Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Runner's POV: Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

Some of this may be redundant, but I thought it would be fun to share John's Western States experience in comparison to mine (ie runner vs crew-er).

(Warning: Long-Winded)
For the uninitiated, WSER is something like the Boston Marathon and World Championships of ultra-running all wrapped into one.  Like Boston, its course sections and primary challenges are well known to runners who’ve never seen them. Places like Robinson Flat, Devil’s Thumb, and Rucky Chucky are to the ultra scene what Wellesley and Heartbreak Hill are to aspirants and veterans of Boston (admittedly there’s nothing quite like running through Wellesley, but Devil’s Thumb is a 2000 foot ascent over 2 miles whereas Heartbreak is an 88 foot ascent over .4 miles…)  Both of these races earned their respective places in running lore by being the first – or nearly the first – of their kind. WSER began in 1974 when a Tevis Cup competitor’s horse went lame and he decided to complete the 100 mile endurance horse race on foot.  Gordy Ainsleigh finished the first known human powered run of the WS trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn in just shy of 24 hours, thus establishing the unofficial benchmark of the sport and the race’s motto: “100 miles, 1 Day.” The depth of competition is also unique within the United States.  Because of its history and place in the sport, WSER attracts the fastest ultra-runners from across the globe, and is also seeded with the winners of various races and race series. The rest of the field is comprised of lottery winners and athletes who enter via title sponsor slots. WSER is the seminal event on the ultra calendar, and for most of the ~400 runners toeing the line in Squaw Valley, the race of their lives and the culmination of years of training (and trying to get in).

I started taking running seriously in 2004 after a 5 year hiatus from “real” training and 3 years of the USMC standard ~20 miles / week. Ever the optimist, my goal was to someday run 100 miles in under 24 hours. I can’t pinpoint where this ambition came from; it just made sense. I vaguely recall my high school chemistry teacher, Willis McCarthy, wearing one of his many WSER silver sub-24 belt buckles and thinking that he was completely insane, but that’s now part of the appeal. Years later he has become a huge resource of ultra-running wisdom before each of my now annual 100 milers. I often get asked why I do this, and the short answer is that there is something very powerful about finding, testing, and exceeding your perceived physical, emotional, and mental limits. With each race the boundaries get pushed further and further out. Running 100 miles virtually guarantees even the best prepared elite athletes a stark reckoning with their individual weaknesses. It bears mentioning the obvious here: preparing for and running an ultra is a very selfish endeavor. It requires countless hours and days of solitude that could be spent with family. It is not unlike other addictions in many important ways. Mara, Jack – thank you. All I can say is that hopefully my running serves as an example that the limits we assume for ourselves are all too often arbitrary and there to be broken.

We arrived in Squaw Valley on Wednesday after leaving Jack with my Mom in HMB and settled into the aptly named “PlumpJack” inn -  a VMFA-323 haunt from way back and purveyors of the finest homemade granola. 3 good reasons to go back! The inn entrance sits about 500 feet from the start of the race, which is both a blessing and a curse depending on how susceptible a runner is to the sometimes negative energy that can infect pre-race venues. WS, however, proved to be the opposite. Everyone I met was so amped to be there and so supportive of their fellow runners’ buckle-hunts that it felt more like a party and less like the all too familiar size-ups at big road marathon packet pick-up expos. The pacer-crew duo of Mike and Alexis arrived on Thursday and we made an afternoon of attending a crew strategy briefing and hiking most of the way to the top of Emigrant Pass on the race course. I had previously run and built quite a bit of familiarity with the final 75 miles of the WS trail 4 weeks earlier over the Memorial Day weekend, but this was my first look at the unorthodox and daunting first 4 miles.

