Friday, June 30, 2017

The Big Year Interrupted: A Western States DNF Story

I said before this race that I would be very disappointed if I didn't finish. I suppose that is true if you leave out the modifier "very". Of course I am disappointed. This is a prestigious race. My goal was not only this one but the following 3 races to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. All of that is out the window, at least for this year. It may be years before I get another opportunity. I'm fine with that. At the same time, however, I am reflecting on what happened and will be working to correct my mistakes and learn from my failures.

As always, I began watching the weather forecast going into race week. The temperatures in Squaw Valley and Auburn were hovering around 100 degrees F. This was my main concern, especially since I had repeatedly heard how the canyons section of the course would be hotter due to the stagnant air in the canyons. When I arrived in Sacramento, the rental car thermometer read 109 degrees at one point. This had my attention.

Friday morning I went out for a a brief run to try to relax and loosen up after a long day of travel. I then headed out to the race check in. The second I stepped out of the car, I already saw someone I knew. Over and over during the morning I would see and talk to people I had run with or met at other races. This made me feel at home even though I was far away and made me realize how small our community really is.

This guy has no idea what is coming

I had my picture taken with my bib number. Nikki Kimball, female ultrarunning bad ass, put on my wristband and then I received my bag filled with Western States swag. The pre-race meeting was filled to capacity with runners and crews, the room heated by all the bodies and excitement. I still couldn't really believe I was there. None of it seemed real. I went back to my room and tried to relax but could not sit still.
When they cut this off, you are out of the race.

I ate dinner early and got into bed around 7 with the intention of trying to get around 7 hours of sleep. It was difficult to relax but eventually I slept, though it was fitful. I still woke up before the alarm and surprisingly did not feel tired. For the first time ever, I had all my gear completely arranged the night before. All I had to do was get dressed and head to the start line. This is one of the first times my race mornings felt completely stress free.

I arrived at the start with plenty of time for some breakfast and to try to get myself into the proper frame of mind. The time on the clock over the start ticked down. The time passed quickly. I was excited but not overly so. I knew I had a long day ahead but felt good and confident that I would get it done. The crowd of runners counted down the final seconds, a shotgun blast went off, and we all headed across the start line, up the Escarpment and onto one of the most courses in ultrarunning.

The race starts at the Squaw Valley Resort. Directly from the start the course climbs around 2500 feet in 3.5 miles. I figured this was a good way to start since the climb would force me to take my time and not go out too fast. The sun had fully risen by the time I reached the top. The rest of this section to the first aid station at 10 miles was difficult and very slow due to poor footing on the deep snow that had not yet melted away. Where there wasn't snow, it was muddy. The mud was very deep in places and a couple times I nearly lost my shoe in it. Many of the runners around me were extremely tentative crossing the snow which slowed me down even more. I must have picked the right shoes because I could cross the fairly easily without much concern about slipping on the sloped snow.

My arrival time at the first two aid stations was a good hour later than I expected due to these course conditions. I already felt far behind where I wanted to be but was not too worried. I considered that taking it slow early would pay off later. In the meantime I tried to enjoy the scenery which was wonderful. When I wasn't looking to keep my footing I would gaze off at the snowy mountains in the distance. I had never heard much talk about this aspect of the race before and it was an excellent experience.

The next section has us descending into Duncan Canyon and then climbing out and that is when the heat started to affect me, even though I never did feel too hot. The climb out was exposed to the sun but I had stopped at a couple creeks and doused myself well with cold mountain stream water. I was already a bit off on my eating plan but didn't really feel hungry. I was not too thirsty either but I feel like I kept up well with drinking. By the time I reached Robinson Flat, 30 miles in, it was already early afternoon. I took a few minutes to take care of a couple hot spots on my feet, which felt remarkably good compared to my races over the last year. Again I wasn't there in a time I wanted to be but I still felt very confident about having plenty of time to finish.

Climbing out of Duncan Canyon

The canyons section of the Western States is known for the heat. What I really wasn't prepared for was how steep and relentless the climbs up Devil's Thumb and Michigan Bluff would be. The combination of the heat and the climb took everything out of me. The descent into the first canyon was steep and I tried to not fly down in order to save my quads for later. I doused in the stream at the bottom and looked up to see a steep canyon wall. The climb was steep and my heart rate shot up. I tried to keep moving, even if it was slow but had to stop to try to catch my breath and get the heart rate down but it wouldn't.

I somehow got through this climb and was face with doing the same thing again going into Michigan Bluff. Again the descent wasn't too bad and the climb wasn't quite as steep but it just went on forever. I was beginning to fall dangerously close to the cutoffs. Prior to this climb I had paired up with a lady who had her headlamp at Michigan Bluff and asked if she could share my light. It did help to run with someone for a bit though both of us seemed to alternate in who was suffering from the heat.

Pulling into Michigan Bluff, I had around 20 minutes until the cutoff. I decided I would take 10 minutes and move on to Forest Hill. On the way in to the station I met up with Quinitn who was crewing and waiting for his runner to come in. He walked me in a gave me a bit of a pep talk. I really needed this and ended up only taking 5 minutes at the station before moving on, determined to make up some time on the cutoff at the next station.

