Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lyons Ridge to Red Star Ridge (Miles 10.5 to 16.0) (174 Days to go)

In honor of the donations to my Wounded Warrior Project fundraising page, our course tour continues! Thanks to Chad Gruett, Bill Gahwyler, Blake Whitney, Sara Finan Melly, Andrew Kirk, Rob McColgan, and Phil Erwin whose donations marked the miles of second stage, from Escarpment to Lyons Ridge, in my December 22nd post. A special note of thanks to Phil for his service, and recognition to Sara's brother Matt, who is Army ROTC, and the men and women of the 260th Air Traffic Control Squadron, 157th Air Refueling Wing, out of Pease, NH, for whom Phil asked me to dedicate a mile.

For the third stage, thanks to Lisa and Joe Wenderoth, Durgesh Mankekar, Crystal Johnson, Heather Danielson, Eamon O'Keefe, and Meghan Rhatigan for their support of the Wounded Warrior Project. A special note of thanks to Meghan's father William, who served in the Marines, and brother Tim, who serves in the Navy.

The third stage of the Western States course takes runners from the Lyons Ridge aid station at Mile 10 1/2 to the Red Star Ridge aid station at Mile 16. This portion of the course involves a lot of ridge running along a rocky dirt path.

It's a series of ups and downs, none too severe...or so it looks--what do I know? I've never run this section of the course! It's consistently in the mid-7000s of elevation.

That doesn't mean there aren't sizable "hills." We call these mountains in Missouri. As you can see from the photos, there will likely be some snow along this stretch, too.

It also ensures some spectacular views.

The one thing I've noticed in reviewing the course photos is that there are a lot of trees along this stretch, but not much shade. The sun will still be low in the sky, but it's apparent that this is the beginning of the sun-filled day runners have ahead of them. The canyons ahead soon will reach 100 degrees.

The Red Star aid station is a welcome sight for some runners, as it is the first of eleven drop stations, where runners can have access to bags they have pre-packed and provided to race officials before the starting gun is fired.
Runners might place a change of clothes, special race supplies like a particular brand of energy gel or Bodyglide, flashlights (when night approaches), a change of socks or shoes, or whatever else mgiht fight in a 16" long bag that must fit through a 6" x 8" opening. Surprisingly, it is not usually too difficult to locate a drop bag, though bright colors make it even easier to find with ever-wearying eyes.

The lead runners will enter Red Star Ridge around 7:25 a.m., 2 hours 25 minutes after the race started. 24 hour runners will follow almost an hour later at 8:20, and 30 hour runners will arrive at 9:10 a.m. The aid station, like its predecessor at Lyons Ridge, closes at 10:00 a.m. Only 84 miles to go!

I hired a coach. (179 days to go)

I started my life as a born-again runner with a New Year's resolution made on December 31, 2004: I was going to run the 2005 Chicago Marathon. I had no idea how to do such a thing, so I turned to a friend who had run 2 marathons and asked her where to start. She gave me the name Hal Higdon. I visited Mr. Higdon's website, pulled up a free training plan, and the rest, as they say, is history. I've used some variation of a Higdon plan for all of my marathon training, though in recent years I've relied more on the principles than the plan as I've gained knowledge into the sport and my body. In 6 years, I've lost 25 pounds (okay, that weight came off pretty easy once I started running 20 mile long runs in the St. Louis humidity) and cut 35 minutes off my marathon time in Coach Hal's virtual hands.

Coach Hal doesn't have any 100 mile plans. Therefore, I started looking for a coach that did. I found him in Idaho, of all places.

Photo from http://ajwsblog.blogspot.com/

Andy Jones-Wilkins is a school headmaster who leads a double life as an elite ultrarunner. He started running ultras in 1996 and ran his first 100 miler in 2000. Since then, he's run 25 hundreds, including seven straight Western States 100s. He has six Top Ten finishes at Western States, including a second place finish in 2005. His course PR is 17:07, and many call him the unofficial race historian. He is a member of the Montrail-Newton Ultrarunning team, and he is accomplished enough in the ultrarunning community to have his own wikipedia page! (Okay, that last bit was just amusing to me!)

He runs about 130 miles/week, including hills, track workouts (including my preferred sets of 800s), and back-to-back long runs on the weekends totaling 60 to 70 miles. From what I can tell, we share a love of post-race burgers and beer. In viewing pictures of him running, he seems to always have a smile on his face. I like that.

In this 21st century, most of his instruction will come via email. We've also exchanged phone numbers, and we'll chat from time to time. I also plan to attend the WS100 training camp over Memorial Day, where I'll have a chance to sit down with Andy to map out a gameplan. We'll have one final prep session in person in the days leading up to the race. I am looking forward to tapping into his knowledge of the course, training, nutrition, and all the little logistical things a first-timer wouldn't know about Western States.

AJW told me there were three keys to training for this race: speed, strength, and endurance. I've got two of three, for the most part, and he'll help me develop my endurance. This won't be easy, but it will surely be fun.

Here's his bio.
Here's a link to an interview with AJW in Running Times magazine.
Here's a link to his fantastic blog.
Here's another interview with Andy.
Here's his wikipedia page.
And it wouldn't be complete without a link to a video interview of him from the 2010 WS100.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A reminder of why I'm running for the Wounded Warrior Project (181 days to go)

My training will start in earnest next week, with the start of the new year...and I'm excited to report that I've identified and will hire a coach this week! With the holidays and my sore back, I've taken it easy with the training. That will soon change.

I wanted to share an article that ran in my local newspaper on reprint from the New York Times. A baseball legend, Bob Feller, died two weeks ago. Feller won 266 games over a long MLB career...but most amazingly, he served his country proudly in the Navy for 3 1/2 years in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. There was no requirement for him to do so--he would have had an exemption on account of a sick father--but he knew he had to. An amazing lesson for us all.

On reprint from the Post-Dispatch via the New York Times:

In 2006, Alan Schwarz interviewed Bob Feller for a chapter in his book "Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories." They collaborated on this essay, in which Feller, nicknamed "Rapid Robert" for his fastball, reflected on his decision to enlist in the Navy during World War II and miss almost four seasons of major league baseball. Feller died on Wednesday at age 92.

I was driving my new Buick Century across the Mississippi River, across the Iowa-Illinois state line, when my world — everyone's world — changed forever.

It was Dec. 7, 1941. I was driving to my meeting with my Cleveland Indians bosses to hash out my 1942 contract, and out it came on the radio: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

The last thing on my mind right then was playing baseball. I immediately decided to enlist in the United States Navy. I didn't have to — I was 23 and strong-bodied, you bet, but with my father terminally ill back in Van Meter, Iowa, I was exempt from military service.

It didn't matter to me — I wanted to join the fight against Hitler and the Japanese. We were losing that war and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back. People today don't understand, but that's the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting. So on Dec. 9, I gave up the chance to earn $100,000 with the Indians and became the first professional athlete to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor.

It was one of the greatest experiences in my life. You can talk about teamwork on a baseball team, but I'll tell you, it takes teamwork when you have 2,900 men stationed on the USS Alabama in the South Pacific. I was a chief petty officer. I helped give exercises and ran the baseball team and recreation when we were in port. But I was also a gun captain — I was firing a 40-millimeter quad at eight rounds per second.

The Alabama was involved in one of the most important battles of the Pacific. In June 1944, we were supposed to shell the beaches of Saipan for two hours so that our Marines could land safely. The Japanese tried a surprise attack — but we were ready. The U.S. Navy and Air Force, we had all the big carriers and battleships like the Iowa, the Wisconsin, the New Jersey, the Alabama, you name it, we had them all. Our pilots and gunners shot down 474 Japanese aircraft, sunk three of their carriers and got several of their escort ships. And when the sun went down that night, it was the end of the Japanese naval air force. We made it look so easy, ever since they've called it the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

We were involved in so many other important engagements, including some in the north Atlantic over in Europe. Our ship won nine battle stars, eight of them while I was on it. It was an incredible time for all of us.

I went on inactive duty in August 1945, and since I had stayed in such good shape, and had played ball on military teams, I was ready to start for the Indians just two days later, against the Tigers. More than 47,000 people came to see me return — there was such a patriotic feeling, with V-J day so fresh in everyone's minds. Even though I hadn't pitched in the major leagues in almost four years, I struck out the first batter. I wound up throwing a four-hitter and winning 4-2.

What a great night — I kept it up the rest of the season, too, and then had what many people call my best season in 1946, when I won 26 games with 348 strikeouts.

