Posted by: pointlenana | July 5, 2015

My Race: Hot, Humid (?) and Magical – Western States Part 9

I’m just about out of stories now, so I can do a more linear race report without having to compete with James Joyce’s Ulysses on length and readability.  Or at least readability.

In the Squaw Valley Village, where it all starts.

In the Squaw Valley Village, where it all starts.


Thursday before the race, we attended an optional medical update, based on research they do on Western States runners each year.  The main message there was that supplemental sodium (electrolyte capsules, in gels, in drink mixes, etc.) has no benefit in preventing cramps, no performance benefits, and no benefit in preventing hyponatremia.  In fact, there is a correlation between taking supplemental sodium and having symptomatic hyponatremia.  Bloodwork indicates that many Western States runners have some level of hyponatremia when they finish, but by and large the only people who are symptomatic have taken extra salt. Often lots of extra salt – fill a half cup or cup measure with salt and then imagine eating it.  The other message is that contrary to long-standing practice at the race, weight loss isn’t a great indicator of runner health and this year, for the first time, they would not weigh runners mid-race.  In fact, a weight loss of 3-4% is probably normal and healthy, based on the amount of glycogen, glycogen-held water, and fat used in the race.

Friday morning we registered – checking in, getting our swag, and getting our picture taken.  This was quite an assembly line.  It took probably took all of 5 minutes and during that time probably 30 different people helped me.  I dropped my drop bags off, double-checking each time that I had put the bag at the right aid station.

Registering with a Cascade Crest Classic shirt on.

Registering with a Cascade Crest Classic shirt on.

“Free” race swag from registration, mostly WSER-branded: t-shirt, visor, hat, bottle holder, buff, runner food, backpack, patch, armsleeves, pen, latest issue of Ultrarunner with last year’s winner Stephanie Howe on the cover. Most race swag I’ve ever seen. And I bought more at the store…

5 drop bags.

Getting five drop bags ready.

Friday afternoon we had the pre-race briefing.  Two things stood out.

First, Gordy Ainsleigh (the first person to do the Tevis Cup “Ride” without a horse, thereby getting the Western States run going) set up his chiropractic table at the side of the room and started working on runners.  I guess board director John Trent was supposed to say something, because in the middle of the meeting while John Trent was expressing appreciation for someone’s effort to the 1000 people in the room, Gordy interrupted him about something.  John said, “oh yeah, Gordy Ainsleigh wants you to know that he’s got his table here but has to leave soon, so if you want him to work on you it has to be soon.”

The pre-race meeting was held in the room that was the dining hall for the 1960 Olympics, the last time all the athletes ate in one room.

The pre-race meeting was held in the room that was the dining hall for the 1960 Olympics, the last time all the athletes ate in one room.

The more important part of the meeting was RD Craig Thornley’s weather forecast.  All week we had been watching and initially it looked really hot – 100-ish in Auburn.  Over the week the forecast had cooled a bit, and it appeared we’d get lucky with temperatures in Auburn reaching the low 90s.  I heard different things from different people, but basically I was told to add 5-15 degrees to the Auburn temperature, and that’s what we’d experience in the canyons.  In the hottest years, Auburn temperatures have been 104-105.  Low 90s seemed good, all things considered.  There was also some moisture moving in and there was a chance of cloud cover (presumably good) and/or thunderstorms (scary given the fire danger).

Friday night/Saturday morning, I had trouble sleeping.  I did sleep for a couple hours but was woken up by a dog barking somewhere nearby, every 7 to 13 seconds, for 3-5 minutes at a time and then taking a 30-75 second break, for about an hour.  Then it was time to get up.  We got our bibs, stood around, and said goodbye to people (in my case Janet – Bob was already hiking up to Emigrant Pass).  Bob Lind fired his shotgun, and we were off.

Charlie Quinn and I, waiting for the show to get going.

Charlie Quinn and I, waiting for the show to get going.

Start to Robinson Flat

In the weeks – actually months – before the race I had come up with estimates for how long each section would take.  These were based on data from previous runners.  But conversations I had all week, with people who would know, had convinced me that the key to the race was taking the early part easy, so I was prepared to lose time vs. my estimates in the beginning, in the hope that I could make up time later on, when the course got easier, we were out of altitude, and the heat calmed.

