Thursday, April 16, 2015

Western States Endurance Run 2014 Experience

A little (very) slow in posting this, but with me it's always busy - this time it's welcoming a new addition to the family. So, before I start posting about lots of new and upcoming adventures, I thought it best to finish up what has passed.

Enjoy the "Experience."

Back in May I threw my name in the hat for another shot at pacing at the WSER. I had so much fun doing it in 2012, but was unable to attend in 2013.

A couple weeks later, I received an email from a relatively local runner asking if I was still interested. After a couple emails we managed to connect on the phone. I realized I was being interviewed for the job of pacer - makes a lot of sense if you're going to put your race in the hands of someone you haven't met before. One of the first questions I was asked was, "Why do you want to run 20 miles in the middle of the night with someone you have never met?" It was a question that caught me off guard, yet it is a very legitimate question. My answer was that at this time I have not qualified for WS and even if I managed a qualifier, I would still need to be drawn in the lottery. So, this is my opportunity to be "in" the race without actually being "in" the race.

This was good enough answer for my runner - Todd Law.

His goal for the race was obviously a finish, a PR, and if the opportunity presented itself a sub-24. My goal was to make sure that we accomplished as much of this as possible.

The morning of the race, I gathered my gear and began the drive up to Auburn where I was going to meet Todd's wife, Heidi, and the his other pacer, Andrew. I arrived before the Todd's wife so I headed over to Foresthill to check-in and was fortunate enough to watch the leaders come in and out of the aid station. It is amazing to see the strength and speed these runners still have after 62 miles!


While in Foresthill, I also ran into my new friend Tony Nguyen, AKA I am Endorphin Dude. I had seen Tony finish just behind me at AR50 in 2013 and met him at a local half marathon a few months before WS.

I caught up with one other crew member of Todd's, Nancy, who had been crewing for Todd and another runner, Ken, from the start of the race. We transferred some of the gear to my truck that needed to get to Heidi for the evening/night shift.

Back at Placer High School, I transferred all of the runners' gear and my stash into Heidi's car and we headed out to meet Todd at Michigan Bluff. This would be our first chance to see Todd in the race and my chance to actually meet him (briefly) before our run later that night. We made the drive back through Foresthill and down the windy road to Michigan Bluff. We lucked out and found a spot barely big enough for the car and not too far of a hike down to the shuttle bus stop. Even after the trip down, we still had about an hour before Todd was due. It was late afternoon and I figured it would be best to at least attempt to get in a few winks. I managed a short, semi-comfy nap on a beach towel on the dirt shoulder, waking in time to see Heidi and Todd walking down the road toward our station.


After swapping out supplies for Todd, we headed back over to Foresthill to wait again and meet up with Todd's other pacer and the rest of the crew.


As a crew it is always a "hurry up and wait" experience. We arrived back in Foresthill with some time to kill, but not too much. We met up with the rest of the crew, now including pacers Andrew and Phillip. Todd came through about an hour and a half after we left him at Michigan Bluff. After we sent Todd on his way with Andrew, his first pacer, we stayed around to await one other runner to send his pacer along.


While the sun was setting, I decided I should take the opportunity to rest up a little. I planted myself on a sleeping pad, covered my face with my hat and dozed off. I awoke a bit later in the darkness to the sound of the crew talking to the other runner. Someone had thrown a sleeping bag over me while I had slept, thankfully, since it had begun to chill a bit.


After sending the second runner along with his pacer, Phillip, Heidi and I realized that we didn't have too much time to get down to Green Gate. We hastily packed the cars and consulted hand drawn maps in the Crew Guide. I lead the way driving Phillip's car and following the GPS. There is nothing quite like trying to find tiny roads while driving on winding mountain roads in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, even while following a map on a GPS (oh, and no address to input into the computer). Throw in that we were on a strict time table and you get the idea of the pressure I was feeling. It reminded me of pacing WS in 2012 when I was waiting for the Green Gate shuttle and the bus driver decided he needed a break and shut off his bus for a half an hour while pacers and crews scrambled about for a way to get down to the isolated aid station.

We finally made it down to Hwy 49 and passed through the aid station at the Hwy 49 crossing. Then it was off to find the small road to Green Gate aid station. I had been this way a couple of times before, but never in the dark. I kept thinking that we must have passed the turn off as more time passed since we had gone through the Hwy 49 aid station. I correctly assumed that I was following another crew car and when they made the turn I was looking for, I felt a bit of relief. We wound our way down the one lane road down to Green Gate trying to go as fast as the darkness and twisty road allowed. When we finally reached the bottom, there wasa bottleneck of cars trying to make the U-turn so that they could park on the uphill side of the road. Heidi and I were both fortunate enough to find parking spots not far from the dirt road leading to Green Gate. I quickly grabbed all the gear I would need and joined hied by her car.

