Saturday, May 28, 2011

Western States Training Day One (28 days to go!)

I thought for a moment that the alarm went off too early this morning. It was 5:45 AM in Auburn, California, the Endurance Capital of the World, and after a long day of travel yesterday featuring two delayed flights (I was thankful for the second one), I could have used more sleep. But then I remembered that in four weeks, I'll already have summitted the highest climb of the Western States course by the time 5:45 AM rolls around. That's right...four weeks. 28 days. It's fast approaching.

I flew out to California for the long weekend to run the Western States organized trail runs, three days of running along the course with other race entrants and anyone else who wanted to have a supported trail run on the Augusta of ultrarunning. I made the 17 mile drive to Foresthill, Mile 62 of the course, where the runners gathered at the same elementary school where our pacers will be waiting for us on June 25th. Temperatures were in the mid-40s, and a mystical fog floated over the quiet little mining town.

I checked in with the Western States officials, who gave me a blue wristband used to track me along the course over the next three days. I took it as a good omen that I received lucky number 7s.

There were enough runners milling around to fill seven or eight school buses, but before we boarded we received instructions from Greg, the race director. The megaphone didn't work all that well, but I think the instructions included "Do not get eaten by a mountain lion" and "If you're going to poop on the trail, make sure you're at least ten feet off the trail itself, and cover it up." One of those two is a joke.

I boarded the first bus, which somehow ended up fourth in the caravan to the trailhead, and I got all excited when Tim Tweitmeyer, the five-time Western States champion with a record twenty-five silver belt buckles for sub-24 hour finishes, sat down four rows in front of me. I got the chance to run with Tim early on in our run, and he gave me important advice when I asked him for some for a first-timer: Have fun. He also hinted that the Western States board was going to do their best to ensure that we'd be using last year's snow course, though snow levels in Robinson Flat may still prove to make that impossible. I was running at a slightly faster pace than Tim, so after a minute or two we parted ways.

This was a training run, so there were no rules when we disembarked from our orange ride. A few people hit the trail immediately, without stretching. Others formed a line for the bathroom. Most of us tried to stretch a bit. I hadn't met anyone to run with, so I started on down the road on my own.

It was a steep descent down to the reverse-Cal Street run we were having since the normally-scheduled canyon run was too snowy to provide aid to the runners. I pounded my way past quite a few runners before pulling over for a pit stop at a primitive bathroom near a campsite along the American River. It was shortly after that stop that I ran with Tim, and before I knew it I was running up the downhill section of the course from the American River to Foresthill. Most of the running was gradual climb single-track, and the American River frequently roared below us to our right.

It was tiring, but I worked to keep up the pace and soon found myself running toward the front of the pack. Remember, it wasn't a race...but it sure felt like one. Somewhere just before Foresthill I crossed paths with Gordy Ansleigh, basically the father of this race, running in the opposite direction on a training run of his own. I said hello to this living legend, who started this race in 1974 when his horse came up lame at the starting line of a horse race. Instead of letting it ruin his weekend, he ran the 100 miles himself. In short, that's why belt buckles are awarded to finishers of this race, and most ultras--because Gordy finished a horse race!

After leaving Foresthill's aid station, there was a seven mile run down to Michigan Bluff at Mile 55 of the course. The first stretch was paved and a steep downhill to a fire road that continued the downhill descent to Volcano Creek, where a rope was strung across the three foot slippery rock-bottomed creek through ice cold water. From there, it was a steep climb up followed by a quick descent down into Michigan Bluff. Along the way into Michigan Bluff I noticed a pet cemetery along the side of the road. It was a horse grave that caught my eye, but it was the grave marker for Tonto that I recognized. Tonto was seven-time WS100 champion Scott Jurek's dog, and he was well-known for long training runs with his owner. Scott and I share a very small common bond: we both ran our first ultramarathons at the Voyageur 50 Mile Trail Run. Of course, he finished in second place, while I missed a turn while in fifth place and ended up running 56 miles and finishing in 37th place. (Click on that link to the Voyageur race site and admire the gentleman pictured in the background photo.)

When I turned around at Michigan Bluff and headed back, I knew I had a quad-busting hard stretch ahead of me. My coach, Andy Jones-Wilkins, wanted me to run the downhill to Volcano Creek hard, and I found myself slamming along at about a 7:15/mile clip for the first mile. The second mile was slowed by the runners coming uphill at me, and the fact that it was a steep, single-track, rocky path. I crossed the creek again, and started the climb back up to Foresthill. My pace fell off slightly, and I thought to myself that the climb won't be any fun next week in the heat of the afternoon. It was cloudy today, and temperatures were no higher than 60.

Before long, I entered Foresthill again with a guy I ran much of the late morning with...he is a Naval Academy grad, and we hit it off talking Notre Dame/Navy football (I only wish I had more to brag about recently). We came to a stop just over 30 miles and almost exactly 5 hours after we started. I chowed down on some grilled ham and cheese and let a massage therapist assault me in the most beautiful way for a good 15-20 minutes before heading back to the hotel.

Day One: Success. Here's to a strong day of hard downhill running tomorrow!

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