|It's all downhill from here|
'Cause life is so short there's no time to waste it
So run my baby run my baby run
- Run Baby Run, Garbage
On my last long run before Western States, I switched to the "Run You Fools!" playlist on my iPod, a collection of songs that inspire me and get me going. I rarely listen to music while I run, I'm much more of a podcast guy, but the mood hit me. As I was cruising down single track trail in the Indian Tree Open Space near my home in Novato, trying not to focus on the knee pain that had come out of nowhere during the Memorial Day Training runs, one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite groups came on. The song isn't about running at all, of course, but the chorus and many of the lyrics taken out of context really hit home and seem fitting. I had been thinking about Western States the entire run (and many of my waking hours for months), and I started to tear up thinking about what was to come in a few short weeks, my vision blurring as I moved down the trail. Ever since my first experience with States in 2012, crewing and pacing my buddy Jim Hammond, this race has been an obsession. A five year journey to the start line was nearing an end, and the real adventure was about to begin.
|Excited? Scared? Yes. PC Luis Escobar|
|A 20 time finisher, two time top-10 female, and nine time sub-24 finisher. Pretty good people to get advice from|
This might be a....bit of sh*t show! It's gonna be awesome!
I connected with my buddy Surf who is running for the third time in four years, and when the gun goes off we begin the climb together. The atmosphere is electric, the lights glowing above us, the crowd full of family, friends, spectators, and the ever-growing ultrarunning media surrounds us. We stay together for the first two miles or so, and I tell him to take off whenever he is ready (he's a low 2:50 marathon guy with much faster goals than me). We hike steadily up until we hit the first snow, and then he gives me a fist bump and takes off up the road. The scene is amazing, everything I had imagined with the sun beginning to rise and everyone excited as we hike up and up to 8,713'. We're on snow now, slipping and sliding a bit which is just a precursor of things to come.
|Worthy of a selfie as we approached the Escarpment. SO.MUCH.SNOW!|
|Just after Red Star, 11 miles in|
Mile 15.8, 4:25. 252nd out of 354
|Cougar Rock on Lyon Ridge. pc Facchino Photo|
After a final 30' slide on my butt down a snow drift, the conditions finally started to improve. But the altitude was getting to me more than I expected. Being up around 7,000' for much of the first 30 miles just made the effort so much harder. I just wanted to get to Duncan Canyon (mile 24.4) to see my crew for the first time, and get a fresh pair of shoes and socks. The aid stations in the first half of the race straddle a canyon with no road through it, so you need two separate crews if your're going to have one at each possible spot. I was honored and blessed to have my family with my girlfriend Heather, daughter Kylie, and parents Dave and Sharon serve as one crew; and my college buddies Jimmy, Rob, and Jared along with iFriend Wally that flew out from Chicago as my other crew. This sport can be so selfish in so many ways with the long training on weekends, travel away from home for races, and dragging your significant other along to trail running film festivals and local running store events. That is only magnified on race day with a crew and pacers when you consider my parents and two buddies all drove down from Oregon and Wally flew out from Chicago, all to help me achieve this goal.
I think the knee pain I had experienced that led to a sharper taper than I'd planned was related to some issues in my glute and hip. Thanks to a few emergency sessions with Dr. Chappy Wood in the two weeks going into the race I didn't have any knee pain the entire race, but I did have a dull ache in my left glute, and I must have stubbed my left foot on rocks a dozen times in the high country. That was new, although it ended up going away about 40 miles in. But I never actually tripped, and more than six hours in I finally rolled into the Duncan Canyon aid station, already well behind the 30 hour pace for the first quarter of the course and with not a lot of time on the cutoffs.
|Coming into Duncan. PC Tonya Perme|
Rob and I had spent a few moments chatting the night before the race, and I told him that regardless of what happened out there on race day I just wanted to be ahead of the cutoffs enough that I didn't have to worry about them. I've been there before (2014 Pine to Palm), and it's just so stressful. Thanks to the conditions in the high country, that was already gone and it was going to be part of my experience all day and night. The fellas knew I needed to get out of there, so they went to work like a Nascar pit crew, getting my shoes and socks off, cleaning my feet, lubing them up, and new socks and shoes back on. A volunteer apparently asked if they needed some nail polish to complete the pedicure they appeared to be giving me! But it was so awesome how efficient and ready they were to get me out of there and back on the trail.
