Two Sunrises: Running the 2010 Western States 100

Prologue

The most common question asked of an ultra-runner is unsurprisingly, "Why?"

What follows is decidedly not a meditation on this particular question.  I have simply set out to remind myself (and to offer to anyone interested an understanding) of what transpired while I ran the 2010 Western States Endurance Run.

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100 Miles is a long way.

For me, the "why" has been something of an evolving topic or insight.  I think, this time, it was the product of my keen love of the Sierra and fond appreciation of the work and support provided by the organizers and 1,500 volunteers who make this event possible.

There are many experiences available to the hundred mile trail runner.  I am fortunate to have had one where just about everything went well.  I was patient.  I was focused.  I had an incredible crew.  And though there was ample pain and suffering, my stomach was fine, and I avoided the somewhat cliched "death-defying harrowing story of perseverance."  Ask anyone who has been to the hospital following an endurance event and I think you'll find a unanimous sentiment that the risk of serious injury or death is not part of the allure of participation.

My difficulties primarily came in the years and days leading up to States in the form of doubt, fear, and the odd nagging injury. Just 10 days before the run, my neck seized up completely, making any movement excruciatingly painful.  Each day it got a little bit better until I was relieved to go for a jog the day before the run.  Was it a bad yoga posture, nerves, or some strange physical response while tapering?  I have no idea.

In the end, I've learned (like many before me) that many accomplishments are often preceded by a moment of surrender, a realization that the best laid plans go awry, and that we can control everything until the very moment we find we have no control over anything.

And to the 400 or so runners brave or foolish enough to set out on this trail, the sentiment is very calmly summarized by the long-time race director Greg Soderlund this way:  "we take what the mountain gives us."

Two Sunrises

"It must be your lucky day."

I look up at the 7/11 clerk with a confused look.

"$7.77."

He points at the bill for the bottle of Tylenol and Aspirin that I am clutching in my hand.

It is 3:45am Friday morning and I have a pounding altitude induced tension headache.  In 24 hours I will be putting on my gear for the Western States Endurance Run.  This was the night I was supposed to be getting a big chunk of sleep. The headache that has been tormenting me since midnight has decimated that.  As I drive back to the condo in a cold rain, I am oddly amused that in none of my numerous checklists is there a provision for rain at the start, but I know it will be different in 24 hours.

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Counting down.

After a few hours of additional sleep, Friday is a blur punctuated by repeatedly noting the large clock at the starting line that is counting down to 5am Saturday.  I leave my meticulously packed clear plastic drop bags at the designated spot where they will find their way to assorted out of the way places on my route to Auburn.  Normally, part of the beauty of running is the limited amount of gear.  Anyone who has done a triathlon knows this.  Ultra running is similar to regular running until you cross into the 100 mile territory where the complexity suddenly jumps an order of magnitude.   This run requires sorting out nutrition, hydration, electrolytes, shoe changes, clothing changes, lights, and a laundry list of little things that have caused me angst for the last few months.  A few years ago I showed up at the 32 mile Memorial Weekend Training Run playing it cool.  I forgot my running socks and my water bottles.  No big deal, I thought.  As I limped in after 8 hours with feet riddled with blisters and arms sore from holding plastic bottles with no handles, I didn't feel like I had persevered, I felt like an idiot who needed to learn the fundamentals of preparation.

As I shed the weight of the logistics, I try to stay off my feet and pretend that I am enjoying a calm vacation in the mountains. 

Time has already started to speed up and slow down, a phenomenon that is a hallmark of the ultra experience. I go for a brief jog and some strides in the early evening and see the large clock again–my hours of sleep quietly ticking away.  After dinner, I carefully lay out my gear and review the game plan with my good friend and crew member, Mahir.  He has been largely responsible for keeping me from panicking under the weight of small details where I usually find myself enveloped in a cognitive fog.

Tomorrow will be a very long day.

I get as good a night sleep as I was expecting. Awakened briefly at 10:30pm to loud partygoers loitering outside, I doze off again.  By 3am, I am pretty much up and ready for breakfast and last minute stuff.  As I down my ritual bowl of oatmeal with a crumbled chocolate chip cookie, I feel a nervous calm. The countdown clock reasserts itself as the next 90 minutes feel like an inexorable march, sands running out of the hour glass.

P1020651 There are some amazing beginnings to amazing events throughout the world of sports.  I think of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge shaking at the start of the New York City Marathon or the helicopters lifting up and over the pier in Kailua-Kona as the Ironman World Championships kick off.  The Western States Endurance Run is one such spectacle.  It is, however, a relatively small concentrated bit of enthusiasm, limited by the size of the crowd drawn out at 5am to see the 400 some odd runners (no pun intended) standing literally at the foot of the Squaw Valley Ski Resort.

It is dark with bright lights piercing the the night on a steep fire road leading up and up toward the eventual pass at 8,700 feet.

I fight my almost 25 years of competitive running by slotting myself in the back quarter of the pack where I will remain the entire race.  A surprising feat for me with my history of going out much too fast and finishing far too slow.

