Holly’s Western States 2015 Race Report
Running my Dream Race! – By Holly Miller
The excitement began in late February after I had ran Black Canyon 100k in hopes of a second chance to get into this year’s Western States Endurance Run. I had not been selected with two previous attempts at the lottery. (I cannot describe how it feels to run 100 miles and not be chosen to run the race of your dreams, but I persevered.) This year Montrail did something very cool- for the runners who were not selected in the lottery this year who completed another race in the Montrail Cup, they would be entered in another, much smaller, lottery for a second chance into this year’s race. I was fortunate enough to have the golden ticket among those who had ran the Black Canyon 100k.
I remember being at a stoplight when I saw the email from Montrail and quickly scrolled down, my eyes fixated on the word ‘Congratulations!’ I had to read it several times, I was in utter disbelief! The light turned green, I put my phone away but I ended up having to pull over because I was crying so hard- in absolute awe of my good fortune! It is common for people to wait 5-7 years before they get into WS100, so I felt especially lucky!
Fast forward to the end of June, traveling to Squaw Valley to run my dream race. Nerves were especially high, higher than if I had prepared for the race like I had intended. You see, in February I had taken on more spin classes and was the happiest I have ever been in my career. Unfortunately, I was teaching so much I had little time to hit the trails. I ran Miwok 100k six weeks out, but after that I got a few medium distance runs in on Mt Ord but really nothing over 20 miles. I was in for a world of hurt as I made my way from Squaw Valley to Auburn, so I had to keep my mind in a good place.
I really enjoyed my time in Squaw with my mom and my aunt before the race start. They were so happy to be there and tremendously supportive! Check in was amazing and I felt like I was in a dream as they paraded me around the room filling my bag with race swag! Buffs, clothes, nutrition, hats, visors! I couldn’t stop giggling! It was awesome!
The night before the race, there was a party going on below my room. It was a wedding party and they were incredibly loud. I calmly contacted the front desk and asked if they had any solutions, they said they would see what they could do. I also requested a box fan hoping the white noise would drown out the noise from below. After a while, I was able to sleep.
The alarm sounded and I got up and got ready for the day ahead of me. Everything was laid out and I got dressed and ate a big breakfast, it was time to head to the start line!
I met up with my family and we joked a bit until it was time for me to get in line. I gave my love and hugs to them knowing I would see them about 30 miles in. What would transpire in that time? I could only imagine!
The gun went off and we headed up, up, up. Up the Escarpment we all mostly power hiked the steep climb. No sense wasting energy in the first five miles. I casually chatted with some of the other runners. I frequently took in the view and reminded myself that I have waited years to run this course, this was actually happening!
Once we made it over the top, the trail winded down the backside and we ran through water and tall grass. Briefly, the temperature felt a bit cooler and I was really enjoying the run. Someone ahead of me stopped and pointed up to the side of the mountain and there was a big brown bear heading the other direction! I snapped a pic and headed on my way.
It didn’t seem long at all before I was at Lyon Ridge aid station (10.5). I quickly gobbled up some watermelon and banana, thanked the volunteers, and left. My biggest mistake there was forgetting to grab ice.
Between Lyon Ridge and Robinson Flat, I had a meltdown. I was so hot and the trail was all exposed. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the trail. At this point there seemed to be no part that was really runnable to me. It was either super rocky or the incline was more suited for hiking. I just wanted to be able to ‘open up’ and get some speed- knowing this might generate a bit of a breeze and feel nice on my hot skin. I had no such luck.
The final climb to Robinson Flat was relentless. The runners ahead of me and behind me all seemed to be struggling as well. I was trying to ration the little bit of water I had left and I kept thinking of Cuyamaca when I ran out of water as I was climbing up the mountain (the worst race experience Ive ever had!). Looking around at all of the hot rocks and scorched trees, I felt like I was on Mars. This is not what I thought it would be. At all.
As I came into Robinson Flat, I couldn’t talk because I had a lump in my throat. I was so excited to see my family but I was ashamed at how poorly I was doing and it was still in the early stages of the race.
Once I saw them I started bawling. They were amazing. Like a pit crew, each one had a mission- feed me, wipe me down, get me iced down, it all happened so quickly and before I knew it I was smiling and laughing with them. My brother smiled and said, “The hardest part is done! It all gets better from here!” Then he snapped a pic of me heading out over a little bridge for my Bridge Collection photos (an incredibly thoughtful gesture!) and I headed back out on the course.
Barely a mile out from seeing my family the terrain had improved. It was runnable and picking up a bit of speed really lifted my spirits. Between miles 30 and 43 I felt great, my running felt effortless, and I was smiling again! A good portion of this section was shaded by the canopy of trees and it made the heat much more tolerable.
