It used to seem to me, That my life ran on too fastAnd I had to take it slowly, Just to make the good parts lastBut when you’re born to run, It’s so hard to just slow downSo don’t be surprised to see me, Back in that bright part of town-Steve Windwood
Executive summary: 23:42:06. One Hundred Miles, One Day. A dream come true. Silver Buckle. The race of a lifetime, probably. I think sub-24 at Western States is very hard and yet attainable to runners of average talent like myself. People think the course isn’t that difficult, but it features rocky trail, altitude, lots of ups and downs and heat. It is MUCH tougher than the “easier” 100s I’ve done (Umstead, Vermont and Arkansas). Those of us from the east seem to have particular difficulty with this race.The hairs on your arm will stand up; with the terror in each sip and in each sup;Will you partake of that last offered cup, Or fade away, into the potter’s ground?-Johnny Cash
Prologue: I had early success in my ultra career despite what most would consider minimal mileage (I ran sub-22 hours at Umstead, my first 100, on 100-130 mile months). That came to a crashing halt my first time at Western States in 2004. The altitude did a number on me and for a while it looked like I wouldn’t even finish. I rallied as the trail dropped and finished under 28 hours. It remains the race I’m proudest of, because of how I persevered under adversity. I wanted to come back; not so much to redeem myself but to see what I could do on a good day.
I didn’t apply for 2004 because I was relocating from Boston to Pittsburgh and knew I couldn’t spare the time for the race. I lost in the lottery for 2005 and 2006, so knew I was in for 2007 (I had conveniently qualified for both the 2006 and 2007 lotteries at Arkansas Traveler in 2005). But a new problems appeared: my knee hurt whenever I ran. I had hurt it playing basketball in college and had ACL replacement in medical school. More worrisome was that they had had to remove all the cartilage on the inner part of the joint, the cartilage that serves to cushion the impact between upper and lower leg bones. I had always been careful about mileage and for many years had not run on consecutive days. But for some reason it got a lot worse all of a sudden. By October, I was fat, out-of-shape and couldn’t run at all.
I went to a local sports medicine specialist. On the way out, a colleague mentioned that he was known for not telling runners to stop running. Sounds good, I thought. He took one look at my X-ray and said “you’ve got to stop running on that knee.” Uggh. I pouted for a couple days, but my friend Dave Fish mentioned how many people he’d run with who’d been told they’d have to stop. The doc had gone on to give me some advice on what to do if I ignored his initial advice, mostly focusing on strengthening the quads and hamstrings, which had atrophied.
I decided to give it a shot. A former collegiate oarsman, I knew rowing would strengthen the quads, so I started rowing like a madman on my Concept II. I eased back into running with a few laps on a decrepit cinder track near my house. I also restarted strength work, which I had let slip. This combination worked wonders and my knee felt better. I put in >1000 miles preceding the race in 2007, rowed another 300, and did lots of uphill walking on the treadmill and strength work. I worked up to 2 difficult walking workouts (1hour at 4 miles per hour and 15% grade and successive miles at 4.0 mph/15% grade, 4.3/12%, 4.6/9%, 5.0/6% and 5.5/3%). I also built up to 2x20 dips and 2x10 pullups as well as 2x15 lunges (each leg) holding 35 lbs dumbbells in each hand.
Despite the knee issues, I started running the day after my long runs. Several times after doing 30-35 trail miles on Saturday, I’d do 10-12 miles with a running group. Having previously trained exclusively by myself, I found it much easier to get through runs on tired legs with company. On non-long run weekends, I tried to keep up with the faster runners in the group on the uphills, which helped my speed. My weight dropped from 212 in October to the 180s in June. I’d weigh in at 187, 16 lbs. lighter than 4 years previous.
My left hamstring bothered me sometimes during speed work, so I got less of that in than I’d have liked. Amazingly, I was able to back off early and not miss a ton of training, rather than trying to train through and getting really hurt. Must be the wisdom of years. My knee felt as good as it had post-surgery and it bothered me almost not-at-all the last few months.
Given my family and job responsibilities, I knew this was the best 100 mile shape I’d ever be in.
PRERACE: After attending my in-laws 50tth anniversary in Vegas the weekend prior to the race; we arrived at our condo on Monday night. We did fun stuff around the area (Donner Party museum, rafting on the Truckee, etc.). If you are ever in Reno go to Eclipse Pizza
, run by my friend Dave Fish, for the best pizza and salads I’ve ever had. Get the apple goat-cheese salad. It’s awesome.
