“This is not a party. Several of my friends (and your friends) are offering their support. Obviously, everyone is welcome to attend the event however, I cannot have the “beer mile – – BTR – circus” atmosphere anywhere around me at any time.”
For most American ultrarunners, Western States (WS) is the Super Bowl of our sport. Tagged as the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile race in the world, WS started back in 1974. Gordy Ainsleigh was racing the Tevis Cup, a 100 mile endurance horse riding event, and unfortunately…or fortunately for us ultrarunners, his horse went lame. Instead of throwing in the towel, Gordy ran the 100.2 mile course on foot, and Western States was born.
From Squaw Valley to Auburn, WS takes runners through a variety of temperatures, altitude and terrain. Some year’s runners face knee high snow on top of the Escarpment, and 100+ degree temperatures in the canyons. Most veterans also warn to “save your quad’s early” as there is significantly more descent than ascent throughout this point-to-point race. Being a “runner’s 100,” the second half of WS is relatively easier with more stretches of highly runnable sections. Racers that start conservatively can reap huge rewards by being able to run late in this race.
Luis asked if I would be a pacer for him while we caught up before the SLO marathon in April. Yes, this is the same Luis that called me “The worst pacer of all time” less than 24 hours later. Not that Luis needs a pacer. Anyone that has completed over 100 ultras, finished HURT 11 times and Western States 7, surely didn’t need someone tagging along… especially someone that’s never done it before. After a quick calendar check to make sure it would be ok, I jumped at the opportunity to spend some time on the trails with an ultrarunning legend.
Race weekend quickly approached, and Luis had finalized his crew and pacing team:
- Beverly and the pups
- Jeff Zahn
- Crista Scott
- Peter Brennen
- Tyler Clemens
- Jadd Martinez
After a busy week in Phoenix, I arrived back into SLO on Thursday and then trekked up north after finishing up some work in the office. Except for an accident that cost over an hour, the trip was relatively uneventful, and I was able to catch a good night of sleep and sneak an early morning workout in before heading up to Squaw.
Our initial plans were to meet up as a group at 9am so we could gameplan for the weekend and still have time to run in the Montrail Uphill 6k race. Pulling into the parking lot, I saw Thomas Reiss and his sons loosening up to run. Thomas was preparing to pace Brett Rivers the following day, so I sure hope he was well rested.
We gathered at Starbucks, and were greeted by Pat Sweeny and Jess Soco. Pat was at WS to crew and pace for a friend, and Jess had literally hiked down off her trip across the PCT to meet us for the evening… perfect timing!
We worked through some logistics, Peter slammed a huge breakfast sandwich about 3 minutes before the race… the iron tummies of ultrarunners… and we learned that Mauricio would need a crew and pacers as his team fell through. We divvied up crew/pacing responsibilities, found out that Ben Holmes would also be joining us on Saturday, and got ready for the Montrail 6k Uphill Challenge.
With two weeks before the Santa Barbara 100, this was my last weekend of training before my taper. As much as I would’ve liked to race this event, I thought it best to take my time and enjoy the 6K climb up to the top of Squaw Peak. Hanging out at the starting line, I ran into Tera and Jody who were in Squaw for Eric’s big day. We caught up briefly and started our nearly 2,000ft climb, in less than 3.5 miles.
Some of the front runners shot off the line like they ditched the dinner bill. Tera went out strong, and I settled in somewhere in the middle of the pack. The first mile was relatively flat, and we were cheered on by the likes of Alex Varner and Stephanie Howe. Mile 2 got real, with 565ft of climb and some slight bouldering. The last 1.4 miles was another 1,000ft of quad burning climb, up slick rockface, over boulders and finishing at 8,000ft. The views from the peak were incredible, snapped a few pics and headed out for some more miles with Mr. Brennen.
Peter knows Squaw well. He pointed out various peaks and routes that he routinely charges down when there’s snow on the mountains. Obviously, we took the Western States trail, and ran over beautiful terrain for several miles, before heading back to catch the pre-race meeting at 1:00pm. The air and terrain was very dry from the low amount of winter snowfall. We kicked up a lot of dirt heading out on the singletrack, and I couldn’t help but think how difficult this would be for the runners sucking dust the following day.
As we approached the turnaround point, we took a sharp turn and came across a wet patch of trail. Thinking nothing of it compared to the dry surrounding terrain, I charged right through. To my surprise, my right leg drops balls deep into thick sludge, nearly eating my shoe. After slowly pulling my leg out of the muck, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the runners that would unfortunately pull this exact same move less than 24 hours later.
After the turnaround, Pete and I take what we thought was a shortcut. To reiterate from my fast packing post, my sense of direction is definitely not a strength… if anything, it’s downright dangerous.
