Thursday, July 6, 2017

Western States 100 Crew Report

Crewing, especially for a true competitor—someone racing at the front (and hard)—is so rarely discussed. I’m guilty of this, and most of my friends are as well. Your crew consists simply of whichever few friends you could convince to follow you around all day (and night). Crewing is work though; the stress holds weight.
    On a Sunday morning long run a month before Western States, tracing our way up and down the winding backside of Mount Sanitas in Boulder, I expressed my disappointment to Cat in not attending this year—I had so many friends from both Boulder and the east coast running this year, and that if I found someone to crew I’d buy the plane ticket that week. Thankfully, Cat asked right there. A few days later, thanks to long-forgotten frequent flyer miles, I had a plane ticket and rental car set.
    Cat is…an erratic racer, generally. Or better said, she needs to find focus when at aid stations. She runs as fiercely as anyone I know, but having no set people to seek out at each point adds another variable; if you rely on yourself on race day, the likelihood of forgetting something crucial at the right time, like lubricant or an extra bottle of calories, skyrockets.  At Western States, the margin of error is thin whether you are racing at the front or skirting the 30-hour cut-off, ignoring that faint grit of sand in your shoe from mile ten can end your race. Establishing crew who knows your and whom you trust to provide what you need when you need it, strips away so much of these risks. It allows time for thoroughness, for planning.
    Establish a plan beforehand. This is for the racer more than the crew. Weeks beforehand even, start jotting notes whenever a potential issue comes to mind. Know clearly what your nutrition plan will be (even though it will go out the window by mile 60). Be ready for, when two days out from the race, you can’t find any of your self-care products or your Gu went bad. Plan in advance so you have time to fix the hiccups
    Showing up to Tahoe City Friday, Cat had separate packed bags set for crews A and B, walked us through what to have at every aid station and set a plan. My crew handled Robinson Flat, Michigan Bluff, Foresthill, and Green Gate before heading to No Hands Bridge for some final cheering. One person would be her point person; the only one with whom she spoke at aid stations (length to next aid station, how she looked, etc.), one person would unload and reload her pack for the next section of tail another would actively provide her food and drink for consumption while the other two did their jobs. My crew of three handled this well; Rebecca and Alice swapped and fed while I quizzed Cat on any specific requests that may have arisen in the previous section.
    We arrived to Robinson Flat early—very early—to beat the crowds that form & ensure a prime location for ourselves along the road leaving the aid station. We set up a towel along runner’s right ~75’ after the aid station that held separated areas of food and drink for the aid station, food and drink for the next section, and the ice cooler. Luckily, sporadic cell service allowed for the occasional iRunFar update from Duncan Canyon six miles earlier. First Jim came through followed by a slew of men well after him. Once the first twenty men came through, we kept a better eye for the first group of woman who we guessed, based on splits at Duncan Canyon, would give us a 10’ heads up on Cat’s arrival. Andrea Huser came through still maintaining her Walmsley-an lead over the women’s field, and then four more women came through roughly together after her. I wandered to my post ahead the aid station to cheer in runners and provide some anticipation of Cat’s arrival rather than trying to find her in the masses of crews and volunteers swirling the aid station. When I ran in 2014, my crew discovered the hard way that crews are not allowed anywhere near the aid station, even to assist their runner. So, for Cat we planned to not use the aid station. We set up slightly down trail and I waited ahead to give Alice and Rebecca a 60 second heads up and a chance to find any last minute request. Cat surprised us coming through after what felt like only a few minutes from the chase pack of bad ass women. I sprinted, bobbing and weaving through crews spread around the greater aid station area to beat Cat to our crew area by less than 30 seconds.
    In the transition I did everything I could to keep Cat present for even a minute, long enough to make sure nothing slipped through the gaps before she headed into eight miles of hot canyons before the next crew point. She had no complaints though aside from the looming heat that was encompassing us all by that point. We loaded her with a fresh ice bandana and frozen sponges everywhere they could possibly go. Alice walked the next 30’ or so with her to take last minute trash and the bottle she’d been sipping from in the aid station. Just like that, no more than a minute after she arrived, she was gone again. Next up, Michigan Bluff (mile 55).
    Several times in the week leading up to Western States, I had been advised to carry cash for the barbecue at Michigan Bluff. Again we arrived way too early, spending just enough time in Foresthill to peruse twitter for updates. We arrived to Michigan Bluff about an hour ahead of Jim Standard Time, set up the first of three assumed crew locations, and enjoyed some delicious hamburgers in the barren pre-noon shade. Jim came and went, followed by a thirty deep string of lookers-on welding iPhones hoping for their glimpse into something special. Another hour went by and we moved our crew spot further down road tracing ahead along the vector of shade. Ryan Sandes came through followed by a herd of chasing men. Of all the men I remember seeing come through here, Alex Nichols was the only one to look casual, to look like he was still running effortlessly. Then came the women. A loose group of Yiou Wang, Magda Boulet, and Kaci [FIGURE OUT WHERE PEOPLE ARE]
    Cat came in making up serious time on her split estimates from Robinson Flat to here and, frankly, caught us a little off guard. Seeing the mass of people swarming each runner through like a school of fish, I made the gut call to move our crew point another fifty feet down road in hopes people would get bored and not follow that far, giving us some peace to get our work done and give Cat some space to breathe and focus. Just as I set down the towel, all her food and drink bundled in it like a rucksack, I glanced up at Alice sprinting my direction to sound the alarm of Cat’s arrival. Cat came in calm and collected here; this was honestly the most collected I had seen or heard of Cat at a race before. Aid stations, particularly at Western States can be rather over-stimulating. Setting up a bit down road allowed both her and us to focus on the task at hand (getting Cat in and out refreshed in under a minute). This transition went more smoothly than the last, a true Nascar pit stop, and she was gone running up the road.  On to Foresthill (mile 62) to meet up with Crew A.
