Here it is, finally, my 2009 Tour De France race report...err, umm, oh yeah, Western States race report...has it really been almost two weeks already!
The Drive Down took us almost two full days, including one stop in ummm, I can't even remember where we spent the first night? Somewhere south of Portland. We smuggled Melcher into the hotel room to save on the additional $3 charge for a third person, which would of course be added to the post race beer fund!
Second night was spent in Reno, "The Biggest Little City In The World", mainly due to cheap accommodation. Something about this place just made my skin crawl though. Must have been the people becoming one with the of slot machines, while chain smoking indoors, for hours and hours on end. I swear I passed the same lady on my way to bed that night and again in the exact same position nine hours later as we checked out!
We arrived in Squaw Valley on the Thursday and myself, Luke, and Ryne decided to head up the ski hill 'escarpment' to check out the terrain. I had not been at an elevation over 8,000 feet in quite a few years and was amazed at how great I felt. (topped out at almost 9,000 feet) I scrambled up a small rock outcrop and spent a meditative like thirty minutes alone on top. Luke has not spent any real time at elevation and I effectively dropped one of my pacers during a warm up run. Luckily Luke would not have to worry about elevation as he was to pace me from Greengate. In the end he wouldn't really have to worry about running either...
The temps in Squaw were nothing shocking at all, however the apparent forecast was basically calling for it to warm by the hour until the 5am start time on Saturday, and the last report I heard was 106F at the start and upwards of 115+F in the canyons! Just one week prior the highs were just 85F! Looked like they had timed it 'perfectly' yet again! The day before the race just happened to be my Dad's B.Day, and being the incredibly selfless person that he is he did not mention it to a soul and actually thought I'd be too busy planning for my race to remember the momentus occasion. He is getting old after all...probably only has about 30 or 40 of these things left in him! We surprised him with a choc cake, b.day card, and brand new pair of Montrail Streaks...now he was really ready to crew for the big event!!
I was absolutely amazed that I managed a few hours of sleep the night before the race and I awoke fairly refreshed at 2:15am. I immediately started pumping food into myself and somehow downed three large bowls of quinoa and a few bananas before we departed for the race start at 3:30am. The race was to start at 5am and at 4:55am I was still sitting in the bathroom.
"ROBBINS, LET'S GO, THE DAMN RACE IS GONNA START WITH OR WITHOUT YOU!!"
"Hold on already, it's either here or on the course!"
I ran outta the building to see the official race clock counting down from just 2m32s. Still lotsa time to spare! It gave me little to no time to actually get nervous and I screamed as loud as I could with about thirty seconds to go. Six months of specific training and almost a year of dreaming about Western States were about to come to be put to the test...
I intended to approach the initial climb with a high-med pace, trying not to push myself too hard, yet hoping to keep the overall lead pack within sight. After about two minutes I found myself somewhere around 15th place...but then I saw Scott Jurek heading straight back towards me!!
"WHAT!" Followed by a laugh...at least it wasn't me making the wrong turn this time! There were about twenty of us who had followed and we now found ourselves picking our way back through the main pack. The joke would later be that Scott intentionally took us a few minutes off course so as to help protect his course record from a few years back:)
As we approached the top of the climb it filtered us into a steep non-runnable hiking pitch. I didn't really care where I sat in terms of overall placement at that point in time so I stopped for a few seconds to take it all in. I swivelled around so as to take in the full effect of what was transpiring beneath. There were over 400 runners strewn out on the twisting trail below, and a blazing sun was just cresting the horizon behind us. We were already over 8,000 feet up and the vantage point was laced with a jagged skyline of the surrounding mountains. The massive Lake Tahoe glistened in the orange hue that was devouring the peaks behind it. It was an incredible sight, and for me at least, images like this stand alone as the definition of why I love the sport so much. I threw my arms up and let out a short but loud scream of joy before turning back around and fully focusing on the task ahead...only 97 more miles to go...
I crested the 'escarpment' in 47min and was somewhere around 9th overall. The trail then proceeded to twist its way along the ridgeline as it continually lost elevation for about eight miles. I live on singletrack. I live for singletrack. It is all I know, it is everything I know. I run virtually nothing else, so although surprising to me at the time, maybe it shouldn't have been. I was running my personal pace on this terrain. My 'I'm only 5 miles into a 100 miler' pace, yet I was catching and passing the runners in front of me, and no one was coming along for the ride. In an effort to ensure that I was running my race and not trying to chase any of the top guys in front of me I refused any split times as I hit the aid stations along the way. I ran the next few hours completely solo, but I was quite alright with it. The 'high country' trails were absolutely incredible and I spent more time taking in the scenery around me then I did looking at the actual terrain in front of me.
