Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Clouds Were Lined With Silver: My Western States 100

If you're a fan of brevity, just take a look at the picture above and move on, lest you waste a good 20-30 minutes of your life.  It says everything:  I finished.  I was happy. Oftentimes, I was quite cold.
(Official Finisher's Photo by Larry Gassan)

Western States was so interesting!

I say this for a few reasons, highlighted here, expanded upon throughout the course of the race report:

1.  It was absolutely freezing for the first 40 miles, including wind, rain, hail and general hypothermic conditions.  

2.  I did not look at my watch all day and ran entirely on feel.  It just so happened that this was an extremely steady pace.  Who would've thought running exactly in tune with your own body could be so fortuitous?

3.  I never really lost myself in the experience or had the "holy shit, this is Western States!" moments.  I remained resolutely focused on every turn, rock and breath for an entire day.  It was all business.

Here's the business….


So, it all started with an earthquake. In hindsight, this was highly appropriate, as the theme of the race could easily have been "let's shake things up, shall we?"  For reals.  The changing conditions and resulting issues required constant adaptation throughout the race, and I'm happy to say that I was able to do that.  Actually I'm very proud of that.

Freaking CarboPro. Freaking Dom.
Now, if you're in Squaw the few days before the race, it's impossible not to soak up the energy, swallow the hype and get a little bit cray cray.  Hell, it's the same flavor of Kool-Aid that got me into this 100 mile mess back in 2009 - I'd never seen one before and then took one down less than 4 months later, coming in just a hair over the 24 hour mark.  Despite the frenzy (which is beautifully magic in it's own regard, by the way), I remained calm, collected and really just excited to get going already.  Running into friends from all over the country, either running, pacing or crewing, the same question persisted, "what's your time goal?"

Now, in theory, the answer to that is that I didn't have one.  Time is completely arbitrary when you've never run a certain course - and even if you have it's going to be different because there will be new conditions (especially relevant here) and you'll be in a new general state of fitness.  So my answer was always "I just want to run the best I can in every single section - whatever time that may be."

That said, I truly believed I could break the 24 hour mark and earn myself a silver buckle - no matter what the day had in store for me.  I believed it down to my core and I simply could not imagine that it would be any other way.  And so I set off on my journey at 5 am on Saturday, June 23rd in pursuit of what was possible.


SECTION 1:  HIGH COUNTRY HYPOTHERMIA-FEST

The Twitching Hour: Squaw Valley - 5am
(photo: June Caseria)
Leaving the roaring crowd in Squaw, I immediately thought, "wow. this isn't so bad." You see, they had forecasted freezing temps in the days leading up to the race.  Days that I was already in Squaw, without my cold weather gear. I was wearing shorts and my Minimus jacket and I was just fine - even a little warm, maybe.  

Then I turned a corner, (right before the dead tree if you know where I'm talking about,) and shit got real.  The wind howled, rain began to mist.  Before long, I couldn't feel my face.  The higher I climbed, the worse it got.  The rain turned to hail and pelted me in the face.  I put down my sunglasses in an attempt to shield my eyes and they completely frosted and fogged over.  I couldn't see what I was doing or where I was going - I just kept pushing up.  Surely it had to get better when I got over the pass.

29-yr-old Cougar at Cougar Rock - sampling of conditions
(photo:  Facchino Photography)
I made it over and the wind continued to howl - driving the freezing rain into my ill-equipped body.  Just make it to the trees!  Just make it to the trees!, I thought.  There would be at least some reprieve there and I could start focusing on the race rather than just survival.  My limbs were numb, but I made a mad dash for the forest and yes, things did get a little better. OK, time to eat. Great idea in theory, but not exactly possible when one's gel flasks have frozen.  Luckily, I had taken two handhelds, one of which was filled with glorious CarboPro, so I was able to stave myself off of an early morning bonk-fest, while I tried to stuff the gel down my bra and make it to Lyon's Ridge - mile 10.5.


I never eat solids this early in a race, but I grabbed a few frozen handfuls of melon and Ritz crackers for the short hike out of the aid.  I knew that even though I could now get a few sips out of the flask, it wasn't nearly enough calories and I was not about to destroy my race on account of caloric deficiency.  Plus, I knew that my only chance of staving off hypothermia in these conditions, with these little clothes, was to keep throwing more wood in the furnace.  FYI: eating crackers when your mouth is frozen and it's hard to breathe anyway is a guaranteed fun time.

Grape Ice-pop into Duncan
(photo: Keith Blom)
Heading to Red Star, I began to understand how this high country thing was going to go.  Canyons would be good - getting me out of the wind, rain and hail and warming me up to the point of functionality/little risk of getting too cold.  Ridges would be bad.  Very, very bad.  The major problem with this was that my hip flexors were frozen solid and every step was pretty gosh darn painful.  I wondered how long this would go on, but remained absolutely confident that the answer was, "it can't much longer."

Unfortunately it did go on.. and on.. and on.  I came into Duncan Canyon Aid (mile 23.8), very excited to see my crew and hoping that perhaps they had a miracle solution for me.  There were no miracles, but there was an extra t-shirt that was a better option beneath my soaked through jacket than a singlet.  I also realized that in the cold, I could get away with only carrying one handheld, which always makes me feel a bit lighter and faster.  Minor victories.  So I switched my plan again, opting for the CarboPro to account for the frozen gel situation, and took off down the trail.  Everyone promised that it was going to get better, which I believed, seeing that I was heading into Duncan Canyon.  It would be warmer down there and I would feel less like I was going to die.