So we get lost…
You’d think from the top of a mountain, with the lodge in the ONLY valley even remotely close, that aiming down would work itself out. Obviously, you’ve never followed me on a run before. Pete finally saw some hikers making their way down the trail several hundred meters to our right… weird how he spotted that young, tan, athletic girl from so far away. Thankfully, we were able to make our way back towards civilization, but the afternoon sun was starting to beat down.
Making good time down the switchbacks, Pete makes an abrupt stop and darts off trail. Not certain on where he was going, but definitely not looking to get lost again, I follow closely behind and find Senor Brennan stripping down to his skivvies and jumping into a makeshift pond. FYI… any ”pond” fed by runoff at over 8,000 feet, probably isn’t going to be very spa-like. Pretty sure I screamed like a little girl for a few minutes, but that Antarctic water sure did cool us down enough to make the remaining run bearable.
We made it back into the valley with a few minutes to spare before the pre-race meeting. I scarfed down a hummus sandwich, it’s better than you think non-vegetarians, and hustled over for pre-race details.
With zero WS finishes under my belt and seven WS buckles on his, I definitely wasn’t going to tell Luis anything he didn’t already know about this course, but thought there may be some updates at the pre-race meeting worth listening to. Minus a couple aid stations that were pulled from the course, not much seemed to be different than years past. We watched some videos, listened to a multitude of WS and Tevis board members and sweated like pigs for a couple hours.
Our team gathered up for an early pre-race dinner at the pizza joint in the Squaw complex. Tyler and I worked our way throughout the outdoor seating area, eyeing near finished tables like hawks. We came across a solo diner, and chatted with him for a bit. Jorge was traveling the states in between finishing up a Master’s degree. He had heard of Dirtbag Runners and was interested in seeing the course. We brought him on the team, gave him my seen-better-days hat, and another crew member was added.
We spent the remainder of the evening “carbo loading” as Dirtbags tend to do, listening to stories about the PCT and Pat’s adventures from trekking across the states.
The 4:30am wakeup alarm was glorious! I spent a few early morning minutes stumbling around trying to pack up and wake up before the race start. At 4:45, with only 15 minutes till the shotgun sendoff, I see Mauricio at our camp. I was seriously nervous for him, but he seemed completely content taking his time. I guess that’s the zen state one falls into before the start of his second event in the Last Great Race.
Ultrarunners are a weird breed. Some say neurotic, others say slightly psychotic, but all agree you need some serious Cajones to attempt a 100 mile race. Now imagine racing five mountain 100 mile races, all within the summer months, and throw in an additional 135+ miles of running in 120+ degree heat in Death Valley, and you’ve got yourself the Last Great Race + Badwater.
We hustle over to the starting line to snap a few photos and wave farewell to these 375ish brave souls. Once the runners were off, we made quick time packing up and traveling down to Auburn. After dropping off cars at the finish line, we separated into two crew vehicles which would follow both Mauricio and Luis throughout the day. Team Mauricio consisted of Pete, Crista, Tyler and Jorge. Team Escobar consisted of Jeff and I, with Ben planning to meet us at Foresthill (Mile 62).
Robinson Flat (Mile 30)
The first location where crews normally meet runners is Robinson Flat. After working their way up the 2,000ft+ climb to the Escarpment, racers spend the next 30 miles running through the high country, trying to “take it easy.” Robinson Flat was an absolute zoo! There were literally hundreds of fans, friends, family members, crew and pacers lining only a few hundred meters of trail. Unfortunately we missed the lead pack, but it was an awesome experience watching countless runners and crew work together like a Nascar pit stop. Gels, S Caps, ice sponge baths and all types of food was stuffed into packs and mouths, while runners were pushed back out onto the course.
It’s imperative that heat management be taken seriously for all runners at Robinson Flat. The 25 miles from RF to Michigan Bluff (MB) are the most difficult miles in Western States. Runners will climb and descend thousands of feet before MB, into remote canyons with temperatures topping 100 degrees.
Luis was the first of our group to arrive and he didn’t waste much time. We sat him down, poured some coconut water down his throat, packed an ice bandana around his neck, put his hot weather cap on and kicked him back out onto the course. He looked relatively good, or as good as you could expect for someone a third of the way through WS.
We waited impatiently for Mauricio as it started to get late. There is a hard cutoff at RF, and if a runner is not out of the aid station before a given time, the individual is immediately pulled from the race. We knew Mauricio would be taking his time considering the 100 miler he ran only a couple weeks before, and the four more he would have after WS, but the clock started to count down. With only 15 minutes to spare, Mauricio makes his way into RF. We didn’t waste any time getting him prepped for the canyons and kicking his ass back out onto the course.
