What a long strange road it has been.
(Skip below to the —— if you wish to skip this introduction)
For the last three years I have thrown my name into the Western States “bucket” in the off chance that I may be selected to run again. In early December it was an incredible honor, to have Gordy Ainsleigh himself, draw my name 8th overall from that bucket. Suddenly, I was going back to the Western States 100 (WS100) for a second time. I never actually thought I’d ever go back to the WS100 after the first time I ran it. We never do know how long we’ll run ultras, considering that the average lifespan of an ultra runner is 3-5 years. It has now been 7 since I last ran Western States and life is all kinds of different.
Consider if you will that since I ran Western States in 2010, I’ve graduated from college with a second degree, moved to Colorado, bought a house, had children, and.. in a weird twist of fate life has come full circle. I ran WS100 in 2010 to start my honeymoon. I ran 100 miles while my new bride crewed for me, and walked those final miles by my side from Robie Point. I chuckled when selected in December because I was in the middle of divorce proceedings, and would now be running WS100 as a newly divorced man. Life certainly does work in interesting ways.
Of course the next thing one may think about after getting in to WS100 is running in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. I immediately signed up for the VT100 as soon as I could. The next step was Leadville. I don’t need to rehash here what happened with Leadville other than to restate the fact that Leadville willingly and knowingly refused to let me in to their race despite promising (in writing) to let Grand Slammers automatically in. After 12 years in ultrarunning, 10 running 100s, and having finished Leadville in 2011.. I felt like I was a member of the ultra and Leadville Family Ken Chlouber so eloquently preaches about year after year at two miles high. I was crushed..
In February I went to Rocky Raccoon in Texas and ran a new personal best time for 100 miles of 20 hours and 18 minutes. During the race, I found out I got into the Wasatch 100 via their lottery. Thanks to some writing and prodding, we were also able to convince the Grand Slam committee to bring Old Dominion back into the Grand Slam fold in order to save the Grand Slam. But alas, at times life works in fickle ways. I couldn’t justify a trip to Virginia to run Old Dominion… as my divorced finalized at the end of March, my ex wife moved to Florida with our two young boys. I couldn’t justify a trip to Virginia to run another 100 miler and instead, elected to fly to Florida for Fathers Day to be with my sons. I like to think I’ve learned a lot more about “family” these last few months than Ken.
I wish I could say it ended there. Despite running an amazing Rocky Raccoon, life got real. As I said, my divorce was finalized and my ex moved to Florida taking our two young boys with her. I was a stay at home dad for 4 years and the emptiness that now exists in my life is huge. At the end of April, while travelling into the Colorado mountains to direct my version of the Barkley known as “Niwot’s Challenge,” I hit a patch of ice during a very late season snow storm, and my car careened up an embankment before hitting some trees and then rolling over onto its roof. I was not wearing a seatbelt. To this moment, I have no idea how I walked away from that accident with nothing more than a tiny scratch on my finger on me.
I wish I could say it ended there. In May I experienced even more loss in my life. None of which I can really discuss publically other than to say that love hurts and suddenly, life had become a whore. Those who have followed me for long enough now know that I have long struggled with bouts of major depression. In May I had sunk into the most challenging bout with it yet. I started new anti-depressant medication that ended up presenting me with almost every side affect it comes with. Loss of appetite, tremor/shaking, headaches, dizziness, increased heart rate, anxiety, days long episodes of insomnia, and random bouts of uncontrollable crying and fits of rage and anger that I would take out on others. I was not myself as May turned into June and ultimately sought the help I needed during what was supposed to be peak training week for Western States. I toed the starting line of a 50k on June 4th after a sleepless night thanks to an hours-long panic attack. Four miles into the race I fainted and crashed into the gravel face first. On that day, after 12 years of running ultras, I took my first ever 50k DNF.
