I'll spare you the details from the week before the race in and around Lake Tahoe with my family and random runner friends, but suffice to say it was restful, scenic and thoroughly enjoyable.
While the race organization, hoopla and general epicness of the event fell short of what I had been expecting (on a number of levels), the Western States Endurance Run remains by far the biggest 100-miler in the country. With the 2010 lineup looking to be the stoutest on record, I was completely unsure of how things might shake out for me in terms of placement and such like. So while I was there to be competitive, I had decided in the weeks leading up to the event to focus entirely and unreservedly on my own race, and let the chips fall where they may, regardless of what was going on around me.
Given the advice I had received from race veterans prior to the event, the basic game plan going in was to go out conservatively and then hammer the back half of the course from Foresthill in, while hopefully picking up carnage along the way.
There were still a good nine to 10 of us within sight of each other as we descended on a nice stretch of clear singletrack before heading into the trees and snow of the Granite Chief Wilderness. I was running with Josh, Zach and Hal, while Geoff, Anton and Killian had put a small gap on us. Hal seemed pretty eager to bridge the gap to the lead three, so I was happy to let him go as I stopped to unburden myself of early morning coffee.
The trail would reappear from time to time, but more as creek than actual dirt. The early going was wet, sloppy and slippery to say the least, and it was, I think, the primary reason for the foot blistering that would plague me for much of the run.
About nine miles in to the run, we rounded a gate and headed off down a snowy jeep track that would lead us off towards the course re-route on the lower side of the French Meadows Reservoir from the standard high-ridge route on the other side of the reservoir. My two other Pearl Izumi teammates in the race caught up to me somewhere in here and we ran three abreast in our fancy team jerseys Tour de France style, laughing at how we were working as a team in a sport that is essentially a solo endeavor when it comes to racing. Leigh Schmitt, a strong and decorated runner from the east coast caught up with us here too, and it was soon the four of us picking up a pace that I felt was a little on the hot side. In fact, I felt it was lot on the hot side. By the time we caught back up with Hal, Zach, Geoff, Anton and Killian, I was sure we were moving too fast.
We hit the next aid station en masse, with some of the guys stopping, others passing straight through, but all of us gathering back as a rough group for the long road down to the Poppy Lake Trailhead. Killian’s media crew was on the side of the road shooting photos shortly thereafter, and the vehicle they were traveling in would trail us for the four to five miles that we continued on the dirt road before we turned off onto a section of asphalt that finally/thankfully brought us to the Poppy Lake trailhead and some gorgeous running along the banks of the reservoir.
I was not only thankful to be off the road, but also delighted to be out of sight of the guys in front who had been pulling us along at a forceful low six-minute pace. For most of the long straight road section, I had been running with Nick and Anton, while watching Killian, Josh, Hal, Leigh, Zach and Geoff grow a bit of a lead up ahead. However, with Nick pit-stopping in the bushes soon before the trailhead and Anton zipping through the aid quicker than me, I was finally left to run my own race and not worry about others around me.
I immediately slowed the tempo and focused on finding a more reasonable effort that I thought would be sustainable all day (the all-day pace), as I knew full well that the previous effort - while comfortable at the time - was suicidal over the long haul. Thankfully, the trail was scenic and non-technical, so it was easy to get into a groove and find a comfortable effort.
Before I knew it, the trail had outrun the reservoir and it was taking us up the hill towards the Duncan Canyon aid station. On this rough and recently cut section of trail, which moved us through a recent burn area, I got my first taste of real heat for the day. Nothing too ominous, but certainly a good blast and a sign that things were getting ready to heat up significantly.
Nick and Justin were there waiting with fresh bottles and gap splits, letting me know that the lead pack were no more than three minutes up on me, with Josh a minute ahead. I dropped the waist pack I had been carrying in favor of more accessible and less annoying handhelds; a setup I would keep for the rest of the run. The boys had me through the pit stop in under 90 seconds stocked up on fruit, refilled on the EFS Liquid Shot I was fueling on, and with two full water bottles. I was really beginning to feel the run, and was cautiously optimistic that I might be setting up for a good one.
