I'm sorry this is really long, but I've been writing for hours and it feels like minutes. Believe it or not, I actually left some stuff out! But I guess when you are out there for 30:36 minutes a lot can happen! One comment I inadvertantly left out came early on in the race. At this point I knew I was moving slowly, but I was quietly enjoying the company of those running a similar speed. As one gentleman was groaning about being 2nd to last a recent race, another runner said, "yeah, you know what I call the guy that is 2nd to last? A Finisher!" At that point there, that's all I wanted to be, A finisher. I don't know if that's what I am or not, but I do know one thing, I'm not a quitter. I hope you enjoy the long story of my two-day run in the beautiful Sierra Nevadas!
Thank you all so much for the positive energy you sent my way during one of the most epic events in my life, the 2009 Western States 100 Endurance Run.
The trip and the run were like no other.
I could not help but think back to my 2005 Western States Run as I prepared for the 2009 version. I knew comparable resuits, a 23:44 Silver Buckle Finish, were not possible, but I told myself there was value in the quest. I told myself it would be a good experience to attempt the race, not even knowing if a finish was possible. I was sure right about that!
From the very start this race was like no other for me. The race director had warned of triple digit temperatures, but Allen, Ryan and I all agreed that our Florida Heat training would get us through, yet we knew it would be a lot tougher than we had hoped.
Within minutes of 5 AM starting gun I knew it was going to be a long day and a long race. I kept going back to the words of my friend Rob "Nails" Cowan, "You've got 30 hours, just take your time." Well, I was taking my time, but the heat and the aititude were both rendering all my efforts ineffective. By mile 1 Allen had dropped me. By mile 2 people were already asking if were were on a 30 hour pace. By mile 3 people around me were already talking about the time cut-offs. These are not topics that I am used to covering in my races. Usually I am in the group wondering how far under 24 hours we were all going to go. But I recognized right off the bat that these runners had heart! These were my people! They set off on every run just trying to get the most out of it and enjoying every mile they are out there. It was different, it was scary, but it was good.
By the first major checkpoint at Red Star Ridge (mile 16) I was already in serious trouble of not making the time cutoffs, and as hot as it was, and with the aititude affecting me, I wasn't sure I wanted to continue. Three things kept me going: 1 I had on my Don't Quit Bracelet. I have worn it virtually everyday since my daughter presented it to me on Father's Day in 2005, and I have never quit, and I just couldn't let misery change that! 2- I had Frank Sierra there to pace me, that's the only reason he had come, I couldn't just quit. Also the beautiful June Leland was there to crew. These two, what great people! I am so blessed to have these friends! 3- Gordy was still behind me, so I knew that if the guy that had invented the race, that finishes in all conditions, was still behind me the situation couldn't't be as dire as I thought.
Well, I was wrong, things were that dire. As I left Red Star Ridge, everyone was talking about the cut-offs, and expressing concern that we had slipped below 30-hour pace. At the beginning of the race, aid stations are spread way out (I no longer feel guiity about only having 4 aid stations for the 15 mile Croom loop!) and after Red Star I had to go almost 8 miles to the next aid station. In that time with temperatures already pushing 100 I ran out of water. Fortunately for then and now (I'll let you know the final resuits!) the course crossed a swift running stream and I filled my bottles. "I'll worry about Beaver's Revenge later" I thought, "I need water now!" As I progressed towards the first chance to see my crew and pacer at mile 30, Robinson Flat, my feeling of doom intensified. I was hoping I wouldn't make the cut-off, everything in me said, "Quit! If you quit, you can drink a beer, hang out by the pool, you can be over this madness." But those 3 feelings, bracelet, Crew, Gordy came back to me, and I kept going.
When I got within a few hundred yards of Robinson Flat a volunteer told us we had 20 minutes to be out of the aid station. I perked up, I was ecstatic, I thought he said 2 minutes. I knew that there was no way I could pass a medical check and fill my bottles and be out in 2 minutes. Sadly, he said 20 minutes, and yes, I could linger and drop, or I could get moving. I decided right then, "NO MORE whining!" Just move, do what you can do!
