This was the 2nd hottest WS ever with the California heatwave recording the hottest ever temperatures seen in the USA. At the race briefing, the organisers had told us to put aside thoughts of times/splits, and just to run a safe race. I just had the strategy to start slow and not only hope that my body would hold for the full 100.2 miles - post crash I had been battling with various little niggles, and I wasn't sure that over the extended and rough race that one or more of them wouldn't blow up into a full injury. I was also planning on pacing myself well, hopefully leave something in the tank for the latter stages. The race started at altitude, which was tiring in itself, and also interesting on the heart rate and hydration. I was partly acclimated after 3 days at altitude and a small hike and gentle bike ride under my belt, but not totally.
It was pretty exciting and emotional at the start, and everyone was swept up in it including Mrs R who was usually only seen up at 3am if she hadn't been to bed! I chatted to a few guys I had met including Gary from Montreal (although originally GB), and Dan from close to Auburn (near the finish) and then we were off - walking up the first climb from around 1900m to around 2700m in 6km. If anyone says the Western States is all downhill, they are lying!
Part of the attraction of the Western States Endurance Race was because of its enduring and interesting history. It was the first 100 mile foot race, and the way it started was by accident. There had been a horse race called the Tevis Cup running since 1955, started to keep alive the Western States Trail used by goldminers for several hundred years and probably the native Americans for eons before that. In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh, a 27 year old Tevis Veteran had entered the horse race but shortly before the race his mount went lame. He sought permission - which was subsequently granted - to enter the race on foot, and the race was born. The following year Gordy entered on foot with his buddy Cowman Alooha, and the field subsequently snowballed until the field was restricted by the National Parks authorities at 400.
I spent most of the first climb chatting to other runners - my accent pointing me out as an International, but also because I was the first entrant from Monaco which caused quite a buzz. I managed to meet Gordy and we exchanged a few words before I pulled away from him. 67 years old, and 27 finishes! I also saw Cowman - the 2nd ever runner, wearing his trademark horned hat!
As I crested the peak and filed past Watson's Monument, I looked back and was rewarded with a spectacular sunrise with mist shrouding the valley, and the pink and orange sun glistening off the surface of Lake Tahoe. Little more than a few seconds later, I headed off into the first 30 miles and first serious canyon, with my crew - Mrs R, meeting me at the top of . It was still chilly, and we headed through mountain pastures full of wild flowers due to the recent rain, and then some overgrown scrubby brush where we traced a semi dry creek bed in single file. The sun was gently warming us and with only patchy cover due to forest fire affected mountain sides, the sun was before long becoming an issue, and even after 25 miles people were starting to struggle and sit down by the side of the trail for a rest. I just followed the beautiful trail in an easy relaxed manner - letting others pull ahead if they wanted. I tried to keep my fluids up with the augmented water in my Camelback, but it was quite hard to judge it. I had been using the same electrolyte and carb infused power for years, and I had brought spare powders with me, Mrs R and some drop bags had spare baggies. I found that I was drinking more than I had expected and was swiftly getting through my powders, but as I pulled in to the 30 mile aid station I was feeling pretty flat after a long hot climb out of Duncan Canyon.
It was just as well because the next section was mainly open. We tracked across an area which had suffered from a lot of fires, and the tree cover was non existant - vicious looking toothpicks punctuating the skyline. The sun was high overhead, and it was hot. Very hot. I met up with a team of 3 security patrolers - part of the organisation that ran sections of the trail administering to runners in difficulty, and providing moral support to others. There were two chaps - both firefighters, that had met last year as one had run the race and the other had paced him at the last minute as his planned runner had dropped out prior to the pacing section. Elke was the third, a local and she too had run the race the previous year - she was part of the Western States Trail management team and loved and knew the area well. It was great to have someone to chat to on this challenging undulating but predominantly downhill section, with someone prodding me to drink regularly.
I had been a little shaken up by the weight loss, and I also had some pain in my lower back. Having had renal issues in the past (ending up on one notable occasion in the back of an ambulance) and I wasn't sure whether the back pain was actually just that - fatigue and stiffness setting in - or in fact dehydration affecting my kidneys. As my urine gradually lightened, I noticed the pain dissipate and I was pleased to see the back of it.
I certainly needed all my energies and concentration, because we were approaching the first canyon - notoriously hot because they were so sheltered and humid. The registered temperature had been 102 in the open - the canyons were like huge outdoor saunas with little shelter, no breeze, and the added bonus of a light creek at the bottom allowing the water to evaporate.. Whatever the temperature outside you could guarantee it would be a good 10-20 degrees more in the canyons. Couple that with quad busting descents, and morale sapping ascents, and races were won and lost right there.
