Friday, June 29, 2012

Western States 2012

Snow courses, fire years, 100 degree inferno years, and now - ladies and gentlemen - ‘the cold year.’ I’m not sure there’s a typical Western States with regards to course and conditions, but we got a wild and wonderful one this year.

Rolling up the ski hill towards the Escarpment, it was cool, a little wet and a lot foggy. Up high on the ridges it was raining, sleeting at times, and windy. It was legitimately cold, but with a beanie, gloves and a pair of arm panties I was comfortable enough. Moving at a good clip, there was plenty of warmth to go around, but it was hard for us to wrap our heads around the fact that we were running through the opening miles of the Western States 100 while sitting in a rain cloud.

Maybe it was the unexpected cold or maybe it was some general fatigue, but whatever it was I found myself feeling lazy and tripping over rocks up there in the fog. My eye-foot coordination was off, my legs felt tired and I didn’t much feel like running. But there I was moving along with the Big Boys on the biggest 100 mile stage in the country. The standard sanity check questions were filtering through my mind way earlier than usual, but you just have to push them out and keep moving. It’s either that or quit, and that’s not really an option at mile 10.

A wrong turn, some effing and blinding, four to five minutes lost and four places given up. Dylan, Zeke and Mike got to work immediately and began closing the gap on those that had snuck through. I followed for a bit and then chilled out, reminding myself of the hours ahead. Timmy and Dave were wisely content to sit back and wait. I made my way through the ridges' rocks, tripped on a few, imagined the views and slowly moved past Joe, Neal, Lizzy, Jorge, Ian and then Ryan. By mile 17 Dave, Timmy and I were still in the fog and rain, but back together as a pack near the front of the race, with just Dylan, Mike and Zeke a minute or two up ahead.   

Coming into the Duncan Canyon aid station I was a bit discombobulated. I ran straight through, not seeing Connor, my crew man, as planned. Rather than head back in and fill up my half-empty EFS drink supply, I forged on without stopping. I couldn’t remember how far it was from Duncan to Robinson but I figured I’d be fine with the half bottle I had. It’s not like it was 80 degrees out.
Discombobulated at Duncan. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
A little more climbing and then we dropped in; the first canyon of the morning. Contrary to the standard mountain run - where one ascends, enjoys the view and then drops back down – canyon crossings descend, cross a river than ascend back out (it all feels so wrong). The Duncan descent is relatively shallow and unlike two years ago we were able to cross at the bottom without getting our feet wet. I was encouraged to see the front of the race – Dylan, Mike and Zeke – just a few switchbacks up ahead. Tim found a better line through the river and jumped ahead of me, catching up to the boys in relatively short order. Zeke was off the pace on the climb and by the time I hit Robinson I was alone and wet in fourth with Dave and the rest of the field an unknown distance behind.

The scene at Robinson looked cold. My poor family was drenched and I unsportingly growled at my wife for mixing up Ultragen instead of EFS drink in the bottle she handed off. I took water and an EFS gel flask instead and left her with my wet and stinky hat, gloves and arm warmers. I immediately regretted everything about the Robinson stop. S-Caps were now unreachable as my exposed and frozen figures couldn’t manipulate the zipper on the back of my shorts, but worse was the lingering memory of my dick’ish snap at Dana. I would have to wait until Foresthill some five hours later to apologize.

And then began the long 14 mile descent to the Swinging Bridge at the bottom of Devils Thumb Canyon. The fog lifted somewhere between Millers Defeat and Dusty Corners, just as I caught up to the lead pack of Timmy, Mike and Dylan. We cruised the wide doubletrack down into Dusty as a group, enjoying a bit of banter and relishing the brief glimpses of blue sky ahead. At Dusty I found Connor, switched out bottles, ate some oranges and asked him to please call Dana to tell her 'sorry' and that I loved her.
The PI train, with Tim obscured, rolls into Dusty. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
I left at the front of the field feeling a little better about life. Despite the fact that my legs were feeling unreasonably tired just 40 miles in, I was still hanging in there and feeling good about having been able to get a (second-hand) apology off to Dana.

Ryan caught up to us soon thereafter and all of a sudden we were five, with Old Man Mackey just a few strides back in sixth. Timmy led us on the singletrack contour over to the Devil's Thumb descent with the banter now
having been reduced to a minimum. The race, it seemed, was officially on; five boys running through the woods, grunting, peeing and listening to the sounds of the river down in the canyon below.

