How do you put into words an experience that seems to transcend words? Am I being a bit melodramatic? Perhaps. And if you think so, chalk it up to me still flying high from my friend, Kate, running the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run for the first time. And how does Kate’s running WS equal my melodramatic stance? I was very fortunate to be included as part of her crew. I got to watch this woman push through pain and exhaustion, propelling herself to an absolutely incredible finish. Kate’s story will, I am sure, be much more compelling, given she was the one running. But I am hopeful that my story will give you a small idea of just how special weekend was and this event was from a spectator’s (well, sort of spectator) point of view.
For the uninitiated, the Western States100-Mile Endurance Run is the granddaddy of all endurance trail runs. It is to trail runners what the Boston Marathon is to road runners. The race starts at Squaw Valley and traverses the Sierra Nevada Mountains, finally ending on the Auburn High School race track. For a complete history, go to WS History Overview. The race has been become so popular, that a number of years ago a lottery system had to be instituted in order to provide an equal opportunity for the many runners wishing to participate in the event.
When the time came, Kate threw her name in the hat, and imagine everyone’s surprise and excitement when it was pulled on her very first try! Karen, Kate’s sister and my running buddy, called me and all we could say to each other was, “Kate got into Western State! Kate got into Western States! We’re going to Western States, baby!” We had crewed for Kate at her very first 100-miler, Headlands 100, and come hell or highwater, we were going to be there for her at WS.
Fast forward about six months or so, and Karen and I, bubbling with excitement, leave bright and early Wednesday, June 23, for the 7+ hour drive to Squaw Valley where Kate and her husband, Rodney, had arrived the day before. Hugs and greetings all around when we arrived, and a relaxing evening with dinner and talk of the race and what had been going on in our lives over the past few months.
Thursday - We had been informed that at noon on top of the mountain, there would be an “opening ceremony” of sorts for the race. The tram ride up was spectacular and provided breathtaking views of the valley below.
Once at the top, we milled around for a short while, with me snapping pictures like crazy. (BTW - I ended up with 336 photos, but don’t worry. I won’t post them all here.)Suddenly we hear Kate yell, “It’s starting!” and I turned to find a line of people trudging up to the ceremony. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you feel about moving at very high altitudes), the snow pack was such that we would not be able to get up to the regular ceremony site. By now, though, I had developed such an absolutely skull-splitting altitude headache, that not having to climb any higher didn’t bother me one bit.
Right on the dot at noon, the very casual ceremony began. First things first, the master of ceremonies said we were going to start by singing “America, the Beautiful,” and asked if there were any music teachers or musicians in the crowd who could get us started. Kate, Karen, Rodney, and I were standing at the front of the crowd, and without hesitating even a millisecond, Karen shoves me out front and says, “She will!” Oooookay . . . . what am I gonna say? No? I do believe my comment to the crowd was, “You gotta love your friends.” No problems, though. With the exception of starting the song a little high, I managed to get us all through it without passing out from nerves.
The ceremony was very nice and included an acknowledgment of those who had been involved in the race over the years and had recently passed away, including a horse who, along with his owners, had been a big part of keeping the trail in running order. The ceremony ended with a guy playing a suspended gong for about 10 to 15 minutes, and which echoed beautifully throughout the mountain top.
After descending back down the mountain and eating lunch, Karen, Kate, and I attended a very thorough crewing workshop, which was followed up by a trail condition update for the runners, a trip to the WS store, dinner, then helping Kate get her drop bags ready for the next day.
Friday dawned, and we were treated to eggs and the most amazing chocolate coffee pancakes by Kate and Rodney. Yum! I wish I could’ve eaten more, ‘cause they where delicious. After breakfast, we headed over the Olympic House where all the runners were checking in and we met up with our buddy, Russ, and his friend, Gary. Russ and Gary would be following Kate and last year’s WS winner, Hal Koerner, throughout the race for a piece Russ is hoping to present for airing on NPR’s “This American Life.” With a 5-person entourage that included Russ with a microphone and me snapping pics, when Kate went through the schwag line, one of the volunteers asked, “Who is that?” as in, “Is she one of the elite runners?” Well, she is to us, but naw, she’s just Kate.