Heading down to the creek, I marveled at two things:  1) that I was now already a fourth of the way done with the race; and 2) just how well manicured this beautiful single track had become.  Running the canyon back in January, Dom and I had stumbled, tripped, hopped over and crawled under tree after tree and branch after branch.  It was a mess and was slow running indeed.  Not today!  The trail work crews had done a truly remarkable job at  paving the way and I enjoyed the smooth cruising down, around, over and down again to the creek - warming up all the way.  Once across, I remained resolute in my decision to run most of the climb seeing that it was - as the kids like to say these days - officially douche grade.  I passed quite a few guys doing so and this made me feel like a total badass.  I admit it, I don't care.

So the climbing was good, but unfortunately, this meant you were going back up and exposed ridges were going to begin occurring once again.  I kept it together, but coming into Robinson (mile 29.7) I was definitely freezing up again.  I was a good 6 pounds up on the scales on account of being soaked entirely through and laughed to myself at how my greatest fear going into the race was losing too much weight on the course.  Willfully drenching myself before every med check had been my plan - so I guess I was still sticking to it; nature was just taking care of the dirty work.  Robinson was the first truly rocking aid station, and I marveled at all the crazy people standing out in the freezing rain to cheer on the runners.  They had to be way colder than I, so when I saw June with my little baggie of gel and almond butter, I was extra appreciative. In the frenzy of all the SoCal Coyote love bestowed upon me, I almost left without my little packet of a non-frozen 200 calories (much needed), but unsurprisingly, June was on it.  I ran on out, getting down some food and trying to imagine where Miller's Defeat would be.  

Robinson Flat:  Just your standard game of Capture the Flag
(photo:  Jack Rosenfeld)
Miller's Defeat was in a place that could not have come any sooner, thanks to what I encountered on this next 4.7 mile stretch.  You see, things were really bad, and then they got better.  Now they were getting bad again, and it was somehow worse this time.  The trail was exposed, the wind was insane and the hail kicked on up again.  I honestly began to doubt my ability to continue - not on account of my willingness to run or deal with being uncomfortable; but in fear of the point where hypothermia would begin to set in on account of my (and everyone else's) lack of appropriate gear.  I couldn't feel my hands, feet or face and every stride sent searing pain extending from my frozen hip flexors up my abdominals straight to my chest.  How could this be happening?  How could my race be jeopardized by cold at Western Fucking States?  I guess Miller's Defeat was aptly named.

Now at mile 34.4, I did something else I've never done - I stopped and ate a cup of broth during the DAY.  What can I say? It was there, it was hot and it was glorious.  I downed it and some more crackers (easier this time, with the hot liquid to aid in swallowing), knowing full well that calories were going to be the only thing that would get me through this.  There were no Goretex jackets, there was no rain delay.  There was a large fire that the volunteers had built and there were a good 10 runners huddled around it trying to get their shit together - but it was not for me.  Me… I had to be moving on.  

As I was leaving, a volunteer called out that I was over a third of the way done with the race and still well under 24-hour pace.  I told her I didn't care about time, which was interesting because it was both a true and completely false statement.  Here's what I mean:  at this point, I hadn't looked at my watch once.  I honestly had no idea how long I'd been running and what 24-hour pace even meant.  All I know is that I was doing my very best, eating when it seemed like a good idea and somehow just believed that it was all good enough.  I admit partial lying, because of course, I did very much want to break the 24 hour mark - it's just that I wasn't very concerned with the semantics of how I got there.  I was just going to do it, and that was that.

Of course, "doing it" meant that I had to keep moving forward through this admittedly miserable situation.  And so goes the plight of the ultrarunner.  One one hand, I was happy that it wasn't bad enough that the aid stations were blowing away or visibility was so decreased that I couldn't physically continue (a la C2M 2011).  On the other hand, I did entertain thoughts of them just calling the whole thing off and me suddenly being wrapped in a 0 degree sleeping bag and placed in a warm car.  You see, there was no way I was going to quit.  BUT if they made me quit, well, there's an idea...

Fortunately, I soon ran up on two guys having a related conversation.  One was wearing a vest fashioned out of a trashbag and questioning if it was even in any way helpful and the other was laughing at how the only benefit of being from Florida - heat training - was now totally irrelevant.  None of us could feel our faces. We'd all transitioned from the this kinda sucks, through the this is really starting to suck bad and arrived at the OK, this fucking sucks stage of the day.  No one was in a bad mood about any of it - but it was what it was.  And it was not fun.  Before I understood what I was doing, the words came out of my mouth... "You know, I haven't given up optimism that it's going to get better."

Wait. Was that me with the stellar attitude?  Turns out it was.  And turns out I needed to be listening to my own advice.  A reality check told me I was rapidly dropping elevation now and even if it was still cloudy in the canyons, it would likely be warmer.  Plus, I was running to a different city - maybe the weather would be different there!  Before long, the downhill grade turned steeper and I knew I was approaching Dusty Corners and a report from Dom.  But before I even entered the aid station, the answer I'd been looking for came into view -

Clear skies ahead.


SECTION 2.  DEEP CANYON DE-THAW

I left with a new bottle, more PowerGel, and a little thing they like to call hope.  Perhaps I was going to make it after all.  As I rolled along the fire road in my wet clothes, still shivering a bit, I prayed that the sharp pain I still felt in my frozen hip flexors would not be a permanent fixture for the remainder of the race.  At only 38 miles, that would be a scary thing.  I dipped onto the single track that would lead me to Last Chance and laughed that I was actually looking very forward to the canyons - so forward in fact, that I ran a little harder.  

