Thursday, June 30, 2011

Western States 2011, Part Two

The limit to your abilities is where you place it – from a fortune cookie I got a long time ago.

Before we start part two I’d like you to take a second and imagine yourself at the bottom of a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains with trees lightly sprinkled throughout.  The biggest mountain stands in front of you, it’s mostly bald with ski-lifts running like veins up an arm and a cable car is strung to the steepest point, its destination somewhere in the peaks beyond where you can see.  You’re surrounded by friends and family.  People are laughing and hugging.  There are smiles all around, pictures are being taken.  You half expect a pretty girl in a grass skirt to come by and hand you a mojito and flash you a wink and a smile.  It’s still dark out, a gentle crescent moon hangs in the West, the peaks you view it over distort your perception of it – it’s larger than it should be.  The temperature is nice, a bit cold in the mid 40’s with a slight breeze but you’re comfortable in your shorts and a t-shirt. 

Relaxing, huh?

Then some guy starts counting down from 60.  59…58…57…56…55…54…53…

Did I mention there’s a clock in front of you?  It’s counting down to zero.

That minute goes by way too fast.

…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…the girl in the grass skirt is gone.

If there was a zero you didn’t hear it, you just started moving forward with the rest of the crowd.  That beautiful mountain in front of you - you get to run up it, all 2,500 feet of it.

“Run” is relative here.  At WS the fast folks run the hills, all of them.  Normal people walk them.  We get more course for our money, is how I like to think about it.

The first part of the race is a 3.5 mile uphill from the bottom of Squaw Valley to the top of whatever mountain lies at the end of it.  I had zero intention of running any of that first climb.  I saw no point.  I wanted to start slow and steady, save the legs for the later parts of the race.  I knew the climb from last year; I did it the day before Greg ran.  I was not looking forward to it.

Coleen and I planned to stick together for as long as possible.  I was quite intent on keeping it slow on this first climb.  She was a little more aggressive and I found myself getting pulled along while pulling her back.  It was probably a really nice balance.

It’s hard to under-describe the climb.  It’s what you think it is.  There’s maybe 100 yards of flat surface the entire 3.5 miles to the top.  Most of it is a wide gravel road that must be some kind of ski slope when the weather is right. 

I was amazed at how quiet it was.  Very few people talked.  It was like a meeting of the overly-serious people support group.  Everyone there was focused on one task and they felt like chatting would ruin that.  Coleen and I jabbered the whole way up – people probably thought we were wasting energy or something lame like that.

I looked at my watch and we were in the 16-17 min range.  I was hoping for 20 min/mile.  I convinced Coleen to shoot for 18/mile.  To do this we weren’t allowed to pass anyone else on the climb.  It worked, we slowed down.  I wasn’t breathing hard and my legs felt good, but there’s no reason to push.  Plenty of time to be tired later.

Course from the start to Foresthill

We hit the first aid station, Escarpment, about 2.5 miles into the climb.  They don’t put this puppy at the summit – too hard to get the supplies up there.  They put it at the start of the snow.  I filled up my handheld with some water (did I mention I was carrying my Ultimate Direction pack?) and we moved on pretty quickly.

The first part of the snow wasn’t bad at all.  It had been torn up pretty well before we got to it, so we just found a nice path and followed it.  The last 1/3 of a mile is where it gets fun on this climb.  There are two serious climbs to the summit.  Both are about 100 yards long.  The first was fairly manageable with a scramble-like hike.  Not much snow, lots of rocks and dirt, it was ok.  The second was in-freaking-sane.  It was like a scene from a movie: a line of people slowly moving up a solid sheet of snow.  It must have been sitting at a 25 degree angle – it looked too steep to be safe.

There were little indentions in the hill where people had kicked the snow in a bit – that was the path you wanted to follow.  If you didn’t you ran the risk of sliding down the slope, back to where you came from, or worse.  A couple of people took the wrong tack up – they paid for it by getting stuck and struggling to stay attached to the hill.  Various hands and such went out to help them.

Ice axes would have been totally appropriate.

We summited the mountain after that climb.  I didn’t pay attention to the time.  Maybe an hour and thirty or so – it didn’t matter.  Coleen called to me to look back before we headed down the other side: “this is the famous picture” she said.  And so it was.  The view was amazing.  The sun was just up over the mountains to the East that surround Lake Tahoe.  The lake was glistening with the light and the snow extended to the horizon.

