Thursday, July 9, 2015

Western States 2015 Race Report

With temperatures near 100 degrees, a merciless sun at 8,000 feet altitude beat on me as I ran the rocky, dusty, Western States Trail, the air hazy from both the dust and the nearby forest fires. I soaked in a stream by Swinging Bridge at mile 39 before the 1,800 foot climb up Devil’s Thumb. Then my stomach disintegrated - I felt nauseous and energy-less, with chills through my body as I tried to force myself to take another step. Just one more step. I remembered how easy and fun this climb had seemed at Western States Training Camp in May, when I’d passed a string of struggling runners. Then I remembered how at Canyons 50K I’d soaked in the same stream then stormed up the hill. Now all I could do was keep moving. I saw a very sad, motionless runner perched on a switchback. When I reached her, I saw it was Christine, my training partner. I wanted to encourage her, to stop and tell her she could do it. But I didn’t even know if I could do it. All my energy was in just willing myself forward, step after step.

It’s 3 pm in Auburn Sunday afternoon. I’m sitting in a cool air-conditioned motel room with Karen & Ken & Misha, my friends who’d given up their weekend to help me meet my goal of finishing Western States 100. Karen & Ken tell me they didn’t think I’d make it to the river - mile 78 - but they wanted to help me anyway.  

Right now you think this is a DNF race report. And it almost was.  But I thought of the email I would have to send my friends and coworkers that I’d dropped out, and I felt sad. I CAN WRITE MY OWN STORY  - and it’s not quitting. Somehow, despite everything, I stumbled into Devils Thumb at mile 43. I immediately slumped into a chair, ignoring for a second Coach Ann’s voice in my head saying “A chair is a coffin”. Tawnya & Bull Dozier hurried over to me, as I mumbled how nauseous and miserable I was. Tawnya brought me ginger ale, which I gulped. Bull took photos, and I begged him to not put them on Facebook. “It’s okay, it’s a tough day, so many people have quit. If you stay here for 44 more minutes, the aid station shuts, we’ll give you a ride out.”. NO. NO. NO. NO. I have worked TOO hard to get here - I’m NOT NOT finishing! I shot up out of the chair. I'd finished Leona Divide 50 Mile in the heat, finished Overlook 50 Mile as second place woman in worse heat conditions. I was not quitting now. 

I ran out of Devil’s Thumb aid station so determined. Despite how dreadful I’d felt, I’d still passed multiple people going up the climb. I wasn’t “killing it”, but I was still in the race. I remembered this section so well from Canyons 50K & Training Camp — a long downhill I could pick up speed, then the brutal downhill to El Dorado Creek, too rocky and steep to really hammer, but enough I could keep a good pace, remembering running this with Leigh-Ann. Then the long climb up to Michigan Bluff, remembering the rattlesnake I’d seen at Canyons. At Michigan Bluff, Karen,Misha and Laura were waiting for me. I really wanted to change out of my soggy clothes but there was still a speck of daylight which I wanted to push through. 

I’d started at dawn at 5 AM in Squaw Valley, almost 16 hours ago. I’d hiked up the Escarpment at the back of the pack, a position I was fine with - I like being at the back, that way I know where everyone is. I caught up with Timothy Allen, who I’d met in training camp, on the final scramble. In the high country, I passed shirtless Gordy Ainsleigh who teased me “Mountain Lions like girls with headphones”. I replied “Mountain Lions like topless runners”. “Topless! I don’t think of myself as topless!” It was a huge advantage to have run the course before - I knew all the jags of the course as it rolled through the spine of the Sierras. I remembered Ken’s podcast “Keep your head” + “Don’t trash your quads” and kept a consistent pace without too much effort.

