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Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

2015 Western States 100: My Back of the Pack Experience


In all the years that I lost myself in dramatic fantasies about finally running the Western States Endurance Run, I never fathomed it would turn out the way it did.

I imagined flying down the trail with a broad smile spread across my face as I sailed through the shaded woods, bouncing over ridgelines and leaping across mountain streams. I imagined an audience of forest creatures, in awe of my athletic prowess, stuck in their tracks as I whisked past them on my way to Auburn.

When it was finally my time, those fantasies hurtled toward reality and collided in a mass of destruction that I simply cannot reconcile yet.

But...more on that later.

In addition to Western States, I was also lining up for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. This is a four race series, beginning with Western States, then moving on to the Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and culminating with the Wasatch Front 100. All of this spanning over about 10 weeks.

Always eager to up the ante, I accepted the challenge of running the Royal Grand Slam. This is a new event, sanctioned by the International Beer Mile Association, and it ties a beer mile to each of the Grand Slam events. Truly EPIC!

So first things, first. The Western States Beer Mile!


Badass Beer Milers

The Western States Beer Mile is a downhill race that starts 1 mile up the WSER course and finishes at the WSER start line. You think running downhill, at altitude, while drinking four beers in a mile sounds easy? Not so much.

I was first off the line after slamming my first beer.

Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

Heading for beer #2
Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

Kind of Enjoying Beer #2
Photo credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

My 100 mile pacer, Travis McWhorter was also running the beer mile and he was applying some pressure. He's a beer mile rookie, and I could see he was going a bit fast for a guy that doesn't know what it's like to have to run at full speed with 4 beers sloshing around in his belly.

Travis Struggling with Beer #3
Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

I could see that Travis was having a TOUGH time. I was leading the race, but he was still a threat.

Me and Travis at Beer #4
Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

As I finished my last beer, I sprinted toward the finish, expecting to hear footsteps pounding the course behind me. Travis is a faster sprinter than I am and I didn't have a comfortable lead. I heard nothing.
Winning the Western States Beer Mile!!
Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

After finishing, I looked back up the hill to see how far back Travis was, and he was nowhere to be found. I waited, then began to worry that I had inadvertently killed my pacer. I was deeply worried, because at this late stage, it would be hard to find a new pacer.

Eventually, Travis and the others began to filter across the finish line, each one of them with a unique story about the horrors of the beer mile.

So far, the weekend was off to a very promising start!

Friday was packet pickup and the "MANDATORY" race briefing. The term "race briefing" was a bit misleading because they spent an hour talking, but didn't really say much about the race. We did however, get some last minute heat acclimation training, as the room they stuffed us in was about 140 degrees, had no airflow and smelled like armpits. So we had that going for us.

"Race Briefing"

I made a point of getting to bed early, giving myself extra time to toss and turn all night, before getting up at 3:00 AM to get ready for the race.


Me and Jo at the Start

Squaw Valley, Before the Start

When I lined up, I was calm and confident. I've run more than 30 races at this distance, so the nervousness of these events has long since faded, replaced by a sense of comfortable familiarity.

After a short countdown, we were on our way to Auburn!


The first few miles of the course are all uphill, and with the exception of a few very skilled mountain runners, it's a hike. The group of runners were eerily quiet as we made our way to the escarpment, where we would eventually drop over the backside of Squaw Valley.

Heading UP!

And UP!

It was beginning to warm up already, by the time we left the gravel road and hit a steep section of singletrack for the final push over the top.
Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer

The scenery was amazing as we dropped onto some very runnable trail and made our way into the valley. Runners were loosening up and some chatter began to bounce around us as we ran along the shady side of the mountain. For the first time since we started, I was having a great time.


We hit our first aid station at Lyons Ridge at 10.5 miles, but none of us lingered. I tossed some ice in my pack and pushed on.

