"Take some salt!" Luis Escobar, stationed a hundred feet behind me, bellowed, as I staggered over to a nearby conifer to steady myself, in a vain attempt to stretch out spastic quads. Looking down, the tetany was impressive - medial quad definition befitting a body-builder - but hardly appreciated.
|Quad seizure. Mile 49. Photo: Luis Escobar.|
*****I'm not sure I slept on Friday night. Really. I laid there, drifting. A thought would spark an emotion, and the heart would race a few beats. Wash, rinse, repeat. It wasn't anxiety, fear or dread. It was excitement. But I'm not sure my body knew the difference, or cared.
"I'm ready." - the mantra of the past week - finally gave way to race morning. At 3AM, I figured I could just get up. I prepared: girding, taping, mounting. It was finally here.
Driving BGD's truck from the Injinji House to Squaw, blasting "Pusher Love Girl", my cheer belied a nervous energy and, perhaps, impatience, for the final countdown. Check-in, breakfast, numbers pinned, and - one last time - drills and warm-up with BGD on the walkway outside Squaw Valley.
|It's finally time. Photo: The Ultrarunning Scene/Claytons.|
|Giving the watch a slap. Go-time. Photo:L Glenn Tachiyama.|
*****"The best laid plans of Mice and Men oft go astray".
BGD and I had plans for Western States. A lot of plans. Plans to start together, to run controlled in the High Country, to run together through the canyons, for at least the first 100km, to M10, to podium.
We did the work. Incredible work.
Too much work.
Climbing to Escarpment, he was already lagging behind. We both were. As Cam Clayton dead-sprinted up the ski hill - with Hal, Tim, and even Clarkie in tow - we lagged behind a huge throng of runners, as we ascended the 30% grade "bark path" ("A gift from Eugene!", I joked) to the railroad car bridge, just before The Ancient Tree.
|The opening climb. Photo: The Ultrarunning Scene/Claytons.|
A week earlier, we had test-ran the climb, me wearing my heart-rate monitor, guaging a sustainable effort. We were right-on splits, yet my heart rate was soaring: 170-plus beats per minute, far higher than a week ago.
The heart-rate monitor was supposed to be our guide on race day: keep things controlled and fat-burning early, and save energy for the latter half. Yet that morning, pre-race, it was malfunctioning: no signal, 30 beats per minute, no signal... I studied it as we shuffled and alternatively power-hiked to High Camp. It would desend to 16x, only to jump to 170s again with the slightest effort.
I stopped for BGD. "We're on pace, and we're in, like, 40th place. It's going to be a conga line in The Chief. We need to go.". I went. He didn't. The top ten guys were clear out of sight when I hit Escarpment AS (41:26, avg HR 171). Power-hiking the steep, steep climb past the AS, I felt weak and tired. I lagged behind Meltzer, Terranova and Yassine, but gradually reeled them in on the more reasonable Jeep road leading to the top of Emigrant Pass.
|About to summit Emigrant Pass. Focused. Photo: Bob MacGillivray/DryMax.|
Once over the top, I opened things up, but repeated the early-race mantras: "Form-focus! The Crouch! Execute! You're not working hard!" I floated down the track, as daylight dawned over The Chief.
The stride felt pretty good and the effort sustainable. I saw a blue-shirted and bare-chested man running up a head. I effortlessly reeled them with quick strides on the gentle downhills and flats, losing slight ground as I "floated the ups". I passed the bare-chester - Rob Krar - very briefly - only to be retaken as the trail flattened into the numerous meadows of the Wilderness.
Jake was nowhere to be found, nor was anyone else to my six. I focused forward, and inward.
I looked at my heart-rate. "168?? Really! That can't be right...". I wasn't working hard. I was moving pretty well, but I felt no effort, yet the heart rate was soaring. How could that be? Maybe it was malfunctioning. Or, maybe my heart was still wired from the pre-race nerves... No matter, I felt fine. I was fine...
But as I descended the wash-out trails and dirt roads past the Chief, behind Krar and blue-jersied Jeremy Humphreys, it occurred to me, "Wow...my quads feel cooked!"
It was a blazing hot afternoon on Cal Street in May. Two kilos from Rucky Chucky, the homestretch on our version of the iconic Training Camp "Peace Run": Robinson Flat to the River Crossing, 48 miles. The final run of an epic, eight-day training camp that covered every inch of the Western States course.
I was done. Just done. BGD cruised on ahead, triumphantly. I stopped to walk. I was beyond tired. I was defeated.
Jake and I had an extraordinary camp: A steaming Robie to the river. A smooth Rob Flat to Michigan Bluff. A spirited Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat.
That was just the first three days.
We had a tremendous week: professional runners, professional eaters. But it felt like work. At night, at Carol's house in Michigan Bluff, unable to sleep each night due to profound fatigue, I passed the time poring over Tim Noakes' "Lore of Running" and his chapter, "Preventing Overtraining".
Isn't irony cute, sometimes?
