Saturday, June 27, 2009

2009 Western Status Endurance Run

2009 Western States Endurance Run

11 ½ hours to Foresthill. Then another 11 ½ hours to Auburn. That’s the short version of my race report.

I have trouble keeping my expectations realistic in a 100-miler. It’s due in part to the slow pace inherent in such a long race. It’s hard for me to believe that five miles an hour is a blistering pace. Other people’s high expectations are another factor. Because I’m a well known hiker, some people assume I’m also a great runner. Two years ago a couple people actually picked me to WIN Western States! Whoa! Even with a Barkley course record now added to my resume, I’m not in the same league as the real contenders. A sub-20 hour finish is about the best I could ever hope for.

Because this year’s Western States was a focus race for me, I expected to better my 21:20 finish of two years ago. As mental preparation, I visualized a breakthrough sub-20 hour finish. I also tried to embrace secondary goals of a PR and a silver buckle, but thoughts breaking of the 20-hour barrier made that difficult. It never crossed my mind that I might not finish.

At the starting line I was relaxed and ready. When the gun went off, I was well back from the line and about 100 people started ahead of me. But my efforts not to get caught up in the mad dash were undermined. A huge group of runners took a wrong turn in the first mile. When I got there, people off to my right were yelling “Wrong way!” and turning around. I stayed straight and suddenly there were only about 10 people in front of me! We all knew the thrill would be short lived but several of us took turns in the lead before the big dogs came charging through. It was hard to stay cool and gauge my proper pace amongst the likes of Jurek, Mackey, and Koerner so I arrived at Escarpment way too soon. At least I wasn’t out of breath.

I calmly let the faster runners pass as I settled into a comfortable pace, enjoying the views of the high country and cruising through the early aid stations in the cool morning air. At Robinson Flat I was surprised to see my wife, Sophie. She was surprised to see me as well since I was 15 minutes early, but had an Ensure waiting for me nevertheless. Her day was shaping up to be even more trying than mine - and a lot less fun.

She had some last minute logistical scrambling when the crew vehicle broke down the night before the race and was towed to Tahoe City. As we walked a mile to the start, Sophie reminded me that I’m good at being self-sufficient, and apart from a headlamp there was nothing I really needed from them. She guaranteed that she would find a way to get to Foresthill.

The plan had been for Sophie, a former WS top-10 woman, to pace me from Foresthill and our good friend Roger Dellor, WS 60+ age group course record holder, to crew me at Bath Road and Rucky Chucky Far Side, after both volunteered at Dusty Corners. In the revised plan, volunteering at Dusty was impossible. After the start, Roger stayed behind and handled the car repair while Sophie searched for a ride, which she fortuitously found with Darcey Rambach.

Sophie met me again at Michigan Bluff, where I was still 15 minutes ahead of my splits. But it was brutally hot. She didn’t want to blow my confidence by saying anything, but we were both thinking the same thing: Shouldn’t I slow down a little in the heat? But I rationalized about being a powerful hiker; climbing out of these canyons is where I’m strongest. Besides, I feel great!

Roger was there to crew me at Bath Road. He had found a rental car and drove all the way to Dusty Corners, long after I’d been through, to bring them ice and apologize for he and Sophie not showing up to volunteer. He would meet Sophie and me at the Far Side with our headlamps. We wouldn’t have to run down to the river in the blazing afternoon sun carrying our lights after all!

I arrived at Foresthill School at 4:35pm, now 25-minutes ahead of schedule. I couldn’t help but rejoice. I was out of the canyons and seemed to have survived the worst of the heat. I was running in the top 20 and feeling good enough to race from there. And I had the best pacer in the world to help me do it. In short, I was having the race of my dreams!

I exuberantly waved to friends as we turned onto California Street, but as soon as we hit downhill trail, my quads started hurting and I said I needed to slow down. Sophie started encouraging me to keep up my spirits but I reacted badly, wondering why she was breaking out the kid gloves already. Was I not crushing the course? But she could see what I could not, that I’d started struggling, abruptly, on cruiseable downhill. By Dardanelles, it was obvious to me too. Running had become difficult. At the aid station I tried to regroup. I put ice in my hat, ate a Gu and took off quickly, wasting no time. I was looking forward to a walk break on the big uphill just ahead. In the canyons every uphill had perked me up and renewed my spirits. But this time is different. My legs are jelly, my energy is gone and my stomach is getting upset.

This is new for me; I’ve never been nauseous in a race before. If I have gastro-intestinal problems, it’s always extra bathroom stops; annoying, time consuming, but otherwise benign. At Peachstone, I down a Coke, hoping the sugar and caffeine will revive me, but I don’t feel right.

I sit in a chair for the first time and promptly throw up. I’m scared. I don’t want to get up. Sophie insists I sip on broth if I’m sitting. She reminds me of friends who have had similar experiences and came back running after a death march. I just need to take care of myself. And I need to keep moving. Krissy Moehl races through. She had recovered well from a bad patch and went on to finish strongly. Sophie finally coaxes me out of the aid station, but I refuse to even try to eat or drink anything. I am afraid of throwing up again.