I have only run one other 100 miler. I did quite well with it on all fronts except having to take bathroom breaks. In my one previous experience with the 100m distance I ended up having 16 bowel movements on course...sorry to include those details but unfortunately they are pertinent, it was basically one an hour for the entire race! I was very happy when I managed to hit the 2hr mark of WS feeling great and without issue, this was already 30min longer than I had made it in my first 100m race. At 2h20m however, it happened. I hoped it was a one off and tried not to think about it. That did nothing to help though and yet again I found myself being able to time out the miles almost perfectly between my bathroom breaks. Every hour, on the hour...again. In hindsight, I think I have simply tried too hard to load food the morning of the race, a lesson learned so that hopefully I won't have to deal with it again in the future.
Eventually at the Duncan Canyon aid station someone threw a split at me as I was approaching.
"You Are In Fourth Place. Scott Jurek Is Three Minutes Ahead!"
"I thought I was in 5th...did you just say SCOTT JUREK!!" (the seven time undefeated champ who was returning after a few years hiatus)
What do you do when you catch up to Scott Jurek in Western States?? It's the equivalent of catching Lance Armstrong in The Tour.
"Oh hi Lance. Me, I'm Gary Robbins, nice to meet you to! Would you mind signing my jersey for me? Oh I guess you're right, probably better to wait till after this stage finishes. Ok then, have fun with your team Astana, I'll be just up ahead if you're looking for me."
I didn't want to have that conversation this early in the race and it was obvious to me that I could ease off a bit and conserve some more energy. I brought it back a notch and was happy to get the next split at closer to six minutes.
I think I freaked out my crew a bit when I saw them for the first time at 'Robinson Flat' (Mile 29.7) and I was in 4th place just a few minutes back of Jurek. I wasn't worried about trying to catch the leaders and I spent the necessary time in transition getting food into me and ensuring I was fully stocked for the next 26 miles until I saw them again. My food allergies leave me with very few items I can utilize at aid stations, outside of fruit, so I end up carrying a few extra supplies and hitting up all the drop bag locations. I started to leave transition, then realized that I'd forgotten the most important thing...a hug from my Dad! He'd never seen me race before and had flown out from Newfoundland to join me for the entire experience. I could certainly spare four additional seconds to show him how much it meant to have him along...and then I was off and running again.
I wasn't even up the first hill after Robinson before I spotted two runners coming up behind. No use running solo if I can pair off with a few guys. I quickly met Jasper Halekas and Leigh Schmitt, and we all proceeded into the next descent together. We were all very aware of the fact that the race had yet to even begin and openly joked about how statistically there was very little chance that the three of us would arrive in Auburn still in the top ten together. I was enjoying running with these guys, leading through the descent and feeling strong...then it happened, my damn insides needed out again. I pulled off to the side of the trail for my fifth time in five hours. By the time I got back onto the trail Jasper and Leigh were long gone. I fell into my own solo rhythm again and just tried to continue at a smart pace.
Shortly after this the top ranked Japanese runner Tsuyoshi Kaburagi started to close in on me. I knew of this guy from his result at The North Face 50m Championships in San Fran last December. He finished 3rd overall, but more impressive to me was that I had been told that he was closing in fast on the top two guys, Carpenter and Steidl, and basically ran out of race course. Anyone who can close a gap on those two trail legends is a pretty talented and smart runner...and even more impressive still is that the dude is forty years old! In my personal pre-race picks I had slotted Kaburagi into fourth overall. I recognized and approached him the day before the race to wish him luck, but he speaks absolutely zero English. My pacer/crew Luke and Emily had lived in Japan for an extended period and I sent Luke up to him to wish him luck in his native tongue. I told Luke that if I were fortunate enough to find myself around him during the race I'd most certainly pace off of him for as long as was smart. It was once again nice to have someone to run with, even if we could not share in any conversation.
Kaburagi and I hit the next few aid stations in sync, and I ran with him for over an hour and a half, even when I was once again forced into taking my sixth 'trail break'. I silently tried to sneak off but he heard me duck into the bushes, peered over his shoulder to confirm, and then put in a push to gap me. I was sick of loosing runners due to my stomach issues and I put in a push myself to catch back up. Thankfully we were into a lengthy descent and I managed to do so without a major effort. We hit 'Miller's Defeat', 'Dusty Corners', 'Last Chance', and 'Deadwood Canyon' together, even catching and passing Scott Jurek along the way. I briefly spoke with Scott and he said that he felt his fitness was there but his heart was not fully into it due to personal reasons. I could tell at that moment that his day was done and figured he'd be hitting the sidelines within a few aid stations. It's always unfortunate to see such a great competitor fall to the wayside and I sincerely hope he decides to tackle WS at least one more time.
