Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Western States 100 reflections

It seems to me that after every good race, you have the chance to bathe in your successes for a few days before everything levels out again, and life becomes more normal again.  This seems especially apparent in 100+ miles.  So much time and energy goes into such a feat.  There's no faking 100 miles.  That being said, post Western States has left me not super high, not super low, not too content, but not at all unhappy.  It's that sweet spot where you just roll with the punches, and can hardly look back because you just want to be moving forward.  I think that for me, that is at least partially satisfaction.  And when I stop to really think about it, satisfaction without stagnation is what gets me up everyday, and propels my ambitions, and inspires me to keep on keepin' on.

Just a few short years ago when I became aware of The Western States Endurance Run, there was no way that I could, would, or should run 100 miles in one push.  This race was unreachable, and would only ever be a dream stored in the dark, dusty closet somewhere in the back of my mind.  Isn't it funny how things change?

On one uneventful morning in December my roommate Avery and I were huddled around our electronic devices watching the lotteries for Western States and Hardrock, as I'd only a single ticket with hopes of Western, and Avery had an equally terrible chance at Hardrock Hundred.  The selecting was about three-quarters of the way done, and it was apparent that I'd just have to try again next year. And then I heard music in air.  "From Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Devon Olson".  I was celebrating by the time he finished saying "From Steamboat Springs".  Some things got knocked over, broken, and I almost broke myself in the midst of celebration.  Nothing like a good party!  Perma-smile!

Avery and I packed up my Corolla and left for Tahoe City on Wednesday the 24th, a few or so hours before the sun set.  These long road trips are becoming like clock work for us.  There's definitively an art to traveling efficiently, and safely.  Either way, we were pretty glad to see the "Welcome to California" sign, and feel the relief of almost reaching our destination.  Ultrarunning sometimes requires ultra driving; that is, driving so far that you feel and act like a maniac, but just keep driving anyway.  My friend Dave and I used to take ultra-driving trips, and talk like Irish people for hours just to stay entertained, and awake....then we couldn't stop talking with accents.  Ughhhh, we did it to ourselves.  Good times.
The starting line the day before takeoff
Anywho, the pre-race jitters were as typical as ever.  However, I knew that I was going into this race in great shape, and felt very confident in finishing at the very least.  After all, Western had been in the back of my mind since being selected way back in December.  I'd been fortunate and disciplined enough to run every day the month of May except for two, with a few doubles squeezed in, and even one 3 run day.  It's just that "100 miles is really far".  That's right Karl Meltzer!  "100 miles is not, not that far".  That guy is one of the most badass in the sport, and has the most 100 mile wins, but I still think he's full of shit with the "100 miles is not that far" crap.  A 5k is not far.  For us crazies, a marathon is not far.  But 100 miles....yeah, it's far no matter who you are, no matter where it's located.  When we get that remark we all hate, "I don't even like to drive 100 miles", they're serious!  Driving 100 miles is even far!  Anytime after a run that I don't immediately desire a beer is a good sign that it was really far, or something is terribly wrong.  Western States was no exception.

Day before photo

The 5am start was normal for any ultra, but this particular day was my first ever Western States, and the start line was abnormally dramatic, and intoxicating.  It, at this precise moment became clear how much work, and time had gone into what I was about to endure; mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

As we started off straight up the mountain, then escarpment before the first of many downhills, I did my best to relax, focus on a decent heart rate, and find a groove.  Naturally, I started off in 30th or 40th place, not at all to my surprise.  In the first 20, I had the opportunity to chat with a few people, Anita Ortiz being one.  She was running a pace that seemed very reasonable to me, so we shared a few together while a few scurried past in quite a rush.  Anita was really kind, and humble.  I didn't even realize who she was until after a mile or so!  As it turns out, she won WS in 2009!

Somewhere down the trail I found my groove with my first sights set on Robinson Flat (mile 30), which is the first stop that I'd see my roommate/friend/training partner/crew/pacer Avery.  Already, I was passing a few people, and my legs felt pretty okay.  On the ~5 mile climb up to Robinson, the sun started heating up, and wouldn't let up until dusk.  I rolled into Robinson Flat feeling pretty damn good, and the hundreds of people cheering me on reminded me why Western States is "the big dance".  At this point, I took my shirt off, snagged my Eastern States 100 hat filled with ice, filled my pack with ice, got doused in ice water, and grabbed more gels.  First class service at Western, I must say.  Avery said he made it to the the aid just in time.  Sometimes things just work out!