I remember this as a major turning point in the race.  It was the first time I actually felt comfortable… almost warm, even.  It was the first time I could actually see my surroundings, now not physically in a cloud, and the view of the waterfalls across the canyon from Pucker Point were outstanding.  It was the first time I actually cracked a smile - as doing so earlier in the day hurt my teeth.  Things were definitely getting better, and I ran into Last Chance (mi 43.8) in an awesome mood.  This was only made awesomer when I saw a sign reading "KATIE PANDA," and knowing full well I was the only one of this breed in the race, concluded it must be for me!  Thank you so much to Louis Kwan and his friend volunteering that made this total boost of energy happen.  It was truly perfect timing.  Once again, the volunteers commented on my strong sub-24 hour pace, whatever that meant, and then did something extremely strange:
They offered me ice for my bottle.

So, I guess I never considered the fact that it could actually be hot down in the canyons - which would have added another serious challenge to bodies that had already worked overtime trying to survive the cold.  Lucky for me, I found the experience to be warm but never hot.  Actually, it was pretty perfect running weather now, all things considered.  As I decended down to Swinging Bridge, I felt myself begin to thaw out which was good.  However, as I did so, the pain in my hips and abdominals extended down into my quads, making the steep descent a bit difficult and painful.  Immediately, I wanted to panic.  Here I was on the first real canyon of the course (I don't really count DG Duncan) and I couldn't save my quads because they were already shot.  There was a hell of a lot of downhill left, so naturally you can see how this would be a problem.  Weird thing is, that whole maybe it will get better thing came back again.  I really don't know where all this positivity was coming from, but I honestly believed it.  I'd been running well and completely within my comfort zone all day, so I just refused to believe that the race would continue to go downhill.  Well…. physically it would…. but you know what I mean.

Bottoming out at the bridge was pretty much the best thing ever.  I was so freaking pumped to climb Devil's Thumb.  Yes, what many consider the hardest part of the course, and here I was chomping at the bit to get on it.  Mainly because I reasoned that now almost halfway through the race, it might finally warm me up.  Good news:  it did.

I powerhiked my butt off, drinking, eating thawed gel and actually feeling pretty good.  My legs were not tired whatsoever and I felt like I suddenly had a ton of energy.  I even ran a few of the switchbacks, where appropriate.  The only bad part of this section was that despite how well I was moving, I was getting passed.  1… 2…. I think there were 5 men that went hiking past me like it was nothing.  I tried not to let it bother me, considering that they were dudes and their legs were just flat out longer and more powerful, but it was a bit demoralizing.  It was here that I first realized I hadn't seen another woman all day, since the one I passed in Duncan Canyon.  Considering that there were only 25 women out of 148 people who finished under 24 hours (which actually was a huge number!), this now makes perfect sense.

Devil's Thumb:  Hell actually DID freeze over
(photo: Veronica Whittington Shmidt)
Right before the top, I looked down at my watch and was surprised to see that I'd climbed about 5 minutes faster than i'd expected (based on previous training).  This gave me a little boost, and I was all smiles as I began encountering volunteers.  I finally lifted that blind focus and allowed myself to enjoy, even if only for a moment, and boy am I glad I did.  
"Wow!  You are STRONG."
"Your hair still looks perfect!"
and the best, from a young boy with his mother:  "You are an epic person!"

If that doesn't make you fly, I don't know what does.

I grunted out the last push to the top and was greeted with another interesting offer:  a popsicle.  Whaaaaat?  Listen, I was just a popsicle for over 40 miles!  No way in hell do I want a popsicle. I really do believe that even if I had been literally dying of heatstroke, I would have refused the icy "treat," simply in spite.  They offered me soup instead, but I was feeling great and just wanted to get a move on.  Michigan Bluff held a new pair of shoes and all my friends and I honestly couldn't believe I was already that close to the beginning of the race (aka Foresthill).  I remember actually joking around with the volunteers a bit here, which was a good sign, and I left feeling better than I had all race.

Before the next canyon, you have to run a bit on a gradual fire road, and for the first time starting after stopping at an aid station felt a little creaky.  I distinctly remember bending down to pee and being like "shiiiiiiit."  OK, this is 100 miles.  This is going to get pretty painful, pretty soon, and there's no way around it.  I knew that the next descent was a bit longer, but I also knew it was more gradual than the previous canyon, so as I finally turned off the road onto the singletrack, I just said a little prayer.  Unfortunately, within the first half mile, my knee started to hurt pretty badly.  Now, this was not my post-surgery knee, mind you, but rather the opposite knee under the patella.  Every step hurt significantly and all I could think was, wow.  How did this happen?  You see, I feared my yucca knee flaring up.  I feared my right psoas tightening and screaming.  I feared my left soleus getting re-aggravated.  In short, I spent a great deal of time before the race devoted to stressing out about every injury I've had in the past year.  I did NOT spend any time anticipating new injuries.  So what the hell was this?

I'll tell you what this is.  It's running 100 miles, and luckily I've done it enough times to know that shit's going to creep up and most of the time it's going to be the weirdest thing ever.  Fortunately, I've also experienced this enough to know that if  something is hurting at mile 50, most likely something new will be hurting a lot worse at mile 60, so there's not much of a reason to worry.  Instead of going into freak mode, I simply stopped, bent over and rubbed my kneecap for about 20 seconds.  Then I started running again.  Lo and behold - it actually felt better!  And it was then that I realized my quads weren't hurting like they did in the last canyon.  In fact, my quads weren't really hurting at all.  RUNNING 100 MILES IS SO WEIRD!

I felt really, really good on the decent to El Dorado.  I mean, I was still glad for the downhill to be over, but in the process of completing it, I actually passed a few people.  Mind you, downhill is not my strong suit, and this was now the second time someone had commented on my mastery of said skill.  All I can offer is that Western States is known for it's crazy amount of descent and I did my homework.  I guess homework actually has a point.  