The first 4 miles are up a maintenance road in the ski area, gaining 2400 feet, and most of us walked most of it.  I found myself near several friends/people I had met who seemed to have similar fitness and speed – Charlie, Tamara from Canada, Dave from Foresthill, and a few others.  I was using heart rate to make sure my effort was easy, and wanted to keep it at or under 130 bpm if possible.  Walking steadily with the group, it stayed at 130.  Occasionally I would jog 50 yards to catch up to someone I knew, and it would immediately climb above 140 so I stopped doing that pretty quickly.  Near the top the road levelled out some, and I knew I would recover some on the coming downhill, so I ran a little more.  Gradually I pulled away from the people I was with.  (They all caught me later…)

Bob's photo of me cresting the Escarpment, near the end of the 4 mile climb.

Bob’s photo of me cresting the Escarpment, near the end of the 4 mile climb.

Along the road up.  From a hike a few days beforehand.

Along the road up. From a hike a few days beforehand.


Near the top. From the same hike.

One more near the top.

One more near the top.

The next 18 miles were mostly single-track, along Lyon’s Ridge, down Red Star Ridge, and into Duncan Canyon.  Over my left shoulder I could look back and see the wilderness that we’d run through from Emigrant Pass.  It was easy running, and I was heeding Bruce LaBelle’s advice to look around and enjoy the wildflowers and views.  At the same time it was very dusty – any snow had long since disappeared, and runners were putting a lot of trail dust in the air.  I also found myself struggling more than expected with the altitude.  I wasn’t breathing hard, nor running fast, but it was very easy to cause my heart rate to spike.  I go anaerobic somewhere around 150, and wanted to stay way under that, but found that even running a little too fast on the flats would send my heart rate into the 140s.  Gradually I figured out my sustainable pace, and continued on.  As I passed through aid stations, I could tell I was losing time in each segment, but I felt confident that if I continued to run smart in this section, I’d be able to make up some time later.  And in any case, whether I was losing time or not, going faster would spell disaster.  Tim Twietmeyer (5-time winner) says somewhere that you do better if you take what the course gives you, vs. fighting it.

Climbing past Cougar Rock, somewhere on Red Star Ridge I think.

Climbing past Cougar Rock, somewhere on Red Star Ridge I think.

In or near Duncan Canyon.

In or near Duncan Canyon.

Through this part of the event, I was still racing and still felt confident about my sub-24 time goal.  In fact, I remember one distinct counting-unhatched-chickens moment where I anticipated getting to Foresthill feeling great.  I should learn not to do that.

Robinson Flat to Foresthill

From Robinson Flat onward, I was going to be running trails that I had run during the Memorial Day training runs, all the way to the finish.  The unknown was behind me and we were going to descend out of the altitude I was struggling with.  It was going to get hot, but the forecast said it wouldn’t be SO hot.  Right?  I was behind schedule, but only 40 minutes or so, and again everyone had told me it was ok to be behind early because if you felt good at Foresthill you could make up time from there.

The uphill out of Robinson Flat seemed very runnable during the training run, but after the warm hike up out of Duncan Canyon I had no interest in running it.  I power hiked and digested.  The Energizer Bunny passed me again.  Starting down the 14 mile descent into Deadwood Canyon, I found myself running with Matt Keyes.  Matt was on the experts panel Thursday – he’s finished 8 times, mostly under 24 hours.  I wasn’t sure whether being with him was a good thing or a bad thing – I might be able to tag along and rely on his smarts, or I might be running way ahead of myself.  (In hindsight the answer is obvious.)  We talked for a bit, and I asked him about our prospects for running under 24 hours.  He said decent.  I mentioned that we were behind the 24 hour targets the race has.  He said, “Those are bogus.  They are based on actual finishes, and are filled with data from people who aimed for 20, fell apart, and finished just under 24.  We’re doing fine.”

It was still really dusty.  Given the guidance not to overhydrate and just drink to thirst, I wasn’t pouring water in constantly.  My mouth was dry, but I couldn’t figure out if it was actual thirst or just dust.  (Janet told me she saw some runners come into Foresthill with bandanas over their mouth.) I noticed that my breathing was starting to be pretty heavy, even though my heart rate was low and I wasn’t running especially quickly, so I slowed down a little, puzzled, and watched Matt go ahead.  He went on to run sub-24 hour.

A lot of runners struggled more than expected during the day.  The thunderstorms and cloud cover never materialized, but my theory is that it was more humid than usual.  The heat index was higher in a sneaky way, and evaporative cooling didn’t work quite as well.  (The other theory is that it was warm earlier in the day than usual.)  Even though I thought I was ok, I was starting to bake and should have been running slower.  Instead, my splits to Miller’s Defeat, Dusty Corners, and Last Chance got closer and closer to my estimates, and I felt like was finally getting on track.

