What I Like Most About the Western States 100

Despite the misimpression I may have made with my previous post about the Western States 100, no other ultramarathon means […]

By on February 19, 2009 | 8 comments

Despite the misimpression I may have made with my previous post about the Western States 100, no other ultramarathon means more to me. Sure, it’s the granddaddy of 100 milers, the focus of many months of my most intense training ever, the site of one of my best races, but none of that is what I like most about Western States. Nope, what I like best about the Western States 100 is that it’s been host to so many meaningful memories. I’d like to share a few of them with you as part of Western States Synchroblog #2.

The Beginning
I can still vividly recall the first time I climbed the maintenance road out of Squaw Valley. In those first pre-dawn moments I felt like I was embarking on the challenge of a lifetime and I was. It was my first 100 and still my most recent great journey into the unknown. At the first major turn during the climb, I watched the leaders going into the distance while a long line of headlamps traced the trail back down towards the valley. Knowing that I’d be excited on this climb, I stuck by the side of a 10+ time WS veteran… and proceeded to talk his ear off. Fortunately, I also had a mini-dictaphone to record my thoughts to share with a dear friend later… I still have that dictaphone with those Western States recordings all these years later. All that pales in comparison to the vivid memory of reaching the top of the Escarpment, pausing, and turning to see Lake Tahoe for the first time as it glowed from the light just peeking over the mountains to its east.

The Course
Just as Western States is not won or lost on that first climb, my weightiest memories come from further down the course. These memories from the course include both the bad and the good.

How could I forget how bad I felt descending into Duncan Canyon for the first time in the heat of 2006. This early suffering resulted in one of the great pity parties of all-time during my slow walk up and out of Duncan Canyon on the way to Robinson Flat. Then again, I remember feeling less then spry in ’04 and ’05 when in the bowels of Deep Canyon, which temporarily replaced Duncan Canyon on the course. While not devastating, I’ll not soon forget coming around a bend en route to Michigan Bluff during 2006 and feeling like someone opened an oven door in front of my face! None of these memories are as frustrating as being reduced to walking DOWN to No Hands Bridge with fewer than 6 miles to go during the 2004 race. Perhaps, I could have better accepted this state of affairs had I not been able to run the flats and climbs after the descent. Stupid quads. Stupider downhills! ;-)

Physical evidence of early suffering in 2006.

On the flip side are some fantastic memories from the course. Some are as simple as enjoying the single track descent on the far side of the Escarpment, taking in the sights of the High Sierras, kicking gigantic pine cones down the trails, sticking snow under my hat as the heat creeps up, or laying down in a cool mountain stream once the heat arrives. Then there’s the thought of my efforts in the canyons in ’04 + ’05. I walked those climbs in their entirety both years, but moved up with field while feeling like a million bucks. In fact, I can remember coming ‘round the bend into Michigan Bluff in 2005 and yelling “Are we having fun yet?” as I beckoned the crowd to cheer. (I then proceeded to undergo a shorts change in front of what felt like 1000 people. I definitely won’t forget that… nor will those present. ;-) )

I wasn’t kidding about the short’s change.

I can only recall one moment of “racing” among my good memories, but it was the final pass after battling back and forth for the age group win in 2005; however, that doesn’t hold a candle to running Cal Street that same year. Sure it was a beautiful temperate day with the American River roaring below, but it is the incredible sense of awe that I had for my body for a good hour during that stretch that will still makes me beam to this day. Despite closing in on finishing my third marathon for the day, I felt like I’d just laced up my shoes and stepped out the door for a run.

The People
Western States holds many memories beyond simple recollections of me versus the course. Nope, many an interpersonal moment are logged among my Western States memories. I’ll never forget the look of concern on my mom’s face as she watched me shiver for two hours after finishing in ’04 nor will I forget my dad holding the shower button on while I showered sitting in a lawn chair later that morning. I recall seeking shade and solace while chatting with my friends E + Merri who helped crew me in ’05. Same goes for sitting on the high jump mats with fellow East Coast runner D recalling the previous day’s events. Then there’s getting to know three pacer’s who I had never met prior to the race …and there’s also the notable fourth pacer with whom I discussed the above-discussed “special dictaphone recording friend.” What made that conversation memorable is that I dated the special friend both before and after the pacer and this was the first time we’d ever talked about her since she and I dated most recently.

My 2005 pacer and crew: E, mom, Morgan, dad, and Merri

The Scotty
One person shines above all others in my Western States memories. In fact, no one else even comes close to Scotty Mills. To me, he is Western States. When I met Scotty at the very start of my ultrarunning days, he already had 10 silver buckles under… er, on his belt. Before I ever stepped foot on the WS course, Scotty and two other veterans briefed me and a group of other first–time WS runners from the VHTRC so well that I felt like a veteran out there and then I was fortunate enough to have Scotty for company for some of the early miles in my first WS. (I also got to carry a bottle of tequila on his behalf… but that’s another story!)

Scotty giving a pre-WS Intelligence Briefing

Despite Scotty not running Western States in 2005 (no lotto luck), I did see him out on the course twice. The first time was at Michigan Bluff where Scotty told me I could break 20 hours. I hadn’t been thinking of this goal out on the course… at least not consciously. In truth, I was afraid to think about this huge barrier, but as soon as the words came out of Scotty’s mouth, I knew it was true. You see, Scotty is a great ultrarunner who has been sub-24 in each of the 1(?) times he’s run Western States and aimed for the 20-hour mark multiple times. He’s come close (20:14 and 20:03) and excruciatingly close (20:00:03). I knew there was no one who better knew if I was or wasn’t on 20 hour pace than Scotty… and probably no one to whom that goal meant more. Many times over the subsequent miles I thought to myself, “I’m going to break 20 hours for Scotty.” (I’m sitting here at my desk and am actually getting choked up just thinking about this.) Scotty was there again at Green Gate and told me that 20 hours was mine and that I was having the race of a lifetime. How right he was! Despite a 15-20 minute wrong turn going into Auburn Lake Trails, I ran 19:30.

Happy times in Michigan Bluff ’05

Even though Scotty’s words in 2005 meant so much to me, those memories were far surpassed in 2006. As I mentioned earlier, I suffered mightily in and after Duncan Canyon. Long before reaching Robinson Flat I had decided that I’d walk over to Dusty Corner and drop out where my crew was waiting for me. Then, on top of Little Bald Mountain, Scotty catches up to me. Wanting to know how his race was going, I decided to jog with him for a minute… and then we ended up running the next 70 miles together. I remember running with Scotty on Little Bald, before and heading into Last Chance, rounding the furnace-like bends heading down to El Dorado Creek, working down California Street, and descending towards No Hands Bridge. By the time that both of our pacers joined us at Foresthill we had developed such an effective partnership that we continued running together with our pacers in tow. As long as I have memories I will cherish finishing that race hand-in-hand with my friend, mentor, and idol Scotty Mills.

Mills and me finishing in 2006

As you can see, while the Western States 100 totals less than three days in my 30 years, it has provided a disproportionate number of memories. Please share some of your Western States memories, good or bad, with me.

This month’s Western States synchroblog focuses on what each of the contributors likes most about the race… or something like that. (Does this seem like a conformist group to you?!) Goes see what the other guys have to say:

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.