Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Trying to DNS at Western States

Ready to Run (and run and run and...)

To most runners, DNS is the abbreviation for 'Did Not Start.' But as I settled into to the climb up to Escarpment and all the anxiety, jitters, and hype melted away, I realized I would be fine and that things would go my way; all I had to do was Do Nothing Stupid. And so that became my mantra for the day. Unfortunately, I can't say I was completely successful on that attempt, but overall I feel pretty good about my first go at Western States.

At 5 am the masses took off from the start, ascending the slopes leading out of Squaw Valley, rising in elevation as the sun rose to greet the new day. Tiers of icy steps carved into the persistent deep snow assisted the runners in the final climb to the top. At the very summit, Chris Thornley was melodically banging his gong in the early morning light. He was offering passing runners a chance to strike the gong, but most declined, opting not to break stride. I thought to myself, "This is Western States, and I am going to bang the gong!" but the stick wasn't offered as I passed by and so I seamlessly shifted onto the downhill single track.
Summiting Escarpment, not banging the gong (photo by Olga V.)

The next section was a lot of fun, though as one person put it, it was immediately obvious who had no snow running experience. Yeah, that would be me! I was fumbling all over the place slipping and sliding. I fell four times in this short section! Mostly it was just my downhill foot slipping out from under me on sections where the trail went straight across a slope, but once both feet went sliding down the hill, dropping me squarely on my butt. But the snow was light and slushy so there was no damage. It was early and I was in good spirits, so I just found my ineptitude comical.

Though there was a lot of snow, there had also been a lot of melt in the last couple of weeks and in some areas, the trail was more like a stream with ankle deep run off flowing over it. Other parts were a boggy mess from all the water. Well, I may not be able to do snow, but this Oregon girl can handle some mud! So overall, I moved through this section well.

Nine miles in, the route diverted from the original course onto this year's snow route for the next 13 miles. This started with 5 miles of rutted jeep road with a few snow patches and mud puddles thrown in. Then came a 2 mile paved section of gradual downhill. This was a fast section and very easy to get moving. Several people estimate that this substitution made the course about 20 minutes faster than the normal years. I had the pleasure of running most of this with Jill Perry. We were talking and laughing and the pace seemed pretty relaxed.

The way I typically pace ultras is by judging my effort level as I run. This is similar to heart rate monitoring (I think), but I just use my own sense of effort, mostly based on my breathing rate and depth. However, I think this was a mistake in Western States, particularly in this section, since WS is notorious for "blown quads." I also know from American River that my quads aren't toughened for road running these days. So in retrospect, I should have been monitoring and buffering against quad pounding and not just judging by my effort level.

Finally, the road came out on the Poppy Trail, which was a sweet waterside single track with very gentle rolling. To get back to the regular route, the course made a mile climb up this clear cut scar on a brushy hill-side. This was not a trail, but an artificial route that was recently created to link the two courses. And by recently, I am talking within the last week or so! This was stubby little plants and stumps cut within an inch or two of the ground and lots of loose brush all around. About half way up, I caught a toe and went down HARD, but when I looked at my leg there was barely even a mark and nothing seemed out of place. That made five falls in 22 miles!

I got up to Duncan Canyon and was energized by all the cheering, everyone was so supportive. A volunteer wiped a bunch of dirt off my leg and commented that it looked like my fall was "mostly dirt, little damage," and when I looked down there were just two teensy little scratches on my leg. And with that I was off.

The river at Duncan Canyon was freezing. Halfway across the knee deep river, I was pretty sure I was going to have to have my legs amputated from frost bite! Tamsin Antsey and I leaped frogged up to Robinson Flat and then left there together agreeing that we should run together for a while, which was nice because I not only had company, but this was my favorite section of the course.

By Last Chance I had pulled ahead of Tamsin, but Annette Bednosky was into the AS right behind me. She pulled away when the downhill became steep, but I was able to catch up with her again on the power hike to Devil's Thumb.

At Devil's Thumb, my weight was still nearly identical to the start. The day was really starting to heat up. I doused myself, got ice in my cap and left with a popsicle. Annette was right with me as I was walking with my popsicle and even enjoying the popsicle stick humor (Why did the mother clam scold her children? Because they were being shellfish!). But she again left me in the dust on the downhill to El Dorado Creek. I tried to run as best as I could but all of the sudden I was getting sharp stabbing pains in the side of my knee. This slowed me even more than my usual slow descent.

Hiking up to Michigan Bluff, I really started to feel the heat of the day not to mention the accumulating fatigue. About a third of the way up I came across Devon Crosby-Helms and I expressed my surprise at seeing her. Unfortunately, she had been having a rough day and was planning to drop at Michigan Bluff. Though I was feeling better than Devon, I could tell I was wilting a bit in this section, too, and when I came into Michigan Bluff I was at a pretty low point.

My weight again was right on, but food was quickly losing its appeal. I hadn't been planning to sit, but my feet had been soaking wet for the last eight hours and I had a hot spot on my heel that I knew needed some attention. While I was sitting the PT came over and started asking about my knee (I had mentioned it hurt when I first came in) and then she went to work taping it to lessen the symptoms of runner's knee. She also tried to show me some maneuvers I could do on my own on the trail, but I couldn't concentrate.

