Well, it's taken a while to finish this, and even as I'm about to hit the "publish post" button, I can't help but feel that there's so much missing from this admittedly lengthy race report. I think part of me has avoided writing this report because I know that its completion finishes more than just a race report, it brings an end to an experience that has captivated me in ways these words, and those I've written since December, cannot describe. Running the Western States 100 was the achievement of a dream, and I would be lying if I denied that I don't want to wake up from it. This race has consumed me, in a positive way, teaching me so much about myself, my body, my family, and my friends. It has required me to prioritize, to multitask, to ask as much from others as an endurance event asks of myself. It has focused me on the goal, to run for the prize, to reach deep within myself. It has reminded me to dream.
It was 2:30 AM, and my alarm was sounding. A decade ago, I would have been sauntering up to the bar for last call, and now I was rolling out of bed after a short four hours of sleep to start the prep work for a 100 mile run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California, the Western States Endurance Run. And by "prep work," I mean consumption of approximately 1000 calories to fuel those early miles. I just hoped they would all stick around, since I'd been having stomach issues I attributed to an overconsumption of sugary drinks like Gatorade and Coca-Cola the day before. It was causing me serious concern, but I hoped I would overcome it once the race started.
It had already been a rewarding week. The Tahoe area is beautiful--bright blue skies, a mix of green flora and white peaks surrounding a crystal clear lake--and the pre-race pomp at Squaw Valley USA ski resort was like nothing I'd ever experienced before, in spite of the small scale of the race. For 2 1/2 days, I walked among a virtual who's who of the ultrarunning world as I attended the numerous race seminars, and the ironic thing was that for all of the celebrity rush I was experiencing by my mere presence in the midst of some of the best runners in the world, every single one of these folks could walk the aisles of your local grocery store undisturbed.
Photo: Joe McCladdie
My pre-race highlights included a Thursday hike up to a Squaw peak for an emotional flag-raising ceremony, where all of the names of those affiliated with the race as runners, volunteers, or supporters were read and a poem (yes, someone read poetry!) about the beauty of the endeavor we were about to undertake was shared, a series of meetings about the course and crewing, a WS100 veterans' roundtable moderated by my coach Andy Jones-Wilkins (where his closing comments had me ready to start the race that moment), and a one-on-one session where Andy described the course, and suggested my approach to it, in great detail. When it was all said and done, he left me convinced that my goal of chasing a silver belt buckle with a sub-24 hour finish, while admirable, was underestimating my fitness. The new goal was sub-20 hours, and he would provide a split card to see that I get there. All I had to do was follow it for 100.2 miles. It sounds easier now than it did then.
On race day, we arrived at Squaw Valley a little after 4 AM. Other cars were pulling into the parking lot, and it really wasn't unlike any other race day morning I'd experienced before. I went straight to the pre-race weigh-in, where the medical crew raised their eyebrows when the scale tipped to 195, since the yellow bracelet that served as my lifeline for the race--lose it and my day was over--read an admittedly-starved 190.6 pounds. Hey now--I'd already eaten enough breakfast for two or three people that morning! That last hour was spent stretching, giving hugs to my family and friends there with me, and wondering if I was cut out to accomplish this feat. I knew I'd done the work, but it all seemed so formidable now. Before long, though, it was time to wander outside for the start. The 400 or so runners had less than 10 minutes until they started the adventure of a lifetime.
As I approached the starting line arch for a few final photographs, I bumped into my friend and fellow Missourian Ben Creehan. We exchanged some good luck wishes and promised to catch each other in Auburn. I nearly ended my day before it started when I tripped over a large orange cone as I took a step backward to pose for a photograph, but luckily that was as eventful as things got.
As the final minutes ticked away to the start, I gave a final kiss good-bye to Beth and Nora. It was strange to think that I'd run almost 62 miles before I saw them again in Foresthill.
Start to Talbot Creek (Miles 0 to 13)
Split card: 2 hours 15 minutes/9:00 pace
Actual split: 2 hours 27 minutes/48th place
With a countdown from 10, the race started and we all moved forward for the trudge up the mountain in front of us. I passed Cowman A-Moo-Ha, the second man ever to run the 100 miles from Squaw to Auburn, in his standard bullhorn hat and jogged at an easy pace toward the steeper section.
It was too dark to see the crowds lining the course, but the flashbulbs and cheers let me know they were there.
The first 4 miles or so includes a 2500 foot climb up to about 8700 feet in altitude, and my only instruction was to make sure I got far enough in front of the pack that I wouldn't be stuck in a congo line of runners once we reached the snow. I noticed I was walk-jogging near Tracy Garneau, the defending women's champion, and another runner mentioned that he was hoping for an 18 hour finish. These observations told me I'd done my part to earn some separation from the field at large, and it was time to focus on running my race.
An aid station was set up after the second mile, just before we hit the first patch of snow. Its normal location was 3 1/2 miles into the race, but they could not get the supplies to that point due to the high snow levels. We were told that it'd be at least ten miles, rather than the usual seven, to the next station, so I double-checked that my three bottles-the two holster bottles I planned to carry plus an extra handheld-were full, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and started up the snowfield.
The best description of this snow is to imagine hardpacked snowcone ice. I marched along with a few runners, happy to unite with one of my Memorial Day training partners Skip Crockett and his high school friend and elite women's runner Rory Bosio, who was on her way to a fifth place finish in the women's race. Skip expressed some relief on my behalf that I hadn't gone out too fast, and we fell in together along a line of runners hiking up the ice steps carved into the mountainside to assist us up and over the Escarpment. There is a 10 foot tall monument marking the Western States Trail at the very top, and only one foot was visible as we jogged past. Along the way, I made sure to take a peek over my shoulder. The sky was an orange glow as the sun that promised to beat us down later in the day rose over the range of mountains ringing the pristine Lake Tahoe. It was only a momentary glance into the rear-view mirror, however, as I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me that required my attention.
Photo: Joe McCladdie
The back bowls on the other side of the mountain were a slippery mess of deep, icy snow. The trail ran along the mountain to the runners' right, and I felt like a skier riding the inside edge of my left ski as I tried to traverse over the terrain. It didn't take long for a hot spot to form on the calloused inside portion of my left big toe. It took even less time for me to fall, and I repeated that feat six more times through the snow. One fall cut my knee, though it didn't require any medical attention. I also saw a fellow runner fall on the snow, sliding down the mountain a good fifty yards before coming to a stop. All we could do was shout down to ensure he was safe (he was), since it wasn't clear how anyone responding to help would be able to get back on the trail. I learned later that a course volunteer fell and suffered what was thought to be a broken leg. That poor soul earned an express ticket off the mountain on a med-evac helicopter.
