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.

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