As soon as I staggered into Rucky Chucky, I knew I'd done too much. I could barely sit upright. I laid on a picnic table for several minutes before gradually reviving, thanks to Topher Gaylord and crew's generous donation of water and calories. I soaked in the River. We were finished, we'd done it. But at what cost? I gradually came around in Christina Curley's Subaru as we - Jake, Tyler Curley, my Green Gate-to-the-finish pacer, and I - inched our way up to Driver's Flat and back to Auburn. The rest of the night, my body felt a bunch of Ballpark Franks: plumped and cooked. But I came around...I'm fine...
We were five weeks out from Race Day. Plenty of time. But the recovery dragged: two full days off, then easy miles. But after a week, I was still exhausted. A two-hour road run in Wisconsin wiped me out. Four weeks to go.
Another week, another long-run attempt: multiple post-holes in the snow drifts of the Central Cascades were each small blessings - or slaps across the face, perhaps - to stop running. More days off. Three weeks.
Finally, with under twenty days to go, I rebounded: good energy, legs feeling spry. The stride felt phenomenal: efficient and strong. A short tempo run indicated awesome fitness, but recovery was yet again delayed and prolonged.
In 2012, I'd done about 26 miles and 6k', fifteen days pre-race. This year, I settled for the tried-and-true Hardesty Mountain run: 5+ miles and 3300' up, and the same return. This is my bread-and-butter climb, done once or twice weekly throughout the Western States build-up. A typical week would have a Hardesty up/down on a Wednesday night, then a solid track session the next day.
Two weeks out, I ran up Hardesty in awesome heart-rate discipline: 150 beats per minute maximum, in 65 minutes (with a typical "hard" effort in the low 60s). That felt great. The descent is typically 38 minutes. I ran it aggressively, for one final quad seasoning.
My quads were extraordinarily sore for three days.
*****A trio of us rolled into Lyon Ridge in just under 1:40 (58:19/1:39:45 - avg HR 169). I took two cups of fluid and a banana, and rolled out, only to forget gels. I returned and grabbed two. Hiking up the hill, enjoying my banana, I hear, "Joe!", followed by a "Shhh-sssh-shh" laughter - trademark BGD. He was hiking beneath me, just leaving the AS.
"There he is!"
By the time I'd summitted The Cougar, he'd caught up. It was good to see him, but I sensed that he must've worked hard to catch up. We ran along and before long spied a new jersey ahead: Yassine. We ran together as a trio along Lyon Ridge. My stride felt solid and efficient, yet I felt the grade of each short climb along the ridge. It was legitimately warm in the sun. At 7AM.
Before long, we had more company: a short fellow scooting up from behind. The Legend! Mike Morton. He rolled in behind and joined the train and, as a group, we made the final climb up and over to the switches leading to Red Star Ridge.
We hit Red Star at least four or five strong (55:46/2:35:32 - HR 164). That overwhelmed the aid station. I'd tired of the half-apple juice, half-water sludge in my large hydration pack. The sugar was good, but it was quite useless when: a.) the mixture warmed to luke-hot, b.) a half-chewed S!Cap exploded in my throat on Lyon Ridge, and c.) I tripped and fell on my hands, leaving them dirtied and bloodied.
I handed off the pack for a water fill as I went for a banana, gels and fluids. Morton and Yassine were on their way out, yet my pack was still empty. I helped the aid worker fill my pack with individual cups - the pitchers all commandeered for the other runners.
Another pack fail.
Finally, I was equipped and out the aid station, with Morton and Yassine.
No BGD. I wouldn't see him again until the afternoon.
Yassine and I played leap-frog along the exposed, rocky singletrack of Red Star Ridge before he eased off the gas pedal. Jeremy Humphrey lingered in the vacinity until the switchbacks into the Star Fire burn, then it was just me and Mike.
It was incredible to run with Mike. I didn't plan on it, but it felt right: while he was faster on flats and slight ups, but I'd reel him in on downs, and on the steeper climbs - which he would ocassionally walk, stopping to take long, high pulls from his water bottle. He even drank like a stud!
|Rolling into Duncan Canyon, AS, on the heels of Morton. Feeling strong. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.|
I cruised behind Morton down the switches into Duncan Canyon aid station, sizzling with excitement from a big crowd and bigger AS staff, teal shirts awash. Jimmy and Matt were there to crew. I handed off the pack and yelled, "Anyone have scissors?". Of course they did! A woman sprinted over to a bag, and within seconds snipped out the offending seam in my left axilla and dished out two dolyps of lube.
As I grapped a filled pack, and a jam-packed ice bandana, I reached under my shirt and ripped off my heart rate monitor: "This thing's useless", I told Matt.
It was, because I was completely ignoring it.
Off I went, again sneaking past Morton out the aid. We continued on together, he passing me once again on the flats, while I adjusted the icy cold banana around my neck. We had a good descent on a manicured trail to Duncan Canyon. I chilled out behind Mike ("You want by? You want by?" No way, dude.). At the bottom of Duncan, a quick douse, then a run/hike up the other side.
