With Western States on the very near horizon, it was something of a risk to sign up for a 100k race, so under the advice of my running partners Matt Keyes and Scott Wolfe, I kept my eyes on the big picture as I lined up for “running all day” in the Bishop High Sierra 100k. The course altitude ranged from between 4000-9000 feet, with a good majority of it being about 8000 ft. This would be a good test of how ready I am to run at altitude, and whether my minimal time in the altitude tent was benefitting me yet.
Bishop-ite and ultra runner friend Jeff Kozak hosted me Friday night. He gave me a some points to remember – such as the highest point in the race (9000+) was reached at mile 21, that there was very little shade, and that the first 6 miles could be run very quickly, and the next 20+ would be a long grind. Friend and coachee, Sada Crawford and I discussed the race ahead over sushi. She was the course record holder, but having moved to the cold northern parts of Idaho, was not feeling too confident about racing in the predicted 90 degree weather on tap for Saturday.
Next morning at 4:00 am, Jeff and I were up slugging down the coffee. Rice and eggs were my pre-race meal, and by 5:00 am we were on our way to the race start. The day dawned clear, beautiful, and looking to be warm. Seeing Sada, we warmed up together, and after a brief course review from RD Tim Stahler, we were off.
Another test to be run today was the selection of one of my pacers for Western States. My good friend, Mark Laws, had offered to crew for me, which I readily accepted, but when I asked him to consider pacing me as well, he was more than a little reticent that he would be up to the task. Turns out that Bishop allows pacers for the last 16 miles of the 100k, so I suggested to Mark we could do a test drive there. He was game, and his plan was to show up on race day in time to cover that last section with me.
So it began! Winding our way out of the park, through a campground and onto the first bit of very sandy trail. Very Sandy Trail. I kept trying to find a line where it might be packed down, but it wasn’t really worth all that dancing. Sada glided by and I kept my heart rate down as she gapped me. After nearly 2 miles of slipping around, we hit a less sandy road that allowed me to open up my pace. I went with Kozak’s advice and cruised pretty quickly, passing Sada back, and soon was running with Ethan Veneklasen, Paul Sweeney, and Howie Stern. We continued to run together loosely for a few miles as we finally hit the gradual ascent up to mile 21.
I had anticipated needing to walk at this time, but it was a rather runnable grade. For grins, I kept my Garmin set to where I could see at what altitude we were, so I could find at what threshold I would really start to feel it. Looking up, I could see runners spread out in the open terrain, but it wasn’t too intimidating. Trotting along, I met and ran with Peter Broomhall from Truckee for quite awhile, until he pulled ahead. Eventually I was running alone, following Eric Clifton in his running skirt, gray ponytail, and carrying absolutely nothing with him. That would not have been a bad way to go since this course has a 22 aid stations from between 1+ to 5 miles apart, but given it was going to be hot, I wanted to always have 2 bottles – one with calories, one with dousing water – and my pack to dump ice into to get the slow melt to keep me cool.
At 7000 ft and up I was still running. I was stoked. It wasn’t particularly easy, but I wasn’t gasping or feeling bad. Winding up to 8000 ft and above though, I started to throw in some walking. Anytime the course flattened or went downhill, I would run. Some of this section meandered through a shaded Aspen grove which was a refreshing break from open skies most of the course offered. Lost in thought, I took a mild dirt dive, swearing at my stupidity and smashing the chafing butter packet in my skirt pocket so it was smeared down the side. Nice. I used my dousing water to try and sort of clean up.
Mile 21 finally arrived at a turn around aid station, and after I fueled and iced, I began a descent. Behind me less than 5 minutes was Sada, followed by Jamie Frink, and then Gretchen Brugman. I cruised the downhill section to the triple intersection aid station, checked in and started down the wrong road. “Number 3! Come back! Come back! This way!” Thank goodness the volunteers were watching!
The course went straight up a hill that followed a pipeline – we actually ran on the mostly buried pipe. It was quite steep, and at the top I tripped again and went down in some sort of heap, my right calf seizing up. More swearing, some sitting and waiting for it relax, and gingerly I set off on the sketchy downhill to a dirt road. I could see Peter’s red shorts in front of me and occasionally I would sneak a peek back to see if the ladies were there. I kept reminding myself “this is about Western States. Keep it real. Don’t blow up or do anything stupid. You’re not here to win.” And then the devil on the other shoulder would pipe in with “hey, you’re under 11 minute pace so far, you’ve done the most of the climbing, if you keep this up you’ll have the course record and maybe a win, but you’ll have to keep those girls off.” Of course, kicking a rock or stumbling brought me right back to playing it safe.
The next aid station was set up on a small lake, replete with families out for the day playing and fishing. After I put ice in my skirt, sports bra and back pack, I cruised along the lake, laughing when a fisherman wanted to know if they were going to give us shirts saying “We’re Crazy”.