It was fun to see Allen Lucas & Bonnie Porter at Last Chance aid station. As I was leaving the aid station, they’d made signs for runners I knew - like Alvin, Franco & Mark Tanaka. To my huge surprise, I was the last sign! I wished I had my iPhone to take a picture, but I’d decided I would NOT get distracted with social media or taking pictures, and was running iPhone less. I'd run the Squaw to Robinson Flat 31 miles section two weeks earlier, when the spring flowers were in full bloom. Now the flowers had wilted and dropped, as the full blast of summer had begun. However, it was a huge boost to see my crew every 10-15 miles, and I was basically on schedule until I got to Devil’s Thumb at mile 43. 

Now, runninng to ForestHill (mile 62) I took advantage of the daylight as best I could, but soon it was dark, and the trail wasn’t well marked for the night. i was glad I’d run the course numerous times, but even so I stopped & hollered a few times for other runners. On the descent down the canyon, Ken Neely caught me - I asked if he wanted to pass, but he said he liked my steady pace. He’d blown up trying to break 24 hours and was trying to put himself back together again.  “If you keep this pace, you’ll finish the race”, Ken said, which helped my psyche. The long climb out went quickly, and soon we were climbing Bath Road, me remembering Loren Lewis giving me Western States advice during Training Camp. He’d gotten to Michigan Bluff after dark, and finished - I was ahead of his pace.

At Forest Hill I changed shorts and socks and shoes. Well, actually, my crew changed my shoes and socks for me (THANK YOU) including moving my pacing tag from shoe to shoe. Jen established her sainthood by unpinning my race bib from my gross 62 mile shorts. (When I read later about Mike Kradens pacer switching SHORTS my jaw dropped, but not my trousers). Laura and I set off into the night. The first section went smoothly - I was drinking and eating, running well, trying to build up more of a buffer. I’d run the section in training camp and remembered being in stiff agony. I felt loose and good and strong. I ran into Cal1 looking for Bruce LaBelle, but couldn’t see him. I felt strong, I pushed into the red, past Cal2 way ahead of the cutoff. My goal of 3 AM to the river seemed easily achievable, then my stomach absolutely disintegrated again. I'd ignored Chihfing Fu's advice - "survive the night". 

At Cal3, mile 73, I chugged ginger ale, hoping it would help me as much as it had helped me at mile 43. Immediately as soon as it went down, I knew it would come back up. “Laura, we have to leave. NOW”. I got about two feet out of the aid station then started violently retching so hard that I popped the pins on my bib. All the ginger ale & fluids I’d taken came out. And I still felt terrible. Laura and I walked to Rucky Chucky. I was weak and dehydrated, and I’d been awake for over 24 hours running. I felt terrible, absolutely terrible. My stomach ached and was sore. And I was so sad. My race seemed over. How could I continue? Every time I broke into a jog, my stomach rebelled again & I would dry heave. In the darkness, runners & their pacers kept passing, including Catra Corbett. I managed two bites of Snickers. 

At Rucky Chucky, mile 78, I collapsed into a chair. Tony Nguyen was so helpful, and came by to give me advice on the river crossing. Ken came with cheese saying “Eat this cheese”. I told Ken very strongly where he could take the cheese and his advice, and Tony backed away with wide eyes. Somehow I was having a life jacket strapped on & crossing the chest-high icy river in the dark, with glowsticks marking the rocks. It was 4:10 AM. I was ahead of the 5 AM cutoff, but the race had slipped out of reach. All I could do was keep going til I was pulled. I wasn't going to stop of my own accord. 

Ken told me to trust him and eat the turkey & cheese, that I needed protein. Up to the top of Green Gate, and surprisingly the turkey and cheese stayed down. Alina & Jen were there, and I got another Snickers from them. We were at the top of the hill at 5 AM, with 6 hours for 20 miles. If my stomach stayed together, if I ran smart, if I could hang in there - I could finish. If if if. I thought about how much I’d trained for the race, how much time I’d spent up in the Sierras running the course, how much time I’d spent in the Headlands, how hard I’d worked for this race, and how many people were helping me. I thought of my DNF at mile 68 of Bear 100 and how devastated I'd felt after, seeing Chihping Fu and Mark Tanaka with their finishers shirts at SFO airport. Then the bitter pill of unpacking my dirty drop bags from running 24 hours at Bear without the solace of a finishers buckle. “I’m FINISHING”. I announced. 