First I saw the doctor for the medical check, I was down 6 pounds, and looked really bad. When he asked me how I feit, I looked him in the eye and lied my ass off! "I feel great. It's a beautiful day!" Had he asked me two minutes before I would have been honest: My heart rate is sky high, I can't get it down on the climbs, I'm dizzy and I have a pain in my chest. I couldn't't tell him that. Frank had flown all the way out to pace me, June to crew me, and I hadn't even seen them yet. I owed it to them to keep going, God, I wanted this thing over, I was miserable.
Enter a fresh Frank, he saw me right after I'd bamboozled the doctor, and I had to perk up again. "Hey buddy, good to see you! Where's the June Bug?"
"Oh, she's at the end of the aid station, Whatcha going to need?"
"Just a Boost, I've kind of got to get moving."
I was in such a hurry because now I only had about 13 minutes until the 30 mile cutoff that I didn't get half the stuff I really needed, I just had to get moving.
Flashback, In 2005 I hit that same point just under 24-hour pace. 2009 I am 30 minutes over the 30-hour pace, what is going to keep me interested? What is going to keep me going. Well, it was new territory, I'd just have to focus on the cut-offs from aid stations to aid station. I had one small goal, one big goal and one goal that I couldn't't even think about: Small goal, make it to the next aid station before they closed. Big Goal, make it to Michigan Bluff, mile 55 to see June and Frank again. I want Frank to get run at least a little of the course. Gigantic goal, Placer High, Auburn, CA, finish line. Don't think about that, that's WAY down the road.
Side note, Gordy finally passed me going in to Robinson, we chatted, he said it was a tough day, his body wasn't working, he dropped. My mind was reeling. If the guy that invents the race, the invisible Gordy Ansleigh drops, where does that leave me?
Ok, now I'm running aid station to aid station. I know that I have to have a lot more time in the bank then 12 minutes if I'm going to make it over Devil's Thumb at mile 47. Devil's Thumb eats it's dead, I had told myself before the race, "I just have to make it over the thumb." I kept my head down and stayed focused every second after Robinson Flat. I had to make it to Michigan Bluff, I had to make Frank's trip mean something. I hurt, I wanted to stop, I wanted to rest, but I didn't, I just moved. If it was runable I ran it, if it was up the mountain, I gritted my teeth, cussed a little (ok, a lot) and walked it. I did not stop until I got to the base of the thumb.
I had buiit a nice 45 minute cushion against the clock before my assent of the Thumb. If I could just get up that 1.7 mile stretch without stopping my day would go a lot smoother. I'm sorry to say it took me an hour to move those 36 switch-backs. I had to stop and rest every minute. I didn't want to stop, but my heart was beating so rapidly and my breathing was so erratic, it was a choice, it was survival. Finally, I made it up to the top, my 45 minute cushion had turned back in to 10. Even with only 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff, I had sit down for a second, have some Coke and a cup of broth. I did not linger though, I knew if I wanted to see Frank and June that I had to get up and get gone.
Leaving the Thumb I hoped I had the tenacity to make it to Michigan Bluff, 8 miles away. Yes, Devils Thumb is the steepest climb, but there is one almost twice as long before Michigan. I told myself, well, all you can do is push. Again, this was so new to me, I had to concentrate on those damn time cut-offs all day long. I could not relax, and this was grating on me badly. Happily any thought of quitting was long gone though. I wanted to see what was inside me.
I quickly feit better leaving the Devil's Thumb aid station as I descended the back side of the canyon, only to find out it was the front side of another canyon. At the bottom of the canyon was another aid station, where they informed me I was once again 30 minutes ahead of the time cut-off. I knew that would change with the assent. I was right, everyone I had passed as I was running down the canyon passed me on the way back up. I still just have no answer for climbing those hot mountains at aititude. I suppose it would help if I were in shape, but it was too late to change that now, all I could do was keep going, so that's what I did.
