Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Western States Weekend in Review

OK, I didn't accomplish all of my goals for my trip to Squaw Valley.  In fact, if you want to be technical about it, I accomplished one of five.  I did get to meet some awesome folks, including some of the world's best ultrarunners, and got a couple of leads on how I might move forward with my little side project.   But no, we didn't get Glen into the top 10.   No, I wasn't a contender in the Montrail Uphill Challenge.  No, I didn't PR in the beer mile.  I didn't even drink any Russian River!  (Though I did get some.  More on that later.)  A bit disappointed?  Maybe a little.  Bad weekend?  No way.

I reached Sacramento Wednesday evening, grabbed a quick hour on the roads, and a quick dinner before bed.  Thursday morning I suffered through the agony of US-Germany game on the cracked screen of my iPad, as the hotel's ESPN was out of order.  I walked to the gas station next to the hotel to grab a six pack of Budweiser, which I needed...for later.  Then I met Glen, his dad, and his son for the drive to Squaw, where we would meet up with his mom, his brother Mike, and his brother's SO, Anne, completing our six-person support team for the weekend.  

We reached Squaw Valley around 3 pm, about a hour before the start on the First Unofficial Unsanctioned Western States Beer Mile.  For those not familiar, a beer mile is a one-mile race, usually run on a track, that requires the "athlete" to drink one 12-oz beer before each quarter mile.   I won't get into all the myriad rules and regulations that govern this event, but please rest assured that they are numerous and very specific.  There is no track in Squaw Valley, so some genius decided the best way to do this would be to hike the first mile of the Western States course--again, for those not familiar, a switchbacking uphill dirt road at about a 12-15% grade--leaving our beers every quarter-mile, then race back down.  To me, this sounded like the worst idea I've ever heard, but nobody seemed to care what I thought, so our little three-man field hiked up the road, beer in tow.  Eventually, we picked up a fourth runner; none of these guys were over 27, and all of them, as it turned out, could drink me under the table.  It didn't start out too bad;

Beer #3
photo: Jamie Lynch

after two beers and half a mile, I was still in good shape to break 10 minutes, and was at least keeping contact with the other guys--we were generally drinking together--but by the fourth beer, things started looking like this:

And this:

Oh no.
photo: Jamie Lynch
We had decided beforehand that the usual penalty for puking--an extra lap--wasn't applicable, since we didn't know where we would turn around to get that done, and we figured running downhill with a belly full of beer was enough of a handicap/punishment.  The Facebook page that had organized the event expected 35-40 people, which made the field of four a little surprising, but it turned out all those people just wanted to show up and watch us be stupid, since we were greeted by a sizable, if slightly bemused crowd, including Grand Slam record holder Ian Sharman, and a bunch of people with video cameras.

As you can see from my Garmin data, I ran an 11:56 (the final split is an error of me re-setting my watch), not a great showing.  But I was clearly on sub-10 pace until the final beer--actually I was through 1200 meters and three beers in under 7 minutes.  Looks like I spent right around 6:00 actually running and about 6:00 drinking and puking.

So needless to say I went to bed Thursday night not feeling my best.  I woke up on Friday morning not feeling any better--stiff, tired, with a pounding headache.  I attributed it partly to the altitude (about 6500') and partly to the hangover, though honestly, most of the Budweiser was in the dirt four hundred meters up the left side of the Western States Trail.  Part of the point of the trip was to run the Montrail Uphill Challenge, though, so I forced myself out to the starting line.  It's a pretty cool event; Montrail is the presenting sponsor of Western States and they basically put on this free event with a bunch of swag, including t-shirts, pint glasses, and of course, something for a bunch of antsy ultra geeks to do while we're all waiting around for the big race to start.