Friday started with more granola, and I must admit here, my first piece of bacon in over 16 years (not disappointed; maybe in myself a bit, but certainly not otherwise). Not unlike other 100s, WSER requires a pre-race medical check in conjunction with packet pickup. I was super-light, but my blood pressure and pulse were both through the roof; I attribute this to nerves and a lingering giddiness over the impressive amount of free “schwag” given to all entrants (a Mountain Hardwear backpack, Moeben arm-warmers, Moeben leg-warmers, a Moeben neck-gaiter, an Asics technical T, a cotton T, Injinji socks, and a full-zip fleece jacket – all emblazoned with WS branding). Again, that self-indulgent “look at me thing.” We made a point of getting out of race central and headed for my Uncle Ray’s place in Incline Village and planted ourselves on the nicest fully wait-staffed private beach on Lake Tahoe for a too short 2 hour interval, and then proceeded back to the (somewhat patronizingly redundant) mandatory pre-race briefing for crew, pacers, and runners. Mara, Mike, Alexis, and I huddled one last time to inventory my gear and go over the final plan for the race, and then spent the rest of the afternoon hanging around Squaw Village with the feet up. My standard pre-ultra high-protein/high fat dinner of fish, rice, and lots of butter followed. Serendipitously, there was a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir on PlumpJack CafĂ©’s wine list that shared its name with my trail shoes (Peregrine), so we obviously obliged and were not disappointed! Unsurprisingly I had some trouble getting to sleep, but still managed about 6 hours.

I woke at 3:29 – exactly 1 minute prior to the alarm – and felt remarkably well rested. Mike quickly followed and beat me out the door to hold a place in line for the second pre-race weigh in (WS instituted a race-morning weigh in to combat the practice of runners weighing in light the day before; each participant wears a wrist band with his/her pre-race weight so that medical personnel can monitor relative weight loss at multiple check points throughout the day. A 7% drop is grounds for a mandatory drop). The next hour.5 went very quickly, and before long I had worked my way to near the front of the jittery hoard of ultra-runners at the well-lit start line set to the Rolling Stones. I was concerned about bottle-necking behind slower runners prior to hitting the back-country single-track, but the 2500 feet of gain in the first 3.5 miles along wide jeep trail and ski slope mitigated any problems that weren’t wholly self-inflicted. We set out to the RD’s welcome to the “Holy Grail of ultra-running!” and within ¼ mile a group of about 20 of us split off from the front of the field. I was surprised to find the pace comfortably aerobic, and kept the leaders within about 45 seconds as we hit the snow about 3 miles into the race. The opening shots of a 100 are a relief; after 3 weeks of reduced volume and a very steep taper over the preceding 3 days, it’s a welcome return to normalcy to get the legs and lungs working again. I could have dropped a gear and maintained contact with the lead 10 or so, but for obvious reasons it seemed inadvisable. The snow started about a mile from the summit, and proved a bit easier to run on than I’d anticipated. I’ve had a bit of experience running in snow from the past two winters spent living in Northern Virginia, but that didn’t stop me from at least 5 spectacular but non-injurious falls over the 9 or so miles of crusty side hilling that WS had in store for us. One dude in front of me broke through some tell-tale pink snow into a sub-surface stream, so things could have been worse. I was totally outclassed by the downhill / snow running speed of the guys I went over the top with, and by the end of the snow section around mile 15 I had fallen back to around 40th place. This presaged my experience throughout the day: catching and passing runners on the climbs, and getting passed on the descents; definitely room for improvement there.

I had gone through all of the 60oz that I had in my pack by the mile 15 aid, so I gratefully dropped it with the volunteers there who insisted on taking it from me for a refill while I quickly grabbed a few ounces of dilute Sprite and a piece of watermelon. Unfortunately, and despite their best efforts, the FIVE people struggling with my pack managed to tie the thing into a Houdini knot without adding a drop of water. It cost me about 3 minutes un-effing the thing and finally getting it refilled. I should have cued into the fact that I was the only runner in that lead group who was wearing a hydration pack. Oh well… Miles 15-29 went smoothly as we cruised through the beautiful back country and began the gradual descent down from 8600 feet. Most of this section proved runnable and I settled into an effortless 7:45ish pace. At ~30 I went off course with an INOV8 sponsored runner from named Chris from PA who I’d fell in with for a few miles. Apparently the lead 4 guys did the same thing and went even further up the wrong trail than we did, so I feel less bad about it, but it’s annoying nonetheless. The course marking crew had slung a bunch of surveyor tape at a trail intersection, but it either fell or an animal took it down in such a way that it indicated a right turn instead of the intended left. The entire course is marked with yellow and black tape approximately (in theory) every ~100 yards, so if you’re paying attention it’s easy to determine pretty quickly if you are or are not on course.  It took us about ½ mile to realize our error. No biggie in the grand scheme; getting lost at least once is pretty standard fare for most ultra-runners and me in particular. After retracing our steps we quickly came into the much anticipated mile 31 aid station at Mosquito Ridge. Because crew access to any of the aid stations before mile 55.4 was restricted due to the immense amount of snow, most of the runners had drop bags planned for either 23.8, 31, 38 or 43 (or all 4). Mine was supposed to be at 31, and wasn’t. None of the drop bags made it to this aid station. The aid stations are plenty well stocked with food, but unfortunately I needed something very specific, and missing it had implications for me through mile 65 or so. I typically race on very few calories, and this is enabled by an great product that I use called Vespa (long story short, it’s a bio-peptide derived from the secretions of Mandarin Wasp larvae that is believed to shift the body’s energy utilization toward fat and away from stored muscle and liver glycogen during protracted exercise). In practice this means that I get by on about 200 ingested calories for 50k, and about 400 for a 50m. For the skeptical of you out there, I ran 50k and 50m PR’s this spring on 300 and 400 total calories, respectively. Take the Vespa out of the equation, however, and I’m in uncharted territory. Beware single points of failure. I had enough on me (they are about 18 calories each and a bit larger than a GU) to last through about mile 35, so I started to preempt the inevitable by  significantly upping the food intake.

