Saturday, July 10, 2010
Western States Endurance Run Part 2
It’s been my experience that the shorter the period of time between finishing a race and writing the report the more effective in capturing the essence of the event. Since the WSER I’ve been balancing recovery with our family vacation to Yosemite, San Fran, Redwood Forest, Crater Lake, Oregon Coast, Mt Ranier and Seattle.,,so I took notes the day after WS which have now disappeared somehow on our travels, so here we go. There’s just no way around it, this is a long race report.
We arrived at Squaw Valley on Thursday and settled in at the Squaw Valley Lodge which is a stone’s throw to the pre-race activities and starting line. Amie’s aunt and uncle welcomed her and the girls for the night to their place on Lake Tahoe affording me the luxury of a peaceful night’s sleep.
WSER is steep in ultra running history and is the 100 miler that attracts some of the best around to compete against one another. I decided months ago that I wouldn’t let the hype of the event be a distraction, but to use it in my favor. After all, regardless of the popularity of the event I still had to be prepared to traverse 100 miles across the Sierra Nevadas. Friday morning I decided to soak in the atmosphere at picturesque Squaw Valley while checking in, going through the standard pre race medical check, picking up some sweet swag and finalizing drop bags for delivery. At 1:30 I attended the mandatory pre-race meeting, delivered by Tim Twietmeyer, 5 time winner of the race. Per tradition, the top 10 men and women runners were brought front and center and introduced. Between my daily cup of coffee, the energy of the meeting, and the anticipation of the race, I think I had enough energy to carry me 100 miles.
After issues with connecting flights, my pacer from CT, Steve Nelson, arrived just prior to Amie and the kids. Steve was excited to be at Squaw and part of the event. I gave Steve a tour of the starting area, Olympic village, etc..before a pizza dinner with the crew. The kids quickly gave their approval of Steve after meeting him for the first time by awarding him “cool” status.
My goals and plan for the race: I went in confident that if I could manage the heat, only two things could prevent me from finishing within the 30 hour cut off time, 1. Injury, 2. Deviating from my nutrition plan and putting myself in a deficit that I couldn’t climb out of. My plan was to move well early before the heat of the day would naturally slow me down. Focus on what I’d need heading into aid stations, get what I needed quickly, and get out. The goal was to move at a controlled pace, take what the day would give me, and hope that this would put me in a position to finish in less than 24 hours.
Saturday morning Amie and I headed over to the start area, took some pictures, and met up with Steve who introduced me to Michelle Roy from Massachusetts. After some brief comments by Tim Tweitmeyer and Gordy Ainsleigh we counted down from 10 and we were off and running.
The first 4+ miles took us up about 2,500 feet of climbing to the top of Squaw Valley (elevation 8,700 feet) where we were greeted by many photographers and a handful of spectators looking with intensity and amazement, as though they were watching a train wreck or car accident. Once at the top I looked back for a quick glimpse of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley, quite amazing. An alternate route was used for the next 10 miles or so as the traditional course was not passable due to excessive amount of snow in the Sierra’s this year and slower than usual melt. Even though the alternate route was used there was no shortage of snow on the course as the next several miles were spent slipping and sliding on the white stuff. I was very focused on my footing and the snow covered trail through the high Sierras as if a mistake was made in certain areas, it could be your last. When I had the opportunity to look up at the massive high Sierras around me I was in awe. I cannot adequately describe the sights and to say they were beautiful and majestic would be vast understatements. The snow melt caused creek and stream levels to be high and the first of many knee high crossings came early..only another 24 miles or so before my first shoe change.
Around mile 20 as the heat started working its way into the day and I descended down into Duncan Canyon I felt an unusual strain in my right lower quad. Moving about 30 minutes ahead of the 24 hour pace, I pressed on through a section that for miles showed the effects of a devastating forest fire from a few years ago. Based on the increased discomfort in my quad and the fact that I had over 75 miles to go it became real that I may be headed toward my first DNF (did not finish). I didn’t train for months, travel this far, etc…to DNF. I took off my wool arm warmer and tied it around my leg giving some compression and relieving some of the pain. I threw all thoughts of a sub 24 hour finish out the window and set my focus on being able to finish.