Mile 24.4, 6:18. 246 of 344
From there it was around six miles to Robinson Flat and seeing my family for the first time. I had hoped to be there a little after noon, but didn't arrive until 1:11, less than an hour before the 2:00 cutoff. We were still up around 7,000' and my effort level was so unexpectedly high on the climb up to the aid station, the temperature was rapidly rising (90s by then?) and my discouragement was growing. As I finally crested the last bit of the climb and saw the tent, I tried to get myself in a positive space before I got to the crew - fake it until you make it, I guess. I spent about 10 minutes there getting cooled off, restocking my pack, and updating them all on the challenges of the first 15 miles. I asked about Surf, and they said he was also way behind his pace, and reported that he felt "worse than he ever had" at that point in the race - and he's struggled each year coming into Robinson. The conditions were taking a toll on everyone.
Mile 30.3, 8:11. 254 of 328
|Thanking the A-Team for waiting around for me for so long at Robinson Flat. PC Kylie Grove|
|The amazing volunteers doing everything they can to keep the runners moving toward Auburn|
Mile 38, 10:02. 249 of 331
I had started to feel a little soreness in my quads on the final descent into Dusty, and that began to get a little worse as I continued the descent down into Deadwood Canyon. This was pretty discouraging as all of the downhill running I had done during training was to try and condition my quads so I could hold that off that feeling until as late as possible so I'd be able to move well down Cal St. I was running with another guy who was moving pretty well and we were chatting a bit so I stayed with him down the road and onto the singletrack. But when someone else caught up to us I backed off and let them go, deciding to take it easy down to Swinging Bridge - I had to try and conserve the quads as much as possible.
As I approached the bottom of the canyon I recapped in my head my plan for the climb up Devil's Thumb, one I'd come up with as a result of already done the climb twice this year, once during The Canyons 100K and once during the Memorial Day Training run. I'd decided the key was to get a gel in as soon as I heard the rushing water below on the descent, as that would give my stomach 15-20 minutes to process it before heading up the other side. I was also going to lay in the creek a few hundred yards on the other side of the bridge to try and get my core temperature down, figuring that would also help ensure the calories were through my gut before the hard work of the 36 switchbacks climbing 1,800' up to the top. Check and check, and I started up the steep stuff hoping to just grind this thing out.
|Get wet, stay wet. pc Facchino Photo|
"It's the day you got"
I finally got into the Devil's Thumb aid station and plopped into a seat. My head was in my hands, facing the ground, trying to figure out how to continue on. I heard a soft-spoken voice asking what I needed, and I didn't have to scan upward very far to know who it was - Dave Mackey, who I had met the day before at check in, volunteering here at one of the key spots of the course. I asked for some broth and water, and told him I just needed a few minutes to try and pull myself together. "Sounds good, but you don't have long - you need to get moving again soon," he said. I had arrived about 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so spending too much time here with two canyons still to traverse would have been fatal. After about 10 minutes I thanked him and the rest of the volunteers and headed off down the trail toward El Dorado Canyon.
Mile 47.8, 13:11. 261 of 314
Too late for solutions to solve in the setting sun
So run my baby run my baby run
-Run Baby Run, Garbage
My stomach wasn't great, but one of my favorite mantras "it never always gets worse" came into play here, and I was able to just keep moving. Down into the canyon, up the long and often exposed climb to Michigan Bluff I trudged. Just keep moving. Get to your crew. And, in what was somewhat bittersweet, I knew that I'd get a pacer starting here - something only allowed at Michigan Bluff after 8:30 PM, and going into the race that was just inconceivable - I was thinking closer to 7:00. I shuffled down the hill into the aid station, happy to see my family, Jimmy, and Robbie again, and saw that Jim was ready to run. I sat in a chair, frustrated at being now less than 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff. It was time for a full on pity party as I complained about what had been going on. I stopped talking for a minute, then yelled out, "DAMMIT! This is NOT the day I planned for!" Robbie, an experienced (and bad ass) triathlete instantly and calmly responded, "But it's the day you got."
