Saturday, July 2, 2011

Western States: The Blog Post

Hello all and welcome back!  It's been a crazy couple of weeks, but I think we're finally starting to get resettled here in Alexandria, which means it's time for my Western States blog update!
A lot can happen in two weeks, so I'm going to break things down a bit to make them more manageable.  First I'll talk about our pre-race adventures, followed by the race itself, and finally the few days post-WS.  So, without further ado...

Pre-Race:
John, Jack and I departed for San Francisco on Saturday morning, unwittingly beginning what John has since dubbed "The Most Challenging Day of Parenting Ever."  Jack, who up until now has been a champion traveler, decided to whine, kick, bite, and occasionally scream for our entire first flight of approximately four and a half hours.  We walked on to the plane a relatively serene and tidy family, and left with both John and I wild-eyed and trembling, our hair and clothing askew, our nerves shattered.  Jack, on the other hand, fell asleep the moment we set him into the stroller to walk to our next flight.  About half an hour later, when we boarded our second flight, Jack's eyes sprang open and thus ensued another two and a half hours of torture.  At some point during the second flight, around the time that Jack let out a blood-curdling scream for no apparent reason, John and I looked at each other in horror.  "It's happened," I said, choking back tears.  "We have finally become those parents."

Fortunately, rest and relaxation (and the eager arms of Grandma) were awaiting us in Half Moon Bay.  We spent three full days there, stuffing ourselves with Patti's cooking and taking giant gulps of crisp ocean air blessedly devoid of humidity and mosquitoes.  John did a few "easy" runs (meaning I could just about keep up with him) and Jack played with Dasher and Capone to his heart's content, occasionally poking one of them in the eye while gleefully declaring, "Eye!"

A lovely, if not exactly stroller-friendly, hike near the ocean.
Jack, whose love of the ocean becomes more apparent every time we visit, got to enjoy the sand between his toes again at Maverick's. 

Just what Mama loves to see - lots of sharp and slimy things for Jack to play with. And eat!
We had a fun visit with some old friends, ate at John's favorite restaurants, and discovered some extremely delicious (and highly addictive) peanut-butter chocolate malt balls.  (Anyone noticing a trend here? Apparently I also needed to load up on calories prior to Western States...)
After several days of allowing Jack to settle into his new surroundings, John and I left on Wednesday morning for Squaw Valley.  It should be noted that this was the first time John and I have left Jack for any significant period of time, and the first time I have ever been away from Jack for more than 24 hours.

It was AWESOME.

Of course it helped that we were leaving Jack in the very capable hands of Grandma Patti and Uncle Mike, and that we were preoccupied with all kinds of race stuff.  I missed Jack a lot, especially when I saw other munchkins, but it would have been nearly impossible to do the race with Jack in tow (I think the flights out pretty much erased any lingering doubts we may have had on that front).  Suffice it to say, I think we all enjoyed our time apart, but were extremely happy to be reunited at the end.

John and I stopped in Davis for sandwiches from one of our favorite restaurants from back in our college days, Zia's Deli.  I'm happy to say not much has changed in Davis in the ten years since I went there, including Zia's sandwiches.  We stopped again in Auburn for race supplies (coconut water, baby food for John, sadly no more peanut butter chocolate malt balls) and arrived in Squaw in the late afternoon.  After checking in, John and I headed straight for the bar and enjoyed a large glass of wine by the pool at our hotel, Plumpjack, and commented on the graciousness of the resort in naming itself after our son.

Sunday morning we feasted on the buffet breakfast, including the granola that John had been raving about for months, literally (I'm happy to say it lived up to the hype), and headed into Reno to pick up two of our crew members, Mike and Alexis, who flew in all the way from Alexandria to help.  Yes, they're pretty much the most awesome friends ever.  We grabbed lunch in Truckee at Burger Me, then headed back to the hotel for a brief question and answer session for crew members.  John wanted to take a quick hike up the trail where Western States starts, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to work off the granola, yogurt, scone, sticky bun, eggs, and toast I'd had for breakfast (not to mention the burger and fries I'd polished off at lunch). About an hour later, Alexis and I caught up to Mike and John two miles or so up the trail.

