Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Western States 100 Race Report: Will versus Skill
June 25th, 2011
I’ve run nearly 100 miles, but I’m not there yet. Placer High School is just one left turn away and I can already hear the announcer calling out the names. Soon my foot hits the red surface of the famed track where it all began 38 years ago. 25 hours and 26 minutes after the epic journey started, it all comes down to a 300 meter run around a small local track. The sight of not seeing a sub 24 hour time light up the finish clock surprisingly has no impact on the excitement I have. I am now joining the ranks of 7,200 other runners who have come before. Others like Gordy Ainsleigh, Ken “Cowman” Shirk, Ann Trason, Scott Jurek, Tim Tweitmeyer, and Jim King. Our times may have been different, but for the most part we came to Auburn by the same path, the Western States Trail.
Flashback to 25 hours and 27 minutes ago.
It is 5am and 40 degrees. Today is all about running Western States old school. Running it in a way that would make the founding fathers proud. I have no watch, no crew, no pacer, and I only carry water bottles. I use only 2 drops bags, which only contained shoes, socks, and a headlamp. I am joined by 400 other anxious runners gathered in wild anticipation of will take place over the next 15 to 30 hours of their life. We are of many different ages, ethnicities, nations, religious beliefs, professions, physical abilities, income levels, and political affiliations. But, on this special morning, we are united together in a humbling moment of solidarity. We all dream and hope to conquer the next 100.2 miles and arrive in Auburn, California. The stories among the crowd are countless, and regardless of the events that unfolded in so many unique ways, they all brought us to this same time and place…...Squaw Valley.
The 2011 Western States starts! It’s a frenzy of excitement and pure electricity. Less than a mile up the first 2,550 ft climb to Emigrant Pass, elevation 8,750 feet, I take my first glance behind. Within moments my eyes well up on the verge of tears of what I am experiencing. It's a trail of 250 runners snaking down the dusty road behind me, their star like stream of bobbing headlamps, and the orange glow of an awakening sunrise over east Lake Tahoe. If it weren’t for the sound of my breathing, I’d have guessed I was still in a dream, only an alarm clock away from reality. But, it WAS real, and this fraction of a point in time was merely a sample of what lay ahead for the next 25 hours.
Over one hour later, and half mile of vertical climb, I am only 4 miles in. The view of the Sierra Nevadas from Emigrant Pass is as breathtaking as the wind is sharp. The dirt road became snow, and then snow became ice. We drop off the northwest face of the mountain, and now it’s time for the real fun to begin. I experience 15 miles of precarious running over snowy “trails” and icy mountain sides. My body endures dozens of spills, awkward shifts in the calf deep snow, and even more body cracking falls onto the rigid ice. One false move and you’ll slide down the mountain, pull a muscle, or lose the trail. It’s way too early to risk any of those things. The snow keeps things interesting and is a fun distraction from the distance we are covering. Soon enough 15 miles are in the bag, and we have 20 more miles of re-routed course to do. The trail becomes more runnable and dry, and I find myself with the enjoyable company of Jill Perry, Scotty Mills, and Monica Ochs. The fellowship is welcome, but we are running our own races, and after several miles I am running alone again.
30 miles are done, and I am making good time. Not going fast, but not going slow. Wait, what’s this climb coming up? The climb up to Mosquito Ridge (mile 31) is exposed, long, and worst of all unexpected. The new course threw me an early curve and I hit my first low point of the race. I am feeling sleepy from a lack of calories, sweating heavy, and wondering how I let myself get so worn out so early. I arrive at the aid station 4 lbs down from my pre-race weight of 157.6 lbs. 6 hours and 7 minutes have passed. I need food, cold water, and shade. The runners continue coming in with the same haggard look. Doubts start creeping in. Can I bounce back strong after being so depleted so soon? I still have 69 more miles, and there are two very tough climbs coming soon. “Mike, shut up!”. I eat enough to feel full, get some much needed liquids, and like magic I leap out of my chair ready to wage war again!