It was getting warm, but the bandana was money. I hiked when he hiked, and ran when he ran. I felt a bit like Bug Boy, but I stayed back enough to allow Morton breathing room. The stride felt pretty good on the exposed climb to the plateau leading to Little Duncan. Mike turned back on a couple occasions he'd turn to yell, "Is this the right way??". "Yes, we're good."
The final climb past Little Duncan is always a beast: no switches and, this year, with a sprinkle of heat. Mike and I powerhiked the whole thing, me about 100 meters back. Just before Little Rob Flat, Humphreys rolled up. He passed by and went with Morton. As I began to run on the plateau of Little Rob, I noticed something: cramping. The right adductors, and a little bit of the medial quads. Hmmm... I made some stride adjusts and that seemed to help. I drank, I popped a gel. I snoosed another S!Cap.
I rolled into Robinson Flat (65:23/4:45:36) behind both Morton and Humphries. I was hurting, but no worse than a year ago. In fact, after a merciful icy-cold douse from Sara and a ice bandana recharge, I felt pretty damn good. I weighed in, down four pounds from the morning; only two from yesterday. The stomach was great, but I felt worn. Typical Robinson.
|Rolling into Rob Flat. Hot already, heavy dousing. Photos: Megan Uhan.|
I rolled out of the aid station and inched my way up Little Bald, looking my best past Carey Williams. I felt like garbage. I shuffled and walked, struggling in my pocket for the hourly S!Cap. Finally, the trail leveled out, and the sky opened up to the Middle Fork valley. It was a beautiful morning.
Yet, the negativity swirled: "I'm F####D. I'm cramping, I feel like hell, I'm alone." But I beat it back: "Execute! Efficiency! Compact! The Crouch! Float! Eat! Drink! Salt! EXECUTE!"
And so it went: a light but respectible descent off the Bald and onto the dirt double track. The flats felt OK, but as I rolled along, I began to feel more wiggles from the quads.
Cramping? Really? Why?
Just as I was about to feel more sorry for myself, up around the bend comes a trio of Morton, Humphreys, and Dave Mackey, running at me.
"We lost the trail! There are no ribbons! Which way do we go??"
"It's thisss wayyy!", I drolled, equal parts fatigue with annoyance, using my own forward momentum as the only directional.
"Are you sure??"
They took off again, Morton leading with Mackey and Humphreys in tow. I thought, "Really, Dave? You've run this, like, eight times!"
To their defense, the road was completely devoid of confidence ribbon. When we rolled into Miller's Defeat (42:40/5:28:17) as a trio, I notified the aid station captian that the ribbons were missing. While there, I guzzled two cups of Sprite, gobbled a banana, and busted out ahead of Dave, who was hammering a Coke straight from the can.
Leaving the aid station, a funny thing began to happen: I started feeling OK. The heart rate dropped. The breathing deep and relaxed. The heart rate slow and steady.
Then, I started feeling GOOD.
On the dirt road flat, I was on total form-focus: compact stride, hips straight up and down, strong elbows, trunk forward, gobbling up this free real-estate. Morton was pulling head, but Dave, who'd passed me just past Miller's, was now fading back.
I rolled silently past Dave, hoping a lack of words would elicit a stronger impression of strength. While my energy was great, I was not only still cramping, but it was worsening: both inner quads, and now the calves. More form-focus: Compact, forward, up and down, elbows! The stride felt money and the descent felt relaxed and strong on the steep downs toward Dusty.
I also adjusted my fueling: in the High Country, was I taking a half gel (50kcal) or two Clif bloks (70kcal) every :15, plus half-apple juice, plus a banana chunk at each AS. This amounted to at least 250 calories per hour, close to 300. This conservative variety - as well as a well-timed Zyrtek in the morning - kept the entire GI tract in perfect harmony, all day. S!Caps were taken hourly, kept in cheek-and-gum, and sucked on progressively, rather than dumped whole in to my stomach - which previously caused nasty gut distress.
After Rob Flat, I switched to a full gel every twenty minutes, with the same aid station banana, also augmented by soda or Gu Brew. Water was in the pack.
Nutrition was dialed: I swear I could feel the Fat-Burning mode, which I worked so hard to hone this spring. Energy was limitless, yet I felt like I was using none at all.
The stride was dialed: I felt strong and smooth.
The heat was an after-thought: a non-issue. I felt cool and comfortable.
So why was I cramping?
I rolled down the Jeep road, passed the odd fan and photographer, the hallmark sign of an impending aid. And there it was, Dusty Corners. Ahead, Morton had just arrived. I looked at my watch: 26:xx. "Wow, awesome!"
|Rolling into Dusty Corners AS, eyes on Morton, feeling phenomenal. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.|
James and Matt were there: "The leaders aren't too far ahead. Cam Clayton dropped out. You're in the top ten!"
I felt absolutely phenomenal, and that news sent spirits soaring. Roaring into the aid stations with fists ablazing, I high-fived Connor and LB, while I scurried about for fluid, food, a fresh pack, a bandana recharge, and this time, a hat with ice. I was set!
