Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Defining Athleticism: Western States 100 (6/25-6/26 2011)


                Western States 100 is one of the, if not THE, most prestigious ultra race out there.  The route actually came forth from a horse route in 1955, to prove horses could cover 100 miles in a single day, with the route traveling from Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA (later became the Tevis Cup).  In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh decided to prove a human could cover 100 miles in a day…which he did in 23 hours and 42 minutes. From there came the Western States 100 trail race. 

(On a side note, I’m am wondering why the race is called Western StateS, when it only goes through one State?)

Anyway, this is basically the Boston Marathon of ultra runners.  (Though when I was running it, I was thinking “it’s just another 100 mile run”)

I remember thinking a few years back that this is a race I wanted to run.  The landscape is that of huge climbs through mountains, lots of tree coverage, and beautiful scenery.  Quite ideal, I’d say.  When Sandi got the opportunity to go, I was a tad bit jealous (hard not to be…everyone else has to go through  the lottery and cross their fingers, year after year!), but that quickly faded into happiness…she deserved it, and she thrives off this kind of stuff.  Plus, I asked me to pace her, which is truly an honor!  I am also extremely thankful to Steve, because without him, I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to make the trip.  However, he too really wanted to come out to help crew and support Sandi and Shaun (and pace Shaun for 38).

Friday, me and Steve picked up Shaun’s brother Ryan from the airport in Reno so Sandi and Shaun could take their time and the pre-race meeting.  Here, I really have to give a huge thanks to Ryan.  He is not a runner.  He thinks all of us ultra runners are crazy (which may be true).  And he never complained.  He stayed up all night crewing for us, driving around CA to get aid station to aid station, then waiting for our butts to get there.  He must have been exhausted.  Also, today (6/27) is his birthday, so Happy Birthday Ryan!
That evening, we all met at La Pie (or something like that) in Truckee, a very cute little old town, to carb up on pasta (it wasn’t bad…but nothing special).  After that, we all went back to our hotels to rest up for the following day.  (Truckee is only about 15-20 minutes from the race start, and much cheaper than staying right by the start, and also is a nice place to walk around).  I was mostly worried about Sandi, who started yawning at dinner and barely had any real rest during the 2 weeks where she had been working 14-16 hour days for Teach for America.

Race Day:
Me and Steve drove to the start in Squaw Valley…it was really neat as the Olympics were once held there, and we drove past the Olympic torch.  We got there around 4:15, and it was chilly!  Once inside I called Sandi…she and Shaun were of course still on their way, so I wanted around inside…I have not gotten called Sandi so many times since I was in grade school!  I was asked “are you ready?”, “where’s Shaun?”, and had to explain that I was Sandi’s twin…and for the day, I was perfectly fine with simply being “Sandi’s twin”.   After a few minutes, Sandi and Shaun appeared and picked up their registration and bibs (they got lost going to the meeting on Friday and missed check-in).

As everyone was waiting around I got to meet quite a few cool people (some of them simply because they thought I was Sandi).  There were fellow Animal Camp members: Joe Kulak (finished in 19:44), Dan Rosenberg (finished in 24:56), and Tim Ellis who was crewing.  He helped keep me sane later on!  Then there was my friend Jose, who I had never met in person, just through Facebook, always sharing his enthusiasm and encouragement.  He was just as nice as I had expected! Then there was Jimmy Dean, who I only briefly knew from Oil Creek last year.  He was there crewing/pacing a friend.  He has so much positive energy to share with everyone, it’s no wonder why he so popular (besides being a great runner) and everyone likes him. Hopefully he will be back at OC this year!  I also got to meet Killian. He commented on my huaraches* that I got from my friend Laurie Colon, who was nice enough to get them for me when went to run the Copper Canyon 50 in Mexico.  He was very nice, and a bit shy.  He was actually just sitting around by himself, just waiting for the race to start.  It was nice to see such an amazing athlete so humble.  Me and Sandi should have placed bets with our boyfriends, as he was our pick to win…which he did.

(* I know the Tarahumara run in huaraches…but I do not recommend this.  They grew up with these shoes…we did not.  Also, I do not recommend wearing them to walk around in, unless you have done so comfortably before.)

Finally it was time to start, so I gave Sandi a hug and wished her and Shaun the best.  Me and Steve then walked part way up the first hill/mountain to see the runners as they ran/hiked pass once the gun went off.  Then, we shuffled back to our car and then back to our hotel to grab a few more hours of sleep.  Normally, this doesn’t happen…we have to drive to the next aid station.  But, because of the course changes, there was no crew access until mile 55!  That sucked, but then again I think the extra sleep was quite helpful. Plus, W.S has a live tracking system to follow your runner…which is a great idea unless this chip screws up or they miss checking off your runner at the aid station…which they mess up twice on for Sandi (I was a bit stressed during those times).

