I went in thinking it was all about a buckle, and I left knowing it’s all about enjoying the experience with family and friends.
Waiting for my nerves to kick up as we pulled into the parking lot of Olympic Village, but I found myself to be relaxed and confident. It was a calm, mild morning and while most people seemed to be anxious to start I stood with my crew and felt at ease. Runners and crews were hustling around taking care of last minute details but I stood stoic waiting for the gun to go off. There was nothing I could do at this point that was going to make or break my race so I just watched the clock tick down. Shuffling toward the middle of the crowd I found myself surrounded by members of Team RWB. Knowing my teammates were standing next to me about to embark on the same 100-mile journey allowed me to stay loose.
The energy of the field was electric as we made our way up the Escarpment. I knew working hard on the climb wasn’t going to pay dividends so I found a comfortable hiking pace. The bright ball of fire began to rise as I got closer to the top. One of the most amazing sites I have ever seen in a race. Being just a few miles into a long day there was no reason not to momentarily stop and catch the incredible sunrise. Winded and tired from the climb I was hesitant about taking off on the first long stretch of downhill. We were only at 8700 feet of elevation but my lungs felt like I was breathing through a straw. Not quite a wheezing sound but very labored. I was gasping for air at one of the most inopportune times. My race plan was completely dependent on making up time running hard downhill while conserving energy on the climbs. I was only seven miles into the race and my energy level just kept dropping. I wasn’t being passed by other runners but I found it hard to keep up with anyone running downhill. My body was working hard on the downhill even though I was keeping a smooth, steady pace. The pace should have been well within my comfort zone without elevating my heart rate but I couldn’t control it. I could feel it spike when I was running a 7:30 downhill mile. Just two weeks prior I was running 5:30 downhill at ease, and now I could barely muster the energy needed to run downhill without taking a break. While exercise induced asthma clearly affects me more at altitude I should have been fine dropping down the hill. Immediately thoughts of calling it a day started to pop into my head but I just kept repeating “don’t be a p**sy today”.
If I was going to have a good day I would need to run uncomfortable at times. Slowly my breathing improved and before I knew it I was entering Duncan Canyon aid station. This aid station is extremely difficult to get to, and requires a three hour drive from the start but it was packed with crew, volunteers, and friends. My enthusiasm increased as I saw friends and heard the cheers of the crowd. I was in and out with a quick change of gear and bottles and off I went to Robinson Flat. Flying out of the aid station I descended as hard as I could down the hill hoping to change my mental state until I reached the next climb. The three plus mile hike to Robinson Flat immediately began to take its toll on my body. Every step felt like I was lugging my pre running day’s body up the hill. Stumbling over tiny stones in the path reemphasized how little energy I had. It would have been difficult to slide a cheese slice underneath my feet as they were barely coming off the ground. I was tripping over every rock and struggling to navigate the hill. Barely able to catch my breath I found myself fading further and further behind runners I was just with moments earlier. Reaching the top of Robinson Flat had already taken its toll on me and I needed to sit and gather myself for a mental check. Everything was going according to plan except my inability to climb and acclimate to the altitude. My frustration was at an all time high since this is an area that I work on 4-5 times a week. Climbing up a 1000 foot hill should not have felt like it was my first day trying to run. For someone who lives just above sea level this was an incredibly tough start to the race for me. This 29-mile section is a constant grind with very little relief provided. Leaving the aid station left runners with a small climb to the peak and then there would be some opportunity to open up the legs. The wide road wound its way down to Miller’s defeat and then to Dusty Corners. Finally after 34 miles I felt strong and ready to run. The three miles prior to Dusty Corners were the easiest miles yet and clicking I was now passing runners left and right. Pumped up and excited to finally be coming down from elevation I felt reborn. I was in and out of Dusty Corners and making my way towards the canyons. The temperature was starting to rise but nothing that concerned this Phoenician. From Last Chance to the bottom of Devils Thumb was one of the most beautiful 2.5 mile stretches of trail I have ever been on. Single track running through the shaded woods kept me cool and the long switchbacks made the trail easy to maneuver at a fast speed. At the bottom of Devil’s Thumb was our first reward of the day. Sliding off the trail just a couple hundred feet I jumped down the rock faces and made my way to the river. Without hesitation I dove in head first and within seconds I had forgotten how poor my race had been so far. Jumping back over to the trail I made my way to the largest climb of the day.