While I certainly wasn't running in the front group, the trail didn't look as trodden as I had hoped. This point was driven home when I brought up the caboose on a 20 runner train that included most of the lead women. As we entered a large clearing along a ridge, the engines at the front of the pack came to a sudden stop and started looking wildly around, unsure of where they were to go next. I stopped a good 50 or 60 yards behind them and started looking downhill for trail markings. Within a few seconds, I saw a small yellow flag sticking out of the ground below me, shouted my discovery ahead to the pack, and started the short descent back onto the trail. I made a decision then to let them go ahead so I could run my own race and pay closer attention to my surroundings. Skip and Rory disappeared in front of me, and I fell into a pace better characterized as survivable than comfortable.
Photo: Gary Wang
Every step through the snow required some strategy. The risk of postholing was high, as some areas were softer than others, and a few snow bridges broke under the pressure of my 190 pounds. About 10 miles into the race, I emerged on a road only partially covered in snow. It led to a creek crossing, and my already wet shoes became completely drenched by the knee high ice water running through the swollen beds. I heard some commotion a bit further down the road and soon entered the Talbot Creek aid station, one of the replacement stations for the snow course we were following.
I'd been running for nearly 2 1/2 hours, and my Garmin said I'd only covered 12 1/2 miles. The aid station volunteers insisted we'd reached Mile 15, but my watch and loose understanding of where the impromptu aid station was supposed to be placed suggested to me that we were no further than 13 miles into the race.
Talbot Creek to Poppy (Miles 13 to 19.6)
Split card: 45 minutes/9:00 pace
Actual split: 44 minutes/40th place
I ran out of Talbot with refilled bottles. Just outside the aid station, I saw a van for Journeyfilms, a film company that is releasing a documentary on last year's epic battle among the leaders. I'd recently been introduced on Facebook to the director, JB Benna, through a mutual friend, and I noticed JB climbing out of the van as I ran by. I quickly backtracked to say hello, shaking his hand in a brief introduction before continuing on my way. I can't wait to see the film.
The next section was part of the snow course, and instead of a run above 9000 feet, we followed fire roads and even some pavement in a steady downhill. My pace dropped into the mid-7s, and when runner Lon Freeman approached, we (or at least, I) accidentally dropped down to a 7:00 pace for a stretch on account of the company. Lon qualified for WS with a 2nd place finish at the Ice Age 50 Miler in May, and I was familiar with his abilities as a runner because my pacer Jay Thomson paced him from Green Gate to the finish last year. We parted ways after just a mile or two, Lon running ahead to a stellar 30th place finish this year to earn his first silver belt buckle.
I entered the Poppy aid station, where I ditched my handheld bottle in an empty drop bag I'd sent ahead of me and choked down some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I'd brought one with me, but only ate 1/4 of it on the snow sections since so much attention had to be paid to my footing. It was at this aid station that I reunited with my friend Skip and another Western States training partner, Aliza Lapierre. We headed out of the aid station within a minute of each other, and it didn't take long for the three of us to join forces.
Poppy to Duncan (Miles 19.6 to 23.8)
Split card: 55 minutes/15:43 pace
Actual split: Somebody messed up my splits along here, causing some concern among those tracking at home. Rest assured, it did not take me 98 minutes to run this section. Unfortunately, I also didn't run the next section in 22 minutes either.
The Poppy to Duncan section took us along double and single track trail, with the French Meadow Reservoir sparkling to our left.
Most of the trail was fast, easy rolling dirt, and the three of us worked as a team to set a comfortable pace. At one point, I ducked offtrail for a pit stop, drawing a snide remark of "I didn't need to see that!" from a spectator walking against the grain toward the oncoming runners. I still don't know where he came from, and I had checked that tree cover and body positioning ensured some privacy, for the sake of others and not me! Oh well...sorry, buddy!
I caught up with Aliza and Skip again. Aliza was struggling with her water pack, which had a clogged hose that was limiting her hydration. She looked strong, though, and the three of us knocked out a few miles in the mid-9s. There was a stretch in here where we got our first taste of the sun, as we climbed through an old forest fire site with total exposure. It promised to get hotter and hotter as the day went on. The stomach issues that bothered me the previous night into the morning before the race seemed to have been left in the woods behind me, and all in all, I was feeling pretty good at this point. That's a good thing, though, since I wasn't even a quarter of the way done! If you're hurting at Mile 23, you're really going to be hurting at Mile 77, if you're even lucky enough to get there.
Duncan to Mosquito Ridge (Miles 23.8 to 31)
Split card: 1 hour 20 minutes/10:40 pace
Actual split: 47th place (but no, I did not run this section in 3 1/2 minute miles as reported by the race).
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
I fell in with Aliza and a group of strangers who came and went around us along the fire roads up to Mosquito Ridge. The worst of this section was an 800 foot climb over one mile up to the aid station. At one point, Aliza turned and asked my goal time, since it was difficult to gauge where we were supposed to be at this point. I knew I was close to the pace on my card, so I told her that I was aiming for twenty hours. I'm still not sure if she was relieved or alarmed to hear what came out of my mouth, but she replied that she thought I was ahead of schedule. This implied, of course, that she was behind schedule, and it wasn't a surprise when she climbed hard ahead of me into the Mosquito Ridge aid station.
I had a planned shoe change at Mosquito Ridge, and Aliza had a top ten finish to pursue. (Thankfully, we both achieved our goals.) I sat down for the first time since breakfast to lace up a dry pair of Brooks Cascadias over a dry pair of socks. I never saw Aliza again, as she took off for a sixth place finish in the women's field, but I'm glad I got to spend those miles running with her.