I hear the gun, the noise, the cheering, cameras flashing.  I am swept up and carried impossibly uphill.  The run climbs some 2,500 feet in the first few miles. You can't really run it. I for one can't.  I am told that event the legendary Tim Twietmeyer ran the first 400 meters and would then start walking.  But the energy carries me uphill at 15 minutes a mile with lots of nervous chatter.  I overhear snippets about people who have done myriad hundred milers and beyond.  I catch one person saying,

"oh, then this race should be easy for you!"

The retort is quick and sharp, a reminder that the nervous levity only thinly masks the challenge ahead,

"it's a hundred miles, it's never fucking easy."

I am officially in over my head.  I have completed 50 miles a total of seven times.  Two of those times I was trying to go further (attempting 95 and then 75) but had to stop.  I have been at this for 5 years and though I am in the best ultra shape of my life, I am not confident.  My humility, ultimately, will serve me well over the next day.

My approach for the run was to try to be absolutely relaxed for the first 62 miles.  Focused, but easy.  Except for the fact that I don't know what 62 miles is like, I am on board.  If the bigger picture is hard for me to comprehend I am able to fall back on simple lessons like: little things mean a lot. Forget to take an S-Cap (sodium pill), and you may be vomiting an hour later.  Step on a rock and roll your ankle and you will find that a 30 minute mile is a hopeless endeavor.  Focused, but easy.
 
Nothing like a little adrenaline and altitude to wake you up first thing in the morning.  The first aid station is only 3 miles up the hill because of the snow and ice that remain from the winter.  The next stop, Talbot Creek, will be 10 miles down the trail on a portion of the rerouted "snow route" because the traditional stations at Lyon Ridge and Red Star were not accessible.  That is good and bad news.  Bad because, we had a lot of snow in the first 10 miles.  Good because miles 10-21 would be beautiful and not very technical.

The last mile to the pass is on icy hard pack and I am drawn into a single file pace line following the footprints cautiously.   The footing is uneven, sharp, and perilous.  Awkward steps and slips now can lead to strange muscles and flexors being strained in unknown ways, and sure to unravel many hours down the road.

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The first sunrise leaving Lake Tahoe.

As we cross the divide, a spectator is playing a loud gong. I nearly fall as I try to take a quick picture looking back at the emerald Lake Tahoe in what is a spectacular sunrise.  The air is thin and clear, cool but warming.  As we plunge onto the back side I recall a training run I did last summer with my friend Chris Sacca.  The next 5 miles through Granite Chief Wilderness hang on the shoulder of the mountain, a side cut where your left leg is almost always below your right.  We have traded the dust from last summer for long stretches of snow and melt water.

Caution rules the day.  I laugh when I see the first ever runner of this event, Gordy Ainsleigh, now 63, come barreling by on the high side of the snow.  He is bare chested and by my observation crazy as he nearly takes out another much smaller runner in a stumble.  I will chat with Gordy later on around mile 14 and take a quick picture with him.  He finished the run again this year though not within the 30 hour cutoff for official finisher status.

The morning is quite literally breath taking.  We are roughly 7 miles in and I am a few yards behind a handful of other runners.  I won't encounter complete solitude until mile 38 or so, but the field has quietly but dramatically thinned out.  My gaze is mostly on my footing. Some portions of the snow are so treacherous that some folks slide down like they are sledding.  My gaze wanders up to my right and I freeze.  Just 30 yards away is an enormous bear.  He is standing up.  I have never seen a bear standing up. He appears to be 10 feet tall and watching the runners go by.  My pulse jumps and I hot foot it to catch and *pass* the runner ahead of me instinctively doing everything I've been told not to do when encountering a bear.

By the time I happen on the lone volunteer at FR51, I have decided the bear was a good omen. I have been chatting with a woman who made it to Highway 49 (mile 93) last year before missing a cutoff.  She has completed the course eight times and was crushed that she had let down her grandkids.  I thank the volunteer who is pointing us to the left and has been standing for hours miles from anything.  We begin the altered route which means we will be descending and mercifully out of the snow until mile 29 when we climb back up to Robinson Flat.  2.5 hours to go 9 miles.  It is 7:30am and as I wind down this fire road, the majesty of the Sierra comes into view and a horizon that holds, somewhere very far away, a finish line in Auburn.  For the first time I feel the warmth of the sun as the trail starts to heat up.

The last week I had been obsessively checking my iPhone for assorted weather reports from Auburn and Foresthill.  For a long time it looked as if we would get mild (low 80s) weather and then everything changed.  Particularly distressing was the NWS report about the first triple digit weekend of the year.  I have no idea how hot it will be, but I am prepared.  The humidity at Squaw Valley and now as I am gracefully descending for miles is higher than normal.  I trade places with my friend Charlie before letting him go after the Talbot Creek station (mile 13).  He is cheerful, soaking it all in and in far better shape than I am but I will learn later that his stomach gave out and he was a casualty at mile 85 requiring multiple IVs.

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Just before Duncan Canyon Aid Station.

