After about eight months of one injury followed by another, I had many reasons to simply not start this race. The biggest challenge was that I had missed nearly three weeks of any running at all, during the time I should have been peaking in my mileage. In the last few weeks before the race, as I started running again – five miles initially, and gradually building up (while everyone else was tapering). I received encouragement and inspiration from others who had finished the race despite various injuries and lapses in their training, and, all along, Chaz had told me I could do it, and there was no good reason NOT to try. When I suggested I could just view it as a training run and drop when I felt expired, he said NO, this was Western States, and doing it half-assed was NOT an option.
At the same time, I had countless reasons TO start this race. I had been fascinated with the Western States 100 since I moved to Truckee 14 years earlier, and has never dreamed (until recently) that I would one day be capable of running that distance. Thousands of people enter into the lottery each year, and they only select for a couple hundred spots, so my chances of getting another opportunity to run this any time soon were very unlikely. And finally, my experience at my first 100-miler last summer had been so positive – I loved every minute of it – and I wanted to experience something like that again.
Three days before the race, a sports writer from the Sierra Sun called to interview me for a race story. He asked what my goal time was. I said I didn’t have one, but that I was “100% committed to finishing”. This went into print the day before the race, and as I read the words, I knew there was no turning back.
My Team: Although this is a solo run, for me, it wouldn’t have been possible (or nearly as enjoyable) without the support and encouragement of my crew and pacer. Lynette, my sister, flew out from Michigan, to support and crew for me the entire way, and Chaz, my pacer aka boyfriend/coach/drill sergeant, was also there from the start and along the course, and paced me the last 40 miles.
Race Morning: Saturday morning we got up at 3:20 am. Lynette presented me with an egg and cheese English muffin for breakfast. I was shocked that no one else ate with me, but I guess they still thought it was early. The race started at 5:00 am in Squaw Valley (temperature already 56 degrees), in front of the Funitel building. Lynette thought it was hilarious to see the huge crowd, fanfare, music blasting, bright lights – and then the starting gun goes off and 90% of the people start off walking.
The High Country: The first three miles we climbed over 2,000 feet; it was still pre-dawn but the lights illuminated the mountain run. I took my time climbing, slow and steady, as the sun rose, enjoying the views and the abundant wildflowers lining the trail. Just as I had been warned, once we crested the Escarpment, and started running downhill, everyone else began to pass me. It took an immense amount of self-control to not get caught up in this, as I felt like I “should be faster” than a lot of these people.
The hardest moment was when Gordy Ainsleigh literally FLEW by me, around mile 7. I felt pretty humbled, as he is approaching 70 years old. All day and night, I thought he was cruising through to a sub-24 hour finish (which would have been awesome, as he actually started the Western States run 40 years ago), but it turns out he slowed down and eventually dropped.
Between miles 10-14, as the temperature climbed into the mid 80s, my left IT band tightened up and hurt pretty badly (my latest injury). I let some negative thoughts creep in, but after about three miles of internal debate, I took my first Aleve pain killers of the day, and within an hour, I noticed an improvement. As I descended into the Duncan Canyon Aid Station, mile 24, I heard live music, and was thrilled to see a bluegrass band playing for us as we entered the area. This, along with a dousing of water and stocking up on ice – in my bottle, pack, bandana, and bra – and taking a corner of a turkey sandwich, really cheered me up. I left the aid station feeling like I was running on fresh legs, and the heat didn’t bother me at all.
As I descended into the next canyon, I began to see the first carnage of the day. I was surprised, as I felt so good now, to see so many people struggling. I guess that holding back in the beginning was paying off? I was very grateful in this section to feel like my strength had returned and I enjoyed experiencing the trail for the first time. A couple months back, before pulling my calf, I had full intentions of running every section of the course before the race, so I would be familiar with it all, but now that I was out here, for the first time, I was glad I hadn’t seen the majority of it before, as it made for more of an adventure.
