“Yikes – it’s 4:00! My alarm didn’t go off! It’s go time!” My crew jumped out of bed as quickly as I. It was race day, and I was up one hour later than I meant to be, but still plenty of time. Rice, eggs, coffee. Shirt, skirt, bandana, hat, watch, socks, shoes, gators. Hydration pack with one bottle of water, one bottle of Vitargo mixed in coconut water. Picking up my number I was giddy with excitement for the day to start. There were many friends to greet and wish well, and at 5:00 a.m. we were on our way from Squaw Valley to Auburn, 100 miles away.
Up the steep climb to Emigrant gap, it was like the early stages of a big party. Friends were getting reacquainted, and new friendships forged. With no trees in this section, I could see the long line of runners above and below me. There were already a handful of women in front of me, but my mantra for the day was to be “Find your own groove and stick with it.” Cresting Emigrant Gap, I was happy to unleash my legs on the swift, downhill single track. Before long I was going around Denise, Emily, and Ashley through the somewhat technical high country. The scenery, when brave enough to look up, was stunning. Sierras to my left, running along the ridge in the warming sun was pure pleasure. My time spent at altitude in Flagstaff plus the nights in my new Hypoxico high altitude tent were paying off in being comfortable rather than gasping in the thin air of 6000 feet. I guessed that I was in 6th or 7th, but with 90+ miles to go it didn’t really matter. I kept my groove into Lyon Ridge aid station, mile 11, filled one bottle with water, the other with GU Roctane. I made sure to say hi to AS captain Charlie, who has been a part of this race for 24 years – sometimes running, but mostly captaining this remote place. Such dedication is integral to the success of this event.
Now running towards Red Star, occasionally I could see way ahead, a train of runners including Andy Jones Wilkins. I was a little surprised to see him that close, and began to close the gap. There were open, rocky, sandy sections, and BAM I went down, superwoman style. I bounced back up, irritated and embarrassed. Behind me, a British accent asked if I was okay. I assured him I was, as I pondered my banged knee. The good news was that my Anton Krupicka Ultraspire pack had softened the blow with the bottles right where my breasts would be, if I were so endowed. I shook it off, kept running, and everything was beautiful once more. And one more time I tripped – this time more of a three point landing. Oh for Pete’s sake. Still no worse for wear, I got back in my groove and finally hit the sweet single track that led into Redstar Ridge AS.
Low and behold, Andy was there fueling up. I had ice put into my sports bra, had my bottles filled, ate a gel, and lastly put some ice in my skirt. As I ran out, the ice all went right into the seat of my pants. Well that was unexpected, and felt like I had loaded them up, but it was cooling. I got on Andy’s coat tails for a bit, then went around him, and shortly was coming up on friend and training partner Scott “Monkey Boy” Wolfe. “Hello Queen” he said without turning around. We fell into a good working pace together, passing runners along the way.
We cruised very well into Duncan Canyon AS, where I had crew – Andrea and Jason were ready with fresh bottles of Vitargo and water, fresh gels, some Beetelite, and I got doused and iced by the AS volunteers. Craig and Chris were there – Chris commenting that even though I was iced down, I was still hot! Sympathy when covered with dirt is appreciated. Monkey Boy and I left the aid station together to the cheering crowds, and were soon on our way into Duncan Canyon. We shortly came upon Cassie Scallon. I gave her a quick hug, and she replied that she was having “one of those days”. Monkey Boy pulled ahead of me for awhile, but at the downhill I closed the gap back up. We hit Duncan Creek, where I fully submersed. JB Benna was there getting some video, and followed me out of the water for awhile. Wanting to stay conservative, we hiked a fair amount, and finally ambled into Robinson Flat at 10:30. We weighed in, my weight down one pound, then I found Hannah and Larry who readily re-supplied me. Again, the crowd was so awesome in cheering us out, I was somewhat reluctant to leave.
Now, you may be wondering about Beetelite. I eat beets most days, mostly because I really like them, but recent studies have shown some benefits in the athletic world, such as increased time to exhaustion. Beet juice is something I have loaded up on before long events, so I decided to incorporate it into my Western States race. Which meant revisiting the research results and googling the subject matter. That is where I learned of Beetelite. And of course it would be difficult to find, but a message to Meredith Teranova in Austin, Texas, she put one of her husband Paul’s crew members on task to find some – and they delivered the day before the race. I drank some Friday, had no ill effects, so placed it out on the course for the race.