    We arrived to Foresthill after the lead men had come and gone. Crew A had already established a crewing location immediately following the aid station, but soon after our arrival we sussed out a better location down road, more shaded and further removed from the chaos that is the Foresthill aid station. A quick inventory and we realized we had no extra water after what had been used to fill bottles for Cat. I began running back to our truck less than a half mile away, but before I could even make it there, I spotted Cat bounding into town with Ryan Smith (her pacer along Bath Road) in tow, moving fast and looking casual. Cat went through the aid station for whatever she might have wanted as Smith and I sprinted toward the crews to get ready. Foresthill is a pivotal aid station. “The race starts at Foresthill,” after all. She arrived here in second place, YiOu having arrived a couple minutes earlier, so the buzz in the air was palpable. Those same fish who had apparently given up on Jim Walmsley swarmed, so much so my job became standing three feet from Cat and crew belting into the masses “why are there so many people here” and “give her some space” as one stranger of a man, beer on hip, suggested we give her ice for her pack. Thanks man, we got this. A minute or so later, with a pack full of liquid calories (she refused more waffles), she left the aid station in first place, YiOu still with her crew.
Our friend Clare Gallagher came through not long after, close enough that we stayed to help as we could. Given the hindrance of the mass of people surrounding Cat, I jumped in when Clare arrived, Smith and I reaching over each other to remove her socks and wipe off her feet as she ate a baked potato and then double fisted a can of Sprite and a bottled Frappucino (both were empty by the time she stood). Once Clare was off, we broke down our pit stop and headed for the cars. Crew A would head for the near side of the Rucky Chucky River, and we would head for Green Gate nearly two uphill miles past the river.
    The stress of the day wearing on us with the mid-afternoon sun had us make a quick stop for Frappucinos in Auburn before heading through Cool, California to the Green Gate aid station. We were antsy to arrive there as, upon arrival, we had a 1.3-mile walk to the aid station and then the 1.8-mile jog down to the river to watch the race and wait for Cat. Hurry up and wait. A text came through on Alice’s phone en route requesting “pickles and bubbly water”. We thankfully had several cans of La Croix on hand. We read of YiOu’s surge after Foresthill and were not sure if we should expect Cat first or second (or further back) into the river. Following a quick (lazy) set up at the aid station, we ran down the river jittering in Frappucino-fueled excitement. From our vantage on the far banks of the river, we were able to see runners traipse (or stumble) down the road into the aid station on the near side. Having not run since the Bighorn 50 a week prior, I was thankful for the lengthy head start to beat Cat up the hill to our crew towel at Green Gate. As soon as she and then pacer Ryan Lassen came into view (in first place), I ran up the road to the gate in a nervous huff and appreciating the five minutes to breathe I had upon arrival.
    Before long, Cat and entourage (Ryan, Alice, Rebecca) made their way through the aid station. Green Gait sits at mile 81.x, and following the nauseating heat of the day, Cat paused for a moment in the aid station for a bottle of ginger ale. As far as I am aware, she would only take in ginger ale and the bit of La Croix we gave her there until she finished. Given the minimal needs if she would only take only ginger ale, she only stopped long enough to tell us she did not need anything. We walked along as long as acceptable, reaching into every pocket of her pack to remove the stale food housed there—at this point it was unnecessary weight. We sent her off with pacer Ryan Smith, the man to subtly badger any runner into a win. There could have been no better pacer for those final twenty miles.
    Full of nervous energy, we drove straight to No Hands Bridge to wait for Cat to arrive in (hopefully) first place. The wait at No Hands Bridge felt the longest by far. With over seventeen hours on the clock and having woken up two hours earlier than that, the day had taken its toll. We were exhausted like we had run an ultra, but thankfully had no other job here than to cheer her through on her way to victory. After a nap, some calisthenics, several sprints back and forth on the bridge, and some terrible dancing, Cat arrived and did not even break stride through the aid station. Smith told me afterward that he saw Alice but had no clue I was even there as they ran through—focus.
    We hustled to drop the car at the house we’d be staying in that night and run over to Robie Point to meet Cat for the final mile into Auburn. I did not, until upon arrival to Auburn and seen that Cat had gained an extra minute lead on Magda into No Hands Bridge, allow myself to believe she was about to win Western States. Then she arrived to Robie Point still running. Holy shit, she’s going to do this. The emotional crack in her voice and the glazed look of focus said everything. She had worked to get here. Smith sat on her shoulder like a red cartoon devil, whispering confidence in her ear. From the aid station, the road curves right and steepens, the true crest being a quarter mile further. Then she spoke through tears, “I’m going to fucking win Western States,” as if she did not even believe it quite yet.
    Standing in the field for the procession following her finish, all of us who were there for her and friends who happened to be nearby came over to simply gawk and look at each other in quiet discomfort, unsure what to say or do. It was over; she had won. She had done it, and we had gotten to come along for the ride.
    We spent no more than five total minutes with Cat throughout the 19 hours 31 minutes she was running, and I consider that slim amount of time a success. Crewing is about efficiency and anticipation. Anticipate your runner’s arrival, anticipate her needs, and be as efficient as you can getting her on her way. I cannot speak for Cat, but I’m looking forward to 2018.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