I assure you, this is the same day.
(photo:  Jeffery Genova
At the bottom, the aid station volunteers were not to happy with my basically full water bottle, so I promised to chug a few glasses there and drain the bottle by Michigan Bluff.  Thing is, I'd been peeing like crazy all day (clear, too!) and felt pretty on top of the fluids thing, so I guessed I just forgot to drink while running downhill.  I wouldn't make that mistake again though.  Starting the climb, I got into a rhythm of eat, drink, push and kept it up all the way to the top.  I hiked hard, I ran when I could and I kept pushing the calories down, knowing full well that was what would get me to Cal Street with legs prepared to rock.  About halfway up, I fell in step with this guy Mike who had traveled from the east coast to run his first 100.  He had earned his way in by winning a Montrail Ultra Cup race, and I was shocked to be running with someone of that level.  I think he was equally as shocked when he asked if I was one of the elite women and I laughed my ass off.  He was a little low on calories, so I eventually pulled away, offering that when we got to the big bunch of trees that looked like chocolate we'd be close to the top.  

A few more switchbacks, and there the chocolate was!  YES!  I heard the roar of Michigan Bluff and happily cruised on in to the scales.  Weight was perfect, all my friends were there, and for the first time (now at mile 55.7), I sat down.  It was only to change my shoes (from the NB WT101 to the NB 890 v2, if you're interested in that sort of thing), but it felt glorious.  I elected to stay for a couple minutes, stretching out my glutes, eating some Pringles (once you pop, you can't stop) and chugging a bit of Gatorade before hopping back on up and leaving town.  Yes, I literally hopped right back up - no assistance required - as I was feeling that good.  They told me again I was about 10 minutes or so under 24 hour pace, and for the first time, I actually thought about what that meant and resolved to stay under it.  I had survived the first part of the race and hadn't burnt myself out.  Now it was time to work.
They made the instructions quite clear.
(photo: Chandra Farnham)

Dom walked me out and told me I'd actually made up a lot of time in the canyons.  It was nice to hear that I actually was moving as well as I thought I was, because a lot of times, that's not exactly the case.  In all honesty, I wasn't really looking forward to the section between here and Bath Rd, as it was all pretty gradual, windy and on a wide fire road, but the thought of no longer doing this alone was motivation enough to get myself to the next checkpoint and my first pacer.  


I ran along the road, feeling a bit tired, but still strong.  I focused on my form and realized I was actually running quite well.  I guess a year of Hot Yoga Barre (thank you Katie and  Jeannie!) had really done wonders for my core and stabilization strength - which was good, seeing as though I was getting no value out of the heat part of it.  I ran a majority of the gradual uphills, reasoning that every second I could gain here would only help me later on.  It was a game of getting to Auburn as quickly as possible, with the prize being not standing anymore.  That was prize enough, trust me.

As I finally hit the descent into Volcano, I started to hurt pretty badly.  My knee, my quads, my abs - and oddly enough, my right arm had been absolutely killing me all day, which I think was due to this awkward bird-grab thing I was doing while trying to warm up my gel flask in the cold.  All day, I had been so focused in each and every moment, and now my moments were being dominated by pain.  A few more steps and I finally called myself out.  Why don't you change the freaking record?  It's hurting.  It's going to continue to hurt.  Why think about it?  I wished I had grabbed my ipod at Dusty, but I hadn't, so I resolved to singing to myself.  This ended up being a wicked mash-up of some new Temper Trap, Lana del Rey, The Rocket Summer and the riff from Stranglehold.  Because you've always got to have the Nuge by your side when shit gets real.  Ironically, the lyric persisting in my head was, "This isn't hap-pi-ness…" which I kept yelling (aloud. at nothing.) wasn't true.  I WAS happy.  This WAS what I wanted to be doing.  Why do you plague me Temper Trap?  

I really do love him... despite the fact that he is heel striking.
(photo: Chandra Farnham)
Existential lyrical battle aside, I was now nearing Bath Road, where I was 100% confident Dominic would be waiting for me.  I knew this because he is too gosh durn excitable not to be running with me every chance he could.  The thought made me well up a little - I was in serious pain, and he was the poster child for all things comforting in my life.  Just as soon as the first tear was about to drop, I shook my head and resolved not to break down.  I was fine.  I was moving well.  I still felt relatively good.  Why use the time with Dom to complain and be sad, when instead I could use it to generate positive energy that would keep me floating along?  

I crested the hill up to Bath Rd and ran into the aid station with a smile.  There was my favorite boy, jumping for joy and he was going to run me into Foresthill.  I didn't have to do this alone any longer, and I resolved to run strong and make my pacers proud.  I moved straight through the aid station without stopping - telling the volunteers I just wanted to keep going.  This bolstered a nice eruption of cheers as I left and I felt powerful for conquering this mental battle.  There would be more for sure, but you only win the war one fight at a time.  Just call me Ulysses S. Grant.  Yankee freaking Doodle.

I was excited to chat and plan my attack on Cal Street (OK, I promise, I'm done with the civil war references), but Dom kept me focused on running as much of Bath Rd as possible.  I told him I was getting tired and I was ready to start hitting the caffeine, to which he replied - "whoa!  you've gone this long uncaffeinated?!"  Yes.  Yes I had.  And that was exactly my plan.  I knew by holding off as long as possible, I would reap the rewards of every hypercharged sip later on and I would begin with a glorious Red Bull.

We alternated running and hiking up the road, and I laughed to myself, thinking how hard it had been to run ANY of it three years prior - my first experience at Western States or any 100 for that matter.  And I was just crewing.  Now, with 60 miles on my legs, I could run this hill.  I could run any hill!  I was invincible!  Well… not quite… but I was really happy to be heading into Foresthill with life in my legs.  I was going to be able to run to the river and I was going to get that silver buckle - no question about it.