A lot of folks say that had I not missed those almost four seasons to World War II — during what was probably my physical prime — I might have had 370 or even 400 wins. But I have no regrets. None at all. I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need. The world's time of need.

I knew then, and I know today, that winning World War II was the most important thing to happen to this country in the last 100 years. I'm just glad I was a part of it. I was only a gun captain on the battleship Alabama for 34 months. People have called me a hero for that, but I'll tell you this — heroes don't come home. Survivors come home.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!...and only 182 days to go!

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you have all had a wonderful holiday weekend surrounded by family and friends. If you're lucky, like me, maybe you even got a run in while snow fell all around you!

I'm actually battling back from a back injury that has kept my mileage down for the last 10 days. I stepped outside for a run last Wednesday, and on my first step onto the driveway slid all the way to the bottom due to the freezing rain. I climbed back up to my garage on the grass, drove to the gym, and knocked out a few miles on the indoor track. The gym had salted the sidewalks when I left, but they didn't salt the parking lot. One step down, and my legs flipped up above me, causing me to land hard on the curb with my back. It's been 10 days, and I'm struggling to run. Be careful out there!

I wanted to share two photos of my favorite presents from Christmas. Beth and the baby gave me these two onesies for the baby...I guess it's official: my unborn child will be a runner...and a member of my WS Crew!

During this holiday season, please remember our men and women serving in the military who can't be with their families at this time. If you could, please support my Wounded Warrior Project fundraising efforts by making a donation to help our wounded veterans. Thank you--and Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Escarpment to Lyons Ridge (Miles 3.5 to 10.5)...185 days to go!

I promised I'd provide a course tour that mirrored the donations I've received to the Wounded Warrior Project, but thanks to the generosity of so many of you, I'm about 20 miles behind! That's right--we've raised $2,350 toward my $10,000 goal in a little over two weeks. I can't thank you enough...but given how much farther I have to go to reach my goal, I also welcome your donations to the link posted above or along the right side of the blog! Today's post will feature the second stage of the Western States 100 race.

They don't match up, but the image on the right shows the eastern half of this stage, while the image on the left shows the western half.

This second stage, from Escarpment to Lyons Ridge, is the second longest stage of the day, at seven miles. Only the fourth stage, from Miles 16.0 to 23.8, is longer.

We'll climb about six hundred feet from the first aid station at Escarpment to an elevation exceeding 8700 feet. This is the highest elevation we'll reach all day. At the peak, a look to the west will reveal the next thirty miles of the course ahead of us.

Make no mistake, however...this seven mile section involves the first serious bout of downhill running, a chance to destroy the quads just two hours into the race. Just like the Boston Marathon, it's the uphills that get the publicity...but the downhills that do a runner in in the end.

This stage is a ridge-running section, full of single track dirt paths through expanses of tree-less land. Because we're in the highlands, we'll probably have to combat sections of snow, despite it being June 25th. As you can see in the video below, some years are worse than others! 2010 was so snowy that runners were diverted off the normal course about 1 1/2 miles from the Lyons Ridge aid station for the next 15 miles to avoid the deepest snow. This detour led runners to a flatter, faster course, and no doubt contributed to the record-shattering performances of the race leaders.

Dropping a net 1700 feet over 6 1/2 miles from the peak of Escarpment, the Lyons Ridge aid station sits at approximately 7,000 feet of elevation. The leaders will arrive at this, the second aid station, about 1 hour 35 minutes into the race. They'll have run 10 1/2 miles. Those chasing silver belt buckles will arrive 35 minutes later, at 7:10 a.m. A 30 hour runner should arive by 7:40 a.m. The Lyons Ridge aid station doesn't close until 10 a.m., but those arriving at aid station close will already have missed the closing of the next aid station at Mile 16. Runners departing Lyons Ridge have 89.7 miles until the finish line!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Run 100 miles or give birth? Where are my shoes? (and 186 days to go!)

Because my timing is impeccable, I'll become a father four months before I run Western States 100. In other words, when I should be changing diapers or giving Beth a break from her 24/7 existence in the baby's world during her maternity leave, I'll actually be out in the middle of the woods running by myself...six or seven hours at a time. And they said I'd have to cut back on my running once we had kids! I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I married a saint.

One of the joys of preparation for parenthood is spending the better part of one or two weekends in a hospital conference room learning about childbirth. I've got twelve hours under my belt so far. This mostly has involved listening to stressed-out mothers-to-be rant about their doctors (please be quiet and just find a new one, ma'am, so we can go home on time), rubbing Beth's shoulders in some sort of practice for the big day, and watching absolutely disgusting...I mean informative...videos. How much money they had to offer these women for the film rights? Do you get an imdb page if you star in the hospital birthing movie?

This past Saturday's class was on natural childbirth. I'll never know firsthand, but apparently natural childbirth hurts...a lot. No wonder everyone's always begging for the epidural! Our instructor tried to explain contractions by drawing a series of parabolae on a whiteboard, a diagram that explained the rise and fall of the pain. It reminded me of the ebbs and flows an ultra runner experiences...miles where everything feels great, followed by slow, painful, foot-dragging canyons. My friend Jay even witnessed one WS100 runner awaken from a two hour nap under piles of blankets at an aid station, only to start knocking out 9 minute miles on his way to a 27 hour finish, his first in five tries.

Our instructor encouraged the use of certain techniques to battle through the peak birthing pains, which she tried to imitate by making us squeeze ice for one minute...over and over and over. As we made our way through the various techniques, it hit Beth and me: we use these techniques all the time when we run! All of the techniques taught were variations of dissociation, or self-distraction from the task (read: pain) at hand. They're helpful for a mother in labor, and they've been helpful in my past races, including many of my marathons and last summer's ultra.

The first drill focused on our hearing. She played some music that sounded like a bunch of xylophones being played over a leaky faucet. We were supposed to focus on the sounds or something. Imagine popping the earbuds of your iPod in as you head out the door for a run! It's not a technique I use in my running, but anyone lucky enough to own Apple stock back in 2002 knows that the iPod is the ultimate dissociative tool! I might have to pack one just to be safe.

She then turned to speech, encouraging the use of a mantra. One expecting mother repeated, "They do this in huts every day!" as her inspiration, thinking of the millions born without the luxury of an anesthesiologist or even an endless supply of Gatorade (perhaps my favorite part of our hospital!). I ufrequently use a mantra on race day. My favorite is the repeated recitation of the Notre Dame Victory March ("Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame"). I also say Hail Marys, calling on a higher power to see through to the finish line. My running friends and I have adopted "HTFU" (Harden the ___ Up") as a quick hit motivator. Another friend, as he slogged through blisters and pain of an Ironman, repeated a phrase that might just come in handy at Western States: "Get comfortable with being uncomfortable." I have no doubt I will in the canyons of the Sierra Mountains.

Finally, the instructor suggested the use of quick visual hits around the room, identifying whatever came into view. Door. Chair. Tree. Nurse. Jerk. (Who am I kidding? That's what Beth will be thinking when she looks at me!) I've used this technique in a lot of road marathons, scanning the crowd of runners and spectators ahead of me, focusing on what is ahead rather than the synapses trying to tell my brain to shut things down so the pain will end. I'm not sure this technique will be helpful in a trail race like Western States, because so much focus must be paid to the rocky, rutty terrain directly in front of me, and a good portion of the race will be run at night under the light of a headlamp. I'll keep it in my back pocket, just in case.

I never would have guessed that a doula would serve as my first coach for this journey! I'm expecting my share of pain when I run this race...but if billions of women have withstood the pain of childbirth, surely I can withstand blisters and leg cramps...right?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I need to catch up on my course tour...192 days to go!

I'm writing a quick update to express my gratitude to so many who have made pledges to the Wounded Warrior Project. I set a huge fundraising goal, not because I had to, but because I wanted to...and I'm humbled by the support of so many--old and new friends, family, and even a couple folks I've never even had the pleasure of meeting. Today marks a milestone: fundraising crossed the $2000 mark! I've got nearly 17 miles of Western States course to research to match the progress made toward my fundraising goal of $100 per mile for the 100 mile course. Thank you!

In honor of this achievement, I wanted to share one facet of the WWP: a focus on the mind. The WWP website states:

We envision a generation of wounded warriors well-adjusted in mind, receiving support to overcome the challenges in readjustment. Through WWP's Family Support and Combat Stress Recovery Programs, warriors are given the tools to pursue their life goals without the barriers or stigmas associated with mental or physical health issues.