From Last Chance, I descended into the Inferno and my race unravelled.  I was no longer racing but surviving.  After Bruce Falzarano revived me at Devil’s Thumb, my one and only goal became “get to the next creek and lie down”.  The only thing I remember about the descent into El Dorado Canyon is seeing Charlie somewhere and telling him how great the creek in Deadwood Canyon had been.  When I finally crossed the bridge at El Dorado Creek, Charlie called up to me from the creek below.  A volunteer showed me the way down, and I joined him in heaven.

This picture is worth showing more than once.  Thanks again to Charlie Quinn for thinking to take it.

This picture is worth showing more than once. Thanks again to Charlie Quinn for thinking to take it.

I lay there for about 5 minutes and then reluctantly dragged myself out.  In hindsight, I might have been better off staying for a few more minutes to really cool down.  I continued to feel hot and dragging for 8-12 hours more, and a few more minutes of recovery then might have saved many minutes over the rest of the run.  In the moment it’s easy to think “I’m in a race and have to move forward”, but this time showed me there are lots of opportunities to go fast by slowing down.  E.g. I’m sure the time I did spend in the creeks helped me later, and probably made it possible to finish at all.

I must have been ok heading up to Michigan Bluff, but the only thing I remember is making the mental switch from aiming for a time to aiming to have a great experience.  I think I had some hallucinations where trees and rocks turned into spectators – a bad sign given that I had only been up for about 14 hours, whereas it took 36 hours of being awake at UTMB to reach that stage.  I also drooled over the upcoming creek dip in Volcano Canyon and the river crossing at Rucky Chucky.

Bob's picture of me at Michigan Bluff.  Clearly I'm delirious at this point - smiling?

Bob’s picture of me at Michigan Bluff. Clearly I’m delirious at this point – smiling?

Bob and I talked, and I started down into Volcano Canyon.  I did not remember this being significant during the training runs.  Other than one turn I had almost missed in the training runs, I don’t remember the descent at all during the race.  I just focused on getting to the creek.  When I got there, I found a small, somewhat muddy pool that was barely deep enough to lie down in.  Ahhh!  I lay there for a few minutes, watching people pass, and then dragged myself out as Cynthia from Kentucky came through.  She and I walked up towards Bath Road together, talking emphatically about how neither of us would ever sign up for a hard event again.  (Except that she’s signed up for the Grand Slam – WSER + Vermont 100, Leadville, Wasatch – all in the next couple months.)  We walked and walked, and found ourselves with a couple other people.  At some point, I said we’d reach Bath Road soon, and someone else said, “less than a quarter mile”.  We walked for another half mile at least, and just as I said “this is a long quarter mile”, we rounded a corner and saw people waiting at Bath Road.  I happily recognized Janet waving her arms at me.  We walked towards Foresthill together, and soon found Bob also – he’d gotten stuck in Michigan Bluff waiting for a shuttle back to his car.

The road turned downhill, and we ran into Foresthill together (I’m surprised Janet and Bob were able to keep up with me.)  I got my drop bag, ate, and headed to our car where our son Wyatt was also waiting.  They gave me a popsicle and helped me get ready for the rest of the race.  Wyatt was going to meet me at Robie Point to run together to the finish, so I said “see you at Robie Point”, and we ran on.  Janet ran with Bob and me through Foresthill to the turn downhill, she took my popsicle stick, and Bob and I were off down towards the American River.

Except that I was suddenly lame.  My knee had stiffened up for some reason during the stop and it hurt to run downhill.  I walked for a couple minutes, it loosened up a little, I ran slowly for a couple minutes, and then it felt ok again.  For about 10 minutes.  Then it hurt again so I walked for a couple minutes, it felt better, and I ran.  Repeat.  I warned Bob that I might be forced to include walking when I could be running, just to get my knee through the race.

I still felt hot.  Some of this was residual from Deadwood Canyon, aka The Inferno.  But it was still hot out, even at 10pm.  Still, it had to cool soon, right?  Plus, I had the river crossing to look forward to.  I told Bob that I’d be lying down in the river after the crossing and that it was a key item on my “great experience” checklist. Given how cold the river was during his previous crossings, he was somewhat skeptical.

We worked our way to and through Cal1/Dardanelle where I thanked Bruce and took an important phone call, then continued to Cal2/Peachstone.  Tamara and John caught up to us along the way.  She ran a really smart race – starting at the very back with Gordy Ainsleigh, never having major problems, catching me before the river crossing, and finishing nearly 90 minutes before me.  Anyway, they caught us, then another pair showed up.  The six of us ran together for a minute, and then I suddenly found myself on the ground.  As I landed, I heard something hit the ground several feet down the bank below me.  I also noticed I had landed in a poison oak bush.  Fearing I had lost something important down the bank – a flashlight perhaps – I had all six of us shining lights down the bank but no one could see anything and they headed on.  Nothing seemed to be missing.  I think I hit a loose stone, it took me down, and I heard the stone land below me.   I resolved not to touch the arm and shoulder that landed in the poison oak.