My crew and I immediately had discussions about my deferring my WS100 entry to 2018. In 3 short months I had been through hell and back. Every single day is a challenge and it is all I can do to get through each and every one of them. Therapy has become a full time job. Training… training? What the hell is that?! Yet as my crew and I talked about what to do, I remembered who I knew I was. I ran a personal best at Rocky Raccoon in February, I missed a 100k personal best at Miwok 100k in May but ran a great race there. Having WS100 to look forward to was something that kept me going, it become a goal. Like that next aid station you look for in a race, WS100 was my next stop. I needed it. I needed to rise to the occasion, to show up in Squaw the strongest version of myself that I could possibly muster.. and not just for myself but for those who I love whose own struggles make mine seem tame. I needed to run Western States, I needed it to be a light in the middle of a dark tunnel. I needed it so that I can show myself the strength I still possess, and to show a very dear friend of mine, going through her own struggles, that I’m still here.
Finally, there is a bib number that I believe to be an ultimate honor to wear during a 100-mile run and that is of course bib number 100. When bib numbers for Western States came out, I went online to find mine and what I found stopped me in my tracks and brought me to tears. WS100 race staff personally assigned me bib #100, knowing full well all that I have been struggling through. Even as I write this, my eyes well up with tears and my heart strains. Perhaps this ultra “family” hasn’t forgotten me after all. Defer? Not bib #100.
So there I was, in Squaw Valley beneath a sweltering sun preparing to once again take on The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It was a real treat to be walking around Squaw during race check-in being able to see, and hug, so many family members. Just being here, standing beside the start line, wishing so many others well, reconnecting with folks some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. This WS100 felt different than the last time. Last time I was here I was a curmudgeon, sniveling about how much it cost to get in, annoyed with all the hoopla that surrounds the fast few, and generally unimpressed with being there. This time was different. For one, I’m happy to even be alive. I understand the reasons why it costs what it costs to get in and yes, it’s worth the $400. There are a lot of people who love to follow “the race” and even though I’m not one of them, I appreciate this aspect of our sport and the excitement it brings to something that may otherwise seem boring to most. Then there was simply the fact that I was at WS100 for a second time. I know many who just want to be here once, and to have the privilege of being here twice is amazing to me.
So I soaked in all of the experience that comes with a WS100 pre-race. I even had shots with Mark Gilligan, who owns Ultrasignup.com, as we sat and had a very real chat about life and ultra for well more than an hour. This conversation and time ended up being a highlight of the trip for me. Mark and I have been on The Ultra Listserv (an emailing list for Ultra runners) for over a decade, and we used to hate each other. Yet here we were, two men, laughing and enjoying liquor but also having a conversation that showed great care, respect, and empathy towards one another. If only all people could be so human, could be so respectful and loving, of one another. The night before the run I camped out in Truckee. My goal was to avoid having a panic attack. I took a call from my cousin around 7pm and for an hour, I strolled around the campground as she helped talk me through everything, and even put me in the right frame of mind. I am truly a lucky man. I even went to sleep at 9pm and slept straight through to the alarm going off at 3am.
It was chilly but humid in race morning as we all huddled around in Squaw, some waiting outside, some deep inside the ski lodge, and I found the in-between. The breakfast room where it was slightly warmer than it was outside yet that chilly air was still filtering its way in. The line for #2 at the men’s room was as ridiculous as ever and I was glad I didn’t have to go. I managed to find an open, lonely, and warm men’s room elsewhere on the resort on the way over to check in. I was set. I enjoyed conversation with a few different runners as we wasted time waiting for the race to start. Even though there were conversations had, I can’t tell you what any of them were about as my mind was decidedly elsewhere. I’m wearing a shirt with a pigeon with a huge heart on it, a personal homage to someone I love. The pigeon is carrying a white ribbon for lung cancer awareness, and a purple ribbon for Alzheimers awareness. I’m wearing a bracelet on my right wrist, knowing another has the matching one hopefully on theirs. In my hand is a post-it note that I’ve laminated, a handwritten note that means a lot to me as well as a personal email I received a few days prior that simply read “Have a great race.” All of these symbols are little pieces of love and life that I so desperately need, because standing on the starting line of the nations most prestigious 100-mile race, I know that I am about to need the most herculean mental effort I’ve ever put forth if I’m ever to find my way to the track in Auburn.
