Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Western States 100 - 2012 Experience Part III

Probably one of the scariest rides I have ever been on was that school bus going down Sliger Mine Road.  The sun had already set, so it was dark.  I was sitting in the back of the packed bus which was standing room only.  All I could make out was the slight illumination of trees whipping by as we rounded what seemed like hairpin turns at 35 to 40 miles per hour.  It appeared that oncoming cars were veering quickly to the side of the road to let the bus scream past in the dark.  Finally, we arrived at the bottom of the road.    There was a giant sign in front of someone's property here making it obvious to anyone that they don't want people parking here. 

Bottom of Sliger Mine Road

From the drop off point, it would be another 15 to 20 minute walk down a rutted dirt road.  As you can see, it was already pretty dark.  I pulled out one of my flashlights and headed down with the group of crews and pacers.

Once at the bottom, it became clear why they call this aid station "Green Gate."  You can't really see much in the picture, but this is the "brown" gate I mentioned in Part I.  To the left of the gate was the "check out" part of Green Gate Aid Station.

"Green Gate" Aid Station

The time was about 9:40 p.m.  Dave was due in a little after 10 p.m.  I milled around near the gate, used the porta-potty (I don't know why, but I'm going to mention the bathroom a lot in this post), and chatted with a couple crew members.  Just before 10 p.m., a race official informed me that I could head down the road (indicating the road toward Rucky Chucky) and meet my runner.  I declined, stating that I could wait here (I had been down and up that road and didn't particularly feel like adding an extra 4 miles - 2 up a fairly steep hill).  Then she stated that the "real" aid station was about 100 yards down the road around the bend.  She also added that as a pacer I could eat the food there.  For those who are not familiar, the food at trail races is especially good and plentiful - soups, sandwiches, chips, and every kind of candy you can imagine (more on food later).  Since it had been a good 3 to 4 hours since I had eaten dinner (2 PB&J sandwiches), I decided a little food was in order.  I made the short trip down the road and decided on some hot chicken broth and chips.

Shortly after 10 p.m., Dave came up the hill into the aid station.  I almost didn't recognize him because of the darkness and the fact I forgot what color shirt he was wearing when he left Foresthill.  I welcomed him into Green Gate (79.8 mi.) where he grabbed a bite and we headed up the hill to the actual "Green Gate."  We checked out with the officials at the tent about 10:25 p.m. and headed down the trail.

This is the moment that I had been waiting a year and all day for - running in the Western States 100!

We headed down the first long hill side by side.  As we reached the bottom and the trail split away from the fire road, I took the lead.  The plan was to power walk the hills and run everything else.  The planned pace was somewhere around 13 - 15 minutes per mile.  I kept a close watch on my Garmin to make sure we were staying on a decent pace.  A couple of times Dave called up to me and said we were going too fast.  I was kind of glad for this.  While I didn't want to push Dave too hard, I didn't want to be someone who held him back either. 

A couple miles into the course, I informed Dave that I found something that I liked better than trail running - nighttime trail running!  It is amazingly cool to do.  Granted you tend to kick more rocks and roots than you do running trails in daylight and I probably wouldn't do it barefoot, but it's a totally surreal experience.  We had clear skies, so the stars were out.  All you could hear were crickets.  All you could see was blackness, shadowed ridgelines and whatever else you could make out with your headlamp and flashlights.

We took our first "pit-stop" of the night before we arrived at Auburn Lake Trails Aid Station.  It's amazing how much faster you can run when your bladder isn't full.  A little while later I noticed a fairly strong skunk smell.  This worried me a bit since there weren't exactly a lot of roads in the area for a skunk to get hit by a car. 

Over the first 5.5 miles to Auburn Lake Trails, we averaged about a 15 minute mile.  The first mile was in the 12-min range, which explains why Dave was saying I was pushing too hard.

One of the coolest things that I found at WS was coming into aid stations.  We would be running in the dark for an hour or so and then two things would catch your attention - the faint sound of generators humming and the glow of hundreds of Christmas lights strung about in the middle of the forest.  It's amazingly cool how the sight of all those brightly colored lights gives you a little lift in the middle of the night.

We arrived in Auburn Lake Trails (85.2 mi.) at about 11:25 p.m. where Dave had to undergo a medical check.  He weighed in a little lighter than the docs would have liked.  They asked him a bunch of questions to make sure he was lucid.  They told him to make sure he was drinking enough fluids and using the restroom (I made a mental note of this as well).  The docs even asked me how I was doing.  I told them I had just joined at Green Gate, so I was fine.  Dave and I had a bit to eat and refilled his bottles and we were off and running again.