The fire road turns briefly to asphalt, hotter now, and then onto a beautiful section of single track by the French Meadows Reservoir.  The water triggers some memories of my failed 2006 attempt at the West Highland Way in Scotland.  The Poppy (mile 19) Aid Station is behind me. I am sticking to my regimen of water and S-Caps, a CocoChia bar and some Honey Stingers.  My mind wanders to thoughts of an early lunch at the Duncan Canyon Aid Station (mile 23).  After many miles of easy terrain we start a long climb up to Duncan.  It is through burned forest and scrub, hot, dusty, but I am excited because I am on plan and can't wait to see my crew. As I crest the hill I am exuberant for the first time.  It is only 11:15am and I am doing just fine.

My brother Durdam and good friend Vikara look thrilled to see me as they sweep me into a section they have set up with a chair.  My shoes have been soaked but I tell them I will hold off changing until I see them again at Dusty Corners (mile 38).  I am treated to a quick rub down with Traumeel cream and a tasty sandwich with potato chips.  My mouth is surprisingly dry and it takes longer than anticipated to down the food.  The volunteers bring me whatever I need and seem to anticipate what I want before I can actually call for it.  My Western States mentor Ted Knudsen's final advice was simple:  make sure all systems are at 100% for the first 30 miles, then make sure when you get to Foresthill (mile 62) you have something left to make it to Auburn.

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Refueled!

I am trying to smile as I roll out of Duncan with two cheeks stuffed with food.  It takes me a little bit of time to get my legs going again because my body is trying to go into digestion mode.  I have a swollen bandana with water absorbent crystals around my neck keeping me cool though at times it appears to grow in an attempt to choke me. The warmth is back but my weekly sessions of Bikram yoga seem to have me reasonably adjusted to heat.  The snow has Duncan Creek, normally a small splash, at a full, waist deep rope assisted cross.  The water feels icy cold but very good.  I try to enjoy it quickly because I know the climb up to Robinson Flat drags on forever.

And it drags on forever.  Last summer Mahir and I ran this section.  We got lost with a threat of a mountain thunderstorm looming overhead but eventually found the trail.  I was on this portion of trail many years before on a mountain bike ride that went horribly awry–it got dark and we had no water or food or lights. 

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More snow at Robinson Flat.

Vaguely aware of the heat and debris cracking underfoot, I am plodding, trading places with a Swiss gal, Gabi, who is attempting her first hundred.  We will be trading places for more than 20 hours.  The last half mile is a meandering slog until suddenly we hit the snow again.  There are ropes and noises in the distance.  The footing is again treacherous but I am excited.  Robinson is a milestone. Mahir has driven 150 miles to meet me at mile 30. He has a big smile.

My weight is perfect, half a pound down from where I started.  My regimen of S-Caps and water seem to be working well.  There are bells and whistles and shouts and more volunteers than I can count.  I wade through a sea of people to the tarp that Mahir has laid out and bum a chair from his neighbor.  The snow makes it feel cool in the sunshine as I down another sandwich.  7 hours in, I am sipping a small cup of soda with ice and smiling even though the next 30 miles or so are the hardest terrain of the run.

A few minutes outside of the aid station, my mood turns sour.  Ultras are like that.  For someone like me whose mind is prone to wandering, I have spent years just trying to keep my thoughts on the step ahead.  There are times when you feel like you could run forever and revel in fantasies of incredible times.  Those are the times when I yell at myself to look down and focus.  There are times when you feel like the next step will be the ultimate death of you and you are angry and hateful.  Those are the times when you can either eat, drink, or con yourself.  I am angry at the snow in the mile or so that continues out of Robinson Flat. 

The crest brings back the heat.  I have been on this section before and always wondered what it would be like with 30 miles already in my legs.  I am slower.  For the first time I am aware that my feet are starting to hurt but I know I will be getting a foot bath and shoe change in 8 miles.  I continue to be cautious about pushing the pace though in reality, I am going through a rough patch.  Miller's Defeat (mile 34) passes by without distinction.  I am amused by a "magic cloud" which seems to be, not joking, shadowing me.  I want to be faster down to Dusty Corners (mile 38) but my feet just hurt.

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Durdam cleaning off the dust.

Durdam and Vikara meet me as I arrive at Dusty Corners and I check in quickly before heading over to the area they have set up for me.  The sight of them brings the smile back to my face. Both are exuberant and go to work massaging more Traumeel into my quads and calves.  Durdam has a foot basin and I peel off my dirty socks.  My feet are given new life, new socks, new shoes.  I labor over another sandwich as they encourage me to keep doing whatever it is that I am doing.  It is hard to describe my amazement at discovering a port-o-potty a few steps away.  I have no idea how or why it is there, only that it is perfectly placed and timed.

With a fresh coat of sunscreen, I buckle my waist pack and am off again thinking I have taken spent too long at the aid station. "Beware the chair" is a common mantra among 100-mile runners.  As I head out I notice the 24 hour, 30 hour, and absolute cutoff times.  I am disappointed to see that I am only 30 minutes ahead of 30 hour pace.  A few hundred meters later my disappointment has become angst.  Before the race I figured the most likely scenario for me not finishing would be that I was reduced to a pace that had me miss a cutoff time.  Angst now panic.

