Monday, September 14, 2015

2015 Western States 100

By: Stephen

My Quick Stats
Time:    18:50:26
Place:   18th Overall / 5th in 20-29 age group
     Duncan Canyon - 3:51:00
     Robinson - 5:08:00
     Michigan Bluff - 9:55:00
     Foresthill - 11:13:00
     Green Gate - 14:46:00
Strava data HERE

Overall Stats for 2015
371 Starters
254 Finishers (68.5%)
96 Sub-24 Finishers

It's been a few months since the race, and while I hadn't intended for this piece to take so long, it's been helpful to reflect on that day and really let everything sink in. Too often after a run like this, I'm eager to check Ultrasignup for the next race without ever taking the time to decompress from what is, usually, a very tiring and hard-earned effort. I'm not exactly sure where this recap will go, or really what to include for that matter, but hopefully there'll be something useful, and maybe even interesting.

1) Eat! Early and often.
2) Run my own race.
3) Be adaptable.
4) Have fun!

In the simplest sense, these were my only goals going into Western States. I knew that if I could stick to them then I would have a great race. Easy, right?

The High Country

I was probably more worried about this first 30 miles than I was of the the whole race in its entirety. I had spent a few scattered days on various parts of the course, but the high country would be completely new to me. The climb up the escarpment would be challenging, but so long as I ran my race, I knew I'd be ok. Mags and Ken, my incomparable crew for the day, dropped me off at Squaw around 4:15am, and promptly left to make it to the first crew access point at Duncan Canyon (mile 24). I milled about the start, nervously looking for familiar faces. Eventually, a little group formed, including Brett, Denooch, Alex, Dbo, Magda, and myself, and we lined up more-or-less together.

 The shotgun blasted, and we were off. Before long, a group of about 15-20 guys separated from the pack and worked their way methodically up the winding fire road; this would be my first test of patience. I was working, but not breathing particularly hard. I felt comfortable and hiked when necessary, which ended up being probably 30-40% of the climb. After cresting the top and receiving some high-fives from Eric (HOKA rep), Chris (my soon-to-be pacer/crew), and Mel, I began the breathtaking descent. I caught up to Brett, who unfortunately re-rolled his ankle, and we ran together through Red Star, leap frogging pretty much until Duncan Canyon. "This is your day. You deserve to be here," he told me; words that would motivate me later in the day when my energy was low and things looked bleak. The first 50k was relatively uneventful, which meant I was doing everything right. I ran conservatively, making sure to enjoy the incredible vistas along the ridge. A few miles before Duncan, I found myself in a small group made up of Denooch, Mike Wardian, Skip Crockett, Ryan Kaiser, and Michele Yates.

Maggie and Ken had everything laid out perfectly for me at Duncan, allowing me to be in and out in a flash; although maybe too quickly since I accidentally dropped my sunglasses and took off without them! I had to remind myself to mentally slow down, and focus on the present. Today would be a process, and the only thing that mattered was the here and now. Mike, Denooch, and I took off down the descent to the creek crossing, before the long climb to Robinson Flat.

Brett had told me multiple times to hike/run this section and not to worry if people passed me. Chris and Mike ran strong and pulled away early on, but I continued my hike/run routine and stayed relaxed. I eventually was passed by Magda, Stephanie Howe, and a few other runners, but I trusted Brett's advice and comfortably made my way to the top. For those who haven't been there, Robinson is a complete party, and definitely my favorite aid station on the course. The trail is so crammed with people that I could barely find the turn back to the course, but the energy and volunteers are top-notch. I tried not to linger too long, and before long, found myself running with Stephanie.

We clicked off miles together on the descent our of Robinson, catching Joe Grant in the process. By the time we got to the flatter/rolling sections before Miller's Defeat, she had tip-toed out of sight, and my energy levels were waning. The gradual uphills felt more difficult than necessary at 35 miles in, so I backed off and slammed a couple of gels. "Eat! Early and often." This was my mantra. I knew this section well from my 50 mile training run with DBo in early June, which was a big confidence boost. Here's the Strava data for those interested.

The Canyons

The remaining miles between Robinson and Devil's Thumb were, thankfully, uneventful. My strategy of pacing from early seemed to be working. I topped off my water bottles from a natural spring at the bottom of the Thumb like DBo had shown me, and began the long hike to the top. In training, I had run sections of this, but come race day I couldn't jog more than a few feet. Every step caused my calves and groin to cramp; a few salt pills later, and I continued the slog. Eventually, I made it to the aid station, but not before being passed by Brendan Davies. Luckily, I had caught the talented young gun, Ford Smith, less than a quarter mile from the Thumb, so I didn't beat myself up too badly.

This next section, the canyons, was not only my favorite, but also the most familiar part of the course for me. I had done a number of out-and-backs from Foresthill to Deadwood and felt confident that I could hold steady through here and possibly make up some ground. I let gravity take me down the long, fast descent to El Dorado Creek, catching Justin Houck along the way. This raised my spirits, and I opened my stride thinking another runner might be just ahead. As it turns out, I don't think I saw anyone else until DBo at the top of the Michigan Bluff climb. I had been moving well, but it was a shock to see him. For a second, I actually considered the possibility that he had already finished the race and had come back to the climb to cheer everyone else on. I think the heat was getting to me. He offered some words of encouragement -- "Stay up on your toes. I'm proud of you bud." -- and I offered some water, as we both continued the scorching climb to the next aid.

