Maybe I whimpered too quietly during those long dark miles. The sun had barely risen after I crossed the finish line and my pacers were already looking up 100 milers to sign up for later this year.
Though, I’ll admit that just 24 hours later, once my feet fit back into my clogs and I could walk like a normal person, I started to dream about the next one too. How does that happen? How does one go from the depths of pain and darkness to an uncontrollable desire to do it all over again?
The truth is, all that pain, all that darkness, that’s just a small part of what is a tremendous journey of 100 miles.
I’ve been running ultras for 6 years now… 35 of them! I’ve toed the line of every race I’ve signed up for and finished every race I’ve started (well… except for the Behind The Rocks 50M this year where I dropped at mile 40 to help a friend who was having medical issues…). But, until recently, I hadn’t felt rushed to jump into the 100 mile distance. To be honest, I’ve always been completely scared of it. 100 miles is a big stinkin’ number! And that’s precisely why I knew it was time to accept the challenge. Mentally, I had turned a corner and I was finally ready to give the distance an honest attempt. So, I signed up for the Bandera 100K in January in order to inch my way closer to the big distance. What I never expected was that that race would slingshot me all the way there.
The ultra gods had spoken. I was going to Western States!
Western States is the original and holy grail of 100 milers with a storybook history and full-bearded protagonist who inspires greatness. If ever there was a dream 100 miler to run, this was it and I had the chance of a lifetime to toe the starting line. Excited doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt.
Wandering around the Squaw Valley ski resort on the eve of the race was electric. So many people, so much energy and big beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains all around us. We caught up with loads of familiar faces, made new friends and gawked at the combined badassness of all the people around us – everyone here is legit.
I had my first taste of the incredibly well-oiled Western States volunteer-driven machine at packet-up. Runners were guided from station to station with precision, calmness and cheer. Within minutes I had signed my life away, completed a psychological questionnaire, had my weight recorded for the world to see and monitor, had my wrist tagged with my stats, filled my arms with oodles of Western States branded paraphernalia, and had my official mug shot taken. All of the sudden, it all felt very real. The countdown clock over the starting gate ticked too slowly. I was ready!
A few hurried words from Gordy Ainsleigh and we were off at 5:00AM sharp on Saturday. The crowd roared and lifted me off my feet as we made our way up the mountain along the gravel ski roads. Friends’ words of experience had cautioned me against starting off too fast. A 3000′ climb was right up my alley but I needed to show restraint in these early miles. More than anything else, besides making it to that track 100 miles away in Auburn, I was determined to avoid the dreaded 100 mile death march that kicks-in in the final third or quarter of the race when your legs are so trashed and spirits so broken that at best you can barely muster a walk. If I was going to run 100 miles, I was going to do my darnedest to make sure I could run them. I had put the training in to do so, now I just needed to execute a smart strategy on race day to make it happen. I resolved to run smart so I could run strong. This meant starting off conservatively with the goal of getting to Foresthill (mile 62) with legs left. More importantly, it meant running my own race and not getting caught up in the adrenaline of event. Western States is not necessarily the hardest of 100 milers but with so many eyes watching the event and a heck of a lot of quad destroying downhills, it can be the most ruthless.
The sun crested over the Sierra Nevadas illuminating the fields of wildflowers ahead and glistening over Lake Tahoe behind as I neared the top of the Escarpment. It was perfect. Ryan, Lassen and Mike ran up before the start to cheer from the top. They sent me on my way with a smile on my face and a happy heart. I wouldn’t be seeing them again until Robinson Flat at mile 30 – a lot could change between now and then.
Sunrise over Squaw:
Everyone always talks about the long downhills and smooth runnable terrain of Western States. Somehow, however, everyone seems to gloss over the rugged beauty of the first 20 miles. The high alpine terrain was absolutely gorgeous and a lot more technical than I anticipated. Rock-strewn trails along long exposed ridges offered enormous vistas and a cooling breeze. I kept a reasonably comfortable pace and didn’t deny myself the opportunity to pause and soak it all in.