Mosquito Ridge to Miller's Defeat (Miles 31 to 34.4)
Split card: 1 hour/13:57 pace
Actual split: 46 minutes/10:22/50th place
Equipped with dry shoes and socks, I headed out toward the normal course for the first time since we started. In an effort to reach the standard 100.2 miles, the course officials routed us on a short out along the usual "in" to the Miller's Defeat aid station. It was unnerving to pass an aid station just yards from the Mosquito Ridge station, but I headed out along the original course, a view of the snow-capped peaks we'd just left behind off in the distance. Skip and I went back and forth a bit along this section--he'd left the aid station before me, but I ran slowly past him, and I looked to my left at the "back" portion of the course along a fire road below us, where I saw defending women's champion Tracy Garneau pass by. Within a short amount of time, we hit the prescribed mileage and cut to our left along newly created trail that was difficult to make sense of since it wasn't really trail at all. I stopped myself once in my tracks, correctly believing that I'd gone slightly off course by a few yards. Before long, Skip and I were running side by side along the fire road.
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
We were able to direct a few runners who inadvertently (I can only assume) attempted to cut off the out and back with a direct route from Mosquito Ridge to the fire road. It was one of the shortest sections between aid stations, and I barely had to top off my water bottle before heading along to Dusty Corners.
Miller's Defeat to Dusty Corners (Miles 34.4 to 38)
Split card: 35 minutes/12:57 pace
Actual split: 32 minutes/10:14/50th place
Skip and I clipped along, with me leading the way, in a series of miles that felt easier, and got faster, than either of us expected. Much of it went downhill, dropping over 1200 feet in under 4 miles. We worked so well as a team, passing a few runners along the way, that Skip rightly observed that it was like we each already had a pacer. The miles were clicking off so well, though, that we purposely slowed down in an effort to conserve some energy for the difficult terrain just around the corner. Dusty Corners, that is.
Dusty Corners to Last Chance (Miles 38 to 43.8)
Split card: 45 minutes/8:29 pace
Actual split: 44 minutes/49th place
It may have been a product of how good I was feeling, but I remember looking off to my right along this section. The view was spectacular--a huge canyon, a river raging somewhere below, so remote that I commented to Skip that no more than a few thousand eyes probably ever lay eyes on it in a year. We continued to value our teamwork, and Last Chance arrived faster than either of us expected. Skip got through the aid station faster than me, and we didn't unite until the finish line.
I guess I entered Last Chance in good spirits, because I bumped into a woman I learned was the aid station captain the next day when she met up with her just-finished husband who borrowed one of our chairs for a respite for his tortured feet. She took one look at my face and exclaimed, "I remember you! I'd remember that smile anywhere! You were smiling when you entered our aid station, and you were so nice to everyone. You looked like you were going pretty strong." It meant so much to hear these words from her. Running brings me so much joy, and I'm glad it was apparent to a complete stranger hard at work over 40 miles into the race. I only wish the kind folks at Dardanelles a little later down the trail could have said the same thing about me...but of course, we'll get there eventually.
Last Chance to Devil's Thumb (Miles 43.8 to 47.8)
Split card: 1 hour 10 minutes/15:33 pace
Actual split: 1 hour 9 minutes/48th place
The drop from Last Chance into Deadwood Canyon is extreme, over 1800 feet in just 2 1/2 miles. It was early enough that my quads didn't feel the pain yet, and I crossed over the swinging bridge suspended over the thundering waters of the crystal clear North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River thinking that they never would. The Deadwood Cemetery, one of the only remnants of the old mining town of the same name, appeared at some point on my right, making me wonder how many runners considered making it their final resting place.
In his prerace instructions, Andy told me about a cool stream that fell off the mountainside just past the bridge before the climb to Devil's Thumb. He encouraged me to take 30 seconds to cool off in its icy waters, and even to refill my water bottles there if I needed to do so, since the water is that pure. I did cool off under its chilly flow, but I decided that it wasn't necessary to risk a bout of giardia when I returned to St. Louis.
The climb from the bottom of Deadwood Canyon to Devil's Thumb is perhaps the most brutal one on the course, even if it's not the longest or steepest. It's "only" a bit more than a mile in distance, and the switchbacks are supposed to reduce the grade of the climb to something manageable. But how hard is it? There's no other way to put this: it's awful. I've heard even some of the front runners walk stretches here. It was the middle of the day, and temperatures were rising. This video captures my enthusiasm.
How did it feel? Count to 36 (the number of switchbacks) over 45 or 50 minutes, with no other thought in your mind other than how good it will feel to be done with the climb. I was not exaggerating when I told the aid station volunteers I finally reached at the top of the mountain that it was the hardest physical act I have ever been through. They rewarded me with a popsicle.
Devil's Thumb to El Dorado Canyon (Miles 47.8 to 52.9)
Split card: 45 minutes/8:49 pace
Actual split: My first Garmin died after 40 miles, and there wasn't an accurate record of splits kept at this remote aid station. I know I was passed by several runners along here.
I took my time out of Devil's Thumb, knowing that I was not even halfway through this race yet. I walked the first mile out of the aid station, relishing the chill of the popsicle, the ice cold "car wash" sponge bath, and the ice cubes I put in my hat to melt slowly over my head. Before long I started running and found myself on downhill single track into El Dorado Canyon. The miles clicked away again as I descended over 2000 feet in just over four miles. My quads were now screaming, and I remember feeling so isolated after losing contact with two runners who started near me that I had to look for the yellow ribbons that marked the trails. I was convinced on one occasion that I must have missed a turn and gone off course, despite there being no cross trails along this stretch. In retrospect, this was a sign that my mind was starting to tire.
The canyon rose again off in the distance to my right, and I knew that my crew was somewhere out there in the distance, waiting for me. For the first time, the burn in my legs caused me a little concern. I passed the halfway point and soon reached the El Dorado aid station. They tossed a cold bath towel over my shoulders, offering some encouragement that I was close enough to the front of the pack that only a few other runners had used the same towel thus far that day. I thanked them, crossed the bridge at the base of the canyon, and started my journey toward my parents, who were waiting for me at Michigan Bluff.
El Dorado to Michigan Bluff (Miles 52.9 to 55.7)
Split card: 50 minutes/17:51 pace
Actual split: 53rd place; I entered Michigan Bluff on a near-perfect overall pace, though I still didn't have an accurate reading. It was 1 hour 55 minutes after I left Devil's Thumb, and I'd run 7.9 miles. That's a bit slower than 14 1/2 minute miles.