Before the race even starts, I have studied everything about this weekends race as I possibly could. I know temps are going to soar above 100 degrees, and I’m ready for it. I know on Squaw peak I’m going to face miles of deep snow, I’m ready for it. I know that there will be many runners around me trying to push their own pace, I’m ready to ignore them and run my own race. Whatever this race is about to throw at me, as with the last 5 months of life, I’m ready to take it on. I’m ready to star adversity in the face and show it my middle finger because I know, I know that there is nothing that will prevent me from getting to Auburn this weekend. There will be no deferring. There will be no quitting. There will be no bull shit here… there will be those two words from that Maya Angelou poem I have read many times so far in 2017… “Still I Rise.”
The gun goes off and we all head off on that first huge climb. I live at 6200’ so am feeling right at home. This surge of energy comes through me and I decide to take the hill by storm. I run when I feel like I can run, and power hike otherwise. My first goal was to try and shed the pack and get out of that huge first quarter-mile bottleneck. The next time I’d look back I was a little more than half way up Squaw and can see that I’ve positioned myself in the middle of the pack, right where I want to be. As the sun slowly continues to rise, Lake Tahoe makes its presence known. The fog below in Squaw explains the humidity at the start. Everything slowly starts to glow orange form the early morning alpenglow, and I for the first time during the race and welled up with emotion. I’m here. I’m home. I’m where I need to be.
About ¾ of the way up we finally hit the snow and it’s everywhere, and deep. It’s hardly snow anymore. It appears as thought they’re still grooming trails for skiers up high. It’s more like a hard pack “graupel field.” Right from the get go, it was easy to spot which runners are used to running in a snowy place, and which ones aren’t. You can also spot who lives at a lower elevation, and who lives at higher. I feel great and am still able to push on the little climbs up here, and I have very little trouble with the snow.. at first. After the escarpment we hit the final climb to the monument. There are a lot of people here, and they’re making a lot of noise and wishing us well. The sun is up now and I stop to put my headphones in and some music on. I finally get going on the other side and head for the Granite Chief Wilderness. Wild it would indeed be.
From the escarpment to Lyon Ridge is one of the biggest shit shows I have ever witness in ultrarunning. The snow was 8 feet deep in most places. Hard pack with a very slick top layer, runners spread out like it was the Annual White House Easter Egg Hunt, picking the ways which they felt safest on or most confident with. Tim Twietmyer had marked the course by leading us the way in which he would take. I figured we should trust Tim and in doing so, I agreed, he chose the best route. Didn’t make it any safer or any more “fun.” With runners being everywhere, it was a free for all. While I’m doing my best to stay upright, and to balance, I am also trying to avoid being taken out by runners that have lost their footing and are now careening down the slope from above. There were many runners who were coming to almost a complete standstill has they tip toed along the snow looking to keep their footing. It was bedlam. In all my years running ultras, I’ve never seen so much snow in an ultra outside of a snowshoe race. At one point I lost my footing and went for a downhill ride. I slid down on my right side and ended up in a tree well. Suddenly, as I stood up in this massive hole, I was hugging a tall pine tree completely surrounded by more than 7 feet of snow on all sides. As I climbed out, I gave a good chuckle as did some of the other runners around me. There are ultimately few words to describe the scene in the high country. The snow was deep and slick. If you weren’t comfortable on it, if you weren’t expecting it, you were ultimately wasting precious time and a lot of energy.
If that wasn’t enough, then came the next obstacle before us. The mud. This was something I was not expecting. I knew the route would be wet and I was expecting plenty of running water, which there was, but the mud was of epic proportions. Over the last few months I’ve heard runners come home from the Bear 100 in September, and more recently Bighorn, telling tall tales of hours of mud. I’m certain the mud at those races wasn’t knee deep. Yes… knee deep mud and it went on for miles. At times I wondered if there was a trail under us at all. The course varied back and forth between being deep snow and deep sloppy mud. At one point I sunk in up to my thigh and a huge glop of mud slung up and over my head, leaving a large splat on my glasses. It was all out insanity. A number of us would discuss later that the snow and mud up high cost us 30 minutes at least.. it ended up costing us much more than that, because as the race wore on the attrition of having to deal with all that we dealt with in the first 14 miles would ultimately take its toll.