As we were hiking down the dirt road, the radio crackled. Andrew informed us that they had crossed the river and were changing shoes. Heidi and I started to hustle out of fear that we would not arrive at Green Gate before they came up the hill from the river. Our fears went went away as we arrived and Todd had not yet arrived. About a half hour later, Todd and Andrew showed up. They were running on a target finish of about 25:30.

I chatted with Andrew to find out if we were still hoping for a sub-24 finish, but he informed me that the run from Foresthill had not allowed them to close the gap.

As Todd and I headed out, Heidi shouted out, "Sub-24!"

The first four miles or so went smoothly. After the aid station at Auburn Lake Trails, my worst fear began to hit - stomach issues.

Over the years I have had issues on and off with various sports drinks. I've pretty much nailed it down to keeping the mixtures at half strength to reduce the impact on my stomach. However, I recalled that earlier in the day I had mixed a full tablet with my water bottle to maintain hydration while hanging around in the hot sun. Payback had begun.

I figured that I could make it to the next aid station. As the trail through the night wound on, my stomach began to get worse. I started scanning the sides of the trail to look for a place to ... take care of some business. The problem is that the trail between Auburn Lakes and Browns Bar is along the side of the mountain along the windy American River - there are no flat areas along the trail. As we got closer to Browns Bar, I informed Todd of my issue and told him I was scouting for a pit stop. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore and climbed up the side of there hill and found a relatively suitable spot to ... It helped some. I felt better, but only for a little while. I ended up hitting a porta-potty at every aid station for the rest of the night. Basically, it sucked.

Back to the main story...

After Browns Bar, there is a very long climb that winds it's way up and around the quarry before you hit Highway 49. I remembered this seemingly never ending climb from my previous pacing experience. Todd had begun to slow a bit and was trailing me by about 25 to 30 yards, which was fine for me because for the first time I began to fall asleep while trekking up the hill. I would take a step, doze, and then shake awake as I began to tip over. It was probably about 4:00 a.m. Finally, when I realized that this would no longer work, I stepped to the side of the trail and told Todd I needed to pull a 5 Hour Energy from my pack. He asked if it worked and I told him that I had no idea, but I needed to try something to wake up.

Ten minutes later, I was wide awake and powering up the hill. We crested the top and wound our way down to the Highway 49 aid station. A quick trip to the bathroom and we were back on the trail. Todd opted to take the lead now. The sky had begun to brighten and the sun was coming up. Todd began a relatively blistering pace with me chasing him for the next few miles up, over and down to No Hands Bridge.

When I asked him where he was getting all of the energy, he said that he gets a burst of energy when the sun comes up. Todd wasn't kidding. He just about killed me with his pace. By the time we reached the aid station at No Hands Bridge, Todd was still running like a machine and I had burned all remaining energy from my body. It was a strange experience. Here Todd had run nearly 97 miles compared to my 17 and I was the one falling apart.

After my, now routine, trip to the port-a-potty, we trotted off across the bridge. Now, as my memory serves me from my first time pacing at WS the climb up to Robie Point in the early morning darkness felt very much uphill most of the way. Now in the sunshine of the new day, it appeared to be relatively flat switchbacks with short climbs between. With my energy gone, these short climbs were completely kicking my ass. At one point about two-thirds of the way up, I actually had to put my hands on my knees and take deep breaths. It was a very humbling moment. I didn't want to give up on my runner, yet my body was betraying me at every turn. I kept waiting for Todd to drop me and head to the finish line.

Despite my repeated apologies to Todd, he kept me on board. My guess is that we had been beyond the 24 hour finish mark all night and comfortably set to finish well under 30 hours. I promised Todd that once we made it to the top of the road just after Robie Point we would run to the finish non-stop.

We were welcomed at Robie Point where I quickly downed some soda for a last ditch caffeine boost and walked the final "hill" into the neighborhood in Auburn. We began running once we crested the hill. Todd was still running like a machine and I was still sucking wind and fighting hard to keep pace with him.

We entered the stadium to the announcer introducing Todd. We continued our way around the track until I broke off into the pacer chute and Todd headed to the finish line. Todd's crew was cheering at the base of the bleachers and I ran over to them. They congratulated me on getting Todd to the finish. I informed them how Todd had basically dragged my ass the last 7 miles. But a finish is a finish - 26:02:25 Official.

In hindsight, I know where my issues arose from - hydration/nutrition. It is funny how quickly things can go bad on something as simple as what you drink. I thought I knew what worked for me, but incorrectly mixing my drink seems to have been my downfall. Also, I now know to bring my own TP for those unexpected stomach issues.

Thank you, Todd Law, for the opportunity to be your pacer at Western States 2014. We got to the finish line because of your sheer determination and will. It was a privledge watching you power through the night and most especially as you kicked my butt at the end. Congratulations on a second WS finish! I hope we get another chance to run together again with better results.



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