It's been a week since I ran my first 100 miler, the Western States Endurance Run. To say that I have been on a tremendous high would be quite an understatement. Today I am feeling a bit blue because the only place I can relive this life changing event is in my mind and in this blog. It will have to do. I feel so grateful and fortunate to have been able to compete in and complete this endeavor. What a wonderful weekend and actually a wonderful six months leading up to the actual race. I have made a ton of new friends, renewed old acquaintances, and lost a few friends. If you told me over a year ago that I was going to run the Western States and finsih this race I would have told you that you were crazy. The body, mind and human spirit are an amazing gift that sometimes we forget how amazing they really are. I was fortunate enough to receive that gift, the spark of the human spirit from a little boy I had only met twice. Owen Simmons's gift to me was that spark of the human spirit. I have tried so hard not to disappoint and to honor Owen's memory the right way. I hope I have done so.
Myself and my pacer(Kenny "the Gambler" Rogers) flew into Sacramento on Wednesday to try and get acquainted with the surroundings of Squaw Valley. I am so grateful to Ken. I had only just recently met Ken and asked him last minute if he would pace me at Western. I don't think it took much arm twisting but his last minute acceptance gave me a lot of confidence. Ken is old as hell and has been around the block a few times! Seriously Ken's experience and knowledge of Ultra's proved invaluable as a I would later find out. On the drive from Sacramento to Squaw Valley it is a little over 100 miles. As my little, ugly yellow, rental car started to strain going up the steep grades my nervousness started to take over. The mountains that we started to climb were so impressive and beautiful but I kept replaying in my head, "how in the hell am I going to run 100 miles in this." My trail running consisted of nice easy rolling trails on Cape Cod, not exactly the mecca for mountain running. I could always rap my head around running 100 miles by just envisioning running from my house to Boston and then back. The Sierra Nevada is not Massachusetts that is for sure.
We arrived at our lodging and was in awe of our surroundings. Squaw Valley and the entire area is beyond beautiful. Our place over looked the main valley right into the main village. We settled in relaxed as best we could and awaited my girlfriends(Magda) arrival the next day.
On Thursday we climbed to the top of Escarpment(or close enough) for the flag raising ceremony. Again the views were breathtaking and exhilarating. I did notice that it was harder to climb than usual and that the altitude would be a factor. The top of Squaw is at 8200 feet. Troubled by the fact that this was going to be a difficult task, I started to think of different ways that I could channel help and remember my SMA families and angels. I decided that it would be a great idea to carry a piece of paper with me during the entire race with the names of SMA angels, families affected by this disease and people I have lost that were close to me. I don't know where this idea came from but it was probably not me. Probably one of my little angels looking out for this big dummy. I contacted numerous people through facebook and was humbled by the response I got. We received over forty names of kids and adults affected by SMA. Most were people I had never heard of before or even met. Needless to say this boyoued my spirit. How could I fail now with all these angels around me. I had my beloved Elijah Alvarado on my list, a student we grew to know and love from NBHS. Elijah did not have SMA but was a shining star in my life. I had my beloved dogs, BEau and Dempsey who I miss so much. those who know me know how important my dogs are in my life and it was important to have them along for the ride. When I run long distances I always envision them running and playing with the Oman and other SMA angels. I had my beloved Grandmother who meant so much to me.
The next day(friday) we had check in, weigh in, mandatory meetings etc. The atmosphere was great and it was amazing seeing some of the elite runners in the sport. It was great to socialize, be around and talk to so many great runners who compete in these races. These are elite, Olympic style athletes that get the same thing I do if I finish. A belt buckle, and for the lucky winners a beautiful trophy. There is no money, no huge endorsement contracts, no big fame or fortune. There are no "artificial sweeteners", " no enhancers" no "cream" or the "clear"There is only the love of ultra running and the feeling you get at the end of a race that you are one bad ass! The thought that you are doing something that most people think that you are either crazy or stupid.
