Monday, July 4, 2016

Western States 2016. Sweet Redemption!

It's hard to know where to start with this report; not because I don't have anything to say, but because I want to do the experience justice. I'm not sure I can fully express my feelings and emotions about this magical weekend, but I'll try.  This has been a fairy tale adventure since January, and really, all the way back to 2004 when I dropped at Michigan Bluff. It has finally come full circle. The monkey is off my back in a way I could not have imagined back then.

Since January of this year, my running life has been completely focused on getting into Western States. Not a single day, probably not a single hour went by when the race wasn't at least a thought in the back of my mind. From reading race reports or course descriptions, to watching YouTube videos, I thought about it constantly. This would be my first 100-miler in eight years. In my 16 years as an ultrarunner no race has consumed me as much as this one did. I'm not sure what I would have done if I hadn't gotten my golden ticket. There was simply no other option. No alternative. I had to get it! I won't rehash what happened at the Georgia Death Race, since I already wrote about it, but I got my golden ticket! In a single day my world changed. I went from hoping to return to Western States one day in the distant future, to realizing that I would be running it in 3 very short months!

It was time to get down to business and start training. AJW and I spent the entire drive home from the Georgia Death Race planning out my training and racing schedule. I expected to need some down time for the rest of March to recover from GDR, but my body bounced back surprisingly quickly. I jumped back into training almost immediately. For the next few months, I trained harder than I ever thought possible. I can't remember what I did back in 2004, but I can confidently say that I trained harder for this race than I have for anything in the last 10 years...and my body felt great! There is a fine line between training to reach peak fitness levels and going down the road of overtraining and injury. I feel like I was doing a dance with that line the whole time. It's more art than science; the line is not clear and it constantly changes. It's easy to see how easily people fall into that trap, but thankfully, I think I came out on the right side of the equation. It was one of the main reasons for having a coach this time around. I needed that outside perspective to keep me in check when I wanted to push harder than I should. By no means do I think that everyone needs a coach. I've never had one before this year, although David Horton pretty much taught me everything I know when we trained together in my 20's.

I stepped up to the starting line with a few niggles, but no major injuries. My body felt primed and ready to go. I had a serene calmness when I arrived in Squaw on the Wednesday before the race. I had no control over how the other women had trained or how talented they may be, but I knew I had done absolutely everything within my power to stand at the starting line as ready as I could be. I did the strength training, the heat training, the core work. I watched my diet, did my long runs, got massages, went to my PT. There were no doubts or regrets in my mind about my training, so I could accept the result no matter what the day would bring. I was at complete peace.
Obligatory starting line pic with my dream team!

Check-in craziness
minutes before the start with the infamous AJW

After a restless night's sleep Friday night, I woke up full of adrenaline and anticipation, proving yet again that sleep the night before a race is irrelevant. I quickly ate my granola and banana, and read a text from my husband back in Virginia that brought tears to my eyes. It was a passage from the Bible that reads, "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint". I carried those words with me all day. After quick hugs and words of encouragement from my crew, the countdown began, and we were off running up the mountain. I was so relieved to finally be off and running. All I had to do was run, eat, drink, and be patient. Pretty straightforward, right?!? If only it were that simple...

I started training with a heart rate monitor this spring for the first time ever in my ultrarunning career, and it proved very useful in training. I knew how easy it would be to let adrenaline and my competitive nature make me run too fast in the high country, so I wore a heart rate monitor until Foresthill. I had practiced with it in one 50K race leading up to States to get used to it. I wanted it for the first half to keep my pace honest (and slow).  No matter what Karl Meltzer says, 100 miles is a very long way. I have a very healthy respect of the length of a 100-miler. You can't fake your way to a finish in a 100 like you can a 50. My crew was under strict instructions not to even tell me my place for the first 30 miles unless I asked. I expected the high country to wear on me, but I only really felt the altitude on the climbs. The first 30 miles went by in a flash, except for the stupid, long climb between Duncan Canyon and Robinson Flat. I wasn't expecting that one for some reason, and I didn't feel great during the climb. I leapfrogged with Maggie Guterl and Erika Lindland along here, and pretty much for the first 45 miles of the race. I knew both women would run smart, conservative races, so I knew I was in good company.

