Western States

I have struggled in an attempt to condense my thoughts about the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run into a blog post. Like the highs and low points of the race, my paradoxical emotions have been battling for dominance throughout the last week or so.

In the late fall of 2010, fate smiled kindly on me as my name was drawn from the proverbial hat containing 4,000 other hopeful runners who had also entered their names into the Western States lottery. I rarely win any contests I enter, so I figured this would not be an exception. In fact, the only drawing I can recall winning was a Cabbage Patch doll from Drug Emporium. I quickly sold my winnings to my sister and ended up 25 cents richer that day. This year’s stroke of luck left my pockets a little lighter, but a chance to run Western States, the oldest hundred miler in the nation, was one I was not about to pass up.

Reality soon set in, and, after watching videos of some of the top runners on the course, I figured that I should probably come up with a good training plan. Unfortunately, Ohio does not have long climbs to train on like the mountains out west. It does have select pockets of rolling hills, however. I spent as much time as I could training at Mohican. When there was no time for the trip to Mohican, I would run at Highbanks. And, when I tired of Highbanks, I would spend some hours running up and down Worthington Hill. This is not even a quarter mile hill, but it is steep, paved and has lots of traffic. Some of my best training was done on this hill as it allowed me to block everything else out of my mind and just work on my uphill running form.

Preparations for a 100-mile race are not limited to the runner alone. For a while, I was not sure if Leigh was going to be able to make it out to California to help crew the race. I also was not sure if I would have a pacer, so I prepared myself for a solo trip. I realized it would be lonely, but I would make it through. Then, at the Clif Bar pace party before the Boston Marathon, Star came up to me and said that she had worked it out that she would be able to come out and pace me. So, I would not be alone on the trails! There was still the question of what to do the week before (as I was flying out early in an attempt to acclimate to the higher altitude) and for crew during the race. My Dad offered to fly out to crew if Leigh was not able to make it, but he had a busy schedule already and this would make it even busier. One morning, I was sitting at work and got an email from Leigh. “I bought a plane ticket. I’m flying to California!” It had all worked out. So, I carefully planned and packed my drop bags and clothes for the run. Then we were off on a day of flights, connections and misconnections that took way longer than it should…but that’s a story for another time.

We finally made it to Reno and tiredly drove to the hotel in Tahoe City to start catching up on some much needed sleep. Tahoe is a beautiful place. There really are no words that can describe the crystal clear waters backed by tall mountains and pink sunsets. The low humidity and clean mountain air is enough to make one question the sanity of living in a rain forest like Ohio. But, I digress.

Leigh and I spent the week hiking the course, walking by the lake, visiting wineries in Napa Valley, trying new restaurants, taking photos and spending plenty of time relaxing. If you’re not jealous by now, you should be. It was a wonderful, restful time. We met up with a runner friend, Ted Niemann and his wife, Toni and had a blast hanging out with them in the later part of the week. I went for a couple of training runs in Tahoe as well. Two days before the race, I ran up the first few miles of the course (up a Squaw Valley ski hill) and then back down just to see what that section of the course was like. On the way down, my left calf tightened up and did not loosen up before the race. Between my left calf and my right shin that had been bothering me for weeks on downhill runs, I was pretty worried about how my legs would hold up…especially on all the downhill at the end of the race.

Friday before the run, a pre-race meeting was held where we got to meet up with runner friends, Eman Ronchin (Toronto), Kevin O’Grady (Ohio), Adam Bright (Florida), Shaun Pope (Ohio) and Sandi Nypaver (Ohio). There was a really cool ceremony recognizing some of the top ultra-runners as well.

Finally, the day of the race arrived. We woke up around 3AM and made it to weigh in at the start with plenty of time to spare. Star had flown into the state just hours before the 5AM start and was there to see me and our other Ohio friends off before trying to catch a few hours of sleep. All the runners counted down to the start together and we took off up the first of many hills. Remembering advice of those that I gone before me, I decided to walk the first four miles as it is all uphill. “Cowman A-Mooha”, the second runner to ever complete Western States had started with cow horns on his head and I walked beside him for a while. I concentrated on keeping my heart rate low and moving forward. The first aid station (Escarpment) was two miles in, with the next one (Talbot) not arriving until mile 15. I topped off the three bottles I was carrying for this longer section at Escarpment and kept moving ahead.

At mile three, snow appeared on the course. Overnight, the temperatures had gotten down around freezing and all of the snow had turned to ice. Picture a ski hill, covered with a sheet of ice. Now, imagine running horizontally across this hill, just fast enough that you don’t have time to slip too far down with each step and just slow enough that you can avoid post-holing in the streams that go under the ice. That was the next 12 miles. I had flashbacks to Beast of Burden.

