Life to the Utmost: Timothy Olson’s 2012 Western States 100 Race Report
As I laid awake in my bed, buzzing with anticipation, just hours before the start of Western States I could feel the ground quivering with what was to come. I felt the walls and bed board rattling and it wasn’t my neighbors having a good time, either. There was a tiny earthquake around 8:30 Friday night, and even the mountains were trembling with excitement for the race to begin.
My pre-race “zen time” is where I really fall into the mind space I wish to be in for a race. Reading Siddhartha is a pre-race ritual; I like to read something that makes me conscious and affirms where I want my mind for the race. Siddhartha is a book of great relevance to me. Everything has balance, everything is connected; you have to have the highs with the lows, the yin with the yang. I needed to be really lost to again find my true self and inner strength. I think I found it.
In 39 years of hot Western States, the sky decided to deliver something new. I would have preferred it to be a little warmer, but the cooler temps in the afternoon helped in some way to get me to the finish in record time.
For the first 20 miles, I could not feel my hands. I believe I made the right decision to wear a Pearl iZUMi under shirt and arm sleeves. I was chilled, but warm enough as to not be concerned with how long the rain and sleet would last. Even with the chilly weather, the spirit of the front group was hot. It seemed like everyone was having a great time – enjoying the big climb up to the Escarpment (mile 3.5) and the technical terrain which proceeded. We had fun conversation that weirdly switched to baby diapers and tips on where to find diaper coupons online with Zeke, Wolfe, Mackey, Clark and DeBo. I remember laughing out loud, realizing that this was probably the funniest conversation someone could have in the biggest race of the year. Good people run and it was a blast to be sharing this moment with such genuine people. Thanks guys!
A few miles down the trail we went off course for a few minutes (pretty sure it was not my fault this year). We fell behind less than five minutes, which allowed me to say good morning to a few other friends and introduce myself to Lizzy; she was killing it! I was struggling a bit to get back to the lead group and I was feeling the altitude a bit as well. I pushed forward with Clark and Mackey just a minute or two behind the leaders and Sandes just 30 seconds back. I wasn’t certain about them, but I was feeling a little sluggish from Lyons Ridge to Red Star Ridge. Not sure if we said a word for miles, just clicking them off and preparing for the journey ahead.
Cruising down to Duncan Canyon (mile 24), I was starting to feel a little stronger. As we climbed a moderate climb up to Robinson Flat (mile 30), I caught up to Dylan and Wolfe and chatted with them for a while. Mike, Dylan and I were having a great time out on the trail, waiting for the weather to warm up, but realizing we were running the Big One and feeling good.
A little past Miller’s Defeat (mile 35) we were running on a dirt road following the ribbons, which led up to a barbed-wire fence, closing off the road. We were very confused and worried we were lost again. We ran back a ways, but kept finding ribbons, so we had to be going the right way. I remembered seeing a big cow just a mile back with a huge bell around its neck, we thought maybe the gate was to keep him in. So we ran back to the gate and un-hinged the barbed-wire fence. A little down the dirt road we found more flagging. Nick caught back up to us and we were a little frazzled from the ordeal, but easily settled back down and got back into a rhythm.
We joked around a bit before Dusty Corners that we (three Pearl Izumi runners) were outnumbering Wolfe and his one The North Face shirt; we felt like what the Salomon team must feel like at most races with so many top runners. At the aid station, my crew made a quick switch with a water bottle and I continued on in the lead. I led for a while here as we continued down fast and entered the first canyon. I was starting to have a little low patch of energy at this time, but I didn’t mention it to the rest of the guys, and kept pretty silent for a while. It gave me confidence that I was feeling crummy, yet still retained the lead.
As we reached the steep downgrade of the canyons, I let the others go ahead. Dave Mackey and Ryan Sandes joined us, too. Next thing we knew, Mackey makes a Kilian move up on the bank and goes screaming down the trail, as someone muttered, “Time to Fly,” which cracked us all up as Mackey’s Hokas went bombing down the hill. I just kept patient and stayed in the back.
They started the climb up to Devils Thumb (mile 48) just a little bit ahead, but this is when things started feeling better for me. I made it through and was ready to climb. The weather was warming up a bit and my uphill legs were feeling strong. Thirty-six switchbacks and 1,500 feet later, I made my way back to the leaders and we rolled into the aid station feeling good. I made a stupid mistake and ran through that aid station a little too quickly. I was feeling so good that I forgot to grab any gels. A half mile down the road I realized I only had one gel and was not going to see my crew for 10 miles, yikes; this made me a little nervous, but I was hoping I could make it.
