Tuesday, June 28, 2011

2011 Western States 100 Race Report

19 hours before the start

As the field counted down with the clock for the start of the race, I felt all the things that you would expect to feel at the beginning of a journey into the unknown.  This would be the fourth time I was to run 100 miles, but only the first step in my self imposed BHAG.    I have thought much about how to tackle running a 100 mile race per month for the next five months, but the truth is, I don't know how to do it.

I think that is the almost magical part of taking on a challenge like this.  Diving into the unknown and being patient enough to see how it turns out.  It has been said many times that the fun is in the journey, not only in the outcome.

3....2.....1...GO! we all shouted and headed out the steep, winding access road at Squaw Valley.   My immediate focus was to make sure that I didn't do anything stupid like go out to fast, so I paid attention to my breathing and heart rate and kept repeating to myself to run my own race.

The first 3.5 miles to escarpment went by very fast.  Frankly I think that they had the aid station set up much before 3.5 miles as I reached it in only 35 minutes.  Considering my leisurely pace, I would guess that it came much sooner.  I grabbed a quick piece of payday bar and continued the climb to the top of the mountain.

Very shortly after the aid station we ran into the first snow field of the race. I immediately knew that I was going to be in trouble.  My shoes were dangerously slick.  I was wearing the Altra Instincts, a road shoe designed for pavement.  It has a very minimal tread.  

Since I run in snow all winter I thought my ability to tread lightly would get me through the snow easily, regardless of my shoe choice.   I had never run in the instincts in the snow and was shocked at how bad they were.  I had thought that we were going to be running in snow, but in the early hours of the morning we were running in hard packed ice.

I told myself to just relax and get through it and went to work.  When the running was level I was able to get through it o.k.  But shortly we were headed across long, exposed ski slopes and the off camber ice made it incredibly hard to run.  There were no footholds and every time that I slipped I had to do everything in my power to not slide 20 feet down the slope.  It was a scary, dangerous situation.

People were dealing with it in different ways, but it was obvious that shoe choice was extremely important in this area.  I tried to laugh it off and stay "light" emotionally, but by the third or fourth time that I slipped and slammed my right side into the ice I became frustrated.  My shoulder dislocates easily from an old snowboarding injury and twice I felt it go out and back in.  Here I was, only 7 or 8 miles into the race and I was using an extraordinary amount of energy just trying to keep moving forward.  I wondered how this was going to affect the rest of my day.

My feet were now soaked as the ice fields had finally leveled out and turned into legitimate snow fields..  That snow was ankle deep and just like running through mashed potatoes.  The snow got underneath my gators and into my shoes.  I had expected my feet to be wet, so it was not a big deal.  Towards the end of the snowfields we encountered a stream crossing that was incredibly cold.  As I held on to the rope to get across my feet, ankle and shins felt like they were being attacked by bees as they went numb from the cold.

We finally got into some nice running as we approached the Poppy Aid Station at mile 20.  The sun was now starting to warm us up nicely and my spirits were high as I knew I had dry socks waiting in my drop bag.  When I came into the aid station I was greeted by the most organized and friendliest workers I have ever encountered.  They had a person waiting a couple hundred feet before the station who got your number, asked if you had a drop bag there, and then radioed ahead to have it ready.  I was greeted by my own special worker who stayed with me during the entire stop and got me anything I needed.  This process was repeated at every single aid station throughout the race.  It was incredible and one of the things that makes this race so very special.

I headed out of the stop with much higher spirits (and dryer feet) and began to settle into a nice running pace.  I really wasn't worried about my pace.  I had decided that my goal for today was only to finish.  I would work on taking care of myself better than I usually do and if my body would carry me to a sub 24 hour finish it would simply be the icing on top of the cake.  It was refreshing to take my time and not worry.

Although I talked briefly to a few folks, I really stayed to myself.  The time was ticking away and about 6 hours into the race I hit Mosquito Ridge, the 31 mile point.  I thought that a 6 hour 50k time wasn't so bad and I remembered that I had my voice recorder with me.  I had made a last minute decision to take it with me instead of my camera as I thought it might be interesting to document what I was going through during the race.

As I headed up a hill littered with burnt trees I recorded that it was getting hot and it was starting to affect my stomach a bit.  I was trying to keep my chin up as I knew this was only the beginning of what could be a very tough day.

By the time I got to the "Dusty Corners" aid station at mile 38 things were getting worse.  I was now 7.5 hours into the race.  I changed my socks again and headed towards one of the toughest parts of the race, the canyons.  As I started up a climb I dug out my voice recorder again.   When I started to talk about how bad I felt and how neasous I was something happened that I was't prepared for.  I said "I am at mile 38 and I really didn't expect to feel this bad...." and then I started to cry.  I completely choked up and the tears started streaming down my face.  With 62 miles still to go I was completely stripped raw.

mmmm, Gu Chomps

I forced myself to eat some Gu Chomps even though I was convinced that I would throw them up.  I was so sick to my stomach, but realized that I had not eaten enough and that was most likely the cause.  After pulling into Last Chance at mile 43.8 I was starting to feel better.  Still neasous, but not so bad I couldn't manage it.  I kept thinking about how tough the Canyons were going to be so I was worried.

