Wednesday 4 September 2013

Western States 100, California, June 2012

It was a relief to just be boarding the flight for San Francisco. Preparation had been badly hampered by a torn calf muscle in April, though thanks to some fantastic support from physio Jon it healed well and I was back in the hills towards the end of May. The month before the race was then a careful balancing act of desperately trying to get more miles into my legs, whilst not doing too much and breaking down with further injuries. Whilst there were certainly niggles, I was on the plane.

I’d got over the frustration of not being as fit as I’d liked and adjusted my expectations accordingly. Any thoughts of a target time were pretty much out of the window given the furthest I’d run in training was 40 miles, so getting round the course within the 30 hour limit was now the main aim.

In contrast the immediate build-up to the race was perfect. After arriving in San Francisco on the Tuesday with Mum we had a night in the city to clear some of the jet-lag before driving the 200 miles east to the Tahoe area. We were staying in Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 winter Olympics and also the start of the race. Self-catering accommodation meant I could gorge on Mum’s lasagne, and as with everywhere in the States there was ice-vending literally on tap, which made the routine of icing a sore foot slightly less tedious.
It was a very relaxing few days before the race, surrounded by stunning scenery and fantastic weather. I slept well and I think being at altitude (1,900 metres) for a few days certainly helped me acclimatise. The organisers also put on lots of social/informative events leading up to the race, including a walk to the top of Emigrants Pass, the highest point on the course at 2,800 metres, for a very American flag raising ceremony. It was interesting to talk to other runners about their previous experience of the race and see sections of the trail for the first time. It really brought home the reality that I was about to take part in a legendary race (oldest and arguably most prestigious 100 mile trail race in the world) that I had wanted to run for years and had been very lucky to get an entry through the increasingly competitive ballot system.

With registration and medical out of the way on Friday, the big talking point was the weather. Pretty much everything I’d been told about the prevailing conditions of extreme heat (well over 100 degrees) and the tips on how to mitigate it went out the window. A storm was apparently coming in, which barely seemed believable given the amazing weather witnessed so far, with sub-zero temperatures expected on the high passes. On the one hand I was pretty delighted with this news as the conditions would be home-from-home. However, the Western States was the first 100 miler I’d done where there wasn’t a compulsory kit list to carry at all time, i.e. clothing, survival bag, emergency food, compass etc) – apparently this is considered very ‘European’. This meant striking the right balance between having enough clothing to keep warm, yet not bogging oneself down with unnecessary weight.

Also new for me, though again common in the US, was the option to have a ‘pacer’ for the last 38 miles of the race. Into the breach stepped my great friend Sarah Swaney who arrived on Friday evening in time for the last (pasta) supper.  

Inevitably sleep was pretty hard to come by that night – think Christmas Eve aged 6 – and it was almost a relief when the alarm went off at 4am. The weather had indeed changed overnight and after a brief discussion on clothing strategy with fellow Brit Andrew Findley I decided to go with a long sleeved top over a t-shirt, carrying only a water bottle.

With relatively little fanfare the race got underway in the dark at 5am. Having walked the first section to Emigrants Pass two days previously I had decided to go off very steady. Whilst the reasonably gradual climb was certainly runable, as demonstrated by the leaders, I saw no sense in expending lots of energy early on at high altitude so I took it easy, running the flatter sections and hiking the rest. It was great to be underway at last, though I was pretty anxious about a sore foot which had flared up in the last few weeks of training and hadn’t settled despite a week’s rest. My biggest fear was that my foot would quickly get worse, particularly with all the rough descending to come, and that I’d be forced to make the decision to retire all too soon. I felt marginally better by injecting some black humour, picturing myself being stretchered off some remote part of the course, slumped over a mule like a bandit in a John Wayne movie.