The climb out of Duncan Canyon brought me to Robinson Flat, mile 30, where I would be weighed for the first time by medics, see my family, and access a drop bag. During the climb up I encountered the unusual contrast of hot temps and running on snow. As I approached the aid station a volunteer alerted other volunteers of my arrival which prompted them to greet me while holding onto my drop bag. A volunteer stayed with me the entire time as I changed shoes, etc..to make sure I had everything I needed…the volunteers were amazing.
I downplayed my quad issue with the medics, while asking them if they could be of assistance. After they said they could not help my situation, the conversation with the head medic went something like this:
Medic – Have you ever run this race before?
Me – No
Medic - You’ve got over 21,000 feet of decent left in this race that can do a number on healthy quads. The next 13 miles are all downhill.
Me - I realize what’s ahead as I’m very familiar with the layout of the race.
Medic - You can always come back next year. (Based on the look on my face he knew I wasn’t considering stopping as an option). Do you have any ibuprofen on you?
Me – Yeah
Medic – Take one and see how you do.
As I headed out of the aid station I saw Amie and the girls for the first time. They took a few pictures, I downplayed my issue, grabbed some kisses and moved on.
I don’t typically use ibuprofen on runs, but brought some in case of need, and was glad I did. After taking one, and saying a prayer, I continued forward. The next 13 miles were downhill and would be a test of my leg’s condition. It became brutally hot and I started making use of my “cool off bandana” by filling it with ice at the aid stations and tying it around my neck. In addition, I took advantage of the ice water at the aid stations by having the designated volunteer squeeze some out of a sponge over my head and neck at each stop. AHHH…What a relief. Ice cold never felt so good. Before long my quad wasn’t bothering me at all and I stopped thinking about it.
Steve was at Dusty Corners, mile 38, we talked a bit and I asked him to bring his ibuprofen for when we met at mile 62.
Mile 44 brought me to the first steep canyon with a descent of about 2,000 feet over a couple of miles, I thought it would never end. I felt really strong on the 2,000 foot climb back out as I saw others really suffering. All the hill training was paying off and I was making up some time. After the climb up to Devil’s Thumb it was time to head into another steep canyon, El Dorado creek. This canyon’s steep down slope brought back the quad pains but wasn’t an issue as I climbed strong on the 2,000 ft climb out. Another ibuprofen took the edge off but the pain was here to stay.
As I headed towards Michigan Bluff (mile 56) aid station I started to see spectators and soon recognized Amie and the girls who ran with me into the aid station. The girls enjoyed sponging ice water over my head before heading out to continue the journey. Pain has been manageable. Not far off the 24 hour pace and am wondering if I can hold it together long enough to give it a shot.
Overall I was pleased with my nutrition plan over the course of the race. I drank about 40 oz of fluids (water, Accelerade, pepsi) per hour from the beginning of the race until evening when the temps cooled. One S Cap per hour until the heat of the day, and then 2. I consumed one gel per hour and ate mostly fruit at each aid station as nothing else appealed. Each of my 5 drop bags contained an Ensure that was reluctantly consumed. My weight hardly changed at all over the course of the race which is a good indicator of hydration, etc…
The first sign that I was headed out of the remote wilderness of the first 60 miles came as the faint sounds of cars entered. Before long I was on an asphalt road and received a boost as Amie and the kids surprised me by running with me about a half mile into the Foresthill School aid station where I’d be meeting up with Steve who would run with me to the finish.
