2007 Western States

Western States Endurance Run 100 miles, June 23-24, 2007 by Andrew Hewat

“Your CPK test shows a value of 52,000. Normal levels are approx. 140. This means your kidneys are going to have to work hard to clear the debris from the muscle damage you sustained running WS. Continue to hydrate with water and electrolyte fluids to keep your urine clear. Do not go to bed for 12 hours and not hydrate. Continue to drink at least every hour to maintain clear urine. Should you suddenly feel ill with flu like symptoms, you should go to your local emergency room and have your CPK rechecked.”

This message was sitting amongst many emails when I got back to Australia two weeks after running Western States. Holy crap. That can’t be good. Why do we do this to our bodies? What on earth went wrong out there?

I collapsed into a chair at Michigan Bluff aid station: 55 miles into the run. This was both a high point and a low point of the run. I rarely sit down during a 100 miler but the late afternoon climb from Eldorado Creek really took its toll and my feet were killing me. Carol LaPlant, our local support crew had turned up sick and relinquished her pacing duties. She was now on the other side of the barrier, crewing for all the Aussies. I complained to her that my injured knee had altered my gait and was causing foot problems. She had lost her voice but whispered reassuringly that the pain would go away. I wish it would. I really wish it would. Her many 100 mile finishes tell me to trust her judgement. I have never suffered foot problems like this before. My feet end up so bad that all other problems fade into the background. My whole run hinges on my feet. I can easily forget the pain in my knee and my shredded quads. But here, at Michigan Bluff it is all about my feet. There are no blisters; my feet are just burning up. And aching. I am struggling with my shoes and the checkpoint official takes pity on me and tells Carol she can cross the barrier to help out. I change my soggy socks for dry ones and relube the hotspots. I think of taping but the waterlogged skin looks unlikely to hold any tape. The prune-like wrinkles on my right heel have puckered into a gross fold and I look at it wondering what the hell is going on down there. Is that really my foot? Meanwhile, the ball of my left foot feels like there is a glass shard embedded in there. Every footfall is painful.

I look around as runners are coming and going. What am I doing here? This is Western States, get up and run man. Run, the pain will go away. I have been here way too long. I feel like time is standing still. I am cocooned in my own little world. I’m not worried about the cut-offs, I am well ahead of those. But I am conscious of how much time I am losing. The heat of that last climb killed my appetite but I need calories. I feel flat. Carol offers me a bottle of ice-cold iced coffee: Starbuck’s special brew. I don’t know. I feel like I will throw up if I drink it. Take it, she pressed. I skolled it all in one go. Wow, I instantly felt better, amazing. That was so good. The cobwebs recede and I break free of my cocoon. Time to go, thanks Carol. I grabbed my emergency headlamp even though I was going to make the next checkpoint, Foresthill School, in daylight. It had already been a long day, but I was now over half way, I was through the canyons and I just had to get through the night. There was no way I would not finish this thing. Like a drug, the sugar surged through my body. I started running again.

It seemed a lifetime since we had all gathered in the cold and dark at Squaw Valley. A lone, familiar voice cried out: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Tanky, the sole Aussie woman. Without hesitation the response rose amongst the crowd: Oi, Oi, Oi! The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. We were shuffling around like cattle in a stock-yard: shoulder to shoulder. Nervous energy bristling like electricity during a thunderstorm. The shotgun blast launched us on our journey to Auburn, 100 miles away. We were off. I started out with Tim. We climbed the escarpment conservatively at the back of the field. In the pre-dawn light, the huge spotlights and hundreds of supporters along the road all felt surreal. Nineteen Aussies in what we coined, the “Aussie Assualt” had started and we quickly stretched from the very front to the very rear of the field. We all had different ambitions but we all shared one critical goal: the buckle, the coveted finisher’s buckle. Most of us harboured dreams of that elusive sub-24hr silver buckle but I knew I was never a chance. I hadn’t run for five weeks leading up to WS because of a knee injury. Today was just about finishing. I had to avoid the dreaded “silver fever”: the temptation of chasing 24 hours. It could lead to ruin as it had done for many in the past.