Mackey, Dylan, Wolfe, Sandes and I all wobbled our way down. When I finally reached the aid station, I was so stoked to get a gel in me, but they did not have one gel without caffeine. I don’t use caffeine and after many bathroom stops at last year’s Western States, I had decided to not use caffeine for this race. I really needed some nourishment quick, so I decided to have a few quick drinks of Sierra Mist and two orange slices. Not exactly what I had in mind, but it had to do. I knew I would be to my crew in five or so miles and then I could restock my pockets with gels that work for me.
I was a little scared with where my nutrition was going; I was really relying on fat as my fuel with the help of Vespa and was just hoping my body would ride the climb out. I had to battle many mind games before and during this year’s race. Circumstances don’t always go your way, but figuring them out on the fly is the only way to survive. The day before the race, I decided to be a part of the test studies. I did not eat breakfast Friday because they wanted us to give blood after a ten-hour fast. In the middle of giving blood I got incredibly dizzy, and the next thing I knew I was having crazy dreams and then woke up on the floor. I’ve never passed out before and it was not my ideal situation to experience it for the first time the day before the biggest race of my life. I felt pretty worn out and funky all day Friday, but regardless, I woke up Saturday ready for the journey that loomed ahead. Things don’t always go as planned, but accepting the situation and letting it not get to me helped me through other stages of the race. So I guess my body can take running a 100 miles in less than 15 hours, but giving blood is just too much for it; life is funny.
I entered Michigan Bluff (mile 56) after a big climb, in the lead and ready to get some calories down. I came in feeling okay, but was definitely a little frantic as I relayed information to my crew and restocked on gels and Vespa for the rest of the trip. It was great to see them and know that I was going to see them in just a few miles down the road. I pushed decently hard up to the Bath Road aid station thinking this might be the time to put some space between the others and me.
A mile before Foresthill I caught a glimpse of Hal daddy who was going to start pacing me in. I was excited to enter the next stage of the race with a legend of ultrarunning, a good friend who has a plethora of knowledge about this course. It was great to have the town booming with excitement, this race means a lot to all the people that come out and I definitely feed off that energy. I knew we were making good time, but I also knew I had people hot on my tail. To find myself leading Western States 100 kilometers into the race was a lot to take in. Hal and I got into a nice rhythm on the switchbacks heading down to Dardanelles (mile 66), and although we were moving, I knew it wasn’t blazing… yet. My gut was telling me to continue to be patient and not to get too excited at that point.
Hal mentioned to me that Sandes was gaining on me. I was content with this at the time, I just felt like there was more battling to come. Sandes and his pacer Phil Villeneuve went impressively flying by, and then I knew that this race was officially on! Sandes and I went into business mode, as Hal and Phil were BS-ing with each other and making me belly laugh a bit. It was a classic part of the day, when I knew I was racing, but I was also remembering why I do ultras. As I said earlier, good people run and I’m privileged to share this joy with so many good people from all over the world.
My legs were wearing a bit and a few miles before Peachstone (mile 71), Sandes was flying, and the race was getting extremely exhausting. Basically right then is when I realized that I couldn’t let him get away, that this was my day, and I wanted it. I decided to push it hard then and be relentless until I couldn’t anymore. After not seeing Sandes for a little bit of time, which to me felt like eternity, I caught I glimpse of him, and from then on proceeded to keep him in my sights as much as I could and just kept pushing. I ran it all, I beat my quads up on the downs, I grunted with all my might on the ups, and by Ford’s Bar (mile 73) I had successfully caught back up to him.
As we both had our water bottles filled and got ready to keep trucking, Sandes and I made eye contact. It was one of my favorite parts of the race, we didn’t say much, but the one glance said it all. We had tremendous respect for each other; we knew we were creating something special. I think it’s false to think you can create great things on your own; we needed each other that day, to make history happen. We fed off the other’s energy and pushed each other to give every last drop of what we had. I couldn’t have had the day I had without Ryan; he helped make the impossible possible.
I took off hard to the river. It was heating up (compared to the 35 degrees F in the morning) and I knew I could cool my body off at the river. We had a hard climb after the river up to Green Gate and I was feeling strong on the climbs all day. I busted a move and let my body free fall down, feeling good and knowing the moment could be my chance. After a few miles we realized Sandes was not behind us, which made me want to go faster. Hal and I pushed hard through that section and it paid off big. Smelling the river, I was getting ready to start climbing. We ran into AJW a few minutes before the river crossing and he was stoked.
I thought we were going to cross the river by foot this year, but apparently the water would have been over our heads so we had the luxury of a raft to take us over. I dunked in the water for a moment on the other side and tore off for the climb. I didn’t see Sandes yet and so knew I had a small gap.
My other pacer, Renn, was there to take over pacing duties and we started to climb. I didn’t walk a step and gave everything I could. I knew it was one of my last chances of significant climbing for the day and I needed to take advantage. We reached the top in great time and proceeded to roll.
