Western States for me was an opportunity to compete in a trail running event that is rich in history which has, and continues to, attracted a lot of quality runners. I first read about WS in Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Ultramarathon Man’ which I read in the lead up to the Australian 2008 North Face event. The account of his first attempt made it sound like a truly epic event and something which I one day wanted to experience.
I first tried to enter into the 2010 Western States event but was unsuccessful in the lottery. I therefore didn’t have any high hopes when I again tried to get into the 2011 event, but was nicely surprised when my name was called out in the lottery. Being informed in early November that you had been accepted into an event held at the end of June seemed like a long time (which it is) but as I found out it wasn’t long enough.
The end of 2010 and beginning of 2011 was to be my busiest running schedule to date. I had GNW 100 mile in November, Mud Run in December, B2H in January, Cradle in February, Six Foot in March, Mt Solitary in April and TNF100 in May, plus a monthly 10km road race, which would be my lead in to WS. All was going to plan until I had an incident in a training run prior to Mt Solitary. What started as a bruise to the outside of my knee turned into a strained upper calf muscle which turned into an ITB injury. I still did Mt Solitary but knew that it was not looking good for WS, although it was still months away. My training went from over 100km a week to almost nothing for the week following Mt Solitary, to nothing in the following week to nothing for the week following that also. This went on for a while and at the same time I was becoming increasingly angry, frustrated, disappointed and worried. My goals and targets for TNF100 and WS were constantly being assessed. It go so bad that for a while I ceased to discuss any races for a while with Brian (my husband). Also to complicate matters, WS would be our first trip overseas and it was mostly organised and paid for. Plus my mother was joining us, and this only added to the pressure.
My decision to compete in TNF100 was finaly confirmed on the Friday morning before the event after just a 2km jog. This was a seriously tough decision for me to not start. It would be the first time I would have a DNS against my name. Although a lot of people gave me support by saying that the ‘A’ race was WS and that is what I should be focusing on, it was still really tough. For me it was also a lost opportunity to race against the girls from Team Salomon on a course which I know and love.
The six weeks between TNF100 and WS I stretched lots and did my exercises, but I was still facing the dilemma, ‘how do I train for 100 miles without running?’ On the Queen’s Birthday long weekend I managed to get my ITB injury under control and did legs 5 and 6 of GNW100m with Andrew Vize and Ian Gallagher. Darrel Robins joined us for leg 6. It was good to be back running and the company was a good distraction, but I know where my fitness level was, somewhere between the sole of my foot and the sole of my shoe. I pushed on and did leg 7 for a total of 70km, the longest run I had done since Cradle. I backed it up with 4 more runs spread over the following Sunday and Monday of the long weekend for a total of 140km. That had been my biggest period of running for months. That would be the last of my training as the following Thursday I flew out of Sydney for San Francisco.
San Fran was nice and proved to be a good distraction before WS. It allowed me to relax and enjoy some therapeutic shopping at outrageously cheap prices. On the way back from shopping we passed a park in Presidio which was advertising a Half-Marathon Trail Race the next day, still a week out from WS. It appealed to Brian so we checked it out on the web that night and decided to run it. The plan was to stick with Brian and pace (push) him and for me to take it easy. We arrived at the park located on the south side of the bay on a cloudless San Fran morning with the Golden Gate Bridge in its full glory. After paying the entry fee we lined up in the middle of the 160 odd starters. Not knowing the course we followed the procession of other to the first out and back section which was all flat and followed the walking trail east around the bay. I stayed with Brian as he counted the other girls heading back, 1, 2, 3…, “Beth your tenth, off you go”. It was tempting but this was not supposed to be a race. As we headed back towards where we had started the hills were looming and I could sense that Brian was pushing hard. He kept saying, “ ninth is there is blue, eighth is there in green and just ahead is seventh in red”, “come on Beth top 5 wouldn’t be pushing it, off you go.” When the hills started (7km) I dropped Brian and ran ahead under the Golden Gate and then south down along the Pacific Coast. The field was slow and it didn’t take much to knock the girls off. I was happy to finish and although I could ‘feel’ my leg it wasn’t hurting or causing discomfort. Brian got a P.B. so he was happy too.
