11 November 2017

The Wild, Wild West(ern States)

3am, Sunday, mile ~88:

My big toes are both destroyed.  
They hurt.  
Like hell.  
Every tiny pebble or ripple in the landscape that I nudge with my foot kills like the fire of a thousand blazing suns. 
Rob and I are trekking along a winding single-track trail, two lonely headlamps bopping around in a vast, dark canyon.

Though I am not hallucinating like some runners do at this point of exhaustion, the Sleep Monster sits HARD on my shoulders. I feel weird - vaguely out of body, vaguely nauseous, very slow in my thinking and fine motor skills. I want to lay down.  
Really badly.  
But there is nowhere to lay down. We are running through a dark corridor of vegetation. Laying down would mean snuggling up in a poison oak ditch. I contemplate this out loud. “I know I can’t, but I really, really want to lay down right now. I know I can’t. But can I? Just for a minute?” Rob cheerfully responds to this as if this is a normal, everyday question. “We’re close to the aid station. We’ll get you all fixed up there. Just keep plugging away.” In an awfully heroic gesture, he offers up his toothbrush - “I know this is wacky, but sometimes brushing my teeth wakes me up when I’m struggling to stay awake.” I try it. It doesn’t seem to help, but it does feel nice on my tongue, which has a rawness unique to pounding simple carbohydrate snacks for 22 hours. 
A few minutes later, my very tired legs fail to clear a softball-sized rock in the trail, instead launching it airborne with a swift, and very, very painful kick. I hurl a string of colorful expletives across the dark ravine. 
Then I cry. “I hate this. I just want this to be over. I’m so over it.” 
Then I laugh. Rob laughs, too.  
I think, This situation is ridiculous. Running 100 miles is ridiculous. I’m being ridiculous. 
I apologize to Rob for my outburst, thank him for being there, and we soldier on. I’m still a little sleepy, but the fog on my brain seems to have lifted. 
In much better spirits, 36 hours earlier
After miles and miles traversing the dark canyon, winding around and around, we finally hear music. I’m delighted. The Quarry aid station will have coffee. And a bathroom. There is nothing quite so alluring as the simple things when you've traversed 90 miles on foot. However, to get to the aid station, there is a steep, rocky downhill - hard on my quivery quads, murder on my aching toes. I slowly stumble-walk down the decline, and as we get closer and closer, the music becomes louder and louder.  
SO loud.  
TOO loud.  
The speaker is facing outward up the hill, undoubtedly trying to beckon runners in as a morale boost. This does not boost my morale any longer. I am instead bitter. And why terrible grunge rock? Seriously?

I am tired.  
I am queasy. 
My bowels are rumbling. 
My feet are sore. 
Now, I’m also pissed about the music.  
I make my feelings known by marching into the aid station with my index fingers in my ears, scowl on my face. Rob and I see the port-a-john at the far end of the aid station - there are no stairs and it is perched upon a dual-axle trailer. Making a runner with 90-mile legs climb and balance on a trailer axle to reach the bathroom is a cruel form of punishment. I swear under my breath. Rob tells me to get some coffee while he goes to make use of the trailer himself. 
Then I see the aid station workers. They are wearing nun costumes.  
I am not amused.  
I am not amused by anything.   
Not even nun costumes.  
One of the nuns smiles broadly and asks, "How are you doing?" and my resolve to be angry dissolves rather quickly. “Well, I’m feeling sleepy. Like really sleepy. I’m having trouble keeping it together.” “You need sugar!” He walks over the food table and starts listing my sugar options. He hands me some M&Ms. They go down surprisingly well. I start to feel a lot less bitter, rather quickly.   
Ah, yes, a classic case of “hangry.” 
“I think I’d like to drink some coffee, but I’m worried about it upsetting my stomach.” Within seconds, he’s got a hot cup of coffee, and two Tums in his hands. I smile. “Aw, that’s sweet. My stomach is okay - it’s just a little rocky. Not bad rocky, just 100-mile rocky.” The two nuns nod and say, “Ahhh.” They know exactly what I mean. They’ve been there. 
Rob comes up and rejoins us. He helps me fill a baggie with potato chips and M&Ms that will get me through the last 10 miles. He spots me up the treacherous trailer axle, making me promise I will not take a nap in the port-a-potty. Within minutes, we are hiking out of the Quarry aid station and into the sunrise.