I could have spent all day up there, but that would probably have pissed my crew off, so I kept going.  We started our descent into the longest unsupported part of the course – 12 miles with no aid.  This is why I took my Ultimate Direction pack.  It can hold 96oz of water, important to a water buffalo such as me.  (Note: I once drank 96 oz on a 4 mile loop at SM Park when it was hotter than Hades.)  The nice thing about the next stretch was that it was all downhill.  Should be quick, right?  Hahahahah…nope.

The first quarter mile or so was dirt, it was runnable and run we did.  Then we hit the snow again.  This snow was a little different.  First off, it had twinges of red to it.  Odd, right?  Yeah, I thought so.  Upon further inspection I realized the red splots we were passing were blood.  Most likely from people and probably not because someone tried to tango with a furry mammal.  See, folks were slipping and falling all over the place.  The snow wasn’t “fluffly” or “powdery” as some of the ski-bumbs like it.  It was frozen-solid snow.  Falling hurt.  Falling drew blood.

There was also lots of yellow snow, as you can imagine.  I stopped to pee and Coleen did shortly afterwards.  I waited for her off to the side of the trail/path that was least dangerous.  While I waited some guy, who apparently needed an audience, ran up by me, didn’t even bother to find a tree, and dropped trou well within acoustic range.  He clearly had Mexican the night before by the sound of it.  He wasn’t shy.  I am glad to report that he did pack his used toilet paper in a little plastic bag and shove it into his pack for later disposal or analysis.  I’m also glad to report that his rear blended in nicely with the snow, he apparently doesn’t tan in the nude.

Coleen got done and thankfully didn’t notice the exhibitionist pooper.  We got moving again but running here was a dangerous idea.  You’d get moving a bit, put a foot down, find that foot to the side of you, then try to gather yourself in such a way that when you landed the 20 people behind you didn’t go “oooohhh, ouch” in unison.  So, we walked most of it.  We were in the 18-20 min/mile range, and so was everyone else around us.

Coleen and I in the snow.
Photo by Gary Wang
It got frustrating after a while, I’d put a foot down only to post-hole and find myself buried in a foot of snow with a cold foot.  Boo.  But, it was fun also.  I’ve never heard so much laughing before during a race.  As we got the hang of moving through the frozen tundra we’d slip and slide and catch ourselves before falling which inevitably led to a hoot and a holler followed by a bout of giggling from you and those around you.

After a while of feeling like a kid again we came to our first water crossing.  It was a creek that looked like a river that felt like a rapid with a rope tied to a couple of precariously perched trees.  You had one choice really: get wet.  We went in, I was immediately in freezing cold water up to my knees.  Coleen’s a little shorter so she must have had it up to her thighs.  Man, it was cold.  I’m thinking it was about 50 feet across.

The water crossing.
Photo by Gary Wang
Getting out of it was like getting slapped in the face, it was a total wake-up.  That mountain breeze hit my recently-baptized legs and just bit in.  The only option was to run to get warm.

After a few minutes we warmed up and I figured I’d survive with at least 90% of my toes.  Just then, another water crossing.  Sheesh.  But, this one had a volunteer standing on the other side.  I was confused.  Volunteers mean aid stations.  Aid stations means we’ve covered 12 miles.  12 miles means we’ve covered 15 total.  My head was spinning.  I bolted across the creek in blind excitement nearly knocking some lady over who was trying to tip-toe across the wet and slippery rocks while the volunteer yelled at her to just jump in and watch out for the crazy dude.

Before I knew it I had my pack off and handed to someone to fill while I quickly deteriorated into eating trough-style at the food table.  Coleen was slightly more picky as she’s vegan and tries to avoid processed foods.  Which, during a race, is amazing.  This was the Talbot aid station.  Approx 15 miles in.
We got going pretty quickly and found ourselves on a fire road with occasional snow piled to the side.  This meant it was time for some running.  We settled into a trot with my pace being a little slower than Coleen’s.  I kept having to either speed up to catch her or just let her run a few feet in front of me.  I was in a gear I felt comfortable with.