And then we dropped back in. Dave pulled a Kilian, running the berm of the trail, zipping by the lot of us in search of the river. We all let him go. I needed to pee and I also felt like I needed to slow the pace, so I stopped a couple of switchbacks from the river and let the train go by. I didn’t want to be forced into an uncomfortable pace on the Devil’s Thumb climb, I just wasn’t feeling it.

Every time I do this climb, I think about how much fun it would be to run it on a fresh pair of pins, but it’s never fun in the moment, with 45 miles under your belt. I always just grunt and then curse about the hike that I’m forced to maintain. This year was no different and while it was nowhere near as hot as the last two years, it actually felt like we were dealing with some heat
for the first time, but more uncomfortably some significant humidity. My stomach started knotting up a bit and I got that sinking feeling that things were heading south.

Jogging out from the top, I was feeling unbelievably flat. I needed to regroup and I knew it. Jogging was absolutely the order of the moment on the cruiser section over to the Michigan Bluff drop. If I wanted to race later, I would have to forego the racing now. My descent to the river was unimpressive, while my shuffle back out would probably have been faster at a convincing power hike, but the running cadence was good for confidence. At the Bluff – my mental halfway point – I emptied my shoes, picked up new EFS bottles and then ran on out, polishing off a longer-than-remembered descent into Volcano canyon and a shorter-than-remembered ascent to Bath Road. Coming up into Foresthill I was all of a sudden feeling pretty good.
Heading out from the Bluff. Photo: Marianne Bush
I knew now, on the Foresthill Road, that I was going to at least finish the race, but I’d pretty much given up on competing for the win. I had five guys 10-12 minutes ahead of me, and I knew that at least one - if not all of them - were going to finish out the race stronger than me. The Foresthill stop was a good one. I got a time check from AJW: 9-15 minutes behind the lead five. In addition I got a fresh pair of socks, a cool-down soak, new EFS bottles, and a kiss and a giddyup from the wife and kids. 

AJW gives me the run down. Photo: IRunFar Media Enterprises
I set off with Christian, a young and talented runner from the area, down the Foresthill Road. As usual, my conversational skills were at a minimum, and even a close call with a basking rattlesnake did little for my desire to chat. To his credit, Christian – who I was meeting for the first time – was comfortable with minimal conversation and happy to provide the silent companionship that I was after. The running felt decent if not impressive on the way down to the river, and unlike the last two years it was not punctuated with any positional changes. This year was just about getting down to the river. The split estimations along the way suggested that I was holding my own on the chase pack but losing ground to a charging Timmy and Ryan. As it turned out, I ran my fastest ever 16 for the Cal Street section, but given the significantly cooler conditions it would have been a disappointment if that hadn't been the case.

With Christian on Foresthill. Pic: Ultrarunnerpodcast
At the river, I traded Christian for Connor and learned that we were going to cross the river in boats again. I was marginally bummed not to be fording for the third year in a row, but really was just happy to be getting close. The river is a huge landmark and getting there with functioning legs is something to be celebrated, so I celebrated quietly as we waited the couple of minutes for the boat to come back from the other side. Once we were across, we were almost immediately passing an exhausted Mike Wolfe and moving into fifth place. That one was a surprise.
Cooling off in the river. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
Connor prompted me to get running as we pulled out from the river up towards Green Gate. As I re-found my stride, I realized that my climbing legs were well and truly on their way out. They had been sub par all day, but now quite frankly they were just pitiful. I had to walk a few of the steeper pitches up to Green Gate, but managed to shuffle the rest. From there on in, I was still able to move well on the flats and downs, but any kind of upgrade was pretty pathetic for the most part. And so we rolled, now in fifth. 
Cruising up to Green Gate. Photo: John Mackey
Photo: Meagan Hicks
Connor was getting excited about hunting down places; I just wanted to finish and sit down. Nonetheless, the news from Auburn Lakes Trail suggested that we were closing the gap on an unnamed runner in fourth. I believe they said six minutes, which meant that we were closing fast. I figured it was Mackey, but as it turned out it was Dylan, and he was clearly a hurting unit when we caught him at Brown's Bar.

With just 10 miles left to run and a reported 15 minutes to Mackey in third, I figured it was just a question of holding on to fourth at this point. If I could run the downs convincingly, shuffle the flats and mellower ups, and hike the climbs with purpose, then I figured I could get it done. It wasn’t going to be especially pretty, but I knew we were at least getting close.

I actually enjoyed the hoof up to Highway 49, as I could hike without shame. Connor had led the whole time we’d been together and I could sense a slight bit of frustration on his part when I dropped to a hike on some of the more pathetic rollers. But there was no shame on the prolonged steep climb to Highway 49, and the hiking felt so good. And then, before I knew it, we were hearing cars and an aid station. 