Michigan Bluff (Mile 55)
After completing more than half of the race, along with the dreaded canyons, runners make their way into Michigan Bluff. MB is an awesome aid station location, with friends, family, crew and pacers scattered throughout several hundred meters of an old asphalt road. Jeff and I made it into RF in time to watch the lead women, and some of the top men come through. The day hadn’t been extremely hot by WS standards, but word on the streets was the heat had hit early in the day. Runners normally are able to make it into RF fairly unscathed, running in moderate temps, but this year it was hot throughout the high country.
We spent several hours hanging out, trying to check on the status of runners as we set up camp next to the livetracking team. Luis was again the first to make it into Michigan Bluff, and he was starting to show the signs of a battered ultrarunner. He laid down on the road, someone found him a hamburger, we switched out his heat gear and prepped him for the late night hours. Ben would be pacing Luis in less than 7 runnable miles, so we reminded him to keep eating and drinking and we’d catch him in a few.
Jeff, Pat, Jorge and I left immediately for Foresthill after Luis departed from MB, as we only had 1.5-2 hours to get to the next aid station, find Ben, and track down some damn chocolate milk that Luis demanded. Thankfully, Ben was ready to rock, as we hadn’t had reception in hours and had to guestimate a time to meet up at Foresthill.
Foresthill (Mile 62)
The Foresthill (FH) aid station is set up at a school, and is packed with fans, friends and crew, as this is the first location that runners can pick up their pacer. Fortunately, there are some stores and restaurants around for famished crew, and FH marks the start of a very runnable 38ish miles to the finish.
A pacers duty is many. You are tasked with running/hiking/walking/crawling behind your runner, offering words of encouragement, constantly reminding your runner to eat and drink, keep them awake if needed, be a psychologist, be a drill sergeant, be a shoulder to cry on, but most importantly keep them moving towards the finish.
Ben was Luis’ first pacer. He picked up Luis outside of FH and Jeff, Jorge and I set up a makeshift aid station a half mile past the school. Beverly, Luis’ son and his girlfriend also made it out to cheer Luis on, so we had a full house waiting their arrival. Wondering why they were taking so long to cover 2 miles, Luis and Ben roll in after having stopped by a makeshift aid station to rehydrate… they hit a goddamn bar and had a drink! We pack Luis up quick, remind Ben to make sure he eats and drinks, and send team 150 on their way.
Rucky Chucky River Crossing (Mile 78)
The Rucky Chucky aid station is interesting as beaten down runners near the 80 mile mark and then have to cross a river. Considering California’s drought, what many years is a river only crossable by raft, runners were able to cross this year with the assistance of only a rope and an awesome group of volunteers. For a few hours however, the water level was extremely high, as water is released from the dam daily so river rafting expeditions can continue throughout the summer.
Jeff, Jorge and I made our way down to the river and arrived with what we estimated was a couple hours to spare. Jorge and I passed out for an hour or two on the ground… best hourish of sleep I’ve had in a while! Jeff kept watch armed with Red Bull, and waited on Ben and Luis to arrive.
Team Escobar made their way down to the aid station somewhere around 3:30am. Luis looked like hammered poo and immediately passed out on a cot. We caught up with Ben and found out that he hadn’t been eating or drinking much since Foresthill. Nutrition is key in 100 milers, and even more important is the consistency in getting fuel into the body. We needed to get some food into Luis ASAP, as he was starting to look pretty damn comfortable on that cot. Sausage, quesadillas, pretzels, chips and anything else he would tolerate was shoved into his mouth.
After about 30 minutes, Mauricio arrived… Not sure if it was the 500 calories or Mauricio catching up to him, but Luis shot up and decided to get moving.
My first pacing experience was pretty damn memorable. I was privileged to spend 6ish hours with Luis working our way towards the Placer track. Some things are meant to stay on the trail, so the details of our time together will stay between us. One thing to say about Luis from watching him finish WS, is that he’s all heart. You don’t see many runners come back from the dead at mile 78, and you definitely don’t expect those runners to pass 37 racers in the last 22 miles. In my opinion, we use the word “inspiring” too much in our society. Rarely do I have the experience to be truly inspired to the core, and Luis offered me that experience at WS.
After watching Luis finish, I cleaned up briefly, caught Mauricio’s excellent finish, and had a pint with the team before trekking back home.
What I learned:
- Both Mauricio and Luis are gritty bastards!
- Hummus sandwiches are awesome… even if you eat them for two days straight.
- Only one beer was consumed during crew and pacing duties, and this was at mile 99
- Eat, drink, electrolytes, repeat…
- Western States is an experience every trail runner needs to attend