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Western States Endurance Run - an Australian Perspectiveby Sean Greenhill - Race in California, USA June 2003
"When you're lost in the wild and you're scared as a child
And death looks you bang in the eye
When you're sore as a boil it's according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver- and die.
But the Code of a Man says "fight all you can"
And self dissolution is barred
In hunger and woe, oh it's easy to blow
It's the Hell-served-for-breakfast that's hard."
Executive summary - I'll quote John Medinger (from his Wasatch 2000 report) "it went reasonably well for about 65 miles. Then it got ugly. Then it got very ugly. Then it got stupefying, Bataan death march, lurching, staggering, crying-for-yo'-mama-in-the-middle-of- the-night ugly. That went on for several more hours..." and I finished 222nd in 28.59.
Longer version - Previously, eight Australians had finished the Western States Endurance Run, the most prestigious offroad ultra in the world. Max Bogenhuber led the way, followed by Peter Armistead, Greg Barton, Kevin Cassidy, Geoff Hook, Ian Javes, Andrew McKenzie-Hicks and Ross Shilston. So far, no one from the Sydney Striders had entered (or, needless to say, finished) the race. This year, David Sill and I were both determined to rectify that fact. Western States- a 100 mile crossing of California's Sierra Nevada mountains from Squaw Valley to Auburn with 18 000ft of climb and 22 000 ft of descent- was celebrating it's 30th running this year.
I flew into San Francisco with my mum Gayl on Sunday June 16 to be greeted by old acquaintances Carol LaPlant and Phil Brown. Phil would help Gayl crew for me whilst Carol had talked me into taking her on as a pacer (macho considerations aside, I didn't want to have to come back to avenge a DNF so took little persuasion). Training had been good- I'd averaged 70-80 miles/week very consistently since March, starting off with 6 hour runs in the hills of the Watagan Range around Ourimbah State Forest. Having built and endurance base, I sharpened from mid May by cutting out gymwork and bringing my long runs down to back to back hard 30Ks on the road on both days of the weekend. With some fine tuning from sports quack extraordinaire Martin Horne, (and some salty motivation from Stephen Jackson) my time for the "Bridges" 28K loop on Saturdays came down from 2.23 to 2.10 in four weeks. The weekend before my departure I took 59 seconds off my 10K PB at the North Head race- from 43.47 to 42.48, so knew I was in peak condition with a solid endurance base overlaid by an improving turn of speed and strength.
The only question mark in my preparation was that my two planned VERY long runs- the Barrington Tops 24 Hour Rogaine in April and the Trailwalker 100K in May-were both cancelled, so I had not done any runs longer than 6 hours since my 10 hour finish at the Mt Bogong- Mt Hotham race in January. I was still fairly confident though, given I had a pretty good endurance base from all the ultras I'd done in recent years, and my growing scepticism of the utility of training runs longer than 60K- such runs take a while to recover from and disrupt the next week's training schedule. We'd see.
After spending a few days in Yosemite then a few more back in Berkeley, it was up to Truckee on the Wednesday before the race. Truthfully, I had almost no nerves before the race- I knew that no training would affect me now, and I could not influence trail or weather conditions (forecast to be the hottest race since 1995)- basically, the outcome of the event was almost beyond my control now. Telling myself this, I was very calm. We dropped into the WS store Thursday and bought a huge amount of gear- and when I checked in the next day got a pile more... that night we went to the UltraList dinner in Truckee and met David, Stan Jensen, Ron Adams and Mark Williams, amongst others.
Friday we went to the medical (my weight, 189 pounds) and race briefing and finished off with dinner with Carol, Phil, their friend (and fellow competitor) Doug Gallagher and his crew. After dinner, last minute preparations and foot taping (I taped my forefoot, historically the site of my blister problems) meant I only got 2 or 3 hour sleep before rising at 3am for the race.
Race Day, Saturday June 28. It's chilly in Squaw Valley and silhouettes in jackets and thermals are moving back and forth in the pre dawn darkness, many of them cutting through the gloom with LED torches. Yes, this must be a gathering of runners. I check in, collect my number, munch on a bagel and exchange a last few words with mum, Carol and Phil. Nerves are still pretty much nonexistent as I shed my jacket and await the final few seconds of the countdown to 5am.