I cruised into the first crew-accessible aid station at Duncan Canyon (mile 24) where my parents were prepped and ready with all my gear laid out neatly on the ground in front of me. I promptly messed it all up and left them with a sticky bottle, dirty socks and a banana peel in their hands. Crewing is a selfless and dirty job!
Used to the understated nature of most ultra races, the mob of crew and spectators at the next big aid station, Robinson Flat (mile 30), where Ryan, Lassen and Oliva waited, completely frazzled me. Hundreds of people lined the trail screaming and cheering. The guys greeted me at the entrance to the aid station only to be shooed away by the volunteers. I rushed through the weigh station and buffet line eager to meet them again only to be completely overwhelmed and disorientated by the jungle of fans. I ran back and forth in a bit of panic searching for the three green RMR shirts in a sea of crazy. Ah ha, there they were, at the far end of the zoo. I stopped momentarily completely forgetting to address anything important or give them too much of an update on how my first 30 miles had been. They seemed to be equally discombobulated and flustered. I ran off into the woods kicking myself for the spazz and committing to slowing down at the next crew-accessible aid station, Dusty Corners (mile 38), where my parents would be.
About a third of the race was done and so far, so good. Nothing hurt, nothing ached and the miles (and hours) seemed to be flying by. I wasn’t feeling particularly peppy but I knew I was running conservatively and I hoped this would pay off after the next third. I knew that the crux of the course – the canyons – was coming up next. The heat of the day was intensifying and a huge wildfire last year had ravaged many miles of this section and destroyed what little tree cover there was here. A string of steep 2,000′ descents into baking ovens, followed by relentless 2000′ climbs were legendary for chewing runners up and spitting them out charred and half-dead.
It was hot and it was steep. The air smelled like a furnace. Even though I’d leave each aid station dripping from head to toe (I would take my shirt, cooling neck wrap & hat off at every aid station and submerged it completely into a bucket of murky ice water), within 2 miles I’d be bone dry again. But, the burned landscape was stunning and those midday training runs up Green Mountain in Boulder while wearing a thick wool shirt and black fleece sweatshirt were paying off. I actually felt pretty comfortable in the 90+ degree sunshine. The climbs didn’t seem as intimidatingly steep as they’d been talked up but the descents were definitely rough. I’m an uphiller and one of my biggest fears about Western States was that it’s a downhiller’s course. I descended into the canyons gently making sure I wasn’t abusing my quads more than absolutely necessary.
I’d been eating lots of fruit at every aid station, sucking down a decent about of EFS from my flask, and drinking multiple Simple Hydration bottles full of plain water and water with Perpetuem every hour (I was carrying three 13 oz SH bottles with me: one tucked into the back of my skirt, one tucked into the back of my sports bra and one in my hand). I chose Perpetuem because it offers a significant amount of easy sustaining calories (complex carbs, protein and fat) and I knew it wouldn’t upset my sensitive stomach, especially in the heat. I’m a lazy and unenthusiastic eater when I’m running – a dangerous thing to be in a 100 miler – so I wanted to rely on an simple nutrition strategy. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that there’s no such thing and confirmed that being a lazy eater is bad. Even though I never bonked, my muscles never cramped and I was weighing in at every aid station right on track (all good things!), somewhere between Last Chance (mile 43) and Devil’s Thumb (mile 48) a whole lot of liquid started spewing out of both ends (apologies for the graphic content). It wasn’t what I had been consuming that went wrong, it was what I wasn’t consuming that was getting me into a bit of trouble. Not enough solid food to absorb or salts to balance everything I was drinking. My electrolytes were off-balance and it wasn’t pretty. Thankfully, it wasn’t as debilitating as being the other end of the spectrum and I wasn’t so far off-balance that my race was over… so long as I did something to correct it. In the meantime, I felt pretty crummy.
