Race Report: Western States 2015 (it’s long…) By Jim Roche
I often- I mean OFTEN- get asked what my favorite marathon is, and until my last race in California, I had a really hard time with that question. I’ve run 77 marathons and ultras and I’d always waffle a bit. “Well, such and such was a really great challenging course” or “The scenery was amazing at so and so race” or “The huge number of friends racing with me really made for a great experience at blah blah race.” But basically, I was picking and choosing parts of the overall running experience to come up with some perfect race that I’d never run. That changed on June 27, 2015. No more waffling. I’ll have an easy answer for the next person who asks. Western States is hands down my favorite of the 77 marathon+ races I’ve run in the last 15 years.
Western was a goal race- not for the season, but for, well, ever. I’ve been running around 20 or so marathons and ultras a year for the past few years, and I can remember my first WS qual. There’s always that thrill of excitement on lottery day, but never a huge expectation that I’d get picked to run out of the thousands who try. Last December was no different. With only two tickets in the lottery, I didn’t have much chance, so there was no great surprise when I didn’t see my name on the list. But fate can be funny, and I’d registered for a 100k in February- both to keep my monthly marathon streak alive and to escape the cold New Hampshire winter with a trip to Malibu, California. And that race, the Sean O’Brien 100k, just happened to be a Montrail Cup race. For the first year, Montrail was offering a ‘Last Chance Lottery’- one last chance for the many of us who didn’t get into States via the regular lottery in December. All I had to do was finish the race, submit a picture of myself running in tough circumstances, and hope for the best. On a cold, snowy, Valentine’s Day, I was checking my email on the way home from work to find the most amazing thing: I won the Last Chance Lottery. I was in. The Golden Ticket.
Fast forward four months- after over 1400 miles of training runs including four marathons and six ultras across the US, and I’m on a plane touching down in Sacramento. Holy crap, it’s hot! With nine feet of snow over the winter, both mountain training and heat training were almost non-existent. I’m climbing into a rental car Tuesday before the race that tells me it’s 104 degrees out. I’ve got a few days to adjust, but I have to trust my mileage base and my ability to crush out a long run/hike.
It seems right to head to the mountains, though I can’t get into the Condo in Squaw till the following day. It also seems only right that I can’t drive through Auburn without stopping at Placer High. It’s still a stifling 100+ degrees when I find the stadium, and I pass the football team practicing out in the wilting heat to check out the track. I don’t even run it, but I do find the brass plaque that marks the Western States finish line. I make my promise that I’ll be back, and after stopping at the local bank to get a few two-dollar bills for good luck, I’m headed out of town, down Highway 49. I stop for the night in Placerville, but my eyes have been on this rolling, hot, dusty terrain. I do a few minor, fidgety practice runs in Placerville- maybe three miles or so in end-of-the-day, dry heat. No need to push it. The hotel has a beautiful pool to relax in, but I’m not interested. I have no interest in reading either. What do I want to do? I want to go to Walmart and buy piles of things I’ll need for the race. O.k., probably stuff I won’t exactly need- or maybe I will. But I know the drill, and I want ziplocks and Ensure and coolers for the Ensure (and will that cooler be big enough and how will Emily lug that down trails and… Oy.) I have no idea what I spent eighty bucks on, other than piece of mind.
I’m up early Wednesday- still on Eastern Time- and I deceide to kill time with a trip to Carson City and a drive around Tahoe. This is stunning country, but my mind is looking ahead. I finally pick up the keys to the condo by 3:00, then head up to check out the start. I’m days early and this is pretty much any ski resort in the summer: quiet, sleepy. Even so, you’d get the inkling that something’s going to happen, but not yet. I sit down for pizza and beer at the Fireside patio and get to chatting with a few folks wearing various Western States gear. They’re older, but unmistakably runners. I turns out that, yes, they’ve run the course, and for many years after they’ve volunteered. I have to ask where the start will be. “By the rings, but it’s not set up yet. Things start happening tomorrow.”