I am sorry to report that I don’t have many good stories from this section.  It was everyone’s first chance to really run so that’s kind of what everyone did.  I did pee again, which was very unusual for me.  Typically I’m a one-and-done kind of guy (with peeing…get your mind out of the gutter) during an ultra.

This section was all road, mostly dirt but some paved at the end.  Maybe a mile or so of paved into the Poppy aid station.  I got my pack refilled here, got my bottle filled with some GU2O, ate some food and left.  We walked a bit out to let the food settle but Coleen was itchin to get movin.  At least, that’s how I remember it.

Let me take a second to point out that everything I say here probably isn’t 100% true.  Anyone who tells you they remember everything they did exactly after nearly 30 hours of running needs to be taken to the medical tent immediately.  This all is how I best remember it…probably erring to the side of embellishing to make myself (and Coleen, of course) look even more awesome than we already are.  You, as a reader, accept that, of course.  So, when I throw in a detail like “Coleen was itchin to get movin”, that’s how I honestly remember it.

Anyways, back to the trail.  The section from Poppy to Duncan Canyon, miles 20 to 23.5 was beautiful.  It was along the French Meadows Reservoir, had minimal climbing and was peppered with gorgeous giant trees.  The trail was littered with pine cones larger than my, ahem, forearm.  The whole trail was a soft bed of pine needles that gave nicely with each step.  It was like running on a cloud.  I could have slept on them.  Ahh, it was amazing.

Coleen pushed me here.  She was moving better than I was at this point and I had to reel her in to a walk from time to time.  I felt bad, if she was moving well I should have let her go, but we did decide to run most of the race together, and I figured saving a little energy here would payoff later.  So, slow her down I did.
We crossed various creeks and managed to stay dry.  I spent most of my time staring at the lake or the scenery and still managed to not kick or trip over anything.  We spent a little time talking about bears and wondering if we’d see one.  I was in front of Coleen and we were coming around a rock while talking about this.  It hadn’t been two seconds since we said a word when “HOLY SHIT!!!!!” - I saw a large object move out from behind the rock we were walking around.  I must have jumped a foot back into Coleen (I really wish she woulda caught me cartoon-style).  Some guy decided to take a piss behind this rock then walk out just as we were talking about surprising a bear.  Sheesh.  I’m really surprised I didn’t poo myself from that.

We had a good laugh with the bear-turned innocent runner about it and as my HR came down from 180 we came into a recently burned-out section of forest.  There were very few trees standing, none which provided shade.  This sucked because it was getting hot.  I had my hat that came with the neck cover and I was glad for it.  We also started a relentless climb up to the Duncan Canyon aid station.  It’s amazing how quickly we went from running on clouds to cursing every step in the hot dirt with the sun beating down on us while walking uphill.

We stumbled into Duncan Canyon worse-for-wear.  I’d say that this is where I started to show signs of fatigue.  That last little climb in really started to chip away at me.  This would have sucked if the aid station wasn’t so freaking awesome.  It was a little oasis.  As soon as I walked in a volunteer grabbed my pack and asked me what I needed.  See, you get your own personal attendant at each aid station at WS, it’s fantastic.  They filled my pack and bottle while I grazed at the table.  I made a point to eat well here as I knew it was almost 8 miles to the next aid station, Mosquito Ridge.

As we were leaving there were some volunteers directing us across a road.  One of the guys was dressed up like Mr. T and he kept telling us to take it easy on the climb to Mosquito Ridge.  He quickly followed this with a “I pitty the fool who doesn’t listen!”  It was hilarious!  The other thing that sticks out is a sign they put up on the way out, a quote from Back to the Future: “Roads?  Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”  I kind of figured this meant we’d be on trail all the way to Mosquito Ridge…notsomuch.  Oh well.

If I recall this part right, and I may not since I tried to block it all from my memory, we left the aid station and started a gradual downhill on dirt trails, which appeared recently cut, onto a dirt road for a bit which dumped us out to a paved road.  From there we started a climb on the same paved road up to another dirt road.  We basically went down one side of a mountain then started back up the other.  This may have been a couple of miles.  Then we took a very gradual downhill dirt road which we ran most of.  Coleen was the leader on this.  She really kept me moving at this point.

