Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 Western States - Chasing the Cutoffs

It had been almost eighteen months ago that I started training for this day, and now the wait was finally over. After a years hiatus due to wildfires in 20008, the 35th running of the Western States 100 was finally at hand. High in the Sierra Nevada of California, 400 runners lined up at 5:00 in the morning to begin a journey that would hopefully deliver us to the town of Auburn, some 100 miles away by 11:00 the following morning. Along the way the course would wind its way over high altitude mountains passes, through blazing hot canyons and across the fast moving (and butt cold) American River before finally spitting runners out onto the track at Placer High School. While every runners is determined to finish this race before the thirty hour cut-off, four of every ten will not. After 26 hours and 85.2 miles my race came to end at 7:03 AM Sunday morning when myself and pacer Lee Crane arrived at the Auburn Lake Trails aid station three minutes after the 7:00 cut off. While in school, an 85% would generally garner you a solid B, Ultra Running is not so kind and anything less than 100% is considered an incomplete. Although the shiny silver and bronze belt buckles that serve as rewards are reserved for those who finish in under 30 hours, the experience (as well as the memories, images and lessons that come with it) of running this magnificent trail is a prize unto its own.

The race starts straight uphill, 2800 vertical feet in three and a half miles before spilling over into the Granite Chief Wilderness Area and the "alpine" section of the Western States Trail. This entire section of the race was much more difficult then I had anticipated and the altitude, which is generally not a problem for me complicated things even further. While the elevation profile for the trail would imply fairly consistent downhill progress in these early miles, the reality is the section from Emigrant Pass to Robinson Flat (30 Miles) is an intense roller coaster that makes getting into any sort of rhythm difficult, while the thin air inflicts damage that would have both short term and long term consequences. The final insult is the heat through Duncan Canyon and the climb to Robinson Flat. It is here that I first began to come undone, with the heat and the altitude each taking their turn beating me down with nausea and light headedness, my progress slowed to what ultra runners refer to as a death march. When I finally arrived the aid station I immediately let my crew (Bret Deardorff and Lee Crane) know I was in trouble and they went to work. After about 15 minutes of getting me cooled off with numerous ice packs, re hydrated with water and NOS Energy drink and nourished with a few bites of watermelon I was off, just a precarious 20 minutes ahead of the cut off, but I was still in the game.

The next section of the trail begins to drop runners into the section of the course known simply as "the canyons". This section can be very exposed, very hot and very steep and at times all three. It is in this section the two most notorious climbs can be found, Devil's Thumb (1,400 vertical feet in just .65 miles) and Michigan Bluff (1,700 vertical feet across 2.7 long miles) While I certainly had my share of struggles through this section of the course, it was anticipated and I was certainly not alone. Even seven time winner Scott Jurek succumbed to the canyons this year dropping at Devil's Thumb when "the well ran dry". With daylight running out and my crew and headlamp waiting at Michigan Bluff (Mile 55) I continued to move as quickly as I could fearful of navigating these trails in the dark. Although my arrival at Michigan Bluff was much later then I had originally planned due to some soul searching atop Devil's Thumb, I had made up valuable time and was now a full 45 minutes ahead of the cut offs. Even better, from this point on Lee would be running along with me, helping me maintain the pace needed to reach Auburn, still some 45 miles away.

As we left Michigan Bluff and headed for Forest Hill, it was now dark. While we now had headlamps I was unfortunately without my "regular" glasses which I had placed in the drop bag we would find in Forest Hill, seven miles away. While this made me a bit uneasy, as I am quite blind without them, we were blessed with very "good" trail all the way, and as we moved through this section my confidence began to build that we might actually pull this thing out. Once in Forest Hill it was time to eat the first "real" food of the day. Bret had gone and gotten what was quickly "the best pizza of my life". After a couple pieces of pizza and another can of NOS we were off, feeling good that the toughest part of the course was now behind us and some gentle downhill was just ahead.

Over the next fifteen miles Lee and I moved fairly efficiently through the course, maintaining our 45 minute lead over the cut-offs. Although it was now the middle of the night and my energy (along with my mood) was ebbing and flowing, the VESPA I had been taking every three hours was working well and I was very aware of where we were at in relationship to the clock. My feet also felt good, still in the same shoes (Brooks Cascadia) I had started in almost 23 hours ago. The only distress signals my body was sending me was some serious pain in my quads as well as what was quickly becoming a very serious chaffing issue.