At Red Star Ridge we were about through with the snow and mud. The closer we got to here the more sporadic the snow had become, it became more leftover snowdrifts and less a huge snowfield. Still taxing, still slick, still time and energy consuming. But the sun was out in full force now, and it was getting hot quickly. At Red Star I stopped and really took some time to get some food in me, fruit is my main fuel of choice for the day. Easy to consume and digest, sugar and water in it, and needed potassium. I found myself getting tangled up in a group of younger runners, all of which were running with just one bottle (huge mistake) and really pushing the pace across these ridges. It’s easy to want to keep pace with them, but I knew better, and I knew to run my own race. The sun really started to pump out the heat and I decided to slow it down a little bit and just run my own race.. take my time. It got hot, fast.
As I started to approach Duncan Canyon I was already starting to overheat. My legs were cramping badly. I started to wonder if I would even finish this damn thing, as my right quad had cramped up to the point of cramping up solid. It was a rock. When I looked down at my leg I could see it. It hurt.. and bad. I was stopping periodically to massage my quad with my water bottle, trying to do whatever I could to massage it out and trying to get the muscle to release. To no avail. So now I knew I was low on salt. At Duncan Canyon, they had strawberries. Friggin yum! I took a handful and was dunking the strawberries into the table salt. Yes, it was gross but I desperately needed the salt if I was going to get through these cramps and be able to push on. If I can’t get this muscle to release, I would undoubtedly never make it to Auburn. I was in trouble early.. but not panicking.
I left Duncan Canyon and run when I was confortable doing so, hiking otherwise. There are many creek crossings from here to Robinson Flat, where I knew my crew would be waiting. I took advantage of each and every creek. Dunking my hat, dunking my buff, throwing water onto my head and down my back. The main game was keeping cool and keeping moving. I was running mostly alone, probably because I had my headphones in, but having that music blaring was becoming annoying and taking more energy away than it was worth. (Trying to remember lyrics is a huge energy suck). So I ditched the music for the rest of the race. I climbed ever so slowly to Robinson Flat, stopping a few times to massage the quad out. Slowly it was starting to release, but it had been clenched for so long now that it was starting to feel more like a deep bruise. It was brutal, and painful.
At Robinson Flat I spotted my crew and I sat down to change my socks and shoes. I knew that from here to at least Rucky Chucky River Crossing I could keep my feet dry. So I put on the best shoes and socks I had. More fruit with salt. I ate potato chips. I had watermelon. I needed more. A volunteer offered me a hot dog and I gladly took it, hoping it didn’t end up being the gift that kept on giving. The amount of salt in that hot dog is exactly what I needed and I needed to keep it down. It worked out beautifully. As I pushed out of Robinson Flat, I was walking with race director Craig Thornley. We talked about the race a little bit, what we had heard about Walmsley getting through there, expectations, and even a little about how each of us was doing. We stayed close to each other for a little while before I ultimately let him go. He seemed stronger.
About Halfway to Miller’s Defeat I looked behind me and spotted someone else I knew.. it was Barkley Finisher John Fegy (I’m not going to try and spell his last name). Fegy amnd I spent some miles together heading into Miller’s. At the end of the race I mentioned to him how over the last decade, any time we’re run the same race we’ve managed to spend some miles together, and we always finish within an hour of each other. The most recent being Miwok in May. I was very happy that this would once again hold true. At Miller’s John left ahead of me, and I hung back to led a volunteer load a scoop of ice into my buff. The ice would rest on the back of my neck and this would become a constant for much of the rest of the race. By now it was over 100 degrees, 115 in the canyons. Some of the hottest temps ever seen at Western States. It was hot enough that 5 minutes after leaving the aid station, it didn’t even feel like the ice was there at all.