I ran strong into the infamous canyons, and beat my target times for both of the major mid-race ascents of the day (2000 feet in 2 miles from Swinging Bridge to Devil’s Thumb, and 2000 feet in 2.5 miles from El Dorado Creek to Michigan Bluff). It was at this point in the race that I passed quite a number of runners who I wouldn’t see again until the next day’s awards ceremony, but I ultimately paid for it with a hard bonk that started to materialize just around the time that I saw my crew for the first time at the mile 55.4 aid. Speaking with them afterward, I apparently didn’t look too great. There’s one photo of me from a distance and it’s obvious that my form is jacked. In practiced style, Mara took my shirt and tied on my ice-cold “Cool Off” bandana, Mike handed me a Vespa, some baby food (trust me), and a chilled coconut water, and Alexis swapped my pack for a hand-bottle. I was out of the aid within the planned 3 minutes, but the next 6.6 into Forest Hill were the toughest of the day for me. I struggled to run, rehydrate, and refuel after the protracted effort up the Michigan Bluff switchbacks. My crew wore shirts with my name and number expertly painted on the front, with “IMO John J. Rutherford III” on the back. For those that don’t know, my father passed away unexpectedly at age 61 on May 5th, and I’d decided to dedicate this effort to him. He would have been there, as he’d been at literally hundreds of other bike races and ultras throughout the years, and suffice it to say that I continue to find inspiration in his example of selfless compassion and work ethic. Coming through the physical and emotional nadir of the race, and despite the immense difficulty that forward motion posed at this point, I knew that there was no way in hell I would allow myself to cease forward progress. At Angeles Crest last year I learned that I could come back from severe dehydration and caloric deficit, so I comforted myself in the knowledge that with persistence and discipline I’d get my legs back. Everything hurt, and I began to question whether I was injured or just tired (my right leg gave way on its own running up the hill out of the aid station). Lesson learned: when you’re bonking hard, most if not all the pain is metabolically induced.

I was just beginning to come around by the time I ran into the huge crowd at the Forest Hill / mile 62 aid station. Vespa purveyor, coach, sponsor, and ultra-guru Peter guided me through the medical check while Mike, Alexis, Mara, and Nathan waited for me down the road for the shoe change / re-arming / pacer pickup point. Our good friend Kim from UCD - a Forest Hill native - was also there to cheer me on (Thanks Kim!). My feet felt like they were in good shape, but I was looking forward to the comfort of dry socks and road flats for the rolling and generally runnable final 38 miles of single-track. I also took off my compression sleeves because I felt that the downside heat retention outweighed the upside of accelerated post-race recovery. The plan was for Mara to knock out the shoe change while I recharged, but as it turns out it’s actually much easier to change one’s own shoes. Somehow or other my feet had torn through both of my brand new DryMax socks (fail: don’t try new products on race day), and the trail shoes were heavy from the multiple stream crossings of the preceding miles. I threw on a singlet here, too, and re-donned the hydration pack that Alexis had stuffed with my requested supplies for the next 20. Inside of 4 minutes or so I was headed down the road with the first of my 2 pacers, Mike. Utilizing a pacer in a 100m serves a very practical purpose, but it is also a huge psychological boost. At WS, all runners are allowed a pacer from Forest Hill to the finish. The two buddies I had pacing for me knew the drill. Mike is an elite triathlete and veteran of multiple Ironmans, 100m mountain bike races, and other ridiculous adventures, and Nathan has a slew of ultra-runs under his belt and quite a bit more experience running in the dark than I do. Both understood how I was feeling and what I needed to do to take care of myself and continue pushing through to Auburn. Some runners use a single pacer, but I think having 2 for ~20 miles each worked out well. I assumed that it was going to take me about 3 hours to get from 62-80, and 4-5 to get from 80-100. These estimates were a product of both projected fatigue and the terrain as 62-80 is mostly downhill whereas 80-100 is more technical in spots, mostly uphill, and mostly in the dark. That said, the shorter duration with Mike was bound to be tougher on the pacer as it was in the heat of the day, and I intended to push.