It was already getting hot out and there was no escaping the direct sunlight. The entire course is very exposed and if shade can be found, it marks a great time to slow your pace a bit to take some temporary reprieve from the sun.

There are trees covering the entire 100 mile course, but they've taken a useless position, as most that weren't cut down have burned down or been blown down. The lucky few that remain, seem to lack interest in picking up the slack from their fallen brethren.

Cooling off Every Chance We Got

By the time I reached the Duncan aid station at mile 24, I was in rough shape and I still had 6 miles to go before I saw my crew.

I suffer better than (more than) most people in the heat. It's my greatest weakness and it was now fully exposed. I spent plenty of time at Duncan to refuel and hydrate before heading onto Robinson Flat, where I would meet my crew and set things straight. Hopefully.


I continued to deteriorate on my way to Robinson Flat, aided by a long climb into the aid station. By the time I met Jo, I was ready to DNF. The heat had taken a bite out of me it seemed unlikely that I would make it all day like this.


Coming to Robinson Flat

Dropping from the race had been on my mind since the 20 mile mark. I was having trouble eating already and my reduced level of nutrition was killing me. Figuratively for now.

Unlike a lot of races, I had a lot of reasons to grind this out. I wasn't sure if I would ever have another chance to run this course and claim my buckle. I also wanted to finish the Grand Slam and check that off my list. I also knew that this race would haunt me forever if I didn't give 100% of myself, and it was too early to say that I had. So I put my head down and continued the grind.

Things took another tragic turn at the Last Chance aid station. Aptly named because it's your last chance to drop before entering the Canyons.

I asked the kid at the aid station to make sure I had ice in my bladder. I never mentioned water, so I didn't get any. I was unaware of this until I was halfway down the descent into the first canyon, and I wasn't about to climb back out at that point. I continued the grind.

I could only get water from my bladder as fast as the ice would melt, which wasn't nearly fast enough. I would take a short suck on the tube, only to tease my tongue with the sweetness of ice cold water. Then it was dry until a few more drops would melt. I tried to be patient in hopes of getting an entire mouthful of cold water, but it was nearly impossible in the intense heat of the canyons.

On the climb up Devils Thumb, I finally collapsed on the side of the trail, opened the bladder on my hydration pack and started eating handfuls of ice. I was burning up, dehydrated and beginning to worry about my health.

Finally, I made it to the aid station at El Dorado Creek at mile 53 and parked myself in a chair. I stayed for 15 minutes while I sucked down ice water and tried to eat salty food. The food wouldn't go down, but the water did.

By now, I was WAY behind schedule and I knew there was no chance to salvage a sub 24 hour finish. Dejected, I pulled myself up and headed up the canyon toward Michigan Bluff. I had a short distance, but another daunting climb between me and my crew. I continued to grind it out...


I had planned to pick up my pacer at mile 62, but the race rules allowed me to have a pacer at mile 55, assuming it was 8:00 PM or later. By the time I got to Michigan Bluff, it was nearly that late, so I asked my pacer to suit up while I took care of a few things.

Pacers Are Always Ready to GO!

Again, I tried to eat and drink as much as possible, but it just wasn't working. I did the best I could and we headed out for the last 45 miles. It seemed like such a short distance at the time...


Having Travis with me did make me feel a bit better. Now I at least had somebody to keep me company so I didn't keep drifting off into bad places. And to be honest, it helps to have somebody around just to help keep my temper in check. I'm less likely to make an ass out of myself in front of people I know.

Foresthill was the next aid station and we would be seeing Jo there. It was only 7 miles away, so it was a treat to have crew access points so close together. My spirits lifted for a moment…but faded pretty quick. I was in a bad place.

Foresthill aid station was a bit of a treat because the crew activity and number of volunteers were overwhelming. That aid station was sensory overload and it came at a time when I needed that kind of distraction. I tried to eat, but nothing was going down. Gels weren't happening, solids were impossible, and nothing sounded good. I took a small cup of Coke and a little swallow of broth, and we headed into the night. 38 miles to go.

