The first nine times I ran Western States I didn’t stop at the No Hands Bridge Aid Station. This year I did. I was at the end of the four-minute meadow and beginning the descent to the bridge and I felt a lump in my throat. It wasn’t an I-am-about-to-puke lump like earlier in the day this one was an I-am-starting-to-cry lump. I told Logan, my son who was pacing me, that I wanted to make a quick stop at the Aid Station to fill up on a little more Sprite. But, the real reason was, I was wanting to savor every minute of my last few miles at Western States. I felt, once and for all, that my incredible journey was coming to an end.
The day started perfectly. After a great night’s sleep, Scott Wolfe (aka MonkeyBoy) and I awoke to clear skies and cool temperatures. We went through our pre-race routines in a very relaxed, matter-of-fact way. It was quite remarkable, really. After the usual pre-start adrenaline surge the gun went off (I needed to prod Gordy along a bit with his speech as he was a little long-winded this year) and Scott and I began the nice relaxed climb up to the Escarpment. The big day was finally here.
This year, more than ever, I was determined to stay conservative in the high country. I wanted to savor the views, enjoy the company of others, and wait for the race to come to me. Scott and I paused at the top of Squaw so Joe McCladdie could snap our picture together and then, as we began our long, gradual descent into Granite Chief, Scott inexorably pulled away from me. (He went on to finish with a super solid 18:18.) Just after Lyon Ridge Aid Station at mile 11, I met up with Nikki Kimball. Nikki was running her ninth Western States and over the years she and I have shared many miles on the trail. We, too, paused for a shared picture of the two of us at Cougar Rock and we stayed together until we parted ways about 20 miles later.
I enjoyed catching up with old friends David Cepoi and Frank Bozanich at the Red Star Ridge Aid Station and then Greg Lanctot and the merry band of Quicksilver Runners at the Duncan Canyon Aid Station. Then, for the first time in many years, I had an enjoyable run through Duncan. For some reason, in years past, this section has always been a struggle for me. This year, however, I had a bit more spring in my step and made it up to Robinson Flat right on schedule at 10:30.
Robinson Flat is always a struggle for me to get through because there are always so many people there that I want to see. However, this year my crew made sure I didn’t dilly dally and I rolled out of there in 50th place after only three minutes and quickly joined back up with Nikki and James Bonnet. Funny thing about James, now 27, I remember being soundly beaten by him years ago at the Whiskey Row Marathon in Arizona when he was just 12!!! I reminded him of that as we ran together on the descent to Millers Defeat.
The section between Millers Defeat and Dusty Corners is always one of my favorites. The trail here widens a bit and for whatever reason I always seem to catch people through here. I rolled into Dusty Corners after brief chats with John Medinger and Glenn Tachiyama, who were both out taking pictures, and was thrilled to be greeted at Dusty by Meghan Hicks and old friend Brian Robinson who was checking people out of the aid station. It was now on to Last Chance and the first of the canyons.
I made pretty quick work of the Pucker Point section and got my first glimpse of the damage that was wrought by last August’s American Fire. Race Director and good friend Craig Thornley was on hand at Last Chance and gave me great words of encouragement before I rolled on. Then, upon dropping in to Deadwood Canyon, the fire damage really became evident. Along the way I passed a few more runners including, to my surprise, Emily Harrison who seemed to be having a bad day. When I got to the cable crossing that was necessitated this year as a result of the damage to the Swinging Bridge I was greeted by Western States Board Member and 20-year finisher Charles Savage before promptly doing a full frontal assault on the swimming hole.
Leaving this crossing I had my first bad patch of the day as, for some reason I still can’t figure out, I had real difficulty on the climb to Devil’s Thumb. On this section that usually takes me 33 to 35 minutes I struggled to get up it in 40. It was’t hot and my legs felt fine. It just seemed like my energy was low. It could have just been one of those mysterious things. I had a nice chat with Western States Trustee and Aid-Station Chief Dennis Zilaf up at the Thumb and also got an update from Joe Uhan. I was in something like 40th place by now and my quick math suggested top 30 would be about as good as I was going to do on this cool day.
I got some of my mojo back on the descent into El Dorado Canyon and met up with old friend and eight-time finisher Dan Barger. We climbed to Michigan Bluff together and both talked about how we were having strange days energy-wise through the canyons. At the end, we both just chalked it up to age and ended up recovering sufficiently enough to make good time into the 55-mile aid station that is always a welcome respite at midday. Like last year, Logan ran me into the Bluff and I enjoyed a quick hello with Carol Hewitt and 10-time finishers Bill Davis, Ray Scannell, and Kevin Sawchuk before rolling out to begin the crossing of Volcano Canyon. Along the way, Shelly left me with a simple message, “This is your last Western States, run it your way!”
I knew exactly what she meant so I put my head down and ran, just like always.
I was relieved to get to the singletrack descent with Dan. My quads felt surprisingly good so I decided to open things up a bit. I passed Kaci Lickteig shortly before the creek crossing and wished her my best. She ended up running a solid race and I have a strong feeling we’ll be seeing great things from her in years to come at Western States. Like this year’s champion Stephanie Howe, Kaci seems to have a good head on her shoulders and she takes advice well. This always helps at Western States.
