With a wink to my wife Amanda from the start line, a shotgun blast was heard and timer started. I’m grateful I did Run Rabbit Run last year, with its uphill start, giving me a better sense of how to negotiate the escarpment here at Western States. I kept tabs on my exertion and heart-rate, but really I was just soaking in the electric energy all around me. Joy alone seemed to buoy me up the mountain and I was sure to take in the panoramic view up on top. I spied the Nevada mountains to the east that cradle my much beloved Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) 100 course that, seven years back, first crushed my body but left an indelible imprint on my soul. I’ve been coming back to the 100 ever since.
Tahoe Mountain Milers, the folks that host the TRT Endurance Runs, also run the Lyon Ridge aid-station at mile 10.5 here at Western States. I volunteered here a year ago, which led to my gaining entry into this year’s race. So at Lyon it was sweet to see TRT race-director, George Ruiz, and some other folks and give them some quick hugs and high-fives, before continuing on toward Red Star Ridge.
Through Lyon Ridge aid, heart-rate and perceived exertion were right where they should be at this point in a 100-miler. Calories and fluids were going in just fine. I felt calm, relaxed, and simply happy. The Hoka One One Speed Instinct’s were eating up the technical terrain and were quickly proving to be the best shoe for the job. Like Indiana Jones, I had “chosen wisely.”
To add some more structure to my race, I’d brought along Mike Morton’s 15:45 masters course-record splits from 2013 (the second hottest WS100 on record). Today was not supposed to be as hot, and if things really came together, who knows, maybe I could get close to his time. Ultimately, I figured, if I ran to my potential I’d arrive at the Placer High School track somewhere in the 16-17hr range.
Rolling into Red Star I was around 14th place and running comfortably. Naturally, I enjoyed the cool morning in the high country. The bliss wouldn’t last all day to be certain. I always think of the TRT race motto: “A Glimpse of Heaven and a Taste of Hell.” Often times that’s the 100mi racing experience in a nutshell. When we do the work in training we usually get more “Heaven” than “Hell,” but there are no guarantees, especially if you’re working to your potential. A quote I used all through my run here at Western was, “Embrace the pain and use it to fuel your journey.”
Down to Duncan Canyon, with about a quarter of the race already completed, I was happy to already find myself right where I wanted to be—right around 10th place and no worse for wear. I remember arriving to the aid-station, people everywhere. I’d abbreviated all the aid-station names on my pacing chart and was expecting to see Amanda here but looking around I didn’t see her then later realized that this “DC” was Duncan Canyon and not Dusty Corners. Duh. Western States rookie mistake.
For the rest of the morning I was running with or near Ian Sharman and if anybody in the race knows how to run himself up into the Top-10 it’s Ian. Through Robinson Flat and Miller’s Defeat aid-stations I settled and appreciated Ian’s tips on the race, like wanting to push harder at certain points but continuing to exercise restraint (and try to stay upright on the rocky terrain). It was all new to me and yeah, it was hard continuing to hold back and watch my HR drop into the high 120s. But hey, if I can get to Foresthill with an avgHR lower than what I’m used to in 100s, and be in the mix for Top-10, sign me up!
I’d run Canyons 100k seven weeks prior to States and I was excited to get to familiar ground that I’ve recently run. Last Chance dropped me down to the swinging bridge and I had arrived at the Canyons 100k turn-around. Climbing legs were good and this ice-bandana I’d picked up from Amanda earlier was really working out. I had shared with Ian earlier that I was actually feeling cold. He said that was a good thing so I just rolled with it.
The run down to El Dorado Creek wasn’t as fast-n-fun as it was at Canyons 100k, since I was so fresh by comparison (and it was 52 degrees that day). I was in disbelief to discover the 2015 Ultrarunner of the Year, David Laney, at the El Dorado aid-station. We left together. David had volunteered at Canyons and I picked his brain about States. I knew he’d put in a ton of work into this race and by the looks of it took some risks early in the going. And why not? Nothing ventured; nothing gained. We shook hands as we started the climb up to Robinson Flat and I encouraged him to keep pluggin’. He did and we stayed together for the first mile or so. I yelled back some encouragement once more and knew he was likely in for a long slog to Auburn. I hoped he’d gut it out.