My Thursday is about picking my pacer, Scott, and my crew chief, Emily, up at the airport. I drive down into the furnace of the Central Valley to meet my pacer Scott first. We’ve got an hour before Emily’s flight comes in, so we head to the car. It’s been maybe nine months since I’ve seen Scott and we’re just catching up in a hot parking garage, eating peaches and apricots from the farm stand. And this seems perfectly normal, catching up and planning races. Over the past four months, Scott and I have traded lots of emails and FB messages and he’s about as over-the-top excited about Western as I am. I saw that same enthusiasm at last summer’s Jay Peak 50k, where I met Scott and shared hours of tough mountain miles. He’s tough as nails, but smiling and overflowing with energy. Can I relate to this? Yes. Would I want him by me again, pacing my most important race yet? Without a doubt. And now that we’re finally in the same place, we just start talking about a million details with the excitement of two ten-year olds planning Halloween trick-or-treating.
We lose track of time, but Emily’s flight is just an hour later. She’s a master of logistics, supremely organized, and a veteran of multiple 100’s- both as a runner and aid station captain. I’d met Emily in 2013 at the C&O 100, when we both put in over 24 hours working the Brunswick Aid Station. Earlier this spring, I’d asked Emily to crew for me because I’d seen Emily in action at C&O: absolutely focused, cheerful, and ready day and night for runners. I literally ran past her again 30-some-odd miles into the Stone Mill 50 last November where she was again working aid station magic. She’d organized that aid station with everything anyone could have needed- then had everyone dress in Lumbersexual flannel. Smiling and a sense of humor make every race a success. Would she crew for me? She was all in, and that gave me a huge sense of confidence.
We try to chill Friday, but there’s none of that as we get swept into the pre-race storm. This is crazy, and I’m loving it. Sure there’s more swag that I can ever remember at a race, but there’s also a feeling of incredible excitement. Scott and Emily recognize more people- some famous, some just friends- than I do, but we’re all getting swept into the excitement. They had every right to tease me for acting like a kid in a candy store. Finally we just have to pull away. There’s food to buy, and morning comes early. We find a taco place in Truckee, the kind that serves food truck-inspired things like Korean short rib, and Penang curry in a taco. Not the most traditional, but the only thing that’s open in late afternoon. Three a.m. comes early. Chicken vindaloo tacos the night before the biggest race of my life? Seems legit. After we drive back to Squaw, and Scott and I head to the condo pool, but more or less spend 15 minutes in the hot tub with a local talking about the race. I’m relaxed. While we’re out, Emily entered full-bore planning mode, Google-Earthing all major aid stations, mapping routes, figuring out drive times and what she’ll meet me with and where. If I were relaxed coming out of a 120-degree hot tub, I am absolutely reassured now. So I head back to the condo, repack the drop bags for the third time, check Facebook for the bazillionth time to see the amazing outpouring of well wishes continue, and call it a night.
The morning is a blur: a shower, a bowl of hot oatmeal, then the quick drive up to the start. And it’s remarkably like every other race- wishing success to friends and people I’ve just met, then we’re off on a nice slow, steady climb up the maintenance roads toward Emigrant Pass. It’s just before dawn, and the steep slope is keeping us all in check, allowing easy conversation. There are lots of States vets here, and the mantra from the three, six, eight time finishers is “Stay aerobic. Don’t go out too fast.” I’m just taking it in, and trying not to pass those in the know.
I hit the top around the one hour mark into the race doing a good hiking pace around 15:00/mi. It’s cool, I’m fresh, and I have no desire to run just yet, though plenty of others are antsy enough to try it. There’s a stunning view of the sun slowly rising over Tahoe- “Just take it in, don’t miss this” say the veterans. And I’m seeing everything. There’s a huge crowd at the top- who knows when they got up to hike this far, but that’s the peak, beyond the last chair lift, and the access road quickly dissolves into single track winding though the most amazing alpine meadow of flowers. Tiny purple lupines and these starbursting red-orange things and cream-colored poppies everywhere, and I can smell them all and the dew and the earthy soil as we all start rushing down the trail. We’re all pumped, and I start screaming down that meadow trail in the thin, fast line of hundreds of other runners impatient to move on. The trail quickly turns into rollers, more down than up, but more technical with those small angular rocks that don’t offer much foothold. I hear the stories of the heavy snowpack of previous years, but there none of that, just thin trickles of water and mud. There are a few downhills wide enough to pass, and I do pass a few, but I’m mostly cautious. I manage my first- and lucky only- major fall around mile 8 or 9. A rookie mistake, I glanced for just a moment at my watch, and I paid for it with a hard fall to my left, drawing a bloody hand and knee, and an ache. I walk a bit, pacing myself and praying this is nothing serious. I’m muddy, bloody, and humbled, but a quick rinse shows nothing deep and I press. Hitting Lyon Ridge, the first aid station, around 10 miles in, I’m all smiles. I’m still bunched up with runners, but I take fruit and ginger ale and nibble on a PBJ. Eat early and often.