I got into Michigan Bluff as darkness was enveloping Eastern California (in 2005 I didn't need a flashlight until well after Forest Hill at mile 62) There was one perk with getting in to Michigan Bluff as late as I did (20-Minutes before time expired) Frank was allowed to pace me from that point on. Great I thought, He'll get to run a little, I won't have to push, and well run till they pull me from the course, which I knew couldn't't be too long.
Frank was immediately uplifting to me. We hit some canyon, Deadwood, or Duncan, and he went crazy, he was loving the down hill running, but experience had tempered my excitement because if I knew one thing about this Western States Course, "What goes down, must come up!" And I wasn't looking forward to that! Still we kept the hammer down and actually picked up some time against the clock (the clock the clock the clock, it's all I thought about the entire race! Jeez, was I ever even going to get to think about the big goal, the finish line? I hoped I could think about Placer High, but right then it was just getting to the mile 65 aid station.)
We made it into Forest Hill with 30 minutes to spare, but no time to waste. June hooked us up with extra flashlights and some Boost for Frank and we off like a .... snail. I had an ebb in energy. I hadn't been able to sit down even for a second, I had lost 10 pounds and I was dead tired, but I knew I had to keep moving. ARGH!!
We hit the trail, which is usually one of the highlights of my Western States Experience, I've done the race only once, but I've also done the training camp twice, so I've done that section of the trail 3 times) when we hit the big descent all I could do was jog. Poor Frank, he wanted to let it all I go, but every step I took was torture. My quads were gone, my feet were a mass of blisters and my get up and go had got up and went!
But, we soldiered on. I was able to put that pain somewhere in the recesses of my mind and we started passing people, a finish actually seemed possible. We hit the aid station at Peachstone, mile 65 and we had 45 minutes to spare! I told Frank if we could get it up to an hour.....
Well, then something really weird happened, Frank and I lost each other. I don't know how we did it, but somehow on a trail not 2 feet wide, we got separated. We had earlier agreed, that as the runner, I would leave him behind if he got in trouble, but that as the pacer he would go to the ends of the search to ensure my safety. Well, we both did as we agreed! When he disappeared I was worried, I was sad, but I said to myself, I'm going to keep going, that's what Frank would have wanted. So on I marched. But without Frank to cheer me on (aka force me to keep running) my pace slowed and my blisters hurt and I was feeling sorry for myself.
Just before I pulled into the Rucky Chucky aid station at mile 78 a group of runners caught me and informed me that my pacer, Frank, had twisted his ankle and had gone back to the Peachstone aid station to get help. "oh, well, I'm on my own," I thought.
At the Rucky Chucky aid station my weight had come back up 5 pounds, so I was only down a net of 5, and after crossing the American River I found a bright and attentive June to refresh me. They had the world's best podiatrist at that aid station, and since my time cushion was at 45 minutes, I decided to have my blisters fixed. The twenty minutes I gave back were well worth it, I got to catch up with and talk strategy with June, and the podiatrist was a magician with my feet. When I got up from the chair, with a lot of help from June and the Doc, I feit better than I had all day! I started the two mile walk up to Green Gate with a new sprained in my step, and then it even got better; out of nowhere popped Frank! He had indeed gone all the back to the aid station before the River, but not because he was injured, he was only looking for me and was concerned that I had fallen injured. When it was apparent I hadn't gone back there, he hotfooted it to the river, and the time I spent with the foot doctor had enable him to catch back up! Together, we attacked the hill only to find out that because of my rest stop, our backs were against the clock wall one more time! We had to get moving right then. The Clock, the clock, the damn clock!
Mile 85 as we were pulling into the aid station 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off. Darn, we just can't get any time in the bank. As soon as we got to the aid station they started hustling us out. What, I thought we were fine. No, it's a long way until the next aid station, "you've got to go, the next station has a mandatory medical check" so off we went.
As we came into Auburn Lake Trails at mile 90 we head a horrible sound, the horn went off, not once but twice. Oh, no did we miss it? No, wait, two blasts means 20 minutes till it closes. Ok, 20 minutes ahead of the cut-off and 10 tough miles left, it won't be easy, but nothing has been easy all day, all night, and into the next day, we press on!!! Except, at the medical check, I back to 10 (or 11) pounds down from my stating weight. And I say to the doctor, "Cool!" and he says, "Well, actually not cool. It's hot and dangerous out there. What you need to do is sit over there for 10 minutes and drink 4 glasses of fluid before you go."