The climb up to Michigan Bluff is a bit over 1000 feet in less tan three miles. Devil's Thumb was much more difficult, except for the fact that it came first. There were stretches here that I should have run, or at least could have run, but my legs refused. I continued my hike, joined nearby at one point by former Leadville 100 champion Helen Cospolich of Colorado. I introduced myself, first name only since I knew I wasn't in any shape to remember her last name, and we hiked as hard as we could. As I neared Michigan Bluff, where I'd see part of my crew, my parents, for the first time since the starting line, I kept thinking that I was hearing it just around the corner. My Garmin had died at Mile 40, so I had no idea how fast I was moving or how far I had to go. Unlike the other climbs, which had stretches of shade, the climb up to Michigan Bluff was much more exposed, and the sun beat down on my body, not to mention my spirit.
I was drawing closer to Michigan Bluff when I heard a holler from on high come rushing down to me in the canyon: "Let's go, Chad!" I thought it might have been my dad, and I wondered where he was that he could see me approaching. I later learned it was my friend Mike Holmes, who was cheering on several runners that day, and he was just guessing that I was in earshot. My eyes filled with tears at the thought of reuniting with my parents, and I marched onward and upward. The ground soon leveled out in front of me, and I broke into a jog past the weathered wooden sign identifying my next destination.
The tears gushed as I laid eyes on my parents for the first time in over ten hours. I stepped onto the medical tent scale, passing that test, and then hit the food buffet as my empty water bottles were filled by volunteers.
My parents waited patiently a few feet away, unable to enter the tent, and I took a handful of edible something or other and walked over to them for a series of big hugs. My dad fussed with my replacement Garmin, trying to find satellites, and I explained to them, with a smile on my face, how I was feeling and exactly what I thought I'd need at Foresthill: new shoes and socks, but none of the food and drink supplies I figured I would use since the aid stations were so well stocked. I also shared the tough decision I'd made on the climb there into this little old mining town: I could no longer drink Gatorade or Coke, and I had to give up candy and other sugars, too. Surprisingly, it wasn't my stomach that rejected these items, despite my earlier worries that it would be my downfall. It was my teeth-they'd simply become too sensitive to the sugars. I gave some final instructions to my Mom and Dad for my planned stop in Foresthill, including a request that the crew have my nuun electrolyte tablets ready for me and a chair set up for a shoe and sock change, since I knew I had one more creek crossing ahead of me.
With a quick hug, I said good-bye. It occurred to me that I hadn't looked at Andy's pace card in a while, so I pulled it out and saw that it read "3:15" for Michigan Bluff. I asked someone what time it was and was surprised to learn that it was 3:17. I felt terrible, but I was on pace. That was a rejuvenating piece of information.
I started my walk/jog out of the town to the cheers of the residents and many more spectators lining the single street to cheer on the runners. Mike jogged alongside me, offering some words of encouragement. Before long, I reached the check-out point and headed on down the dirt road on my own again. It was about seven miles from Foresthill.
Michigan Bluff to Foresthill (Miles 55.7 to 62.0)
Split card: 1 hour 10 minutes/11:07 pace
Actual split: 1 hour 36 minutes/53rd place
For the first time all day, I had some familiarity with the course, having run this section in both directions on the first day of the Memorial Day weekend training runs. I even gave a quick salute to the gravesite of Tonto, 7-time champion Scott Jurek's loyal four legged running companion, that I knew to spot in the overgrown grasses alongside the trail.
Soon thereafter, though, my familiarity didn't seem to matter, as I found myself yelling back to Helen, who was about a hundred yards behind me, to confirm that we were correctly following the dirt road ever higher and higher. I knew to be looking for a left turn onto a trail, and since much of this area had been logged at one time, there were several trails that seemed to jut off in the correct direction. None, however, appeared to be our trail, and with each passing turn, I imagined that we had overshot the course. Before long I found the trail and started a hard descent down into Volcano Canyon. I'd run this as hard as I could one month earlier, about 25 miles into that training run. I was now 58 miles into my run, the longest I'd ever run before, and the loose rock and occasional switchbacks on the descent irritated my aching feet. My quads also continued their plea for mercy, but I was comforted knowing this was the last extreme downhill. Even if the bulk of the remaining trail was a net downhill, it simply wouldn't be as steep.
I reached the bottom of the canyon, where the Volcano Creek crossing was set up. The thigh-high, ice cold water felt spectacular on my legs, but the bad part about crossing the creek was that another long climb awaited on the far shore. I again set into a hard hike, but the effort was increasingly difficult, as my legs and spirit were battered by the miles and the sun overhead. I found myself hands on knees on multiple occasions. There seemed to be no end to this thousand foot, 1 1/2 mile climb.
I finally emerged to the paved Bath Road, a small aid station just a mile or so out of Foresthill. My pacer Jay was waiting for me there, and he greeted me with a "Hey, buddy!"
He was ready to run ahead with instructions for my crew if I needed him to do so, but I decided I'd rather have his company. Armed with full water bottles, we walked up a paved hill I'd have been able to run on a regular day.
Before long we reached the summit, and for the very first time all day, we shared the course with traffic.
Fans lined the shoulder, politely fibbing that I "looked good," when in reality I probably looked like hell. Jay and I picked up the pace, and we made the final decision that there was no need for him to run ahead to our crew car, since I was getting the supplies I needed from the aid stations. I entered the Foresthill aid station to a loudspeaker blasting the news of my arrival, and after a quick weight check showed that I was still on target, I popped a few slices of watermelon and oranges before we started a slight downhill journey through the town to my entire crew alongside the road.
I felt terrible when I arrived, and my emotions started getting the best of me. I was choked up as we approached, glad to have my sunglasses on. As my crew-consisting of my wife, my parents, my daughter, my mother-in-law, and my friends Jeff and Pam, not to mention Mike, who'd found us again after Michigan Bluff-reeled me in with their cheers, I started a round of hugs and even a sloppy kiss to my better half. For the first time since Mile 30 at Mosquito Ridge, I plopped down in a chair. My gear was spread on a blanket in front of me, and I could easily point to anything I needed as my crew went to work.
Beth and Pam each took charge of a foot, removing my socks and shoes (a task that deserved a much better salary than volunteer). We were all relieved to see my feet were largely blister-free, a testament to my DryMax socks. The struggle started when they tried to put the clean socks on. The DryMax material is skintight, and they couldn't slide them on my dirty feet. I was forced to struggle with them, leaning over into a leg tightening mess that exponentially increased percentage of words starting with "f" coming out of my mouth. It got worse when we couldn't find my headlamp, which I wanted to put in my pack, and I violated at least two of the Ten Commandments when I learned that my mom had picked it up off the blanket and set it near me on the car's tailgate. Before long, but after what felt like an eternity, I was ready to go. Some quick hugs, a promise to see folks at Mile 79, 93, or the the finish, as appropriate, and a deep breath later, and Jay and I set off down the paved road toward the California Street road sign that served as our entrance marker for the section of trail known as "Cal Street." I was still hurting, but I was more familiar with this section of the course than any other...and it typically proves to be fast. Typically.
