At Long Last: Sub-24 Hours at Western States
July 9, 2010 by Bryon Powell · 18 Comments
Shortly after the 2010 Western States 100, Jose Suarez contacted me to let me know he’d published a race report from this year’s race, his second running of Western States. He and I had never been in contact, but we had something in common: his pacer, Joe Reis, paced me at Western States in 2006. More important, Jose capped a four-year mission to break 24-hours and come home with a silver buckle. The lengths he went to are somewhat extraordinary, but they embody the passion many put into a 100 whether their goal is to win, break 24 hours, or simply to finish. Here’s his story.
I ran my first Western States and first 100 in 2007 finishing in a little over 27 hours. Western States 2010 was my second 100 and my second Western States. My goal was to break 24 hours. To get there I knew I would have to train hard, much harder than for 2007.
I ran 16 ultras in the twelve months leading to WS ’10, including Miwok, well known as a 2-times finishing-time barometer for Western States. My Miwok time put me at an over 24-hour Western States finish, but then I again I didn’t taper for Miwok or for any other race except for Western States. They were all training runs. Add to the training the Memorial Day Runs where two buddies and I continued to Rucky Chucky after arriving to Foresthill from the start around Dusty Corners, the countless number of other 25+ mile runs, moving to Squaw 45 days prior to the race to sleep at altitude and train in the canyons during the day, days of baking in a sauna, 2-3 times per week of weight training, a 3-week taper, and the support of a phenomenal crew, wife, son, and 1,600 volunteers, and I felt well prepared for my 2010 Western States goal despite being a very average runner.
Adrenaline carries the runners up the first 2,500′ climb from Squaw Valley in what seems to be a blink of an eye. However, the hour or so that it takes most of us to crest this mountain provides ample time to catch up with old friends and make new ones. I was honored to hike and chat for a good portion of the climb with my buddy Dan Brenden, attempting to accomplish this year the unthinkable record of seven Grand Slams in a row. I also ran for a bit with my much too proper friend and first time WS runner Franz Dill, until he stepped 20 feet to the side of the trail and worked his way behind a tree just to pee. I caught the usual glimpse of my buddy Eric Vaughan, hiking much stronger than me about 300 yards ahead. I was inspired by Amy Palmiero-Winters, running on a prosthetic leg, and was glad we could exchange a few nice words. But the blink of the eye was soon over, and we had climbed for about 4 miles cresting at about 9,000′ in sync with the sunrise.
I then proceeded to run/slide over the next 6-10 miles of snow and slush. Here is a good video of that section:
Video by Michael Cook from seetherace.
My hydration pack failed during this section of the course. I would suck as hard as I could on the nipple, but no water would come out. At 9,000′, sucking on a hose in no way helps running. Sliding on the snow with frozen feet and by now permanently sunken cheeks from all the unsuccessful sucking, I removed my pack and held it on one hand while I tested all of its components with the other. Scores of runners asked if they could help, one even offering duct tape. I love the camaraderie of ultras and how we help each other to run toward our own goals. After a few very frustrating miles, I discovered that the culprit was the nipple itself. With great pleasure, I tore it off with my teeth and proceeded to drink directly from the hose without intermediaries, kinking and unkinking it to start and stop the water flow as necessary.
I knew I was approaching the Duncan Canyon aid station when the trail got rougher. My buddy Eric and 20 other volunteers had been clearing the Poppy Trail the prior weekend in anticipation of a snow route year and told me that they had run out of time towards the end. While still runable, exposed roots and rocks on the last mile kept my eyes on the ground and away from the beautiful French Meadows Reservoir.
I saw my wife and son hiking to the aid station; all three of us fortuitously arriving at the same time. This was not their official crewing aid station, but throughout the race from Squaw to Auburn, they would find their way to all aid stations to help and support me. I’m a lucky guy.
I swapped my hydration pack for more dependable water bottles at mile 25, my first crew-supported aid station. My crew had just arrived there 5-10 minutes before I did, and they were not expecting me for at least another 30 minutes. As a result, they didn’t have everything quite ready for me. I had to fish for my own bottles and food bag as they remained somewhat paralyzed just looking at me tear through their supply bags. Their next aid-station would be much more efficient.
I left Duncan Canyon aid station annoyed and in a hurry and pushed it hard down and up this first canyon reaching a snow-covered mile 30 with a 30-minute time buffer against my 24-hour goal. My wife had sent a text message to my second crew at Robinson Flat telling them to expect me way early. Prepared for my arrival, I easily swapped bottles with my second crew, drank an extra bottle of Gatorade there, gave them some love, and left quickly to hike most of the next slippery, snow-covered mile.
With the snow behind me, I ran hard down and up the next 3 canyons for 31 additional miles during the hottest part of the day. I don’t think the canyons reached quite 100F, but it was hot. At every stream crossing, I would dunk my hat and as much of my body as possible to cool off. At every aid station in the canyons, I would spend a few seconds at their sponge “car wash” and soak at least my head, neck and shoulders with cold water.
