Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Western States 100 in 2009

Like many other runners my journey to run Western States 100 has been a long one, dating back several years. In fact, it started already in 2005 as I was getting into ultra running after many years of doing triathlons, trail runs, and mountain biking. That year, since I had no chance to run the WS100 race, I instead opted to run the course without support from Squaw to Michigan Bluff. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked, loved the course, the mountain views, and the highland trails.

The following years, I was in the lottery for both 2006 and 2007 - but was not selected. Those years I instead choose to help as as safety patrol runner from Squaw to Robinson Flat. Each year I actually drove to Robinson Hill the day before the race start, and ran the course backwards to to Squaw, and then ran back to the car as part of the Safety patrol team. It was a nice experience, and it certainly helped me get to know the first 30 miles of the course in great detail.

The following year, 2008 the race was canceled, and I was only able to do a shortish training run to Red Star and back.

So, in 2009 it finally was time for the real deal. However, the situation was not optimal from a training perspective, since I had been struggling with a foot stress fracture for much of the spring, and in fact the only 2 times I had run more than a couple of hours was at a race in March and another race at end of April. Therefore, I did not really know what to expect in terms of form, and whether my foot would hold together for the whole distance.

I traveled up with my family to stay at a house nearby Squaw for a couple of days leading up to the race start. At the morning of the race all went per plan, and by 5 am we were off. The start was actually a bit of a surprise, since in previous years I had been with the Safety Patrol waiting high up the mountain when the gun went off. This time it was great to be part of the crowd, and I enjoyed the cheers from the spectators as all racers headed up the mountain. The run/walk up to the top went without any issues - I stayed close to a group of other ultra runners from the bay area. I was a careful to not go out too fast, but I felt good - and I crested Escarpment in around 50th place, and I was approx 5-10 minutes ahead of my target 24 hour pace.

The run down from Escarpment to Lyon Ridge and then Red Star was nice running, but a little odd as I met surprisingly few other runners. In fact, for much of the Granite Chief section I did not meet a single person for more than 30 minutes. I came into Red Star almost 30 min ahead of 24hr pace, and kept telling myself to go easy in the beginning. I added a little extra tape on my left foot where I felt some friction developing. The part to Duncan Canyon was also fast, but incredibly dusty. I ran behind another runner for much of the last 2 miles, and it felt as running in a sand storm, luckily the gaiters worked and had no issues other than breathing a lot of dry dust for some time. Previous years I have always struggled a bit with the section from Duncan to Robinson Flat, however this year I was able to run the vast majority of it at a decent pace. The swim at the bottom of the canyon is superb - and it gives a boost to get up the hill. I arrived into Robinson Flat 45min ahead of planned pace. The crowds were amazing. I cooled off with some ice water and continued quickly out up the short hill to Mt Baldy.

I had never run this section of the race before so I did not know what to expect. It is safe to say that this now is one of my absolute favorite parts of the run, in terms of the gorgeous views and the nice downhill trail coming down from the top of Mt Baldy. The section to Miller's Defeat was longer than I had expected and the last section was tedious and the temperature was now climbing quickly. The last miles seemed it took for ever until I got to the aid station. The volunteers were very helpful as always. At this point I was running without a shirt to keep cool, and one volunteer helped add a layer of sunblock on my back. This was a lifesaver for the rest of the sunny day, but I felt bad for the guy who had to do it - considering how sweaty I was at this point :-)

The next section was very runnable, with only distraction was a herd of cows (or was it bulls?) in the middle of the trail. I played it safe and walked around it at a little distance and then continued down the trail. I came down to Dusty Corners aid station at 38 miles just after noon, approx an hour ahead of 24 hr pace, and in about 45th place. I felt good about the day, but also knew well that the bulk of the run was still ahead of me. The section to Last Chance was also new to me, since when I ran it previously I had opted to take the gravel road instead of the trail. I was surprised by the amount of downhill on this section, and I kept up a decent pace, but choose to walk some of the steeper uphills to save effort. Much of this part is shaded so the heat did not really bother me much. By Last Chance aid at 43.4 miles I had lost a little of my time buffer down to 45 minutes. It did not worry me too much, as I was hoping to pick some of this back on the 2 big climbs coming up. The run down to the creek was uneventful, and I started the power walk up to Devil's Thumb, and arrived at 2.30, and was glad to see I had picked up 15 more time. The climb was steep and tedious as usual - but I was mentally very prepared for it so it went by quite quickly. I had picked up an extra large water bottle at Robinson Flat, and for all the following sections I had it filled up with just ice. This worked wonders on all the climbs as I was able to refill by hand bottles half way up the climb with half melted ice water and also use for cooling over my head. The next climb at Michigan Bluff went in a similar way, and I arrived up at the top at 4.30 pm, now in 52nd place. I felt quite good, warm yes - but definitely not over heated.