I stagger horribly up the big climb just before Ford’s Bar. I shuffle, hunched over, arms clutching my queasy stomach. Sophie demonstrates strong hiker form, coaching me to use arm swing to power my legs forward, calling on muscle memory from thousands of miles of hiking to override my defeatist thoughts. She tells me I don’t stagger when I use my arms, but I’m paying more attention to my ailing stomach than her words. I’m nauseous and dizzy. Sophie tucks in behind me, watchful that I don’t stagger off the trail. She cools me with water from her bottles. She reasons with me, trying to get me to understand that I am bonking for lack of fuel, but I refuse to eat or drink.

At Ford’s Bar, I spend even more time in the chair. Again, Sophie makes a deal with me: I’m allowed in the chair as long as I am trying to eat. The watermelon goes down surprisingly well, but I can’t stand even the thought of anything else. She coaxes me to sip on the salty soup. Everyone says I look better, but I still refuse to get up. She challenges me, “You’re tough enough to finish Barkley! This is much easier than Barkley!” Although she doesn’t say it, all I hear is “wimp.” While I sit, more runners pass through the aid station, but I don’t care. Victor Ballesteros sped through leading a train of others running to the river. Craig Thornley calls out encouragement, but I don’t have it in me. I want to quit. Sophie wants me to leave with them, hoping their energy will pull me. She resorts to tough love. “No! You have to get moving now. You don’t want to stop here! This is the worst place to quit!” (Apologies to the good folks volunteering) There is applause when I finally stand up. Side-by-side we leave the aid station as Dan Barger effortlessly floats by, disappearing on the switchbacks below.

Rucky Chucky seems an awfully long way off. Sophie doesn’t even ask me to run anymore; a good walking pace is challenge enough. While trudging along the normally runnable Sandy Bottom stretch we are passed by a steady stream of runners, including Nikki Kimball, Caren Spore and Meghan Arboghast. Finally, I get it through my head that, yes, I AM bonking and eat a Gu. My entire stomach empties in rebellion. Copious amounts of liquid are ejected in four good heaves. Where did it all come from? Evidently my stomach hasn’t been processing anything I’ve consumed since the hot climb out of Volcano Canyon to Bath Road. I’m feeling better after the purge, but the experience has reinforced my fears. I refuse to eat or drink again. Sophie reminds me that I crossed the river at 9pm last time. My chance for a PR is vanishing with the daylight, but I don’t care. Mentally I’m done.

At Rucky Chucky, I step on the scale and surprisingly I haven’t lost any weight. Sophie urges me to cross the river in the last bit of daylight, but I sit down again, trying to get sympathy from the medical people. I just want permission to quit. They took my vitals and said I was fine to move on. The prognosis was that I was bonking and so, again, I was fed chicken soup. Three cups this time, but I couldn’t be enticed to eat anything solid. Scott Wolfe, who had endured a bad Cal Street section as well, commiserated in the chair next to me, but drank and ate what he could and moved on. Sophie pleaded with me, reminding me that Roger was waiting on the Far Side with our lights, worried about me. So I got up and we crossed the cold, waist-high river in the dark.

It wasn’t Roger waiting, or the headlamps that got me up. It was the thought of Roger’s rental car. I could quit over there. I just didn’t want to struggle through another 20 miserable miles. Sophie notes that I’m walking better than ever up to Green Gate, but in my mind I’ve only got two miles to go, not twenty.

At Green Gate she realizes that my mind is made up and knows this is going to be a battle of wills. I’m very stubborn when I’ve got my mind set on something. That usually works in my favor, allowing me to focus on a goal and persevere, but, what happens when my goals and expectations don’t match the reality of the moment? Does it have to be all-or-nothing? My sub-20 goal was long gone. I couldn’t motivate myself with a ”just finish” or even a “sub-24” goal. My will was on the wrong side.

Sophie used every argument she could think of, but in the end, she simply wouldn’t allow me to quit. She said I might hate her now, but I’d thank her later. She thrust a cupful of pretzels, fig bars and other nibbles in my hand and told me to eat as we walked to Auburn Lake Trails. She was right. Once I began eating, I started perking up. Though I walked that whole segment and the next, quitting didn’t enter my mind again. At Brown’s Bar my weight was down 3% and the medical volunteers held me until I drank a liter, but I was thirsty and it went right down - and stayed there! They allowed me to proceed. After that we started running short sections again; I was back from the dead!

I kept moving with renewed energy and spirit as I efficiently passed through Highway 49. I grabbed a Gu and chips at the long-awaited No Hands Bridge as if I was in a race. We finished in 22:52, well ahead of the 24-hour mark. Amazingly I’d finished in time for a silver buckle! It’s Sophie’s buckle – she earned it as much I did. Without her I would have quit and regretted it later. Sophie knew that; she knows me well. Like I said earlier, I’ve got the best pacer in the world!

Flyin' Brian Robinson