Thursday, July 7, 2011

Western States 100 Pacing

Last year I sat at my computer late into the night watching live video feed from the Western States 100 finish line and crying my eyes out. I just knew I had to be there in 2011. With the passing of the next eleven months, I forgot how much it meant to me and it just seemed like too much work to make it happen— almost an impossibility. Then on May 23rd, at the end of our meeting, my coach asked “how about being a pacer at Western States this year?” I gazed off into the distance and quickly got excited. “Yeah,” I nodded. (Pacers are allowed at Western States for the final 38 miles of the race, from the Foresthill aid station at mile 62 to the finish.)

So many things had to come together for this to happen, and the event was just one month away. I had to find someone to pace. I didn’t want to drive to Auburn alone (I hate driving long distances alone, and driving tired scares the heck out of me). Nor did I want to spend the money to fly down. I immediately began sending out e-mails to people looking for a pacer. Unfortunately, most people never got back to me. Of the few who did, one fellow’s wife was not comfortable with him having a female pacer. Another said he’d call me after the training runs over Memorial Day weekend. He never did. Finally on June 10th, I found someone. I was so excited I could hardly sleep that night. Turns out though, he was having a problem with tendonitis. His doctor wouldn’t give him a cortisone injection, and his chances of actually making it to the starting line were slim. I received this news on June 14th. Western States was just 11 days away, and I still didn’t have anyone to pace. I kept checking the “need a pacer list” daily. Miraculously, one more person popped up on the list the following day: Melanie from Scotland whose pacer had to drop out due to a stress fracture. I sent the e-mail and got down on my knees asking God, “please let her be the one.” I knew my chances were getting slimmer by the day. A day went by with no reply. Then on the 16th, I got an e-mail back that she was relieved I would be able to pace her. She and her husband were flying to San Francisco a couple days later and she’d call me.

In the midst of searching for someone to pace, I had a really big running week (98 miles of trail) June 6th through 11th. Though my body felt good and I wasn’t sore, my inner being felt totally wiped. For the next several days I was almost painfully hungry, but not interested in food. Then I got sick. I had gotten caught in a thunderstorm on a run on the 10th, and maybe that’s why? Perhaps I ran my body down too much that week. Or maybe I would have gotten sick anyway. No matter the reason, Western States was less than two weeks away and I had a terrible cough, my nose was really stuffed up, and I had a fever for a few days. What did I do? Rest, rest, rest! I slept as much as possible. I ate as much as I could, even when food did not sound good. I ate burgers and milkshakes and macaroni and cheese just to get calories in. My body could care less about vegetables. I listened and went with it. I had been in similar situations a couple times before: a weird problem or sickness just before a race. I’ve learned I just gotta do what I can and trust that everything will turn out just fine. This time was no different. Still sick, I carried on making piles of clothing, snacks, and supplies for the trip and the run.

A couple days before leaving, I felt better, but still had an annoying cough. I had my concerns, but was committed to doing this, and nothing was going to stop me. I only managed a handful of short runs in the two weeks leading up to Western States. I was too afraid of overexerting myself and not getting enough rest. Everything I did (or didn’t do, as the case may be) during those two weeks was for Melanie. What about the trip down, you ask? I hopped a ride with Marilyn, an ultrarunner from Ashland who was driving down to crew for another runner. She was looking for someone to drive to Auburn with her and share expenses. I only had to get myself to Ashland. The arrangement worked out magnificently.

After arriving in Auburn the evening before the race, Marilyn and I drove out Highway 49 toward the town of Cool to check out a couple of aid stations along the course. The moment I saw No Hands Bridge, I knew instantly what it was. Tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was actually here. We drove by the Highway 49 aid station too. It was incredible just to be in this place that I had read so much about. Things were about to get even more amazing.

