A Worthwhile Struggle: Timothy Olson’s 2013 Western States 100 Report
Contemplating the past two years, I sit back in wonder. I like to daydream, dreaming of the impossible, believing in it, and seeing it come to fruition. This year’s race was a struggle. I hurt; I growled; I didn’t know if I could finish strong. I endured some intense struggles, but that only makes it that much better. Anything worth fighting for, working your butt off for, believing in, and then witnessing it come to be is a beautiful thing. Some day’s runs fall into place and feel great; some other days you can only will yourself through the hard times. I’ve learned to overcome adversity and am content to keep moving strong.
Sipping on some green tea and scooping out some hazelnut butter in the morning, I tried to put out of my mind that I was going to run 100 miles on two short hours of sleep. I guess I was just a little excited for this day to start. My wife and I jammed out to some tunes as I prepared for the day ahead. At 4:19 in the morning, I needed to put forth the intention of leaving it all out there. I grasp inspiration in many ways, the peaceful earth beneath my feet, the root-grounded trees swaying with the rhythm of the wind, and the strong backdrop of mountains that are mighty and unyielding. I look to my wife with love in her eyes; no words need to be spoken and I’m ready to go. This year added more inspiration to the fire, a little spitfire named Tristan who has taken over my life and heart. Western States was run with passion and inspiration fueled by so many dear ones that have motivated me through my life.
Then the run began. All the pressure dissolved and there it was. I was free to do what I love: run. I felt confident in my legs from the beginning. Everything felt smooth and rhythmic as I moved on up to the Escarpment just 4.5 miles up and a couple thousand feet already ticked off. We had one big climb out of the way and basically just needed to glide our way down to Auburn. Easier said than done, but nonetheless I rolled with the punches all day lending to another incredible experience and a very satisfying run.
Cameron and Hal-daddy were flying up ahead; I was already off in my own world and a band of scallywagging ultrarunners in hot pursuit as the sun rose from the Sierra floors. It was a glorious morning; the sunrise was breathtaking and I had some pep in my step; I was about to see how the day would unfold.
One by one, we all made our way over the top, beginning some beautiful and tech-y singletrack running, bombing our way to Lyon’s Ridge (mile 10) and scooting over some tiny bumps to Red Star Ridge (mile 16). They call this race the track meet; yes it’s fast, but up top is a super-fun technical section that makes this a true mountain course. I always forget about it at the end of the day, but I made sure I was moving fast and efficiently over all the rocks and streams. Our feet were wet early on and often throughout the day as we dipped in streams while keeping a constant squirt of water on the body to remain as cool as possible. My toes and I were quite happy with my Injinji-clad feet, as they remained solid through the miles and wetness.
I lost sight of the leaders yet pushed on in high spirits. Along the way, I took a one-to-two-minute bathroom stop, hiding behind a tree and went from third to seventh pretty quickly, but got back to it feeling much better… Ahhhh. With so many miles to go, this day was all about how well you took care of yourself. I tried to balance both my body and mind, yet always conscious of how the race was unfolding in front of me. I needed to run my race, but I did not want people to get too far away.
The way over to Robinson Flat (mile 30) was somewhat relaxed and I had a chance to catch up with Hal, Mackey, Nick and Sharman; we kept a decent clip so our conversation was not too philosophical. I think I muttered, “It’s hot.” Hal replied, “Yup… it is.” You know, just keeping the small talk flowing.
By the time I climbed up to Robinson Flat, I had caught Cameron and was able to spend the next few miles with him. We had raced Transvulcania together in May, and he asked if this was 100-mile pace. I said, “Yup, you just need to somehow stay in this gear all day.” Hal eventually caught up and blasted by us; he was flying and I had no desire to be moving that quick 35 miles into a race.
Eventually, I couldn’t see anyone behind me and couldn’t see Hal in front. It basically was just a nice little run in the woods. I was a little disheartened to have my quads hurting so soon with the canyons approaching. I knew this was going to be a painful day from early on. I just needed to embrace it.
On the long downhill stretch to Last Chance, I reeled in Hal and we spent the next miles together. Pushing each other hard and both refusing to let up much. It had officially become business time and between us two; one could sense we wanted to keep that cougar in Ashland.
The canyons were a grind; I knew they would play a big part in the day and I would have to use them to my advantage. I took the drop-ins gingerly to baby the quads while Hal would be close behind. Then I would get to the climbs and grunt my way up with intentions of gaping the rest of the pack, concentrating on each step, whether it be hiking or running. It wasn’t too hot yet and I wanted to stretch my lead if possible before Michigan Bluff.
After Michigan Bluff and the euphoria of seeing my crew had passed, Volcano Canyon loomed in the distance. It was exposed and a scorcher. I forgot about this section from last year; this year it is burnt into my mind. I tried to keep cool, but with little shade and the sun baking my brains, all I could do was try to get up and out of there as fast as possible. I soaked in the creek for 30 or 40 seconds at the bottom and with somewhat rejuvenated strength I crept out of the canyon and made it to bath road.
Out from Bath Road, we entered the jovial town of Foresthill. People were out and about, cheering me in and surprised I wasn’t too cooked yet, but that would come soon enough. Sixty two miles done, a little bit of a lead, this was beginning to be reminiscent of 2012. Curiosity on who was going to catch me crept into my mind. I was tired; it was hot; and I didn’t know how I was going to make it 40 more miles. I took a brief stop just past the aid station to ice down my quads and neck, dump tons of cold water on me, grab some ice water, slam some Sierra Mist, and get a good-luck kiss from my wife. I remained calm; I told myself, I can do this.
