The sun was setting on Michigan Bluff, and my chances of doing what I had come to California to do. My arrogant voice echoed in my head, repeating the words I’d told everyone leading up this race: “The only way I’m coming home without a buckle is if I break a leg or die.” Yet there I was, just 30 minutes from the final blast of the air horn signifying the closing of the aid station, absolutely convinced there was no way I was going to make it to the finish.
Back at the starting line, I was anxious but confident. Just standing there with the other runners at the 45th running of the Western States Endurance Run was an honor in and of itself, and I was ready to prove what relentless determination and a hefty dose of East Coast grit can do. To be clear: I am NOT fast and I had zero time goals. But I also don’t DNF (that's runner-speak for "did not finish"). I have never had to battle against the clock to make cutoffs, which is why I was so unprepared to have to do just that.
Our first and biggest climb up Emigrant Pass was simply amazing. I felt strong, running slow but steady on the few flatter stretches and maintaining a strong power hike for the rest. As we neared the top, the sun rose over Lake Tahoe, illuminating the valley below. The magnitude of these mountains quite literally took my breath away. Cresting that first incline, I was filled with optimism and gratitude for what the day might hold. A large group of spectators and volunteers, who had woken up just as early as the runners they were cheering, awaited our arrival at the top.
In our strange world, running 100 miles is always a big deal, always tough, but not at all unusual. Outside of Alpine Meadows, or California, or hundreds of sleepy mountain towns across the country that host such events, we are considered strange (even deranged) and the response to us running 100 miles is often met with a look of concerned disbelief. So on this day, especially for this race, it was a surreal experience to be cheered on at the top of that climb like we were players just walking out onto the field. I felt like a rock star as I made my way down to Lyon Ridge.
Then the real work began.
Somewhere between Lyon Ridge and Red Star, once the adrenaline rush brought on by the sunrise and fanfare subsided, I started to feel light-headed. Mentally I was prepared for some adverse side effects from the elevation, but I thought after hitting nearly 9,000 feet without any altitude-related symptoms that I was in the clear. As the first wave of wooziness hit me I tried to reel in my power hike to get my heart rate down, but my footfalls were growing sloppy on the newly-laid, incredibly rocky trail full of baseball-sized gravel. I took a moment to sit on a boulder and contemplate my life choices. Remembering the elevation chart in my mind, I calculated that I didn’t have that much more uphill ahead of me, so I rallied down to Red Star.
During the first 30 or so miles, I tried to heed the advice from the talented runners I followed and tried to mimic as best I could with my own average “pedestrian”-paced training: Eat early and often. Sip and nibble. Keep your pace dialed in and relaxed. Conserve and consume calories on climbs. But in my anxiousness to try to run after the relentless slog to Duncan Canyon, I pushed a bit too hard and my body started to reject any efforts to hydrate or fuel. My problem was that my legs felt great. I felt strong. But I never allowed my internal systems to settle after that brief kick in the teeth that the altitude had delivered to me.
Still, I pressed on toward Robinson Flat where I knew my crew (my husband, Zac and dear friend, Avinash) and the CTS team might help. My stomach had hardened as much as those rocks I had been kicking and tripping over. My coach, AJW and Jason Koop helped me keep my head in the game and assured me I was doing fine, and told me I really needed to eat. I choked down some coke and a little fruit, got iced down, and for a relatively brief moment felt better as I maintained a steady clip all the way through to Dusty Corners. Here, I saw other familiar faces, Trena and Russ, who jumped in to crew me as they awaited our other Georgia runner, David. I got iced down again, but all I could handle was a few sips of coke as I made my way through the aid station. I acted like I was feeling better, Trena said I looked better than when she saw me at Duncan Canyon, but I was still on an inevitable decline.
By Last Chance, where another friend, Michelle, was on medical detail, I knew I had to force-feed myself, especially for the quad-thrashing descent and subsequent death march up Devil’s Thumb. Michelle kindly pressed me on my physical state and I assured her I was just fine. My legs felt good and I managed to move at what I thought was a sustainable pace. What I hadn’t accounted for was that even while descending, there would be no shade or relief from the heat. My heart rate never really declined at this point. I should have taken more time at the small water crossing before our climb back up but because I didn’t, I got my first real punch in the gut about halfway to the top. Surely, I just needed sodium, I thought. I chomped down on an electrolyte chew and immediately regretted the decision. Not a moment later, everything from the past several aid stations came up. Now devoid of calories or fluids, I felt momentarily better with an empty stomach, but knew I’d have to get back on my nutrition game, and soon.
That didn’t happen.