I eventually left the throng to do a little more grocery shopping, everyone returned to the room, and somewhere in there Kate’s pacer, Glenn arrived. More greetings all around, back out to the Olympic House commons for another race briefing, then Russ, Gary, and I suited up for a run. Being as how Russ and Gary have both participated in 100 milers and we were at approximately 6200' in elevation, I was hoping against hope that they wouldn’t run my sorry ass into the ground. 9.70 miles and less than two hours later, I am happy to say I did not totally shame myself in front of them, although I know they were holding back their pace a lot to accommodate me. Thanks, guys. It was much appreciated.
Friday night dinner was suppose to be on me and Karen, but I managed to get out of most of the work with the run. Once back and after the pasta bake was cozy in the oven, I took a shower and we all hung out chatting. In the midst of all this, Russ was telling Glenn about how he, Kate, Karen, and I had become friends in the first place - which was when he ran up on me struggling through my very first 50k. Russ asked Glenn, “Are you Mudrunner?” Glenn says, “Yeah,” and I’m thinking, “Crap! He’s Mudrunner?!?” Russ says, “Well, I’m Rustyboy,” and goes on to tell how he, Kate, and I realized we knew one another via our online monikers and mentions our posting names, KateMD, Rustyboy, and me - Fatozzig. Glenn turned and looked at me in astonishment, “You’re Fatozzig?!?” I tell ya, you gotta love these online running sites. I was very surprised that he remembered my name since I hadn’t been on Kickrunners in awhile. So here we’ve all known of one another, and without knowing it was going happen, actually got to meet. It was a hoot!
Saturday morning dawned. Not bright and early, just ear-ly. With the race starting at 5:00, we were up by 4:00, although I don’t think anyone really got all that much sleep the night before. Once dressed and fed, Kate, Rodney, Glenn, Karen, and I headed over to the Olympic House and again met up with Russ. Gary was climbing up to the top of the mountain so that he could watch the runners go by. There was definitely a lot of nervousness in the air as we all watched the clock count down the final minutes.
I wandered a little way up the trail so I could get pictures of the runners as they headed out. Finally, you could hear the crowd counting the final 10 seconds, then with a shotgun blast, they were off! Although I saw Kate in the throng of runners, it was too late for me to get her picture.
Karen, Glenn, and I headed back to the room, and since Rodney was going to pack up the few remaining items and eventually head to Auburn, we got the rest of the stuff we would need throughout the day and night, made a quick stop for ice and much needed coffee, then headed to the first aid station at which we would be able to meet Kate - Robinson Flat, Mile 29.7.
There were quite a few people already at Robinson Flat by the time we got there, including a large contingent of aid station workers ready to help the runners with anything they needed. We knew we were there early enough to see the front runners, but were surprised when they came through approximately 20-30 minutes earlier than anticipated. We knew when they were coming through ‘cause we could hear the commotion further down the trail. Each runner was quickly weighed then sent on their way.
We were at Robinson Flat maybe 3 hours before Kate arrived, so we got to enjoy the whole atmosphere, watch the runners, help a couple who had missed their crew, cheer folks on, and generally have a great time. When Kate arrived, we had an ice filled Coolmax bandana, an ice cold wet towel, chilled bottles, and sandwiches waiting for her, then we sent her on her way. Ah crewing! Hurry up and wait, wait, wait . . . . hey, it’s our runner!! And within a few minutes he or she is gone again. Then hurry to the next station, wait, wait, wait . . . . but it’s loads of fun!
Since it would be a few hours before Kate got to Michigan Bluff, we headed to Foresthill for some lunch and to watch the front runners. The three of us were waiting for our burgers when we heard a commotion and there went two of the lead runners! Holy crap! It’s way too soon for them to be coming through! That’s when we realized that, barring some kind of disaster, this was going to be one exciting race. Thankfully, Karen’s cell phone had a signal almost everywhere we went, and from that point on, she was receiving continual updates from her friend back at home who was following the race via the Internet.