The next day I slept in as late as I possibly could. I knew I would get no sleep that night and probably not the next day. We made friends with a nice young man at the motel front desk who had an interest in the race. He and a friend had backpacked the Western States trail from Squaw to Foresthill before. He was kind enough to check runner updates for us. We could wait around either at the hotel or at Foresthill, so Marilyn and I headed to Foresthill, arriving just in time to see the front-runners go by. It was amazing just to be in this place at this time— so much energy, so many people. But not only did I get to hang out here, I was fortunate enough to be a pacer! After checking in to “pacer central,” and pinning on my pacer number (just like the runner numbers, only yellow) I hung out for hours and hours (and hours and hours) relaxing, eating, people watching, and trying to stay off my feet. I moved my lawn chair to stay in the shade. Although I’d heard the temperatures were not as hot as usual this year, I was quite hot just sitting around doing nothing and was thankful that I didn’t have to run in the afternoon sun.

Hanging out with Rod Bien waiting for our runners
I saw many people from Bend and the Portland area, who I know: Amy Sproston with her pacer Todd Janssen. Sean Meissner was there to pace. So was Rod Bien, pacing his friend David at his first 100. David had paced Rod at 100s before, and now Rod was returning the favor. Scott Wolfe was there pacing his buddy Andy Jones-Wilkins to yet another top-10 finish. I got to see great runners in person that I’ve only read about. I was five feet away when Nikki Kimball (third place female) pulled in to meet her crew. Man was she organized and knew what she needed! I observed and soaked it all in. I was particularly impressed by how she mowed down a cheese stick as if she were a human weed-whacker.

The hours ticked by. The sun went down, and I prepared to meet Melanie. I got cold just sitting around, so donned gloves and arm warmers for the wait. I sat ready to go at Foresthill, watching runners’ headlamps as they approached, and listening for Melanie’s name. The 30-hour cutoff pace (11pm) came and went. If she didn’t arrive in Foresthill before 11:45pm, she would be pulled from the race. There is a 30-hour cutoff for the finish, so we’d have to make up time, and I wasn’t thrilled about that. If she was tired and hurting (who wouldn’t be after 62 miles?), I was gonna have to push her to make sure she finished in under 30 hours. Anything over 30 hours, and you’re not an official finisher, nor do you get the coveted belt buckle. As I watched, more headlamps approached, and I prayed: Please, let this be her. My prayers were answered at 11:17pm. When her name was announced as she arrived in to Foresthill, I felt like I had won the lottery! I ran up to meet her. My day was truly about to get more interesting.

The town of Foresthill sits on top of a narrow ridge. Within minutes of leaving the aid station at the school, we were onto single-track and headed down, down, down long switchbacks. We passed people right and left. I was surprised by how many people were walking, even on the downhill, and talking up a storm. They were past the 30-hour cutoff too! Melanie and I chatted occasionally, but knew we had work to do.

Melanie liked my “head torch” as she called it, because it was so much brighter than hers. I was wearing a second one around my waist that I wasn’t using, so we swapped head torches. After a while I decided to stay running in front of her because it seemed like she ran for longer when I led. We ran as many of the flats and downhills as she possibly could. All I asked on the uphills was that she keep moving. Though I really wanted to stop and hold her in my arms, there were times I had to give some tough love. I wasn’t about to fail her. I wanted her to finish and get that belt buckle! I knew she didn’t come to run this race and go home without that belt buckle. I kept reminding her how strong and amazing she was. I told her I knew she was tired and hurting, but that she had to keep going. In “x” hours it would all be over and then she could rest as much as she wanted. Pain is temporary, that belt buckle is forever! I knew she was running to raise money to build schools in Uganda. I reminded her that her suffering was only temporary, and to think of the children who would continue to suffer.

During the night we came along the only muddy section of trail, maybe 10 feet long. A runner was hesitating at the near side. Her pacer was at the far side, pointing out where the runner should put her feet to avoid getting muddy. I was stunned by this scene— the mud wasn’t even ankle deep for goodness sake! We weren’t going to get tricked into stopping for this. I told Melanie “follow me” and we plowed right through the mud and left that runner behind. As soon as we were out of sight, I turned around and gave her a high-five saying, “I live in Oregon and we’re not afraid of a little mud.” There were also many creek crossings. Most were shallow or had rockss that you could cross on without getting your feet wet. Some of the creeks were really noisy and sounded big, but when we got to the crossings, they weren’t much. I wished it had been daylight so I could have enjoyed the sights.