Climbing out of Duncan Canyon, I caught sight of Josh and was soon passing him. He didn’t look like he was in a particularly good head space, but he assured me that he was just trying to find his 100-mile pace. As it turned out, he was already dealing with major blister issues, and while he would later be tempted to drop at Foresthill (62 miles), he would soldier on to get the job done with the help of tall stories and acts of nudity from his pacer and fellow PI teammate Scott Jaime. Nice work guys!
On the climb up to Robinson Flat, I was really beginning to find a rhythm, running effortlessly and enjoying the day. While my feet were starting to give me some grief after hours of sogginess from the creeks and snow, everything else appeared to be firing well. Coming in to Robinson (29.7, 4:21), I got a good cheer from the assembled masses, a kiss from my wife, a cheer from my son and mother-in-law, and a stock up on supplies, all of which equaled good energy.
The road up and out of Robinson was snowy, which was annoying, but after a turn onto the Western States trail at the top of Little Bald Mountain I was soon out of the snow and descending on a beautifully switchbacked section of trail down to the Miller’s Defeat Aid Station, and then on fast fire roads down to the Dusty Corners aid station (38, 5:18). Nick and Justin were there waiting and once again they got me through very efficiently. Justin informed me that Zach and Leigh were 5 minutes up on me, but no other intelligence was offered, which led me to believe that the top four were way off the front already.
Coming into Last Chance (43.3), I caught a glimpse of Leigh’s vest a minute down the road, which provided a boost to the energy levels. However, I was determined to keep to the pre-race plan of getting my ass to Foresthill in one piece before worrying about chasing down places, so I continued my aid station routine of refilling the bottles with cold water, eating a couple of pieces of fruit, drinking a couple of cups of coke and taking some good cold water down the back of the neck, all of which was typically taking me no more than a minute.
The route out of Last Chance descended gently for a while before descending sharply on switchbacked trail a couple of thousand feet into Deadwood Canyon, the launching point for the steepest climb of the day up to Devil’s Thumb. I was looking forward to the climb as a rest from the last 16 miles and 4,000 feet of descent. More importantly however, the Devil’s Thumb crest (48), while not exactly halfway would mark that point for me psychologically.
Just before the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, I caught up to Leigh and Zach (a two for one) and we would run/hike the climb up to Devil’s thumb together. They were both chatters and eager to engage in conversation, and while I'm usually happy to chat and share a good time on the trail during local races, I really wanted to maintain a focus on this day and not lose track of fueling, hydration and salts, so I wasn’t the greatest of trail companions for the miles we shared.
We hit Devil’s Thumb pretty much as a group, with Zach a few ticks up and Leigh a few ticks back. Leigh and I soon caught back up to Zach on the 2,700’ drop into the next canyon and we again proceeded as a trio all the way down to the Swinging Bridge over El Dorado Creek. We let Zach lead, and given the pace it was evident that he wasn’t hitting the downs too well. I was happy to conserve however, reminding myself to remain patient. I finally popped out and took the lead near the river, but on the climb back out and up to Michigan Bluff, Zach resumed the strong climbing he had been showing on previous ascents and gapped both Leigh and I again.
By the time we were out of the canyon and up to the aid station at the small village of Michigan Bluff, Zach was already gone. While at the aid station, not only did I get refueled, doused and weighed, but I also got a kiss from my wife and my son, plus a slap on the ass from Scott Jaime who imparted some motivating words of encouragement, telling me to get after Zach and start hunting. This is pretty much were I flicked the switch on the run and started focusing on the race.
I was finally able to drop Leigh on the dirt road climb out of Michigan Bluff before the route hit singletrack again, and while he was close to being back on me by the the time we spilled out on to Bath Road, I wouldn't see him again during the race from there on in.
