Western States is known not only for being a rugged 100 mile course through the mountains, but also for its grueling heat. This year, however, temps were 30-40 degrees below normal. Most of the runners parlayed the cool temps into fast finish times, with record numbers of finishers, silver buckle winners, and shattered men's and women's course records. But the cool temps were no help to me, and instead were the start of my undoing.
Though I knew it would be cool, the weather forecast did not include much precipitation. Race day morning saw thick grey clouds looming over the mountains, but seasoned vets were declaring that we'd be past all the bad weather once we summited the escarpment at mile 4. I did not have a rain jacket with me and thought the jacket I was wearing for morning pre-race warmth was much too thick to race in, so I set off with just some arm and calf sleeves.
Well, seasoned vets are not weathermen. Sprinkles started by mile 3 and by the time we summited there was a full on mountain storm. The next 30 miles were a mix of pelting rain, sleet, and hail.
A very foggy view from Escarpment (ph: Jeffrey Genova)
I first saw my awesome crew of Mac and Gaby at mile 24 (Duncan Canyon). I was 14 minutes behind Krissy Moehl's 2009 splits for 19:26 (which I was using as a rough guide) but I wasn't too discouraged.
As I was running up from the bottom of Duncan Canyon, about two miles out from the aid station, Meghan Arbogast, Tyler Stewart and a male runner were stopped on the trail. Off to the side, there was a very lifeless looking runner completely supine across some rocks. For a split second, I actually thought we'd have to start CPR on this person, who I initially only recognized by her number: "F2" - Kami Semick. But when I stopped, Kami was talking, just severely crippled by asthma. I quickly got out my inhaler and I think that helped a lot. She was soon able to sit up and even stand. The male runner agreed that he would walk/stay with Kami and that the rest of us should run on ahead to get help, especially since we were still "racing" for position.
Despite this very scary delay (Kami was taken to the hospital, but was doing well by Sunday), I actually made up a minute on the splits. However, I did notice I was really starting to feel the cold. In fact, my hands were hurting quite badly and I was quite chilled when they made me weigh in. Future RD Craig Thornley was there, and after a hug, I joked with him about bringing crappy Oregon weather to Western States. Then I said, "I'm volunteering for you next year instead of racing. This sucks!", perhaps creating my own prophesy. Later, two people told me I looked quite ashy, but they thought I was ok because I was still smiling and joking.
Soaked to the bone (photo Keith Blom)
Things went down hill rapidly after that. Normally, I love the section after Robinson Flat, but this year it was exposed pelting rain. Yes, I recognize the irony of an Oregonian not being able to deal with some rain, but it was too much for me. My hands were frozen and I could not open my water bottles, open gels or get salt. In fact, if I had not have had straps, I would not have been able to hold the bottles. I got into Miller's Defeat and I was so confused that Mac wasn't there (no crew at Miller's defeat, he was at the next one). I couldn't pick up food off the table, I was shivering and my teeth were chattering. Fortunately, they had a blazing fire, which they got me to quickly. My skin burned as it started to warm. They wanted me to stay even longer than I was there, but I wanted to get moving. Angel volunteer Shelly Lane gave me new dry sleeves and a beanie before sending me off.
At Dusty Corner's I was a mess. I hadn't eaten in almost two hours and I was still shivering uncontrollably. But my head was basically still in it. I was there for a long time. Mac went to the car to get me more stuff, Sean Meissner was there to help me out, and Cassie Scallon basically saved my life by giving me the jacket off her back. I knew I hadn't eaten in a while and was trying to put as much in me as I could, including a lot of warm broth.
I was fortunate to leave with Jenny Capel, and she was looking great. I ran a mile or so with her, but I couldn't keep up. I was bonking and my stomach was a bloated mess. I treated the bloat in my usual fashion: take two S-caps. It didn't really help. In an hour I took two more. To add insult to injury, my quads were already sore and we hadn't even descended into the main canyons yet. I couldn't keep up with Jenny, but it stopped raining, there were small patches of sun, and I was mostly warmed up.
But things went south again on the climb to Devil's Thumb. Just like last year, asthma hit me hard. I could not climb. People passed me in herds as I was breathing laboriously but making little progress. Unlike last year, I did have my inhalers, but they didn't seem to help at all. And I think I was still very behind in my nutrition. By Michigan Bluff, I was almost two hours late and I knew there was no chance to be in the competitive mix, but maybe a silver buckle was still a possibility??
More slow chugging, lots of out of control breathing, light headedness, but I kept going, even commiserated with two others suffering asthma for the first time (and I also gave them my inhaler- that thing got around!). But after Cal 2 (mile 70), I was just too far gone to run. I sat at the aid station with another runner who had been planning to go sub-20 and was contemplating a drop. I gave him a long pep talk about why he needed to swallow his pride and finish and in doing so, I think I cemented my resolve, too. I knew how I felt. I also knew how awful my daughter's guilt trip was after I DNF'ed at AC. It wasn't my day, but I was getting to the finish (as did my new friend). I headed out with new resolve and more clothes from AS volunteers as I was once again shivering.
Since 24 hours was now out of the question, I figured I'd just walk it in and try to enjoy as much as I could. Not like I really had much choice; I didn't have the air or the energy to run. Most of the time I was still smiling. Except on the uphills...then I was cussing! :) The uphills just required so much more oxygen. I would pant, get dizzy, bend over hands on knees to catch my breath and then do it all again. But I had one of the most fun, most positive people I know with me in my pacer Gaby, and she was patient, supportive, and best of all, entertaining. And as I walked, I just kept taking a big swig and eating what I could every 20 minutes.