After leaving Last Chance I started the long, steep 3 mile quad pounding descent into the canyon before the infamous devils thumb.  I ended up running with a group of 4 or 5 guys and was following a runner who had done the race before and was moving well.  We chatted and he gave commentary about what we were going into and what we were about to experience.   I realized that I felt much better and we had dropped the other runners.  We were moving very well.  I asked him at what point would we be in the worst heat of the day and to my surprise he said that we already were.  I was happy to hear it because it didn't seem very bad at all to me.

Devils Thumb

The climb up devils thumb is well known to wreck runners.  It is very steep and  has more that 30 switchbacks as you hike you way to the top.  The combination of heat, effort and fatigue turn many into puking zombies.  My friend John who had never thrown up in any of his many 100 mile races threw up here and bet me $20 that I would too.

Honestly I didn't find the climb to be that bad.  Luckily it was only about 90 degrees, which is cool for this race.  I had built this up to be so bad in my mind beforehand.  The reality turned out to be just another steep climb.  I made it to the top with high spirits and headed towards the next canyon.

This next section is a bit of blur to me as I sit here trying to remember.  I do remember that the decent to El Dorado Creek was longer.  The climb up to Michigan Bluff at mile 55.7 was similar to Devils Thumb, but twice as long and not quite as steep.  I remember moving pretty well through here and excited to be done with the toughest part of the race.  I also knew that for the first time in the race I would be seeing my friend Jeff Waldron who had flown in from NH to crew me.

Jeff and I the day before the race

Jeff is an amazing kid.  He loves running and is so enthusiastic about it.  He knows who every runner is, what their stats are, etc.  He keeps me smiling and is just brings so much positive energy with him.  You will almost never find him without a smile on his face.  When he found out I was doing the race he told me that he wanted to come to help me in any way that he could.

As I came into the Michigan Bluff aid station there he was, with that big smile on his face.  He helped me with a sock and shoe change and told me how great I was doing.  He got me some food and brought over the resident pediatrist to help me with some developing blisters.  The doctor told me that considering that I had run all day with wet feet they looked great.  He told me that the blisters I was starting to get in the folds of my feet were tough to prevent and I just had to deal with them.  So I decided that is just what I had to do and I headed out in high spirits again.

Michigan Bluff (photo Ian Sharman)

Later, looking at my splits, I was surprised to see that I spent 20 minutes at that aid station.  I was enjoying not being in a rush, but this was also about the time that I realized that my leisurely pace was getting me further and further behind the posted 24 hour pace.  Knowing that the toughest part of the race was over and that I was headed to some of the faster trails I made the decision to try to get a silver buckle.

By the time I got to the Foresthill aid station, mile 62, I was feeling great.  Once again I saw Jeff.  The 7 miles between the last stop and here had been enough time to start developing a bad blister on my left pinky toe.  I decided to take the time to try to a dress it so it wouldn't be terrible later.  Dr. George, the aid station blister specialist helped me tape it and the extra time spent here paid off.  Jeff gave me a Boost to drink and also suggested that I take another Vespa Amino Acid supplement.  It was good advice!

I left the station feeling great. I was running well and amazed that my legs didn't hurt at all.  The trails at this point are beautiful gradual downhill through the woods along the ridge and I really enjoyed them.  It was easy to keep running and I felt like I was putting excellent time back in the bank. I gained back a bunch of time on the 24 hour pace during this section and really started focusing on getting that silver buckle.

 I had picked up my headlight at the school and was ready to head into the night time of the race without a pacer for the first time in a 100 miler.  I had decided after Leadville that using a pacer just gave me somebody to bitch and complain to when I felt bad in the middle of the night.  I decided that being alone would allow me to just focus on myself.  Jeff told me that he would be ready to pace me at each of the following crew aid stations if I changed my mind.  I think that he was a bit disappointed, but he never really showed me.

 I made it to the 70 mile aid station before having to turn on my head light.  At this point I only had 8 miles to go to get to the famous "Rucky Chucky" river crossing.  The stretch of trail between this area was fast and I felt great.   The combination of eating more at the aid stations and the cooler temperatures were making it much easier to run.  My energy was up and I was pecking away at the 24 hour pace.  I honestly don't remember much about this section except for just focusing on running as often as I could.  This is where all my training started to pay off.  I might not be that fast, but I have built up a lot of endurance.  I started passing a lot of people who were beginning to suffer.  I know it sounds terrible but I always get a boost of energy later in these races when I see others slow down and I am not.  It gives me confidence that I have the strength to make up time.

River Crossing, awesome volunteers!