John: "Isn't it just beautiful up here?"  Me: "Can't...breathe...Air...too...thin...."
 Seriously, I have no idea how they walk so fast.  The first three miles of Western States goes straight up hill, taking runners from about 5,000 feet of elevation to over 8,000 feet.  This year, the course had to be altered to account for the vast amounts of snow the Tahoe region received, but even still, the runners had to contend with ten miles of snow on the course.  As I wheezed my way over to Mike and John, I became convinced that hill was put there just to rub it in my face that I will never in my life compete in an ultra ANYTHING, let alone 100 miles.  The snow did look inviting, however, so I plodded in first, followed shortly by Mike and Alexis, who started an impromptu snowball fight that I wisely stayed clear of.  Meanwhile, John looked out over the vast expanse of snow and mountains, no doubt kicking himself for ever signing up for such a ridiculous race.  No wait, that was me.  John was wondering what the hell he'd been thinking asking Alexis and me to crew for him.

Alexis takes aim...at her husband.
 Another hour later, when Alexis and I had finally made it back down the hill, we went to dinner in Tahoe City and returned to the hotel for a brief with John's coach and several other runners.  I did my best to look like I was paying attention for a good thirty minutes.  Woo hoo!  Friday morning we ate more granola, scones (chocolate chip this time - yum!), eggs, potatoes, toast, etc. and attended the pre-race check-in session with John. 

John, Mike and Peter at the Vespa booth
Alexis and I scored free T-shirts while Mike helped someone do something useful and John filled out paperwork (you're starting to get how this whole crewing thing works, right?).  When that was finally over (sheesh, you'd think we were there for a race or something), we drove up to see John's godfather in Tahoe.  As luck would have it, Uncle Ray has an awesome condo on the lake, and we got to spend an hour basking on the beach.  I think it's safe to say that was my favorite hour of the trip.  I kid, I kid.  Obviously John finishing the race was the best part.  Duh.  (Did I mention they had cabana boys and lounge-side service?)

Yeah, I'm pretty freaking happy.


Friday afternoon we made our crew T-shirts (those free shirts at the pre-race expo came in handy!  See, Alexis and I were helpful!) while John got organized and went over his final plan.  We'd had to make some adjustments when the course changed just a week prior to the race.  Due to the snow, the first place crews could access their runners was at mile 55, as opposed to 23 in "normal" years.  John would have to rely on aid stations and drop bags in the first half of the race, and we wouldn't get a chance to see him until sometime around 2:30 p.m.  I think I was more concerned about this than anyone (another trend forms), but John was his usual calm and collected self.  We ate another fabulous meal at the hotel and turned in early.  Western States check-in started at 4 a.m. sharp.

Eating.  Again.
Race Day:
At 3:30 a.m. John and Mike got up (which pretty much meant that Alexis and I were up too) and got dressed before heading down for John's pre-race medical check and weigh-in.  He came back to the room at 4, and we stood around nervously until about 4:45 when we walked down to the starting line (luckily only about 500 feet from our hotel).  It was pitch black and freezing cold, but there were still quite a few people there to cheer on their runners.  Once John walked into the crowd at the starting line, we didn't see him again (Not that we could discern, anyway.  These ultrarunners all tend to look alike, aside from varying degrees of facial hair growth.  At some point I described John to a woman as a skinny guy with a shaved head.  She looked at me like I was insane.)  A few minutes later the shotgun went off, and at 5:00 a.m., the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race was on!

About thirty seconds later most of the runners were walking.  Remember the giant hill?

On that note, Mike, Alexis and I returned to our hotel room for a little extra sleep, ate breakfast and checked out at nine, then headed towards the first crew check point nearly three hours away.  We stopped to pick up extra supplies (the folding chairs and umbrella I'd stupidly forgot to pick up in Half Moon Bay - you'd think after standing in the sun for most of Vermont I'd have learned a thing or two - as well as lunch for the crew).  Then we began a quest to find fudge almost as epic as Western States itself.

