspirational in a book being passed around. It was probably quite cheesy, but I sure can’t remember. Something about courage maybe…

Being in Squaw Valley for two whole days prior to race start was as intense as it was convenient. Soaking in the energy and trying to convert it into a placid assurance of things to come was an interesting challenge. The first of many this race would throw at me. There is so much going on between briefings, check-in, medical studies and clinics it is easy (and tiring (and fun)) to get carried away with the deserved hype.

The flag made it safely for the ceremony

With amazing crew Ben & Cassie

Race Morning - Mile -0.1 to 0: THE HARBINGER

One way or another though Saturday morning comes around and your alarm goes off after somewhere between 0 and 4 hours of sleep. You stumble to the kitchen and the coffee machine in your suite is mocking you by ceaselessly counting from 0 to 60 and back again, its buttons useless. The aromatic coffee grounds shrug, roll over and go back to sleep, “it’s too early for this man!”
You talk yourself out of a shower (something about fearing your wristband would be ruined…) and feverishly dress and hurry your suffering crew to the start line. Or at least you do if you are me. It’s not yet 4am.

Ready to rock? - Ready to rock!

Pre-race was the first curveball I got thrown and I think I handled it well. Coffee and a muffin at the start line. Schmoozing with my crew and fellow 7’s and all manner of friendly Ultra folk. Then, slowly, effortlessly the ever compressing ball of anxious runners releases over the threshold at the blast of the Lind family shotgun. The game is afoot!

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat - Mile 0 to 29.7: THE HOPE

I suddenly realized, “I’M RUNNING WESTERN FLIPPIN’ STATES!” This was one of many times over the past 6 months that this has dawned on me, and each time felt like the first. The air was cool at 5am in and above Squaw Valley, a veritably frigid mid-to-high 50s ;). The climb is gentle but not realistically runnable for most, so we hiked. With purpose, but not too much. The question of whether or not to have worn a headlamp is rendered laughable by the ski-resort flood lights bathing the scene in a surreal glow.

The pace stays moderate, enough to make me work but easy enough to assuage fears of cooking my goose early. The view back to Tahoe is breathtaking as the sun comes up. It was blue and gold. The Escarpment is achieved in what feels like a pretty smooth 1:20 and suddenly everything is below me. A man in lederhosen plays an alphorn, I recall thinking of something funny to say to him but it fell out of my mind as soon as I was standing there. Soon I’m whooping and hollering at the spectators and well-wishers, one of whom is a bee. Then I’m away and we strike out boldly into the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Gaining the Escarpment

This section of trail is quite excellent and alternates between rock, dirt trail and boggy mud due to snow melt. The views are almost more than I can process and mostly I remember coining what would be my first-third mantra: PAF - Patient As Fuck. I repeated this to myself whenever my mind wandered to what my pace might be. This was often.

Lyon Ridge aid station was playing “La Bamba” and I grazed wishing there was a porta-john. I had some spectacular woes during the Memorial Day training runs in El Dorado canyon. What with my error-strewn morning routine I was harboring fears of what my digestive tract might surprise me with if I wasn’t careful. Luckily after some gorgeous cruisy miles I was granted deliverance at Red Star ridge. It is starting to heat up appreciably now and we’re hovering around 7,000 feet. PAF. PAF. Fellow Washingtonian Robert Bondurant passed me waiting in the bathroom line and I offered encouragement. He seemed dialled in and I mused on whether it was smart that I got here before him. No matter I guess. PAF.

Don’t get me wrong, the aid stations at Lyon and Red Star were amazing and the volunteers were all superstars but Duncan Canyon is where the sheer scale of the volunteer organization fully hits home. I was treated to individual service step by step through the aid station with a designated volunteer (although actually it ends up more like 2). My water/electrolytes are filled, I eat chips, fruit and potatoes and replenish my shot blok stores and get my ice-bandana filled for the first time. I’m pumped. Everyone (give or take) is screaming my name. A quick but luxurious cold sponge and I’m back on the trail. 3 miles down and 3 miles up to Robinson Flat to see my crew for the first time. It suddenly occurs to me that I immediately remember almost nothing about my Duncan Canyon experience. Note to self, “be more PAF!!!”
If you're running States
do this ALL DAY!
- Facchino Photography

The downhill to the nearby creek was nice and I took the opportunity to get into the water regardless of folk passing me by. I got on my knees to splash myself as much as I could and then decided to dunk my head fully for a few seconds. Bliss. As I pulled myself together and got moving the photographer and I bantered a little about how good that felt and how hot it was. We wished each other well and parted ways. On the 3 mile climb up to Robinson Flat I picked off a few of those who passed me wallowing in the creek below which vindicated that decision handily. Here though my stomach started to get a little queasy for the first time. Up until this point I had been dutifully chowing down on some kind of food (bloks, chews and the one and only gel I had the whole time) every 30 minutes in addition to trying to gorge myself on ‘real’ food at each aid station. On the climb up to Robinson Flat my stomach got cranky and convinced me not to try to get any calories in.

