Western States 2016
It’s not about the buckle. It’s not about placing high, although it does play into my motivation. Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run is about adventure, desire, beauty, athleticism, history, people, shared experiences. Community, life style. Integrity. Discipline. Courage. Cougars.
My own history is current. Nine sub-24 hour finishes, 8 of them top 10, missing it my ninth, but with the policy of allowing a nine time finisher in, I was allowed to toe the line for the 2016 version.
I’m riding this wave of Old School Ultras meets New Fast Runners, fast runners with high hopes and expectations. Hopes for sponsorships, dollars, gear, notoriety. Expectations of victories, accolades, publicity. Social media definitely plays a role in this sport, but then, what doesn’t social media, good or bad, contribute to?
Strip it down though, to what this event means to me. I moved to Cool, California, 2 and a half years ago to be close to the course. El Dorado county is probably not really viewed as a panacea for a lot of folks. It is dry, hilly, no real arable soil, but it is blessed with part of the Western States course. Back in the gold rush days, it was the place to be. Now, living here often means a somewhat tedious and twisty drive across the American River canyon to get to work or Costco, lack of many conveniences, no real “town”. But I live at the end of a gravel road with 2 donkeys and 3 goats and don’t have to drive to work – pretty good set up. I’m a farm girl at heart with little need for city life, so it suits me well.
I’m not wanting to paint some romantic picture of my life, and I don’t like drama. I just want to set the stage for what my 10th Western States meant to me, and how it played out.
In 2014 and 2015 I had some good struggles. I managed to get through both years with minor injuries, that none-the-less had an impact on my finish. I was a leaner both years. Not pretty. I was fortunate to finish as well as I did. This year was different. Starting in January, I trained with a heavy pack in preparation for Marathon des Sables. I very gradually increased both mileage and the weight of the pack, peaking at 195 miles in 8 days, many of those miles with a pack of 12-17 lbs. Yeah, I was one of those folks making fun of people for training with heavy packs or dragging a tire around – until I started using a heavy pack and reaping some pretty good rewards. I got stronger and healthier all through the winter. Marathon des Sables was completed, and I had a good two months to get myself together for my favorite race. I had more time on the trails with Tim “Twiet the Grey” Tweitmeyer, and hung on his words more than once – especially these “There isn’t a prize for being the first one to Foresthill!”
My plan this year was to run like a veteran. Not try to hit splits. Not become dependent on the watch. Feed myself adequately. Stay cool. Ignore everyone else. Not rush though aid stations. Receive information on the runners ahead of me, but only to keep track of where I am. My crew was seasoned – Andrea Thorpe has crewed and paced me 3 years and my boyfriend Mark Laws has crewed 2 years and paced one. They both sacrifice a lot to bring me to my best, and I always tell them before the race “If you decide you have something better to do than hurry up and wait – I understand. If you don’t show up, I’ll be okay. This race takes care of its runners like few other races do.” But they want to be a part of my story, and I am grateful for their generosity and their belief in me.
At 5:00 am, Saturday, June 25th, I jogged out at the start with my very good friend and often times training partner, Matt “Princess” Keyes. He, too, is on the line for his 1oth finish. We have been in everyone of these races together. His words to me over the past month were often “Let’s run like we’re veterans!” And so it began.
Climbing up to the Escarpment is usually one of, if not always, the hardest parts of the race. Trudging the steep climb up to nearly 9000 feet, seeing pony tails bouncing ahead of me, and gasping for breath, I generally suffer the whole 4 miles. But this morning – I felt grand. I jogged easily, my breathing was good, and I was actually up with some of the favored women, much to my surprise. I chatted with Caroline Boller, Chaz Sheya, Nicole Kalogeropoulos and ignored my watch. Finally summiting to the cheers of the hearty fans whom had made the early morning trek, I was pleasantly surprised to be fairly isolated, enabling me to relax into the downhill single track at my own pace.