Although I had two rough (read very bad) performances at the 50 milers I did in March/April, I did have one confidence boosting run.  That was roughly 30 miles during the Western States Training Weekend, and during that event, I had run particularly well on this very section of the course: Dusty Corners to Foresthill.  I talk myself down.  My mind wanders miles ahead to Michigan Bluff and beyond.  I wonder how my wife Julie and our 4-month old Nico are doing.  They must be leaving for Auburn.  It is sure to be hot in Auburn.  I kick a rock, stub my toe and I am back near mile 40.  The heat reappears in waves and my waist pack feels heavy.   I am carrying 3 water bottles now to be safe.  Alternating which hand gets 2 bottles gives me a way to pass the time.  I am suddenly aware that I am completely alone.

This part of the course is stunning, thousands of feet above the American River it winds through the woods with some turns that look out on the canyons.  I am comforted to see medical volunteers who are running between stations to catch any folks who may be in distress.  My pace quickens and I am focused again. I try to recall the run from several weeks before.  Water, S-Caps, some snacks.  Incredibly I hold a 10 minute pace over the next 6 miles to Last Chance.  I am now a full 90 minutes ahead of 30 hour pace and the panic is gone.  My weight is good at the medical check.  I am alerted to "watch out" for a large snake just ahead on the trail.

The trail from Last Chance, an old abandoned mining town, to Michigan Bluff has a historical designation.  It includes two violent descents to river crossings and then two severe climbs.  The first is a nasty ascent to a rock outcropping aptly named Devil's Thumb.  My legs are tested on the way down to the swinging bridge that traverses the water.  Mercifully, my quads are still there, but I have to stay under control because if I spend my legs in the next 10 miles, I will have nothing for the second half and I will not finish.  It feels less hot than I anticipate, the day is getting on and certain sides of the canyons are shaded.  I cross the river and soak in the spring on the far side.  It is very humid.  Here comes the big climb.  I am ready.  A few weeks ago, I felt great going from the river to Devil's Thumb in 34 minutes.  In the back of my mind, I remember the year before when I was wheezing and doubled over as it took me more than an hour.

Living in Mill Valley, I have climbed Mount Tam many times leading up to the run, always choosing steep routes and trying to steel myself for these canyon climbs.  I am treading a fine line.  I have the strength but not the mileage under my belt.

Our first child, Nico, was born in February, 3 weeks before his due date.  The last four months are a wonderful sleep-challenged haze.  I am increasingly aware that I have knowingly and unknowingly lied to both myself and my wife about the time commitment required to do this run.  Unsurprising, as I have a history of optimistically overcommitting.  I can not express the gratitude I will feel toward my wife when this journey reaches its end. 

Now, even my most ardent efforts can not unkink the switchbacks.  It feels steeper and longer.  My heart rate is higher than it will be during the entire race.

46 minutes. Done. 

The aid station at Devil's Thumb is renowned for their ice popsicles.  I am winded but I apparently look pretty good to the medical crew.  There are a lot of folks milling about and I try to take it all in.  As my eyes glance around, I suddenly notice a row of cots and many people in real distress.  I am uneasy now with the scene.  It is not what it first appeared. I gulp down two cups of hot chicken broth, grab my popsicle and shuffle out without looking back.

It is a couple more miles uphill to the ghost town of Deadwood where I splash myself at the water pump.  I am past 50 miles and from here on I know I am in uncharted territory.  In the latter stages of the race, I grow fond of saying every step is a new personal record.  The steps now lead to El Dorado Canyon (mile 52).  I am chatting with a guy from Dallas.  He is tall and untrained on the hills.  He is laboring but he is tough and after some leapfrogging he will leave me behind and finish a full hour ahead of me.  This is notable because for the remaining portion of the run, I will be passing other runners the entire way.

The haunting shadows give way to another round of intense heat as the trail rides the western ridge of El Dorado.  It it goes on and on.  I am alone again and frustrated.  The river feels miles below me and the path refuses to cutback.  I find myself shuffling to a walk on some of the flatter sections, glad to have the 3rd water bottle.  I pour water repeatedly over my head.  When it hits my chest, I spasm and cough.  I imagine there is a lot of dust in the airways.  It is quiet except for the river.  I can hear my heavy feet.  My waist pack shifts from side to side.  I have either over budgeted the food or I am not eating enough.  I have no idea.  By this time with all of my other running adventures, I would be eating a pizza.

The volunteers at the El Dorado aid station douse me with water soaked sponges.  I sit for only a few seconds waiting for all 3 bottles to be filled.  I have caught a few more folks at the bottom of the canyon.  In planning I imagined cooling off in the river but the water is raging and nobody else is headed that way. The cold water now has me shivering which is a bit odd but the far side of the canyon is enveloped in dusk.  The air feels less hot, just muggy like a late summer afternoon on the east coast.

