“I have another 364 days a year to wimp out, not today”. This quote stuck in my head for many hours on the Western States 100 mile course. Brett Rivers, friend and 9th place finisher at last years race, told me this after badly twisting his already bum ankle about 6 miles into the race. Everyone deals with their own demons, physical and mental, over the course of a 100-mile race, but it’s how you choose to deal with them that often determines your fate and how you look back on the experience. It’s been over a month since the race and it’s had a chance to fully set in, my mind and body are finally starting to recover from this journey. Putting it all into words isn’t easy, so I’ll stick with a few that represent it best: Grateful, Perspective, and Progress.
The Road to Western States: Grateful
In the six months prior to Western States, I ran my first 50 mile (North Face Endurance Challenge SF), my first 100K (Gorge Waterfalls) and handful of 50k and marathon distance events on both the trail and road. My build-up for Gorge back in March was solid and I showed up ready to rumble. I raced hard and left everything I had on the course–earning second place, which got me a Montrail Ultra Cup ticket into the coveted Western States 100.
With only 3 months before race day, I would have to recover quickly before another ramp up cycle for my first 100-miler at States. In doing this, I would be walking a fine line between injury and fitness, prepared and exhausted, ready and not, but I was grateful for the opportunity to walk that line and show up on race day and give it all I had.
Being my first 100 mile, I decided to concentrate my training on getting “time on my feet” with a tiny bit of longer speed work mixed in. I kicked off my training by running the Boston Marathon a few weeks out from Gorge 100K as this was already in the works. I used this year’s Boston as a long paced training run but tried not to push it since recovery was still hit and miss a few weeks after the 100K effort. Later, in May, I scheduled three sequential weekends of long training runs (30+ miles), which included a 50K race in the East Bay, a 50K+ “fun run” with friends from Palo Alto to Half Moon Bay, and the Western States Memorial Day Weekend Training Camp where we ran most of the Western States Trail over the course of three days.
Training camp was definitely one of the highlights of my year. Picking the brains of veteran runners, meeting the race organizers, other runners and previewing the course proved to be invaluable during training and on race day.
Over this train block, work also became progressively busier as I finished my second year of Radiology residency at Stanford, which took a different kind of toll on the mind and body. All of this culminated in a fair bit of fatigue and a feeling of “flatness” as I geared up for Western States. I knew this was a sign I needed time off and this feeling was reinforced by a series of nagging injuries. Finally, a hamstring strain forced me to enter a deep, early taper with “no real running” two weeks out from States.
During this time period where I felt fatigued, overworked, unable to train and teetering on the verge of legitimate injury, I kept thinking to myself that I was still grateful to be in the position I was in. I was grateful for the opportunity to run. I was grateful for my friends and family. I was just grateful to be alive. I was grateful to be given the chance to push myself and compete, as I know that Western States claims many casualties in the months leading up to it and some of my runner-friends may not even make it to the start line. Though I was having doubts that my body would cooperate on race day, I knew I would make the best of whatever Western States could throw at me.
Western States June 27, 2015: Perspective
3:00 am. Get up! The race starts at 5:00 am right before sunrise, which was awesome. I met up with the Mill Valley-based San Francisco Running Company (SFRC) crew at the start line. Everyone was in good spirits and ready to get the day started. It was already warm, depriving us of the cool early morning temperatures before Mother Nature cranks up the heat.
There was a countdown, a gun to start the race, and then there was slow climbing. We started nice and easy but I could feel the elevation right away as a group of us, including Brett, Ian Sharman, Michael Wardian, Ryan Kaiser and Stephen Wassather, made our way up Escarpment together.
As we crested the hill, the sun peaking just above the horizon, I had a good feeling about the day.
In a blink, Ian was gone as the downhill began. Brett and I ran together, which felt so familiar and smooth, just like a Saturday Morning SFRC group run. Too soon after, Brett twisted his ankle and limped to a halt. I felt awful since I knew Brett and how much this event meant to him, especially after last year’s stellar performance. I checked into see if he was ok, but he urged me to keep going, said some inspiring words, then I was alone. But you’re never really alone in a race like this. Over the next ten miles, I ran with a good mix of people, including Kaiser, Wardian, and the early pack of lead women including Michelle Yates and Joelle Vaught. The lead men were pushing hard, but I knew there was plenty of race left and tried to keep perspective over the long day ahead.
