Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Western States 2011, Part One

The climb up to Highway 49, mile 93.5, was the worst.  I've heard people talk about hitting rock bottom.  Usually it's in the context of alcohol, drugs or some other over-indulgence of life.  Rock bottom, for me, was due to running.  I used up all my laughter in the snow.  My wit left slowly, spread neatly along the course.  My energy was laid out in a line up to Green Gate and my quads were in a canyon somewhere between Michigan Bluff and Bath Road.  Nervousness was left at the start.  Logic was done at Devil's Thumb, right after my popsicle and right before an almost wrong turn.  Even my despair was gone, I used up that somewhere around Brown's Bar, when I sat down for a few minutes and almost couldn't walk again.  The only thing I had left was anger.  I was angry at the course, at the dirt, the rocks, the trees, myself, my pacer, my pack, everything around me triggered that one thing I had left.  That must be what rock bottom is.  Where every inconsequential thing triggers the one thread you've got left.

I guess I should tell you how I got to that point, and where I went from there.

Fine, I'll save you the anticipation - I finished.  This is the story of how it happened.

Erin and I flew to San Jose the Saturday before the race and drove down the PCH to LA to visit some friends there, which included a nice wog in Runyon Canyon, a real gem in LA.  Then we picked up my parents from the Burbank airport (way better than LAX) and headed North to Yosemite for a day (what a beautiful park - I'd love to get back there for some hiking and camping).  After that it was onto Sacremento on Thursday to pick up Brian (one of my pacers) then over to South Lake Tahoe to meet Greg (another pacer) and Raven (Coleen's pacer) and get ready for the race.

Whew, did you follow all of that?  If not, simple version: we made it to Tahoe on Thursday.

I dragged Erin and Brian to the medical research briefing on Thursday night.  It was a review of some of the work that’s been done at the race the past few years.  I found it very interesting and was happy to participate this year by donating a little blood and urine at the end of the race.  This year they were looking at how your knowledge of hyponatremia (based on a questionare) relates to how you end up at the end of the race.  I’m happy to say I ended up with a sodium of 138, well out of the hyopnatremia area.  They also measured phospho-creataine kinase, an indication of muscle damage.  My level was 9,000 IU/L, much lower than I expected.  I take it as an indication I’m either a wimp or I was well trained for the race.  I know you’re going with wimp.

The remainder of Thursday night involved dinner at a yummy Mexicain joint in Tahoe City and then a 20-minute jog along the lake with some serious star-gazing time out on a dock.  It was fantastic.

Friday morning came way too quickly (that was my last night of “good” sleep).  We headed over to Squaw Valley around 9am to meet Coleen Shaw-Vokes and her crew for breakfast and check-in.  Deb Johnson and Debbie Webster drove out (!) from KC with her to crew and pace.  We also ran into Brad Bishop and his crew/pacer James Barker who also drove out (double !).  Flying was long enough for me.  Lastly, Stacy Sheridan was there, her and Phil had flown out the night before, I believe.  Phil was nowhere in sight (I actually didn’t see him until after the race – when he looked like he hadn’t even ran a mile!).
We all grabbed breakfast at a yummy smoothie place in the village then dragged the entourage over to check-in.  Well, we all took pictures also…lots and lots and lots of pictures. 

The check-in line wasn’t terrible, maybe a 20 minute wait or so.  We signed all kinds of “I might die” and “bears think humans are tasty” disclaimers and waivers.  Had our photos taken, had a video taken then were fed along a schwag line like I’ve never seen.  I came out of there with a fancy-ass pack, a shoulder bag, arm warmers, leg warmers, a neck warmer, a shirt, a fleece, enough prunes to hold a retirement home over for a week and other random goodies that I don’t even recall anymore.  We were then given our golden yellow wristband and told to stand on a scale.  I joined the Clydesdale division, coming in at 208.  They also checked our BP and pulse, both of which were jacked for everyone I imagine.  All of this was noted on our wristband, and never looked at again the entire race.

After all that it was time to wait for the race briefing which is an exercise in trying to find a spot in a small open space with little shade and questionable acoustics.  I shipped my parents off on the cable car that would take them to the top of the mountain while Brian, Greg and Raven went for an exploratory hike up the escarpment.  This is kind of a tradition (a 2 year tradition) where the crew and pacers run or walk (ok, maybe crawl) the first climb up to and past the Escarpment aid station.  The idea is that they get to suffer and offer the runner a report on the snow.  I’m happy to report they came back successful in both.  Greg’s snow report went something like “uhh, that’s a lot of snow”.  Actually, it was much more academic than that, but really all I took away was “you should bring ski’s, poles and crimp-on’s”.

Erin and I relaxed a bit.  We headed over to Coleen’s room to pack a drop bag and check out some course maps.  With the course changes this year I wasn’t sure where I wanted a drop-bag.  After some non-logical thinking I decided on a pair of shoes and some random food at Mosquito Ridge, mile 31.  Typically, I wouldn’t pack one, but this year we didn’t get to see our crew until mile 55 – Michigan Bluff.  Now, the question is, did I use anything out of the drop-bag?  You’ll just have to read on.