One week earlier:  

I stood at the top of the Escarpment at Squaw Valley, surrounded by a blanket of snow. Though I had made this four-mile trek many times over my years of volunteering for the Western States Endurance Run, I had never seen it with this much snow. I noted that the slush had slowed my hiking pace quite a bit.

I scanned the terrain ahead and I pondered what it would feel like to finally get the chance to run the race after so many years of trying to get in. I had a feeling of both wanting time to speed up and just let me run the darned thing already, and wanting time to slow down because I didn't want to rush through a single second.

I wondered how much the snow would melt over the next week before the race start. 

You know it's bad when the slopes are still open a week before the race

Not much, it turns out.  

Friday, ~2:30pm:

After registration and the mandatory runner meeting, I sat in a booth at the Squaw Valley pizza joint with four of my favorite people in the world. It was loud - maybe it was the restaurant buzz or maybe it was just a buzz between my ears.  Western States. Holy shit. It's here

My crew was laughing, there were maps on the table, and we ate pizzas with goat cheese and arugula, and curried chicken. Everything was going according to plan and I felt a calm peace come over me. A dumb grin came across my face.

This is going to be awesome, I thought. This already is awesome.
Foreshadowing of things to come?

Saturday, ~4:10am  

I had been listening to my Western States playlist more or less on repeat for the previous five months, and I'd been subjecting Kevin and Rob to it ever since their arrivals to California a few days earlier. Per usual, it was a hilarious mix of songs meant to pump me up, songs that had special significance in my life during that training period, and songs that had gotten (happily) stuck in my head on long runs. Genres included pop, country, Spanish ballads, and tunes from the musical Hamilton. As we turned onto the road leading to Squaw Valley, I knew exactly which one to play. I queued it up, turned up the volume and sang along:   
Isn't this the reason that you came, so baby, don't you let it go to waste/Are you down, d-d-down, d-d-down, d-d-down, down, --down?  
With 21,000 feet of descent on tap (with, you know, 18,000 feet of ascent to spice things up), I thought this was apt. Plus, I was ready get down to business. 

So down.  

An inadvertent capture of me clapping for joy at the sight of Squaw Valley 

Saturday, 4:45am  

As usual, the melee around the start line was crazy in the moments leading up to the shotgun blast. One or two thousand people milled about the start line. Racers wore every type of colorful running gear imaginable and they pinned race bibs onto their shirts, attached timing chips to their shoes, and adjusted their gear nervously. Some clutched coffee cups and harbored the thousand-yard stare of nervousness or focus. Others chatted amicably with typical self-deprecating comments about hoping for survival. Some ironed out final logistical details with their crew members. 
Race bib? Check! Coffee? Check! Fucks? Nope, sorry. I've none to give.

I would normally be a wreck in a scene like this, but after volunteering at the start for many years, I knew what to expect. Kevin, Rob, and I slipped upstairs to a quiet room with no lines for the bathroom, and I calmly rolled out my calves and quads with a foam roller. I had envisioned calm for myself for that morning, and so it was. I didn't want to let my nerves and excitement get the best of me and cause me to go out too fast.

Lights, noise, people, nervous energy. Welcome to the start line of Western States.

As the start clock counted down the last minute before 5am, runners began jumping and yelping with excitement and the crowd started counting down out loud. I thought about my intentions for the day, pictured myself running strongly and confidently and happily. I get to go play in the mountains for a day, I told myself. Enjoy it, Katie. You might only get this once.

And then we were off.  We all jogged the 50 meters of flat terrain across the start line...and then all promptly settled into a brisk walk for the next four miles as we climbed 2500 feet to the summit. We were off like a herd of turtles.

A turd of hurdles, I tell ya

As we power hiked upward, I was surprised at how serially stoic the crowd seemed. Several of my jokes or comments about the beauty went completely unacknowledged. Tough crowd. I understand that Western States feels serious because it takes so many people so long to get in. However, my take on it was that it took us all forever to get in - let's enjoy it! I did manage to shoot the shit with a couple of great folks, including Terry, who I had volunteered with previously, Charlie, who was going for his 10th Western States finish, and Ian, who was attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a series of four 100-mile events over the summer. (Ian was one of 11 to complete the Slam this year!)