It is only a handful of miles from this river crossing to Michigan Bluff (mile 55), but they will be the loneliest ones I travel during the whole race.  The vanishing light and relentless climb have my spirits sinking.  I am mentally up ahead imagining greeting the crew.  I calculate some times based on my pace.  If I am after 8pm at the next aid station, my pacer Mahir can join me.  I am going to come in just under and I am debating whether I will just wait it out.  My brain strains translating the time of day to the hours elapsed.  This calculation will become even more difficult down the road.

I continue m
y fuel and salt regimen.  When not complaining to myself, I scan the horizon trying to guess how much higher and further I still have to travel. A photographer appears and I know I am getting closer but these characters are intrepid and in looking for that perfect shot seem to set themselves up further from access points than one would imagine.  The trail widens and I can feel the dirt road coming.  In the last half mile to the aid station are assorted crew members clearly anxious about seeing their runner come climbing out of the abyss. They are struggling with mosquitos.  My 15-hour trail scent must be keeping insects away.  I laugh to myself.  I have so very far to go.

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45 miles to go.

I am smiling as I jog into the small town. Town is a generous label. Michigan Bluff is a cluster of houses on the spot where there was once a large mining town that itself had been relocated because the old town literally slid down the canyon walls as a result of the water sluicing.  My nuanced expression (relief and exhaustion) is similar to the one I would be wearing at the end of a race, but I'm not at the end, I am at mile 55.  I am spent but the biggest canyons are behind me.  It is 7:50pm and I already know that I will take my time, eat some food and wait to have Mahir join me.  It will be dark before we get to Foresthill and after this last lonely trek, I am ready to have company.  The team rubs down my legs and shoulders telling me that they are shocked at how good I look and my muscles feel.  I hope they are telling me the truth but I do know that my legs feel surprisingly ok.

Our lights are off but strapped on.  I have a hydration pack now and my arms feel such relief after hours of carrying those water bottles. We saunter proudly out of Michigan Bluff only to be harassed by some gravel that forces me to stop twice to clean out my shoe.  This next section is eerie to me.  I never really like the approach to Volcano Canyon–a smaller but nasty sibling to the ones I have completed.  I got lost here on the training weekend a few years ago.  Took a left too early and ran until the trail ended.  Mahir and I are chatting and I feel my spirits rising as we find our way to the top of the grade.  We start jogging.  Julie will be at the end of Bath Road, only a few miles away.  I haven't seen her in 3 days and I miss her.

The descent into Volcano is rugged.  Buoyed by food, a pacer, and the thought of seeing my wife, I find my pace quickening.  It is soon faster than I have run all race.  My focus becomes razor sharp.  I must not sprain an ankle or worse.  Running this quickly is probably a bad idea, but I am actually having good fun.  I continue to push the tempo and realize that Mahir is lagging behind.  I can't imagine what he is thinking at this point.  He has been up since 4am, driven countless miles, and must be completely confused.  Faster.  Definitely a bad idea. The light is fading and I am locked in.  We must be doing 7 minute pace, so far from plausible I am grinning as I run.  I am actively trying to drop my pacer as if I were on a cross-country run back in college.  We are dancing down switchbacks and finally to the creek.

The way out is longer and now dark as if someone turned the lights out.  My shoes are soaked again from the crossing and my feet hurt.  The ebb and flow.  I know for certain I will need new shoes at Foresthill (mile 62) and am a bit afraid of the blisters I know I have been ignoring.  We grind uphill.  I am tired.  It was fun while it lasted.  Now I can't wait for the trail to hit Bath Road.  We hear voices.  I hear Julie's voice.  She has been amusing the other crew helpers with one liners,

"Nothing says ultra marathon like waiting in the dark for your runner to pop out of the woods!"

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Climbing Bath Road with Julie by my side.

I give her a big hug.  I am excited but winded.  At the food table I have some fruit and a small cup of soda.  We chat briefly with the youngest entrant (18) who I saw last on my way to Robinson.  He looks pretty good but will ultimately abandon the race after mile 80.   We parade up Bath road and can feel the energy of Foresthill in the distance.  I am in need of a rest and can not recreate the fantastic pace we had on the way over.  It is 9:30pm.  I would normally be winding up my day and heading for bed.  My body knows it.  I find the cars and lights of town jarring.  It is loud and there are people everywhere.  There is a red carpet leading to the medical scale.  Once again I am in great shape and pass through to an area where the crew has set up for me. 

My good friend Nick has been manning the first ever live feed from Foresthill and shooting video clips of lots of runners.  He has seen a totally different race.  Eight hours of the entire field as they passed by exhibiting every manner of emotion.  He will be there for a few hours after I depart before heading to the Holiday Inn to catch some rest.  It is good to see him.  I am amused to hear that many people have been unaware that the aid station vaseline jar was positioned perfectly in front of the video camera allowing many runners to put on a real show for the live audience.  I down some soup.

