Wednesday, June 13, 2012

10 days and counting....

Foresthill Aid Station-2010 Western States Endurance Run

I emailed the Aid Station director and asked if I could volunteer. I ended up dragging my gal with me because I was too scared to go by myself. I told her we would be done by 6pm and home by 9 (any one who's worked that aid station knows that statement is laughable).Many people do not believe me when I tell them, but I am exceptionally shy. Until I am comfortable with you, I pretty much just stay quiet. It’s only after I get comfortable with you that my personality really comes out. It is at that point, I would imagine, some wish I'd go back to being that quiet guy! I become quite blunt and regularly say whatever I am thinking. Having her there helped me to be a bit more in my element around so many new people.

We showed up early to help. I got out of the car in my walking boot and started doing what I normally do. Carrying the heaviest things so others did not have to. Basically trying to show that I was willing to do what ever was needed for the day to go off without a hitch. I’m kinda a big lug when it comes to physical activity; I like to take on the biggest challenges to prove my worth. You tell me to do something and I may struggle with it but eventually I'll get it done.

The day started off great. I met the head medic and we discussed my issues. He told me that women back in the 1800’s would get toes similar to the type of toes that I had. The shoes they wore back then tended to end in a V point, only their toes curved inward. I think he called it a club foot. He told me I was on the right track with the heel striking and that the unnatural bending of the toe was in fact, the reason it kept breaking. Don’t bend the toe, no broken foot….Got It!

The Foresthill aid station is 62 miles into the race. I'd never seen anyone at that point in a race so I was excited to see the kind of carnage there would be. It's a tough haul those first 62 miles of the course. Competitors climb 3.5 miles up to the top of Squaw Valley and run down the backside. When I ski raced I made fun of people who climbed mountains, I took a chair lift to the top.

Once at the top, you get about three miles of streams and mild rocks before the trail starts to get a bit more serious. Once you hit Lyon Ridge (10ish miles) you get a net downhill to mile 24 but the reality is it's up, down, down, up, up, down, up, down, down, up, down, down, down. That is the best I can describe it, relentless. The trail begs you to run fast, which is a mistake. This mistake will result in tired legs and hips and perhaps even abs. Then you hit Duncan Canyon which is never talked about, but very difficult in its own right. Duncan is the first of 4 canyons on the course It's a three mile descent on some moderately technical terrain then you climb 3 miles to get out of the canyon but it feels like 4 or 5. Unlike all the other canyons on the course, it starts out easy and just gradually increases. It fools you into a false confidence. You hit a sream and the trail just calls to me hard baby.  You feel great, the incline is not that steep and you start to push it......just like that nasty trail wants you to do. The trail now knows it will break you in less than a mile You get to the next stream and the trail, like pushing the button on the treadmill, increases the incline just a bit. Then you hit a series of switchbacks that take all your mojo away. Runners are at mile 29, the course lets up a little bit as you enter Robinson Flat. Once you finally hit the top, you are at the aid station. Now the course is actually going to get tough. The next 32 miles are the most difficult of the entire race.

Runners set off from Robinson, pushing hard to make up time. They have a lot of downhill to cover. The problem is, you have a climb into Devils thumb and then again a climb into Michigan Bluff. It's the hottest part of the day and on a large portion of the climbs you are baking in the sunlight. Each of these make you climb 1800 and 2500 feet respectively. Devils thumb starts out steep and stays that way. It's just under two miles of ridiculous climbing. Once at the top of that climb you have 5 miles of fast and fairly steep running down to Eldorado Creek. That creek signifies the start of the climb to Michigan Bluff. This is just short of 3 miles and though not as steep, it mentally beats you down.You get to Michigan bluff exausted and now you have to go though what can be the hottest canyon of all, Volcano Canyon. The canyon is not that difficult, but the distance you have covered makes it tough. Once up Volcano canyon you hit the Bath Road aid staion which is a connecting point for crews and their runners.  Crews can send an individual to this point so they can run back a mile or so with the entrant to Foresthill. This gives the crew member valuable information about how the runner is doing.

By looking at the elevation profile you would think they just fly downhill for 62 miles. However, as I described, thats some BS. The trail is relentless in the high country, it's never flat. If you have not trained specifically for this terrain you are going to be beat to a pulp before the real racing starts. Odd thing is, the elite guys and gals look like they are out for a stroll. To my surprise after 62 miles the two men's leaders were only seconds from each other.