The Canyons, Where The Race Begins...
In the climb up to 'Devil's Thumb' Kaburagi put five minutes into me, but on the descent back down into 'El Dorado Creek' I took back three of those back to sit just two minutes behind him. I spent a few minutes at this aid station topping up on food and fluids, and joking with the volunteers. Up until this point, which was mile 52.9 I had felt strong and was liking where I had positioned myself. In a conversation with fellow Montrail runner, and two time runner up, Erik Skaden two days before the race began, I listened intently to his suggestions and offerings on how to properly tackle the WS course. What I took away most was his belief that carrying an extra bottle, just to cool yourself off with, was pertinent to success in the heat. I was racing with two handheld bottles and a backpack carrying 1.5LT of fluids. One bottle had been used exclusively for pouring over my head as I ran, and I dipped my hat into every single stain of water that I could locate during the run. I even stuffed my shorts full of ice at one point...but thaaat lasted all of ten seconds before I emptied them out again! I felt there was little else I could have done during the race itself to prevent my system from crumbling under the pressure of the ever climbing mercury.
The seven switchback 2,000 foot climb from 'El Dorado' to 'Michigan Bluff' was where I finally started to feel the heat beating down on me. I continued to douse myself in water every time there was a break in the canopy that exposed my body to the fireball above, but my energy seemed to be waning by the second. Eventually Kevin Sullivan caught and passed me and I would hit the aid station just behind Jez Bragg and Zach Miller.
In less than three miles I had gone from upbeat and strong to being completely unable to even fake a sense of joy at seeing my crew again. I was starting to truly suffer for the first time all day and it showed in my terrible transition time of seven full minutes! I departed in eighth place, yet was feeling somewhat better after my lengthy break. It would be 7.5 miles before I would see and finally get to run with my first pacer and good friend Ryne Melcher.
The website lost my time for this section but I hit 'Bath Road' in 9th and happy to have someone to run with me for the rest of the course. However, for the very first time in an ultra run, I was dealing with blisters on my feet! I had no idea why or how this was happening at the time, but in hindsight my feet were quite wet from all the water I continually poured over my head, and the fine sand/dirt from the course was starting to get into my socks. I have dealt with blisters through expedition adventure racing though and through my own personal experience I have had greater success ignoring them until the pain subsides, generally about 20min, verses paying attention to them and 'making them feel special'. I decided I would not speak of them to my crew or my pacer. To admit they were there would only validate the pain and hence make them hurt even more. As scheduled, 20min and I virtually forgot about them.
When we hit 'Foresthill' at mile 62/km 100 I had already taken nine bathroom breaks. I once again had a lengthy stop. I hated how much time I was throwing away by doing this but my socks needed changing and I had to concentrate on keeping my food and fluids up. I could see three blood blisters on my toes while changing my socks but no one on my crew noticed so the conversation was not initiated. I was passed by Erik Skaden to sit in 10th and Ryne and I set off to conquer the final 38 miles of the course together...only 60km left to go!
In the next 16 miles/25km the trail drops 2500 feet until you hit the 'Rucky Chucky' river crossing. My blisters were killing me and at one point I looked down to see four very distinct patches of blood on my shoes. To make matters worse the heat was finally getting the better of me and although I was able to run to each sequential aid station, Dardanelles-Peachstone-Ford's Bar, I was forced to spend far too much time at each of them concentrating upon my food and fluids. I was consuming while on the run, but as I hit each of these aid stations I was doing so while having trouble stabilizing myself. I would enter an aid station, telling Melcher that I was dizzy and needed him to keep an eye on me. We'd chat up the volleys and crack some jokes. They'd eventually say they were going to have to kick me out if I did not get moving, and I would take mental stock as to if I was currently coordinated enough to successfully put one foot in front of the other. We repeated this for the entire 16 miles with the one high point being that we caught and passed Dave Mackey! I've never met the guy personally but I truly felt for him as we passed because as much as I was suffering at that point in time, Dave seemed to be in a whole other world. We knew he'd be dropping before the finish line. Another of the pre race favorites was effectively done!
As we approached the river I shoulder checked to see a few runner's catching me. Andy Jones-Wilkens (AJW) and Eric Grossman both hit the water along with me. I turned to Andy, since he is a consistent top ten finisher like no other, and said,
"I Was Wondering When You'd Show Up!"
