Wednesday, June 30, 2010
WOW! Western States 100!!!
My quest to run in the race started around 1980 when my Dad and I first saw it on ABC's Wide World of Sports. I was running High School Cross-Country at the time. My Dad said we should do it...he says a lot of things like that...but this time I thought to myself...I think I could do that...
It is the oldest 100 mile trail race in the country. It was established in 1977. I won't go into the full history as you can check their website or google that info. It starts at Squaw Valley in the Sierras and heads west to Auburn, CA. It's got something like 22,000 feet of elevation gain, goes through snow covered peaks, and canyons with temps over 100 degrees F. You cross a river by boat (this year) or fording it with a guide line. The aid station names are legendary as are the long list of alums that come back year after year. I told someone at work, "It's like going to a Major League All-Star game except you get to play in the game and hang out with the all-stars afterwards!"
So, why haven't I done it yet? I certainly could have applied for entry for the past 8 years and performed pretty well. It's just one of those things that are so special, you want to make sure you can really appreciate it, do your best, and savor every ounce of it. I guess pacing Bruce is part of my attempt to learn more about this race. And boy, did I ever...
At Forest Hill, I asked an old-timer sitting next to me whether he was pacing. He said he was originally planning to hang glow sticks on the trail for the night time runners, but he was injured. So, I asked him what he was doing there. He said, "Son, anyone that has anything to do with ultrarunning in the state of California is here today. It doesn't matter what is going on in your life...you get in your car and come here on this weekend." Enough said? It's true, the list of people I saw or talked during the race read like a "Who's who in the sport of ultrarunning?" It was amazing. Now it was our turn to share in the adventure and add to the legacy! Let the story begin...
Getting there (a.k.a. a night in Charlotte):
Seems simple enough. You buy a plane ticket and expect everything to happen according to plan. Anyone who has done their fair share of traveling knows this is not how things happen. Flights get delayed, canceled, etc. My story, unfortunately, twists a similar tale, but I decided to go along with the adventure for once without getting crazy about it.
I had a 5:00 PM flight from Hartford to Charlotte and then an 8:00 connection to Sacramento. It seemed easy enough until weather got involved. We sat on the runway in Hartford for a long time and then they decided to go back to the gate to add more fuel so they could re-route us, and, I later learned...hold us hostage in the sky for eons. I knew I would miss my connection and needed to decide whether to go home and start over in the morning or spend the night in Charlotte with hopes of getting to CA sooner in the AM. After many trials and tribulations with US Air, I elected to jump back on the plane just before they shut the door because I stood a better chance of getting to CA at a reasonable time. I wanted to make sure I had a chance to spend a little time with Bruce before he had to get to bed on Friday. Getting in at 9pm (from Hartford) was not an option since I had a 2 hour drive to Squaw Valley. As I was getting back on board, I saw a man yelling at the gate agents trying to bully them into fixing things. At that point, I decided that I would make the best of this trip and would not be rude to anyone along the way...it sure made a big difference in my enjoyment of this trip. When I sat back down in my seat, I noticed that I had left a book that my daughter, Tara, gave me for Father's Day on the plane. She wrote an irreplaceable note in it, so I knew getting back on the plane was the right answer.
As I implied, the flight to Charlotte took forever, but I got to know the 2 people next to me and we had a great time chatting. I met a great young guy from the Adirondacks. His Mom is 65 years old and is an ironman triathlete and has completed more than 35 marathons. So, we pulled into Charlotte around 10:30 PM (not bad for a flight that was supposed to arrive around 7), and I quickly got on phone to cancel my hotel in CA. Thankfully, they did not charge me for the night. Unfortunately, this took a long time to confirm and I realized there was no food concessions open when my stomach told me I had missed dinner. Luckily, I had a couple energy bars and an apple to hold me over 'til morning. While I thought I had fixed my flights for morning while in Hartford, I decided to confirm them and get updated tickets before they locked up for the night. There was a long line of unhappy customers, so I hung out until they were all gone. Then, I approached an extremely tired gate agent for help. She was the gate agent from heaven as far as I am concerned. She confirmed that the outsourced phone help had no clue and totally screwed up my reservation, and she took the time to fix it all. She even booked me in the last seat to Sacramento from Phoenix even though it was first class.