Being the easily accessible aid station for crew, etc.. and the location where pacers could join in it was alive with activity, people, an emcee announcing us as we came in, and some loud tunes. Feeling some hotspots I took the time to coat my feet with Vaseline. I was rejuvenated as I headed out of the aid station with Steve at about 7:15, and mile 62. On our way out I met Scott S, a local who’s new to ultra running and decided to volunteer (on his birthday) at the race when an injury prevented him from pacing me.
I think Steve was glad to finally be on the trails, I was re-energized by him joining in, and the next several miles were fairly runable, so at Steve’s suggestion, and my agreement, we picked up the pace and decided to make good time before dark. We must have passed about 30 over the stretch of the next 10 miles.
Eventually we hit some steep down slopes that where I experienced excruciating pain and could barely even walk down, let alone run. Runners gave encouragement as they passed by. You got it, another ibuprofen, this time without much of an impact. It was clear that any downhill that was more than gradual would be an issue. I was still moving OK on the flats and climbing strong on the up hills.
All day I had been referencing a pace chart that showed how close I was to a 24 hour target, which was based on actual experience of prior years runners. Being a bit behind I decided to ignore the chart of what others had done and focus on the time and miles remaining, realizing I still had a shot at 24. With about 28 miles left, if I could do well on the flats, stay strong on the climbs, suffer and endure the downs, and average a 15 minute pace, 7 hours would get me to Placer High School in time. Several scenarios could occur…I could give it a go, work like hell and if energy levels fell too much and fatigue increased substantially, or my leg gave issues on flats and climbs a 15 minute pace may be unrealistic. Do I want to bust my butt for 7 hours and have this happen? I could ease off the pace, suffer less, and finish the race in about 25 hours or so. Or I could give it a shot with the hopes of holding it together and put myself in position to get it done. This is Western States and I’m not planning on coming back, I’ve got a shot at 24, time to seize the opportunity, the decision was easy. I made up my mind and was determined. “Steve, we’re gonna do it.”
I continued to suffer on the downs as it was difficult to put weight on my right leg. I hobbled down to the rubber boat that waited for us and took us across the Rucky Chucky river. The crossing is usually done on foot, but due to high water levels the race director decided this to be too unsafe. My feet had sore spots on the bottoms but I decided to pass on a change of shoes and socks and lube that sat in my drop bag on the far side of Rucky Chucky, as I didn’t want to waste valuable time.
As we headed up to Green Gate at mile 80 someone was heading towards us, obviously going the wrong way, when I heard “Bruce? Is that you?” A surprise visit from Amie. I gained new energy when she told me how good I looked (lie when you need to) and told me of all the family and friends tracking my progress all day. She asked “How are you doing?”…”Not so great, but I’m gonna do it.” Goodbyes and off we went.
The final 20 miles were down right ugly. I didn’t feel like eating, but wasn’t nauseas, and dry heaves entered the picture. They became more frequent and wouldn’t/didn’t go away. I noticed that I was involuntarily moaning and groaning. I guess my body was staging a revolution. After a while I gave up trying to resist as it was using too much energy. As fatigue increased I had to fight harder and harder to keep the pace. I became clumsy like a child learning to walk as crossing streams that I’d normally skip right across became a big challenge. My poor night vision, weakening light, combined with my zombie like state caused several instances of kicking rocks and stumbling, sending “electric shockers” through my body, zapping energy.
I just wanted it to be over and quitting wasn’t an option. I recalled Mark’s motto that kept me moving “the quicker you run, the quicker you’re done”.
Steve honed in to my needs, having me try different strategies to address the dry heaves, and taking in some water seemed to help. He made sure I ate at the aid stations and realized watermelon seemed to be working best for me. At future aid stations he’d immediately ask for watermelon, and eventually voiced his disappointment that many didn’t stock the magical fruit. Without warning I”d feel ice water being poured over my head and neck, a welcome relief. Steve consistently built confidence and gave hope, “you can do this.” He literally picked me up after a fall that landed me on my back. He was my crutch to lean on for the steep down hills. We were very efficient entering aid stations to minimize time as he’d fill bottles, I’d grab so food and continue on, Steve would meet up with me with my bottles heading out. We battled together for hours.