(Photo credit, Glenn Tachiyama)
I had fully anticipated that hitting the water would rejuvinate me. I envisioned my legs getting a second life after the lactic acid was flushed back into my core, and thought my body would cool several degrees in a matter of minutes...I could not have been more wrong!
As I exited the water just a few hundred meters later I struggled to walk straight. I could practically feel my own eyeballs straining to find my equilibrium. My stomach felt like it was going to shoot out of my mouth and my legs were all of a sudden the most foreign part of my own body. I made it to a chair...and sat down for the very first time in an ultra run.
I'm not sure how long I sat there for, at least five minutes, maybe ten. I could still talk and joke with people just fine, but my body was a mess. I was struggling with what I already knew...my race was over.
Ryne knows my running as well as anyone and he kept insisting that I would recover from this and still be able to close out strong like I so often can. I had only dropped a few spots and in reality if my legs would come back to life I could still take a shot at top ten...but I knew otherwise. I had not felt my body shut down like this before. It was a two mile uphill hike to the next aid station at 'Greengate'. My Dad was there, and I needed to see him. It took an eternity to get there, but at least I was still moving.
(Photo credit, Glenn Tachiyama)
And So Begins The Western States Death March...
At Greengate I got a big hug from my Dad again, and there were other running friends there cheering people on as well, Matt Hart and Devon Crosby-Helms to name a few. I had spent the last two miles in a mental turmoil the likes of which I have not faced before in an ultra run. My legs were shot. I knew they were not going to allow me to run another step. There was still over 20m/30km to go until the finish line. Guys were dropping like flies and the list of DNF's was a who's who within the sport. I had originally set out to try and nail a top five finish. Top ten was my secondary goal. I hadn't really thought beyond that. I knew where my fitness was and felt I would be there without question. I was now in a very different situation than what I had prepared myself for mentally heading into Western. What was my 'third tier' goal? To finish the damn race I thought to myself! I glanced at my watch. I had taken 14.5hr to cover 130km...I still had 9.5hr to cover the final 30km and claim a highly coveted 'sub 24hr' Western States Silver Belt Buckle. My legs worked, not by my standard definition but they were still allowing me to propel my body forward. My stomach had shut down and I could not get any food into me. I wanted nothing more than to lay down and pass out. I legitimately thought I might puke if I continued to move. It was almost eight o'clock at night and it was still 100 f'in degrees outside. I wanted OUT of the damn heat more than anything...but my legs still worked. There was absolutely zero legitimate reasons to quit at this point. I put a mix of P.B. and Jam into a cup, strapped on my Princeton Tec Apex headlamp, grabbed my second pacer and best bud Luke Laga...and proceeded to walk backwards down the first descent out of the transition...my quads would not allow me to even attempt to walk it forwards...but I was moving dammit...and I had a full 9.5hr to cover that last 32km to the finish line.
It was everything I had in me to even sustain the necessary 4km an hour to make the 24hr cut off. My initial math told me I needed 5km and hour, a very typical hiking pace. Thankfully I was wrong on my math cause I just could not hold 5km an hour at that point in time. I felt EVERY SINGLE step, every last one of them. There was not a single footprint made by me in the final twenty miles that I did not suffer through.
As the night darkened around us Luke and I traded some of our favorite stories we had accumulated together over the years. From our time in Honduras as Dive Masters, to him surprising me at my first ever 50km ultra here in B.C. in 2005, to me helping him and Emily conquer their first every adventure race while dressed up as The Incredibles, to my pacing Luke at his first ever 100 miler, the Kettle Moraine in 2008, there was no shortage of favorite tales to tell and the time evaporated nicely.
Consistent time checks told me that as long as we kept doing what we were doing, I'd make it to the Place High School Track to claim a belt buckle. Then it happened, I stopped to take a pee break.
"HOLY CRAP, Your Urine Is COPPER Color!"
It wasn't dehydration, it was my kidneys shutting down on me. I had learned of this through Ryne Melcher in 2008 when he was forced to drop out of a 100 miler for the same reason. Yeah I could fight the pain I felt in every inch of my body right then and there, but if internal organs were shutting down I couldn't risk my own long term health for a simple finish line. It was the first time all day that I thought I might not finish the race.
"Luke, that means my kidneys are shutting down!"
He didn't know what to say. So I followed up with,
"Ok, we need to start pumping just water into my system. We'll judge it on my next pee break."
and with that the slowest hike of my life continued. The last thing I wanted was a DNF. I have never DNF'ed an ultra and my only racing DNF's are based around medical inabilities to continue after bike crashes (contused quad, hematoma on groin) or critical gear failure (kayak issues). In fact I've finished two 'Sea To Summit' adventure races where I split my leg open for necessary stitches with half a race to go, checking into the hospital after crossing the finish line. I can deal with the pain, but the mental struggle of wondering what was going on internally was killing me.