Prior to the race, I really wanted to reach Cal2 in daylight because there’s a nice runnable downhill on a steep hillside, and I thought night and the potential for a bad fall would slow me down.  But it was runnable even in the dark.  (This turned out to be true for the rest of the trail – I was worried about tripping but had very few problems.)  My knee was also mostly holding up – it forced me to walk a little, but the rolling terrain seemed to give it enough natural breaks that the forced breaks were infrequent.  Near the bottom of the hill, we caught up to Dave Hope from Foresthill (who showed me how to get to the creek in Deadwood Canyon).  He was limping badly and would shortly drop at the Cal3 aid station.  It was sad through the day, seeing or hearing of friends who were struggling or dropping.  Right after the nice downhill, there’s a significant uphill known as “Six Minute Hill” because that’s about how long it takes the fast runners to climb it.  This hill was horrible in the training run, but it passed quickly and fairly easily at night.  I suspect it took me 9 or 10 minutes but my watch battery ran out around here and I wasn’t paying attention anyway.  We reached the Cal3/Ford’s Bar aid station, and moved through it pretty quickly.  This seemed to be good at the time, but I think I was underfueling and setting myself up for a bonk down the road.

There are 15 rollers from Cal3 to Rucky Chucky, but they are hard to count in the dark and Bob and I had different opinions on what was an uphill.  It was pretty runnable but sustained running seemed to hurt my knee, and there was no time pressure, so I was pretty relaxed about walking the uphills.  At the same time, we started consciously reeling in people ahead of us.  Look for lights ahead, work to pass them, then look for the next set of lights/”victims”.  According to my results info, we passed 20 people between Foresthill and Rucky Chucky.  In most ways, the day is a personal challenge – getting to the finish line at all, in a time we feel ok about.  But it is a race, and passing others provides some motivation for the personal challenge.  At some point we were taking a knee-induced walking break on the dirt road, a pair came running up behind us, and just as they were about to pass, we took off running again.  They howled in protest, and I told them that we were going to match any move they made.  Eventually, we rounded a corner and saw the lights of the Rucky Chucky crossing.

On my way out of the river.

On my way into or out of the river.  Focused on the underwater rocks.

With Bob close behind.

With Bob close behind.

I was really looking forward to this crossing – it had been hours since I had been able to lie in a creek.  I zipped through the aid station, not eating enough, got my life vest on (new this year) and started into the river.  Bob came along and we headed towards the other side.  There was a cable stretched tight, with maybe 25 wet-suit clad volunteers standing in hip-deep water along the cable directing us.  Each of the volunteers was responsible for a rock under the surface – telling us the shape, how far to reach across with our foot, where not to bang our shin, etc..  I had planned to lie down on the other side, but I caught up to someone who was slow and tentative.  To make the most of the time, when the person in front of me stopped, I’d sink down up to my neck and cool off.  When I reached the other side, I could have stayed soaking for a while, but I had kept Bob waiting a lot already and felt ok, so we headed up the hill towards Green Gate.  My shoes were soaked – for the Nth time that day – but I didn’t notice it after a minute or two.  And they were working, so I left them on instead of switching into the dry pair I had in the drop bag.

Rucky Chucky to Finish

It’s 22 miles from the crossing to the finish.  The only part of the last 70 miles I hadn’t seen during the training runs was the climb to Green Gate.  It was steep and slow, but surprisingly a handful of people ran past us as we walked.

I remembered the trail ahead from Green Gate being pretty flat, traversing along the hillside, until Brown’s Bar.  Wrong.  The trail to Auburn Lake Trails was seemingly all uphill, and endless.  I started playing mental games.  I’d wait as long as I could – 30, 40 minutes – and then say “we’ve probably gone 1 mile, right?”  Bob would check, “about 2.4, almost halfway.”  I’d wait again – “probably 3 miles now?”  “4.5 – not far now.”  I like my watch, but Bob’s seems more accurate.  I think there was only once when our destination was way past where it should have been according to the watch.  I think this is also the section where I bonked due to underfueling.  I fixed that and started to feel decent.  Shortly after – around 4am – we finally FINALLY felt a cool night breeze.  Not actually cold but cooler than it had been for at least 18 hours.

