The 27 Hour Day – WSER 2014

The day I was waiting for had finally arrived. After 4 years of dreaming, waiting and training to toe the line at the Western States Endurance Run, it was here. I was ready. I had trained on most of the course (86 miles of it) on many occasions, including organized training runs over the years, as well as solo adventures on the trails.

I had devoured every written word about the race, talked with friends about it and watch countless hours of video to try and gain some insights into what it would be like run this storied race, and run it well. And then the shotgun blast signaling the start of the race woke me up to the reality that I was heading out to run 100 miles.

100 miles through the mountains from Squaw Valley to Auburn with 19,000 of climbing and 23,000 feet of descent lay ahead of me. The history alone of this race is mythical – the first 100 mile race that started the sport of ultra running. The parade of the world’s best long distance runners that have come to prove themselves on this grueling course year after year. The majestic scenery of the Sierra mountains and deep river canyons
leading to the California foothills. I came to this race with high expectations – to finish in less than 24 hours, and to relish every moment on this day. The first few strides as I crossed the start line were surreal. At 5am it was still dark, but the early light of dawn was just behind the mountains, waiting to greet us as we crested the escarpment 2,500 feet above the start line. My goal was to get to the top in about an hour— and I was able to do so in about 54 minutes. I briefly thought about this 6 minutes of savings in my plan, and also remembered the caution that experienced runners told me about pushing too hard in the early part of the race. I felt good at this point, and had miles of single track (mostly downhill) waiting for me on the other side of the ridge. The running felt good and I settled into a comfortable pace with a small group of runners. I remembered that this section of trail was overrun with streams, so I did not hesitate to jump in and get my feet wet at mile 5. It was going to be a long day, and I did not have time to waste trying to keep my feet dry.

The first 16 miles of the course was familiar to me, since I had recently trained there about 3 weeks before the race. By the time I reached the 3rd aid station at mile 16.5 (Red Star Ridge), I was feeling good about my progress and pleased that I was about 12 minutes ahead of schedule. I quickly replenished fluids, grabbed some of my favorite food (potatoes and some soup) and left the aid station quickly heading towards Duncan Canyon. The day was starting to warm up and I was worried about the long descent ahead of me. In hindsight, I was too cautious in that section, going slower to try and save my legs for the later canyons that day. A good friend of mine (Adrian Lazar – 15th overall last year) was telling me that running too fast downhill is a surefire way of burning out your quads, but that running too slow could also be just as bad. I was going to learn that hard lesson this day.

At the bottom of the canyon, I arrived at Duncan Canyon aid station at a seemingly busy time. I had lost about 10 minutes on this stretch, with my cautious running. I was greeted by a friendly volunteer who refilled my bottles while I got some nutrition from the well stocked tables. On my way out I was greeted by friend and ultra runner extraordinaire Jean Pommier who was volunteering at this aid station. Jean acknowledged me with a “Hi Mike” quickly followed by “Keep going!” As I left the aid station on a short, but rocky descent to the bottom of the canyon, I noticed the far peaks above and recognized where I was going. Robinson Flat was the next aid, and is about 6 miles and about 1,800 feet of climbing from the last aid station. At this point (24.5 miles in), I was feeling tired and started to notice that my legs were sore from the combined downhill to that point. I decided to take it a little easier on the climb, and ended up at Robinson Flat about 15 minutes behind my target pace for the first 50Km. The climb was steeper and longer than I anticipated, but I was pleased to find myself pretty close to my goal. Only 110Km remaining!

I was greeted by a medical volunteer as I entered the Robinson Flat aid station to be weighed and to respond to a questionnaire arobinson_weigh-inbout any gastrointestinal distress that I may have been suffering (I volunteered for a study being held at the race). After weigh in (lost 1 pound), I saw Annapurna in the crew area. She told me that my supplies were at the end of the crew area, where Kim, Noriko and Patrick were waiting for me. I skipped the aid station buffet and went to my crew to get a chocolate milk and some potatoes. I took some time to clear the debris from my shoes and headed out for the short climb up to the ridge, en route to the next aid station. This was my longest aid station stop (so far), putting me about 17 behind my race pace.