WWP organizes caregiver retreats for those tasked with assisting wounded warriors in rehabilitation. They provide mental health resources, with a particular focus on PTSD, to wounded warriors at key stages in their recovery. Many are available online, and all focus on reducing the stigma attached to mental health issues. They offer an exclusive online community for wounded warriors and their family to support each other. This, in particular, resonates with me, as I've turned to an online community at Runners World Online to support me in my running hobby. I've seen huge strides in my abilities and developed life-long friendships, all at a keyboard and monitor. They also organize
Project Odyssey, an outdoor rehabilitative retreat that combines adventure challenges with opportunities for peer support and group processing, to support warriors in their recovery from combat stress. Many of the retreats take place in national parks across the country, and all offer exciting outdoor challenges like rock climbing, cattle drives, and more, along with the fellowship that comes from any retreat setting. Read more about Project Odyssey here.

These are just a few of the programs offered by WWP in support of these heroes' minds. My journey to Western States, while long, grueling, and time-consuming, is nothing like the journey on which these men and women embark when they return to civilian life after being wounded in combat. In honor of my 100 mile run in June in support of the Wounded Warrior Project, I'd ask you to consider making a donation to this cause.
Thank you!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Western States 2010 "Pace Report"....193 days to go.

We had a busy weekend...a muddy trail race on Saturday, dinner with friends, and then an all-day birth class on Sunday. I'm still playing catch-up at work, and it's Tuesday. Therefore, I thought it'd be a good time to share my "pace report" from the Western States 2010 race. I first published this on the Runners World Online forums shortly after the race. Nearly 7 months later, and I'm proud to say that Fernando was one of the first people I emailed about my entry into WS100. I also asked the race director to assign me his bib number (189) in this year's race. I hope you enjoy this report from the final 38.2 miles of the course as much as I enjoyed running it...and writing it, too! It's certainly interesting to review again now that I'm officially an ultrarunner...and an entrant into this great race!

Who is Fernando Fernandes?

Two weeks ago, I had never heard the name. Thirty-eight miles later, I know so much more:
He is a former cruise ship waiter, having spent 11 years waiting on American tourists throughout the Caribbean.

He is a farmer in his native Faro, Portugal, where he raises wheat, oats, and sheep.

He is a bit of a potty mouth, with two of his favorite English words making George Carlin’s famous “dirty words list.”

He is a runner, having run the Seville Marathon in 2:43 and earning a silver medal in his second Comrades Marathon, covering that famed 56 mile course in 7:19, all only three years since he first took to the roads.

Who is Fernando Fernandes?

Oh, he is a sandbagger. We definitely have that in common.

On June 14, I saw a post on the Western States Facebook page that runners still needed pacers for the famed ultramarathon race 12 days later. I knew I had to go. With the blessing of my amazing better half, two years’ worth of credit card points, and a little bit of cash, I booked a flight to San Jose and arranged for a ride to the start with my friend and fellow pacer Jay (aka Bird), a fellow runner who lives in nearby Santa Cruz.

One problem: I still needed someone to pace. I went to the Western States website and perused the listings. Who would want to run with a trail novice with no ultra experience? Even worse, I perhaps not-so-secretly hoped to find someone reasonably fast. Finishing this race is an admirable goal, and certainly never a given for any runner from elite to back of the packer, but I really wanted to run, not hike, my 38 miles. My preferred runner was someone chasing the famous silver belt buckle awarded to those runners who could cover the 100 mile course through the Sierra Mountains in less than 24 hours. I had two motives there: such a runner would be running fast enough to give me a good long run and also would allow me to make it back to San Jose in time to catch my mid-afternoon flight on Sunday. As I scanned the list of runners seeking a volunteer pacer, there he was: Fernando Fernandes, 48, Faro, Portugal. He wanted to go sub-24. He didn’t have a pacer. He didn’t even have a crew. We were a perfect match.

Another problem: Fernando’s first email mentioned a bum ankle injured on a training run in the weeks after he ran Comrades. He said he’d be okay to go on race day. By his third email, a few days later, his ankle was fine, but his knee was bothering him. He tried to run a few miles only one week before the race and had to cut the run short. The thought occurred to me then: Fernando was a fellow sandbagger.

Saturday morning arrived. Bird and I woke up to a 9 a.m. alarm, and the first words out of my mouth were “They’ve been running for four hours already.” After watching the soccer game with a member of Bird’s runner’s crew in Auburn, we drove 17 miles down the road to Foresthill, Mile 62 on the course. We were able to watch the leaders come through the aid station there, and it was amazing to see these guys in good spirits and running at a decent, if not marathon fast, clip. There was even a lead change in the aid station. The entire place had a carnival atmosphere—family, friends, and fans coming together to cheer for every single runner who passed through the aid station. After a couple hours, Bird was off with his runner around 4:45, and I was left waiting.

I’d been tracking Fernando on my phone, and he’d come out of the gate in Squaw Valley fast, checking in at Mile 20 in 56th place. By Mile 47, he had fallen to 109th. He entered Foresthill in 135th place, his lowest position of the day, having been stopped at two aid stations for 15 and 17 minutes, respectively, because he’d lost too much weight in the sun, heat, and steep climbs of the Sierra Mountain canyons. The good news? He still was on pace for a 24 hour finish. The bad news? My cheat sheet told me that he was no more than 1-2 minutes ahead of that pace, and he had been bleeding time for 40 miles. Beth later told me that he was 15 minutes ahead of the pace, but the signs in the aid station didn’t lie: the departure mark for a 24 hour finish was 6:45. I figured there was no way we’d be done by 5 a.m. the next morning.

Sometime shortly before 6:45, Fernando emerged from the trail in his red “Portugal” shirt. I immediately shouted, “Fernando!” to him, and he raised his arms and cheered, “Chad!” We met him about 200 meters above the aid station and jogged in to the scale station. He passed his weigh-in, barely, and the medical volunteer warned me that he would need to eat and drink quite a bit from now on since he’d already lost 4 of his 127 pounds. I promised I’d take good care of him, and we slid down to the food and drinks. A few minutes later, we ran together out of the aid station, and civilization, for the rest of the night. The next town we’d enter was Auburn, 38 miles down the trail.

“Ice cream”--Foresthill to Dardanelles (62.0 to 65.7)

The first 3/4s of a mile are run on the road. Fernando and I ran side-by-side so we could talk for a few minutes about our strategy. I asked him how he was feeling (not great), how his knee was (sore), and where he wanted me to run (he wasn’t sure if he wanted me to lead him or run behind him). All of a sudden, I heard a spectator yell at us, “LEFT TURN!” I realized that we’d just missed our first turn, onto the trail, and were about to head down the road and off the course. My first turn as a pacer, and I’d missed it! I hoped it wasn’t a sign of what was to come in the dead of the night as we wandered through the mountains.

Fernando and I hit the dirt trail as the sun was falling lower in the sky. The first few miles were largely downhill, and we leapfrogged back and forth with a few pairs of runners. To our left was a spectacular view of the canyons and the American River far below us. In the distance, I could see the snow-capped mountains not far from where Fernando started running. It was breathtaking.

Fernando caught me up on how his morning and afternoon had gone. His description of the earlier canyons, known as some of the most challenging trails in the sport, were profanity-laced. He described how he came to one of the several scale stations set up along the course to ensure that runners were not losing too much weight and failed his weigh-in. He was led to a chair, where he excitedly shared that a volunteer brought him ice cream. Before we knew it, we reached the first aid station of my run, smack dab in the middle of a small clearing on the mountainside. There was little room to move, and dozens of runners and volunteers weaved in and out of each other’s way. A volunteer met us at the entrance and asked us what we needed. Fernando handed me his water bottle and asked me to have it filled with some Coca-Cola. I relayed the request to the volunteer, who seemed as surprised as me to be asked to fill an entire bottle with Coca-Cola. Fernando dove into the spread set out on a table, devouring some of the treats. Within 4 minutes, we were out of the station.

“I hate Coca-Cola”--Dardanelles to Peachstone (65.7 to 70.7) (8:35 pm arrival)

The second leg of our run was filled with ups and downs. Fernando made it clear that he was most comfortable running in front of me, so he could run the pace that is comfortable and rely on me to tell him how he was doing compared to the 24 hour pacing charts posted at the every station. As we climbed up and down the trail, the sun disappeared behind the mountains, illuminating the trees with an orange glow. At one point, Fernando pulled his water bottle out of his belt pack, took a big swig, and spit the drink out. “I f’in’ hate Coca-Cola,” he said, using the unabbreviated adverb. I made a mental note not to let him fill the bottle with Coke again, but realized that, even in his exhaustion, he probably wouldn’t forget this. After just under two hours of running together, we left the second aid station and started a steep decline into the canyon. We were still on pace, even having banked a few minutes. Fernando was in 120th place.