The high country is challenging at many levels. Altitude, undulating terrain, rocks and roots, streams. I ran my own pace, allowing Nicole, Caroline and Sally McRae to ease by me by mile 10. At the aid station I peeked at my watch, and wasn’t disappointed or excited. It was just a reasonable time. Craig was there – and I happily told him that I was feeling great – The best I had ever felt up here. Off I went, one step at a time, keeping my effort in check. Up, down, around, stepping carefully in the sections of loose, large rocks, with the goal of staying upright. I have a propensity for falling, and one of my lofty goals was to not fall down. Just in case, I slapped some K-tape over my knees pre-race, as an extra layer of skin.
Somewhere around mile 13, I caught up to a walking runner, holding her hydration pack in a dejected manner. It was Magda Boulet, my favorite for the win going in. I stopped, asked her what was going on. Sadly, she was fighting a fever and some dizziness. She had been sick the week before and unable to shake it off, was calling it a day. If I’ve learned anything about racing, it is that no matter who shows up at a race, no matter what their race season has been, their Strava times, and popular polls, anything can and usually does happen. I was very sad for Magda as she is a gracious and talented competitor.
Arriving into Red Star Ridge aid station I grabbed 2 gels, filled bottles, and hustled out. Again, my split was fine – not stellar, but not far off my best. As I ran out I met and ran with a man from Minnesota who’s mother had run in the race back in the 80s – sadly she had passed from ALS, but he was carrying the tradition on.
We ran together all the way into Duncan aid station where I was greeted by Andrea, ready with a cold bandana, chocolate milk, and a fresh vest with gels and beverages. She updated me with the race – Andrew Miller, a 20 year old young man I have known since he began running ultras in Corvallis more than 5 years ago – was in 5th place. Wow! I thought he would be in the top 10 by the end of the day, but not this high up so soon. She thought I was in 15th place for the women, which was higher than I expected, so with those positive bits of info, I hit the trail to Duncan Canyon, feeling light and strong. My Minnesota friend was right behind me, and as I cruised down to Duncan Creek, it happened – I caught a toe and nearly splayed out, but luckily, scraped my hands and my taped up knees only. As soon as I got to the creek I did my best to wash off any blood. I would soon be seeing Mark and I didn’t want him to worry about me if I was all battered up. The water was refreshing and I found myself climbing out and up toward Robinson Flat, mile 30, with good energy and lots of joy. Near the top, I caught and passed Sally, and we chatted briefly about how long the climb was.
I ambled in, and one of my coachees, Allison, was there, running along side, asking if I needed anything. I was going straight to Mark who had all I needed – a fresh pack with ice in the back, some cool water for dousing, and words of encouragement. He thought I was in 12th at this point. Cool! I ran out, following a runner eating a piece of pizza. I admired his ability to ingest something so complicated. I passed him, and was soon very much alone climbing up Little Bald Mountain. I had never been so isolated at this point, and was grateful for knowing the course.
After summiting, the descending that is trademark for this race began. My legs felt good, but my antenna for keeping upright were in full force since I had taken the one spill. “Pick up your feet! Stay focused!” went over and over in my mind. It wasn’t entirely comfortable or relaxed, but if there anything I hate more than falling, it is falling in short succession and re-wounding fresh wounds. Thankfully I made it to Miller’s Defeat aid station with no mishaps, and learned that there were 2 women not that far ahead. On I went, keeping to my own pace, and seeing no one all the way to Dusty Corners, mile 38, where Andrea was there ready with a fresh pack. I grabbed a bit of banana from the aid station, put on the new pack that had about 5 pounds of ice, made sure I was wet all over, and headed out to Pucker Point trail.
This trail is another low section for me. It is very runnable, slightly downhill at the beginning, but then rather flat. And I was so alone – no one behind, no one ahead. At times I wondered if I had passed certain landmarks and spaced them out, but then disappointedly, I hadn’t. As I finally popped off the trail, hit the road into Last Chance, I was relieved to have made it through, as if I thought it was ever really in question.