'Snow big deal.

When we reached the upper half of the ski slopes, the terrain turned to snow. Though some had melted since I had last been there a week earlier, the coverage was still pretty thick. 

At its heart, Western States is still a quirky, local endurance event.
As we approached the summit of the Escarpment, a guy played an alpenhorn to welcome us in. I turned to see the rising sun over Lake Tahoe. Wow. It's happening. I can't believe I'm standing here. I'm running Western States! I'm running Western States!

And with that, I dropped down into the other side... 
Looking back at Tahoe. Looking forward to 96 more miles.

Saturday, ~6:15am

As planned, I was well back in the pack, in something like 240th place (out of 369). I was proud of myself for starting out slowly, though it came at a cost - the runners ahead of me had mucked up the terrain. And the terrain was already pretty bad to start with. One of the biggest winters in Sierra history, followed by a relatively cool spring, then very hot temperatures in the week leading up to the race had made the first 14 miles of the course a maze of icy stream crossings, badly corniced snow, and mud bogs. With 200+ runners ahead of me, those miles now also sported a landscape of skid marks and collapsed snow bridges to navigate. Everyone around me was falling. Some people clearly had zero experience running on snow. 

Even with a base of training on snow all winter, I, too, slipped and stumbled my way around. I managed to land on my rump twice. At one point, I found myself shin-deep in mud slop. At another point, I gritted my teeth to keep from whimpering out loud as my Reynaud's-riddled toes screamed bloody murder at the icy water.  
Watch out for Rodents of Unusual Size

Saturday, ~8am

Holy crap, this is beautiful. I was running atop a gorgeous Sierra ridgeline in the early light, flanked by expansive canyons on either side, birds chirping, the butterscotch smell of Jeffrey Pines in the air. For a moment, I was alone on a sublime Saturday morning run in a drop-dead gorgeous place. It felt like home.

Oh, right. It's pretty, too!

The beauty took me off guard.  I'm not sure why I was so surprised. Obviously, Western States is a big deal to ultrarunners. In the years of anticipation of running it, I had been steeped in the lore and the community and some of the more iconic landmarks like the Escarpment and No Hands Bridge. However, I'd sort of forgotten that this race is also iconic because it covers some pretty stunning terrain in my very favorite mountain range. 

I want to run this again.  

I let the thought wash over me as quickly as it had come.  

Saturday, ~11:45am

The exposed burn zone heading up to Robinson Flat
I climbed the exposed ridgeline toward Robinson Flat and noted that it was starting to feel hot. I looked at my watch and thought, Okay, eight more hours of heat, and then it starts to cool again.

I also noted that my legs felt tired - sort of unreasonably tired for mile 30. I had worked hard to maintain a pedestrian pace and save my energy for later miles - or so I thought. I was puzzled.

In a blog post titled, "Ice. Fire. Grit," Chris Perillo described the first section of the course as follows:
If the snow was not slowing folks down enough, the next obstacle of seemingly endless miles of mud bogs and streaming snow melt cascading from above was debilitating to all. At best, you escaped with stressed accessory muscles, eccentrically working to stabilize your footing and at worst your day was over within the first two aid stations due to injury or timing out.
I think the terrain took a bigger toll than I expected on my stabilizer muscles, my exertion levels, my kneecap, and my mental focus. I came into Robinson Flat feeling fine, but not exactly fresh. 

With 70 miles to go, I wanted to feel better than "fine."  

Saturday,  ~2:15pm

I was slapped across the face slowly. 

And repeatedly.

By the heat. 

As I approached the canyons section of the course, even running downhills and flats felt challenging. I slowed down the pace and started forcing myself to eat every 20 minutes to make sure I didn't mess up my electrolytes. It was painful, but I knew I would be in a world of hurt if I screwed up my nutrition.

It was around then that I passed Race Director Craig Thornley. I had teased him before the race about wanting to run this year to avenge his loss to me at Waldo the year prior. So, when I came upon him on course, I wanted to say something like, "Catch me if you can!", but I'm pretty sure I mumbled something like, "mrpphhhhh." I don't know. My memory is rather hazy. 