My stomach revolted again at the Devil’s Thumb aid station. And El Dorado. And Michigan Bluff, mile 56, just barely over halfway through the race. As I spent more and more time trying to convince my body to right itself, the cutoffs drew nearer and I became convinced that even if I could will my body to move (my legs still felt just fine, after all), my internal organs would not let it happen. I borrowed a chair from another runner’s crew while Zac and Avinash try to convince me to eat. At this point, any solid food touching my lips made me puke, and things seemed pretty hopeless. I willed time to move faster so that someone would kick me out of the race and tell me I had missed the cutoff. I can’t possibly make up all the time I spent at these last few aid stations, I thought. Despondent and defeated, I slouched lower in the chair almost as if I were trying to disappear from the race entirely. Then the woman who owned the chair I was trying to become one with came up and quietly said “I hate to do this to you but...”
“I’m up,” I said, placing my feet firmly on the ground and finding, much to my disappointment, I wasn't the least bit stiff or sore.
I could have laid back down on the pavement to appease my stomach, but I knew once I was on my feet, there was no way my boys were going to let me drop. “Let’s just get to Foresthill” Avinash convinced me. At this point I was 30 minutes behind the 30-hour pace, but still ahead of aid station cutoffs. Convinced I was doomed to get my first dreaded DNF, I reluctantly set off with Avinash, twilight fading and he without a headlamp, since we hadn’t planned for him to have to jump in at that point. In my mind I fought the battle of my desire to drop verses the shame I’d feel if I did, but company and conversation helped distract me from the looming dread of getting cut. Every time I vocalized my doubt that I couldn’t possibly make it to the track in Auburn, Avinash kindly but firmly said, “Let’s not worry about that right now. Let’s just get to the next aid station.”
Against the odds I felt piling up against me (I had now, at this point, spent over three hours at the aid stations, waiting for my body to return to some semblance of homeostasis), we made it to Foresthill, where Zac and my next pacer, Traci, waited patiently at the CTS tent. I was so thrilled to see Traci, who I hadn’t shared trail miles with since my first 50K in 2013, that I was able to pull myself out of the funk and try to put this race back together. The CTS coach who was there (in my race haze I forgot his name) gave me the crucial advice of just sticking to water; that my body would eventually “figure it out”. I had to decide to forget about calories, forget about time, and even try to forget about the race as I was running it in order to keep moving forward. Traci helped by sharing her own running and life updates and getting me talking about things other than running, all the while slyly slipping into parent mode as she kept me from taking too long at aid stations and discouraged me from even sitting down.
It wasn’t easy. In fact it was all still so very hard. But Traci was clearly not going to let me settle for anything less than a buckle. My energy was fading from lack of food, but she got me eating again - just a tiny bit of fruit at a time - which eventually would help the teensy doses of caffeine and sugar from the baby sips of Coke and Mountain Dew to hit my bloodstream.
From Cal. 1 to Cal 2. to Cal 3. and finally, to the American River, she helped me regain a bit of a time buffer. We hit the water, which was a much-needed shock to my system that would wake me up and recharge me for the climb up to Green Gate. It was the coldest I’d been since we started in Squaw Valley. I was delighted to be shivering, almost so hard that it was difficult to take full breaths as we navigated our way across the water along the ropes. A volunteer shouted “You all are doing great! Right on 30-hour pace!” Realizing I was slowly making up time, I was ready to move. Traci was crucial in getting me back to my husband and Avinash at Green Gate. My energy slumps still hit hard but were fewer and farther between as I realized we were inching toward the pre-dawn hours.
Twenty miles feels like a normal day in the woods when training for a hundred-mile race. Twenty miles feels like an eternity during a hundred-mile race. But an eternity went by a little quicker by keeping a few things in perspective:
1. You chose this race, and this race chose you. This was something I had to tell myself constantly throughout the day. How many people didn't get in this year who have also been desperately waiting for there chance to run Western States? Who was I to squander this opportunity because of a little puke?
2. Remember the time others are giving to this race, too. I thought of my crew, my coaches, the volunteers and all of their emphatic expressions of encouragement from the very beginning. Volunteers are awake as long as the runners are, if not longer. I guarantee you that while the top finishers ran, showered, slept, then returned to the track at Auburn for awards, the volunteers were going on over 30 hours without sleep.
3. This is an elective battle. I’m not going to war. This is hard, but do I actually know what it's like to truly struggle? Life, outside of events like this, is comfortable and normal. I needed to continue onward out of honor and respect for those who fight real battles every day. For those who travel 100 miles as only a fraction of their journey to safety and the hope of a new home. For those who’d give anything to be where I was in that moment, even with all the puking and suffering.
Avinash took point and helped me through each aid station by exclaiming at every checkpoint how much closer we were to Auburn. He was familiar with these trails at this point, which was extremely helpful for getting a mental picture of what still lay ahead. From Quarry Road to Pointed Rocks, his excitement became more and more infectious. “You’re going to do this,” he kept saying. And finally, after moving for more that 24 hours, I could start to believe it.
