Western States is a 100-mile race for humans. It's the oldest and regarded as one of the most difficult. It spun off a horse race that follows the same course from Squaw Valley (near Lake Tahoe) to Auburn, CA. In 1974 equestrian Gordy Ainsleigh surprised those who noticed by covering the distance against other horse riders on his two feet and within 24 hours. Inspired by his accomplishment others tried, more noticed, and the race grew into the most popular annual test of endurance. By 1981 qualifying standards and a permanent lottery system were established, trimming the wannabes to a manageable number of participants. This year's field was determined in November 2002. My ultra-buddy Michael Davenport and I were selected, making me 1-for-4 through the lottery.
Day prior the race wife Michelle and I went for a light trail run behind our hotel then over to race check-in. Our friend, Peter Block met us afterward for dinner and liquid carbohydrate loading at an outdoor, deck restaurant. As the sun tucked behind the mountains the weight of the moment set in. It's difficult to sleep the night before.
Before dawn cracks the fun begins at the base of Squaw Valley ski resort. A count down to 5:00 a.m., then shotgun blast sends some 400 runners up the ski slope to meet the morning sun. You don't run so much as hike, sometimes scrambling on all fours, those first 4.7 miles. The summit comes at 8,750', about ¼ mile after the first aid station. Once on the other side, the bottom drops out. It's downhill, shaded, stream crossing, sometimes breaking, small snow patches, pine tree and thick bushes, high country trail running at it's best for some six miles. Michael, usually in front, shocked me by coming up from behind just before the 11.5-mile aid station. He was sticking to his conservative race plan. We traveled the next few ridges together and then he gradually pulled away.
Three weeks earlier, at 33 minutes into a race, I was forced to withdrawal from the Kettle Moraine 100 Kilometer due to a strained lower back. With three weeks taper running and four aggressive therapy sessions by Dr. Davenport, my gravest concern was the odds of my back surviving 100 miles of mountain running. Up in the high country, while loping along, a runner in front of me inexplicably slowed to a walk. I jumped to the right of the trail to avoid a collision. A sudden pain twisted up from my back. It was 3:20 into the run. My self-calculated odds of seeing Auburn under my own power dropped to 10%. I walked the next 5 minutes, afraid to test the feeling of running even though the trail was quite runable here. I wondered how long it would take to walk to the finish and how disappointed Michelle and Peter would be. In a moment of doubt and pain I made a deal with the running gods, "Please grant me the ability to finish this race and I promise to take time off afterwards". I shortened my stride and started a slow shuffle.
While negotiating downhill switchbacks to the Red Star Ridge aid station Chris Martin from New Hampshire caught up with me. "Hey Bill, am I going to be in your recap this year?" "You are now", I was happy to see him. Last year at the Vermont 100 we raced to the tape, me staying in front by one second. At the 17-mile aid station Chris and I met up with Larry Hall of Illinois. This year Chris, Larry and Michael are participating in the Ultra Grand Slam (successful completion of four 100 milers in one year). Here they were, 17 miles into their 400-mile summer. We all replenished our stores and set out around 8:40 in the morning.
Robinson Flat, the 24.8-mile station came quicker than expected with its mandatory weigh-in. Climbing off of the scale, up four lbs at 148 I looked around for my crew. Michelle and Peter got caught in an ironic traffic jam (there's really no permanent civilization at Robinson Flat) and missed me. Just to get to this aid station they had to drive 2½ hours from the starting line. Crewing is every mile a challenge as running this race. No problem, Michelle was at Little Bald Mountain, the next station at 28.6 miles. We chatted for a few minutes. Kris Davenport, Michael's wife and crew hiked up. She was disappointed that she missed him, but happy to hear that he started out easy and was looking good.
Western States features tough, technical quad pounding downhill sections that stretch up to six miles before bottoming out in canyon furnaces. I knew the course having run in year 2000. What I didn't know was how my back would handle the stress. Like Leo DiCaprio's character in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, the feeling periodically reminded me, "I could go at any time." I would slow, heeding the warnings. Herds of runners would thunder past. As the race wore on those warnings became less frequent and I was able to run more aggressively. Around 34 miles I caught up with Chris Martin again, who was traveling with Firdaus Dotiwala of New York. Firdaus was attempting his first WS100 in a shirt marked up with well wishes and inspirations from friends. Together we hiked, occasionally running the hot part of the day to the 38-mile aid station at 1:00 p.m.
