The Western States (Half) Story

I woke at 3:45. Three alarms had been set, but only one went off. Everything was laid out in the hotel room from the night before. I flicked on the lights, pushed the “on” button on the coffee pot, and poured myself some cereal. As I sat there alone at the table, I was surprised at how calm I was. In about an hour, I was about to begin what I hoped to be an ordeal that would last more than a full day, and I was still able to crunch down my Honey Bunches of Oats. I’m not sure why I was calm, but I think part of it was the fact that the task at hand was so big that I just couldn’t quite comprehend its magnitude. Instead, I simply chose not to comprehend anything. I just sat there and ate. I went through the motions to get ready, woke up Kristen, and met my parents downstairs. We walked together through the dark village at Squaw Valley to the pre race weigh-in and bib pickup. The lodge was packed with runners, families, volunteers, and supporters. It was 4:30. As I made my way through the crowd to the required stations, I brushed past the likes of Dave Mackey and Andy Jones-Wilkins, and marveled at the fact that I was in the presence of greats. The whole thing still wasn’t really registering with me.

Eventually everyone in the warm, stuffy room began shuffling toward the doors to the start line on the patio outside. Five minutes to go. My dad and Kristen headed off up the hill a little ways to get pictures of the start while my mom kept me company. We hung out near the back of the crowd until the gun. Then I shed my jacket, gave it to my mom and got a final motherly hug and kiss (it’s the best feeling in the world to have people around you that care for you as much as my family and friends do). I watched the leaders running up to the first switchback on the dirt road, their swift movements illuminated in the morning darkness by the nearby lights of a ski lift, as I walked amongst the crowd under the start clock and onto the course.

That first four mile climb is absolutely gorgeous. As we climbed higher onto Squaw Valley’s slopes, the golden light broke over the mountains to the east and cast warm hues across the entire mountain. I was happy to be there. Shortly after the Escarpment Aid Station we hit the first patches of snow. Upon reaching the top of Emigrant Pass, I took a moment to look back over Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas. There’s definitely a reason why the Tahoe-area Sierras are my favorite place in the world. Soon after, I got in line as we all carried momentum down the dirt trail on the backside of the mountain. The trail heads north for about a quarter of a mile, then turns west to skirt the ridge. Soon the dirt was gone and snow prevailed. The trail held approximately the same topo line, heading gently downhill, following the ridge that loomed above and to the right. There was an ever-present left-facing side-slope that threw many people off guard on the icy surface. The snow was very interesting. It was summer corn, but frozen, making for a very sharp surface in the event of sliding skin. Numerous times I saw a dent in the snow accompanied by a significant patch of blood. The snow was also a quite uneven, dimpled from melting in the sun, only to be refrozen during the night. As we cruised along, some folks complained about the snow, some chatted about random events and many were silent, just a line of runners chugging along in the high country, with blue skies above and wonderfully crisp alpine air all around. I found my skiing and snowshoeing background to be very beneficial here, as traction seemed to come relatively easy to me. Looking back, this was my favorite part of the course. It was cold, exciting and very unique. We ran from ribboned tree to ribboned tree, following no discernable trail, just exploring the backcountry.

Eventually the snow turned to mud and we crossed a very cold river, and before I knew it we were at Talbot aid, mile 15. I still had plenty of water in my hydration pack so I grabbed some crackers and headed down the road, the snow now completely gone. The next five miles followed a fire road and then a paved road to the Poppy aid station. It was pretty, but fairly boring, but it passed quickly. At Poppy I switched shoes and socks (from Cascadias to Hokas). The next bit of trail was a very fun, rolling singletrack that skirted French Meadows reservoir. I can’t believe I’ve lived in Auburn for so long and have never been to French Meadows. I really wanted to jump in the cold blue water, pitch a tent and just camp for a couple days! The trail made its way through the old burn and into Duncan Canyon aid. After gathering supplies, water, etc, I continued on uneventfully.

It was 7 miles to the next aid at Mosquito Ridge Road and I was told there would be a climb. It was on this climb that I began to feel less than stellar. It was still not hot by any means, but it was definitely getting warmer. And I think that this warming, along with the long climb set off a chain reaction that would eventually derail me. I came into MRR approximately in the middle of the 24- and 30-hour paces. My weight was down, but not enough to cause concern. My stomach was uneasy, so I ate what I could and sucked on a ginger chew. I decided to walk for a little while to see if things would get better. Eventually I got tired of this and started back on a walk/run regimen, though it was still much slower than I wanted, especially this early in the race. By the time I hit Dusty Corners, I had full on nausea. I plopped down and was immediately helped by the amazing aid station volunteers there. They asked how much I had been drinking, gave me fluids and an S! Cap and told me to relax. I still was well ahead of the cutoffs. About 20 minutes later, I was ready to rock again. For some reason, I had related my nausea to nutrition and thought little of the possibility of dehydration. Looking back, I chalk this up to simple lack of experience and not being able to recognize my problems. Back on the trail, I had regained a solid pace and absolutely loved the views out around Pucker Point. That was such a fun trail that I think I could have enjoyed it for many more hours. I was drinking well again, or so I thought, and was getting some goldfish down, though I knew that by now I was becoming quite calorie deficient.