Down a rare bit of single track, across a paved road, more single track through some aspens, back out on another paved road, and it felt like I had an elephant on my back. We were still above 8000 ft, and the road had a slight uphill grade. I watched Peter in front of me and found myself walking when he walked, and grumpily running when he ran. I was hungry, but not bonking. I downed the calories from my bottle (mostly Tailwind) and planned eating something more substantial at the aid station. Finally arriving, I saw mini Clif Bars and decided I would just have to choke one down. I had half of it in my mouth when a volunteer asked if I wanted an Ensure. Heaven! I had never even had one, but was dreaming about chocolate milk, and I generally have a strong gut. I chugged it which helped wash the Clif Bar down as well. The combination was less than excellent, but I had to have some faith it would all work out.
Back down the paved road, life was much better, and again, just a couple minutes back was Sada, looking smooth as silk, and then Jamie, and shortly after, was Gretchen. I stayed grounded and positive, and worked my way back to the lake, with a bit of a queasy ClifBarEnsure stomach that resulted in a pit stop. Literally much relieved, I was now good to go!
Diffuse cloudy skies had dominated the morning, much to the runners relief, but it was now starting to open up. One volunteer encouraged me along stating “someone pushed the heat button!” He was right. I really started dousing now – face, head, neck – and let the shade attachment of my hat down. I was still above 8000 ft at mile 32 and starting to really want to get down, as I was feeling somewhat nauseous from it. Still cruising well on the downhill sections, but shuffling the ups, I did put some space on the gals. Back at the triple aid station, the volunteers said “you’re on your way home now!” Up and over a little nob, and I thought – yeah, some downhill! But it was still rolling to flat, and still 8000 ft. I expected to be caught at any moment and promised to not give chase when it happened. Through the aspens again, and finally I hit the descent. My quads were golden. Cruising now, I could see Peter once more, and as the miles clicked off and the elevation lowered, I got closer and closer. We finally ended up running together, and it made those miles glide by. What I was really looking forward to was mile 46, where I would pick up Mark. I love having a pacer whenever it is allowed, and well, I’m a little bit fond of this guy. I had predicted that I would arrive around 2:25 if I could maintain 11 minute pace, and I was perhaps 5 minutes early. He was ready to go, and for the next couple of downhill miles, I debriefed him on how I was doing and what was working. At the next aid station, we went on what was the most brutal section of the course – an out and back that only the 100k runners were privy to – all other distances were denied this delight.
Uphill into a headwind we ran until I needed to walk, doused often, and tried to stay on solid rather than sandy footing. Peter had left the aid station ahead of us, so we could see the turns and climbs we had to make by watching him. For such a little blip on the topo map, the climb was hellacious. Every turn in the road I expected to see the last aid station, but it was several turns and climbs before we finally cruised down to it. It was baking hot, I sponged off completely, loaded the skirt and sports bra with ice for the millionth time. Mark made sure I ate and found another Ensure which I downed rapidly. From there it was 1.8 miles to the final turn around, where we would prove our completion of this section by picking up a poker chip to bring to the finish line. The descent portion was actually feeling good, but every little climb had me walking until I got annoyed with how long it took to get anywhere walking, and I would shuffle. Mark followed my cues, and gave me reminders to drink and douse. We saw Peter get to the turn around and with that visual I mustered up some mojo, finally getting my chip. The 1.8 miles back to the aid station would be slow, but we did get to see a large golden snake slither across the trail, and then met Jamie about 10 minutes from the turn around. We had a quick supportive hug, and she yelled “I’m so ready for beer!”
Mark and I continued the slog out, finding few runnable sections, eventually getting back to the aid station. Now with only 5 miles to go, I was smelling the beer barn.We hiked out hard, and hit the downhill fast, and eventually caught Peter, much to his chagrin. “Meghan – you’re a machine!” I threw in a few jogging steps to get around him, we exchanged supportive words, and again flew down some wind aided sections. I was making my “end of the race” noises – grunting and groaning, and assured Mark that those are normal for me. Before he had agreed to pace me, he asked me to promise that if I could drop him, I would. I didn’t think I would be able to, but with 2 miles to go, his allergies got the best of him, causing him to slow. “Take it home, Meghan!” I kept rolling, yelling back “only 2 miles!” I blew by the last aid station, running hard when I could, and slowing down when the terrain flattened or got very sandy. Back on solid ground I clipped into the finish in 11:11, a new course record by 20+ minutes. I was greeted by several friends, including Sada, who had taken the 50 mile option as the heat had taken a toll on her – it’s pretty hard to run in such hot weather when you live in snow-laden Idaho all winter. Mark made it in soon, and RD Tim ladened me with way too many awards.
Quite a spectacular event in the scenery, volunteers, and course layout – it wasn’t about the trail here – it was about the backdrop.
Thanks to all the volunteers and RD Tim for putting on a great event, to Elke, Chloe, and Steve for driving me to Bishop, to Jeff and Margo for opening their home to me, and to Mark for driving all the way over to “take a test”. He passed. Looking forward to Western States! Thanks especially to Injinji socks and Scott Sports for their continued and awesome support!