Names like Max King, Matt Flaherty and Stephanie Howe were competing in the Challenge, so the competition was world level and stellar. My legs felt good on the first mile of the climb, and even better on the second miles grade when the course looked like a solid wall the pitch was so steep. My legs felt strong and although my lungs screamed in protest and slowed my pace, my legs were able to catch the competition on the steeper sections as I was running the steeps while others hiked. I finished slightly out of the top 10... I don't know where, 12th? 15th? I suppose more time at altitude could yield a much stronger runner in this body. My form is good though and I came away happy after meeting some great dudes also.
This "fun run" style race was the first high intensity running I have done in months as I'm basically ramping up mileage and most importantly, volume, for the Colorado Trail Speed Record coming soon. Basically, the info I got from it tells me my climbing is better than ever, yet I need to spend time at altitude. I need an altitude tent.
So no one really cares about this Uphill Challenge, the real reason the best runners in the world were at Squaw was for the 40th running of the Western States Endurance Run. The oldest 100 mile (100.2 miles) run in the country from Squaw to Auburn, Ca.
I was pacing Traci Falbo, fresh off of winning gold for the USA women in the 24 hour World Competition.
Traci had a busy month since the Worlds competition in May. She ran the Western States training camp in late May, which consisted of the final 60 miles of course, then raced a trail marathon in Ky on June 2, (1st place), and ran the Hawthorn Half Day race in Indiana June 8. (2nd place) This was all in the month leading up to Western States, (the first leg of the Grand Slam.) The Grand Slam consists of Western States in June, Vermont 100 in July, Leadville 100 in August, and only 3 weeks later, the Wasatch 100 in early September. Traci had a lot of racing miles under her belt going into Western States.
At the pre-race meeting for athletes we found ourselves sitting next to the best ultrarunners in the world. Tim Olson, Mike Morton, Dominic Grossman, Cameron Clayton, Karl Meltzer, etc. The race director warned us of temps so hot on race day, that he predicted finishing times to be over an hour slower than previous years. This course has never favored the bold, and on a hot day, that is exacerbated. The patient and calm runner will succeed on race day.
Traci took this to heart and was more relaxed in the opening miles than I have ever seen her. A fierce competitor, Traci runs to win. She wants to be number 1 regardless what the run is. Even on training runs, you will find her creeping up the pace, just to be a shoulder width ahead, always trying to dominate.
As she rolled effortlessly into the first aid station her crew was at on race day, we were shocked at the casual woman who had presented herself as Traci. She was at ease. Mike- (her husband), Jeff- (her training partner), and I- (her pacer), were beyond relieved to see her pacing herself so well, taking it easy in the early miles. We believed this was her finest start to date, not pushing the pace early, but biding her time for a later acceleration when the bunnies out ahead die in the 108 degree race day temps.
Traci's calm demeanor continued on as we saw her at the next aid station, Dusty Corners, 38 miles into the race. This aid didn't have the live banjo music that the party scene at Duncan Canyon did earlier, but the runners were entertainment enough... We saw the effects of the heat on runners faces and enjoyed seeing their joy as they were sprayed off with water that gets trucked in to this remote location. I didn't mind the front row seat watching the fastest chicks in the world get sprayed and misted with hoses... Kerrie Bruxvoort: OMG :)
I continued napping in the car as much as possible to be sure I was on my "A" game once I would begin pacing. I knew I could need to be a whip cracker, nanny, drill sergeant, and entertainer. We had a big break in between the Dusty Corners, (38 mi), aid station and the Michigan Bluff, (55mi) aid, so we headed up to Foresthill to grab sandwiches and cool off for a bit. We noticed smoke arise from the canyon and the fire dept was there to witness the smoke with us, luckily the two separate fires extinguished themselves quickly.
Michigan Bluff, (55mi), aid station was a nightmare for us to crew. There were literally hundreds of cars and the aid station was only accessible by shuttle. It was going to take us a long time to park and get to the station by shuttle. The Foresthill aid station was only 6 miles later which didn't leave much time to leave Michigan Bluff, wait for the shuttle, walk to the car, drive to Foresthill, park, and be ready to start pacing Traci. We decided to leave Jeff at Michigan Bluff with what we thought she would need and Mike would go drop me off at Foresthill to start pacing her.
Apparently we miscalculated the VESPA Traci wanted and there was none waiting for her at Michigan Bluff. I was focused on getting myself ready to pace and Mike and Jeff were trying their best to figure out logistics to get Traci crewed at Michigan and Foresthill. When Traci didn't get her VESPA, she was pretty pissed at us. She had obviously been pushing herself harder because that is when she really started moving up in overall placement. She states that she wasn't pushing harder but that other runners were just getting weaker. Jeff had called me to relay the info to me and make sure we had the correct nutrition waiting at Foresthill.