“Cooooeeee” echoed down the valley. Brendan. I can see his tall frame up ahead amongst the throng. Again those goosebumps bristled. Look around you, this is it, we finally made it. Two years since I started a thread on Coolrunning announcing our intent. All the planning, all the training and we were finally here. We were living the dream. Like excited schoolgirls, we trudge endlessly up the escarpment. Perhaps it’s the altitude? Perhaps it’s the lack of sleep? Perhaps the euphoria? We need to reign in our excitement and pace ourselves. Soak it up, savour the moment: watch the sun rising over Lake Tahoe; see the endless train of runners stretched out as far ahead and as far behind as we can see. Just in front is Gordy Ainsleigh, the legend who started it all. He is like a god to ultrarunners. He strides along with a comet tail of disciples following him, hanging on his every word. Somewhere below us is Cowman, (the other pioneering veteran) in a full head-dress of cow horns. Gordy stops to bellow a long deep “moooo” to his old mate, far below on the switchbacking trail. Wow. How cool is this? We are on the trail. We are running the Western States100. Way up ahead the elite runners have disappeared over the summit but all around us runners are living their dreams. This race is swooning in character, history and tradition. “Living the dream, baby.” That’s how Tim described it. This became our motto. Pinch me. I am finally here, running Western States 100. You couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. This is where it all began. States is like the holy pilgrimage for trail runners. And here I was finally paying homage. Does it get any better than this? Living the dream baby!

I walk backwards for a while to enjoy the view. I do this often throughout the day. I really want to soak up this trail. I really want to remember this run. Forget the old cliché of smelling the roses. I am going to take this run home with me. I will feel every footfall, taste every mouthful of dust. This race is history and we are living our own little bit of it. Before I know it we pass through the first crowded aid station. I top up one bottle. The Escarpment is the first of many checkpoints and probably the simplest. I establish a routine: as I approach an aid station I remove the lids off my bottles. I ask how far to the next aid, request the appropriate fluids, scoff a cup of water, or later switch to coke, and fill my mouth and pockets with food, generally fruit. But in the crush at the Escarpment I just grab a quick top up and get going. There is a huge bottleneck as we leave the gravel service road and climb onto the narrow trail to the summit. There are hundreds of us and we are all trying to get to the same place. As we squeeze onto the singletrack I realise just how big this race really is.

It is truly beautiful up in the high country: the trail is singletrack winding through green fields full of wild-flowers punctuated by the colourful stream of runners stretched right across the mountain. The pace is slow but there is little opportunity to pass. Gordy is still just in front of me and he surges past the slower runners wherever he can. I follow. Occasionally we encountered puddles of snowmelt, small rivulets running down the trail. People were picking their way gingerly around them. I splashed up the middle and caught up to Brendan. He was following the same path up the middle until he nearly had a shoe sucked right off in the mud. There seemed to be Aussies everywhere. I had already passed Rob and Richard on the climb. Next I settled in behind Tanky but she waved me through on the first downhill. I came up behind a tall bloke wearing a skivvy and KT26s. It had to be Bill, veteran of so many big 100-mile finishes and the master of flirting with the cut-offs. I was surprised that he was so far in front of me. I figured people were still finding their pace. I felt I was moving OK. I had lost Tim in the long single file but thought he would catch up.

After cresting another climb the trail started descending through trees. The heavy strapping on my knee was limiting my leg lift but it was only a vague niggle at this stage. Fantastic vistas opened up and I admired the view across the adjacent valley with a mountain lake shining like some encrusted jade jewel in the lush green foilage. I ran alongside Gordy for a while and got to chat with the legend. I didn’t want to act like a groupie but couldn’t resist the opportunity. He actually remembered having his photo taken with us at the registration the day before. That smile just kept getting wider.

Dust. Everywhere there was dust. It hung limply over the track in the still air. As we started descending for real the track just turned to dust. It permeated your clothes, caked on sweaty limbs and plastered your throat. Like a haze, clouds of dust rose behind each runner. If you shuffled your feet you would lose sight of the ground in the foggy swirls. At Red Star Ridge check point there was a mass of runners queuing at the buffet style food tables. I passed my bottles to be filled, grabbed some food and headed for the exit. I heard the familiar twang of Kelvin’s laconic accent amongst the throng and he sounded terrible. He had been sick and was clearly going to have trouble, eventually leading to a DNF at Michigan Bluff. As we left the checkpoint the trail became strewn with burnt, fallen and felled trees, the legacy of bushfires. And dust. Everywhere there was dust. Pinecones had gathered along the centre of the track. They were like a string of woody pearls lined up along the eroded gutters down the middle of the trail. You had to avoid stepping on them. We were losing altitude fast and despite my knee I was moving well and constantly passing people. I knew this wouldn’t last but made the most of the momentum.