“The Scare”--Peachstone to Ford’s Bar (70.7 to 73.0)

The next segment of running was short, and the sunlight disappeared entirely. I pulled out my headlamp, and because Fernando’s headlamp was in a drop bag on the other side of the river ahead on the course, he relied on my light to see the path. Most of the trail in here was dirt, but occasionally we’d come upon some rocks. Like earlier, one footing slip could have sent us falling down the mountain into the rocks lining the river banks below. We continued our practice of walking the uphills and running the flats and downhills. Fernando was hurting, but he was in good spirits. He told me a funny story I won’t relay here to protect the innocent, but let’s just say that someone in his past who gave him a little scare. Needless to say, and to answer the question I’d asked him, he remains a bachelor without children at the age of 48. (Interesting note I can share now: Fernando was the first person in the world that I told about our pregnancy. I figured our secret was safe with him!)

At the Ford’s Bar aid station, exhausted, he made a new food request: chicken broth. Little did I know what this would do to him!

“Beep beep beep”--Ford’s Bar to Rucky Chucky East (73.0 to 78.0) (10:17 pm arrival)

We had entered the Ford’s Bar aid station having just passed a series of runners. They all left the aid station in front of us because Fernando plopped himself in a chair and refused to budge. Therefore, we knew there would be backlog of runners ahead of us approaching the American River crossing five miles down the road. In normal years, this would not have mattered, as the runners all just ford the river themselves, wet shoes and socks be damned. This year, because of a late snow fall over Memorial Day weekend, the river was higher and colder than was safe for us, so two rafts would transport runners across the 20-30 yard wide river. The race director had warned the runners in the pre-race meeting that patience would be required if a line formed. Fernando didn’t want to wait, so he turned to me and said, “We need to pass all of those people.” I wondered how that was going to happen. And then, just as quickly as he drank his chicken broth, he started running. Fast, at least fast for a guy who had already run 74 miles that day. We went from 13-14 minute miles to 10-11 minute miles. The slow shuffling and walking were over. We were going to run.

After asking me how much farther we had to go, Fernando was relieved to think of what was still to come as “only a marathon.” Because the sun had gone down, we could see the LED lights of other runners ahead of us through the woods when we might not otherwise have been able to tell where they were. One by one, we picked them off. Fernando, in all of his enthusiasm, shouted, “BEEP BEEP BEEP” as we approached each runner. Most got out of the way. The rest can probably still hear him beeping repeatedly at them. At 10:17 pm, we made our arrival to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. We stopped briefly for an energy drink, then climbed down the rocks to the river banks, where volunteers outfitted us in life preservers and, because we arrived ahead of a dozen or more competitors, ushered us into a raft all to ourselves.

As we crossed the river, I looked over the side of the raft into the river, my LED light piercing the river and lighting up the crystal clear water so well that I could see the rocks below us. Fernando was in 110th place.

“Gu…and a familiar face”--Rucky Chucky West to Green Gate (78.0 to 79.8) (10:55 pm arrival)

Within a minute, we exited on the other side of the river. Fernando picked up his headlamp and a flashlight at the drop station, and we started our steep climb back out of the aid station on a wide gravel road. Fernando, like most ultra runners, had decided that moving forward on the uphills was more important than moving fast, so we walked this stretch of the road. Walked is probably too strong of a word. We crawled up this stretch. It was painful for me to walk this slowly, but after nearly 80 miles, it definitely hurt Fernando even more, and the raft ride had left his muscles tight. The enthusiasm he had shown less than 30 minutes earlier had disappeared. He was beaten down and left to ramble at a 21 minute pace up the hill. This stretch was accessible to the runners’ crews, and school children who had walked to the river to watch their parents cross it passed us on the uphill. I tried to motivate him. He wanted nothing to do with it. At one point, he mumbled, “Gu. Gu.” I knew he had taken one on the downhill heading to the river, and I was surprised he already wanted another one. I asked him if he wanted a Gu, as I knew he had put one in his pack at the previous station and perhaps he had forgotten about it. “No. No Gu. This Gu is sheet.” Say it with a Portuguese accent, and you’ll realize that the Gu was not sitting well in his stomach.

We finally arrived just before 11 pm at the Green Gate station, a large, festive station at the top of our 700 foot climb. I’m pretty sure this was the penultimate scale weigh-in, though it may have happened at the next aid station. Fernando again was very close to failing the weight test. Fortunately, I mentioned to the medical volunteer that he had just urinated on the uphill walk (he had) and that he was taking his fluids and food seriously at each station. As we had approached the station, he was very cognizant of the scales and finished his entire water bottle of fluids. After passing this test, Fernando sat down in a chair, having asked a volunteer again for soup broth and a refilled water bottle (this time, like every other one after the Coke incident, with water). I headed to the spread in search of some potatoes and watermelon…the things that sound good when you’re hungry. It was here that I saw my friend Jay. He’d dropped his first runner off at the station with a fresh pacer and had been hanging around for hours waiting for a new runner to pace. The only candidate? Wrapped in a blanket fast asleep in a lawn chair. Amazing, the runner later came to life again after four hours of rest, and Jay paced him to the finish that morning. I asked Jay to snap a photo of Fernando and me with his camera, since it was a digital and I only had a disposable, and we pledged to see each other at the finish line in the morning. Fernando was in 113th place.

“Essay”--Green Gate to Auburn Lake Trails (79.8 to 85.2) (12:17 am arrival)

This next stretch really disappeared into the woods. It was filled with gentle rolling hills, and we were able to get into a good rhythm of running again. Fernando felt much better. Somewhere in here we both turned our ankles, though neither bad enough to stop for more than a few seconds. The full moon overhead was worthless during this stretch, as the trees formed a canopy overhead. My Garmin report shows an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet, but we were able to keep our pace steady and pass several runners. Fernando once again seemed to respond to the carrot of passing the headlamps we could see in the distance in front of us, and there was a return of the “beep beep beeps” in this stretch. We entered the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, and Fernando again took a seat. I went to get him some potatoes as a volunteer refilled our water bottles. As I did so, I heard him shout out what sounded like “Essay.” And again. And again. I turned to him and asked him what he needed. “Essay.” I finished up at the table and hustled the five feet back to him.


“Essay!” This time with hand gestures.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you need, Fernando.” By now we’d attracted the attention of the volunteers. One of them got another’s attention and waved him over, telling him he needed a Spanish translator.

I interrupted, “But he speaks Portuguese, and until now, we were doing just fine in English.” No matter.


Fernando laughed. “Espanol. Francais. Englese. Italiano. Portuguese.”

The volunteer laughed. “Well, at least he’s got a sense of humor.” I assured him that was definitely the case.

And then out of nowhere, “S-cap.”

AHHHHH. He wanted a sodium capsule. I’d seen him take one earlier in the race, but I didn’t know at the time what it was. I’d asked someone else about it at a later station, but had forgotten what it was called. Armed with an s-cap in his stomach, Fernando was ready to hit the trails again. It was approaching 12:30 in the morning. Fernando was in 101st place.

“Thong Don”--Auburn Lake Trails to Browns Bar (85.2 to 89.9) (1:28 am arrival)

The next stretch of trail probably would have matched the views of my first miles, if we had any sunlight. We weaved around a canyon with such tight turns that you could see headlamps illuminated on the other side for almost the entire segment. The full moon really lit up the mountains around us, and it was absolutely gorgeous. Fernando was growing more and more energetic as we advanced toward the finish line. I made it a point to compliment him for his toughness and ability to find a pace and go. It occurred to me that he had not complained about his knee since our first ½ mile together, and other than a few complaints about blisters that required some Vaseline at one aid station, he really didn’t complain about any pains at all. Not bad for nearly 90 miles. We again took to passing people. Some were folks we’d leapfrogged with several times. Many welcomed Fernando like an old friend with a “Portugal” cheer. It was a race, but we were all in this together.

One of the more bizarre moments of our run occurred in this segment, and I’ll chalk it up to the onset of exhaustion and delirium combined with some cultural and language barriers. Out of nowhere, as I trailed a few feet behind Fernando, he turned around to me and said, unprovoked, what I heard as “Thong don.” Okay…here we go again.

“What?” “Thong don.” “Thong don?” “No, thong don.” “I don’t understand.” “Thong don…in my pack.”