June met us at the intersection with Auburn-Folsom Rd and we all chatted excitedly as we rolled into town.  I was so happy and they were so happy to see me so happy.  The sunlight was wonderful and the roar of the crowd at the biggest aid station - the mile 62 party - got into my blood.  Soon thereafter, Suzanna appeared before me and escorted me into the scales in a whirlwind of amazing energy.  Weight still good, I headed over to my crew where I took a few minutes to really get some food and caffeine down and make sure I had everything I needed for the impending darkness.  Suzanna gave me a nice quad rub-down while I wiggled my knee around again, attempting to get everything ready for 16 miles of downhill, with only a few rollers here and there.  All packed up and ready for our trip to the river, we bid our friends adieu and headed for Cal Street, waving, kissing babies, etc.

"With Suz you can't lose" - © me
(photo: Paul Grimes)

SECTION 3.  TO THE RIVER (A.K.A. THE STRAWBERRY ORDEAL)

It's amazing to me how quickly you go from a wild rumpus to complete solitude on the trail right outside of town.  You're in a giant rager one minute and then eerily alone the next - it's a good thing they give you a pacer.  And it's a really good thing that fortune and fate gave me Suzanna Bon.  First of all, I just realized we were basically wearing matching outfits, which is awesome.  Second, if you've ever met a more positive person in your life, I'd love to hear about it.  We began rolling down to the river chatting away - both about how things were going and just random whatevers.  Before I knew it, we were already at Cal 1. Or Dardanelles.  Or whatever.

On the way in, I told Suzanna I was going to eat some fruit and crackers - you know, since I was on the California Wine Tour or something - and keep moving on through. So I grabbed some fistfulls and got right on back to running.  At this rate, we were going to make it to the water in no time!  Conversation and easy running continued until suddenly I was brought to a dead halt.  I doubled over with a severe stomach cramp that surprised me possibly even more than the earthquake.  Where did that come from?  I shook it off and got to moving, but hell, there it was again.  Ugh!  Deep breaths, deep breaths... wait.  Why does it hurt so bad to breathe?  In short, my stomach was a complete and utter knot and now it was hurting up into my chest, feeling like someone was squeezing the life out of me.  While I realize that this is what a 100 miler tends to do - squeeze the life out of you - I knew this was not a normal thing.  Luckily, Suzanna was on damage control.

We kept running and first tried a few breathing techniques.  I stopped and went to the bathroom.  I tried water, salt and bits of gel.  Things weren't really getting better.  Do you think it could have been those strawberries? she wondered aloud.  Oh god.  Even a mention of the word took a memory of what was once sheer joy at the prospect of berry deliciousness in my mouth and replaced it with a vile retching.  Strawberries could go to hell.

And there you have it folks.  I was basically having acid reflux while trying to run downhill hard with close to 70 miles on my legs.  Ahh, I do love a challenge.  I agreed to take a moment at Cal 2 to try and work things out with some Ginger Ale and also maybe get a little broth down.  If I started shunning calories now, I was going to be toast by the river. Toast to go with my strawberry jam.

Everything went down ok, and I started running again, though slower than before.  Soon thereafter, folks began to pass looking super fresh and this really went to my head.  I had been running so well, and now a stupid stomach thing was slowing me down!  I'd expected my legs to be wrecked, I'd expected that my knee might give way.  In short, I'd expected anything but revolt of the strawberries, but that's what I got.

I thought I was running well, Suzanna.  This is so frustrating.
You ARE running well.  You can't pay attention to anyone else.  Just focus on your race.

Hmmm... that's what I was doing all day, so why was I suddenly throwing all caution to the wind here, at mile 70-something?  Once again, SO thankful to have a pacer here to help keep me mentally tough.  I was passed by a few more folks before Cal 3 - but luckily Suzanna seemed to know all of them, so at least we had some fun and encouragement.  I held down some gel for the first time right outside the aid station and then took down more ginger ale and broth.  Things seemed to be getting a little better.

Before long, night was upon us as we dipped further down into the shaded canyon.  We clicked on our headlamps and continued moving along, almost to sandy bottom now.  I really thanked my lucky stars at getting the majority of this descent out of the way in the daylight - as it's super runnable terrain that is always much faster when you can see what you're doing, acid bomb or no.  As I was powerhiking the steep stuff towards the bottom - you know, when you go back UPhill and away from the river, just for good measure - Suzanna began to notice my energy waning.  Like the most excellent of pacers know, this was probably related to my lack of food intake throughout the strawberry ordeal.  She did not order, but rather suggested I take down a full gel.  Now.  I knew she was 100% right, and elected to try it.  I'd either get the boost I needed; or I'd throw up.

Luckily, both the calories and the caffeine helped and I agreed to take another full gel in 10 minutes.  GOD, YOU'RE JUST LIKE DOM!  YOU MAKE ME EAT SO MANY GELS!  Suzanna - I hope you know that is a very, very good thing.  The two of you know how to make it happen, and that's undoubtedly how I was able to keep it together and get it done.  So in retrospect, thank you for making me eat that godforsaken motherflipping asshole of a gel.  It tasted like silver.

As we hit the rollers leading to the river crossing, I felt a great deal better and more energized - but now I had a new thing to worry about.  After being frozen solid for 40 miles, the last 40 had been pretty pleasant weather-wise.  But now it was dark and I was going to have to cross a chest-high, freezing river.  Past experience lead me to believe this would not end well.  Luckily, Suzanna convinced me that the water wouldn't even come past my knees and the whole thing would be no big deal.