After burgers, ice cream, and a couple of hours of the heat in Foresthill, we headed back up the road to Michigan Bluff, grabbed our gear out of the car, then walked down to the aid station, which was no short jaunt (I can’t remember how far). There was still a lot of activity going on, and we planted ourselves across from the aid station and waited for Kate to arrive. In the meantime, it was tons of fun watching other runners come through, their crew working on them, with them, or, in the case of one young man, seemingly against him. I think it was just a matter of his folks having never done anything like this before, and they didn’t seem unsure as to what to do for him. Glenn’s friend, Kay, was there waiting for her husband, so we got to chat with her a bit before he came through about half an hour ahead of Kate.
It’s at Michigan Bluff, Mile 55.7, that runners have the first opportunity to pick up a pacer - if they come through around 8:00 p.m. or later. We had anticipated Kate arriving somewhere around 7:45/8:00, and Karen was excited as she was going to run from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill with her sister. I even asked her at one point, “You’re excited to run with her, aren’t you?” Big grin on her face, “Yeah!”
Right around the expected time, Kate arrived, got weighed, changed socks, and brought up the point that she hadn’t eaten much in the last stretch. I think she drank a little bit of soda and did eat a couple of pieces of banana, but not having eaten much over the past couple of hours wasn’t a good sign. I was hoping that Karen would be able to cajole her into getting more nutrition in her over the next 6.3 miles.
Once the ladies left, Glenn and I packed up the gear, road the shuttle as far as it would take us, then hefted it all up a good climb back to the car. I commented on not having our 3rd pack mule around and dutifully began thinking of a way to get even with Karen later (just kidding). I am (wo)man enough to admit, however, that packed down though we were, I was not about to look like a weakling in front of Glenn making that climb back up to the car. It was warm and humid, and I was sweating freaking buckets by the time we reached the car. I would gladly have dumped a bucket of water over myself, but didn’t feel like starring in my own personal version of a wet t-shirt contest.
Okay. Back to Foresthill, Mile 62, where we met up with Rodney and waited for the ladies to arrived.
After making two trips from the car, I was on my way back for a third to look again for Kate’s toothbrush when the two of them come running down the chute. I made a beeline back to Glenn and Rodney, who were already getting a chair and essentials set up in the “crew” area. While Kate dealt with her feet, Karen told Glenn that Kate hadn’t eaten anything and had hardly drank between the two stations, so he fetched some chicken noodle soup and ended up getting her to drink two cups worth. After getting her feet doctored up, bottle replaced, and food in her tummy, Glenn and Kate took off for the next part of the adventure . . . .
which brings us to a part of the crewing adventure that, well . . . . . (big sigh)
I had been having trouble keeping track of my keys since we left on Wednesday. I only had two (car/house) instead of the usual wad. Whenever we got out of the car, I made Karen watch me put the keys in the backpack. Problem solved. There’s where they will always be.
When Karen and Kate came in and I had run back to the aid station, I dropped everything in my hands in the seat of one of the chairs . . . including my car keys. Once we got Kate and Glenn on their way, Rodney, Karen, and I packed up, headed back to the car . . . . . and no keys. No, they aren’t in my pocket. We took everything out of the backpack. I ran back to where we had been and searched the ground with a flashlight. I asked people if they had seen any keys or knew of anyone who had found keys. Came back to the car - they gotta be in the trunk. They have to be. I asked the people announcing the runners if they could ask over the PA system if anyone had something with which to break into a locked car. I was ready to break one of the small windows to get into the car. Suffice to say, I WAS FREAKING OUT!!! Four-letter words were flying like the mosquitoes. Here it is after 11:00 p.m., we’re suppose to meet Kate and Glenn at Rucky Chucky Far and climb to Green Gate with them, we’re in the middle of frigging nowhere, and I can’t find my car keys!! Lord have mercy! Karen, with her cell phone dying, starts trying to get AAA to send out a tow truck to get the car open. Rodney needs to get back to Auburn as it’s getting very late and we finally convince him to leave. There were still plenty of people around, and the aid station wouldn’t be closing anytime soon.