Everything was a haze of heat by this point.
Not surprisingly, I didn't take many photos during the heat of the day.
This is me, heat training two weeks prior to the race.
It sums up the tenor of the affair.

Saturday, 2:51pm

I pulled into Last Chance at mile 43 with my aid station routine down pat:  
"No, I don't need food or water; I've got plenty."  
"I need ice - in my hat, bandanna, sports bra, and each arm sleeve."  
"More ice, please."  
"More. Yes."  
"Yes, please, I'd like to be sponged off, but only on my head - I don't want any on my shorts because I'll chafe."  
"Thank you, volunteers!"  
Then I would toddle off. 

It was like this over and over again, through the heat of the afternoon. I hated to ice up so frequently because I knew efficiency at aid stations was crucial with 21 of them strung out along the course. However, with temperatures in the triple digits, I needed every tool at my disposal to keep my core temperature down.  It cost me some time, but based on the carnage I witnessed and later read about, it probably saved my race. Some stories of note:

  • YiOu Wang led the women's race until mile 65, when her hands suddenly went numb, she fell to the ground, she lost control of her breathing, and was unable to respond to people talking to her.
  • Jim Walmsley, the overwhelming favorite for the win, began vomiting at mile 62, and by mile 71, he could no longer run.  Unable to eat for several hours due to the heat, he ended up walking to the aid station at mile 78 and dropped from the race.
  • Around mile 50, defending women's champion Kaci Licktieg started experienced shallow breathing and an accelerated heart rate. She stumbled her way through another 28 miles before sitting down for an hour, saying she wanted to quit. Eventually, a friend helped motivate her to get going and she finished in just over 24 hours, a full six hours slower than the year prior. 
  • Maggie Guterl, the eighth place woman from 2016, had a particularly epic day, finishing...just behind me.
Last Chance aid station is the launching point for the infamous canyons section of Western States. In just 13 miles, runners drop 2000 feet and climb 1500 feet out of Deadwood Canyon, then drop 2600 feet and climb 1800 feet out of El Dorado Canyon. The canyons typically record the highest temperatures on course...and if you're on the cusp of 24-hour pace (as I was), you hit the canyons right at the hottest part of the afternoon.

When a trail needs a road sign-sized warning plaque, you know it's legit.

As I descended into Deadwood, I stared across at the impressive wall we would soon climb. Whoa. About halfway down, John "Fegy" caught up with me. John is rather well-known in the ultrarunning community as one of the few finishers of the insanely difficult Barkley Marathons (see the awesome documentary on Netflix!). He was unknown to me, however, until the day prior, during the mandatory runners meeting, when the story of his last-minute waitlist entry was revealed by Craig Thornley. This guy had been trying to get into Western States for the better part of nine years, only to get pulled off the waitlist literally in the closing moments of registration the day before the race. More than a couple of us in the audience had teared up while listening to the story. 

So, when I met John on trail, I was thoroughly delighted. The conditions were nothing short of horrifying at that point, but when we both shared how happy we were to finally be running Western States, I think our smiles stretched from one wall of the canyon to the other.
We're running Western States! We're running Western States!
When we reached the bottom of the canyon, we both instinctively took the 50-yard detour to the river's edge. After removing electronics, we both jumped in, fully clothed, shoes on. The water wasn't exactly cold, but it felt divine. As we splashed, a group of three runners crossed the bridge above us. "Come on down! The water's great!" we yelled. They shrugged and kept going. Bad choice, I thought. Sure enough, 20 minutes later, as John and I amicably chatted and power-walked up the incline, we easily passed each of those three runners (and several others). Future WS100 runners, take note: get wet every chance you get.

Partway up Deadwood, John and I passed a friend of his, and they started to chat a little about how brutal the heat was. "I'm giving up on 24-hours, man." "Yeah, me, too. I think we're behind pace at this point." I looked at my watch, puzzled. "I thought we were right on pace. Not much room for error, but still on pace. Is that not true?" John shook his head. "I don't think so. I think you'd have to have a pretty big turnaround to catch 24 hours. It's not happening for me today."


