Friday, July 10, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

Sitting in a chair in the Michigan Bluff Aid Station, I thought about solutions to the myriad ways I had  blown my race. I had a bad case of buckle fever and I had already decided to drop. Twice. Fortunately, I made a promise to myself long ago never to make a decision going uphill. Twirly looked at me with concern in her eyes, while Ann sat nearby encouraging me to keep going.

This was not how I expected my race to unfold.

Some say I was lucky to get my name drawn with only one ticket in the 2015 Western States Lottery. Twirly surely didn't think so. Weekends consumed by long runs and recovery, late dinners mid-week and regular tune-up races puts a strain on a relationship. Once my name was drawn, however, I felt I owed it to myself to try to improve upon 2014's performance. I set my sights on a silver buckle, training hard through the winter and spring. At the Miwok 100k in May, I bruised my kneecap in a fall. I attacked it with physical therapy and felt good about my experience at the Memorial Day Training Camp. I cut back my taper mileage a little to avoid straining the knee.


Vertical profile


Course overview

Beginning at Squaw Valley the race course climbs over the Pacific Crest at Emigrant Pass and drops over 20,000 feet before arriving at Placer High School track in Auburn. More than three vertical miles of climbing break up the monotony and provide ample opportunity to have inner dialogues of self-doubt and general disbelief. My strategy was to use my effort at Miwok as a guideline. A heart rate monitor alerted me when I hit 75%, which I hoped would allow me to get to Foresthill in decent time.

In 2014, I did not push myself very hard. My blood creatine-kinase (CK) levels, an indicator of muscle damage, were low. Western States finishers have a mean CK level of 20,000 U/L, while mine was around 5,000 in 2014. That told me I left a lot in the tank. Determined to put myself out there and see what I could achieve, I set my "A" goal at sub-24 hours. My "B" goal would be to improve upon last year's performance and notch a new 100 mile PR (sub-28 hours) and my "C" goal, as always, would be to finish.

http://www.wser.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Hoffman-2015-Sodium-and-Hydration.pdf
Dr. Marty Hoffman's conclusions about salt
I returned to Squaw Valley early race week for the second annual Science and Medicine in Ultra Endurance Sports Conference. As with last year, the conference was full of interesting information and observations. Of note was a study examining salt use and its effects during ultra racing, which found no correlation between exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) and salt supplementation. I encourage you to check out the materials available at the website. This year's research project is on recovery techniques, comparing 20 minutes of post-race massage with 20 minutes of pneumatic compression. A control group gets nothing. Also, they have asked us all to avoid but document the use of any other recovery methods (e.g. pain killers, massage, icing, etc.) in the week following the race. We submitted two 400-meter time trials before the race, and we'll have to do two more in the days following the post-race treatment.

The rest of the pre-race week I laid low, meeting friends occasionally for libations but staying in my room alone watching Women's World Cup soccer or Giants baseball. I got out for a couple shake-out runs. Having no crew in the Valley meant my stress levels were much lower than in 2014.

Twirly joined me on Friday night. Once I was confident everything was taken care of, I got a couple hours sleep. Race morning was calm and balmy. I checked in, got my bib, and returned to my room to wait. I was anxious, but I knew that once the gun sounded I would settle down. The starting line was mellow this year; no blaring music, just nervous chatter from participants. We counted down from ten seconds, and then we were underway.


Escarpment, photo by Kelly Cronin
The climb up to the Escarpment went smoothly. I kept myself in check and enjoyed the valley views as they unfolded. Cresting the ridge, I was six minutes ahead of my 2014 split and about six minutes behind 24 hour pace. Exactly where I wanted to be. The wildflowers of Granite Chief Wilderness did not disappoint. One of my favorite parts of the course is the backside of Squaw and the technicolor carpet of flowers. I ran easily amongst a pack of familiar faces, chatting about the day ahead and trying to keep my feet dry amongst the springs. 

I fell into a conga line behind Billy Yang, figuring he was pacing himself for a silver buckle. I planned to begin stretching my legs as we hit the double track coming into Lyons Ridge Aid Station, and I did just that. I validated my pace by asking those around me about their goals. I was right on the cusp, but when I arrived at the aid station I was 16 minutes off the 24 hour pace split. They did not have any of the Clif Organic Energy foods I was using to supplement my Tailwind calories, so I was stuck using gels for a couple of hours. I had not burned a match yet, but had exceeded my threshold heart rate in the thin air.