At that point, it was around midnight, I had a discount hotel voucher but everyone said the hotels were full due to the weather issues. I had my thermarest and sleeping bag, so decided to try to sleep right there in the airport. This will be a shock for many of you who know me as Pretty Boy because I really do enjoy some creature comforts like a bed and shower in the AM. Nevertheless, my climbing bum experiences have prepared me well, and I curled up on the floor for the night. This would have worked better had I remembered my earplugs. First, the supervisor for the cleaning crew decides to sit right next to me to lecture one of his employees for an hour. Dear God man, it's a huge airport! Why do it next to me? I thought perhaps he didn't notice the body in the bag as I am kinda small, so I popped my head up after awhile to make my presence known. He said, "Good evening Sir". I asked somewhat sarcastically if he knew where I could find a quiet spot to sleep. He indicated that he did not and that the police would be by in awhile to kick me out. Great, I thought, but I only half believed him.
I moved my bag, chatted with another die hard traveler from Bangalore, and tried to get more sleep to the beautiful hum of vacuum cleaners in the distance. This worked well until they decided to start testing the alarm systems around 3AM. Holy shnikes! Talk about a wake up call! After awhile, I fell asleep for a bit until passengers started rolling in at 4:30AM. Who gets to an airport at 4:30AM? I felt like they were invading my bedroom for Pete's sake.
OK rabbit. Re-group...we are going with the flow...remember? I packed up my stuff and went into the bathroom to clean up. After a shave, and the usual things you do in a bathroom, I wandered the stores for food and some reading material. Then, my luck started changing. I found a book that a new person in my life recommended and sat down with it while I ate some breakfast. To my surprise, I had a nice exit row seat on the flight to Phoenix (thanks Angel), and slept nearly the whole trip). I ate some lunch, then picked up my flight to CA.
While enjoying my first class seat, I chatted with my new friend, Armondo, who is the director of baseball operations for Arizona State University. As luck would have it, he ran Western States in 1991 with a finishing time of 26 hours. While I missed the pre-race briefing, I was getting it all first hand from Armondo. He had run the trail many times in training and as a pacer, and he gave me the low down on everything. What a nice guy! I asked him to take a picture with me and then we chatted about sports all the way to the car rental place. He said he was envious aboout my weekend plans.
The first thing I did when I picked up the SUV was check to see if I could sleep in it. The Ford Edge seats fold down flat and it is perfect for sleeping. Things were getting better.
Traffic wasn't too bad and Bruce had ordered pizza for dinner. I just needed to get there. After a couple hours, I arrived in Squaw Valley. It was around 7PM Friday night. Wow! What an adventure just in getting there. Bruce showed me all his pre-race SWAG, then we walked over to the infamous starting line. The countdown timer said 9 hours and 25 minutes until the start.
After going over some race plans and meeting Bruce's family, I was ready for bed. I could tell Bruce was ansy to get some sleep as well, so I said goodnight to daughers Lora, Catherine, and Emma, and his wife Amy, and crawled up into my sleeping bag for the night. Incidently, for you ultra junkies, I was parked in front of Anton Krupicka's truck. Anton broke the old course record in finishing 2nd the next day. I was pulling for him to win it all, but let's not get too far ahead.
I awoke at 4:30AM and walked over to the starting line wondering how I would find Bruce. It was packed! While wandering, I saw a film crew interviewing a beautiful runner, and I wondered if she was last year's winner. As I got closer, I realized it was Michelle Roy from Mass. Wow! Then, I saw Bruce and Amy being photographed at the start line. I told them to stand there for one more pic and got a great shot of them. Bruce, of course, was wearing his Shenipsit Striders shirt.
After Michelle's interview, I said "Hi" and introduced her to Bruce and Amy. It reminded her that I still have her jacket from Traprock, and she mentioned that Ultrarunner magazine had given out over 400 free copies of the latest edition containing the Traprock 50K results. We joked that we might have some runners from as far as CA next year. Bruce and Michelle compared notes on their race plans, and then it was time for the start. Amy and I watched while I recorded some video footage. Gordy Ainsleigh, the one who started it all, said something like "You are about to enter the holy grail of ultrarunning" and then they were off.
