Friday, July 02, 2010

Western States 100: pacer's view

Like a kid in a candy store I approached the Western States 100.3 mile trail run with wide eyes.  I was completely honored to be present at the race considered as the "it" event in ultra running.  Much thanks to Shannon Farar-Grieffer for asking me to pace and making it all possible.
As I planned this blog I didn't want to bore readers with too many pre-race details.  But, honestly, some of my most memorable experiences came before the shot gun fired that had runners head out on their journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA. 

Elite runner Connie Gardner and her friend Wayne picked me up at the airport.  Once at Squaw Valley (which is not the easiest place to get to from the east coast) I was in complete and total awe of my new surroundings.  How beautiful the mountains were that were topped off with snow.  Natural rock structures lined the streets and mountains.  Trees, though sparse at this elevation, looked strong and defiant in their intent to live and grow up here.  Even the darn pine cones were enormous.  Almost packed one home to show the kids. 

I stayed at a condo in the Village with Maria Clementi (who paced elite racer Connie Gardner) and Jenny (cannot recall her last name) who was crewing for another runner.  Our view was that of the start of the race which is all up.  I decided then that I would run to the top of the mountain before I left Squaw Valley.

I had dinner with our gang as well as Jenn Shelton and her boyfriend Erik Skaggs.  Jenn would be pacing eventual second place finisher Anton Krupicka.  He is such a beautiful runner to watch.

Saturday morning I helped at the packet pickup sizing and handing out Moeben arm sleeves to participants.  I got to meet so many amazing runners, and the elite moving right along the line with the others.  Nikki Kimball was all smiles.  Meghan Arborgast, Devon Crosby-Helms came through.  The men were equally impressive.  I recall Kilian Jornet Burgada unassumingly gather his swag.  The one and only Gordy Ainsleigh(originator of the event) and I shook hands.  Representatives of Zoombie Runner and Running Warehouse were running. Neat stuff. 

Then I was off on my own adventure up the first 3.5 or 4 miles of the course (didn't wear my garmin so had to guess on the distance).  I started at the official starting line and, no joke, with 4 minutes decided to hike.  Good grief I was sucking wind.  Between starting at 6200 feet elevation and running up what usually is used as a downhill ski slope, I determined the smartest thing to do was not run.  So, as I struggled for air, I enjoyed the slowly passing landscape and captured some scenes with my blackberry phone.  I felt so lucky and alive on that mountain.  Difficult to put words to it.  The pictures don't do it justice either. 

The snow caps were melting and water was flowing everywhere creating beautiful creeks and waterfalls.  Little furry creatures (woodchucks maybe) scurried in their holes but seemed comfortable with my presence. I stopped to make conversation with a woman who turned out to be housed along with Hal Koerner.  Cool!  Most people were walking up and jogging down.  There were a couple crazy cats who ran to the top (and took my picture for me).  Mostly pacers were taking advantage of this day before the race to get in a run.

It took me about an hour to get to the top.  I considered continuing along the course but after about a quarter mile trying not to bust my butt in the sloppy snow, I turned to head back down.  Didn't want to risk getting hurt.  Took me only half the time to run back down but the loose gravel did pose it's own set of challenges.
Once down I quickly headed to the mandatory race meeting with Shannon and Tamara (also pacing).  Again, the depth of runners there this year was inspiring.  They called up the top 10 men and women.  We gave a special hoot and holler for Connie.

Race morning:  Up at 4am.  At Shannon's room by 4:30am.  Head to start and give last words of encouragement.  Count down and she's off with the other runners up Squaw Peak under the glow and guidance of a full moon.  The start was exciting and full of energy.    But, I knew I would have to settle myself back down and get some sleep to avoid being overly tired when my pacing duties took effect later that night.

Lots of details go into a race this long.  I won't bore you with too many of the details, but Tamara and I spent the day checking out and in hotels, traveling, getting our pacing bib, lining up Shannon's requests for various aid stations, keeping track online of our runner, etc...All while trying to keep my own activity level in check to make sure I can pace later.  38 miles was only a small chunk of the 100, but still a lot to cover. I wanted to be ready and rested for Shannon.