At Last Chance, Craig was there again. He asked how I was doing, and again, I happily reported that I felt great. He let me know there was some mental carnage going on not that far ahead. With that fuel, I got as wet as possible, grabbed some gels, had my bottles refilled, and headed out. Sure enough, I spotted a couple of women ahead of me, got a shot of adrenaline, and began reeling them in. There was a particular descent – The Precipitous Trail – coming up that I love to sail down, and I wanted to have a clear run at it. On my way I caught a headphone wearing male, who once he was aware of me, picked up his pace. Soon he and I passed the first female, then got right on the heels of Amanda Basham, at the top of the narrow trail. We were undoubtedly annoyingly close to her, when I finally said “I know it isn’t convenient, but when there is an opportunity I would like to pass.” At the next sharp switch back, she pulled over, and we passed by. I quickly opened up my stride, and at the same time, stayed vigilant, avoiding tripping and falling best I could. Reaching the Swinging Bridge intact was a small victory. Climbing up to the Devil’s Thumb aid station was my next challenge. It is the steepest climb we face, so I relaxed, found myself alone on the nearly 2 mile hike, and was greeted by friends who volunteer at the aid station. I was taken care of quickly and well, with calories and fluids, and good dousing with a sponge. I came in at 10th, and left in 9th, as Jodee Adams-Moore was trying to get cooled down.
Next up was my favorite descent – the long, runnable descent to El Dorado Creek. With my antenna up for any tripping rocks and roots, I was more tentative than I liked. A bit herky-jerky. My legs felt a bit used from the overly aggressive descent to Swinging Bridge. About half way down, a heard steps behind. I made a move to let her by, but she insisted that she needed to slow down. It was Jodee. She was still struggling with the heat, and upon reaching the El Dorado Creek aid station she asked if she could go below the bridge and get in. I was keeping cool with dousing my arms, head, neck, at the first hint of overheating. Volunteers put more ice in my pack, and after a big drink of Coke, I was on my way to Michigan Bluff.
Surprisingly, my legs were feeling good on the climb. In a bit, another set of footsteps, belonging to Amanda, came up behind me. “Well done! Good recovery!” We conversed for a bit – she wasn’t expecting such long climbs and descents, and was trying to stay in control and not get carried away with the runners ahead. I let her go around me and watched her strongly pull away. I didn’t try to stay with her, as I knew how much distance and time was left, but as we got closer to the top, I had closed the gap. We ran into Michigan Bluff, passing a fading Aliza LaPierre. Mark was near the aid station, flagging me down. He encouraged me to get sponged off, then jogged me over to where he had my fresh bottles, some chocolate milk, an Aleve, and told me he thought I was in 7th place. I liked the sound of that! I quickly moved on, alone again on my way to Foresthill. When I reached Volcano Canyon, one of the steepest that feels even steeper with 50+ miles on one’s legs, I was surprised that my legs had recovered from my earlier burst, and aside from letting one man pass me, I fairly flew down to Volcano Creek, waded across, enjoying the cool water on my legs. Climbing out, legs still felt strong. Emerging onto the smooth pavement of Bath Road, I was greeted by Andrea who handed me a chocolate milk. We began the slow jog up, and with her story telling of all the runners ahead, we came to the top sooner than I expected.
Cruising into Foresthill aid station is very exciting. Fans and crews cheering everyone in, the loud speaker announcing each runner. Mark’s parents waved as I went by. Andrea requested some soup for me, which I drank, then headed out to find Mark and my Dad just outside the aid station. Dad teased me “Did you break a toe?” referring to my last year’s debacle. I assured him I had not, and was feeling great. I took two fresh bottles from Mark, and Andrea and I were quickly on our way. Running down towards California Street surely elevates any runner’s spirits, no matter how tired, how sore, how dejected, or as in my case today, buoyed my already happy self even more.
Out of the hubbub and onto the quiet peacefulness of the trail, Andrea and I cruised along, chatting happily. This year, there would be no trying to push me on the climbs. I know better. There were still nearly 40 miles to go. At Cal 1 aid station, I only needed to cool off and grab a gel. I told Andrea that I was doing a good job of taking them in without looking at my watch, but she kept tabs on when they were at least being opened. Before Cal 2 aid station, we spotted a female runner – it was Nicole. She was having a pretty rough time for the moment. I gave her a quick hug as we went by, and we were soon in and out at Cal 2.
Between Cal 2 and Cal 3 aid stations starts with a steep and fast descent, with multiple switchbacks. We flew along until we hit the “7 minute hill” or “6 minute hill” or “12 minute hill” all depending on what kind of shape you’re in when you get there. It is a good long trudge that can break your heart if you don’t know what to expect. Up to here, the descent had brought us all the way down to the river, and now, we had to leave it. We did make it up in seven, then unleashed on the next couple of downhills that brought us to Cal 3.