It's a metaphor, fool.

I read something once that discussed, evolutionarily, why we run (why we do any activity of heavy exertion or focus, really), basing it on an inherent need to find strife and struggle in our modern, mundane, first world. Basically, life is too easy so we invent problems...just so we can solve the problems we invented.

Running, for most of us, is a constant.  I've you've been running regularly for long enough--be it months or years--eventually the act becomes habit. I've never felt the "runner's high," but I have felt newfound peace after a day spent alone in the woods with only my thoughts to keep my company. I love, I cherish ultrarunning because even now, 39 races later, I can find new meaning in familiar places. Running is a metaphor for life, and the converse is true as well. Any run can apply to this, but some do so better than others.

I signed up for Bighorn 50 in January and told a few friends even that day that I planned to win. I've never won anything before, but after a frustrating finale to running at the hypothermic Bear 100 in 2016 and for the first time since I trained for Western States in 2014, I wanted a real goal that required effort to succeed. I toyed with the idea of aiming for the record, though thankfully conditions on race day did not allow any even feigned attempt at that mark, as I think trying for it would have cost me the win.

Anyway, let's get back to the metaphor. Prior to my very first ultra, and long before we became good friends, the venerable Eric Grossman gave me the most trite yet sage wisdom: it doesn't always get worse. The light at the end of the tunnel, the rainbow after the storm, whatever you will; it doesn't always get worse. I camped at the 50 mile start line Friday night with my friend Chrissy, who was also running the 50 mile, so as to see several friends turn around there in the 100 mile race that started that morning and to avoid an abhorrent 1:45 wake-up call for the bus to the start line. On Friday, tracing our way westward along the course, the weather was stellar: blue skies and a little cool (55-60 degrees at Dry Fork compared to 85+ last year). However, as if summoned, as we turned off the highway toward the Jaws trailhead for the night, the rain began. It rained, and it rained, and then it eased off slightly for 20 minutes with a brief lightening of the cloud hues to the west, teasing us, and then it rained some more. It rained as the lead men came through and stayed nearly 30 minutes in the aid station fighting hypothermia, it rained as the only friend I managed to see before my bedtime, Colleen, came in cold but casual halfway through her first hundred. It rained as we broke down our pop tent. It was not raining when we woke up at 4 am for race morning, but by 4:45, the rain had begun again. By the time we stood at the parking lot edge listening to the race director announce "these are [sigh] the worse trail conditions we've seen in the 25 years of the race," sleet was falling.
My friend Leonard, who had paced a friend up in the night to drive my car back to town after we started, told me that afternoon he woke up at 7:30 am to a fresh 3 inches of snow on the car. It doesn't always get worse. 