Dominic Grossman, one of my amazing pacers, was by my side, pouring out words of encouragement. We moved at a good clip down the switchbacks to Cal 1. Dom mentioned that I was making really good time and it would be hard for any one to catch me moving like this. I agreed and was stoked to be moving so well until the heat decided to kick my ass.
Cal 2 is when the day gets a little hazy. I felt low, really low; this was the turning point of the day. I soaked in a river crossing, got up too fast, and suddenly became super dizzy, almost fell off the trail, and grabbed a tree to steady myself. I was quiet; my confidence was fading; everything hurt. Just how I like it.
This is the part of the show when the body is caput and you can only dig deep to persevere and finish the day. I like not knowing what will happen next. Will I end up crying face down in the dirt or will I will myself, transforming my perception on what I can endure? Some days you fail, some days you triumph. I’ve had a few of each and both are points in my life I won’t easily forget.
As I struggled on, whimpering a little, walking some sections, I started to become more alive, more animal-like. This doesn’t make things better, it just is, but feeling a little less human sure makes the 100-mile distance more fun. I struggled to continue on; the heat was baking me from the inside out; gels were not settling well and my stomach was yelling at me. So I took another good poop! I growled; I put my nose down and grinded up six-minute hill, hiking and suffering, just waiting to get to the American River and jump in. The river could not come soon enough. I eventually made it to Cal 3 (mile 73) with five, long, exposed miles until that sacred river crossing.
I had a moment where I thought to myself, I’m going bonkers! Then I recalled images from back home while putting Tristan to sleep. I rock him to sleep, watching his angelic face snuggle into my chest. Only after a few battle cries and strong back bends does he call it a day. He slowly goes to sleep; then I look at the Alice in Wonderland quote on our wall, “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” I keep this image in my mind a lot when I run, which brings the best out of me. It’s a combination of going crazy and accepting it while being reminded at the same time of how much awesomeness I have in my life and how deep my love for my son and wife pushes me on.
We reached the Rucky Chucky River Crossing (mile 78) and quickly moved across. People were yelling to me that the runners behind were catching up. I got a little nervous as we started the climb up to Green Gate; just a few short minutes up, I heard the cheers of others reaching the river. Oh snap, I need to get a move on! Knowing they were closing in gave me a spark; I climbed up hard; I did not want to take it easy; and I had 20 miles to the finish. The rest of the course was flat and I knew the gunslingers behind me could bust out five or six-minute miles. I knew Mike would close strong and, with one look at Krar’s beard, I knew he was going to destroy his first hundred.
I reached the top; Krista knew I was flustered and whispered to me to run not from fear but from my heart. I kissed her, relaxed, said hi to my son, put in some tunes, and busted a move. I figured I had a six-t0-seven-minute lead and just needed to run the next 10 miles really strong. Jamming out to “MMMBop,” I was working and breathing hard, as close to redlining as one could come with hopes of not blowing completely up. Running with my second pacer, Renn, we made it to ALT (mile 85) quick and with a game plan of moving in and out as quick as possible. We spent less than a minute; I drank some Sprite, gobbled up a few salt caps, and ran out hard, thanking all the amazing volunteers with my wheezing breath.
My quads were thrashed and every step down initiated a squawk of pain. I looked forward to the ups and flat sections and pressed on. The sun was still hot in sections, but an occasional breeze would pass which brought forth a smile. I was really looking forward to Browns Bar Aid Station (mile 90) where a crew of Ashland-ers were awaiting my arrival plus a conga line of 400 more to follow. They were as stoked to see me as I was to see them. I tried to say hi, but they were more concerned about getting me quickly out… some friends! ;-) They were great, lifted my spirits, and had me ready to close this day out.
Somewhere in the next few miles, I clicked off some fast miles and lost my pacer on the climb up to Highway 49 (mile 93). I was feeling pretty decent and ready to burn off the last few miles. After refilling bottles with Sierra Mist and ice water, saying good-bye to my crew one last time before I would see them on the track in Auburn, I knew I could wrap this up. I climbed out fast and efficient. Once we reached the top, I nailed a fast mile and then plummeted to No Hands Bridge (mile 97) with all that I am. My quads were now officially shot for the day and I was quite content to enjoy the climb up to Robie Point to bring me within one mile of my second cougar.
The climb went well. I didn’t hear any cheering behind me, which allowed me to relax and savor the last miles. I love the climb up from No Hands Bridge; everything starts to soak in and you’re able to take every breath and smell deep into your memory. These last three years of running Western have been truly remarkable; I’ve experienced much on the Western States Trail and these moments resonate deep in my heart.
The last mile running through town is always special. I paused to put on The North Face jersey, brushed my shoulders off, took a deep breath, and brought it home. People started running and biking alongside me; my incredible pacing duo congratulated me; people stepped out of their homes and cheered me on; this year there were even a few sprinklers to run through. The cheers got louder and louder as I entered the track. I tried not to get too emotional but a few tears snuck out as my body tingled with excitement.
High-fiving everyone I passed, I came to the last 100 meters. Suddenly I found my son in my arms; he and my awesome mother in-law had been patiently waiting. I continued to high five with one hand, holding my son–who was up past his bedtime–and look him in his eyes.
He is about as dazed as I am. We both can sense this isn’t just a normal run in Ashland. I think he’s proud of me or at least stoked to see me not running off crazy in the woods again. So many emotions flood my senses. I’m done; I get to hug and kiss my wife and son, all realizing that we did it again. It was a struggle, but worth every moment.