I heard Ryan’s voice through the bushes as I came out of the trail leading into the hamlet of Michigan Bluff (mile 55). While I hadn’t been keeping track of time (partially because time goes by faster when you don’t keep watch over it and also because my watch had died a few miles back), I knew my crew had been and I’d probably slowed down. I was glad to see them before the chaos of the aid station so I could confess that I’d been puking and crapping… a lot. As runners we are stubborn and stupid and don’t like race medics to know how we’re really feeling for fear that it might actually be so bad that they’ll tell us to stop. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, the medical team at the aid station knew about my projectile vomiting and diarrhea. Two nurses pushed my crew aside, got in my face, and… didn’t tell me to stop! Imagine that! They immediately filled a little bag with Ritz crackers and my bottle with plain water and instructed me to nibble and sip every 15 minutes and get on my way.
I took a few minutes to regroup with my crew, enjoy the luxury of a port-o-potty and toilet paper, and change my shoes from the nibble Merrell All-Out Rush to a cushier pair of Pearl Izumi now that the technical parts of the course were mostly behind me. I grabbed my new best friend (the bag of crackers) and set off running. Until I remembered that I’d forgotten to switch my dead Suunto Ambit watch for Ryan’s fully charged one. So I ran back. In hindsight, it was a bit of a silly thing to do as I might have been able to sneak in under 23 hours had I not done this but, shoulda-coulda-woulda, in the foggy-brained moment, I thought it was important.
The next 5 miles to Bath Road were nice and cruisy. I just had one last 1000′ descent and about a 700′ climb before I’d see my crew again and pick up my first pacer. I ran every step. I hadn’t realized how low my energy had been in the canyons until I had it back now. My legs felt strong and my belly, while still feeling sloshy and bloated, was behaving itself. Likewise, I’d been obediently nibbling on crackers. 7 of them so far.
Alberto & Chiara greeted me at the base of Bath Road and a few minutes later I had my whole pack around me. I felt so energized to see these guys who’ve been a core part of my training and preparation for this race. I was feeling infinitely better and ready for the final third of this adventure. I ran and chatted the entire 2 mile stretch into the massive Foresthill aid station (mile 62) where my parents were waiting. Life was great!
Without spending too much time at Foresthill, I got what I needed from my team, dunked my shirt into a murky bucket of water for a final time, downed an alka-seltzer to give my stomach one final kick in the rear and set off, bag of crackers in hand, headlamp ready and pacer in tow. I was excited and ready to begin the next section, the Cal Street Loop, feeling really good. Despite zipping in and out of aid stations and rushing through my mental list of needs and wants without much of a chance to stop and really appreciate my crew, seeing them was such a high every time. Running is all about community. It’s the people that create the magic. They fill your tank with not only water and food, but with emotions, energy, and confidence. I was happy to leave this aid station – the last time I’d see my crew in daylight – on such a high note.
Pacer #1, Lassen, accompanied me over the next 16 miles to the famous Rucky Chucky river crossing. He diligently & relentlessly force fed me crackers and coke and regaled me with tales of his day (and his diet of hot dogs, burritos and bags upon bags of Lays potato chips). As night fell and we turned on our headlamps I discovered that the strangest parts of my body hurt the most. Like my ribs. Who knew you needed ribs for running?! These are secrets that reveal themselves 75 miles into the day and things that completely throw you for a loop. Tired legs, sore feet? I can push through that. But a weak core was debilitating. Deep breaths were hard to take so I resorted to a making a lot of very strange noises for the next several miles. I huffed, I hummed, I whistled, I moaned, I whimpered, I sang, I sighed. Time to think about doing some sit ups every now and again once I’m back home…
Finally, Rucky Chucky (mile 78)! The river crossing! Hooray! For miles I dreamt about the river crossing. Earlier in the day I swam across it beneath the Swinging Bridge and it was absolutely glorious. It was crisp and cool and clear and just about the most delicious treat imaginable in the middle of the heat of the day. Fast forward to about 10pm and 35 miles later and it was an entirely different experience. My legs were shaky, it was long, cold and dark. The only thing I enjoyed about it were the psychedelic glow sticks bobbing underwater and the fact that my parents were on one side of the river and my husband on the other.
