This plaque marks the starting line in Squaw Valley
I don't even like to drive my car that far!!In 1997 Huddle did Western and of course we all thought he was nuts. It seemed like a somewhat interesting challenge...for someone else to do. He got his silver buckle and coined a quote that persists to this day in the race booklet - "When you are 99 miles into a 100-mile running race, your brain is not the same brain you started with." A few years later I found myself pacing my friend Brian Siljander in the same event. Again, it was very interesting, as long as someone else was doing it. After the first time I paced BRI, I made the rest of the crew promise they would never, ever, under any circumstances allow me to do the race. It just seemed so massive and so painful.
Of course, the fact that I even had to request such outside assistance to avoid doing it meant that I was already doomed to try it one day, I just wasn't ready to admit it yet. I paced Brian again the next year and things went somewhat better for him but I was still convinced I would be smart enough to stay away. Fast forward another year or so and I found myself out in the San Diego desert doing a ridiculously hard trail 50 miler, and, sadly, finishing in a time that qualified me for the Western States lottery (about 50% of aspiring entrants get in, after meeting qualifying standards). I didn't give in right away, though. I ran another 50 miler that summer, secretly hoping that I would suffer so much I would come to my senses and stick to reasonable distances for the foreseeable future (50K being my definition of reasonable). No such luck, I had a decent day and another qualifying time. At this point people started hassling me about whether I was going to put in for the lottery. OK, nobody really hassled me. It was my choice. I put in, my name got picked, and I was doomed...I mean I was IN! Yahoo. All Huddle could do was laugh knowingly.
I trained some. A lot fewer miles per week than most, due to some nagging injuries and a perception of fragility, and also laziness. But I respected the distance and did do some key sessions, including the full SoCal Winter Trail Series culminating in the San Juan Trail 50K, and a couple of sprint distance races (Catalina and Boston marathons). I would run home from work "the long way" frequently, and did some great long training runs organized by local ultrarunner Shawn McDonald, as well as various runs with Brian, who would be my pacer. We also did the oh-so-important Memorial Day training weekend (70 miles on the WS course in 3 days). I topped it off with one goofy but ultimately very useful all-nighter (24x1.8 miles on the 1 hour, now that's what you call an interval session - forget that whole 10x400 monkey business).
The race itself, you ask? Well, it was awesome. The course is epic. The volunteers are legendary. My crew and pacer were peerless. The event starts at 5am in the dark at the base of the Squaw Valley ski hill and the first 5 miles are basically straight up the mountain to 8700 feet. The true frontrunners and the temporarily insane run, the rest of us walk, fast. Across Emigrant Gap and into the wilderness, running now, the trail weaves through the rocks and trees, mind-numbing views in all directions but don't take your eyes off the trail for too long, or you'll face plant for sure.
There are 23 aid stations along the way, but the first few are rather far apart, as much as 7 miles, so you need to carry plenty of fluids and fuel, and of course pace yourself sensibly. Never mind that the whole thing exceeds any definition of sensible you might come up with.
Approaching Robinson Flat after 25 miles I was thrilled to see my crew, but I didn't stay long as they would appear again at 29 miles after the Little Bald Mountain loop, where I took a little more time, maybe 5 minutes, sitting as they worked on my legs, gave me food and drinks and swapped out my bottles. Off again into the dreaded Canyons, 26 tough miles before I'd see my people again but the volunteers along the way would help me keep it together.
The place-names on the course become part of your vocabulary as you prepare for the race, each has great significance in terms of terrain, temperature, and proximity (or not) to your crew. They can fill you with dread one moment, and reward you with a sense of conquest the next. Deep Canyon. Dusty Corners. Last Chance. Deadwood Canyon. Devil's Thumb. Volcano Canyon. The vicious implications of the names ease up as you get further along the course, get through Foresthill and closer to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, Highway 49, and No Hands Bridge, but the damage has probably already been done.
100 miles is a long way to run, too far to think about all at once. How far to the next aid station? 4.8 miles? I can do that in my sleep, you say. Guess what...you might have to. They say Ironman is an eating contest. That's not really true - Ironman is a snacking contest...Western, that's an eating contest. They say in Ironman it's not about how fast you are, but who slows down the least. At Western it's not so much about who slows down the least, it's about who doesn't stop.