I could see another Aussie t-shirt just ahead of me. The bright green shirts were easy to spot and throughout the day I would chase them. Funny how, with 400 runners I find myself racing against my compatriots. I couldn’t tell who it was. A helicopter buzzed overhead. They were filming the runners on the ridge up ahead of us. Even at height the dust plume it created was a curse. Dust everywhere. I tried to stay in front of other runners to avoid the cloud that followed them. It stung your eyes and crunched between your teeth.

I was making good time on the long downhill through Duncan Canyon. As I wound down to the aid station I caught up to Ron. He was the Aussie shirt I had been following for some time. We chatted as we approached the checkpoint and compared knee injuries but once we were there we went our own way and I hustled through without him. Elapsed time now 5:15 hours, but I was deliberately ignoring the little signs at the entry to every checkpoint telling you the 24 and 30 hour splits. Somewhere around here a lady wearing a pink running skirt and matching tank-top asked me if we were close to the 24 hour splits. I had no idea. I would see her many more times. We played leapfrog along the track for many miles. We were running a similar pace so I would see her ahead for long periods or she would fall behind. I called her the pink lady. A little while later I was following her through a wooded stretch and she fell heavily. The path seemed benign but the light was low after the glare of the open ridgeline. I helped her up but she was clearly shaken. I ran with her for a while but pulled ahead again when I was satisfied she was recovered.

Robinson Flat 6:53 for 30 miles, first real crew access and a gaggle of Aussie supporters cheered me into the aid station. It really lifted my spirits to hear people yelling my name or chanting: go Aussie. Through the mandatory medical weigh in, no problems. I grabbed some food, refilled, and lathered on sunscreen. It was warming up. And I was off. Not long down the trail Horrie caught me and pressed on up the next climb while I slowed to walk. I had passed him at the aid station. I knew he was carrying splits so when I caught him again I asked how he was going. Behind and starting to feel the heat. I reminded him to take it easy and wait until the sun goes down. I also reminded myself to heed my own counsel.

Runners were spread out now but I found myself passing people more than I was being passed. I felt good: my knee was sore but it wasn’t going to stop me. Most of the time I had no idea how far to the next aid station, let alone which one it would be. I didn’t carry splits nor a map. The course was well marked. I chatted occasionally to other runners but as the heat took hold, people seemed to be withdrawing more into themselves. As I came around a bend, Miller’s Defeat sprung up and surprised me. Another quick refill and just as I was leaving the pink lady came in with a couple of other runners. She was distraught, in tears and caked in dried blood. Clearly she had fallen again. They sat her down to clean her up. I figured she was done.

Next stop Dusty Corners. There were no prizes for guessing how it got its name. The sun was at its azimuth and despite not reaching the usual blistering heat, it was still damn hot. Coming from a Victorian winter I could really feel the heat. I found myself running from shadow to shadow. Mostly alone. By now I had also withdrawn into my own little world and was drifting along at a comfortable pace. Last Chance appeared out of nowhere. In fact I was shaken from my stupor by someone shouting my name. It was Penny, the expat-aussie who was working the aid station with her running club before pacing duties overnight. Wow, what a great surprise. She had even hung out an aussie-assault banner to welcome us. She lead me through the buffet spread and over to the sponge buckets to cool down. I soaked myself with the bracingly cold water. I poured the icy water over my hot quads. It felt great and really cooled me down. She updated me on the other aussies and told me Dog was last through and was suffering a bit. I reassured her that there were few tougher and he would be fine. But secretly I thought: hmmm, maybe I can catch him!

Refreshed I took off on the never-ending descent into Deadwood canyon. I ran down, down, down. Switch-back after switch-back. I met up with a runner towards the bottom and we ran together across the swing bridge. He indicated where you could climb down to cool off in the river but I opted to keep moving. We caught up to another couple of runners on the other side cooling their feet in a small pond at the side of the track. Fresh icy water was trickling into the pool from a spring and I stepped straight in to cool off my feet. I filled my hat and poured the icy water over my head then rinsed my bandana. It was time to climb the infamous Devil’s Thumb. I settled into a solid power walk and quickly pulled away from the others. I passed a couple more runners and was surprised at how well I was climbing. Towards the top it was my turn to be passed by two guys who looked way too fresh. We emerged from the trees into the small clearing that was Devil’s Thumb Checkpoint. Aid station volunteers swamped us. Someone took my bottles and ushered me through to a row a chairs, half of them occupied. I felt OK but felt obliged to savour the hospitality. I sat down and was promptly given a popsicle (an icypole) and a cup of fruit salad. Glancing along the line of sorry, smudged faces I hoped I didn’t look half as bad. The chair felt way too good but the icypole was too cold to eat quickly. I opted to eat on the move and got going again.