Pretty much everything was a blur up until the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River at mile 78. We could see the river crossing from quite a ways away, lit up by large lights powered by generators. It was a beautiful sight! The lit-up portion of river looked like a deep serene pool of blue. Since the water was too high to wade this year, rafts ferried runners to the other side. It looked like a scene out of a fairy tale, or perhaps a theme park ride. The approach to the river was very rocky and steep. Volunteers lined the path every five feet, hands outstretched to assist with the decent. Just before reaching the boat, someone slipped a life vest on me. A young man extended his arm to assist me on to the boat, but I gave him a big hug instead. I was having a great time, feeling good, and high on life. I looked at the young man who was rowing our boat and exclaimed, “Wow, you’re cute!” Then I looked the other way and saw his cohort, and said “you’re cute too!” quickly followed by, “I’m married, not dead!” which got a chuckle out of everyone.

They say the darkest time is right before the dawn. The climb from Rucky Chucky up to Green Gate was not terribly steep or long, but it was hard and mentally demanding. Like all the other aid stations, this one was lit up with Christmas lights, always a welcome sight. And there really is a green gate there.

A couple of times during the night Melanie had mentioned that a blister was beginning to bother her. Both times, though we were still up against the 30-hour cutoff, I said that perhaps we should stop and get that taken care of at the next aid station. Melanie breezed through all the aid stations quickly. She never dallied or sat down. She weighed in at the required stops, grabbed some grub, and off she went again. She was a woman on a mission. Evidently she had forgotten about her blister or her mental toughness had taken over. Either way, I wasn’t about to bring it up again!

There were other times when I looked back to see her grabbing at her stomach. She said her stomach was feeling “iffy.” We just kept on moving and I said, “I’m sending relaxing healing thoughts to your stomach right now. Do you feel them?” When Melanie ran right behind me, I made sure to listen to her breathing. At times it would get fast and shallow. I asked her to take deep breaths and “blow it all out. Blow out that CO2 so you can get more oxygen to those hard working muscles.” It seemed to work. As we approached Auburn Lake Trails aid station, the sky began to get lighter. We had made it through the night, but I was about to learn a valuable lesson.

While Melanie weighed in at Auburn Lake Trails, I filled up her hydration pack. Unfortunately I forgot that I need water too. Not far out of the aid station I sucked on the hose and all I got was air. Shit, shit, shit! I estimated it was still 4 miles to the next aid station at Brown’s Bar. I immediately thought back to a few months ago when my coach had me do some runs without water on purpose. This was to teach me that come the day that I run out of water on the trail, I would know I’ll be OK until the next aid station. This was that time. Though it might be a good hour or more until the next aid station, I didn’t freak out, but did get really thirsty. I said nothing to Melanie. She didn’t need to be worrying about me. For the next hour or so I didn’t take any salt or any nutrition. I had read that you should always take a gel with a few ounces of water for proper digestion. I didn’t know what might happen if I didn’t. I’ve never taken a gel without water, much less 24 miles into a 38 mile run. Maybe I should try it sometime and see what happens.

I enjoyed the many small rolling hills along this stretch, and the views across to the next hillside as the sun rose higher in the sky. Pulling into Brown’s Bar aid station, I yelled, “Water, I need water!” A volunteer quickly removed my hydration pack and began filling it. Someone had a video camera and a great song was playing loud. I sang along and danced and shook my butt for the camera. I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me. I was just so happy to be getting water! By the time my hydration pack was filled and on my back, Melanie had already left the aid station. From here on out, she grew stronger with every passing aid station and the rising of the sun. I told her, “Only a 10k left! Do you smell the finish line? There’s a belt buckle with your name on it. All you have to do is go get it.” Earlier I had also said, “Only 18 miles left Melanie. 18 miles is NOT a long way.” She had reluctantly agreed. But now she obviously was feeling better and in agreement. I think she just wanted to get the whole thing over with. She ran strong on all the flats and downhills. Even her uphill hiking was now much stronger and more efficient. I was really proud of her. She dug deep and was making a come back, and most importantly, quickly making up time. Runners who had passed us earlier were now looking weak as we passed them. Regardless, we were all out there sharing breath, sharing energy, helping each other out. It was a beautiful thing.