By the time I reached Emigrants Pass (4 miles) it was hailing hard and certainly not a place you’d want to linger. It was encouraging to know the highest point of the course had already been breached and I was breaking new ground in a genuine wilderness area complete with magnificent ancient forest. The trail was superb, a stable surface underfoot following an undulating ridge-line giving you plenty to think about. I imagine the views along this section would have been phenomenal, but low cloud and steady rain meant visibility was terrible.

It was interesting to arrive at the first ‘aid station’ at Lyons Ridge (10.5 miles, 78th position), where it became clear that I was going to be amazingly well looked after by the army of enthusiastic volunteers. As soon as you entered each aid station you were assigned a personal helper who would get you anything you asked for.

I was soaked through by now and knew I’d need to take on hot drinks (sweet tea and soup) where possible and keep moving to stay warm. As a result I was almost forced into a quicker pace than I might have chosen, not a problem at this early stage but something which would undoubtedly catch up with me later. By the second checkpoint at Red Star Ridge (16 miles, 68th), gotta love these American frontier names, I was feeling reasonably settled and runners were already starting to spread out.

The route passes through several canyons in the first half of the race, though I was pleasantly surprised that the first, Duncan Canyon (23 miles, 67th), wasn’t nearly as steep sided as I had expected it might be. I passed Andrew Findlay on the way down and we made the inevitable comment about the British weather (he went past me on the way up looking strong).

The next checkpoint was the first one at which Mum and Sarah could get access to and I had planned to see them there. However, some basic calculations (still mentally possible at this early stage of the race) told me I was going to be passing through much earlier than predicted and so it came as no surprise that they weren’t at Robinson’s Flat (30 miles, 78th). I was delighted that my foot was feeling fine and it was at this point I started to strongly believe that the finish would at least be in my own hands. My main concern was body temperature as I was still exposed above 2,000m and I was wet through. But with no additional clothes available I had little option but to keep moving.

Shortly afterwards at Miller’s Defeat (35 miles, 82nd) there was evidence of runners who were really being affected by the cold and having to take a spell by a fire just to stop shivering. Shortly after this checkpoint I got talking to a guy who was in fact a race marshal and insisted on giving me the bin liner he had on when I mentioned I was feeling the cold which really helped.

The course was steadily descending though and the sun was starting to break through by the time I reached Dusty Corners (38 miles, 84th) and it was time to lose the bin liner. At this point I started chatting to Ben from Southern California, someone who I’d be yo-yoing with all the way to finish and was a great source of encouragement. 

It felt good to be thawing out but my legs were feeling much less springy than I would have liked at this early stage of the race and I had my first low patch as the runners passing me were looking really fresh and the feeling of chewing up the ‘easy’ miles achieved so far evaporated by Last Chance (43 miles, 89th). To compensate I made sure to keep grazing at each aid station, which typically amounted to some cold potato, peanut butter and ‘jelly’ sandwiches and fresh fruit for some natural sugars, all washed down with coke. This would usually be supplemented by an energy gel between each aid station.  

Next up were back-to-back canyons which represented the two biggest ascents on the course. Perversely this actually came at quite a good time as I was able to steadily hike the climbs which used some different muscle groups. A familiar routine took place of Ben passing me on the climbs and me then catching him on the descents. Up we went to Devil’s Thumb (48 miles, 92nd) and down into El Dorado Creek (53 miles, 93rd) where I didn’t linger long as the next checkpoint was where I was hoping to see my support for the first time. I was definitely excited to see some familiar faces, though I was slightly anxious as to whether they’d be there given the earlier timing mix up.

As I crested the climb and dropped down into Michigan Bluff (56 miles, 93rd) I could pick Mum out a few hundred yards away which was a big relief. The sun was shining and I was over halfway, things were looking up. It felt quite strange to be in the first settlement of any significance on the whole course, roads, cars etc. It was fantastic to see Mum and Sarah and it gave me an instant lift. They had an area set up where I could slouch in a chair for a few minutes whilst I changed socks and clothing. My feet were in good shape and the sore foot was behaving well. I knocked back some Ibuprofen, put on sunglasses and left with a considerable bounce, also buoyed by the fact that I’d be seeing them again only 7 miles down the trail.