Amy and I decided to depart Squaw at 6:30AM as she had to get the girls up, so I tried to catch a few more winks in the car.
We stopped at the supermarket and picked up some food for the day, then headed to Auburn and then toward Forest Hill. At Forest Hill, we topped off with fuel, and ran into some guys filming the race for Montrail (the main sponsor). They indicated they were heading to Dusty Corners (38 mile mark). Amy had mentioned that she did not want to go to that aid station because the road was steep and windy. Of course, this was all I needed to hear. I was on that one like sweat on a pig. I decided to hit Dusty Corners while Amy and the gals went to Robinson Flats. This would give Bruce maximum coverage as Amy would then go to Michigan Bluff (55 mile mark), and I would meet him at Forest Hill (62 mile mark).
When I arrived at Dusty Corners after a hairy ride, I realized that I did not know Bruce's number. I had no cell coverage, and it was hot in the sun. Hmmm..what to do? It was a long walk to the aid station, so I decided to grab my thermarest, a book, and some food and drink. I had no idea what Bruce might want and had little to offer other than encouragement, but the aid stations were fully stocked.
I saw Andy Jones Wilkins come barreling through around 8th place. He had to stop to get a rock out of his shoe and worked quickly as he had a few runners on his tail. Then, they started trickling in one by one. Most were in good spirits. A few looked like they might not make it much further.
I listened to a guy tell some stories about the race as he cheered on almost every person that went by. I soon recognized the face as the publisher of Ultrarunning magazine, John Medinger. I walked over and introduced myself as the RD of the Traprock 50K and thanked him for squeezing us into the mag. We chatted for awhile and then I decided to try to rest a bit.
Although I had no signal, somehow I got a text message from Amy indicating that he came through Robinson Flat at 11:20 and was having a tight quadracep issue. Bruce had given me a tiny laminated sheet with his expected split times for a 24 hour race based on previous finishers experiences. I checked the sheet and noticed he was about 20 minutes off pace...not good so early into it.
I tried to read, but could not focus. I was too caught up in all the energy. So, this is what it's like to crew.
Finally, Bruce came through and it took him a second to recognize me. We ran down the hill together and I asked him if he needed anything. He told me to stock up on Vitamin I (ibuprofen) as it seemed to help his quad issue. He was in very good spirits and said, "Steve, you have got to run this race!" I was stunned as all I could think about was the events of the moment. I just said, "OK Bruce, I will, let's get you through it first". The people at the aid station took good care of him, and then we parted ways. I drove back to Forest Hill while Bruce prepared to enter the dreaded canyons where temps can reach 110 deg F. I wondered how he would manage...
I had no directions back to Forest Hill and didn't trust the GPS for beans as it tried to send me on all kinds of logging roads. I just knew it was a couple miles up the road from our gas station stop. I wanted to find a good parking spot there, since we would be leaving my car there overnight.
For a spectator, Forest Hill is a great place to watch the race. The runners come down the road right past you. I was able to see a couple of the front runners go by as well as catch a glimpse of AJW again and the top 3 women including Nicki Kimball. Unfortunately, I still did not have a cell signal, but knew that Bruce expected to come in at 7PM based on our little cheat sheet. BTW, the cheat sheet print was so small that I had to hold it as far away as possible for these aging eyes to read. This made for interesting times (no pun intended) on the trail at night.
So to kill some time I shaved at the local municipality, ate some food, and tried to take a nap. Some woman next to me locked her keys in her car and tried to use a coat hangar to unlock it. Note to everyone - this only works on really old cars. I tried to help her for awhile in the 100 degree heat and then advised her to call the police. For some reason, she did not want the police involved and proceeded to take her entire sunroof apart. Hmmm...
Anyway, I decided to sleep. After dozing a bit, my BB indicated their was a voicemail at 5:10PM. I could not get the message, but suspected it might be Amy indicating that Bruce was through Michigan Bluff. This would put him about 20-25 minutes ahead of schedule. I thought it was possible and started to get ready for my pacing duties. After checking in at Pace Central, I soon learned that they can tell you where your runner is on the course. We checked on Bruce and it seemed he was actually 20-25 minutes behind his pace and would not arrive until 7:25 or so. Bummer!