The pre-race briefing was pretty inconsequential.  A bunch of people spoke including two guys clearly out of place in suits from the district’s congressman’s office.  (Note to people like that: ditch the suit when you’re talking to a bunch of people about to run a hundred.  Go for shorts and flip-flops, you’ll be taken more seriously.)  A lot of work went into getting the trail ready and re-directing the trail due to the amount of snow and all those people deserved the recognition they got, and more. 

After that we all grabbed some pizza then headed back to Tahoe City.  Erin and Brian dropped me off at the hotel and headed back for another hike of the Escarpment.  Erin hadn’t done it yet this year (she did do it last year, so she knew what she was in for) and Brian is nuts enough to do it twice in one day.  I tried to take a nap which almost worked until Graham Fox (the official unofficial blogger of Sporting KC) sent me some encouraging text messages.  I think this was planned.  See, Graham offered up his beard in a wager with me.  If I ran the race in under 26:30 he was going to shave it – it’s quite a beard.  I believe him and Brian or Erin were in cahoots to disrupt my nap in favor of me losing the bet.  They’re all evil like that.  (If you didn’t catch that sarcasm you should probably just quit reading here.)

So, after some unsuccessful Z’s and after Brian and Erin got back from the hike we all (Erin, Brian, Greg, Raven, the ‘rents and me) headed over to Rosie’s for dinner.  I had the cheese pizza (boring, I know, but it looked good) followed by an artery-clogging combination of an oversized Oreo cookie and ice cream for dessert.  It was actually a very relaxing dinner – just what I needed.

We were back at the hotel around 10.  I laid out my stuff for the next morning (3:30 was going to come waaay too soon) and we all turned in for the night.  Well, I tried to turn in.  Erin and Brian seemed to fall asleep pretty quickly.  Me, not-so-much.  I got up at least three times to pee and tossed and turned until well after midnight.  I didn’t feel nervous.  I don’t know what it was that kept me up…I just couldn’t sleep.  The last thing I remember doing was counting rocks as I ran past them on the trail…

…then it was 3:30 and it was time to get going.

I shoved some processed crap that the hotel considered part of a “continential breakfast” into me as quickly as I could.  I also downed an Ensure and an orange.  I got dressed, saw a man about a horse, and lubed up all within about 15 minutes.  Erin and Brian were up and moving too – although I observed them with much contempt, as I knew they’d be back asleep within a few hours as I was dragging my happy ass up a slight incline.

We left Tahoe City at 4am, the race started at 5.  I still needed to get checked in, get my number and chip and meet up with Coleen before we started.  The drive to Squaw is about 15 minutes from Tahoe City, not bad at all.  We got there and headed to Coleen’s room to say hi to everyone – but also to wait nervously together.  When we knocked on the door a strange man answered, I thought we had the wrong room until I saw Deb or Debbie walk behind him.  “Hmm”, I thought, "did someone stop by the local bar last night?"  I was very confused.  Deb quickly clarified that it was her daughter’s boyfriend and he happened to be riding his bike across the country and needed a place to crash for the night.  Now, what’s crazier here: a bunch of folks about to run a hundred, or a med student riding his bike across the country?  It’s really 50/50.  I guess us crazies tend to find each other.  For the record, if I had been Deb or Debbie I would have come up with a way better story than “daughter’s boyfriend”.  It was 4:30 in the morning, we would have believed almost anything.

Coleen and I heading to the start.
Coleen and I ran (literally) over to the start to get our numbers and everything else.  I was ready, but nervous.  Coleen seemed the same.  This was big.  Running at Western States is a little like letting the people with a handicap of 20 compete at the Masters – you know you’re not gonna win, but you get to play on the best course in the nation with the best there is, except it’s ok to poop on the course at Western, as long as you’re a few feet off to the side.  It’s a total trip. 

Erin and the sheep.
I can’t recall what was going through my head at this point.  You enter an ultra with a particular level of uncertainty.  50 or 100 miles is a long way, and a lot can go wrong.  It’s ok if it does and if something isn’t working for you it’s ok to pull the plug.  Better to have tried and quit with everything functioning properly than to have tried and end up with a MRI the next week is what I always say.  I didn’t have that uncertainty at Western.  I was gonna finish.  I didn’t think that but I knew it.  Like, there was no internal dialogue saying “look, this is going to be hard and you’ll do it, it might hurt, but you’ll do it”.  There were these two points in my head, the start and the finish, I saw them but didn’t see how they connected, only knew that they would somehow.

Our crew and pacers joined us near the start for last minute hugs and pictures.  Did I mention pictures?  I was nearly blind from the flashes.  With a few minutes to go I dragged Coleen to somewhere in the middle of the start area and waited.
Brian, myself and Greg

Part two coming soon...


laurie said...

Love it! Waiting eagerly for part dos.

pigtailultrarunner said...

Fantastic! Even though I was there for a good chunk of it, I can't wait to hear the next part. It's fascinating to hear someone elses impressions of the same scene. And for the record you made me LOL several times already.

Indi said...

Love it! Edge of my seat for part deaux!

Anonymous said...

This is making me nervous just reading it. Well done, Danny!