Proper.
(photo: Faccino Photography)
Granted, she was wrong, but by this point, that was ok. :) You see, I had reached the most iconic spot in the most storied 100 miler in the country... possibly the world, and that hit home. Earlier in the run, Suzanna had asked me if I had been feeling like "wow.  I'm here.  I'm doing Western STATES!" or if it was more like watching the whole thing go down from outside of my body.  Neither, was my response.  All I could comprehend was the trail in front of me, and for the last 80 miles my head was living moment for tactical moment.  But not here.  Here, I realized that I was at the freaking RIVER of Western Freaking STATES and I was only 20 miles away from my Silver Buckle.  The lights shone, the energy was amazing and the sound of the water rushing made my heart leap.  Lawdy Lawdy get me in the water.  I'm ready to be baptised!

In all honesty, crossing really wasn't that terribly cold.  Yes, it did come up to my chest, but the magnitude of the moment wrapped me like a blanket.  The amazing volunteers lined the cables and pointed out every rock and dip and with a few more steps, I was at the far bank.  I could hear Dom cheering as I pulled myself out of the water, and the three of us set about the climb up to Green Gate.

Dom pushed me to run the sections I could, and even though that kind of sucked, I'm thankful for every second I likely gained there.  Plus, I had to try and get myself warm again, especially since there was a shuttle malfunction and June may not be at the top with a shirt for me.  Luckily, Dom had brought his jacket, so I threw that on and resolved that June or no, we'd be fine.  In fact, we'd be more than fine.

Approaching the wonderful lights at the top, I couldn't see anything, but I heard June yell out to Dom's cawing.  Apparently she had run all the way down from the top with a big ass bookbag of anything I might need.  Did I mention how amazing my crew is?  Jeeze Louise.  Once in the aid, Dom insisted I sit down for a moment and get a large amount of calories in my body.  He knew I was likely still behind from the strawberry ordeal and there was no way he was taking me out into no man's land on the brink of a bonk.  Dude's one smart cookie.  So we pumped my guts full of soup, potatoes and caffeine, during which I stared at the ground and fought tears.  20 miles suddenly seemed like a very, very long way and still being only 10 minutes or so ahead of the cutoff, I suddenly felt very pressured.  I could not waver.  I could not break down.  I had to be strong, and for a moment, I just didn't know if I had it in me.  I've always broken down in the last 20.  Always.

Unsurprisingly, my pacers were not going to let that happen.  Not now.  Suzanna politely informed me that we were not going to be having a pity party.  Plenty of people felt way worse than I did.  Hell, even I'd felt worse than I currently did at points - namely AC 2011.  Dom ensured me that the minutes we were spending stuffing my face were going to prevent that feared meltdown from happening.  In short, I was starting to fear the pain, but if I wanted it, I needed to just suck it up and make it happen.  It was full on battle of the mind from here on out, and only I could decide if my brain or my belt loops would win.

SECTION 4.  THE DARK HOURS

As I left Green Gate with Dom, I was resolute once more.  We ARE going to get that silver buckle, you know?  I've come this far and I still have legs.  I know I can do it.  He knew I could too, and he was not about to let me fail in that endeavor.  If anyone, Dom had seen how hard I'd worked since my surgery last November and how many battles I'd fought both physically, and perhaps even more - mentally.  Even going into the race, I wasn't 100% where I'd have liked to be had I been healthy for longer and able to train even harder than I had - but nevertheless, I was confident that it was all enough to break the 24-hour mark, no matter what the day threw at me.  Having him by my side - well.. actually directly behind me with his headlamp angled down - meant the world to me and I physically felt stronger.

After successfully convincing Dom that I would run faster in five or so minutes when I warmed back up (as if he didn't know this), I requested that he begin telling me stories.  I'd already learned with Suzanna that all I really needed was someone to talk about anything other than running the 2012 Western States, and all the little aches and pains were suddenly not so significant.  Within minutes, I was back clipping along at a decent pace once again and the excitement in Dom's voice fueled me on.  He was proud of me.  And this time it wasn't because I'd suffered through some crazy, freak miserable situation.  It was because I'd run tough, smart and hard all day - and now, with less than 20 miles to go, I still was.

We alternated chatting and silence on the way to ALT - and I alternated blissful states of empowered focus and excrutiating pain in my left achilles.  See, it had flared up about halfway to the river, but I wasn't all that worried, considering my rotation of various pains throughout the day.  I was sure within a few miles, it would be something else.  The river had froze it up and provided some relief, but now it was screaming again.  Every step hurt pretty badly, and I was not very happy about it.  I felt as if I could run much faster if I could get a better range of motion in the left side, but instead, it was locked.  I tried to talk about other things - but Dom silenced me, saying I was wasting too much energy trying to talk and run uphill.  He was right, but that pissed me off.

At ALT (mi 85.2), I told Dom the Suzanna plan.  I would sit for 1-2 minutes while he brought me broth, Coke and crackers. I would eat it and then we would leave.  That's exactly what we did, and I popped right back up, ready for more and excited that we'd gotten in and out of the aid station a few minutes faster than he had projected.  The one disquieting thing here was that the volunteers had been concerned that I was a few pounds up.  I assured them that it was simply that I really had to pee, and that I'd been peeing like crazy all day.  They wanted me to back off my fluids, which seemed very strange to me, but luckily, they did not detain me.  As such, I shuffled for a few minutes to warm back up, then got my groove back.  The calories and caffeine at the aid stations were really giving me a boost, and for awhile, life was silently blissful and with purpose.  However, somewhere along our trek to Brown's Bar, the twists and turns in the neverending trail became somewhat unbearable.  Negativity began it's slow drip into my consciousness which I then did not attribute to my need to start hitting the gel flask hard. Instead, I wondered aloud where the f*cking aid station was, dammit! and stressed as I looked at my watch and realized we were off Dom's projections.  That meant I was slowing down, and that meant I was not going to finish under 24 hours.  As I finally stumbled up to the aid station, I was devastated.

