I wasn't supposed to be on the starting line of Western States 2010, yet I knew months in advance that I'd somehow find myself there.
I am a stern believer in fate, destiny, and serendipitous moments, almost to a flaw really. I could tell you stories of how I ended in in New Zealand for New Years Millennium based upon a case of strawberries, or how I traveled Central America for a year based upon a banana's country of origin, or the confidence I found prior to HURT in January due to a bumper sticker. A rather innocuous string of events one morning led me to belief with absolute confidence that I would indeed be attending 'The Big Dance' in June one way or another. I did myself no favors however, finishing third at Mountain Masochist in November, and DNF'ing Miwok in May. At the very last minute though, Montrail ended up with a few unfulfilled sponsored slots in their lap and hence I discovered that my belief in such seemingly random occurrences was once again confirmed to be truth.
If you don't know the back story to my lead in to Western States it goes something like this...I ran 98 miles in the entire month of May because my vitals were low and I was borderline anemic. Thirty of those miles were during my actual race in San Francisco on May 1st. After my DNF at Miwok I took three full weeks off, then eased back into a few weeks of running before 'tapering' back down for the race. Once you factor in a taper leading into the Miwok 100k you could basically say I tapered for two full months into Western States. However, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had done everything in my own power to ensure a successful race down in Squaw Valley. Though my body may not have been hardened through mass mileage in the final eight weeks before the race, I had energy the likes of which I had not possessed in months and my legs had spring in them for the first time all year. I headed to California with a plan and a silent confidence in my absolute ability to pull it off.
"Oh you know, I just want to have a positive race experience. I just want to run smart and see what happens. I'm in the race, I might as well give it a go. I won't do anything stupid. I know I'm not primed to do much down there. I've got nothing to loose though and I'll call it a day if I feel like it's the wrong thing to be doing."
These were my standard answers to people whenever I was confronted with the usual 'why on earth would you even attempt a 100 mile race after such little mileage and so much down time.' Inside though I knew I was feeling good. I knew my body was rested and ready to explode. I knew I'd been smart, recovered well, and was genuinely feeling like a runner with a purpose again. I knew I'd have a great race weeks before I even made the journey to the starting line.
In 2009 I raced like the inexperienced idiot I was. I thought I'd finish top three in my second ever 100 miler and first ever WS. I went for it, paid a price, and limped, literally, to the finish line. I hit the river crossing in 8th place and finished the race in 49th. I had learned some harsh lessons, but most of all I felt like I'd 'paid my dues' to the course. I walked the final twenty miles to the finish and if nothing else, at least I knew every single root, rock, and turn that I'd have to conquer to have a successful second shot at the thing. I had the entire 100 miles in my head, and I knew exactly how I had to run it to be successful.
5am...the gun explodes and excitement is palpable!
I got caught up in the hype last year and blasted over the first climb up The Escarpment. This year I simply stared in awe as a string of silhouettes sprinted silently on ahead. I was back around 35th over the first climb and took solace in the fact that I was positioned around such WS veterans as AJW and Erik Skaden. Once we crested the climb I was taken aback by how incredibly cold it was. I suffer from raynauds circulation issues and the stiff breeze removed all dexterity from my hands for the next few hours.
We knew in advance that this was a 'snow year' and sure enough we had miles of the white stuff to slip and slide over. It did nothing but favor me though, being a Canadian and all. I was slowly making my way through the field when I turned a corner and saw a pack of ten runners streaming along. All were people I recognized as being very talented and efficient, yet there was little evident snow experience amongst the grouping. I was very easily able to pass the entire pack in a short span, and as I turned an additional corner I was almost brought to laughing out loud. Three runners were very literally sliding backwards while trying to ascend a snow slope. I took one look, saw a clear route just off to the side of the snow, scurried on up, across the top and left them behind. All the lead slider said to me was,
"Huh, so that's how it's done!"
As we slowly left the snowline behind us I found myself ahead of where I wanted to be so early in the race, so I backed off and allowed a grouping of runners to catch up and surpass me. I just kept telling myself to stay relaxed, not force anything, and to try to forget that I was even in a race to begin with. I had some great conversations with some incredibly kind people and the terrain ambled along below our feet.
As mentioned, it being a snow year, the course had to be slightly altered and we found ourselves passing through two new aid stations at Talbot Creek and Poppyhead. For miles on end I tried my absolute best to dance around the water/mud features and keep my feet dry. I was succeeding for the most part till we came to a full on river crossing. Shortly after this I lost my shoe in a pile of mud! First time my shoe has come off like that in years and I had to laugh as a few people passed me. This was in no way, shape, or form similar to my experience just one year earlier.
I hit Poppyhead Aid Station in 12th with a time of 2h43m. I was completely shocked to learn that the leaders were but seven minutes ahead, with Anton's grouping only five minutes up! It was enough to make me feel like I needed to back off the gas a bit, even though I knew I'd been very conservative up until that point.