Now I’m really confused.

“What is it? Do you need it?” “No. [I’ll now edit this to something I can post here…] It’s like what a woman needs when you are with her.” “A thong? Like underwear?” “No. You put it on the man before the sex.” “A condom?” “Yes!”

If I was confused before, I’m now lost.

“What about a condom?” That’s what I said. What I was thinking was why we would need one in the middle of nowhere, at night, in an ultramarathon.

“You can use it like a child on a drink.”

I politely nodded, imaging Fernando at an aid station breaking out a Trojan to use as a lid to ensure that he doesn’t spill his Gu2O. I thought it better to change the subject.

“So…how are you feeling? Is this pace good?”

Thankfully, I was soon saved by the sound of music. The infamous Brown’s Bar aid station was approaching, and I’d heard it was a party. We approached their Christmas light-lit station, where the men were dressed in costume dresses and Jim Morrison blasted into the night, and I made sure that Fernando found a volunteer to assist him because I was on a mission.
Oh yeah, and Fernando was now in 94th place. That belt buckle was in reach.

“An adult beverage”--Browns Bar to Highway 49 Crossing (89.9 to 93.5) (2:29 am arrival)

One of the cross dressers approached me. “Having a good night?”

“Absolutely. I’ve heard about you guys. Folks said it was crazy back here, that you had to haul all of this stuff five miles down the trail…but that if I asked, I just might find myself with an adult beverage.”

“Hefe or IPA?”

“It doesn’t matter, but IPA if you’ve got it.” And that’s how I ended up toasting a beer with a man wearing Raggedy Ann pigtails and a red dress five miles deep in the wood at 2:30 in the morning.

Fernando was more interested in soup broth. He drank several cups, in preparation for the 10 miles still to come. When we left the party station, he turned to me with a smile and said, “I think we’re going to do it.” He was partly right—he was going to do it. I was just the pacer. We had built a 30 plus minute buffer, and we only had 10 miles to go. Fernando said in a cocky fashion, “We could walk this.” I wasn’t so sure, so I encouraged him to run.

And run we did, when we could. This next section was brutal. It was narrow, and it was rocky. That’s why it was called the “Quarry Trail.” We struggled to find our footing, and when in doubt, we erred on the side of walking. My Garmin died no more than 1-2 miles from the Brown’s Bar station, and Fernando and I knew we wouldn’t be able to track our pace anymore. Now, it was just about moving forward. It was a steep downhill followed by a steep uphill. At some point, I realized that the silence of the night had been replaced with the sound of cars on the highway, and before too long, we could see the red and blue flashing lights of a cop car at the Highway 49 Crossing.

Fernando knew what this was: the final scale station. At my urging, he pulled out his water bottle and chugged. He had been drinking consistently throughout our run, but we were both concerned that he would be tagged as underweight and forced to eat. Even worse, he’d be forced to wait to regain the lost weight. We wanted to run. There was a belt buckle waiting for him.

“The weigh-in”--Highway 49 Crossing to No Hands Bridge (93.5 to 96.8)

Fernando climbed onto the scale. 123 pounds--a borderline case. I jumped to his defense once again. “He’s been taking broth at every station, drinking water, eating potatoes, and he’s been this same weight since sometime around Mile 30 or 40. He’s urinated twice. He’s still mentally sharp, and I’ve been monitoring that. He’s good to go.” It worked, as it should have because everything I said was the truth. He was freed from the volunteer’s control. We grabbed him some broth and a few potatoes, and we were on or way within 4 minutes. It was 2:33 a.m. Fernando was in 95th place.

As we ran along what I had marked on my cheat sheet as downhill, but found ourselves mostly going uphill, Fernando told me that he didn’t want to stop at the next station. “It’s only 10k to the finish,” he said. And he was right. This stretch of run took us out of the woods and into a pasture. It was fast and wide. We made a few passes---beep beep beep. I stepped in a hole and worried that I had sprained my left ankle just five miles from the finish. Thankfully, the sting disappeared within a minute or two. We were “flying,” if you consider 12 or 13 minute miles fast. By comparison to his fellow runners, it was fast. We even passed an elite female for the final time in this stretch. We approached No Hand Bridge, the second-to-last aid station, and Fernando tried to run through it. I insisted that he drink a cup of water and soup, which he did.
The aid station area was gorgeous. They had lined the No Hands Bridge with white Christmas lights extending approximately 100 yards. The river roared to our left, and the full moon lit up the area overhead. The station had set up a large projection screen that showed some movie that was probably meant to entertain the aid station workers more than it was meant to inspire the runners. Within a minute or two, we were exiting on our way to the finish. Fernando was in 88th place.

“Bling bling”--No Hands Bridge to Auburn via Robie Point (96.8 to 100.2 via 98.9) (4:12 am arrival)

Coming out of No Hands, I heard there was a big hill. The maps showed a big hill. There was no hill. There was a mountain. We both wanted to run this stretch, knowing the finish line was just miles away, but it was impossible. It was steep. We walked it, for the most part, but occasionally a shorter pitch would appear, and Fernando would declare, as he had done a few times earlier that night, “Run it!” And we would. We could hear a girl screeching at the small aid station at the top of the mountain. At one point, I was fairly certain I saw the shining lights of the high school track. The finish line was close. We could feel it.

ZOOM! A runner and his pacer went flying by us. I can only assume that he was an elite runner back from the dead, because this guy was cruising, and it was Mile 98. I suppose the alternative is that he left something out on the course in a conservative approach.

Eventually, we emerged from the trail and made it to the final aid station. A volunteer asked Fernando what he needed. He asked for broth. The kid informed him that they didn’t have any broth, but they could make him a Coca-Cola and Gu soup. I laughed, thinking back to those many miles earlier when Fernando had cursed those two products. Now they wanted to serve them together. He passed, and we headed up a final hill, this time on pavement, toward the town of Auburn.

As we walked up that hill, I heard a bell tolling in the distance. We rounded a corner to find about a half dozen people from the neighborhood stationed at the Welcome to Auburn sign that marked the final mile. As Fernando crossed their station, they cheered him on with a chant of “Portugal” and rang the huge bell twice in his honor. It gave me goose bumps.

Moments earlier, Fernando and I had started a jog toward the finish line. He was doing great, and we ran side-by-side through the empty Auburn streets. The road was painted with little footprints marking our path to the high school track. I congratulated Fernando on his run, told him that it was my honor to run the final 38 miles with him, and expressed my admiration for his toughness after the rough stretch just before we met. He laughed and started telling me a story about a runner he ran with early in the race. When Fernando mentioned that this was not just his first 100 mile race, but his first trail run of any kind ever, the man turned to him and said, “You’re f’in’ mad.” I couldn’t disagree, and I told him that! But no more than 15 seconds after he finished that story, we started to pass the only runner we could see in front of us. He turned to Fernando and exclaimed, “Fernando! You’re here. You’re f’in’ crazy, man. You’re f’in’ crazy.” It was the same guy Fernando had just told me about. Even odder, the man’s pacer was a Portuguese native. For the first time in days, and after 99 ½ miles, Fernando spoke to another person in his native tongue. What a strange world we live in!

We made a final left turn and cut through the gate onto the high school track. As we emerged from the darkness into the bright lights of the track, the announcer called out Fernando’s name and biographical information. It was just after 4:00 in the morning, and the crowds were sparse, mostly friends and family of runners aiming for a 24 hour finish. The winner had finished 8 hours earlier in a new record time, and the casual fan was fast asleep.

But those who were there cheered. Fernando and I had entered the track at the backstretch and started running around the final turn into the 75 meter homestretch toward the finish. When we hit the straightaway, I turned and shook my companion’s hand, congratulating him on his feat. I then swung wide, heading into the eighth lane, so this moment could be his. There was a lane to the right of the official finish line where pacers and crew could continue to run past the finish line, and I jogged along, cheering for my new friend. Fernando crossed the finish line at 4:12 am in an official time of 23:12:21. His average pace according to the WS100 website was 13:53. He finished in 89th place. As my friend Rick (aka Footloose) pointed out, only eight finishers in front of him were older than his 48 years. More importantly, he had earned the treasured silver belt buckle.

The finisher’s tent was a controlled chaos. Fernando was first weighed, and I again explained that his weight had been steady, if a tad low, for at least 60 miles. They then took his blood pressure on both arms, which was low, but okay. He had signed up for a study on the effects of endurance running, and that involved giving a blood sample, so he took his seat and gave a small amount of blood. Behind him were a few runners hooked to IVs, fast asleep, or huddled under blankets, or some combination of the three. A few hours later, this triage unit was even busier.

