by Deborah Sexton
Squaw Valley to Auburn (CA)
Saturday, June 25, 2005
In July 2003, I had the great luck and honor to be paced at the Vermont 100 by a local runner named Damon Lease. He was looking to pace someone as a training run for Wasatch and I was looking for a pacer. We hooked up through a mutual fellow runner, Bob Metcalfe from Minnesota who I had met while running Rocky Raccoon.
Damon was a first-time 100 miler’s dream. He knew the course, he was an experienced ultra runner so he made me eat and drink when I didn’t want to, and he kept me just enough ahead of the cut off so I finished in 29:09. He’s also just one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and he liked They Might Be Giants (a band for those of you who aren’t familiar) so I couldn’t have had a better match.
So when I found out that Damon was doing Western States 100 this year and needed a pacer, I quickly volunteered to help. Not being familiar with the course, but knowing it was probably tougher than I’d ever done, I was concerned about my ability to keep up with him, but Damon felt I could do it so I booked my flight.
Being a back of the packer, just the opportunity to be a part of this race in any way, shape, or form, meant a lot to me. I don’t know that I’m fast enough to make the 30-hour cutoff, but pacing gave me a way to participate and enjoy at least part of the experience that makes this race so famous. And I was not disappointed.
I flew in on Thursday and Damon’s Dad (Adrian) picked me up. We drove to race headquarters, which was in Squaw Valley at the Olympic Plaza. This is where the Winter Olympics was held, don’t ask me what year. The drive from Reno to Squaw Valley alone made this worth the trip. Breath-taking mountains capped with snow, beautiful forests, streams, lakes, and lots of rock formations along the highway made it an incredible drive.
Damon had his whole family with him, wife (Cheryl), son (Phil, 12), and daughter (Sarah, 7), in addition to his Dad and we stayed at the Brockaway, which was a three story condo right on Lake Tahoe. This was about 30 minutes from the start.
Adrian and I get to race headquarters where there’s was a crew meeting at 2:30. We got there around 1:30 so we decided to have some lunch before the meeting started. We ran into Doug Gimenez whom I had run Bandera with. He was with Meredith and some other Austin Hill Country Runners. Joyce Prusaitis also was in the race as well as Shan, Doug’s girlfriend. I also saw Pam Reed, Chrissy and Stan Ferguson, and lot of other familiar faces.
After the crew meeting, Damon and family still had not showed up so we wandered up to the Western States store and I bought a couple of T-shirts. Dean Karanzes also was up there signing more books. I chatted with him for a while about the 24-hour championship race in Austria where he’ll be in the company of Scott Eppelman. He said he knew of Scott.
Fast forward to Friday, Damon and I went back to race headquarters so he could pick up his packet. He got his chip, his bracelet and went through the medical check. At 1:30, a big pre-race briefing was held and we found out there was supposedly about 15 miles of snow still on the course. The top 10 male and female runners were called up to the front and introduced so you got to see what Scott Jurek, Joe Kulak, Jorge Pachceo (he won Rocky Raccoon 100 this year), Connie Gardner, and lots of other well-known names looked like.
It’s Saturday morning at 5 a.m. It’s dark and there’s a big banner and a clock over the starting line. I watched as Scott Jurek and about 360 others lined up and the gun went off. It was hard not to be a little emotional as you saw them take off. I love the starts.
The first crew point we could meet Damon was at Robinson Flat (24.6) miles. I found a tree stump to sit on with my camera and watched as Jay Freeman passed, Tom Crull, and finally Damon. I took everyone’s photo that I knew. He noted that there was snow but it was in patches not completely covering the whole course. I talked to Jay Norman who was waiting for Lynne Harkey.
We got Damon refueled and he took off to meet us again about 5 miles later at Little Bald Mountain. To get to this crew point, we had to hike up the mountain about a half a mile. This hike had a significant amount of snow on it and we slipped and slided along the road. I was glad I wasn’t going to have to run in it. I chatted with Jay and Lynne’s friend Carla again while waiting. At this point Lynne was still behind Damon.
At Little Bald Mountain, Jay Freeman had already passed but I saw Tom again as well as Joyce Prusaitis. The next crew access point was Michigan Bluff, about 25 miles away so we had a good 5 hour plus wait before we’d see Damon again. Pacing could start at Michigan Bluff (55.7) after 8 p.m, or at Forest Hills (62.0). The original plan was for me to start pacing at Forest Hills, but Damon was behind his projected times so we agreed I’d be ready at Michigan Bluff in case he got there after 8 p.m.
We spent the next five hours eating lunch and checking into a hotel in Auburn. Around 8 p.m. we drove to Michigan Bluff. Lynne was coming through just as we pulled up. Jay sent her off and had just missed the last shuttle bus up to his car. He still needed to change to start pacing Lynne at Forest Hills. I asked Damon’s Dad if he could give Jay and Carla a ride so he ended up taking them and two others who’d missed the bus.