As we departed Poppyhead we started down a flatish forest service road, which would filter us onto a mile of pavement and eventually a singletrack undulating trail around a lake. I was in a talented grouping of runners but a few hundred meters up was Canadian Glen Redpath. I had picked Glen in advance of the race for the Master's win/top ten. Considering he ran a 14h23m 100 miler earlier in the year, and has a wealth of experience, I trusted that he 'knew what he was doing' and I made the decision to put in a surge and bridge up to him. As I closed the gap he shoulder checked and I simply said,
"Hey Glen, just me, mind if I tag along?"
The trail around the lake was my kinda running. Constant undulation to keep the leg muscles entertained, and beautiful scenery to keep the mind distracted. Outside of Glen slipping on a rock and ending up fully submerged in a small river crossing we blew through this section without issue. My body however, was officially acting up for the first time.
During my last real mileage weeks in early April I was starting to find a double lower abdomen pain that was becoming increasingly harder to ignore. Once I tapered, dnf'ed, and stopped running the pain disappeared. TA DA! Problem solved right...ahh, not so much. Here I was just over 3hr into a 17hr excursion and it was the worst it had felt it all year. My mind of course started to play with this,
"Oh well. That's about right I guess, 3hr would be one of your longest runs in the last six weeks. I'm not surprised really. Everyone knew you'd fall apart out here today. I think even you knew deep down that you couldn't pull this off. Might as well slow down and call it a day G. You can probably cheer people on from Foresthill..."
And HERE is where I KNEW definitively that I was back to my old self and pretty much recovered from my energy issues...
"Ya know what Gary...FUCK YOU! Quit yer fucking bitchin and focus on the task at hand. OF COURSE IT HURTS, you're approaching a marathon distance for running already. It's supposed to hurt, GET OVER IT!"
And with that, the pain very honestly ceased within minutes...and I went back to enjoying the beautiful terrain we were flying over.
Upon arriving at the Duncan Canyon aid station we pretty much deduced this years course to be about twenty minutes faster than the regular route. This was confirmed numerous times post race with people as well. As we started into Duncan Canyon Glen and I dropped the one other runner present with us and upon climbing out of the slight canyon we found ourselves playing in the white stuff again. Eventually we rolled through Robinson Flat (30miles) to see our crews in a time of 4h31m now running in 10th/11th. This was further up than I thought I'd be at that point in the race, but I knew I was running well within myself.
I had an awesome crew and I can't thank them enough! Phyllis Lum and Wendell Doman of Coastal Trail Runs, THANK YOU SO MUCH for your help with everything!! Your positive energy and focus on getting me out of each aid station as quickly and efficiently as possible was priceless to me on the day.
Glen and I departed simultaneously and we went to work finding traction in the snow once again. As we crested our short ascent and turned into the first sizable descent of the race I started to gap Glen. I was staying completely conservative but downhills are usually my bread and butter and I figured if I knew I wasn't taxing my legs whatsoever that I had to roll with it.
I eventually passed a few more runners and was surpassed by Phil Kochik. I knew Phil from running around Mt. Hood with him and a few others last fall. I had Phil in my top eight picks pre-race, as he had performed at WS before. I figured it worthwhile to match his pace and we ran close to one another for the better part of the next four hours. It's funny to even say something like that...to run with someone in the middle of a race for 4hr's...funnier still to say it made up less than 25% off our time on course. Hundred milers really are a peculiar event that attract an even more peculiar bunch...me included I guess.
It was as we dropped into our first real canyon, on our way past 'Last Chance', now 45miles into the race, that I started to face my first real issues. I ALWAYS have right leg problems, usually based around my ankle, but for the first time in recent memory I was having LEFT leg problems AND for the first time ever I was having knee pain, coupled with decent ankle pain. My first thought was,
"This sucks, wtf!"
"Meh, at least it's my left side and not the right side. It can't be that bad if I've never felt it before!"
And that was it. I stopped processing that my knee was surging with pain upon every single stride that I completed down into the canyon. All I was really thinking at that point was,
"Just survive the canyons. Just survive the canyons. Just survive the canyons."
The knee pain never stopped, I just had bigger things to worry about! (four days after the race it finally subsided)
At the bottom of the canyon I heard AJW come screaming down the trail like he'd been shot out of a cannon, then I passed Phil as he was horizontal and completely submerged in a pool of water just off the trail. Ten seconds after this Phil came burning past as he had decided that he was going to run the entire climb up to 'Devil's Thumb'. Personally I was 'just trying to survive the canyons' and I went about power hiking the entire thing. I kept shoulder checking but did not catch another glimpse of AJW.