Fernando and I took our time at the finish. He even got a massage, appearing to fall asleep on the table. We wandered down to get his drop bag. He dug through it, pulling out a few things. He first handed me his official WS100 t-shirt, noting that it was probably too small for me, but that my wife might like it. He then handed me a Portugal World Cup scarf, noting that since the Americans had lost, I should cheer for Portugal now (unfortunately, they lost on Tuesday to Spain). Finally, he gave me a wrapped present and told me that he hoped it had not broken in the travels. I opened it to find a beautiful hand-painted rooster, known in Portugal as the Rooster of Luck and Happiness. It contained a story of a man accused of murder and sentenced to death who confronted the judge as he prepared to dine on a rooster. He told the judge that he was so innocent that the rooster on his dinner table would crow before he was put to death. As he was brought to the gallows, the rooster stood up on the table and crowed. The man was set free, and those in the region continue to mark this tale with the statue in their homes. It was a thoughtful gift. Even more thoughtful were his words, as he told those who congratulated him that he couldn’t have done it without his pacer, who was the best pacer out there. While perhaps a bit hyperbolic, it meant a lot to hear him say this. I was certainly glad that I had a chance to run with him, and I look forward to visiting him someday in his native country. I don’t know if he’ll ever run Boston, but I’ll be working on it!

I have always been intrigued by this race, but it seemed too big for me to ever participate in. I’m still not sure I can finish it, but I know that I have to give it a shot. I am thankful I had the opportunity to run with Fernando, to see the race, to witness others go through the ebbs and flows of a 100 mile race. The human body is amazing…more than once, I feared that Fernando had lost all ability to run again that night. Time after time, he found something deep inside of him that allowed him to continue. It was an impressive display, and one I hope to emulate someday.

The t-shirt Fernando gave me proclaims, “The thing I don’t like about Western States is that you show up at the starting line in the best shape of your life and a day later you show up in Auburn in the worst shape of your life.” Fernando certainly wasn’t in the worst shape of his life, even if he ached in every cell of his body. Someway, somehow he found a way to finish. But when I think back to my original question—who is Fernando Fernandes?—I know the answer that can never be taken away: he is the owner of a silver belt buckle. For at least one day, Fernando Fernandes dug deep and did something epic. I’m glad I was there to witness it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Squaw Valley to Escarpment (Miles 0 to 3.5)...198 days to go!

Because of your humbling support of the Wounded Warrior Project, I'm already falling off pace on my tour of the course! I've never run the first 62 miles of the course, so I'm relying on resources like the Western States website and my memories from hours of viewing WS100 movies and even YouTube videos. With thanks to old friends Julie Price and Adam Russ and three dedicated runners I'm blessed to call friends, Mark Fallon, Lisa Tushaus, and Beth Schreader, today's post will tour the first 3 1/2 miles of the Western States Endurance Run, from the starting line at Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics to the first aid station, Escarpment, in honor of their generous donations to the Wounded Warrior Project. A special credit goes to the Western States 100 website and the Youtube users who provided the visual images here, too.

At 3:30 a.m. on the last Saturday in June, the 400 or so runners gather at the Olympic Plaza near the starting line for a complimentary breakfast. At 4 a.m., race officials start handing out bibs and confirming each runner's weight one final time for later monitoring of dehydration and other health issues that might arise along the trail. By 4:50 a.m., the runners gather near the starting line banner, not far from the commemmorative plaque placed to mark the race's history all year long. Their crews and other supporters line up along both sides of the trail leading up the mountain. With a countdown from 10, and the sun still below the horizon, the race is off at 5:00 a.m. on the dot.

The first three miles climb straight up the Squaw Valley ski slopes.
As the elevation chart shows, the starting line is at just over 6,000 feet in elevation. In these first 3 1/2 miles, the runners climb to an altitude of over 8,300 feet! It's no wonder that a lot of the runners start this race with a brisk walk rather than a run!

At the peak of this first leg, the runners will pass a monument placed by Bob Watson in 1931, seen in the picture to the right. I have no idea what it says, if anything, but I guess I'll find out someday.

The video above and word of mouth tell me that no matter how fast you are (or think you are), you should stop at the top to turn around and soak in the world around you--Lake Tahoe in the distance, the sun peaking up over the Sierra Mountains, the snow-capped mountains all around. It's supposed to be breathtaking. That's not necessarily a good thing, given that the 2,300 foot climb will probably leave even the fittest of runners short of breath! Leg One of this journey will be over before we know it. The leaders will reach the Escarpment checkpoint in about 40 minutes, while those seeking a silver belt buckle (sub-24 hour finish) will be about 15 minutes behind. The last runners will ascend this first climb, a hard day's hike for most people, in 1 hour 25 minutes.

For runners of the Western States 100, it means only 96.7 miles to the finish line!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

This isn't happening without some aid...199 days to go

Thanks to the generosity of so many, I've already reached a big fundraising benchmark by surpassing the $1,000 mark. A couple donations were made by check offline, so it'll take a few days for the Wounded Warrior Project to process them, but as of tonight, I'm 10 1/2 miles into my 100 mile fundraising goal. I cannot thank you enough!

In honor of this huge achievement, I've decided to profile the first 10 1/2 miles of the course this week in honor of the $1,050 raised as of today. As the amount raised continues to increase toward the goal, I'll provide analysis of the equivalent signpost along the course. The easiest way to break down the Western States course, and in fact the way that I'll break it down mentally during my run, is from aid station to aid station along the 100.2 mile course. Therefore, I figured a good starting point for this course tour would be to explain how these aid stations work.

First of all, there are over 1500 volunteers manning the 25 aid stations! With a field of approximately 400 runners, that's nearly 4 volunteers for every runner on the course! Many groups (some runners, others not) volunteer at the same station every year; in fact, I've heard there's a long waiting list of people waiting for the opportunity to man a station! Some of the aid stations barely fit into a small clearing along single track; others are huge camps in the middle of an open field. One of the final aid stations, at No Hands Bridge just miles from the finish, set up a huge projection screen showing movie clips. Another's music could be heard echoing through the canyons for miles before it came into sight.

Manning an aid station is no easy task. It's not uncommon for the last few aid stations to work 12 or more hours, mostly in the dark, due to the gap that develops between the lead runners and the final runners. Many of the stations are only accessible by foot, so the volunteers must haul tables, chairs, food, water, and even generators several miles into the woods to set up their station. I'll note, however, that it's not uncommon for these remote locations (I'm looking at you, Brown's Bar at Mile 89.9) to resemble a spring break party.

(On the left) Need proof? Yes, that's me sharing an adult beverage with a man in a dress...at 2 a.m....in the middle of nowhere....while Jimmy Buffett plays in the background (sorry, no audio available!).

Many people are familiar with the sight of a marathon aid station, where lines of volunteers hold out cups of Gatorade and water. By comparison, the Western States aid stations more closely resemble buffets, except there are personal servers for all runners.

Each station has an abundance of water, GU2O (a Gatorade-like drink), and even flat Coke, Mountain Dew, and Sprite (the carbonation would cause stomach problems). The daytime aid stations are known to have popsicles for sun-weary runners, while the night aid stations (basically all of them after mile 65) have hot soup, coffee, and hot chocolate. Every aid station is plentifully stocked with salt replacement foods such as saltines, pretzels, and chips, energy gels, fruits, potatoes (best rolled in the salt bowl next to the potato dish), cookies, and candy (M&Ms, jelly beans, gummy bears, and more!). Some of the larger aid stations have sliced turkey and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I remember someone making me a quesadilla somewhere along the way, too.

At every aid station, an entering runner must announce his or her bib number to a volunteer manning a clipboard and watch. Many of these stations are connected to the web, where this entry is instantly transmitted across the internet. A runner can receive basic medical attention for common issues like blisters or scrapes at every station, and ten of the aid stations are medical stations, where the very next thing a runner has to do is step onto a scale to check weight loss or gain. Runners who have lost too much weight, usually on account of dehydration, may be put in a "timeout" until they consume enough fluids and food to be cleared to continue. Runners who have gained weight are at risk of hyponatremia, a potentially deadly issue resulting from having too much water in the body resulting in a lack of sodium, and also could be temporarily pulled from the course. It is not uncommon for runners in good enough health to continue, but with early warning signs of a problem, to be ordered to sit for 10, 15, or even 20 or more minutes before being released to continue on their way. Every runner exiting an aid station again must announce the departure to the man with the clipboard. It's more to confirm there are no missing runners as to weed out any potential Rosie Ruizs.