 I have crew members helping me into new shoes and a new shirt.  My feet are taped in a fashion that miraculously lasts until I finish.  My shirt, amusingly enough, goes on *backwards*, something I won't discover until I change in a restaurant bathroom at 3pm the next day.  I have another sandwich for "dinner." My one awkward moment comes when I attempt to brush my teeth with a Colgate Wisp, something I have never tried and brings out a gag reflex which would have been the case even had I not been running.  We stay too long again.  It is very hard to leave Foresthill.  I won't see Julie until the finish. My crew will be unavailable for another 4 hours.  As we head out down the road with our lights blazing, we are smiling again.  I give Julie another hug and a kiss and turn onto Cal Street.

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Positively Cal Street.

Positively Cal Street.  Just a phrase that stuck in my head for a year since I first ran this 16 mile stretch of the course that winds and twists down to the middle fork of the American River.  I have never run it at night.  I am checking my systems.  The blister tape is slippery but seems ok.  My legs are worked but still moving.  My salt balance seems good.  Mahir and I are chatting a bit but my exuberance and smiles have shifted now to a steely determination. For me, I am realizing, this is the critical section.  I have completed the first two portions in the fashion that Ted had advised and now the run turns into a battle to remain focused, alert, upbeat.  The 2-foot wide trail with sharp drops and rocks and roots leaves no room for dreaming.

We are working our way steadily down the switchbacks alternating who goes first.  Mahir's light is much stronger which is good and bad as it can sometimes cast awkward shadows.  It is so humid that I am sweating more than during the day.  We are moving, running steadily and passing people.  Other runners are like fireflies appearing in the distance and we steadily draw near.  As the night passes, we have not only a rare full moon but later a partial lunar eclipse.  Surprisingly, these wooded sections do not benefit much from the additional light.  Dardanelles Aid Station (mile 65) comes in due time.  The ritual to the river is the same: we fill up on water, I down some soup, and we head out.  It isn't until later that I realize I have avoided all chairs until briefly at Green Gate (mile 80) and then not again until the finish.

Peachstone (mile 70) is a will-o-the-wisp.  I think that I see lights in the and they disappear.  Again, the distance seems to play tricks.  We shuffle on trying to remember what it was like when we ran this section in the daylight. After more bends, the lights are back.  Noise.  Laughter. I sidle up to the soup stand, the scene is incongruous. The broth is warming.  As I turn to look for Mahir, I notice a handful of runners either asleep or in distress in chairs by the trailside.  A wave of uneasiness like I felt back at Devil's Thumb. Time to leave.

Can it possibly be this humid? I have a Tamalpa singlet over my shirt which is probably heating me up but I want to represent for any Tamalpans who are working the far side of the Rucky Chucky River crossing. I have been a regular at the Saturday Run and had a great time learning the hidden trails up and down Mt. Tam. The only side effect of those outings were 2 medium ankle sprains. Enough to sideline me for a week or so and unfortunately enough to neutralize the technical trail skills I had been acquiring. Still, I realize now that those rain or shine Saturdays have been invaluable.

We are shuffling toward Ford's Bar aka Cal 3.  Steep descent on more tiny single track and then a particularly nasty climb to the aid station up a section of fire road. When we pop out onto the road I am aware of the complete darkness.  The climb is sharp, much steeper than I remember. Mahir and I make small talk as we take turns straining to see some lights up the hill, both wanting to complain but neither doing so. Nothing. A few turns later we reach the top and still no aid station. After a brief deliberation we shrug our shoulders and continue down the trail.

Cal 3 appears another mile down the road. Relocated for a reason that I can not remember. I am not interested in hanging around. We are much lower down and near the river, technically a mile closer. We ride the ridge as it climbs and winds. There are points where the moon is shimmering on the water. It is after midnight. 20 hours.  Time itself has begun to have new and unfamiliar characteristics. Suddenly we are at river level with sand underfoot. I recall this portion from our training run last summer. But the trail seems to go on and on. Climbing again. Then falling. Mahir's light goes out but he does not want to change the battery opting for a handheld light instead.  I am irritated. We walk for a bit demoralized that I can't close out a what has been a solid effort since leaving Foresthill.

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Past 2am, river crossing.

And just when hope disappears, the river arrives.  It is a bizarre transport operation in the pitch of night.  We head immediately for the awkward descent to the river bank.  I try not to fall as I survey the boat.  I am struck by the incredible number of helpers here (nowhere) in the wee hours of the now morning.  The jovial oarsmen launches us out and upstream into the current.  It is 2:30am, how many times has he done this already?  His execution is flawless and we glide across the cold water.  On a normal year, we would have been waist deep moving hand over hand on a rope line.  Not missing that experience.  We were in that water last summer and it was take your breath away cold.  I troll my hand in the water. Yep, cold.

We climb out on the far side, 78.1.  Durdam and Vikara are there, perhaps a tad beleaguered but smiling to see us. The folks on this side of the river seem more subdued.  I chat with the medical folks, get some soup, and we start the brutal 2 mile ascent to Green Gate (mile 80).  Durdam and Mahir are 10 yards ahead of Vikara and me.  About half way up, Vikara tells me that Durdam is keen on running the next section with me, 13 miles leading to Highway 49 (mile 93).  I am slightly confused because Mahir and I had been doing quite well but I nod in agreement.  What Vikara doesn't tell me is that Mahir is completely spent and will be lying down on the trail when my brother and I depart.