I’d moved up to 8th or 9th and that sounded beautiful. Arriving to Michigan Bluff, I was in high spirits and saw two athletes I coach, Louis Secreto and Francisco Benevides. Louis was crewing and pacing for me today. On an absolute high, it was great to see these guys here. And now, only a hop-skip-n-jump to Foresthill. Settle in and relax…
At about 3pm it was getting to be about the warmest part of the day. Arriving at a stream crossing before the climb up Bath Rd. I did what you’re supposed to do at Western States and that’s lie down in the streams. This is the first time in the race where I started feeling the cumulative effects of the day starting to wear on me. I needed to cool off. The primal brain, however, absolutley loathing every second spent stopped while the reasoning centers urging me to remain still. I lasted about 60 seconds and it was time to emerge. And to whom am I greeted, coming up from behind, seemingly licking his chops, just as I start my ascent? Bronco Billy himself—Jeff Browning.
I didn’t know what to expect from Browning at Western States. I knew he’d won HURT 100 in January and was also doing Hardrock 100 a month after States. I wasn’t surprised to see him but I wasn’t happy about it either. He passed me up quickly on the climb with a cordial “Hey Bob.” and he was out of sight pretty quickly. This would be Jeff’s twenty-fourth 100-miler. He got in on a sponsor slot from Altra and from the looks of it, he was making the most of the opportunity, not being phased in the least bit about running Hardrock in July. I stayed within myself and made my way up Bath Rd, where I knew I’d see my pacer for the first time.
I’d told Louis before the race, I’d like him to jump in after the river crossing at mile 78, but now, after 100k of rugged trail-running in me, I said “Hey, I’ll probably be faster down to the river if you’re with me. Wanna jump in now?” Louis has huge passion for Western States and the sport and was all-to-happy to start pacing duties early. I was grateful both he and his wife Linn were out here so Amanda wasn’t all by her lonesome all day. They are the best.
Foresthill was absolutely magical. I’d been there a year ago—spectating—for the first time. The energy is palpable. For a lot of runners, Foresthill represents a significant milestone in the race—the point where the push to the finish begins; the infamous run down to the river. I’d pushed this section pretty hard at Canyons 100k, attempting to bank some last-minute quad-crushing descent to prep the legs for States after a frustrating spring nursing a cranky knee back to health. Now was the time to see whether my body would cash the check I wrote in the first 62 miles of the race.
Here at my first Western States there was one true goal and that was Top-10 or bust. I was very reasonable in the first half trying to keep up with Morton’s masters’ record splits. I was down 16min by Foresthill and I didn’t care at all. It gave me some structure early and I’d only stick to them if they happened to align with HR and RPE. I’ve run enough 100s to know that to perform the best you can—on the day—you must run within yourself. By doing so, I stayed cool, processed calories, and most importantly: kept my belly happy. I’ve come to understand that if I’m nauseous and vomiting in an ultra, I’ve put myself in that compromised position by running outside my abilities.
Past the Cal 1 aid-station, I wasn’t surprised to feel some exhaustion starting to creep in. Considering the lighter training load coming into the race, I expected—if I’m being honest with myself—to have to suffer more than I typically do to reach the finish line. I hoped it wouldn’t get too ugly, but because the style of my training looked so different from what I typically do, I couldn’t predict how my legs would feel in the final third of the race.
Through Cal 2 I was still in 9th place. It’s 8mi to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky and I can’t say with any degree of enthusiasm that I was psyched to run it, since the experience of doing so was fresh in my mind, having running it 7 weeks ago at Canyons 100k. One thing was for certain: I wasn’t running the way I should be at this point. The quads and calves were really starting to talk to me. I just couldn’t do anything about the slowing.