Mike ran behind me and doggedly whipped me into maintaining my form, and kept me on a salt, broth, Coca-Cola, GU, and Vespa schedule that had me running an honest race down to the river. We run together quite a bit back in NoVA/DC, so he’s got a pretty keen sense of what I ought to look like if things are going well. This familiarity was priceless, and I don’t think that either of us will soon forget those 18 perfect miles. Picking off runners through this section on the ups was a huge lift, and from past experience and knowledge of the course I knew that my last 30 were going to be strong. We hit 3 aid stations between FH and the American River crossing at Rucky Chucky, and spent less 30 seconds to a minute in each. Coke, broth, go. The river crossing at WS is both a literal and figurative Rubicon. It’s massive, and the crossing point is between two incredible rapids (the larger of which is the name sake of this point in the race and a North Face trail shoe: Rucky Chucky). It’s a matter of conventional wisdom that if you make it across uninjured you will finish the race. The water was so high this year that rafts were set up to ferry runners either individually or in pairs. Mike and I shuffled right down to the makeshift dock with broth and Coke in hand, threw on life jackets, and were being paddled across without delay. I must have mumbled something about Vespa about mid-river because the rower chimed in and offered me one from a stash he had sitting in the bow. Talk about full-service! Peter definitely had something to do with this; in addition to being an event sponsor, he was responsible for setting up the Rucky Chucky crossing logistics (and literally hundreds of hours of other critical WS preparation services).

A challenging, too steep to run climb out of the river gorge starts immediately on the far side, and I think I surprised Mike with my complete bypass of the aid station situated there. I had been so self-absorbed for the preceding 2:45 that I failed to notice that Mike, completely focused on my well-being, wasn’t taking care of himself in terms of salt, fluid, and chow. The bonk-monster reared its head and I found myself gapping him on the road up to the planned pacer swap at the Green Gate aid station. Nathan, anxious to get going after a day of waiting, came down the road about ¾ of a mile and started his duties early. Mara and Alexis were waiting for us, and Alexis had set out all of my requested supplies in the most organized, inspection-ready, “junk on the bunk” style that I felt bad for taking hardly any of them! I ditched the pack for the last time, took a hand-bottle of Clip-2, threw on my headlamp, and followed a very fresh Nathan on down the trail to Auburn. Before long I asked him to run behind me as we were in very different, er, places, and there was no way I could maintain 8 minute miles at this point. 10, yes, 8, no.

There is something magical about miles 80-90 in a 100 for me, and I also love the revitalization that comes with the falling temperatures and different sights and sounds of dusk. This is only my third 100, but without fail this is the stretch of the race that I enjoy most. Completely in tune with my body’s requirements, remarkably comfortable, smelling the barn, and honestly a bit high (for lack of a better word), there is no place on Earth like mile 85 of a 100 that’s going well. I don’t remember exactly what Nathan and I were talking about at this point, but he did a good job of playing along with my altered mental state! Adding to the surreality of these miles were the over-the-top aid stations (the saner of us confirmed that they were, in fact, ridiculous). All I can compare them to is the ridiculous scene in “Apocalypse Now” where Martin Sheen’s patrol boat pulls into the USO Playboy Bunny light show turned riot. Wow.

I fell off the trail and partially into a ravine around mile 86 and sustained a respectable laceration on my shoulder that will definitely leave a scar. We spent an extra minute in the mile 89 aid amid blasting Doors music cleaning it out with peroxide before getting on our way, but all told this mishap didn’t cost me much. We found Mara, Alexis, and Mike at 93, and I dropped my bottle for the push to the finish. I was regrettably a bit mean to Mara here in my insistence that I didn’t need anything (sorry!). Amy Sproston and her pacer caught us (trading places all afternoon) about ½ mile out, and her pacer asked if I was John from VA. I answered in the affirmative and she said something to the effect of “your wife says hi.” All I could think was that she must be (justifiably) pissed (Mara, that is, at me)! As it turns out she wasn’t; they’d just struck up a conversation at the last aid... Phew.