In the meantime, the runners kept funneling through. At one point, this hardcore woman in a leapord skin one piece skirt thing ran from the pit area to the bathroom with her crew (they looked concerned - I'm thinking female stuff). Anyway, after they re-emerge, she sits right next to me and starts tearing off her shoes. She was totally ripped and frankly intimidated the heck out of me. I retreated to save myself and gave her some room to operate. More on this later...
After seeing just about every tattoo imaginable, watching a guy in a pink tutu go by, and seeing body parts on people that should remain covered up, I was getting a bit tired of waiting. Then, it happened. I heard the announcer say, "Here comes a runner in the family fun run category". Gullible me is thinking..."I didn't know there was a family fun run category"...then Bruce comes around the corner with Amy and the girls in tow. What a sight for sore eyes!
Bruce seemed to be feeling OK, but had some hot spots on his feet. While he applied some vaseline, I gave Amy my car keys. She told me his knee was hurting, but he still really wanted to break 24 hours. She seemed to know his chances were slipping away based on his time (he was nearly 30 minutes off pace at this point). I told her not to worry and that I would get him there. As it was coming out of my mouth I was thinking, "How can you tell her that?" She seemed relieved by my confidence, and now I had a major challenge. How do you make something happen when most if it is out of your control? It's something we deal with as managers every day. I had little control in this situation, but if Bruce had it in him, I was going to get it out of him. It was his race, his legs and his heart, but it was going to take both are heads, experience, and wills to get him there in under 24 hours. I squeezed a sponge of water over Bruce's head, and then we were off....
As we left Forest Hill, Bruce's original pacer, Scott, (he had to sit this one out due to injury) ran along side us and wished him luck. It seemed odd to me. I wondered if he should have just picked up another pacer from the pot luck group as there seemed to be plenty to go around. I wondered if having a good pacer made that much of a difference and whether I should be there. Maybe a local CA person would be able to help him more, maybe they knew the course better, etc. Why am I here I thought? Bruce can do this without me. Nevertheless, I would do my best to help.
We chatted about the race and Bruce got me up to speed on his condition. He had tied an arm warmer around his knee to help with the pain. He seemed to be in quite a bit of pain on the downhills, but his energy level seemed to be very good considering he just came through the canyons. The sun was setting and the temps were cooling. He was in good spirits and I thought this was the perfect place to make up some time before it became dark on the trails. We chatted about everything under the sun, the views were amazing, and the trail was very runnable. Life was good. We started passing a lot of runners. I set a good pace and we made up 8 minutes in very short order. Unfortunately, we would lose it again once we hit the next steep downhill. Bruce was in incredible pain and could hardly walk the big downhills. "How the heck are we gonna do this if he can't run downhill?", I thought. I was sure we could get him to the finish, but 24 hours seemed a stretch at that point. I gave Bruce 2 ibuprofen and we hobbled down the hill.
After a short time, the Vitamin-I kicked in and we were off the steep downhill. We started moving well again on the flats, the uphills, and gradual downhills, but any steep downhill was murder for him. Bruce did some quick mental math and decided we could run a hair more than 15 minute miles and still break 24 hours. We still had about 7 hours of running to do, but it gave us hope. Although the pace chart said we were 20 minutes behind schedule and Bruce could hardly move downhill, we still had hope. Four miles per hour gave us a 1 mile buffer as we had 27 to go. It completely seemed doable on paper. It seemed nearly impossible when I saw him try to go downhill...it was painful just watching.
We pressed on. We had a good cadence going at the aid stations. I'd grab Bruce's water bottles and give them to the aid station volunteers with instructions. Bruce would get some food while I tended to my bottles. I would stick his bottles back in his pouches as he started moving down the trail, then I would grab some food for myself. Most times I would try to get him to eat more as we headed on down the trail. We moved very quickly through each aid station. I think Bruce was at each aid station for less than a minute (which is great). We caught and passed a lot of people on these transitions.
After awhile Bruce started getting dry heaves. This would probably freak out some people, but I have experienced this first hand and then some. Stomach issues are the main problem for most ultrarunners as we try to get the right calorie intake and electrolyte balance. Bruce was consuming a lot of salt to try to keep his electrolytes balanced, and I thought he may be overloading on salt. He cut back on the salt and started hydrating as we had indications (via urine color) that he needed it. Unfortunately, the dry heaves continued and seemed to get worse and more frequent as the race progressed. We tried different things...Eventually, I had him start drinking water each time the heaves started and it seemed to clear things up.