To my surprise the pink lady was somehow in front of me again. She must have passed me while I was sitting at Devil’s Thumb. She was shuffling along, in a bad way and was contemplating pulling out. I told her that she could walk from here and still finish. Her projected splits were shot and she didn’t seem to have a back-up plan. She was worried about getting all her night clothes wet at the river crossing. She was stressed about the logistics of her crew. We walked and talked for a while, putting things into perspective. She seemed reassured and I pulled away again. I expected that would be the last time I would see her.

The day was finally cooling off as I emerged from the bush onto a paved road. There was a small aid station and pacers and crew were greeting runners and walking them up the steep road that lead to the Foresthill School. The highway into the school was a hive of activity. There was a real buzz in the air. You could feel the energy of the runners, their pacers and their crew, gearing up for the night. I entered the school and was lead through to the crew area. Then I realised the drop bags were back up the hill at the entrance. This was my main drop bag with all my night gear so I had to go and get it. I loaded up, slipped on a longsleeve shirt and fitted my trusty headlamp. While I was changing I was doing some mental arithmetic. 15:19 hours for 62 miles. Only 60 km to go and still 9 hours until the magic 24. Surely that was doable? I ran it by Carol and she knowingly shook her head. No, just shoot for a good time, she whispered. Little did I know what was still to come. Bernie and Lisa followed me out onto the road, taking photos, passing me food and retrieving my rubbish. I asked Bernie how Dog was going. Good but he’s not going to make 24hrs. Bugger, I was sure he would. You know that means he will want to come back? I started running again, feeling like the odd man out without a pacer.

As the sun went down the night became punctuated by headlamps coming and going. Everybody seemed to have a pacer. I latched onto another solo runner for a while and the conversation distracted me from the growing pain in my feet and knee. He pulled away from me on a short sharp climb to Peachstone aid station. This checkpoint was very basic but they had some cold pizza. It was priceless. I shoved a couple of the small strips into my pocket for later. (I found them as a dough ball there after the river crossing.) The volunteer guy told me it was only 5 miles to the American River, all downhill. He lied. Every climb his words echoed in my ears. All downhill. It wasn’t. I was getting weary. My feet hurt. Every rock in the road cut into my tenderised feet. I started hearing water, or was that wishful thinking? I could hear the generators and music rising up from the valley floor; that was for real. The famous Rucky Chucky river crossing. The place was buzzing. Wow, it was surreal. Lights and noise after the dark and quiet of the trail. An injection of much needed energy for a tired body. I checked the stretchers as I had been since hearing Dog was struggling. No Dog but I instantly recognised the mass of hair. Paul?

It was Paul, face down under a blanket. I crouched to speak with him and apart from being a little groggy he seemed OK. I asked what was happening and he said he was waiting for the doctor to clear him to continue. I offered to wait and run with him. He told me to go on. The volunteers steered me into the icy water. It chilled my legs and I grabbed the cable, hand-over-hand, forging my way under the spotlights. Volunteers in wetsuits guided me across and green glow-sticks illuminated the rocky bottom. The water reached my waist. I looked around: here I was in the middle of the American River; I was living the dream. Cameras were flashing on the far bank as I reached it. I found Diane and Lisa and gave Di an update on Paul. Runners were changing shoes and sorting through drop bags. I just grabbed some water and coke and was off.

It was a long slow slog up to Greengate. There were people walking up and down this road to get to the river checkpoint. People everywhere in the middle of the night. At Greengate I was swamped with offers for a pacer. Pacers who were desperate to be a part of this event but their runner had already pulled out. Or runners who had just turned up on the off chance of getting a start as a pacer. One guy gave me the hard sell and I almost agreed simply because I felt sorry for him. I politely declined and kept moving. Later, as runners passed me with their pacer in front, steaming along, I wondered about the sense of my decision. I latched on behind a couple and stuck with them for a while. But running was getting more difficult. My feet were blistering badly and my knee ached. Now my quads were giving up as well. Downhills became my enemy. I was getting so close but the finish still seemed a lifetime away. In the deep darkness of the early hours of the morning I withdrew into my cocoon and just kept plodding along on autopilot.

