Sometime this spring, the cosmos began to align, with all of the elements coming together for a perfect day at Western States. The obvious foundation was my training, but even I was astounded by how well that went. I am a 38-year-old science nerd and mom and I do not say things like “I feel like a rock star.” Yet, after my biggest block of training ever, I felt so surprisingly good, I found myself telling people that. In the days leading to the race, it looked as if the weather gods were going to answer my prayers and give me the scorcher of a day that I had been hoping for. And for those who like a bit of the superstition, I had recently won American River 50 Mile, just as the women’s Western States winner had for the past three years. Plus, I was assigned bib #22, the same number Anita Ortiz and Tracy Garneau wore the years they won. Yes, everything was pointing to a good day on the trail, but even I couldn’t have imagined it would turn out so magical. But this is my Cinderella story and every Cinderella story has a little magic.
The story really began a year ago at Western States, when I didn’t give the weather proper respect. I got hypothermic and my body rebelled: bonking, asthma, and ultimately weight retention that earned me a two and a half hour medical hold at ALT (mile 85). Medical actually advised me to drop, but I was more stubborn than they bargained for. After signing a waiver of liability (yes, really!), I left against medical advice and trudged to an extremely disappointing 28:58 finish, roughly ten hours slower than I had hoped and 48th out of 52 female competitors.
But everything happens for a reason, and that event set the wheels in motion for this year’s awesome race. Two weeks after that dreadful day, I had a plan: I would take one shot at getting back into Western States and if it was meant to be, it would happen. And if I didn’t get in, well, maybe I needed to take a break from Western States for a year. By the time Run Rabbit Run came around I was fired up and so focused on getting that spot; I guess it was meant to be.
Which brings us to this year. There was a whole new meaning to Western States for me this time around. It wasn’t just a big race; this was my chance at a redo and the opportunity for redemption. It wasn’t about winning, it was about proving that I was tough enough to conquer this course. My hunger to do well was off the charts. Still, no matter how focused or how bad you want it, you never know what the day will hand you.
I started up the climb to Escarpment still uncertain of how things would turn out. After weeks of taper and reduced mileage, I felt a little like a newborn deer learning to walk. Hard to know if a little bit of floppiness meant the legs were loose and well rested or uncoordinated and flat. But as I warmed up, they just felt stronger and stronger.
I fell in with Kerrie Bruxvoort, Aliza Lapierre, and Amy Sproston and ran in a train with them for several miles. Joelle Vaught and Rory Bosio were up ahead, but we were third through sixth for the women, and yet the pacing seemed super conservative for being some of the front runners at such a big race. I had splits for 18:30 and by the time we got to Duncan Canyon (mile 24) we were already 10 minutes behind at 4:09 – the exact same split I ran to Duncan Canyon last year. Well, I had no intention of repeating last year’s performance and that was when I decided I needed to be a little more aggressive, particularly on the uphills, which as a group we had mostly been walking. AJW said at the race briefing to throw your pace card out the window because of the heat, but I wasn’t buying that. Why not follow your pace chart for as long as you can until the heat forces you to slow down? Maybe it was a little gutsy, but the thing is, it worked.
I powered up to Robinson Flat, running more of the uphill than I had all day. It felt good, because honestly, I don’t really like to hike. I pulled away from my group soon after we started up and then passed Rory about half way up. I came into Robinson Flat six minutes behind Joelle, feeling good and with a lot of confidence in my uphill legs for the day. I chugged an Ensure a little too fast and headed out with a heavy stomach. I am not a great downhill runner to begin with and given the full stomach, I wasn’t running particularly hard to Miller’s Defeat, so it was a surprise to see Joelle leaving just ahead of me.
I soon passed Joelle, but as I took my next swig from my bottle, my stomach suddenly declared enough! and expelled its contents all over the side of the trail. This was actually one of the biggest surprises in the race, because I am NOT a puker. I haven’t had a running related throw-up since my first 5K in 1989! The thing is, once everything was out, I felt great! And with fast legs and light stomach I made my way into Dusty Corners, leading the grand-daddy race of them all!
