Western States: Much More Than Just a Race
“Your dad is putting on a clinic today!” I overheard an aid station volunteer telling my pacer/son Logan as we crossed No Hands Bridge at Mile 96.5 of Western States this year.
Logan had been pacing me from the Highway 49 crossing and we were thoroughly enjoying the last few miles of this race that I have grown to love. However, the entire day had its share of ups and downs just like any other year.
The start was filled with the usual doses of enthusiasm and anxiety but the climb up The Escarpment proceeded amiably. I hiked most of it with Scott Wolfe (MonkeyBoy) and we would stick together for much of the first 16 miles to Red Star Ridge. In general, the High Country was fun; however, there were sections where I seemed to be working a bit harder than I wanted to this early and I struggled to keep track of my effort and breathing. In the last few miles before the Red Star Aid Station I sensed the temperature rising and decided I would pick up my two bottle pack I had waiting for me at Red Star. It turned out to be the right decision.
Leaving Red Star in about 55th place I jumped into a conga line that was about a minute back of Scott, Meghan Arbogast, and Erik Skaden. I made pretty good time up and over the climb and the descent into Duncan Canyon and was psyched to see Craig Thornley at the Aid Station there and to sponge off and get ready for the exposed descent into the Canyon and then the long grinding climb to Robinson Flat. Surprisingly, this section, too, seemed to require more effort than anticipated and by the time I rolled into Robinson in 53rd place my quads and hamstrings were cramping pretty intensely so I knew I had to top off pretty aggressively on electrolytes.
My plan from the outset was to spend a bit more time at the early aid stations to make sure I was taking care of myself and dosing my effort sufficiently to have legs from the River in. However, the eight minutes I spent at Robinson Flat were, perhaps, a bit too long. Thing is, it was the first time I’d been there since 2010 (re-route in 2011, DNS in 2012) and I was simply having too much fun. Also, I ate my yogurt/granola concoction, topped off my fluids, and had a double shot of “Witch’s Brew” (double strength chicken broth made with coconut water), so I ultimately didn’t get out of there until 10:45, a full 15 minutes slower than my planned split.
The climb up Little Bald Mountain gave me a chance to digest my food and let the Witch’s Brew do its trick so by the time I crested the hill and began the long gradual descent to Last Chance (the BEST 12 mile downhill in ultrarunning!) I was ready to roll. And, as luck would have it, I ran into my good buddy Bryon Powell here and we ran into Miller’s Defeat together.
The heat really began to kick up on the Pucker Point section and I passed a couple people on the last mile into Last Chance where I was keen on cooling off, topping off on electrolytes, and preparing for the first steep descent of the race, the drop into Deadwood Canyon. I had been obsessing about this section for much of my spring build-up as I knew it would be the first true indicator of what kind of downhill legs I had post-knee surgery. And, as luck would have it, everything held together. However, I also knew I had lost a little speed as I got to the Swinging Bridge in 25 minutes, three minutes shy of my more typical 22. I would need to re-calibrate my downhill splits from here on out to make sure I didn’t go over-the-top or do anything stupid.
The climb up Devil’s Thumb was tough but manageable and I arrived at the aid station ready to run. I visited briefly with Charles Savage here and saw that Clayton and Mackey were dropping, so I just put my head down and shuffled on down the trail toward the pump and the subsequent descent into El Dorado Canyon. I made a bit better time here than I did through Deadwood and passed a few runners along the way. By the time I got to the bottom I felt ready to push hard on the climb. About halfway up Erik Skaden caught and passed me and our 30-mile game of trail tag was on!
Erik and I have quite a bit of history in this race. We were each attempting our ninth WS, we each flirted with victory back in the day (Erik has two second place finishes and I have one), and we are both known to have some of the worst running form of anyone in the event. In other words, it was perfect that we would spend so much time running together. We worked together on the last part of the climb passing a few more runners going into Michigan Bluff and we both made quick work of that aid station so we could quickly get on to Volcano Canyon and the clarion call of Cal Street that awaited us in Foresthill.
For some odd reason I really enjoyed traversing Volcano Canyon this year and arrived at the bottom of Bath Road ready to run. Logan joined me here and after a few minutes said, as only a 13-year old kid can, “Dad, it seems to me like you have a few more matches left to burn.” I was tempted, at the time, to ask him what place I was in but I resisted. We just ground up the road and made the joyful turn onto Foresthill Road with smiles on our faces and spring in our steps.