I saw my crew for the first time at mile 23 (Duncan Canyon). It was a huge mental boost to see them, and pick up my ice bandana and hat. I ate an avocado and cheese wrap, and took off. I left the aid station feeling really good, but almost immediately started feeling hot spots on both of my big toes. This really concerned me, since it was not even 30 miles into the race. I spent the entire time between Duncan and Robinson (mile 29) trying not to panic. Mile 25 was way too early for blisters! I prepared myself mentally to accept that my feet were just going to hurt for the next 70+ miles. I can handle a lot of pain, so I just chalked it up to the cost of running 100 miles. I couldn't figure out what the problem was. I had been diligent about getting the grit and rocks out whenever I felt any small pebble in my shoes. The only thing I can think, looking back at it now, was wearing a brand new pair of socks. It was the same brand that I've worn for the past two years without problems, but this was a brand new, unworn pair. Rookie mistake on my part. I made it to Robinson Flat, where AJW was waiting for me. I immediately told him I needed to change socks. It was the only thing I could think of that might help. Before the race, I had thrown in a pair of Drymax socks almost as an afterthought. Since my trusty socks were causing me problems, I decided to chance it. I lubed my feet, switched socks, and got out of there as quickly as possible. Looking at the splits after the race, this was my longest stop at any aid station (5 minutes). It was worth it though. My feet felt better almost immediately, and I never thought about my feet again. Before you ask, no, I was not sponsored by Drymax (I am now).  I'm a believer now though! I finished the race without a single blister.
photo credit: Frank Bozanich

Coming into one of the early aid stations
photo credit: Eric Davis
After leaving Robinson Flat, we were treated to a glorious section of switchbacky downhill running, which I loved, followed by a very blah section of flat, slightly downhill running on a dirt road. I'm admittedly not a great road runner, so this section wore on me a little. I just tried to stay steady, and keep eating and drinking. I made it to Last Chance at mile 43 without incident, and prepared to enter the famous canyon sections. I was actually looking forward to the next 18-20 miles. I had prepared for the heat physically and mentally. I was ready for this. You are either bombing downhill or hiking up the climbs. There aren't many sections where you have to decide whether to walk or run, which is my type of running! I knew that if I ran well through the canyons, I would possibly start catching people. It was supposed to be a hot day, and I was hoping for brutally hot! I needed carnage ahead of me. People may disagree with me , but I never thought it got very hot all day unfortunately. Maybe because of the heat training, or maybe because the aid station volunteers did such a fantastic job of keeping us wet and cold.

I was still running with Maggie and Erika as we began the descent into Deadwood Canyon, the first of three canyon sections. It was hard to get into a rhythm on this downhill. The trail was somewhat technical, and covered in these little leaves which made it slick and slow. I just focused on not falling or twisting an ankle. We made it to the bottom, crossed the swinging bridge, and began the heinous climb up to Devil's Thumb. In my opinion, this was the worst climb of the day. It was steep almost the whole way to the top. I think I was low on calories, because I felt slow and a little grumpy ( a sure sign I need to eat something). I was surprised that no one caught me on the uphill through here. I finally made it up to Devil's Thumb, and promptly downed two orange popsicles and some Ginger ale. Iced down and sponged off, I left with a renewed bounce in my step. I simply cannot say enough about the aid station volunteers. They were so helpful all day long, and I gained energy each time I came through an aid station.

I started down the long downhill into El Dorado Canyon. It was a more gradual downhill than the previous section. The footing was better, and I think the sugar kicked in. I felt better than I had in the previous section. I began the climb up to my crew at Michigan Bluff. This was where I dropped in 2004, so it was a huge mental barrier for me. I couldn't wait to get through Michigan Bluff and keep going! Not long into the climb I passed Sally McRae. I could tell she was having a rough time, and my heart went out to her. I knew she had high hopes for Western States, and had trained hard. It was a reminder that 100 miles is a very long way, and anything can happen to anyone. I was really impressed to learn that she gutted it out and finished the race. It's not easy to keep going when expectations aren't met. I kept pushing up the climb passing a few more guys on the way up. You could tell the day was starting to wear on people.  A few of the guys were just sitting on the side of the trail looking completely worked. I can see how the canyons can suck the life out of you if you aren't careful.