The run to the next aid (Miller’s Defeat) was easy and mostly a gradual descent. I was able to stick to my plan on this section, but the heat was starting to get to me. As I approached the aid station, I thought for a moment that I was already at the next aid station (Dusty Corners). Confused I looked around and realized that I still had 3.6 miles before getting to Dusty. I picked up some food, got a “car wash” (complete dousing with cold water) and headed down the trail. This next section to Dusty Corners was steep in sections, but had smooth footing – mostly on fire road. This segment was deceptively good for running. In this section, I ran my planned time but now realize that this was too fast. I arrived at Dusty Corners with noticeably sore legs and the heat was making it harder to run.

I was really looking forward to the next section of trail, as it ran along some really runnable single track out to and around Pucker Point. This is one of the places on the trail where you really feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. You are high above the steep river canyon of the American River, with vistas across to rocky cliffs dropping hundreds of feet into the canyon. Once past Pucker Point, it is a relatively short 2.5 miles to one of the highlights of the run for me – a visit to my running club’s aid station at Last Chance. It was just before getting to Pucker Point that I had my first low point, with a loss of concentration, some GI issues (nausea) and fatigue. I forced down a GU gel, which eventually helped me to regain some energy to pick up the pace again. By the time I rolled into Last Chance, I was now 28 minutes behind my 24 hour pace.


All of my running buddies, along with Usha and Siddartha were at Last Chance to greet me. I traded my hand-held water bottles for a hydration vest at this point, as I knew that I was heading into the bowels of the course. I weighed in again (lost 2 additional pounds in the 12 miles since Robinson), and then headed over to the buffet line in the aid station. The next section is known as “The Canyons” – a series of 3 steep river canyons, from mile 45 to mile 62 that are infamous for their heat and steep descents and climbs. I was going to need my hands to help push on my thighs to gain some extra momentum for those climbs! I spent less than 10 minutes at Last Chance, enough time to get a grilled cheese sandwich, some soup and potatoes. I was starting to take too long chatting with Usha, Peter and Dennis
before Penny reminding me that I needed to get going quickly if I was going to chase my goal.

On the run out of Last Chance, I was noticing that my legs were heavy and it was getting harder for me to maintain an even pace even on the slight downhill to the lip of the canyon. Once I started to descend into the first canyon (Deadwood), I realized that my quads were shot – just at the time when I needed them most. I was hoping to recover, and pushed through the pain to try and maintain as quick a pace as I could manage (not so fast, according to my splits!). Lucky for me, this year there was a 30 meter river crossing across Deadwood Creek. This helped to refresh my legs, just ahead of the notorious climb up to Devil’s Thumb. Conscious of the opportunity to lose loads of time on this section (1.2 miles, 1,500 feet of climbing), I pushed hard on the climb to try and not fall further behind my goal, covering the segment from the last aid station to here in 1:47:08 (13 minutes behind my plan). I lost most of my time on the descent to the river, which was beginning to worry me.

We were now in the peak heat of the day, in the deepest canyon, on the steepest climb. I must have passed about 6 people on the climb, as this was clearly taking it’s toll on everyone at that point in the race (mile 47). The American Fire of 2013 ravaged this area, so this section was very exposed, with blackened tree trunks and fine dusty soil over the rocks and roots.

Arriving at the top of the climb, I entered Devil’s Thumb aid station to see some of the fist carnage of the day. Plenty of people who gave too much to make it to mile 48 and were paying the price with nausea, and other heat related issues. I was not feeling good at this point myself, but I did not want to end up on one of the cots or chairs in the make-shift infirmary. I stuffed some potatoes into the pocket on my race vest and grabbed a popsicle on my out of the station. I was not moving well at this point, with my stomach in a really bad state. I hobbled about 1 mile down the trail before I had to jump off the trail to relieve myself. Not such an easy task to do when squatting is so uncomfortable, and you are light headed. I managed to finish up, dig a pit and cover my mess and get going within about 10 minutes.

I am now running almost 1 hour behind my goal, with a bad stomach and blown quads. Definitely another the low point for me in this race. The next section down to river has some beautiful and runnable downhill stretches, but I was no longer able to “run” downhill. I discovered that the only way for me to make forward progress on steeper downhill sections was for me to gently lower each leg in slow, painful steps. I am now realizing that not only is my goal of reaching Auburn in less than 24 hours not possible, but I was now (for the fist time) concerned about making the 30hr cutoff for the race.