Looking at the treetops from the river bottom wasn’t exactly good for my psyche. I knew the climb was about a 1.5 miles but I was not expecting it to be a Euro style hill where it felt like we were going straight up the side of a cliff. The switchbacks are only spaced by a few hundred feet so there is little time to gain rhythm before getting a change of direction. The carnage was mounting as I made my way up the switchbacks and I was one of them. My breathing was now at an all time low as dust filled my lungs and my mind kept telling me I wasn’t making any progress. My mind was right as the first mile coming out of the canyon had taken me 36 minutes. That is an understandable time if you take a medical stop at an aid station but unacceptable when you’re actually hiking. I found myself faltering in the second mile as well. Taking a break every couple hundred feet to gather my breath only increased the pace at which my heart beat.
Finally reaching Devil’s Thumb after 69 minutes I knew it was a nice downhill to El Dorado Creek. My muscles were over exerted from the climb but my brain was telling me to try and go. I would start and stop. This pattern continued for about a mile until Karl Hoagland came up behind me and asked me why I was holding back. He flipped the switch in my head telling me to get moving and I began weaving in and out of runners for the next few miles making up for lost time. I hit the bottom of the second canyon in no time and knew there was only one large ascent left before I left the canyons.
Going on 10 hours of wet feet it was clear that I was starting to develop hot spots on the balls of my feet. Never having had more than a tiny blister in a race I shut my mind off to the idea that continuing with wet feet for another 14 hours could be problematic. With quick drying shoes and it being the heat of the day they were bound to begin to dry out. As I began my ascent to Michigan Bluff I was again hampered by poor breathing but now I was also dealing with foot issues. The last thing I wanted to do at this point was to remove my shoes and see what my feet looked like. Besides removing a pair of wet compression socks is more painful than running 100-miles. I tried to hunker down and change my stride but everything felt the same. At this point I could tell that my feet were already a disaster so the best thing I could do was to block it out until the finish. From Michigan Bluff to Foresthill was only seven miles and crew could meet me at Bath road about a mile and a half in front of the aid station to bring me into town. My mind switched to making it to the next aid station where I would be able to pick up Jeremy to start pacing me. I was dying to for someone to talk to as the field of runners was all pretty quiet and my ipod had died when I took a swim in the river a few hours earlier.
Leaving the single track trail we bounced out on to Bath Road where we were greeted by asphalt to run on. I was well behind the pace I wanted to run at this point but it was still daylight and I was shuffling along decently. The asphalt was a complete shock to my legs so I was forced to hike the long road. After several changes of direction in the road I began to feel extremely dizzy. I need to sit down immediately and try to remedy the situation. No sooner after my ass touched the ground did I feel like I had spent a long night drinking and I was ready to purge my body of sugary gels I had been consuming for 13 hours. My heart was racing and my body was preparing for the inevitable. I tried to speed up the process by sticking my fingers down my throat but my gag reflexes made it unsuccessful. Minutes later running down Bath road was Traci and my sister Jill. I knew I was about to get an ear full for sitting on the ground but I was sick. Not ready to get any lip service I put my head down on the asphalt only to have my nap interrupted every 2 seconds by passing cars asking if I was okay. No sooner did they arrive that another car stopped and without hesitation Traci said “he’s fine”. I could hear the annoyance in her voice. What happened to that nice girl that I married 13 year ago? A couple seconds went by and then she said “just throw up and get moving. You can’t just lay here in the middle of the road”. I had just thrown up and wasn’t ready to move and then she said “if you go another 100 yards there is phone service and you can face time Petra”. Not having seen my daughter in over two weeks as she was at sleep away camp was enough encouragement to get me up and moving. Running still wasn’t happening but I was walking faster than I had in hours. Seeing that little girls face on the phone lit a fire under me and hearing her tell me how she was following the race had me pumped up.