I asked how far the next women were ahead. There were a couple that weren’t that many minutes. We got what we needed and continued on. From Cal 3 to the river crossing had several teaser climbs and descents, but eventually we made it, and in less than 3 hours from Foresthill, we were donning life vests, and hand over hand to the guidance of the volunteers in the water, we made our way to the other side. Chris Thornley was in his raft, overseeing the operation, keeping the volunteers and runners safe.
Safely on solid ground, and cooled off legs, we began the 2 mile slog up to Green Gate, where Mark would be waiting to crew and to begin his pacing duties. Jog, hike, jog, hike, take another gel, ewwwww, it was starting to get a bit nasty. Finally at the top, Mark waved us over. I took a detour into the aid station, where Allison Hernandez was pulling her second shift of the day – another testament to the devotion the volunteers have to this race. She asked me what I needed, and got me some much appreciated soup. Carrying it over to Mark, I let him switch out my bottles, put my headlamp on my head, offer me chocolate milk. Brent Hollowell of Nathan Sports was there, waiting for Maggie Guteri, so I was able to thank him for the many packs he had supplied me with for Marathon des Sables as well as Western States. And just as Mark and I were ready to depart, Monkey Boy ran in on his way to meet his runner and said “In case you want a little good news – Andrew Miller just won Western States.” Oh. My. God.
Andrew Miller. A young man whom I’ve had the privilege of running with, hopefully mentoring to some degree, and watching gradually work his way up the ranks. No meteoric rising – but a gentle and sustainable approach to the sport. I watched him run his first 50k with his mom when he was but 14 or 15 years old. I watched him win a 50 miler at the age of 16, with a bit of competition. I saw him come in 5th at Waldo when he was 17, and then win it the next year at the age of 18. He had raced his way into Western States by winning the Georgia Death Race 100 Miler, and I figured at the very least, he would be in the top 10. He comes from a good, supportive family, and I was so pleased that he won this race, and it really did buoy my spirits.
I flipped on my light, although it wasn’t needed yet. Having already fallen once, I had no pride or ego to stop me from keeping that path as visible as possible. This year, Mark actually got to see me “run” as opposed to 2 years ago when I was already leaning to the left, and his goal was to keep me from falling down for 20 miles. But it was all for naught – as suddenly BAM, I was on the ground. “Oh Meghan! Are you okay?” I bounced up and kept running. “I’m fine” I assured Mark. And the BAM! This time it was Mark on the ground. I turned around. “Are you okay?” He slowly got himself up. “I broke my light, but I’m okay!” I said “I need to keep going.. are you sure?” He assured me he would catch up. Sure enough, he was on my heels in moments, and then BAM! He went down again. “Mark – are you okay?” “Yep, I’m fine! Keep going!” What a trooper! We kept a good clip into ALT aid station where I made myself stop long enough for a good cup of soup with noodles. The gels were quite unpalatable at this point, but I knew I needed to eat. Finally, we left, and began that “short” 4.5 miles to Browns Bar. I don’t know why that section takes forever, but I tried to just keep running in limbo, never expecting to get there. About a mile in, we were passed again by Amanda, being paced by Zach Miller. We encouraged each other, and I accepted that I was in 7th place now, but hey, that is still top 10! Another mile or so and we caught up to my good friend Mark Richtman and his pacer, Wim. Mark is a stellar runner, and not only that, he is 60+ years old! He had his eye on the age group record, and was still in reach, but had taken a good tumble earlier. Right on their heels, Richtman teased back to my Mark “You said she wouldn’t catch me!” We hung together for awhile and finally I said “You’re going to have to let me by, as I am hoping I don’t get caught by another woman!” After passing them we caught Caroline Boller, who had begun to struggle since the river crossing. She was gracious and courteous as we passed. Then we caught Amanda again to put me into 5th place, and as we FINALLY reached Browns Bar, we caught one of my Auburn running buddies Dan Barger and his pacer/wife Kim. The crew at the aid station consists of many good Ashland friends, and they had me fed and watered and out in record time. I left before Dan, and with Mark on my heels, and then, yes, one more time, Mark went down, bounced up, and kept right behind me. Somehow I made it down to the Quarry road without falling.
