By Deborah Sexton
Sierra Nevada Mountains between Lake Tahoe and Auburn, CA
Saturday, May 27, 2006 to Monday, May 29, 2006
All around me was snow. Snow on ground several inches deep, snow hanging heavy from the tree branches, and still more snow falling fast to the ground. It was a winter wonderland beautiful to behold. If only we weren’t going to have to get out of the bus and run in it! The higher we climbed, the more snow there was until we reached a point where apparently there was too much snow on the road for the buses to continue. We stopped, and about 600 people flowed out of the six buses and you never saw so many people taking a leak at the same place and time in your life. Every tree and bush had a crouched or standing figure. The snow continued to fall and the decision was made to start the run at 44 instead of Robinson Flats. So we climbed back on the bus and headed to 44.
It was way too cold for me getting off the bus. I had thought the coldest I’d have to endure was temperatures in the 50s. However, since it was literally snowing, I had to assume the temps were below 32 degrees. I had only brought one long-sleeve shirt and one short-sleeve one. I assumed I’d be running in a tank top. Fortunately, after we went out to dinner Friday night, we had crossed the street to the Auburn Running Co. In the window were the Western States trophy as well as the shoes worn by Scott Jurek in last year’s win and the women’s winner shoes as well. This was the only ultra/trail running store I had ever seen. You name it, it had it. Gaiters, a wide selection of trail shoes, waist packs, Succeed, etc. I saw a pair of the removable sleeves and decided to buy them just in case and I am glad I did. I wore these under my long-sleeve shirt and while still cold, I was more comfortable than I would have been without them.
We had been on the bus for close to two hours when we finally climbed out so it was good to finally get going. We ran about 4-5 miles on the road before finally hitting the Western States Trail.
The first day’s run was 28 miles long and started at a point below Robinson Flats. We ran almost all the way back to Foresthill Elementary School. It took us through the toughest parts of the course including the infamous Devil’s Thumb canyon, the El Dorado canyon, on into Michigan Bluff, and then the third and final Volcano canyon. I had heard so much about “Devil’s Thumb” that I was especially anxious about it. Two weeks before I started having pain in my left knee, and I got on the plane not really knowing if I was going to be able to run at all. My first few miles went OK, not pain-free but manageable.
As we started the climb to Devil’s Thumb, my knee was really liking it. No pain. My lungs were not as happy. I tried to maintain a steady, strong pace but I was breathing so loud and hard it was a little disconcerting. When I took a deep breath, it made me cough, which I guess may have been an altitude issue or maybe just the effect of the cold air. I had pulled a little bit ahead of my fellow travelers Jay Freeman and his pacer Cindy Melder, and they caught up with me on the downhill descent to the bottom of Devil’s Thumb. Jay had us stop and took photos of me and Cindy at this scenic bridge with the water rushing over the rocks below. Then we started the climb.
It was pretty steep and a long series of switchbacks. Terrain wasn’t smooth but not too rough. I was very surprised to find that I could not only keep up with Jay and Cindy (who are much faster than me), but I was having such a good day that soon I could not even see them below. I knew they’d catch up with me later when we hit flatter ground. As I huffed and puffed my way up to the top, I thought of Tom Crull and all the great hill training he helped me do at I-20 and at White Rock as well as my weekly hill runs with Tammi Starnes and Shawna Brown and was thankful for such great running friends who made hill training fun to do.
I had a local runner name Becky in front of me and Anita Bagley from Sacramento behind me. I had run for several hours with Anita at Lean Horse 50 miler last August and was thrilled to see her again. She said, yes she was in Western States (her first 100) and we agreed to start out together at Western and see if we could keep up with each other. So I was thrilled to think I might have some company on the first half of the course.
As we almost reached the top of Devil’s Thumb, Becky cheerfully told me that she thought El Dorado was harder. It was not as steep but much longer to get up. So here I was thinking I had just finished THE hardest part of the race, and now I get told, well, the next one is harder. Welcome to Western States.
