Thursday, July 14, 2011

Altered Western States 2011

Several years ago in the Newport Marathon, I followed a shirt for a few miles that said, “After all the explanations and all the excuses, what you accomplished is exactly what you intended to accomplish”. I believe this.  I’m now 0 for 2 in 100 mile attempts.  Both times, ultimately, it was what I lacked in preparation that did me in.
Still believing.
I loved everything about Western States.  I loved the atmosphere, both human and scenic.  I loved the challenge.  I even love the knowledge that if I say, “the ice just beat me up more than I could handle”, to someone that wasn’t there, it doesn’t mean the same as it does to someone that was there.

Beautiful Squaw Valley.
We stayed 2 nights in Reno, at Jeanne’s niece and fiance’s house.  Jessica and Aaron were so gracious with their home and the mental distraction of others (not others also freaking out about an upcoming race) being around was an unexpected bonus.  We spent Thursday day up at Squaw Valley, attending the workshops and soaking in atmosphere and sunshine, then back to Reno for sushi....reverent pause.....then moved our base camp to Squaw Valley on Friday, including a little nap in the back of the new Subaru, which is the perfect race weekend vehicle we expected it to be.
A nap in the Subaru.
 The only time I ever have trouble falling asleep is the night before a race, unless I have a beer that night, but that’s a whole other scientific experiment.  I had been waking myself up at 4:00 for the whole week before WS to hopefully promote earlier bedtimes.  This didn’t work, I just got less sleep for the week.  The US Track and Field Championships were on TV Thursday night.  Not only did I stay up watching them, but that jacks my enthusiasm up sky high.  So, little sleep the night before, but I’m not sure that had much contribution to success or failure.
Awake at 3:30 and still lamenting over what to wear.  I don’t know why this is such a dilemma for me?  It should be fairly simple, but the added knowledge that whatever you start in is what you’re carrying for the first 4 ish hours does make you think about it a little more than usual.  I had clothes stashed in a few strategic drop bags and socks in all of them.  I made a bad calculation in my Infinit drink, again!!!  I brought enough, I just didn’t bring enough to have too much at each drop bag, and didn’t really think through, that if I don’t use it, there is no going back for it later, I’m learning, slowly.  They gave away (ha, strange thought given the entry fee) some Moeben arm sleeves, or arm panties.  I’ve never worn them before but I like the idea of removable sleeves instead of a throw away long sleeve shirt.  I’ve had several instances of starting in a singlet with a long sleeve shirt over.  Then a few miles in, you’re burning up and remove the long sleeve shirt and now you are sweaty wet in a singlet and it’s still 36 degrees, and that is cold like no other cold.  So, short sleeve shirt, arm panties and gloves seemed the right combination for the 38 degrees it was outside at Squaw Valley.  I had a funny altercation with the volunteer regarding what size arm panties I needed.  I signed up for everything medium, but I’m a tweener.  If I order medium, shirts will run large and I’ll get a tent.  If I order small, shirts will run small and it will look like I’m wearing by little brothers shirt.  So, the volunteer looks at my card, looks at me and says, “you ordered medium, but you might want a small”.  Thinking she was making a disparaging remark about my biceps, I showed ‘em off for her.  “Do you want to try the small on to see” was her reply.  They seemed too small, which pleased me so I took the mediums and went on my way.  They were too big, I was pulling them up constantly for the first 15 miles.
I knew 2 other, non famous, people running Western States.  One, April, I would know by face, we’ve run together a few times.  The other, Ric, I’ve emailed numerous times and have seen a picture and know his number is 286.  I really didn’t expect to see either.  We started in the dark and in all of the excitement of the start, moving up the trail with 400 other runners, barely a few minutes into the race I hear, “Chris?”.  April and I are side by side at the start.  We talk for a bit about taking care of our ankles and she gradually pulled ahead of me.  Half way up to Emigrant Pass, I was thinking about the chances of seeing April, and wondering whether I’d see Ric or not.  Then I looked to my left and there was 286.  Ric and I made it to the top of the pass together, but I pulled ahead a bit at the top and on the way down.