Friday night into Saturday was unbearable. Magda had been sneaky and went into town to a printer. I don't know how she did it put she was able to get printed a picture of Owen and had it laminated so I could take him along for the run. She was able to also get a large piece of paper with Owen's pic in the middle so we could put all the names down on the paper to bring along for the ride. Magda was amazing the whole trip. She was always thinking one step ahead of me(which isnt too hard) and was always there for me. I was probably tough to be around by that time but she kept putting up with me. It is so hard for the pacers and crew members during race week. I think it is tougher for them because we runners get to do our thing and just run whereas they do a lot of sitting around and waiting. I am forever grateful. After I had gathered all my stuff that I would need for the race I tried to settle down for some much needed sleep, but that wasn't happening. I tossed and turned for a bit and just watched the clock.
On the drive to the start, we looked up at the sky, and the moon looked a bit funny. We new it was going to be a full moon tomorrow but this moon looked like a quarter moon. We later found out that the start of the race would be under a lunar eclipse. What a great wait to experience my first Western. We gathered in the main lodge, got our numbers, and then tried to relax until the 5:00am start. I found myself more relaxed than I had been for the last few days because I was finally going to run. There was def a lot of buzz in the room and a lot of nervous excitement. We gathered outside just before the start and I became a little introspective. I thought how my life had changed in short amount of time. I thought of Owen, my Grandmother, Gwendolyn Strong, my dog Beau and Dempsey, I thought of a lot of things. I was nervous, I was scared but I was determined and confident. I was ready to do this, sink or swim. Gordy Ainsleigh(the founder of the Western States) then took the microphone with about 30 seconds left till the start. He told the runners, "you will leave here as one man but arrive in Auburn as a different man" or something along those lines. Words that are so true.
The gun went off and we started our climb up to Escarpment. Straight up the mountain is about a four mile distance to the top. I settled into a nice power walk up the mountain and ran just occasionally. It was instilled into me to run my own race and not to get too excited in the beginning. I maintained a nice easy pace and talked to several runners during this stretch. When we started our final climb up to the top, the sun was just rising from the east. The view from the top was absolutely awe inspiring and beautiful. The sun rising, Lake Tahoe behind and snow covered mountains and valleys surrounding us. I stood for a few moments and took it in.
FRENCH MEADOWS RESEVOIR
Because of the late snow melt and and the amount of snow in the high country(Lyons Ridge, Red Star Ridge) we would be running the snow course of the Western States. After Escarpment we ran through approx., five miles of snow, mud, water etc. It was pretty fun and I didn't mind the snow whatsoever. My feet were soaking wet a little earlier than I had anticipated but it was a lot of fun. Plus the scenery, sights and smells were beautiful. After running for a while in the high country we started to drop down into the area known as French Meadows reservoir. It was beautiful running, nice single track along the reservoir. I happily carried on conversations with fellow runners and was just trying to enjoy the run which was easy. I was having no problems and everything was going as well as could be expected. Even my balky hamstring was giving me no problems. My angels were with me.
We started a fairly long hike out of French Meadow reservoir into the Duncan Canyon aid station. The climb up was something else. We ran through burnt out forest and could actually still smell the smoke. After climbing for about a mile we reached the aid station and I did a quick assessment. I was right on the 24 hour cut time but I was under no illusions that I would finish under 24. But I was very happy with my progress and how I was feeling. After some quick refueling and smiles and thank you's to the volunteers, I was stopped by one of the nurses in the station. She kindly observed that one of my nipples was bleeding and that I better look after that. It looked like a had a bullet wound under my heart. I hadn't even noticed. She took care of me and I was on my way. Out of the aid station I started to run pretty well. The terrain was fairly benign and I was going at a pretty good clip. At the bottom of the canyon we crossed a stream that was about up to our knees. It felt great. The climb out of Duncan Canyon was tough and long though. I thought it was never ending. After some good power walking I got of the canyon and was on my way to Robinson Flat(Mile 29.7) I was still in good shape and was excited because I would be seeing Magda and Kenny for the first time.