I ran up the road with Nick who filled me in on what was going on up front. To my surprise, he said that he had run with Geoff a bit (20 minutes up on me) and learned that he was hurting and not doing too well. A little spark of motivation on that news. I told Nick that I was going to switch out from my Pearl Trail Fuels into a dry pair of road Fuels and a dry pair of socks at Foresthill in hopes that I could ease some of the pain coming from my soggy blistered feet. Nick raced ahead on the Foresthill road and had that all set up for me when I arrived. Justin was there too and between the three of us, the pit stop can't have been more than three minutes.
Justin was ready to roll, and I could feel his energy as we got going on the road. I've never used a pacer in a race before, and Justin had never paced (or finished) an ultra, let alone run more than 30 miles in one shot, so I was a little unsure of how the dynamics would work out. I did know, however, that Justin had a similar competitive bent to mine, so I figured he would be effective in keeping me focused on the race, which was after all just getting started. As it turned out, he was crucial to my race effort and helped take me to the outer limits of my outer limits (a place I was looking to find this weekend) in - by far - the most excruciatingly painful finish to a race I have ever experienced. And that is a good thing. More on that later.
I told Justin that I was confident that we'd be reeling in Zach pretty soon on the drop from Cal Street on the Western States Trail, and within a couple of miles we picked up his yellow jersey and were soon passing. Zach hung for a little bit, and came into Cal 1 a half minute behind me, complaining somewhat comically that he was being treated like chopped liver with all the aid volunteers swarming around me at that point. The day was really beginning to heat up here, and unfortunately the guys at the aid station had nothing but a mist bottle for cooling purposes. After a couple of squirts from that, I realized that it was a complete waste of time, so I headed out figuring I'd cool down at an upcoming creek crossing. Zach was slower getting out and we never saw him again.
We had picked up a good head of steam by now and we lit up the rolling section between Cal 1 and Cal 2. At the aid station, we got the news that Hal was now no more than 15 minutes up on us and that Geoff was 10 minutes ahead of him, which meant that we were picking up ground, and added to the adrenaline that was now fueling my run. A few turns from the Ford's Bar aid we heard cheers from the volunteers, which we assumed was for Hal, and true enough he had gotten out just a minute or two ahead of me. Despite the scent of blood, I was still diligent in sticking to the aid station routine. Justin would find cold water or sponges to douse me with, while I would scoff fruit, down cokes and eat S-caps, with the volunteers attending to our bottles. Again, we would typically be out within a minute.
It didn't take us long to pick up Hal, and it was quite evident that his day from a racing perspective was over. He had and his pacer courteously stepped off the trail and wished us well. I was now running in fourth, feeling tired but strong and wondering if there was more carnage to come. A podium finish was now beginning to seem like it may be in the cards. However, at the river, I got the news that Geoff's lead was back up to 30 minutes, while Anton and Killian were a good 45 minutes ahead. I told Justin here that the mission now was to not implode and hang on to fourth, although I knew he was still anticipating the possibility of carnage and that he wanted to keep pushing.
Closing in on Hal
On the short boat crossing, I took the opportunity to lean off the side and splash water over my head and then on getting out of the boat I continued the dousing. It was just feeling so good that I wanted to stay for a while, but Justin as ever was on me to get moving. We hiked a fair portion of the early climb up to Green Gate, and I was fine with that as I really needed the rest. About halfway up, we met up with Nick and soon after we were back running again. The road up from the river was very exposed and the sun was really beginning to hurt, so I took a little extra time at Green Gate to make sure that I was thoroughly cooled off with lots and lots of cold water over the head. I knew it was roughly 20 miles into the finish, and while I was tired I also knew I had good legs left to get the job done in a respectable time.
Thankfully, the trail on the next five miles was rolling and relatively easy, and while I wasn't killing it here, I was able to maintain a decent effort. Coming into Auburn Lake Trails at 85 miles, we got a race update from one of the volunteers. He told us that Geoff and Anton had come in together, and so we assumed that Killian had taken off in the lead. Au contraire. The volunteer informed us that in fact Killian "had fallen apart."