Yet, the moment I stopped, my right calf almost seized up! What the F###? I snagged an extra S!Cap and put it in my cheek, mounted up and was out in under 30:00 (28:50/5:57:08).
Everything felt on, as I rolled behind Morton. In the High Country, I thought to myself, "This guy is my ticket to Top 5". I fantasized about he and I, methodically rolling up the field until the river, until it was just me and him, battling it out.
But now, dumping down to Pucker Point trail, I was consumed with another battle: fighting off cramps.
*****I wanted to win. I thought I could win, I knew I could win. Period.
And I couldn't give two s##ts whether you, this runner, that favorite, or anyone else believed it. I don't care what you think, or what he, she, or this website says.
I wanted to win. I was ready to win.
The Western States course is in my wheel-house. It fits my strengths to a tee: a hybrid course, some rough trail, but not technical; some altitude, but mild and early; some heat, but not Badwater. And, best of all, a whole ton of flat, fast running in the last 38 miles.
A year ago, with a stride befitting an octogenarian, I was ninth. In the process, I ran the fifth fastest time from Foresthill to the finish. My 16:13 ranked 23rd fastest in the 39-year history of the race. And all this from running like Grandpa Joe, when he got out of bed for the first time in two decades.
This year, I was fit. And fast. Strong, and efficient. Tempo runs that, a year ago, I was doing in 5:40s, I was now doing in low 5:20s. Then five-teens. On the track, I was running splits my watch hadn't seen since my mid-twenties.
On the trails, I was stronger. At Camp, we were putting up splits that might make Timothy perspire in his North Face® quilted chambray night shirt: 1:48 from Last Chance to Michigan Bluff (after a 2:0x outbound warm-up), a 2:17 Cal Street at the end of Rob Flat to the River (which included a 4 minute stop at Cal 2 to mess with Matt Keyes' water bottle). We were even cutting sub-3 minute kilometers at Placer High in between trail sessions.
|Matt Keyes' Cal 2 water bottle for Training Camp weekend. You know it's a solid prank when it makes MonkeyBoy chuckle. Photos: Me.|
I was a different runner in 2013, physically, but also mentally. I would no longer simply hope that I might place well, or quietly wish for success. I was going to take what I wanted.
I wanted to win. I didn't care about how strong Tim is: that wouldn't stop me (nor would I suspect Tim would want that to stop me); I didn't care about Hal's experience, or Clarkie's toughness, or DBo's and Clayton's deadly speed and strength.
I respected those guys, but I didn't care.
I wanted a ###ing Cougar. Period.
And I told everyone with a sense of hearing about it. That's what I got from spending time with Jim King during Camp in May. His passion and desire was surpassed by none in Western States Lore. He, like Scott Jurek, was unabashed about his desire to win, to be the best. And it was that desire that fueled his running and racing.
|Jim King and BGD at Carol's House in Michigan Bluff, Training Camp week. Photo: Me.|
I was asked, "Don't you care about if you go for it, and come up short?" I knew I had to do it my way: not "run with the leaders", pacing like a high-schooler in a district two-mile race. I would run my own race, and Execute to Foresthill, Punish on Cal Street, and finally, Close. So if I did just that, and fell short, what regrets - or shame - could I possibly have?
I got that from studying and talking to Tim Twietmeyer, also during camp. He wasn't always the strongest or fastest guy, but seldom was anyone tougher, smarter, or cooler, than he. And twenty-five times that got him to Auburn; fifteen an M10, and five times a Cougar.
I was ready.
Now, suddenly, just as the race began to coalesce and align in my direction, one single element was threatening to unravel it all.
*****As I shuffled along the initial descents of Pucker, the quads and calves were tweaking wildly. I was more concerned about the calves, as they were prone to near-violent contractions. What the F### was going on? My stride felt terrific, yet here I was.
Previous experience and significant study led me to believe that cramping was due to three primary factors: running too hard for too long, or running too inefficiently. Or, running on compromised legs. Speed, food, water, and salt were only mitigating factors - they would improve the situation, but their effect was only finite.
So I slowed, and I was hyper-form-focused: strong, downward elbows, hips hinged, trunk forward. But what I noticed was, each time I tried to trend forward, I felt the hydration pack - now burgeoning with water - pull me behind, rounding my spine backward. Damn you!
Another pack fail. Epic.
I resolve to ditch the pack at Michigan Bluff and go with only bottles from there, but would I make it there without incident?
*****I ran along Pucker, still making fairly good time, trunk forward as can be, elbows churning. Morton's long-gone, and now Humphreys rolls up. We exchanged status updates, but I said nothing about my cramping. Before long, he asked to pass and I obliged.
I went to work on the stride; the Brain iPod, after several hours of J.T., shifted to a new tune: "Work! Work! Work!..." Execute! The cramps are stabilizing, perhaps improving slightly, as I pass Pucker Point (and several clever photogs). The pace is still solid, and the energy, terrific. The stride feels terrific. The calf cramping...gone! But the quads continue to quiver. I pressed on to Last Chance.