Finally, finally at least an hour after we first started calling for a tow truck, the guy shows up (and this dude needed a bath - seriously), gets the car open, we pop the trunk, taking everything out, look through it all - - no car keys. How . . . is . . . this . . . possible?? Think! Think! Karen, out of the blue says, “I checked the pockets of the chairs and the keys weren’t there.” I have to be sure, so I drag a chair out of its bag, open it up . . . . and there are my keys. The entire time they had been in the chair, laying on the side of the road while we were, um, “assessing” the situation. I’m not sure who wanted to strangle me more, Karen or me. But I must say this about our friendship - neither of us has ever wigged out at the same time. If one is freaking out about something, the other has always been able to be the voice of reason. This time, Karen was the ultimate voice of reason. And from that point on, no matter what time of day or night, before that car got locked up, she’d ask, “Where’re the keys?”
Okay - Drama over, we head to Green Gate, Mile 79.8. Once parked, it’s a little over a 1.5 miles downhill to the aid station, then another 1.7 miles downhill to the river. We loaded up the pack with everything we thought Kate and Glenn might need and started the descent. We had no idea how long it would take them to get to Rucky Chucky Far, Mile 78.1, so we hustled down the dirt road then trail as fast as we could in the dark. We were wearing headlamps, but as many of you know, it’s just not the same as being able to see where you’re going in the daylight.
Going down to the river was fun. We passed a lot of runners who were going up to the aid station, and we gave them as much encouragement as we could. Some seemed genuinely happy to hear us cheer them on, some were barely making it up the road. We had a dozen chocolate donuts with us and offered them to a few, but never had any takers. Close a couple of times, but no takers.
I think Karen and I waited about an hour or so at the river before Kate and Glenn arrived. Karen hollered out, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” upon their arrival, then the four of us headed up to a “medical” area that had been set up a short distance from the river with chairs and honest to goodness real live podiatrists to look at feet. By then, Kate’s feet had been wet for so long, they were looking completely macerated. She was being plagued by a terrible blisters, including on her little toe (it looked like a “pig in a blanket”)and pressurized blisters under her big toes.
And here, my friends, is but one of the many reasons why I admire this woman so much. She is totally and completely exhausted, she’s been moving for over 78 miles and almost 24 hours, her feet look like milk toast and she’s in pain, yet she is more than capable of taking a needle and drilling holes in her big toenails to relieve the pressure and drain them, drain other blisters, and talk coherently with the podiatrist who is looking at her feet and shaking his head in a manner of “What in the world am I going to be able to do with this mess.” I kept my nose right in there because I’m very interested in this whole blister business (I get more than my fair share), but also because I am astonished at how together she is at this point. It’s just amazing to me.
The podiatrist did his best to patch her up, she painfully put her feet back in her shoes, and we began the 1.7 mile climb to the Green Gate Aid sSation. Karen was carrying the approximately 20+ lb pack this time and, consequently, was lagging behind us a bit. I kept up with Glenn and Kate, asking if they wanted a donut, trying to keep a chatter going in the hopes that is somehow helping. Eventually she flung her left hand out indicating “give me a donut” and got it down in a good amount of time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince her to take one “for the road.”
I found this trudge up the hill to be very interesting. The determination with which Kate moved up that hill, despite the pain in her feet and exhaustion, was truly something to watch. I don’t know how much help I was, but I tried to tell her when a particularly rocky or rutted section was coming up, and can only hope that my small banter and the “you’re doing great, Kate,” “You’re doing a great job,” “You’re gonna make it,” somehow helped. I like to think that Glenn’s and my conversation re skunks was encourage, as well. (grins!)
Once Glenn and Kate moved through the aid station, Karen and I said our goodbyes, “See you at Highway 49!” and began the 1.5 mile uphill walk to the car. I switched with Karen and took the pack for this next jaunt. I felt surprisingly good during both climbs. Not sure why, except maybe I’d gone past being tired (as it was now around 4:20 a.m.) and had reached some kind of weird zone. Or maybe it was the coffee we’d downed after our adventure in Foresthill. Whatever it was, it got me up that hill. And, as I told myself many times during the climb - it’s kinda hard to complain about a 3+ total mile climb when these runners are doing 100 miles.