Monkey Boy and I climbed out together, anticipating the beginning of the long descents. We were joined briefly by an uninspired Bryon Powell who had been sitting by the trail awaiting some motivation. Finally at the top of Little Bald Mountain, we started to unwind down the open burned out section, taking switchback after switchback. Ahead of me was the bright orange jersey of Nikki Kimball, keeping a bit of distance on me. I was enjoying the heat, the scenery, the comraderie of running with a good friend, when BAM I went down again. ARGH. This was frustrating. And this time I picked up a good amount of trail dirt. Great. And the bottles that broke my fall now seemed to have inflicted some injury in my ribs. Go me. I declared out loud to Monkey Boy that I was DONE falling! Cruising into Miller’s Defeat aid station, I was happy to see the familiar faces of Tina Ure and Clyde Aker, putting in long hours to get the hot, thirsty runners some respite. I left the aid station just behind Nikki, and gradually caught up to her. She was on top of the world, having a great day, and we chatted until the steep descents into Dusty Corners met us. At this point she said “I won’t be able to keep up with you on the flats” and I wondered what she considered a downhill to be as I let gravity do it’s thing. Monkey Boy soon caught and pulled away from me, perhaps no longer inspired to run with me as I was now sporting the Pig Pen look.
Overall, I was feeling pretty good. My quads weren’t particularly stellar – not sure they were already a bit sore because of the heat, or because I didn’t get in the downhill training I might have, had I not gone to Japan in early June. Who knows. But, my feet were feeling great – no hot spots or other signs of blisters. Energy was stable, hydration good, salt intake seemed adequate. Hands were a little puffy, but nothing to be alarmed about. At the last pitch down into Dusty Corners aid station, Tropical John Medinger spotted me coming in, and yelled “Hey, leave a little dirt on the trail, why dontcha?” I laughed “I know, right?” Andrea and Jason were all over me, changing my bottles, giving me a shot of beetelite, and Craig was there again, giving me the beta on the race. “The gals are all about 5-10 minutes ahead of you”. I asked “Is Rory in the lead?” “Nope! It’s Pam Smith!” Wow! I was surprised and impressed. Well, she knows herself and what she’s doing, and if she has a plan she’ll stick to it. Karl Hoagland was also on hand giving me encouragement – “Scott just left the aid station! You’re doing great!” I was gently guided by a volunteer to some buckets of cold water with sponges and a cold water sprayer. I took the sprayer and gave myself a quick, cooling shower, and was soon on my way down Pucker Point trail.
With freshly filled bottles in my AK pack, I was now beginning the love/hate relationship with said pack. Yes, it was sure handy to have my hands free, as I was keeping up with the gels, and yes, the bottle were easy to fill at aid stations, and while it is somewhat more efficient to carry the weight near one’s center of gravity, the loud sloshing was irritating me, and I felt over burdened by it all. So, I grabbed the bottles and carried them in my hands. Hmmm. That was actually more comfortable by a lot. It didn’t bother me at all that I didn’t have handles. So I carried on this way, using the pockets to rest the bottles when I needed to eat a gel or take an S!Cap.
The trail was strangely vacant. I caught and passed only 2 men. I pondered that the heat must have already taken some runners out, as I usually pass or am passed by multiple runners in this section. In and out of the shade, the trail hugged the rugged canyon wall for about 4 relatively flat but technical miles, then a short downhill to Last Chance aid station. I was weighed, fed, and watered both inside and out, and now slightly chilled I left, looking forward to the steep “Precipitous Trail” a mile down the service road. I came up behind Joelle Vaught, already suffering mightily in the heat. That said, she was the same smiling, charming, champion of a runner as always. JB Benna was near the trail head, and as I began my precarious dance, he followed on foot with his camera filming my every move. Whoo-boy – talk about pressure not go down, with a butt-up-money-shot, and yet get down the trail like a confident runner, all timidity aside. You can bet I was very focused.