By the time I reach the first aid station with my crew at Duncan Canyon (mile 24), I was still not sure how the day would play out. I was feeling good but not great. The boost of familiar smiles and a hug from Jenny, raised my spirits and gave me perspective. No matter what happens, today will be a good day because I’m running, I still feel pretty good and I have lots of people cheering me on.
I ran well through Robinson Flat and felt smooth and comfortable descending to down Dusty Corners (mile 38), the last place I would see crew before entering 18 miles of hot, steep canyons.
In the Canyons, I started to feel the heat and fatigue seeping in. I started to slow and eating was becoming difficult. Here I saw the first carnage of the day including Justin Houck, who I had run much of Gorge 100k with, and Ford Smith who I had met at training camp. They were both having rough days, so I tried to provide a little encouragement. A few runners passed me through this section as well.
Quickly there after, I was rejoined by my soon to be partner-in-suffering, Michael Wardian. We cooled off quickly in a small spring, just before climbing Devil’s thumb. Together, we made our way up Devil’s thumb and stumbled up to Michigan Bluff, arriving much later than we both hoped. Having that company and playfully egging each other on kept our minds temporarily off the pain.
At Michigan Bluff (mile 56), I crumbled into a collapsible chair and sat first time. I felt like crap. A big pile of it.
Sitting there, I started to feel even worse to have made all these people come out to help me. Half my crew was at Michigan Bluff, the other half waiting for me at Foresthill. I had high hopes to really nail my first 100 mile race and it was seeming to unravel a bit.
I was sad to hear several of the Mill Valley runners were also having rough days of their own and decided to pull the plug early. Elite Nike athlete Alex Varner, having just smartly ended his day, yelled in my face, “You look awesome, get up and do this!”. A little switch flipped and I thought, “What the heck am I doing sitting here. Keeping going, there are 364 other days to quit”. Feeling like a slightly smaller pile of crap than I had minutes earlier, I set off with new fire to meet my crew and first pacer at Foresthill.
There are things you have control over in a race and things you don’t. I didn’t have control over the fact that my body was rejecting the distance and I was having a hard time eating. I didn’t have control over the fact that my legs didn’t want to climb after the Canyons. But I did have control over whether I was going to look back on this day and say it was a good one or not. Today might have not be my best day, but I was still determined to make it a good one.
Hitting Foresthill (mile 62), I was actually feeling better. It was amazing to see my killer crew Jenny, Luke Tamagna-Darr, Chris Blagg, and Drew Smith in one place. They were simply the best!
I was extra excited to pick up my first pacer, good friend and training partner Mario Fraoli. This would be my first time with a pacer and his first time pacing; I knew we would have beginner luck. What a memorable experience to share with a friend. Mario actually beat me to the punch and wrote his own “pace report” about his experience just days after the race. He really nailed it and I echo everything he said. Read it here –> Mario pace report
During this stretch was my only real racing of the day and it felt good. Through Cal Street (mile 62-78), Wardian and I and our pacers played a friendly game of leap frog, during which he jokingly (or not?) told me he would “wear me down”. We all had a good laugh. After about 2 hours of back and forth, I eventually was able to pass him and just barely hold him off for the remainder of the race.
Mario and I have logged many miles together, but the miles on the Western States course will always be some of the most memorable. This was not my day, but it was our day. It was a day I could share with others and others were happy to share with me. I was never more happy in my life to wade across a freezing river than when Mario and I hit the American River at Rucky Chucky (mile 78).
Fernando De Samaniego Steta was waiting on edge at the other side of the river and would pace me home. Fernando had crushed Canyons 100k finishing 2nd this year and also had run this section numerous times. The guys oozes energy and I was a sponge at this point in the race. I was going to need some help at this point, with both my eating and just getting me to the end in one piece.
