"Here we go again," I lamented as I stood on the start line waiting for the gun to go off for my fourth running of the Western States 100. Even though I hadn't run a race this long since Leadville last August, I wasn't fooling myself. These races are painful and there's simply no getting around that.
Cameron Clayton had been advertising for weeks - nay months - that he was going to take the race out hard, so it was no great surprise to see him shoot off the start line with a full head of steam. More surprising to me was that nobody chased except Hal. Other than those two, it was the same old start I've experienced every year at Squaw; a slow methodical jog to the top with a long train of folks behind.
|With one second until the start, Cameron gets ready to charge. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama|
|And they're off. Topher (far right) is seriously stoked. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama|
My favorite part of the whole course comes immediately after the crest of the Escarpment. The stretch of singletrack before you duck into the trees is only about a quarter mile long, but it's at a bomber grade and offers large mountain views to the north. This is always the point in the run where I come to the realization that I'm here in the moment racing the Western States 100, and I just love to take the energy from those thoughts and lace that quarter mile to the trees before putting my head down and getting on with the day's business: grinding.
Leading up to the race, my left knee had been giving me some problems and somewhat bizarrely my quads had come away from a single Hope Pass climb/descent up in Leadville the weekend before totally sore. By the Thursday before the race, the quad soreness had dissipated, but the knee was still bothersome and I was fearful that I'd find myself compensating for the knee by taking extra stress in the quads, which had been my rationalization for the sore quads from Hope.
As early as 10 miles into the run, I was feeling some of those tell-tale signs with regards to the quads and had something of a sinking feeling in my stomach (which by the way was in fine form). Nonetheless, I settled into the early going with Timmy after catching up to him somewhere along the ridge and tried to put those thoughts out of my mind. We caught up with each others' goings on for a bit and then settled into an easy rhythm, pacing off each other for the miles we shared. Dave Mackey joined us somewhere along here and the pace picked up a notch as we ran along the Foresthill Divide to Red Star Ridge and then onto the Duncan Canyon aid station.
The Duncan aid station always seems a little frenetic being that it's the first crew access point and there's usually a good group coming in together. And today was no different. Brian, Rob and Kristy - my Duncan/Dusty crew - were totally on point through the aid station and I was in and out quickly, picking up an ice bandana and getting fresh bottles. The temperature through to Duncan had been entirely reasonable - just a touch toasty on the southern exposures of the ridge, but almost perfect otherwise. Nonetheless, we all knew the inferno of the canyons was coming.
|Coming into Duncan with Dave. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama|
Into and out of Duncan Canyon itself things remained pretty comfortable, but by the time we hit the high point above Robinson Flat - from whence there is an awful lot of downhill running - the heat was finally upon us. I entered Robinson with Hal, Timmy 100 meters ahead and Cameron a reported two minutes up the trail. On the switchbacked, tree-less descent from Little Bald Mountain, I had the field in front of me and took stock.
|Just starting the descent from Little Bald Mountain. Photo: Michael Lebowitz|
The defending champ was leading, Cameron looked like he was starting to slow and Hal would, as always, be something of a wildcard. Behind me in close proximity I knew there were a ton of talented guys waiting in the wings. The descent wasn't feeling particularly comfortable and I sensed that I was taking too much of the impact in my already aching quads. At this point there was really nothing I could do but hope for the best. I stopped to take a pee because I needed to, but also because I wanted the guys in front of me out of sight so I could quit worrying about them and focus on getting through this thing without a major blow up. Thirty miles in and I was already thinking damage control. The good news was that my stomach was still processing gels without complaint.
|Coming into Dusty Corners and still eating well. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama|
Dylan and Rob Krar caught up to me a couple of aid stations later, just after Last Chance I think. They had been running together all morning and it was nice to have a bit of company as we rolled past the old mining equipment of years gone by. Dylan let me lead the descent to the Swinging Bridge, an awkwardly graded and heavily switchbacked section that deserves respect. Last year we hit this section as a group of five or six, caning it way too hard; this year by comparison I set a very cautious tempo and was shocked to see Dylan and Rob lose ground behind me. Knowing how fast Rob is, I was incredibly impressed with his self control at this point in the race. At just under 50 miles the drop to the Swinging Bridge and subsequent climb up the canyon wall to Devil's Thumb is a critical point in the race.
After a solid dousing at the spring on the Devil's Thumb side of the canyon, we hiked and ran the 1,300 feet up to Devil's Thumb together. Right on cue, my stomach started heading south on me. I almost feel like I wish it upon myself sometimes. I'd been thinking about how solid it had been up until that point, accepting and digesting 250 gelled calories an hour with no complaints, and then - boom - it suddenly put the kibosh on any further gel consumption for the day. From there until the finish, I was on coke and/or EFS sports drink the whole way. The two additional gels I did consume where forced and highly gag-worthy.
|Topping out the Devils Thumb climb with Rob and Dylan. Photo: Salomon|
Ian Sharman caught up to me on the way out of the Devil's Thumb aid station and I started thinking a bit about the Grand Slam record and our little race within the race. We ran the next five or six miles together down to El Dorado Creek with me leading and Ian making some very strange noises behind. We didn't talk much, mainly because I wasn't in the mood, and with the silence and our somewhat 'race-like' downhill pace there seemed to be an unspoken realization that we were going to be doing a lot of this over the summer. I let Ian go on the climb up to Michigan Bluff, realizing again that I just didn't have my 'A' game with me today. Ultimately Ian would put 36 minutes on me over this first leg of the Grand Slam, but as we both know there is still a very long way to go and the real racing doesn't start until we get into the Sawatch and Wasatch Mountains.
