Saturday, 28 June 2014

Western States Endurance Run 2014

When training for long ultras you usually never train covering the full race distance in one session. Usually you try to match the race distance with multiple runs throughout a training week that equal the race distance or greater. When you are unable to run much more than half the race distance in a training week it can lead to some interesting experiences come race day, especially in a 100 mile trail run such as Western States Endurance Run. You cannot just turn up and run with the expectation of finishing, although that is how I felt going into this years event.
Brendan Davies and I at the shrine to endurance sports at downtown Auburn.
After completing my first run at Western States back in 2011 it was a dream to be able to go back and do it all again. Every subsequent year I'd register my name in the lottery and wait with baited breath for my name to be called out again. At the conclusion of this year's lottery draw my name still wasn't called and I resigned myself to it being another unsuccessful attempt. I was very surprised however when several months later I was given one of the six available spots through the Ultra Trail World Tour. My mid-year race plans were sorted, at least I thought they were.

Following Tarawera in March I started to develop a few niggles in my leg. I couldn't run it out and it just kept getting worse. My mileage slowly dropped and still my leg didn't get better. As a result I had to withdraw from the inaugural Buffalo Stampede ultra in April. I continued to drop my mileage to almost nothing and I started to notice a decrease in discomfort while resting (watching TV). After a few weeks I started doing some short runs of less than 10km's, but I could still feel that something was not right. I did a 50km run two weeks out from The North Face 100 Australia and at the conclusion of that run I knew I wouldn't be running that event either.

In order to get some training in I joined a gym and started road cycling a little. At least I was doing some cardio while not aggravating my troublesome leg. I tried to stay positive through these critical months, where I should have be averaging 140km of running per week, by remembering that the build up to my last Western States experience was equally as poor. Four weeks out from Western States I finally decided to get an MRI which confirmed a calcaneal stress fracture (stress fracture of the heel), although the discomfort was more up the leg than at the heel itself. At this point I felt even worse for knowing.
Western States Endurance Run Monument at Squaw Valley, with Brendan Davies.

Two weeks out from race day I flew over to San Francisco with Brian and mum (Joan Rowland), although this journey was not without its own problems in that our direct flight was cancelled and we instead had a three leg flight starting the following day. Arriving over a day late in San Francisco we met up with Brendan and Nadine Davies and started our journey to Auburn. Brendan is another Aussie who also gained entry into Western States through the Ultra Trail World Tour. Our plan was to spend one week in Auburn doing recce runs on the lower parts of the course to acclimatise to the heat (40C/100F) before relocating to Tahoe City to acclimatise to the altitude (+2000m/+6000ft), both of which I felt contributed to my troubles last time.
Brian setting the pace for our recce run at Deadwood Cemetery.
Every day in Auburn I did a run with Brendan on different parts of the course. He was pretty considerate and kept to a moderate pace, however I still felt as though I was being pushed and I definitely started to notice my lack of fitness. On a few occasions Brian joined us for a run and it was good to go at a much slower pace. During these runs however I could still feel my leg. It wasn't hugely troublesome, but I just tried to ignore it and enjoy the beautiful surrounds.
One of the peaks we climbed at Squaw Valley.
After Auburn we all relocated to Tahoe City which was a good 'taper' week. Most days Brendan and I made a trip to +2600m where we would just hang out for an hour or so enjoying the view. Each day I made the climb I could feel it getting less taxing on my body and my breathing. 
I didn't show any pre race nerves.
When race day came around Brian reminded me that at least I had the opportunity to start and what happens happens, but at least I was able to start. At the obligatory 'bang' from the starter's shotgun we were off and I was able to run most of the way up. I noticed no one around was running just walking fast and the lead guys ahead were walking as well. So I decided to walk like everyone else so I didn't look out of place and reminded myself it's 100mile not a race to the top of the hill, as the first 3.5 miles (5.6km) is predominantly uphill, climbing almost 800m. I ran/walked part of this section with fellow Aussie David Eadie. As we climbed together we admired the dawning day over Squaw Valley. It looked beautiful.
The three token Aussies: David Eadie, Brendan Davies and me (L-R).
After reaching the highest part of the course, the Escarpment aid station, the track turns into single trail and was enjoyable to run on. I was running in a congo line with some of the top women which was awesome to be running near them until I fell over in front of them all. I was so embarrassed and let them all pass and slotted in behind them and did what they did. Clearly they knew better then I. 

Lyons Ridge was the next aid station at mile 10.5 (16.9km). I gabbed some food, topped up my soft flasks and was on my way. Our congo line had disappeared and I found myself running alone. I was feeling good and was enjoying the views of the valleys beyond. At this stage I certainly felt that I was running within my abilities.

Early on. Ultra Sports live TV_Nate Dunn.
Nikki Kimball passed me at the next aid station Red Star Ridge at mile 16 (25.7km). I kept sight of her all the way to Robinson Flat, after which she was out of sight for good. My first crewed aid station was Robinson Flat at 29.7 miles (47.8km) where I was met by mum and Brian. They were full of support for me and reassured me that I was well within the top 10 females. In my mind I was perfectly placed with Nikki Kimball and Meghan Arboghast, both two very seasoned to 10 female Western States finishers, around me. Shortly after Robinson Flat I was caught by Denise Bourassa whom I ran with more or less until Dusty Corners at mile 38 (61.2km).
Robinson Flat. Nick Cifuentes_FB
After Dusty Corners the temperature started to rise as we descended towards the canyons. The river crossing under the burnt out Swinging Bridge was a pleasant relief before the steep climb up to Devil's Thumb at mile 47.8 (76.9km). I overtook a few people on the climb and everyone I pass looked pretty stuffed from the heat. At every opportunity I was looking to splash water over myself. I was running with my bandana which I would dip in creeks and at aid stations into their buckets of water to keep myself cool between other opportunities. After Devil's Thumb we ran past Deadwood Cemetery before we went back down into another canyon, El Dorado Creek, which was a long downhill stretch that seemed to go on forever, before an equally long climb back out which was hard work. A video of the decent can be found on Brendan Davies' blog here.
The climb up to Devil's Thumb. The burnt trees are from last year's fire.
At Michigan Bluff, mile 55.7 (89.6km), I was again met by my crew. While being serviced a guy casually walked by, excising himself, as he was relocating a docile looking rattle snake who had decided to check out all the commotion in town.