Towards the top of the climb Montrail's Jesse Malman was manning a video camera. He was filming me and asked how I was doing. Even while power hiking up the climb I was finding myself in a bad state. The heat was rolling in, but it was nowhere near as hot as 09 and realistically was nothing to complain about. My energy levels however had evaporated and all I could muster in response was,
"I just hit a wall"
Survive the canyons, survive the canyons, survive the canyons...
I crested out of Devil's Thumb and then began the arduous descent back down towards El Dorado Creek. Up until that point I knew I'd been fueling properly. I knew I'd been pacing properly, and if anything I really felt like I was taking it a bit too slow on the descents. More than anything I just wanted to finish strong and since I was currently in 9th place I really felt no need to unleash and risk consequence. The low I hit coming out of Devil's Thumb really did scare me, but thankfully it lasted only ten to fifteen minutes and as I popped out of El Dorado and into Michigan Bluff my spirits were significantly bolstered...I'd survived the canyons! At least the main canyons that really beat me down one year earlier.
For the second time in the race I got to see my awesome crew and after hitting up another mandatory weigh in (I stayed fully consistent within 1/2 pound all day long) I did a full clothing change. I was sopping wet and to put on dry clothes felt like a rebirth of sorts. I bounded outta there like a newborn deer and exactly one hour later I picked up my pacer, teammate Matt Hart, at Foresthill, seeing my crew for the third time.
Only 60km-38miles / 7hr left to go...
I had picked off Phil leading into Foresthill and unfortunately knew his day was fully compromised. I was now in 8th and with twenty miles to go to the river crossing I heard Leigh Schmitt was twenty minutes up on me (turned out to be 23min). It gave me something to work towards.
Though we exchanged few words (10hr of running had left me desiring to expend as little additional energy as possible), Matt and I worked well together. As he simply stated,
"I'm just here to keep ya honest!"
Knowing what this section consisted of from last year made it no more pleasurable or tolerable. The river that you are aware you eventually have to ford is tantalizingly close and the sound of flowing water is constantly present. Contrast this with exposed sections of trail that made it the hottest portion of the day for me, along with the fact that you descend towards the river only to regain your lost ground time and time and time again and it really will only be remembered forever more as my least favorite part of the entire race!
The one thing I did vocalize to Matt was,
"Ya know Hart, I think it's about damn time that some of the runners in front of me start dropping out, or at least start slowing down a bit!"
I knew I was making good time and I was still attacking this section with a singular focus on conserving as much as possible for the final twenty miles. Aid station after aid station were confirming closer splits towards Leigh and what would then be seventh place!
With less than 1km to go to the river I spotted Leigh and his pacer just up ahead. We had taken over a full minute per mile out of them! As we hit the river itself I failed to notice that Leigh was sitting in a chair and thought he'd somehow beat me across the river. I filled my bottles, grabbed some gel, downed some coke and electrolytes and hoped in the boat for the crossing. (the river was too high this year to ford safely so a raft was utilized)
I popped out on the opposite side and kept on moving,
(that's Matt catching back up in the red jersey)
Hal Koerner was standing in the river as I exited the boat and I now found myself sitting in sixth place overall! I knew what the climb up to Green Gate consisted of, and though I very well could have run it, I just wanted to power hike it so that I was fully ready to close out the final 20 miles the way I knew I could. Since I had no idea what was going on behind me I was fully surprised with Glen Redpath came flying past on the climb. I hadn't seen him in hours and though I was confident I'd catch him again, it left me wondering what else may be going on back there? I kept telling myself that in a field like this you are never safe. You have to stay the wolf the entire time, for the sheep get eaten alive, and at this point in last year's race the vultures were already pecking my eyeballs out!
Matt kept trying to get me to run the climb, probably more because he knew I could have, but I resisted the temptation. I had taken on some blisters shortly before I picked Matt up at 62miles and there was one on each ball of my foot, along with a few on my toes. Ain't nothing you can do about em so I never vocalized this to Matt. There's nothing worse than someone constantly saying,
"How are your blisters doing?"
"Oh yeah, I'd forgotten about them...thanks..."
I've been there before and I know what it consists of. Twenty minutes, ignore, ignore, ignore. They're never quite as dramatic as you think they are once you remove your socks anyways!
Again at Green Gate I saw my crew, again they were great!
I thought I saw Glen in a chair as I departed Green Gate but I was mistaken for five miles later I caught a runner and was surprised to see that it was Glen himself. Here I thought I'd been chasing for 5th and I was simply pulling back into 6th.
It was great having Glen along this late in the run and though we ran directly with each other less than earlier in the race we most certainly helped push each other along. Glen kept asking about AJW, since they were in the master's fight against one another, but I hadn't seen AJW since before Devil's Thumb and I couldn't understand his genuine concern. Upon referencing the splits I was truly shocked to see how many runners were right behind me as I hit the river crossing. I can't help but wonder what mental battles would have ensued had I been just two minutes slower hitting the boat and hence been swallowed up by a small chase pack...ignorance turned out to be complete bliss as I was still only running my race and hadn't been influenced one ounce all day long!