By the time I descended to Last Chance, I was right behind Humphreys. The downhill stride was sound and I entered in good spirts. Weight steady at 154 - hydration was fine. My friend from Eugene, podiatrist Dusty McCourt was there, so I schmoozed with he and the terrific aid station staff on hand. More S!Caps, gels, and soda. I felt strong, and focused. I was determined to beat this.
I rolled quickly out of Last Chance, recovering my stride and making a push on Jeremy, who lingered at the aid.
The calf cramping was gone, but what about the quads? I made pretty good time (10:xx) to Pacific Slab, feeling strong, but I knew the descent to Swinging Bridge would be challenging. The quads protested even the most conservative pace; I did my best to avoid braking and keep the trunk forward.
Before long, I came upon a hiking Cam Clayton.
"There's plenty of time for a Silver Buckle!"
"Something popped in my ankle."
"OK, take care, dude."
I thought to myself about Scott Jurek rupturing an ankle ligament on this same descent back in 2001, after which he went on to win. But I neither mentioned or dwelled upon that; I had my own problems.
The downside of Deadwood canyon heated up the closer I got; the quads objected, but the cramping was stabilizing. I hit bottom in :25 - a respectable race-day split, and started across. At the spring, I doused heavily: head, back, chest, up and down the legs. I refilled my dousing bottle for the climb ahead and took off.
I powerhiked the bulk of the climb up to Devil's Thumb. The quads were spastic, protesting each step. I kept my trunk way forward and put hands-on-thighs, which helped. I ran small chunks, if only to provide the knees and muscle stretching breaks. It was warm, but tolerable. I ran in the shade and hiked in the sun. Simple stuff. Energy was strong; I popped a full gel and ate a half-sleeve of Bloks. An S!Cap dissolved, cheek-in-gum. Execute!
I made the top of Devil's in a solid 32:xx and spent two minutes in the aid, shoring things up (24:31 + 33:49/7:38:55). I weighed in at 155 - only a pound down. Hydration was fine. Fuel was fine; in fact, my energy was still strong, even atop Devil's. I gave a cheery hello to Ellie and got a thorough douse everywhere, guzzled only one Coke - being acutely mindful of over-hydration - got another S!Cap, and took off, hoping to loosen out the quads.
I made it down the trail and up to the top of the clear-cut until my quads were in full revolt. Stopped dead. S##t. Little stretch, crouch, flex. Cold water on the quads. Walking made things worse. I ran, high-knees.
This stretch of trail is absolutely money. Rolling sub-40 is effortless, so long as you can gobble these flats and gentle downs to Deadwood Cemetery and the start of the real canyon descent. I shuffled along, passing the odd spectator, until I came upon Luis, his son, and another man.
I was in big trouble. I was only hoping I could make it past them and out of sight before the quads completely seized.
I did not.
*****"Take some salt!"
To respond, I had to spit out the two, now-empty, S!Cap carcasses from my mouth. What I really wanted was for Luis to remove the Taser probes from my medial quads. They seized, ceaselessly. But I had to keep going. Standing, walking, or stretching did nothing. I had to move.
So I got my shit together, and got down the trail. Craig and Andy's voices filled my head, "Solve your problems!" But how?
I would not hammer S!Caps: my stomach was phenomenal; my previous experience with over-salting was so dire and miserable, I would have nothing of it to hammer ten, five or even three additional salt tabs. I would not hammer water: my weight was not down, and I was not thirsty. I would not over-hydrate and risk the hyponatremic trifecta: nausea, swelling and even greater muscle damage. My fueling was fine, but I pumped more calories. I continued on.
I refused to let negativity seep in. "How can I fix this?" I became hyper-form focused, again: "OK, so I need to get into a big-time crouch, hip hinge down, and then the shock will shift to the mid-thigh and glut!" So that's what I did.
And it actually worked.
I stumbled and crouched my way down to El Dorado. The stride and the pace weren't pretty, but I was doing it. I began to muse, excitedly: "How epic would this be? 'Uhan battles cramps for 65 miles to triumph at Western States!'"
I was all-in. I crouched and hinged, and elbow-pumped down the trail - using every ounce of personal and professional experience to get there. Finally, I hit El Dorado: gels, soda, hat ice, douse. It was hot down there, but not as epic as I thought.
Despite the spasticity, and the walking and tree-hugging breaks, no one had passed me. But Humphreys entered the AS as I left (47:55/8:26:50). I powerhiked once again, eating and drinking and dousing.
The quads protested with extreme prejudice, but I hiked along - stretching and lifting, dousing them, cajoling with all my spirit. I hiked to the top switch, and ran as I did Devil's: shuffle the shade, hike the sun. So I plugged along.
I thought about Michigan Bluff AS: "If I could get there and do something, it's flat running for a while...". I decided I'd stop at MB and ice and stretch my quads.
Then, I remembered the scene from "Race for the Soul", where runners were getting massage work at the Michigan Bluff. I recalled a recent Tim Noakes podcast, where he surmised that some cramping might be due to adhesions in the muscle and fascia. That's it! I'll get a few minutes of massage!