I was able to run most of the climb up to Bath Road and was excited to meet up with my two pacers, Jeff Hutson and Andy Roth. We ran/walked the road and after being greeted by Western States Board President John Trent at the top of the hill, we cruised into Foresthill it what is always a triumphant trot and was especially so this year. The goal at Foresthill was to get quickly through the aid station and to the car which was parked all the way down by the turn on to California Street (all the pros have their crews park there :) to re-stock on fuel, eat a sandwich, and begin rolling down to the river.
On the descent to Cal 1, I began to feel a grumbe-ly stomach for the first time all day. I was still moving relatively well (I think I was in 37th place, or so) but each time I popped a gel it got harder and harder to get down. It was an unpleasant feeling but, alas, a familiar feeling. After Cal 1 I was resolved to push hard on the always challenging five-mile section to Cal 2. Andy had me moving well on the flats and we used momentum on the 15 rollers so that we approached the Elevator Shaft more or less on schedule. As we neared the bottom of The Shaft I was surprised and saddened to see good friend and all around badass Nick Clark. He was clearly struggling and I just stopped in my tracks, looked him in the eye, gave him a hug, and said, “I love you.” It was an impulsive thing to do, for sure, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. The brotherhood of the trail is always electric at Western States.
Rolling into Cal 2, I knew my stomach was on the edge. I got down one potato with salt and felt a little better. However, on the way out of there I tried to gut down a second one and it resulted in a complete rejection, Three minutes and 15 fountain-ous pukes later I was ready to hit the re-set button. Needless to say, the descent to Cal 3 was not nearly as good as it could’ve been and I began to push calories and salt back in on six-minute hill and again at the Cal 3 Aid Station. The run along Sandy Bottom was monotonous but not particularly difficult and I arrived at The River Crossing in good spirits. Considering I lost a good five minutes due to my vomit event I was pleased with my 2:50 Cal Street split and ready to cross the river.
Jeff and Logan came down to meet us on the Far Side and we had a solid climb up to Green Gate. Unfortunately, I got puke-y again at the top and emptied the contents of my stomach for the second time. It was time for nutrition Plan B; Sprite, salt tabs, and gels when I could gut them down. Nineteen hours was likely out the window but I was still fighting and I was starting to smell the barn.
We made it to ALT (mile 85) without turning our lights on and we rolled into Brown’s Bar still feeling good. My stomach had turned a corner and my legs were moving. Feet and quads were solid and the encouraging words of two-time Western States Champion Hal Koerner, who was working the aid station, were all I needed to belt out a PR descent to Quarry Road. Along the road Jeff and I got a little nostalgic about the six times he had paced me previously before we got down to business on the climb to Highway 49. It was there that my son Logan took over the pacing duties and we were off to the races. The Cool Meadow was beautiful and the descent to No Hands seemed to go by in no time. It was time to finish this thing.
A surreal feeling overwhelmed me as Logan and I climbed to Robie Point and the distinct events of my previous nine races came flooding back to me. I shared with Logan some of my fondest memories of various Western States finishes and he seemed to savor the stories. On the final pitch up to the pavement it warmed my heart when he said, “Dad, when I run this, will you pace me?”
And then, just like that, we were on the streets of Auburn. Jeff and my other two sons had come out to the mile-99 party and were there to greet me and to run in the last mile with me. Bryon Powell also joined us a few moments later to share in the memory. I paused as we crossed the white bridge one last time and then did my best to savor the last little descent to the track. I saw the lights of the stadium and heard John Medinger’s voice and was struggling mightily to hold back my tears of joy. The whole crew stayed with me for most of the way around the track before giving me the last 100 meters to myself. It was a deeply poignant memory that I will never, ever forget.
After crossing the line I took a moment for myself before the hugs and tears began. All the most important people in my life were there, sharing it with me, helping me celebrate. Shelly, Carson, Logan, and Tully hugged me and thanked me. My mother and father who made the trip from Massachusetts, Bryon, Craig, MonkeyBoy, they were all there to share that extraordinary moment. And then, in a blink, I was finished. My Western States career was over.
Reflecting back on it now, almost a month later, I have to say that the most satisfying aspect of the whole thing is how complete it feels, how whole. There are many fleeting things in life. Many things we can’t control. Many things that disrupt our equilibrium. And, in the midst of those things, I believe it is important that we can focus on what matters most. In the case of my 10-year run at Western States, what mattered most to me was bringing my absolute best to race day. My desire every year was to prepare and perform to my greatest potential and leave it all out on the trail. If I did that I knew I would have no regrets. And here, in this moment of revelry with my 10-day buckle, I have none.
I wish everyone in the world, runners and non-runners alike, could just once feel the sense of completion I feel at the end of this journey. It’s a remarkable feeling and one that is not easily replicated in regular life. I am convinced now more than ever that the ordinary can become extraordinary and we can be made whole in the process. And, for that gift of wholeness, I am forever humbled.
This Week’s Beer of the Week comes from a Taproom favorite, Lagunitas Brewing Company in California. Their Hop Stoopid Imperial IPA is one of the original DIPAs and a classic ‘go-to’ summer beer. As with many DIPAs, Hop Stoopid is best enjoyed as cold as you can get it!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Were you at the 2014 Western States 100 and, if so, did you see AJW at work that day?
- Who caught his puking? Did you share the trail with him? Were you there to see him finish? What else did you see?