We first saw Shannon at Michigan Bluff (about 56 miles in) and she was looking great!  Complained a little of some pains, but when you've run this far something is going to hurt.  I didn't make much of it.  After weighing in and some refueling she and Tamara were off for the 6-7 mile stretch to Forest Hill where I would assume the pacing duties for the remainder of the race.

I do want to mention here how neat it was to see people coming through the aid stations.  I did get to see Alan Geraldi and his wife a few times throughout the day.  Alan and Cori were both troopers to endure a crazy weekend.  It's nice to finally meet people that I have corresponded with.

I drive to Forest Hill (which required navigating a crazy twisting road in Shannon's huge car), set up my camp and waited.  I ran into and hung out with friends Jimmy and Kate Freeman.  Jimmy had paced Gordy Ainsleigh up to FH.
I guess it was about 8:30pm or so when Shannon and Tamara come into view.  I rush over anxious to see how she is doing and to start pacing.  Shannon is smiling and Tamara said she was doing well.  After a few minutes filling up bottles we head into the darkness with headlamps and flashlights. 

Shannon's back and feet are bothering her.  She continually is adjusting her waist pack with no relieve.  But, despite that, she pretty much hauls butt on the downhill start of my leg.  We run on a narrow dirt path and have to watch our footing. 

The most memorable part I ran was also the most terrifying.  Long stretches of the course paralleled the American River.  It was dark and although the moon was full it was so far away and small it's contribution was dim.  The river traveled loudly way below us to the left.  The trail seemed to be wedged into the side of the mountain.  No room to rest on the right unless you wanted to lean into the uphill gradient.  I quietly prayed that if either of us fell we would do so to the right.  Falling left in a dark pit with raging waters somewhere below worried me.  I tried to look to see how far down such a fall would be, but felt dizzy trying to find something for my eyes to focus on.  There was only darkness.

The course continued to twist and turn sharply and throw us uncontrollably downhill and humble us to a slow walk on the it's steep ascents.     Everything seemed to be going fairly well until right before the river crossing.  Shannon was in some serious pain.  Her stomach and back were screaming.  She was also having problems peeing.  We get to the Rucky Chucky aid station and she is weighed.  Gained a few pounds and told she needs to up her sodium and pee. 

The crossing this year was by raft, which I had mixed feelings about.  I both wanted to have the experience of crossing this great river but at the same time was relieved that I wouldn't have soggy shoes the rest of the way.  The river was too high to cross on foot, so we were chauffeured across.  We get off the boat and are at the 78 mile mark! 

The next aid station, Green Gate, is only 1.7 miles away.  BUT it's all up.  I start to worry about Shannon.  She requests a 5 minute nap and curls up with the dusty trail and nocturnal bugs.  I flick a spider trying to mingle in her strands of hair.  Shannon couldn't care less. 

This 1.7 miles is slow going.  Shannon starts to double over in pain.  I encourage her that we have to make it to the next aid station.  I can't do much for her out here.  I am don't know how long that 1.7 miles took us (not sure when I stopped my watch), but I think it was about an hour.  We got to Green Gate around 5am.  Forty minutes to make a decision to continue or call it a day.  Heart wrenching to say the least.

She'd made it 80 miles and now the last 20 seemed insurmountable.  We had her looked at and tried a variety of things to get her pain level down.  Nothing worked.  With about 5 minutes left before the aid station closed, we talked.  Shannon has Badwater 135 in 2 weeks.  Her feet were eaten up.  The pain was not going away and could be an indication of something serious.  We opted to be smart and drop.  EMT showed up to look Shannon over, and although vitals checked okay, they recommended a trip to the hospital or doctor.

The aid station leader asked me where our crew was.  I said 'you're looking at it.' We caught a ride back to the hotel from a super nice couple who had been volunteering at the aid station.  Thank goodness for them. 

Shannon is now recovering and preparing for Badwater.  We put a sticker on the back of her car that reads "Badass Bitch" and that's the truth.  She's so tough.

I made it back home on the redeye and slept for the next day recovering from the journey.

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