I powerhiked into the hot, exposed north side of El Dorado, passing a few specators, including Bret and Gale Henry, RDs of my first-ever ultramarathon, the Autumn Leaves 50/50 - who gave great encouragement. Behind me, Humphreys was closing. I didn't care. Fix your problems.
|Climbing up to MB. Photo: Matt Uhan.|
"Take my pack! I gotta get work done!" I wanted to be done with that pack so badly I couldn't stand to be near it anymore.
He grabbed the pack and took off ahead, only to drop something out his back pocket. I watched it bounce violently on the pavement.
That's my phone!
"Hey Matt, you dropped my phone!", I yelled. He stopped in his tracks, 180'd, and picked it up. How I knew that was my phone, why I would think he'd have my phone, I have no idea. But the absurdity of noticing him dropping my smartphone on the pavement above the Bluff at that moment was not lost on me. I chuckled, even as I staggered down the hill to the AS.
Michigan Bluff. Home. Past Carol's house and around the bend, I quickly weighed in. Two down, right on. Ignoring my crew, I yelled, "I need massage therapy!" I hope I said, please - I probably didn't. Two ladies scurried front and center, and took me to a soft table.
It was two familiar faces! Kelly Lange, esteemed chiropractor from Ashland, and Tonya Olson - physical therapist, and DustBall's sister. Both terrific practitioners, members of The Ultra Community, and friends. I was in good hands.
"My quads won't stop cramping, I need a few minutes of massage on each one!", I barked. They wasted no time, each taking one quad at the same time.
My quad were cramping, yet, even in tetany, they weren't that painful. Until then.
That massage. Hurt. Like. A. Mother#####r.
Dear Lord! Tonya went straight into deep tissue cross-friction, while Kelly busted out the Graston tool - a sharp metal blade! I screamed like a newborn, intermittently barking for bananas and soda while I laid supine, with knees bent off the table.
|Tonya and Kelly hard at work on my quads at Michigan Bluff AS. Photo: Megan Uhan.|
I had even split my watch, determined not to sit there, forever. The minutes - and the pain - accumulated. The ladies did great work and I felt like they were nailing the tight spots.
Flipping to prone, I had them stretch my heels toward my butt. They flexed about halfway. Brutal. On and off pumps.
It felt better. nearly ten minutes had passed. The clock was ticking. I had to move. Not simply to compete, but to avoid a total-body shut-down. The longer I stopped, the harder it would be to re-start.
I hobbled off the table. Tyler Curley, my Green Gate pacer, handed me a second bottle. "I'm done with packs.". I hobbled down the road, toward Gorman Ranch, and out the aid station. Tyler said something awesome, but it escaped me. The day was escaping me.
I shuffled along Gorman. The quads, had stopped cramping, but were destroyed. Obliterated. Useless. I managed to run through the gait filming station, but was reduced to a slow walk down the hill. I tried to run but nearly fell down. I walked some more, but even that was excruciating on the descent.
I made it nearly to Tonto's grave. Craig and Andy's voices disappeared. Tim Noakes' appeared in its stead:
"...If you are running badly on the day, why continue to struggle to the finish?
The reason elite runners should quit when they are running poorly is simply that they are probably under-performing as a result of muscle damage. This usually indicates that these runners have been over-training or have raced too frequently before the race, or have not recovered fully from a previous race. Thus, their best option would be to stop running and to commence a period of rest. Continuing to run simply compounds the problem by prolonging recovery, seriously affecting future chances of racing well again.
I now firmly believe that this type of muscle damage caused by racing the longer distances, which is characterized by pain during exercise and by prolonged post-exercise muscle soreness, is cumulative and may have long-term consequences. If this is indeed true, it makes no sense to incur that muscle damage for no good reason, other than finishing a marathon or longer race in a disappointingly slow time..."
I was done. My day was over.
I stopped. I turned around, and I walked uphill. But I stopped again, and tried to run/walk again. No way. I turned and walked again. I stopped again. I knelt and stretch.
I walked slowly back to Michigan Bluff. Only when I was within sight of pavement, did I finally see the next runner: Paul Terranova. He looked strong. I smiled weakly, gave him a thumb's up, and said, "You're M10."
I re-entered Michigan Bluff, met with silent, disappointed looks from spectators: Dead Man Walking. I re-entered the aid station and watched in slow-motion as the scissors snipped through my wristband.
*****The ensuing time was spent at the AS, borrowing a phone to call my family and crew that was stationed in Foresthill. I sat and waited for BGD to come in, then went with his crew and family back to Foresthill.
The most difficult moment of the day was seeing my crew: I had let them down. They'd traveled so far and sacrificed greatly for that day, and it was now over.
|The phenomenal OOJ crew, waiting for me in Foresthill. Photo: Meredith Stevens/unknown.|
His brain was on board, but his legs were not. His muscles ailed, the same as mine, for the same reasons. He made it to Cal 2 before they would run no farther. Still, he walked another fifteen miles before ending his day, well into Sunday.