On the wide gravel road now, we jogged along – hiking the climbs, running the flats and downs. Lights ahead, we eventually caught up to Katie DeSplinter who was pacing a male runner. At Quarry trail, we passed them, and at this point I began to feel my legs quiver a bit. Oh boy. Less than 10 miles to go, it was heel to toe now. Loose, rocky, unstable and steep, I was beginning to wobble a bit. Mark was great at keeping me going, encouraging me, complimenting me. We finally reached the top and headed into the highway 49 crossing. Andrea was there, ready with a cold chocolate milk. Oh, my, that was delicious!! Just what I needed. Meanwhile, Dan and Kim had made up the difference, and breezed in and out of the aid station before us.
Climbing out from here is treacherous, especially after 93 miles. After a stumbly and slow climb, we began to run again. The dust from the trail was remarkable, and given our cumulative falling, we began yelling back and forth to each other “rock!” “rock!” “rock!” all the while lifting our feet as high as possible, and going fairly slow so as not to fall, again.
Footsteps were approaching from behind and I thought…. could be Amanda… and sure enough, she had rallied one more time with Zach, and they flew by. Mark and I continued our tentative foot placement all the way to No Hands Bridge aid station. I needed nothing but to get across the bridge, and had Mark check back now and then to see if any headlamps were coming. Thankfully we were in the clear as we made our way up the climb to Robie Point. Andrea was there to run us in – she let us know that the next woman was only 3 minutes ahead – but 3 minutes with 1.7 miles to go might as well be 30 minutes. It seemed that 6th place was in the bag, and frankly the difference between 5th and 6th pales to the difference between 10th and 11th. It looked like a top 10 was in the works, so I didn’t go crazy. I jogged and walked up the last climb, then ran nicely down past friend Jaime who was waiting outside her house to see me go by, and finally, down onto the track, where John “Tropical John” Medinger announced “Royalty has entered the track. The Queen is in the House!” He mentioned my lovely pacers and crew, and I rounded the track to finish in 20:30 – my 3rd best time on the full course.
For the women – Kaci Licktieg had a wonderful day and win. Amy Sproston ran a stellar 2nd place, and was still on the field to congratulate me at my finish. Devon Yanko also rallied after some bad spells for a 3rd. Amanda crushed me and Canadian Alissa St Laurent to come in 4th. Following me, Bethany Patterson (7th) and Maggie Guteri (8th) ran smart all day, then Jodee, recovering from the heat came in 9th, followed by my dear friend Erika Lindland, who’s wisdom served me well, came in 10th.
I’ve claimed on numerous occasions, that I am a late bloomer. It seems to be true. Some of it athletic, some academic, some just plain old figuring life out. But I’m okay with being naive and gullible, as it appears to grant me some bonus youthfulness. Being 55 years old doesn’t seem to really mean anything, best I can tell. I do know that I will be back next year, and hope to hang on to the wisdom I’ve finally acquired, after all these years.
Many, many thanks are in order. FIRST and most important is to my person, Mark Laws. He has supported me through my training in countless ways, and did a stellar job pacing and crewing me. His dislocated rib from the first fall was a mere distraction while getting me to the finish line, and a major pain when it was over. Andrea Thorpe, for her 4th time on Cal Street, coming to the conclusion with me, that pushing me is no fun. Just run within myself, tell stories, keep some semblance of focus, and we will do just fine. Western States Endurance Run organization and volunteers – RD Craig Thornley who is my good friend and mentor, his amazing staff, and the over 1000 volunteers – make the suffering palatable. Altra running – the shoes are amazing, as well as their support of my endeavors. Injinji socks – 1 blister! Just one! And it wasn’t between my toes. Nathan – wow – so many products they have sent me to find the perfect pack for each race. UVU Racing for providing me with the awesome long sleeve shirt that kept me cool throughout the event.
I have a beautiful 10 year buckle, and now, the opportunity to run my 11th. I will be there! #seeyouinsquaw!