I honestly never heard the shotgun blast of the start; I just saw the clock tick down to zero and followed the crowd up a gravel road towards Emigrant Gap. I'm walking fast but easily and slowly moving up through the conga line of pale coloured shirts and caps that snakes up into the mountains. Here and there someone RUNS up this hill- I just look at them and silently wonder why they'd bother running anything but the flat sections. For a little while I'm behind the Japanese actor who's running this year- it's not hard to spot him, with his loud tights, longsleeve shirt and the cameraman running next to him. Like everyone else but the Japanese guy, I'm lightly dressed, in my Striders mesh cap (with a flap pinned over the back of the neck), sleeveless Pearl Izumi cycling jersey, baggy Patagonia shorts over bike shorts, Mountain Designs wool socks and Asics Gel- Trabuco shoes. With a start I realise I forgot to put on my gaiters- they're still in a pocket of my Camelbak. Mentally I shrugged my shoulders and figured I'd get them out at one of the fist aid stations.
The sun crept into view as I turned and looked back towards Lake Tahoe surrounded by it's rim of mountains, some still dusted with snow. Magnificent stuff. We passed our first patch of trailside snow after around half an hour's climbing; more followed. The course turned off the gravel road and cut across a grassy moor, through the Escarpment aid station (I was too surprised to put on my gaiters- I thought the aid station was at the top of Emigrant Gap) and up a nasty, steep little slope, then it flattened out and we climbed past more snow patches to met a cheering crowd at the top of Emigrant Gap. I topped out after 1.04, good going seeing as the 28 hour schedule on the WS website gives 1.10 as the split time for the top. I joke to Phil Ramsey and a few others around me that the top of this climb is well over a thousand feet higher than Australia's highest mountain.
The next few miles through the Granite Chief Wilderness are a combination of superb views to high mountain peaks and rough, tricky singletrack often under temporary streams of snowmelt. Not my ideal surface by any means but I haul into Lyon Ridge after 2.14, still ahead of schedule, have my bottles filled, sit down and don my gaiters. Then I'm out of there and running on a mixture of good quality singletrack and fire roads, while the granite and pine covered mountains still roll away in all directions, leaving me spellbound at times. I regret not having a camera. We run through a few small patches of snow- no big deal. Most of the section to Robinson Flat I run with Ed Bennett from Alaska and Mike from Los Angeles; jokingly we address each other as "Alaska, "California" and "Sydney" rather than using our real names.
I jog through Red Star Ridge (17 miles) after 3.29, still well ahead of schedule, but I'm fatigue free and bowling along happily with my small group of fellow runners, soaking up as much exposure to the high Sierra Nevada as I could. I elect to keep going at my present pace, rationalising that if I can set up a buffer of time for the heat and canyons that come up later, it will be to my advantage. At Red Star Ridge I collected my first drop bag, pulled out a couple of tubs of creamed rice, and realised I had no spoon. Much to the amusement of the aid station staff, I scooped it into my mouth with my finger, and kept using that primitive but effective method for the rest of the race.
Climbing to Robinson Flat, the chill of the morning is well and truly gone and we're starting to sweat. I arrive just before 10am, get weighed (I've gone up to 194 pounds), and realise my crew weren't there. I bawled their names (I had no drop bag to rely on here) and a young woman- one of Carol's friends, I think- leaned out of the crowd to tell me they hadn't arrived yet- traffic congestion on Foresthill Road, apparently. I left a heavily expletive laden message that they'd better be at Little Bald Mountain (28 miles) in 45 minutes, I wasn't going to wait. Then I headed out.
The trail to Little Bald Mountain drops briefly to a small creek, then climbs gradually but persistently around the mountain, exposed to the sun almost all the way. I pass a few tired runners as I alternate running and powerwalking- with the heat making itself felt now, I'm a little more conservative. At 10.50am, I run down a dirt road with a very fit looking young woman in front of me and arrive at Little Bald Mountain aid station.
There's the crew! They're most apologetic for missing me at Robinson, and Carol insists I'm having a great run. I drink some chilled soup, a Starbucks Frappacino and a few other bits, resist the invitation to sit in a deckchair- "I'm NOT sitting down!" would become my constant refrain this day- and depart for the infamous canyons.
The descent to Deep Canyon aid station is a curious mixture of crappy, rocky singletrack and very dry dirt roads. There's a lot of dust in the air and the heat is bothering me now. We drop through a chute lined with dozens of US flags- which draws a few comments from the runners around me- and drop onto a broad dirt road just up from the aid station. Because of the heat, I eat little- and the sportsdrink of choice in the aid stations, GU2O, tastes pretty bad. So I direct the staff to fill one of my bottles with water and the other with coke and run down a long downhill dirt road.