My husband Mac and my pacer Dennis were there waiting for me, with visible shock in their faces when I came in first woman. Mac wasn’t really excited at all, in fact his first words to me were, “What are you doing in the lead this early?” with strong apprehension in his voice. I answered back with, “I just had my first ultra-puke and it was awesome!” I am not sure bragging about throwing up was putting him at ease! I explained that I felt the other women were running too conservatively and I was still fine, just running my own race. I don’t think he was convinced, but he and Dennis set about attending to me according to me pre-race directions to “treat me like a Porn Star: keep me wet, keep me lubed, and keep me excited.” RD Craig Thornley was there to try and talk me down from my usual state of aid station paranoia. I tend to be like a caged animal in aid stations, trying to break out as fast as possible, but he kept reminding me to relax and take my time. I stayed long enough to get down a soda and fill everything with ice (but not long enough to remember sunglasses!)
And then it was on to the canyons. I feel the least confident in my technical downhill ability and so for me there really is no other option but to take the downhills fairly relaxed. But ultimately, I think this ended up being a good thing because I didn’t have any quad issues all day. But even with my relaxed pace, no one passed me and that made me feel pretty good.
By the time I was climbing to Devil’s Thumb it was starting to warm up and people were commenting about the temperature. About a third of the way up, I distinctly remember worrying about the temperature, too, but my worry wasn’t in the same vein as the volunteers: It’s not hot enough. It needs to be hotter! If I am not suffering, maybe no one else is either. I hope it gets hotter. I felt like the more this race came down to a mental battle and a strategy game the better off I would be. I had more motivation than anyone to have a good day and I love a good strategy game! (Just look in my game cupboard if you don’t believe me!) I was managing the heat well with good hydration, a splash in every water hole even if it was just a couple inches of dirty liquid, and lots of ice. Come on weather gods, more heat!
At Devil’s Thumb I caught up to Nick Pedatella, who wasn’t having his best day, but who still had all his wits about him and was both encouraging and pragmatic, “That’s awesome that you are leading the race. But don’t think about winning till you get to Auburn.” We were soon joined by Brandon Stapanowich and it was nice to have their company down through El Dorado as I had not seen another runner in 12 miles. We started the climb to Michigan Bluff together, but Brandon and I were able to run just a bit more than Nick and we gradually pulled away and cruised “into town” in close succession.
Michigan Bluff was awesome! So many friendly faces were out to cheer and several friends waiting for other runners were there to help Mac crew since Dennis was waiting for me at Bath Road. More sunscreen, new bottles, a layer of Vaseline that had melted into a thin liquid, and so much ice in my sports bra, it prompted John Trent to say I looked like Dolly Parton. Ha – that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that! Michigan Bluff was also the first time I got any word on the rest of the field: 8 minutes up on Amy at Devil’s Thumb, with Rory and Aliza another 8 minutes back.
The roads out of Michigan Bluff are dusty and exposed but I relished the opportunity to stretch out the legs and get a little turnover. I hiked less than a third of the last climb and then was turning onto one of my favorite parts of the course. Down, down, down, but gentle and smooth enough for me that I don’t feel quite so awkward and at the bottom you get a refreshing plunge in the creek. Since the climb out of Volcano canyon is short, I ran nearly everything. The only thing I really hate about this climb is that stupid “1/4 mile to go “ sign, which I have always felt was in the wrong place. This year since I wore a Garmin I decided to clock the distance: 0.3 miles! Ha – I knew it! But the hearty cheers from the Bath Road volunteers caused me to instantly forgive those deceitful traitors and their egregious 0.05 mile mistake. ;) It was also nice to see Craig again, who had waited around to see me. Craig told Dennis 67 minutes would be a good time from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill. Boom! 67 minutes flat and we were now up to a 25-minute lead.
Foresthill was even more lively than Michigan Bluff and again it was great to see everyone, but the best part was that my parents had brought my kids and they were all out to cheer. And the other good news: my legs felt great! After some quick aid and a kiss to the kids, I was ready to roll!
