Western States 100 – 2014
“I’m Craig Thornley – race director for Western”. Oh, those words were worth it. If you don’t know Craig, he doesn’t really like to introduce himself with a title, and he also has an odd disdain for folks calling the race “Western” when he and most of the locals refer to it as “States”. But he lost a bet to me 3 weeks before the race, and his pennance was to introduce himself as such to anyone and everyone he hadn’t met.
The bet – well, it was pretty simple, and seemed like a fun idea at the time. A 5k fundraiser for the Placer High track resurfacing came up, and our friendly rivalry got the better of us. We have raced each other in 5ks over the years, where I usually come in a good 30s behind Craig. This year though, due to his long recovery from an injury, I was ahead of him in the speed category. Over beers following one of our group runs, the bet was laid out by all in attendence – if I were to beat Craig by more than one minute, he would have to say the above mentioned sentence. No way, we thought, would that happen.
One minute and 5 seconds, to be exact.
Our running group has milked it for what it’s worth. However, my previously rolled ankle took a hit, and became a point of concern for the remaining weeks up to Western States. I was able to continue training long and hard, but it hurt, plain and simple.
Forward to Western States race morning. I was the fittest for this race as I have ever been. I anticipated a fast finish time – a solid 18 hours. I had a stellar crew in Mark Laws and Andrea Thorpe, both who know me and ultrarunning well. Seconds before 5:00 am, the crowd drowned out Gordy’s speech with the countdown, and we were off.
Climbing up to the escarpment is a time for focusing on not getting crazy. I ran and hiked silently most of the way up, feeling rather inward. I could see women ahead if I looked, but didn’t try to stay up with anyone. With about a mile to go the wind picked up as well as the altitude making me uncomfortable and anxious to get over the top. When I finally summited, I let my legs unwind and fly down the trail. They felt like magic, and I was stoked. Cruising behind lines until opportunity to pass came, I gradually worked myself into open space. Winding and picking my way through Granite Chief I felt solid, quick, and was sure I would make it to Lyon Ridge aid station in record time. Denise “Little D” Bourassa and I were in close proximity, and we arrived in an average time for me. Craig and John Trent were there, which given the difficulty of getting to that aid station was a nice surprise. I was fueled up and off I went, thinking that maybe I was not faster because I had been in several trains before, that surely I would hit Red Star in under 3 hours.
My ankle during this time was “okay”, but I could feel it with every step. I had been taking Alleve for 3 weeks now, trying to keep it under control, which is something I really don’t like doing at all. But game day came, it was my most important event of the year, and I will do what I have to (within reason) to run from Squaw Valley to Auburn. Up in this rocky high country I turned it a couple of times, due to its instability, but it was dull pain, nothing I couldn’t handle.
Uphills were slow, downhills were fast. If I led a train, we were probably akin to a bungee cord, spreading out on the downs, shrinking on the ups. Running between 6 and 7 thousand feet was feeling way, way too hard now, and I was feeling uncomfortable. How could this be? I had trained a fair amount up high, and been half-heartedly sleeping in my Hypoxico tent. Maybe because I had been at Squaw for most of the week?
Red Star ridge, I was slower than last year. I hustled in and out, and looked forward to this next section to Duncan Canyon aid station, as that is were Mark would be and I love nothing better than seeing crew on race day. I kept upright the entire section, again running back and forth with Little D, and catching up to Kiwi Michael Pullar just as I cruised in. Mark was quick to switch my bottles, hand me Ensure, give me more gels, and offer encouragement. I was quickly on my way, nearly falling down the steep embankment to the trail, feeling my calves ever so slightly suggest cramping.
A train of runners were soon on my heels, and concerned that I had been trying too hard to keep ahead, I stepped off the trail. Little D and and a few others slid by effortlessly, while I struggled along. My stomach was not great, but I attributed it to being at 6000 feet still. My ankle was not happy, and I decided to ask for Tylenol at the next aid station. Down in Duncan Creek, I found Topher Gaylord dousing his shirt. “Meghan – you are running so smart! As always!” I responded that really I was back here because I felt pretty bad, but hoped I could pick it up once I got lower. The climb from there all the way to Robinson Flat was pretty hard. My stomach finally forced me into the bushes, but the relief was only brief. My split was looking way slower than last year, and I was quite disheartened. Finally arriving to Robinson Flat, I weighed in, and began asking for Tylenol.There was none at the aid station, but was finally able to get some from a friend. Andrea switched out my bottles, and gave me a message from Ruby to lift my spirits, and I went out to the wonderful supportive cheers of all the volunteers and crews.