I hear Louis say, “Hey, we got company.” Hoka teammate, Chris DeNucci, and his pacer, Mario Fraioli, come by. I asked them how far back the next guy is. They say the spaniard, Tofol Castanyer, isn’t too far back but he’s looking bad, which doesn’t really buoy my spirits because I know I’m sucking and it’s going to get worse given how my legs are feeling. It was inspiring to see Chris. His upward trajectory in the sport over the last two seasons has produced some amazing results and with the lessons learned from last year’s Western States, it came as no surprise to see him running well at this point in the race. He’d come through Foresthill in 12th, 10min back. Denuch pushed me back to 10th and I was feeling like I was on a high-wire with no safety net; one place away from moving into “bust” territory. Deal with it. Sh*t will turn around. It always does. Get to the river…
I love the Mike Tyson quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That pretty much symbolizes the final 3 miles down the river—like a giant Gordy Ainsleigh in ginormous boxing gloves reached down from the sky and socked me right in the face. It was becoming increasingly clear I would not get to play the role of predator this day. No, this day I would not have the privilege of reeling in any more carnage—-I slowly and painfully realized that today… I am the carnage. FML.
By the time I got to the river crossing I was already cold. I’d never raced with the ice-bandana before and should’ve taken it off earlier than I did to warm up a bit before the river crossing. I wasn’t running well so I wasn’t generating much body heat. I was wondering if I did too good a job with my heat training? Wasn’t this Western States? Aren’t I supposed to be hot? Gordy with another icey blow to my glass jaw.
The river crossing sucked. I was completely oblivious to my surroundings and seemingly helpless. A little kid helped me buckle my life vest. Volunteers standing in the water keep telling me to to hold on to the rope with both hands. Both Hands! Okay, okay, I’m doing it. Do I get disqualified if I only do one hand? I had no idea Jim Walmsley had given everyone a bit of a scare earlier trying to swim across and getting swept a bit downstream by the strong current.
What the hell is wrong with my body? My legs are seizing up in this cold-ass water. Dammit, I’m f*cking freezing. Who the hell put these boulders in here? Gordy! This race is totally kicking… my… ass! The boulders are f*cking slippery. Never feeling more vulnerable in a race situation, I’m super psyched to see the paparazzi on the other side capturing my feeble attempts at pulling myself toward them. Fake it. Try to at least look like you have some semblance of control.
Somewhere in the Rucky Chucky “experience” I saw Amanda. I heard her words echo in my head for a while after Louis and I started the climb up to Green Gate, “You gotta get moving.” I realize that honey, I thought to myself. I’m in 10th. Louis knows my race is going sideways. He asks, “What do you think you have left for the run from Green Gate to the finish? I don’t even remember what I mumbled.
Running Top-10 at Western States is the gold standard in the sport of ultra mountain running. Since the start of the year when an MRI revealed some nasty sh*t going on in my knee, I’ve fought to keep the dream alive. Plan A for the spring prep went right out the window and Plan B went into action, starting with a full month off from running. Health became the focus instead of an emphasis on increasing fitness. Training was overhauled and so much attention was paid to ensuring the full health of my knee without having to take drastic measures like a cortisone shot. Uphill and flat running was emphasized over aggressive downhill running. At mile 80 as we moved passed Green Gate, the dream was still alive. I’m currently in 10th place at the Western States 100. What an honor it’s been today to mix it up with some of the best 100mi runners in the world…
In the five miles to Auburn Lake Trails I lose 5 places. And I don’t give a sh*t. I have little left, the internal dials locked on damage-control mode. I sit down at the aid-station and thoroughly enjoy the volunteers there. I get some chicken broth. We’re yucking it up. Louis wants me to go. I’m bummed we have to leave. I was just getting comfortable. I’ve never DNF’d an ultra but am starting to get mighty curious how I’m going to get to the godd*mn finish line. Well, you’re walking just fine. I look at the chicken broth in my bottle. Suck it up.