Mac took over from Gaby at the river and he kept me on the same eating/drinking schedule. When I got into ALT, my weight was up 6 pounds. The head medical advisor Lucas got very concerned. They got out a binder, consulted a chart, told me my weight was more then 7% up and that I could not go on until I peed. They sent me off to the bushes with a cup. My urine was dark, but still in the spectrum of yellow, not brown or red. But the couple ounces didn't change my weight at all. Lukas was very concerned about hyponatremia. He tried to make me drink 3 bullion cubes in 3 oz of water. It was awful; I couldn't do more than a couple sips. So he gave me two S-caps. He was sure the hypothermia coupled with 85 miles had overstressed my body and I was dealing with oversecretion of ADH. They wanted me to sit, get warm, destress, but mostly pee. I kept trying and would pass an ounce or so, but it didn't change my weight. After 90 minutes or so, I jubilantly passed a lot of "solid waste", thinking that'd be the ticket out, but since they were making me pee in a cup and my cup only had a measly ounce or so of urine they wouldn't even reweigh me. Lucas wanted "voluminous urine" before he'd feel comfortable. Around this same time they checked my pulse-ox. After 90 minutes of sitting it was only 90%. This didn't help my case (but it did explain why I could barely even walk up a hill; it surely would be much lower with heavy exertion).
The time ticked by. I helplessly watched tons of people as they came in and out. 3am is a very busy time for ALT. I briefly thought of sneaking out, but I knew the rules state that you must cooperate with medical personnel, and even if sneaking out didn't get me disqualified, I didn't want to have to explain what I did to others; I knew it wouldn't look good. Sadly, I never thought to fight. They had official binders, mathematical charts, authority. Certainly they knew what they were doing, right?
By 4:45, we had been there more than 2 hours. I started to panic about having enough time left to finish, especially after sitting around getting stiff and cold for so long. I asked Lucas if I he would let me leave. He said no, not yet, but cut-off wasn't till 7 am and I could stay till then. I knew I wouldn't finish if I stayed till 7. My bladder was empty, I wasn't going to pee buckets anytime soon. I had my cry and decided I'd rather DNF at a warm fire than get caught by sweeps on the trail. Lucas supported the idea of a DNF, so Mac told the AS captain that I was done.
But George, the AS captain, saved my race. He came over and asked me why I was quitting. I gave him my sob story. He asked if I wanted to quit. I told him no. He asked a few medical questions (confused? Nauseated? lightheaded?) and then asked me if I thought I was in ok shape to go on. I told him yes. So then he and Lucas talked...and talked. 20 minutes later, Lucas made me sign an AMA form (Against Medical Advice), but at 5:15am, exactly 2 hours and 32 minutes after I arrived, we left ALT headed for the finish!
I was still a wreck, I was moving at a snail's pace, and I had to rest on every uphill to catch my breath, but I was on a mission! The nice thing was that it was daylight, we were with lots of people, and I didn't care one bit about my time, just finishing. It took me 4 hours and 45 minutes to do 15 miles! On Lucas's advice, I did not eat or drink anything that entire time except for a large serving of canned peaches that Rob and John had especially for me at Brown's Bar and oh my god, did they taste good after eating so little for so long!
My sister surprised me at Robie Point. It was awesome to see her, only I was actually embarrassed to have her see me doing so poorly. How poorly? The last 1.3 miles took 26 minutes!! Gaby came down, too. I told my crew if I could still break 29 hours, I just wanted to walk around the track. My sister said, "No, you want to run and show your strong finish." I told her my running was so pathetic, it wouldn't impress anyone and that I'd rather just enjoy the time on the track and the fact that I made it despite everything. So I walked. And I hugged several people, and gave a couple of high fives, and stopped for my mom to take a picture, and honestly, it was awesome. My day was a sh*t sundae, but at least it had a cherry on top.
Only after e-mailing friends after the race did it occur to me that 6 pounds is not greater than 7% of my initial (clothed and shod) weight of 121! In fact, it is less than 5%. And who knows, change of shoes, different scale, full colon - all of those could have affected my weight too. I think with the cool temps and walking, I wasn't sweating much and so I might have been up a couple of pounds, but I don't think I was ever in a dangerous situation. I had a bad race, yeah, ok, I'll get over it, but it is so frustrating to know that I wasted so much time and mental energy for nothing.
Ultra-runners are there for the challenge, to test themselves in extreme conditions and to see how they do when faced with adversity. This year at Western States, I faced my biggest challenges and more adversity than I could even imagine. It wasn't exactly pretty, but I feel like I battled with everything I had on that day. It took me 10 HOURS more than I had hoped to cross the finish line, but in the end, I was still pretty proud to have gotten there. The love and support have been incredible. In some ways, maybe a perfectionist like me needs this kind of stuff. If you feel the most loved on the shittiest day of your life was it really so shitty? I don't think so.
Thank you to my crew who also had to toil an extra 10+ hours, to my family for watching the kids and coming to see me finish, to so many amazing volunteers - people who gave me their personal belongings to help me, to George for fighting for me when I didn't have the wits to do it myself (and for his big hug at the finish), and for all the people who have sent me kind messages-some of them complete strangers. All of this has touched my heart and made me grow and in the end, that is really the best we can hope for in this kind of journey.