I breezed through Last Chance, just ticking off the miles, and then my descent into the first canyon went pretty well, with all my quad training from Mad Dog Mike paying off as I passed a few people, and I didn't feel it was too bad on my quads, even though the descent was at times technical with steep switchbacks and loose rocks. But the climb up was a different story. I used the river at the bottom, and picturesque waterfall which I took full advantage of to soak myself. It was just as well - the ascent was a retreat from Stalingrad! It was very steep, and people were just buckling right from the beginning, littering the track with broken bodies. I ended up leading a peloton up the hill to Devils Thumb, providing encouraging words and motivation to myself and others. But it all became too much for me, and a huge convulsion gripped me from the inside, I bent double, and dry heaved bringing up nothing but bile. Unfortunately I was right by the medics - sent in advance by the aid station. They didn't seem overly bothered having seen far worse, and I dragged myself to the aid station and passed the weigh in and cognitive test! Whilst I had suffered, there were plenty more people in way worse shape than me - 2 or 3 people were asleep or unconscious, and 2 or 3 more sitting looking distinctly zombie like, being ministered to by medics. I can see why they didn't bat an eyelid when I had a couple of pesky dry heaves. I felt positively athletic in comparison. One poor chap - Dan, had actually passed out on the trail and fallen down the hill, but had managed to pull himself together and get up the hill to recover over time in the aid station.
I had clearly put too much into the climb, so took my time at the aid station to rehydrate and have some fruit.
As I pulled out of the aid station, I ran with various different people - I ran a bit with Esther from Alaska who wasn't feeling too great with cramps - I advised ice and it seemed to help; then another chap who was like the jolly green giant with his colour matching outfit from head to toe - he confessed he had bought all his gear the day before because he was not previously prepared for the excessive heat; and of course the ever present Elke chatting away. I was pleased to get past the notorious Devil's Thumb and I whooped as we passed the half way mark just after the historic Deadwood Cemetary entrance - I managed to resist the temptation to pop in for a nose around! At the bottom of the canyon I immersed myself as much as possible - about half way up my shins - at the bottom. The cooling water felt fabulous on my body and soul, and I dunked my cap before heading out of the canyon.
Another steep climb out, although not as bad as before, and I just enjoyed chatting to other runners and the incredible scenery. I got into the habit of icing my quads at every aid station, and also to fill my hat with ice too.
Filled with relief at finishing with the Canyons, I crested the top of the hill knowing Mrs R would be meeting me at the Michigan Bluff aid station at 55 miles. We travelled about 3-400 metres on a paved road, and I could hear cheers before I could see them. I rounded a corner and maybe 50 people were standing and cheering. The funny thing was that I couldn't see who they would be cheering for. I looked around to check if anyone was behind me - perhaps an elite athlete or a celebratory but there was noone; noone in front of me either. It dawned on me that they may actually be cheering for me. I pointed at myself and adopted a quizzical expression, and they cheered harder. I was overcome with emotion at these people whom I had never met - nor would likely meet again, they were just standing there enjoying the race and whether they held ambitions to do it, or just admired anyone that tried it, they were caught up in too. I managed a little bow to the crowd's amusement and more cheers and clapping.
I trotted into the aid station for the obligatory weigh in (this time fine), and whilst I was being weighed someone grabbed my pack and filled it with water; Mrs R had laid everything out for me on a towel next to well stocked crews with rv's and eskies full of ice for their runners! She took my shoes off and emptied out the stones - as I was struggling a little with my flexibility. My shoes were continually filling with stones, which were causing havoc with the soles of my feet, and I figured it better to remove the offending items before they became a more serious problem; she gave me vaseline, apple, go-bars and more powder for my Camelback.
I set off in good spirits - it was getting cooler, but I had no idea of the time. I had planned on picking up a headlamp at 62 miles at the Foresthill Aid station, and Mrs R had a spare, but because of the heat I was a little behind my expectations in terms of how far along I was. With that notwithstanding, I thought I would stick to the plan and pick up the headlamps at Foresthill, so I just set off on my way. Michigan Bluff was the first aid station where runners could pick up pacers, so not only was I passing - or being passed by - runners, it was now little groups of two or more. Seems that the vast majority of runners had utilised the pacer rule, and I could see why. During the hours of dusk and early night, the body tends to shut down, the body clock expecting a person to slow down after the work day and relax before going to sleep a little later on. I knew that these hours were dangerous - the runner might lose the mental ability to carry on and quit; or perhaps a momentary lapse of concentration could result in a fall or trip and the race would be over for a different reason. I completely understood why people had runners - it was just that I had a very small pool of people that I knew that would want to run in the dark for 10, 15, 20 or even more miles, not to mention fly all the way to California (about 23 hours travelling time from Monaco) to get there. I was therefore on my own.
