Tuesday, July 02, 2013

From the sidelines of Western States

One question I am occasionally asked when I tell people I like this distance-running thing is whether or not I've seen the movie "Unbreakable." The answer is no, I haven't — and while one of the reasons for this is probably obvious to some, another reason was that I never mustered much enthusiasm for the mythology surrounding the Western States 100. Yes, I do understand why it's become its own legend — after all, it's the first. Back in 1974, Tevas Cup competitor Gordy Ainsleigh decided to try his own chances against the horses on foot. He finished the course in just under 24 hours and effectively invented the 100-mile ultramarathon. The Western States Endurance Run became official in 1977 and has since grown into most prestigious 100-miler in North America, attracting a deep field of ultrarunning talent and a lottery that brings in thousands of entries for less than 300 free spots. But — and I only admit this in the interest of honesty — I couldn't get past my prejudice that Western States was just a basic, somewhat bland California course with a corporate sheen. People only want to run it because all the fast guys are there and because it's the first, I thought. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it wasn't for me.

Still, the journalist in me wants to be where the action is, and there was admittedly a flickering desire to check out the scene. Earlier this year, I was chatting about cameras with an acquaintance, Amy Sproston, when I mentioned off-handily that I'd be happy for a chance to come out to the race if she needed any help on her crew. I think we both forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when she e-mailed me to ask if I still wanted to crew for her at the race. Amy is part of Team Montrail and the 2012 100K World Champion. She'd be gunning for a top finish at Western States against a lot of strong women, I knew it would be a fun race to spectate from the front lines.

I may have not harbored a ton of enthusiasm for Western States itself, but like anyone, I love a good hero story. For better or worse, Western States is where this small sport makes its heroes, and race-day speculations are fine entertainment. Who will come out victorious? The hot young talent who has been enjoying a killer year? The seasoned veteran who comes from behind late in the race to prove that experience can trump youth? The local favorite? The dark horse who no one expected? Watching these stories unfold is like watching a great sports movie without the formulaic dialogue or pandering sentimentality. It's a true story happening in real time, over many hours, through the sweat-drenched heat and fatigued night. The sidelines are a great place to witness the sides of the stories that few bother to tell. And because my own running journey has been a bit of a disaster recently, I didn't think it would hurt to venture to the grand stage to search for inspiration.

My job was to join Amy's sister Lisa at half of the crewed aid stations. Lisa comes out from Wisconsin every year for some sisterly bonding, but she often handles the bulk of the crewing herself and it can be stressful. Amy actually had an entire entourage this year, with two friends, Jason and Dillon, from her home state (Oregon) to help with crewing, and a pacer in her friend Robyn, a fast road marathoner who had never participated in a trail race or ultramarathon. It's true that we all had some outside interest in being there, and also that Amy probably didn't need any of us (with the exception of her sister.) She's pretty efficient and self-contained. But Amy was gracious in letting us all be a part of her Western States experience, and for that I'm grateful.

2013 will be remembered as "The hot year." It was officially just the second hottest Western States in history, but I have a difficult time imagining anything hotter. I saw 110 degrees in Sacramento the day before the race. It barely dipped below 70 overnight in Squaw Valley at 6,200 feet, and the heat-trapping canyons along the American River easily saw ambient temperatures in the 110s with brutal sun exposure and no breeze. My car thermometer repeatedly showed 100-degrees-plus while driving along the Foresthill Road. I slathered my skin in sunscreen and vied for the tiniest slivers of shade along the course. Lisa and I carried camp chairs and coolers up and down steep paved approaches to the aid stations; it was actually the first time I had done much walking in the week since my knee injury, and it was tough. We had our share of mishaps — leaving the cooler with all of Amy's cold drinks in Squaw Valley, miscommunication with the guys as we shuttled between aid stations, frantic rushes when the schedule got tight. All of this time, Amy was running steady, hitting her splits from 2012 almost exactly despite the extreme heat, and coming into the aid stations quiet but collected.

Meanwhile, the story that was unfolding in the women's race was an exciting one. Amy's U.S. teammate Pam Smith, who hadn't been on anyone's list of race favorites after struggling to a 29-hour finish in last year's Western States, surged ahead before the halfway point and continued to build her lead. Because of our aid station schedule, we didn't see what was happening at the front of the men's race, but we did see a lot of the faster chasers come through, wild-eyed and determined to keep up a strong pace in the hot hot heat. It was exciting and fun, with the added bonus of frantic, wild scrambling for two minutes every three hours. We tried to do anything we could for Amy, who was methodically chipping away at the miles — nauseated, pale-faced, and suffering just like everyone else, but moving strong.

What these men and women do at the front of these races is baffling. I know — hard work, smart training, decent genetics, blah blah blah. It's still the human element that intrigues me the most — the "whys" of every runner, not the "hows." Western States is a prizeless race in a fairly esoteric sport. Yes, you get a belt buckle if you finish, but I think belt buckles are terrible prizes. There, I admitted that too. I'd rather have a coaster. You have to admire the grit and raw energy these people give to a decidedly unglamorous endeavor.