Acclimatising at Emigrant Pass.The Sunday before WS we drove out to Lake Tahoe, which would be our base in the lead up to the event. This is when I first started to focus seriously on the event. It was also when I started to have those prerace nerves; will I have problems at altitude, how should I run in snow, what should I take, will the heat affect me, will I finish? On the Monday morning I jogged/walked with Brian from Squaw up to the Emigrant Pass. The snow was fairly thick and covered the top half of the trail. The climb took us nearly 2 hours, something which a 24hr runner should be able to do in 55 minutes. At the top I felt fine at that altitude which was one less worry for me. On the way up me met up with another runner, Craig, who was doing WS for the first time. He was a good source of information and company on the way up. We decided that we should meet up again on the Tuesday morning and go up to Emigrant Pass again to help acclimatise. So on Tuesday just Craig and I went to the top. This time we took 85minutes and I could feel my hands swell up and my head was feeling a little light. How would I feel on Saturday? Wednesday we tried to drive to Robinson Flat. The drive was long but scenic. The higher we got the more snow we encountered and rounding one bend in the road we saw a big black bear blocking it. “Oh crap, so there really are bears up here.” We waited and it slowly moved off. A few miles from Robinson Flat the snow covered everything and although the snow plough seemed to have done a good job of clearing most of the road it abruptly stopped, and so did we infront of an 8ft high face of snow! It was obvious that Robinson Flat would not be open for crew access. We headed back to Michigan Bluff where Brian and I headed out for a short run to Foresthill. This section was only 10km but took us nearly 2hrs as we managed to do a bit of additional sight seeing, mostly of large footprints in the dust. This event was quickly looking like a smorgus board of runners for wildlife to feed on. It was also looking increasingly like a 30hr finish for me. Thursday was a rest day ahead of Friday which was a day of processing and briefing. I had read most of the posts speculating what the course was going to be, the effects on time, etc, so it was good to listen to the actual facts at the briefing. The 2011 course was to use a new snow route which luckily for me kept us out of the higher altitudes. Also on Friday I was able to catch up with some of the other Aussies, Andrew, Marcus, Brian, Caroline and Matt Meckenstock (QLD boy) who had offered to pace me. He was over to initially do the Tahoe 100 miler which due to injury and lack of training got reduced to the 50miler then a DNS. We sounded like a really good team. Matt was a little unsure about his abilities but committed himself to at least 20miles but Brian was hoping he would tough it out for the whole lot so that I was less likely to be eaten.
I didn’t get much sleep the morning before the run but still managed to get to the start line. We estimated that the temperature at the start was just 2deg C. I had something to eat then lined up with the others at the start line. As the count down begun and the gun sounded all I thought was ‘Oh Shit’. I fought for a little space and followed Andrew up the road to the first CP in the dim light. People soon found their own rhythm and the field started to stretch out a little. It was comforting to have done this part of the trail twice before.
It was cold before the start.Up in the snow I was finding the footing very difficult. It was tiring and no one seemed to have the same stride length as me. I managed to fall over twice and graze my knees in the snow. All up I think it lasted for 17 miles and I was glad to get back onto firmer ground.
I started to feel a little nauseous around Mosquito Ridge (31miles). I had felt this way before in races but never this early or the bad and never with the feeling of really wanting to throw up. I had always thought that giving in to it would mean the end of my race, that I would need to drop out or potentially be pulled due to a decreasing body weight, something which wouldn’t take much given my frame. I suppressed the feeling for as long as I could until I finally gave in and opened up. I instantly felt physically better, but mentally I was in a bad place. I was in an unfamiliar place. Should I push on, should I wait a bit, what should I do? I let my legs move me forward while my head thought about it. The next CP was Devil’s Thumb where we had a medical check. I got weighed and was surprised that my body weight had changed very little given what had just occurred. While all this was going on I had completely forgotten about my ITB and moved on down the trail.