I grabbed Jeremy at Foresthill and we made our way to the best section of the course yet. Foresthill to the American River is mostly rolling downhill and very runnable. I was an hour and a half off 24-hour pace leaving Foresthill and knew if I was going to have a shot at that silver buckle this was my opportunity. Ever so slightly pushing the pace on the easy terrain sub-24 was coming back into the picture. We were now walking just over a 13 minute mile and running around a 10-minute pace. When we were walking the runners in front of us weren’t making up any ground on us so we continued this was all the way to the river. We began picking off more runners than had passed me in the previous 6 hours I was back and feeling great.
Hitting the river we slipped on our life jackets and grabbed a hold of the rope to cross the river. The cold rush of the water felt great against my tired legs. I dunked my body down into the water a couple times to stay cooled off as we crossed. Just across the American River is the 1.25 mile climb up to Green Gate. My hands never left my quads and we pushed the pace passing 5 more runners on the way up to the aid station. I was beat down but I was starting to believe that sub-24 was still well within reach.
At Green Gate I picked up my brother in-law Kevin Conte and right out of the shoot he had me running. My watch was now dead and I couldn’t tell the pace but he was clearly watching our pace closely on his Garmin. He said we needed to run anything downhill or flat and would hike anything higher than his head. Luckily he is not a tall guy or I would have collapsed much earlier. Reaching Auburn Lakes aid station (mile 85.5) we were now within minutes of sub-24 pace. In and out we went and then it hit me. I began to lose my balance and the narrow single track felt tighter and tighter. My feet continually kicked each side of the trail from my blurred vision. Several hours with only a headlamp and sleep deprivation do some funny things to the mind. I was completely out of energy and my feet were absolutely wrecked. Twenty hours of wet feet had now given me a serious case of swamp feet. There was absolutely no point in changing my socks and shoes now with no more rivers to cross but the hot spots were growing in size. Not able to run at all we were forced to walk all the way from Auburn Trails aid station to Brown’s Bar (mile 89.9). My feet were done, I had zero energy, and even though I could smell the barn door I couldn’t will myself to move any faster. By mile 91 going sub-24 was officially gone. I would need to run 11 minute miles all the way to the finish and it simply wasn’t in the cards.
Kevin and Jeremy flipped out pacing duties at mile 93 but any hope of sub-24 had gone away. Kevin pushed me as hard as he could but my body wasn’t cooperating. Jeremy and I left Highway 49 (mile 93.5) just after 4 o’clock and even with beautiful downhill single track through the meadow I couldn’t run. The sun was rising in the distance and as much as I wanted to run faster my breathing kept shutting it down. Even with the addition of my inhaler my breathing was far too labored to pick up the pace. The dry, dusty air had filled my lungs for the last 24 hours and there was nothing left to do but hold on.
Shuffling down to Swinging Bridge (mile 96.5) we quickly grabbed some aid and began the final ascent to Robie Point. While California may be short on water, their surely not short on gorgeous trail. The climb up to Auburn is a thing of beauty. This is a perfectly groomed trail ascending into the town with the river gushing down below. Just before hitting the asphalt we bumped into Scott Bajer from Flagstaff, AZ and we decided we would take the rest of the race in together. Both of our crews met us at Robie Point and within seconds they had us running through the town and toward the track. We made the final left turn and as soon as my legs hit the track I was overcome with emotion. I had finally done it. I set out to run Western States 100 five years ago and today I crossed the finish line. Scott and I ran across the line together in 25:21. While we were both looking to run sub-24 it didn’t matter. Running a sub-24 would have been great but some days it’s not in the cards. It would have been easier to give up when sub-24 went out the window but my crew and pacers pushed me until I crossed the finish line. This race was a complete team effort and that is what makes this sport so great. Think about how great it is to have friends and family that have stood around for 25 hours helping you accomplish a goal. Huge thank you to them as this goal does not happen without them. For those wondering my feet are shredded like a fine cheese. This is the first time I have ever had something like this happen but 25 hours of wet feet are bound to do damage.
If you would like to watch the finish video click here:
Scott Bajer 86Jay Danek 160Posted by Western States Endurance Run on Sunday, June 28, 2015