At last chance I slurped some broth, ate a square of grilled cheese sandwich and simply couldn’t resist a bite of cold, delicious watermelon. I knew I had had problems with oranges before, but I thought the watermelon would be okay. It turns out I was very wrong. I descended into the first canyon, the Hokas doing their job very well, as I felt smooth and fast heading toward the bottom. I took a moment at the bridge to admire the raging river passing below, and began the climb to Devil’s Thumb. I met two guys near the bottom and we climbed together slowly for a little while, taking rest breaks every once-in-awhile. But soon I couldn’t keep up. My energy was low (lack of calories) and I found my nausea coming back. I had to take more and more rests and got passed by more and more people. Eventually my mentality went from holding it down to just wishing it would come up. I even dry-heaved once near the top but my body wanted to hold onto the water in there so badly. I hadn’t peed at all since dusty corners and I had no idea how many calories I had taken in since then, but I knew it wasn’t much. I thought my hydration had been on the mend, but again I must have misjudged. How could so many mistakes happen in such quick succession? Hadn’t I learned anything from earlier in the day? Or was there a different cause for this illness? Either way, once I became nauseous, water intake diminished greatly. So if I wasn’t dehydrated at the bottom of the canyon, I definitely was by Devil’s Thumb.

I weighed in okay, but was told to sit and recover for a bit. I saw someone eating a popsicle and it looked like the greatest thing in the world, so I asked for one, unsure if I’d be able to eat it. Shortly after taking a seat and getting some ginger ale and a popsicle, a woman in a medical shirt came over and asked how I was doing. “I need to puke, but it’s not happening,” I said. She replied very matter-of-factly: “well, make it happen.” Then she walked away. That was all the motivation I needed, as I proceeded to the bushes to get it done. This is where I realized that watermelon was a bad choice, as all the other food I ate had been digested quickly, and the only thing that came out was watermelon and water. Unfortunately, the water I had weighed in with in my stomach was now gone. Back to dehydration. Even more unfortunately, as I kneeled there watching my body reject the nutrients it needed, I also watched my popsicle melt and slide off the stick into the dirt. Insult to injury at its finest. I just couldn’t help myself, and I started laughing at my own messed up situation.

Back in the chair, a volunteer came over and told me to get a move on. I wasn’t ready to go, but they were adamant. The cutoffs were closing in, and I wasn’t making up any time. I walked away from Devil’s Thumb feeling better than I had come in, but the feeling quickly faded, as any exertion at all caused reinvigorated nausea. And so I walked. The five mile walk down to El Dorado Creek was very long. My legs felt great and I wanted so badly to run, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I felt very non-tough here, wondering how many other people would just suck it up and run anyways. But no matter what I thought, I could barely keep my walk. I was ashamed and frustrated with my stomach. I wanted to just rip it out and see how far I could get without eating or feeling anything in there. At the bottom of the canyon, I was fed some broth and coke and had my pack refilled. I knew that unless I climbed to Michigan Bluff at a decent pace, I wouldn’t be able to make it. It was getting dark already and I realized how far off of my goal pace I was at this point. I began the climb with a safety runner, as my lights were at Michigan Bluff. He did an awesome job of talking to me, describing the trail and pointing out the stars and the sounds of the river. But I was not a good conversational companion, as I continually felt closer and closer to throwing up again. About three quarters up the climb, I realized what time it was, and knew that I would not make it. I had a vague feeling of this from the bottom of the canyon, and now I knew it was for sure. I was walking incredibly slowly, and had little time to make it to the aid. Soon after, the mounted sweeps caught up to us. I was now officially the last runner left on the course at this point in the race. This was the end.

So on to my thoughts. I have an incredible newfound respect for this race, this distance, and everyone who tackles it. I knew it would be huge, but it took 55 miles for me to begin to comprehend how huge this thing really was. And to be honest, I probably had no real business being out there. Not yet, anyways. But do I regret it? Do I regret my months of training, preparation, lifestyle choices, and planning? Hell no. I learned so much from the injuries and other issues I encountered in my journey to the start line. And I learned so much more in my 17 hours from Squaw Valley to Michigan Bluff. I was raised to embrace a go-for-broke mentality. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time it didn’t, but I have always found the outcomes from this mentality to be net positive, so I will likely not change this tactic anytime soon. Biting off more than you can chew may cause you to choke, but in the meantime it will also make you a much better chewer. And while my third DNF this year stings a lot, I have so many takeaways for the future. I will no longer embrace one race per year as my capstone race, as I feel this mentality hindered my performance in earlier races in the year. I want to focus on them all and enjoy them all equally. I have a lot of experience and strength to gain as a runner before I am truly ready to run 100 miles, and I will probably wait at least three more years (and dozens more ultras) before I attempt 100 miles again. The next time I find myself at the start of a 100 (as I undoubtedly will), I want to feel 100% prepared and leaving very little to chance. I need to work on nutrition, hydration, and an understanding of the needs of my body in various conditions, as this seems to be my most common undoing. And finally, I have the most incredible group of people behind me: Kristen, my parents, her parents and brother Max, our extended families, our running buddies (Cal Poly Trail Runners, SLO Trail Runners, and everyone else I’ve met along the way), all our Auburn buddies, co-workers (present and future), roommates, and supporters. You all played a huge part in getting me to the start line. Eventually, I will make it to the finish line. You all mean so much to me and if there is ever a chance to repay the favor, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

Next up is Kristen’s grand adventure at TRT 100! I’m super excited to pace her from mile 80 to the finish, and I hope my experience has been something for her to learn from going into her own challenge. I have no doubt that she will be the toughest person out there and I can’t wait to see what she can do.

Until next time, I need to find a fun 50k, something I can finish. Ya, that sounds nice:)

“Impossible is temporary…”
-Muhammed Ali

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One thought on “The Western States (Half) Story

  1. good story, sorry it did not happen. You have plenty of years to finish a 100miler and I am sure you will. See you at TRT.
    Thomas

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