Damon came in around 9 p.m. I was ready to go. We headed out into the night around 9:15. He was feeling good, a little concerned about his time but confident he could make it up on the second half of the course which was considerably easier. He was moving at a steady pace walking briskly so I had no problems keeping up. We steadily made up some time at the next four aid stations. I was surprised at the lack of terrain. Most of the trail was nice soft dirt or even road. There were more stream crossings that required getting your feet wet that I had realized but overall, I didn’t think this was any harder than Northshore. Of course, I was very fresh and super charged with excitement about finally getting to run.
It was a beautiful night with an almost full moon. I had tied my jacket around my waist but never needed it. I so enjoyed being out there and talking and coming into the aid stations grabbing candy and cookies and stuff I normally can’t eat when it’s longer than 50 miles. In most of the aid stations every one cheered and clapped when you came in so you felt like you were finishing the race at every aid station. At one aid station, when I handed my bottle to the volunteer he asked me if I wanted ice. I said “Ice!” I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him. I said, “You have ice! I’d love some ice.” I was so happy an aid station had ice. I was so sick of warm water. I bet he didn’t ask anyone else the whole race if they wanted ice after that.
We got to Rucky Chucky. They had some great music playing so while Damon was getting stuff I danced around and swung my flashlight over my head and was thanking everyone for being there. I was really having fun. Damon heads down to the raft and a lady runs up to me and says, “You’re the pacer right?” I laugh and say, yes, can’t you tell?”
When we get to the raft, there was only room for Damon. So he went ahead. I sat and waited and after crossing, flew through the aid station on the other side to catch up with him. There’s a pretty big hill right after you get off. I was power walking up the hill and I saw two people ahead of me. I asked, did anyone pass you? They said No. When I continued up the hill and didn’t see Damon I began to get worried that I had left him at the aid station. I looked at my watch. I decided I’d walk back down toward the aid station for two minutes and if I still didn’t see him, I’d just run to Green Gate and wait for him there.
After two minutes still no sign so I turned around and started running up this hill. It was pretty steep but I was very anxious to catch up with him. I mean, really how tacky is it to lose your runner? I passed a bunch of people, all with pacers. I kept saying, I lost my runner! Have you seen a guy in a white shirt? I finally see two more guys up ahead of me. I think that can’t be him that’s a runner with his pacer. So I pass them saying as I go by, I’ve lost my runner. I get about 20 yards past and Damon says, “I’m back here.” He’s laughing his butt off. I stop and say thanks for letting me run all the way up this hill. How far were you going to let me go!
The good news is we cruise into Green Gate (79.8), finally about 30 minutes ahead of the 30-hour time limit. I was ecstatic. I’m screaming and hugging Cheryl saying he did it, he made up the time. Now all we had to do was hold on to the cushion through the rest of the night.
We had two more aid stations to pass through Auburn Lake Trails and Brown’s Bar before we hit a crew spot again Highway 49 (93.5). This would be the last crew spot where Cheryl could meet us. After getting through Green Gate, Damon started slowing down. He was tired, he had several blisters on his feet and a pricker somewhere in his sock. He kept plodding on but unfortunately by the time we hit Auburn Lake, we had lost time. Brown’s Bar seemed to take an eternity to get to, we lost more time, but at least it was finally getting light out again.
The trek from Brown’s Bar to Highway 49 was a miserable one for Damon. I kept encouraging him as much as I could and talking but he was really hurting. The cutoff time was 9:15. Around 9 a.m. we knew we were not going to make it. He was giving all he had but it just wasn’t enough. 9:15 came and went and we heard the sweepers on horses behind us. I started singing stupid songs like Joy to the World by Three Dog Night and I was trying to think of a good DNF song as we came into Highway 49. Damon offered to moon the sweepers instead. As we continued to plod up the trail that would never end, we finally saw Cheryl and Damon’s son Phil. It was about 10:30 a.m. I had tears in my eyes and a deep sadness in my heart. He had tried so hard and we were so close. Less than 7 miles from the finish. If only we’d had one more hour we could have pulled it off.
As we walked into the aid station, everyone was already tearing everything thing down. I hugged Damon and said you did your best. It was a valiant effort. This just means we have to try again.
The only sad part about this whole trip for me was Damon not finishing. I had so much fun. The trail was not tough at all from the perspective of only running 38 miles of it and most of that at a brisk walk. The first half of the race is the brutal part with the really steep climbs and during the hottest part of the day. I think to be successful in this race you have to really practice a lot of hiking and climbing so you have something left for the second half. You need to be able to do the first half in at least 14 hours, and it would be better to do it in 12-13.
I entered the raffle for the 2006 race, but didn’t win. Oh well. Maybe that’s a sign I shouldn’t try it. Tom Crull and Joyce both dropped and that makes me think that I couldn’t do it either. But pacing it is a blast and I highly recommend that to anyone who’s thinking about it.