The headlamp I had with me was my back up as I had my good primary one at Forest Hill. I had originally expected to get there around sundown but now I was way behind. At Michigan Bluff I had put new batteries in my backup lamp but it was still dim as I left. I tried sticking with it as long as possible, even asking several runners who passed me if they had batteries, which they didn't. I ended up pulling out my phone and using the flashlight app as a light source.

From Michigan Bluff to Forest Hill is 6.3 miles. I had 2 hours and 15 minutes to make the cutoff, which didn't seem too bad. I tried running here and there but was loosing my will. I still had hope that it would turn around at some point. I wasn't going to quit but I started to think that missing the cutoff was very likely. Most of this section followed a gravel road and at one point I realized I had not seen a course marker. I kept going for several more minutes looked back and didn't see any lights behind me. Had I missed a turn off onto the trail? I went back the way I came and about 10 minutes later saw the turn off I had missed. I had easily lost around 15 or 20 minutes. I pretty much knew at that point it was over. I would still try to keep going and make the cutoff but I knew. You may expect that I would be devastated at a mistake like this costing my race, but I also knew that even if I made the cut off at Forest Hill, it was still a very outside shot at finishing.

The Forest Hill station never seemed like it would come. As the cutoff time ticked down, I heard cheering up ahead, and it was too far away. They were cheering as the station closed. It was over. 11:45 PM. I was surprisingly OK with. There were no tears or overwhelming disappointment. It just was. I had done the best I could do this day and this was how it turned out. About 5 minutes after the cutoff I walked up to the school where the volunteers were furiously packing up.

No one took any notice of me for a minute or two. This was more upsetting to me then the actual end of my race. Eventually, someone walked up and asked if I was a runner and led me to the medical room where I lay in a cot and immediately cramped up painfully. After an hour or so I was driven to the finish line where I would spend the next 10 hours watching runner finish. It was inspiring to see people finish but it also stung a little bit. It was super inspiring to see fellow Arrowhead finisher Lourdes cross the line with about 15 minutes to spare.

So that was that. It was over that quickly. The Grand Slam was gone. My Western States lottery win was wasted. I was surprisingly fine with all of this and, in general, I have been in the days since. The only disappointment is in not knowing when I will get a chance to try again.

I have been replaying the race over and over since it ended. There is no place, other than the missed turn, that I honestly feel I could have done anything to get a different outcome. I did let me nutrition and hydration lapse slightly but overall I thought I did that fairly well. My pacing and effort level were good. My feet were in the best shape of any race over the last year. When I see the elite runner times and hear how they struggled, I am left wondering if I even had a chance. At the same time, others finished so, why couldn't I? The reasons I have come up with are in no way excuses and I think there are important lessons to learn. The reasons I have come up with are in no way excuses and I think there are important lessons to learn.

First, the conditions were a huge factor and those are, for the most part, out of my control. I should have worked in some more heat training but I feel that would have only given marginal improvement but, perhaps it would have been enough to get me over the hump.

Second, my schedule this year did not give me an opportunity to get the proper training build up. It was well into April before I started to feel "normal" again after the Hrimthurs. This resulted in not getting in the miles and/or training time necessary. I was worried about this and thought that maybe I could just be stubborn and tough my way through it. That is a dangerous game to play and sooner or later you lose. I did this time.

Third, I keep intending to do more strength and speed work. I did very little prior to this race, due once again to fatigue after the winter races. I don't think I need to do too much but I do feel that the climbs exposed my weakness here and I need to fix that.

Fourth, my weight going into the race was a good 10 pounds over where I thought I should be. Again, combined with strength training this would help in the climbs but should also help mitigate some of the effects of the heat.

Lastly, I don't think I respected the course as much as I should have. Maybe I have grown complacent, assuming I could just show up and finish any 100 miler because I have so many times before. The climbs were much harder than I thought they would be. The heat was much hotter. Western States is no easy, runable race for someone of my skill level. It was extremely humbling and I very much needed that.

I have to admit I over committed this year. I knew this but I went for it anyway. I'm still glad I tried. I have had a good streak of completing races. There is some creeping doubt now and I wonder if now I am just a fraud. Will I ever be able to finish another? This is probably foolish but the seed is there now.

So now what? In less than 3 weeks I will be headed to attempt 100 miles again in Vermont. I suppose I could have thrown out the remainder of the schedule since the Slam is over, but that would be giving up. It would be giving up on my commitment to these race. It would be giving up on an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. It would be giving up on a chance to run 3 other iconic ultras. It would have been giving up on myself and all the good I have done for myself by trying these crazy things. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to show up in Vermont at 4 AM on the 15th of July and do my best to finish that race.


  1. You'll finish Vermont just fine - those really big iconic races are there for a reason. You need to have a few races out there that are ALMOST unattainable for most of your average runners. They are the races that make you want to achieve something special, something that not every runner can. You will beat Western States in time, don't worry. Enjoy the ride until you get there again! Excellent attempt regardless, hats off to you!

    1. Regardless of outcome, I did enjoy the experience out there. The ocurse was beautiful and the people were great. I'll be back and more prepared.