This section stretches out in unending fashion.  We pass people going up and coming down.  Some friends and family of runners are asleep on the side of the trail, waiting.  It is a long day for everyone involved.  My patience is again waning.  The full moon gives off views of this eternal fire road in the distance.  As with a few other stations they arrive just as your hope evaporates.  I gingerly take a seat and some more soup.  I have plenty of time to cover 20 miles.  I have run the next 10 miles, albeit a full 17 years ago.  My feet hurt and I can feel myself searching out some recesses of will to depart.  It will be a long time before we see the crew again.  Night will have become day. 

My fears are justified.  The next section is pitch dark.  I try to distract myself listening to the chatter of the runners just ahead on the single track.  I feel the blisters on my feet. My quads are in dire reserves.  Every muscle around my abdomen feels strained like I have been in a sit-up contest.  The trail is very technical, weaving in and out of the canyon ridge, crossing small streams, climbing and falling.  My brother is predictably trying to get me to go faster.  He creeps too far ahead of me a few times until I stop in protest.  He knows me too well.  I chase him slowly to Auburn Lake Trails and the welcome faint hum of the generators and a slow dawn.  More soup.  I am unaware that my fellow runner Charlie is somewhere at the station in distress, race over.

I have some soup and some Cliff Shot Bloks and we amble out.  I have been on my feet for more than 24 hours. Light continues to creep over the canyons.  I am already nervous about running into the morning heat.  My headlamp and cap have found their way into my waist pack.  The trail rolls on and I pull out my phone to film some video of my second sunrise.  Durdam is unsurprisingly up ahead but retreats startled.

"Are there mountain lions here?" he shouts.

Um, yes.  I am thinking.  One mauled a local runner several years ago.

After considering waiting for someone to pass us by as bait, I recover my senses and tell him to keep moving.  Eventually we decide it was some sort of bird.  Winding our way to the outrageous Brown's Bar Aid Station (mile 89.9), I try to recall 1993.  It will be completely unfamiliar until we arrive at the aid station.  The canyon loops back incessantly like a clover and though we hear the music, it takes forever to arrive at the spectacle.  We are greeted by men in drag and a full bar as we scramble up a steep incline.  This is where Vikara was cruelly halted for missing the time check.  So very far to have run and not to see the finish.

It is early morning and we are well ahead of the cutoff time. We could walk the rest of the way and be fine.  My mind, however, is playing tricks.  I am thinking of every possible scenario where things could unravel.  The 90 miles under my belt feel like a prelude to the 10 longest I know still lie ahead. Time and space quite literally stretch out.  I know nothing about the next 6 miles of the course and that ignorance makes me miserable.  In these foothills outside of Auburn, I alternate between taking in the rising sun and the beauty of the river.  The next stop is Highway 49 (Mile 93.5).

I bark at Durdam repeatedly because he keeps saying, "Highway 93" instead of 49. He tells me after the run that my irritation was a sure sign that I was fine. My ire is compounded by looking out at the horizon and slowly deducing that any "highway" sure wasn't going to be anywhere near the elevation of the river that we were flanking.  And the ridge in the distance was uncomfortably higher up than where we were.  More than 10 hours earlier, the race was won on this section by Geoff Roes on his way to a course record after making up a 20 minute deficit on the leaders.

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Highway 49 at last.

We pass a Japanese runner and his pacer.  He looks exhausted.  We shuffle past.  The trail straightens and climbs.  I am complaining to my brother.  He tells transparent half-truths in an effort to shut me up.  I am certain that he too is exhausted.  The last part of the climb is silent.  I am listening for any sounds of automobiles as I am fixated on the word "highway."  At the crest, we bend to the left along the fence and I can see what had nearly become a mythical crossing.  Just 3.6 miles but painfully more than an hour.  We barrel into the aid station, brothers in arms with the battle vanquished.  I see Nick, who is back out on the course after a night's sleep!  

Durdam is done.  My third and final pacer fittingly will be Vikara who will at long last have the opportunity to finish this course.  I again cruise through the medical check, down a small cup of soup, and roll out in under 3 minutes.  My paranoia about finishing has reached a fever pitch heightened by my inexperience with the final miles.  The next station is the iconic No Hands Bridge at mile 96.8.  Even sleep deprived, the laws of physics predict that we will be descending back to the river.  We head out of Highway 49 and immediately start climbing.

Vikara has that uncanny ability to make people feel good about themselves no matter what the situation.  I don't fully realize it until later but he is preposterously dressed.  He is shirtless and wearing my blue tights from one of my gear bags.  According to the original plan, Mahir was going the distance, and Vikara was not slated to run any part of this.  So much for the plan.  He rides comfortably on my shoulder, offering a running commentary of compliments, advice, and stories.  The initial hill yields to spectacular meadows and again I find myself stupefied to be running.  My mind quiets.  Vikara tells me when to sip water and keeps me moving.  We start passing people.