My plan had been to fully submerge in the river at the bottom of the canyon before the toughest, for me, climb of the race. But once I got down, I was still fairly cool from the dousing at Last Chance, so shrugged and crossed the swinging bridge. Ahead of me at the fresh spring sat two lovlies – Rory and Aliza! “Come on girls! Let’s get going!” They moaned a bit and we discussed briefly how Pam was doing up ahead. Aliza was concerned she was going to hard, but time would tell. In very short order, the two had gotten out of my sight on the narrow switch backed trail that would eventually lead a view of Devil’s Thumb, a large protruding rock, and a glorious aid station. I held steady in my groove, working on good form, drinking often, when in the distance below, I could hear the chipper voice of Nikki. She caught me here last year, powerfully surging up. It was too early in the race to worry about placing or racing, so I stayed in my groove as planned. We arrived at the aid station pretty close together and were seized upon by multiple volunteers. Weigh in, fill bottles, say Hi to Ellie with a gross sweaty hug, eat a Popsicle, chat with Charles Savage, notice that Aliza is still there, and follow her out of the aid station saying “Let’s go! The best canyon is coming up!” We got our wheels going and I asked Aliza how she was feeling. “HOT!” was her straightforward response. She fell behind briefly and I hit the single track into El Dorado Canyon with sheer delight. Such a runable section, diving deep into the heat canyon. My legs were doing okay but not great, my feet were blister free, and at each hint of my face overheating, I doused with water from my bottle. Down and down I went, listening to the sound of El Dorado Creek coming up to me, louder and louder. With about a half mile to go, Aliza had closed her gap back on me. I asked about her foot (she had undergone surgery only a few months before). She said it was holding up okay but she was getting pretty blistered up.
El Dorado aid station was a sight for hot bodies. They had ice, cold melon, cold drinks, pop-up tents, and lots of good energy. Bret and Gail Henry from Oregon were working there and it was nice to see their familiar happy faces. Rory was finishing getting cooled off and ready to hit the climb out to Michigan Bluff and Aliza got started out behind her. Sadly, Jacob Rydman was there, looking a bit melted. I gave him a quick hug and some encouragement. He was determined to finish but had definitely experienced some doubtful moments already. He trotted out up the trail, while I was making sure I had taken care of everything before doing the same. As I left, Nikki arrived, so we had women 3-6 all in somewhat of a cluster at little more than half way through the race. Slowly I moved up the trail, and surprisingly was able to run a few sections of this 2+mile climb to the Michigan Bluff aid station. Again, I could hear Nikki below, and she gobbled me up in short order with her powerful hiking.
My fantasy time of 18:30 would have meant arriving at Michigan Bluff at 3:00, and I was pleased to see it was going to be 3:30 or so. Given the heat and the tenderness in my quads, I was surprised. At the final summit, Karl was there again, cheering me on. “Go get them Meghan! They aren’t very far ahead! You’re Geoff Roes – coming from behind!” He smacked me on the butt as I reeled down the hill where my crew was waiting to take my pack so I could weigh in. The warmth of the crowd was uplifting.
The medical volunteer, Tonya Olson spoke to me regarding an issue that had developed early in the race. About 15 miles into the race I developed symptoms of a urinary tract infection – urgency with little result. My body felt fine, but it was disconcerting, so when I had reached Duncan Canyon AS, I told Andrea, and asked if she could track down some AZO which takes care of the symptoms. When I got to Robinson Flat, I told Hannah and Larry the same thing. Meanwhile I kept drinking and drinking. Eventually, but the time I got to Devil’s Thumb, I was peeing clear and copious. But what was so reassuring was that by the time I got to Michigan Bluff, Tonya knew what was going on with me, looked me in the eye and asked how I was feeling, and if was still having problems. Now that is some pretty damn good communication and very good care of a runner, AND she knew me well enough to trust my own judgement. She said just keep up with the fluids, and that my crew had meds for it if I needed.
Sponged, watered, fed, I was on my way out of Michigan Bluff. I was in 6th place, and Pam’s lead had increased substantially! That girl knew what she was doing. Nikki had moved into second, and Amy was 3rd, reportedly 5 minutes ahead. Now back into solitude, I gradually got into some decent running. Before me, Rory and Aliza were running together. As they began to walk, I closed back in on them. We walked a bit together, but my legs were feeling more like running, so I passed them on my way to Volcano Canyon.