I lingered at Michigan Bluff longer than originally planned, but I needed the calories badly. I slammed 3 or 4 cups of Coke, a few gels, and some salt pills of which, thankfully, Mario and Larissa had extra. I jogged out of the aid station feeling a little defeated, but motivated to see my friends and family at Foresthill. The rollers through Volcano Canyon were rough, and the familiar cramps of Devil's Thumb were back and worse than before. I had probably miscalculated my calorie consumption through the early canyons and hadn't taken enough before leaving Michigan Bluff. Oops, my bad. Magda and I had been pushing the downhills together through Volcano, but after we crossed the creek at the bottom, she put in a huge surge and pulled away on the climb to Bath Road.

Looking back on this, it almost seems too obvious. I was cramping, my mood was low, and my energy non-existent. I needed calories and salt, but was too complacent, or maybe forgetful, to do anything about it. Luckily, my good friend and pacer, Chris Wehan, would change all of that.

Foresthill to the River

I jogged into the elementary school parking lot feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of spectators, but grateful that I'd finally made it to the 100k mark! My goal time of 10.25 hours was completely behind me. I think I reached the aid station about an hour slower than that, but who's counting? Maggie and Ken had expertly set up my little swath of a sanctuary, and I was immediately surrounded by 20 of my closest friends and family. I took a seat and chowed on watermelon, Svelte (a vegan drink similar to Boost), limeade, and gels before finally struggling back to my feet. I figured I'd sat for only 4 or 5 minutes but was informed it had been closer to 10; not exactly the expeditious transition I had planned on. I left the safety of my crew at what happened to be an unsustainable pace, and as soon as Chris and I made a left onto Cal Street, I immediately stopped and commenced the hands-on-knees heaving position. I figured I'd lose most of my recent meal, but my stomach settled, and we set off again, this time at a comfortable jog.

Unfortunately, this would the story for most of Cal Street. Jog a few miles, have GI issues, start walking, feel sorry for myself, curse into the wind, repeat. I had been looking forward to this section. The gentle rollers (excluding 6-minute hill) were supposed to be a warm welcome after the steep ups and downs of the previous 62 miles. This was the section where I'd relax, reel myself in, and not push the descents too hard like DBo had shown me. Instead, I was forced to walk while nervously glancing over my shoulder, waiting for the next runner to catch me. Well, it wasn't long before Skip Crockett blew by, along with another one or two runners. Chris reminded me that we still had a lot of running to do, and that worrying would get us no where. He was right. Patience. It had gotten me this far, and it would get me to the finish.

I learned a lot during those 15 miles to the river, but mainly that my stomach doesn't tolerate sugar well that far into a race. We narrowed my GI pain to all of the Coke I had been mercilessly drinking, so from here to the finish I would only have one cup MAX at each aid station. This, in comparision, to the two or three cups that previously found their way into my hands. He also bumped up my salt intake from one S! cap every 30 minutes to two, which worked wonders. I have no doubt that Chris saved my race on Cal Street. With only a few miles until the river crossing, I was finally feeling good! Patience and problem solving, check.

The River to the Finish

It's true what they say about the river crossing; it really does rejuvenate you. Using the Dylan-approved technique of pulling myself across while letting my legs dangle down-stream, I literally floated across to the cheers of Anthony and Fernando. (Seriously, DBo, thank you so much for all of your wisdom in prepping for States.) I had hoped that, at best, I'd be able to run a few minutes of the Green Gate climb, but I'd managed to shuffle up more than half of it.

Maggie, Ken, and Drew greeted us at the aid station, and, man was it good to see everyone. I felt like I had only run a 50k! Not knowing how I was feeling this good, and not wanting to jinx it, I hustled out of the aid and bombed the next descent. I managed to catch the two runners who had passed me on Cal Street and knew Magda couldn't be far ahead. Honestly, these final miles were kind of a blur, but I can honestly say I've never felt that good towards the end of race. I kept my salt and gel intake high, doing my best to stay in the moment like Brett and Jorge had taught me. Focus on the process, not the result.

Somewhere around mile 90, Anthony began having calf pain and fell back a bit. I waited until I could see his headlamp behind me, then kept running. Eventually, the pain was bad enough that he told me to keep going without him, that he'd see me at the finish. I felt bad leaving him; I had wanted us to reach the track together, but I knew that it was out of our control. He got me through the crux of the last 20, and now that I was in single digits, it was up to me to get this done.

I stopped briefly at the remaining aid stations, finally reaching the the last push up to Robie. From there it would be a mile of runnable downhill to the track, and more importantly, the finish. I choked back tears as I ran down the dimly lit streets of Auburn, silent except for the occasional cheer of late night onlookers. Rounding one last turn, the track appeared, stadium lights glaring, and it was beautiful. It was exactly as I had envisioned so many times on my training runs. Runners and spectators were scattered across the infield, hands outstretched, welcoming me and all the other runners to the finish. As I reached the last straightaway, I found my family cheering in the bleachers, and at the finish line, wide-eyed and smiling, was Mags.

When all's said and done, I'm extremely pleased with the day. I went in with lofty time goals, and I'm perfectly fine with not hitting them. This is the first of three 100 milers that I feel like I actually raced, thanks to a solid pacing plan and my undeniably indispensable crew. A huge congrats to all of the runners who toed the line three months ago, and thank you to all of the selfless volunteers who made this happen. And a BIG thanks to Maggie, my crew, friends, and family for their unending support as I chase my dreams. Western States was everything I had dreamed, and it's thanks to all of these great people. :)

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