Foresthill to Dardanelles/Cal 1 (Miles 62.0 to 65.7)
Split card: 40 minutes/10:49 pace
Dardanelles/Cal 1 to Peachstone/Cal 2 (Miles 65.7 to 70.7)
Split card: 1 hour/12:00 pace
Actual split: 1:46 minutes from Foresthill (6 minutes off pace)/56th place
Peachstone/Cal 2 to River via Ford's Bar/Cal 3 (Miles 70.7 to 78)
Split card: 1 hour 15 minutes/10:16 pace
Actual split: 1 hour 26 minutes/47th place
The section from Foresthill to the iconic American River crossing at Rucky Chucky is commonly known as "Cal Street." It's said to be a downhill section of the course, and much of it certainly is.
At Andy's urging, Jay and I planned to have him lead me, in an effort to create a rabbit situation of sorts. I nixed that idea on the fly, deciding to set the early pace since I was struggling at that point. About a mile from Foresthill, Jay was a half stride behind me and just off my left shoulder as we descended down a steep stretch of rocky trail. We were running alone, once again on a sparsely populated trail, so I was startled by the sudden appearance of two spectators who had hiked back into the canyon. One of the two lied to me with a quick "looking good" comment, and for just a split second, I took my eyes off the trail to thank him.
Crash. Before I could say the words, I hit my foot on a rock and fell headfirst in a roll down the trail. The muscles in both legs locked up instantly, but it was my right shoulder and arm that took the brunt of the fall. I came to stop with a scream as I tried to work the cramps out of my legs. Blood streaked down the right side of my body, and, of course, the salty language came back full force. I took a minute to collect myself, but with no first aid supplies, the only thing I could do was continue onward.
After what felt like an eternity, some of it walking, we reached the vicinity of the Dardanelles aid station, a small aid station tucked gingerly into the mountainside. I first announced my need for a first aid kit to the trail spotter who radioed in my request to the volunteers a few dozen yards down the trail, but we arrived to find the volunteers still scrambling around to find the kit. I cut off their search prematurely with a shout, which I'm sure is less profane in my memory than it was in person: "Forget the first aid kit. Just give me a wet paper towel!" Finally handed one, I cleaned as much of the dirt and blood off my shoulder, arm, and leg as quickly as possible as someone filled my water bottles. After all, I wasn't going to gain any time standing around! Grumpy, frustrated, and now aching in a few new places, I turned and exited the aid station in a huff. Looking back, I know I owe those hardworking volunteers an apology for my attitude...but I just was not in a good place at that moment.
Now, remember the part where I said Cal Street was downhill? That's how I remembered it from the three prior times I'd run it. For the record, though, the second section, from Dardanelles to Peachstone, is not downhill. It's not even flat. The jagged teeth of this section just didn't chew me up when I had fresh legs. My legs were completely incapable of climbing even the smallest hill, and I was surely frustrating Jay with my unwillingness to climb. "You can run this one," he'd say, just like the good pacer he was. "No, I f'ing can't," I'd reply. I'm not sure that those quotes ever occurred in exactly those words, but that is essentially the extent of our conversation through this stretch of trail. The one benefit (my choice of words, not his) I had to running with a friend was that I didn't feel the need to chit chat with Jay. Exhibit A that I was in rough shape: no small talk!
The trail dropped toward the roaring American River along the second section of Cal Street, but for the first time, I barely noticed it. I remember being in awe of my surroundings one year earlier, a feeling that carried me through two days of training along Cal Street over Memorial Day. And there I was, on race day, completely oblivious to my surroundings.
The highlight of this section, if you want to call it that, is a steep uphill just when you think you're surely done with the quad busting downhills and annoying uphills. It covers a couple hundred feet in a quarter mile, and I think I remember my coach calling it "Six Minute Hill." It was steep, the type of climb that brings a tired runner to the classic hands on knees position more than once, and it did. On one occasion, I detected that Jay was pulling his camera out to capture the moment, and I bit his head off with the thought that automatically bounced through my head: "F you. Do you think I want to remember this moment?" The harshness of my words at that moment topped my earlier response to Jay's inquiry into the difficulty of our climb from Squaw to Escarpment: "Not now." I think I kept that one clean, but the very thought of the climbs I had earlier in the day was the last thing my battered body, and even more battered soul, wanted to discuss. I promised him a full recap when it was over, but for the very first time, somewhere along Cal Street, I wondered if it already was.
Jay knew I wanted to run sub-20, as Andy thought I could. I gave up on it somewhere along Cal Street.
"That was a 14 minute mile; we're a little off 20 hour pace, but you can make that up."
"I know, I know. I'm giving it all I've got, man. F 20 hours. We're going to have to focus on 24 hours, but I can't even walk it in from here. All I wanna do is walk. I'm doing the best I can."
"Take a gel. It'll make a difference."
And from that moment forward, any time I started falling off pace even a little, Jay reminded me to take a gel or salt tablet. I stopped cursing at him, and I started running. It was slow at first, but we joined a train of two pairs of runners somewhere along the way and started working our way through a few 10:30 miles. Soon Jay was urging me to pass them to set my own pace; I quickly shot that idea down as ridiculous since I was feeling so comfortable as the caboose. But we'd passed through Peachstone, and then Ford's Bar, and as we worked our way down to the river we opened a gap with the rest of our train. One of the guys running near us even commented that I was like a gnat, the way he couldn't drop me despite several attempts.
The uphills still required a walk, but I was running the downhills. The only annoyance was the setting sun that poked its head out from behind the canyon walls after a few of the twists and turns of the trail, forcing us to put our fogged over sunglasses back on. I didn't realize it at the time, but we'd had our breakthrough. I had fought through that moment where it can't get any worse. The darkness was lifting. It was time to race.