I flashed back in my mind to the sun setting at Michigan Bluff. I felt like an imposter in that moment. What business do I have even being here? I had thought. The sun rose higher now as we neared Pointed Rocks and I was finally able to - as AJW would say - push it away.
Over a wide field blanketed in soft brown grass we saw Pointed Rocks and the CTS crew once more. Jason Koop greeted us with his gigantic smile, wielding handfuls of ice to shove in my pack. I nearly lost it and held back tears of joy and exhaustion upon seeing him. “Not yet!” he said, telling me to save it for the finish. Another boost of confidence that I’d actually get there.
From there it was on to No Hands Bridge, which was simply magical, but I knew I couldn’t spent much time there. The view over the river was impossibly beautiful in the high mid-morning light and the brief moment I could spare was spent on a selfie with Avinash to commemorate that amazing moment. But there was still some work to go. Avinash warned me that the last ascent to Robie Point was an ass-kicker. I feel like given everything that transpired over the previous 28 hours, I’d taken that hill in stride... until the last quarter mile or so just before the final aid station. “This motherfucker...” I said quietly, but angrily. “Finally!” Avinash laughed. I had somehow refrained from cursing in front of him until that point.
Even with only a mile to go, I received one more much-needed ice down at Robie Point. Upon leaving the aid station, I was completely unprepared for the reception that awaited. The ENTIRE town was out to cheer us on to the finish. The energy was comparable to the spectators that line the streets for the Boston marathon, or the Peachtree Road Race. Coming from ultra distance races where quite often, there might only be a couple dozen or so tired people clapping as runners finish, this was the best, most unexpected surprise of the whole race. Running the streets of Auburn is what really made me come back to life and feel the same enthusiasm that I first felt at the start.
Rounding the track toward the finish was everything I thought it would be and then some. Cheers, high fives, seeing my husband, and knowing that I was actually, really, truly, finally there.
Over a decade of my life has been spent trying to figure out how to move and be happy with my body. How to run with a sense of joy and wonder, and not just out of anger or frustration. How to make running fit into my family life and not become a thing they’d have to fight with to spend time with me. I used running as an escape, as a means to lose weight, as a way to cope with grief and loss. It was always about wanting to get rid of things.
On that track at Placer High School in Auburn, I felt a flood of happiness and contentment. I had nothing else to shed or to run away from, and this race was giving back to me everything I had put into it and then some. After 14 years, 29 hours, and 11 minutes, I can say that I finally learned to push away the negatives that initially drove me to run, and to allow in the positives. To be happy just to be there, no matter what the time on the clock might read.
The tears threatened the moment I crossed the finish line. I fought to keep myself composed but I already knew I’d easily lose it the moment friends started to surround me. Zac, Avinash, Trena and Michelle were all there. Brief sobs escaped through in small gasps as the reality of having finished continued to sink in. When AJW rushed over, however, the floodgates opened. I had been so worried about being a disappointment, spent so many hours feeling like a failure, that when he grabbed me, it was as though to give me permission to let it all go. I am crying as I write this, thinking of that precious moment, knowing I have so much more within me than I was able to give myself credit for. There’s still a slight sting of sadness, knowing the weight of life events that have made me feel that way for so long, but there is immense pride as well in the fact that I really can get through anything.
For me, Western States Endurance Run is more than a race, and its spirit is not confined to the trails between Squaw and Auburn. It’s not about having more or less elevation gain or loss than this or that other race. It isn’t about whether it’s hotter, colder, faster or slower than other races. And while impressive things take place on this course, for 90% of its participants it isn’t even about whether a record will be broken.
This race is about discovering the will and intensity within all of us, boiling just beneath the surface, ready to blow when challenged to move. Finishing is always a gamble; runners who some think could never fail might throw in the towel, while other runners who seem unlikely to finish prevail against all odds. This race celebrates each and every participant, from the breaking of the tape to the final finisher in the last minutes of the Golden Hour. And that is a spirit we can all take back to our hometown races, no matter how big or small, how technical or buffed out the trails are, or how many elites show up to battle it out.
I know I sure as hell will.
Thank you again to everyone mentioned here and countless more who made this race a possibility. As I think back on this race, and other 100-miles I've ran, the journey is not too dissimilar from what I see clients work through in their efforts to take control of their health and wellness. Your work has inspired me as well. In many ways, I would even venture to say that running 100 miles is probably easier than what I have seen some of you go through. And when you keep showing up and working hard, I know I have to as well. In that spirit, I also know that I will attempt this race again, if the Western States Lottery Gods allow me to do so. The way I see it, I had to learn how to almost get it completely wrong in order to work towards getting it right.
Until next time.