We found ourselves off course just five miles into a long day and alternated frustrated obscenities all the way through the Lyon Ridge aid station. Though I knew our error was minor, I was the most guilty of immediate panic. My goal going into Western was simple. Run at the front until I could no longer run. Make it hurt, fight like hell, and finish no matter what the circumstances. In this sense, I succeeded.
It has been two weeks since the battle and I am still struggling to generate intelligent thoughts about the race. Things spiraled out of control so fast and so intensely late in the day that I’m still picking up the pieces of my collapse. Each new experience brings new lessons. If I’ve taken one lesson in a fortnight of obsessively second guessing my race, it is simply to ALWAYS RESPECT THE DISTANCE. Powerful and painful lesson learned.
I’d been off course before and have always believed that racing in the first third of 100s is highly ill-advised. With that in mind, it should have been easy to take a deep breath and let the run come back to me. I told myself before the race I was going to really focus on the little things. Breathe, eat, drink, relax. Left foot, right foot, repeat. Everything else would take care of itself. It was early and I’d already lost my concentration. Swept up in the energy of the experience and determined to suffer, we surged back to the front of the race at a pace that I knew was dangerous.
The cold, wet early miles were fantastically enlivening though. I ran with my great friend and training partner for a few hours along with many men whom I’ve grown to idolize as human beings and athletes. It really was the experience of a lifetime and one that I’ll remember fondly for many years.
A pack of five or six had definitively separated from the peloton and the fog lifted just before we began the crux section of the race. It seems every year, the canyons serve to splinter the field and determine ultimate position. Though I didn’t have any extended patches of really strong, energized running, I felt confident that I could negotiate this critical section of the course with strategy and intelligence. When our pack hit swinging bridge and began the climb to Devil’s Thumb, I could tell my climbing legs were going to need time to come around. We had been crushing downhills for 15+ miles, so this came as no surprise to me. Wisely, I didn’t force anything and watched as my competitors pulled well ahead, duking it out amongst themselves.
Generally, I run well downhill. It probably has something to do with my awkwardly long frame. I caught the lead guys without much effort on the ensuing descent to El Dorado Creek and watched again from a distance as they attacked the climb to Michigan Bluff. I thought I was playing it perfectly. From my perspective, they seemed to really be pushing one another uphill. I thought they were going to bury each other on the climbs, leaving me to pick up the pieces on the long gradual descents of Cal Street. I felt like the smartest guy in the world. Silly, silly me.
I stuck to my strategy and picked up Jorge Pacheco on Bath Road for some much anticipated companionship and veteran savvy. Jorge is obviously a legend. I feel so privileged that he was willing to join my cause. We shredded Cal Street and arrived at the river just as Dave Mackey’s boat was departing. I had been prepared to cross the river under my own power all day and was quite irritated by the three minute hold up. Nevertheless, I savored my ritual baptism in the cold waters of the American River – an experience that probably every ultrarunner in the world looks forward to.
We made decent time up to Green Gate, but it was clear that most everything with an uphill trajectory was going to be a struggle for the rest of the day. Great friend and fellow Aspenite, Travis Baptiste (TBaps) was waiting at the aid station with fresh bottles and ample stoke to escort me back to Auburn. Travis thrives in competitive environments and is probably the most natural athlete I know. There is no one else I’d rather go to battle with. Although he did the last 23 with me at Leadville in 2010, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Neither did I.
I didn’t really even stop at Green Gate but took a minute to walk and compose myself as we left the aid station. It was obvious that things were deteriorating but, after 80 miles, pain is no longer a surprise or an inconvenience. It is simply a reality. Having been there before, I knew that things would turn around. By the time we got to ALT however, my condition continued to regress. By the time we hit Brown’s Bar, I was a complete fucking mess. Clarkie finally passed me just as we left the aid. To his credit, Travis tried to get me to latch on and make a race of it. In no uncertain terms, I explained that this was just not an option.
I had been developing a deep, hacking cough since Green Gate that progressively got worse as we approached Highway 49 (mile 93). When we arrived, I weighed in 7 pounds heavy and was spitting out blood. I was officially in survival mode and was genuinely concerned for my own well being. My race was over. With seven miles to go, and still in 5th place, the goal was simply to finish.
Ian Sharman blasted passed Travis and I at about mile 97 looking freaking amazing. He was an absolute gentleman about it and applauded my efforts. Zeke and his brother Alex caught us at about 98.5. They were cooking too. Love those dudes and am so proud of Zeke for the way he rallied. The only guy in the top 10 without a sponsor, Zeke has to be the hottest free agent on the market right now. I’m lucky to be able to train with him.
I crossed the finish line in 16:03 with a new respect for the distance and a new appreciation of what it means to work for something. I’m proud of the way I fought and will be better for the experience. 100 miles on foot is an incredible challenge. Huge congrats to everyone who fought their own battles out on that course. We are all kindred spirits and I feel so incredibly fortunate to be a tiny part of this beautiful, growing community.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank all the volunteers and organizers of this legendary race. I’ll look forward to celebrating the next generation of the Western States 100 when I return some time in the future.
Enormous thanks to my friends and family for all your love and support. There are no words to express my gratitude. I love you.
Thanks also to Pearl Izumi for making it all possible. I feel privileged to be associated with such a great company and such an amazing bunch of runners. Hopefully the new shoes will make me as fast as Timothy.
I could write another whole post on what I think happened to me out there and the laundry list of mistakes I made, but I think I’ll keep that to myself. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed by my performance at Western but it’s those types of races that keep the fire hot. Now I’ve got the rest of the summer to do what I love most – run in the mountains. Life is good.