My wife commented on how relaxed I seemed. I figured I had trained as hard as I could, given my professional and personal life, so what was there to be nervous about. My ace pacer, Tom Watson, arrived Thursday night. On Friday they told us the course would be free of snow and the highs might only be in the 80s. The stars were starting to align…“He who races the clock has an opponent who knows no casualty”
GAMEDAY: I gave my kids a kiss before I left. My daughter, usually a heavy sleeper, woke up and said “Daddy, I like the brass buckle better, because it looks likes gold!” Hmm
The hype seemed less than 4 years ago, but that was probably more me than anything external. I walked up the big hill at the start running only a few flatter sections. By the top there were lots of people both ahead of and behind me and I was about 54m, right on 24 hour time. This year I was able to run in the high country, which was beautiful with wildflowers, and snow free. I pushed a little harder than I should of, wanting not to get behind 24 hour pace. This was a mistake, but not a fatal one. The “new/old” course was much tougher and I was really feeling the altitude on the climb to Robinson Flat. I arrived there a few minutes ahead of 24 hour pace, but knew I was working too hard. I decided to forget about sub-24 and the buckle and just run comfortably. It was a great decision. From there to Last Chance I just ran along, enjoying myself out on the trail. I was keeping up on my nutrition and hydration, taking a Succeed cap every hour and a gel every 25-30 minutes.
I ran hard on the downhill (and faceplanted) out of Last Chance and then climbed steadily up to Devil’s Thumb. 4 years ago I had started to feel better in this section and passed about 20 people on both the way down and up. This year I only passed a couple, but I did it in 1:15, which is quick. As I was heading down toward the cemetery, another runner, I think Keith Straw, caught up to me. I was still just running my race, but he was confident we’d make sub-24, going on about how this was the toughest cut-off and all we had to do was keep moving. I didn’t get too caught up in it, but I started to think I had a shot. He had to stop to get a rock out of his shoe and I didn’t see him again until the end. I fell again heading down to El Dorado but had a good climb to Michigan Bluff. I saw my family there, which was nice, but didn’t spend much time in aid stations all day. At Foresthill, I saw my friend and colleague Geoff Kurland who was the M.D. at the aid staion and Dave Fish and his girlfriend, who were working, and Tom and my family as well. Still in an out in 2 minutes.
I left about 6:35; by this point I was ~25 minutes ahead of 24 hour pace and starting to believe. I told Tom to push me as hard as necessary to get there on time. This was totally unnecessary as Tom had no mercy.. The trail from Foresthill to the River is mostly downhill (but rolling) and mostly runnable, with less rocks than average for this course. Tom suggested using the remaining daylight, which I did, running a lot of the flats here. We didn’t need our lights until Ford’s Bar. The river seemed lower than 4 years ago, but was refreshing on my legs. I had fresh socks and shoes at the far side, but didn’t want to take the time to change. We were out by 10:20, forty minutes of cushion. The stretch from here to Auburn Lakes (and really Brown’s Bar) has lots of relatively flat, smooth, runnable trail, but my quads were so trashed I mostly walked the flats, but aggressively. I would shuffle the downhills (not really running, Tom would tell me, just letting gravity do some of the work). We did okay until slowing on the nasty downhill from Brown’s Bar and the subsequent climb up to Highway 49. We got there about 2:50, having lost about half our cushion, but still 20 minutes ahead of 24 hour pace and with >2 hours to go less than 7 miles. The math was definitely in my favor.
Tom “suggested” I run some of the downhill to No Hands “just to make sure.” After the 49 crossing there is about a mile mostly uphill until you turn and head down toward No Hands Bridge. At the turn there were a couple yahoos and a lot of Christmas lights to make sure you don’t miss the turn. The guys were pretty boisterous and were yelling for us “Go get your buckle” and “Silver” which fired me up. As we headed down toward No Hands there was a runner in front of me, just barely shuffling the down hills. It was almost funny how slowly he “ran.” And I couldn’t catch him. So I just shuffled along behind him. It was perhaps the ugliest running of my life; reminiscent of 8 months earlier when I had to take walking breaks on the cinder track. But run I did, and when we hit the bridge we had 80 minutes to do 3 miles and I knew I’d make it. The climb up to Auburn didn’t seem so bad and I liked the searchlights they had set up at the high school. I felt a lot better as we got closer and closer to the high school and gave Tom my pack and light before we hit the track. I have to say enjoyed running around the track knowing I’d made it and made my goal of sub-24. I’d dreamed of running around that track in the dark for 10 years and now I was finally doing it.