Soon, however, the ice section was over. I was able to put ice in my bandana and lose the shirt as it was starting to heat up at this point. Over the next several miles, I got the chance to walk and talk with a really nice guy named Dominic about the Wasatch Front 100. He was going for a sub-24 hour race and I told him if all went well today, that’s what I would like to run too. As we climbed up out of Duncan Canyon to Mosquito Ridge, I realized that this would likely be a longer day than I had hoped for. I was 30 miles in and had already started puking. The next four and a half miles consisted of a flat loop and I was accompanied by some lovely medical volunteers: Jerry, Catra and Fireman Dan. They were out making sure no one was stranded in the woods with a serious problem. It was nice to have the company as I walked trying to settle my stomach early on so I could hopefully run more later in the race. Once we got to Miller’s Defeat, I spent the next 45 minutes with some amazing volunteers who did a great job assessing the problem (low electrolytes) and trying to get me back on track. I didn’t want to sit here, but I thought that if I took care of this early enough, that I could still run a great last half of the race.

I had dropped my shirt when it began to get warm, but as I sat still for a while in the shade, I became cold. One of the volunteers offered me the shirt off of his back, only concerned that my nipples might chafe because it was a t-shirt. It was a funny and heartwarming moment that lifted my spirits. Another volunteer came to the rescue, however, offering me one of his many spare running shirts that he kept in his van.

From this point, I entered the dreaded death-march mode, hoping against hope that I could get some stomach back so I could keep a few calories down for the upcoming climbs. I tried not to stay too long at each aid station – just enough to try to get a few calories to settle. Each and every volunteer treated me like I was royalty – they are really amazing people and I felt that I couldn’t thank them enough – especially the ones that helped me through these rough early miles (and saw me lose my lunch numerous times).

My stomach was really starting to settle and I began to get back into a groove on the way down into the canyon before Devil’s Thumb. I knew what lay ahead, however, and I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Devil’s Thumb was the hardest climb I have had to make: 37 switchbacks, with each section steeper than the last. It showed no mercy on a weak stomach and if you sat to rest, the mosquitoes let you know it was time to keep moving. Devil’s Thumb climbed up and up and up. I honestly don’t think I have ever moved that slowly on a section of trail. I couldn’t stop shaking from the cold at the top of Devil’s Thumb, so I moved through the weight check quickly, was helped by some more really amazing volunteers, grabbed a popsicle and started moving forward again. A popsicle was the wrong move, but it tasted so good going down.

Overall, I was in reasonably good spirits considering the circumstances up until this point. When I left Devil’s Thumb, I had very little hope of being able to run the second half. After all, I was in pretty rough shape for having covered less than half of the course! When reading the runner’s guide for Western States, they warn you about rattle snakes, bears and mountain lions on the trails. Mountain lions in particular sneak up from behind and attack with very little warning. I began to hope for a mountain lion to stalk me and put me out of my misery. I could not concede to dropping out the race if there was any chance that I could still finish, but being eaten by a mountain lion seemed like a pretty good way out at that point. When that dream did not appear to be coming true, I turned to a different line of thinking.

I began to ask God to heal me. And then a few lines of an old church song popped into my head, “I believe He’s here now, standing in our midst. Here with the power to heal now, and the grace to forgive.” Often times when I am at a point of desperation, I ask God to take away my problem. When He doesn’t respond immediately, I think that it must be because I have not been obedient in some way. I realized in this moment that my view of God is so far from what He truly is like. In fact, it is despite how I behave that He has shown me grace and forgiveness many times over. He always has and always will respond to our cries in His own timing, which is always best.

I began to accept my current circumstances and focus on not falling too far behind as I was starting to think about aid station cutoffs at this point. I finally made it to Michigan Bluff shortly after 8pm. Star was there and I figured Leigh would be too so I could get my headlamp as it would be dark soon. Fearing that she wouldn’t make it to Foresthill in time, Leigh had decided to wait there and gave my headlamp to Star to deliver to me. I was starting to get a little loopy and a little irritable at this point. I weighed in and was 6lbs under my starting weight, so I had to listen to a talk from a volunteer to get my nutrition back on track. It turns out that he thought I had gained six pounds and was telling what to do to lose water weight! I was really annoyed as I just wanted to get moving and I let it show. I apologized, though, as I realized that he was only trying to help. I downed all of the chicken noodle soup that he gave me and then ran off to find a place to puke for the 12th and final time (almost a PR or Puke Record as Star pointed out).

Star regaled me with stories of her crazy last day of work and travels out to California. The time went by quickly and I ate up all of the sport beans that she had thrown in her pocket as a last minute thought. The beans tasted good and might have even been sprinkled with a little bit of magic. At Bath Rd, just a mile and a half from Foresthill, we caught up with Ted Niemann who was dealing with stomach trouble of his own. The bug had bit a lot of people hard that day.