*****For months, I had a clear vision of how this Day would go, and vivid images of the finish, and the awards, and Placer High School: rounding the track triumphantly, cheering specators, hugging LB, congratulating him on his first big race, even bounding up the bleachers to the press box for some love from Tropical John.
This revised reality was painful and irritating. Rude awakening.
I stood there, in lane two, on the half-lap mark, and watched as Timothy entered the stadium. I was alone. He ran at me. I put out my hand, and we high-fived. Maybe he'll think I actually won and was already changed..., I mused to myself.
|Timothy's homestretch, T-$ in tow. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.|
Tim was the champion, again. He was only two questions into his post-race interview when he was interrupted by a charging Rob Krar, only five minutes behind, having run an extraordinary debut and a crushing last twenty miles. Not long after, Mike Morton, my ticket to the podium, entered.
I watched and listened, then I left.
*****The following morning, I returned. I needed to see people accomplish that which I could not. I watched as the final three official finishers - then two, super-30 hour unofficial finishers - rounded the track in the searing late-morning heat. Two sunrises. Epic.
I spent the rest of the morning, into the afternoon, at the track.
A couple people told me, "It's really good for you to be here." Actually, it was gloriously awful to be there: the reality of the day so sharply contrasting my vision, my dream. But I was there for two reasons: first, because I wanted to absorb it all: every bite of humble pie, every moment of buckle-less shame, every second of being an outsider, looking in. I grabbed every moment and tucked it away, saving it for future use. Never forget.
But second, and most importantly: this is my family! Western States is extraordinary, not for the race, or the trail, or the effort, but the people. And these people are my family. It doesn't matter if I had a stupid, shitty, embarassing day. There were people - hundreds of them, runners, pacers, crew, volunteers - who had amazing days. And it was incredibly awesome and important to celebrate them.
|Big-time fan moment! Bruce LeBelle gets his 1000-mile/Ten Year buckle, thanks to his crew - Three-time WS Champion, Bjorg Austrheim-Smith! |
Funniest moment of the day was Tim Twietmeyer's "notes" on Bruce's "1981-vintage" Bill Rodgers shirt.
And then, it was just over.
*****In "Deep Survival", the seminal work on the physiology and psychology of survival situations, author Laurence Gonzales introduces the concept of "bending the map": of being in a place and time where clear information is in front of you, but it is not what you expect, or what you want to see. Rather than accept reality of the situation, the person denies and rationalizes: the lost hiker examines the horizon, an unexpected view, and exclaims, "That rock shouldn't be there...". They continue onward, hoping the scene will change, and fit their vision. They bend the map.
I wasn't supposed to over-train at camp. "I ran the same camp as last year". Except I didn't. After the severe quad thrashing on a normal up/down run, "That's just because I ran it fast, and I haven't run vert in a while." Except it wasn't.
The heart-rate in the high-country was excessively high. "That can't be right - the heart rate monitor isn't working". Except it was.
Sometimes bending the map works. But only because you get lucky - you find your way out of it. The most successful survivors are those who can most quickly accept the reality at hand and adjust accordingly. And the runners that survived and thrived in the 2013 Western States did just that.
*****That said, onto the Post-Mortem Q&A:
Q: "Did you go out too hard?"
A: No, I don't think so. Even with the elevated heart rate, the effort felt even and sustainable. I attribute the high heart rate more to over-training effect than the pace and effort at the time. My split into Robinson Flat (4:45) was relatively conservative, slower than 2012, and left me feeling on par - if not slight better - than when I arrived there in 2012.
Q: "So, the heat made your quads cramp, right?"
A: I disagree. Heat does not cause cramping, directly. What heat does, is decrease the effort level at which muscles become taxed. Since the body must shunt blood from from working muscles to the skin to cool, there is less flow to the exercising muscles. Therefore, neuromuscular fatigue - the only accepted cause of exertional muscle cramping - occurs at slower speeds, and earlier, than in ambient conditions.
I believe my quads (and calves) cramped, and cramped early, because they were over-trained.
Another contributing factor was biomechanical: the use of a hydration pack altered my mechanics by rounding my back and causing me to "sit back" in my stride. I felt this, acutely, on Pucker Point, as I desperately attempted to correct my stride.
But overall, my energy was phenomenal. I had one low point: Robinson to Miller's Defeat, and after that, I felt incredible. Even at the height of the cramping - Last Chance to El Dorado - my energy was terrific and (until the Cemetary), my pace and splits were very good.
I really felt like the heat was a non-factor, due to effective cooling and pacing. I might change my tune, had I made it to Cal Street and beyond.
Ultimately, a hallmark sign of over-training is the catastrophic failure of one system, while other systems (brain, energy, stomach, mood) are perfectly fine. This contrasts with simple fatigue, malaise, or misery, in which all systems suffer with relatively equality.
Everything felt phenomenal, except my medial quads. That reality is as astonishing as it is simple.
Q: "What about water and salt, doesn't that stop cramping?"
