Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Western States

Running from Demons and Chasing a Dream 

Finally getting my chance to run the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run was a dream come true.  After patiently acquiring race qualifiers and painfully enduring the lottery seven straight years, finally I was to get my chance in 2019.  I have watched the live Facebook feed of the lottery every year and I will admit that it has been a painful exercise given my level of commitment to the race.  Finally, on December 1, 2018 Kynan Matz pulled out my name from the hat.  I was ecstatic! 

Around the end of December, I kicked off my training cycle for Western States.  Six plus months is a long time to train for one race, but I was super excited and focused.  I didn’t do – or plan to do – a tremendous amount of volume (I can’t handle what I once did), but my focus for the training block was consistency and elevation gain/loss.  I can honestly say that this is the most fun and enjoyment that I have ever had training for a race.  Most weekends I was able to get together with a combo of friends: Lucas Warner, Tom Wood, and Joel Wolpert.  This was a nice change from my normal solo status.  From December 29 until June 11, I simply made sure I got in a long run of 20-30 miles and focused my other runs on getting in as much vertical as possible.   In the end, I got in around 1,500 miles of quality miles.  No speed, but no junk.  I wanted to specifically make it to the starting line in Squaw Valley healthy and not over-trained.  June 29, mission accomplished! 

Kadra and I flew in to San Francisco on the Wednesday before the race.  My friend Stacin Martin met us there and was to be with us the race duration.  Stacin was to pace/crew me along with my friend Bradley Mongold and his wife Jill.  We headed to Squaw Valley in our styling BMW X3, sun roof open across the Golden Gate Bridge taking in the splendor of California.  After some grocery shopping in Sacramento, we finally arrived in Squaw later that evening.   I was tired from the long day of travel, but I was blown away by the beauty of the valley.  I knew I was in for something special immediately. 

We took in as much of the pre-race festivities as possible (and there are a lot).  Western States hype is like no other race I have experienced.  I was already nervous and anxious, but the race was taking all that to another level.  The dry air, nosebleeds, and mild altitude headache were not helping either.  I felt extreme internal pressure surrounding the race.  I knew logically that it was not real, but I couldn’t shake the mental demons that kept reminding me how long I had waited for this, how hard I had trained, how much time away from my family I had committed, and how much my friends and family had committed to this moment.  I have been dealing with bouts of anxiety my entire life, but particularly, things have been much worse over the past six months.  This was the last thing I needed now . . . 
The "Classic" WS Shot
Gordy Ainsleigh, the "Pioneer"
13:25 Before the Start

The Pre-Race Briefing

My Crew

The Starting Line
Finally race day rolled around and when my alarm went off at 3:15 am, I felt like I never slept. I immediately had the sick feeling in my stomach of pre-race nerves.  I felt like someone was squeezing my guts from the inside.  Stacin and I walked to the starting line to get my race bib (our room was only about 200 yards from the start) as they were opening a few minutes before 4:00.   When we got back to the room, I was so worked up that I dry heaved.  I had never felt like this before a race.  I knew I was in big trouble if I couldn’t get this under control, but I just focused on simply making it to the start.  One thing at a time.   I was able to calm myself enough to eat half a piece of toast and a few sips of water before walking to the start around 4:45. I was shivering immediately from the nervousness and temps in the lower 30’s.  I was excited and honored to be there, but I unfortunately was not in the mental state to soak it all in.  With less than 5-minutes to go, I ambled outside and waited on the outskirts of the masses.  Finally, the countdown began and before I knew it, we were off and running at 5:00.  This is really happening.  I am running Western States! 

Running up the Escarpment, I focused on having a heart of gratitude.  I simply took my time, started drinking, ate a few potatoes to get some calories in me, and worked on positively changing my heart and mind.  Thankfully, that was not difficult to do.  I had to wipe the tears from my eyes several times as I swiveled around to peer down on the valley and Lake Tahoe in the distance.  I felt so blessed and humbled to be there. 

Mental aspect changed, I quickly had to mind the physical.  The climb over the three miles was kicking my butt!  I knew it was one of the tougher parts of the course, but I was a little surprised at just how hard it was for me.   The combination of the altitude – which I have never done well with – and the footing in the snow were really getting to me.  Finally, I pushed myself over the crest and was boosted by the raucous cheers of the hearty souls atop the mountain.  It’s time to start running! 

My legs were a little slow to accept the immediate descent from Watson’s Monument.  My plan was to make sure I took it easy in the high country, but I felt like an old man shuffling through the snow and breathing heavily from the altitude.  More demons were creeping in by the first aid-station at mile 10, Lyon Ridge.  I was really moving far worse than I could have ever imagined, but I had looked these demons in the eye in other 100’s that I’d done – granted, usually much later in the race – and I knew I would prevail in the end.  After this aid-station, I fell in with the great Scotty Mills for a while.  He was going for his 20th Western States finish and was a joy and share some time with. 