Next stop - Brown's Bar (89.9 miles).
This section of the course is fairly flat.  As described in my first post, this is where Zap, RR and I had experienced FIYAH!  It was also the location where I thought we had gone wrong on the trail.

Dave decided that he would lead out this section of the trail to keep my "fresh legs" in check.  Sorry, Dave.  :)  Despite Dave not wanting me to lead at a "relatively" blistering pace, he still managed to keep us on a good steady pace.

Every mile my Garmin would chirp.

"Was that a mile?" Dave would ask.

"Yep." was my reply.
We continued to walk the hills, but quickly jumped into a run as soon as we peaked the tops.  I had to keep checking my spacing behind him, because when he thumped his toe on a rock or root, I tended to do the same.  On one particularly flat section of trail, we were moving along nicely when Dave suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.  I nearly slammed into his back.

"Did you see that?" he asked.

"See what?"



"Down there (indicating the brush below the trail).  I thought they were headlights and then I realized they were eyes."  Dave clarified.

"What was it?"  I asked.

"I think it was a skunk.  I saw a white tail."

"Well, let's not stand here then," I said, as we started out again.

Keeping in mind that Dave had been underweight at the last aid station, I kept a close eye on how often he was drinking.  I also kept track of the time since our last pit-stop.  I mentioned to him that we should be due soon for a stop.  Sometime before we hit Brown's Bar, I decided to lead by example and told him at the bottom of the next hill I was going to stop.  Funny how one person having to go pee sparks the urge in another.  Ahh, the job of a pacer. :)

Coming out of Auburn Lake, we continued a 14 - 15 minute/mile pace, but the last mile into Brown's Bar we had dropped back into the 12s.  Amazing, Dave!

When we arrived at Browns Bar, I recognized the "T" in the trail.  In my mind I thought, this is where we were supposed to turn left.  However, as we were grazing at the food table, I realized the supply trucks were blocking the trail to the left and that we would have to go to the right.  Now I was curious where the 3 of us had previously gone wrong.

Anyway, we had our fill of quesadillas, chips, and candy (I think Dave had some more broth and sandwiches) and we were off down the trail again.

Next stop - Highway 49 crossing (93.5 miles).

So, now my mind was wondering where I had gone wrong on my pre-race run.  What turn did we miss that day?  Soon Dave and I approached another "T" in the trail.  It was at this sign (this picture was taken during pre-race run).  During the run with Zap and RR, we had turned to the left.  Surely, we needed to go right (nevermind that the sign clearly states Hwy 49 crossing to the left).  Nope.  When we reached this point the trail was clearly marked with glow sticks and reflective ribbons to the left.

The first two miles out of Brown's Bar were nice - mostly downhill or flat.  We approached the river - you couldn't see it, only hear it.  However, based on my memory of the area, I knew exactly where we were.  We were just about to the fire road that leads to the Auburn Recreation Area parking lot where Hwy 49 crosses the American River and where my trio had hitched a ride two weeks ago.  Now I was truly confused.  Where was that turn we missed!  Then suddenly, about 2 miles out from the Hwy 49 Crossing, a large paint mark and glow sticks marked a small trail veering up steeply and to the left of the fire road.  I finally discovered where we had gone wrong!  I even remember seeing this little "NO Mountain Bikes" sign where the trail begins (not that you could ride a bike up this thing if you wanted to).

One of the cool things about running a race at night is that they mark the trail with glow sticks.  Sometimes they seem plentiful, other times not so much.  Dave commented several times during the night how we hadn't seen a glow stick in a while - wondering if we had missed a turn somewhere.

There is a downside to this method of marking the trail in this way.  While climbing this hill, I would take my eyes off the trail in front of me for a moment to see if I could make out the peak of the hill.  I could not make out the peak, but I would see the faint glow of one of these glow sticks above me.  Then we would reach that glow stick and then we would see another glow stick above us on the trail. We would continue uphill and I would either spot another glow stick or the flash of light of someone's headlamp.  Then we would reach that glow stick and I'd spot another one higher up still.  It seemed to never end!  At least during daylight if there is a hill you can see how far you have to go.  Running in the dark taking in only 20 feet at a time makes it a long drawn out process of reaching a peak.  As it turned out, the point where this little trail veered off to the left was the beginning of a long, 2-mile, uphill climb. 