I was using music in a race for the very first time...and it honestly made a HUGE difference! My blisters were acting up, the body was shutting down, and there was under fifteen miles to go. I was in an all out battle with Glen and though he openly said he wasn't competing against me, rather trying to outrun AJW, we both knew that 6th was better than 7th and which ever one of us hit the tape first could claim to be the first Canadian runner on the day. In my own head,
"Ain't no damn way I'm running for 17hr out here to be the SECOND Canadian across that finish line!"
Me to Matt,
"Do you mind if I plug in and tune out right now? I need to zone out in a hurry!"
I was running with one ear bud all day and when I put both in it pretty much took me to another world! I could no longer hear my breathing or my footsteps. I'd been running for the better part of fifteen hours. I was stating to feel more like I was floating down that trail than actually propelling myself. Everything still hurt, but it just hurt less. A Foo Fighters song kicked in and I actually played air guitar for a bit. It was such a magical distraction from the absolute pain of that moment.
Eventually the ear phones would come out as I hit an aid station and after but a ninety second break my blisters would not allow me to exit any aid station running. I had to pound me feet a few times first to accept what was forthcoming. Inevitably Glen would arrive at an aid station just behind me, transition faster and pass me, and then I would catch up and pass him again a few minutes later. It was a true race, a test of wills this far on, and I was loving it.
I knew where I was going to make my move. I knew where I was going to take sixth place for good and hold it until the line. Having hiking the course last year was one of the best things I could have done.
We departed Highway 49 in unison, donning headlamps for the very first time. There was but 6.5 miles to go in our 100 mile odyssey. I was a step in front this time, and I had taken enough supplies to carry me through to the finish. I wasn't about to stop at either of the two remaining aid stations and allow my blisters the better of me once again. We headed into a slight climb, which filtered us out into a flat meadow before what I vividly remembered to be an excruciatingly steep descent to 'No Hands Bridge' from last year. Truth be told it's not that bad, but at 95 miles into a race it's just steep enough that if your legs are toast it's a little slice of hell on earth.
I knew my quads were fine, in fact by that point in the race I knew I'd played my descents a bit too conservative all day long. It didn't matter though, I was about to finish Western States exactly how I had dreamed of doing...while actually running!
I laid into that descent like I was running a five km time trial on completely fresh legs. I simply let loose because I knew that I could. There was one switchback half way down where you could look back along the route. I could see Glen's headlamp already 300 meters back. My blisters were now screaming for mercy and that went through my head was,
"Don't tell me this hurts! This feels too damn good to hurt dammit! This is what you came for, this is what it's all about, this feels f@#king amazing! You're about to snag sixth place at Western States!!"
I blew through NHB aid station, simply yelling my number as I pulled out one ear bud and confirmed they heard me. Across the bridge, shoulder check for lights, nothing, hammering up the final climb, my body full of adrenaline now. I felt no pain, I ran like a man possessed. I think I'd struggle to run that final climb as fast as I did at any point in time. I simply wanted this thing over with...and I wanted one more thing...
Some might think this completely trivial, and to that I say you are mostly right. The fastest ever Canadian time at Western States was way back in 1991 by local Knee Knacker legend Peter Findlay. He ran a 17h02m59s. I've known this 'Canadian Record' for quite sometime, and though I obviously have my goals set higher than just a frivalous Canadian Record it was still something that I was shooting for. I had a lengthy talk with Peter after my run last year and he told me a similar story from his first experience, followed up by the above time in his second running of the race. It made last years debacle a little easier to swallow. I knew from the time I hit Green Gate that I was on pace to challenge this time. I was honestly shooting for sub 17hr and I was going to leave everything I had left in me out on that course to try to snag it!
Through the final aid station at Robie Point, 98.9 miles down...one mile to go now. A tedious paved, uphill mile that I won't underestimate next year. I took out the music and tried to 'enjoy' the run in. Numerous locals were sitting on their decks cheering people on. I thought I could soak it all up but in all honesty I shut it down just a little too early and that final mile was a wee bit torturous!
PLEASE MAKE LET THIS END!
Onto the track now, three hundred meters to go. Just twelve months from the time that I couldn't even muster enough body strength to run around that track and now I was sprinting it in! I couldn't believe what I was about to finish...
(fourth fastest closing 20miles behind only Geoff, Tony, and Nick Clark)
(Photo set compliments of Glenn Tachiyama)
I had accomplished my goals, all of them.
-Finish the race
-HAVE FUN with it
-Give myself something positive to build upon leading into the 2011 version of the race
Finishing sixth overall means I automatically get to return again next year, and my goals for that race will be significantly different than they were this year. For now it's time to enjoy a break before the real work begins...