That snapped me out of my funk a little, and a few minutes later Jim and I turned on our headlamps and marched out of there and up the road toward Volcano Canyon. This was the exact same spot I had picked him up back in 2012, and I was a little behind his time here, a scary thought considering how close he cut things. He kept stressing we were going to have to run, keep moving, hike with purpose, pick it up, and a bunch of other ways of saying the same thing - move your ass, or you're not getting to Auburn in time. My quads were feeling it even more through here, but we were able to move ok down the road, and onto the more technical singletrack leading to Volcano Creek. Even though the sun was down it was still hot, probably 90ish, and I took a moment in the creek to repeat what I'd been doing whenever I'd had the opportunity over the past 17 hours dipping my hat, arm sleeves, splashing water on my face. We started the climb back up out of there, and he would point out someone ahead of us, "there's your next target,". Pretty sure I told him to shut up more than once, I'd catch them when I caught them, but I knew he was right in pushing me. We hit the pavement of Bath Road, and he told me once we reached the top we were going to run the mile or so into the Foresthill Aid Station so run we did, passing 2-3 runners along the way.
Foresthill is the biggest aid station along the course, as it's really the only one in civilization (no offense, Michigan Bluff residents!). There are cars parked all along the main frontage road through town, and the runners move through for almost a mile before making the left turn onto Cal St. and heading back onto the trail. Well, I should say earlier in the day there would have been cars parked all along - by the time I got there just after 11:00, it was mostly deserted. Guess that's what happens when you are 30 minutes behind 30-hour pace and only 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Jimmy and I were met by Robbie and Wally, and after a quick stop in the actual aid station we headed down the road to were Heather was set up, and Wally and I got prepared to head down into the iconic Cal St. trail into the American River Canyon.
Mile 62, 18:04. 268 of 288
Cutting it close
Wally and I had never run together before, and he had never experienced anything like this I'm sure. I took the lead, and he did his best to keep me moving and distracted, chatting and telling stories. Of course within a mile or so we were so distracted we missed a turn and went a hundred yards or so off course. Thankfully another runner and pacer came along and saw us and called us back, as that could have ended the effort right there about 63 miles in! I had planned to put on my Garmin charger and wear it through the night to keep it going, but after it died on the way into Michigan Bluff I just took it off and gave it to Heather, so I was reliant on Wally to let me know how we were doing. Being a numbers guy, he was throwing them out there! Net net was that just to stay even and 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff at the river, we had five hours to cover the 16 miles. It's almost embarrassing to look at that now - 18 minute miles on a largely downhill section of trail! But my stomach had never really recovered so I was struggling to get calories down, my quads were sore, my IT band was acting up a bit. And I was just damned tired, mentally and physically. I think we moved pretty well down to the first aid station at Cal 1, the first 4 miles or so. Just having the chance to share some miles with him, chatting away, got me running a bit more than I had been. But when we left Cal 1 I hit another mental and physical low point, not helped by the fact that much of the uphill on this Cal St. occurs during this 5 miles, and we pretty much just hiked. I wasn't doing the math well, but I'm sure Wally was getting nervous as I slowly moved along. And for good reason, as we stumbled into Cal 2 at 2:15 AM, with just 15 minutes to go on the cutoff.
I got some soup down and I think that combined with just straight up fear got me moving a bit more again, and I was able to run more on the way down through Cal 3 and to the river. It's always so much longer than you think to get there, as you run just above and along the river for a good three miles before the final short climb and descent into Rucky Chucky aid station. Wally just kept encouraging me, telling me I was moving at an ok pace when I was running, and keeping me moving forward.
|Crossing the American River, 78 miles in, 22 to go. Jim is obviously fired up and ready keep me moving. |
pc Facchino Photo
So you're not gonna crack
No you're never gonna crack
Run my baby run my baby run
-Run Baby Run, Garbage
"I'm going to be mean"
I had hoped to be at the river around 1:00 AM, but it was almost 4:30 when I actually arrived. Jim was back to pace me again, and Robbie was still awake as well helping me to get in and out of there quickly. 24 hours after check in, and these guys are still awake and out here for me. Amazing. I sat on the ground for a few minutes to re-lube my feet and change socks, as I'd started to feel some more hot spots during the last 16 miles of mostly downhill. And then it was down to the river and onto the rafts that were to take us to the other side - this winter's atmospheric river has just had too much water to allow crossing on foot. I actually was kind of happy about that as I had done that three times before as a pacer, and it was kind of nice not to have to worry about wet feet.