While I was sitting there, Mac gave me a hand held full of ice and Starbucks frappuccino, and I downed it as it was the most delicious thing I have ever had! But then it was time to leave, and I was full of dread: 45 miles left to go and I was SO tired.
Me, at Michigan Bluff, feeling crummy, but looking sexy in my Sultan of the Sahara hat. Mac convinced me to wear it: "Anita Ortiz and Meghan wear than kind of hat." Thank heavens he didn't tell me that Anita and Meghan ran in chicken suits or that's what I'd be wearing in this photo! My knee is taped, but those crutches aren't mine! (photo by Olga)

Olga had an awesome pep talk for me: "You're fine. You are supposed to feel like shit at Michigan Bluff!" Fantastic, I guess everything was just peachy keen, then!

Sean could also sense I was dragging. As I left he says,"Do you know Bowhunter Cam from Eugene?" Kind of, I tell him. I don't really know him, but I have heard about our local ultra runner who is also a prize winning bow-hunter (and all around bad-ass). So Sean yells, "that's him right in front of you. You get up there and run with him!"

So I run up to him and say,"Bowhunter Cam? Hi, I am Pam from Salem." He is "Bowhunter Cam" and I am just "Pam from Salem"?? How lame is that? Anyway, we run down to Volcano Creek together and I am really just struggling, but I recognize it as the same drained and over heated feeling that I had at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And then it hits me that I didn't take any ice or dunk my hat at the last two aid stations. STUPID! But it is not too long before we get to the creek. Cam starts to splash water on his arms and legs and I full on jump in! I sit down, lay back, and am completely submerged except for the little circle of my face, and I lay there until I start to get goosebumps. I come out completely refreshed, plus I think maybe the caffeine is starting to kick in. Anyway, I am ready to move on the way up Volcano Canyon!

My second pacer, Anne, met me at Bath Road with her husband and I made my way to Forest Hill in good spirits and feeling pretty good. I had another handheld full of frappuccino and I made sure to get really wet (hence my video at Forest Hill in the previous post). I took off with my first pacer Mo and had a great first hour with her. After that my stomach started to get queasy and I wasn't able to eat much at Peachstone or Ford's Bar. Mo was encouraging me to drink soda to get some energy in and I probably got in a bottle and a half or so. But my stomach just keep getting worse. I took two salt tabs and another about 30 minutes later, but nothing was changing. Then a nurse at one of the aid stations thought I had probably taken too much salt, so in addition to not doing well with food, I got all confused about electrolytes.

This year racers crossed the American River in boats due to the high water level. I thought this meant I would get to rest a bit, but our rower got us across in about ten seconds flat! Then it was a slog up to Green Gate. And by that time I was feeling pretty sick. I couldn't take any food, but I drank another bottle of frappuccino.

Pretty much every part of me was ready to be done at this point. I was tired, my tank was completely empty, I was queasy and solid food made me dry heave, and I had the classic "blown quads" of Western States, despite training to avoid this. Also, my left knee started bothering me. By the finish, my left knee was about 50% bigger than my right and it was all bruised up - maybe not such a harmless little fall earlier after all!

Updates on the course were really spotty and Mac had NO reception on his iPhone to get information, so I didn't really know exactly where the competition was. I knew I had been in 9th since the canyons, but we weren't sure what the lead over 10th was. My crew thought it was a decent lead because they had hung out at Forest Hill for about 15 minutes after I left and didn't see any other women. I like to finish strong and come from behind, but that wasn't going to happen. Unfortunately, I knew I was in survival mode and just trying to hang on for dear life.

I tried to run as much as I could, but sadly that was very little. Poor Anne didn't even get a workout pacing me. Mostly I was just powerhiking. When I got to Hwy 49, I was in bad shape. Mac said my breathing was out of control. It wasn't asthma, it was just exhaustion. The cooler still had two unopened bottles of frappuccino (we started with four) so I got the impression that the hand held bottles Mac had been giving me before were very watered down with a lot of ice and that I hadn't really had more than two regular bottles. So I downed another bottle because these were the only things I could get down. Well, it turns out Mac was so worried about me that he went to a store in Cool and bought more. What an All-Star! However, I normally lead a decaffeinated life and am very sensitive to caffeine. I often use caffeine in races as a little pick me up, but between the 5 frappuccinos and the 40 or so ounces of soda, I had about three and a half times the amount of caffeine I have ever had on a single day in my entire life! I truly believe that is what caused my stomach to rebel. This was such a stupid mistake because the nausea made it hard to run and it kept me from eating properly and even messed with my electrolyte plan.

Right as we were leaving Hwy 49 Angela Shartel comes in. I cuss under my breath at first, but then I notice she looks really dazed and I can't really begrudge her for moving better than me, especially when I am moving so poorly. So right as we leave I tell her, "Hey, you and I are number 9 and 10. Keep it together for just a little bit longer and we'll get those last top spots."

