“I’m not going to lie, you look like a hot mess buddy!” The aid station volunteer said to me as he grabbed my water bottles at Red Star Ridge, mile 15.
I took a deep breath.
“I know man, I know. One bottle water, one electrolyte please.” I said. I was bleeding from my shoulder and knee and my face was caked in dirt.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about arriving into aid stations, it’s to gather myself, calm down, talk clearly, and be efficient. I ate it twice in the last 3 miles. Once turning sharply down a switchback – my foot slipped out and sent me tumbling down the trail. Then I clipped my toe on a tree root – “Superman-ing” me into a face-plant – leaving me dizzy while breathing in the dust cloud from Jeff Browning’s stride as he passed. Then when I got up, my calf cramped. I had to get my shit together.
It was early in the race but it was hot all ready, so I went to the soaking station and had them give me a sponge bath with ice-cold water. Everything changed after that. The cold water was a jumpstart, and I washed off all the dirt and blood – evidence of someone who probably shouldn’t be running with the front of the field. Looking back on it, I think I was a bit too nervous in those first 15 miles. The nerves detracted from my concentration and I was clumsy. I think it brought on that cramping too, nerves do weird things.
After my sponge bath, it was game on. I had planned to pace myself for the first half of the race by sticking near Ian Sharmin, who has been in the top ten at WS for the last 9 years, and Jeff Browning, who is the most consistent top finisher at competitive hundred milers around. From mile 20-60 I did just that. I put myself in-between the two – Sharmin in front, and Browning just behind.
These miles passed smooth and fast as I filled my head with every encouraging thought I could. I thought about being an underdog in the field – love me some underdog status. I thought about those Coconino Cowboys, a friend and training group of some of the best ultrarunners in the country, based in Flagstaff. I saw a social media post where they held up a sign that said “Cowboys vs. Everybody Else.” I happily accepted that challenge. I thought about all the weekends camping at 8,000’ on Mt. Lemmon, training for the race. I spent a total of 10 nights camping up there and never spent a night alone. Tucson has such an incredible running community, there were always folks joining camp to run, hang out, eat, drink beers and escape the heat. We called it Pirate Camp, because we’re the Pima Pirates.
I was running fast and steady as I made my way to Foresthill, mile 62. This would be the only time I’d see my wife and crew, Ronika, during the race. I was so excited to get to her in 7th place and show her what good shape I was in. The last time I ran WS, two years ago, I walked it into Foresthill looking like a sun-soaked zombie that was ready for someone to put me out of my misery. Not today. I had the brim of my hat pulled down low with an intense forward focus in my eyes – tunnel vision of the finish line, 40 miles away. So damn forward focused that I missed a turn to the right as I bombed down a jeep road just a mile or two from Foresthill.
I came upon a fork in the road that had no course markings on it. I stopped and scouted each way and saw nothing. I knew I must be off course. This is the only time throughout the entire race I had a “low point.” I was pissed at myself. I got too darn antsy-in-my-pantsy and stopped paying attention. Rookie move. I sprinted back up the dirt road – also the only time in the race where I “red-lined” and found myself gasping for air. About ¾ a mile back up the road I saw the turn. OK, it was only 1.5 miles –13 minutes off course. Browning passed, but I was still in 8th. My anger turned to relief and I was grateful for that unmarked fork in the road. Had there been no intersection, I would have kept bombing downhill with a happy-go-lucky smile on my face for who knows how long.
Running through Foresthill with Ronika was the best part of the day. We were flying down the people-lined street and listening to cheer after cheer for us. It was the fastest Ronika has ever run she told me. I smiled and looked to her.
“Lil’ different than last time, eh?”
“I’d say so.” She said underneath her breath.
The next section I remained in cruise control. I passed another fella and caught up to Browning again. He looked back and saw me creeping up on him around mile 72. He did not like that. He surged like an animal and I never saw him again. As I made my way to the river crossing at mile 78 I started to feel the heat. It was 106 degrees at 4pm at the river and when I caught sight of the flowing waters for the first time it wasn’t much later. It was exposed, the sun was baking and I had only a mile or so before plunging into the water to cross. The intoxicating thought of my body submerged in the cold water calmed me.
And then I sharted…
It was in that moment I knew the ultrarunning gods were smiling down upon me, for over the course of 100 miles from Squaw to Auburn, there is no conceivably better place to shart oneself, then just before the river crossing. The water was glorious and I came out energized, and clean.
The next 15 miles I met a mama bear and her cub on the trail. I’m assuming the same ones that Walmsley encountered as he flew by a couple of hours before me. And then I ran into a skunk who wouldn’t get off the trail. I shouted at it and stomped toward it and threw a rock near it, but the little bastard kept shuffling down the trail in front of me. I threw a stick toward it trying to scare it off and accidentally hit the poor thing. It tumbled forward and then looked back at me as if to say, “Really? Asshole.” I felt bad, but it got the hint and headed off the trail. I figured it might spray me as I went by but I think it was still a little shaken up. Sorry pal.
I thought I had it in the bag for a 6th place finish when, at mile 98, I saw a headlamp approaching me. I tried to pick up the pace and power ahead but I had nothing left in the tank to surge. Kyle Pietari passed me. Then two minutes later, I saw another headlamp. As I hit a steep hill Cody Reed, one of the Cowboys, passed me. I was power hiking up the climb and he ran it, even dropped his pacer doing so. I wasn’t mad, just impressed. I tried to surge again but couldn’t match the pace and didn’t want to risk anything catastrophic happening that would lead to me walking it in the last 1.5 miles… I was worried I’d lose top ten. I kept a steady pace, yet conceded a well-earned defeat from the two who passed me that late in the game. They taught me a good lesson on finishing strong and preparing properly to do so. I eased up on calories and went to one handheld at mile 91, with finish-line fever – another rookie move.
Coming in 8th was just as sweet as 6th. It’s a dream come true to make the top ten at Western. Standing with the ten fellas the following day at the awards ceremony was surreal. Every year I’ve looked at the picture of the top ten guys at Western States and thought that photo was reserved for only the elite, the pros, the cream of the crop – the photo of a group of athletes that are fun to cheer for but will never join. But my perspective changed when I saw myself in the picture. I didn’t think that I finally made it into this superior group. No, I realized that photo is for anybody – it’s wide open.
A few weeks before the race I visited home and my older brother asked me how long I plan on doing this stuff. I gave him some generic answer to try to justify why I spend so much of my free time running and why I’m not yet pursuing a real career and why I’m a grown man who seems to be acting like a kid chasing some type of athletic dream.
“Well, a lot of endurance athletes peak in their mid 30’s, so I’ll give it a few more years.” I said. But the truth is, I plan on running and hiking and tripping and bleeding and sharting and peeing and puking my way through 100-mile races for as long as my body possibly can.
Two incredible records were set at this year’s Western States. Jim Walmsley set the fastest time ever, and Nick Bassett became the oldest finisher ever, at 73. Good job Jim, but I’m even more excited about the latter.
Paul Nelson Photography (Now you know my secret as to why that water felt so good)
Thanks to Aravaipa Running for their support for WS100.