This canyon is smaller and often underestimated, but the heat and steepness are not to be overlooked. The more tired and sore and overheated and trashed your feet are, the longer it seems, but the reward is a beautiful creek, just the right size to lay all the way down in, cool the core, and start to get excited about coming out the other side to finally meet up with some crew at Bath Road. I laid down quickly in the water, glad that the multiple wettings during the day had made my shirt now at least decently dirt free, and as I popped out the other side, Rory was just arriving. “Get wet!” I yelled, as if she needed any encouragement at all. Climbing out I felt my strength return, and was able to run and hike well to the aid station. Jason was there to run me into Foresthill, and Craig and Chris were there briefly, giving me encouragement. I walked and ran the long mile up the paved road, getting the beta from Jason – Pam was way ahead now, and looking good. Then Nikki, about 10 minutes up, and Amy, about 5. They were definitely in range, but I stuck to my plan of staying in my groove. Foresthill is where I wanted to start to think about racing.
Cresting Bath Road and turning down Foresthill Road into town, I usually feel relaxed, recovered, and ready to roll. As my legs started to unwind, I waited for them to feel bouncy, but it was not to be. Rather than obsess over it I kept believing they would feel good soon, and even though they didn’t, my spirits were lifted by the huge crowd along the way into the aid station. Andrea tried to help me stay focused through the aid station, although I had to say hello to the many folks I knew on my way out and down the street to reach California “Cal” street. The Cal street loop is my favorite section of the race – lots of fast runnable downhill and I finally have the company of a pacer. Again, my legs were not very resilient and I attributed it to the heat and to the lack of downhill training closer to the race. Andrea and I cruised along the winding single track amongst the oak trees, winding downward to through the next two aid stations. My knees were fatigued and I was getting hot spots on my feet, so I took two tylenol, taking the edge off the pain. Descending after Cal 2 was not smooth, but rather jarring. I kept reminding myself to relax and let it flow, but I was pretty relieved to get to the bottom of the 6-minute hill (a rather steep ascent that on a good day takes 6 minutes to crest). Andrea’s long strong stride mentally pulled me up the climb, bridging and closing the gap between me and a struggling Jacob Rydman with his pacer. Obviously suffering, I humored him with a tease of “Jake! Isn’t this a 3 minutes hill for you?” Despite his suffering, he smiled and remarked that it wasn’t going to happen today. We passed them, crested, and ran the next steep downhill to Cal 3, grabbed some coke and an S!Cap, turned around and found myself staring into the face of my good friend Todd Braje. “Todd!” “Meghan!” We hugged it out, to the entertainment of the aid station captain who stated “I wish I had a camera for that!” Todd was pacing a friend, and it was a complete surprise for me to see him. The four of us ran together for a bit before they pulled away.
Into the “Sandy Bottom” I slogged through this section of grass and somewhat packed sand as the trail meandered at river level through the cool shade. It dumped us out into the hot sun on the jeep road that would take us up two more grunt climbs, and on the second I passed a struggling/finished Hal Koerner. This race was taking its toll. He yelled at me to get those girls ahead, and at the sounds coming from the aid station I picked up the pace and cruised in. Andrea clocked me in just under 3 hours from the time we left Foresthill – which I was happy enough with given the heat and my sore legs. I weighed in quickly and ran down to the river, anticipating the cooling effects of the American River on my body. Grabbing the cable and pulling myself in a couple of strides, I dunked my whole body down, gasping at the shock when I emerged.
My crew and friend were cheering from the far side as I went hand over hand along the cable, following the directions of the cable volunteers – “Watch out for the big hole there. Mind that big rock there!” Once we got through the deep current, Andrea and I picked our way through the shallow rocky water and joined the rest of my crew. Hannah, Larry, and Jason were quick to get me a bit of soup, more Beetelite, check that I wasn’t needing anything special, and team Queen was soon on their way up the gravel road to the Green Gate. Andrea updated Jason on how I was doing, how well I was eating, and anything else she could think of. Finally at the top, Jason and I left the pack and began the run to ALT aid station.