Not feeling so hot at Robinson Flat
Scotty and I bounced back and forth over the next 15-20 miles and I dealt with a dull altitude headache that was leaving me nauseous.  I knew I simply needed to get lower and that wouldn’t happen until after Robinson Flat at mile 30.  Scotty lead the way up the big climb to Robinson and quickly pulled away from me.  Before he hammered on up the trail, Scotty shared his motto for the day with me.  “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”  I liked it and felt like it fit the cards I was dealt for the day.  I finally rolled in to Robinson Flat feeling rough but tried my best to put on a good face for my crew (and I did a poor job at that).  I changed shoes and socks (the only planned change and ultimately the last time I would sit in the race), got new bottles, and slowly walked out of the station with a killer headache -- way worse than earlier.  The section leaving the aid-station, after the initial climb, is a gravel road and as runnable as it gets.  I simply couldn’t will myself to run.  I just walked and focused on getting fluids down (the last time I urinated it was looking dark orange, so I knew I needed to hydrate much more) and to lower elevation. 

Dusty Corners: Photo Iain Jones
Finally, a few miles before Dusty Corners (mile 38) I was beginning to feel better and was starting to find a groove.  “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”  I was about to tackle the infamous canyon sections.  I focused on fueling and keeping everything in check.  “Just make it through this section and to my crew at Michigan Bluff (mile 55)”, was what I told myself.  The next 17-miles were tough, but fairly uneventful for me as I carefully descended into the canyons so as not to blow my quads and power-hiked out.  Arriving to Michigan Bluff, I was super happy to see KadraStacin, Bradley and Jill.  I was in good spirits and simply ready for some company.  I got new bottles, ate some turkey, and hustled down the trail racing darkness without a headlamp.   I was slow, but "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast."
Rounding the Corner at Michigan Bluff
Happy to see my crew at Michigan Bluff
The section before Foresthill was much harder than I expected.  I was really starting to feel it and had to fight back some of the mental demons reminding me that there were many miles to go.  Finally, I popped out on to Bath Rd and Stacin was waiting there for me.  I have seen so many videos of runners running in to Foresthill that it was cool to experience it firsthand.  It is easily the craziest aid station I have ever run through.   I was a little shocked that it took me 15:43 to get there.  Stacin and I met-up with our crew, donned out headlamps, and headed for Cal Street.  It was great having Stacin’s company (he’s one of the finest people I know) and we fell in to a solid rhythm as the sun went down.  I was finally moving well enough that I was passing people.  Stacin and I cruised along over the next 16-miles moving steady and thankfully no sustained low points.  I was glad to be able to “perform” for Stacin and at least be running decently. 

At the Rucky Chucky river crossing, Bradley was scheduled to take over pacing duties.  It was 12:45 am, but I was feeling strong and happy.  I knew that I just had to make it to the sunrise for a renewed vigor.  Thankfully, the power of the Western States course kept me alert the whole night.  Bradley and I enjoyed running together and simply had a great time joking and talking through the night.  I knew that there was no way I was going to break 24-hours, but I ran consistently and was slowly moving up in the field.  I was having fun being on the Western States trail with one of my best friends in the world!  The hours went by quickly, and I was enjoying deliberate stops at the aid-stations for some solid food and quick refills.   The bacon and quesadillas were getting the job done.  Somewhere around Auburn Lakes Trails, I came up behind Scotty Mills and his pacer.  I simply said, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” as I slipped in behind and we shared a good laugh and embraced with congratulations.  Twenty Western States finishes is simply unreal to me; he is a true legend of the sport.  At the Quarry Rd. Station (mile 90), I had another brush with greatness in having the pleasure of past champion Hal Koerner filling my bottles. 

Robie Point: Photo Jill Cantafio
As the sun came, we neared the classic view from above of No Hands Bridge aid-station.  The emotions and magnitude of the day started to hit me.  I was truly thankful for the experience of Western States and the presence of my wife and friends.  I took a few deep breaths and consciously tried to breath it all in.  As I climbed up to Robie Point, with about a mile to go, I was met by Kadra, Jill, and my friend Jamie Fields that lives nearby in Reno.  It was a blast running through the streets of Auburn in the cool morning air, then finally, the entrance to the track came in to view.  I had dreamed of this moment for many years and it was surreal to finally experience it.  Kadra handed me the WV flag and I heard the familiar voice of my friend Andy Jones-Wilkins on the microphone announcing my entrance to the hallowed track.  Tears filled my eyes as I soaked in the moment. 

Heading for the Track

Photo: Stacin Martin
After 25 hours and 23 minutes I passed under the finish arch.  Western States was worth the wait and I enjoyed the event immensely.  The history, the hype, the amazing course; all combined to a crescendo of satisfaction and achievement.  

This is the first 100-mile race that I have finished in over 24-hours.  I have a little disappointment that I broke my streak and  didn't have the day I thought I deserved at Western States.  In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent running Western States.   The more time, the more memories.  I left the track filled up.

I appreciate the support of my wife Kadra, my family, and my friends (especially Stacin, Bradley, and Jill for making the trip) over all the years it took to finally toe-the-line in Squaw and to run to Auburn.   We might need to do it again some time.   I think I might need a silver buckle . . . 


  1. Great write up! So glad you enjoyed your race.

    1. Thanks Kimba! I appreciate your advice and thanks again for the Running Madness film.

  2. I enjoyed reading about your experience at Western States and couldn't read it without being a little teary-eyed! Michael, Luke, and I followed your progress through 'Alexa' which was a little weird but kinda cool. You continue to be a mentor and an inspiration. Thank you for sharing and congratulations!