From Foresthill, I was allowed to run uptrail to Bath aid to start pacing. Bath was 2 miles before Foresthill, so basically mile 60. I decided to do this, so I could run in to Foresthill with her and get her what she needed at Foresthill. She was a firecracker when I saw her, pissed, a woman scorn about not getting her VESPA at the last aid station. I told her to just focus on forward momentum and quit bitching about the VESPA. Nothing could be done at that point and we would get her taken of. My language may have been pretty strong, but Traci was about to enter the top 10 and needed to get her head on straight once again.
She wanted to change her running skirt at Foresthill because there was a lot of descent on the last 40 miles of course and her current skirt was falling down a little and she wanted her smaller running skirt. Mike and I new this and so we had all of her supplies ready at Foresthill. I told Traci that while she was at the medical tent getting weighed, I was going to sprint over to Mike and grab her new running skirt for her and direct her to the bathroom. Traci had told me she wanted two VESPA's at this aid since she missed the last one, but as I grabbed Traci's new skirt, Mike said he only had one. No problem. We had everything else ready. While Traci was changing Mike could go back to get another VESPA. Traci saw this unfold while she was in the medical tent but didn't understand what was happening. Instead of seeing me bringing her skirt, all she saw was Mike going to the car. I told her I was bringing her skirt to her while she got weighed, but as soon as she saw Mike run to get VESPA she reacted. She didn't realize we had it all figured out and so she bolted from the aid station after grabbing something to snack on from the aid station. I had no idea where she went. I was screaming for others to tell me where she went, and I saw her running away from the aid station. Now I was the one who was pissed, confounded. What the hell was she doing??? She wouldn't have crew access again for another 16 miles, and she bolted out from the aid station like a bat out of hell, with NO gear, no headlamp, no new skirt, none of the nutrition which I had just listened to her yell about. I chased her down doing what felt like a 5 minute mile and threw her gear at her and told her to get her headlamp out and change her skirt behind a tree. Innocent bystanders helped calm Traci and get her changed. Once again, I was strongly voiced, not using the bubble-gum positive pep talk I've been accused of in the past... Mike ran over and we got her the nutrition and supplements she needed. Crisis averted? Had we all been a little more cool headed in the aid station she could have saved a few minutes of time and a lot of panic. Regardless, I chased her down and she got what she needed. It's very hard to crew in the heat of the moment when things are moving quickly, and you're in the busiest aid stations in one of the biggest ultras in the world.
It took a lot of will power on my behalf to stay positive and not yell at her for the bonehead move at Foresthill where she could have thrown her whole race away by bolting without a headlamp, but we had work to do. My job was too keep her relaxed and energized, and get her to the finish as soon as possible. None of this was about me, I signed as a pacer to be completely dedicated to my runners success, It was about her.
We had kept our placement in the top 10 and the course was cooling off. Traci's form was looking strong and fluid. I was pretty sure this fierce competitor would only increase her placement as we ran through the night and gobbled up runners who had gone out too quickly in the heat of the day.
Reports were that we were somewhere around 6th or 7th overall female at one point near mile 70.
As the sun set Traci began to walk on a flat section of trail near the American River close to mile 73. I promptly encouraged her to run as the grade was too easy for walking. Instead, Traci pulled off the trail a foot or two and vomited at least a liter of fluids. I am an ER/urgent care nurse and haven't seen vomiting like that in a long time, and only on several occasions. After a few minutes she began to run again and we made it to the famous Rucky Chucky aid station where runners cross the American River. (mile 78)
Traci collapsed into a chair and began to vomit again. Her head fell to her lap and her speech was garbled. This chick had nothing at all left in her. Mike, Jeff, and a volunteer got her anything and everything from the aid station that she might find appetizing. She tried to eat and got some Sprite down which was at least 100 calories.
As most runners cross the freezing waters of the American River at night, there is an aid station directly on the other side of the river with drop bags so runners can change out of cold clothes.
We convinced Traci that she MUST get out of that chair and cross the river, and just get to the other aid station. Her reply to us was more profuse vomiting and lethargy. Eventually we got her out of the chair. Mike and Jeff alerted me that I wouldn't see them again until mile 94. Oh my.... that could be an incredibly long 16 miles with a puking runner over mountainous terrain...yet I took the chance and forged on. Traci HAD to finish...This was only the first leg of the Grand Slam. As we worked our way slowly down the bank, I helped guide the weak and stumbling Traci to the water where she told me she wanted her shirt. SHIT. I got her in the water and Bottle-Rocketed up the slope to chase down Mike and pray he hadn't left yet. I screamed for him and luckily he heard and I got Traci's shirt and crossed the American River, one of the most famous spots on any ultra course in the world.
Traci was mad I got her the long sleeve shirt, not the short sleeve, but was too sick to care. SHIT. As soon as she crossed the river she collapsed into another chair and puked more. She was thoughtful and polite enough to push her chair to the edge of the area the chairs were so other runners wouldn't step in her stomach contents...(maybe she was going to recover after all?) The doctor at the aid station was clearly well versed in Ultra. He allowed us to continue and made her suck ice chips. The cold ice chips kept her more alert and also hydrated her. She tried her hardest to force down Coke, broth, Sprite, saltines, etc. but it all came back up. The doc and I implored her to get up as sitting just makes things worse as the body shuts down. The docs and aid workers at Western, are like many other ultras, AMAZING. Without them, few of us would finish.