At about this point (halfway down to the river), my friend Lina McCain comes running by with a stunned look on her face. She did not expect to see me at this point (she was 30 minutes behind me at Last Chance). I told her my quads were blown and that I was just trying to finish now (plan “B”). She motored on, looking great and running strong to the river. That last mile to the river seemed to take an eternity. I stopped by the trailside to tend to my feet (another 5 minute delay), as I was now compensating with my gait and causing blisters to form on my feet. About 10 minutes before reaching the river, I had my first fall. Because of the pain in my quads, I was leaning back too much and my feet slid out from under me on the steep descent. I landed on my right elbow pretty badly, but was ok otherwise. I got up cursing at myself, took another few steps and then fell again – this time tumbling forward. I broke the fall with my hands but also hit the side of my head as I rolled to absorb the impact. A runner ahead of me stopped to holler back to see if I was ok (I must have made quite a commotion with my fall). I just sat on the ground in a daze, and let him know that I would be alright. After a minute or so, I got up resolved to make it to the next aid station at the river to regroup and assess my injuries. It seemed to take forever, but I made it to the Eldorado Creek aid station where they cleaned up the blood on my hands and I was able to get some food into me (soup, potatoes and m&ms). At mile 53, I was in a pretty sorry state. Bloody, distraught, in pain, hot and weak, I was dreading the task of tackling the next 1,800 foot climb up the canyon to Michigan Bluff aid station. It was then I remembered that my crew and pacer where waiting to greet me there. I had lost track of time and thought that I was hopelessly behind now, and that I would be relegated to chasing the cutoffs for the remainder of the race. I was not thinking straight. I had lost only 20 minutes in the last descent, but it seemed much longer to me. I ran scared from the river to Michigan Bluff, coming in only 1.5 minutes off of my planned split for that section.

michican_bluff_runningLuc_michiganI was first greeted by Annapurna taking pictures of me, and then saw Luc coming towards the aid station. I entered the aid station to get weighed in (down only 2 pounds now) and to answer another questionnaire for the GI study (I had some good stories for them!). As I was grazing for some food, Luc was talking with and
asking how I was doing. I honestly told him that I was unsure if I could go on. Was this going to be my first DNF (“Did Not Finish”)? Without being able to run downhill, how was I going to make it another 45 miles to the finish? “Most of the downhill is already behind you. You must go on!” With one more canyon and around 7,500 feet of feet of descent between here and the finish, this was a daunting task. I looked at him and told him that it may take me 2 hours to make it the next 5 miles through the last canyon. “No problem. I will see you there! Don’t worry, we have all night to make it.” I left the aid station after getting some soup, and then went over where Luc and Annapurna had set up my crew bag. I was hesitant about leaving, mulling about and asking for things I did not really need. I then remembered what a friend told me about Foresthill – “If you make it Foresthill and leave before the cutoff time, you will make it. Just keep moving forward.” I left with Luc and he walked with me to the end of the crew access point.

I started to run as soon as I hit the dirt road leading back to the trail. I was able to make good progress on the mostly flat/uphill road, just as I see a pickup truck approaching. As it was passing me (slowly), the driver calls out “Way to go, runner!” I immediately recognized the driver – it was Ann Trason, 14 time champion of WSER! She was on her way to pick up her runner that she was going to pace to the finish.

As I was running, I started to think about what lay ahead of me. Volcano Canyon and it’s technical and rocky descent, the rollers and 2 steep (but short) climbs of the 16 mile Cal Street section of the course (one of my favorites), the late night river crossing at Rucky Chucky and the 20 miles of trail to the finish. But first, I needed to get through the next canyon to meet Luc at Bath Road aid station. I was able to shuffle (run?) up the mile long hill before turning onto the fire road that leads to the single track descent into the canyon. I was making good time, and started feeling a bit better. The initial descent into the canyon is not so steep, and the trail is nicely shaded with good footing. My confidence was building. As the trail steepened and got more technical, I started having problems again. With the loose footing and fist sized rocks in the trail bed, I was again having a tough time. I looked up to see a runner ahead of me, which broke my concentration and I fell again. This fall startled me and I resolved to concentrate and focus on my footing so I would not fall again. That was the fall I took in the race.