A little after 10 am, we were off to drive to Michigan’s Bluff!  We got there early enough to see Killian and the top runners go past…some stone faced…others smiling.  Really, it was the women who were smiling…most of them still looked fresh!  As we were waiting around, we snacked on sandwiches we had picked up at the deli (they put mustard and mayonnaise on mine, which I did not order and DO NOT like!, so mine was greatly reduced).  I also made friends with a little dog, who was wandering around…he was not a huge fan of bread or onions, but enjoyed Swiss cheese).  Shaun came in looking well, but wasn’t eating the solids he needed to.  We sent him off with encouragement that this would be the last really tough section (I simply know this from what I’ve been told, but 62-100 weren’t exactly easy) and that Steve would be waiting for him at 62.  Little did we know the he would soon get lost for over an hour! That has to be a so tough mentally to recover from that.  After that, Steve and Ryan left to meet Shaun at Foresthill, and I was left to wait for Sandi, so I laid down for awhile in the grass. Insert anxiety here.  They messed up Sandi’s chip time again!!!!  I was getting texts that Sandi had already past, and Tim (TAC) came up to me as well, so I checked the communication tents.  At first, they said “yes, 28 (Sandi’s #) had passed…how could I miss my sister!?!?  Then, we found a mistake in the chart online…it said she had done the last section in 4:02 min…quite impossible unless you’re a bird.  Mrs. Pope then called me and my nerves settled a bit, except for the fact that I knew Sandi should have come through by now, and I expected something was wrong.  Tim then started talking to me for a while, which helped get my mind off things and got me updated on TAC members.  Then, I was finally talked in to buying lemonade from little girls who continually walked among us asking if we would like a glass…I had to give them credit, they were working hard and I admired them for not being afraid to go up to complete stranger to ask.  (It was pretty smart to, to set up amongst a ton of crew member on hot, sunny afternoon). 

It was a little after 5 when I hear “28 is coming down the hill to Michigan Bluff” and I excited jumped up to see my sister running down the hill.  However, when she looked me in the eye I knew something was wrong.  I met her just after the food tents, and she was nearly in tears.  Her TFA training had taken its toll, and she was exhausted.  She explained to me that she had never felt good since the beginning, and was just plain tired.  Have stomach issues didn’t help either.  A doctor came to talk to her, and a few very nice people were trying to give words of encouragement…which was very nice of them, I was just annoyed for Sandi because they were talking to her like she was a newbie…I wanted to yell “she’s won two 100!”  I sent Sandi off for the next 6 miles with some not so helpful words of encouragement, and told her she needed to pass the 2 old guys (had to be blunt here) in front of her.

I then to the bus back up the hill to my car, and drove the rental back up the weaving hill to the main road, which was terrifying, but I made it.  At Foresthill, I picked up my pacer bib and found my friend Star to wait for Sandi to come it.  We chatted for a bit and she updated me on how our friends were doing, before she tried to take a nap to prepare for her pacing duties.  I was about to do the same, when I see Sandi coming down the trail, much faster than I had expected.  So up me and Star got to walk down the road with her.  We started running again when we got to the trail at a slow but steady pace, but Sandi’s stomach was really bothering her.  After 3 more miles we made it to the next aid station, but things were going downhill (figuratively speaking, as the course was not).  And from there on, mile 65-80, we walked. 

For parts of it we chatted, mostly me talking about random things, mainly just because I felt like talking.  Once in awhile I asked her if we could run intervals or how she was feeling, which got little more than a grunt, so I stopped doing that one.  Then we just went on in silence.  I know a lot of runners just like to talk, be me and Sandi can comfortable just run in silence, and I knew she was dealing with the demons in her.  She had to do that herself, and I couldn’t help her.  One or two times me and Sandi paused at a clearing to see river and mountains across and gasped “amazing”.  Darkness set in, and mosquitoes decided to have a snack on my back.  Sandi’s headlamp and the handheld I just bought quickly dimmed and we were left with my bright headlamp, which did not help the headache I was already beginning to acquire.  We just kept walking on, and got passed by quite a few people.  I’m going to be honest…that was weird.  I had never experienced that before when running with Sandi, and it just didn’t feel right.  When we were walking, a gentleman passed us, whom we soon re-passed as we hike up the hil—even at her worst, Sandi still knows how to climb a hill. I felt weird walking in silence, so I asked him how he was doing.  I was slightly offended when I got no reply back.  As we got further ahead, Sandi told me he was from another country…whoops.  I took a mental note of that for future races.

  Finally, we climbed up another large hill to Rucky Chucky Aid Station 1, and Sandi was about to take off her trail shoes.  She sat in a chair, took in some real food and ibuprofen, and attempted to rationalize dropping with me and some of the aid station volunteers.  She explained she had been having ankle problems in the same spot that had forced her to put the end of Run Across Ohio on hold.  It was bruised, but the medic said she would be able to walk on it and be able to make it to the race finish, just not too sit for fear of tightening up.  Sandi told us that she didn’t want to over-injure herself so she could be up and running within a short time period.  I told her I understood, but with TFA, she didn’t have much time to train anyway, plus, she had been walking well for the past 15 miles.  Mainly, I didn’t want her to use this as an excuse.  I knew she could do it…plus, this was Western States.  While I’m sure she will be back again, this is the type of race where you just have to keep pushing.  She needed this mental battle.  I’m 100% this will make her stronger.  I told her we had to cross the river anyway, so we took a raft across the river (normally, you wade across this section, but with all the snow the water was too high).  We had a nice gentleman name Carson row us quickly to the other side.  We took some more aid, I popped a few ibuprofens   for my headaches, and we climbed the jeep trail another 1.9 miles (or something like that) to the aid station at mile 80.  Finally, they had a port-a- potty!  (Normally, the side of the trail is just fine, but that doesn’t work so well on a jeep trail when many other people are nearby.)