Unbeknownst to me, along this time span, my embarrassed Duncan Canyon Crew was struggling desperately to fix the hydration pack and drive fast enough on serpentine roads to reach Dusty Corners, an aid station in the middle of the canyons. With great effort, they got to the aid station on time and hiked all the supplies to a perfect spot. They spread everything out neatly so I could stop and select whatever I needed… new shoes, blister repair kit, first aid kit, water, Gatorade, GU’s, towel, TP, etc. They even sent my nephew up the hill to spot me so he could alert the rest; everyone desirous to see me and help me for a few moments. My nephew spots me and alerts the crew. I spot my new hydration pack being held by my brother-in-law and lock my eyesight on it. As everyone gathered to help, like an expert thief, I took the hydration pack from his hands without ever stopping for a second, leaving my crew unfulfilled and agape.
Similarly, I would fly down the steep switchbacks in the canyons passing many running gingerly, afraid of the scree and constant presence of a precipice just to the side of the trail. Most of these runners would then pass me on the uphills. I was running harder than I could sustain and, consequently, I was among runners well above my league.
I think I only passed one runner going up Devil’s Thumb, and as I passed him he asked me how long was the climb. “About 45 minutes at this pace,” I replied and asked, “you haven’t trained here before?” “Oh, no,” he said, “this is my first trail race.” That’s the beauty of running ultras; there is always someone more nuts than you. I would see this Portuguese runner again as he passed me back on the hill to Robie Point.
My best sponge bath ever would have to be that at the bottom of El Dorado Canyon. Just past the bridge, the volunteers had lined up for the runners 5-gallon buckets of cold water freshly hoisted from the river. I spent a few minutes there dousing myself with the most refreshing water ever. After thanking them profusely, I pushed it hard up the canyon arriving totally dry to Michigan Bluff 45 minutes later.
Awaiting at Michigan Bluff was the treat of my thirteen-year-old son who would run with me the short, paved-road section in this runner-friendly town that I had visited so many times during training. I don’t know what prompted me to have both a cup of Coke and a cup of ginger ale at this aid station, but I paid for it with a bloated stomach all the way to the top of Bath Road. My son had two bottles of Gatorade for me as planned, so this deviation from my plan was totally unnecessary. In any event, Joseph had promised me a poem if I finished in less than 24 hours and to encourage me as we ran together said, “Dad, I’ve already started writing it!” This lifted my spirits and propelled me to Foresthill.
I had managed to build a little over one hour buffer on 24-hour pace by the time I reached the top of Bath Road. My brother-in-law paced me from there to Foresthill at mile 62, where I sat for the first time and rested a few minutes while all my crew took great care of me. My wife shooed me out of Foresthill at 6:00 pm on the dot, leaving me with exactly a one hour buffer to the goal.
I picked up Joe, my pacer, at this point and we increased our buffer by a few minutes over the next 16 miles to Rucky Chucky (mile 78), the largest river crossing of the race. Aside from the Heed in my hydration pack, I was not able to take any calories during this three and a half hour pounding to the river. Towards the end of this section I could definitely feel that I was running on fumes.
By mile 90, I knew that the sub-24 hour goal was in the bag as I almost had enough time to walk it in. My pacer wanted to bring me in at 22 hours and change, but I decided that the extra bragging points were not worth trashing my body any further and instead decided to enjoy the last 10 miles (as much as you can enjoy it after 90 miles on your feet). Without any push back this time from my pacer or aid-station volunteers, I had a beer at that aid station and from there on walked a lot, talked a lot, and let most of runners with whom I had traded places throughout the race pass me for good without concern.
My crew was happy to see me relaxed at Highway 49 and, getting no push back from them either, I enjoyed a cup of potato soup at this aid station, much as I did in 2007. I wish I could remember the name of the volunteer who served me this cup of soup, but all I remember now is that she was the same volunteer who also gave it to me in 2007. Thank you! Volunteers are certainly the life of Western States.
After a short walk/run to the next aid station, I enjoyed talking to the volunteers at No Hands Bridge, savored their watermelon, and pondered about this epic run as I admired their famous lighting decorations on the bridge — a rewarding treat that reveals itself only to those arriving under the cover of night. Hal Koerner had set up camp at the bridge to welcome runners, and I was honored to have a relaxed chat with the defending champ. I was sorry to learn that he had dropped at Green Gate — all champions have bad days but, despite this and much as Scott did during his reign, Hal was there to welcome his fellow runners and offer some final words of encouragement.
I milked every minute of my long 75 minutes from No Hands Bridge to the finish, a section that I had rehearsed time and time again on tired legs to cover in 40 minutes if necessary to make my sub-24 goal. Still, with procrastination and all, we arrived to the stadium 45 minutes ahead of the goal. The speakers at the stadium announced the dedication of my race to my thirteen-year-old son as he and I crossed the finish line together in 23:18.
My relatively faster pace this year than 2007’s 27-hour finish made this run that much more difficult for me. Doubts, exhaustion, pain, wet or frozen feet, heat claustrophobia, and despair were my constant companions along the course. But so were my crew, my pacer, my training, my goal, my wife, my son, and all of you following me online. Ultimately, the better companions carried the day.
I did the entire race on one pair of “minimalist”, 7oz shoes (New Balance MT100) and didn’t even have one blister at the end. My feet were still swollen three days after the race, but ice baths and Motrin resolved that.
I thank all of you infinitely for your support and God and my late father and late sister for the safe passage to Auburn.
Will I do Western States again?
Perhaps if I am crazy enough to think I can get it done in under 21 hours, have enough time to train, and can recruit my wife, son and rest of the crew again.