River to Green Gate (Miles 78 to 79.8)
Split card: 35 minutes/19:27 pace
Actual split: 31 minutes/47th place
There was no better sight along the course than the medical station just above the river crossing. It meant I'd have two chances to eat food (my diet now consisting of watermelon, bananas, strawberries, and soup broth), one chance to sit down as we rafted across the flood-level river, and a mere minutes until I got to walk up to Greengate with Beth, Jeff, and Pam.
I passed my weigh-in, and Jay and I inched our way gingerly down the rocks to the river.
The volunteers helped us into life vests, and I remember that the woman who helped me with mine had a spectacular rainbow of tattoos on her arms that drew a compliment from me. I really was coming back.
This year's river crossing, for the second straight year, was done by rafts due to high water levels following the snowy winter. I climbed aboard the raft first, with Jay closely behind me. We looked up to see two women approaching and were soon joined by eventual 10th place female finisher Pam Smith and her pacer. I could hear Beth, Jeff, and Pam cheering for us as we floated across the crystal clear waters, but I couldn't tell where they were.
I soon realized they were on a bluff above us, having been told they couldn't stand on the shore. Once we reached the shore, Jay and I tried to be gentlemen, allowing the ladies to go first, but they deferred to the fact that we had boarded first. I climbed out and walked up to the aid station for a bottle refill. I stuffed my mouth full of bananas and turned for a hug from my better half, who had run downhill to reach me. She really was a sight for sore eyes.
Not wanting to waste any time, we walked up the steep fire road climb to the Greengate aid station. This was one of only three segments where crews could join their runners along the course, and since it was steep, there was no sense in running it. We hiked, and I learned later that I hiked aggressively enough that my crew feared they'd be left behind. For reasons unknown to me at the time, I suddenly felt good. In retrospect, it probably had a lot to do with the GUs and S-Caps that I was taking on a regular basis as well as the rapidly setting sun bringing cooler temperatures. But I don't think I can underestimate the importance of spending time with my friends, laughing as we walked uphill. I'm not sure how it happened, and I certainly can't explain why, but I soon found myself singing the words, at least those I remembered, to the Wilson Phillips song "Hold On":
Someday somebody's gonna make you wanna turn around and say goodbye
Until then, baby, are you going to let them hold you down and make you cry?
Don't you know? Don't you know things can change?
Things'll go your way, if you hold on for one more day,
yeah if you hold on...
It was absurd. It was ridiculous. It was one of those moments in life where I was just so happy to be alive. I was living in the moment, surrounded by some of my best friends, and in the midst of a ton of physical pain we were laughing and having fun.
We reached the Greengate aid station faster than I could have imagined, where I found a chair set up and waiting for me. Unlike the two previous times I sat down, I had no plans to change my shoes this time. Instead, Beth looked sternly at me and said, "Three minutes. Don't think about how much time has passed. Three minutes." And I sat there, mind blank, for three minutes.
It seemed like an eternity, and yet it was over in the blink of an eye. I stood up, gave my wife a kiss, and promised to see her in another 19 miles at Robie Point. Daylight was still peaking over the top of the mountains, but dusk had struck. I flipped my headlamp on and started a short descent into the woods.
For the first time all day, I was absolutely, positively convinced that I was going to finish this race. It was just a matter of whether I could do it in under 20 hours.
Green Gate to Auburn Lake Trails (Miles 79.8 to 85.2)
Split card: 1 hour 15 minutes/13:53 pace
Actual split: 1 hour 15 minutes/45th place
It took a few minutes to convince my legs it was time to run again, but Jay and I soon were running along the rolling single track on both the ups and the downs. Largely due to my tired legs, this section seemed to have a lot bumpier topography than I remembered, but I was able to run a series of 13 minute plus miles, pretty much right on the pace I needed to keep through here. The miles didn't seem to be clicking off too quickly, though, because I'd frequently ask Jay how much longer, and it seemed like he said two or three miles every single time along the entire length of this section. Before long, though, and after a few small creek crossings, we started a descent down to the ALT aid station, a remote outpost that featured a bonfire and several lit torches that shined through the darkness of our surroundings. Because it was a medical station, I weighed in to discover I'd actually gained a small amount of weight. I don't think we spent more than 2-3 minutes at the aid station, quickly exiting into the woods through a small creek crossing that reminded my feet with a chill that there were still plenty of challenges ahead of us.
ALT to Brown's Bar (Miles 85.2 to 89.9)
Split card: 55 minutes/11:42 pace
Actual split: 59 minutes/41st place
The trail out of Auburn Lake Trails is quite runnable. I don't remember much about this section, other than the fact that we started clicking a few sub-12 minute miles. In fact, the Garmin shows splits of 11:32, 11:16, 11:18, and 10:55 for a four mile stretch somewhere along here. We passed a few people, usually when the runner was bent over, hands on knees, emptying his stomach. By comparison, I was feeling good. In fact, I believe it was in this stretch that Jay took a hard fall. I turned back toward him to shout, "Are you okay?" He confirmed that he was, and I was grateful for that because if I'd stopped running to attend to him, I'm not sure I would have been able to get going again. He quickly caught up to me, handheld flashlight providing a little extra guidance, and it wasn't until later that I learned how dinged up he got on the fall.
Unlike last year, the portion here where the trail doubles back on itself didn't reveal the dancing fireflies of headlamps across the canyon this year. It didn't occur to me then, but I realize now it was because we simply didn't have a lot of company around us on the trails. This was okay, because Brown's Bar reached us about a half mile before we reached it, the sounds of "We're an American Band" blasting through the silence of the night. The party was in full force, with the hash hound harriers manning the station throwing back their favorite fluids. In true harrier tradition, several of the men were wearing dresses.
Jay needed water, but he was hesitant to have them hassle with his pack, which was proving difficult to open in the dark. I reminded him that I'd need him for the final 10 miles, so we were going to take the time to make sure he was hydrated. I slammed down a GU and S-Cap ahead of schedule, figuring it couldn't hurt, and drank a cup of broth. Just as we were about to leave, I recognized one of the volunteers from the first morning of my Memorial Day training weekend. He was filming the goings-on at the aid station, and I walked over to say hello. I think he was surprised that I remembered his name, and even more surprised that I was already at this aid station. Back in May, he'd chuckled at my North Face visor bearing the the Chicago Marathon-inspired motto "Like the Wind," insinuating that a guy from the Midwestern flatlands would be eaten up by the rugged terrain out west, not running like the wind. In only our second meeting, I think he was being honest when he told me that I was looking strong. For once, I really believed it.