Ok, I pull in with 20 minutes to spare and you want me to give 10 right back? I say, "Doctor, listen, I've got 15 miles left and I'm only down 10 pounds, can't I just go and I'll drink when I'm done?"
"No, sit down there."
I move over the chair, pound two cups of soda, and as soon as he looked away, I slid out of the chair and checked out of the aid station, one problem, my pacer wasn't savvy to my run-in with Doctor Doright, and I have to like whisper to Frank as I'm going so I don't alert his holy doctorness ( I know he was only looking out for my safety, but I really wanted to finish this race!), "hey Frank, let's go!" To which Frank says, "Just a minute I'm grabbing something to eat." "No time my man, I'm going!"
It wasn't until we got down the trail and out of the doctor's ear shot that I filled him in on my escape. Frank and I got our story straight. "If it comes up, we'll swear we thought the doctor said two minutes, not 10!" Would I lie to finish the race? Only to me, you and God himself!
Ok, now we had one hour to get three miles to Hwy 49 at mile 93. Three miles, one hour, no problem unless..... Just as things seem to be going well, and for the first time all day a finish seems possible, somebody puts one more damn mountain in your way!
What the heck? We're going down this perfectly good jeep road, it's going right where we need it go, we can hear the aid station, and the course makes a left and goes right up the mountain! At first it looks like it's just going around something, but soon, it comes flooding back, the memory of this climb and how poorly I've done on it all three times I've done it, only, I've never tried this climb under the pressure of time. I got angry! I cussed. I romped, I stomped, I may have even cried. But, I couldn't stop! My bracelet, my effort, I couldn't't let it die with less than 10 miles to go. When we finally got to top, I looked at my watch. Only 6 minutes to get out of the aid station that we aren't even at yet. Well, I knew it was probably a lost cause, but I was going to go down fighting, from somewhere I got the strength to run and run hard down that mountain. Then, miraculously, there was Highway 49. I didn't even look for traffic, I just burst across the road with Frank in tow. They greeted me with cheers at the aid station, I was the 2nd to last person allowed to enter the aid station before it closed (I had passed the last on the that downhill going to the station) I mean they gave me the bums rush out off there. Checking in by the cut-off is not enough, you have to check out before it closes. I checked out with 3 minutes to spare! Yoikes!
Ok, June took all of our dead flashlight and hooked me up with a Starbucks cooler, but once again there was no time to chat, no time to adequately thank June for all her help and encouragement. 7 miles to go, less than two hours on the clock, it didn't look good, but I figure, well, we're still in, so were still going.
We had three miles to get to the next aid station at No-Hands Bridge and one hour until they closed at 10:15, but I figured realistically, I needed one hour from No-Hands in. I had done that climb 3 times, and never faster than an hour. So, I pushed, and I pushed. At mile 95 Frank and I got a rare treat, Race President and 5-time Champion, Tim Tweetmyer met us on the course and ran with us for 1/2 mile telling us what to expect and complementing our courage, telling us we were doing great. At this point I was in Dead Last place. The only living things behind me were the horse and riders sweeping the course. Frank and I kept stepping off the course encouraging the horses to pass, it wasn't until later they told us, they weren't allowed to pass because they were the sweeps and we were the last runners. They had to make sure we didn't die out there!
My heart sank as the 10 hour passed and we had yet to hit no-hands. Not believing in the no-win scenario, I changed the coordinates. "I'm In this race until they pull me!" I came into No-Hands at 10:10. 5 minutes ahead of the last cut-off, and 50 minutes before the last buckle could be awarded. I figured, somehow, someway, I just had to keep pushing. No, I had never done that tough climb and road finish in less than an hour, but I'd never had to either. I didn't know how long it would take me, but I knew I could make it. I'd learned one thing after 29-hours and 10 minutes on that course, I was a lot tougher than I thought I was. I had on my Don't Quit bracelet, I had the best pacer and the best crew, and I was going to hit that track running!