Time to heed my own advice! I could give up one spot, but how many other women were closing in?? So I ran almost everything to No Hands, pushing as much as I could through the meadow and down the hill which probably means we weren't running faster than 13 minute miles, but it felt insanely hard. We got to No Hands and didn't see Angela. We blew through the Aid Station and started the very gentle uphill to Robie, but nothing uphill felt gentle to me and I had nothing more to give. I had to throw in walk breaks and as we went the breaks got longer and more frequent. About a mile in, Angela and her pacer come jogging by. My pacer starts to run. I jog for two steps, but I know it is futile. "Let her go," I say, "I can't do that pace." A half mile more and we get to the steep uphill. This is the only stuff I like at this point because Western States taught me I am not such a bad power hiker. And so over the last 3/4 mile climb we are gaining on Angela.

Mac met us at Robie Point and he is ready to run and chase down Angela. We are still gaining on the power hike section, but as it flattens she is able to run much more and faster than I am. I just can NOT run anything uphill at this point. I know I am in tenth, with no insurance policy anymore. I just have to get to the finish line. When the road flattens, I tell myself there are no excuses, you have to run everything the last half mile, and even though it is a dreadfully slow shuffle, I do. As I run I am constantly checking my back. At one point two lights come behind us and I freak out a bit. "You're both guys, right?" I ask them. One of them jokes in a fake high voice, "No, we are just masculine women." They say the next woman is close, but probably three or four minutes back. "You've got this," they tell me and I knew they were right. I knew I could run it in to the finish. Of course, that didn't stop me from looking over my shoulder another ten times!

I completed 100 grueling miles in 21:36, for the fastest 10th place time ever (by 31 minutes!). Say what you will about a faster course or moderate temps, but I am choosing to believe this shows the strength of the women's field this year. I am honored and inspired that I got to spend the day running with such amazing ladies and I am super excited that I get to do it again next year!
Pacer Anne, "Pam from Salem," and stud crew Mac
Corvallis trail runners: F2(Meghan Arbogast) and F10! Go Oregon!

I am very pleased with my first running at Western States. I know I made some mistakes and I feel like I gave 9th place away (I had a 22 minute lead at the river), but I did accomplish my two main goals for this year: I went under 21:42 and I got a top 10 spot (skin of my teeth, huh?). I did what I set out to do, but I know there is room for improvement, too.
Montrail Ultra Cup winners (r-l): Meghan Arbogast (1st), Annette Bednosky (2nd), me, Jill Perry (4th, not pictured) and Joelle Vaught (5th)

Another great "prize" - the sign on the door from my 5 year old daughter when I got to my parents'.

Lastly, there are lots of thank you's to give out: to my hubby Mac who was an awesome crew and who put up with my WS insanity for the last 6 months; to my pacers for keeping me moving; to my parents for keeping my kids over the weekend without resorting to TV or junk food - I don't even manage that!; to everyone who offered up kind words and gave me encouragement leading up to the race; to all of the amazing volunteers who completely pampered the runners; and to all the competitors for making this all happen and providing so much inspiration.


Olga said...

You did Oregon proud, Pam! This is a neat progression of the first 6hr run a mere, what, year and half ago? Way to go! Now, next year, what a treat! BTW, I, too, respond with stomach battles on too much coffeine. Congrats. A sweet race it was. And yes, the field of women - and men - was incredible this year.

SteveQ said...

Great race - but how could you run in Oregon and not run in snow?

Pam from Salem IS lame; how about Doc Pam, Dark Horse Extraordinaire?

Now that you have experience on the course, maybe sub-20 next year?

Pam said...

Thanks, guys. Olga, I feel like I learned A LOT this year at WS and I hope it helps for next year.

Steve- OR gets snow in the mtns, but very little at the low elevations. In 2 years, I have only run in snow twice and both times had less than the WS course. I am thinking of pursuing some new hobbies during my recovery so next year I can be like, "Hi, I am knife-thrower Pam" or "Chainsaw juggling Pam." Sub-20 is tough, esp. if it is the slower course or hotter weather, but I will definitely be targeting sub-21.

Anonymous said...

Way to go, Pam from Salem!

Olga is right, it's amazing (at least to me) how fast you've gone from your first six hour race to top 10 at Western States. (As I remember it, you seemed pretty strong at that six-hour race, too... I think you lapped me 10 times over.)

I'm glad you're psyched to go back again next year. Recover well.

Anonymous said...

Awesome run, great story!

"Pam from Salem" is NOT lame. It has worked well in the past.

Mary's Peak offers some good opportunities for running on snow.

John from Corvallis

saschasdad said...

Awesome report, incredible run, Pam from Salem! I knew you were going to rip off a good one.

Cam said he enjoyed running through Volcano with you and that you helped him along through there.

Congratulations, Miss F10!

Andrew is getting fit said...

Reading this was incredibly inspirational and you inspired me to sign up for my first ultra. I've been toying with the idea for a while and it was just the nudge I needed!