This was such an inspiring sight to see. What none of us knew, was that this race was shaping up to be one of the most thrilling in the events history. Neither of the guys in the video had ever been beaten at this distance. The guy in third (not shown and also unbeaten in 100's) was about 15 minutes back and ended up winning the race in the fastest ever time. It came down to the last 8 miles and the guy who saved the most gas in the tank won. This, I would imagine, is a great tactic for me to learn. I've been told, the race does not start until Foresthill. There is 16 miles of mostly downhill then the last 20 miles of the course are the most flat and runnable. I've been told if you can run at that point you will pass a lot of people and if you can not, there is a huge train of people who will eat you up.

A great film was made about the race that year. If you have any interest what so ever in this race, it's a must see.
J.B. did a fantastic job at capturing the 4 competitors and their backgrounds in the sport and their personal lives. You can purchase the film at his site.

Perhaps the most motivating aspect of this day was watching the people come in who were not elite. These are the weekend warriors like myself. After 62 miles you are stripped to the core and all that remains is what you really are. There is no time or energy to put up a facade. You are no longer male or female, or part of any religion. You are no longer associated with your country of origin, you are not fat or skinny, in shape, injured, or hurting. You are simply a runner, doing everything in your power to take that next step forward. You could care less that you have boogers dried up on your face from shooting endless snot rockets through the day. The fact your face, arms and legs have been marinating in your own salty sweat for 15 hours is of no concern. You stink, you are dirty, and in almost all cases you feel absolutely awful. You might have blisters, some chaffing or maybe you are still overheating from the canyons, at this point the thought of another 38 miles much of it in the dark is not appealing.

At the time, I'd not run 100 miles so I did not understand the thought process these people were going through. It took a couple of hours of runners coming in and leaving until I realized the actual scope of what these people had already done, and how tough it would be for them to continue on. People would enter the aid station looking like death was on their shoulders. I would see someone come in and immediately say to myself, he's done. No chance that guy or girl leaves under their own power. Remarkably most people do get out of that chair, they do continue on, and many do still finish. Think about that, they run and walk another 38 miles feeling the most awful they have likely felt in their lives. That is when I realized this is not about finishing a race, it's not about winning, it's not about a buckle. It's about finding your limits and figuring out if you are tough enough to push past them. At some point in the race all you will have left is your desire to complete your goal, if that becomes less important than the pain you are feeling with each step, you will quit. This was the first time I became aware that this challenge was far more than running 100 miles in the mountains like I always thought. I think it was also this day that I realized just wanting to do this would not be enough. I would have to give in to my fears and dedicate a large portion of my life to accomplish this. Quite simply there is no way you can fake a hundred mile mountain race. You had better be trained, mentally and physically. You better have put in the time on your feet. I'd have to lay it on the line and risk failing miserably in order to succeed. This was scary, 30% to 45% of the runners will not complete the course. I would have to work that hard with those odds of finishing, that's not a bet I'd normally take. Was I even up to that type of challenge? I had to ask myself this over and over. Even today, 10 days out I'm asking myself that same question. The answer is always the same.....I just do not know. I think so, but I'm not overly confident about that answer.

The day had brought so far, some wonderful news about how to run on my foot and was filled with inspiration. I really thought it could not get any better but it did. Two local Reno running groups were at this aid station. Reno Running and Fitness had brought a group of people down to help out as well. I’d never heard of them, but I got to know one of their members. He was in their 10k program but he was so enthusiastic about wanting to run farther. We talked a lot about running and life and he mentioned I should try to hook up with them for a run or two and see how I liked it. I dismissed this because they were, by their own definition, a social running group. I run alone…..always. I’m not terribly social in big groups; I’m shy and well, insert every other excuse you can think of. Fortunately, he sorta got the ball rolling by letting the club’s founders know he met a guy who is in marketing that might be able to help them out. So they actually contacted me about a week after the race. This would turn out to be one of the best things that could have happened to me in running. I would eventually become, and still am proud to be, a part of Reno Running and Fitness. A social running group + me….go figure.

The other gem of the day came from the Silver StateStriders, the club who ran the aid station. Every year they bring a huge team down from Reno and pull off excellently, the largest aid station you have ever seen. It's freaking crazy the amount of stuff they have to set up. Just the food alone takes up multiple tents and carports. I worked my ass off that day, I worked from 11am to 1:30am the next day. I made my girlfriend go to sleep in the car so I could stay to work (she is amazing and has yet to give me payback on that one). One way or another I was determined to prove my worth with this running club who runs the aid station. I knew, eventually, catching on with them would help me in my journey to run the race. The aid station captain, who ironically was the dad of one of my friends I once ski raced with, asked me to come back next year. This was great, I have an "in" with the race!