Also do not believe anyone who tries to tell you it’s all downhill from Foresthills. What a bunch of crap! They save one of the steepest hills for the very end when you have to climb up out of Robie Point to the finish.
At the top of Devil’s Thumb (which we couldn’t see because of all the fog) there was a big flat open area covered in pine needles. It had continued to snow and rain during the climb as it continued to do nearly until we reached Michigan Bluff. We cruised in to the Deadwood aid station. I got my Camelback refilled and put three handfuls of chips and pretzels in my bandana. I shoved these in my face as I left to do the descent.
We descended down, down, down, steep switchbacks that made it a constant struggle to not fall forward as my quads acted as the brakes. They were getting the hardest workout of their lives as they would remind me the next morning when I climbed out of bed.
Down at the bottom, you cross the river and then back up El Dorado Canyon.
Becky was right. Not as steep, but it went on forever. You started to wonder if there was a top. But again, my knee liked going up and I was so busy talking to Becky and Anita, I really didn’t mind the climbing. We descended down again, crossed the river, and then just a little bit further into Michigan Bluffs.
Michigan Bluffs is where I picked up my runner last year when I paced Damon Lease. Most of the volunteers had on T-shirts with a large busted, bikini clad woman’s figure and they looked hilarious. Especially one of the older men. So now I was in familiar territory. We only had six more miles to reach our stopping point and I was feeling pretty good and very relieved that my knee was not going to give me grief this day. Anita and I picked up another runner, Bob, who was from Houston, and the three of us chatted like magpies through Volcano Canyon, which has a very nasty descent with some of the worst terrain of the course. It was very rocky with a steep gutter type trail that always makes me lose my balance. Coming into the finishing point we had one more pretty steep climb on road and around the bend and there we were. I was amazed I had finished before Cindy and Jay in seven hours. I walked to the car to make sure they had not snuck by me, but the car was just sitting there with all my dry clothes and me with no key.
Within 10 minutes, I was shaking with cold. I was soaked to the skin and now that I wasn’t running, the chill had set in. I wandered around hoping to see someone I knew to borrow a jacket or something to put on. Most of the cars were gone and there wasn’t even an extra trash bag. Someone finally offered me his friend’s jacket and then a nice lady named Karen saw me shaking and ran off to her car to get a blanket.
Another runner Sheryl, whom I had met earlier on the trail, was waiting for her friend Janet Duncan. Karen came with the blanket. We dragged three camp chairs into the sun and the three of sat there sharing the blanket. I was so thankful because I was miserably cold and was concerned about Jay and Cindy.
I knew something was wrong.
I talked to Sheryl, Karen, and Chuck Wilson, who ran Costa Rica with Jay Norman for nearly an hour when Jay and Cindy finally arrived. As I suspected, Jay had to stop after getting severe cramping in his legs. We hustled to the car and I pulled off all my wet stuff. We drove back to the hotel, showered and ate at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Luigi’s.
Yum. By the time we got back to hotel around 9 p.m. I was wasted and went to bed.
The second training day, Sunday, started at Forest Hills Elementary School, which is a major aid station and pacer pickup spot in the race. It was warmer because we were lower in elevation and the sun was out. I was able to run in just my tank top. We started off at 8:30 down the street and onto the trail. It was single file so there were a lot of trains forming in the first few miles with people passing and finding their pace place. Slightly rough terrain at the start and then it started into a familiar pattern of this trail. You descend down to the creek or river, cross it, sometimes getting wet sometimes staying dry, (or sometimes there was a bridge) and then back up. On one steep ascent I wanted to know what canyon was this? I thought we were done with the canyons and it’s mostly downhill from here. On my tired sore legs, there were still plenty of climbs to do on our way to Rucky Chucky.