Picking up Fernando at mile 78, my perspective changed again. He said, “Let’s go hunting, Trailwolf”! As if on cue, I starting eating again and blasting the downhills at sub-7 pace. This lasted only in short spurts but felt good when it did. I love running, just love it. But running for 80 miles (or more) tests that a bit. My bursts of speed were balanced out by walking, justified only by the age-old mantra that powerhiking the uphills is key in 100-milers. During this time, at night when your mind begins to wander a bit, I just kept thinking I needed to remember this moment, remember your friends, remember everything you’re feeling for better or worse, and soak it in.
Fernando pushed me all the way to the last climb up to Robie point (mile 99) where most of my crew met me. Running in with nearly my crew the final mile was the highlight of my day.
I think this last mile was my fastest and my body felt the best. Maybe it was finally being able to stretch my legs a bit, maybe it was because I could hear the cheers and the voice of Tropical John Medinger at the track, maybe it was because I was just running with friends, but I finally felt good and at peace with my performance.
Hitting the track was an experience that’s hard to put into words and I hope that anyone reading this will be able to experience this one day for themselves. Anything I say about how it feels to finally reach the track and cross that line at this event won’t due the experience justice.
My perspective on the race changed throughout the day. It went from a race to a sufferfest to a long run on the trails, then finally to a shared deep and rich experience with close friends and other runners that I will never forget. I did not have the performance I intended to have, but this is also something that requires perspective. My tough day is someone else’s good day and my best day is someone else’s bad day. Though we are all out there together on the same course, we are all running our own race, for our own time, for our own reasons and keeping perspective on this is important. Brett finished a few hours after me, and while it was no 9th place repeat from last year, everyone who knows him was so incredibly proud of his performance and ability to gut it out even when his body failed early on. And to put things in perspective, he still finished well under 24 hours, a gold standard for success in the 100 mile distance.
In the end, even if you take away the timing chips and the medals and belt buckles, I do this for fun and I truly feel fortunate to be healthy enough to compete, and be surrounded my supportive friends and family when I race. I will have better days, and likely worse ones in my future, and I welcome them both equally.
Recovery time: Progression
It’s a little over a month out from Western States and just did my first long run and some speed work that felt normal again. This last month has been a mix of excitement, let downs, false starts, running withdrawl, procrastination, contemplation and reflection. I’m not sure what will be next for me. I will do another 100, that is for sure. I left a ton on time out on the course and look forward to getting after it again and seeing what I can do now that I learned some valuable lessons about the distance and the course.
One of my favorite runs in a progression run when you start off easy, build pace gradually and finish strong over the last few miles. I think over the last six months my progression started a little fast and I slowed a bit by the end. This is not how I like to operate in my individual runs or over the course of training, so over the next six months, I look forward to changing that. Starting slowly again, building strength, getting fitter, staying healthy, and aiming for a strong finish in the near future, wherever that may be.
Western was all I expected it to be and more. I hope anyone who wants to do this race, will get the chance. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to run it so early in my ultrarunning career. While I might have been able to run faster, I feel that I really did make the most of my States experience and take away some amazing memories and valuable lessons.
Special congrats to the race winners Rob Krar and Magda, truly inspirational. Congrats to Ian Sharman for another stellar top 10 finish, not sure how he does it, but I was honored to share some training miles and race miles with him.
Crew captain and main squeeze Jenny for her unyielding support, sacrifice, great organization and keeping me going throughout the day.
Mario for being an amazing training partner, impromptu unpaid coach, and great pacer. I look forward to having many more adventures with you in the future.
Fernando for bring me home strong and keeping me eating. You’re a rising star and I look forward to watching what you can do.
Luke Tamagna-Darr for being a Jenny-handler and driver for my last two races. You were awesome out there and I hope to pay you back someday.
Chris Blagg and Drew Smith for being an unending stream of positive vibes and Trailwolf support.
The organizers, the racers, and the volunteers.
Kurt Decker from Twin Cities Running Company for his great advice, guru level wisdom, always open ear, and continued support!
Many other friends that were out there on the course for support. You guys rock!
Ian Sharman, Scott Wolfe, and Kaci Lickteig for their recommendations about the course.
Mike Wardian for sharing many rough miles with me on race day.
Craig Thornley for the tremendous race organization and John Medinger for the voice of the track, bringing me home after a very long day!
Stance Socks: I love these extreme quality running socks. They’re the perfect mix of cushion, performance, and design. Thanks for the support Russell Nadel!