“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Vonnegut
“Charlie, what do you do?” I’m not comfortable with this question, and am envious of those that are. It’s not that I don’t like what I do; in fact it’s quite pleasant. It’s just, ya know, I’m no doctor or venture capitalist. I have rarely stuck to anything, nor held a job too long before boredom or curiosity got the best of me and I moved on. Being defined by what we do is a hard label to avoid, and I am Pac-man dodging those pesky ghosts when the subject arises. That is, until recently.
The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is the oldest (since 1974), most prestigious and competitive ultra-marathon event in the country, and arguably the world. It starts on the edge of Lake Tahoe and ends 100 miles later in Auburn, CA. Runners climb 18,000’ and descend 23,000’ as they make their way through the striking Sierra Nevada mountains along mostly single-track trail. Athletes can spend years trying to get into the race via a lottery system. This year over 3,500 people entered the lottery (after running a qualifying race) in hopes of being selecting among the mere 276 spots available. The remaining 100 or so spots are reserved for elite athletes returning from last year, sponsored athletes, special consideration, and those who “ran” their way in by winning a ticket in one of six “Golden Ticket” races the previous year. I snuck my way in with a golden ticket.
I have a crew with me – Ronika (wifey), friends Catlow and his wife Lisa, Doug (pacer extraordinaire) and Mom and Dad. I didn’t ask any of them to be here, they all volunteered to travel to the race and help me out. This, in itself, is a small victory.
The mandatory pre-race meeting, a Western States tradition, is held the day before the race. As I look around the hot, overstuffed room I see the guys and gals and families and crews and pacers that make up our senseless, mad sport. I see Jim Walmsley, Kaci Lickteig, Sage Canaday, Magdelina Boulet, Ian Sharmin and dozens of other runners. I see “ultra” celebrities that I have only heard of. I’ve read and looked at pictures of them in various niche and eclectic magazines, websites, and podcasts – put out by fanatical freaks of the sport to geek out on with other zealous ultra-junkies like myself. I am home. These are my people.
The morning of the race is quiet and mellow until arriving at the start line and breakfast area around 4am. The large room is packed and bustling with last-minute wardrobe adjustments, extra calorie and fluid intakes, tense bathroom lines for those desperate to release the excess baggage before the long haul, and boatloads of pre-race jitters bouncing off the walls. It’s contagious. The runners are ready for battle.
At 5am the gun blasts and up the 4 mile, 2500’ climb we go to the highest point we will be at all day. I am running with the best runners in the world. As the sun pops up over Lake Tahoe behind us, I feel blissful and I feel gratitude. And then, I feel like shit.
Okay, I’m not feeling that bad, I just feel tired. Precursor: Ronika and I came up to Northern California 5 days before the race and made a trip to Yosemite. To make a long story short, we drove hours on end and due to poor accommodations (my fault) we didn’t sleep much, at all. This continued into our arrival at Squaw Valley. Maybe those pre-race jitters got the best of me, but we found ourselves up most all of every night before the race. I am beat.
I know within the first few miles this will be an issue, but I’ve often not slept before races and after an hour or two, it all goes away and the body starts to feel alert and revived. This doesn’t happen today. Perhaps I’ve convinced myself that I am too tired and my mind won’t allow my body to snap out of it. Either way, I know I am in for a long, cruel and harrowing 100-mile race. And this is exactly how it goes.
The Forresthill aid station at mile 62 is the first time I see my entire crew, together. Prior to this they were split into two crew teams. I walk it in, and I’m wrecked. I ask for a chair and sit down. The six miraculous people surround me, and look at a guy in the midst of a mental and physical battle that he is surely loosing. My breaths are short and I am panting. Everyone is quiet. Well guys, this is awkward…
There comes a time in a race when you either have to give up or rearrange your goals. Had I been there alone, I most likely would have thrown in the towel. But looking around at my Mom, Dad, wife and friends who travelled from all over the country to be there, I had no choice. New goal: get the coveted Western States silver belt buckle awarded to those who finish in under 24 hours. Doug Loveday, who previously paced me and pulled me out of a real funky funk in my last 100-miler was ready to take the reins and pace me to the finish. “Well Doug, you’ve got your work cut out for you again.” I force out with a bit of a smile.
And goddamn, wouldn’t you know it, that amazing son-of-a-bitch does it again. I’m telling you, this guy should charge for his pacing services. I don’t know what fairy dust he sprinkled on me, but within a few miles of Forresthill we are flying sub-6 minute pace down a hill and I am screaming like Tarzan. I’m having fun now, as it should be.
From here on out I know I’ll finish, and I know I’ll go sub-24. I still have some ups and downs, but for the most part, we run it in strong and have a decent time doing it. It’s a comforting thought when you are sure you will finish, and 30 miles is no longer intimidating, it’s just a matter of time.
Arriving to the finish line track (a track at the local high school) in Auburn, a little after 1 am is surreal. There is no more excitement to be had here. The winners and top finishers all ready came in. The interviews were conducted. The crowds all went home and will be back in the morning to cheer on the last of the runners. It’s a desolate, stark affair to run the track in the middle of the night, but it is fitting and it’s peaceful. On seeing the arch, solace is poured all over me and saturates my exhausted body. I finish the WS100 and earn the silver buckle. My crew is there awaiting me, their day just as long as mine. We all went to battle and came out on the other end, alive.
The next day at the awards ceremony I see a field of tried and tested warriors. I see men and woman – broken and beat up, limping around and tending wounds. I see smiles and laughs, and I see discomfort and disappointment. I see so many stories. There’s Jim Walmsley, who by all accounts, floated through the race well below course record pace for 92 miles before missing a crucial turn and blowing the spectacle by running two miles off course. There isn’t one person who saw him running that day that didn’t see a man who has been to the crossroads, and came away with a pair of running legs that operate at a level far beyond any other runner out there. I see Kaci Lickteig, who on her third attempt at the race, smiled her way through the course to win with the fourth fastest woman’s time ever. There’s Jeff Browning, who has tried for the last 12 years since his first attempt to get back in the race, and at age 42, got himself onto the podium. There’s Andrew Miller, who at 20 years old is the youngest man to win the race, ever. And that’s Gunhild Swanson, who at age 70 last year, finished the race with only seconds to spare before the 30-hour limit making her the oldest woman to ever finish the race.
With all of us underneath the overcrowded tent, continuing to suffer in 100-degree heat but not giving two shits, I see a crowd that I belong in. We all found something we love, something we are so passionate about that we’ve made it a part of our every day existence. We live for this stuff! How many people can say that have that?
Ronika smiles and asks me, “So, what do you do?”
“Ugh, I sell stuff, I don’t know.” I respond as my eyes gaze down to the grass.
“Yes you do.” She replies. “What do you do?”
I see her looking out to Mom, Dad, Catlow, Lisa, and Doug who are sitting around me, then she looks out to everyone – all the running misfits and renegades, and then she looks back at me.
“What do you do, Char?”
“I’m an ultra-runner!” …and I’m all in.
Finish line video (Courtesy of WSER)
Rucky Chucky River Crossing at mile 78 with Doug, this was fun!
My Crew! Lisa, Ronika, Mom, (Dad’s legs), Doug and Catlow at the awards ceremony. And yes, Ronika remains concerned at this point… Thanks Crew!!!