Climbing to Mt Baldy felt laborious, but cresting and descending toward Miller’s Defeat, I was happy that my quads felt great. My ankle was hurting with every step, but at least I was cruising now. At Miller’s I was welcomed by familiar faces – they said I looked great – to which I responded “That is one thing I’m good at – looking great when I feel like shit!” They decided it was the quote of the day thus far. My pace into Dusty Corners felt solid, my stomach was now happy, and I hoped to make up the time I lost in the high country. Mark was ready again with the routine, encouraged me to check the aid station table, where I drank some coke and took an S!Cap. Volunteers sponged me and sprayed me, and Mark walked me out, telling me that my good friend Stephanie Howe was now in the lead! I was in 11th place at this point, which seemed about right, given how I felt and who was in the women’s field.
Onto Pucker Point trail, I was gaining momentum. I passed a couple of runners, moving me into 10th female, and had a good split into Last Chance. Craig and John were here – Craig voicing his concern about my time and how I was feeling. I related my experience thus far, and that I was feeling good now. Out I went, catching up to Topher and Louis Secreto. Topher again commented that I was running smart – I wasn’t so sure. I hit Precipitous Trail down to the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River – I love this quick section – and again, my quads felt awesome, as did my feet, but my ankle was troublesome.
At the river crossing, I caught up to Mark Lantz. I waded in a few steps and fully submerged, which was pure bliss until one of my calves started to cramp. I focused on relaxing it as I waded to the other side, and took an S!Cap at the beginning of the long climb to the Devil’s Thumb. It was a solid climb in 37 minutes, but my low back was starting to get very tight – huh? I had a relatively quick stop at the aid station for weighing in, dousing, and eating some fruit. Joe Uhan offered moral support, asked about my ankle (“Oh, it’s pretty messed up”) and jogged out with me, telling me to “use your hips.” Mark Lantz was in eyesight for awhile, and happily I hit the long and my favorite descent on the course down to El Dorado Creek. About half way down, a woman ahead was just jogging slowly, and I was surprised to see my race favorite, Emily Harrison, running in a somewhat defeated gait. A quick embrace of support, I asked her what was up. “I’m done. My legs are done.” I told her there was still time to turn it around, which she agreed to. I kept on my downhill cruise until I caught Topher again. He said that I was running smart and I would catch more women. Miraculously, my ankle pain had subsided. I hit the aid station down at the creek, got loaded up, and began the ascent to Michigan Bluff. Topher and Louis caught me again on the climb, and I was getting some running sections in, but not as much as I had hoped. When I finally reached the top, radio controllers called my number into the still hidden aid station – which was good since my hamstring opposite my bad ankle totally and painfully seized. “F***!!!” Oh, that hurt. I contracted my quad to get the hammy to relax, and after a minute or so I was able to start walking, then jogging, and finally, some semblance of running into the Michigan Bluff aid station. I weighed in, grabbed some coke, and then Mark was right there, ready to crew me with the help of Dave Carder. He walked up the street with me, again to the encouragement of many ultra running friends and fanatics.
Leaving Michigan Bluff brings a mix of emotions – the high of seeing friends and family, and the low of the difficult section ahead. A grinding, hot, exposed, gravel road, and at this point I was completely alone. It was obvious to me that things were not going as planned – my energy was waning, my ankle was hurting again, and it seemed I was having more “bad patches” than good. The downhill into Volcano Canyon was not smooth, and once to the creek, I only felt like wading through, skipping the chance to submerge.
The climb up to Bath Road was pathetic, but seeing Andrea lifted my spirits. As we jogged and walked up, she updated me on the race – how the women ahead were looking and how far ahead they were, what was going on in the men’s race, and before long we were at the top of Bath. I was happy to start cruising towards Foresthill, and my quads felt good, my ankle was “okay”, and soon we saw Mark running up towards us. Andrea yelled out to him what I would need, he turned around to have it ready. Cruising into Foresthill is another highlight – so many spectators, so much support. In and out, and then Mark was ready with more supplies as we cruised down the road to the Cal Street Loop.
Leading Andrea down the single track, I felt good on the descents. Each climb though was on dead legs. My ankle was wracked up again, so I worked at keeping the best form I could. At Cal 1 aid station I got loaded up with ice in my sports bra and water bottles, and jogged out. Cal 1 to Cal 2 can be tough and proved to be so today. My splits were getting slower and slower. I was trying to bum more Tylenol, to no avail. I had taken another dose of Alleve at an 8 hour interval, but the ankle was just not going to go away.
We finally got to Cal 2, and saw Beth Cardelli who was in 8th. Andrea and I focused on fueling and getting out quickly, moving myself up one place. Cal 2 down to Ford’s bar is fast, and I overrode the ankle pain to take advantage of the grade, fairly flying. Finally at the base of “6-minute hill” we began the slow climb up. It was so tedious that I had Andrea look over her shoulder to see if anyone was coming. Luckily, no, and after cresting we picked up the pace. “Never waste a downhill!” I yelled out, cringing a bit, but eventually letting go. Cal 3 aid station energetically served us and sent us on our way. A few grinding climbs, some short downhills, some trudging through the sandy bottom, and finally Andrea commented that I was actually leaning a little to the left. Weird – I didn’t feel like I was leaning.