I figured, ok, I need to hit the street at Roby Point with 20 minutes to spare. If I can do that there is a chance I can run the 1.5 miles to Auburn in time. As I climbed I noticed Frank was no longer back there. Having lost him once I was a bit concerned. I thought about waiting, but I knew that was a cop out, I had to push on. After about 15 minutes of pushing up the hill I heard voices behind me. It was one of the equestrian sweeps. Evidently Frank had succumbed to heat exhaustion just 2.5 miles from the finish line and had to be carried out on a horse. I was truly on my own now. As the clock ticked and trail went up I did not have the legs to get me to the top with my 20 minute window. With every step that I couldn't't see the road I lost a bit of steam. When the clock ticked past 15 minutes to go, there was no longer any chance of winning that beit buckle so I sat down on the side of the trail and cried. How could I come 98 miles and fail right here? How could it happen. I'd paid for the race twice. I'd traveled out twice with friends and family, and what would I have to show for it? Nothing I thought. Then an angel appeared.
I don't know where she came from, I don't know why she was there, but she came up next to me, and gave me the news about Frank. She also said, that I was right, I would not finish the race in time for a buckle, but she said, who cares? You can still run all the way to the finish. It will still be 100 miles. "That's pretty special she said." Then up pulled a very fit young man named Mark, he commented on my Umstead shirt, he had won Umstead this year (I knew he looked familiar) and he agreed with my angel. "You know, I just came out to see who was the last person who had the courage to do what I couldn't't. I dropped at Devil's Thumb, but you are still out here. You can finish! You can beat me, you can beat Scott Jurek, and even Dean Karnazes dropped. But to do that you have finish going up this hill and run to the high school."
Between the two of them, they pulled me (figuratively) up the mountain to the Robey Point aid station where I sat at 10:58. I filled up my water bottles, had some Coke and 1/2 a cracker while the aid station guys told me how great I was and how brave I was, I'll tell you I didn't feel either. As I was still in the chair at 11 am when the race officially ended, the sweeps approached me and gave me the option, I could accept a ride from them or I could get up and go right then and finish under my own power. The aid station worker took one look at the sweep and said, "He's going, and he's not taking a ride!" Well, what could I do? I got up, my angel was with me, "I'm Analisa, whe said, you should know my name as we'll be going into Auburn together!" "Analisa, let's go then!"
I'd love to tell you about how I sprinted through the streets of Auburn and made it in there just after the time cut-off, but that wouldn't be true. I walked, and I walked, and people in sitting in their yards seemed to know where I was going and that I was last and that I wasn't getting a beit buckle. They knew and they were supportive! Keep going, you are doing great! It's the accomplishment, not the buckle. And I knew they were right! I had only wanted to quit for the first 30 miles, then I had only been running for Frank and June, then for the buckle, now I was running for me, and finally, that's what I did, I started running. When I hit the track in Auburn, I could have been discourage because they were already tearing down the finish line. I could have been ashamed to be in last place, but I wasn't. I was thrilled to be finish this event, and then something happened that will probably never happen for me again. When spectators and race participants noticed me entering the track 35 minutes after the event's official end they started cheering. People got off their feet and clapped. Friends ran to the edge of the track and cheered! I didn't feel last, I feit great! I feit courageous, I feit better than the times I had finished in the top ten, I feit better than all of my Silver-Buckle finishes, I was on-top of the world! I raised my arms in appreciation for those cheering me on and I ambled towards the finish. They had to move a baracade in front of the finish line, and I had weave around a truck, but they still had the timing matt at finish, and I received a hug and finishers medal to go along with my standing ovation. I looked for my angel to thank her, but she was no where to be found.
Two days later when I look back at that finish the tears still well-up. I wish I had done better, I wish I had won another buckle, but I wouldn't trade the experience I had for anybody's! I'm just another guy, but at 11:36 AM on June 28th, I sure feit special!