As we neared Devils Thumb at the top of the first canyon, John and I talked less and our pace began to slow down some. It was catching up to us. Close to the top, we passed a guy who was really not looking good. We tried to offer him many things, but he refused. We told him we'd send an aid station worker down to check on him. "We're almost there," I said, trying to leave him with something to hold on to. 

"Everyone says that," he muttered glumly.

Arriving to Devils Thumb was like a scene out of Mash. The medical tent was full of fold-out lounge chairs, filled with ragged looking ultrarunners, ice packs stuffed around their core and under armpits. A volunteer asked me how I was feeling. Though I genuinely meant it when I said, "Doing pretty good, actually," the words came out sort of disjointed and slow. The volunteer looked at me with some concern. Hmm, maybe not as good as I thought. I looked around at the carnage and overheard a volunteer radioing in a series of dropped runners' bib numbers to net control. I have to get out of here, quick. I got iced up, ate every salty thing I could, took a popsicle to go, and started walking out of the aid station, trying not to think about the second canyon. 

I have to do that AGAIN? And the next one is even more climbing??

Just as I departed the aid station, I saw a sign describing the distance to the next aid station, and split times that correspond to 24-hour and 30-hour pace. I looked at my watch. I was an hour behind 24-hour pace.


Saturday, ~4:45pm

As I descended into El Dorado Canyon, my mental status declined rapidly. 

It was hot. 

So hot. 

I was all alone, my stomach felt like a bubbling cauldron, I could barely choke down bits of energy bars and gummies, my knee was barking pretty hard, and I felt defeated about not earning a silver (24-hour) buckle after all my dedicated training this year. 
One of many training runs in the very wet spring of 2017.
Terrible conditions, Snickers, beautiful places.
I started walking despondently, checking my watch every couple of minutes, recalculating and obsessing over the time. I stopped at a little stream to pour more water on my head and shirt, and accidentally got some on my watch. After 17 years (!) of abuse, my running watch is no longer waterproof and is prone to shutting itself off when it gets a little wet. When I next glanced down and saw the screen was blank, I couldn't help but laugh. The time didn't matter any more.

Relieved, I stopped, took off my watch, and shoved it to the bottom of my vest. It doesn't matter any more. Just enjoy this. You've wanted to do this race for half your lifetime. Stop suffering and have some fun. Take your time now. I knew I needed to hit the reset button, so I took out my headphones and queued up the Western States playlist. Within minutes, I was jogging again.

At a trudge.

Still, a steady trudge.

A few songs in, I dunked my head in another stream and accidentally get some water in my headphones that ended the dance party rather abruptly, but at that point, it had already done the trick. I smiled widely and bantered enthusiastically with the volunteers when I arrived to the bottom of El Dorado Canyon.

Saturday, 6:31pm

As I approached the final ascent to Michigan Bluff, I took stock of my body. My knee was pretty sore and I had to take downhills gingerly. I was tired from all the climbing, but due to the pedestrian pace all day, I still felt like I had miles in me. I was proud of myself for forcing myself to eat food even when I didn't want to, and I seemed to be hydrating well. That was the hardest 50 miles I have EVER run, I thought. The fact that I still feel like I can run is pretty great. Maybe I won't run sub-24 today, but I'm definitely still in the best shape of my life. I'm running my best race today.

Michigan Bluff is a special place. Four and a half hours had passed since I'd last seen some of my crew at Dusty Corners. It had been over six hours since I'd seen the others at Robinson Flat. I had been to hell and back in the meantime. Needless to say, I was greatly looking forward to seeing them. 

I dare you to find a more enthusiastic crew.
Or more stylish. You can't.
Sure enough, as I crested the hill at Michigan Bluff, Tamara and Rob came bouncing up, wearing wigs and carrying a big, colorful sign. I laughed hysterically and gave them hugs. I looked around at the crowded street and could see that my crew was easily the most costumed, happiest bunch of them all. I felt proud and overwhelmingly grateful for their enthusiasm.

Plus, there was avocado at the aid station. 

I was in heaven.
Avocado, food of the gods.
Also, yes, my t-shirt looks like a dress, having been stretched out all afternoon by continuous soaking,
I asked one of the volunteers about the upcoming leg through Volcano Canyon because I had started to worry about my knee. I had heard that Volcano is the oft-forgotten "third canyon" that is much smaller in elevation, but can be grim on tired legs. She started describing the section in detail. I have to admit that I zoned out for almost all of her spiel in my fatigued state, but I focused back in as I heard her say, "Walk the uphills." 