Once I was there though I got my liquids filled and fill my hands with snacks and a hot dog (+relish and ketchup) and saw the face of my amazing wife Cassie and rockstar crewman Ben and was quickly in the chair chowing down like a hog.
My crew really went the extra mile and here is where I see it for the first time. They have ice and water and snacks, really my own little travelling aid station which touches me so deeply I get a bit emotional. I am the luckiest guy around to have such stellar support. We catch up a little bit and theories emerge that I might be a bit queasy due to the elevation (while we’re at a modest 6600 feet currently, I’ve been at or above 7000 for most of the previous 29 which is no joke for a Seattle lowlander such as myself). This makes me glad that I’m pretty much through it. It was the only time I truly felt actual nausea during the whole race and so I’m going to lean on that for an explanation.
The hot dog and time with my crew set me straight again and as I’m getting ready to go I hear a voice behind me hailing us as fellow Washingtonians and would you believe (assuming his hat was accurately portraying his identity) it was none other than Jonathan Shark. For some reason I didn’t confirm this, but it seemed self-evident. He proclaimed that he was at Robinson Flat around the same time last year and he easily finished in around 28 hours during his Western States run. It was about 12:30pm and I was less reassured by this than he perhaps intended. A quick cold dousing and Cassie filled my hat with ice. “See you in Michigan Bluff,” and off I go again through a wildly cheering exit chute that gets me striding a little more than I ought. Once safely out of earshot I am again PAF. Now to traverse Little Bald Mountain and enter…. The Canyons!

N.B. I impetuously declined footcare and a suggestion of re-lubing from my crew at this juncture

Robinson Flat to Foresthill Elementary School - Mile 29.7 to 62: THE MELTDOWN

From here on out I had run the course before. The Training runs provided such a vital piece of recon for sure, but it's also pretty hard to prepare for running something at night, on wasted legs. Or a wasted mind.

Coming out of Robinson Flat I felt smart and I felt in control of my fate. It was funny going up Little Bald Mountain though as over Memorial Day weekend this whole area had been under snow so the entire section until the downhill felt completely different. It almost felt as though we were running in a different direction and I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure I was still on course. The first few miles of this section were pretty uneventful. It was all very runnable and I was doing a good job of keeping cool - filling my bandana and hat with ice at every stop. This section is a little lost to time unfortunately. I recall undulating forest service roads and the sublime aid stations but the specifics evade me somewhat. I am going to chalk that up to it just being a good solid section of keeping moving which is borne out by the data. Up until Last Chance (Mile 43.3) I was near to an hour ahead of 30 hour pace, let alone aid station cutoffs. I was actually gaining time and was about to cruise into what I was conservatively sure would be a strong section for me.
I love a screaming downhill and I am content to power-hike up a gruelling climb. I had not been too intimidated by the climbs on the whole in training. Devil’s Thumb in particular had actually been a pleasant surprise. It was long yes and fairly steep in parts but it is all a matter of perspective. I don’t tend to find it difficult to gear down and work with what the course and/or conditions are giving me. Michigan Bluff had been a different proposition the first time around however, but mostly due to some self-inflicted intestinal problems. I even already had a snappy one-liner for my crew when I next saw them at Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7), “that climb was waaay less shitty than on the training runs!” I never did get to give that line, and not because there was a repeat performance. Instead the canyons had other ideas.

It started out pretty nicely, a couple of solidly swift miles. But I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that I was developing a hotspot on my right heel. I haven’t really had to deal with blisters before but between the heat and the multiple creek/river crossings I knew it could be a factor during Western States. I tried to calculate how long I’d been feeling that and wasn’t sure so I made a mental note to get it checked out at Devil’s Thumb. It seemed prudent to pre-empt something worse happening.
The descent to swinging bridge is pretty nice, a little technical but not too much. Also quite short at ~1500ft over a couple of miles. Perfect for building up a head of steam. Unfortunately this is where things would begin to unwind for me. Right as I was approaching the bottom there is another smaller bridge over some tributary creek and as I planted my right foot to sweep nicely through the section I am pretty sure someone stabbed me in the heel. I didn’t see them, and no one ever came forward but it was so sudden and so painful that it had to have been. Either that or a blister I didn’t know I had suddenly ruptured. I was suddenly stopped dead in my tracks and the bottom fell out of my mood. Downhill was excruciating and I wanted to take stock before the climb so a couple switchbacks later I removed my right shoe to see the damage. I was unable to do this without a little bit of a yelp which concerned me but there was nothing in my shoe and I couldn’t see an obvious wound (at this point I thought I might have a splinter or something wild like that). Putting the shoe back on was an act of sheer will. It was a little painful.
I started to experiment with hobbling techniques to compensate for the pain in my heel, and in doing so managed to make it to swinging bridge in somewhat un-terrible time. But I knew that something would have to give because as we are all well aware, a key part of compensation is compensatory injury! Luckily uphills were easy on the pain and so I was able to make it up the Devil’s Thumb climb without much incident. I cooled down at the spring right after the bridge and filled my dousing bottle so the heat stayed but a mild distraction. I also made the somewhat questionable decision to count the famous 36 switchbacks. I don’t advise this because you are never going to keep track and you’ll trick yourself into confirming 36 no matter what. Probably.
There was minimal carnage, but it was heartbreaking nonetheless. One gentleman had been reduced to simply laying down on the trail, he was visibly overheated and distressed but refusing help from anyone going by. I was planning to alert the aid station before two volunteers came flying by me going the other way specifically to aid him. It just occurred to me that I have no idea if that guy DNFed or pulled through.