There was however, a lot more flat running stretches on wonderful dirt or pine needled covered trails. I had stretches where I must have just run for at least 30 minutes at a time with no real obstacles to slow me down. I loved the opportunity to get some miles under my feet with a lot less effort than scaling canyons. A big chunk of this section goes along side the Middle Fork of the American River. There were lots of water falls to watch cascading down the mountain, green and white water rushing over fallen rocks, as well as quiet stretches where you could see the rocky bottom of the river bed through the clear water. Really awesome views. Since this was an easier section and I had less concerns about cutoffs, I stopped frequently to take photos.
I had met Janet Duncan of Huntsville, Ala., the day before and we ran together along most of this stretch. We took photos of each other in front of the gorgeous scenic views and enjoyed each other’s company. What a great way to spend a day. There was a fleeting moment of excitement when I almost stepped on a green and black snake.
There were two aid stations, one at Peachstone and then a second one at Rucky Chucky. Thank goodness they do not make you cross the river. At Rucky Chucky, I chatted with a volunteer who asked me where I was from and I said Dallas. I asked him if he knew anyone else from Texas, and he replied, “Suzi Cope but she’s from here.” After we gassed up, Janet and I started the final three-mile climb up to the finish. So 48 miles in two days and most of it climbing or at least more climbing than I had ever done in two days before.
At the finish, there were hot dogs, sodas, and chips so you could pig out while you waited for the bus to take you back to Foresthills. Janet and I got to the top, me whining that it took us an hour and 15 minutes to do three miles, but Jay and Cindy, who came in 30 minutes before, said it took them that long to do the climb also, making me feel much better. I was still ahead of the 30-hour cutoff for that section and my knee was OK. So all was good.
When we got back to Foresthills, we ran into Doug Ryan. He was having great runs. He finished the first day in less than six hours and had another good day on Sunday. We agreed to meet him for dinner. We all ended up going to a great Mexican place called Chevy’s. I can highly recommend the coconut, whipped cream, caramel ice cream thing I had. Oh, and the Mexican food was good too. Cindy thought the margaritas were pretty awesome and she had two of those.
Monday, the training run started at 8:30 and went another 20 miles but we could not make our plane if we did it. Cindy decided she’d had enough. We were looking pretty pathetic climbing up and down the stairs to our rooms by Sunday night and she opted to drop us off at Highway 49 so Jay and I could run into the finish at the high school stadium. (about 7 miles) This again was a part of the course I hadn’t seen because last year we timed out at Highway 49. It starts off with a bit of climb and then we run through this beautiful giant meadow. The grass was so thick you could barely see the trail. We made it to No Hands Bridge in 49 minutes with the river flowing under it and we stopped to take some more photos. Then we crossed the bridge, got back on the trail and ran by a cool waterfall. Another stop for photos as I knew I would not have time for photos in June. This section has a few short climbs but thankfully some nice runnable stretches. I expect to be running these flat out in June as I try to make the cutoff.
We hit Robie Point and with a little more than a mile left, you get a nice steep uphill on road. We booked up that (passing Doug Ryan going the opposite direction) and got to see a little white bridge. Jay tells me when you see that you’re home free. We cross the bridge, run into the stadium and around the track to the plaque commemorating Western States. I am feeling a little emotional with some tears in my eyes as I envision myself coming back through in June and hitting the track in I hope under 30 hours. We told Cindy to pick us up in two hours and we did it in 1:42. Jay and I take photos of each other in front of the plaque and wait for Cindy.
Running that last section with Jay also was so wonderful because he pointed out landmarks to look for and shared some of his own feelings from his past three races. It was a great guided tour to the finish.
What an awesome three days. The only thing I can compare it to is like a kid going to Disneyland. For an ultra runner, this is one of the best events you can go to. You do not need to be in Western States to do it. If you don’t want to camp or pay for the catered buffet meals, you can do it for $20 a day. I met tons of awesome people and many of them knew people that I knew.
I didn’t have to run on any snow and my knee held up beautifully the whole time. The aid stations were great, the course was very challenging and definitely the hardest I’d ever done, but I did it and I have the super sore legs to prove it. If you ever get a chance to do this, I’d highly recommend it but do some hill work first!