The race is run on the first 6k of the WS course itself, which climbs about 2500' to Emigrant Pass--about a 13% grade. (How the runners go another 97 miles after doing this on race day, I'll never know.)  I like uphills, especially runnable, non-technical ones, so I was pretty excited and thought maybe I could be up front in the top 10 or so.  What I didn't take into account was that the entire ultra world is in Squaw Valley for states, and that there are a TON of incredible runners who are there to crew or pace for other incredible runners.  I don't know who exactly was there, but I saw sponsored athletes from Hoka, Altra, adidas, and Salomon.  Didn't see them for long, of course.  It was a hammerfest, and was an absolutely brutal mix of running and power-hiking.  I was hoping to run under 45 minutes, and actually ran 39:33 (the course was a little shorter than I thought, as we didn't run the final few hundred meters to the monument atop the Pass, but that stretch is mostly very gradual and I think I would have been about 43 minutes had we gone the whole way).   But in that field I was barely in the top 30.  (Yes, I got chicked, just once.)  All four of us beer milers ran the race.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we finished in reverse order of the previous day.  Our late starter, who had organized the beer mile (and who would have won it easily had he not spotted us at least a quarter mile), crushed us wearing an honest-to-god pair of huaraches; but I saw my other two new best friends on my jog back down.

My headache had abated during the race, but it returned after lunch, as we organized our bags and made our plans with Glen for the next day.  By that evening I couldn't wait to get down from the altitude.  I got about 6 hours of sleep before waking up around 3:30 to get ready for the 5am start.  We headed over with Glen, who seemed in good spirits, and spent a few minutes chatting with Dylan Bowman near the starting line before the gun went off.

DBo, Speedgoat Karl, and the other leaders at the start.
photo: Mike Redpath
We walked back the the hotel, packed, and left quickly.  I felt a little bit better on the drive out of the valley, but when we stopped to buy sandwiches for the long day ahead, my headache was in full force, and I was feeling pretty nauseous.  I bought some extra ibuprofen at the grocery store, which helped some, and took one of the Zofran pills I had brought along in case Glen ran into some stomach problems during his race.  We drove out to Robinson Flat, the 30-mile mark and the first aid station accessible to crew members.

Crewing an ultra is pretty fun, but it is a LOT of waiting around, and let me just say thank you to anyone who has ever crewed me in the past.  Basically, you rush to the aid station, spend some time unpacking all your stuff and getting ready for your runner, and then you just sit around waiting for them to come, which can be several hours.  Then they come, and unless you're doing a crappy job or they're really having a problem, you see them for about 90 seconds before they start running again.  Then you pack up and race to the next point so you can wait for another few hours.  It sounds awful, but it's actually pretty cool, especially at a huge event like WS where you can watch the best ultrarunners in the world.  I wish I had been feeling better and could have read a book or something, but I spent many of the next eight hours feeling awful, so that was kind of a bummer.

Getting support at Robinson Flat.
photo: Mike Redpath
ANYWAY, Robinson Flat was awesome.  The drugs had kicked in and I felt pretty good; it was still early on in the race so the wait wasn't too long.  The front runners showed up about an hour after we go there, a who's who of the sport--Max King, Rob Krar, Dylan Bowman, Miguel Heras, Karl Meltzer, Ryan Sandes, Scott Wolfe, Nick Clark, Yassine Diboun, Ian Sharman, Brendan Davies, Pam Smith, Kaci Leichtig, Nikki Kimball, Meghan Arbogast, Emily Harrison, Stephanie get the picture, sorry.  For a fanboy like me it was heaven.  I won't go into details of the elite races, there is a ton of coverage out there and you can read at your leisure, but it was super-exciting.   We were expecting Glen at around 10:15, but he was about half an hour behind that, which didn't bode well for the rest of the day.  Given the stacked field, we knew going in that getting Glen a fourth top-10 finish was pretty unlikely; however, we thought a strong, smart race in the 18-19 hour range might sneak into the top 20.  Already, though, his pace was more in line with a 19:30, and his place was in the 70s; moreover, he didn't look great, already struggling a little bit as the morning was starting to heat up.  We were anxious as we headed off to Michigan Bluff, the 55-mile mark.

Michigan Bluff is one of the largest and busiest aid stations on the course.  Also, since most people are there in the middle of the day, and since there is very little shade, it is also one of the hottest aid stations, except for those deep in the canyons, which are not accessible by crew.   We got in about 12:30, now expecting Glen closer to 3:30 than the 2:30 we had initially planned.   We also met up here with Christian Fitting, an elite ultrarunner from the Bay Area, who would be pacing Glen from Foresthill, mile 62, to mile 80 at Green Gate, where I would take over.  By this point, though, my participation was in doubt.  The drugs wore off, my headache came back along with my nausea, and then I started having chills, to the point where I was leaving one of the few shady areas to sit in the sun so I would stop shivering.  Before he left to get set up at Foresthill, Christian looked at me and offered to pace my 20-mile segment as well.  I told him I'd be fine, but secretly I was pretty worried.  My only saving grace was that with Glen struggling I knew I wouldn't have to run too fast; I figured I could stumble through a bunch of 20-minute miles even with a fever.