"Don't worry; I will," I deadpanned.

Saturday, ~8pm  

By the time I reached Bath Road, where Jonathan would meet me to walk-jog to Foresthill, my knee was screaming and I was bordering on morose again. I worried my knee was going to end my race. I ducked into the medical room at the Foresthill Elementary School, in hopes they might be able to tape my kneecap in place. The doc poked and prodded, hemmed and hawed, and asked me question after question. It became clear to me that his medical specialty was not in lower leg injuries, and he stated as much. As he kept talking, I felt time slipping away from me and became increasingly irritated. I began answering each question rather tersely, and finally I interrupted and said, "Okay. I came here in hopes you were going to tape me up. If you do not have intention of doing that, I would like to get running." I stood up. "Whoa, whoa. Okay. Let's get you some tylenol. Sign this piece of paper and we'll get you on your way."

I left the medical room, infuriated. I barely stopped into the aid station to grab a slice of watermelon, and marched out the other end to my crew, who immediately noticed my foul look. As I spouted off a string of anger and watched my crew look at one another nervously, I realized how negative I sounded. I felt terrible. My crew was going to great lengths to make this a positive experience for me, and here I was, wasting my breath on negativity. "Sorry, guys, I just want to take care of my knee and that felt like a waste of time. I'm so happy to see you. I'm so glad you're here." 

They all shrugged and immediately moved into pit crew mode. They sat me down in a chair, pulled my shoes and socks off, fed me chips and Starbucks, and started massaging my aching quad and IT band with icy hot. Within minutes, I felt like a whole new person. I started to tear up with how grateful I was for them. I thanked them all, gave them hugs, turned to Kevin and said, "You ready to run? Let's do this!"

Feed her avocado. She can't be grumpy if she's eating avocado.

I felt an airiness in my step as we made the left turn onto the legendary buttery singletrack of Cal Street just as the sun was setting.

Saturday, 9:15pm  

My knee felt brand new! For a little while. 

The pain started to creep back in, and I sought out KT tape at the next aid station. There were no medical volunteers there, but a very sweet woman pulled some tape out of her personal stash and helped fix me up. It seemed to help. Over the next 16 miles, I would stop countless times to try to reaffix the tape to my sweaty, dusty legs. My stomach also started rebelling during this time, creating more than one close call as I dashed into the bushes again and again.
Tape, of the KT, athletic, and duct variety.
Despite the stop-start slow pace over this section, I was in good spirits and Kevin and I kept up a healthy banter the entire way. This made me very happy. Kevin has been my Western States geek friend since the beginning and was one of the primary catalysts to my descent (ascent?) into ultrarunning. Plus, I had put him through pacing hell the last time he'd paced for me at my first 100-miler in 2014. Laughing and skipping down Cal Street in the middle of the night together was a highlight, for sure.
Favorite Kevin pacing quote:
"Sure, I'd love to try a spearmint Shot Blok. But you have to eat one first!"

Sunday, 1:08am

I had anticipated my arrival at Rucky Chucky for a long, long time. Rucky Chucky aid station is located at the bottom of a canyon on the Middle Fork of the American River. I had volunteered here numerous times, entering running splits through the middle of the night via a chewing-gum-and-tin-foil-internet-hot-spot-contraption rigged up each year for the event. Aid station captains Jose Rodarte and Diane Vlatch are stellar human beings who I consider an important part of my ultrarunning family, and I was super excited to see them.

Another member of the the ultrarunning family. Maybe a little like an oddball, slightly creepy uncle. But still family.

I looked around the computer table, but I didn't see them. I asked the volunteers stationed there if Jose and Diane were around. They said, "They're over there. Do you need something?" "Oh, I was just hoping to give them a hug. I have volunteered doing what you're doing for a bunch of years." Their eyes lit up and they said, "You're our person! We've been following you all day! We're so excited to meet you!" I giggled. Who knew I had a fan club?

Only ultrarunners could meet up in the middle of the night, exchange grimy, sweaty hugs, then go on to volunteer and run for another 6 hours, and be completely delighted by the entire exchange.