Soon after Cal 1 we glimpsed Yassine Diboun ahead and I admit, I thought we’d pass him in no time, but Yassine is one tenacious guy and he held us off all the way to the river. But this was the hottest part of the course (I was finally feeling the heat!) and it was apparent the heat was starting to take its toll. We passed by Hal Koerner, who was reduced to walking and the most unhappy looking Jorge Maravilla I have ever seen. Plus, there were several drop reports coming from the aid stations, such that by the time we got to the river a few people were speculating that I might be top ten overall, but we didn’t know for sure.
We got to the river early enough that we still had to cross in boats. It was a point of pride for me, but I think Dennis was a bit disappointed. I literally skipped down the steps to the boat, my legs were feeling so good and I was in high spirits. But the boat crew wasn’t giving me any leeway when I tried to ride with my life jacket only half strapped on. I tried to protest, but Dennis just grabbed the buckle and snapped it shut…and I screamed in pain. The Ultimate Direction AK vest was awesome, but not when it gets rammed into your rib cage under a life vest!
On the other side, I had a nice little float in the river before it was off to Green Gate. Now, I think most pacers have the job of motivating their runner to keep pushing and to give a little more, but my pacer was doing the opposite. We heard the lead was probably around 35 minutes with 22 miles to go, so Dennis was adamant that we weren’t going to push any of the tough sections. Our plan was to stay consistent and not do anything to risk a blow up, so mostly we hiked. Green Gate was our most discombobulated stop, through no fault on Mac. But with him taking stuff down to the river to meet us, he wasn’t just waiting around ready to meet us. But the major issue was me changing the plan, because after the life jacket incident, there was no way I was wearing that vest any longer, so we had to do a lot of transferring of stuff and setting up of new hand helds, plus get all our lights. It felt like an eternity and I was once again going crazy trying to get out of the aid station.
We cruised through ALT still in the daylight and we high tailed it out of there fast. I spent WAY too much time there last year to want to hang out much. We finally switched on our lights about two miles out of Brown’s Bar. Good friend Rob Cain was there as aid station captain and he gave us a warm greeting and then immediately set to work fixing me canned peaches. I struggled down as many as I could mostly because I knew he had them there especially for me. It turned out to be a great thing, because in my haste at Green Gate, I forgot to take any extra drink mix so I wasn’t carrying many calories and the peaches helped keep me strong to the finish! The volunteers also let us know that no other woman had even come through ALT yet and we were sitting on at least a 45-minute lead. Holy cow – this was really going to happen! The taste of redemption was even better than canned peaches!
We were barely out of the aid station when Dennis started in on his “anti-motivational” strategy again: “You know we are hiking up to Highway 49, right? Don’t even think about running any of it.” Geez, who brought this Party Pooper?? Just kidding! Dennis was super level headed and mostly just let me run at my own pace. He provided exactly what I needed, because at that point I really didn’t need to be pushed, we just had to keep running smart. And for the first time ever, I actually enjoyed the night running, most likely because I wasn’t on a hell bent push to the finish. The night running had an added bonus when we got to chase down the LED light show that was Karl Meltzer on Quarry Road. It’s the first time the Speedgoat has ever spoken to me and this is what he says: “Hey, Pam. You’re gonna take my M9.” OMG – I love it! I was on cloud 9! This comeback story was getting better and better!
We hiked to Highway 49, blew through No Hands and in no time, we were making the final climb up Robie. Dennis even let me run! ;) This year I actually stopped at Robie for a minute or two for a wardrobe change – gotta look good for my lap around the track! Haha – I still looked like a hot mess, but at least I was no longer wearing a no-longer-white cotton Goodwill T-shirt!
The final lap was amazing, everything I had fantasized about and more. My daughter Megan was there to run it in with me and I just tried to soak it up. I finished in 18:37, exactly ten hours and twenty one minutes faster than a year ago, first female and top 10 overall! After Duncan Canyon, I hit every split on my 18:30 pace chart perfectly, I was just a little too slow in the first 24 miles. Still, I felt like everything was executed perfectly and without a single low. I feel so proud to have come back fighting with everything I had and conquer a course that had beaten me so badly 12 months prior.
And in crossing the line, my Cinderella story was complete: epic disaster to epic success. The lowly peasant girl got her prince, or perhaps I should say, her cougar. :)