During the trip from Auburn Lake Trails to Brown’s Bar, Bob pulled out another pacer trick to keep me moving.  He claimed to need a portapotty.  It was dark, there was poison oak everywhere, and it seemed reasonable to help my pacer out, so I moved along more than I had been.  (I’m pretty sure it was a pacer scam, but when we arrived he did ask where the portapotty was and disappeared for a moment.)  The Brown’s Bar aid station is organized by Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, OR, which is owned by Hal Koerner.  Hal won Western States a couple times, and he sometimes volunteers at the aid station.  I ate, turned around, and there was Hal.  We talked about our similar chafing experiences at UTMB – he came up with a creative solution involving a ziplock bag whereas I just suffered, but I did finish faster than he did.

Hal, rocking his smile at Brown's Bar.

Hal, rocking his smile at Brown’s Bar.

Life was pretty good between Brown’s Bar and No-Hands Bridge.  The sun rose, the hill up to Highway 49 went by quickly, I saw the beautiful Cool Meadows that I thought we’d miss during the night, and the long downhill to the bridge didn’t seem as long as it did during the training runs.  Bob thought we’d pass several people on the downhill – he’s always passed people with dead quads there – but the trail was pretty empty.  I was happy-but-sad to come up on Charlie, and said “you can fall in behind and draft us” as a joke, but he seemed pretty shattered and waved us on.  (Charlie finished about 10 minutes after me, so not too shattered.)

People had said to enjoy the morning sun at No-Hands Bridge.  I had hoped to be there in darkness and figured the morning sun would be a consolation prize, but the cloudcover had finally appeared.  I threw darts at the aid station dartboard they had set up (for unknown reasons – boredom?) and we continued.  3.4 miles to go, feeling good.  We moved “quickly”, passing some but being passed about as much.  I saw a woman and a Golden in the distance who looked amazingly like Janet and our dog.  I knew Janet might be there, but my fatigued brain struggled to figure out how she had gotten Moani down from Seattle during the night.  Just as I confirmed it wasn’t them, I saw the real Janet.  A little further, Wyatt was waiting at the Robie Point aid station, ready to cover the last 1.3 miles with me.  By now I was pretty sure I would finish under 27 hours – for a while we had been trending well over 27 – so I headed in, walking when I needed to and running when I could, with Janet and Wyatt next to me.  Bob ran ahead to take pictures near the finish.

As we ran, I explained to Wyatt that we’d been reeling in runners lately, and he needed to be ready to pass people with me.  I was joking – my legs were not exactly fresh – but we moved along and as we entered the track we found ourselves behind another runner.  Wyatt asked “a victim?”  My foggy brain struggled a bit with the situation and the etiquette of passing someone on the track, but I finally decided that my 20 year old son could outkick the two small children with the other runner.  We passed quickly, and rounded the final turn.  Announcer John Medinger expressed my thanks to Bob, Janet, and Wyatt, but the speakers were pointed towards the spectators and all I heard was “mrgll brcher sqram”.  He also told Wyatt “Happy Birthday!” – Wyatt officially turned 20 right around the time I had hoped to finish.

(Bob took this video of us as we entered the track.  At the end you can see the guy and his kids just ahead.)

They ask that crew/family peel off for the last few yards, so I was by myself through the finish.  My official finish line video shows the guy I passed sprinting in behind me, trying (unsuccessfully I’ll note) to catch me.  I was totally unaware of that until I saw the video – I passed him and tried to create space, but then slowed and tried to enjoy it.

Through the long day, I had told volunteers and spectators,

Through the long day, I had told volunteers and spectators, “Thanks for being out here.” “You are awesome.” and things like that, as much as possible. I’ve done that ever since April 15, 2013. I was still doing it on the way to the finish in Auburn.

After 26 hours, 54 minutes and 42 seconds I was done.  Not the silver buckle finish I had hoped for, but a magical, successful day all things considered.  I had enjoyed the high country, survived a trip through the Inferno (I like the quote from Winston Churchill – “When you are going through hell, keep going”), taken time to talk to people, and enjoyed the creeks.  And finished the Western States Endurance Run, with a little help from about 1503 people.


Not quite

Not quite “one day” for me, but I’ll take it anyway.

Comstock Silversmiths has been making the buckles since there were buckles to make.

Comstock Silversmiths has been making the buckles since there were buckles to make.


  1. nice report! although i suggest that Ulysses is eminently readable…one just needs to read with abandon! “…Mrkgnao! the cat said loudly. She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes”

  2. Loved reading your posts on this Seatlemax. What a great event and amazing accomplishment! Look forward to your next! Jon’64

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