Thank God, the next aid station was only 2.2 miles away, all uphill. That made it easier to exit. Usually aid is farther away, but we lucked out. Traci got up and we walked the entire 2.2 miles to the next aid station. It wasn't pretty, but we got it done! Traci's speech was slurred and she stumbled drunkenly. I was incredibly worried about the fact we were entering a remote stretch of trail in her condition. I've been in her shoes before though, and I know how bad someone can be physically and still push themselves to continue. Traci is the fiercest competitor I know, and I knew she wouldn't give up until at least reaching the aid station.
After our 2.2 mile walk, Traci began vomiting once again as soon as we entered the Green Gate aid station. At that point, she had produced the most puke I have ever seen come out of someone, and like I said, I'm a nurse. I would liken it to a scene from a South Park or Family Guy cartoon where someone heaves and an endless supply of fluid forcefully projects outward from their wide open mouth...not just down, but OUT.
It seemed like hours had gone by since entering the Rucky Chucky aid at mile 78, and now we were only at mile 79.8. Leaving Rucky near, the aid worker told me, "You're in for a long night". Leaving Rucky far, the doc asked, "Are you ready for what you have ahead of you?" Yeah... I signed on to do this, and I'm getting my runner across that line. I'm a pacer. That's my job.
Traci knew she needed to eat, she knew she couldn't sit at aid stations. On her own accord she began to force herself onward and began on her own to try to force down fluids and food. It all came up again, but she marched on. Leaving Green Gate was a gamble, because we were headed in no-mans land. It would be a 5.4 mile walk to the next aid, but it would be 85 miles in! Only a mile into this stretch Traci asked how far we had gone... Uh oh... nothing makes the time go slower than watching the paint dry, looking around every bend for the next aid. "Traci, we still have 4.5 miles." On we went.
We continued on like this the remainder of the night, walking every step, making forward progress. I was impressed by her strength, but I already knew what this chick was capable of. She is as tough as they come. She might be hot headed and fiery, shooting from the hip all too often, but none are as driven and determined. She's a beast.
I took advantage of the aid station foods I usually never get to eat in a race of my own. At one aid station I ate 4 pancakes, bacon, and two quesadillas...Hey, I had to keep up my energy to be a cheerleader, right?!
Traci finally made it to mile 94 where we saw our crew again. She needed medical attention. Her weight had dropped 8 pounds, nearly 6% of her body weight. (runners are supposed to get pulled once they have lost 3%-5%). I convinced to the best of my ability the medical doctor, she was capable of continuing and he was great, giving her advice and treatment, sending us on our way. We redressed her feet, and got fluids in her. Seeing the crew made Traci get a little emotional, (read: She started crying, as her body and hormones were totally jacked up and in shambles...) We needed to get out of that aid station. We were 94 miles in, with plenty of time. We knew we could walk 6 more miles. Daylight came and we we watched the sunrise over a gorgeous meadow near Auburn where we would finish the race.
Jeff met us about a mile out and ran in with us. I alerted Traci that it was 6:52, hinting that if she pushes it she could make it in before 7am. She responded and ran the final mile crossing the line in exactly 26 hours, (of which I had paced 13 hours, running 42 miles total.)
After a quick breakfast at the finish line, I took a shower, jumped on a plane, and flew home... I had to work a 12 hour shift on Monday at Urgent Care, appropriately enough.
She didn't have the race she wanted, but she pushed herself harder than most who did have the races they wanted. The temps peaked at 108 degrees. Here in the Midwest, we haven't had those sorts of temps to train in.
The temps on race day, paired with a lot of miles raced the month leading up to WS are probably the culprit of her gastric problems on race day. She was suffering from heat exhaustion, hyponatremia and dehydration. I believe she was severely hyponatremic. She began urinating every 30 minutes the last several hours of the race, as her body tried to purge every last ounce of fluids to bring sodium levels to equilibrium. These medical issues paired with hypoglycemia from not getting in any calories make it even more impressive she was able to push through the toughest conditions and still finish.
Traci will next run the Vermont 100. Vermont is the only leg of the Slam I am not pacing, as I will be on the Colorado Trail attempting to set a new speed record. Updates can be found on my facebook page regarding Colorado progress. I depart on 7/16.
Best of luck to my good friend, Traci as she runs in Vermont for the second leg of the Grand Slam.
Overall, my final impression of Western States is that it was an impressive venue, but honestly, every 100 mile race is special in its own way. I want to run the course next year and race, because the terrain is not technical at all, and it seems like on a cool year, it could be a very fast 100 which still has 16,000 feet of climbing.
|Final Mile of WSER|
|Final Mile of WSER|
|Warming up for Uphill Challenge|
|Uphill Challenge, Max King in the Cowboy Hat|
|Race Morning- Western States Endurance Run!|
|Top of Squaw- Highest point on course|
|Top of Squaw- Highest point on course|
|Top of Squaw- Highest point on course looking at Yosemite in Background|