I plopped into a chair at Brown's Bar and put my head in my hands.  I was now at mile 90 - a mere 10 miles from my goal - and I was unraveling.  I have nothing left, I dramatically weeped to the volunteer.  Eat this now, said Dom.  Potato after potato, washed down with soup, coffee and coke.  Calories, calories, calories.  We're (chomp) spending too (chomp) long here, I said between mouthful after excruciating mouthful of food.  We're getting you to the finish, Panda.  Open up.


Within a minute or two, my tears dried.  I'm feeling better! I half-laughed half-sobbed like a legitimate crazy person. Let's get out of here!  You eat!  I'm going to run ahead and pee!  I threw on the jacket for awhile once again, pretty cold from the bit of a longer stop and again, felt great with the calories out of the aid station.  I questioned the fluid thing, given my frequent pee stops, but Dom assured me that this was a good thing and was keeping my joints feeling good.  If my stomach was working, we weren't going to mess with it.

And now ladies and gentleman, I give you my worst memory of the entire race.  I lost it.  The willingness to hurt; the will to push.  I just wanted the pressure I felt to keep working towards the sub-24 mark to go away.  It was crushing me and making it all very hard to breathe.  My achilles was hurting like the dickens; it was hard to run the gradual uphills; my body was officially annoyed with the whole having run 91 miles thing; and Jesus!  What was the point anyway?  Why did I care so much about finishing under 24 hours?  What would it matter if I walked the rest of the way and finished in 25?  WHO CARES?  It's still good to just run 100 miles.  I didn't want the pressure I was putting on myself anymore.  I cracked.
I threw my bottle down to the ground and sat down indian style in the middle of the trail.

That's it!  I don't want to do this anymore!  

Out of fucking nowhere, I tell ya.  Panda is down for the count.

Dom calmly and politely informed me that he was going to keep running ahead to Highway 49 and see if they could send someone back for me. He kept right on running and left me there.

No!  I've come too fucking far for this!  That silver buckle is mine!


And that was it.  A new, completely ravenous and certifiably schizo Katie had been subbed in; and from that moment on, there were no exceptions.  I was going to do whatever it took, and the first item of business was to start running uncontrollably up the fire road.  Luckily, St. Dominic was on damage control again.

I'm going to do this baby.
OK, that's good.  But first, you're going to slow down before you blow yourself out.  Then you're going to eat a gel every 10 minutes for the rest of the race.






I guess Dom had learned something from when I shut myself in the closet a few weeks ago.  I was angry about some stupid work thing and tapering, which when combined with the fact that I am female is basically the holy triumvirate of potential rage-fests.  Knowing the danger that could likely ensue, I told him the best thing he could possibly do is leave me alone for a few minutes while I calmed myself down.  Seeing that he lives in a studio, the only suitable place for this was the closet (otherwise I would have had to put on pants and go outside - lame), so I pulled an R. Kelly and within a few minutes was laughing by myself. In the closet.  It ended up being quite the fortuitous situation as I think it really gave him some insight that enabled him to handle a potentially goal-ending situation absolutely perfectly.  I am still so forever grateful for how calm and gentle he was out there. 

( I believe I can fly… I believe I can touch the sky…)

Now that you're officially convinced that I am crazy, I'll go ahead and wrap this thing up.  Single digits to go!  So basically, now that I was officially obsessed, I started freaking out that everything I was doing wouldn't be enough.  I still wasn't looking at my watch, but rather just trusting that Dom would tell me if I needed to work harder.  So far, all that he was telling me was "MORE GEL," so I figured I'd just focus on trying to get the most out of my achilles that I possibly could.  When I knew Highway 49 was approaching, I told Dom that I wouldn't be stopping here.  I had enough water and I was just going to grab another gel and cup of Coke and keep moving through.  There would be no more stopping.  I could never live with myself if I had to play the "what if I'd just been 30 seconds quicker here or there or there."

Weight was good on the scales and I apologized to June and Monica, but that I'd need to be blowing through.  Apparently they were going to tell me that anyway, so everyone was happy.  I choked down another gel - like literally, choked thanks to all the dust in my lungs - and passed a dude on the way out, now certifiably possessed.  I remember not dropping, but completely spiking the shit out of my trash in the receptacle, high on the fumes of still being on pace.  At mile 93.5.  This is what it feels like, Panda.  Now just keep it up.

So, based on three prior visits to Highway 49, I firmly believed that getting to that point in the race would elicit a nice, warm feeling of accomplishment and being almost there.  However, this was not the case at all.  6.7 miles was still a very long way at this point, and when I tried to compare it to a 10k, that somehow seemed even longer.  Again, I'd have to set the miles aside and just focus on the moment, section by section, step after labored step.  Dom soon ran up behind me, and we were off on our journey once more.  Run, run, don't fall, eat gel.  I was really hurting now, and to take my mind off things, Dom reminded me of how far I'd come and how hard I'd worked for this day.  All the summits up Baldy in the winter - lungs screaming and legs burning.  The repetitive 6-8 hour days in the Front Range, clocking as much possible vertical before the sun went down.  The mornings I'd wake up at 4:15 to drive back to Santa Monica from his place in Orange County so that I could still get my barefoot beach run and Hot Yoga Barre class in before work at 8.  The heat training (haha) I'd put in at the barre, plieing until my legs were shaking and then visualizing Placer High as I held that shit until I'd literally fall over.  The exhausting weekends up in the high country.  The hill repeats on my lunch break.  Every twice a day I wanted to skip, but headed out anyway.  The mini-PT station I built under my desk to rehab my knee.  The wall sits in meetings.  The sleepless weekends spent driving 7-8 hours north to train on the course and then back to work on Monday.  And most recently, surviving that cold, freak weather for the first 40 miles of the race.