The director said the magic words and we started running down the road into unknown levels of mud. A group of three of us settled in together as we transitioned to the initial notoriously boggy singletrack that crests the short climb from Jaws. For that first mile, the bogs felt familiar. "It's this muddy every year" I thought. Then we crested the short climb and began the 16 miles of descent to Footbridge. I glanced up searching for a view and fell. Then I fell again. I reache to change songs on my iPod and fell. I shot a glance to gauge my distance to the second aid station and fell. That time I slide a couple feet face first, somehow unhooking the safety pins of my bib and leaving it in the mud. After taking the time to repin my now illegible number, I fought with all my might to stay upright two more miles just to misstep and go down again. Finally I wandered off trail to fertilize some trees and collect myself. I stays there until I had calmed down; being this frustrated 8 miles into 50 could not bode well. It doesn't always get worse. If anyone feels the need to peruse my Strava data, you can actually see the succinct shift from mile nine to mile ten. From then to Footbridge at mile 18, I spent my energy on control, restriction. Staying comfortable and, more importantly, upright. A day later, my arms and core are just as sore and tender as my legs from the work staying upright. Seeing Julia Combs nearly at the aid station was a breath of fresh air and I think our hug was what we both needed then. Seeing Crewmaster Rush Combs at Footbridge, shouting my name through the toothbrush wedged in his mouth, was a much needed relief. The coke he filled my bottle with was even better.

The climb from footbridge to the Bear Camp aid station is notorious at 2,300 feet of gain in about four miles. Last year, at the torrential Rut 50k, I discovered after a certain threshold of muddiness, running provides more purchase than hiking. In a hiking gait, you find yourself precariously tiptoeing upward, placing far too little weight on each footfall. Running by definition places all your weight onto every footfall. Though much more energy intensive, the trade-off is there to run instead of hike if you do not mind the risk of burning out the engine. And, if the fitness is there, the engine only requires enough gasoline to keep burning. I bumped up my food consumption on the climb and afterward to keep the fire going, filling my bottle with coke at every aid station and eating whatever looked best off the table (mostly cheez-its and bacon), being sure to take in a cup or two of caloried fluid before leaving any aid station. I passed who I found of after the race to be Ryan Burch (in the early morning miles, I was paying too much attention failing to stay upright to have any idea who was around me) before both Bear Camp and Cow Camp aid stations only to see him ahead of me not long after leaving, having passed me as I stood around stuffing my face.

The start times for the four Bighorn races (100M, 52M, 32M, 18M) are set up so that runners finish in the park in Dayton, Wyoming throughout the day Saturday. This means that, starting at the furthest away point, we spent the day catching up to the tail end of the other three races. It also meant that I did not know for certain that I was leading (or that I had won) until I checked the results thirty minutes after finishing. I passed people of various distances with obscured bib numbers, many of whom were running very well, and I did not know if they were in my race or not. At Dry Fork, with 18 miles remaining, enough people told me I was the first 50 miler there that I had confidence in the idea, but then several people running around my pace up the road from the aid station that I was again uncertain and knew not to ease up. Plus, somehow, thankfully, the mud significantly eased after Dry Fork, allowing for some actual running. I had told myself leading up to the race, and reminded myself on the slight descent into Upper Sheep Gulch, that if I was leading or even within striking distance when I began the ridiculous 3,500 foot descent to the finish line, I could actually win the damn thing. I trust my ability to beat my quads into submission late in a race; that is one skill I have at very least. I ran down the road to town (a magical road that seems to trend uphill even though it traces a river downstream) as best I could into a solid headwind, and crossed the finish line relieved. I had atually done the thing. I set a goal, made a plan, and even with the universe throwing a wrench into everything, I got it done. Scrolling through results, this is my slowest 50 mile time since 2012 when Mountain Masochist had two feet of wet snow on course, and yet it's the first time I've won.

Somewhere in the narrative I might have lost the metaphor. Sometimes life knocks you down. Sometimes you fall in the mud. Sometimes you fall again and cut yourself, and then fall again to get mud in the wound, but you are not sure if you fell in mud or cow shit, and you feel bad enough that you don't really care which. But if you put your head down and trudge forward, focusing on the little things and taking care of yourself, doing your best to simply stay upright, it won't always get worse. Doing your best ever is irrelevant if your best on the day is what you need. The clouds clear, the sun comes out, and you just keep running.

HUGE thanks to Salomon for providing me with shoes (Sense 6 Softground) that did their best to help in the worst mud I've ever run through and with shorts that held all my goodies through the day.