It took us a bit of huffing and puffing, but we finally made it to the top!  After reaching the summit of the hill followed by a short down hill run, we could see the lights of CHP cars and the aid station at the Highway 49 crossing.  As we ran down the hill into the aid station, an official called our arrival over a radio followed quickly by Dave's name over the speakers.  It was now 1:45 a.m.

Hwy 49 Crossing Aid Station

Dave is the faint shadow figure in the center of the picture.

As we arrived at the crossing, we heard Dave's wife and sister cheering.  Dave had to do another medical check here.  The good news was that he had put on a few pounds since Auburn Lake and was back in the acceptable range.  After his check-up, we walked over to say hi and chat a bit with Samantha and Deb.  I told them that Dave was doing awesome.  You would never guess he had run 93.5 miles at this point.   

We went over to browse the food table.  I was picking at some chips and M&Ms.  Then I spotted some Jello cubes.  Before the race Dave had told me that nothing tastes better than chicken soup at 1 a.m.  I thought, hmm, I wonder how Jello tastes at 1 a.m.?


I wandered over to tell Dave about the Jello.  As we were walking back toward the food table, I noticed a pacer who was eyeballing the Gummi Worms and Gummi Bears.

"Look!  Gummi worms!"  he said.

"They have Jello over there," I told him.

"It's like, what do you want - crack or cocaine?"  he said.

We had a laugh and then I wandered back over to Dave who was saying good-bye to his family.  They were hoping to see us one more time at No Hands Bridge before they headed to the finish line.

As we were heading out, I noticed that after we had arrived at Hwy 49 that my Garmin battery had died.  No longer would we get the nice little chirp as every mile was checked off.
No matter we only had 6.7 miles to go!!!

There was a bit of a climb coming out of Hwy 49, but not like the hill we had just come up.  Next we had a nice dusty cruise along the top of the ridge above the highway with the giant Foresthill Bridge above us.  Finally a short descent to No Hands Bridge. 

Foresthill Bridge in daylight - Source:  WS100 website

Dave's family had managed to make it to No Hands Bridge before we arrived.  Dave took time to eat and visit while I visited the...ummm, nevermind.  Upon my return, one of the race officials joked that Dave was getting too comfortable here.  So, I told him that I'd get him out of here.  We were now 3.4 miles from the finish! 

Dave's sister with No Hands Bridge lit to the left
No Hands Bridge at night is pretty cool.  It is a gravel-covered bridge a little more than a car lane wide.  They have the entire span lit with white Christmas lights, which gives it a surreal look as you are crossing at two in the morning.

Once across the bridge, there is another nearly 2 mile climb up to Robie Point.  So, once again, we were reduced to walking as fast as we could.  About 3:20 a.m., we arrived at Robie Point.  This is where the trail running ends and you enter the city of Auburn.  We were welcomed to the Point by a race official who stated that the finish line was 1.3 miles from the lightpost at the top of the trail.

"Any more hills?" asked Dave.

"The first half mile," replied the official.  "Just follow the orange footprints."

I don't recall if Dave said anything about the hill, but I know what I was thinking.

Once on the asphalt, we realized the official wasn't kidding.  The road was as steep as any hill in San Francisco.  And after running 98.9 miles, I'm sure Dave was not pleased with another hill - I know I was done with them.  But sure enough there were orange footprints every 20 feet or so on the asphalt.

As we peaked the hill, there was a group of people camped out on their driveways.  They had strung Christmas lights across the street and were shouting, "Welcome to Auburn!!!"  So awesome!

Dave and I were back to running now with only about .7 miles left to go.  I was on the lookout for the stadium lights, but the heavy tree cover made them difficult to spot.

The roadway was flat to downhill for almost a half mile when Dave said, "Is that another hill?  That guy said no more hills!" 

Granted, it wasn't a steep hill, but it was a hill nonetheless.  At this point, Dave was unstoppable.  He didn't slow his pace he kept on running, so I did too.  We were running side by side as we reached the top of the hill.  My calves were on fire.  I can only imagine how Dave's felt.

Someone shouted, "Down this hill, across the bridge, and you're at the entrance to the stadium."

We entered the stadium and made the lap around.  I split off into the pacers chute as Dave crossed the finish line.

Dave about to cross the finish line.
Me looking on as Dave is awarded his medal

Dave with wife, Samantha, and sister, Deb

Dave and I after the finish


Dave at the Awards Ceremony later that morning

Official time - 22:38:07!  SILVER BUCKLE, BABY!

Dave, THANK YOU for allowing me the honor of being your pacer at the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run 2012.  You were incredible and inspiring!  I was just along for the ride.

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