Brown's Bar to Highway 49 (Miles 89.9 to 93.5)
Split card: 50 minutes/13:53 pace
Actual split: 50 minutes/39th place
It was a rugged descent out of Brown's Bar, the trail filled with loose rocks and rutted-out footing. We gingerly descended, and I may or may not have suffered another fall. The trail leveled out on some fire road for a while, where we crossed paths with a strange long-tailed dark furred animal that I guess, in retrospect, was a marmot. Jay and I both shined our lights in its direction, because it didn't seem to be too concerned with us, and we were mystified as to what, exactly, it was. We shortly thereafter started a long, hard, brutally draining climb up a narrow horse trail to Highway 49. I knew this climb was coming, but I still don't think I was ready for it. The climb lasted a bit over a mile, and I cursed it the entire way. At one point, I had a Gatsby-like moment, seeing a bright light ahead that I believed signified the end of our climb. The trail turned slightly, and just like Daisy's green light represented the unattainable dream to Gatsby, it appeared that I was imagining it. I soon chalked it up to trail-marking glowstick. Shortly thereafter, though, I realized I wasn't seeing things--there really was a bright light ahead, and we climbed onward toward it, reaching it just before taking a sharp left for a short jaunt overlooking the aid station below us just across its namesake, Highway 49.
A year earlier, I stopped here with Fernando so he could chug his water bottles, so concerned were we with his weight for this final weigh-in. This time, I took a quick swig and announced my arrival. The squad car lights blinded me as we were waved across the road to the aid station. My parents cheered our arrival, and I could tell another voice had joined them. I looked over to the gathered crowd and saw my friend Rusty had driven out to show his support. I passed my weigh-in, and we exited after a minute or two, bottles full for a final push through the seven remaining miles.
Jay and I already had discussed our strategy going forward, and while we both were growing more and more certain that a sub-20 hour finish was possible, we knew anything could happen in the final miles of the race. I shouted to my mom and dad that we planned to be aggressive to the finish line. I'm not sure they had any doubt it'd be any other way.
Highway 49 to No Hands Bridge (Miles 93.5 to 96.8)
Split card: 50 minutes/15:09 pace
Actual split: Approximately 35 minutes
The first half mile out of the Highway 49 aid station is a steep climb along yet another rutted out trail. Jay and I hiked aggressively, knowing that this climb was short and immediately dropped into a smooth trail that would allow us to fly, if my legs allowed it. Jay continued to do the math, since my brain was some sort of mush that rejected the very idea of arithmetic, and determined that we had to run approximately 13 1/2 minute miles to go sub-20. I hadn't run that slow since my approach into Auburn Lake Trails, and the trail ahead was largely forgiving. Yet we both knew that nothing was guaranteed.
The climb was soon over, and we reached the section of the course known as the Meadow. It's a slight downhill trail through tall grasses; in other words, this section of the course is appropriately nicknamed. The path is wider than most of the single track we'd been running on, though not always wide enough to be double track, and it's not rocky, rooty, or otherwise technical. It seemed faster that night than the two previous times I'd run it, and I started a hard pace through it. Jay moved up alongside me, just behind my shoulder, in an effort to illuminate the trail more brightly. The worst thing that could have happened at that moment was another fall.
I remember Jay and I laughing as we ran through the Meadow, since it seemed almost comical that my legs could hammer out these miles at Mile 94 of the race. Thankfully, I have the Garmin records, showing back to back 9:15 and 9:12 miles, to prove that it was possible! As each mile split registered, we knew we'd just banked another four minutes or so toward our finishing goal. We were in a race against the clock, and it felt good to know that we were creating a small buffer, just in case.
We soon started down a steeper downhill overlooking the American River and the Christmas light-illuminated No Hand's Bridge, our next aid station. From our elevated position, the trail ran past the aid station on our descent, and it required some hopping over log steps built to prevent erosion. The river roared in the distance, and when we finally hooked back around and reached the aid station, I roared with it, "Runner 189 arriving and departing. Just passing through." The volunteers marked their split sheets as we ran off across the bridge. The only thing I could see ahead of me was total darkness, but through the black of the night, I knew we'd find the light in the form of the city of Auburn and the stadium lights over the Placer High School track.
No Hands Bridge to Finish (Miles 96.8 to 100.2)
Split card: 50 minutes/14:42 pace
Actual split: Approximately 41 minutes/38th place
When I ran it on Memorial Day, I remember being surprised to see the trail up to Auburn in daylight. It started out mostly flat, and very runnable, for about 1 1/2 miles. I thought back to one year earlier, when Fernando and I were pursuing his silver belt buckle, and how incredibly steep the entire section felt to me then. There is a steep section, but it's only the final mile of the climb toward Robie Point, the aid station at the outskirts of town, a mere 1.3 miles of paved road running along residential streets.
Jay and I continued our attack on the course, a tad slower than before with a 10:44 mile split. I remember Jay telling me that "Sub-20 was in the bag," only to draw a quick rebuke from me: "Nothing is in the bag until I cross that finish line!" As expected, the trail took a steep climb up upward on a 700 plus foot ascent toward the city lights glowing over the ridge in the distance. We hiked as hard as we could, Jay taking the lead to provide some navigational guidance and that "rabbit" effect I had wanted to utilize over the entirety of the final 40 miles. The steepness of the climb brought me to my familiar hands on knees pose on several occasions, but Jay did his best cheerleading and reminded me of how close we were. Unlike the lead women who passed through this section ninety minutes before us, we never spotted the menacing figure of a black bear along the trail. We simply marched on, as I wondered out loud how a mile could seem so long.
And then we reached some more Christmas lights marking our return to civilization, the aid station at Robie Point. Beth saw me, or at least, my headlamp, before I saw her, and her cheers caused me to pick up my pace even more. My first words to her were more of a warning than a welcome: "You better be ready to run, babe!" She was, and I again called out my arrival and departure in one quick sentence, foregoing the aid station. Beth and I exchanged hugs and a kiss, and the three of us fell into a line as my feet hit the black paved roads of the City of Auburn. Our next stop was the finish line.
