2006 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run - California - Saturday June 24th ...©Copyright Bill Thom
Heat - an inconvenient truth for the 33rd running of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. From the start in the "High Country", through the "Canyons" and during the night the oppressive heat took its toll on the field - inflating the drop-list with runners of all caliber and slowing those that persevered to the finish.
Western States' 2006 lottery was kind to many of us Midwesterners - almost trap like it seems in retrospect. Among others Alex McPherson (Indiana), Doug Hansel (Iowa), Michael Davenport and I (Illinois) were selected, survived our spring training, and met up in Truckee, CA. There we shared hotel rooms and the pre-race experience along with our race crews Peter Block and James Roche (Illinois).
The race started as it always does on the last Saturday of June in the "darkest hour, just before dawn". At 5:00 am 399 adventurers responded to the starter's gun and funneled through the chute at Squaw Valley Ski Resort. We spread out and climbed the mountain, from a distance appearing as ants on the march - destination Auburn, CA.
Before our first aid station at 3.5 miles we were treated to snow, ankle deep and soft. Segments of snow would blanket the course through the first 31 miles but it wasn't the treacherous refrozen crusted snow of years past. Thanks to the heat our footfalls could penetrate and track through snow stretches. The heat however, was like a pitiless loan shark and would extract high interest in short order.
Us Midwesterners - Alex, Doug, Michael and I were sharing a common pace and found time for photo opportunities along the way. Before the Red Star Ridge checkpoint at 16 miles we were stunned to hear staccato thumping and witness a helicopter crest the mountains to set down somewhere behind us. We later learned this was a rescue mission for a runner who suffered a heart attack in the race's early stages. As we pressed-on the course tracked its classic route through Duncan Canyon - a section that has been closed since a 2001 devastating forest fire. We trailed amongst gigantic charred stumps while temperatures climbed beyond my comfort level. The added stress was reflected in other runners as well... some already walking down hills, some taking leisurely breaks in stream crossings, some suffering bouts of nausea.
Surviving the tough climb to Robinson Flat, the 29.7-mile aid station I was exposed 3 pounds light on the scale. I promised the medical attendant an extended break to "bulk up". Lisa Bliss (WS100 Medical Advisor) and Peter (my crew) greeted me with a shaded chair, salted watermelon, salted potatoes, sodas, gatorade, and a water soaked mesh cap. I slowly consumed the offerings - not to savor the taste but to give it all a chance to stay down. It didn't. I tried again, this time with ¼ turkey sandwich, 1 salted potato, watermelon and a piece of beef jerky offered by fellow runner Paul Norberg of Phoenix, AZ. When the gurgling subsided I rose and aimed toward the exit of the aid station. I saw my trail buddy Michael recovering in a chair. Word was that he was resigned to dropping but I waved him to walk out with me as a last-ditch effort. In turn he waved me off with an exasperated but sincere "good luck". Whoa... Michael was the most experienced among us. If he was forced out after 30 miles what were the chances for the rest of us?
Leaving Robinson Flat the course eases out of the "High Country" and toward the "Canyons". I made a snowball from the last snow patch and zipped it into my mesh cap. Not long after it melted I threw up again. The trail was pitched downhill with the sun high and in my face. I slowed my already slow pace. Trail patrol runners in their bright red with white cross shirts accompanied and provided me extra salt tablets. Making the Last Chance aid station at 43.8 miles was a dusty compromise between sluggish jogging and a queasy stomach. I weighed in 3 pounds light again, sat down determined to fuel-up again. I grabbed three sodas with salted watermelon. Aid station assistant Lynn kindly brought me chicken soup and orange slices along with words of warning. "Oh yes, I know what the course is about to do", I answered. "Okay, well you're looking much better than many we've seen today", she encouraged. Exiting the station I met Eric Smith of Tinley Park, IL who was considering pulling the plug on his first attempt at Western States. I advised him to dig a little deeper explaining that evening might bring kinder temperatures.