Glen and I at Michigan Bluff, mile 55.
photo: Mike Redpath
I took another dose of ibuprofen and some Tylenol and slowly started to feel better.  Glen made it in at 4:30--now on pace to run about 22 hours.  He didn't look great, but I didn't think he looked any worse than he had at Robinson Flat six hours before, and after a brief two minutes moved his way back out onto the trail.  We packed up and rushed over to Foresthill.  By the time we got there, around 5 pm, I was feeling much better, and thankfully from that point on whatever I had been dealing with for the past few days seemed out of my system.  Glen rolled through at 6 pm on the button, starting to look a little better himself, and he and Christian headed down Cal Street; we wouldn't see them again until mile 80.  I went over to the Ultrarunner Podcast tent and dropped off some Yard Owl beer for Eric Schrantz, who pulled a couple of these out of his cooler for me:

I almost kissed him.

We replenished our supplies and headed over to Green Gate, the aid station at 80 miles where I would take over pacing duties from Christian.  Tracking the runner updates on my phone, it seemed that Glen and Christian had found a nice rhythm, running 12-minute pace for a nice stretch of miles between 62 and 70; but by the time they reached the American River crossing at mile 78, he struggles had resumed, and Glen hiked the steep uphill from mile 78-80 in about 45 minutes.  He reached us still in relatively good spirits, though.  The pressure was off, and Glen is experienced and strong enough to know that he would be able to finish, and could likely hike most of the way in and still finish in under 24 hours.  But for the first time in three days, I was feeling good and ready to run, and I wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily.  I strapped on my Ultimate Direction AK hydration vest and we headed down the trail.

The first two miles were a struggle.  Glen's main problem at this point was blisters, which prevented him from running downhill at any kind of reasonable pace, so we moved slowly through some technical downhill sections and covered the first two miles in about 34 minutes.  But as the trail flattened out and the running became easier, Glen seemed to recover some; I gave him a Zofran which settled his stomach and helped him get in a few more calories, and we started running 13-minute pace down into the Auburn Lakes aid station at mile 85.

The aid stations at WS are unbelievable: packed with volunteers, any kind of food or drink you could want, fantastic energy.  We blew through quickly, feeling refreshed, and found some great rhythm on some wonderfully runnable trails, resuming our 12-13 minute pace.  Before I knew it we had reached Brown's Bar at mile 89.9.  I was having a blast and feeling great.  Glen seemed to be recovering some strength.  "Born to Run" blasted over the loudspeakers and we stormed into the aid station and got refills of our bottles from two-time WS champ Hal Koerner.
We ran through the night.  Visibility with our headlamps was pretty good, and the trail was just the most gorgeously runnable singletrack you could possibly imagine.  West Coast trail runners, you have no idea how lucky you guys are.  Glen hung tough, not flying by any means, but clicking off solid miles and passing folks about every thirty minutes or so, particularly at the aid stations, which we moved through very efficiently.
At the finish, finally.
photo: Mike Redpath
By No Hands Bridge (96.8 miles), I was really in Glen's ear about trying to break 22 hours.  It was a silly thing to care about at this point, but I knew I'd be more satisfied--and I had a feeling Glen would too--if we achieved this small victory.  And from the businesslike way he responded, digging deeper, pushing the pace, and using minimal walk breaks, it seemed he had begun to care about it too.  We dug our way up the steep, seemingly interminable climb through Robie Point and passed through the final aid station without stopping.  With one mile to go, I told Glen we needed a 10:30 to get in under 22 hours.  He grunted, dug deep, and started really running.  Finally we reached the Placer High stadium track, running near eight minute pace, and flew around the final 300 meters, getting him home in 21:58:48 for his sixth sub-24 hour silver belt buckle at Western States.  It may not have been the finish we had hoped for, but it was extremely satisfying nonetheless.  In a year that has been pretty frustrating for me from a running standpoint, this was one of the better days.

A man, his beer, and his buckle.
photo: Mike Redpath
photo: Mike Redpath