Leaving Lyon, the trail becomes a series of scampers of exposed rock through the pines. I’m fresh, but wary about pressing beyond aerobic speeds- I’m only a few hours in and it’ll be easy enough to tumble again. The sun is much higher now and around mile 19, I decide to unpin the handheld that I’d clipped to the back of my pack. The Amphipod is so much easier to drink from than the UD bottles, and I’m not going to risk dehydration. My heat training pre-WS had been too minimal to judge fluid consumption, and the Sierras don’t offer much shade, especially dropping into the Canyons. I drop into Duncan Canyon and it’s all a blur of sharp rocks and switchbacks. By Robinson Flat, the sun is high, and I’ve hit a relaxed run/hike mode. I’ve already run over a marathon, but the aerobic pace is keeping me fresh. Robinson is the first place I’ll see Emily, and the first chance at my drop bags. I know she’s analyzing me like an aid station captain would, and I think I passed the test. I pound some baby food and Ensure, then have the first of many amazing sponge baths from a sea of volunteers. I’m off.
From Robinson, I pass some of the most beautiful parts of the course- on some of the hottest, most challenging trails I’ve ever run. It’s afternoon and with no clouds, the canyons are well into the 90’s. I’m run-hiking, but hiking more, trying not to burn my quads out on the blistering downhills. This is the point to dial-in, to find the zone. There are aid stations, but this is all about pushing through the heat. I soak my white ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ hat whenever I can, and it keeps me amazingly cool for at least a few minutes. I’m using my handheld more now, often just to soak the hat, but it’s helping. After one long, crushing downhill, a new bridge takes the trail over a slow mountain stream. I could push on, but there are runners just lounging in the shallow river, and I detour to join them. In shorter races, on other days, I wouldn’t give that stream a second thought, but that cool water called out to all of us. There’s no better relief than dousing burning quads in a swiftly flowing mountain stream.
I needed the break, but every rest is offset by a climb. Had I paid better attention to the course maps and topos, I’d probably have dreaded that climb up to Devil’s Thumb, but of course I didn’t. From the bridge, a group of us started the long switchback up what seemed like a mountain. Though the land is forested, the tree cover is thin and burned out in large areas from past forest fires. We’re climbing through barren patches, higher and higher up the slope in the heat of the day and I’m thankful for the three twenty-ounce bottles I have. Despite filling them with ice at the last station, they’re warm now, and emptying fast. When a trail goes through thick woods, you get the benefit of not knowing how long a climb really is. Here though, on the barren hillside, there’s only up, and we’re all struggling. I’m setting goals and eye I fallen tree trunk ahead- I’ll take a brief break at that log. Another runner just ahead of me has the same plan; he reaches it first, sits, and makes room for me. And as I sit, I get hit with a wave of nausea, dry heaving into the dusty, charred trail. That other runner presses on, and I’m soon behind. I had no idea I was less than a quarter mile from the top of Devil’s Thumb. As I stumble in, I hear my name. A volunteer is greeting me- not unusual- but she seems somehow happier than others to find me. It’s Kathleen, a friend of friends Mike and Lori, and she comes at me like a mirage bearing icy cold lemonade. She pours me a tall, icy cup of lemonade- and another, and another, and as I sit down a bit, life comes back to me. Medical stops by briefly- I’m sitting down- but he’s not interested in me, I look o.k. And I don’t linger. With a bottle of icy lemonade, I can carry on with an easy hike.