At Last Chance I loaded my bottles with ice, put ice in my bra and hat, and filled a baggie with watermelon and grapes. I had a good laugh with the volunteers because they couldn’t believe how fresh I looked. (Many thanks to my mom and aunt for wiping me down at Robinson Flat- I was voted the cleanest runner on the course!)
I made my descent down to the Swinging Bridge, moving slower than I normally would. My instinct told me I would pay a dear price later in the race if I bombed down this section now. I was amazed at how many switchbacks there were heading down and shuddered to think Id be facing something similar heading up on the other side of the bridge.
There were lots of runners in the water at the bottom trying to cool off before the climb up Devil’s Thumb. I felt pretty good so I crossed the bridge and headed up. I started to snack on the baggie of fruit I had grabbed at Last Chance. My strategy was to use this time to get some calories in and keep my mind off the grade.
I managed to get a good pace going and found myself passing several runners on the way up. Some of them were literally sprawled out on the side of the trail, exhausted and overheated. I was really pleased with how I managed this section of the course.
I quickly made it out of the aid station at the top and headed back down to El Dorado Creek, I was starting to get anxious to see my family again and knew I had one more big climb before I got to see them. The climb up to Michigan Bluff wasn’t quite as challenging as Devil’s Thumb so I was moving a bit faster but it still seemed like forever before I reached the top. I had finally made it to Michigan Bluff and the guy at the aid station told me I had 35 minutes before the 30 hour cutoff. This made me go absolutely crazy. In my state of mind, this caused tremendous stress and I sprinted to my mom and aunt. I told them what he had told me and they assured me I didn’t need to worry. I just wanted to figure out what pace I needed to be running at, how much time could I make up at this point in the race? Agh! I was a mess! I darted back onto the course and as luck would have it, my Garmin died. I hissed a few expletives under my breath as I headed towards Foresthill.
I was intensely focused at this part, moving as quickly as my body would allow- suddenly becoming plagued with violent stomach cramps. I focused on trying to keep my breath slow and relaxed to quell the pain in my gut.
I made it to Foresthill and I saw Wes before I saw my mom and aunt. I explained the deadline situation to Wes and he calmly smiled and said it was not a problem. He had some Peruvian tea for me to calm my stomach, I declined any of the food my mom and aunt had brought (regretting it later as I knew the avocado I had at Robinson Flat had rejuvenated me earlier). We said goodbye and headed out.
Wes kept a really good pace. He knew when to push me. He wouldn’t even say anything, he would just accelerate a bit and I followed. The faster running was only mildly more painful than the slower running so I committed to do as much of it as I could. There were times when I just needed to stop for a second and crouch down to stretch my legs and back, as well as times when I needed to vomit. I tried to do that quickly as I could- swish with some water and start running again. I think we were both mentally focused on getting to the river as fast as we could.
Some of the trail in this section was really hard to run on- it was concrete with rocks embedded in it. Awful! I think I was whimpering a bit as we went through this part. It felt so painful on my achy joints. I was trying to be a trooper and not let Wes down, I didn’t want to act like a baby so I did a lot of self talk through here.
We made it to the river and they put a life jacket on each of us. They instructed us to keep both hands on the rope at all times. The rocks underwater were illuminated by glowsticks so we knew just where to step. I freaked out a bit at how cold the water was and just this whole other element that was now shocking my body. I was quickly calmed by the volunteers in the water assisting us across. They were amazing! Each one was very specific on where to step, which rocks to avoid as they were more slippery, etc. I thanked every one of them as we traversed the river.
Once we made it to Green Gate, I was searching for my family. The volunteers said there was another tent at the very top so we headed up there. We still didn’t see them so Wes tried to call them while I tried to get the collection of mud and rocks out of the bottom of my shoes that was rubbing my feet raw. A girl came up to me and asked me if I was okay, I said yes and that I was just waiting for my family so I could get a fresh pair of shoes and socks. Wes said they were about 5 minutes away and the girl insisted that I take her socks and get back on the trail (She was crewing her husband and had another pair in her car). I couldn’t believe that she was actually taking off her own socks to give to me and that I was actually taking them! I really needed to as my feet were pretty messed up and my own socks were infused with mud and sand. As I laced up my shoes and thanked her profusely, my brother showed up breathless. He had run a mile to get to the aid station from where the cars were parked. They had missed a turn to get to the aid station, but it wasn’t a big deal, I had only been waiting for about 5 minutes and that was just the time I needed to change socks. We said goodbye to Wes and headed out.
It wasn’t long before the sky started to lighten up. My brother and I were both taken by the beauty of the trail. It seemed to become more beautiful as the daylight approached and I was so happy Erik was enjoying it as much as I was.