The following section was surprisingly tedious, I walked parts of it and running on the wide gravel road was just not as fun compared to the beautiful trails I had been on for the last 12 hours or so. In addition, the descent down to Bath Road was a bit of a surprise, I had not checked this section in detail on the map, and had expected a relatively steady run up to Foresthill. Instead, there now was yet another canyon to battle with and it drained some mental energy.
I passed the aid station and continued the long walk up the road to Foresthill. I mixed running and walking, and came in to Foresthill aid at 6 pm after running 13 hours, an hour ahead of my 24hr target time. I was starting to feel more optimistic about the race. I tried hard to not get my hopes up too high about finishing under 24hrs, but felt there may be a chance if I kept up a steady pace. At Foresthill I changed shirt, shoes, ipod, and got out the headlamp.

I knew the next section well, as I had done a run there in the previous year. The steady downhill was nice and I kept a steady pace. However, as I got close to the Cal 1 aid station I stopped to pee and noticed a distinct red color, not good I realized... The condition is referred to as hematuria. I had never experienced this in any previous ultra so could not tell if/how bad this may be. I asked a few other competitors what they thought - and the typical answer was "not good"... so at this point I decided to play it safe and I shifted down the pace and walked much of the way to Cal2 and Cal3 aid stations. BTW - since the race I have read more about this condition and found that it necessarily must not be a critical issue, and can happen quite often at strenuous exercise.

I continued peeing red for the next few hours. I felt no other pain or tightness, however mentally I got quite worried, and even wondered if this would force me to stop the race. When I finally arrived to the river crossing, at mile 78 just after 10 pm in 64th place, I asked a nurse what options I had. She asked a few questions, and we agreed I would go slow, and monitor the situation, keep up the fluids, and then reassess at next aid.

The river crossing was really fun, and the water level much deeper than I had expected. Over on the other side I changed into a dry pair of shoes and set off up the long hill. This is another example of a bit poor review of the course, as I had expected (hoped for) a steep but relatively short uphill. However, the climb up to Green Gate, at 80 miles, was far longer than expected. I arrived up at at around 11 PM. Still ahead of a 24hr pace, but I had lost much of the buffer by now.

The next section went really slow, and I ended up walking majority of this. My feet were tender from blisters, and I was feeling out of energy. The darkness was solid and I power walked most of these sections without seeing much other runners. On the positive side, pee was now good again and I felt less concerned about DNF due to that situation. After what seemed like forever, I arrived into Auburn Lake trails. I had decided that my feet needed some serious attention - so I sat down and got help by the medical team at this aid (manned by Bay Area Mountain Rescue team). They gave excellent service, and I had several cups of hot soup. However, the foot service took a long time, and I left the aid station at around 2am. I was now behind my time goal, and had mentally decided to stop worrying about 24 hrs, but instead keep up a steady power walk into goal, and try run as much of the downhills as possible.

Brown's bar aid station was marvelous, one could hear their music from far away around the mountain, and the lighting was energizing. I had some more soup, and I left the aid station at 3.13 am. I was surprised by the deep descent into the next section, and then just as surprised about the very serious climb up to Hwy49 crossing aid station. I spoke with a doctor about my earlier troubles, and she confirmed it was OK to keep going, but to monitor the situation during and then after the race. I left the aid station at around 4.30 just as the first rays of morning sun could been seen at the horizon. I power walked the next section, and ran some of the downhills and arrived to No Hands in good spirits as I was certain I would finish my first WS100 run.

I continued the power walk up the climb to Robie Point, and then up along the streets down to the High school. As I got closer I got into a run, and I entered the track in nice pace. The half lap around the track was very emotional, and I finally realized that I had done this race - after 4 long years of planning and trying.

I completed the race in 25.47, not the sub-24 I had hoped for, but still very satisfying. I learned a lot about the course and how to plan out the race for a faster time - next time. Western States clearly is a unique race compared with many other ultras - more racers, bigger crowds, professional service, superb logistics and race organization, and more. However, at its core it is still the individual athlete that has to dig deep both physically and mentally to complete the race - and which is what makes running ultras such an all around satisfying experience.