Saturday, July 06, 2013

Western States 100 -- Hoped for a Miracle

Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, the big daddy of ultras, the one I read about in Dean Karnazes' inspiring Ultramarathon Man many years ago -- I was in! I had gotten into it on my third attempt six months ago, thanks to my running club, the Coastside Running Club. This race has a long rich history, and was a horse race until 1974, when the first runner, Gordy Ainsleigh, did the race on foot, in under 24 hours. This race is superbly well organized with a small army of volunteers supporting the runners from Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA.

For the week before the race, to help acclimate to the altitude, I rented a house with my friend Franz and our families stayed there. It rained for the first few days and then it got hot. We all had a good time and Claire played well with their two boys. There was a nearby lake that we all enjoyed.

We went on some nice hikes...

Me and Franz, laughing about something

Sadly for me, I was coming into the race with an injury, illiotibial ("I.T.") band syndrome, that I got apparently at the Miwok 60K (race report). With 8 weeks before Western States, I thought there was plenty of time for the injury to heal itself, and I did stretching and strengthening exercises and massage with very little running. Yet, as the date approached, I was still as injured as ever and couldn't run more than a mile pain-free. I could bicycle and use certain gym equipment like the StairMaster or an elliptical machine, and even run up steep hills, but running on level ground and especially downhills quickly brought up the pain and caused me to stop. If I persisted through the pain, I felt like the side of my leg was having spasms and that I was losing control and would fall over.

I told my chiropractor friend, Dan Rhodes, that I would do a test run three days before the race, and if I could run one hour pain-free, then I would start the race. Well, the test run went pretty well going uphill, but on the descent, I could only run a few minutes before the familiar tightening feeling came and then pain, and after that I could only run downhill for a few seconds at a time. Still, my overall average pace was just under 15 minutes per mile and for the race, I only needed to average 18 minutes per mile, so I thought there was a chance I could finish the race and I decided to go ahead and start it. That was Wednesday. The race was on Saturday.

On Thursday, my sense of optimism took over and I thought I would do another test run, hoping for a better result, and it was much worse than the run the day before. I couldn't run for more than a few steps at a time on level ground or downhill, with 3 or 4 minutes of walking in between each attempt. But I could still run up steep hills and I could still walk fast pain-free, and my average pace for that "run" was around 15:10 per mile, if I recall correctly.

I also caught some kind of cold and my throat hurt on Thursday morning. Oh no! It was much much better on Friday morning, though.

We visited the race center at Squaw Valley to do some shopping, see some celebrities...

Hal Koerner and Franz and Franz's son, Max

...and take a Gondola ride. Fun!

Thursday night, I had an excellent night's sleep, but on Friday night, the night before the race, with my alarm set to wake me at 3am, I tossed and turned and I couldn't relax or stop thinking about my likely impending doom. I think I had a nightmare about having to drop out of the race.

Race day! I ate a couple of small bowls of oatmeal with half a banana and an English muffin with some peanut butter and jelly. Franz and some of his crew (Jen and Hao) and I hurried over to nearby Squaw Valley. A few minutes after we left our rental house, I asked if we had brought everything. Franz's water bottles were left behind! We had plenty of time to go back and get them and get to the race start for our final weigh-in and to pick up our bibs. My race weight, with shoes and running clothes was 170.6 lbs. All these weeks of not running have added on around 5 lbs, unfortunately.

We met up with Mike Weston, the third member from our running club. Everyone is in good spirits. Finally, 5am comes around, and with the traditional shotgun blast, we are off!

For 95% of us, the first few miles consists of hiking, due to the steep climb up to the Escarpment aid station. The dawn light and bright lights under the ski lift illuminate our way -- no need to carry headlamps. With a fast hike, my heart rate quickly got up to the mid 150s. Take it easy, I kept on telling myself. There's a very long ways to go!

The views of Lake Tahoe were gorgeous. I wish I had a camera. There was lots of excitement at Escarpment at mile 3.5. I got my two 20oz water bottles filled and then I was on to the first serious downhill.

I decided to jog down, nice and easy. After a few minutes, the familiar tightening sensation began, on the outside of my right knee. But it didn't become painful! I was hoping for a miracle. What if I was cured?! I tried different ways of orienting my right foot and I found that if I rotated it outwards a bit, like 10 degrees, that the sensation was totally tolerable. If it didn't get any worse, I could absolutely put up with this all day and night. I was so happy! I was on a serious runners high. This was the most running I had done in 8 weeks. I even had dreams of finishing in under 24 hours. My average pace so far became an absolutely blazing 14+ minutes per mile. (Considering my low expectations, this was fast!)

In anticipation of the intense 100F heat later in the day, I got on top of my hydration early. I ate a salt capsule every 30 minutes and an energy gel every 20 minutes. Due to all the drinking and my slow pace, I ran out of water 20 minutes before reaching Lyon Ridge at mile 10.5. No worries. I kept on eating on schedule (thinking to Miwok and how I stopped eating when I ran out of water and how that was probably a mistake).

After filling up and leaving the Lyon Ridge aid station, within a hundred meters I had gulped down half a water bottle. Oops. I thought of turning around and refilling, but I didn't want to go back down this hill and I thought it would be OK if I ran out for another 20 minutes before the next aid station. Well, I ran out of water for 33 minutes before the next aid station! Worrying! The day was warming up. I had some good conversations with a couple of other runners. I was passed by a handful, when I took it easy on some of the downhills. Be patient, I told myself. I kept on trying to imagine being on these trails 12 and 20 hours from now.