After leaving Robinson, there is literally a loss of ~3500' in ~20 miles.  And these, these were the miles that left me thinking, "wow, they weren't kidding when they said this course never stops going down!"  On the descent into the canyon before the Devil's Thumb climb, I was amongst Michael Wardian, and a guy named Chris (I think.  We'll call him Chris no matter what).  At the bottom of the canyon, before beginning the ascent, I realized that I'd somehow lost my salt pills, or left them at the last aid station.  "Oh shit, I'm going to cramp all the way up this climb with the way I've been sweating".  Wardian saved my ass, as he carries two bags in every race.  He said that during Olympic Trials one year he ran out, or lost them, and suffered all the way to the finish, so now he always carries two bags.  Same goes for if you have to cross a river, with the chance of them getting wet.  Oh man, between that and observing him throwing his handhelds on his wrist for the climbs, I was like a sponge soaking in wisdom accumulated through years of experience.  That climb to the Devil's Thumb aid (mile 48) was brutal after all that descent.  Between the heat in the canyon, and the hardest climb of the day (in my opinion), all three of us struggled up that climb.  To me, the crazy part was that I lead Mike, and Chris to the top.  At some point my inner dialogue questioned "why are you ahead of Mike Wardian, and this other guy that is clearly a great runner?"  To this I had no explanation, and already didn't feel like thinking any more critically than I had to.  So, I just ate some popsicle, grabbed more ice for my hat and pack, and kept running.

Somehow after Devil's Thumb I managed to pull it together and got the legs moving on the next descent into El Dorado Canyon.  Avery and I had run this section during a training run, so I had a general idea of what to expect.  I pulled away from Mike and Chris on the climb into Michigan Bluff (mile 56), and felt good all the way up.  I cruised into the aid, which would be the first place I'd see my mom and sister.  Avery got me restocked, I changed my socks, and was off.  Again, hundreds of people cheering me on....let's just say the stoke was high.  I would see everyone again at Foresthill in 6 or 7 miles, which is where I'd pick up a pacer, Kyle, who I'd met the day before.  Kyle was in the middle of a Pacific Crest Trail through hike, and had decided to stop in Squaw Valley to check out the race.  We randomly started talking, and before you know it, I had a pacer from Foresthill to Green Gate (62-80) before Avery picked me up at Green Gate.

Rolling into Foresthill (goodness I am demanding)

The journey with Kyle was fairly productive, and fairly consistent.  Kyle did a great job of saying the right things at the right time, and not saying the wrong things.  Being a pacer can be ambiguous work.  Thanks for putting up with me Kyle.

Kyle and I working our way up to Green Gate
Going into the race, one of my main goals was to remain positive, and focus on not letting the negative take over.  Looking back on things a few weeks later, it's apparent that somewhere after 70 miles in is where this became difficult to maintain.  One of my most vivid memories is crossing the American River at 78 miles.  The sun was setting, but it certainly wasn't dark yet.  Somewhere on the descent to the river I'd decided that I would put on a shirt at mile 80, where I'd see my crew again, as it wasn't hot anymore.  An aid station volunteer, a sweet lady only trying to help, dumped ice in my pack right before crossing the river, which left me shivering and frustrated.  She definitely didn't mean any harm, but nonetheless I got cold, and had a self-pity fest from after crossing the river until the next aid only a couple miles away.  Regardless,  I made it to my crew, grabbed a shirt, my headlamp, some gels, then took off for the last 20; 20 of the best and worst miles of my life.

Avery and I about to leave Green Gate (mile 80)

Another major goal of mine going into WS was to have a strong finish, as I still hadn't achieved that in either of the other 2-100's I've completed.  After this one, I think I'm halfway there, but still haven't really nailed it like I have at a few other shorter races.  Looking at it objectively, I had about 10 good/strong miles, and about 10 not so good miles in the last 20.  Swearing at rocks is a good indicator that some negativity has thrust it's way into your sanity.

This video my sister took of Avery and I leaving Green Gate is simply hilarious.  "Dev, you're doing great".  BAM!  Trip over rock.

By Green Gate, I was mostly happy with my performance to that point, and was glad that I'd only have about 15 miles or so in the dark.  Immediately as we left it seemed as if Avery and I were out on a regular training run; chatting, and joking about this and that, and how there were so many good looking girls at this race.  You know, dude stuff.