(On the right) Professional running stud and 2010 third place finisher Kilian Jornet of Spain weighs in at the Foresthill aid station (Mile 62).

Runners at the finish line can receive an IV if necessary. I'd like to say it's uncommon, but to be honest, the medical tent looks a bit like something out of M*A*S*H, with dozens of runners huddled under warm blankets and hooked to IVs. Those in good enough shape can seek out a massage or even partake in the breakfast spread of eggs, pancakes, sausage, and bacon!

The long and short of it is that this race, like any, owes a lot to its volunteers...maybe even more, given the logistics. Over the next few months, I'll look forward to taking you from aid station to aid station along the course as I give a course tour. When it comes to the first 62 miles, I'll be a poor guide since I've never seen those trails in person, but I hear that's not any different from your typical Let's Go! guide anyway. With each stopping point, just keep in mind that it will be the temporary home of dozens of generous folks giving their weekend to help folks like me reach the finish line. We're all indebted to them.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Snapping the weekday routine...201 days to go.

Other than a couple jaunts through Central Park on vacation a few weeks ago, I haven't run more than 4 miles on a weekday run since I finished the Chicago Marathon on October 10th. I've been in a funk, and even "short" runs of three or four miles have seemed like a burden. Motivated by the adrenaline of the last 48 hours, I decided to set out for a 5ish mile run tonight (or a "fish" as some of my running friends and I starting calling it after someone's weary early morning eyes confused it one time). It was 27 degrees. I was tired. My pre-run snack of pickles and Wheat Thins (don't ask...I was hungry) weren't the perfect fuel. And then it happened. I had an awesome run.

Two miles in, I realized that my mind already was embracing the change in strategy-from running fast to running long. I've spent the bulk of my five years as a runner training for a marathon, where I've tried to find the perfect mix of speed and distance. My goal was always to get faster. In fact, in my 13 marathons (two of which I used as training runs for my 50 miler), I set 7 personal records. I can't remember the last time I wasn't worried about speed. And tonight, as I set out for the usual neighborhood loop with my training partner, our golden retriever Lou, I realized that speed didn't matter. I just ran...and it felt good. I realized that I'll be doing this a lot over the next seven months....stretching out the distance over a longer period of time. Tonight, at least, it snapped the weekday routine that had me in a funk.

I don't plan on blogging every day, but I wanted to thank you all for your support in these first few days. I've been overwhelmed by your support, in spirit and for the Wounded Warrior Project. I'm excited to announce the creation of the "Patriot Crew" today...just one way that I've tinkered with my ideas for this race. Any donor of $100 to WWP will have one mile dedicated in his/her honor or the honor or memory of the person they designate. Of course, I am appreciative of any support you can offer...no gift is too small, and I'm going to recognize all those designated in memoriam or honor on this site once I figure this blogging thing out a bit more. The link for those who missed it is here.

I also wanted to welcome your questions about the race, my training plan, the logistics of a 100 mile training run, or whatever else you might think of. For instance, someone asked me today if we went to the bathroom during the run. It's a simple question, but a damn good one, too (the short answer is yes). In fact, I'll probably even write a post about it at some point in the future. (I do have 7 months until race day!) So please...leave a question in the comment section or send me an email! I look forward to hearing from you!

Run long!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The fundraising page is up and running...202 days to go!

100 miles in one day. It's hard to fathom. I ran 56 miles in one day last July in my Western States qualifier, the Voyageur 50 Mile Trail Race. The photo on the right is me standing at the starting line, wondering what was ahead of me. One of these days, I'll post that race report and explain exactly why I ran 56 miles in a 50 mile race! The one thing I can say is that it hurt. A lot. So bad that I couldn't finish a celebratory beer back at my hotel room. (Don't worry, I had one at the finish line!)

Today, I feel a lot of the same nerves I felt on that July morning. I should probably feel twice the nerves, though, since Western States, at 100.2 miles, is twice as long. I know this run is going to hurt. But as I mentioned yesterday, it's going to be worth it because I've picked a worthy cause to drive me forward over the 7 months of training I have ahead of me, not to mention the 100.2 miles of rugged terrain I'll run on June 25th and 26th. It drove me to a solid 9 mile run tonight as the sun set over the bitterly cold day we had here in St. Louis.

The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit organization whose mission is to honor and empower injured service members by raising awareness and supporting their needs. WWP's core values are fun, integrity, loyalty, innovation, and service. It's hard to imagine a finer list of values, and I certainly appreciate the significance of listing "fun" first...that's one reason I'm embarking on this journey. You can visit their website here.

I've started a fundraising page. My goal is a lofty one, I realize, and like this race, it's one I worry I can't meet. But like this race, I'm determined to reach the finish line. That's why I've decided to raise $100 for every mile of my Western States race. It won't be possible without your support and generosity, and I thank you in advance for both. Please please please forward my blog and donation page to friends, family, fellow runners, or even complete strangers if you think it would benefit them, or most importantly, the Wounded Warrior Project cause. This journey is one I can't complete on my own.

If you'd like to recognize a past or present service member with your donation, please email me at csilker (at) gmail.com. I will be regularly updating this page with the names of those who have sacrificed so much for each of us, and I will carry a list of their names with me to the starting line. Also, all donations are tax-deductible, and you should receive an email confirmation of your donation. If you'd prefer to make an "offline" donation, I can arrange that, too, or instructions are found on the WWP website.

In just one day, your outpouring of support has been amazing. I can't thank you all enough. Now let's go run!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Little did I know...203 days to go!

Beth walked into the living room this morning as I frantically was setting up my computer to log onto the Western States 100 website. Today was their annual lottery, where anyone who'd run a 50 mile or longer race in the last year and wanted to run the most famous of all ultramarathons found out their fate. Speaking for this entrant only, though I'm sure plenty of others would agree, the definition of "victory" was undefined for next two hours.

"You know they're going to draw your name, right?"
The look on her face was all business. She wasn't kidding. It was like that sixth sense that kicks in for moms had reached her twelve weeks early. She knew something I didn't know, and there was no explanation for it.

"No, they're not. I've got even worse odds than I thought."
I'd done the calculations earlier in the week and figured I had a 16% chance of having my name drawn from the electronic hat, a computer button pushed by special guests from Placer High School in Auburn, California, just yards from the finish line. The computer chat room told me those odds were even lower, at 10%, as they'd be rounding out the field after granting automatic entries to past top finishers, aid station volunteer-designated runners, folks who'd twice lost the lottery in the past in the now-defunct "two-time loser" system, a few foreign runners, a few sponsor runners, and a couple board members. For good measure, Gordy Ansleigh, the man who created this running insanity after his horse came up lame on the 1974 morning of what had previously been a 100 mile horse race, and Cowman A-Moo-Ha (yes, I typed that correctly), the second man to finish the course on foot in 1976, are granted permanent exemptions, and deservedly so. There were 218 slots being handed out today, out of 415 total, and over 2,000 names in that virtual hat. No, they weren't going to pull my name.

And that's the catch. This race has been a dream of mine for the last 3-4 years, ever since I first heard about it. I want to run this race. I own no less than 4 DVDs about it. I've flown out to California to run 38 miles through the night with a complete stranger because, well, something inside of me has pulled me toward this race. It is my dream race. But I really hoped they wouldn't pull my name. Not this year. Just give me the second raffle ticket now given to all lottery losers next year, after I've put one or two more 50 mile races under my belt, when my unborn child is older than four months old, someday, some year, other than 2011.

"You know they're going to draw your name, right?" She's always right. I shouldn't doubt her instincts.

My video feed had a horrible volume feed, so I could barely hear the introductions or the first 30 or so names drawn from the hat.

And then it happened. Beth was in the breakfast room, about 10 feet away from my couch seat and the laptop in my lap, but she heard it, too.

"Chad Silker."

What? No. They've got to be disqualifying me for some reason, not drawing my name. This lottery just started! No, it's some other guy...maybe the Chad Silker who's like a fourth cousin once-removed and lives outside Kansas City. I just got American Airline points for his stay at a Hilton hotel, so I'm sure it's just a mistake again.

"Ballwin, Missouri."

No way. No f'in way. I'm in.
Beth ran over to me for a hug, a huge smile on her face. I started laughing and crying simultaneously. I wasn't sure if it was out of nerves or joy or fear or just plain stupor. Probably a bit of all of them.
I am going to run the Western States 100. In June 2011. I better get training.