At Red Star Ridge, I had my drop bag waiting for me, which would contain a special ice-holding bandana and two water bottles. I wasn't originally planning on filling the bandana with ice here, but the aid station volunteer suggested it and so, sure, why not. I'm glad I did! I guzzled a full 20oz while in the aid station, refilled it, and left now carrying 60oz of sports drink and 20oz of water. I was wearing the Ultimate Direction AK race vest which holds two bottles in the front and can carry two more in the back. Comfortable and convenient!

The day was getting warmer and I was becoming very grateful for the ice cold bandana around my neck. I was hiking fast on the uphills and running slowly on the level ground and downhills. I was so happy!

Then, for no apparent reason, within a matter of a handful of strides, my IT band starting hurting. Don't panic. I told myself I would simply walk fast for 20 minutes and then try running again. 20 minutes go by. I tried running and there was no difference at all. Then walking started hurting. Oh no! I stopped to do my special stretches (the pigeon stretch from yoga), which required getting on the ground, with one leg stretched straight behind me and the other leg folded in front of me, and leaning over on the folded leg. Other runners asked if I was OK. One woman said "I can't stretch like that on a good day." No improvement. I stopped again. Stretched again. Took off my shoes and applied more Body Glide. (I was feeling some hot spots in my left foot.) Tried again. No improvement. Stretched again. No improvement. Many more people passed. Every step with my right leg hurt a lot. Damn it! I'm guessing these last few miles were taking 20+ minutes each. My average pace for the day fell greatly, like to about 16.5 minutes per mile. I was still comfortably ahead of the cut-off time, but how could I possible hobble for over 75 miles?! I was seriously worried that I would end up stuck somewhere on the trail if I continued for much longer. I decided I would have to drop at the next aid station.

photo credit: Chihping Fu

photo credit: Chihping Fu

I finally arrived at Duncan Canyon aid station, staffed by the Quicksilver running club from the Bay Area. They were great and had a western theme going. I explained what was going on...

photo credit: Chihping Fu
I was sooo disappointed. Tears were shed. The aid station workers tried to convince me to go on. Chihping tried to convince me to go on. If we were at mile 80, then sure, I could try hobbling for 20 miles. But with 76 miles remaining, it just seemed ridiculous and even dangerous to try to continue. I got my yellow wristband cut. It was over.

I hung out in the shade, and got a good tip for another kind of stretch to do. I got the radio operator to call in a message that could be delivered to Jennifer, letting her know that I had dropped and would meet her at Foresthill. I met Loren from my running club who is also in Quicksilver. He offered me a ride to Foresthill when the aid station had closed. Thanks, Loren!

I got to see the remaining runners come through, including the guy who started it all, Gordy Ainsleigh. Cool! Mike Weston came through, struggling with a stress fracture in his foot. He continued on, even though he thought he was unlikely to finish. I got a nice sandwich at the aid station, helped clean up a bit, and painfully walked down a long hill to Loren's car.

I finally got to Foresthill and by sheer coincidence, Jennifer had driven all the way to Yuba City (to drop Claire off) and returned within minutes of me arriving. Nice! I hung out with Franz's crew, let friends and family know what had happened to me, via Facebook. I got to see the lead male runners come through (Timothy Olson, with Hal Koerner just minutes behind).

Jennifer and I said goodbye to Franz's crew and left to go to my running club's aid station at Auburn Lake Trails, mile 85.2. I at least wanted to say "hi" to everyone. Even though I was quite tired and was probably sick again (people told me I looked pale). I decided to spend the night here and hang out with my buds and let Jennifer off the hook. (The original plan was for her to volunteer while I ran the race.) Jennifer took off to get Claire and then our dog and head home.
Coastside Running Club's Auburn Lake Trails Aid Station

Amanda waiting for the next runner. It's Christmas in June!

Franz Dill comes through! And he's given the Halleluha Goat by Eric Vaughan.
I took two one-hour naps, but otherwise was pleasantly busy the whole night and morning. I got to see Franz come through! Great job, Franz!

Finally, it was time to clean-up and head home. Good job, Captain Margaret! This was our second year staffing this aid station, and I think it was a resounding success. I hitched a ride with Norm, Mor, and Amanda, and tried to stay awake for the three hour drive home.

So, all-in-all, it was quite an active eventful weekend. I started the race hoping for a miracle. It didn't work out, but I made the best of the situation that I could.

The Good
  • The Ultimate Direction AK Vest worked quite well
  • The Hoka One One's were comfortable, in terms of running on rocks and rough terrain, but my left foot developed several blisters. Perhaps the shoe laces weren't tight enough?

The Bad
  • Had to drop at mile 23.8 due to my IT band injury.
  • The Nathan 20oz water bottle dripped a lot unless the nozzle was pushed in. It was new to me, and several runners behind me warned me that I was losing water. I prefer the Ultimate Direction water nozzle style instead.

The Random
  • 170.6 lbs weigh-in on race morning, after breakfast and with my clothes on. I felt fat.
  • I accidentally packed two caffeinated energy gels in my running vest, which gave me some bad heart palpitations later that afternoon. I can't take caffeine any more!