After we walked pass the tent, Sandi declared “I’m going to try to run”.  She didn’t know how long it was going to last, but hell, she was going to try. 

From there, we ran.  We ran from mile 80, on flat sections, downhill, and uphill. We ran for 20 miles.

Now, being a pacer, walking for 15 miles, and listening to her talk about her ankle injury, I had put it into my mind that we would be walking all night and most of the morning to the finish.  I had to quickly readjust my mindset.  The real food she had consumed (lots of soup, and goodies at the aid station) gave her a burst of energy, and she wanted to ride out what the ibuprofen gave her.  My headache actually vanished too, although I did end up carrying my headlamp like a flashlight the rest of the way. Anyway, my legs loosened up, and I began to enjoy the run (only worrying here and there that she was going to drop me…that girl can run technical downhills!).

What I witnessed here, and had the honor of doing so firsthand, was one of the most amazing feats of athleticism and overcoming adversity I have ever witnessed.  We didn’t just do the ultra runner’s shuffle…we were moving at a good pace.  Most of you have seen Sandi’s tattoo that reads “Silently Strong”.  This could be a little confusing to some, but if you saw her run, you would understand it completely.  She ran so smoothly, so silently, with quiet determination on her face.  She had beat the demons in her head, telling her she was tired, she was hurt, to stop.  At mile 81, Sandi glanced at her watch, and she decided to break 24 hours.

We were way behind the times for a predicted 24 hour finish, but that didn’t matter.  We blew past people who had easily passed up hours before, amazed at this girl running uphill with ease.  It felt right. There was one place where we running a long side a ledge where I remember thinking “Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.”  After a few miles that turned in to “Please God, just let me get her to the next aid station.”  I fell shortly after that.  We arrived at Highway 49 Aid Station (mile 93.5) at 3:26 and were met my Steve and Ryan.  Sandi simply asked Steve “how run-able is this section?” before we again took off.  I glanced at a sign the read the check-point times for 24 hours, which read: 3:10.  We were behind by 16 minutes.  I didn’t tell Sandi, she knew it would be close, and I knew she could make it, we just couldn’t stop.

Of course, there was some more climbing involved on a rocky section, but we covered it briskly and ran the moment we could.  We reached No Hands Bridge, where there was a huge movie screen (but I had no time to look.  We went right through, but Sandi had to take a gel to hold her over the next 3 miles.  There was a short towpath section where we passed a few more people.  Then another climb. I fell, again.  Sandi slowed down and I yelled at her to go (what was she thinking!?) .  She began to reply but I quickly got up and caught her.  (I didn’t not want her to drop me like she did at Mohican…I wanted to see her finish!)  A few people tried to hand on to us, knowing we were out to beat the cut-off.  We urged them on, but Sandi’s pace was too much for them.  There was one woman in particular who I knew was hurting bad.  We saw her right before the last aid station at 98.9 (I don’t get it either).  Her pacer was amazing.  She was giving her so much encouragement, pushing her runner “I know this hurts, but believe me, it will be worth it!”   We told them we would see them before the clock hit 24*. 

I figured at that last aid station when we hit the road it would be flat. HA!  We powered up that stupid, long hill.  Seriously, we flew up that thing.  We were told simply to follow the orange footsteps up the road to the finish at the track.  The footprints we not very visible in the dark, and the road was not straight.  Luckily, a few of the other runners we ran past guided us through.  A few people walking back to their cars shouted us encouragement, a bit shocked by our speed.  Seriously…we may as well have been doing a tempo workout.

Then we saw it.  There was the entrance to the track. Sandi was going to make the 24 cut-off…with time to spare.  Before I left her to finish the 300 meters on the track by herself, I told her “I’m more proud of you than if you won this race.”  I am.  She had never before entered a race in that position before, so exhausted and sick, or over-came so much self-doubt. 

With that, I ran across the field to meet her once she crossed the finish.  Shaun, Steve, and Ryan were there too.  I was crying, overwhelmed with joy of what she had accomplished (and tired…she made me work!).  Poor Shaun was standing there too (he did awesome as well, coming in at 20:29), with his arms out ready to hug her, but and 23:52:30, she crossed the finish line, and at 23:52:31, we was giving me a hug.  I will forever remember that moment.  (Shaun got his hug right after).

(*The woman we saw struggling at 98.5 finished at 23:59:44)