It was like a winter wonderland in Robinson Flat. It was midday, probably about 85 degrees out already and there was snow everywhere. I came into the aid station in fine spirits, located Kenny and Magda and came in for a quick pit stop. I was feeling really good and strong and didn't want to linger in the aid station too long. I changed my shoes, got some fuel and was on my way. Thats what I mean about the crew, I had last seen them at 5am, 7 hours later I see them for 5 minutes and then I wont see them until Michigan Bluff(Mile 55) As I left the aid station I had to trudge about half a mile through snow until I got to a section where you could at least pick your spots and run. Then came my favorite part of the whole run, a little section called Little Bald Mountain into Millers Defeat aid station. the decline was gradual and I was feeling great. I ran very well and was probably going a bit to fast but I was going to ride it. It was becoming very warm out but again I was in good shape and was experiencing no problems. I cruised that whole section very fast and was taking in the adequate nutrition and hydration(which is the most important thing in an Ultra) I had been weighed at Robinson Flat and my weight had been exactly where it was when I started(198lbs) I continued to cruise these sections until the Last Chance aid station. Things would be different from there that is for sure.
I knew I was coming to the hardest part of the course, the Canyons. The Canyons are series of three Canyons, Devils Thumb, ElDorado, and Volcano Canyon. This section of the course is very hard because of the descent, ascent, heat and rugged terrain. It is also some of the most beautiful country in America. After leaving Last Chance I started my descent into Devil's Thumb Canyon. The downhill was brutal and tearing up my quads. My pace had been real good up to this point but now I found myself trying to slow down on the downhills. I am not a good downhill runner and that was purely evident as a congo line of runners flew past me. It took all I could from careening down the trail ass over tea kettle. I maintained my composure and was glad when I finally got to the bottom of the canyon. At the bottom of the canyon there is a small creek that runners usually dip into before they trudge up the canyon wall. There were about four or five runners in the creek cooling off when I went by. I was so tempted to jump in there(I should have) but I just wanted to press on. The long slow climb out of Devil's literally takes your breathe away, at least it did for me. After the third switchback, I was bent over sucking air asking myself how the hell am I going to get out of here. Again I didn't do any serious climbing training and it was now clearly affecting me. I trudged on and struck up a conversation with another air sucking sole. He wasn't having much fun either but we just kept at it. I started to feel stronger and picked up my pace. I made it out of Devil's bruised and battered but I was ok. Only two more canyons to go. The aid station at Devils was great. I scoffed down some nourishment, got dunked with ice water, and got a popsicle for my trouble. I was feeling tired but I thought I would be ok. Onto El Dorado Canyon
EL DORADO CANYON
El Dorado Canyon is a bigger and deeper canyon than Devil's but is not as steep and is a bit more gradual. The heat was really brutal at this point in the day and I was starting to feel the effects of running this distance over this type of terrain. I wasn't discouraged, I still felt confident, but I knew the work was going to start real soon. As I started down the Canyon, the views were just amazing. I again got introspective and started to think how grateful I am to have the opportunity to do this, but two to be surrounded by such great people in my life. I took a moment along the trail and just took in the scenery. I watched as either hawks, or eagles started to lift up from the canyon and fly around. There was good music playing and I felt this huge amount of emotion wash over me. I knew those eagles were my angels along for the ride with me and their presence pushed me along the course.(More on this at the end). I felt great again and I was over my little down patch. I made good progress down the canyon and trudged up the other side. I was also happy that I had reached the half way point of the race and would be seeing my peeps at Michigan Bluff aid station.
When I arrived at Michigan Bluff, I was greeted by hundreds of people who were cheering, volunteering. I hooked up with my crew and took in some quick fuel. I felt pretty good all things considered. I stayed for a few and then I was on my way to Volcano Canyon and and the Forest hill aid station. From there I would be picking up Ken and running the rest of the race with a pacer. The run from Michigan Bluff was pretty uneventful, just a couple of tough climbs and witnessing one of the more impressive athletes around. Amy-Palmeiro Winters is a amputee runner who runs Ultra's with a prosthetic leg. She is the 2010 Sullivan award winner(given to the top amateur athlete) and is as tough as it comes. To run a race like this with a prosthetic leg is incredible. The terrain, the climbs, the descent I find it impossible to comprehend how she does it. I guess she never takes no for an answer and always gets the job done. She is incredible and looked incredible as she breezed past me like I was taking a stroll in the park. Amy is a power of example for everybody to stop whining, get off your biscuit and go ahead and risk it.