After hugs and photos with Diane and Jose, Kevin and I boarded our inflatable chariot across the river. In a normal year, a metal cable is strung across the river to help runners wade across. However, with the incredible amount of snowmelt happening that day, the race arranged raft guides to ferry us across. It was pretty surreal to get into a boat after 20 hours of running. I asked our guide, "how many times do you think you've gone back and forth?" He solemnly nodded and said, "This is actually my first go tonight." We started to get caught in the current and the other guide began barking orders at him to get us back on track. Kevin and I smiled nervously at each other.

The one and only Rucky Chucky crossing. Just like the jungle cruise at Disney. But less hippos.

When we arrived safely to the other side, Rob and Jonathan greeted us warmly and directed us on where to go next. They said they had heard my laugh across the river. Ha!

It's a true act of love to help an ultrarunner remove her 80-mile socks.

Western States allows you to have as many pacers as you want for the short two mile section to Green Gate, so now we were power hiking, four abreast. If we had started snapping, we might have passed for a ragged, emaciated gang from West Side Story. Rachel met us at Green Gate (which is not green at all, spoiler alert) with a big smile. Kevin's pacing stint ended here, and he, Rachel, and Jonathan began the hike back to the car. 

Meanwhile, Rob and I continued into the darkness.

Sunday, 6:28am

After the toe banging, the screaming, the nuns, and the M&Ms, the rest of my time with Rob passed relatively peacefully. The landscape turned from black to subtle greys as the sun rose. We giggled at the absurd amount of flagging at the junction where Jim Walmsley had taken his infamous wrong turn while on course record pace the year prior. We crossed Highway 49 in a tired silence.

In stark contrast to the typical costumery, banners, and light strings of your average ultrarunning aid station, Pointed Rocks aid station greeted us with a row of American flags. In the predawn light, with dew adorning the grassy meadow, it was oddly touching and beautiful. As I filled my water bladder and grabbed some saltines, Rob marveled, "Are you sure you want M&Ms and saltines? This aid station has all kinds of salty and sweet things!"

For the first time in many, many hours, food actually sounded good. Knowing I only had six miles to go, I didn't want to risk upsetting my stomach.

I gave the bacon and donuts a long look of yearning, then turned away.

Then, Tamara, Becky, and Marya appeared. They looked sleepy and cold, as one does while waiting through the wee hours of the night in a meadow in the middle of nowhere for a delirious hot mess to limp-jog into sight. But they seemed happy, all the same. 

Marya started to open my crew bag and said, "What can I get you?" I said, "Nothing! Let's do this. You ready, Tamara?" And within two minutes of arrival, I marched out of mile 94.

Rob later told me he teared up as he watched me walk away, knowing I would finish this thing after the tribulations of the long, long night. I couldn't have done that stretch without him, and I'm grateful for his patient steadfastness as I struggled through.

Tamara cracked, "So, you ready for this easy Sunday morning 10K? Looks like you're all warmed up."

Sunday, ~7am  

When we got to No Hands Bridge, a puncture of joy shot through the haze of my fatigue. As we started to cross the bridge, I was recruited to participate in the Clif-sponsored GIGANTIC dart board. Throw a dart at the board, win a prize for where it hits. 

Except I couldn't hit the dart board. 

From 10 feet away. 


My hand-eye-coordination was just a *wee* bit terrible after 26 hours of movement. On my third attempt, I managed to hit the board. 

On the outer edge. 

I definitely would be terrible at the biathlon. But I scored a sweet bandanna, so hoorah!

Look, Ma! No Hands!!!!

Crossing No Hands Bridge was surreal - it was more beautiful than ever to me. I picked up my pace from a walk to a jog because I had dreamed of running the bridge for so many years, but I kept the pace slow because I wanted to savor every step. I felt my heart swell and I had no words.

The climb to Robie Point passed relatively uneventfully. Folks talk about this climb a lot - that it's just masochistic after everything you've been through. As far as I was concerned, it seemed like a piece of cake after everything I'd been through. 

Just an easy Sunday morning 10K.

