Well, it’s all over. I shuffled up to the finish line at around 2:49 AM nearly 22 hours after leaving Squaw Valley, Sara just about pushing and pulling me the last few miles. If you don’t want all the details, the short version is: early morning start, followed by lots and lots of running, lots of hills, great views, snow, a few wipeouts, two blood samples, way too much GU, excellent pacers, a quick boat trip, more running but at night, pain, pain, pain, walking, a final death march, and finally arriving at the finish 21 hours and 49 minutes after starting. I finished exhausted but had incredible support from Nicole and friends.
Waiting at the finish were friends and family with true perseverance. Thank you to Carl and Barb Carlson, Phil and Suzan Hann, Michael and Sara Thompson (actually Sara arrived at the finish with me), Joe Opel, Kody and Secret. Nicole was there to see me through and put up with all my training that consisted of months and months of early morning and late night runs. She puts up with my obsessions and this would have been impossible without her support and encouragement. Again, that also goes to the friends and family that were there, lending support and making the day possible — and impossible to forget. Coming into an aid station, all I would see was the smiling faces of the crew. No hint of frustration or a tired face from having to drive hours, only to sit and wait, then wait around some more. Running is not an exciting spectator sport (ultra running can be synonymous with ultra boring) and I know that sitting around to see your runner for a minute or two every few hours isn’t fun. Running for hours in the mountains, knowing friends and family were WAITING really gave me something to look forward to. Joe picked me up at Foresthill and really pushed me for about 10 miles. Sara took over 5 miles later and really did an awesome job of getting to the finish running over 20 miles through the dark and over the hills. I hope you can tell that I can’t say enough about the support.
I will try to stay away from the hyperboles in describing the race but it will be hard to depict this race in its true detail. Unless you experienced the terrain, it’s difficult to paint a picture of how rough some parts actually are. So much of the day is spent running on rugged trails, climbing a mountain, descending into a valley, climbing a mountain, descending into a valley. This absurd pattern is repeated over and over again. But the course is beautiful and provides amazing views all day. Race day started at 3:15 AM. Carl and Barb drove up to Tahoe and stayed with us on Friday night so they could be there for the start. We were all out the door before 4 AM and drove a quick 20 minutes to the start of the race at Squaw Valley. It was a little chaotic at check-in. The temperatures were in the low 40s so most people crammed themselves inside one of the ski lodges. I had kept breakfast very simple with some granola and a bagel back at the house, but there was a spread of food for the runners at Squaw. I filled up two water bottles with Gatorade and we headed to the starting line. At 5 AM, the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon providing just enough light to see the path leading up the mountain to Emigrant Pass.
The crew wished me luck, we exchanged hugs and a few minutes later the race started and a few hundred of us were running up the ski runs of Squaw Valley. The first 4.5 miles of the course are a climb of about 2500′, so right away you were introduced to the terrain. About halfway to the first summit, we started to encounter large areas of snow. This made things a little treacherous. I say snow but it was actually more like a sheet of ice with soft snow underneath. The snow was also very uneven due to wind and sun so it was nearly impossible to get proper footing. Half the time the feet would just slide into a sun cup. A lot of the way up we were power walking in order to avoid spending too much energy too soon. I wore my heart rate monitor the first half of the day and at this point my heart rate was about 140. A good tempo run for me is at 150 to 155 so even though we were walking/jogging, the effort wasn’t an easy stroll. Any leveling in the climb and we would start to run again. This continued to the top of Squaw which rewarded us with an amazing view of Lake Tahoe and the mountains to the West. The course then dropped off from the peak and it felt good to be running at a consistent pace. However, soon we encountered more large sections of ice/snow. A couple times my foot would fall right through, right up to my knee. I did take a couple spills on the ice but nothing to leave a cut or bruise. The ice/snow condition lasted about another 10 miles and was a real nuisance (but a pretty nuisance). The runners had really thinned (not lost weight but there were fewer of us running together) by this point and I was running with only a couple other people. At the second aid station, I filled up with fluids (GU was the only fluid besides water) and continued on. A little bit later Dean Karnazes went flying by me, running down a snowy ridge with a small group of followers. There was nothing that I could do but admire his throw-all-caution-to-the-wind style. A couple miles after leaving and filling up my water bottles at Lyon Ridge, I trailed a couple runners for a few minutes and decided to pass them when there was enough room. There was a widening in the trail and I slipped around on the left only to trip over a rock and do a face plant. Instinctively, my hands tried to brace my fall and my water bottles broke open as I helplessly watched the bottles spill their contents all over me. Good one! Luckily, no major damage, just a couple cuts on my hands and legs. I reminded myself to pick up my feet, something that seemed to haunt me all day. A few miles later, the trail widened to the size of a narrow fire road. Feeling good I cruised downhill, enjoying the views of the canyons. Wipeout! I had slipped into another rhythm and forgotten to pick up my feet. This time I slid face first a couple feet across loose rocks. More cuts and bruises but luckily no witnesses around. Pick up your feet, Stupid!