The next stretch features a lot of forest service road. The sun was literally blazing down on us. It was hot. Hotter than hot. There was very little shade and I made the conscious decision to just slow it all down. I was mostly walking now. Just picking my way through the heat. Running when I could but never pushing the pace. I was very careful to remain hydrated. I made sure that ice dripped down by back. I stopped at Dusty Corners for more ice, more ice in my bottles, and more fruit. I knew my body was working overtime to just stay cool, so I had to keep fueling it. Not so much to run, but to survive. This was now Badwater Heat. I’d run in some hot temps before but never anything like this. It was sweltering and everyone around me was starting to look more and more miserable. I caught up to Craig Thornley again on the way to Last Chance. He was marching and I asked if he was OK, he said, “Just having a little pity party..” of course with a smile. He looked better than I think he felt, but he had the right idea. We marched. We focused less on running and more on moving forward. Less on pushing and more on cooling. These next hours would be vital.
Finally, came Devil’s Thumb. I’d been looking forward to this climbing knowing how bastardly it is. It didn’t disappoint. I’d never seen so many runners laying down on the side of the trail. It looked like a triage. On the left and the right, they were laying down, sitting down. Some were throwing up. Most were wincing. I attacked the thumb methodically. One slow step at a time and just keep going. I knew that at the top there would be ice pops, that was my goal. With my hands on my hips I soldiered up that hill at a steady grind, looking forward to it just being over. At the top of Devil’s Thumb is more of the same, a triage. People are seriously suffering and I am thankful to be the only one up there that seems to be smiling and cracking jokes. I sat down in a chair and ate two popsicles and drank coke and ginger ale. After a bit of a break to regroup, cool down, and thinking about what’s next.. I said it to myself as I rose to my feet, “Still I Rise.”
On my way to Eldorado Creek I stopped to make a short 60 second video. In the video was explaining, to those who I am running for, what I had endured thus far… Snow fields, knee deep mud, 6+ hours of 100 degree heat, and lots of race left to go. I said in the short 60 second clip that I expected to finish between 26 and 28 hours and that I had no intentions of quitting. I mentioned keeping cool, staying fueled, and caring for my feet. As I got to Eldorado Canyon, I realized that I miscalculated my Tailwind zip locks in my waist pack. I was out. I asked them to fill my bottle with whatever Cliff drink they had, which tastes sour and little like Pinesol. From the creek it’s another long climb up and out of the canyon to finally reach Michigan Bluff. Without Tailwind, I was out of my race nutrition I was so heavily depending on. With each step I felt the wind going out of my sails. I was slowing down. My stomach was churning from the cliff and I was simply hungry.
When I got to Michigan Bluff, I was finally more than half way through the race. I felt awful. I was angry and annoyed. I was hungry. For some reason, this was the worst of the aid stations food wise. I went to the aid table and it felt like it had been picked over. They didn’t have much of substance. I wanted grilled cheese, bacon, quesadilla.. they have none of it. Frustrated, I went to my crew and changed my socks. Sitting in the chair they asked if I wanted another hot dog at Foresthill to which I gladly said yes. I ate more fruit, small pieces of a Turkey and Cheese sandwich. I drank some soda and got Tailwind back in my bottles. For the first time during the race I looked and felt like crap. I could sense some worry from the crew, and I was too. The good news was that the cramp in my right quad had finally let go. My muscles were now just sore, but nothing too terrible for 55 miles. I’d see my crew again in 7 miles where I’d pick up my pacer and I was looking forward to the company. I rose to my feet an continued on. I forgot how tough this section from the Bluff to Foresthill really is. You climb uphill before a short run down into Volcano Canyon. Once at the bottom of that, you climb again. This 7-mile stretch is mostly uphill and it was slow. The sun was setting, things were getting dark, and fast. Remembering back to 2010, I was behind the time I had left here back then. I wanted to get to Foresthill before needing a light and I just barely made it.