At some point during his running career, John decided that fudge is the perfect ultra food.  Unfortunately, we forgot to look for fudge before getting to Tahoe, and despite the presence of several candy and chocolate shops, fudge was nowhere to be found.  At the grocery store I bought the closest thing, fudge brownies (I was pretty sure someone - meaning me - would eat them if John didn't), and we headed to three more candy stores before finally finding "fudge" at our fourth stop.  For some reason, everything in this particular candy store was covered in chocolate, including the fudge.  Later in the day, when I chipped away at the chocolate coating, praying to find something akin to fudge underneath, all I found was more chocolate.  Crap.

Fudgeless - but wearing a damn cute shirt - at Michigan Bluff.
However, John's faithful crew carried on admirably, arriving at the first crew access point, Michigan Bluff, early enough to score a great parking spot.  We took the shuttle down to the aid station, plunked down our chairs, and waited.  And waited.  And waited. 

Fabulous chairs to go with our fabulous shirts.

Finally, about two hours later, John pulled into Michigan Bluff.  Unfortunately, he was looking less than thrilled.  Turns out the singular drop bag John had dropped off on Friday hadn't made it to the mile 31 aid station, which meant John didn't have the Vespa supplement he takes.  I'm not going to go into a big spiel on Vespa, but essentially it allows you to consume fewer calories during endurance exercise by metabolizing fat stores.  Because John doesn't eat a lot during races while using Vespa, it's extremely important that he consume it at regular intervals.  The Vespa was in his drop bag.  By the time John came into mile 55, he had already bonked twice.

Ready for our runner!  John was #339, and we called ourselves Team HAPpy Trails in honor of John's dad, Hap.


We did our best to patch John up, gave him fresh water bottles as well as GU, Vespa, the baby food he likes to eat while running (those little squisher things I feed to Jack apparently make for great ultra food; I'll take John's word on that one), a wet bandana and hat, sprayed him with sunscreen, and sent him on his way.  The next aid station, Forest Hill, was only 6 miles away.  We packed up, got back in the car, and headed straight for Forest Hill.  The rest of John's crew - ie John's good friend Nathan - was waiting for us, along with my best friend Kim, who grew up in Forest Hill.  It was so fun seeing Kim there, and it was Kim's first chance to see John running an ultra.  She was so moved by the whole thing she was actually tearing up.  I was trying not to go crazy waiting for John. 

John and Peter coming down the road at Forest Hill.
John finally passed through the aid station about thirty minutes behind his projected time, which wasn't too shabby considering the shape he'd been in at Michigan Bluff.  After we did a quick sock and shoe change, got John in his water pack, and refilled his supplies, he and Mike (who was pacing John through mile 80) were off down the road.  When I offered John some of the "fudge," he took one look at it, said "Yuck!" and never asked for it again.  Hmph.

Just a little side note here, folks.  As you can see, ultra races aren't exactly a spectator sport.  You get to see your runner at 5-10 aid stations throughout a course, usually for a few minutes at a time.  The rest of the race is generally off in the mountains or in some other inaccessible location.  It's a whole lot of hurry up and wait at ultras, which is why it's so important to have at least two people crewing for you (and I'm talking about for the sake of the crew here, not just the runner).  It's a stressful endeavor with very little pay off.  Having good friends around helps significantly.
 
Our next crew stop was at mile 80, where Nathan would trade places with Mike.  We said our goodbyes to Kimmy, packed up the car, and headed towards Green Gate.  Once we parked, we had to take a shuttle ride to the crew drop-off point about two miles uphill from the aid station.  As we were walking down the fairly steep hill, we passed a few people whose runners had already come through.  They didn't say much, but their eyes said "BEWARE.  You are nowhere near the bottom.  And you still have to come back UP this hill later."  We trudged along with our cooler and chairs and finally made it to Green Gate, just on the other side of the race's major river crossing (this year involving rafts, due to huge amounts of snow runoff).  We unpacked our gear, sprayed massive quantities of bug spray on ourselves, and settled down to wait. And wait.  And wait. 