Eight hours into the adventure I was feeling optimistic and moving well. Even my flatlander downhill stride was looking less awkward. I don't know why but I do much better hiking out the canyons than all others at my pace. On the grueling 1¼ mile, 1,565' climb up to Devil's Thumb aid station I caught the venerable Nancy March and Rena Schumann along with about 6 others. Feeling chipper at the top I tipped the scale at 148 lbs. I grabbed some salted potatoes and warm soup for the sodium and when asked how I felt answered, "I feel so good that I think I'll run all the way to Sacramento rather than stopping in Auburn!" That got a rouse from the friendly volunteers who reminded me that this was only 47.8 miles into the race. Fast Kurt Decker of Minnesota was taking a brief station break from his first Western States. Michael was there and we left the aid station together. Both of us were so looking forward to seeing our crew at Michigan Bluff. It was now 3:15 in the afternoon.
In 2000, my first time running I learned that you need two water bottles to comfortably make it between the stations of the Western States course. That year I got a scolding and a free bottle from the aid station captain at 43 miles. The canyons can be stifling with warm dry air. You sweat a lot but may not be aware of it. The scales at the aid stations give the true report and if you're not replenishing your fluids, your weight goes down… too much, and the medical personnel have the awesome responsibility to pull you from the race.
Another backbreaking climb takes you from El Dorado Creek to Michigan Bluff. This one is 1,830' in 2¾ miles, my back stood the test and I caught another dozen runners arriving to meet Michelle and Peter at the 55.7-mile aid station. I weighed in at 146.5 lbs. I hopped up on a patient table where podiatrists, Richard and Jay cleaned and vaselined my blisters before helping me with new socks. Where else are you treated like a rock star just because you run 14-minute miles? Michelle had purchased a mesh ice cap and stuck it on my head. It was the perfect one size fits all and helped cut the glare of the late afternoon. I left the station with shaded brow, slippery feet and high spirits.
Arriving at the civilized, paved roads of Foresthill I was three full hours faster than my year 2000 pace. Michelle, Peter and I started to talk about a sub-24 hour finish. It seemed realistic. It was mile 62 at 13:36 into the race. My weight was still up and pacer Michelle was ready to guide me the next 18 miles. We packed a couple of hand-held flashlights, bid Peter adieu and then headed down the switchbacks of the trail.
What fun to run with Michelle. She's a top Chicago female road racer and has won hundreds of dollars racing the streets so far this summer. She dialed right into my trail pace as we toured the aid stations of "California Street" (course section from mile 62 through 78). Prior to her section, Michelle's biggest pacer fear was fording the American River. "How cold, how deep, how swift?" "Not too", was always my short answer. But now that she was getting a taste of the trail her reprioritized concern was the steep cliff that fell off the trail edge, sometimes more than 1,500' down to the river. We stopped a few times to take photos of the view. We made it all the way to the aid station at 73 miles before pulling out our flashlights. It was a warm night with absolutely no moon. Our pace slowed in the darkness and I fell once about a mile before the river. At the river the aid station attendants helped us to waters edge and into the shallows. One took our picture and handed the camera back to Michelle joking, "You're going to be sorry when you run 24 hours and 5 seconds because of your prolonged photo op here!" We took the hint and the cable stretched across the river, and headed across the cool waist deep current. "It's not that bad", admitted Michelle. It felt wonderful to my swollen feet and me. A couple last quick pictures at the other side and we climbed out of the water then up the next two-mile, 750' hill.
Peter welcomed us to the Green Gate aid station at 11:00 p.m. We were 79.8 miles into the race and everything was right in our universe. Peter traded me a headlamp and my lucky "Chicago" singlet for my wife. Michelle had skillfully paced me through her 18-mile segment in 4:24. They sent me down the dark trail with well wishes and a sky full of stars. It's amazing, I thought, most of this course is too remote to get assistance to a runner in need, yet around the country fellow Riis Park Striders are monitoring my progress in real time on the Western States Webcast. Around 81 miles I met Gregg Buehler from Kansas City. He told me how he ran this race in '96, broke his fibula in a fall less than five miles in but didn't know until somewhere around mile 62 where he took the advice to drop out. Together we shared stories and pacing duties to Auburn Lake Trails, the 85.2-mile aid station.
Again my weight was above its starting mark. I gulped down more soup and a cup of Coke. When asked how I felt I boldly told the station volunteers, "There's silver in Auburn and I'm gonna strike my claim!" They smiled and agreed, calculating that I was in good shape to get in under 24 hours. I headed out alone. The going was murky and I was slowing, fighting to keep a swift pace but stumbling and tripping over rocks that were able to hide in the inconsistent beam of my headlamp. I fell hard but settled gently in a patch of dried briars just off the path. I was grateful for the soft landing and again gave thanks to the running gods. Later the telltale rash established that poison oak also helped break my fall. At times the trail seemed to disappear in front of me. Other times dust hung heavy in the glow of my headlamp and I knew I was closing on another runner. Eventually the booming party music of Browns Bar aid station reeled me in.