This next section is a beautiful trail of singletrack that winds through the forest and gives you amazing glimpses of the American River below and lush forest flowing in the distance. I remember this section from last year where I spent a good amount of my time checking other off-road sections of the trail while relieving a ticked off GI tract. This year was different and I was not going to let off the gas.
I normally don’t listen to music running, but for 100’s I like to have the option towards the end if that’s what I’m feeling. I made an awesome playlist, which I’ll put up on my blog in the next few days. Music is beautiful, magical and inspiring. Sometimes hearing the right song at the right time can make everything better. My legs were killing me and I needed to take my thoughts off my aching quads. I was hurting, but I was just too into the moment at hand. I turned off my brain, I stopped thinking and started rolling, and every step brought me closer to my goal. I was possessed by the trail; this was the time in the race where primal instincts typically take over.
I found myself going total animal style; grunting, growling, and blowing steam from my nose. I love the intensity of losing yourself in the trail. I focused on each step and every breath even if they were a little worn. I arrived at the point in the race that I live for, the simple moments when you’ve reached down to your core and all you can do is keep running. I dreamt of this happening for months, all day waiting for the heart to take over. My legs did everything they could; it was now time to see what I’m made of.
We buzzed through ALT (mile 85) and kept pushing. I had moments where I was fading, but would quickly snap out of that fear of slowing and see all the good in my life. I’ve been lost in life, but I’ve bounced back and now strive to live every day to the utmost. I had images of my wife and son waiting for me. My son is not born yet, but I truly feel him and his mom when I’m on the trail. We are connected and this race was dedicated to them. I kept telling myself, we could do this, which at one point had me so filled with emotion I teared up. I had chills go up and down my spine as I told Tristan (my son) I was going to do this. My form wasn’t pretty, but the scenery was amazing.
I tried to keep remembering to fuel, but gels were getting pretty tired. Sierra Mist was working, so I would down a few cups at each aid station and maybe a gel occasionally. Reaching Brown’s Bar (mile 90) was great. Friends from Ashland, Oregon were in charge this year and they were so stoked to see me. I didn’t stay long to chat, but I was so grateful to see their smiling faces and know the end was getting closer.
Somewhere in the next few miles, I looked back to ask my pacer how he was doing, but he wasn’t there? I knew he fell a couple times earlier and was having some stomach issues. I was sorry to have lost him out there, but it also gave me encouragement. I figured if I can drop my pacer, the others couldn’t be gaining on me much. We were really going hard and I hope they find him out there someday.
I pulled into Highway 49 (mile 93.5) in quite a daze. I was just too focused on the next step ahead. Krista got me a filled water bottle; I had a few drinks of Sierra Mist and was on my way. I think others were shouting it, but this is when Hal told me I could go under Geoff’s course record. I wasn’t really looking at my watch most of the day, I only knew I was in the lead and that was my aim. This news was exciting, but I knew at any moment my legs, which were being a little funky, could spasm. If my legs did something funny I could easily be crawling my way in, so I kept focus on the next step and figured I could get excited if I made it to No Hands Bridge in one piece.
We climbed hard up out of 49 and started the route down to the bridge. It hurt –everything hurt – but it didn’t matter. The pain was temporary, and nothing felt too damaged; and after all, my legs had just run 96 miles, so they should be sore. Ultrarunning, what a funny sport, you don’t have to understand it; you just need to feel it.
Coming to No Hands Bridge, I started to take it all in. This was actually happening; today was my day. Hal told me to soak this in, and so I did! The music was booming, the water beneath the bridge was peaceful. It felt like the mountains were singing, laughing, breathing and letting me know this was my truth. I was going to win Western States.
I kept breathing hard; I ran pretty much every step up to Robie Point (mile 99). I had to keep running; it was an out-of-body experience where you feel like you’re watching it all from afar. I worked so hard for this day, believing in the impossible until it became possible. With a mile to go, everyone was cheering, and all I could hear was the buzz of the moment. People just started running with me to the finish, some I knew, and others were just swept away by the energy of what was taking place. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, as running the last mile with all these friends was priceless.
When I saw the track, it sort of clicked that all of this was actually happening. It still hasn’t completely kicked in, but I’m humbled by this experience and grateful I was able to share it with so many amazing people. Enjoying those last 300 meters of the track was incredible. I had so many emotions coming out. I regained my composure, cleared my eyes and thanked as many as I could. The energy of everyone present in body and spirit was electrifying. Thank you all for your love and support, which made such a magical day. After almost fifteen hours, my day was finally done and all I wanted was to kiss my wife. I got that kiss and finally relaxed; yes, I know it’s cheesy, but sometimes cheesy is just right.