With the last canyon descent behind me, I was able to power hike and run part way up to Bath Road at a good pace. So good, that I beat Luc to the aid station. I ran the last section in 1:15:45 (not the 2 hours I feared), only 4 minutes off of my planned pace. I did not need anything at the aid station, so I continued the 0.7 mile climb up Bath Road to meet Luc as he was coming down to meet me. I was now about a mile from the Foresthill aid station, and more importantly had Luc to pace me. What a relief! As we crested the hill, Luc prompted me to run. We ran the 0.6 miles into the aid station (it was a gentle downhill), passing a few runners.

Luc_foresthillForesthill aid station, at mile 62 is the ultimate stop along the course. Hundreds of crew members and spectators, dozens of volunteers and pacers waiting to pick up their runners. I weigh in (still down only 2 pounds) and then Luc tells me that Usha is parked about a quarter of a mile ahead. Knowing that she has full supplies, I skip the aid station buffet and we start walking down the road. After a bit, we start running and eventually reach the car. The kids were there and Usha had the Canadian flag set up (easy to sport in long line of cars). All of my provisions were set up for easy access, as I was originally planning to switch back to hand bottles. I was now anxious to leave the aid station, so I decided to keep the hydration vest on and took some photos with the family before leaving. It was now almost 9pm, 1h 45m behind my planned departure – and more importantly, starting to get dark.

As we ran along the road and turned down California Street, the crowds were all clapping and shouting. As we approached the trailhead, I was gaining confidence that finishing was indeed a reality. But first, we needed to run 38 more miles… At night.

I pushed hard through the descents to the next aid station, but was not moving very fast. My feet were killing me now, as my blisters were now becoming my major problem. It was slow going on the descents, so we did not spend much time at Cal 1 aid station, in order to make up some time.

The Cal 2 section of the course has numerous rollers (short hills), with corresponding descents. It eventually runs down to the river, but not before a steep climb (“6 minute hill”) and steep descent into the Cal 2 aid station.  When we arrived at the aid station, I decided to address my blisters. Cal 2 aid station had an EMT on hand who benevolently helped me clean my feet and dress my wounds. This was time well spent, but it did cost me another 20 minute delay. I was able to get some soup into me before leaving for Cal 3 aid station. I was now rested and able to run better (not much descending in this section). We were picking up the pace and running almost all of the hills and climbs. On one of the hills, we passed my friend Mariano who was himself pacing a friend. I was a man on a mission now… The river crossing at Rucky Chucky was only about a mile away at that point.

The Rucky Chucky river crossing at night is like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. Aid stations on both sides of the river crossing (near and far), lights and music blasting. There is also a lot of volunteers, pacers and crew waiting for their runners. Since our plan was to cross the river and get aid at the far side of the river, I downed a cup of coke before hobbling down the steps into the cold and dark American River. The crossing is about 100 meters, and at the deepest point about chest deep for me. The volunteers were great who man the cable strung across the river. As you pass each volunteer (standing in the cold river, wearing wet suits), they warn you about rocks and holes as you are walking through the dark river water. I see my other pacer – Kim Espat ahead on the far side, who is going to pace me from Green Gate to the finish. Luc has done his job well, and deposited me on the far side of the river! After greeting Kim, we had a brief stop at the aid station before heading up the 2 mile climb to Green Gate aid station where Usha was waiting for us.  We mostly power hiked, with a little bit of running.

Usha greeted me with a kiss before we headed into the aid station. I decided to change into dry socks and dry shoes, which meant that I would need to deal with my blisters again. This time, I was not so lucky as the aid station captain was pretty much useless. All that they had at the aid station was duct tape, which I had to apply to my feet so that I could get my socks and shoes on. This was going to be painful 20 miles to the finish, but I was thankful it was only 20 miles! It was now about 2:20am as we left Green Gate.