The section from the Hwy 49 crossing to No Hands Bridge at 96.8 was much more runnable than I’d anticipated. At this point in the race, and truth be told from about 65 on, downhills were no longer welcome occurrences. Nathan and I made good time loping through the moondust and soon cruised through the NHB aid. I downed one last GU with a Sprite chaser and set my mind to leaving nothing on the table for the final 3 mile climb to the finish. I knew that Mara was going to meet me where the WS trail transitions to road in suburban Auburn, and I made this my motivation to time-trial to the top. I don’t know if it was the Sprite, endorphins, or adrenalin, but I felt no pain between here and the finish. I can’t remember a time when running felt more effortless. Nathan, not to be outdone by Mike, decided to let me go; we were close and his duties complete. I passed Amy one last time (she’s kicked my ass many a time), and within minutes rounded the corner onto Asphalt and a waiting Mara. I felt bad for the folks in the aid station there at mile 98.5 as I doubt many runners bothered to stop; I certainly was in no mood to delay the finish any longer. I think I surprised Mara but she got right in step as we set out together on a very fast last 1.7. There were quite a few Auburnites (drunk?) out cheering us on despite the hour, and we hammered through the streets marked by the permanent orange footprints indicating the last stretch of WS into the track at Placer High School. My finish time was generally meaningless at this point as I was well inside my “Plan B” time of 20:00 - “A” was sub-19 and top 20 overall, but I got it in my head that it would be cool to break 19:30. We entered the the stadium and hit the track at the beginning of the first straightaway for the final .2 miles to an impressive crowd, all the while watching the finish clock click right through 19:30... No big deal. It was so awesome to run the last stretch and cross the finish line with Mara. She had put so much into my preparation for WS that it was only right that we finish together. 19:30:49 chip time. Not quite up there with the leaders, but 8 hours faster than last year at Angeles Crest, 2 hours faster than my rookie go at Vermont in 2009, and 4.5 hours better than I’d hoped for when I first embarked on the WS buckle hunt in 2004. I am satisfied, but eager to test myself again; the limit is out there still waiting to be found. 33rd overall, 12th in my division.

As soon as we crossed the finish mats I got “medaled,” weighed, and ushered into a very welcome chair for a BP check. My weight was only down 2.5 lbs, and I’m not sure what my BP was, but the RN assured me that I was going to make it (I was lame and asked something along those lines). After the immediate hoopla of the finish I was led off to a tent to have my blood drawn for a research study. I haven’t checked the results yet, but it’ll be interesting to see how the heart and kidneys fared. I unfortunately disappointed a medical student who desperately wanted me to pee in a cup for his own hyponatremia study. He would have had to wait another 5 hours, and I needed first-aid, chow, and sleep! Sorry, dude.

I was completely floored to find one of my Dad’s best friends from UC Davis vet school right there waiting for me at the finish. I hadn’t seen Lane since my father’s funeral, and before that I think it had been at least 15 years. Suffice it to say I was greatly moved to see him, and it made my finish that much more emotional. We shared a few moments immediately after I delivered my father’s eulogy in May, and it all sort of came back to me in those moments after seeing Lane again at the finish. It was an honor to see this kind man track my progress all day and come out to the finish. Thanks, Lane; I am humbled and I know that my Dad would have been touched by this. Dr. John III never did anything quite like WS, but I know that he understood how much this sport - and cycling before it - meant to me. I never would have realized my own athletic, professional, or personal successes without his selflessness and unconditional support. He wasn’t there to share in the achievement of this long held goal, but it would never have been a possibility without him. That buckle is going to be an heirloom.
If you’ve read this far, thank you, and if you’re even a smidge intrigued by what it’s like to go out and test your limits, go and do it!
Happy Trails,


Anonymous said...

An amazing achievement, John. It was great to hear both your and Mara's points-of-view. I wish I could push myself physically the way you do (most days I find just walking around Paris exhausting), but you're still an inspiration!

Shauna said...

Great story. Crazy sport but really awesome! John is amazing, Mara you're amazing. I'm definitely going for a run after work now! LOL