The night became a blur of movement and pain. The track varied from wide open gravel road to narrow singletrack. Runners with pacers would loom up behind me out of the darkness and I would step aside and let them pass. I would try to match their pace until the pain or fatigue would win out. My quads felt like granite blocks. My feet felt like minced meat. Auburn Lakes checkpoint was just a blur. I just had to keep moving through these early hours of the morning. Winding down a long gradual valley path I could hear music vibrating up from way below. It took another kilometre or more before I finally reached the source. The famous Brown’s Bar aid station. The effusively happy crew offered me drinks and food. Nothing really took my fancy. I glanced at the food and felt nauseous. I took some coke and pushed on. The fog induced by pain focused my intent. Gradually night turned to day and I knew then I was going to make it.

I crossed the road at Highway 49, and entered the last aid station. I threw my headlamp to Steve, Tanky’s crew. I was hoping for some real food but there weren’t any eggs or pancakes so I settled for a milkshake. It went down a treat. Runners were streaming in so I shuffled out, recharged. The trail undulated and I was slowing on the climbs and hurting on the downhills. When I hit No Hands Bridge emotions wracked my body. This famous course landmark signalled the end was near. I fought back the tide. I wasn’t finished yet. The morning was already warming up but I couldn’t be bothered stopping to take off my long-sleeved top. The trail wound around the hillside eventually emerging onto a grassy field. Then it headed back into the woods and I just willed my legs to keep moving.

As I started the gradual climb towards Robie Point a runner was bounding down the path towards me. I recognised him immediately: Tim Tweitmeyer, previous WS winner and 25 times sub 24 hour finisher. A Western States living god. He gave me some encouragement and continued on back through the field, urging runners to the finish. It was another one of those magic moments. It worked. I could feel the spirit of Western States drawing me to that finish line.

The gravel gave way to steep bitumen and I knew I was nearly there. Kelvin appeared and walked and talked with me for a few hundred metres before heading back to cheer the others as they came through. There were houses now. I followed the famous painted footprints on the pavement as they wound through the streets of Auburn. People stopped to clap as I passed. I shuffled along as best I could manage. I crossed a small bridge and rounded a bend and there was the athletics track. I had made it.

As I entered the high-school track the emotional release was overwhelming. As soon as I hit the track I broke into a run. The pain melted away. Tears welled up as I rounded the bend. Diane took my handheld bottle and passed me an Australian flag. Through the fog of fatigue I could hear the announcer calling my name and the crowd around the field cheered me in. It could have been an Olympic stadium filled to capacity. My senses were reeling, my emotions stripped raw. This was it. I was living the dream: Western States100. I fairly floated down the home straight, the applause carrying me along. I held the flag high as I crossed the finish-line: 27:45:19.

I was enveloped in a sea of Aussie hugs. The sense of community that surrounds an event like WS is amazing. Running 100 miles through such spectacular scenery would be reward enough but to share it with so many diversely different people, all with the same goal, all helping each other with no thought of reward other than to finish, is truly an epic journey. There will be other Western States. But I may never run it again. Even if I did, I doubt I could recapture the spirit created by sharing it with the Aussie Assault Team, and especially with my travelling companions, Mellum. I still pause and reflect on moments from the run. I remember something of the trail, something of the trip, a moment in time. And when I do I can’t help but smile to myself. Respect. Running 100 miles is all about respect: respect for the distance; respect for the course; respect for the other runners, volunteers and organisers; and above all respect for yourself and what you can achieve. If you fail to respect any of these it will lead to your undoing. I have great respect for this race, its history and those that complete it.

In a day full of emotional highs and lows there was an encore that I never expected. As the podiatrist finished dressing my blistered feet, Tim came in and I hobbled over to congratulate him as he finished. After an emotional finish-line hug I stumbled into a track-side chair to watch more runners finish. To my amazement the pink lady came onto the track with her pacer. I could not believe it: she was going to finish. I clapped and cheered as she crossed the line. Greg Soderlands, the RD, hung a medal around her neck and she staggered towards her crew. But she saw me sitting beside the track and veered past her friends and crew and made straight for me as I rose from my chair. Like two long lost friends we hugged and tears flowed freely. Unbelievable. I didn’t know this person but we shared the achievement like lifelong friends. Her finish meant more to me than I could ever imagine. She had been knocked down and got back up. Knocked down again, yet still kept going. I had been able to help her a little but more than that I had shared in what she had achieved. Such is the nature of running 100 miles. Not just any 100 miles. We had run Western States. We got to live our dream.