I could probably write forever about the snow and ice.  I’ve never run on either.  At first, it was fun. Even the first fall on my ass was met with laughter.  It wasn’t long before I passed the first injured runner, which sobered me up a little.  A few falls on my ass later, the fun had worn off.  I kept seeing stains on the snow that were obviously sports drink, and thought to myself, why would anybody be wasting their drink, when the challenge of carrying enough to the first aid station was a very real concern.  Then I fell forward and caught myself on my handheld bottles and had my drink squirt out, oh, that explains that!  Not too long after that discovery, I started following a trail of what was obviously blood.  I would catch up to the bloodied runner later, but it was quite a bit of blood in the snow.  The falling really took a toll, mentally and physically on me, especially the falls on the icy parts that hurt much more than on softer snow.  I was moving pretty slow, and with each fall I became more tentative.  In retrospect, I probably fell more often as a result of running tentative.  But my big time loss came on the Fall of the Lost Sunglasses.  It seemed like an ice cliff.  it was probably not a cliff by any definition, but it was steep and icy and seemed to go down forever, especially when both feet slipped out from underneath me and I found myself sliding down in “break up the double play” position. About 50 feet later I got both heels dug in and came to an abrupt stop.  At which time, my sunglasses popped off their perch above the bill of my cap and skied down the rest of the mountain alone.  I sat, frozen, for a while watching them vanish into the distance, then surveyed my options for getting back to the “path”.  A 45 degree angle back seemed the most sensible, but required me to carry both bottles in my mouth, leaving my hands free to assist in the climb.  This worked, though I occasionally needed to use a bottle to break a step in the ice/snow for my next step.  I’ve tried to calculate how much time this fall cost me, and I really don’t know.  I know I was pretty shaken and sore after it, and was so relieved when, after a few creek crossing in the snow, I got back on solid ground.
Ice burns.
There were some great opportunities to make up some serious time once we got out of the snow.  Long gradual downhills on forest service roads with great footing.  I just never really got my legs back.  I was unprepared for the distance between aid stations, and for the hill coming up to Mosquito Ridge.  I’m sure I saw the distance, 7.3 miles and I remember in the course description briefing somebody referring to it as “quite a haul” but I never really put the two together.  I got behind in water and salts and blew up on the hill.  I staggered into Mosquito Ridge and got weighed, I was down 6 pounds.  Dr. Mike was awesome, strongly encouraging me to stay in the aid station and hydrate and “get my shit together”.  I’ve paraphrased the speech he gave me to several people and I’m not sure I even heard it the way he said it, but I sat down for about 15 minutes, drank, took an Scap, thought, drank some more, peed and was on my way.

I ran better for a while.  Ric had passed me while I sat in the aid station, I called out for him, but no real sound came out of my mouth.  I caught up to him about a mile out of Mosquito Ridge, I had some decent momentum at that point and tried to encourage him to go with me, but he was hurting pretty bad.  After Miller’s Defeat I was staying ahead of the cutoffs but I wasn’t putting any distance between me and them.  I was starting to get a sinking feeling as I came into the Last Chance aid station, I was expecting to hear that I was about 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  I was pretty shocked when they said 10 minutes.  I didn’t get her name, but a young (everybody seems young these days) blonde girl working the aid station saw me deflate and did an incredible job of not only getting me out of the aid station but having me believe I was going to make it to Devil’s Thumb in time.

I didn’t make it in time.  I came in 12 minutes behind the cutoff.  The 36 switchback up to Devil’s Thumb were almost surreal, passing people that had or were in the process of literally quitting on the course.  The rest is pretty tail between the legs academic.  Jeanne and I spent so much time pouring over crew plans, drop bags, which aid stations she could get to and when and I never even made it to her.  We did head down to track to watch the 27 and 28 hour finishers coming in. That was very inspirational but I don’t think it’s what will motivate me on my next attempt.  Instead I think it will be the way I perceived the reception at Devil’s Thumb.  

Every single volunteer at every single aid station were amazing.  If I tried, I couldn’t come up with a single, small complaint about the organization of any part of Western States, I was truly amazed by the whole experience, so what I’m about to convey, I know, was all in my own little head.  Prior to Devil’s Thumb I felt received at each aid station as an athlete.  An athlete having a bad day maybe, but an athlete none the less.  The cheers had a tinge of pity at Devil’s Thumb, empathy is probably the correct term, but I didn’t hear it that way.  I had already, privately, acknowledged my defeat about 20 minutes earlier, this was just the confirmation.  It was hard watching them coordinate how and who to drive me back, I realize that’s part of their job, but it felt like I was inconveniencing people, and I hate that.  I know myself and I wish that the memories of watching others finishing would be my darkest hour motivation in the future, but it won’t.  It will be those very sincere, very well intentioned cheers for the fallen, that I don’t ever want to hear again.


  1. Thank you for an insightful commentary. You provide a learning tool for those who have yet to experience an event like WS 2011.
    Perhaps it would have been wise for you to have taken an opportunity to test the snow conditions before the race. I expected somewhat icy sidehill conditions, and that is what we got. I made a point to buy new shoes and put just enough miles on them to break them in without putting much wear on the lugs. I was concerned about the rule prohibiting traction devices. Crampons, Microspikes, Icetrekkers, Stabilicers, Polar Cleats, Yaktrax, and shoe screws are strictly prohibited so I wanted a good fresh tread on my shoes. Having said that, technique is more important and needs to be learned, although it takes only a little time. Falling can take so much out of you.
    It was cool that you found the people you knew among the many hundreds.
    And you're right, they really know how to put on a race. The aid station volunteers were so supportive, caring and helpful!
    You have a great attitude. Learn from this one and run smarter next time.
    See you on the trail some day,
    Roger J.

  2. Excellent report, Chris - as per usual! Thank you for the mention, too (I'm flattered and honored). I was especially moved by the sentiments expressed about the "cheers for the fallen" from the DT volunteers and how you intend to turn them into motivation for the next attempt. I really hope the lottery is good to you again in December so that you can go back and take care of unfinished business!