Wow, 15 miles to go and 20-25 minutes to make up on what Justin was now referring to as 'dead meat.' Looking back, it appears that Killian was actually a half hour up still, so when we got into Brown's Bar (90) and were told that Killian was still 20 minutes ahead of us I figured that the game was up for third. I had pushed with pretty much everything I had in the five miles to Brown's Bar only to (mistakenly) find that I had made no ground on Killian. I assumed he had rallied, and so I told Justin that I was done chasing and that it was now about getting home comfortably under 17 hours. The reality was that I had closed 18 minutes on Killian between the two aid stations and he was actually 12 minutes ahead. The lesson? Never stop pushing and take with a pinch of salt gap estimates from aid station volunteers.
So we lolly-gagged our way to Highway 49, and I indulged with a fair bit of hiking on the ups. I could still tell that Justin wanted to get after it, but I just didn't have the motivation any more. That all changed the instant I got to Hwy 49 (93.5) and checked in with Nick. He informed us that Killian was only seven minutes up and that he looked like shit. There was no doubt in his mind, he said, that we could catch him. I immediately got a huge adrenaline rush and we were off and running absolutely everything as hard as possible.
The trail through this section was stunning and it was just surreal to be passing through this beautiful open meadow after so many hours in the forest. The sun was beginning to set, the hues of yellow were off the charts and there were a couple of elk to our right looking upon us in a very bemused manner. The beauty of it all, and the proximity of the finish spurred me on more than ever.
I didn't care about the pain any more. I had 10 kilometers worth of hurting left to endure and I had the chance to track down and pass one of the most respected endurance runners in the world on the most storied trail course in the country in the toughest 100-mile field ever assembled. That kind of stuff may not do it for you, but it was doing it for me. I was hammering with everything I had left.
The way we were moving, I knew it was just a matter of time before we caught up to Killian. I was just hoping it would be sooner rather than later so it wouldn't come down to a sprint or anything silly like that. We blasted straight through the no-hands aid station and Justin got a gap split of 90 seconds to two minutes from the crowd there. There was no doubt now that we were going to get him. The only question mark left was whether or not he was going to put up a fight.
Quite comically, we caught him on perhaps the steepest part of what was left of the trail on some rugged singletrack. I say comically, because here I am blasting by perhaps the best steep-course mountain runner in the world 97 miles into a grueling 100-miler. Killian and his pacer saw us late, and had just enough time to step off the trail and let us through. I heard Killian let out an expletive in French (a tongue I am familiar with) and I was just praying that I was showing enough strength that he wouldn't bother chasing.
To his credit, Killian was immediately back into race mode and he set about chasing me down. On what was left of the trail we swapped the lead a couple of times, and at one point I had to tell his pacer to get behind me as he literally cut right in front of me after Killian got a step on me. Killian was power-hiking here in this crazy two-step style about 50 percent faster than I was running. Wow!
I followed Killian up on to the road that would lead us into town and to the finish. I was putting a bit of a gap on him here if I remember correctly, but he wasn't breaking, still hanging tough no more than 10 meters back on me. Justin was trying his best to keep me focused and pushing. I have kind of lost track in my mind of how things played out here through the last mile and a half, but I know that we ended up shoulder to shoulder through the last aid station, both blasting through to massive cheers from those watching.
Having never run the course before, I had no idea what lay ahead through the last mile so I was somewhat distraught to see a long stretch of hill ahead. With one last throw of the dice, I pushed again with whatever it was that I had left to at least make the crest of the hill within striking distance of Killian to see if maybe I had something left for the last bit of down into the finish. I heard Justin dry heaving behind me as I got back on Killian's shoulder, but the Spaniard had just enough left in the tank to hit the gas one more time and leave me on the drop to the finish. I immediately knew the race for third was over. Justin caught back up to me and tried to squeeze one last ounce of effort from me, but I told him that I was done and that I wanted to cruise in with my son. And that's what we did. A very proud way to finish up.
Done. Photos: Olga Varlamova
Yup, that one hurt! Photos: Olga Varlamova
That's a lot of head and facial hair in the top five. Photo: Justin Mock
I gave it absolutely everything I had and tapped reserves I didn't even know were tappable. I will remember this one for a lifetime.
What a day!