A little while later, I pulled into the first major aid station of Robinson Flat. We were required to weight in and my weight was at 160 pounds, so I was only down 5 pounds. Supporters and crews were waiting for their runners. I grabbed a little piece of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a couple crackers and filled up with fluids. I looked for Carl, Barb, Kody, Secret and Nicole but couldn’t locate them. I scanned the faces again but no luck. So I left Robinson Flat a couple minutes later. This next section of the course was picturesque. Granite, mountains, valleys and one incredible view after another. Little Bald Mountain was the next aid station and it was only a few quick miles after Robinson Flat. I thought maybe I would see the group at Little Bald Mountain but no luck. I saw Tim Twietmeyer meeting with his crew and we wished each other luck. I couldn’t believe at this stage I was right behind him. I could feel loose gravel in my shoes from my spills and I was planning to change socks and my shirt (stained from my Gatorade shower and marked with a couple long dirt stains down the front). But with no Nicole I kept my shirt and emptied my shoes and socks. I left the aid station looking forward to the next section.
A few weeks early I joined a large training run along this section of the course. The purpose was to acquaint the runners with the most difficult sections of the run. The next 25 miles were considered very tough. Lots of climbing and descending. We would descend into these huge canyons, down to the river, only to climb back up the other side. Once at the top, we would go right back down and climb up another side. The climbing is hard but the downhills are what really take a toll on the body. The pounding of running mile after mile down steep trails just shreds the quads. Although my quads held up relatively well during this section, all the pounding caught up to me and I paid the price much later in the day. Along the narrow trails of this section, I passed two snakes. I never looked down to see, but I could hear them slither away as I ran passed them. Better not to have the images of stepping on a snake I ran into the usual suspects: lizards. And at one point ended up with a bug flying around the inside of my mouth. I had to remind myself to run with my mouth closed!
Michigan Bluff, at mile 55, is where I met the crew for the first time. I rolled into the stop after leaving the canyons feeling good but a little tired and hungry. All runners were required to be weighed again at this stop and I had lost a couple more pounds since Robinson Flat. One of the medics saw the cuts and blood on my legs and hands and pulled me aside. I said I felt fine and promised to drink more (although the thought of another drop of GU wasn’t what I wanted to think about). But my plea to just pass through didn’t convince him. They led me to a stretcher, took a quick blood sample and taped one of my toes. Nicole and Carl waited with me for about 2 minutes when the blood test came back that all my internals looked good. I was good to keep going.
Everybody else walked with me out of the aid station and I ate a quick snack before heading off to Foresthill where I could pick up Joe, my first pacer. Foresthill was only about 7 miles (mainly fire roads) from Michigan Bluff and Joe met me about a mile before the main pit area. We ran in together at about 4 PM. Another jump on the scale and some more food and drink and time with the crew.
From Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky river crossing, the course is mainly downhill. Joe and I were able to maintain a very nice pace and my legs felt relatively good. Along the way to Rucky Chucky, Joe ran head first into the flight of a bee and the collision gave Joe a sting on the top of his head. After about 9 miles of pacing, Joe had done a great job keeping me going at a strong pace but started to have some dizzy spells. I had gotten too far ahead so I walked for about 10 minutes waiting for Joe to catch up. A little before Peachstone, I still had a distant dream of finishing under 20 hours so Joe and I parted and I tried to keep a strong pace (very relative after running 70 miles).
A few miles before Rucky Chucky, I ran with Topher Gaylord and his pacer. We passed another runner who was walking and I thought he said he was “going to walk it in” after being bit by a snake. But I may have not heard him correctly. The Rucky Chucky is where we cross the American River (after having done so a number of times already), but this time there was no bridge. On a normal year, runners use a rope to pull themselves through the water. But on very snowy years, rubber rafts are used to ferry runners. This year we had rafts. Topher and his pacer told me there would be a good climb for the next 2 miles to Green Gate.
Leaving Rucky Chucky, Sara Thompson met me and told me Nicole and the crew were waiting at Green Gate at the top of the hill. I wasn’t expecting to see them until Highway 49 so this was a great surprise. Arriving at Green Gate, it was starting to turn dark so Sara and I put on our headlamps and I tried to regroup. Again, having the support of family and friends at this point really helped. Topher and I had talked about running to the finish together so we left together. But he seemed to be able to handle the downhills much better and pulled away in a few minutes. Probably sitting down at Green Gate was not a good idea. The downhills were killing my quads! I was left to a very easy jog.