By now, I knew I would finish, but I knew it would be ugly.

I set my sights on the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, 16 miles away, where we would see Jo again, and the iconic WSER river crossing. I always dreamed about doing it during the day, but that ship had sailed. Head down, we headed down the trail.

Travis was encouraging and patient as I picked my way up and down the trail, slowing on the ascents and the descents, alike. Because I couldn't eat, I had no energy and my body wasn't keeping up with the pace in my mind. We chatted at length, then had long spans of total silence. Just the way I like it. Let the pacer keep me moving, but I'll dictate that pace of conversation.

We made it to the river crossing at mile 78 and had a short pitstop, filling bottles and bladders before heading across the river. The freezing water was almost unbearable at first, but it quickly helped to soothe the muscles in my legs. I wanted to linger but I knew I couldn't spare the time. We exited the river and started the two mile climb out of the valley.

For a downhill course, there's way too much climbing.

Somewhere around mile 85, the sun came up, headlamps were switched off, and it was a new day. I've only seen the sunrise beat me to the finish line a couple of times and it's always been when I was in physical trouble. The sunrise energizes some runners, but it sends me into a depression because I knew I should have been done by now and we still have a long way to go. There's nothing energizing about that reality.

We saw Jo for a final time at the Hwy 49 aid station at 93.5. I swapped the burden of my pack for a couple of handheld bottles, bitched about my situation and aimed my feet toward Auburn, less than 7 miles away.

We crossed No Hands Bridge at mile 96.8 and I thought we were home free! While we only had a few miles to go, they were almost entirely uphill. Every turn exposed another hill and every mile felt like 5. I was SO close to the finish but felt like I would never get there. Serious thoughts of dropping returned at mile 98, but they were quickly shaken away. There's just no good way to tell that story without looking like an idiot.

We broke out onto the pavement that leads to the track and the finish line, and I knew we had made it. We were only moments away!!! Then I saw "1 Mile To Go" painted on the road and I nearly lost my mind!! I turned to Travis and shouted, "Christ!!! Really?!?! Another damn mile?!?! OH!!! Good thing it's ALL UPHILL!!".


I sheepishly passed all the cheering spectators, almost in an apologetic way, as if I wanted to say I was sorry for such a terrible performance. I was sad, angry and desperate to finish.

We finally found the entrance to the track and made our way to the finish line.


29:00:45

By far, my slowest finish at the 100 mile distance, and certainly my worst performance. But I finished, and I was able to take some level of comfort in that. Especially knowing that so many weren't able to make their way to the track in Auburn.


HUGE Weight Loss

Physically and mentally, I know I've never been in a worse place during an ultra. Even though I've dropped from a few, this was still significantly more difficult to cope with. The finish did provide some reason to be happy, but it was difficult to see in that moment.

Even now, a few days after the race, it's difficult for me to process exactly how I feel about my experience. I know I'm happy to have finished, but that's all I know for sure. I hope I'm fortunate enough to take another crack at Western States someday, but if I'm not, I won't miss it.

I need to thank Jo for always taking my shit when I'm in a bad spot, and still being willing to give me 100% of herself in my selfish pursuits. It takes a rare woman to deal with men like us. I also want to thank Travis for all his help getting me to Auburn. Without him, I still may be wandering through the California high country right now. And as always, I thank all my amazing sponsors for their relentless support.

Now…on to Vermont to kick ass in the beer mile!


2 comments:

  1. Hahaha... Oh man Kelly, that was an awesome read. I was laughing in part because of the way you told your story and in part at myself because only an ultra runner would find humor in 80% of what you wrote. But don't worry, I was laughing with you, not at you.

    Good luck at that next beer mile! :)

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    1. Thanks, Martin! I'm really glad you could enjoy my attempt at humor. Sometimes you have nothing left but to laugh.

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