Monday, July 2, 2012

Western States 2012

It was 4:30 AM on a Saturday and I was standing in a hotel room in Squaw Valley, CA watching the Honey Badger video (for the first time) on someone’s phone. I had been assured that thoughts of that video would empower—or at least entertain—me later in the day. Once I had been suitably introduced to yet another viral video thats craze had passed me by, we stepped outside.

Normally, the weather would be warmish—that delectable cool that prickles your skin and gives you respite from the brutal sun that would soon be overhead. Instead, the snow clouds that had gathered on the crest the night before still clung thick, obliterating stars. Cold wind raced and whirled about the valley as runners in minimal clothing and thin emergency jackets shivered at the base of a ski run.


I wiggled into the middle of the pack relishing the temporary warmth of 400 bodies.


There were yells and whoops, cheering, applause, and the flash of hundreds of cameras. Runners surged forward at the pace of a quick walk. After all, we had a long way to go.

Nearing the escarpment strong gusts drove dust down on us in swirls. Despite the fact that the sun had barely tinged the cloud bellies pink I slid my sunglasses down to protect my eyes. Lean…lean…lean…pump arms. The wind was driving me backward nearly as hard as I pushed forward. By the aid station at the top my hands were already numb and I was shaking. 4 miles down, 96 to go. I should have taken food to fuel my internal heater, but I couldn't bring myself to stop. I shivered my way up to the Watson Monument…and then with a quick turn plunged into the swirling fog, sleet, snow, and rain of the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Within a few strides I saw a wooden post that my heart knew. As I came to it I squinted and read the wood-burned words: Pacific Crest Trail. I touched it and lingered a moment. When I last stood here I’d gazed into the rolling terrain to the west and longed to throw myself into it…immerse myself in the terrain that beckoned me with whispered words of adventure. The words Squaw Valley on the other side had meant nothing to me. And yet, fate still managed to bring me back to this place–7 years later–to send me down into the canyons of the American River and its tributaries, just as I’d longed to do.

Rain. Cold. Snow. Sleet. All things I am familiar with. All things that Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run has never had on race day in 39 years. If I’d been running in Washington I’d have been prepared, but here I was splashing through puddles and mud dressed for 115 degree weather and a solstice sun at its apex. Sleet balls bounced off my eyes and stung my cheeks. My ears were aching from the driving wind. I clenched my jaw to stave the chattering and focused on harder things. Like facing a cold front in the exposed desert of New Mexico in October. Golf ball sized hail being driven by 50mph winds into my body—and hitting the ground with enough momentum to bounce up and bruise my legs. The resulting drenching and a night spent sleeping in the mud were cold, wretched hours spent flirting with hypothermia. Here, all I had to do was keep moving. There would be no sleeping. The warmth of my working muscles would save me.

Within only a couple miles of the pass my stomach was growling. I’d burned through my calories keeping warm and I had none with me. It was going to be a long 5 miles to the next aid station. All morning I repeated this, on the brink of bonking as I struggled to consume enough to run and keep warm. Finally, I saw my shadow—faintly at first—then with stark relief. I stripped off the soaked nylon jacket and arm sleeves. The skies became increasingly blue and I felt warmth seeping into my muscles and bones. I finally felt like I could move.

After descending gradually for over 10 miles the course began to drop steeply into a canyon. Within a few switchbacks of the bottom my right IT band blew up. Intense pain at both insertions reduced my run to a stagger within a few yards. I put on a strap and continued. 1 more switchback and the left side went out. There was nothing I could do for it. [Honey Badger don’t care.] So, I hobbled to the bottom and rejoiced at the bitch of a climb up Devil’s Thumb—purely because I could move without pain up it.

I had just over half the race to go.

The next descent was less steep, but I was hurting. I crossed the river and got the time. 5:51 PM. It was 3 miles or so to Michigan Bluff—up. I wanted to get there by 7:30. I just had to hike fast. I pushed myself to climb faster than I felt was smart. I wanted to be there and see my crew for the first time. To get to my drop bag. To try and do something for my leg.

Near the top of the climb I felt my energy tapping out. The handful of strawberries I’d eaten at the bottom were not enough. I couldn't maintain my pace any more. Was I there? Then I saw a person. I heard the crowd. Thank God. I crossed the timing mat, handed off my bottles for a refill and collapsed next to my crew. I started pulling things out of my pockets, eating, eating, eating, drinking Vega and coconut water. I foam rolled my legs.

“What time is it?”
“Dear God, that was a fast climb.”
“I know.”
“Oh my God, I can’t put anything else in my stomach or I’m going to be sick. I gotta go.”