Sara did great leading the way for me in the dark. The trail was mostly single track, and every now and then a glow stick hanging from a tree or bush we ease any fears we were lost. Realizing the 20 hours was not going to happen, my will began to fade. I felt like a mule, my eyes focused on the Sara’s feet, as I whimpered to every step. We did very little talking, except when I asked to stop for a quick bathroom break. After drinking GU all day, fluids now just went right through me. My mouth would be dry and I felt somewhat dehydrated, but anything I drank went right through in 15 minutes. But too much is a much better sign that not enough.
We cruised into Brown’s Bar where it sounded like an all night party. We could hear the music a few minutes before we arrived. In the middle of nowhere, you run into this music blaring, party lights everywhere, costumed supporters, aid station.
Highway 49 was the next aid station and was supposed to be less than 4 miles from Brown’s Bar. Somehow, it felt like 10 miles. Sara continued to lead me through the dark, along the mountainous trails and through tiny streams. My legs and sense of balance were gone so balancing on rocks was out of the question. Any stream or water we encountered, I would just walk through the water instead of trying to pick my way across some rocks. This came back to haunt me. As the miles continued, I could feel the skin on my feet ripping with each step. This probably wouldn’t have been a problem with dry feet and it turned into a painful lesson. Sara did her best to encourage us on and keeping moving. At one point, I felt that I had tiny pebbles in the bottom of my shoes but knew that I couldn’t bend over to take off my shoes. I asked Sara for a big favor and she pulled off my shoes and emptied them, put them back on and tied my shoes. Oh, the duties of a pacer! Back jogging up the trail, I realized the skin on the bottom of my feet was so tender that it was actually my socks and not pebbles that I was feeling. Less than 10 miles to go. Just keep moving.
Reaching the Highway 49 aid station seemed to take forever. A long sustained climb met us about a mile before the crossing. I had been able to jog up to this point, but during this climb my quads and feet were killing me. I kept complaining to Sara that “THIS IS WAY MORE THAN 4 MILES FROM BROWN’S BAR!” But at Highway 49, my spirit was lifted when I saw everybody waiting in the cold and dark to see us through to the finish. Nicole kept saying “only 7 more miles” and pushing me to next trail section. We were happily surprised to see Phil and Suzan at this point. They had driven from Bodega Bay to see the finish. Carl, Barb, Michael, Joe, Kody and Secret all were there to encourage us to keep moving to the finish. I can’t say enough for their support! Michael was waiting, ready and willing to pace me to the finish but Sara felt strong enough to continue. Maybe next year Michael will be pacing Sara the last 20!
From Highway 49 to the finish is less than 7 miles. An easy run on any day, any day but today. I could no longer run. Walking even hurt and I would try to convince myself that it was going to hurt no matter if I walked or jogged. From Highway 49 to No Hands Bridge, two other runners and their pacers passed us on a downhill portion. I watched in amazement as they flew past me descending towards No Hands Bridge. No Hands Bridge looked beautiful with the lights and there was a giant video screen with a movie playing. Sara teased me saying the rest of the course would be on paved roads but we quickly learned that would not be the case. But I tried to shuffle along. Giant search lights had been stationed at the finish which meant we could see the finish from miles away. We could see these lights shooting up into the sky but we could also see the shadow of the mountains between us and the lights.
Finally about two miles from the finish, my feet wet again from crossing a tiny creek, I was done. Really. I could no longer even jog. I told Sara that I needed to walk the rest of the way and she encouraged us on. Knowing that everybody was patiently waiting at the finish and I was so close but couldn’t move any faster, frustrated me. I just wanted to run. But I was done. Physically, I had enough. So we walked the last 2 miles, almost a slow death walk, until the finish. Entering the football stadium, hearing my name called and seeing Nicole and the crew cheering me to run was surreal. Nearly 22 hours had passed since I left Squaw Valley and now Sara and I had arrived in Auburn at 2:45 AM.
I may have missed some details. The finish was somewhat blurry for me, actually the last 20 miles were a little dark. I remember crossing the finish line, then sitting in a chair for another blood sample. I started to feel real sick and couldn’t stop shivering. Nicole covered me in clothes and Suzan gave me some soup. In a few minutes, I was feeling better. Within 45 minutes, everybody was heading home.
The experience it something I don’t think I will ever forget. A couple days later, I’m still being reminded going up and down stairs. I’ll likely loose a couple toenails but that comes with the territory. All in all, the body held up pretty well. I underestimated the difficulty of the course and this year we didn’t even have to deal with temperatures over 100 degrees. Yes, it could have been a lot worse. I had unbelievable support and encouragement all day, from the start to the finish. It was an unforgettable experience. Maybe next year I can make it in under 20 hours. Endurance.
Lab Stats Michigan Bluff (55 miles) Finish:
Sodium 144 141
Potassium 4.1 4.0
Chloride 107 100
BUN 22 32
Glucox 107 102
Hemoglobin 15.0 15.6
Hematocrit 44.0 46.0
My CPK was 44,800 at the finish. Normal range is 61-224 for a typical adult on a given day. Normal range for a Western States finisher is 20,000.