After a while we started a climb.  Well, climb just makes it sound too innocent.  It was really more of a torture.  I did not realize how long it was going to be, and I don’t think anyone else did.  It just kept going and going and going.  I think it’s safe to say we had a 3 mile constant climb into Mosquito Ridge.  It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies either.  It was shitty rocky footing on something that resembled a dirt road built during the Great Depression by a guy who was half into a bottle of Wild Turkey when he was picking the route.  It sucked, it was hot, it was no fun.

Coleen and I did manage a pretty good climbing pace.  We were passing folks, which was encouraging.  What wasn’t encouraging was the fact the climb never f-ing stopped.  I was getting so sick of it.  I’m from Kansas, a hill greater than ¼ mile is a little ridiculous to me.

Near the top we passed our first wasted runner.  He didn’t look so great.  As we went by he stood in the middle of the trail and I asked him if he was ok.  He muttered a “no” but kind of ignored me with a bit of a blank stare but with body language that told me to get away, so I did.

One of the fantastic volunteers at Mosquito Ridge.
Photo by Gary Wang
We got to the end, finally, and encountered our first medical check.  I took my pack off and got on the scale, 203.  I was down about 7 pounds.  Not bad considering the heat and the fact I had run, er, moved 31 miles.  The doctor there gave me the once over and told me I was fine.  I knew I was, just a little tired, but happy to be at the top.

I had a drop bag here and the scampry little volunteer who took my pack also grabbed my drop bag without asking.  She put it in my hand while I made a mess at the dinner table shoving various things into my mouth.  Coleen got her bag and got her pack refilled and waited for me at the exit.  I saw her so I just kinda walked out, tossing my drop bag into the return pile without really thinking.  We left the aid station when she asked me if I had gotten anything out of it.  “Out of what” I asked. “Out of your drop bag” she said.  “Oh shit”, I totally forgot about it.  I didn’t even pay attention; I just kind of carried it through then tossed it.  Crap.  I didn’t need the shoes but I did want some of the gels I had in there.  I also had a charger for my Garmin in there that I really wanted.  Oops.  So much for all of that.

The next section was a totally new loop for us due to the snow course changes.  Instead of heading to Robinson Flat we had to do this 4-mile loop from Mosquito Ridge to Miller’s Defeat.  Tell you what, it sucked.  It was the worst part of the course.  It was basically a lame dirt road that was half up, then half down.  It was no fun.  Oh, one thing to note, it was the only part of the course where you could see people coming back in, for about 20 yards.  Basically you passed the Miller’s Defeat aid station outbound then came back to it.

This is basically what the course looked like
from Duncan Canyon to Dusty Corners.
Photo by Gary Wang
I actually fell really far behind Coleen through here.  I stopped to pee once and she kept walking.  I didn’t feel like running to catch her, so I didn’t.  When I did finally catch her I was slowing her down a bit.  I wasn’t worried about my pace, I was just moving slower than her.  Then, once we got to the downhill part, she ran most of it and moved ahead of me again.  I ran, but at a much slower pace.

Beyond that, there’s nothing to say about this section, it was booooring and hot.

We got to Miller’s Defeat and I had no plans on spending any time there.  One, for the name, and two, because Dusty Corners was a short 2 or so miles away.  Call it lame superstition, I guess.  I think I had a strawberry - one strawberry.

Last year, crewing for Greg, Dusty Corners was the first place I got to see him.  So, I was excited to get to this part of the course.  It was mostly downhill and we ran it at an ok pace.  Coleen stayed with me more here, which I was happy for.  It was very hot and very dusty.  Not a lot of fun at that point.

I should note that at this point, leaving Miller’s Defeat, we were back on the usual course.

I also am having a hard time remembering the course before Dusty Corners and the area right before the climb up to Devil’s Thumb.  I know we descended essentially the whole way to the climb and went through Last Chance, but I can’t tell you what happened between Dusty Corners and Last Chance and then between Last Chance and the start of the climb.

I do know we slowed down a bit.  Coleen’s stomach started to turn a bit on her and I was fatigued.  We moved well but not as quickly as we could have given the flat to descending course.

Last Chance was a medical check and I do know I clocked another 203 there.  So, that’s where I’ll pick it up again, right after Last Chance at mile 43.3.