At 4:15 AM we reached the Rucky Chucky aid station. It was here, that after almost 24 hours of running we would now cross the fast flowing American River. After securing our packs and water bottles we grabbed hold of the one hundred yard long cable and stepped into the ice cold river. As we worked our way across the massive underwater boulders, illuminated with glow sticks we were greeted by some of the most dedicated volunteers I have ever met. Every ten yards we were greeted by a volunteer in either a wet suit or fishing waiters who were there to help us negotiate the tricky river bottom. Without these folks in place this experience would have moved from surreal to nightmarish. Once on the other side of the River we met Bret and began the long slow climb out of the river valley up to the Green Gate aid Station just before sunrise.

It was now 5:15 and we had now been at it for over 24 hours. As we started our on the 5.5 mile trek towards the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, I was counting on the energy from the sunrise to help move us along. This was a section of trail I knew was mostly downhill and very runable. Although the seven o'clock cut off would be tight, I was confident we would make it. Then it happened! After making up some good time through the first long downhill of this section, my quads called it a day. As we started down the next descent it wasn't as though they hurt, they just wouldn't hold me up, the only way I could run was in what might best be described as a modifies sumo wrestler position, using my "glutes" to keep me from falling. While certainly quite comical to watch, it was not very efficient and my pace slowed to a death "waddle". Then just before 7:00 we first heard, then saw the Auburn Lake Trails aid station and with energy that could only have come from above (as within was on empty) Lee and I gave it one last push. Surely if we're there within a minute or so they'll let us keep going I thought as the horn blew signalling the top of the hour, but as we rounded the corner into the aid station we were informed that the aid station was closed and that our race was over.

I'm sure it seems silly to some to put so much into a race that in the end matters very little, but after all that we have been through this past year, and all that we are still going through, I was badly in need of a little good news and was counting on a finish to reassure me that in some things hard work does pay off, that effort really does equal success, and perhaps signal an end to what has been a really hard year .....Once again however running has reflected the realities of life rather then redefining it; There are no guarantees, hard work does not always insure success. Although at times life can be a great adventure, much of the time it can be, at best drudgery and at it's worst painful and unfair. Whether we cross our finish line at 100 or 85, the question that remains is, were we authentic and did we whole heartedly apply ourselves without reserve to those things we are led, called or created to do. Finally,we are reminded that everything works better when we invite others into the process. It is this, that in the end is my take away from Western States. A reminder about our need for people. Without them victory is hollow and struggle insurmountable. To outsiders running seems a solitary sport, and for some it is, but as I moved down the trail this past Saturday I was constantly aware of all the people who ran with me; my late father who I'm sure gets a kick out of watching me torture myself, my dear wife and awesome kids who don't just tolerate but support and encourage this crazy hobby of mine, the crew at Great Plains Running Co who are truly the best group of folks anyone could ever hope to work with, friends Rick Mayo and Gabe Bevan (along with their families and crew) who also ran, and finished in under 24 hours (way to go guys) family and friends who prayed for me throughout the day and of course Bret and Lee who without their presence I still might be sitting in a chair at what was the Robinson Flat aid station.

So although I won nothing that might help me hold my pants up, I can hold my head up and look forward to Vermont, now just two weeks from Saturday. If between now and then you see someone running down the road looking like a Sumo wrestler, that's me.

I hope to add pictures in a day or two!


Cynical Dirt Doll said...

Willie- you are my hero and I cried when I saw online that you had timed out. I admire wholeheartledly all that you do and the attitude that you do it with. We are blessed to have you as part of the Kansas running scene. I know you will kick tail at Vermont and I'm looking forward to running with you at Leadville and comparing belt buckles!

Willie Lambert said...

Thanks Coleen. I with ya, can't wait for Leadville. I hope your training is going well. I have full faith that after that rockin' debut down in Texas, you are ready to take on the Rockies!

Rick M said...

Excellent report Willie, I'm going to try this Vespa stuff. I had trouble with my contact lenses with all the dust. Check out Wiley X eye wear. Bomb proof frame with RX lenses. See ya soon

Gabe said...

nice job Willie, we were pulling for you. hope to get out to the night race, see ya out on the trails soon.

Willie Lambert said...

Rick and Gabe,

Thanks for your notes. Congratulations again on a great race. I look forward to seeing you guys struttin' around in your belt buckles. Looking forward to redemption at Vermont, but even more so at Leadville.