I walked too much from Michigan Bluff to Bath Road. My stomach was pissed at the starve and cram method of the last 14 hours. My left leg was in agony. My right ankle had begun to hurt. As I climbed up to yet another road crossing I spied my pacer and crew. Excited I began hiking faster with them, and even running, to get to Forest Hill.

After my weigh in I sat in a chair and my pacer forced an Odwalla into my hand and told me to drink. I did. My crew taped my left IT band. Equipped with my flashlight and my pacer, I headed out into the gathering dusk.

The next 30 miles were characterized by darkness and increasing pain in my right ankle. My IT bands—with the exception of the left hip insertion point—had ceased to hurt, mitigated by the taping and the band. However, my foot had me reduced to picking my way slowly downhill and only barely able to “jog” the flats. Tears of pain would seep out regularly.  Often I would verbalize the pain and hear my pacer say, “I know”. It didn't make the pain go away, but having another person there to acknowledge and to commiserate made a huge difference in keeping me moving forward faster than I would have alone.

In the middle of the night, approaching the American River I started crying. It looked so far away. Dan urged me forward and when we reached the river I was so happy to plunge into the frigid, waist deep water and let it numb the pain. On the other side I put on a two jackets and a blanket and squished up the road drinking coffee. Nearly 2 AM and there were 22 miles to go before the 11 AM cut off.

The night of a hundred miler is the most raw and demoralizing stretch of the race for me. A diurnal animal forced to stay awake all day and then all night—its faculties limited by darkness that is mitigated only by what artificial light it carries—is fighting both its instinct and its evolutionary past. The miles traveled already are mind boggling, but the remaining 20, or 30, seem overwhelming. The night seems endless. And, when faced with great pain, the ordeal becomes a struggle between the mind and the body that can drain you in ways you never thought possible. In all honesty, the thought of quitting never crossed my mind, which in retrospect is surprising, although I did wonder why I was there and doubted I would ever run 100 miles again. My mind was so preoccupied by the activity of forcing my body to keep going forward that all other thoughts were driven out. Dan even had to tell me to drink and eat. A few times the demands of my body arrested my mind and I stopped in the middle of the trail and proclaimed, “I have to eat. Now.”

I was expecting an intermediary aid station between Green Gate and Auburn Lakes. It never came and I was getting more and more demoralized. I'm not going to make cut off. Finally we saw it and Dan said, “Wait, this is Auburn Lakes! I guess there wasn't one in between.”
“Oh my God…” and I started crying. I was so happy. Only 15 miles to go. Those 15 miles would take me hours, but, only 15 miles—it was a magic number.

The next 5 miles were long and arduous. Probably the most painful of the entire race. I don’t remember much. I only remember being freezing cold and in pain. Finally, the dawn began to creep over the canyon. We descended from the Brown’s Bar aid station and began climbing toward the Highway 49 crossing. Somewhere I reached a point where the pain no longer had control of me—I overcame it despite being keenly aware of it. A diurnal animal once again in the daylight becomes empowered. I certainly wasn't sprinting, but I felt stronger and moved a bit faster. As the last foggy remnants of a long, cold night were swept from my brain by daylight I remembered that there was such a thing as Ibuprofen.

“I need Ibuprofen.”

I think that was the first and only sentence I spoke as I reached my crew at Highway 49. Mile 93. This course was breaking my body, but it was almost over. He gave me 2 and I remember thinking I needed at least 4, but I took what was offered and continued on. We ran through a sunlit meadow in perfect morning light and finally we were crossing the American River on No Hands Bridge. “3 miles to the top of Robie Point and 1.3 to Placer High School Track” rattled in my head. I didn't take anything from the aid station.

We began to climb and I hiked faster than I had since Michigan Bluff. I passed another runner. We topped out to discover the people of Auburn lining the streets, cheering. Drum circles. Cowbells. Hoopla. What an energizing mile! I was running up the road and Dan told me to walk. Walk?! Not now! (But I did—for a short bit). Then—running. Through the streets. People waving and everyone yelling “You’re awesome!” Dear God, I am going to finish Western States! The thought of the race I was running finally entered my head as I saw the track and tears started running down my face. I started to hyperventilate. “Dan, I’m crying!”

I stepped onto the track and high-fived Arthur, a fellow Washington runner. Then I was running and I didn't care how much it hurt. The end was in sight.

The end:
The end of 7 months of trepidation and waiting. 7 months of knowing it would hurt–steeling myself for 60 miles of pain. 7 months of injury and rehab, but almost no training. The end of 18 hours of intense pain. Of pushing against it, through it, beyond it. The night was behind me. I vaguely heard Dan say something about slowing down, but I was focused only on that finish line.

The most painful thing I have ever done was complete.