The Rucky Chucky River crossing was a major highlight for us. It is at the 78 mile mark in the race. Bruce hobbled down the steps to the raft and we jumped in for the ride across. Most years, the runners ford the river, but the water was too high this year. In retrospect, this was a blessing as it would have taken Bruce too long to cross given the knee pain. As the boat took off, I nearly fell out as I had PB sandwiches in my hand and was desperate for some food. I was so concerned with making sure Bruce ate enough that I was not getting enough calories in me.
On the other side of the river, Bruce downed an Ensure on ice and joked with the aid stations folks about the taste. As bad as he felt, I knew he still had some energy in him. We walked up a long, long hill to Green Gate. I finally saw someone in the dark and asked her how far it was to the next aid station. She yelled, "Bruce?" and we were surprised to realize it was Amy. She was so happy to see Bruce (and me :-), and ran with us to the aid station around the corner. I took care of the transition while Bruce and Amy chatted a bit. After we left the aid station, Bruce seemed uplifted and more determined to break the 24 hour mark. He said, "Let's do this....I'm going to do it!" His pace picked up and we were on a roll.
We were starting to make good time, and things were falling into place. By the time we reached the 90 mile aid station, we were convinced that we had 24 hours in the bag. We had a 10 minute buffer finally, and were moving well. The folks at the aid station were psyched and got us all pumped up. It was 3.5 miles to the next aid station (down, flat, and then 1 mile uphill). No problem...until we hit the downhill. Uh oh! Bruce locked up like the transmission on my old pick up. It was not a pretty sight. He screamed in pain, and it was all he could do to keep it together. He used my shoulder as a crutch just so he could pick his way through the rocks, and I watched the minutes slip by...at one point, Bruce said,"I'm not sure this is gonna happen", and I told him we weren't going there. I tried to keep everything positive and motivational, but at the same time I knew our chances were slipping away.
By the time we reached the 93.5 mile mark, our 10 minute buffer was gone and we were 5-10 minutes off the pace again. Damn! I thought we had this thing under wraps, and now we may not even get it done. Yet, we still kept working as hard as possible. I kept pushing Bruce and he kept giving it everything he could give.
As the minutes slipped by, we came upon a set of lights that looked like a runway down below. I told Bruce and he immediately said, "The No Hands Bridge". Yee haa! Maybe we still have a chance, I thought. Bruce winced in pain as I begged him to move down to the bridge as fast as possible. We were about 5-10 minutes off pace, but still had about 40 minutes to do the last 3 miles. As Bruce hobbled into the aid station, I said to the attendants, "Only 3 miles right?" They said, "Yeah, but you better get him moving..." in a very somber, foreboding tone.
Going across the bridge was a thrill and I tried to get Bruce to enjoy it. He seemed like he was in a lot of pain. I said, "Bruce, you can do this, but you have to give everything you've got". He responded and we ran up the gradual slope. Bruce knew, and I suspected, that a big hill was somewhere between us and the finish, and I wanted to make as much time as possible on the easy section. I pulled one of his water bottles and poured it on his head and neck to lighten his load and cool him off. We were going for broke. I figured we clicked off the better part of a mile before it got bad again. A short, steep downhill was super painful for Bruce and then it was the long slog uphill. I kept reinforcing what a great job he was doing as Bruce walked up the hill.
I figure if we hit the 1 mile mark with 10 minutes to go, he might be able to do a 10 minute mile on the pavement. I just wasn't sure whether they included the track distance in that last mile calculation. We agreed not to stop at the last aid station and the people there tried to get Bruce going to break 24. They said, "0.3 miles uphill, and then 1 mile flat/downhill". Good. We all cheered for Bruce.