The course begins rolling along the high ridge-lines for the next 14 miles, and my effort on the short climbs was too hard. I constantly struggled to maintain my pace while my heart rate monitor protested. I could feel the altitude limiting my ability to climb, and the lightning fast recovery I enjoy at sea level was non-existent. I would gain the top of one hill with my heart rate at 85%, and by the time I arrived at the bottom of the next climb, it would still be above 75%. Billy and the others finally passed me about halfway to Red Star Ridge.
Still feeling strong at Cougar Rock, photo by Facchino Photography

Still having fun on Red Star Ridge, photo by Facchino Photography
Suffice it to say, my execution was lacking in the high country. I was not prepared for the altitude, and it was warm and  humid to boot. Despite the voice in my head telling me to take it easy, I continued to chase the 24 hour splits through the rocky and technical ridge-line trails. I arrived at Red Star Ridge Aid Station a half an hour off pace. I retrieved some Clif food from my drop bag and ate a few sandwich squares, getting through the station efficiently.



Entering Duncan Canyon, photo by Facchino Photography
My legs still felt good, no niggles. I kept my effort on the high side, trying to keep that silver buckle in sight. The course loses elevation faster and faster as Red Star Ridge gives way to Duncan Canyon. The day was warming up, and I was slowly falling behind on calories. I had crew at Duncan Canyon. There, I could catch up on my nutrition with a cold Boost nutritional shake and some coconut water.

Time to pick it up. Carry your momentum through Duncan Canyon.

I like to practice my turnover on the descent to Duncan Canyon Aid Station. The trail gets more runnable as you go. I got up a head of steam and passed a dozen runners or so on my way into the station. I quickly found my crew and got resupplied, but when I asked for the cold Boost I was met with blank stares. Twirly had not given them the drinks from her cooler! This was the first stumbling block in my plan. My confusion was compounded by the "Running Man" game show questions I was being asked by the guy with the bullhorn. He was fascinated by my beard and wanted to know "how I got it to curl like that." Still behind on calories, I knew I needed to get back on course before I got grumpy.


Wheels coming off in 3, 2, 1... Photo by Makie Ohler


I left the aid station 45 minutes off 24 hour pace. I knew what lay ahead: my first low spot in 2014. The exposed canyon was serving up another helping of hubris-slaying heat.

I stopped to pee and it was Sunkist orange! I immediately began drinking excessive amounts of water. I sat in the creek for a few minutes, washing, dousing and drinking. The apathy began to set in. 24 hours was off the table. The finish seemed so far away.

Stop thinking about the finish. One aid station at a time.

I hiked the climb, stopping periodically in the shade to rest. Others were doing the same. I met Joshua Holmes along the way. He's running the Grand Slam-plus-Badwater this year. He's good company. Fellow Sierra TrailBlazer Bill Hunter caught me just outside the aid station. We arrived at Robinson Flat seven minutes ahead of my 2014 pace.

The medical checks were completely different this year. I acknowledged the staff, they asked how I was doing. "I'm spent," I said, and they waved me through.

After last year's foot maceration, I had decided to change my shoes at Robinson Flat. That way, I could keep my feet dry for 50 miles and make up the time by avoiding the chair at Michigan Bluff. Twirly helped me get squared away with a Boost and some coconut water. She agreed that the Clif banana-ginger-beet flavor may be responsible for the Sunkist orange pee. I left the aid station 10 minutes behind 2014 pace, continuing with caution. Now I was bloated and spent.
Entering Dusty Corners, photo by Makie Ohler
Every five miles or so, I stopped to pee; the Sunkist color remained. My Western States Half Marathon (the split from Mt. Baldy to Swinging Bridge) would be my slowest ever. By the time I reached Dusty Corners I was hot. Pete and Makie Ohler helped me get iced down and watered up for the next section, Pucker Point.


Getting ready for more ice at Dusty Corners, photo by Makie Ohler
I love this section. Marble-in-a-groove single track combined with a spectacular view of Screw-auger Canyon. It's easy running.

I got a misting from the volunteers on my way out of the aid station. Less than a quarter mile down the trail I couldn't find my Tailwind supply. I back-tracked halfway to the aid station before remembering Pete had stuck it in my bottle holster. I continued to lose ground against my 2014 pace. The dominoes were falling. 

Stay positive.

I leapfrogged with Bill around the point. My power walk felt okay, but I still wasn't sure about my hydration status. By the time I got to Last Chance, I was in bad shape. I felt desperate. Just like Miwok, Nate Dunn came to the rescue. He reminded me of my training, of all the runnable terrain in my future if I just kept going. 

"Go get the Cadillac Car-wash. It'll cool down your core before you head into the canyons."

Trying to keep it together at Last Chance, photo by Nate Dunn

It took less than a minute to get me shivering. I bent over, trying to keep the water from running down my legs. Top-notch service at Last Chance Aid Station! I left with a bit of hope, and a lot of determination. I focused on staying smooth, keeping my momentum. The descent into Deadwood Canyon lit up my knee. It felt better to stride smoothly rather than dance the downs. I alternated between the two, passing many ginger-footed runners. I hit Swinging Bridge with little in the tank, hiking to the spring and taking a seat. 