The Canyons: I arrived at Robinson Flat aid station, happy and excited, mile 30, just after 12pm, in the heat of the day, and was greeted by Lynette, Chaz, and Elke. I got a peanut butter/honey wrap from Net, more ice, and more water dumped on me. (Photo courtesy Elke) As I left the aid station Net mentioned that my friend Jamie was only about 20 minutes ahead of me. I was pretty surprised to hear this, as I hadn’t expected to see her at all during the race. After a short climb, the trail opened up into the most glorious, runnable, spectacular sections. I felt the best of the day during the next 13 miles, passing many people, and I was reminded of how GOOD I felt during every mile of my first 100, last summer, the Tahoe Rim Trail.
In the months leading up to States, I didn’t think it would be possible to feel that good in this race, and now that it was happening, I couldn’t believe it. This did a lot to help me try to forget that my longest run of the year had only been 38 miles (most training programs for a 100-miler advocate a minimum of one 50-mile training run, usually more). I also reminded myself of how incredibly crappy I had felt at mile 14, and would use this later in the run to face the hard times with a positive outlook.
One of my favorite aspects of ultrarunning is that in the span of a few minutes, or hours, you can go from feeling like you are going to die, to feeling on top of the world, like you had just started. Instead of the notorious “wall” that you can hit in marathon running, and rarely bounce back from, in an ultra, there can be several “walls”, but you always come back from them, feeling new again. The more experiences on the trail I have like this, the better I can manage the challenges that come up in my own life. Bonus!
I caught up to my friend Jamie (four-time Silver Buckle winner at States) at Last Chance, and we ran together down the steep canyon to the Swinging Bridge, and then hiked up the very steep climb to Devil’s Thumb (passing multiple runners “resetting their stomachs” along the way). When I entered the aid station at Devil’s Thumb, a volunteer called out “looking like a Silver States!” and I first realized for the day that if I could hold this pace, I just might break 24 hours. Coming into the race, I had adjusted my expectations back to 28-30 hours, based on my level of training and injuries, so hearing this positive news gave me another little boost.
Side Note on Nutrition and Cooling: throughout much of the race, I was averaging one gel per hour, one salt cap per 90 minutes, and a corner of a PBJ sandwich about once every two hours. Keeping track of the timing for each of these things kept me pretty occupied, and made the time fly by. I also got doused with water and took ice at each aid station and filled my bra with it, which would keep my core fairly cool until the next stop. I listened to music throughout, except when I would run with someone who wanted to talk (which was not very often).
Periodically I would look at my watch and think things like, “Wow, I’ve been running for eight hours” “I’ve been running for 12 hours” and so on, but then I’d do a quick check of my systems, tell myself I felt great as if I had just started. Mind games. If something didn’t feel great, I’d think about what I could do to change it. If there was nothing to help the situation (like my blisters), I would just try to accept that part that was not going to change, and try not to think about it.
At the top of Devil’s Thumb, after getting wrapped in an ice cold, wet towel, and having a Popsicle, my stomach took a slight turn for the worse. I already had to take pit stops every two to three hours or so, on the side of the trail, but this time I was really glad to see a PortaPotty. When I left the aid station, Jamie was out of sight, and I would not see her again until after the race, although I had really wanted to catch her! Coming down to El Dorado Creek, a long slow descent, which, during training, I could run about nine-minute miles, my pace slowed to over 14 minutes per mile. On a DESCENT. This happened to be the hottest part of the day for me. I ran out of water with about two miles to go, and was starting to feel some real pain in my feet from the blisters.
My watch read 95-97 degrees at the hottest in this section, but an aid station worker later said their thermometer at the closest aid station read a high of 112. When I got to El Dorado Creek, I wasted some time looking for a place to go to the bathroom (a good five minutes and finally gave up), I got sponged down, but then decided I needed to go lie in the creek anyway as I was just moving in slow motion in general. I finally got myself out of there, and started the climb up to Michigan Bluff. I’m not sure exactly how long I was there, but I would estimate about 15 minutes, and I think this was the longest I spent at any aid station during the race. I felt really good in this next long uphill section, apparently the cooling down had paid off, over half of the climb was in the shade (which can make 100 degrees feel like only 90!) and it didn’t hurt my blisters going up.