At Foresthill I stopped to eat another hot dog. The salt was needed. I had spent most of my day taking my time, working through some very intense heat, knowing that once the sun went down things would finally begin to cool off. I was looking forward to the cooler hours, and being able to push through some of the upcoming sections hoping to make up time. Of course, our plans versus the reality can sometimes be skewed in our imagination. To this point in the race, there were also a few times where I had become very emotional from the vision of reaching the finish line in Auburn. How much that moment would mean, what it would mean, who all was watching from afar.. it was almost too much to handle and there were a handful of times where I fought off the urge to breakdown and cry on the trail. The first 62 miles of the Western States 100 had been an all out personal war. Not only was this course throwing everything it had at us runners, but the mental game that I had been struggling through for many months now was throwing all it had at me. To this point, I’ve had some of my most trying miles ever in an ultra. A handful of times I wondered if I’d make it, if I had the strength to really push through all of this mentally just to get there. We all have our individual stories..
I left Foresthill with my pacer Jonathan Pope. Jon is a very good guy, training for Leadville which is to be his second 100-miler. He’s 25, so young for the sport, and still learning a lot about these longer distances. I’m very grateful to have such a positive young man by my side for the remainder of this event, especially everything that I’m not going through. Fatigue, both physical and mental, is starting to set in and “pushing” has become another word for persevering. It’s mostly downhill to Dardanelle’s and I’m running every step that I can. Pushing the pace and pacing other runners and their pacers. Dardanelles to Peachstone is a lot more challenging. That shift in the mental game going from feeling great, picking up the pace, and picking off runners, to struggling up and over countless pointless ups and downs. The race is getting real and my fatigue is slowly starting to catch up to me.
On the downhills I can push. I make up whatever time is lost while seemingly crawling up the uphills. Each time we get to an aid station now, Ford’s Bar being next, I stop and take a seat. I eat squares of grilled cheese. Chug broth and eat what little noodles I might get with it. I’m starting to leave the fruit. Soda is at a premium. Desperate to keep getting calories in yet, I’ve hit the place where nothing looks good at all. Jon and I leave Ford’s and push for the River. Along the way we talk about life, jobs, where we are and where each of us is headed. What we’re not happy with, what we wish was different, other people’s perceptions of us. It’s heavy speak, and a very personal conversation. I’m glad we had it but damn.. what a time and place to spend the energy. Finally, there it was.. the Rucky Chucky circus. We get into the aid station and grab whatever food we need. I try to go to the bathroom (#2) but I don’t even have the energy to push. Not like I really even have to go, I give up. This place is loud and bright. I just wanted to get out of there and get going. I hobble down to the river along the stone steps, my quads are screaming now. I get on my life vest, we get in the boat, and we’re whisked across. As much I so dream of the day that I can wade across this river (we used boats in 2010 too), this has to be one of the coolest things in ultrarunning. Once on the other side, we get out of our raft, and I am totally excited that my shoes are still dry.
We knew we’d be seeing Roger at the Green Gate, which is only 1.77 miles away. He’s right there! Yet, I forgot about the wall we must climb to get to him. In 1.77 miles, 77 miles into the race, we climb about 700 feet. Doesn’t seem like much on paper but in the flesh, it’s a nightmare. I really struggled on the climb and am slowing down a lot now. At Green Gate I sit in a chair and rest a bit. I’m sipping soda and soup. Jon is telling Roger and our volunteer that I’m not eating much. I’m drinking Tailwind, a race drink designed for you to not have to eat. Now I know better. We need something in our stomach and I’m getting whatever little things I can still stomach at this point in there, but I’m really fine. I’m starting to get frustrated, because I feel like I know what I’m doing but I’m being treated like I don’t.
From Green Gate to Auburn Lake Trails.. the shit finally hits the fan. I had worked so hard all day to keep my emotions in check. I’ve been pushing off anxiety/panic attacks throughout much of the race. I’m doing everything I can to keep my depressed mind in a positive place. Every step of the way I am thinking about everything I’ve been through, the people I run for and why I’m running for them, it is the heaviest load I’ve ever had to bear during all my years running ultras and it too is getting heavy, and now I’m getting sleepy. As we near ever closer to sun up, we start getting into those grey hours before the sun starts to rise. These hours have long been my nemesis in ultra running, and this go round wouldn’t disappoint. I start falling asleep and stumbling along the trail. On the right hand side of the trail is a rather steep drop-off and you can’t really see where it ends. You just know that it’s there. I want to take a short 5 minute nap, knowing the world of wonder that it can be, but my pacer won’t let me. Instead, Jon breaks out the whip and he cracks it.