A: There is is no consistent evidence that demonstrates a relieving effect of cramping from salt and/or water. Because the only known cause of cramping is neuromuscular fatigue, only those things that might alter that fatigue - changing effort or changing mechanics - have proven to be relieving.
Anyone who has published evidence to the contrary can e-mail it to me at joseph-dot-m-dot-uhan at gmail dot com.
Moreover, I was perfectly on top of hydration, fueling and salt intake all day.
Q: "So why did you take salt at all?"
A: Good question. Studies have shown a temporary relieving effect from salty foods (e.g. the pickle juice study, noted in Noakes' Waterlogged). What Noakes (and I) believe is that when the brain become aware that salt (and likely sugar, fat, and water) are on board, it will "settle down" and decrease the cramping response.
Whatever "tastes good", the brain will like. That is why I always "ate" my S!Caps. When they no longer tasted good, I waited to take another.
Q: "What else do you think you could've done to fix yourself?"
A: In retrospect, the only other thing I could've done was to soak. Talking to MonkeyBoy after the race, he noted that he took two prolonged river soaks during his phenomenal M11 performance: at Swinging Bridge and in Volcano Canyon. His words: "I sat there until my heart rate got under 100". I believe that period varied between a few and ten minutes each occasion.
If I could race it over again, I would soak in the Middle Fork below Swinging Bridge. In retrospect, I could've sat in there for an hour and - had it worked - still run top ten.
But I don't think it would have worked completely. You can't fix dead legs.
Q: "Did you drop-out because you knew you couldn't win, or M10?"
A: NO. I dropped out because I knew, without a doubt, that I could no longer physically run. Period. It wasn't my stomach, it wasn't my head, it wasn't energy, it wasn't a pity-party. I was lucid, focused, controlled, and (with the exception of a ten minute period on Little Bald) had a positive, determined frame of mind all day.
This is what was so goddamned frustrating: I felt phenomenal almost the entire day, and most notably in the twenty miles when the cramps ensued. The effort felt so easy, so sustainable, so effortless. I was having no problem keeping up with Morton, having run with him effortlessly for twenty five miles. And he went on to do exactly what I thought he (and we) would do: grind his way through to the podium.
As I hobbled, walking downhill toward Volcano, I thought to myself: "I'm 35 years old. I want to run more of these".
I already own two silver buckles. And as sacred and special it is to run Western States, and important as it is to cherish the privileged opportunity, the bravery and commitment to finishing would not trump the scientific and medical reality of what finishing would've done to my body.
That was the reality of that moment in time, and my decision might be different in the future, under different circumstances.
*****Ultimately, the biggest mistakes were made, not on race day, but in the days and weeks before. Decisions were made in that lead up that were both positive - making Jake and I poised for a breakthrough day - and negative, leading to the ultimate result. The challenge will be, in the coming days, weeks, and months, to sift through those elements, keeping the good things and disposing of the bad.
It's all very academic, and - like the bulk of that day - devoid of strong emotion, duress, misery, or tragedy. Shit happened. It sucked.
But, like all things ultra, and all things Western States, it was epic. I had a blast.
Some quick-hit highlights:
- Spending a week with BGD in South Tahoe: running, doing drills, eating, sitting in the Sauna, jamming to Eminem and ASAP Rocky, and playing "Mike Tyson's Punchout":
|Race week prep - jogging around South Tahoe.|
- Staying at the Injinji House in Squaw Valley with BGD, my and Timothy's crew guys, and like likes of Dom Grossman - and getting pumped up with viewings of "Runaway Train".
- Pre-race introductions at Squaw. This, in itself, was one of my career goals achieved: to be recognized, and included, among the best in the race. An honor.
|White and Dark Chocolate, gazing longingly into each other's eyes. Pre-Race Introductions at Squaw. |
Mike Morton: the consummate bad-ass with the black t-shirt that says, "KILL". Pink shirt? Not so much.
Photo: Jacques Dehnbostel.
- The start, and the first hundred meters through the lodge area. A nice addition. What wasn't so nice: hiking straight uphill on the compensatory "shortcut". Thanks, Twiet!
- Running the High Country with Yassine and BGD.
- Running for a big chunk of time with Mike Morton, twenty-five miles, from before Red Star until Pucker Point. Smart guy, tough guy. Hell of a day.
- Feeling awesome between Miller's Defeat and the top of Devil's Thumb.
- Solving problems, or at least trying.
- Terrific support from all aid stations, but especially at Michigan Bluff AS
- Post-race: watching Tim, Rob and Mike come in.
- Awards the next day, celebrating terrific achievements, especially from Jesse Haynes (M7), Paul Terranova (M8), Yassine Diboun (M9), Karl Metlzer (M10), Scott Wolfe (M11), and AJW (M14). Bruce LaBelle's 10-year buckle. And on the women's side, Pam's amazing rebound to F1 and the rest of the Oregon-laden top-ten (Amy, Megan, and Denise!).
- Hanging out post-race at the Pool House with my family and friends.