The only problem is that there's a very steep climb that last a good half mile on your way back into civilization. Jay flipped the camcorder option on his camera on along here, and after one gets past my final f-bomb of the day, you can hear me moan, "I am so sick of climbing." Because I was. My legs were shot, and here I had to get over this one final hump. Beth offered her encouragement, and we eventually reached the peak of my last climb for the day. Some of the neighbors had rolled out the welcome mat, celebrating our arrival with cheers, whistles, and the ringing of a bell. It was a spectacular welcome, and my only regret is that I was so focused on the finish line that I barely had a chance to soak it all in.
The road starts downhill after that, and we picked up our pace to a steady jog that quickly started speeding up. We passed two runners brought to a slow jog and a walk, respectively, all the while gaining speed with each stride. We weaved through the neighborhoods, the glow of the stadium lights overhead, but still out of sight, serving as our navigational beacon, and with a left turn the lights burst into view.
My pace quickened, and I made the right turn downhill through the gate onto the glowing track.
My family and friends burst into cheers, and the loyal spectators out to cheer on complete strangers applauded eagerly. I heard bits and pieces from the voice of John Medinger booming over the loudspeaker, "Chad Silker of Ballwin, Missouri," but my mind was focused on the opportunity to share this moment with those I love. My crew joined me for the victory lap, as I hammered those final 300 meters at a furious pace, for a guy who'd just run 100 miles anyway.
A voice erupted over all of the hubbub associated with our celebration, shouting in perfect rhythm, "SILKY! SILKY! SILKY!" over and over. I saw my friend Greg, who attended law school with Beth and me and now lives in Sacramento, running across the infield toward us as we made our way around the final turn. About to hit the homestretch for one final kick, I reached over to Beth, squeezing her hand in an expression of gratitude. I was 100 meters from achieving my dream.
I had always imagined that I'd be overcome by emotion, tears falling down my face, the way I was after several important marathons, including my first one, my first sub-3, and my huge PR at Boston, or the way I did when I watched Fernando cross that same finish line in 2010, or even the way I did when I finally reached my parents, and then my wife, earlier that afternoon. I'm a fairly emotional guy, armed with fully-loaded tear ducts. At this moment of achievement, one involving over 1700 miles of training, hours upon hours of planning, and years of dreaming, I fully expected to break down and sob.
But I didn't, at least not then. The adrenaline drove me forward, legs kicking like I was finishing a much shorter race, and the only sign of emotion was the huge smile on my face. I was overcome with happiness and a feeling of invincibility, not necessarily physically, but from the the knowledge that with the love and support of a wife, a family, and a group of friends from every corner of the globe, my dreams can be realized.
Arms raised in personal triumph, I crossed the finish line with an official finishing time of 19 hours 48 minutes 27 seconds.
I let loose a shout of joy, then saw my friend Ben Creehan standing in front of me. Ben had finished six minutes earlier, and it was great to see him again almost twenty hours after we chatted about meeting up in Auburn. I turned to Tim Twietmeyer, Western States legend, who placed a finisher's medal over my head, and then was ushered to the medical tent for a final weigh-in, this time with the added measures of a blood pressure check, blood sample, and urine sample.
To my surprise, I weighed 190.6 pounds, the exact same weight listed on my wristband.
I took a seat, feet submerged in an ice-filled wading pool, and chatted with anyone and everyone around me. Andy, my coach who finished in 9th place overall with a nearly twenty minute PR, shouted a congratulatory message down to me from the announcer's booth. My brother, the inspiration for my Wounded Warrior Project drive, called from Arizona.
After a while, Beth and I headed to our nearby hotel room, where I took the most painful shower of my life, the water piercing chafed hotspots found all over my body. It was shortly after 3:30 AM, and I laid down on the bed to rest while Beth cleaned up. She says that I fell asleep mid-sentence. When I awoke around 5 AM, I realized we were going to miss the cutoff for the 24 hour finishers, but we returned to the track anyway.
Around 5:05 AM, having provided the necessary samples to the medical folks that prevented me from partaking earlier, I cracked open a cold beer with my crew. We toasted an amazing day, one made possible through their encouragement and support, and cheered the many finishers still to come over the next six hours. We also tried to sleep.
After some of the adrenaline had disappeared, when my muscles started locking up and the sleep deprivation had set in, my coach joined me to hear about my day.
When I finished recounting the adventure I'd just completed, he looked at me and asked a question to which I'm sure, from merely looking at my face, he already knew the answer: Would I ever do it again?
Without missing a beat, I replied, "Oh, yeah!" Beth shook her head, a smile across her face. What did they expect to hear? It's not every day you get to achieve a dream.
This is where I say it once again, beacuse I can never say it enough: thank you, thank you, thank you!
Thank you for coming along on this journey to the finish line in Auburn. Thank you for helping to raise, to date, $14,175.00 for the Wounded Warrior Project. Thank you for tracking my progress on race day. Thank you for your pre-race messages wishing me luck, and the flood of notes congratulating me after the race.
To my wife and daughter, thank you for letting me do this at an otherwise inconvenient time in our lives. Thank you for your patience and understanding for those late dinners and early Saturday morning alarms. I could not, and would not, have done this without your support. I am lucky to have the two of you. I love you.
To my crew, including my wife, my daughter, my parents, my mother-in-law, my college roommate Jeff, my friend Pam, and my pacer Jay, plus the race day additions of Mike and Robert, thank you for putting up with me! I was grumpy. I was cursing. I was miserable. But remember, I only teared up twice-the first two times I approached my crew. Your emotional support, not to mention Beth and Pam's willingness to touch my dirty feet, was invaluable.
Special thanks to Jeff, Pam, and Mike, who captured so much of the day through their lenses, allowing me to have a huge number of memories preserved forever, as the day's vividness starts to fade in my memory just a bit.
Jay, I treated you like an old dog in those early miles, cursing and kicking at you when you tried to help me out. Know that I treasured the chance to run those miles with you, and your ability to motivate me to rise up from the ruins when I thought it impossible will always be remembered. Is it time for another GU yet?
Greg and Meghan, thanks for being there at the finish line in the middle of the night quite a few miles from home. I'll never forget the rush of Greg's chant.
And to the wounded warriors, and all of our men and women in uniform, thank you for the example you set each and every day. Your sacrifice and dedication inspired me daily. I had one tough day; so many of you live through tough months, years, and for those injured or affected by the horrors of war, lifetimes. Thank you for your sacrifices. Godspeed.
This experience was fuller, more rewarding, and more memorable because each and every one of you was there with me, whether in the flesh or in spirit. Thank you all.