Jon is pushing me through the night, yelling at me how tough I am. “The race is tough but you have to be tougher. You are NOT sleeping. You don’t need to sleep. You need to keep going.” Jon doesn’t stop. He keeps feeding me sour patch kids, hoping that my eating the sugar will help me, hoping that just eating will keep me awake, but it’s not working. Jon keeps cracking the whip, yelling at me to keep me going. I’ve never had a pacer whip me like this, ever.. and I’m struggling with how to handle it. I’m so exhausted from the day. The heat. The Snow and Mud. The emotions and the mental game. Struggling on the hills. Pushing as hard as I can on the downs. I’m taxed to the limit and I’m falling apart. Each time I stumble I stumble towards that right edge, catching myself before I fall off the side. I yell out into the night in frustration. I just want quiet. I want Jon to stop.. yet he keeps cracking that whip. I follow him. I trust him. I know he’s a good kid, but the mental game finally wins. We make it to Auburn Lake Trails without my needing a nap.. but when I get into the aid station, I throw my bottles to the ground, sit in a chair and finally.. the emotion all comes out. With my head in my hands I weep.. and I cry hard.
While sitting in that chair there is more talk about how I’m not eating. That wasn’t an issue for me. Yet I sat there and chugged more broth and ate some noodles. I drank some soda. In between helpings of whatever they give me, I sob uncontrollably. Some runner comes over to me and starts talking to me about how someone he knows died in a car accident and how I need to “let shit go.” Suddenly I’m sitting in an aid station, listening to yet another human who doesn’t understand the battles associated with mental illness, and how it’s not “just some shit you let go” try to pick me up. “This is the story this guy decided to tell?” I think.. “If he only knew what I’ve gone through..” instead… I get angry. And still… I rise.
Jon and I leave the aid station on an absolute tear. We run as fast as I can for a few miles. By the time I stop to walk again, the sun is up, Jon is saying “Good Morning”.. I’m still not talking to him really… and I’m marching as fast as I can. “All the time we lost stumbling around before, the time sitting in that last aid station, we just made it all up on that run.” So Jon and I talk it out, I explain to him the importance of being patient in these races. A 5 minute nap is doable, and very valuable, and after 10 years of running 100s.. I know what I need and when I need it. Instead, even though the sun is up.. he and I are both sorta falling asleep from time to time as the sun continue to rise. We’re wasting time and energy struggling when a 5 minute nap could have just taken care of it. Of course I forgive him, pacers are known for being whipped by their runners too. I certainly didn’t hold back. But now.. it’s a new race again and I’m starting to smell the barn. We get down into Quarry Road and Hal Koerner is there filling bottles. “Hey! Won’t be long now and you’ll have another 100 mile finish!” it felt good to know that Hal remembers me from Cascade last year, and how many of these damn things I’ve done. I needed that little push. Then again, just the fact that this aid station is an all out freak show (men wearing fishnets, nun costumes, outlandish music… ) was enough to keep us going.
And so we make the long climb up to pointed rocks, the last place we’d see Roger, our crew guy. He’s ready for us. This aid station had breakfast for us runners. I grab a pancake, throw some sausage in the middle, roll it up, dunk it in some syrup, and slam it down. I grab a popsicle and eat that to cool down as it’s already starting to warm up again. A little soda and I’m ready to go. We adjust our wardrobe for the heat of the day. Roger gives me his hat as mine is in the car. Then I hear Jon tell Roger, “We should be at the track for 10a. So… two hours.” I do the math, “That’s 29 hours… Fuck that!” Jon asks me if I’m ready to go and I tell him “yeah, we’re gonna do some running.” I didn’t want a 29 hour anything. I wanted to be close to what I said I would be back at mile 50. That 26-28 hours I had promised those I ran for. So we pushed and pushed hard. We ran the 3 miles down to No Hands Bridge in perfect 5k pace. We were there in 24 minutes. At the bridge I doused myself with ice water. Played darts trying to win some Cliff swag (yuck), and then Jon went Live on Facebook for a short bit while we walked across. From here, all that was left was the climb to Robie Point, and the final miles through town. I was starting to get very emotional again.