I fall into the company of Jim Walsh from Vermont, who's celebrating his birthday today. We make a good pair as we drop to the bottom of the canyon, wet our hats, and powerwalk up the road towards Dusty Corners. Jim speaks of his races in the Vermont 100 and his family; our paces and temperaments match. At Dusty Corners I produce my third bottle (a handheld) and fill all three; we both place ice under our caps and follow a good quality, winding singletrack towards Last Chance. We run a fair amount and pass quite a few runners, but when the trail breaks into the open and we take the full brunt of the sunlight we drop to a powerwalk. It's too early to not be conservative, emphasises Jim. All of my bottles are empty by the time we arrive at Last Chance.
My weight is still up from the start- it's 193- but this is normal for me. Last year at the Glasshouse 100 I put on about 4 kilograms in the first few hours. Unfortunately I'm starting to chafe downstairs despite doing my usual Bodyglide thing before the start- must be a product of the high temperatures. I later on Bodyglide and Hydropel in high quantities and get some relief. A quick duck into the portaloo and Jim and I leave Last Chance en route to Deadwood Canyon and the infamous climb to Devil's Thumb.
At first this is a dirt road, then it becomes a narrow singletrack with some tricky footing that drops into the canyon. Jim and I toss in some walking to save our legs and as a result are passed by several people, but pass a couple more. We emerge from the trees to the bridge over Deadwood Creek; Jim elects to walk down to the creek and cool off; I walk a few metres up the trail and soak my cap in a creek that's flowing past. Then we start the climb up the Thumb.
This hill, in the heat of early afternoon, took all the fight out of me and Jim wasn't much better. A very steep singletrack switchbacking back and forth; it brought back flashbacks of climbing Duane Spur at the Mt Bogong- Mt Hotham race. A small mercy was that it's pretty much all under tree cover. After a while we were sufficiently buggered to agree to sitting down for a few moments of rest, which we do, then turn the next corner to see the Devil's Thumb aid station (47 miles). After taking an hour to move forward by just over a mile and a half, I'm thoroughly demoralised as we arrive at half past three in the afternoon.
I don't want to eat. My weight is still 193 so hydration is good, but I just don't want food, just managing a can of Ensure and a tub or two of creamed rice from my drop bag. I tell Jim to run ahead while I'd walk for a while, I needed to get over this bad patch. He ran ahead, but within a few minutes I was passed by Monica Scholtz. She told me to try and run with her; I could; and we made good pace down into El Dorado Canyon.
Sue Johnston fell in with us. I was amazed to be in such company as Monica, the Canadian who runs a 100 every second week of the year, and Sue, who has been first woman at Hardrock. Sue told us she was having a bad day, and she and Monica did much of the talking as we ran downhill and I stayed silent. Unlike the descent to Deadwood, this run had little switchbacking (it just kept going and going..) and was mostly in the open, fully exposed to the heat. Dust was everywhere.
When we reached the aid station at the bottom (after more than an hour of constant downhill running), Sue was no longer with us and we'd caught back up to Jim and a few others. Monica then took off up towards Michigan Bluff while I took it a lot easier, walking pretty much all of it.. My feet had developed a few hot spots on the heels and around the edges of the forefoot tape and I was feeling generally buggered and saw no need to push- I was still on a pretty good pace.
The climb to Michigan Bluff was not as steep as Devil's Thumb but was longer, so it was still pretty bloody bad. I ran into Michigan Bluff (55 miles) just after 6pm, got weighed, met the crew, refused a chair again, and tried to get down some food but just wasn't up to it. A few chips, some soup and another Frappucino was about all could get down before I left. I said I'd take it easy to Foresthill and arrive around 8pm.
(I found out later Sue Johnston had dropped at Michigan Bluff. Carol knew this when I saw her at Foresthill, but didnít mention it to me till after the race, in case it discouraged me.)
I'd run the Michigan Bluff- Foresthill section the week before and found the trail quality dropping into Volcano Canyon to be pretty poor- and it was again, lost of loose rocks that made the hots spots on my heels flare into blisters. Gordon Ainsleigh (the first man to run the WS trail, waaaaay back in 1974) passed me dropping down to Volcano Creek as I gingerly worked my way down, but I powerwalked strongly upwards and out of there and passed Gordon back again. I felt guilty for doing that to the legend.
Some rough old 4WD track and I passed through the Bath Rd aid station and walked uphill and into Foresthill (62 miles) at around 8pm. I was still ahead of the 28 hour pace, though only by 15 minutes. I was weighed and met the crew. Some intoxicated fellow from a local radio station gave me a glass of Sierra Nevada pale ale and tried to interview "the Aussie" but when he couldn't get his act together right away we left. Carol and I ran down to the car where I changed into a coolmax t shirt, got out my lights (a Coleman torch and 7 LED headlamp) and tried to eat, but still wasn't up to much after all the elevation changes and heat of the last 30 miles. I kept telling everyone I just wanted the damn thing to be over, but the realisation that it was still at least 12 hours of running away almost had me in tears, though I managed to fight them off without anyone noticing (I think). Of course, in hindsight (and I think I knew this deep down at the time) my emotional state at the time was a result of low blood sugar as a result of not eating enough in the canyons- you can't run these things just off coke and the odd munchies. Race conditions were taking their toll.
