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The Longest Day

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Blazing Heat and competition at California’s 2009 Western States 100

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Photo by Luis Escobar

I’m not sure where this story begins. Does it begin the first week of January, when I returned to running after a three-month injury layoff, feeling like the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run was a death sentence hanging over my head—a race that I had no hope of getting back in good shape for?

Does it begin after a disappointing eighth-place run at April’s American River 50-miler, when, for the next two weeks, I felt like I was struggling through oatmeal on every run? I was mopey, depressed and convinced that I was no longer an elite ultrarunner (if ever, truly, I was). I even told a friend that I would be happy if WS 100 was canceled again this year, as it was in 2008 (due to forest fires) so I wouldn’t have to go through the motions.

Does it begin just after that low point, when I hit an eight-week training groove that took me all the way to taper time, during which I knocked out 850 miles running and 850 miles on the bike, topping out with a week where I ran 146 miles and rode 90?

Does it begin at Squaw Valley, California, when the gun went off at 5 a.m. on June 27 and 400 athletes went hooting and hollering up the hill in the pre-dawn twilight (only for the whole lead pack to promptly take a wrong turn, led by two former race champions)?
High Country

In the end, I think the story starts the first time I fall down. I’m running along a relatively flat fire road just after Lyon Ridge, chatting with Josh Brimhall, a speedster from Las Vegas whom I’ve met before, and Leigh Schmitt, a new acquaintance from the East Coast. All three of us have won 100-mile races before and had good seasons up to this point, but we are all first-timers at Western States, and this year we are barely even considered contenders for a top-10 spot by the pundits. This 2009 edition of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, always one of the sport’s most competitive ultras, boasts perhaps its most stacked field ever, generating an unprecedented level of hype and anticipation since its first-ever cancellation last year.

Leigh, Josh and I, in fact, chat about the differences between this race and other more laid-back events. I launch into a description of the contrasting attitude at the Bear 100, where, instead of Western States’ day-long series of medical checks and race briefings, the pre-race briefing starts with race director Leland Barker saying, “We were planning to have a weigh-in this year, but I can’t find my scale, so we’ll skip that.” Just then, I forget to watch the trail, catch a toe and fly through the air, landing in an explosion of water, gel packets, dust and blood. It will be the first of several yard sales, and only the first of many physical and metaphorical slaps to the face.

Already, I can feel that this will not be an easy day. My heart rate has been too high, my breath too short in the thin mountain air, my legs feeling tweaky far too early, everyone around me moving too fast and confidently. There will be no cruising the high country, surviving the canyons and flying home from Foresthill, as I had visualized many times in the preceding weeks. Instead, the “surviving” part of the race will start early and never stop.

The high country (which I’m seeing for the first time) is a lot of fun, but it is no cruise. The terrain is technical and entertaining, but unrelenting. Following an initial four-mile climb out of Squaw Valley, this 20-mile section between 7000 and 9000 feet has a mostly downhill profile, and I hoped it would go relatively smoothly. Instead, it feels like no good downhill goes unpunished by an uphill section. No runable trails go unfollowed by an awkward, quad-busting descent, and much of the terrain is rocky and technical, demanding my full attention and slowly draining my energy.

Nonetheless, by the time I arrive at the Duncan Canyon aid station at mile 24 and see my crew for the first time, I am feeling positive. I’m running with Leigh, just ahead of Josh and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, a strong Japanese runner who has terrific results in many international races but is a nearly unknown quantity in the United States. My experienced crew of Jeffery Rogers and Ethan Veneklasen shepherds me through the aid station in seconds, and I head down into the first canyon of the race.

The Western States course is renowned for its canyons, which are always steep and hot. Duncan is the first and easiest of these canyons, though I have been warned that it is surprisingly difficult. But Leigh and I roll through the climb out of Duncan with ease, passing Bay Area speedster Chikara Omine, who looks to be struggling already on this climb, and I’m thinking, “This is a canyon?”

As we get within a mile or so of Robinson Flat, the first major aid station of the race at mile 30, the paparazzi come out in force. Cameras line the trail—one photographer is even using a big reflector to light the “perfect shot.” Leigh and I learn that we are in fifth and sixth position. This was not my plan, and I worry that I may have taken it out a bit too hard. My doubts, though, are quickly washed away by the sights and sounds of the cheering throngs. So many spectators line the trail near the aid station that it feels like we are running through a tunnel of noise. It is totally bewildering, but also inspiring. I roll out of there ready to take on the world.

We catch up to Gary Robbins, a new force on the ultrarunning scene hailing from Canada, on the way out of the aid station, and run together for a few miles. We joke about the Robinson Flat curse—of the first 10 through Robinson, seldom do more than three or four of them finish in the top 10—and the fact that we are three WS rookies, with no one but Hal Koerner (defending champion), Dave Mackey (arguably the best 50K/50-mile runner in the country) and Scott Jurek (seven-time WS champion) ahead of us, and hordes of experienced WS runners behind us waiting to gobble us up. Leigh seems comfortable with this position, but Gary and I are clearly nervous that this will all go horribly wrong.