"I'VE GOTTA PEE!!"
"Ok, I'm here, go ahead."
Yup, just one more job a good pacer has to perform, analyzing his runner's urine!
"Umm, suuure. It was most certainly less of a copper color than the last one...I think."
"Ok, that's good. That's good. Let's just keep doing what we're doing!"
Eventually I did end up taking semi-regular pee breaks and although minimal, the improvements in discoloration were enough to convince us that we could continue on with our hike from hell.
The only other recluse from the torture that was walking came in the form of the WS aid stations. On more than one occasion I was left wondering if I was hallucinating, only to confirm that Luke was seeing the same thing I was. From patio lights strung out hundreds of meters deep into what appeared to be an open forest, to blaring music, to guys wearing red dresses, and even a whole crew of people singing 'O Canada' at one point, it was all a bit surreal at times! This, combined with Luke's company, the desire to get a stupid belt buckle, and the knowledge that my Dad had flown all this way to see what my 'racing' was all about, were all the kept me going. It's a funny thing though, and kinda literally, if you can keep a light hearted attitude, fake a smile from time to time, lie to yourself about how you truly are feeling, and try to find some humor in the grand scheme of it all, the pain will never win out. Call it what you will, mind over matter, a refusal to quit, or simply ensuring that no matter how bad it may seem, no matter how far the chips may have fallen off the table, you never loose your ability to smile, to laugh, and to keep it all in perspective...this is after all, a self imposed journey of suffering.
Throughout all of this I was still keeping my thoughts and conversations exclusive to actually thinking about the finish line. I was not allowed that luxury just yet. That all changed when we hit Highway 49, at 93.5 miles/150.5km. Another hug from my Father, the look of pride in his eyes as he watched me hobble step by step over the final distance of this course, the knowledge that in just 5.4 more miles I'd get to walk hand in hand with him for just over one mile to The Place High School Track and the end of my self imposed torture. This combined with the fact that I had positioned myself with just over 3.5hr to accomplish this goal had finally allowed me to accept there were no other options now, I was going to get myself a Silver Belt Buckle!!
Getting the body to move again after a ten minute eating break at Hwy 49 was no easy task. My blisters had awoken with a fury as they tried one last time to halt my forward progress and I hobbled out of the flood lit aid station and back into night lit only by my Apex headlamp. The trail after Hwy 49 drops away for over three miles until hitting 'No Hands Bridge' at 96.8m/156km. The downhills were what hurt the most and this section would end up being the most painful of the entire day. I had to walk backwards, sideways and every which way but forward. I kinda walked like a super slow motion Tasmanian Devil...and with 1/10 the energy and 1/100th the excitement!
The End Is In Sight!
From 'No Hands Bridge' to the finish was only 4km, mostly flat with one 'decent at that point in the race' climb. The uphills were my 'strength' at this point. I could actually hold a slightly faster than completely stationary pace, albeit while feeling my heal blisters with each and every step. I used the adrenaline from this pain to pump through this section so as to end my misery as quickly as was possible. At 'Robie Point' with but 2km to the finish line we were all reunited again. Ryne Melcher, my Montrail teammate, bestest training partner, and incredible friend out of North Vancouver. Luke Laga, who had now hiked through the night with me for almost eight hours without running a single step. He who had flown out from Wisconsin on his own his own dime just to be a part of it all, and to help ensure success for me along the way. And of course my Dad, who was initially concerned he would not be able to keep up with me for the final few hundred meters around the finishing track, were all hand in hand. The pavement hurt, but no more or less than everything else I had dealt with over the last 20+ miles to get here.
We could see the track, the lights, the crowds...we were about to put to rest what would be one of my greatest personal triumphs. I did not, for a single second, contemplate dropping out...and now I was here, fulfilling my initial goal from a full year prior. I had qualified for WS by flying to Wisconsin in November, I held practically singular focus towards the race for over six months, managed to piece together one of the greatest and most selfless crews a guy could ever dream of, and as a group, we were about to collect a singular belt buckle for one individual. I am forever indebted to each of them for helping me to achieve this solitary objective.
I had dreamed of how I would cross the line at WS for months on end, mentally envisioning how it would all go down, where I would be in the overall pack, and how I would celebrate once I rounded the track at Placer High. This was NOT how I had envisioned my finishing of the 2009 Western States 100 miler...it was, in all honesty, far better than I could have ever could have imagined. I was done. By every possible definition of that word, in every single language upon this planet. I was done. WE had reached our collective goal. Mission accomplished.