I made it to Devil’s Thumb and Seattle’s own Mark Cliggett was recording runners into the station. It was great to see a familiar face here as although I was not showing it I was feeling a little down about my experience in the canyon. Mark’s wife Janet (graciously providing medical assistance) took a look at my heel and cleaned and patched me up. She said that the next big aid station had a full medical team and that they could reassess there. I had heard word that Jon Vonhof (of Fixing Your Feet - dude literally wrote the book) takes up residence at Michigan Bluff on race weekend which stirred me somewhat.
Unfortunately the foot care only represented a little over half of my stay time at Devil’s Thumb. I continued a worrying trend of convincing myself I couldn’t eat. This was the first round of an on/off staring contest between me and a plate of food. I managed some measly crumbs and took a baggie. I probably spent over half an hour at that aid station. Again the volunteers were amazing and I thanked them all profusely.

After Devil’s Thumb there was a little bit of cruising before a much more gradual descent into El Dorado canyon. I passed the now vacant Deadwood cemetery, where earlier (and in the training runs) a stoic cello player solemnly performed Chariots of Fire with a tip jar filled with gels. I was a little disappointed to be coming through here after he had packed up for the day, but it was probably well after 6pm by this time. So it goes.

The 5 or so miles down to Eldorado Creek aid were fairly unremarkable. I had started to find equilibrium with my new reality and the heel pain was no longer threatening to unbalance me. It was after all just pain and pain only hurts . I arrived to lights strung on the bridge over Eldorado and to be honest I felt grouchy as we started to lose light in the canyon. Nothing seemed to be going quite right. I plopped down in a chair and proceeded to complain about how I couldn’t eat anything. The aid station volunteers here were amazing and got me to drink a couple cups of noodle soup and a soda. I was very downbeat about my chances of getting enough calories to make it and the volunteer responsible for my aid station experience was frank but upbeat, “You can get all the calories you need from Soup and Soda! You got this.” That was the first time in any race I’d considered that. It would always be less than I’d ideally need, but maybe a lot more than I could eat in solid food. I started to tire of the mosquitoes and to really consider that as a nutrition strategy. Just maybe it would be enough.

Best in the biz!
The next 5 miles were pretty solid standard hiking up to Michigan Bluff. I was trying to shake-off the canyon beatdown I had taken but I really didn’t seem to have the gear. My heel was complaining but I tried to put on a brave face for the jubilant crowds. Michigan Bluff was all action, there were people everywhere. I motioned to Cassie and Ben that I needed to hit the medical tent to get my feet seen to. The medical crew there were on point. I didn’t get names but I had not one but two medical officials working on my feet. They removed my shoe and sock from the right foot and surveyed the damage. It was good timing as the work from Devil’s Thumb had been undone by this point. They had a lot more supplies here though and I got the works. They treated my still ruptured blister with some kind of gel or cream, bandaged and sealed it with some kind of waterproof adhesive and powdered my feet. There was even some confusion about what was going on with little toe on the right foot, “I don’t think that’s a nail.” They used some kind of electric nail file to grind it down anyway. It was truly the future. Clean socks and dry shoes and I was back into the race for an aid/crew stop. I felt suddenly buoyed by the improved condition of my feet, although the shoes I changed into were essentially the same as the ones I changed out of, just drier and less battered. I had some bigger ones, but they awaited on the far side of Rucky Chucky.