The Canyons

About halfway down to Miller’s Defeat, Gary pulls off to answer nature’s call, and as we hit a hot, dusty fire road, it is clear that we have left the high country. The next part of the course descends gradually from Robinson Flat, before dropping into Deadwood, El Dorado and Volcano canyons, all infamous for their quad-jarring descents, long steep climbs and searing heat.

The heat is not terrible yet, but is ramping up and nagging at a corner of my brain. My pace slows immediately. My quads never ever get blown, but here I am at mile 33 and they feel like putty, not a good situation facing almost 15 miles of pulverizing downhill to the Swinging Bridge at the bottom of Deadwood.

Leigh and I leapfrog along a relatively boring fire road, passing through the Miller’s Defeat and Dusty Corners aid stations, and then head out on the spectacular Pucker Point trail, which dances along the edge of a precipice, with beautiful views of creeks and waterfalls far below. I feel like I’m going a little too fast, and try to hang back. But I’m strong on the steep downhills and quick through the aid stations, so I keep catching up to Leigh.

A few miles out of Dusty Corners, we see a flash of yellow ahead. “Is that Scott Jurek?” says Leigh. We are aghast and bewildered. Do we pass Scott Jurek? Though it is left unspoken, we clearly both think not. We run as a threesome into Last Chance, with Scott and Leigh pulling ahead of me and chatting.

I catch back up on a downhill, and resist the urge to ask Scott if he led us all up the wrong fire road five minutes into the race this morning in order to protect his course record. We hit the Last Chance aid station, and Scott saves us the decision of whether to make the pass by pulling into the porta-john. We won’t see this champion again today. Scott ends up dropping out of the race five miles farther along, saying only that he “went to the well, but the well was dry.” Even the all-time greats have bad days.

The canyons proper begin a mile out of Last Chance, with one of my favorite descents anywhere, a section that I have run many times on training runs. On a good day, I run down this thing like water flowing over polished stone. Today, I feel more like a pebble rolling and bouncing down a staircase, skittering off of corners and glancing hard off of sharp angles. I make fantastic time, but it’s not smooth like it should be.

When I hit the bottom and start the climb up Devil’s Thumb, the heat and my hammered legs reduce me to a slog. There are reputedly around 40 switchbacks on this climb, but Leigh is out of sight after just four of them. The only thing to do in an ultra is to keep going—as hard as you can. So I grind it out. Near the top, Tim Twietmeyer, a 25-time finisher and multiple winner of this race (and current president of the WS board), tells me that I am climbing well, a compliment that boosts me up the last few switchbacks.

Once again I fire through the aid station quickly, munching on the best popsicle I’ve ever tasted, and move ahead of Leigh again. Even though my legs feel hammered, I pound the five-mile descent to El Dorado, winding down the steep canyon wall, enjoying the spectacular views across the canyon (marred only by the sight of the upcoming climb up to Michigan Bluff). Leigh is gone again as soon as we hit the grunt up to Michigan. I can’t run much of the steep bottom half, but a third of the way up the grade eases and I force myself to run.

The higher I get, the more exposed and hotter it gets, but not enough to crack me. Near the top, the paparazzi are out in force again, and I get a boost from the cheering spectators. I cruise into Michigan Bluff, another major aid station, at mile 55.7, about nine hours into the race, feeling I’ve survived the worst of the heat, and even joking to my crew, “Hey, I thought this race was supposed to be hot!” Western States will make me pay dearly for this remark.

Next I drop into Volcano canyon, the third and usually by far the easiest of the canyons, and any remaining hope that my legs are going to be OK during the race ever again is removed. The trail is totally exposed, the soil is nearly white and perfectly reflective, and the temperature soars above 100 degrees. A half mile up from the bottom, it is so hot that I can’t breathe. Claustrophobic, on the verge of a panic attack, I lurch up the trail.

The folks at the little Bath Road aid station have the nerve to tell me I look good. I run most of the paved climb up Bath Road to the small mountain town of Foresthill, feeling overheated and underpowered.

“That sucked more than anything has ever sucked before,” I say to my crew. I do, however, look better than Dave Mackey, who’s kind of stumbling out of the aid station with his pacer. Another terrific runner is having a tough day; Dave will eventually drop out at mile 78.

Cal Street

I launch myself into the Cal Loop (so named because it starts on California Street in Foresthill), 16 miles of trail leading down to the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78. This is where the race is supposed to start (according to my now long-forgotten race plan), but I know that the last 38 miles of this race are going to be a brutal gut check. I’m running in third place at Western States, but that is far from my mind right now.

Every time I’m on the shady side of a ravine, I can run OK. When I hit the exposed sunny sections, the heat hits me like a brick wall. It is over 100 degrees, and my quads hurt so much that the only thing that even makes the pain bearable is pouring ice water (which I can ill afford to spare) on them. This was part of the race where I wanted to fly, but I’m wobbling. I run a just-fair 2:43 Cal Loop.