I made it up to Michigan Bluff to find AJW waiting for me. It was here where I had my first drink with caffeine. I had intentionally waited until halfway to start any gels or drinks with caffeine because I wanted the boost when my body started to tire. I had cut out caffeine for a month before the race  to really maximize its affect. Anyone that knows me knows how much I love my morning coffee. This was the hardest part of the training for me. I'm not kidding! It might seem like overkill to some, but it worked for me at GDR. Every little bit helps, even if it's only a mental boost. It's worth trying, in my opinion. Anyway, I drank an ice-cold Starbucks Frappuccino, which was just heavenly!!!

Michigan Bluff looked like a war zone with people laying all over the place. The canyons had taken their toll. Andy finally gave me the rundown on my position in the race. He mistakenly thought that I was in 10th place, which was not accurate. I was in 11th, but it didn't matter. I hadn't expected to be that far up in the field by mile 55 anyway. One of the highlights of my day was seeing my old friend, Scotty Mills here. I heard that he was working the aid station. He came over to give me a quick hug, then promptly told me to get moving. I felt fantastic for already being over halfway into the race.

Enjoying my milkshake hiking up Bath Road
photo credit: Eric Davis
My crew and I had run part of the next section between Michigan and Foresthill when we flew into town the Wednesday before the race, so I knew what to expect. I had been looking forward to getting here all day, because it meant I was on my way to getting my pacer. I actually thought several times during the race about how fast the it seemed to be going by. I remember listening to  Ann Trason mention on a podcast that all of her Western States races went by in a flash, and that was certainly the case for me. Right before the descent into Volcano Canyon, I passed Yiou Wang walking along a road. Again, I was impressed to find out that she persevered and got her silver buckle. I have so much respect for those that gut it out on a tough day, when it is much easier to just throw in the towel. Now I was truly in 10th place, even though I wouldn't know that until I reached my crew at Foresthill.

Volcano Canyon ended up being my favorite section of the whole race. I felt so strong, and my stomach was holding up nicely. I flew down the hill, jumped in the creek at the bottom, and began the short climb up to Bath Road. When I saw my crew waiting for me with a vanilla milkshake, I was practically dancing. We hiked up the road together as I drank the milkshake, and took stock of the day. I felt really good with how things were shaping up. I was in 10th place earlier than I had anticipated. My energy was good, and I now got to run with my friend, Annie, for the next 20 miles! We didn't even stop at the Foresthill aid station, as amazing as it was. I felt like a celebrity with everyone cheering as we ran down the road. My crew had a spot set up just past the aid station, and we regrouped there to switch out my pack. I even got a high five from Ann Trason. There has to be some good mojo meeting Ann Trason for the first time at mile 62 in Western States!
Scouting out Volcano Canyon on Wednesday
Running into Foreshill
photo credit:

Annie and I left Foresthill on a mission. My goal was to run from here to the river in 3 hours. Don't listen to anyone that tells you it's all downhill to the river though. It's not at all! Andy had prepared me for this, so I was mentally prepared. We made it to Cal 1 quickly, and pushed on to Cal 2. This section was a bit of a grind with all the rollers, but I still felt strong. Unfortunately, the heat began to wear on Annie, and her stomach started to go south. We came into Cal 2, and found two women (Jodee and Nicole) sitting in chairs getting worked on by the volunteers. They both looked kind of rough, and suddenly I went from 10th to 8th place! We bolted before either woman could get out of the aid station ahead of us. I felt like I was running faster than I had all day. Annie's stomach finally had enough on the short but horrible "6-minute" hill heading to Cal 3. She told me to go on ahead as she had to stop and take care of business. I felt bad leaving her back there, but she promised to catch up once she cleared out her stomach. I've always said that pacing is a tough assignment. You probably haven't trained the way the runner in the race has. You aren't in the same mental place, since it isn't your race. You don't get to choose when to run or walk. It is all about your runner; and it's a tall order.