As I emerged at Bath Road I was joined by Adam Chase, from Salomon USA, my pacer for the next 40 odd kilometers, my motivation and my distraction. Together we climbed to the top of the hill where we were joined by Brian, then together we ran into the Forrest Hill checkpoint. Although I was feeling exhausted by this point, having run 62 miles (99.8km), I was feeling pretty good. I had passed the hottest part of the day without too much trouble. My leg wasn't hurting as it had in the months prior. I was 9th female. All was looking reasonably good.
The climb up to Bath Road was very runnable during our recce runs.

Between Forrest Hill and Rucky Chucky crossing at mile 78 (125.5km) it all fell apart. Both my knees started to hurt. On the inclines my energy levels started to drop and I was reduced to a slow walk. I sat down a while at Peachstone aid station, mile 70.7 (113.8km) and forced down some broth, at which time Meghan Arboghast passed me looking all too strong. I had just lost another spot. Even with Adam's enthusiasm, of which he has a bottomless pit to draw from, I was struggling. 

My crew met me at Rucky Chucky Near. Brian could tell something was wrong and scavenged a seat for me to use. I let him know how I was feeling and his reply was "do you want to pull out", an option which he has never given me before. As he explained later, it wasn't going to be an option, just a lead in to a motivational talk. I didn't really need it though. As much as I wanted to stay in that chair, give up, walk away, rest, chuck up, eaten by a bear, none of these were really an option. Another run at Western States was something I had wanted to do every year since 2011. I was also using the state that I was in as a form of transcendence. I knew deep down that there was nothing actually stopping me from getting to the finish line. It may be a slow and uncomfortable process, but I would get there. I would remember this moment in time to help me get though equally uncomfortable race situations in the future, and hopefully be better for the experience. 
Rucky Chucky river crossing. I'm following Adam Chase across.
I crossed the river without drowning. It was shoulder deep on me and extremely cold against my hot body. On the other side I was freezing, but that would shortly change with the next climb. My pacer for the next 15 miles, until Highway 49, was Kristina Owen, from Salomon USA.  She had waited hours for me at the Rucky Chucky Far aid station, but I was very grateful she had. Kristina's personality was a complete contrast to Adam's. On the climb up to Green Gate, mile 79.8 (128.4km) we power hiked but I was feeling pretty low. David Eadie passed me on the climb. I had not seen him since our climb to the Escarpment, something that seemed an eternity ago. It was great to see David and his pacer Nikki Wynd. David walked with me for a short while waiting for Nikki to catch him and gave me some encouragement. It made me feel a bit better and soon after Kristina got me back into a slow jog again. The sun had gone down and we were now in darkness. 

At Brown's Bar aid station, at mile 89.9 (144.7km), the medics taped up my knees in the hope that it would ease the pain. It didn't however and I was over taken by another female and therefore bumped out of the coveted female top 10.
We spent a lot of time posing for photos during our recce runs. This one at Highway 49.
At Highway 49, mile 93.5 (150.5km) I was met by my crew. As planned I exchanged Kristina for Adam who would rejoin me for the final stretch to the finish. It was slow going, but together we kept moving. My motivation this late in the run was to get to the finish without being caught by too many people. 

I was met at Robie Point by Brian who joined Adam and I for the run to the finish. This leg is entirely on road and is marked by red 'WS100' footprints painted on the pavement, leading tired and exhausted runners to the finish. It marked a significant moment as Brian and I helped to paint some of them the week prior. I didn't quite realise how slow my running was until I started running on the flat and Brian was still able to keep up while walking. As I approached a downhill I thought I'd show him, but he was still able to keep pace, so I resigned myself to a power walk. At least Adam humored me by pretending to run beside me. 

One of the WS100 footprints I helped to paint.
At the end of raced I don't usually get emotional, but it was quite an emotional feeling to cross the finish line at Placer High School in Auburn. For months leading up to the event I was wondering if I would even get to the start line. During the last third of the run I had to battle every emotion that told me to quit. At the end of 100 miles (161km) I was just relieved that I had put all my doubts aside to complete a dream. In the end 21hrs, 55min and 11th female didn't reflect what I would have liked to have achieved, but its an achievement that I can still be proud of. Essentially I still live in the pursuit of the perfect ultra race.
I finally got there.
I'd like to say a big thank you to Salomon Australia for all your support, as well as Salomon USA who helped me at the last moment with gear. Another big thank you to Adam Chase and Kristina Owen for sacrificing their own time to pace me and keeping me moving towards my goal. It was also great to hang out with Brendan and Nadine prior to the run. Brendan was a great source of encouragement and helped to give me confidence in the lead up when it was greatly lacking. A big congratulations to Brendan for his superb run where he finished 8th overall in a time of 15:56:49. Also congratulations to David Eadie for finishing in 20:29:14 and getting his third Western States buckle. And of course, thanks to Brian and mum for structuring their Californian holiday around my running. 

We even took selfies. This one above Squaw Valley with Lake Tahoe beyond. He was so chuffed to hang out with me.

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