An inescapable feeling of elation starts to quietly take hold as we begin the descent to the river.  I am lighter since abandoning my hydration pack in favor of a single water bottle. Still, I wince as we start to run downhill.  The heat is back, but I can feel the momentum and I have become adept at dulling the pain.  Seeing the faces of competitors along the way, I am uncertain why I feel so surprisingly awake.  I see the bridge in the distance with the river running up and away.  I see the bridge.  I hear Vikara telling me we are nearly there and I begin to smile.

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Pure joy at No Hands Bridge (mile 96)
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Last_six

The last 6 miles: NYC Marathon vs. WS100

Arriving at No Hands brought a feeling of delight that I can hardly describe.  I found a smile there that will stay with me for days.  For the first time, I allow myself believe I would finish.  I have no strength left in my legs but I am jumping for joy.  I yell out for all the canyons ahead and behind to hear.  I know the climb ahead of us and I know the high school is somewhere up ahead on that ridge.  I know it.  Vikara and I set out over the bridge.  I am walking ten feet tall and grinning from ear to ear.

Fifty yards later I am still happy but acutely aware that the sun is beating down on me.  I have no hat and very little water and we still have 3 miles to go.  I realize that a little sunburn isn't going to kill me at this point.  We are chatting and laughing.  I try to shuffle along but I need to walk any inclines.  After some twists and turns we finally begin the last ascent.  We pass someone coming downhill hiking and I instinctively start grilling him about how far it is to the top.  It is hot and I am impatient to reach Robie point and the home stretch.

About a quarter mile from the top, I am amazed to see 5-time champion (and 25-time sub 24-hour finisher) Tim Twietmeyer on his way out for a run.  He is smiling broadly as he descends toward us.  I shake his hand and chat briefly.  He tells me to enjoy every step to the finish line.  Two sunrises and two legends on the trail.

The single track opens up to fire road and we are humbled to see a runner lying in the short grass asleep.  This is roughly mile 98.8.  His pacer is forlorn and tells us that his runner will get up soon as if he is trying to convince himself that this will be the case.  Robie Point is within shouting distance.  I know this because of the girl shouting in the distance.  We pass by, heading up the last uphill.  Vikara is wondering if there wasn't something that we could have done for the collapsed runner.

Mile 98.9 inspires a hoot as we crest onto the pavement.  The folks at the last aid stop are cheering.  I can feel my skin flush with pride as we amble onto the streets of Auburn.  On this last section my mind can find no words.  I have come so far and I know that my wife and child are just up the road along with the a short lap around the track at Placer High School.  Yet, I have a full mile to contemplate that arrival.  The pain has already yielded to a growing euphoria.  Everyone we pass on the street, sitting out on lawns and decks, are clapping and smiling.

My smile is contagious it seems.  A man on a bike passes us and his eyes light up. 

"Well! You look a whole lot better than when I saw you at Devil's Thumb yesterday, enjoy your finish!"

The race helpers at this event are indefatigable.

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Mile 100.

I see Julie toting Nico in the Baby Bjorn from about a hundred yards.  My eyes are already welling up.  These tears of relief and joy melt into an embrace with our small family.  I am so fortunate to have had her support even through these tough first months with our child.  I am standing at mile one hundred.  One hundred miles now more incomprehensible than when I started.  I want time to stand still, to stop, but I can hear the noise just inside the fence of the finish line and I know that this epic journey must end soon. 

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The last 300 yards.

I gather up my family and crew and we enjoy a final few hundred yards around the track chatting.  With 80 yards to go we separate and I am alone again for the first time since Michigan Bluff.  Straight ahead is the finish line.  I detour to high-five my mentor Ted Knudsen who has been working on the webcast for as long as I have been running.  I have no planned finish line salute like the cyclists of the Tour de France. 

Quite honestly, I never fully imagined I would arrive at this point.

My arms are outstretched. 28 hours 53 minutes.  Squaw Valley to Auburn.

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If you have an interest (9000 words later), I have uploaded additional videos.  You can find them here.

Epilogue
 
I finished writing this essay a few weeks after the run and then put it down for nearly a year before editing it to share.  Part of me wanted to make sure that, after some period of time, the words would still read true.  This past weekend I attempted the Miwok 100k for the first time.  It was my first race since Western States and it went poorly.  I was tired at mile 8 and dropped out at mile 20.  My disappointment has cast in stark relief just how many things went well last summer.  I am very thankful for having so many incredible supporters beginning with my wife Julie.  My crew was the perfect team on that weekend. Additionally, I owe a debt of gratitude to my long time friend Jon Luff who convinced me to quit baseball and take up running 25 years ago; to my parents who have logged many miles themselves (Dad has a streak of more than 30 years running each day — translating into more than 30,000 miles); and to my departed teacher Sri Chinmoy whose concern and wisdom gave me a foundation to approach life.

 

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