Saturday, July 6, 2013

Western States

Western States produced yet another unique and emotionally charged running experience.  It was not the experience I wanted; far from it, but I have no regrets.

Western States is the granddaddy of all ultra marathons.  It comes with an origin legend which is as ridiculous as the concept of running 100 miles in a single day, a legend which also happens to be true.  

The race began as a 100 mile trail race for horses, the goal being to complete the course in 24 hours.  In 1974, a rider named Gordon Ainsleigh discovered at the last minute that his horse was lame and unable to complete.  Ainsleigh decided to take on the horses -- and the 100 mile course -- on foot.  

Somehow, Ainsleigh managed to complete the race in under 24 hours, without any support.  That remarkable achievement began not only the Western States Endurance Run, but ultra running in the US, and that it why the traditional prize for completing a 100 mile race is a belt buckle.

The Western States course begins in Squaw Valley at over 6,000 elevation, and immediately climbs to nearly 9,000 before heading down towards Auburn, near sea level.  In between, the course passes through several canyons with steep descents and ascents.  The canyons have a well-deserved reputation for being hot.  This year was the second hottest year on record, and the high temperature reportedly reached 112 degrees.

Me and Ryan around Mile 20
Western States provides support unlike any other ultra marathon.  There are 25 well-staffed aid stations, with evocative names including Dusty Corner, Miller's Defeat, Last Chance, Devil's Thumb, No Hands Bridge and Robie Point.  

The support from the ultra running community is equally strong.  Everyone in the community wants to participate in some way, but the limited number of entries means that most cannot race and thus join as pacers, crew or simply by spectating.

Most of the 400 or so entries into Western States are awarded by lottery.  The chances of getting into the race the first time are something like one in 14.  

I was having breakfast with Cassidy on a December morning when I got a text from Kate telling me that I was one of the lucky ones to have their name drawn.  From that morning, my entire 2013 running schedule was built around States.

My initial goal was to break 20 hours.  Perhaps that was somewhat arrogant, but I have always been confident in my running ability and believed it was a reasonable, if slightly aggressive, goal.  Of course achieving that goal would require both solid training and good health on race day.

My heart did not cooperate.  In early January, I went back into atrial fibrillation, and the issue was not easily resolved.  I had two cardioversions, two ablations and two emergency room visits in the first six months of 2013.  Training was all but impossible, as I was either in an arrhythmia, on beta-blockers and/or recovering from a procedure most of the time.  I was lucky enough to run the Zion 100 on April 19, during a short window of good health, but I had no meaningful training before nor after that.

The death blow to my performance at States came at the end of May when I went back into an arrhythmia, this time atrial flutter.  Dr. Doshi was kind enough to make my treatment a priority, and he was able to get me into surgery on June 11, just 18 days before States.  The seven hour procedure was successful, but it left me with temporary side effects that made it impossible to compete.  Among other things, my heart is still recovering and refuses to beat fast enough or hard enough to support meaningful running.

Helen leading me across the stream at about Mile 27, 
three miles before Robinson Flat
The week before States I was still unable to run in any meaningful way.  The furtherest I could run without walking proved to be just four miles.  I should have realized that I was wasting my time, not to mention the time of my crew -- Jack, Marshall and Phil -- and that I should not bother getting on the starting line.   But this was Western States.  And I am me.

By the day before the race I had worked myself into quite a state.  I wanted more than anything to complete.  By that time, my sole goal was to complete the course within the 30 hour cut-off, but I knew that the chances of doing even that were remote.  

Just 12 miles into the race I was in deep trouble.  Although I had started conservatively, I was slowing down and being passed by more and more runners.  By the time I reached the Red Star Ridge aid station at Mile 16 I knew I could not finish.  I stopped at the medical tent where my blood pressure was 94/79.  My heart simply is not beating hard enough to support running.  (A quick web search confirms that normal blood pressure while running is more like 200/80, with readings as high as 300/80 being possible; I recall seeing numbers in the 200+ range when I was on the treadmill several years back.)

My stop at Red Star Ridge did yield one entertaining moment.  Gordon Ainsleigh plunked himself down in the chair next to me and, upon learning what was going on, offered to adjust my spine.  I already knew that Ainsleigh is now a chiropractor, so this offer was not so odd as it may have seemed.  Still, I declined.  I do not think a chiropractor can do much to heal a wounded heart.

Moments later, Helen and Ryan, who were working safety patrol at the race, appeared.  I broke down in tears when Helen, a good friend and an experienced ultra runner who knows how I was feeling, sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulder.  

The aid station captain nearly removed me from the race based on my condition.  Helen rescued me, pointing out that she is an EMT and offering to run with me through to the next two aid stations.  The aid station captain finally relented, and Helen, Ryan and I ran together to Duncan Canyon at Mile 23.5.  Just having my friends with me did make me feel a bit better, albeit it temporarily.

I clearly should have dropped out at Duncan Canyon, but I still could not quite get myself to do it.  Instead, I tried to get Jack to make the decision for me, telling him how bad I felt and that I was not sure I would be able to beat the cut-off if I continued.  That was not the nicest nor the smartest way to handle the situation.  It was my decision to make, and I should have made it, rather than trying to draw someone else into doing it for me.  And, of course, it did not work.  He just encouraged me to stay with it, as he should have done.

A mile or two after leaving Duncan Canyon I finally knew it was time to give up.  Helen, Ryan and I walked slowly into Robinson Flat at Mile 30, where I got a ride back to Forresthill with Erin and Natalie.  One silver lining to my DNF was getting to see Tim Olson finish the race in 15:17, just half an hour slower than his own course record, set last year.  

One Coyote did finish Western States this year, Chris Hays.  Chris persevered through the 112 degree heat in the canyons, waded across the American River at Mile 78 and emerged from the Western States Trail at Mile 98.6 at Robie Point at about 7am on Sunday morning.  A group of six or seven met him for the traditional escorted run to the track.

Chandra, Jason, Chris, me, Helen and Jack: After Robie Point, one mile to go

I wanted so badly to do well at States.  I wanted to prove myself in my new sport.  I wanted to show off in front of my friends, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.  I wanted to wear my Coyote jersey when running the final 1.4 miles from Robie Point to the finish line on the track at Placer High School.  

In once sense, I failed miserably.  But in a more important sense, I did just fine.  I stepped on the starting line and gave it everything I had, risking a very public failure.  Indeed, I got on the line, knowing full well that the chances of success were slim.  But I was lucky enough to win the lottery, to get to the starting line and to have a chance, however, slim it might have been.  And I did give myself every chance to succeed.  And I did fail to finish the race.  But, at the same time, I am proud of myself for taking that chance despite it all. 

Once again, my wonderful friends were there to catch me when I fell.  Thank you, Helen, Ryan, Jack, Marshall, Phil, Natalie, Erin, Jason, David, Chris, Chandra, Kevin and anyone else I may have forgotten.

Chris Hays taking the time to comfort me at Mile 99.5, 
just when he should have been celebrating his own finish. 
Thank you, Chris!


  1. What an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

  2. Wow. This is a very well-written account of one low point in a highly competitive running career that has had many high points. Thank you for sharing the details of your physical and emotional pain and your fight to continue. I'm sure that this experience will help you to dig deeper and conquer the next time you get a chance.

  3. Steve, you're the man and will get 'em next time. Recover and come back healthy and you'll still smoke 95% of us out there just like you always do, and at any distance.

  4. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!! from Karen and Edward