Honestly, the next 20 miles I was in a zombie like trance of relentless forward motion. I put in my headphones & turned them up as loud as possible. I’d walk the ups, run the downs, shuffle the flats. I knew I had some serious blisters on my feet but my actual legs were strong and in good shape. Ken had warned "don't look at your feet - you'll get in the trap of taping & fussing, then you'll blow your time at aid station". So before we got into an aid station, I’d consult with Ken on our plan to get in and out as quickly as possible. When we got to ALT it was a very happy surprise to see Mike Weston! He was our volunteer, and in addition, I could give him my headlamp. At Brown’s Bar, I was in such a daze I didn’t even realize Hal Koerner had helped me. My mind kept doing the constant math that I needed to keep moving, and there was very little time to spare. At Highway 49 I tore through the mile 94 station, grabbing a new pack from Misha & getting another Snickers (yum). I was honestly surprised to see Misha, as when I'd seen her at mile 78 I was over the verge of quitting. Wow - she was still here on the course helping me! The final climb up from Highway 49, then we were in the familiar meadow with 6 miles to go I knew so well from doing an out & back three weeks ago. The next 2 miles were a sharp descent to No Hands Bridge. 

“Ken, I GOT THIS” - I took off my headphones and yelled. Ken said “What, what? What do you mean?” “Ken, I mean, I GOT THIS”. And then I dropped the hammer. And I mean, I really dropped the hammer. If you’re at mile 95 of Western States and staring a DNF in the face, you don’t leave much in the tank. I clocked down the hill, scampering through the rocks where I’d seen a rattlesnake in training. Ken even went ahead to warn hikers I was bombing down the hill! In no time we were at No Hands, where Ken bragged to Tim Tweitmeyer that I’d run 8 minute miles on this section. 

Those 8 minute miles gave me the cushion I needed, and finally I could relax, or as much as one can while finishing Western States. Alina & Jen gave me a Red Bull at No Hands Bridge, and Ken & I jogged up up to the final climb up the hill. At Robie, Misha, Alina, Jen, Laura met us. Then, a very nice surprise - Ann Trason walking her dog Zoey, with Bruce, who had given me so much good advice. Ann surprised me by wanting her picture taken with me. We all posed by the mile 99 sign that had haunted my thoughts for the last month. Ann had said “no crying til the white bridge”, a quarter mile before the finish, and we were there, crossing the white bridge. As we came into the stadium Andy Jones Wilkins slapped my hand.

Then I was rounding the track with all my pacers and crew and Ann, and I was so happy. I was walking as I had plenty of buffer of time, even after stopping to take multiple photos in the last mile. Ann said “you have to run on the track”, and for emphasis, pinched my butt! So I started running. I was so tired and so happy. I had done it, with the help of my friends, who’d spent a weekend helping me achieve my goal. Ann escorted me over to an ice bath where I dunked my feet, though I wanted to dunk my entire body. I’d really done it! I’d done it! I can’t say enough how much it helped to have Karen, Laura, Ken, Misha, Alina & Jen on course to help me. 

Things I did well:
Kept going even when my race seemed over
Didn’t look at my feet til after the race
Had variety of food (Snickers, pretzels, Milano cookies, Gatorade, Red Bull) so could digest what seemed appetizing. For the last twenty miles all I ate was Snickers
Kept my iPods charged so always had music
Said thank you to volunteers
Three packs to rotate between meant aid stations were very quick
Didn’t carry phone so not distracted by social media/taking pictures

Things to improve on:
Should have listened to body more instead of shoving down food on schedule - it pushed my stomach into the red zone