The aid station means what it says.  It’s your last chance before you climb up to Devil’s Thumb.  If you want to imagine the course between Last Chance and the Devil’s Thumb aid station just picture a V.  That’s all it is: straight down, then straight up.  The downhill is so vicious that it’s really not runnable for most people.  The uphill is just as punishing.  We made the downhill slowly and crossed a bridge to get us started on the uphill. 

It was rough.  We moved slowly.  Coleen’s stomach was really getting her.  She almost puked a few times going up and we spent some time standing to catch our breath and let her stomach settle.  She kept trying to get me to go on but there was zero chance that was going to happen.  First, she’s a friend and I wasn’t going to leave her there and second I was tired also, going ahead may have given me 5 minutes on her, nothing in the course of the entire race.  I was more than happy to take it at her pace.  It kept me in good shape for later on.

There were some sections where I told her just not to look up.  The trail was extremely steep, uncomfortable to even stand on and demoralizing to look at.  We moved up it, slowly and deliberately.  We did get passed by a few folks and we passed a few.  I was ok with our progress.

As we got towards the top the Devil’s Thumb rock came into view.  It is what it sounds like, a rock on the side of a hill.  It’s cool but I wasn’t overly impressed with it.  About this time a couple of the safety patrol folks caught up with us, asked us if we were ok, gave Coleen some ginger to eat and told us we were real close.

Turns out, they weren’t lying.  A switchback or two later we were greeted with a massive aid station, which I was more than happy to see.  It was another medical check; I was up to 207, go figure.  Coleen took some time to eat here, which was good, I also ate a lot.  Downed a bunch of fruit, chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese and a popsicle.  The popsicle was fantastic.

We moved out cautiously after ingesting so much food.  We had a good walk going and we knew running was not in order.  We chatted a lot at this point, knowing Devil’s Thumb climb was behind us I felt confident in our ability to finish the race.  We were a couple of hours ahead of the cutoff and were moving well.  We were jabbering so much we missed one of the yellow flags marking a turnoff to the course.  As we continued down a road another runner yelled at us to come back up and get on course.  Thankfully he saw us, otherwise we both would have just kept on going, oblivious to where we were.

It is a long downhill to El Dorado Creek (mile 52.9).  I think this is where the course really gets you, on the downhills.  We ran slowly through a lot of this but had to walk a lot when it got too steep to run.  Through here we met up with two or three other folks, a local and some out-of-towners who stuck with us all the way down to the creek.  It was nice to have folks to run with.  We chatted which helped pass the time.
Compared to all the other aid stations El Dorado Creek is the least well stocked and smallest.  I can’t imagine it’s easy to get supplies to, so I don’t blame anyone and I’m not complaining.  I’m just pointing out that it’s pretty simple.  I think they got a lot of the supplies down on a dirt-bike or ATV, which tells you where we were.

We moved quickly through here onto our next major climb: the trek up to Michigan Bluff.  I looked forward to this: we got to see crew at Michigan Bluff.  I was excited to see Erin, Greg and Raven.  Coleen told her crew to stay at Foresthill.  She didn’t think they’d go to Michigan Bluff.  I figured there was no way Deb and Debbie were going to listen to her.  I knew they’d be there waiting for her and have time to get back to Foresthill.

We met more folks on this climb.  It was another slow and steady slog up unreasonably steep trails.  We also did some more stopping and relaxing during the climb.

Now, I’m in a bind here.  I don’t know what else to tell you about this climb that you didn’t hear about Devil’s Thumb but I don’t want to discount the toll it took on us.  So, let’s make a deal: I’ll take us to the top and you agree that it was an insanely difficult climb, the likes of which would surely send mere mortals to their graves and that Coleen and I dominated it with cool and calculated efficiency.  Deal?  Good.

Michigan Bluff is really a small city on top of the mountain.  It was really nice to run into, it’s a easy downhill to the aid station and the crowd of cheering crew.  It was great.  It brought me up so much.  Seeing new faces was great and seeing my crew was even better.  The first person I noticed was Greg, because he was hard to miss.  He was jumping around and flailing his arms like a little girl at a Beiber concert.  Coleen saw this and was like “uhh, well there’s Greg”.  (This is how I remember it, and I’m stickin to my story here.)  Raven was next to him and I saw Erin as soon as I entered the chute into the aid station.