Nathan, me, and Alexis's spread: "Special deal for the pretty lady. Very nice, very nice. You like?"  And yes, I look twelve.
Finally, John came up the hill to the station.  Alas, Mike was not with him.  John assured us he was just a quarter mile down the course, so Nathan and John headed out after a quick refueling.  Mike showed up not long after, but it was clear he was hurting.  He'd been so busy looking after John that he'd forgotten to take his own salt tablets, which are crucial during the heat of the day (we're talking 90 degrees here, in the blazing sun).  Alexis and I didn't want to tell him about the massive two-mile trek awaiting him, but we set off soon enough, Alexis interjecting with a chipper "Just around the corner" every so often.  Unfortunately, it was never just around the corner.  Somehow the hill had morphed into the longest hill ever in existence while we were at the bottom of Green Gate.  I secretly relished every rest stop we took, all the while cursing Nathan for leaving me with his inexplicably heavy backpack and the 30-year-old cooler we'd found in John's mom's garage that was awkward to carry and remarkably weighty for its dainty size.  We finally crested the mountain... er, hill, waved down the shuttle bus, and crammed ourselves into the back row of a bus-turned-sauna.  Let's just say it was crowded, stuffy, and ... malodorous ... in the back of that van.

Our next stop was mile 93, which required another drive and shuttle ride.  We stood in the dark with a bunch of other crews, most of whose runners were very close in pace to John.  We hadn't had time to get dinner (it was around 9 p.m. at this point) so we drank some of the instant hot chocolate provided for the crews and stomped our feet to keep warm.  John and Nathan flew through the aid station, both looking well aside from a nasty gash on John's right shoulder.  I offered John a water bottle, but he was getting a mite testy at this point.  Apparently he wanted to drink the water from the bottle but not take it with him?  In my defense, I'm not sure he was entirely coherent at this stage, but I was clearly missing some crucial piece of information.  At any rate, John grabbed his last few supplies and headed into the dark.  I promised to meet him at mile 98.9.

The only decent shot of John running. (Photo courtesy of Gary D. Avey)
Alexis, Mike, and I got back on the shuttle, loaded into the car, and drove to Auburn High School, where Western States finishes.  Mike and Alexis decided to wait at the finish for John, so I bravely strapped on a head lamp for the first time, asked someone for directions ("Just follow the orange footsteps," a girl told me) and headed into the dark.  Let me tell you, even with a headlamp, those orange footsteps were incredibly difficult to see.  Before long I had been swallowed by darkness.  It was also utterly silent, aside from the two or three runners who passed me on their way to the finish line.  All I could see of them were headlamps shining in the dark.  At some point I heard a wolf rustle in the brush (okay, fine, it may have been a squirrel) and I decided to pick up the pace.  At mile 99 a house loomed up out of the darkness, surrounded by a crowd of drunk people waving their red cups in the air.  It was like stumbling on a frat party in the middle of nowhere.  A guy stopped me and asked me if I'd just run 100 miles.  I decided not to remark on the implied insult there, but instead politely told him, "No, I'm running to meet my husband.  Am I going the right way?"  His friend nodded, while the other guy, who I had just noticed was holding a camera, said, "Probably.  But who cares?  Take a picture with my friend."  I'm not sure why anyone would want a photo of a stranger who had just run less than a mile, but the whole thing was so surreal, who was I to argue?  Somewhere out there some random guy has a photo of me around mile 99.  Anyway, I said goodbye and headed back into the dark, eventually finding my way to mile 98.9, Robie Point.