Leaving Green Gate
He told me that my mom and sister were so proud with what I was doing, and can't believe it.  From the time the gun went off, I knew I could never quit with how far Lindsay and my mom had come to watch me run 100 miles.  Knowing that they were there for me was in the back of my mind the whole time.  For as much as I pick on my mom, she's taught me more about love, patience, and acceptance than anyone.  I still can't believe they flew all the way across the country for my selfish pursuits.  Totally insane.

After departing Green Gate, I'd see my crew one more time at the Highway 49 crossing (mile
93.5) before taking it across No Hands Bridge, climbing up to Robbie Point, then hitting a little over a mile of pavement before running around the Placer High School track to the finish.  However, it wasn't over just yet.

It's crazy how good some of those last miles were, and how absolutely horrible some of them were.  It had gotten to the point where I just wanted to be done, and every time that I stopped at an aid station my legs started tightening up, then I'd have to walk for a minute before being able to resume running. It's so frustrating, really.  I mean, I bet I had a few 7-9 minute miles in there, but also walked down a few hills because my legs were so trashed.  This is what I mean, halfway there.  An improvement for certain, but not perfection.

I must've been out of it at this point because Avery told me I was talking to Hal Koerner at an aid station, and he was filling my bottles.  "Dude, you really didn't notice Hal?  You were talking to him!"  "Nah man, I don't know what you're talking about."  "Wow."

Finally, at some point we reached Highway 49, and I was struggling pretty good, still fighting the battle of staying positive.  After bitching about this, that, and the other thing to Avery out on the trail, and reminding myself where I was, I did my best to fight those demons.  For example, my mom kept telling me to eat at every aid, even after slamming more gels than I'd like to admit.  This eventually made me grumpy.  See for yourself....hahahahah

The last 7 miles from Highway 49 to the finish were tough.  I knew I had basically made it, but had trouble mustering up the will to push hard.  And then, right before Robbie Point at mile 98.9, Mike Wardian goes cruising past me.  I couldn't freaking believe it.  "I thought I lost him miles ago!"  And Avery says, "Let's do this.  How amazing would it be to end your first Western States racing Mike Wardian around the track?"  Without saying anything, I start cranking it down the road, knowing that it was almost over.  I catch up with Mike and his pacer, and he starts sprinting away.  I chase, and end up running one of the fastest miles all day (probably about 6 minutes), in the last mile.  Coming around the track together, I finish less than 20 seconds behind Wardian.  It was pretty sweet  I'll take it.

Finishing my first Western States Endurance Run was one I'll never forget.  19 hours 11 minutes 52 seconds.  This year there were 371 starters, 254 finishers, with a 68.5% finishing rate, much lower than most years-not sure why.  To be blunt, my first go at the most prestigious, historic, and competitive 100 miler in the world was more than I could have asked for.  Sure, I want to eventually go back for a spot in the top ten, but overall I'm ecstatic placing 23rd overall, with Magdalena Boulet being the only woman to "chick me", running a 19:05.  It was an emotional finish, and I'm so grateful that I had some of my family, and my training partner Avery to share it with.

It's finally over

Thanks to all the first class volunteers, with first class aid stations for kicking so much ass.  Special thanks to those that laughed at my bad jokes, and cheesy sarcasm.  Thanks to Gordy Ainsleigh for believing that it was possible to traverse the Western States trail on foot in a day.  Thanks to all my family, especially my parents, and siblings.  Thanks to Kyle for pacing me on a whim for 18.  Thanks to all my friends near and far for all the encouragement.  Thanks Avery, who not only kicked ass for me all day, but also joined me in plenty of tough miles these past few months.  Lastly, my sister Lindsay and my mom Debbie came all the way from D.C. and Pennsylvania because they knew how much this race meant to me.  More than anything that happened the entire trip, the best part was getting to spend time with them.  Now that I've run away to Colorado, seeing my family has become much more of a challenge.  Though it was the best decision I've ever made, it still sucks being so far away.  I still haven't found the words to express my gratitude, as a simple "thank you" doesn't carry that kind of weight.  Anyways, it's so incredibly heartfelt, and rad that they showed up.  I couldn't have done it without them.  

Here are some photos from the trip (post-race)!

The crew on Lake Tahoe

Mum is ripping it up on Tahoe

You see this chest hair?  That's right...I'm so manly.

Avery, Mum, me

Lindsay and I

That's a good bench, right there

Lindsay and Mum