The course was really well marked
We came into the Highway 49 aid station several minutes before the 30-hour cutoff horn. I promised her that the next uphill would be fairly short, followed by 2.5 miles of mostly downhill to No Hands Bridge. She really poured it on. The sun was getting higher in the sky and I was glad that most of the course was still in shade. Even though it was mid-morning, the sun was intense, and I hadn’t had time to put on sunscreen. I knew I would get sunburned; I just hoped it wouldn’t be bad.

Not No Hands Brigde, but amazing none-the-less
At No Hands Bridge a volunteer removed Melanie’s hydration pack, handed her a water bottle, and shooed us out of the aid station. I thought this was a marvelous gesture. It must have been so freeing to be rid of that hydration pack after 96.8 miles. Crossing the bridge, the sun shone down brightly on us. I felt as if it was sucking every last ounce of strength out of me. It was a two mile climb, gentle at first, to Robie Point, but much of it was in the sunlight. Melanie continued hiking strong as I began to drop back. I yelled up to her, “Go Melanie, go!” At first I was a little sad because I really wanted to be with her when she crossed the finish line. Had I given up?

Then I got happy. I realized Melanie was going to make the 30-hour cutoff with time to spare. She’d be an official Western States 100 finisher and get her bronze belt buckle. I was overcome with emotion and the tears began to flow. I had done my job, served my purpose. I did good. When I reached Robie Point, I asked the volunteers about her status. She had beat me to Robie by three minutes! Good girl, Melanie! Now it was only 1.3 miles to the finish line and I was a pacer without my runner. I couldn’t be more proud. People along the route cheered for me anyway: “Yay, pacer!” I quickly told them how my runner was finishing strong and left me in the dust and how proud I was. They didn’t seem to think any less of me. I thought about all the runners we had passed during the night, many of whom I’m sure had no prayer of making the 30-hour cutoff.

The finish line
That last mile was really strange being without Melanie. It was her race and I had done my job, but I wasn’t about to just quit and meander to the finish line. I wanted to finish out my experience here too. I didn’t pour it on as I usually do at the end of a race. That would have just been silly. So I walked/jogged casually around the track to the finish line. I was so stunned and filled with emotion that I didn’t know exactly what to do next. I wandered around for a while looking for Melanie but didn’t see her, so sat down on the grass and took some deep breaths, trying to absorb everything that had just happened. Then I looked to my left and there she was. We hugged and cried and thanked each other several times, then parted ways. Just like that. My job was done. It was the most wonderful, challenging, fulfilling 11hours and 24 minutes of my life, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Even now, more a week later, I am overcome with emotion writing about it.

Chilling afterward in a dirty pool of what had been an ice bath for sore feet
On the ride home I relived key moments over and over. I was so proud of Melanie, and I was proud of myself. I thought back to my first pacing experience last September and how much I have grown as a runner and as a person in general since then. I had reached deep into my bag of knowledge and pulled out things that I had read, that my coaches had told me, and that I had learned on my own. I laughed out loud when I realized that one day my pacer will probably pull the same things on me at my first 100-miler that I did for Melanie. What goes around comes around, and I’m really looking forward to it.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this - good job even if it was a few yrs ago. I have been trying for 5 yrs to get into WS100 and finally got picked for 2014. I decided if I didn't get in this yr I'd try to find someone to pace. I can't WAIT to get on the course and see some of the places I've read about so many times!