The next section of trail to ALT aid station is great, with gentle rollers most of the way. I was moving slowly, but still able to run most of the way. We lost only about 11 minutes in this section, so I was happy with my progress. I knew that the next section from ALT to Brown’s Bar was going to give me problems, as it had a lot of descending as we headed down towards the river again. It was the middle of the night, around 3:45am when we rolled into the ALT aid station. We did not spend much time here, getting some soup and coke before heading back out. The next 90 minutes of running was tough, grueling and painful. The rollers were getting steeper, and I was getting fatigued again. Kim was great, encouraging me along the way. Calling out each root and rock as we picked our way along the dark single track was helpful. I got a few GU gels into me along this section, and eventually we could hear the pounding rock and roll coming from Brown’s Bar aid station.

I arrived at Brown’s Bar aid at 5:23am (pre-dawn) to be greeted by 2-time WSER champion Hal Koerner! Hal asked what I needed, and helped me fill my hydration pack. As we were talking, he asked me how I was doing. I told him that I blew my quads earlier in the race, and was thankful that I have made it this far. Hal put his hand on my shoulder and said “I’ve been there.” Just last year, Hal dropped at Rucky Chucky due to blowing his quads out in a blistering race with Timmy Olsen (in near record heat). After getting some coke, Hal told me to get of there and go get that buckle. I knew that we had a short descent to the river, and then the trail moderated along a fire road (Quarry trail) before heading up a climb to the Highway 49 crossing.

We were able to make up some time running along the fire road by the river, and made quick time to the trail junction marking the starting point of the climb. This is a nasty section of trail – technical, rocky and just steep enough to make it very hard to run. It was not long before we could hear the cars passing on the highway ahead. Civilization!

Highway 49 aid station is at the 93 mile mark on the course, and is a major aid station. Leaving here, you know that you are going to make it. I wanted to get my feet taken care of, because the duct tape was causing even more problems for me. It looked like there was medical staff on hand, so I asked if they could help. 3 volunteers jumped in to help and look after my feet. It was starting to take a long time as they were wondering what to do, so I told them just to bandage me up and get me out of there. I had lost about 50 minutes going so slowly in the previous 2 sections and I just wanted to get to the finish already! After about 13 minutes in the aid station, I was able to leave and told Kim that I wanted to finish in less than 28 hours. This was the first time I set a time goal for myself since Michigan Bluff. This was a good sign!

There is a short climb as you leave the aid station (shorter than I remembered), before you enter a beautiful meadow 5 miles from the finish. We were moving well now, and I decided to push through the pain and run the descent down from the meadow to No Hands Bridge, our next aid station. I was able to run this section and the remaining sections faster than my 24 hour pace. I was smelling the barn and determined to finish strong.

We decided not to stop at the No Hands Bridge aid station, and ran through all the way to the base of the last climb before Robbie Point aid station. It felt good being able to run past all of the exhausted runners who were now only able to walk. I was gaining confidence with every stride, each step taking me closer to my dream of finishing Western States.

We powered through the climb to reach the road at Robbie Point, after a 636 foot climb up from No Hands Bridge. We were greeted by Luc and Usha who were going to run with us to the finish.

Feeling elated, we ran (albeit slowly) up the steep road into the final mile before the finish. People were sitting on lawn chairs in front of their houses cheering on the runners. Shortly before we passed the mile 99 sign, Gordy Ansleigh (founder of WSER and the sport of ultra running) was sitting with friends cheering us on! We ran up to the last little hill before the bridge that marks that last quarter mile descent into the stadium and finish line. While walking this short section to the bridge, we were passed by lots of pacers and other (elite) runners heading down to Robie Point to meet their friends.

stadium_entryAt this point, we start to run again and I would not stop until after taking that victory lap as you enter the stadium and cross the finish line. As I am running around the track, I can hear the crowds cheering and John Medinger introducing me as I look ahead and see the finish line beckoning me. At this point, I had forgotten about the pain and discomfort of the previous 100.2 miles and could only think about the joy that comes from overcoming adversity to attain one of my most cherished goals as a runner. I cross the finish line in 27:44:35, a few hours off of my original goal. In some ways, being able to deal with my setbacks and difficulties and not giving up made this race even more special for me. I still have a lot to learn in running 100s and this was one of those “teaching moments” where I was humbled by the trail – and schooled in the art of determination and grit.

I will be back again (lottery gods willing!) to reach for my goal of running sub-24. Next time a little wiser and a lot more confident about my abilities to adapt to the eventual setbacks and problems that any 100 mile race entails. See you on the trails!

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