My legs are cooked in a way I’ve never experienced before; my quads and calves have never been so jacked up. The training account for this race is long since overdrawn. “What do you expect? You injured yourself by bombing the downhills in late season short-course races. Then you pussyfoot around the descents for 5 months leading up to a 100mi run with 23,000′ of net down. What did you really expect?
The downward spiral of negativity persists. In my head I’m thinking, “If I can’t Top-10 then being 25th or 45th at the finish is all the same thing. Whatever. I’ve pretty much given up on nutrition and hydration as well. I’m just over it. I catch a toe on rock and fall off the trail into some bushes/briar patch. My legs seize up. Awesome. Louis tries to help me to my feet. Falling off the trail feels like insult to injury. What a f*cking disaster this has turned into. Cool cut on my shoulder though. That’s something.
Louis tells me “The girls will be at Highway 49.” I wasn’t expecting to see Amanda there but I wanted to see her now more than at any point in the day. Arriving at the aid-station and seeing her I felt ashamed I was so shattered and no longer running for a Top-10 finish. We hugged and as I was leaving and she let me have it: the Mahatma Gandhi quote I often share with athletes I coach, “Full effort is full victory.” As we starting making our way to No Hands Bridge the Ghandi quote floated around in my stream of consciousness, leading me all the way back to 1999, when I first read George Sheehan’s book, Running and Being, in which he wrote “There is no excuse for not playing good defense.” Dammit George, even Steph Curry has rough days. You should’ve seen Game 7.
I’d lost 4 more places by the time I dragged my weary bones into the 93.5mi aid-station at Hwy 49. My running was in the crapper and the miles were going by so slowly; aid-stations seemed like they were 15mi apart. This is the maddening difference between running 5-6mph versus running 3-4mph. I was now in 19th but imagined it more like 34th. “Full effort”. DE-FENSE!! Let’s get the ball back and try to sink some 3s…
In the weeks leading up to States, I had friends and athletes I coach bring up the competition at States, particularly, Jim Walmsley, who set stout course-records at both Bandera 100k and Lake Sonoma 50 earlier this year and put up 140/140/120 mile weeks before his two-week taper. Now I know when I’m out-classed and realize Walmsley’s in another league. He’s a super inspiring runner. Jokingly I started telling people I was going to catch Walmsley at Robie Point (mile 98.9) and go on to win the race, thinking to myself, “Ha-Ha. Wouldn’t that be something?!”
I wasn’t having a lot of fun on that nasty climb up to Robie. I was beginning to think Louis didn’t know where the hell he was going anymore and was just screwing with me. But I was a helluva lot more happy climbing than descending by this point in the going. Arriving at the aid station I look over at the table and Jim Walmsley standing there, still in his race kit. WTF? I’d heard he’d gotten off course around Hwy 49 but assumed he’d made it to the finish line already and was simply back out for a cool-down and to cheer on some runners. As Louis and I were closing in on the finish, I would later come to understand why so many people were asking me the same question, “Hey, are you Jim?”
The last mile was good and I did my best to stay in the moment and appreciate the final minutes of a truly special day, regardless of placing and finish time. Louis, Amanda, and I ran into the Placer High Stadium together. I joked around with Amanda that we needed to be in Lane 1. I saw fellow Tahoe Mountain Milers, Kati Bell and Shane James and gave them hugs and high fives. If it weren’t for Kati’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have had this amazing opportunity. I was pretty elated to see that finish line. Nothing feels more satisfying than getting to the finish of a 100mi run. It’s nothing short of incredible what the human body can endure.
After a “full victory” squeeze from Amanda, another Hoka teammate, Paul Terranova, put my finisher’s medal around my neck. And since he’s known for his push-ups at the end of ultras, I spontaneously offered to crank some out with him, reminding us and everyone that we always have more to give out there, we just have to find the inspiration.