The miles pass more easily, and I get into Michigan; I’ve over halfway easily and so happy to see Emily. There’s the usual smorgasbord of ultra food, and I really can’t see myself eating any of it. The place is electric, with so many volunteers and runners- they’ve radioed ahead and I’m greeted with my bag. Emily’s there with a chair and the quad roller and an icy bottle of strawberry Ensure. She’s made fast friends with Lucy, an equestrian and an experienced hand at the WS Trail. Lucy has announced that she’s on my crew now, and she steps right in with advice gained over years of Tevis Cup racing. She knows the trail well and gives me stern reassurance. I know I must look exhausted, after pushing through Devil’s Thumb, but no one lets on. I crush a lemonade and more baby food. I grab my headlamp from Emily but I’m determined not to need it until Foresthill- only six miles. It’s getting dusky, but maybe that’s just the canyons playing tricks on me. I’m going down the forest roads and for the first time I see the glint tape- it’s expected that many will get to Michigan only after dark, so I’m at least happy that I have some twilight for the run-hike-run-hike sections of these clear roads. It’s not uncommon to ‘see things’ on long runs as light plays tricks on your mind, and I swear I see giant pink musicians in the distance. Now, I’m still thinking I’m lucid enough and there it is as I get closer, a giant pinkish-orange string bass out in the middle of nowhere. The sun is hitting just right and these two musicians have set up- sure enough one of them is playing Chariots of Fire on that giant bass. I hit my mock running stride and applaud their perfect gesture. It’s still a decent hike, and that pinkish sun is definitely setting. Of course there’s more scampering down into an unnamed, unmarked canyon before another climb. And as beautiful as this trail has been, the sight of a power line and the scampering of a pacer heading the wrong way are signs I’m getting close to Forest Hill. I’m with a few other runners by now, and we hit pavement- a small outpost of homes. My lamp is still off, but there are a few cars, all with headlights on, and nervous families and friends looking for their runners. I’m almost a 100k into this shindig, feeling good, and bolstered by the soft reassuring “you got this” and “good job, runner” of so many people.
At the edge of this twisty asphalt, I actually hit the main road into Foresthill- or at least the trail along the road. The locals have set up lawn chairs along the road and the streetlights and cars give me enough excuse to be stubborn about keeping my promise to make it to Forest Hill before using my headlamp. Emily will be there, locked on with whatever I need, but my thoughts are on Scott. I have no idea how long he’s been waiting for me, but all I can think about is that I’m late, that he’s been roasting out in the sun watching others come in, waiting. That he’ll be pissed. It’s getting crowded now and harder to pick out people I know. Emily spots me and we start hiking it in. The family/block party that is Western has taken over this tiny town, and I arrive like royalty. I peel of to grab some food, then finally reunite with the whole of Team Pie. Emily’s told me how pumped Scott is, and I can’t describe the relief at having him along for conversation and pacing and cajoling. I don’t want to stick around and get comfortable. It’s clearly dark and time to move on. Emily’s worked some sort of magic and arrived with glowing bracelets. My headlamp is on. We’re showered with huge well wishes as we press on.
Nighttime is a relief for me during long, hot races, because the harsh sun isn’t going to drain what energy I have left. And at 62 miles in, I know I can take this home. Scott’s sizing me up, I know, as we leave Foresthill, and I tell him right away that there’ll be a lot of hiking. Quickly enough, we leave the small town and the roads behind and hit a swiftly descending switch back. Another runner with a fresh pacer is just ahead and his pacer wants to move. And I find myself moving along those downhills- not fast, but definitely a run. I’m not going to pass anyone, but I’m moving in one of my post-Ensure rushes. Still, I warn Scott that there’ll be plenty of powerhiking. As we push along the next sixteen miles, I start relishing those powerful strides I can still make. I’d heard and read that the race starts at Foresthill, and I think that’s really true. Scott and I aren’t running much- I know he’d love to and I’m apologizing a lot- but he’s solid in his support. We’re keeping good 16:00/mi miles despite the terrain. And I begin to notice that especially on the climbs, I’m passing people. Not huge numbers, but I’m definitely able to outlast and outclimb other runners here and there. We pass through the three Cal aid stations without lingering- Scott’s making sure I continue to get calories and salt tabs, but we don’t stay. And all along this stretch, in the dark, we can here the river down in the canyon. We’re alongside of it, or maybe it’s a mile away, but the soft echo of running water is there in distance. That rushing gurgle is taunting me- I know we can’t be too close to the crossing at Rucky-Chucky, but I know that hitting that symbolic point will put me on the home stretch. My watch has long since died, and I ask Scott only to tell me when we hit mile 74- when I’ll have exactly a marathon left to go. We hit that mark and press on soon enough to commotion of Rucky and the ford across the American River.