FORESTHILL MILE 62
Ken came down from Forest hill and picked me up about a mile from the aid station. We talked, I told him I was feeling pretty good, and then we started to run into the aid station. Again there hundreds of people cheering and lending support and I felt good again. We met with Magda who went throughout the checklist of things I needed. Magda was great and such a positive light. We quickly got situated and then me and Ken were off into the fading light. we would be running the next 38 miles in darkness and I was looking forward to it.
As we descended into the trail it got dark very quickly. The terrain was fairly gentle and I was going along quite well for about 4 or 5 miles. I then started to get tired and a bit cranky. My energy was sapped and I wanted to walk more than run. Ken was patient with me and suggested I get some caffeine in me. I was reluctant to take in caffeine because it sometimes does a number on my stomach. I was having no issue whatsoever up to this point with my stomach but if I didn't do something this was going to be a long thirty miles. I took in a caffeine gel and within 10 minutes I was feeling pretty good. From the Dardenelles aid station to the Rucky Chucky aid station is where I did some of my best running. I felt great and we ran at a pretty good pace. We basically only walked the uphills for a good stretch and made up a lot of time. We were picking off runners and it felt pretty good to be running this well late in the game. However I started feeling something in my right foot that I knew was going to be a problem later on. The beginning of a huge deep blister on the bottom of my right foot had started to develop. It wasn't stopping me from running but it was increasingly getting worse. I knew I would have to get it looked at but I decided to wait until after the Rucky Chucky River Crossing. Good, bad or different it would have to wait until then because that was where my last pair of socks and sneakers were located. The running was amazing though. We were under a bright full moon and ran a lot of the course along the American River. The trails were skinny and one bad tumble meant a bad tumble straight down the mountain into the river. Didn't want to go there so I maintained my vigilance.
RUCKY CHUCKY RIVER CROSSING
The Rucky Chucky river crossing is a section that runners usually cross the river on foot. Because of the late snow melt and heavy volume of water we had to cross the river by boat. I was secretly hoping to cross the river for the sheer experience of it but maybe it was for the best. We made it across without a hitch, again the volunteers were amazing and I made it to the aid station. A podiatrist looked at my foot and was pretty impressed by the size and depth of the blister. He said he would do the best he could and tape me up and then sent me on my way. He was great, fixing me up and then I was on my way to Green Gate aid station. It is about a two mile grind uphill from the river to Green Gate. It gave me a chance to test out my foot and to rest a bit while I walked up the hill. I still felt pretty good but my enthusiasm was starting to wane. This was going to be hard work from here on in and the toughest 20 miles I had ever thought of running. We got to Green Gate and lo and behold it was Magda. She had walked down from the parking area to see me at Green Gate. It was unexpected and a great surprise. I assured her I was good, even though I wasn't and that I was going to do it!
BROWN'S BAR MILE 89
The ten miles from Green Gate to Brown's bar was pretty tough. I was running ok, but my quads were shot and it felt like someone was sticking an ice pick in my foot. We were running though and making progress, until I fell into a hole and rolled my ankle. I got that white hot flash of pain and I thought that my race was over. I must have scared some bears and wildlife because I let out a blood curdling scream. Kenny was scared too but I quickly started moving forward and assured him and myself that I would be Ok. Until I did it again about two minutes later. It wasn't as bad this time but I was worrying when was my luck going to run out. I changed headlamps and then moved in front of Ken. The trail was slow going until we made it to Brown's Bar. Brown's Bar is a pretty unique place. Rock music is blaring, drinks are flowing, and there were a few interesting characters roaming the aid station. Daybreak was just happening and everybody in the aid station was still in great spirits, except for me. My main man Ken felt so good that he had a shot of Jeagermister. I was in the dumps and not feeling it anymore. I was in one of those celebrated lows and I was unsure if I was going to get out of it. Every step hurt and I still had ten miles to go. Ken was doing his best to help me but it wasn't working. At this point I was pretty sure that I was going to finish, I just didn't know what kind of shape I was going to be in. It is only four miles from Brown's Bar to Highway 49 aid station but it felt like an eternity. It was slow going and I was struggling. The downhills were very tough on my feet and I was having tough time mentally. I knew I was going to finish, but I was still struggling. We started to run a bit and then there was a long climb up to Highway 49. Again I was passed by Amy as she blasted up the climb. Again she was a power of example to me because I knew if I was hurting, she was hurting twice as bad. We slogged the rest of the highway and finally came to Highway 49. That four mile stretch was def the toughest stretch for me in the race.
