Devil’s Thumb

duh!  I forgot my water bottles

It has been 14 years since my brother and I acted as support crew for a friend attempting the Western States 100 and that experience has certainly driven in part my recent foray into ultra trail running. Our friend, a British chap named Vikara, gritted his way to mile 90 before missing the cutoff.  At the time, our experience as supporting cast was a minor epic in and of itself because the WS100 sets up that way.  You have to drive 120 miles in order to get to mile 31.  It was like that, two nights of no sleep, intense heat, and even more intense boredom.

What we missed out on was the trail in between and where our empathy for our friend was ultimately disconnected.  Our return to Foresthill a few weeks ago with another coconspirator, Mahir, was a first step in completing that connection.

Every year, the WS folks put on a "training" weekend that consists of 3 days of point-to-point trail runs with aid stations to let runners enjoy some practice time on the vaunted course.  We made the trip up to tackle the route from mile 31 (where we sat without chairs so many years ago staring into the forest for several hours awaiting Vikara) to 62 (the past half-way point in Foresthill where apparently the race becomes a bit "easier").

With all nutter events like this you must suspend your sense of practicality and accept the experience for what it is.  After all, we were among just a select couple of hundred who decided that traumatizing their joints over Memorial Day Weekend would be a fun thing to do.

Fun has nothing to do with it, it never does. It is just a tidy adjective that creeps into discussion whenever a few weeks have past after a really long run. I did decide to tackle this attempt with a little less obsessive compulsive behavior.  It smarts to learn many years after adolescence that your self-perception doesn’t entirely match reality.  I am coping.  In fact, I have made it my own challenge, to become "an easy going guy."

As it turns out, there is a stark difference between laid back and ill prepared, a line I hope to discover soon.  Gathering up our stuff at the motel as we were heading out for the big run, I found that I had forgotten my camelbak (just the little item that was going to supply me with water during a 7 hour run).  And in a fit of cavalier idiocy, I grabbed a pair of *cotton* socks and an oversized pair of running shoes.  To my credit, I was able to maintain a degree of chill and was able to bum a waste pack off some guy in the parking lot and make use of some gatorade bottles.

My feet were fine for exactly 8 miles.  Even now the blister pain is still wrapped in the memory. It took me just over 8 hours (Durdam clocked in at 7:30 and Mahir 6:30) to cover the heart of the WS100.  The first 20 miles went quite well (all things considered) as I became acquainted with the stretches between the colorful names I still had in memory: Last Chance, Devil’s Thumb, Michigan Bluff.

The course is hard but in ways I hadn’t really understood.  The footing can be really bad (loose leaves, hidden rocks); I saw several people fall face first.  The profile gets a bit monotonous — long downhill that beats up your legs followed by long uphill that you must walk.  There were certainly parts of the West Highland Way (from last summer) that were technically more difficult and the midges of the Scottish highlands guarantee a constant level of discomfort.  But the WS100 is hot and dusty, big and burly, and I have to say tackling that stretch *after* having run 31 already (making it even warmer and your legs already tenderized) would be difficult to say the least.

Fortunately, this was just a training run and I took full advantage enjoying 10-15 minute soaks with other aching runners in the cold rivers at the base of each of the big descents.  A sight certain to be a bit odd to any outsider hiking in the woods.  In fact, my friend and avid kayaker, Andy, tells me that one hot summer day he and some friends ended up dragging their boats *down* Devil’s Thumb to put in at the bottom only to encounter a steady stream of runners charging uphill in the other direction on what turned out to be a race day.  Two equally extreme species meeting in the wild.

The three of us met up back in town and headed back to our motel in Auburn with a stop along a river for a long soak.  As we climbed out of the canyon in our car we passed a few folks who had "extended" their training runs to 50+ still able to smile or wave and whose awkward gate may only serve to mask a monster physical fortitude.

It was the next morning as I walked gingerly to load up the car and encountered a couple of ladies many years my senior laughing as they set out to meet the rest of their flock for 20 miles on day two, it drove home the realization that many of these people are easy going but decidedly not cavalier.

Some more photos from the weekend.

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