All the photos and video and movies of Western States focus on crossing the American River at Rucky-Chucky, and you’ll always see this footage in broad daylight. But the reality is that most of us will cross the river at night, and not without the help of a small army of volunteers. I can only describe this crossing as a giant trust game, well-executed by an army of friends I’d never met. Scott and I are greeted at the riverbank by a mass of volunteers who swarm us, sizing us up for life jackets and putting more glowing bracelets on us. A well-meaning volunteer puts of life preserver on over my hydration vest, then cinches everything tight, crushing my hydration vest against my chest. I get the left bottle out just before I lose use of a lung. But all is well, and why not? There are no fewer than 30 volunteers at the river alone, many of them standing in then river, using the weight of their bodies to pull a steel cable tight against the flow of the current that wants to carry it down stream. I have one foot in the water and immediately see my friend Tony Nguyen. I shout out at him, “Tony!!” blinding him with my headlamp- but he’s all focus as he screams encouragement and passes me off to the human chain of volunteers helping me cross the river. It’s not so deep, but it’s flowing swiftly, and I’ve been running for 20+ hours. Footfalls, two or three feet below the surface, are marked with glow sticks tied to rocks. “Just step here, then here, then here…” I could not have done this alone.
There’s an aid station just across the shore, and I’d left a drop. I found my pureed pears and a pair of dry socks. I stuffed the socks in my pack and headed up the hill to Green Gate where I’d meet Emily and a dry pair of shoes. Scott and I powerslog up the hill with a group of other tired climbers. It’s not really intentional that there’s always a ball-busting hill after every river crossing, but hell, rivers are in valleys, so the only way is up. In the dark, dry, cool weather, I know it’s only a mile and a half up the hill to Emily, dry shoes, and a cold bottle of strawberry Ensure. It’s at this point that I realize that my headlamp’s batteries aren’t actually dying, it’s just that my headlamp is pitiful compared to Scott’s NAO. He demonstrates this miracle of LED tech as we pass two runners on the climb, lighting up most of the trail for about a 100 meters. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I think it went something like, “Watch this, in bright mode, I can light up the surface of the moon.” I’m not jealous- I’m thankful that I can share some of that glow.
I’m also thankful that this ball-buster of a climb ends at another aid station. Emily has AGAIN magically appeared- this time with dry shoes, a new headlamp (equally unworthy of contending with the klieg light NAO, but fresh batteries in any case.) I must look terrible, because she’s taking no chances and I’m getting more nutrition. I feel a little guilt at basically seeing my ace crew chief for only a few seconds, but I know she’d kick me out of the chair if I lingered. I’d do that for her, too. She’s a pro. So Scott and I are out and back on what has been described as “one of the most runnable parts of the trail.” Of course, we’re eighty miles into the Show, so unless you’re Killian or The Bearded One, you’re right alongside me in heavy hike mode.
By now, I’m feeling only o.k-ish. I’m sure as hell a lot less talkative, but only twenty miles! Easy day. Or maybe a VERY LONG day. This is the point where I start second guessing nutrition, and so on. But bodily functions still seem intact, and I’ve been peeing a relatively normal color- all good signs. But I’m positively NOT hungry- digestion’s really shut down by now, so liquids and not much else will have to carry me. I’m a little nauseous here and there, but still able to press (and even pass) a few people. It seems like a lifetime before we hit Auburn Lake Trails at 85.2, but yeah, that was basically FIVE miles. Oy. We come into the aid station, I sit down to rummage through my last drop bag. A medical volunteer comes over to say hi, ask if I’m alright, ask me what color my urine is. You know, small talk. I actually feel good, despite the bit of nausea, and I’m praying that I don’t spontaneously dry heave. He looks at my knees curiously. “Mile 9. I’ve dealt with it for 74 miles. I’m good.” He seems impressed. I suck down another pouch of Pearfecto from my drop and pray it doesn’t come up in my lap. Scott, meanwhile, has found a stash of Mountain Dew and Hal Koerner. Clearly, we’re both excited. I haven’t puked, Scott’s liberated part of Hal’s Mountain Dew stash. He’s ecstatic. I can still make my feet work. We’re moving on. It’s the little things.