During the final miles Steve stayed out front trying to pull me along while repeating “come on Bruce, dig deep, give it everything you’ve got” and I kept mumbling “I’m coming, we’re gonna do it” trying to convince myself and to reassure Steve that I was giving all I had.
We didn’t stop at the No Hands Bridge aid station at mile 97 as time was tight…I recall one of the volunteers making a comment as though time was too short and my odds weren’t good. Steve kept pulling, we hit a steep uphill and I kept pushing as hard as I could. I remember skipping the last aid station at mile 98.9 where the workers rallied behind me, yelling encouragement, they were fantastic. We finally hit the road with one mile left and 10 minutes to go. This was the first point at which I was confident we could get in under 24. I opened up my gate and felt like I was in a sprint as Steve kept coaxing reminding me “no walking, you gotta run to the finish”. We soon experienced an uphill that was worthy of power walking but I knew it wasn’t an option. I told myself it was just another early Tuesday morning hill run at Soapstone with the fellas and ran it about as hard as I could. After some flats we turned the corner in the dark and could see the high school track and finishing line when we heard some voices. Amie and the girls were waiting and joined us as I ran as hard as my broken body would allow, arriving on the track as they announced my name. With a half lap left I looked at my watch realizing that we’d get in under 24. My pains and discomforts existed but took a back seat as I reveled in the moment putting a finish to our journey. Amie and the kids peeled off to the infield, I thanked Steve and told him this wouldn’t have happened without him, and gave him a fist pump as he peeled off. I gave a victory shout as I approached the finish, kissed my hand and jumped as high as I could (about 2 inches) to place it on the clock overhead that read 23:57:11. Upon finishing, Tim Twietmeyer placed a finisher’s medal around my neck, gave congratulations and said “another east coaster does it”, a reminder that not many “east coasters” have come in under 24 over recent years.
Coming to a stop after running for 24 hours is an unusual sensation. I sat in one of the folding chairs at the finish line as my transponder that tracked my location during the day was removed. I was asked by one of the race officials if it was OK if one of the local television stations could interview me. I conceded, the camera was on and I remember speaking but cannot remember any details. Given my mental state I’m sure my time on the evening news was quite amusing.
Pre race I had agreed to take part in the hyponatremia testing which required a blood draw to test my sodium level. I waited quite a while for the draw and the results but was fairly content just sitting, completely overwhelmed. My sodium levels were in line and we headed back to the hotel in Auburn after a medical check and advice to monitor kidney function due to some urine concerns.
After a shower, brief rest, and some conversations with friends on the east coast, we headed over to the awards ceremony. Runners, crews, and supporters sought out space under various tents to gain protection from the sun which brought 100 degree heat. We didn’t realize it but were quite early for the ceremony. Scott S came by, I introduced him to Amie, the girls, and Steve. We chatted as Scott presented me with some local N Cali microbrews, local fruit, and a WS shirt. He’s one heck of a guy. As we waited, about 40 minutes past the 30 hour cutoff, a runner drew attention as he entered the track with his pacer. It was Gordy Ainsleigh, age 63, who started the race 36 years ago. He deservingly was greeted to quite an ovation from spectators as the 30 hour time cut off had passed, Gordy wasn’t finished or giving up.
Like many, I was withering in the heat, and after being out there over 2 hours, 1 hour into the ceremony, and no sign of the sub 24 hours being called, I couldn’t endure any longer and had to get out of the heat and get some rest. Amie worked with Scott S and retrieved the impressive silver belt buckle.
The couple of days that encompassed the WSER were quite the experience. I’ve never suffered so much and worked so hard. My family, Steve, and I had quite the adventure. I greatly appreciate all of their support and will be forever grateful for the miles with Steve.