Mile 78, 23:26. 262 of 270 (yes, that means 99 runners were out by this point)
Jim had warned me during the stretch from Michigan to Foresthill that he was going to push me, and that I probably wouldn't like him very much. He's pretty much the most affable, likable guy ever...yet I knew he was right. I was glad we had the two mile climb up the road to Green Gate to start, as I was still hiking pretty well. But once we got through there and back on to the rolling single track heading towards ALT I knew I'd have to run as much as I could. We passed through Green Gate still about 30 minutes up on the cutoff, and onto the trail we went. He led the way and told me I had to keep pace with him as much I could, so I tried to just shut up and grunt through it. This had been such a great section of trail during the Memorial Day training runs, so runnable. I kept trying to remind myself of that as we alternated running and walking as fast as I could. We had figured we had to do 15 minute miles to the finish to make it, and Jim set his watch to beep every mile and every 15 minutes, and would reset it regularly - that gave the audible signal of whether I was ahead or behind. But I also started to figure out he was probably fudging the numbers here and there to try and keep me moving quicker, some things just weren't making sense. But considering I'd been on my feet now for 25 hours, I didn't argue. I also knew I couldn't afford to give up any time, this was going to be close.
Jim was also on me to keep trying to eat and drink, as he knew I was way behind there. My stomach, which hadn't been happy but had kept things down since the climb up Devil's Thumb the day before (yes, the day before!!!) started to get worse as the effort level and temperature increased. At aid stations I was strictly drinking broth and Coke, hoping that would give me enough to keep trudging forward, and Jim would encourage me to try and get down a shot block or gel between. Somewhere around mile 84 I tried to take a salt tab, gagged, and puked again, emptying everything I had choked down for the past hour or two. We finally got to ALT a few minutes later, and I tried to start over with more broth and Coke. But we were back down to 20 minutes against the cutoff here, so it was chug them down as quickly as possible and get out of there. Only three other runners made it out of there after me and before that 7:00 AM cutoff, while 11 others saw their epic efforts end here.
Mile 85.2, 25:40, 250 of 253
It was starting to warm up again quickly at this point, and I tried one more time to get down a shot block. As I tried to chew it my stomach let me know it was simply not welcome, and I puked again. Jim said if I was going to puke, I couldn't stop to do it anymore but had to do it on the move! At that point I realized I had some ginger gummy candies, and I was able to keep one of those in my mouth to dissolve, which kept me from puking any more. Ok, maybe once more. Who pukes on the second day of a 100?
More Nut Butter!
The other big issue I had been having was, well let's just call it chafing in the undercarriage. Every aid station I was applying more Squirrels Nut Butter, but after 27 hours of salty sweating my compression shorts had the texture of 80-grit sand paper. As we finally pulled into Quarry Road at mile 90.7 I saw Hal Koerner there running the aid station, and chuckled at the thought of the story of his epic UTMB bonk, complete with similar chaffing that had him use a ziploc bag to try and alleviate the issue. I was going to ask him if he had one (I had a little sense of humor left), but didn't get the chance - Jim had told me I had 1 minute to sit, then it was out of there. Every step was painful, but no time to worry about that. We had one big climb left, up to Highway 49, and we knew we were going to give a couple of minutes back to the course and the cutoffs there.
And what a climb it was. Of course it's nothing like what we had done the day before in the canyons, maybe 900' over a couple of miles, but after 91 miles it was such a struggle. Jim kept up a power hiking pace that would have been oh so easy on a training day, yet he kept having to slow down to keep me in sight. I knew once we finally crossed that road there'd be just one more short climb up to the meadow at Cool, and then the final climb to Robie, so I just kept focusing on that. One foot in front of the other, you're almost there.
We crossed over the highway where the aid station used to be, and started up to Cool. We heard someone yelling out in pain, almost crying, and came upon a runner cramping up hard on the trail. Her pacer was cajoling her to keep moving, but her legs weren't having it. Jim said under his breath, "you're doing better than her. Let's go!" She ended up crossing the finish line about 10 minutes after the cutoff, what a display of guts and determination.