Unfortunately, once we hit the car and I sat down, tiredness set in. The drive back out to Cool where we would catch the shuttle to Highway 49 aid station was, um, interesting, and once we hit the parking lot, Karen and I both agreed that we should get a little catnap, even though we felt guilty about it, if for no other reason than to keep me from crashing the car. She set her phone alarm for 6:30 (an hour’s worth of sleep) and within minutes was off in La La Land. I think I dozed for maybe 15-20 minutes and eventually just gave up trying. Karen finally came to around 6:15 and we packed up our gear one last time for the shuttle to the Highway 49 Aid Station - Mile 93.5.
Upon arriving, we found people in various states of sleep and awakening. More than a few were snoozing in sleeping bags. Granted it was early, but hey people! Runners are going to be coming through. Get up!
There was a guy a little way up the trail who would announce the runners and their numbers as they were coming through, so it gave those of waiting the ability to encourage them by name. With the first runner since our arrival, out came the cowbell and lots of hootin’ and hollerin’ on the part of Karen and me. This woke folks up, and soon had most joining in with the encouragement.
It was at Highway 49 that I made another mistake. The aid station workers were kind enough to provide hot water and instant coffee and hot chocolate for us crew persons. Having never made instant coffee before, I did mine up rather well with coffee, hot chocolate, creamer - the works. About 15 minutes after downing the whole cup, I began to regret my decision. The combination of the hours awake and my general low tolerance of caffeine, I got the kind of buzz that can only be described as jaw clenching. Karen and I had been talking to a guy about his runner, and soon I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to walk away before I hurt someone. Thank goodness for the runners coming through! It gave me an outlet for the “high” I was experiencing. I was hootin’ and hollerin’ and ringing that cowbell with a vengeance, I tell you!
We’d been at the station for about an hour when Kate and Glenn showed up. They later told us they could hear the cheers from the station and it gave them a lift to know they were close. Kate went through the requisite weigh-in, Glenn doused himself with some water mowed through a couple of peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, Kate chowed down on a fruit smoothie, and soon they were on their way. Only 6.7 miles to go!
Okay, back to the shuttle and the parking lot, then off to Auburn High School where the runners would enter at the far end of the track and make their way to the finish line. Karen had called Rodney, told him we were en route, and to meet us there. We cheered each runner who came through, and to a runner, the looks on their faces were priceless because they knew they had done it! They had taken on the monster called Western States and had won!
While at Highway 49, a runner, Greg, who Karen and Kate had met at the WS training camp a few weeks before, had arrived exhausted and ready to quit. Karen had gone over to him, told his crew what needed to be done for him, and with a little bit of cajoling and not a small amount of “suck it up, you’re almost done, you can’t quit now,” managed to get the guy on his feet and moving.
Greg arrived at Auburn High School shortly before Kate, and we were both excited to see that he would make it to the end. However, in my zeal of taking his picture, I missed Kate and Glenn coming through the gate. I heard Karen yell, “She’s here!” and turned just in time get a picture of her handing off her waist pack to Glenn.
He had told her if she pushed it, she could make it in under 29 hours. After 100 miles and almost 29 hours on her feet, that girl put everything she had into finishing. I raced over to the finish line to get as many pictures as I could of her coming down the home stretch and ending with a victorious finish in 28:59:56!
It was smiles and laughing all around, folks. All of us - Rodney, Karen, Glenn, Gary, Russ, and I - we knew Kate could do it. And here she was! A buckle finisher at Western States! It was magical, I tell you. Absolutely magical.
At the Awards Ceremony, it was all I could do to not get teary-eyed when Kate went up and with a big smile accept her buckle. A dream had been realized. All her hard work and sacrifices over the prior months had paid off. She had left Squaw Valley the day before, embarking on a journey that would be the ultimate test, both physically and mentally, and came out on the other side a true winner.
Thank you, Kate, for the opportunity to be a part of something so special. It’s a memory that will not soon fade.