200 yards out of the aid station I vomited 4 times in rapid succession. I considered doubling back to try again but the extra ¼ mile distance seemed too costly. Two full water bottles should see me through to Devil's Thumb I figured jogging toward the first really huge canyon test. As Lynn warned, and I knew, down, down, down led the switchbacks - 1500 feet of descent in just a couple of miles - then up, up, up the other side - 1500 feet of ascent in 1¼ mile. Something was wrong. I usually make this climb quick relative to those at my pace. My calf muscles were cramping, couldn't open my stride, heart was racing, vision tunneling, had to sit down, throw up, get up, go four more minutes, sit down, throw up again. My legs were spread halfway across the narrow trail. I couldn't bend them in. Approaching runners had to step over me as I worked to lean out of the way, apologized but no one complained. Instead many offered salt tablets and assistance. I swallowed a salt tablet twice because it came back once, sat a few more minutes to let my vision widen, and then staggered up the trail.
Hours behind my previous runs pace I stumbled into the Devil's Thumb aid station at 47.8 miles way under weight, dizzy, with calf muscles that were cramped and twitching involuntarily, after vomiting 17 times over the previous 18 miles. Holding me upright such that I could balance on the scale the aid station medical staff asked how I was feeling. I kind of collapsed on their table and lied, "feel great." I thought there was no way I was getting out of there but the aid station captain gave me 10 minutes to pull myself together then let me make the call, and I walked out, one of the last to leave that station - with only 5 minutes to spare!
Of this I was sure... I had to go fast enough to stay in front of the cutoffs but not too fast or I'd throw up again - and because I was so completely dehydrated one-more-time would absolutely be the end of my run. The angel-assistants of Devil's Thumb sent me off with two popsicles, which I enjoyed while walking along. Then, treated myself to a tooth brushing - my first all race - how annoying the sugary tastes get after 14 hours. The trail was downhill - I walked the exposed sections and slowly jogged the shaded. A slight cooling eased into the forest, my stomach held its contents, I gently rolled into the next aid station at 52.9 miles.
"Welcome to El Dorado Creek", they greeted me, "what can we do for you?"
"Gimmie all your ice and no one gets hurt", I quipped. They laughed, filled my bottles with ice then topped with water while I gulped soup and soda. The forest was losing its grip on daylight and I had a 2.8-mile climb to reach Michigan Bluff where my crew, Peter awaited.
Ahh, Peter... the best crew a runner could ever have. He's skillfully seen me through three prior Western States runs and three Vermont 100's knowing exactly what it takes. Here we were at 55.7 miles, reunited for only the second time all day. I "souped & sodaed" and Peter set me up with new socks, shirt, headlamp and flashlight all the time giving me runner updates and encouragement. The next six miles were no problem and I got to meet Peter again at Foresthill where tavern & storefront blacktop streets momentarily replace the dusty trails. To my surprise Michael was there, showered and crewing for Doug who was considering his immediate future. Michael poured mocha frappuccino for us as a special treat while we restocked our stores. Peter checked and adjusted all of my nighttime equipment. I asked Doug to head out together but he still hadn't made up his mind whether he could continue.
Onward I moved into the trail darkness. The 16 miles of "California Street" takes you down from the civilization of Foresthill to the rushing waters of "Rucky Chuck" and the crossing of the Middle Fork of the American River. Occasionally searchlights pinpointing the race finish line would appear through vistas in the forest providing a slight magnetic pull. Aid stations were coming up quickly and I developed a five-minute routine of sit, soup, soda, thanks, and split. Cool blessings of the night had me trekking well to the line for the raft that would ferry us across the river.
Though I prefer to jump in and ford the river it was swollen and dangerously quick. In such years the directors have never opted to end the race at 78 miles. Nope, instead they setup a transport system whereby muscular volunteers row runners across one boatload at a time. The raft is tethered to an overhead cable so there is no chance of being swept downriver, which would surely be a quicker way to Auburn! On the other side in dry shoes with a star filled sky I had no trouble with the 1¾-mile steep climb to Green Gate.