A very friendly volunteer brushed and picked the briars off my shirt while I enjoyed another Coke, soup and the upbeat stylings of Aretha Franklin. We were now 89.9 miles and 20½ hours from Squaw Valley. I watched a runner start to leave the station. My competitive reflexes fired, I tossed the rest of the soup, thanked the supporters and gave chase. We had a 500' descent and I intended to shadow him hoping our combined lights would provide a better-lit trail. I could not keep up with his pace though, until we hit the flats of the riverbank. There I asked if he knew the course profile to the next station. He correctly predicted a steep uphill through a rock quarry to the Highway 49 checkpoint. This was the first time either of us had seen this section in the dark. We exchanged good luck silver wishes and as in daylight I found climbing faster going than descending.
Highway 49 is the 93.5-mile aid station. The final step on the scale, like all others exhibited I'd maintained above my pre-race weight. It was uplifting to see Peter and know all I had to do was hang with him over the last seven miles. We'd done this before. Peter has crewed and paced in all four of my 100-mile journeys. However, it didn't come as easily as I thought. The next half-mile was relatively flat, but lurking just after was my most difficult section of the entire race. It was 3 miles of technical dim rock kicking downhill trail bumbling in which we were passed at least half a dozen times. Those 3.3 miles took 61 minutes and severely incensed my demeanor. But alas, we had made it to No Hands Bridge!
At 96.8 miles No Hands Bridge was lit up like an airstrip. Tube lights lined the full length of handrails, party lights adorned the aid tables, and a giant screen projected images of the track at Placer High School… the finish line! As if we needed more incentive, I knew the rest of the course was uphill, some 700' to the blacktop streets of Auburn. We started jogging across the bridge along with a bunch of others, some who'd recently passed us. We hit the wide trail on the other side and picked up the tempo. As the climb intensified so did our speed relative to others. One runner hung with us for ¼ mile then fell back. "Mr. Bill, did you pop a benny?" Peter yelled hanging just off my shoulder. Others yielded the trail as we came up from behind. I was surprised to find how many of us were finishing around the same time but determined to catch and pass anyone in sight in front. "Mr. Bill, I have to run just to keep up with your hiking", Peter fueled my confidence on the steep trails end before hitting the streets. "Any bogies keeping up?" I asked. A quick glance down back into the darkness, "Nope, they're all dusted" Peter grinned.
One last aid station marked the end of the trial and welcomed us to Auburn at Robie Point. We just waved and passed by as if they were handing out 15 lb buckets of tanning butter. It was 4:03 a.m. and we had 1.3 miles to go including one last 200' steep street uphill. Ahead a runner and pacer were maintaining a 2 or 3-minute lead over us. Twice I tried but couldn't run up the hill. Peter got out in front to lead. We passed a house party wildly illuminated and hours in progress. They were cheering loudly for us. Peter approached stating, "Oh, I'm just his pacer." That exaggerated their cheering as they pointed out a plywood painted sign attached to a fence, "Pacers are People Too!" Cresting the last hill we broke into something between a fast jog and slow run but couldn't close on the runners in front who remained one corner ahead.
Michelle met us outside the entrance to the stadium and snapped digital pictures. The PA announced us as we circled the track, "Bill Thom from Chicago, 2nd WS finish, skillfully crewed and paced by Michelle Thom and Peter Block… promises to give up his 5½ year running streak here at the finish…" mild applause as few were there and less were listening. John Medinger, President of Western States Foundation greeted us at the line and presented me with a finishers medal. The clock read 23:19:07… silver by 41 minutes. I was weighed and had my vitals checked. "Enjoy the time off your running streak", apparently the medical volunteer had been listening.
After a desperately needed shower and five-hour nap we squeezed into the warm, crowded indoor gym of Placer HS for awards presentation. Scott Jurek won his fifth WS in five attempts with a time of 16:01. He was more than 75 minutes ahead of 2nd place with his fastest time ever. Ann Trason won the women's competition, finishing 8th over all in 18:36. That's 14 wins for Ann. I was called up among 34 other runners who finished between 23 and 24 hours, and presented with the most coveted finishers award in all of ultra running… it's silver and says, "100 MILES, ONE DAY".
Thanks to race director Greg Soderlund, the Western States Foundation, some 1300 volunteers, other runners, pacers, crewmembers, and Gordy Ainsleigh (who finished his 18th this year) for making this race happen. Especially, thanks to Peter and Michelle who once again got me from point A -to- point B in the shortest time with the greatest care and most adventure!
Want to see more? Check out the official Western States 100 website: www.ws100.com. There you'll find complete information of the race and it's history, including detailed topography maps of The Course. Also, they have Official 2003 Results and a 1986-2002 list of Historical Statistics!