Despite my relative lack of heavy mileage and mild but ever-lurking injury worries, the first 62 miles went really well overall. A few rough patches with my gut, cured by adjusting my pace and intake, getting in some salt tabs and V8 juice, but for the most part I was moving well, just a bit ahead of the nominal 24 hour pace. The time limit for the race is 30 hours. The time limit for the coveted silver buckle is 24 hours. In my mind, and probably in the minds of most of my supporters, going into the event I had maybe a 30 percent chance of breaking 24 (wild ass guess, no science behind that), so I tried my best not to obsess on it. I knew I had the speed, but everything after 50 miles was uncharted territory endurance wise and so much else can happen. The further I got without dropping behind the splits, with my feet still feeling good, my energy level high, and no cramps, the more I allowed myself to think about it.
When I got to Foresthill at mile 62 and was joined by my pacer (side note - it takes a good friend and a strong athlete to just up and run 38 miles on rough trails in the middle of the night for no reason other than to help you reach your goal - when I had paced I only did 15-20 miles, Brian was going to do the whole enchilada with me), as well as having the crew (Cathy, Suz, Ross, Ed, and Linda) recharge my morale while restocking my supplies, I was tired but in a pretty good place. My body and mind were both holding up better than I expected. We blasted onto the California Street section of the trail with plenty of daylight left and made great progress. A couple of hours later I had slowed a bit, and our headlamps went on, shortly after we left the comfort and the warm soup at the Peachstone aid station.
Onward, to the river, with good spirits but reluctant to proactively eat or drink much, I was running well but relying on Brian to keep me fueling. At that point the only thing that tasted remotely good was Hot Tamales candy - luckily my friend Elizabeth had sent me a half pound box before the race. But you can only go so far on little lumps of sugar, so I was trying to get some other items down at the aid stations. Earlier in the day it had been potatoes, pretzels, M&Ms, cantaloupe, PB&J and so forth. The selection was still vast but my appetite was narrowing, sips of coke and soup the only real contenders.
At the river crossing, I got in and out of the medical weigh-in and we got down the rocky stairs quickly, the green glow sticks on the bottom showing us the way through waist deep water as we slid along a cable held steady by a dozen soggy, smiling volunteers. On the other side our crew was waiting with dry shoes and socks. I deprived Brian of the Otter Pop he had carried across the river, it tasted unusually delicious and when he offered me a bite I just inhaled the whole thing. What flavor is blue anyway? Still not having a taste for much regular race food and drink I snagged my brother's orange Mt. Dew and sipped it on the brisk hike out up to Green Gate at mile 79.
Back into the dark single track, we were still doing OK on time, I was tired but fairly alert, I think...you'd have to ask Brian if that was really true. We forged ahead, with another major soup stop at the wild and wooly Hasher-staffed Brown's Bar aid station. It was getting chilly and I wanted just one more minute to sit wrapped in a blanket, but time was a-wastin' and Brian gently cracked the whip. On to the Highway, where the crew met us with tired but cheerful and resolute faces, knowing that we were ahead of pace. Linda gave me a cookie and I just stared at it. Cathy patted me on the head – sorry bud your 5 minutes is up, get going… From there another climb to the meadow before the nasty root filled trench descent to No-Hands Bridge.
Keep going. Run, walk, march, scoot, shuffle, whatever it takes. Every once in a while we seemed to just be all out hammering. I'm sure it was an illusion, probably a solid 11 minute mile pace for a whopping 30 seconds. No rest for the weary at No Hands, a sip of coke and away we go. Up, up to Robie Point and suddenly only 1.5 paved miles to go, it's the middle of the night but a few folks are still out in front of their houses. Suz ran along for the last mile and even though she was probably barely jogging nearly dropped me. Hey, take it easy! I am a little fatigued here!
On to the track at Placer High. Surreal, just like Huddle described it. Spectators in the stands cheering, contrasted with comatose bodies in sleeping bags all over the infield. The restrained but firm voice of Norm Klein, the announcer, rattling off your palmares as you make the turn for home. Finished. Damn, that's a pretty hard race. Can I sit down now?