It was my first up close and personal look at the Western States Endurance Run – the grand-daddy 100 mile trail race of them all. I was on board to pace last year’s M9 Joe Uhan (Olive Oil Joe – OOJ) from the Forrest Hill aid station to the river – miles 62 to 78. But this trip wasn’t just about the 16 mile stretch of Cal Street; the 5 final days of June 2013 ended up being more of a personal journey and experience of possibly every human emotion I could handle for one weekend out West. The highs most definitely out-weighed the lows and the new (and old) friendships were icing on the cake.
I arrived in sunny California on a hot and dry Wednesday afternoon. Travel went well except for hearing updates of my grandmother’s health really starting to deteriorate in the full-time care she has back in Wisconsin – she’s stopped eating and isn’t really acknowledging who my grandpa is. Plenty of other traveling logistics (rental cars, groceries, etc) relented when I found myself arriving at the Western States trail by the American River crossing – Rucky Chucky for a nice long shake out run along the second half of Cal St. I’d finally arrived to the set of my favorite running movie “Unbreakable” (review here) and it was just as depicted … absolutely sunny and gorgeous. I ran from RC up to Cal2 and back – most definitely starting a bit too quick for hot conditions but loving the climb in the mountains I rarely get to enjoy. Get back to the car, drink / eat everything I have, check into the cheapest hotel in the county and find a pizza to kill before hitting the sac.
Thursday is an early (still hot) run from Robie Point to Cool / Hwy 49 and back … another 2+ hour effort in the heat and plenty of long sustained climbing / descending. I’m flashing back to the Grand Canyon with all sorts of “slow” trail pace and fluids / nutritional management mental math. Finish this run pretty gassed as well trotting up the half mile steep grade back to the car. How would I ever get that done after 98 miles of running (instead of 14)? No, seriously, the math doesn’t add up. Slam a Denny’s Grand Slam before checking out and heading to Squaw Valley.
Squaw is a buzz all day Thursday and Friday … incredible pre-race atmosphere and I find Joe, his family / crew and Jake Rydman for some easy going banter, crew meetings, and resting up watching Runaway Train starring John Voight – a bit before my time, but an incredible masterpiece of knife fights, prison guard corruption, and felons talking with weird accents teaching other felons talking with other weird accents a lesson. A bit star-struck watching the veterans panel discussion featuring 14-time WS winner Ann Trason, 25-time finisher (5-time winner) Tim Twietmeyer, course record holder Ellie Greenwood, and the pioneer of WS Gordy Ainsleigh. Most talk / Q&A was around how hot race day would be although the best quote of the night was Gordy recalling one year he didn’t finish because he didn’t get any beer at the mile 93.5 aid station stating, “If I would have… no, wait … if my wife would have had the presence of mind to drive up to Cool and get a 6-pack, I’d have had the calories that my mind expected my body to have and finish the race no problem.”
Of course an early start to the day … start was at 5am, so the Injinji house (Jake’s sock sponsor) was up and alive ~345-ish? I walked ~1/4 mile up the starting climb to wait for the crazies to start making their way to Auburn. Cam Clayton already with a ~40m lead on the pack that Joe / Jake were safely tucked in. Head down to Auburn and front-load the day with some calories via another Denny’s Grand Slam and I was headed up Forrest Hill Road with Joe’s brother-in-law Nate and brother Will. While driving up to Robinson Flat aid station the beautiful mountains are giving terrible cell phone coverage but I notice I have a voice-mail from my mom. Probably seeing how the race started or how hot it already is … maybe an update on grandma? I’m able to finally listen to the short and to-the-point “Adam, it’s Mom – call us back when you can please” single-phased message. I know what’s going on. The pit in my stomach grows larger the longer I can’t call back. I’m finally at the top of the mountain at the aid station waiting for runners when I can call my dad and confirm that grandma passed away less than an hour ago painlessly and peacefully. It’s news we’ve been bracing for a while now but it still doesn’t seem real … I’m in a different state – might as well be a different planet and feel totally disconnected. We briefly touch base on possible travel plans / funeral dates but minutes later I’m back amongst the overly excited crews / families of the crazies now approaching the aid station. I take time to say hi to my Grandma now peacefully with Jesus but quickly tuck away the thought of not seeing her alive again.
Joe’s looking good, hits a very appropriate split and running strong mixing it up in the top 10 already … gonna be a good day and a good run later. I’m able to focus on the run I’ll be able to do later with Joe … after dedicating my last climb to my grandma / grandpa in the Grand Canyon in April, I now know I’ll be focused and excited to welcome suffering in her memory.