Devils Thumb and Michigan Bluff are usually brutal climbs for the unprepared, but I welcome them. Around Dusty Corners(mile 38), I started feeling something was a little off with my left knee. The inner part of my lower quad was feeling sore, but only on flat surfaces. I had been saving my legs by running much of the harsh downhill gently, so I doubted it was from that. I eased up the pace, fueled myself well, and powered through the two notorious climbs where my knee felt fine going uphill. It is now mile 55, over half way done, and I feel fresh. However, my left knee area is giving me some major cause for concern. The pain is now getting sharp, my legs goes a bit limp on each stride, and there is now swelling. I consider pain killer, but I don’t want to “mask” the pain of a potential injury, nor do I want to risk nausea and other potential bad side effects.
I continue on in growing discomfort and fear my day is turning for the worse. If only my left leg felt as fresh as my right, then I could be running pretty much everything right now. I settle for a power hike, and when it’s tolerable I switch to a jog. I had hoped to breeze through the famous Forest Hills crew area triumphantly, but instead I walk the entire mile long road in. I rest, prep for the final third of the race, and contemplate my strategy. 13 hours and 56 minutes have clicked by. After nearly 20 minutes I painfully make my way out of Forest Hills. My left vastus medialis (lower quad) is absolutely throbbing now. A 24 hour finish is slipping away and the doubts creep back into my weak willed mind. Could I have had a chance at a 21-22 hour finish if my leg weren’t hurt? Was it my lack of training? Am I not fit enough to be here? Did I gain too much weight strength training? Did the snow and ice earlier beat me up too much? Once again, I snap out of it and clear my thoughts.
I arrive at mile 65 and the sun is setting. I turn on my headlamp, shuffle along, and now 70 miles are done. I can’t believe I am literally watching my sub 24 hour goal vanish into thin air. I traveled 3,000 miles for this chance, and I’m not letting it go without a fight. That’s when I cave in and accept the offer for Tylenol. Like a wish granted from a genie the pain is gone within minutes. Over the next 15 miles I push hard. Too hard. At mile 78 I arrive at the Rucky Chucky river crossing and a large exuberant crowd. I am energized, and best of all feeling like a rock star! It is 11:13pm, my weight is exactly the same as when I started, and the short seated ride across the river was a welcome break. Miles 80 and 85 come and go. The three Tylenol I’ve taken over the last several hours begins to wear off and the extent of the self inflicted damage becomes obvious. I pushed well beyond what my left quad should have done, and now I was paying the price. The big effort put me back on sub 24 hour pace again, but it was too little too late. By mile 90 it was quite clear my body, even pain free, would not be able to cover the rocky terrain fast enough to break 24 hours. The quest for sub 24 is done, and I am okay with it. Why push hard, and risk becoming the first person to not break 24 hours? 24:15, 24:20, 24:30? None are worth the beating without the silver lining, which in this case is a buckle of the same color.
I have run 93.5 miles. I turn off my headlamp in the chilly night and soak in the pure darkness of the trail. There is a crescent moon gently hanging overhead, and the clearest blanket of stars you’ll ever see. The air is cool, clear, and pure. I take a deep breath, and look above to the Milky Way wrapping itself around the night sky from horizon to horizon. I could stay in this moment forever, but I have a finish line to get to.
The night time gives way to yet another warm glow of another sunrise. For some it is a blessed sign of a new day and a new push towards that finish, but for others it is a haunting reminder that precious time is running out. I trudge along past No Hands Bridge, then Robie Point. From here it is a mere 1.3 miles to Placer High School, and the finish!
25 hours and 26 minutes. 100.2 miles. One belt buckle. One runner. The journey is complete.
Western States is a race that was an honor to be a part of. The VOLUNTEERS absolutely make this race worth it. Every time I came into an aid station they treated myself and others as if we were the most important person in the race. Their goal was truly to get everyone to the finish. The history is unparalleled, and the organization first class. It was a once in a lifetime experience, but a once in a lifetime experience I will be trying to do again, and again, and again. 2011 will go down as the year I ran my 60th ultramarathon, but also as the year I completed my first Western States 100. If you asked the average person what a Cougar belt buckle is worth, they would say a few bucks. If you ask a runner at Placer Field how much a Cougar belt buckle is worth, they would say "Everything!".
Run strong friends,
Mike Bailey, 60 ultra finishes at age 30 years 5 days.