"I don't think it's my day, you go get it," I said to Bill as he began to climb Devil's Thumb. I spent a few extra minutes dousing and fueling for the climb.

With no extra gears, I gave myself ten seconds at each switchback to rest before trudging on. The trail was littered with carnage. Some runners were obviously in GI distress, others were simply sitting in the shade. I sat a few times myself. Eventually I arrived at Devil's Thumb Aid Station.

The Popsicles were awesome! I had to have seconds.

I sat in a chair, being tended to by volunteer "Kat". She brought me some broth and ginger ale. Concern sat on her brow as she watched me mix my Tailwind. I could tell she wasn't going to let me sit for long. I commiserated with Brett Goldsmith, whom I had met during training camp. He couldn't hold anything down; he would succumb at Michigan Bluff but live to tackle AC100.

I negotiated one more Popsicle from Kat and made my way out of the aid station on 30 hour pace. I was now an hour behind my 2014 splits.

Taking long, purposeful strides continued alleviating the pain in my knee on the descent into El Dorado Canyon. I happened upon Scott Warr, of Trail Runner Nation, at the Deadwood Cemetery. He told me I'd just missed the cello player. I was beginning to feel sorry for myself there at the back of the pack. I couldn't exploit the downs, had no power going up, and really couldn't do much but walk. So walk I did. All the way across the canyon and into Michigan Bluff. Over an hour behind, I slumped into the chair while Twirly tended to me.

"I'm broken," I said. "My body is shutting down and I do not want to do this anymore. I've dropped twice, but then the hill tops out and I just keep walking." She quietly acknowledged me while getting my pack swapped out and handing me a dry shirt. Jesse Jimenez came by and offered some encouragement. Fellow Sierra TrailBlazers Running Club members offered more. I knew I couldn't drop. I was jealous of those who had, but my pace was keeping me in front of the cut-offs. There are three reasons to DNF: injury, getting cut, or just not having fun anymore. I couldn't justify any of them.


Got the fever! Photo by Jesse Jimenez

I have often said that I run ultras for these moments. I seek the "ego-strip". I yearn for those moments when I feel stripped bare, nothing left to hold onto. It offers an opportunity to do some soul searching. At least, that's what I have thought. Now that I was in that place, I didn't like it very much. I questioned my motives, and my methods. I couldn't come up with any good answers. There was no enlightenment.

Taking Ann's advice, Twirly gave me ten minutes to get my shit together, and then I was back on the trail, trying not to think about how much distance was left. I continued to catch and pass runners in Duncan Canyon. My power hike was paying off. By the time I reached Bath Road it was dark. Crew member Aaron was there, with a cold Boost and peanut butter cups. I could feel my pity party slipping away.

I spent some time gorging at the Foresthill Aid Station: quesadilla, bacon, avocado with rice, and soda. Twirly had set up a spot for me along the road to Cal Street. My pacer, Torrey, was conspicuously absent. Apparently, he had set out into the night looking for me. I was waiting for him to materialize when Ken Michal asked why I was in a chair. He convinced me to set out alone while Twirly went looking for Torrey. At the pace I was going, a pacer was more for company than anything else, I reasoned. He's a fast runner and shouldn't have any trouble catching up.

One foot in front of the other. Quit feeling frustrated at not being able to run and make the most of what you can do

Obviously this is not the race I'd planned, but I was still in it. I continued to pass runners. Torrey caught up to me about a mile before Cal 1 Aid Station. Once there, I lamented to Bruce about my race thus far. He encouraged me and gave me a power hiking technique tip: keep my hips forward. I expressed some concern about descending the elevator shaft with my bum knee, and he had some pointers on form for that as well. He is a tremendous resource. I count myself lucky to have his counsel.

While my mood had improved tremendously, my body was still revolting at anything more than a brisk walk. I kept picking up places though, passing 16 runners between Foresthill and Cal 2 Aid Station. The carnage at Cal 2 was bad. The triage area was overflowing with bodies on cots. One poor soul looked like he was about to have a seizure.

"Those cots look pretty comfortable," I said.

"Don't look. Turn around." Torrey countered. That made me laugh, and the volunteers chided me for laughing at those who were laying down. I let them know I wasn't laughing at the fallen, but trying to avoid becoming one myself! They rewarded me with a cup of the best chocolate milk I have ever tasted, and we hit the trail again. I was now only 50 minutes off 2014 pace.

I ran as much of the next switchback descent as I could, and managed to stay close to a runner in front of me when I switched back to the power hike. I passed an additional 15 runners between Cal 2 and the river. Comparing my Foresthill to the river split from 2014, I was three minutes faster. I began to realize that my turtle pace (hiking steadily) was actually more efficient than the "running and walking" strategy, which I stuck to in 2014.