After what seemed like an eternity, Bruce made it to the top of the hill with about 12 minutes to go. I begged him to start running and to give me one 10 minute mile. He said, "I'm going to do it", but he still kept walking. I pleaded. He was exhausted. The old-timers rang the gong at the top of the hill marking the 1 mile mark, but we ignored it. Bruce finally started shuffling forward and we were moving again. Thank God! Then, around the corner was another uphill. "WTF", I thought. "Bruce, you have to run up this hill, I know you can do it...It's short, just turns left at the top". Please don't walk, I thought. Bruce somehow got to the top, and then we turned the corner to see his family waiting. They were so excited and we all started running down the hill together. I implored Bruce to push hard. According to my watch, we had it in the bag, but stranger things have happened. As we entered the track at Placer HS, I heard the timer say we had 3.5 minutes, but I still wanted to be sure. I wanted to see the clock before letting him ease up. We rounded the final turn and his family peeled off to the infield. Bruce gave me a fist bump, and then I watched him cross the finish line. He jumped up and touched the clock at 23:57: 11 (I think) and then Tim Tweitmeyer put the finishers medal around his neck saying "Another east coaster does it!" Bruce was interviewed on camera while Amy and I watched. We were both in tears and I could hardly talk. She thanked me over and over while we watched the medical folks check out Bruce. Bruce was the 123rd and last person to break 24 hours on this day. I was damn proud to be there and watch Bruce put in the effort to get his buckle. I was also proud of the effort I put in to get him there. The run could have easily turned into a 25-26 hour run, but we never took our eye off the ball. We both had doubts at times, but we never let it get the best of us. We pressed on regardless of the time and obstacles, and somehow the running gods allowed for an unbelievable finish. He did it!
It was a great day with a storybook ending. While we sat in the medical tent, I saw Michelle Roy get carried in and it did not look good. The medical team was working on her, so I didn't want to get in the way. I heard her pacer talking about the effort she put in. I hope she will bounce back.
After Bruce showered and got in bed, Amy drove me back to my car in Foresthill, and I followed her back to the hotel. After a long awaited shower (Note to Pretty Boy fans - it had been 3 days!!!), I felt like a new man. For having run 38 miles and having minimal sleep for 3 days, I felt pretty good. Amy took the girls to the pool while Bruce and I chatted, dozed, and watched World Cup soccer. Mark B. called to wish Bruce congrats, but we were fairly comatose at the time.
After awhile, we went to the award ceremony which we thought started at 11. Unfortunately, we sat in the infield for 2 hours in 100 deg heat as it didn't start until about 12:40. The girls drew pictures for me (which I still have) as the crowd shuffled in. We saw the Top 10 get their awards. Bruce was wiped out and sore, and couldn't wait any longer. Amy managed to pry his buckle from the administrators and we headed back to the hotel to rest while Amy went for Chinese take-out.
While waiting in the hallway, the legendary Connie Gardner asked me how the race went. I explained that I helped pace Bruce to a great finish, and then she quizzed me on my ultra resume. I felt pretty good about my standing until she mentioned running VT100 in 17:30 and that she did WS100 as a training run for Badwater in 2 weeks. Turns out Connie was the woman in the leopard skin garb who sat next to me on the bench at Foresthill. She is less intimidating off the race course, but equally intense. She lives in Ohio, so I don't understand how she trains for these mountains. She asked me my upcoming race plans, and I didn't have a good answer. Apparently, being a professional pacer doesn't cut it in her book. Oh well, I'm just having fun for now. Good luck at Badwater Connie!
After some food, we snapped a couple pics and I bid the Family Giguere farewell and headed back to Sacramento. The trip home was uneventful as I slept most of the way. Seems fitting that the trip there was epic, but was uneventful after the race was complete.
At one point during the run when Bruce was struggling he said, "I'm sorry about this...I wanted it to be an exciting run for you." There he was in extreme pain, and was worried about whether I'm having a good time! I told Bruce I was having a great time and I was sincere about it. As long as we got him across the finish line, I figured it was a successful mission. I knew he wanted 24 hours, and I was there to support him in the effort. I was going to do everything in my power to get him there, but it wasn't a disaster if we didn't make it. We were still building a great friendship, and we were experiencing the greatest of all ultras together.
As things turned out, we couldn't have scripted a better finish. Bruce achieved his dream, and I had a hand in helping him realize it. Bruce, "No apologies necessary brother!" Thank YOU! The trip was worth every penny and every mile! Congratulations on an amazing race!