The river crossing was fun and once again the volunteers were amazing.  On the other side was a crew aid station (mile 78) and there was Jeff waiting to help me again.  I sat down in a chair and told Jeff that I didn't want to bother changing my socks again.  The blisters where there and I was just going to power on until the end and get moving.  He got me some chicken broth, which I had been drinking at every aid station.  I found that if I first drank broth my stomach would be much more receptive towards eating.  It was a helpful trick and I relied on it a lot throughout the later parts of the race.

In order to meet me at the far side of the river crossing Jeff had to hike down almost 3 miles with my gear.  As I left the aid station he packed up my stuff and caught up with me on the 2 mile uphill hike to Green Gate.  I enjoyed this time with him a lot.  I was in good spirits, making progress on the 24 hour time and it was a beautiful star lit night.  It felt incredibly peaceful and calm.  When I reached the part of the road where the trail picked back up I asked Jeff for my ipod.  I said farewell and thanked him again for spending all day and night taking care of me.  The next time I would see him would be at mile 93, the Highway 49 crossing.

I really put my head down for these next 13 miles.  I kept doing the math over and over in my head trying to get that buckle.  It is amazing how something as simple as a silver belt buckle kept me focused and motivated.  I guess at this point it really is about keeping your mind in control over your body.  Having something to focus on is a big help.

I saw Jeff quickly at the Highway 49 crossing.  He gave me what I needed and sent me on my way.  I remember telling him that I would see him at the finish line.  Again I did the math.  It was 2:49am. At this point I had 2 hours and 11 minutes to get through the next 7 miles.  It might not sound hard but when you have already run 93 miles and have been on your feet for 21.5 hours you never know what sort of pace you are going to be able to do.

At this point all I could focus on was getting to the next aid station, No Hands bridge at mile 96.8.   I could feel blisters on the bottoms of my feet and left heel.  Every time I would step on a rock it would send shooting stabs of pain through my feet, but I just gritted my teeth through it and decided that it was time to be tough.  This has happened to me on every one of my previous 100 milers, but this time I had nobody to complain to.  I just listened to my music, focused on the trail in front of me and tried to run as much as possible.

No Hands Bridge

I reached "No-Hands Bridge"and still didn't know if I was going to make it.  For some reason I thought I remembered it being all uphill from the bridge, with the last 1/2 mile being really steep.  I was thinking that I would have to hike 3 miles and that could take an hour this late in the game.

It turns out that it is quite runable until the very last part, where you are cruelly sent up an extraordinarily step paved road before you wind through the town towards the Placerville High track where the race finishes.  As I finished the last climb I passed three runners with their pacers.  I was absolutely flying, filled with adrenaline knowing that I was going to get that coveted silver buckle.    As I made the turn onto the track I was in an outright sprint.  There was really no reason to do it, I was just so excited.  As I turned the last corner towards the finish line another runner and his family were going through.  I slowed down as a little boy  was holding his moms hand running towards what I presume to be his dad.  He tripped, so I stopped and let him get up and run through the finish line before I took my turn.

I broke the line at 23 hours and 27 minutes and was greeted by Tim Tweitmeyer (25 time WS100 sub 24 finisher) who placed a finishers medal on my neck.  I was quickly whisked into a chair where a volunteer took my blood pressure and pulse to make sure I was ok.  I was handed a bottle of water by another.  I then went into the medical tent where I gave blood and a urine sample for the medical team.  I will share with everybody the kind of havoc that running 100 miles does to your body's chemical balance when I get the results.

The Silver Sub-24 Hour Finisher Buckle!!

This race was an amazing experience.  I can't believe that I am going to do it again in only 3 short weeks at the Vermont 100.  One down, 4 to go.  Thank you to everybody who wrote me emails or posted notes on my Facebook wall.  Your support and encouragement really keep me going.


Adam Wilcox said...

Awesome report, Nate. The best you've ever written. Congratulations!

jun said...

Really great report Nate. What an amazing experience. Congrats on the Silver buckle and the start of a brutal summer!

sherpajohn said...

I agree with Adam... this was indeed the best report you've ever written.

I owe you $20 and will shell it out at Leadville.

I thought this part was the best: "and then I started to cry. I completely choked up and the tears started streaming down my face."

In all the years I've known you.. I don;t think this is something I've ever seen you do or even heard of you doing during a race. It was refreshing to read. Not only because we've seen your honesty, but also your vulnerability. You really ARE human after all. But mostly, you more then anyone, knows how much you've trained for all of this and that paragraph shows it.

Good luck in Vermont.. it just may be one of the tougher times you've run it. ;)


jc said...

Nate, Congrats on the Silver buckle -one down and 4 to go.

caa40y said...

This is the first race report of your that I have really read through and I'd have to say I enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm not one of those people that can force myself to do something I am not enjoying so the moment I would get my first blister I'd probably be looking for a lazy boy to sit in and relax, and be content with watching other people suffer. However you are able to endure the physical trauma for an emotional experience I will probably never feel myslef as I am just not that dedicated to anything, other than working for National Powersports of course! :)