The river crossing was now in sight, with one of my slowest splits ever, and I excitedly picked up the pace. After weighing in, we crossed the cold swift Middle Fork of the American River, taking time to fully immerse.
Even with the great support of the crowds, I was definitely feeling like it was survival mode and I wasn’t too excited about where I was time wise. However, the cold river water had refreshed my legs, and we hiked out strong up to Green Gate, where Mark was ready with my lights and bottles. I grabbed a little coke and soup, said goodbye to Andrea, and Mark and I headed down the already darkening trail. I turned on my handheld light, while Mark caught me up on the race details. Steph was still in a comfortable lead, there were a smattering of women between, with Little D only 20 minutes ahead.
Not really cruising anymore, we more or less ambled. Twilight became dark. The ALT aid station was lit up festively, but I was saddened to see friend Nick Clarke with his pacer Jake Rydman bundled up in chairs. I gave a sad high-5 to Nick as we left, hoping he was okay.
My lean was getting to be more and more pronounced, and Mark gently reminded me time and time again to “try to run in the middle of the trail” as my left foot repeatedly hit the side of the trail. I didn’t feel like I was leaning, but my shadow revealed otherwise. At rocky sections I started walking, only to illustrate how very unstable I was. I reeled around on my left foot, sitting squarely on my butt on the side of the trail. “WHOA” Mark uttered. “Does it count as a fall if I merely sit down?” I asked. He agreed to let it count as a sit rather than a fall. There were voices and lights coming behind us, and I hoped they were all men. As they got close, I veered to the left, Mark to the right, and the trail gave way beneath him. I heard a “whump” and turned around to see Mark’s headlamp level with the trail, while one of the runners offered to help him out. Unfortunately, he was in a thicket of poison oak, something he is extremely susceptible to. Miles to go, it was looking as if he would have a reminder of the race for days to come. We started off again, and with his gentle reminders managed to get all the way to Brown’s Bar without falling. Coming in, Hal Koerner gave me a big hug upon recognizing me, and the whole aid station rallied around. I stated I was a leaner, and to my surprise, they all agreed. Wow. When asked why I was leaning, I stated I was channeling Rob (their captain who is notorious for leaning). Then Hal reminded me that at this point it looked like I would have a chance to try again next year.
Surprisingly, I was able to cruise the downhill to lower quarry road relatively upright, although I’m sure I made Mark nervous more than once. I was pretty much toast but each section of the course came and went until finally reaching mile 93, the highway 49 crossing. To my absolute delight, Ruby had made it out! She gave me a hard, tight hug, lifting my spirits immensely. Even though I felt “fine” there was general concern given my lean and my instability. As I left, I made a giant drunken weave, and yelled out “I’m okay! I’m good, really!”. Mark led me out and up the rocky climb, and I stayed upright. Upon cresting Painted Rocks, he let me know that Ruby and Andrea had told him that 2 women were moving up in the field and closing in. I took the lead, and tried to rally some momentum on the long descent into No Hands Bridge. Quads, still good, feet – not too bad, ankle – pretty much sucked. At the aid station, I drank some coke, and Mark urged me to run across the bridge and out of sight of any runners coming down, to not give them incentive to chase. Back to ambling along, we made our way without any lights following us. Close to Robie Point, we were suddenly overcome by a runner – it was Nick Clarke! He had rallied to finish strong, with Jake right on his heels. What a great come back!
Robie Point welcomed us, and Andrea was waiting to “run” me in. In reality, I had no run left as we walked the paved road almost all the way to the white bridge. I started jogging and wondered about having Ruby finish with us. Seeing her at the track entrance I invited her to come in with us. “There are women behind you! You need to go!” Mark and Andrea stayed with me around the track, finishing in 21:14, miraculously as 8th woman.
After time to rehash the day, I came to some conclusions. First of all, yes, the ankle was the main problem. There was a lot of weakness on that side, and compensation on the healthy side. Lots of guarding all day long. Secondly, to those who commend me for sticking it out – it was never a question for me whether or not to finish, provided I could still move forward. For me, this race isn’t about me or any one runner. It is about celebrating an historical trail and event and life and community. It is about the stories that grow during the course of the day. It is about accepting the challenges as they present themselves, and the decisions we make in response. It is about bringing people together. As for the 5k bet – I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Many thanks to all of the Western States volunteers and RD Craig, to Scott-Sports and Injinji socks for their support, to my daughter Ruby for making it out and keeping track of my competitors, and especially to Andrea and Mark for seriously taking great care of me before, during and after. Stellar.