The Heat: It was the second hottest year in the history of the race, with temps over 100 degrees for much of the day. I had a temperature gauge on my watch that read about 10 degrees cooler than actual temps, and only later (after the race) I realized this was because I was dumping ice water on my watch at every aid station. But the best part about this was that every time my body would start to say “wow, it’s getting really hot” I’d look at my watch, and it would only be 85-95 degrees, which would relax me into thinking: “See, it’s not as bad as I thought!”
At Michigan Bluff, mile 56, 6:30 pm, I was greeted by Lynette and Gretchen Brugman (a good friend and accomplished ultrarunner), each with huge smiles and great energy. I got a ham and avocado wrap from Net, another sponge bath, bathroom trip, and was on my way down Volcano Canyon. About one mile down, I realized I hadn’t seen a course marker in quite some time, or any runners or signs of life at all. I freaked out, and started yelling for help, as I thought I heard voices far down to the left, on a lower trail maybe? On the RIGHT trail maybe?? I considered bushwhacking down the hill in search of the trail, but then decided I might get DQd, so I turned around and ran back up the hill I had come down, still not seeing any signs of the race course.
I finally (maybe after five minutes, but it sure seemed a lot longer) saw another runner coming down, yelled like a crazy person up to him, but he was obviously out of it as well, and couldn’t remember when he had seen the last course marker either. I decided it was unlikely we had both made the wrong turn, so I turned back down the road, and continued running. I eventually found a course marker and yelled up to him we were going the right way. He didn’t seem to care.
My blistered feet were really burning as I descended into Volcano Canyon, as it was quite steep and technical in sections. Once I started climbing up towards Foresthill, and realized I would see Chaz very soon, at Bath Road, I perked up. I was also still under the false notion that I just might break 24 hours, which would have been incredible. When Chaz met me, I told him I really wanted to break 24, and I wanted him to make that happen. He said we would have to make up some time, but it was not impossible. I later kind of regretted telling him this, as the pain got worse and he wanted to push me harder.
At Foresthill I was greeted by Carrie and Molly, the ultra-cheerleaders, who were waiting for their runners, full of encouragement and excitement. I also saw a few other friends and familiar faces – faces that made up a two to three-block long party that we ran through. Another bathroom break: I won’t go into too much detail, but just know that the diarrhea never let up throughout the race, and as a result of this and the constant dousing of water, I received chafing like you could never imagine possible. Super fun.
Cruising Towards the River: We left Foresthill shortly after 8:00 pm with the aid of a couple more pain killers, a lot of Vaseline (the chafing where my wet shorts rubbed my thighs had become very obvious), headlamps, and Chaz on a mission. I had to regularly remind him “don’t forget your runner!” as he was so far ahead of me that I couldn’t see him. He took great joy in passing the struggling runners, but as my feet were feeling worse, and my confidence was starting to wane, I stopped feeling good about passing people, as I feared they would just be passing me in a few miles. We got to Ford’s Bar, mile 73, and our friend Tim, who was working at the aid station, helped us out with refueling. I was not in a great mood, but trying to fake it, and just seeing a kind, familiar, encouraging face, picked up my spirits. The next stop was the river, where I used the restroom, and fully realized the extent of the terrible chafing problem I was facing. When we got into the river, I had to silence a little scream, as it stung so horribly.
Crossing the rushing, nearly chest-deep river, illuminated by lights, under the stars, at mile 78, with the aid of a line of 20 or so volunteers, holding onto a rope and guiding your every step, was simply magical, and it brought on a lot of emotions. Lynette was waiting on the other side for us, with a change of shorts, some soup, and then she hiked up the two miles to the next aid station with us.