At Michigan Bluff I was met by Mum who had a bag of goodies for me. This was the first point at which our crew could access the course, 56miles. Here I changed shoes and socks, topped up with some Powerade and a handfull of familiar food. Then it was off on to the only other part of the trail that I had run the Wednesday before.
Heading into Foresthill I met up with Brian and Matt before the CP. Brian said that he had been following my progress and knew that I had had some low points given my times at the previous CP’s. Apparently I was on target for a 21hr finish and in just one leg between Devil’s Thumb and El Dorado Creek had dropped to 22hrs. This is where my splits sat for more than half the run. Mum had told him that I wasn’t looking good that that she was starting to get worried about me, more worried that than usual. I’m glad that Brian told her to suppress her fears and to just push me on towards the finish. Down the road I ran with Matt by my side to a long procession of applause and encouragement from the other support crews who lined the half kilometer of road out of the Foresthill CP.
We didn’t have to go down the trail too far before I threw up again, and again. Matt was a great support and patiently waited until I was finished before offering me encouragement, then off we went again.
We were loosing the last of the twilight and turned on out head torches as we approached Rucky Chucky. We didn’t need them for long as there was plenty of light emanating from the Nearside CP. I had a bit to eat before making my way down to the river and the awaiting raft. Across the other side we were met by Brian who had walked down from the Green Gate CP. I picked up some fruit on the way out of the Farside CP and together we walked up the hill. It wasn’t long before I showed Brian what I had been doing for most of the run so far and so when I had finished we pushed on again. Brian let me know that I was still on target for a 22hr finish, something that I simply could not believe given my performances at the side of the trail and slowing rate, but he was adamant that I was doing enough. This was also the point at which Matt had originally intended to drop out. Although we were going quite slow I know that it had been a long day for him too as he had been at Squaw for the start. Thankfully he showed no signs of quitting and stuck with me.
We arrived at Green Gate CP where I saw Mum then left her with Brian and took off again with Matt to the next CP. This is where I started to feel a little better and started to have a second wind. Heck, I had waited long enough for it to return. We picked up our pace a little and started to overtake a few people, which is a boost in its own right.
At the Highway 49 crossing we were met by Brian and Mum again who were still waiting patiently for us to arrive. After a quick exchange of words and their encouragement we pushed on. We headed down to No Hands Bridge which was nicely lit up along its entire length. It would have made a lovely spot for some alfresco dining, but the finish was so close so we passed up the opportunity.
Brian was waiting in the morning chill at Robie Point for Matt and I to arrive. He later said that he knew it was us as Matt is twice my height wearing my Ay-Up, looking like a towering beacon over my much lower and dimmer headlight. When we picked him up all I could see was the next runner just ahead. Before the finish I was determined to catch just one more person, so I power walked the hill up to the bitumen, then I started to run the remaining undulating hills. Brian stuck with me (which is a change) but Matt struggled a little, although he dug deep and managed to stay with us. I managed to pass the other runner and continued on towards the finish, running the last little bit to the end. Although the finish line was a little subdued compared to all those CP before it it was still a good sight to finish under the clock which read 22:16:28.
I didn’t manage to achieve all my initial targets for the race but I am extremely happy to have finished and got a silver belt buckle in the process. There is always next year. A big congratulations to Andrew Vize who, as always, manages himself well in these events and to Robin and Caroline. A perfect finish record for the 2011 Aussie contingent, when some of us had not had the perfect lead up to the event.
In retrospect, and after some seriously sleeping and recovery, I really enjoyed the WS experience. The course was a good challenge covering all sorts of terrain including the previously unfamiliar one of snow. In the daylight the views were spectacular and offered a good distraction. The checkpoints were overkill and I was not used to being so spoiled so frequently. Some resembled more of a party than a CP and at these I felt like a gate crasher. I hope WS for me isn’t just an event which has been ticked off the bucket list, but one which I will get the opportunity to do again.
I would like to thank all those people who gave me their support and encouragement leading up to WS. I am glad that you have more confidence in my ability than I do.