We climb up out of this final Canyon at a steady pace, never wavering, and with much relief. The race was over. I thanked Jon for his company and being a great pacer, all told he was… the kid did everything he was supposed to do and he did it well, even if at the time I didn’t like it. He was great. At Robie Point we were met with cheers and people starting the congratulations for finishing. But I knew better. In 2009, one of my good friends dropped from Rhabdo with just 1 mile to go. He didn’t finish. It’s not over until you get there. Yet the fan fare was awesome to have. It’s one of those places in ultrarunning where you just can’t hold those emotions in any more. Tears start streaming down my cheeks.. I have no freakin clue how I’ve just done this.
Those final two miles is the time when I reflect. The entire race unfolded in my mind. Visions from the day, everything we had gone through.. all of us together. Each and every one of us out there has a story. Some, more dramatic or difficult, than others.. yet stories indeed. We all ran a different path to get to WS100, and a different path through WS100. I never thought I’d run WS100 a second time, certainly never thought about finishing it a second time. And as I said from the beginning, this time was different. This race is outstanding. One of the most meaningful and outstanding race experiences that I’ve ever had. The volunteers are beyond top notch, very giving. I wish the ultra community in Colorado was like what I experienced here and the reality is.. it’s not even close. This place was full of love, compassion, empathy, friendship, and family. Everything I deeply needed at this particular moment in time in my life.
Roger came walking back from town and the three of us walked towards the track together. I was telling jokes to try and hide the other emotions inside that I wanted to just burst out. Every single step of this run.. I thought about two young girls whose parents are going through a divorce, two young girls who were about to lose both of their grandparents as well.. one to end stage lung cancer, and the other to Alzheimer’s. I have my own share of problems.. I’ve walked my own path and been through my own ordeal.. but not young person should have to lose so much all at once. Every mile, I thought about their mother, and all that she has to deal with in being strong for herself, for her girls, and her family. My problems pale in comparison to the journey the family I run for has been going through and I feel so deeply for them.
I give the guys my bottle and hit the track. I kick it into a run and the first person who rises to his feet is Andy Jones Wilkins. “ATTA BOY SHERPA JOHN!!!” I start to lose it. As I hit the rubber, I pick it up harder. I sprinted around that track like it was the only thing I had done today. Part of me wishes I has slowed down and enjoyed it more, but I knew I needed to have this strong finish. It’s been a long road. We went from talking about deferring after a Saturday two weeks prior where I was laying face down in the dirt, to my enduring everything WS100 could throw at us. Still I rise.. I pushed it into the finish line with my pink post it note in hand and as I ran across I thrust it into the air, knowing the words on one side simply read “still do” as my final message to get out to those whom needed to hear. As soon as I crossed, I put my head in my hands and cried. Even as I write this now, 5 days later, tears stream down my face simply for the facts of all this race meant. For the moment… that moment.. that place on that track… the greatest single inch in all of ultra running.
Seven time WS100 finisher Ian Sharman, who ran again this year, said that this was the hardest WS100 he’d ever run. The race announced in the days following event that this year’s race is ranked 4th all time in terms of difficulty. The median finish time was 27:22, and my finish time of 28:31 is the same exact finish time (to the minute) that I had in 2010. The clock didn’t say 29 anything. I pushed it to the finish line and left my heart in the Sierra Nevada. I finished my 21st run of 100-miles or more, and Western States proved it is still the single greatest Ultramarathon in our country. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to run there again, and I am forever humbled that the race committee gave me Bib #100. Thank You WS100… for being the real family and friends I needed this weekend. It won’t soon be forgotten. Thank you also to my pacer Jon Pope and crew chief Roger for their selfless act of giving this weekend. You guys were amazing.
See you on the trails,