Rickey Gates said in a recent Instagram post about Monday’s Mountain Marathon in Alaska, “Racing is about doing what you can do on that given day.” I didn’t like the cards I was dealt this year at all but I played them to the best of my ability because I wanted to honor myself, my competitors, and the Western States 100. Laying on the infield after finishing, feeling like death warmed over, rolled up like a burrito, and occasionally vomiting into a cardboard box, I couldn’t help but smile each time I heard Tropical John’s voice announce the names of fellow competitors as they entered the stadium, tough-as-nails athletes, some who’s day had also gone south but found it in themselves to soldier on when the lofty goals they’d set for themselves were blown up hours before.
Feeling like a soldier of the Great War myself at that moment, having awoken half dead in a trench on the front lines, I think of Teddy Roosevelt’s words about “faces marred by dust and sweat and blood,” the valient striving, the “great enthusiams, the great devotions.” And the “daring greatly.” All of us, one crazy family, strung out from from Squaw to Auburn, spending ourselves in this worthy cause, none possessing a cold or timid soul. Courageous. Bold. And maybe a fair amount of stubbornness and straight up stupidity as well.
One way or another I’ll be back to States again next year, hopefully to race, as I have some unfinished business, or volunteer and/or pace. In the meantime, I’m excited by the fact that I had no issues with my knee during the race or subsequently. I was late getting this race-report out because we stayed up in Tahoe for a week after States and I didn’t do sh*t. Back home now, I’m excited to be running everyday and hoping I have no issues with the knee moving forward. Fingers and toes crossed.
I finally ran the numbers yesterday and my run-specific training volume for States was a full 20% less than my build for Run Rabbit Run in August last year, which would make sense because had I had that 20% in me going in, it likely would’ve made the difference between being ready to rumble—versus being ready to crumble—at mile 80. I tried to make up the difference with cycling but nothing’s going to supplant the muscular endurance needed to pace the first 60 and push the final 40 of a 100 mile run.
A heartfelt thanks to Western States Race Director, Craig Thornley and his amazing team of staff and volunteers for putting on one helluva race. If I never have the opportunity to run it again, I know I made the most of my day and, along with a silver buckle, I have many wonderful memories I’ll cherish for a lifetime. It feels good to be part of the club!
A HUGE thanks to my super awesome, beautiful, highly supportive, rock-star wife, Amanda—always full of great ideas—for embracing the full Western States crewing experience along with her partner in crime for the day, Linn Secreto. It’s pretty cool having support out there and I appreciate you two running around all day helping to keep me going.
Louis Secreto, thanks for jumping in early buddy! That’s all I could do on the day. Thanks for helping me up-n-out of that briar patch. Looking forward to 50mi of pacing at your Tahoe Rim Trail 100 later this month. It’s going to be spectacular (at least for me). Hope your coach knows what he’s doing.
Thanks for all the support from friends and fans near and far. I actually didn’t start putting my name in or trying to race my way into Western States 100 until 2015 because we, as athletes, have to pick our battles carefully and the fact that Tahoe Rim Trail 100’s in July, affords me, as a school-teacher, the time to put up some big miles in June for this July event. But after running it four times and accomplishing all that I wanted to on that course, the time arrived to branch out and experience other 100s. All trails seem to lead back to Western States though. Now I see why.
One thing’s for sure: It’s getting more challenging to stay healthy and train/race for these crazy things. I’m grateful for all the encouragement and kind words I’ve received. I hope to be on that starting line again next year, do it better, and make good on that dream of a Top-10 finish. It’s right there…
Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support, innovation, and producing the best shoes out there—#timetofly! | Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition. | Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for the sweet #74 trucker hats. I appreciate all the wonderful support from the HRC/H-Burg crew!! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. | And a BIG 100 mile thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me keep the dream alive. You helped me understand what course of action I needed to take to have my cake and eat it too this spring. You rock!