The Last 15 in the Pain House: At ALT, mile 85, my weight showed that I had gained about 7 pounds from the start, and the medical person did NOT like this. He told me I shouldn’t drink anything for the next couple hours (this was of course after I had my hydration packed filled), and then he pulled Chaz aside to tell him this was serious, and make sure I didn’t drink any water. I have heard many horror stories about hypernatremia, and of course these slowly crept into my mind. During the next five miles, the blisters started raging OUT OF CONTROL. I thought for sure that one of my toenails had come off, and was stabbing my toe and making it bleed because it hurt so bad, so Chaz took off my shoe, and sock, for the first time of the day, and showed me that it was just a blister.
He told me that it would only hurt like this until it popped, then the pressure would go away. I trusted in that, and sure enough, a few minutes later, the pain was numbed. Until another one immediately flared up, and the same thing happened again and again, for the rest of the race. (I only took one shoe off the entire race, and quickly put it back on, realizing it wouldn’t do any good to mess with it.) I could only run now on the flats and gradual downhills; any steep downhills were very difficult to even walk down. Since Chaz had met me at mile 60, he had been cheerfully calling things out like “Only 30 miles to go! Only 20 miles to go! Only 13 miles to go!” at which point I told him I didn’t want to hear it, as 13 miles sounded like FOREVER, and could easily take me three to four hours.
The Western States trail, as it winds through a ravine along the side of Auburn Lake trails, is very lush and pretty, even in the dark, and when we got within a mile of the 90-mile aid station, we started hearing music blast through the little canyon. This was a bit eerie, as after not seeing any other runners for long stretches of time, quietly running through the darkness. The first song we heard was “I Ran (so far away)” by Flock of Seagulls, which made us both laugh, and as we got close they switched to “Help” by the Beatles. It was AWESOME. I arrived at the aid station with a huge smile, and the volunteers told me I looked the freshest out of anyone they had seen come through. They were probably lying, but it cheered me up at the time. I just breezed through the aid station since I couldn’t drink anything anyway. This little high didn’t last very long.
The next 3.5 miles were HELL. There was a long gradual section that I should have been running, but I had started getting very panicky about the weight gain, and “what if I can’t drink water at the next aid station? I might die”. All this made me nauseous, and when Chaz mentioned “You know, we can continue walking 18-minute miles here, or you could start running, and we would get to the finish line a lot faster”, I didn’t respond very cheerfully.
Mile 93, Highway 49 crossing offered a big attitude change, with an enthusiastic crowd at the aid station. I weighed in, and victory! My weight was down, and I was allowed to drink again. We took off and ran most of the way to No Hands Bridge, as I experienced my second sunrise of the race. No Hands Bridge is a gorgeous, high bridge over the American River, lit up (for the race) by twinkling white lights, leading up to the final climb and last 3.4 miles. We saw our friend Jared here, freshly showered and cheering other runners on, as he had finished over four hours earlier!
From No Hands Bridge to Robie Point, where Lynette was waiting, was only 2.1 miles, but it was brutal. I had no idea that section was such a climb (hence my lack of training and familiarity with the course). It really took everything in me to keep moving. As soon as we heard cheering from the Robie Point aid station though, I was once again overwhelmed with emotion. I couldn’t believe I had survived this, and was finishing quite happy with my time, nonetheless. Much better than what I had expected going into the race – chasing the 30-hour time cutoffs the entire way.
My sister joined us and we made our way through a quaint little neighborhood towards the finish. Just as I had been visualizing over the past seven months, running down that final stretch, crossing the white bridge, and then passing through the gate to enter the track at Placer High School was absolutely magical. I was very happy to cross that finish line, at 6:28 am after 25 ½ hours of adventure. We had made it.
The Celebration: The rest of the day involved showering, relaxing, watching the 29- and 30-hour finishers cross the finish line (if anyone needs a super dose of inspiration, I highly recommend coming out to see the runners fighting the final cutoff as it is truly remarkable), and then after a nice two to three hour afternoon nap Lynette, Chaz and I went out to sushi to celebrate. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, given the circumstances. I hope to come back some day and see if I can improve my time, but next year I’m thinking Tahoe Rim Trail 100 again.
Time: 25:28:15. At mile 16, I was in 290th place overall, at the finish: 111th place overall, 22nd female.