Dana was there at Highway 49 and so were the kids. I was looking for some sympathy or at least a hug – Dana’s usually good for that kind of stuff – but damn it she was having none of it. She had her game face on and she wanted me to get after it. Mackey was apparently walking and just four minutes removed from the aid station. Just like that a podium was up for grabs. I honestly couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t feel like I was running that well, but then you remind yourself that nobody is moving well at the end of a 100 miler and it’s the guy who slows the least that prevails. A last sorrowful look at Dana for sympathy and another order to get on with it and we were out of there.

And so it was, in the beautifully scenic Cool Meadow that I made the final pass of the back 20, assuming third in the process. We had heard cheers as we were leaving Highway 49, so I knew there was work left to do to fend off a charge from behind, but I figured that if I could run everything up to the Robie Point climb then I would probably be fine. With my downhill legs still alive, Connor and I were able to move really well on the descent to No Hands Bridge, which in my mind pretty much sealed the deal on third. We shuffled the horse grade to Robie and then hoofed the last 800 feet of climbing into town.
Closing in on the finish. Photo: Amy ?
The tarmac felt good, the rubber of the track sublime, and crossing the line again with my boy was a treat that will never get old.

All pics: Glenn Tachiyama

In the final analysis, I have to be happy with another podium finish. I know I didn’t run my best race out there and feel like I maybe missed an opportunity, given the cooler temperatures, to really lay down a time that I can look back on in years to come and be proud of, but it was still a six minute personal best and an effort that required some grit. And the gritty ones are always satisfying.

As usual, I vowed somewhere on the Devil’s Thumb climb that I would never put myself through this torture again, but I know I’ll be back next year. As AJW likes to say, this race gets under your skin and into your blood. With a fourth, two thirds and a set of times that continue to get faster, I just feel like there is more to be squeezed from this race. The Cougar is proving elusive, but maybe if I keep chipping away at it, I’ll get that day where it all comes together and I’ll make that long drive back to Colorado with a little extra weight in the back of the car. Or maybe not. Maybe my son or daughter will win it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself as usual. A big thanks to all the wonderful aid station volunteers, to anyone and everyone who offered encouragement along the way, to Christian, to Conor and his amazingly hospitable parents, and of course to my wonderful family for coming all the way out to California to freeze their tooshies off just to hand me a couple of bottles (and be growled out). You are all owed.     


  1. Ah I love that. "Maybe my son or daughter will win it". You've still got a lot of time to nail this race. Congratulations on another Podium finish!

  2. Damn, Clarkie, I REALLY didn't expect that podium from you after seeing the lay of things in the first half. But, you're one of the best grinders out there and I was super psyched to see you sneak on there again. When the pegs start feeling better let me know if you want to hit some high country (RMNP, Mummies?).


  3. Here here Sparky! Gritty as always. You always tough it out. Congratulations on an amazing journey, podium finish, and a PR. Rest up and drink some beer.

  4. Congrats. Was a bit worried when of the mid-race tweets had you looking "like shit." Awesome finish. Every year I regret not going back just to be a part of it.

  5. Nick: This was a gutsy run! Congratulations to you! Hope your home is OK. Blessings to you and your family. Bob Loomis (Tim's father in law).

  6. Your race reports are always eagerly awaited. Always a blast to vicariously run the race as though we were out there. Glad you're as good at writing it up as you are at throwing it down. Awesome run Mr. Clark!

  7. Congrats Nick - way to rally.

  8. Great job Nick! Even though it felt hard you were still lucid enough to apologize to Dana! Good make us proud!

  9. Way to go Nick! In my eyes you have the cougar. Best of luck whatever you pursue.

  10. Clark Bar- Gutsy run, indeed. Too bad those damn kids have to ruin an otherwise smoking performance. Maybe next year I might be able to grunt and groan a bit beside you, a fellow old guy. Take care, -OOJ

  11. Apparently your grinding gear is about the fastest of anyone. Congrats on third place.

  12. Nick, you ran a killer second half and have proven to be Mr Consistency these last three years. I am glad the race has gotten into your blood. I wouldn't be at all surprised if you snag that cougar one of these years. Have a great summer!

  13. I was able to watch you finish at the track before heading back out to help Brandon do the same thing. Priceless moment watching you with your son cross the line. Great job out there, way to push it to 3rd!

  14. Awesome run Nick and great to share it with you. I am pissed you beat me but hey.. See you in CO.. D