Leigh was at Foresthill and was a welcome sight to see. We took a couple of extra minutes to visit, fuel up and let the food settle in an attempt to run again after this prolonged hike through the woods. It worked and we were running bits at a time. We came up with a food formula that seemed to work: chicken broth, a salty potato, coke and a refill on water and electrolytes. Through the winding woods we ran. We saw aliens at “Area 54”, saw skeletons dressed in drag and heard delightful music blasting from aid station stereos. Star ate grilled cheese sandwiches and I stuck to my food formula as it was working for me. We began to pass people and I knew we were making up a little bit of time. On the way up to mile 73, we climbed up the elevator shaft, a wide STEEP road that switched back and forth in a never-ending uphill. I lamented the fact that there was no elevator around. We eventually made it to the top and then, before we knew it, we were approaching the river crossing. This was one of my favorite parts of the race. Most years, runners wade through the American River while holding onto a cable for support. The snow runoff was so much this year, however that we were shuttled across in a raft. The crew was efficient and we had lots of people there to help us into and out of the boat.

Another big climb on the way to Green Gate lay in wait on the other side of the river. It was steep, but not too bad. We hiked with another pacer for a while and suddenly I yelled out, “Star! STAR!” “What?” she said back. “Don’t take another…uh, nevermind.” I replied. We all had a good laugh when I explained that I had seen two rattlesnakes in the middle of the path. They were still there when I did a double take, but in the end turned out to be just a couple of rocks in the road. The other pacer had been looking in the sky thinking that I was yelling at the stars.

Leigh was waiting for us at Green Gate with warm clothes and words of encouragement. She had hiked a mile and a half down and then back up to be at that aid station. She is wonderful! We continued to make our way into the final 20 miles of the race. The finish was in sight at this point and we picked up the pace a bit. Stretches of running became longer and I switched to a strict diet of Cheetos and Coke. The next 10 miles reminded me a lot of Mohican. It was fun to run again and the legs felt great. There was a time where I wished for this feeling earlier on in the race, but now I was just thankful to be able to run what I could. We arrived at Highway 49 (mile 93.5), the last place we would see Leigh before the finish. Leigh and I briefly argued about whether there were 7 miles remaining or just a 10k. Turns out neither of us were right.

Some of the most amazing views popped up in this last section of the course. We paused just long enough to breathe in the vistas and kept moving. I began to tear up as we crossed No Hands Bridge with only a few miles left to go. We hiked one more dusty climb and were greeted by a dude in a mohawk who ran down the hill to take our drink orders, then ran up ahead of us to fill them and keep us moving into town. With cold cloths on our necks, we finished out the climb and ran the last mile through the town of Auburn. Following the orange footprints on the road, we ran onto the Placer High track and I crossed the finish line in 28:36:35.

It was a long journey, but I once again walk away feeling so very thankful for everyone who helped me through it. Leigh stayed up and drove all through the night just to see me at the few places they would allow crew. Star ran 45 miles with me and kept me focused and moving, all the while entertaining me with stories. Many other people believed I could do it even when I didn’t believe it myself.

Update: If you didn’t get a change to read it already, Star wrote a fantastic, well-told, humorous piece detailing the section she ran with me.

14 thoughts on “Western States

    • Thanks for the words of encouragement, Tina. Hope you are Manuel are healing up after the crazy baseball mishap!

  1. Wow, Steve. I think it’s time you started teaching and sharing some of these lessons the Lord is impressing on you as you run and have these incredibly difficult experiences. This blog post had me on the edge of my seat and moved me to tears. Way to go Steve, you’re a warrior!! You are also very blessed to have a supportive, lovely wife. I’m looking forward to hearing about this from her perspective too!

    • Thanks, Kim. I’m not sure about the teaching part, but I’ve started writing a book on this subject, although it may take me a while to finish it…

  2. WOW! Great story!Great adventure! Enduring…finishing strong…amazing FRIEND and Wife… Prayer, encouragement… you said it all! Run the race and finish strong and faithful… AMEN!

  3. Steve, great retelling of an amazing sounding experience. I couldn’t look away after I started reading! Sounds like a life changing experience.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Andy. I feel like every 100 is life changing in some way which is why I love doing them.

  4. Steve – as you know, I was hanging on my seat while you guys ran! Thanks for the writeup and looking forward to my schwag you snagged for me! See you soon I hope.

  5. Hey Steve, I happened upon your FB profile and consequently this blog and was quite impressed. Congrats on finishing such a tough course. I started running short distance trails last year and I hope to someday be in form to run ultra’s. So thanks for the inspiration. Take care.

      • I live in Dayton and enjoy Germantown Metropark so I’m shooting for the Germantown 50k on 9/24. I hope to progress to a 50 miler and 100-miler in the next couple years. The longest I’ve run is 17mi on trail, but I’ve started a little training plan, and hope to just finish the race. I’m not a great runner or in great shape but I sure enjoy the sights and sounds of creation and the childlike and primeval sensation of running through the woods. Do you have your sights on an upcoming race?

        • That’s great, Jason! I have heard the Germantown 50k is a nice run – I’ve run the John Bryan 50k out near Dayton (I think it’s called the tie-dye 50k now) – good trails out there. The next race I’m training for is a faster time at the Columbus Marathon this October – followed by run with scissors (52 miles) in Cleveland at the end of October. After that, I’ll have to see – I would like to do another 100 (I’ve run 4 so far and have yet to figure out the nutrition, but I’m learning), but that will probably not be until next year.

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