Another bizarre scene awaited me at Robie point, where an aid station sat at the dead-end of a street.  Several tents were set up, trimmed with Christmas lights, and a group of people sat around talking and laughing.  Eventually a nice man came over to me and asked me who my runner was and offered to track him on their computer, but the tracking was so far behind that it didn't have John checked in at the last check point.  I gratefully accepted a cup of water and waited for John.  About thirty minutes later, John emerged from the darkness, moving startlingly quickly.  "Let's go!" he said, before I'd even had a chance to say hello.  I handed my cup to a stranger, thanked them, and charged after John.  "Where's Nathan?" I asked, a little concerned.  (John is starting to develop a bad habit of dropping his pacers.  He dropped his brother, Mike, in the middle of the night at Vermont.  The poor guy didn't even have a headlamp.  At least we'd learned from that mistake.) "He's right behind me," John said.  He was going so fast I could barely keep up, and his breathing was disturbingly rapid.  "Are you alright?" I asked.  "No serious damage," he said between breaths.  I decided that was good enough, and that there was no way I wasn't keeping up with my husband after he'd run 99 miles.  But I'm not going to lie.  It was an effort. 

When the stadium finally came into sight, John sped up again, and we hit the track at what felt like a pretty good clip.  Running that last 200 meters with John was incredible, and I finally got a tiny taste of what it must feel like to accomplish something so amazing.  We crossed the finish line together at 19:30:30, only 30 minutes off of John's goal time. 

Mike, John, and Nathan (who got a little lost in the dark but finally found us!).
John was immediately weighed and taken to medical, where they took a frustratingly long time patching up the significant slash in his shoulder.  Only one person was allowed into medical, so Mike, a former EMT, went with him.  But from where I was standing, I could see that John wasn't faring so well.  I made eye contact with one of the medics and told him John needed food and a blanket, and they quickly finished up so I could get John into some warmer clothes.  Then I ran over to the food tent and asked for John's requested meal: a grilled cheese sandwich.

While I was waiting for the sandwich, an older man with long gray hair and a beard turned to me and asked me if I'd just run.  I explained that I'd ran the last mile with my husband and, kind soul that he was, he seemed genuinely impressed with my effort.  It was clear he'd run the race, given his outfit and the number 00 on his shorts, but before I had a chance to ask him how he'd done, he informed me that he hadn't finished.  "But," he said, "I've done it 13 times in the past, so it's okay."  When he turned around, I wasn't surprised to see the name "Cowman" written on the back of his shirt.  It had taken me a few minutes, but partway into our conversation, I had a feeling I was talking to the infamous Cowman A MooHa, the second man ever to run the Western States course, in 1976.  It seemed a fitting ending to a long and, I have to say it, epic day.

Post Race:
On Sunday, after a much-needed shower and a good night's sleep, as well as a grotesque amount of food at the Cheesecake Factory, we headed to the awards ceremony.  John was absolutely beaming when he received his sterling silver Western States "100 Miles, One Day" belt buckle.  We piled back into the car, then drove towards Half Moon Bay, stopping only once in Davis, for a much-deserved Blizzard.

The faithful crew and our runner.
Mike and Alexis spent the night in Half Moon Bay with us, then left early Monday morning.  John and I spent one last lovely day in HMB, savoring the cool temperatures and Patti's cooking for as long as possible.  On Tuesday morning we headed back to SFO, bracing ourselves for what would undoubtedly be another long and painful venture. 

I think it's pretty clear what Jack thinks of the whole "ultra running" thing.
About midway through the first flight, while Jack was putting on a show even more horrifying than his display on the trip out, I looked over at John, whose face was contorted in misery.  "I don't get it," I said.  "You just ran 100 miles.  You should be able to handle this no problem."  John looked at me earnestly and replied, "I have to admit, this is actually harder than running 100 miles."

And there you have it folks.  I've never run 100 miles, but I've dealt with a cranky toddler for countless hours all alone.  I may not have a belt buckle to show for it, but I am arguably just as tough as my ultra-running husband (John basically admitted it.  Okay, maybe not in so many words, but still...).

Maybe I have it in me to run an ultra one day after all.  For now, I'm the proudest Western States Widow around, and incredibly grateful for all the support from friends and family over the past six months.  Thanks especially to Kim, Nathan, and most of all, Mike and Alexis.  We couldn't have done this without you guys!


1 comment:

Expat Elizabeth said...

I love how much of your post is about food! It's an awesome write-up, and it sounds like an amazing experience (which I shall enjoy strictly vicariously)