Driving back down to Foresthill AS I start to get ready to run and continue to hear about Joe’s progress and split times. I don’t know how he’s feeling but assume everything’s a “go” as he’s maintaining position and actually running quick despite hot conditions. More waiting, eating, and eventually it’s time to suit-up and head up the road to wait for him (and the other front-runners) before we descend into the Cal St oven. More waiting as the top 5 guys run by, then finally Joe’s friend (and second pacer for the day) Tyler Curley stops by and tells us he just left the previous aid station and had to have some work done on his quads … cramping quite badly, so we’ll have to work through that. More waiting … more anticipation. Out of nowhere I see Tyler running back towards us seemingly out of breath stating, “Joe… he, dropped. Joe dropped.” Another pit in my stomach. Joe’s quads were simply not working and had been cramping for 20 miles … he’s got a great explanation / summary on his blog here. Short story is that it was the right move – I’m glad he stopped and he’ll have his day down the road.
The next hour was rough. Not because of Joe’s decision or me being a poor-pity-party pacer that didn’t get to run … screw that, the day isn’t about me and I actually did get to run on those trails already. It was rough because being relieved of running duties meant I let myself feel and digest the news of my grandmother. I was without my own family and didn’t cry or hold anybody but still felt the pain. I wanted the pain and suffering of a 105-degree mountain run over the thought of what my grandpa was now faced with not seeing his partner again. Seeing the disappointment in Joe’s face knowing he (thought) he let me down (even though he didn’t) and seeing Jake struggle through Forrest Hill (his full race account here) made for a darker Western States than expected. That’s when something truly surreal happened. I started hearing the name “Gordy” … “I can’t believe Gordy did….” or “Did you see Gordy yesterday…”. No doubt the name was floating around at Western States referencing the legend pioneer of the whole event (and still runs it today), but my grandmother’s name is Gordia Condit and my grandpa would always reference her as “Gordy” (or Gord, which still makes me laugh out loud). Those are the only two Gordy’s I’ve ever known on the planet and there I was being reminded that my grandmother is actually with me now, not back in Wisconsin. I’m able to speak and have community with her RIGHT NOW in California – an opportunity I wouldn’t have if she’d still be literally hanging on for dear life back in Wisconsin.
It all got better from there as I was able to head to the Hwy 49 AS (mile 93.5) and track the top 3 runners all running within minutes of each other. I headed there with my running shoes / shorts on at the (dream) thought of one of the top three guys needing another pacer to “take ’em home” and win the whole thing thanks to this random skinny pale 2:27 marathoner from Iowa. Needless to say, it didn’t happen but I was able to eventually run the last mile with winner Tim Olson and his pacers and experience his glory from afar as he came in with his new son Tristan.
Not long after Rob Krar came to the track knocking his 100 mile debut out of the park. More post-race interviews, a shower, beer & burger, and back to the track to see more finishers coming into view out of the dark of night that was now upon us.
Sunday was my favorite day by far. I slept a descent amount after having a pretty full race-day Saturday and immediately put on my running shoes and headed towards the trail. It was before 10am and I was able to get ~17 miles in from the hotel to Robie Point to Hwy 49 and back. So, I was running the last ~7 miles of the trail as some 30 hour finishers were coming in. They’d been out all night and most looked battered and beaten down. I did the best encouragement I could showing them how happy I was to see them make the cut off … most said a quiet “thanks”, some just stared ahead, and a few looked like they were going vomit and/or pass out at any moment. I reached the “horse caboose” where horse riders pick up the last runners before the last aid station cutoffs. One runner was on the horse looking as though he was about to fall off … lifeless and beaten down. What a contrast to the leaders and finishers from the night before … almost a different event they’re training for. This was the most enjoyable run of the whole weekend … some great trail climbing yes, but I saw what isn’t on the front of iRunFar.com … the images and carnage that won’t be in any magazine or blog or shoe advertisement anytime soon. So different from Squaw Valley although just as intriguing and star-struck by this portion of the trail. It’s where two Jims fought in 1983, where Geoff out-ran Anton and Clarkie battled Kilian in 2010 … and where so many others have met the end of themselves whether running 6min/mile or feeling defeated walking 30min/mile. Let the war between “road snobs” and “slow ultra runners” rage on about what competitive running really is or should be – everybody seems to have an opinion. But I promise you this … what I witnessed on the WS trail on Saturday and Sunday in 106-degree temperatures is a testament to the human spirit and everything that God blessed our bodies with.
My Future with Western States
Everybody asks me now, “So, do you really want to do it now that you’ve seen it? Run 100 miles?”. I found myself as enthusiastic and excited about following this sport than I ever have before. It was truly awesome being a spectator for once and soaking in everything an event like this can have. To be a part of the running / outdoors community, drive around the mountains with friends & family (Uhan’s were my family for the weekend – making me feel so welcome), and be able to park by a high school track and watch the world’s best ultra-marathoners (or actually run with them) is something you just do not get at major marathons or most road races. What a fun sport / event to be a part of. As for actually running the whole thing … my thoughts and feelings are honestly exactly the same as before I went: probably not too soon, but probably before I die 🙂