This was a medical check and I weighed in at 207 again.  Nice and steady.  I felt good, grabbed some food and gave my bottle to a volunteer who proceeded to lose it.  She claimed to not know where it was and then walked off like she didn’t care, which kind of pissed me off.  We quickly found it on the table, which means she filled it then put it down.  Whatever.

I sat for a bit here, the first time sitting all day.  Coleen plopped down next to me and our crews swarmed us like doctors in the trauma room.  I drank an Ensure, ate some food, and just kinda relaxed for a minute.  Greg noted that he was watching the time and wasn’t going to let me rest much.  This is what good crew does.  They let you rest but keep you mindful of what you’re really out there for.

Coleen told me to leave without her.  She told me it in a way that you can’t really argue with.  So, I took off without her.  Leaving Michigan Bluff is basically a continuation of your climb.  It’s about another mile or so of mixed uphill/downhill, mostly uphill, followed by a long descent into a canyon.  I walked the first half mile or so, letting food digest and such.  I had the pleasure of coming across a guy who was puking.  He stopped as soon as I passed and he flashed me a smile and said “wow, I feel better now”.  Only in an ultra is this considered normal and totally acceptable.

After a bit more walking I started jogging slowly, even covering the uphills while jogging.  I felt good and wanted to keep moving.  The gradual uphill quickly turned into a torrential downhill.  I kept running it ignoring the pain in my feet, knees and hips.  In retrospect, this was probably a mistake.  This is where I trashed my quads.  It may have been more advisable to walk this section but I was without a flashlight and night was approaching.  I wanted to get to Bath Road quickly.

As with any descent you’ve gotta climb your way out at some point.  I hit a creek, scrambled across, and started the climb into Bath Road.  This was another no-fun climb (seeing a pattern here?).  After a bit it leveled out into a nice flat and runnable trail, which I took advantage of.  At this point I started passing pacers running back to their runners.  See, starting at 8pm you can have a pacer from Michigan Bluff.  So, folks take off at 7:30 or whatever from Bath Road to meet their runner halfway.  A nice little boost.

I hit the last few climbs into Bath Road optimistic.  My quads were hurting but I was in one piece, for the most part. 

Bath Road is great for several reasons.  It’s a nice little aid station and it’s somewhere that you can meet your crew early and walk/run with them the entire way to Foresthill.  It’s a strenuous uphill and the company makes it better.

So, I came out of the woods expecting to see Brian or Greg standing there, which I didn’t.  Hmm, odd.  I started the trek up and not ten seconds later saw them coming down the hill.  So, they turned around and started the 1.9 mile walk up with me.

Foresthill aid station.
Photo by Debbie Lanz-Webster
It went quickly.  The conversation helped pass the time.  I told them marginally true stories about the race so far and asked them how various people were doing so far.

We got to the top of the climb and turned left onto Foresthill road.  This is a nice flat to downhill section that leads you right into the aid station.  So, I told them what I needed at the car and Greg took off that direction while Brian went into the aid station with me.  I got weighed again, 209, and ate a bunch of food.  Brian handled the water and everything, which was great.

We left quickly to a lot of cheering and “good jobs”, which is always nice to hear from strangers.

From there my mom met us and jogged/shuffled with us to the car where the entire crew was waiting.  It was such a good feeling to see everyone.  I sat down while everyone tended to me.  I got my shirt changed and decided to change my socks, an unpleasant task which Erin and Greg quickly attended to.  My mom tried to help a little, which was more hands than were needed, but hey, that’s what mothers try to do.

Apparently the stench from my feet was enough to warrant some kind of EPA report so I felt it was best to get moving before finding myself buried in environmental hazard paperwork.  I said my goodbyes and thank-yous to everybody and Brian and I took off for the last 38 miles.  I was excited, I had some running in me and we were going to cover part of the trail that I got to do last year with Greg.

As the food settled I was getting excited for the final 38 miles.

My parents waiting at Foresthill.
Photo by Debbie Lanz-Webster

Raven, Greg and Deb at Foresthill.
Photo by Debbie Lanz-Webster

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