Probably as much to do with my spirits being lifted, but the next part of the course was a lovely section of fire trail under the cool shade of forest. At Foresthill (62 miles, 94th) Mum and Sarah were again waiting for me, though this time the emphasis was on Sarah being ready to join me out on the trail. It was early Saturday evening now and despite having been on the go for 13 hours I was feeling in a pretty good place. I’d been told the next 18 miles or so was predominantly downhill and one of the most picturesque parts of the trail, and with the sun coming down and Sarah to keep me company it was the most enjoyable section of the race.
I tended to run ahead of Sarah on the single-track so I could control the pace, and whilst we were going at a speed that made conversation easy we certainly weren’t hanging around. We passed through Peachstone (71 miles, 86th) before arriving at the infamous Rucky Chucky River (78 miles, 84th) just after dark.

At this point the river had to be crossed and whilst I previously hadn’t given this too much thought, the prospect of getting into icy water above my waist in the dark was not something I was particularly interested in. But after a bit of chuntering I waded in and was immediately disarmed by the selflessness of the volunteers who were spread out across the river every 5 metres or so of the 50 metre crossing in dry suits, smiling and encouraging me every step of the way whilst I held onto a guide rope.

Coming out the other side I could feel my body temperature dropping immediately and there was little to be done other than start trudging up the hill to the next checkpoint where hopefully Mum would be waiting with a change of clothes.

I arrived at Green Gate (80 miles, 92nd) and thankfully Mum was in position. Many of the checkpoints were very remote and wouldn’t let support vehicles drive down, instead shuttle buses with limited capacity would run back and forth which was a bit of a lottery. So after a change into dry clothes it was on into the night. All being well the next time I’d see Mum would be at the finish.

By now conversation with Sarah was really drying up and all focus was on picking a route along the narrow trails. The strategy here involved Sarah leading me out which was a massive help as meant I just had to follow in her footsteps.

It was now just a case of one checkpoint at a time and Sarah did an amazing job of pacing me through, encouraging me when I needed it, balanced with giving me my own space. My quads were completely shot by now from all the descending and I was increasingly having to stop and stretch on the trail. Needless to say running had become something of a shuffle. I was also feeling pretty nauseous due to the accumulation of sugars in my stomach and eating was a real effort.

Through Auburn Lake Trails (85 miles, 92nd), Brown’s Bar (90 miles, 92nd) and Highway 49 (94 miles, 92nd), all a bit of a blur but with each one passing the realisation of the finish growing stronger. No Hands Bridge (97 miles, 95th) looked incredible all lit up with fairy lights but I was too far gone to appreciate it much at the time. Then the final slow ascent over Robie Point from where I strode out downhill for the final mile through the streets of Auburn to Placer High School and a lap of the track to break the tape in 22 hours 40 minutes in 95th place (382 starters, 316 finishers).   

It was pretty emotional crossing the line and being able to share the moment with Mum and Sarah who had been absolutely awesome in their support. The sense of satisfaction was perhaps even greater with all the uncertainty about fitness coming into the race and I couldn’t have asked for any more than breaking 24 hours which entitled me to the coveted silver belt buckle.

Inevitably I felt pretty run down for a couple of days with sore muscles and some serious sleep to catch up on. My foot, which had remarkably caused me no bother during the race, began to stiffen up as soon as I stopped running and was pretty painful to walk on (later confirmed as a stress fracture). But the warm glow of having taken part and completed this epic event far outlived the physical discomfort. In fact in a strange way I kind of relish the post-race soreness as it acts as a reminder of the achievement – if it didn’t hurt it wouldn’t matter nearly so much. Plus the ensuing week’s holiday taking in Yosemite, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Napa Valley and San Francisco was a pretty good distraction.  

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