And so it went. I hiked way more of the climb up to Michigan Bluff than I ever have before, feeling lazy but trying to convince myself that this was sensible given the heat. Mike Morton went by me in a very methodical manner as we closed in on the Bluff and I stumbled into the old mining town somewhat discombobulated. Bob and Sue Gerenz, my fantastic crew/pacers from Minnesota were there waiting. They took great care of me, cooling me off by wrapping a sopping and freezing cold towel around me, and generally making sure I had everything I needed. Now in seventh and dropping places, however, I was beginning to wonder if I'd crack the top 10 this year.
|Cooling off at Michigan. Photo: Gary Gellin.|
Fortunately, I never suffered a full-on meltdown. The road to Volcano Canyon was slow and I shamefully hiked a whole bunch of the uphill grade here, again using the heat as an excuse. I did regain some composure by Bath Road and by the time I found myself hitting the Cal Loop with pacer Rob Barnard in a fresh pair of socks and M2s I was once again vaguely interested in what was going on ahead of me. Maybe I could catch Ian or Dylan, who were consistently 10-12 minutes up on me at the intermediate aid stations down to the river. I passed a hurting, walking and clearly done Hal between Cal 1 and Cal 2 - always a cheap and unrewarding way to pick up a place. I dropped Rob who was off the side of the trail barfing in the heat, but I couldn't pick up any ground on Dylan and Ian.
By the river I was firmly locked into sixth place and just trying to survive to the finish. Boats across again this year, which really pissed me off. When you've been staring at a cool-looking river for over an hour in 100+ degree heat dreaming of nothing but its cool healing powers, to be shoved into a boat is something of a let down ... to say the least.
Craig, if you happen to read this, I want to ford the river next year!
|Dreaming of a cool river crossing. Photo: Michael Lebowitz|
|But denied again. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama|
I found a nice hole on the other side of the river and submerged for a good long time. Given that I had no hope of winning or getting on the podium at this point, I did actually start thinking about Vermont and the Grand Slam and made a conscious decision to go into 'damage control' mode over the last 20 miles. This meant giving up extra minutes to Ian, but would hopefully allow me to go into Vermont a little less beat up.
|So good. Photos: Glenn Tachiyama|
The run up to Green Gate felt quite comfortable despite the heat and I was surprised at how quickly ALT and Browns Bar with Bob came and went. I certainly wasn't killing it here, but I was at least running at what I thought was a decent enough clip to stave off any potential challenge from behind. At Browns I got the news that Dylan was 17 minutes up on me, which meant he'd put five on me since the river. I was okay with that, but noticed a significant lull in drive and speed from there until Highway 49.
At highway 49 I was happy to pick up my good buddy Brian Stefanovic, but kind of bummed to also be picking up a light, final confirmation that my day had not played out the way I had hoped it might. Halfway down the descent to No Hands Bridge, with four miles to the finish, I finally had to turn it on - the first time I'd used a light in my four times on the course. Brian filled me in on the fact that there was nobody within half an hour behind and from there I just plodded along at a totally uncommitted pace resolving to finish up in as easy a pace as possible with Vermont firmly at the forefront of my mind.
Regardless of how the first 100 miles of the race played out, the last .2 on the track were as enjoyable as any before. To finish any 100 miler is an accomplishment worth celebrating and to finish top 10 at Western States is always gratifying, whether it be M3, M4 or M6.
|Photos: Glenn Tachiyama|
Dylan came and found me a half hour later as I was laying on a cot in the med tent trying to equalize a sour stomach. Of course he launched into details of his projectile vomiting episode on the way down to the river, which all seemed rather amusing, but then he proceeded to tell me that he downed two gels immediately afterwards. My reaction was immediate and violent. Finally the green gremlin was out of my system and 10 minutes later I was able to enjoy a delicious pizza from the good folk at Firetail Pizza who stepped up this year to provide post race food for runners - a detail that has been sorely lacking in previous renditions of the race.
To finish up, I have to not only thank my motley crew from Colorado (Brian), San Francisco (Rob and Kristy) and Minnesota (Sue and Bob), but I also have to give a huge shout out to Abby McQueeney Penamonte, who I've been helping get ready for the Grand Slam this year, and who totally made my weekend by crushing her 24-hour goal, and against all odds finished tenth in the women's race beating some very accomplished runners in the process. Richly deserved, Abby. Congratulations!
|Bob and Sue post race. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama|
|F10 & M6.|