That 55 mile stare

I sat in one of my crew chairs as they got stuff from the aid station. My mood sank a little when faced with a plate of aid station fayre, none of it looked appealing. Cassie had procured a cheeseburger for me from the local kids who were grilling. I moaned that I was unable to eat. She eventually convinced/ordered me to re-apply lube, which was probably smart as I never did have any chafing issues the whole run. There was a moment when I was sitting alone, my crew were tending to various tasks around the place and I spied Western States 100 grandfather Gordy Ainsleigh wandering around in his civilian threads. I felt a little bad that his day had already ended, but I loved that he still wanted to be out there and involved. I’d like to say that this sparked a turnaround but it didn’t. He actually walked over seemingly to engage me, but at the last second was swept away by some fans who wanted a photograph. I internally mourned the failed opportunity for a rallying cry from a legend.
My crew could sense that my malaise was deepening, and I started to shiver a little. In light of this it made sense to layer up for the night so I put on a longsleeve layer over my t-shirt and ditched all my ice gear. We really needed to get going whether I was going to eat something or not. Cassie made one final petition for me to eat that goddamn cheeseburger they had bought for me and I somewhat petulantly grabbed it and stuffed almost the whole thing in my mouth in about 3 seconds flat. It tasted good. This realization was kind of a double-edged sword because it meant that I really could eat, but also that I was doing a bang up job of stopping myself. Light was starting to fail and I creaked out of the chair and declared it was time to go. Cassie had lovingly stuffed every pocket of my pack full of every type of nutrition I had, gels, bloks, chews, bars, waffles and probably some other mystery foods that I don’t recall. I was watered, slightly fed and ready to at least boogie if not rock outright.
After bidding goodbye to my increasingly concerned crew I started a shuffle through the old mining town of Michigan Bluff and as always the crowds were amazingly supportive. I waved and ‘Thanks’-ed my way to the turn off the main drag and checked out of the aid station with a bit of a spring in my step. There was a brief downhill dirt road and I chugged along nicely. The sun was pretty well on its way to set, it was well past 8PM. I had spent over an hour in Michigan Bluff.

The next 7 miles to Foresthill are pretty easy-going. The forest-road quickly resets uphill and there are some cool ranch fences and a little flat and then you ease into Volcano Canyon. It’s a nice short downhill, a thousand or so feet in a couple miles followed by a smaller, shorter hike into Foresthill proper. In training this section had been a hoot, almost an advertisement for how easy canyons could be after the previous two rounds. I recall plowing through the river with glee, getting a laugh from some fellow runners who were daintily picking their way across. The race day version of Volcano wasn’t exactly a polar opposite experience but it was pretty timid by comparison. I passed a few folk on the way down which gave me a bit of a boost, but I tip-toed across the river, fearing what might happen if I got my shoes wet again with almost 18 miles to go for a fresh pair. I wouldn’t say I was running scared, but I lacked some of my usual bluster and breeziness. I passed a pacer coming the other way which seemed odd. It so happened that his runner had left Michigan Bluff without a headlamp so he had to go back and supply him. I hadn’t the heart to tell him I didn’t see anyone without a headlamp on the trail. I also didn’t fully trust myself on that point either so probably no harm no foul.
Soon after the crossing the trail pops out onto Bath Road where one's crew can run with you into the aid station at Foresthill Elementary. I slogged up the road for some time, passing groups of headlamps and their crew/pacer owners shining at me. Inspiring messages were written on the asphalt in chalk and paint but they were all for someone else. Eventually Cassie showed up and it was good to be moving with a friendly voice. We caught up for a bit, although there was little to report from that section. Things hadn’t worsened, but they hadn’t appreciably improved either. Ben wasn’t there because he was preparing for his pacing stint, to begin following mile 62. We walked up to the junction of Bath and Foresthill Roads and started to shuffle a bit, and managed to run into the aid station. We used this as a gauge of my pace to assuage some worries we’d shared about Cassie pacing me toward the end of the race. I was knocking off maybe 17 minute miles which she was more than comfortable with so that provided some relief for that concern.
It was weird being there at 10:30pm. Things were visibly energetic, lights everywhere and the volunteers were great. But there was an overall sense of a wave having crested. It was a bit like we had missed a party. But that didn’t dampen the spirits of the volunteers who were on point as always. My water was filled and Cassie grabbed a plate of quesadillas, chips, cookies and bacon! I ate the bacon pretty much immediately and asked for a soup and a Sprite to test out my new plan of subsisting on that.
Foresthill aid station is handy because the course exits the aid station along a frontage road through town along which crews can park, so once you’re through aid you can crew directly out of your vehicle. I was in the chair immediately, and listlessly staring at the plate of food I’d convinced myself to attempt. The scene was pretty surreal. Every so often runners and crews would drift by in varying states and moods. There was a horror movie playing loudly, and in my memory it was being projected onto a building across the street from the bar near where we were parked. Every so often there score would flourish dramatically and actors would scream. I’m pretty sure it was really happening, and my crew backs me up on this so I’m sticking with it for this narrative. This despite the fact that upon leaving the aid station there didn’t appear to be anyone in the vicinity actually watching it or any readily obvious source.
Try (read: resist) as I might, none of the solid food I had would magically leap into my stomach and provide sustenance and it certainly didn’t seem like my hands or mouth were going to do anything about it so after grabbing a backup flashlight and downing as much soup and Sprite as I could muster my pacer Ben seemed to be ready to go so I admitted gustatory defeat once more and marched off into the night with Ben at my side. He was bravely striding out of his comfort zone to give me a boost. We now had work to do. At mile 62 they say the race really begins…