I made a few calls, sent a few texts and emails, and kept trying to verify the official entrants list, which crashed along with the video feed within minutes of my name being called. Within minutes, I'd declined my amazing mother's offer to pace my final miles to the finish (sorry, Mom, but even after I've run 80 or more miles, it's pretty technical stuff, and I'd much rather have you there to care for me in aid stations and yelling that high-pitched matronly scream of yours as I enter the track at Placer High), searched for a rental house in Tahoe for that week, and had an offer to replace my knees some day soon from an old college buddy who just happens to be on the verge of being a licensed orthopedic surgeon. Thanks for being in my corner, McCabe. I also thought about the fact that my longest mileage week ever was 62 miles...the week I ran my first 50 miler this past July. Of course, in my defense, I limited all other running that week to 1-2 miles because I'd stupidly bruised my right foot in a hard skydiving landing two weeks before the race. Yes, I like adrenaline. Life was going to change, and not just because I'm guaranteed to forget about any regular sleep patterns when the little one comes along in a few months.

I don't know where this blog will go in the next 7 months. I wish I could tell you that I had a plan for it, but I don't. I hope it will capture my training a bit, because it'll be good to share the high and low points with others. In fact, I had hit a low point this past week, wondering whether I'd find the motivation to run the Boston Marathon again in April. Training wasn't scheduled to start until January, but the short days and cold air had me doubting my drive to get there again for yet another personal record attempt. I planned to run 10-12 miles today, my longest run since the Chicago Marathon in October, but this lottery win inspired me to run over 15 miles today. They were the first 15 of many, many miles to come. One thing is certain: my marathon weekly average of about 45 miles/week will be blown out of the water.

I hope it will capture the psychology of a runner, or at least this runner, because, yes, we're a screw or two loose. That's why we get up early, or stay up late, to run in the dark. That's why we spend our precious little spare time reading reviews of the latest running shoes. That's why I've got friends in every time zone, and a few foreign countries, because I know I've got a screw loose, just like them, and it's in the asylum we call Runners' World Online that we all find some normalcy. I've been lucky enough to find these "imaginary friends" to talk all things running, and all things life. Sometimes the two are difficult to distinguish.

I hope it inspires. I hope it does some good. I hope it's something I can look back on the day after I cross the finish line, or in fifty years, and have the memories and emotions come rushing back to me. I'll tell you the truth: I'm scared. In fact, it's probably the most prominent emotion I'm feeling tonight. For the first time ever, I'm about to embark on something I'm not even sure I can do. That's a scary thing to ponder. But I'm determined to do it, and I have 203 days to ready my body, mind, and soul for the biggest challenge of my life.

I hope it does some good. I've given a lot of thought as to what is going to drive me to train harder than I've ever trained before. The list is long, but there are two primary motivators for the day-to-day stuff.

The fear of failure, for one. I might fail...depending upon the weather, dozens, if not a hundred or more runners, including some of the best ultrarunners in the world, fail to complete this race. There's a good reason for that. The Western States 100 involves over 17,000 feet of climb and nearly 23,000 feet of decline. Temperatures frequently soar over 100 degrees in the middle of the "second marathon" of the day. The race starts in Squaw Valley, crosses rugged old miner trails, involves some snow running, and even includes a run across the American River...without a bridge in 4 or 5 foot deep water. This race is not for the faint of heart. I hope I'm up for it.

A cause beyond myself, for two (ha!). Running is a self-centered sport, though it's definitely filled with some of the least selfish participants one could ever imagine. How far did I run? How fast did I run? I. Me. Mine. Now. I've struggled with guilt all day, knowing that we didn't plan to take a vacation this year, especially with a four month old. I feel bad about those Saturdays to come when I'm out there running all morning while Beth stays in with the baby. I'm lucky I've married a saint. No, really, I am.

And the self-centeredness of it all is why I'm dedicating this race to the men and women of our military. I'm going to run Western States as a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project (http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/). I'm going to dedicate this race to those who give all of themselves, physically, mentally, and emotionally, for all of us and the freedoms we enjoy. I'm going to dedicate this race to my brother, who returns from a tour of duty in Iraq in January, and so many of my friends and family who have served. I hope to recognize many of them in the coming months. And I'm going to try to raise a large sum of money for those injured in the line of duty. There is no requirement that I do so to compete in this race, but I want to do this for them. My pain will be nothing compared to the pains suffered by the brave men and women of our Armed Forces. I hope their sacrifice will drive me to the finish line. I can't thank them enough for their sacrifice. I really hope you'll find it in yourself to give to the cause. My fundraising goal will be steeper than the 100 miles I seek to run, and every penny you can give will be appreciated. The link will be posted soon.

How'd I spend this first night, 204 days before I finish this 100 mile, one day journey? Celebrating, of course. I opened a bottle of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, a true celebration of the mountains I'll run through in June. And it reminded me of one other reason I run: the post-race beer. Nothing's ever tasted as good.

I hope you'll be there, in person or virtually, for the post-race toast with me in 204 days. I promise the posts to come won't all be this long. Let the journey begin. See you in Auburn.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Red Star Ridge to Duncan Canyon (Miles 16.0 to 23.8) 169 days to go!

Week One of training is coming to a close with a 15 mile run tomorrow and 10 miles on Sunday. I had a fantastic week of running, including my first trip to the track (yes, I'll be doing speed intervals for a 100 mile race) since September and a hard night of hill running last night that left me sucking for air. This was a big week, too, because I booked a flight for the Memorial Day Weekend Training Camp along the course--32 miles on Saturday, and 20 each on Sunday and Monday--and reserved a hotel room in Auburn so my crew and I would have a place to shower after I cross the finish line before 5 a.m. on Sunday, June 26...not to mention a place for Baby Silker, who will arrive in plus or minus 7 weeks, to rest!

And of course, thanks to so many people's generosity, I needed to update the course tour today!

The fourth stage of the Western States course takes runners from Red Star Ridge to Duncan Canyon. Special thanks to my little brother Matthew and his lovely wife Megan, my parents Dave and Teresa Silker, Megan's parents Brian and Carrie Hetzler and her brother Lucas, my brother-in-law Jack Sheehan and his wife Alicia, Elizabeth Cunnane, Rabeh Soofi, Jeff Wittich, Tom DeLuca, and Randy Blake for their donations to the Wounded Warrior Project that sponsored this section of the course tour. To meet my goal of $100 per mile for 100 miles, a total goal of $10,000, every donation, no matter the size, matters. Please visit my Wounded Warrior Project donation page at http://WWPProudSupporter.kintera.org/csilker to make a tax-deductible donation online or to print a copy of the offline donation sheet for mailing to the WWP.

At 7.8 miles, the Red Star Ridge to Duncan Canyon route is the longest stretch between aid stations. As the elevation profile shows, it is a net downhill, though not without a steady series of ups and downs before a final descent into Duncan Canyon, where the elevation drops approximate 900 feet in a little over 1 1/2 miles.

Much of this stretch appears to be single track dirt and rock trail.

The eye-opening part of this stage is the sight of burned out trees. There was a devastating fire in the area in 2001 that led to a course re-routing from 2002 to 2005 due to the destruction to Duncan Canyon.

I'm not sure where it was located, but a fire wrecked havoc on the race in 2008 as well. After several thousand (yes, thousand) lightning strikes started several hundred forest fires in northern California in June 2008, the race organizers were left with no choice but to cancel the 2008 race. There was no guarantee that the fires themselves wouldn't endanger runners, and the air quality was so poor, at over 10 times worse than what is considered a high level of air pollution, that even the fittest of athletes would have been at risk. The decision was made only three days before the race, with a hope that a miracle would prevent the only cancellation in the three decades old race. No miracle occurred, and the 400 entrants in the 2008 WS100 were given automatic entries into the 2009 or 2010 events.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of this section is that Duncan Canyon is the first station where there is crew access. Each runner can designate one vehicle to access the Duncan Canyon aid station. Don't get me wrong...the aid station volunteers are amazing, but the sight of friends and family is a beautiful sight for sore eyes (and legs). Nearly one quarter of the way into the race, and I'll finally have someone there who loves me enough to touch my dirty socks!

The lead runners will arrive at Duncan Canyon around 8:30 a.m., about 3 1/2 hours after the starting gun. 24 hour runners will arrive 80 minutes later, around 9:50 a.m, while 30 hour runners will arrive at 11:05 a.m. The aid station officially closes at noon, seven hours after the race first started. Traditionally, most of the runners make it out of the Duncan Canyon aid station, only 76.4 miles between them and a belt buckle.