Wednesday, February 2, 2011
The ninth stage of the course is known to be one of the most brutal stretches of the Western States Trail. The drop into Last Chance continues deep into the canyon befor rising, fast and furious, in a climb up to the ominously-named Devil's Thumb.
Special thanks to those who contributed to my Wounded Warrior Project page, sponsoring these miles of the course tour: Jessica Kelly, Ilana Stern, Dave Willson, Andrew Dhuey, and Mimi Raleigh. Of note, Jess donated in honor of her friend Mark Maida, a member of the US Army who was killed in action in Iraq on May 27, 2005, and Andrew donated in honor of his father, Joseph Dhuey, MD, who served in the Air Corps Brigadier from 1942 to 1944. I give a special tip of my cap to my college classmate and triathlete extraordinaire Mimi Raleigh, who is putting aside her Ironman dream to serve a deployment to Iraq as an Army surgeon. Godspeed, Mimi! Thank you for your service!
Devil's Thumb. It just sounds intimidating, and for once, the name is fitting the locale. As Andy Holak, the race director of the Voyageurs Trail Run I ran last summer, wrote after his 2002 Western States run, "[T]he descent into Devil's Thumb and climb out was incredibly steep and rocky. Devil's Thumb kicked my butt. The canyons totally kicked my butt. Devil's Thumb was the hardest stretch of running that I think I've ever done. The canyons were very tough and the hills in many places much steeper and tougher than I had anticipated." Even Geoff Roes, the 2010 champion and course recordholder, struggled through Devil's Thumb: The climb up Devil's Thumb really hit me hard. I was really struggling for a while.
This stretch features steep, rocky trails descending deep into the canyon. There is an 1800 plus foot drop over 2 1/2 miles, a descent that is known to beat one's quads into submission.
The course crosses a suspension bridge over the American River before climbing over 1300 feet in one mile along 36 switchbacks! This is some of the hardest trail running around.
Temperatures rise to 100 degrees in the canyon, and runners are known to stagger into the Devil's Thumb aid station in a state of delirium. Many never continue on down the trail, choosing to drop here rather than journey into the second canyon. Devil's Thumb is where Fernando, the runner I paced in 2010, was pulled aside by the medical team and forced to consume fluids, food, and even popsicles in the hope that he could continue. Over 30 runners passed him as he sat in that aid station waiting for the go-ahead to continue. To make matters worse, there is no crew access at Devil's Thumb, though race officials will transport a drop bag for runners to get personal items at one of the toughest stops on the course.
Someone taped this stretch of the race and put it on Youtube in five videos. I've attached the first one here so you can get a feel for the climb
Reach the Devil's Thumb aid station, and you're still not halfway to Auburn. You are, however, halfway through the two canyons that break so many runners. The leaders will enter Devil's Thumb around 12:20 p.m., over seven hours after the race started. 24 hour runners will arrive around 3:15 p.m., with 30 hour runners reaching it at 6:05 p.m. The aid station closes at 7:00 p.m. For those who depart into the second canyon, there are only 52.4 miles to go!