Foresthill to Rucky Chucky - Mile 62 - 78: THE STOMACH OF DARKNESS

What’s in a pacer? For me it has always been an opportunity to infect someone. Give someone the ultra-bug. Because seriously, who could run through the night for hours and hours on end and not get hooked? We’d have some fun and a lovely run in the mountains and I’d make myself another running partner for improbable future excursions. This was the plan again for States. Things went a little differently.
Ben is a long time friend, and a great runner that I’ve been trying to get into Ultras for some time. He’s been good enough to join me on the rope crew at Rucky Chucky for the past 3 years and always seems to get a buzz out of it. So naturally he was my first thought as pacer for my first shot at the big one! He was very nervous all spring seeing as he had never run further than 18 miles, and that on the road. I told him repeatedly not to worry because of course, 60+ miles into a 100 I wasn’t exactly going to be clipping off sub-8’s. So he put in some training, I put in some training. Oh, and did I mention he married my wife and I? Pretty solid dude.

We launched into Cal St., me feeling a little wishy washy and him buzzing. “This is so fucking epic!” was one of his early refrains and somewhere within me yet apart from my malaise something began to smolder. This was what I wanted, to drag him into the arena and watch him soar and crave the battle that only 26.2+ can give. He was full of questions and tracking stats and we found our pacer/runner groove. I’d talked to him before about how much fun the elevator shaft was, and so it came up repeatedly and in my addled state I kept thinking it was just coming up. Obviously it wasn’t though which kept seeming like a setback. We cruised down to Cal-1 clocking about 15-16 minute miles. It felt OK, but I didn’t really feel it in my heart of hearts. Remembering the training runs I was starting to get crabby about how different it all seemed now. The trail seemed to stretch on into the night. I passed and was passed by a bunch of people, this ended up being the theme of Cal St. We would get moving for a section, knock off a couple of runners and then lo and behold they would come storming back when my mood ebbed.

Cal-1 (mile 65.7) was a bit of a blur. We barely stopped, I had a cup of soup and most of a can of Sprite. I tried an Oreo and it went in pretty well, maybe things were turning around? We got out of there before too long and resumed our ritual yo-yo with the field. A mile or two out my stomach started to bomb. I’ve come to recall this as “coconut-stomach”. When I was moving it would knock around and cause me discomfort, but when I was lollygagging it would feel empty and pitiful. If I ate however, the whole thing would feel like it was going to revolt. About half way to Cal-2, (mile 68ish) I was pretty much over feeling this way and starting to get angry about it. At the pre-race briefings Andy Jones-Wilkins and many of the veterans extolled the virtues of the puke-and-rally. I take great pride in never to that point having vomited at a race, but I’d also never been in this situation before. I needed a reset and quickly; I had even been covetously glancing at other runners losing their dinners at the side of the trail as I solemnly moped by. Now it was my turn damnit! I wanted in on this spectacular regurgitation parade. My stomach felt so sour that I thought it would just take the mere suggestion to let things fly. Alas, 5 solid minutes with my fingers down my throat yielded little more than a few painful dry-heaves. The streak lives on.

Eventually, as it kind of had to, Cal-2 arrived and with it a chair. Again, the ghosts of the training weekend haunted me here - Tim Twietmeyer and Craig Thornley exchanging jabs. General exuberance and whimsy. Not so at 1:30 in the morning. This was it, I wouldn’t know it for a few hours but this was my nadir. Looking back on it I feel embarrassed. I pouted, complained and beseeched the medical team to tell me something was very wrong. I secretly yearned for a deal-breaker. In all my three-and-a bit years of running Ultras this was the only moment where I thought I wasn’t enough. It all flooded through me like a sewer of failure. Maybe I couldn’t do it. Maybe I was a fraud. I felt like I was letting down all the people here and back home that supported me. I thought about the two prior years that I had entered the Hardrock lottery and I mocked myself for even having entertained the thought. I was cruel. Tears welled. I was broken. But I kept it inside. And then something funny happened. I started doing math out loud with the volunteers.

I had been crunching the numbers for some time on and off, but never more urgently than the previous few miles. I decided to just throw any goals more complex than finishing out the window and work on the baseline of making it in 29:59:59 and see where I was. I wanted to know how fast I’d have to run to make it in just under the cutoff. So…

30x60 = 1800 minutes
1800/100 = 18 minutes per mile

I’d figured this out a few miles back but hadn’t dared mention it to anyone for fear of it becoming true when released upon the world. In the state I was in on Cal St. I didn’t think I had sub-18s in me the rest of the way. It turns out, it’s good to have coherent people around you because once you let this kind of crap out of your mouth someone is bound to say something logical like “You actually only have 30 miles left, not 100.”