I managed to photo-bomb Ken Michal during an interview for USL.tv, (Torrey and I enter the aid station 30 seconds in):

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream


Focused in the river, photo by Facchino Photography
We crossed the river, and I changed into dry shoes at the far side, popping a few blisters with a volunteer's pocket knife (mental note: include blister kit with shoe change). I brushed my teeth, which felt blissful, and we set out to climb the hill to Green Gate. My stomach had finally stabilized, allowing me to eat more at the aid station, which was really subdued at 4:30 in the morning. I hit the porta-potties for one of the best in-race pit-stops I have ever had. I could feel things turning around.

The final 20 miles went by in a blur. Birds began to chirp in the dark, signaling the impending dawn. I held my place in line, giving up a few spots to runners who were actually running, but gaining some in aid stations and passing the shufflers. Hal Koerner once again brightened my morning at Browns Bar, and I negotiated the steep descent to Quarry Road without incident. I could smell the barn, but knew I still had some ground to cover.

By the time I hit the Highway 49 Aid Station, I knew I would finish. I dropped my lights with Twirly, gave my sweat-soaked headband to Jenni Jimenez (the Jimenezes are awesome; I felt like I had extra crew whenever Jesse and Jenni were around) and grabbed a fresh bottle of Tailwind.

"I'll see you at the track!" I said, leaving as quickly as I had arrived. Poor Torrey didn't even have enough time to eat. Spectators began appearing along the trail to No-Hands, and I felt a swell of emotion building. I could taste the finish. Crew-member Linda took my pack at No-Hands, and gave me a clean shirt. The last climb lay before me. I soaked it in as much as I could.

Pete and Makie joined Torrey and me for the run from Robie Point. I tried to reflect the spectators' energy back to them, and ran most of the final mile. Ann and Bruce were both out on the course cheering runners in. I was glad to be able to share those final moments with them; their encouragement meant a lot.

I couldn't hold back once I saw the track, passing two or three runners on the back stretch. Despite walking 90% of the last 20 miles, I beat my 2014 river to finish split by over 10 minutes! I shaved 13 minutes off my 2014 Foresthill to the finish split.


High fives on the track: priceless, photo by Mackenzie Hardwick
The end is beer, photo by Makie Ohler
#2 in the books, photo by Facchino Photography
Finishing was a bigger relief this year. I enjoyed tearful hugs with Twirly and other friends before heading to the research tent to learn my fate. I ended up being placed in the pneumatic compression group. For 20 minutes, inflatable socks squeezed my legs and blistered feet. My blisters hurt, but the rest of it felt great. While I was on the cot, 70-year old Gunhild Swanson stole the show, becoming the oldest female finisher with 6 seconds to spare! It was truly inspirational and the story of the race for everyone.




Sweet relief, photo by Makie Ohler
I hobbled over to the awards tent, where Twirly had set up our chairs and a plate of food. Before I could get there, Brett Rivers told me Scott Wolfe had found Torrey passed out in the bathroom. Not moving too well, I asked Pete to go help him out. Torrey eventually made it to our spot, sheepish but no worse for the wear. Now I can say I ran him into the ground, haha.

Ken Michal told me in Foresthill that this buckle would mean more, and it does. It symbolizes the grit I needed to keep moving in spite of my condition. But it also represents the things I did wrong and the lessons I need to take forward. I need to race within myself and my conditioning. I need to be able to recognize buckle fever when it happens and take the appropriate recourse before it's too late.


With legend Tim Twietmeyer, photo by Makie Ohler
That said, my improvement over the final 38 miles surprised me. In short: I cooked myself in the high country, paid the price through the canyons and rebounded for the home stretch. If I had remained within myself for the first 50k, I could have set a new PR. Instead, I learned valuable lessons about what I'm capable of, and how low I can go without giving up. My post-race blood CK was over 30,000 U/L. Six times my 2014 levels. Obviously, the early effort had taken its toll. 

Once again, the Western States Organization put on an incredible event. I've said it before, but it bears repeating that this race is top notch. Awesome swag, thousands of volunteers, concerted efforts to protect the trail and its history all combine to create a surreal environment in which to test yourself. I will continue to enter the lottery every year, and gladly volunteer in those years I fail to gain entry.



My most valuable take-away ends up being one that has taken me a long time to come to terms with: time goals are fine for motivation, but race-day strategies must be based in reality. My conditioning was not capable of my desired effort at altitude. In the future, I hope to develop performance based goals rather than time goals. Execution, adaptability and problem-solving need to be my focus. 

Here's to hoping. See you on the trails!

Oh yeah, here are the deets:

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