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Western States Heartbreaker
by Will Brown3 July 1997
The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run begins at the base of the mountain in Squaw Valley, California and winds through the High Sierra to finish in Auburn, where I-80 begins its ascent into the mountains. As I lined up for the 5 AM start on Saturday, June 27th, 1998, I felt privileged just to be a part of it. This was the day I had dreamed of.
A surprisingly loud gun went off, and 400 runners charged under the starting banner, past the silent chairlifts, and headed up the mountain. The sky was just beginning to lighten in the east. The 2,500 foot climb to the Escarpment aid station went well. I found a good rhythm, and found myself tucked about two thirds of the way down in the pack. I topped off my bottles and began the final half mile climb to the summit. The dirt had turned to snow, but the footing was good. At the summit, I turned right and headed downhill. Dawn was breaking over Lake Tahoe to the east, a beautiful sight.
We were running on top of deep snowpack, but the traction was good. The horror stories I had heard about previous Western States "snow years" didn't seem accurate. That didn't last. The surface got icier, and the footing worsened. People began to fall. There were several terrifying traverses across steep ridges where a misstep would have sent you sliding 1,000 feet to the valley floor.
After safely negotiating these areas, the snow began to soften as the sun rose and we descended. The falling began in earnest as the track became wet and slippery. At first we joked about it and ranked people for technical difficulty and artistic impression after a spectacular spill. After a while it wasn't funny any more. I banged both knees in separate falls and received a nice snow enema after an unplanned glissade (butt slide) down a steep slope.
Progress was extremely slow, and my fantasy dream of a 24 hour finish disappeared into the snow. We finally broke out onto dry trail at around 22 miles. I made good progress from there to the Duncan Canyon aid station at 24 miles, the first full aid on the course. From there, we ran and walked 16 miles on asphalt roads, bypassing the traditional part of the course with the deepest snowpack. My feet were not exactly ecstatic about that, but overall I was pleased with that stretch. The temperature was warm, but not unpleasant. After a steep climb, I reached the Devil's Thumb aid station (48 miles) at 7:12 in the evening. I was now a few minutes over the projected time for a 30 hour finish, the cutoff for a buckle award, but well within the cutoff for a medal and official finish (32 hours).
My pacer, Leslie Hunt, a fellow North Carolinian, was working the aid station at Devil's Thumb, and she would join me later. I grabbed a flashlight from my drop bag and headed out. My only logistical mistake in the race was with my handheld flashlights. They had come with batteries, and the one I used first failed after about 2.5 hours. I covered the last half mile to the next checkpoint with a failing light and a quarter moon. A lesson learned - always buy fresh batteries.
I had a wonderful surprise at that next checkpoint, Michigan Bluff (55 miles). Leslie was suited up and ready to run with me. She had consulted with WS veterans, and decided it would be better to join me there rather than at Foresthill at 62 miles. I was overjoyed, and after a shoe change, we headed into the darkness again. My headlamp was a welcome replacement for the handheld flashlight. The trail was pleasant and runnable, and we moved smoothly through the night.
We arrived at Foresthill about a half hour after midnight, to be greeted by name on a PA system. Aid station volunteers swarmed around us, and I took my pack off to be weighed by the medical staff. My weight did not vary by more than a pound during the entire race, which meant I was managing fluids and electrolytes well. The Foresthill aid station is in a small town, and the course runs through the main street for about a half mile before returning to the trail.
As Leslie and I ran down the dark street, we heard music coming from up ahead. It was the town bar. Blue light was spilling out of an open door and the sound of Richie Valens singing "Donna" washed over us as we ran by. A couple was standing outside the door, locked in an embrace and swaying gently to the music. The music took me back to my youth, to those carefree days before Vietnam and the responsibilities of adulthood. Leslie and I smiled at each other, and at the contrast between what that couple was doing and what we were undertaking. The moment passed and we turned left on California Street heading towards the trailhead.
The real work began on the California Street Trail. The surface turned rough and rocky, and the technical challenge of running it at night took all our energy and concentration. I could feel us slowing. As the sky began to lighten in the east, I remembered that this would be my second sunrise in the race. We reached the Rucky Chucky crossing point of the American River a few minutes after 6:00 AM. The actual crossing was done in a rubber boat operated by river rafting rescue specialists. In normal years the river is low enough to wade, but this year runners rode in style on the SS Rucky Chucky. We refilled bottles and ate walking out of the aid station on the far side. Our cushion on the cutoff time was down to 48 minutes.
I made one of two fatal errors on the long climb out from Rucky Chucky. We were feeling OK, but I knew we still had 22 miles of terrain to cover. At the time we were climbing with Matt Mahoney and his pacer, Dave Littlehales. They were climbing at a leisurely pace, and I decided we would also to save strength for the final push.
As we approached Auburn Lake checkpoint, 7.2 miles from the river, they began yelling at us as we entered the aid station, saying we had 3 minutes. The cushion was gone. I gave Leslie my bottles, ripped my pack off, got weighed and checked by the medical people, and sprinted past the checkout station. We had an hour and a half to do the next 4.7 miles to make that cutoff. That doesn't sound like much of a problem, but we were still facing significant ups and downs on difficult terrain, and I had been running for 26 hours.
Leslie is kind of a quiet person, like me, and she didn't say anything. We just looked at each other as we walked out of the aid station eating and drinking. If I wanted any chance of finishing, I had to add some cushion, and it would take a 10K kind of effort to get it. I put my head down and started to run, and Leslie fell in behind me. The pain in my feet vanished, and I ran all but the steepest uphills, which I fast shuffled. We did that 4.7 miles in one hour and 10 minutes, and left Brown's Ravine at 90 miles with a 20 minute cushion.
Our spirits were high, but so was the sun. I was running from one small patch of shade to the next, drinking almost constantly. We were slowing again, but as we approached the aid station at Highway 49, it looked like we had it made by 10 minutes. There had been some confusion about the cutoff time for Highway 49 at the previous aid station. All the other aid stations had posted the mileage to the next aid station and its cutoff time, and we had taken to using that. At Brown's Ravine, the next cutoff time wasn't posted, and when Leslie asked, a volunteer said something like "Don't worry, you're in good shape. They'll tell you when you get there."
Somehow, in our depleted mental state, we were under the impression that it was 11:30. We reached Highway 49 at 11:20 on my watch, which was a couple minutes faster than race time. Leslie and I charged into the aid station, ready for the final push to the finish. A race official informed us that the cutoff time was 11:15, and that we had missed it. My race had finished in a dusty parking lot 6.5 miles from the stadium where runners were triumphantly rounding the track to receive their medals. Leslie shed a tear, and I didn't feel so good myself. We hugged and sat down for good. She was the best pacer anyone could have had, and I was sad that I had let her down.
When I got back to my hotel in Auburn, my second and final fatal error dawned on me. I opened the right hand pouch of my race pack to find my carefully laminated splits and cutoffs chart for the major checkpoints. Highway 49 was clearly 11:15, and if I hadn't forgotten that I had that chart, I probably would have finished.
A lot of things went right in the race, and I just may have learned the final lessons I need to comfortably finish a difficult, mountainous 100 miler. The learning curve for these things is as steep and as unforgiving as the terrain. I started training for my next one in September, Angeles Crest, by walking 25 steps the morning after Western States.