AFTERMATH: Boy was I tired! This was by far the hardest 24 hours of my life. I’d never run so much on tired quads or pushed so hard all day. My friend Damon Lease says that when he ran a sub-3 hour marathon he cared about his time every step of the way. I’m not sure my intensity was that high, but it was close.
But it was cold at the finish and I was worried about getting chilled. I had planned to get a massage but hadn’t really left any clothes or anything at the finish. Tom’s car was parked up above the grandstand so I had to hobble up that. A women watching commented “One last hill” as I staggered up. I laughed and said “they told me that 3 miles ago!”
We stood at the top watching the last sub-24 finishers come in. I was glad to see Keith Straw, who had gotten me fired up back at Last Chance make it in under the wire. I broke down a little as I thought of all the work I’d done, and how I’d dreamed of this. I was also a little bit down as I hadn’t really thought I ran that well. I went out too fast and didn’t finish strong. I made some mental errors like forgetting to get gels at some aid stations and not realizing I had Succeed caps and naproxen with me the last 30 miles. It seemed like a hundred people passed me in the last 20 miles.. I knew there’d be a lot of silver buckles given out with the conditions as they were, so I hadn’t worried at all about that during the race, but wished I’d run a little stronger at the end.
Tom and I drove to our hotel, which was 20 minutes away. It was a big hotel and we were the room farthest away from the entrance. My wife commented the hall must look like another 100 miles to me. I had a few blisters but I’ve had worse. But when I got in the shower, I started hyperventilating and getting dizzy so I had to sit down in the tub, no easy feat. By the time I finished the free breakfast at our hotel had started, so Tom and I went down. I ate about 4000 calories.
We slept a few hours (note to self and others: when feet are blistered post race, pulling the sheets and blankets all the way out from under the mattress makes it much more comfortable). The awards ceremony was mercifully short. Any disappointment I had felt about my race was gone by the time I hobbled up to get my buckle. It really was a dream come true. All those runners who passed me look fit! I apologized to my daughter for getting the silver one, but she replied “now you have one of each!” We ate at In and Out Burger (another 4000 calories) and headed back to the hotel for more sleep.
I took the red-eye home on Monday night and could feel my legs swelling the whole way. By midway on the flight the skin over my feet and ankles was stretched tight and I was getting a bit worried. Once I got home (and fought rush hour traffic) and put my feet up for a few hours, they got a lot better. The hyper-soreness in my quads passed in two days, although even two week later I feel the healing microtears whenever I get into or out of a chair. I strained the tendon on the front of my right calf and that took 10 days to head. I’ve done a few easy runs the last week and my cardiovascular system feels great, but my legs feel dead.
Huge thanks to Adrianne, my wife, and my kids Colin and Isabel for putting up with all the training time; to my Sunday morning running buddies for helping me make it through the back-to-backs and making me faster, especially Todd Green for inviting me and Alex Sax for organizing. The volunteers and organizers of this race are awesome. Early on I was frustrated and upon arriving at an aid station with my bottles still 1/2 full told the volunteers I didn’t need any more fluid. As I was grabbing a gel, a volunteer came up and nicely told me it was 6 miles to the next aid station and I should reconsider. I did and he nicely filled up my bottles, which were dry by the time I got to the next one. Things like that set this race apart. Above all thanks to my pacer Tom Watson. He pushed me hard, which is exactly what I needed, although I may not have appreciated it so much at the time. Maybe I make sub-24 without him, but I’m not sure; in any case it would have been a lot closer.
4 weeks later, I’m still basking in the glow of my finish. I still can’t quite believe I did it. I feel like I’ve been outed as an ultrarunner, though. Most people can’t really comprehend ultrarunning, so I don’t talk about it much. But thanks to friends and an article
in the Pittsburgh paper, people I barely know are congratulating me and asking me all sorts of questions. My 15 minutes of fame I guess.
My legs are still healing but I’m doing some good runs. I’m trying to take it easy and heal it up and just enjoy my accomplishment. With some perspective, I realize the silver buckle and sub-24 aren’t really of much importance. But to pick a goal like this and work my butt off to achieve it; to come back from injury, those are things to be proud of. After the race, I told Tom I wouldn’t try WS again for at least 10 years, but now I’m not sure. It is a spectacular race with incredible support. I’m already asking my wife if I can apply next year….