Leigh gets lost just before Ford’s Bar, so only beats me to the river by a few minutes (and stops to change his shoes on the other side, after which I never see him again). But Kaburaki and Jez Bragg, a stellar young trail runner from the UK, and Kevin Sullivan, a completely unknown quantity from Massachusetts who clearly knows what he’s doing, all run very well on this section, and, as I later learn, cut 10 to 15 minutes out of my lead, completely erasing any cushion I had on my pursuers.

As I start across the river, hand over-handing across a rope in shoulder-deep water, I see Leigh ahead of me just exiting the river, and three runners nearly in the river behind me. As it turns out, there are five of us crossing the river within a few minutes, and four of us in the water at once. The spectators are going nuts. The race is on.

The Home Stretch

As expected, the river crossing rejuvenates me—for all of about 10 minutes, until I overheat running up to Green Gate. I run most of it, but not as fast as I had envisioned, then hit my least favorite part of the course. The terrain is comparatively easy from here to Brown’s Bar, but is mind-numbingly monotonous, following a relatively flat trail that winds in and out of small ravines, every bend looking exactly like the one before it. And every easy little bit that I can’t run well is a nagging reminder of my failing condition.

Even so, somehow I’m running in second place at Western States. This does not last long. Kaburaki and Sullivan pass me like my feet are stuck in mud, and I go from M2 to M4 in about 10 minutes. Discouraged, I hope only to hold onto a top-10 position.

I am about seven minutes off of my desired split into the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, located on a dusty bend of the road in the middle of nowhere, and another six minutes off into Brown’s Bar, a peculiar aid station run by local hashers who look at the race as a perfect excuse for a raucous party.

Those 10 miles kill me. As it turns out, though, M2 through M5 are all within about 10 minutes for this whole interval. No doubt we are all fighting our own demons through this section.

At Brown’s Bar, the sun is finally disappearing over the hill, and I let loose and trust gravity to carry me down the steep, rocky hill to Quarry Road. Surprisingly, when I hit the bottom I see Sullivan rounding the corner just ahead, despite the fact that he had at least five minutes on me at Brown’s Bar. I surmise that his quads are shot, and that if I can catch him by Highway 49, I might have a chance to edge him out. I summon the will to run—hard.

We both run pretty much every step up a tough climb to 49, and I come into the aid station about a minute behind Sullivan. And, to my unending surprise, Kaburaki is in the aid station as well. We’re out of there in a hurry, with Kaburaki and Sullivan and their pacers jockeying, and me alone about 20 yards behind. We’re tightly packed all the way up to a lush meadow at the top of a rocky climb, which signals the start of the final downhill of the race, then Kaburaki puts the hammer down and is gone.

When we hit the downhills I catch Sullivan. I flip my lights on after a half mile or so, and do some of the best tired running of my life down to the river, but don’t even catch sight of Kaburaki. Crossing the famous No Hands Bridge, with just over three miles to the finish, I start to get a bit paranoid about Sullivan making a push and catching me on the final climb, so I turn my light off and run by the moonlight for about a mile.

Finally, I get to the climb up to Robie Point, the last aid station, and have to turn on my light. I remember reading another WS contestant Andy Jones-Wilkins’ insightful and often hilarious blog before the race, where he relayed advice from Tom Nielsen, one of the most experienced and accomplished runners around, that, “In the end, you need to race every step like there’s someone three minutes ahead of you and someone three minutes behind you.”

Sure enough, a light appears behind me. I expect it is Sullivan, and hurl myself up the hill. I am running really hard, stronger than I feel should be possible at this point in a 100-mile race. But the man behind me is stronger still. It turns out it’s not Sullivan, but rather Jez Bragg, and he passes me doing about seven-minute miles up the steep road out of Robie. I stick with him for about 200 yards and then I am done. I tell him nice job, and let off the gas before the carburetor explodes. At the finish, Jez actually apologizes for passing me so late in the race, but I don’t begrudge him. He is clearly stronger than I am, and has earned his finishing place.

I run the final 1.3 miles of paved road through the town of Auburn to the Placer High School stadium, and lay down what feel like is a 50-second 300-meter finishing sprint around the track (video evidence on YouTube will prove that I was quite a bit slower than that). Unlike the other three guys in my finishing pack, I don’t break down crying and mumbling incoherently in Japanese, or cheer and jump around wildly and hug people, or sprint madly around my little daughter to the finishing line trying to break 17 hours. All of us deserve to celebrate (and Kevin tells me later that his daughter forgave him immediately), but for some reason I just don’t feel much emotion.

Even now, almost a month later, I feel strangely numb about the whole experience. All I know is that I ran my absolute hardest and never let up for almost 17 hours, and that has to be worth something.

In the end, the top five were Koerner (16:25), Kaburaki (16:52), Bragg (16:54), Halekas (16:56), Sullivan (16:59). My Patagonia teammate Hal Koerner brought it with a vengeance, defended his title and is clearly the man at the 100-mile distance. The rest of us had a battle for the ages, and forged new bonds of respect and friendship from the shared experience.

Will I be back? During the race, I swore to myself that I would never put myself through such torture again. But we know how those sorts of vows tend to end up …

This article appeared in our October 2009 issue.

 

Jasper Halekas is a space physicist at the University of California Berkeley. He accidentally started running six years ago, and hasn’t been able to stop since.