"You've got this"
I've had several people tell me that the meadow in Cool is their favorite part of the course. In almost all of those cases they were either hitting it as the sun was going down on their way to a top 10 finish, or as the sky was just starting to brighten as they headed in for a sub-24. When I got there at 9:15 AM, it was just hot. We saw Mike Hernandez, the volunteer who had been such a big part of Jim's 2012 Western States, and he recognized us as "the Oregon guys". He looked at his watch and told me, "you've got this, you'll finish in about 29:50, but you have to get out of here." Time in to the aid station, 9:15 AM. Time out, 9:15 AM.
|Near Pointed Rocks aid station, feeling the pull of the track|
I'd been so stressed for so long, pushing for what my mind could convince my body to give that I don't think I really let myself dwell on the very distinct possibility of not finishing. It was like a cloud hovering over me, or maybe considering my physical appearance more like the cloud of dirt hovering around Pig Pen from Peanuts, but I had just tried to ignore it. I just kept telling myself there was no way I could let down my parents, Heather, Kylie, Jim, Rob, Wally, Jared, and everyone else rooting for me through all the years of training. My dad had repeated to me in the days leading up to the race, "you're doing this for you, nobody else." But that just wasn't true. And those words from Mike just led to that cloud finally lifting. It was this huge feeling of relief - I was going to do this. We were going to do this.
Down the trail to No Hands Bridge we went, hikers and dog walkers giving "good jobs" and "almost there's" as we came across them. My legs were pretty much done at this point, and my "running" down the hill was probably a little comical, but I was doing what I could. We hit the aid station there, and as the heat was picking up and I knew the rest of the trail was pretty exposed, I loaded up one more time with ice - in my arm sleeves, in the front pockets of my shirt. I probably should have tried some down my shorts to quiet the fire going on down there. Then it was up toward Robie Point, more hikers and people just starting their days, some aware of the race and knowing what they were seeing when they looked at this wreck of a man, others with confused looks. I asked Jim what time it was. "We have to keep moving," he said, and I snapped back, "WHAT TIME IS IT?!?!". I think (I hope) that was the only time I snapped at him out there. I got a little more water over my head with a double, walking sponge bath at Robie Point aid station as the volunteers moved with me, dousing me while I hiked up the hill. Then it was into the neighborhoods of Auburn, people out on their lawns, on the street, cheering runners on. Cheering me on. I tried to acknowledge everyone, but I kept getting choked up. Up the final climb, and then left onto the final downhill to the track.
I came down the ramp and saw my friends Eric (Ultrarunnerpodcast) and Karl (Ultrarunning Magazine, and again a 24-hour finisher here), and high fived them. And then I saw Rob, and there was Kylie waiting for me to run with me and finish this thing out. I'm glad she had the GoPro going, because I honestly don't remember much after that. I asked how she was doing, and where my parents were. I saw another local Marin runner on the bend of the track who gave me a big "right on man!". And I finally heard Tropical John's voice, but with the clapping and cheering and, really, the tears welling up in me, I couldn't hear what he was saying. I think I heard, "from Novato, California, Sean Grove" at some point. And then it was done.
|No words. pc Facchino Photo|
I was in a bit of a daze for the next few minutes. I shook hands with board member Charles Savage, who had given me some advice at check in on Friday, and a few others. Medical asked if I needed anything. And then I found Heather and we shared the biggest hug. I stumbled out into the infield of the track, and finally collapsed on the ground, and was again overwhelmed with emotion for a moment. The crew all gathered, my parents made their way over from the bleachers, and we were all together again. These special people that had sacrificed their time to help me reach this crazy goal. I'll be forever grateful to all of them.
After a few minutes, Heather asked if I needed anything. I realized it was 10:56 AM, the final few minutes of the race and replied "help up, so I can go see the last finishers." I really didn't expect that I'd personally be a part of "The Golden Hour", the greatest time and the greatest place on the planet - the Placer High track from 10:00-11:00 AM on the last Saturday in June. No matter, I wasn't going to miss witnessing the end of it myself.