The plan from the beginning was to spend a bit of time re-grouping at Foresthill where I would eat a sandwich, aggressively get my core temperature down, and pick up my first pacer, Kevin Swisher. I had a simple three-hour goal for Cal Street, but five minutes into the descent to Cal 1 I had a sense we’d be able to go faster. We settled into a rhythm and let it roll. Kevin and I both knew there was a string of runners ahead and it was only a matter of time before we started reeling them in. We also knew that when we latched back on to Erik (he had about a five-minute lead on us leaving Foresthill) that we would work together to sweep up any carnage that awaited us.
We were a bit surprised not to catch up to anyone before Cal 2 but all that changed on the descent to the River and the subsequent climb up 6-Minute Hill and the drop into Cal 3. Just in that section alone we reeled in Emily Harrison, Rory Bosio, and Jacob Rydman. We also had latched back on to Erik and we were positively rolling. Shortly after the aid station we cruised by a couple more runners and then caught up to Hal Koerner about a mile before the River Crossing. I was beginning to wonder what place I was in, but I didn’t quite want to know just yet.
Crossing the river this year was a blast! Most of all, it was because this was the first time since 2009 I was able to do so on foot, rather than on a boat, but even more so because I was completely in the moment. My race, up until this time, had been quite solid, I had done a 2:45 Cal Street, and I felt like I was on top of things enough to make a strong run to the finish. To quote Logan, “I still had some matches left.
My second pacer, Jeff Hutson, joined Kevin and I on the Far Side and we, along with Erik, made quick work of the climb up to Green Gate. It was shortly after 8 pm when we got there, things were cooling down, and I had the last runnable 20 miles ahead of me. And, I still had some legs left. It was game on! Shelly told me at Green Gate that Amy Sproston, Meghan Arbogast, Dan Barger, and Jorge Maravilla were all just a few minutes ahead and that a few other runners had come through looking a bit haggard. While I still didn’t want to know my position, I had a sense that I should probably put my “competition hat” on for this last bit. Hutty got me rolling!
Erik, Hutty and I worked together all the way to ALT and through the creeks to Brown’s Bar. Along the way we passed a couple more runners and by the time we reached Brown’s Bar we came across Dan and Meghan in the aid station. Somewhat surprisingly, 90 miles into the race and four runners were together. I checked in with Erik to see if he wanted to continue on together and he urged me to go. Meghan and Dan were not ready to roll yet so I got out of there, shortly after confirming my position, 20th place!
For the first time all day I was thinking about my place and the questions began to emerge. Knowing that three of the people ahead of me were women I was M17. Could I pass seven guys over the last 10 miles? Should I try? How close were my wheels to coming off?
When we got down to the Quarry Road after the bone jarring descent from Brown’s I checked in with Hutty. He said, as he often does,
“Let’s just keep rolling and see what happens.”
A few minutes later Jorge Maravilla and his pacer Brett Rivers came back to us. They were moving and I knew they would finish but they did not respond to our pass, M16.
On the climb to 49 we passed another runner I didn’t know shortly after the gravel road, M15. What if…
I picked up Logan at 49, swigged a quick shot of Witch’s Brew, grabbed four gels, and powered up the climb. Along the way we passed one more guy, M14. I knew Adrian and Amy would finish strong and I had no idea how much real estate was between me and Karl, Scott, and Todd. What I did, know, however, is that I could run 49 to the Finish hard and having my son Logan running along with me, the boy who first came to Western States as a 2-year old in 2001, was enough incentive to keep grinding.
And then, at No Hands Bridge, the enthusiastic aid station volunteer made the “clinic” remark. I could tell this was motivating for Logan as he knows how much I pride myself on finishing strong. He paced me like a veteran up to Robie Point hoping that some more carnage awaited but to no avail. We hit the pavement and mutually decided that a victory lap was in order. While we continued to run assertively we no longer pushed beyond the redline. The day was done and the joy was washing over us. I hit the track as Amy was finishing and was joined by my other two sons, Carson and Tully. We ran around the track with smiles on our faces and all fell into Shelly’s arms after crossing the finish line in 17th place (M14) in 19:25. The hug from Craig was glorious and the relief and satisfaction was overwhelming. It had been another extraordinary day on the Western States Trail. We are already looking forward t returning for finish #10 in 2014.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Missoula, Montana, a relatively new brewing hotspot in the Mountain West. I learned about this beer from a couple of enthusiastic runners at Squaw Valley last week. These two Montana boys presented me with two 16-ounce cans of Cold Smoke Scotch Ale from Kettle House Brewing Company in Missoula. This sweet Scotch Ale and smooth and accessible while carrying a nice kick. Next time you’re in Missoula be sure to check these guys out. They seem to be the Real Deal.