Ken had suggested to Magda that it would be a great idea if she ran in the rest of the way with me. In my tunnel vision throughout the race, I hadn't thought about including her in pacing me. I was so glad Ken had his wits about him and included her in the race. I know it meant a lot to her and it did to me. So Magda was going to be taking me in the last 6 1/2 miles. When I came stumbling into the aid station, she must have thought to herself maybe this wasn't such a great idea. I was not my normal cheery self and was in quite a bit of pain. I made a detour into a porta potty and didn't sit down fearing I wouldn't get back up. I was quick through the station, got what I needed and moved along. I warned Magda beforehand that I was hurting a little bit and I may not do a lot of talking, and that I had a lot of work to do. She was very understanding and excepted her lot. I was in quite a bit of pain but I started to move a little better. The views and scenery were amazing and the sun was coming up in earnest. The running was fairly good and we made it to No Hands Bridge aid station. The views were spectacular and from there you know you are almost home.
My spirits were def picking up and we ran for most of the way until we made the long climb out of No Hands bridge to Robie Point. It was steep a climb, steeper than I thought but we made it without much of a hitch. We finally left the Western State Trail and were on the streets of Auburn for the last mile. I would have felt great but there was still another steep ass hill we had to climb on the road. Ken came down and met us and took a few pictures. The elation was starting to overcome me now. Even though I was in intense pain, I knew that I had done something I never thought I would be able to do. I started to get quite and introspective again and started thinking about all that has happened to me, good and bad. As we wound our way through the streets i could see the stadium. I had seen this stadium before in video but it was quite something else in person. It was just an ordinary high school stadium, but it just as easily could have been the Roman Coliseum. Tears of joy started to surface and I started to think of Owen, Gwendolyn and all my SMA angels. The pain was gone from my legs and I didn't want this lap to end. I felt such pride as they announced my name, where I am from, and what I do for a living. They also announced that I was running on behalf of Owen Simmons and to help defeat SMA. My heart was full and my journey was complete.
There are so many people I want to thank who helped make this a journey of a lifetime. Again I am surrounded by the best of people and I firmly believe is a direct reflection on oneself. Surround yourself with winners and a winner you shall be. I want to thank Claudia and Gillian Sampson for being the most selfless, helpful, and giving people I know. NONE of this would have been possible without there help and for that I am eternally grateful. Andy and Heather, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being a power of example and sharing your sweet angel with everybody. Heather you told me during my run to please talk with Owen and to tell him how much his mommy missed him. I did have that running conversation with him Heather and I can assure you he knows how much you love and miss him. As I was talking to him it was in the Canyons when I took a minute to compose myself. All these beautiful birds just flying around, there are no coincidences. Thank you to Gwendolyn, Victoria, and Bill Strong, my new friends from the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation. You too are a power of example and I hope someday to be half the people you are. I am proud to call you friends.Thank you to Ken for dropping everything last minute and accompanying me on my journey. You made a huge difference and instilled so much confidence. I hope to someday repay the favor to you. And to Magda, for all you have done for me, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are a special woman and I consider myself lucky to be part of your life. Finally to Owen. I know we only met a few times, but would you did for me could never be repaid. You have given me a gift, a gift that keeps on giving and one I wish to share with everybody. The body may die, but the human spirit lives on forever. What I did this weekend would not have been possible without you buddy and I am eternally grateful. Please say hi to Beau and Dempsey as you RUN along with them.
Gordy Ainsleigh was true when he said you will arrive in Auburn a different man. I may not be able to quantify it now but I know there is something different. Maybe I don't need to know what it is or will ever know. All I do know is that I have been able to participate in a fantastic journey, a mental, physical, and spiritual journey. This buckle was earned through blood, sweat and tears. It is something that I will not soon forget.