We had an interesting mishap with Amy's pacer, Robyn, that became perhaps my favorite story of the day. Robyn was set to pace Amy from mile 62 to the American River crossing at mile 78. Amy actually prefers to run without pacers, but Robyn is her speedy training partner who Amy wanted to entice into the world of trail running by showing her the ropes at Western States. Robyn has run a marathon in three hours flat, but never anything longer and never a race on trails. Throughout the day she was visibly nervous about the prospect of pacing Amy for sixteen miles, and asked a lot of questions about trail racing customs and strategies.

Lisa and I were waiting for Amy at the final crewed aid station, mile 93, when the guys surprised us by arriving there as well — without Robyn. When we asked what happened to her, they admitted they "lost her." "We were climbing up the hill when we looked down at the river and saw Robyn crossing," they said. "We yelled and screamed as much as we could, but they couldn't hear us. I don't think Amy knew she was back there. We're not sure if she's still out there or not."

Um ... really? Robyn didn't have a headlamp or even trail shoes. She'd never run anything longer than a marathon. Was she really out there running an unplanned 50K, possibly in a condition where she'd need assistance from Amy, who was supposed to be racing? I felt a pit of dread in my stomach, and I could see all the color flushed from Lisa's face. "We lost Robyn."

They arrived at mile 93 and Amy took off almost immediately, as she was in close proximity to second position runner Nikki Kimball and fourth Meghan Arboghast. Lisa went with her, as it's their tradition for Lisa to pace her sister in the final seven miles. Robyn was excited and flustered, explaining that she didn't realize she wasn't supposed to cross the river, and when Amy noticed her at the other side, it was too late to turn around. With the rope and other runners crossing, a backward crossing would have caused an obstruction. Robyn asked people around her if she could borrow a headlamp and actually obtained one, and then spent the next fifteen miles doing everything in her power to follow Amy's lead as they climbed hills, danced over rocks, and ran through the forest in the fading light. We congratulated Robyn on running her first ultra, and she was visibly glowing and openly emotional about the experience she'd had.

Amy arrived at the Placer High School track without Lisa, as she'd surged so much that she actually dropped her sister. She ran a steady race and finished in 19:25, in third place behind Pam and Nikki. I thought she looked strong at the finish line, but just a few minutes later all the color drained from her skin and she ended up in a fetal position on the grass, and then in the medical tent. Ultimately she was okay, but you could tell that she'd left a lot of herself out there, strewn across the sun-baked dirt of the Western States course.

Generally, once the podium is filled, the journalists go home and the race carries out its quiet conclusion. Western States encourages lingering with a big awards ceremony after the 30-hour time limit has been reached, so we had a chance to spend another half-day in the hot hot heat watching the final finishers. Although I appreciate the talent and determination at the front of the race, as an individual I identify more with the back-of-packers — their quiet determination and internal rewards.

One guy finished just one minute past thirty hours, which drew a standing ovation from the entire crowd — although that guy ran every inch of a hundred miles, he would not be officially recognized as a finisher under race rules. Then nearly everyone turned and started filing away, and five minutes later, another guy crossed onto the track. A few photographers jumped back into finish line, and a few people turned to clap, but this last finisher's arrival went largely unnoticed. I admit I started tearing up as he and his pacer passed with their arms clasped. It's so hard to chase cutoffs. Those at the back of any race are there for a reason — they're having a particularly tough day, or experienced unexpected setbacks. And once you fall behind, you have to fight and you can't stop fighting. This guy fought so hard, but in the end he only just lost the battle. In the end, sometimes you fight just for the sake of fighting. I bet this guy is proud of what he accomplished.

Amy, of course, has much to be proud of herself. I have a lot more respect for Western States now, as an event and as a journey. It's a great race, and it's the people involved who make it so. 


  1. So now are at least a little curious about watching Unbreakable?

  2. Unbreakable isn't just about the history of the race. It is, to use your words "Watching these stories unfold is like watching a great sports movie without the formulaic dialogue or pandering sentimentality."

  3. Thank you for a really good post!

  4. I think it's a fun race and some day I will go back. I agree the course is bland and I'm not sure what makes it so fun except the insanity that reminds me of hyper commercial Ironman races.

  5. Yeah, Danni, it's funny — since I went to UTMB last year, everything else seems so low-key in comparison, even Western States. If I had to apply a "hype" score to the trail running events I've attended between 1 and 100, my usual local 50Ks would be a 2, Western States would be a 12, and UTMB would be a 96. It's quite the spectacle. Not even my thing, really, but I think every trail running event enthusiast should experience it at least once.

    And the best thing about PTL is how much it's the antithesis of UTMB in terms of hype. No one knows anything about it, even the locals in Chamonix or the runners who race UTMB. It is downplayed as much as UTMB is up-played by the organizers, which is kind of awesome, given half the hype about UTMB is "toughest race ever" when all this time, there's this hulking older brother in the background that's exponentially more tough, and no one even cares.

  6. Love this post and teared up a bit when I read the back-of-the-packers finishing too late.
    Nice writing, Jill. Now I want to run an ultra.

  7. I just re-read this. Like you, I think losing Robyn is still my favorite part of that day. If you ever want to join the crew again, you're always welcome. Of course this year could be the last, because one never knows what the future will hold. Thanks for being out there (and I can't believe I didn't comment back in the day--hopefully I did privately or on social media).

    1. I'd love an opportunity to join your WS crew again. This year may work. I'll send you an e-mail this week.


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