I came into Cal 3, with Annie flying in about 30 seconds behind me. She was yelling for me to get going because Jodee was right on our heels. I couldn't believe that she had regrouped so quickly. Sure enough, as I ran out of the aid station, Jodee came running in. Annie told me to go, and not worry about her. I left on my own running scared. Even though I was now in 8th place, I knew there were so many tough women right behind me. I knew that Maggie and Erika were back there somewhere and would finish strong. I knew I could just as quickly go back to F10 just as quickly as I had gone to F8. From Cal 3 you run through a flat, sandy, overgrown section along the river. I heard voices up ahead, and saw Amanda Basham being paced by Zach Miller. She was running, but not moving too quickly (or so I thought). I passed them along here still running scared. I thought I would be able to stay ahead of Amanda, but she quickly passed me back a few minutes later. She would end up finishing 30 minutes ahead of me, even though we crossed the river together. That girl can close! Everyone better watch out for her!
River Crossing!!!
Photo credit: Andy Jones-Wilkins
Finally, the river crossing came into view. I had envisioned that moment countless times in the 6 months leading up to the race. Once again, I was struck by how quickly the day was going by. I was already here at mile 78 of Western States. It was a little surreal.  I crossed quickly without any problems, and saw my crew waiting on the other side. My other mistake of the day was leaving Cal 3 without any gels. In the frenzy to get out quickly, I mistakenly thought I had some gels in my pack, only to realize there were just empty wrappers. This was my 2nd rookie mistake. I ran the entire section from Cal 3 to the river with nothing but water. By the time I crossed the river, I was running on fumes. I tried to eat on the climb up to Green gate, but my stomach really didn't want anything. This is typically the point in races where my body just doesn't want any more food.

Andy took over pacing duties for the final 20 miles. I honestly don't remember much from here to the finish. It all blurs together in my mind. I know I didn't run the part between Green Gate to ALT very well at all. I ate a gel or two, but my legs just felt heavy and slow. I walked stuff that I knew I should be running. I was low on calories, and feeling very lazy. Andy tried unsuccessfully to nudge me along, but we finally made it to ALT. I drank some Coke and had some broth with noodles. That was the magic potion for me. I had some of both at every aid station until the finish, and it worked wonders for me! My energy came back, and we started moving much better.

Somewhere in the final 10 miles, I can't remember exactly where, we passed Caroline Boller. I was back in 7th place! after what seemed like an eternity we started the climb up to Robie Point. It was not my finest moment. I was walking soooooo slowly, but I couldn't make myself go any faster. There were some headlamps not far behind us, and I just hoped it was a guy and his pacer and not another female. It would really suck to get passed at mile 99, but even that couldn't seem to get me moving. My crew was waiting for me at the top with about a mile to go. I finally relaxed just a little knowing that no one was going to pass me. When we crossed the white bridge I started running. Then I ran faster. The draw of the track is intense to say the least. I got a little emotional in that final mile thinking of all the hours of training, the hard work, the time away from my family, the horrible track workouts, every single minute of it was worth this moment.

I entered the track with my crew following behind, and "sprinted" through the finish line with a little leap of joy in 20 hours and 40 minutes. I will remember those final 200 meters forever. I will cherish the memory and the sense of deep satisfaction. I waited for Maggie to finish in 8th place about 10 minutes after I did, and Erika a little while later in 10th place. I had formed a bond with these women during the race, and was overjoyed that each of us had accomplished our goals. This race is truly something special. I enjoyed every single minute of it, and can't wait to do it again next year.

Thank you to Craig Thornley and the rest of the staff and volunteers at Western States for making this race something truly special. Your hard work does not go unnoticed. I'm so grateful to my crew-Annie, Sophie, David, and Andy for giving of all your time and support to bring me across that finish line. Because of all of you, and by the grace of God, I had an almost perfect day.To those of you who prayed for me, and stayed up late to follow my progress, I'm grateful for your support. Finally, thank you to my wonderful husband Mike for doing so much to allow me to train. I could not do this without you. Let's do it again next year!

Gear and food list in case you care:
Shoes: Pearl Izumi Trail N2
Socks: Drymax
Shirt: Patagonia capilene short-sleeve
Shorts; Nike Rival shorts
Hydration: Nathan Vaporairess pack and Quickdraw plus handhelds
Light: Petzl Tikka Plus
Food: 1 PayDay bar, 2 avocado cheese wraps, 20+ Huma gels, 1 Frappucino,  1 vanilla milkshake, lots of watermelon, 2 popsicles, Coke, Gingerale, and chicken broth.
Pre-race interview post-race podcast on Trail Runner Nation
 Here are some final random photos for you to enjoy:
Pre-race hike up the escarpment
photo credit: Andy Jones-Wilkins
I've waited 12 years for this!
My shoes after 100 miles of dust.

I'm proud to know these wonderful people
Guess who actually ran the race?
I was pretty darn happy