We don’t go far before the skies really start to lighten. The birds have been chattering away for a while, so I know it’s only a matter of time before I get my second sunrise of the race. Again, this is the “easy, runnable” part of the course- or so the volunteers keep telling us. Definitely hikable, and with the sunrise the views are back. There’s the river that taunted me all night, but we’ll just run alongside for a bit before heading past Brown’s Bar to close in on the home stretch. We’ve passed out of the pines miles back as we keep shedding elevation, winding through miles of beautiful gnarly oaks. It’s still cool out, and movement is steady. In the early morning hours, I think I see and smell and hear better, and I’m attuned to small changes. I’m picking up faint noises- distant traffic- just before I see the quarry. We’re close to Highway 49, mile 93ish- the very symbolic home stretch. I can press, and it turns out, I’ve very close.
If it’s possible, Emily has even MORE energy than I’ve seen from her and she’s been going non-stop for a day. Scott’s also alive with energy. I completely feel like I’m Rocky in the ring- a bit beaten down, but hopped up on sunshine, cool morning air, endorphins, and cheering. I pound my last strawberry Ensure and head up the crumbly, steep slope that always seems to follow an aid station. We pass- and are passed by- a few new pacers, completely fresh, like excited puppies orbiting their tired racers. And I think of Scott, who I’ve asked to pace me for 38 miles- mostly hiking through the night. He’s been incredible at keeping me on pace, not complaining a bit; patient and firm, he’s already done an ultra with me. We push on through the most amazing meadow of long, tall golden grass, and down through the woods. Highway 49 is always close enough to hear, and I know that river is close. I don’t care about my time- I’ve been hiking and I’ll easily finish. The pain of what I’m sure is a growing blister seems to have faded and I’m just locked into a powerhike down to No Hands Bridge. We cross the bridge and follow the old railroad bed gradually up toward Auburn, gradually seeing pairs and groups of local runners out for their early Sunday trail miles. One of the best feelings in the world is to be ‘saluted’ by fellow trail runners who know you’re close to finishing over a day on the trail. It doesn’t matter that the trail keeps climbing. We can see the houses, hear the cheering from Robie Point and the neighborhoods beyond.
Emily’s made it to Robie- hell she’s probably been there for an hour, but like clockwork, she finds Scott and I and helps me navigate the neighborhood roads above Placer High. There are a few people out on their front porches giving us a subdued cheer, and we press. I cross the railroad bridge, and there’s Ann Trason, out walking her dog at mile 99 point whatever, saying good morning and telling me that I look great. It does NOT get more surreal than that. I’m pushing harder now, not going faster, but putting in more effort. I hear the track, and the announcer, and it hurts like hell, but I start the effort to run it in. I’m undergoing some kind an endorphin-adrenaline explosion as I leave the road and head onto the track. Unlike so many other places on then course, it’s just me. Scott and Emily peel off, and I have the track to myself. I never doubted I could do this, but after a stupid fall early in the race, I knew how easily I could sideline myself. I have a whole crowd looking at me and I’m giving it all I can to run that quarter mile as the announcer calls out “blah blah blah JIM ROCHE! Newmarket, New Hampshire! blah blah blah…” I cross that line at 27:12:30 and I am absolutely overcome. Sixteen years of racing, solid training, learning, pushing, the support of so many and the best team I could have got me to that brass plaque at the track of Placerville High.
I used up every bit of energy I had to get those 100.2 miles in, and I asked huge amounts from my large circle of friends and family. Thank you for giving of yourself all these years to help me reach this goal. Keep smiling and keep pushing yourself.