When we got to the aid station at mile 85, one of the medical staff approached me and asked how I was doing. I told him I had been vomiting since about mile 65. He told me to continue to try to eat and drink and that even if I continued to vomit, some of it would be absorbed by my body. So I had some broth and potatoes and we moved on.
Despite my stomach upset and foot pain, Erik kept me in good spirits and I was smiling when we headed into Brown’s Bar aid station. I recognized the Rogue Valley Runners signs and told my brother Hal Koerner owns that store. I had just spoken those words and looked up to see Hal’s big smile! I exclaimed, “Hal Koerner?! Well isnt this a treat?!” I was giddy! But before I could enjoy the moment too much, one of the volunteers came up to me with a stern look and said I really need to hurry and that making the 30 hour cutoff was questionable. Again I went back to that feeling of horror and ran out of the aid station.
I looked at my chart and it said we were 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so I didn’t know what to believe. I was tired and couldn’t trust my judgement so I just told my brother we needed to hustle.
We got to highway 49 and I didn’t even stop at all. I ran through while my brother got my bottle filled. He caught up to me and we picked up the pace even more. We started passing people which made me feel a little better about our time.
Once we got to No Hands Bridge my brother took my bottle to fill it and I walked across the bridge, waiting for him to meet up with me. This was it. This was the point on the course I was most excited to see and it was more glorious than I could have expected! Prior to the race, I was sad that I wasn’t going to be running across it in the dark to see it all lit up, but once I saw it in the daylight, I was even more pleased with what I saw. The views from both sides of the bridge were breathtaking! My brother and I were both in awe! I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, let’s GO!”
We ran as much as we could on the next section until we hit the steep ascent to Robie Point. My brother and I were joking about how cruel it was to have this at the end of the race. It was brutal but it couldn’t dampen our spirits as we knew how close we were to the finish!
We didn’t stop at the aid station at the top, but kept pushing to hurry to the track. We had over an hour before the cutoff at this point so I was okay to slow the pace a bit. The asphalt felt really harsh compared to the trails.
Once we made the final turn, I sprinted (it felt like a sprint!) to the track. My mom ran up to meet me and my brother. I gave her a squeeze and told them how much I loved them. I could hear people cheering my name which felt amazing! I made the final turn and saw the finish line and started to cry. I told myself to quit blubbering so I didnt look like and idiot crossing the finish. I swallowed and smiled big as I crossed the finish and once I made it across I started to cry. What a journey! I experienced so many emotions, felt a lot of pain, saw some spectacular views, and can now cross Western States off my bucket list!
Receiving the finisher’s ‘medal’
There are so many people I want to thank for their selfless acts of kindness and support. I want to thank my boss & friend, Josh Sprague, the owner of Orange Mud for covering race entry fees and making such great running gear! I used the Gear Quiver to hold my nutrition and two handhelds with the Purist Insulated Bottles to keep my water cold. They worked perfect for these conditions!
A big thanks to Montrail for having the Last Chance Lottery! I’d still be waiting to run my dream race if it wasn’t for this opportunity!
My family constantly amazes me with their can-do attitude and all the love and support they give me. My mom and aunt were the perfect crew and had that element of loving kindness that only family can give.
I was so proud of my brother for being able to hang in that tough terrain and be able to push me as well. His focus is Cross Fit, but he says his body is prepared for whatever life hands him! He was right!
I was delighted when Wes said he would pace me! Team Shiny Shorts was back in action! I trusted his calm focus on the trails and was so grateful he was able to pace me to a bigger cushion of time on the course. Plus, what pacer provides an exotic Peruvian tea for their runner?! I felt pretty dang special!
I am honored to call James Bonnett my friend. He shared his sage advice on course strategies and gave me the confidence to make it to the finish. The dude is wise beyond his years! I’m sorry I wasn’t so great at adhering to your suggested training runs, but Just like JJ100, I listen to your every word on the course come race day! Thank you for your friendship, you are good people!
The girls at lululemon kept me motivated through my training cycle and always make me feel special! I am honored to be an ambassador for them and all that they represent!
Jason Sani and NutriSumma supplied me with supplements like Whey Isolate, Greens, and a supplement called Growth- which helped repair my muscles and makes me sleep like a baby! I am grateful to be an ambassador for them as well!
I have been with Newton Running for many years now and couldn’t be more passionate about a shoe company! I wore the BOCO Sol for the entire race and if it weren’t for my sock selection, my feet would have been perfect. They were comfortable, dried quickly, and are a damn good looking shoe!
I want to thank the 1,500 volunteers along the course who were ready and eager to help! All were kind and happy and made all the runners feel special. We couldn’t do it with out you! Infinite thank you’s!