On the gentler and more familiar terrain, I fairly clipped along for having 70+ miles on my legs. Dusk turned to dark, and I had to turn on my headlamp before reaching the aid station, but I did arrive quicker than I thought I would. I weighed in 5 lbs heavy on the scale, but assured the volunteers that I was feeling fine, all bodily functions working properly – heck, my clothes were still wet from the river crossing, so it could have been that. From ALT to Brown’s Bar, I found myself running in sections I don’t normally have the gas to run. Behind me, I heard the familiar boom of AJW’s voice. I yelled back at him “Andy! You’re such a bad ass!” It added another kick to my step, enough so that we kept our space in front of him. I told Jason that we can hear Brown’s Bar aid station at mile 90 way before we get to it, due to the nature of the canyon’s bends. He kept track of the mileage, and when I heard the music I insisted that we were almost there. He reminded me of what I told him, but I didn’t want to believe it, even though his watch told us otherwise. It did make me run harder, but it must have done the same for Andy, as we arrived at the aid station together.
Rogue Valley Runners sponsors this aid station, and many of my friends were there cheering me on. I ate potato soup, took two more tylenol, filled my bottle, smack talked with Andy as he left before me, as we gave chase down the long steep rocky rutted single track. I lost sight of Andy pretty quickly, but I was pleased with how I was moving all the way to the river. Once we hit the quarry road along the river, I was again surprised at how much I was able to run most of the hills. As we passed Dan Barger, an experienced Western States competitor, I asked what was going on with him. “I have tender vittles!” His quads were really trashed, so his movement was slow on the descents. On the relative smoothness of the gravel road, we pulled ahead, until we hit the rocky single track ascent, where we slowed to a hike. Jason did a good job reminding me to use my whole leg when I was hiking, and when to eat. I was still managing to get the gels down, a nibble at a time, and my blood sugar was and had been stable all day. And now, I avoided looking up the trail at the endless dark with sporadic sightings of reflective tape, but by keeping one foot in front of the other, I eventually heard cars, signaling our approach to the highway 49 crossing and aid station. By radio, the crew and volunteers were alerted as to which runners were coming in, and I handed my pack to my crew, needing only one bottle to get me to the finish line, just under 7 miles to go. Stephanie Howe was there waiting for her runner, and excitedly encouraged me to chase down Amy, only 3 minutes away. “Fast finish run, Meghan! Fast finish!” Oh, how I wish I had some fast in me. Leaving the aid station, I did run sections of the gnarly climb that I don’t normally run, and was rewarded with the long sweet downhill to No Hands Bridge, 3.5 miles away. I was no nearer to any runners, best I could tell. I grabbed a drink of coke, and ran across the festively lit bridge, and most of the way to the last steep climb. Jason encouraged me to run any sections I could here, and on the last quarter mile before Robie Point, he asked me to run just 30 steps. Emphatically, I said no. The thought of it nearly made me burst into tears. Yup, I was tired.
My crew was waiting at Robie Point to run me in the last 1+ miles. The first thing I said was “I don’t want to know where any one is.” What I really meant was I didn’t want to know if anyone was in striking range, as I was too whupped to chase anyone down. We hiked hard up the last steep climb, then gradually I began running, grunting loudly out of fatigue. The louder I grunted, the quieter my crew got. Being a little concerned that they thought I might expire, I mumbled something about I know I’ve had a good day when I can end it like this. Once I reached the White Bridge, it was downhill to the track. Stepping on it and into the lighted field, John Medinger announced “Royalty has entered the track!” I gave him a playful wave, and accelerated around the turns. When I could see the clock, I had 30 seconds to run 19:30. I crossed in 19:30:50, 4th female, 18th person, in my fastest time for the regular course. It was especially sweet to have Craig there as the new RD to place the medal around my neck.
So, number 7 is in the bag. I feel like I dialed the details for the race really well this year. I didn’t have the prep for the downhill running I needed, so I’m glad to have something to improve on for next year. Special thanks to my awesome crew of Andrea Thorpe, Jason Roberts, Hannah Shallice and Larry O’Neil, my sponsors Scott-Sports and Injinji socks, my fabulous coach Ian Torrence, and the 1500+ volunteers and new RD Craig Thornley!