I was making good time down the descent to Bath Road, on single track through the woods, and true to form in the mountains, the light disappeared with little or no warning. My eyes adjusted and utilising what little light I could glean from the moon, I continued. I was still about a mile or two from Bath Road, but was managing to run quite well due to the clear night and full moon, and made up a few more places. One chap I passed was broken but he had 2 pacers chivvying him along - he actually had a spare headlamp and leant it to me on condition I left it for him at Bath Road. I was feeling great and marginally frustrated as I had no clue where I was going, as we were back under thick tree cover blocking the moon. Serendipitously I saw Elke at the aid station munching a pizza. I mentioned my predicament, and she quickly finished her pizza and grabbed her sidekick and they ran with me either side of me - illuminating my way - to Foresthill (62 miles). After the weigh in and Camelback filling, I grabbed the headlamp from my drop bag, and my spare from Mrs R. Elke had previously mentioned that her daughter Chloe was a pacer, but the runner that she was due to pace had dropped out of the race due to injury. Most people in the race seem to have had at least one pacer to provide words of advice, look out for course markers and obstacles, moral support, and rudimentary medical advice if needed. I had never had the opportunity of having a pacer, but recognised the wisdom of having one - particularly a combat medic and with local knowledge!
The race organisers were very geared up to pacers - and had a spare pacers bib for every runner at Foresthill as lots of runners - and even pacers, would have dropped. Chloe changed her bib to match mine, and was thrilled to be given the opportunity to run - I sensed she was particularly excited about the river crossing at mile 78, the famous Rucky Chucky crossing.
Chloe was fabulous - she had stocked up on salt tabs, batteries, M+M's, and other stuff, for her planned runner, but of course I was on my own plan so just had bits of apple, go bar, melon and my powders. We made up some really good time because we both seemed to like downhills, the heat had subsided, and the local knowledge was fabulous - telling me in great details about upcoming terrain such as sand, technical sections, or even just boosting my morale by knowing how long a climb would be. We seemed to turn left a lot - every switchback, junction and so on, and it became a real joke that we would just end up where we started! Every aid station was breezed through - Chloe even emptied my shoes of rocks for me (not a job I'd like at the best of times let alone in the middle of the night and after I'd covered some 70 miles of dirt trail and multiple creek crossings), and we overtook heaps of people as we moved through them smoothly whilst others would be sitting, lying or even sleeping. We ran a lot of the downs, some of the flats and walked the ups, but I was very pleased I had gas in the tank after the tough day.
At 78 miles, we reached the river crossing - a highlight of the run. Whilst there had been a lot of creeks and streams, this was neck deep and the organisers had laid a rope across it with helpers in wet suits to guide runners across. For Chloe this was the bit she had been looking forward to - she had been waxing lyrically about the steps hewn into the cliff face and how beautiful it was. It was certainly well organised with aid stations either side of the river, music playing, fairy lights, and Chloe was telling everybody that I was the first runner from Monaco which created some excitement. I was not as enthusiastic as Chloe about the steps down, as I had 78 miles in my legs, although I could see why she liked them - they looked nice! The river crossing itself was magical, but also bloody chilly - which was good for the muscles!
The next checkpoint after a brief climb was a short affair, and they were perturbed I would be on my own. Saying goodbye to Elke, Chloe and Sal, I turned right on the trail, and a chap from the aid station jogged with me for a couple of hundred metres explaining the trail and important junctions. Because of him I was able to continue in confidence and did not miss the important left turn.
I was running on my own, in the mountains, at night, and it was magical. I would have whole sections of an hour or so when I wouldn't see any other runners, unless one passed, or I passed them, all with pacers. I was running well, although I had developed hiccups which made me sound like a weird bird chirruping as I ran. The constant sugary water and Coke intake had played havoc with my insides, but at least I was remaining hydrated. I was glad to have done all the core work before the race, as my stomach muscles were taking a battering.
The mind plays tricks on you when you are on the trail, alone, after 80 odd miles, and I started seeing animals on the side of the trail which would look like a bear or cougar, but then dissipated as I came closer, and it was just an amalgam of bushes from the wrong angle. Then I saw two reflective studs in a tree highlighted by my headlamp. I dismissed them as trail markers, but they seemed to track me. I stopped and looked, and something cat like with big ears looked back at me. Maybe it was intrigued by the hiccups! I had no idea what it was, but having read about runners on the trail being mauled and even killed by mountain lions, I didn't hang around to introduce myself.
When I rolled my ankle for the first time the hiccups went temporarily. I had suffered a little with my ankle in training on the leadup to the race, my right being a little weak from a rugby injury at Uni, and I had strapped it for the race. This saved me as with a couple of steps I ran it off. I rolled it again about 30 minutes later, as I stepped off the path - quite a steep long drop if I had fallen, but I saved it and although it was worse the second time I ran it off.
I still managed to overtake plenty of people, and managed my hydration pretty well. As suddenly as it was dark, it was light, and I took off my headlamp and I was afforded my second spectacular sunrise on the trail.