When we arrived at the streets of Auburn, we first followed a little bit of a ridge where you could look back at the rolling foothills we had traversed. I looked back, picturing Squaw Valley just beyond the hills in sight. I know this sounds kind of silly, but for perhaps the first time in my ultrarunning career, 100 miles felt very, very far. I think there's something about a point-to-point race like this that makes you realize the magnitude of the undertaking. I said out loud, "Holy shit. I just ran from Squaw Valley. I just ran 100 miles." I looked at Tamara in disbelief.

Entering the Placer HS track. Still running, I'll have you note.
Then we were at the track and my whole crew hooted and hollered and held a paper banner for me to run through, and we jogged slowly around the track. There were cowbells and the announcer calling my name over the loudspeaker and people cheering and milling all about and the spongy track underfoot and laughter and crying and pats on the back. And when we got to the finish, I felt shell-shocked with awe. I did it. I ran Western States. It was perfect.
What just happened?

Sunday, ~10am

After the race, the crew and I hunkered down in one of the only patches of shade to be found. By this time, it was already blazing hot again. I felt bad for runners who had to fight the heat all over again. We slumped in chairs and lay on concrete in various states of exhaustion. I couldn't bend my knee without using my hands to manually bend it, and doing so caused no undue amount of grunting and wincing. I tried sitting and laying down in many different positions, but everything felt terrible. Eventually, my body gave in to the Sleep Monster and I fell asleep flat on my back. I am told that I laid there snoring away, with my quadricep twitching of its own accord.
The individual looks speak volumes.
I can't tell if that is a sigh of relief of being done, joy at eating a popsicle, or immense pain.
Probably all three.

Post-Western States Thoughts

It would have been hard for Western States to live up to expectation after wanting it for so long, with so much anticipation. 

But you know what? 

It did. 

It may have actually surpassed expectation, which is pretty incredible. I knew about the amazing volunteers and the community, but I think I underestimated the beauty of the course, what it feels like to be a runner on race day, and how all the elements of the course play together to be a challenging and exciting endeavor.

No small part of this was due to my incredible crew. I still get teary when I think of us jogging the Placer High track together. I couldn't have done it without them. I'm awed by their enthusiasm, grace, positivity, and dedication to the cause. Thank you, Becky, Marya, Kevin, Rob, Rachel, Tamara, and Jonathan. I am ever so grateful to you for this gift.

Crew Crew.  You're my heroes.
A lot of folks have asked me what I will do for an encore. I have joked a lot about my aggressive Netflix, fishing, and beer drinking plan, as well as my desire to become a "three-mile-a-day runner." Those have all been executed perfectly.

I have thought a lot about whether I will run Western States again. With 4000+ people (likely to top 5000 this year) trying to enter every year, it seems fair to give others a chance.

Then again, there is this whole 24-hour endeavor. My experience at Western States was outstandingly beautiful in every respect...and there is still a tiny nagging question in my mind about whether I can break 24-hours on that course. I know that breaking 24-hours at Western States would require perfect training and near-perfect execution. I believe I had almost-perfect training, and almost-near-perfect execution, but really challenging conditions.

Race Director Craig Thornley did finish.
After me.
I made sure he knew it. :)
The median finishing time was the second slowest in the history of the race (if you take out the two outliers where an extended cutoff skewed the finishing times): 27h22m. The women's winner, Cat Bradley, was a full hour and a half slower than the winning time the previous year. 22% of finishers finished under 24 hours this year, compared to 29% in 2016.

I ran into Ted in the infield after the race:

"You made us proud."   
"Thanks. I wanted to break 24, but it wasn't in the cards."   
"Kaci didn't even break 24 this year!"
So, maybe I won't beat myself up too much about it.

But that silver belt buckle still looks pretty sweet. And it turns out finishing Western States qualifies you for...the next year's Western States lottery. So, I might as well throw my name in the hat, right?


This bronze one ain't so bad, either.


  1. I often encourage other women with the phrase: I AM WOMAN; HEAR ME ROAR! You are that woman; you are that roar!

  2. Andy sent me this link and it was such a joy to read! I love race recaps from those that I know, and with friends qualifying for WS with the recent RDL 100 race, it's been fun to think about WS 2018. :) Congratulations again! What an accomplishment and what a dream realized. - Marea

  3. I seriously just cried reading this. Thanks for sharing Katie :-)


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