Green Gate is the 79.8-mile aid station perched 750' above the river. It's also a runner / crew rendezvous point - if your crew is of intrepid character as they have to navigate treacherous roads and 1¼ miles of steep hiking to get there. Peter is, but after my big rally I arrived a full hour earlier than our rearranged prearrangements. He arrived as planned. Under the circumstances he was not disappointed at missing me. I left Green Gate fully energized and for the second time of the race brushed my teeth while jogging - hey, it feels so good -and- it worked last time.
The final 20 miles seemed tame compared to the challenges of the early stages. Other than blisters on the bottoms of my feet, which were ignorable, I suffered no other problems and enjoyed running a faster pace. Before the Auburn Lake Trails aid station at 85.2 miles the "darkest hour, just before dawn" had arrived for the 2nd time of the race. With the sun rising I switched off my lights, ran a bit faster and breathed a bit deeper.
"Hey Mr. Bill", Peter grinned as he snapped off a photo at 93.5 miles - the Highway 49 aid station. It was 8:00 am Sunday morning - he relieved me off my lights and fanny pack before handing back one water bottle and sunglasses. He sent me off nimble and trimmed for speed. The course was running low on trappings especially in the morning's full daylight. Crossing a meadow I caught up with the race pioneer, Gordy Ainsleigh and his pacer Michelle Barton.
"I'm sure this is the way to Auburn now", I greeted them. I continued to press my pace down some slightly technical gutter shaped trail. Nearing the landmark No Hands Bridge aid station something happened that hadn't happened to me since Devil's Thumb. I was passed by another runner! Simultaneously stunned and honored, I gave chase and passed the amazing Gordy right back. We raced down the trail hitting No Hands Bridge at the same time. I paused for one quick cup of coke. I saw his wife trade him bottles of liquid. I set off ahead, over the bridge wondering what magical elixir he had in his bottle and how much energy would it provide.
As a high school cross-country runner I was taught, "don't look back... just run harder". We had 3.4 miles and one last 700' climb to the finish. I pushed and resisted every urge to peek over my shoulder. I felt the sun and new day's heat building but made the paved road at Robie Point where an agile station attendant hurriedly topped my bottle with ice and water. "One last hill", she smiled pointing up the road. Within ½ mile the pavement leveled and Michael met me in running shorts and a singlet. Over the last mile he escorted me to the gates of the promised land - the track at Placer High, Auburn! A far turn, down the homestretch and into the finish chute... piece of cake.
Of the 399 runners who started 211 made it to Auburn and around the track in the 30-hour time limit. But that's not the end of the story. Brian Morrison of Seattle was first to get there in a time of 18:05. His effort was heroic and agonizing. Circling the track he stumbled, fell down, got up - multiple times with just yards to go. Concerned primarily for his wellbeing his crew assisted him, arm-over-shoulder to the finish line. By the awards ceremony race officials made a heroic and agonizing decision to disqualify Morrison. Their statement concerning the disqualification was sympathetic but upheld the rules requiring runners complete the course under their own power without receiving physical assistance at any time. So adjust the finishers down to the number 210 - a low 52.6% finishing rate for Western States - and lay the blame where it surely belongs - the Heat.
Our little group from the Midwest faired similar to the entire field. Michael (our most experienced Western States runner) and Doug (winner of the 2003 Superior Trail 100) were not able to make the finish. Alex, in his Western States debut finished in a fine time of 24:47 - there seems to be a silver buckle in his future. My finishing time was 28:25 - much slower than my three previous Western States runs but I came away with a newfound respect for those who run just ahead of the cutoffs. Congratulations to winners Graham Cooper of Oakland, CA and Nikki Kimball of Bozeman, MT. Way to go - to all runners who shared the anticipation of the starting pen.
Many thanks to all of those selfless people involved in planning and pulling off this amazing event - Greg Soderlund (Race Director), Tim Twietmeyer (Foundation President and 25 time sub 24-hour finisher), and the rest of the WS Foundation. Your race rocks! My biggest thank you to my friend and crew Peter Block who has seen me through every one of my 100-mile adventures. As Peter would advise, "Don't accidentally get Fat Bastard's stool sample mixed in your water bottle."
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