Carol and I set off down the main strip of Foresthill and turned into California Street, crossed Mosquito Ridge Rd and onto singletrack. We started dropping towards Dardanelles aid station- it got dark as we descended lower and lower into the forest and the sun crept below the horizon, so we had lights on by the time we hauled into Dardanelles. Carol told everyone I was from Australia and we were gone again.
My pace started to slip on the next section to Peachstone- there's actually a reasonable amount of uphill in this section and each uphill was draining me until I was reduced to hunching down with my hands on my knees to recover from each one. Carol would stand some distance ahead, trying to get me to run to her, but I had nothing left as my blood sugar levels crashed out and 150 runners started coming on strong from behind. Each runner and pacer who passed me further contributed to my misery, and the downhills were further beating up my blisters, although the uphills were, of course, no comfort. A couple of times I had to lean on Carol or a tree as my sense of balance went and I staggered dizzily down the trail. I finally stumbled into the lights of Peachstone (70 miles) at about 10.15 and Carol directed me to a chair. Having refused to sit all day, I was too tired to argue.
Within minutes I was shivering violently with cold (even though it was a warm evening- maybe low 20s Celsius- everyone else was quite comfortable in t shirts) but I lacked the brainpower to put on some of the blankets piled upon the chair next to me, so Carol and some of the aid station people wrapped me in three of them and I drew them tight, curling up in cold and misery. Carol started getting food and drinks from the aid stations, and I slowly managed to start eating- at first a few grapes at a time and half a cup of coffee, I was able to graduate to slices of bread and chunks of cheese. These began to take their effect and I started to warm up (though still cold) and I was able to swap a joke with one of the medicos, although my mood wasn't improved my all the runners and pacers who came running out of the darkness as I sat powerlessly on the sidelines.
Carol was magnificent. Always asking what I wanted to eat or offering suggestions, she'd then get it from the food tables and deliver them with a few encouraging words. Without her, I may well have not left Peachstone. As my watch clicked towards 11pm, I looked around and announced I'd be out of here in a few minutes; when my watch beeped the hour of 11, I threw down the blankets, stood up and Carol and I left. The aid station people clapped and cheered at the metamorphosis.
After that we made decent progress down towards Rucky Chucky. Much of the time the trail was directly above the American River, and light beams shone off to the left were lost in the gloom. We finally reached the river level at a small beach, then we climbed briefly again (the food was working a treat, I was able to run uphill!) and now the lights of Rucky Chucky were visible in the near distance.
By now my feet had fallen into a pattern. Some blisters would be acutely painful at any one time, but after a while they'd go numb and some other group of blisters would angrily awaken and take their place. As well as blisters around the edges of both heels that hurt on the downhills, I had others on the backs of my feet around the Achilles tendon that hurt on the uphill, and a couple of beauties under the calluses directly under the heels. My forefeet weren't too bad though and that's where I normally have issues, so evidently the tape was working.
We reached Rucky Chucky (78 miles) at 2am, grasped the rope and went in. Keeeeerrrrrriiiiiisssssst, was that damn water cold! I tried to hurry but found that an unlikely proposal in the fast current, so just held onto the rope, swapped jokes with the hardy volunteers who were standing waist deep in the water, and tried to avoid getting the boys wet. I emerged from the water on the far side to be met by Phil Brown, who had walked the two miles downhill from Greengate to meet us. He'd brought a pair of my NB 806s in case I wanted to change shoes, but Carol and I agreed that seeing as my feet weren't rapidly deteriorating I might do more damage by changing shoes, so kept the Asics on. I went through my drop bag and we began the long, slow climb of two miles uphill to Greengate.
Because of the "uphill" blisters on the backs of my feet, these two miles took almost an hour. Mum was waiting at the aid station at the top, but I didn't want to hang around and Carol and I cleared out quickly. I wanted to walk as much as possible to take the pressure off my feet, but this reality was shattered by the "WS Trail" markers on the side of the singletrack. The mile numbers to Auburn on these signs (every half mile on the trail between Greengate and ALT) seemed to indicate a shockingly slow speed for us, so after yelling to Carol for a while about how we weren't going to make the fucking cutoff (et cetera, et cetera.... the normal 3am angst) I managed to drag myself into running at a good speed. The memories of Tuesday night tempo 10Ks in Lane Cove National Park and Thursday morning intervals at Timbrell Park (a century ago it seemed) came back as I was even able to run uphill and we caught back and passed several runners who had passed us around the vicinity of Greengate.