Now granted, with only nine and a half hours remaining that’s only a cushion of about 1 minute per mile on my estimation, but at this stage it was as though someone had told me that they shortened the course. Running a minute per mile faster is a big deal at the best of times, in this situation it felt like… well it wasn’t a total 180 but it was something. The volunteers told me (in much nicer verbiage) to shut up about my stomach and again I was advised to eat soup and drink soda. So I did. Ben told me we were doing great and for the first time I actually started to believe him. I probably spent 20-30 minutes at Cal-2 and maybe the version me that arrived stayed there. I emerged subtly altered and things didn’t exactly seem bright, but the ship was slowly starting to turn.
The next section rolled down and we hit six-minute-hill (spoiler alert! it took me longer than that). It is a fire road climb that was gruelling in training but in the cool of the night was pretty enjoyable. Then we stumbled down and into Cal-3 almost without warning. This was a slightly more upbeat aid station (for me at least) where I downed some noodle soup, chugged some Sprite and even snuck a cheeky Oreo for good measure. I was slowly graduating back to merely grumpy rather than all-out despondent. Meanwhile, Ben was wearing his pacer mantle like a pro,

“Run to that tree”
“Just a little further”
“You got this”

Somewhere around here we coined the second acronym of the race: ABS - Always Be Shufflin’. We touched down into the American river canyon and undulated up and along its banks and into Rucky Chucky. I was starting to regain my faith a little and as we ‘cruised’ into our home turf we were buoyed by the lights and the hum of activity.
After all of his concern about pacing me effectively, Ben and I had decided that he would have the option of jumping out at Rucky Chucky. With his history and conditioning he felt 16 miles was about what he could handle. I secretly held out hope that he would go on, though I knew it wouldn’t make logical sense for him to exit at Green Gate either, leaving the next logical exit point at Highway 49, mile 93.5 and a tough 50k. I took a seat at the aid station and tried to eat a little. Some chips and Oreos made their way in, but mostly the noodle soup and the Sprite stole the show. I replenished my headlamp batteries and stood up after a pep talk from Cassie. She had been down at the river for some time, and had even found a rock somewhere to nap on. This was another affirmation of how much she supports me. I knew that she was in this with me and so I wanted to show her how much it meant to me. But she (and it seemed some of the volunteers) were concerned that I get moving and so I prepared to ford the river.
Calories are calories

Rucky Chucky to Placer High - Mile 78 to 100.2: RE-ENTRY

I switched to bottles at this point as my pack was mostly dead weight though I still stuffed a token sleeve or two of shot bloks (spoiler alert! they didn’t get eaten). I was also cheered to learn that Ben would join me onward from 78 into the unknown. This more than almost anything pumped me up. It was working, I was infecting him! We were all-in on this thing.

“Number 130, heading out!”

The river crossing was a flood of emotion as much as it was a flood of cold water to the nether regions. I knew the basic drill and tried to crack wise with the volunteers, but there was no one there we knew. Captains Jose and Diane often work up at the top and who knows how many shifts of people they had this year.
Feet up high over that rock, watch out for the dip, hold on to the rope and we emerged on the other side. It was funny, it was the first time I’d seen it. I’ve volunteered there for 3 years and it wasn’t until running the race that I saw the other side of the river. Perhaps it was superstition. I had always imagined a right turn up from the water but it was decidedly the opposite. Probably just to spite me.
Here it was time for the final shoe change. Into a half-size up version of what I was already wearing - sweet relief. It took longer than I would have expected between general leg seizing and blister pain but it was what it was. The binding from Michigan Bluff had held. It was just pain. The volunteers were a little concerned looking, but I was pretty well invigorated from the wade. Suddenly, two blasts from across the river. Wait, where was three? That meant only 20 minutes to aid station closure (they sound off, 3 for 30, 2 for 20, 1 for 10 and a long one for “You’re done”). We stopped jawing and got the hell out of there.

We made pretty solid time up to Green Gate as the sun rose. It wasn’t a spectacular sunrise - I’ve actually yet to have a truly transcendent one in an ultra to be honest - but the growing light floated my spirits with it and we trucked on.

“130, Welcome to Green Gate! What can we get for you?”
“We got someplace to be”
“130, checking out!”

BAM! My first proper Aid Station run-by. It felt good, to have a singular sense of purpose and a rising tide of optimism. Also, to confound expectation and with bottles and bellies full (well less so the latter but shhh!) we sallied forth into the final 20 and Auburn Lake Trails (ALT).
Everyone always says so much about how amazing the ALT are. I would like to caveat the following with the fact that I loved them in training and they were without a doubt exquisite running and breathtaking scenery, especially with the sun rising over the canyon walls. But boy-oh-boy are they repetitive with 80 miles and 24 hours under your belt. They undulate in and out of the river canyon proper and tease you that something different is around the corner, and thankfully by mile 85 there is, the ALT aid station. Horns were a-blowin’ as we thundered down into ALT and with a cup of soup and a can of ginger ale we were away again, running scared. Good scared.
I always assumed it was myth or hyperbole when people spoke of falling asleep while running.  I've had light ‘hallucinations’ - mostly just seeing faces and unlikely shapes in natural forms -  nothing really to write home about. I honestly believe sometimes people’s minds crack to the point of complex and dangerous fantasy at some of these events but I always thought it impossible to succumb to actual sleep while charging onward down the trail. That is of course, until I snapped awake mid-stride somewhere between ALT and Brown’s Bar. Ben and I had found a groove, I had managed to quell his need to coach me by getting my ass in gear and knocking out a few solidly sub-17 minute miles (what was passing for success at this point). We were so locked in that we hadn’t spoken for some time and that was when my mind decided it finally had license to start the shutdown routine. As I came awake I misstepped, not drastically, but enough to need to steady myself and break the solid rhythm we’d established. We resolved to be more chatty, start taking caffeine and first and foremost, ABS. Too close for Sprite, switching to Coke!

As advertised in the million race reports I’ve read, and as expected after the hijinks and Dutchman Peak Aid Station in Hal Koerner’s Pine to Palm 100, the rogues at Brown’s Bar were playing auditory tricks, luring in runners with maddeningly loud party music rendering any guess at their distance a farce. Happily at this stage I needed the focus and appreciated some Elton John so before we knew it we were hiking up into Brown’s Bar as tended by my good Ashland friend Joe Chick. Joe’s as solid a guy as they come and it was great to see him here and get a pep talk. Also, a can of Coke and some Oreos.

“You’re looking great,” he offered.
“That’s nice of you to say,” I demurred.
“You’re looking better than Phil did coming through here.”

Seattle trail legend and “Seven Hills Running Shop Master of Ceremonies” Phil Kochik had been through maaaany hours prior on a pacing gig and had apparently hit hard times. Joe told me to give him a good ribbing about it. That reminded me that Phil had talked about sticking around after his runner was done and seeing my finish. I filed that away under “Fuel for the fire.”

A little more single-track out of Brown’s bar and then it was a fire road along the edge of the canyon wall. I looked across the valley. Up and down along the course of the river. Ben took over here again:

Clawing it back
“Run to the next big shadow.”
“Run to that rock”
We yo-yoed with another runner and his pacer for some yards here. We’d take them on the ups, they’d charge back on the downs. Or vice-versa, I’m not one hundred percent sure. We were moving and with purpose. That’s what mattered.
We turned off and up toward the highway, at this stage in the race the wrong way was pretty well blocked off with tape, arrows, rocks and all manner of signage to get the hell off the road and up the trail that you might otherwise blow right by. Full disclosure: I made this error at the training runs and was saved a cruel fate by someone else coming back in the other direction having made the same mistake - if this hasn’t been enough Western States for you (and if you didn’t already read about it) then look up details of Jim Walmsley’s race from this year. That guy is a flippin’ hero.

Where were we? Oh yes, mile 91 or so. We fast hiked with purpose, Ben dropped his water bottle - some kind of wardrobe malfunction. “Don’t wait for me.” Got it. Then I heard cars, then I heard cheers and then we were motoring down to Highway 49 (93.5). Cassie was there, amped and in her Team7Hills gear water bottle in hand. The aid station volunteers asked me if I needed anything and I just filled my water bottle. I was smelling some serious barn at this point. I dropped off my night-gear and one bottle with someone and re-donned an ice bandana, filled my hat with ice and was ready to go. It was very abruptly 90+ degrees. Suddenly there’s some confusion; Cassie thinks she’s running me in and Ben thinks he is. I don’t have time for this but I know for sure that I’m running me in so I move off.

“130 out!” I’m starting to roar this on the way out of aid stations. The engines are stoking nicely.

A few steps outside the aid station and it seems the confusion is settled. Cassie bounds up and starts to motivate me and congratulate me. I’m still not quite sure it's done but I’m starting to choke up a bit. Cassie attacks the uphill and we power away from the aid station. She’s ready to rock, and now I am too. This is only a 10k afterall.
The meadow section is mesmerizing, the tall grass sways in the breeze, we easily push through somewhat incredulous at what is actually happening. A runner comes up behind and I stand aside to let him pass. “No, you need to get going!” he yells. It turns out he’s just out for a Sunday morning jog and is perfectly happy to cede the trail to me. We crest the penultimate hill and we’re seeing day hikers around. It feels weird to suddenly be thrust into civilization again after so long in the wild. I start to push here and Cassie drops off a bit. As I begin to descend into No Hands Bridge Tim Twietmeyer is suddenly on the trail (although it occurs to me now that I never did actually verify that and the timing doesn’t totally add up). He tells me to keep it up, and as always looks like he’s recently emerged from a day spa. If you were real Tim and by some coincidence you read this, I did indeed keep it up! Thanks for being out there. Although I guess the same applies even if you were a phantom.