Lassen captured the crossing on his GoPro:
I shivered in a chair on the far side of the river as Ryan dried my feet off, tickled my toes and switched my socks. For some reason I felt the need to make sure he knew which was might right foot and which was my left. I was starting to lose my mind. Before things got worse I was pushed out of the aid station and accompanied up the 2 mile climb to Green Gate (mile 80) with my team of three pacers. I was super stiff from the river crossing but walking felt so slow – I thought of Ryan’s eerie & cold river crossing at mile 80 and how he tackled the ensuing 2000′ climb getting stronger with every step. So I started running. And I ran the entire uphill.
Pacer #2, Oliva, became my quiet companion over the next half-marathon distance. In the darkest hours sometimes you don’t need anyone to talk to you, coach you or entertain you. You just need their silent presence to remind you that you’re human. We shuffled along at a consistent 12 min/mile pace, probably speeding up a bit on the climbs and slowing down on the descents. My feet were trashed and ached beyond belief. The downhills felt like murder. I was sleepy and over caffeinated at the same time. I was focused but completely insane. Happy and angry. In pain and totally numb. Those dark miles are definitely a strange place. At the mile 85ish aid station, I begged for a nap. Of course, he denied my request, but eventually we negotiated it down to a 57 second snooze. I curled into a chair and felt like I died. I had a moment of rage as I left that aid station. I growled and barked and snarled and hurled my watermelon peel into the trash can. But when Oliva asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t come up with anything. Nothing. Nothing was wrong. Nothing hurt, nothing was injured, nothing was bad. I was just tired. Running 85 miles makes you tired. I just needed to acknowledge that fact and move on. So I shut up and kept on running. The words “If you can, you must” repeated over and over in my head as I counted down the inches to mile 90, then 91, 92, and 93 where I’d pick up pacer #3, my husband, Ryan.
If you can, you must. If you can, you must. If you can, you must.
I could. So I did.
I don’t even really remember what the Hwy 49 crossing aid station (mile 93) was like. I just remember it was dark, I wanted someone to amputate my feet, the soup tasted really good and Ryan was obscenely energetic. I felt so close but so immensely far away.
Get to No Hands Bridge. That was my new obsession. At mile 97, No Hands is the last time you cross over the American River, the last major aid station and the gateway to the finish. Once you’re there, you can finally start to think about the end, about mile 99 and mile 100 and that final 0.2 mile stretch around the Auburn high school track.
I couldn’t stop. The bridge was lit up in sparkling lights and the flat even surface felt incredible but I couldn’t stop. I was a zombie, a ticking-time bomb aimed at the finish line. There was nothing I needed from the aid station to get me there so I plowed right through it. I looked at my mom and mumbled some kind of unintelligible gibberish and got the hell out of there.
For the next 3 miles, Ryan talked non-stop. Every headlamp ahead was an objective to pursue. Every step ahead was another opportunity to run a bit harder. I tackled the final 800′ climb up to Robie Point like my life depended on it. And then there we were, Robie Point. The streets of Auburn. Mile 99.
The bright stadium lights of the track glowed above the sleepy neighborhood. A long uphill, a quick downhill, a bridge and I was there. Lassen and Oliva welcomed me into the track and, along with Ryan, accompanied me on the most surreal 300m run of my life to the straight away that led me beneath that iconic finish line arch of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.
If you really want to see what the final 2 minutes and 16 seconds of a 23 hour and 6 minute run look like, watch this…
There are a million emotions, endorphines, footsteps, grains of earth and breaths of air between the starting line and the finish line. And there’s an army of millions who had my back the entire way. And it’s for these reasons that 24 hours later, once the intense pain ebbs into a dull ache and eventually fades away, I can’t wait to do it all over again. To push my own limits and accomplish something that seems so unthinkable.