We drew into ALT (85 miles) just before dawn and I realised the WS Trail mileage markers were out. I slumped into a chair and went through my drop bag but the effort of running hard at this point took their toll and I was quickly shivering again, so I got up and we left quickly.
I made pretty poor progress en route to Brown's (a combination of generally-buggered-up syndrome and worsening foot problems) so I told Carol we'd go right through that aid station at mile 90. We heard it 15 minutes before we arrived, with big subwoofers cranking out the old country'n'western classics at a volume of "11" (any Spinal Tap fans out there...?). I ran in, held up my hands, barked "number 221 checking in AND out" and kept going. Carol was opening a gap on me here as I wheezed to a slow halt- even as we went down a hill (my feet hurt more downhill than uphill at this stage) and runners passed us as we started to climb along the quarry trail towards the Highway 49 Crossing. At Carol's suggestion I took some painkillers (I'd resisted the urge till now, leery as I am of medications) and got down a GU on top of that. Within a few minutes I was able to run hard uphill along a trail that seemed to go forever before emerging at Highway 49 just after 8am.
They wanted to get my weight again- I had been told Rucky Chucky was the last time that would be recorded- so I swore at the top of my lungs at the waste of time. That done, I threw down my Camelbak and got the crew to pass me my handheld bottle, which I would use on its own until the end. They filled it with coke and Carol and I took off.
I was now pumped up and had a pocketful of GUs to keep my blood sugar up. We passed half a dozen runners on the climb to Pointed Rocks; then it was almost a sprint on the downhill to No Hands (well I was sprinting as well I could for having run 90 miles). Carol tripped and did a textbook faceplant in front of me on one such switchback; she got up with a cut face and urged me to keep going.
I left her behind but the descent to No Hands also seemed to go forever, even as I ignored my foot pain and ran it all. Looking down Highway 49 was directly below us, surely the bridge couldn't be far now? No, I had to wait about 12 minutes after first seeing the Highway till I made the final descent to No Hands Bridge (97 miles).
Mum and Phil were there, a big surprise. I had two hours to cover three miles, and my legs were thrashed from the downhill from Pointed Rocks to No Hands (having taken the downhills of the canyons just fine, inexplicably) so I resolved to walk from here. Phil took some photos and I explained they should wait for Carol; then I crossed the bridge and the American River one more time and set off towards Robie Point.
It was getting damned hot again, so after the hot climb to the Robie Point aid station I asked for ice water. Carol was there with the rest of the crew, having got a lift from No hands, and she handed me the Australian flag to hold during the last mile. They drove off as I walked up this bloody bitumen hill past groups of cheering spectators.
I started to watch the time. I wasn't worried about the cutoffs of course, but it would be nice to go under 29 hours. A few jogging steps on the uphill, then a descent to the Placer High School athletics track, where the finish waited after one lap of the track. Emotions had been milked out of me hours before, now there was a curious detachment as I covered the final four hundred metrs. I was telling someone elseís feet to turn over, it seeemd. Still keeping an eye on the watch, I broke into a jog as the voice on the PA started to read out my details. I held the flag up as I passed under the finish banner in 28.59, 222nd of 405 starters and 272 finishers.
Jim was there to greet me after his own 26 hour finish, then it was an emotional reunion with Carol, Phil and mum. They took my medical details one more time (weight still 193, more than my starting weight) and I dragged myself onto a folding lounge in the medical tent, removed my cap, shirt and shoes, and lay there for 15 minutes before being helped to my feet and staggering to the showers.
Once the water struck the broken skin on my feet the pain was incredible. I showered as fast as seemed feasible and, after trying to down some food, slumped into a chair for the awards ceremony. People were sleeping left and right, just too spent to pay attention to the full ceremony. They read out my name and I shuffled over to collect my brass buckle, and, after some concluding remarks from John Medinger, Western States was over for 2003. The four of us stopped for pizza in Auburn before hitting the highway back to Berkeley.
Final impressions- the WS organisation is remarkably professional and efficient, comparable to the big-city marathons (actually probably more so)- and certainly no ultra in Australia compares (sorry Kev). Main irritation was a lack of decent food in the aid stations- those tinned potatoes did nothing at all for me, and the GU2O was a farrly ordinary sportdrink. But the event as a whole is a special one, and Iím certainly extremely happy to complete a goal set so long ago.
Sean has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :