Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Western States 100 Pacing Report- A Coaches Perspective

The hot Californian sun was beating down on us as we waited to finally see our runner at the dry and dusty Robinson Flat aid station. Robinson Flat is at mile 29.7 on the Western States 100 Endurance Run course. Our runner, Madelyn Blue left Squaw Valley at 5:00am. The online tracking software used to track runners wasn't working perfectly. We had no real idea of how Maddy was doing as we sat and baked in the dry heat looking tirelessly at our phones hoping a signal would present itself so we could once again try to check her progress online.

Upon leaving Squaw our flatlander from Kentucky, Maddy had climbed to over a mile and a half in the sky climbing up the escarpment from Olympic Village in Squaw. What a wild commencement to a 100 mile journey on foot with a 30 hour time limit.

There are 4 check-ins en route to Robinson Flat aid station. At a 30 hour pace she should have arrived at 12:55. Some of the check-ins en route hadn't registered though and so we weren't sure where she was. The two check-ins that had actually worked showed that her pace had fallen behind a 30 hour pace and as mentioned above, the time cut is 30 hours!
Jeremy playing the hurry up and wait game.

My mind was racing as we sat and waited. I was very concerned that Maddy would start too quickly and so I endlessly warned her that starting in such a rush would lead to a crash during the second half of the race and a possible DNF. (Did Not Finish). In turn, Maddy was running comfortably and confidently. I was hoping with all my being I hadn't coached her to be too comfortable. On the flip side I knew that I couldn't push her in the early stages of the race. It would spell disaster in the end when it mattered. Early on, you should push yourself at a level you could sustain infinitely and hope that your all is enough. If you're not comfortable you're pushing too hard. Running with anxiety in the early stages will cause a definite crash near mile 50-70. Maddy was running confident and calm, mentally ready to tackle this race. A true triumph was in the makings.

She came rolling in to Robinson Flat a little after 1:00. This was a little over the 30 hour time cut and only an hour before the time limit for getting pulled from the course. She heard a warning blow from the air horn and thought she missed the cut! She was doing OK though... It was only the warning blow! She came in covered in dust and had apparently fallen. She was upset that she had ran out of food since she was slightly over anticipated pace. She was doing exactly what she needed to do. She was running her own race and this was the key to success. You do what you can do and hope for the best. Run confident!

I was ecstatic that she was there and on time. The whole morning I sat and prayed. "Please just make it here so I can coach you a little more...I just need to say a few more things!" I was a bundle of nerves. She was running well though.

As our crew refilled her running pack with nutrition, I told her she was holding the same pace since the beginning. I gave her some pointers and let her know that now was the time to start picking it up a little bit. The next section was tough though. It held the infamous "canyons" which provide no shade and blasts runners with heat. Maddy was very upset when she arrived. The course was tough. The trail was at high elevation, technical and rocky and she was having trouble making time, but she was staying on track and running a wise race.

I told her confidently, "There is no room for emotion. You are a machine. Do work! There is NO room for emotions. Just do it! You've got this."

I warned her to pick up the pace only gradually. "Don't make up time too quickly or you will crash!"

We left Robinson Flat aid station about 1:30pm and I couldn't believe we wouldn't see her again until mile 55 when I would start pacing her. Part of me was elated and part of me was still nervous that my runner had to go another 7 hours without seeing her crew. Time to let the little bird fly. Seeing your crew is uplifting and motivating, but Maddy's plan only provided one crew stop in between the start and mile 55. Alas, I got to coach her a little at mile 30 and now I could only wait for my runner at mile 55, Michigan Bluff. Alas, she was on her way to Michigan Bluff and I had to sit and nervously fret about her whereabouts for another 7 hours. It's a coaches job to worry a bit...

We had a great crew and Maddy had a thorough support network. Maddy's mom and step-dad were there and they were real troopers, totally vested in this crazy venture. They put up with Maddy's friends and all of our vulgarity and antics. Rhonda and Jeremy provided expertise in crewing as they're familiar with efficiency in crewing. They've been through "The Shellhamer School" and paced and crewed me several times at Umstead. Sunny, (appropriately named), lives in California near the course and is Maddy's "BFF", Heidi has been to Umstead and paced Rhonda in a hundred as well. The experience the crew had was great, but the most vital aspect was how well we "meshed". It was great to have some laughs during the week prior to the race and then get to hang out during the waiting game that is crewing.

After a tasty and enjoyable lunch in Auburn we headed to Michigan Bluff. Sitting at the restaurant my nervous energy was growing into incredible excitement as I saw Madelyn's race plan begin to solidify and work. Her placement was moving up the field at each check-in location. She was slowly and steadily gaining several places every 5 miles or so and her splits were even. Her comfortable start was paying off and she was passing the folks who charged out of the gait early on.

I took a nap in the car as the rest of our crew went to Michigan Bluff to wait on Maddy. I needed some rest to prepare for my role of drill sergeant, cheerleader, motivator, coach, friend, story teller, time keeper, pace setter, and whip-cracker!

Thanks to accurate estimates from the online tracking software which was finally working, we knew when Maddy would be arriving and she was right on schedule.

She showed up moving well with strong form, but with a woozy and blurry mind. It was time to start getting in some gel and get some sugar feeding her brain. She recovered quickly and started speaking coherently once more. Jeremy says the worst she shape she was in the whole race in his opinion was rolling into Michigan Bluff at mile 55. Nevertheless, her continued fighting spirit urged her forward to get to work and keep moving forward!

Waiting at Michigan Bluff to start my work!
She had made it through the toughest part of the race in terms of crewing. She could see her crew and have access to her gear five times now at various times until the finish. I was thrilled she made it to Michigan Bluff with good form. I was with her from Michigan Bluff onward and I would drag her across the line if need be, however, this strong chick wouldn't need it. She was tough as nails. We left Michigan Bluff at about 9:15pm. Maddy had been running since 5am and was still ready to tackle the challenge ahead.

We only had to run 4 miles until the Bath Road aid station until she would see her crew again. The whole crew was there and ran with us up the hill to Foresthill, the 100K mark! (62 miles) Rhonda did an awesome job during this stretch of about 2 miles from Bath Road to Foresthill pushing Maddy. (This small stretch allows crews to run with pacers and runners). Rhonda was doing 2 minutes on with 1 minute off intervals. She got Maddy to work the road section hard. I saw how well Maddy responded to this strategy and so I used this same tactic throughout our next 40 miles to get Maddy to "move!"

We once again made it through another aid station in less than 60 seconds as was the goal for the day. The descent down from Foresthill was a BEAR. It was crazy steep and Maddy's quads were borderline blown, so we descended gingerly. We had already made up a lot of time since Michigan Bluff where I picked her up and I saw no need to trash her body on a very steep descent. In turn, she climbed well once we finally reached the bottom of the canyon. Within several short hours we were already slightly under the 30 hour time-cut!

I was hyper-aware of every factor that alerted me to Maddy's condition. I paid attention to her breathing rate, her form, her stride length, speed while descending, etc. I continually gauged when to push her and when to allow recovery. When she started to show signs of great fatigue I would lay off the commands to "Pick it up!" and "Close The Gap"! (the distance between us).

As the sun set, the serene mountains grew dark and played tricks on our eyes. The stretch from Foresthill to the crossing of the American River is the last long stretch with no crew access. As we ran Maddy seemed increasingly coherent but upon entering the Cal aid station, Maddy heard a rustling in the woods and was joking about a mountain lion. I promptly assured her not to worry, that in deed it was not a cougar, but aliens. Comically, the Cal aid station has a bunch of aliens hanging from trees which add to this festive aid station in the middle of nowhere.

Maddy asked to sit for the first time at the Cal-2 Peachstone Aid Station. 70.7 miles of running and she hadn't asked to sit until that point! She took a quick bathroom break. While she was enjoying the natural facilities in the woods for a few seconds I checked my watch. I was ELATED! We had further grown our buffer on the 30 hour time limit. We were ten minutes ahead of schedule now. Maddy had worked HARD to gain this buffer, and so I allowed her to walk from the aid station. Within several seconds of beginning the long 3 mile descent down the mountain from the aid station, she doubled over and began retching, dry heaving for several minutes but nothing would come out. We managed the situation and kept moving forward. This is, unfortunately, part of the hundred mile game. Sometimes we get sick in these things. You try to find the source and correct it.

Maddy's weight was doing great. She hadn't lost any weight due to dehydration or sodium depletion which is a plus. We were trying to manage electrolytes and fuel intake as best as possible. With a little soda and fuel she felt better and we trotted down the hill towards the crossing of the American River. The crossing of the American River by runners in the WSER100 is one of the most iconic scenes in the entirety of running.

I was anxious to not lose the small buffer we had cut into the 30 hour time limit. We were still dangerously close to the 30 hour time limit. She would have to literally NOT slow down at all, during the last 30 miles of a hundred mile run forcing an even split or a negative split. This is almost unheard of in a hundred mile run. Even though her stomach protested slightly we had to make haste. The gap from me to her grew with each passing moment and this is when I really had to bring my "A" game, working her non-stop.

I'd say:

"2 minutes! We're running 2 more minutes! Then we slow for 1 minute!"

"Run to that tree!"

"Close the gap! Just because I'm walking that doesn't mean slow down! Close the gap to me! Come back to me! Let's GO MADDY!"

Maddy's feet were also feeling the effects of running nearly 3 marathons on trails in the western mountains. I stripped her shoes off and revealed moist wet feet with blisters developing. We ditched her orthotic footbeds which were beginning to hurt her feet and I dressed the blisters with duct tape and dried her pruny, rotting feet. She was pretty mortified but I wasn't too shocked- not to discredit her badassery, (because she had some legitimate flesh woundage), but I've seen much worse! I knew she was in good enough shape after all the running she had done that day.

I assured her she had to try to maintain good form for the last marathon even though it would hurt because of the blisters. "It's only a flesh wound! You WILL heal in weeks, and YOUR BUCKLE WILL LAST FOREVER! Let's move!"

Even with the foot issues and dry retching, we made incredible time to the American River. I guess this makes enough sense due to the downhill nature of running down to water...regardless, we were doing very well. I was shocked at our splits given the circumstances. When you're on the threshold of barely finishing in time we couldn't afford one single slow stretch, and we had just made it through our first patch of sickness and foot-care and come out ahead once again.

We blew through the aid station on the near side of the river, (Rucky Chucky), to get across immediately to the other aid station. We were at mile 78! Maddy warned me to not be concerned if she clawed into my shoulders upon crossing to prevent a fall but I assured her there were some amazing volunteers at the crossing of the river!

A tight cable is strewn across the river and they have volunteers in wet suits standing on the downside of the cable. The water is fast and forceful but clear. They have visible glow-sticks attached to underwater rocks which work great! Volunteers point out where to step for swift and safe passage. Maddy made it across in no time at all! Only 22 miles left!

Our crew was supposed to be at the aid station but they weren't in sight. The cold water was just what Maddy (and I) needed. It was 4am and the wake up call from frigid water is undeniable.

We began the giant climb up towards the Green Gate aid station. I had been pretty sure it would be a long jaunt for a crew to get to Rucky Chucky far-side, and so I wasn't too concerned that they weren't there. I assumed they would be at the top of the climb somewhere near Green Gate. Luckily Maddy was in top form after the river crossing rebirth and she was climbing well!

Halfway up the climb we saw a whole mess of headlamps plodding down the gravel road towards us. It was our crew! They looked worse off than Maddy and I . They had lugged coolers and packs and gear for several hours trying to get to us! Sleepless and carrying awkward coolers and such, we were appreciative to say the least!

We made it to Green Gate walking for several minutes uphill with our crew. Maddy had another dry-heaving episode en-route and they got to witness the joys of running a hundred miles.

Maddy changed out of her wet clothes in a lighted port-a-potty at Green Gate. I waited and chugged a frappuccino that my delivery-servant-boy Jeremy had hiked in. While pacing the last 45 miles of a 100 mile run, there really is no "self" you basically abandon any thoughts of fatigue or what you want or need. The entire world revolves around your runner, 100% dedication to aiding them in reaching their goal. 100's are a team sport. It was nice for our crew to be there at that aid station so I could take care of my own nutrition for a moment, because shortly thereafter Maddy would get sick again, and I would be hyper-focused on nothing but her for another 6 hours. They really were a great crew. Heidi stayed positive and chatty and helped the conversation entertain as we all got to experience the race as one unit for that span of time at Green Gate aid station.

We left Green Gate at 4:55am. Exactly at the 30 hour cut off. The retching episode paired with the climb up to Green Gate had stolen back some time from us. Only seconds after leaving Green Gate poor Maddy was on the ground retching and dry-heaving again. She thought her race was over but I knew otherwise. Her lows were always followed by highs and I had a plan. It became apparent why she was retching.

I made her take a salt-tab and I gave her my last Honey Stinger Waffle. This was thankfully the last retching episode she had in the Western States 100. The sun rose shortly thereafter. It was a new day and we were feeling pretty dandy for having run 85 miles on trails. Immediately after the sun rose we chatted like normal and Maddy was pleasantly coherent. For a few miles it was just like buds out for a nice sunrise run. This was only an hour or so after Maddy thought her day was done.

Miles 80-90 are probably the easiest ten miles on the course. The climbs are mild, the trail is smooth, and the temps are still cool and comfortable.
Mile 82. Coach is snapping pictures to document! Run!

Closing in on mile 90 the newly risen sun had lost its appeal. Cumulative fatigue set in and motivation waned. Due to the time crunch Maddy didn't even to get to say "Hi" to uber-stud Hal Koerner, (former WSER100 winner with a physique as impressive as his race resume...yeah ladies- he's taken anyways, move on. hahahaha) Hal and his running shop, Rogue Valley, run the aid station at mile 90, Brown's Bar. Maddy was rough getting into Brown's Bar aid. She tried to sit and before I could say anything the aid station worker barked, "This is a 60 second TV time out, you gotta keep moving!" Thanks for sharing the pacing job, bud!

I had been whipping Maddy like a bad mule the whole time we were descending to Brown's Bar. Her feet hurt and she was tired but she couldn't toss her chance at a buckle due to fatigue and blisters. She had to pick it up. She tried to come up with several reasons to slow but I promptly discarded all of them. She was SUPPOSED to feel "tired". She was SUPPOSED to feel "messed up". It's a 100 mile run. NOTHING is tougher. Her form was good and she wasn't injured. She was just tired. "Pick it up Maddy! Let's GO! Do not waste this!"

The trail has two large climbs in the last ten miles. If you are RIGHT on the time cuts you don't have time to spare by slowing down on the final climbs in the heat. It would be a brutal finish but the draw of the line would hopefully motivate her. I knew she had to dig deep and accept as much misery as possible to push the pace up.

Maddy was so wasted she walked the downhill out of Brown's Bar. She said, "I'm done. I've used every motivational strategy possible. There is nothing left. There's no way I can endure this much agony for another several hours." I replied "You don't. You only have to get to the next aid station on time. One step at a time. One goal at a time. Stay strong mentally. Let's GO! "

"There is no room for emotion! You are a machine. Do work! There is NO room for emotions! Just do it!"

Maddy began to fade and not respond to my motivational strategies and I began to freak out that she was SO close and would miss the time cut by several minutes. I literally thought, "Holy shit. This chick has run the perfect pace, managed all the variables, and she won't push for a few more hours. She has given her all and CAN'T come up so close but still short."

She was completely hollow, blank, ghostly. I've been there and I know what it's like. I've seen this in not only myself but in others while pacing 100's. This was it. The one point in time where she could push through the crux and reach victory or fail. Maddy realized my nervous energy and angst meant business. My freaking out meant this was that moment to make it happen. "7 months of work, the chance to succeed, it all happens now!!! This is it Maddy! What you've worked for!"

She responded beautifully. It was inspiring. The whole day was inspiring honestly, seeing that much progress and mental strength. She destroyed the climb up to Hwy 49. I couldn't believe she found a way to motivate herself once again but she had. I stayed on her heals yelling the whole time, "Climb! Move to the top! Get to the end of this green tunnel! Breath harder! Breath harder! Why can't I hear your breath!? You're not working hard enough! Move!"

She did it on her own. She dug through mental trenches so deep anyone who hasn't attempted running a mountain 100 miler will never know the depths of mental hell she encountered, and came out on the other side.

We reached the Highway 49 aid station as the 30 hour whistle blew. We were still somehow on the time cut and only had 6.7 miles to go. The last climb however is like a sauna. The heat blasts off the rocks into your face. It's demoralizing. It's oppressive. If you suffer one bout of nausea, one weak moment, your pace might falter and the buckle may be lost. You might not finish. 

We had to be calculated. I yelled to our crew at Hwy 49, "No backpack! Just one water bottle! There are plenty of aid stations now! She needs to be light and MOVE!" The air held an intense vibe. Maddy looked stunned and overwhelmed at Hwy 49 aid station. She stood there blank faced and speechless as we stripped her bottles and seconds later were forcing her back out onto the trail.

Running down to No Hands Bridge aid at mile 97 I kept yelling, "I know it hurts, but you must run this descent! You must bank some time to account for the climb up to the finish! Screw the blisters! You need to run!" Maddy dug and dug and pushed and pushed. We made it to No Hands at mile 96.8 with one hour and eight minutes to get to the finish. We drenched her in ice water and she screamed an incoherent slur of shock and awakening.

Then she moved like the wind.

I started the normal strategy, "Run to the end of that shadow!" Run to this, run to that... but then she kept running. She was an animal out for blood. She was destroying the final climb on a 100 mile day. It was shocking and awesome. It was raw and carnal. She was giving it everything she had left. Moving powerfully and confidently even as the heat blasted us radiating off the rocks which faced us head on. I couldn't have been more excited and proud to see this fire in her. She was running 10 minute miles, uphill. Insanity.

Running the last mile in from Robie Point.
We got to the Robie Point aid station at mile 98.9 and we were told we only had 1.3 to go. I knew victory was in grasp for her. Our crew awaited us for the final mile and ran it in together. A team victory. Many working parts facilitating this human feat.

I was watching my watch the whole time and knew this was her strongest split the whole day. She had chomped at least 15 minutes off the 30 hour time cut in one stretch. Entering the finishing track at Placer County High School was awesome.

I felt relief, joy, pride, excitement, fatigue, everything all at once.

There is nothing like pacing someone for the last half of a 100 mile run. You see them battle and struggle more than they ever have in their life. Seeing someone pull through and stick out a perfect strategy is more than I can describe. The mental strength, confidence and steadfastness it takes to not grow anxious at the start and push too hard is almost overwhelming to comprehend. The only way to run a 100 mile race is to run within yourself.

Maddy had gone from not finishing a 50 mile run earlier in the year at Land Between the Lakes to successfully earning a buckle at Western States, an accomplishment very few can claim. Witnessing this change take place in her mentally over the past few months of coaching was more than a thrill. I had so much confidence in her going in to this, but you never know what'll happen once the day starts. She has always been tough physically, but to see the mental strength she has fostered in the past several months which all came to fruition on race day was a perfect experience.

"What do you get for finishing?" "Why would you do this?" If you have to ask, you wouldn't understand the answer.

She crossed the line at 10:40am on Sunday morning after leaving Olympic Village in Squaw at 5:00am the day prior. This journey however began 7 months ago, and there it all was coming to completion unfolding before my eyes as she crossed the line. A journey of not just 100 miles, but 1000. She was mentally, physically, in her entirety, a stronger woman.

The lessons she learned about herself and her mind will continue to spread, like seeds planted and growing feverishly.

She'll never be the same.

Heidi trying to get Ken Combs to check on progress since we had poor internet connectivity.

Mile 82. Coach is snapping pictures to document! Run! 

The Whole Gang! So many thanks to Diana and Bill for being so welcoming all week! Maddy's family is awesome! 




Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Western States 100 Pics

Pace report to follow. (Or I could sum it up pretty quickly: I couldn't be more proud of this girl!)