I’m into No Hands Bridge and its bedlam. The cheering, the yelling, the whooping and also volunteers, spectators and day users are there. I top of my bottle with ice water. “Go get it!” someone probably yelled. Cheers, applause and Cassie is back with me. We’re chugging over the bridge at a decent clip when suddenly I hear yelling and it takes a second to realize that it is coming from me.

“This is fucking amazing babe, you’re doing it!”
“It’s so beautiful here”
“Sure is”

Tears come. Mostly internally but a couple escape, the pit of my stomach burns with anticipation and my chest swells. Deep breaths. We are across the bridge now and there are more day hikers. I give my most civilized “Good Morning,” though I’m sure I scared some children. The trail meanders up a fire road before hitting the Robie Point climb proper and I’m winding up like a coil ready to spring up the hill. Cassie is flagging at this point and she yells forward, “Don’t wait for me!”
I pass a family with a child shouting ‘HELLO!’ into the void expecting an echo. I pop up behind them and surprise her by becoming that echo, ‘HELLO!’ which seems to tickle her. We’re all smiling, its a wholesome Sunday day out. I skirt the valley wall and she yells a few more times, and each time I respond, ‘HELLO!’ Eventually though I refocus and her calls fade away like the trials of the night, into memory. I’m going back and forth with a guy in this stage who pulls ahead a ways and suddenly gets a companion who was running towards him and offers to pace him in. They turn uphill and I wonder if he would have run with me if I had been ahead at that stage. No matter, I’m bursting at the seams to get up to Robie Point.
The dirt road turns to trail and now properly up. A couple of switchbacks in which I pass this pair and learn the newfound pacer was a runner who already finished long ago and came back out for more. I can’t even… Then we hit the final uphill push and I pass a woman toiling upward. I am looking over my shoulder thinking of Cassie down in the heat. She tells me that she too is a dropped pacer and that I need to forget it and get this shit done! I think once, think twice and then get my head down and press on.

Out onto the uneven road of Robie Point and there’s a volunteer ready to give me a cold sponge. I stand there expectantly. “Don’t stop!” The volunteer douses me while we move further uphill and passes me off to the next dousing station. This repeats again and after the third volunteer escorts me, dripping wet to the aid station proper I’m plenty cooled. Ben is there and he’s amped. I tell him how I lost Cassie and he tries to get my mind off it. I chug a Coke and we’re whooping and hollering off to mile 99 of the Western States 100. This is it!
At the ‘Welcome Western States Runners/Mile 99’ sign there are a bunch of spectators. They cheer me on by name and it ratchets me up another notch. I cheer them back and get a spring in my step. Ben suddenly sprints off and I remind him that a). I’m not in a place to really do that and b). We’re done. No need for heroics, we’ve got 25 minutes to run a mile mostly downhill. It’s over. It happened. We did it.
Every now and then there are people lining the streets cheering me on and it is other-worldly. It’s the pre-victory lap, cruising through town soaking up the good feelings. We finally hit Finley St. and there I am running back up the street towards us. Wait, that’s not me. But I’m wearing my shirt. The not-me in the distance is yelling and waving and all excited. It’s Phil! He not only stuck around, but managed to magically pop out right in the home stretch to share a few yards of the experience. Awesome. We catch up a bit on the weekend and then…

Never mind. You’ve endured enough from me, just watch the damn video.

The victory chute - Photo Phil Kochik #Team7Hills

A million times THIS! - Facchino Photography
An elated mess ft. James Varner - photo by Phil Kochik #Team7Hills 


Sometimes it feels like a dream. I’m 7 weeks out from my 2016 Western States Endurance Run and I find myself tracing the maps and the elevation chart and still feel the familiar pangs of longing that I’ve grown to associate with almost everything involved with the event. I can’t remember the first time I knew I would run it, but I remember the feeling the first time I felt a tingle of wonder at the prospect of it... was an image of Scott Jurek boldly fording the American River at Rucky Chucky on the way to one of his many victories. It accompanied some of his thoughts on the importance of the race and it has stuck with me to this day. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote or said, or really even where I saw it; it may even have simply been an idea conjured by the power of his words. What I do remember is the feeling. Of Scott as a shaggy-haired icon of possibility and wonder. He is so humble. He came from nowhere to achieve the seemingly impossible. So why not me? I mean, I never thought and to this day don’t think that I have it in me to win anything outright. But sometimes just showing up is the most important victory. You can never truly know what you are capable of unless you have audacity to dare to fail.

Hard earned spoils

If you read this far there's a pretty good chance I couldn't have done this without you... so, yeah, umm, thanks.