Again, No Hand's Bridge just never seemed to come - the darkness taking away all my visual cues of proximity.  All I knew was that when I climbed sharply upward and saw the big bridge overhead, it meant I would descend upon No Hand's shortly.  When I finally did, I got very excited, as I finally started to smell the barn - or whatever it is they say - and to my shock, Dom barked at me to chill out immediately.  We were now descending one of the only rocky parts since the river, and he was not about to let me lose focus and trip up.  I was surprised at his all business attitude at the time, but I now understand and am very grateful that at least one of us was keeping our shit together.  It most definitely was a team effort at this point, and I was trusting in him completely.

I had kept myself from looking at my watch until the aid station, and as I rolled in I finally looked down.  23:05.  
"What do you need?" they said.
"Just to keep moving," I replied, head down, barely acknowledging that there was even a tent there.  

All I could see were the two strings of lights that would lead me across the river and across the canyon for the final time.  I ran out on to the bridge alone, and for a moment, the world was completely silent, save the sound of the water rushing below punctuated by my rhythmic breathing.  I could no longer really feel my extremities and adrenaline pulsed through every inch of my being.  Towards the end of the expanse Dom ran by and up ahead, smiling and fist pumping.  I've got 55 minutes, I told him.  I'm going to do this.  I'm really going to f*ing do this.


SECTION 5.  THE HOMESTRETCH

As we wound around on the other side of the canyon - mainly flat, but gradually gaining - I became frantic.  I was not looking at the time, but I knew minute after precious minute was ticking away.  I could not understand how fast I was moving - all I knew was that it was as fast as I could.  Again, Dom remained firm that I would not blow myself out here or bonk up Robie Point, so he slowed me down when my breathing was labored and continued to demand pull after pull of my gel flask.  I obliged his every wish and just remained focused that it would all be enough.  It had to be enough.

When the lights of Robie finally appeared on the cliff ahead, I ran harder.  I was not going to feel better until I was on that last .6 mile climb.  I pushed toward it manically, feeling completely panic-stricken in every step.  It sounds weird - I was completely resolved that I would finish under 24 hours, but I was completely sure that took me giving every last ounce of energy I had.  It would be that close.  As we finally hit the climb, I hiked probably harder than I've ever hiked in my life.  I poured out my water, and swung my arms.  I could no longer feel pain or heaviness - it was like I'd suddenly been injected with pure electricity.  The climb was not long and soon I'd be at the final mile.  I was impossibly excited.  I decided that if I topped out with 20 minutes to spare, I'd definitely be golden.  If I had 15, I could make it, but I'd have to run as hard as I could all the way in.  I figured Dom knew the same, and there was worry, he'd have expressed it by now - so instead I just continued up, up, up.  

Comedy Hour - mile 99
(photo: June Caseria)
When I made the final turn in, I glanced down.  21 minutes to go 1.3 miles.  And I felt electric.  At that moment, I knew it was going to happen, but still, I could not relax.  June and Suzanna met me and began working up the last hill, smiling and telling me I had, in fact, done it.  I was smiling too and there were butterflies in my stomach, though I'm fully convinced their wings were trapped in GU.  Suzanna told me that I was there, but we were going to make it hurt all the way in. I was going to use every last bit of anything I had and finish strong.  As such, we began running at what felt like a sub-7 minute mile, but what was really more like 8.  I laughed and told June that this was payback for last year - where she herself had come up to Robie with about 20 minutes to spare on the absolute cutoff.  Dom told me that he was just really glad I was coming in under 24, because he didn't want to deal with an awkward car ride all the way home.  They all kept reminding me to soak it in, but I was busy laughing, smiling and just trying to breathe.

As we passed the white fence I looked to Suzanna and told her everything in my body was burning.  Good, she said. That means you gave it your all.  And as I finally entered the glorious track of Placer High, I knew that that was deeply, and wholly true.  I knew that the day I got into Western States, I would run it under 24.  I didn't know how, other than just do my very best in every single moment, and that would somehow be enough.  The announcer boomed, but I didn't understand it.  The lights glared, but I saw nothing but the red rubber directly in front of me.  Dom told me I could relax and enjoy my victory lap, but I still couldn't comprehend anything but running my absolute hardest.  This was only exacerbated by the fact that a dude entered the track right after me and was actually trying to catch me.  Are you kidding me?!  No way was I going to be passed at the last second at the finish line.  Besides, I didn't want anyone else in my finish line photos. Not joking one bit here.  

I rounded the final curve and Suzanna peeled off, leaving me to finish the last 100 meters alone.  I tried to look around and take it all in - the people in the stands, the cheering folks on the infield, the small crowd behind the clock up ahead.  I looked at the words on the banner above them and read each one: WESTERN STATES 100-MILE ENDURANCE RUN, SQUAW VALLEY TO AUBURN, CA, trying to fully feel what that meant and what I'd done.  

Then I looked below and saw Dom, and all I could think about was what a big hug I was going to get!  I was trying to prolific, but really, I was just an ADD kid in some sort of fucked up amusement park. And there were also squirrels.

A few more steps, and that was it.  It was over.  I'd done pretty much EXACTLY what I said I was going to do for 23 hours 54 minutes and 17 seconds, and I think that's what made it all a bit anticlimactic.  I don't know how to explain it, but I had just known I was going to finish right under 24 hours - not any quicker, not any slower, and with no drama needed.  And that's exactly what I did.  I don't think I've ever felt so satisfied in my entire life.

"This is how we do it" - Montel Jordan
(photo: Facchino Photography)

"Baby, you know how you said I could only pace you at Hardrock if I broke 24 at Western States?"
"Yes, Panda."
"I did it."
(photo: June Caseria)

A few notes on this.  First, it's necessary to point out that I do not, by any means, think I have achieved ultimate greatness by simply earning a silver buckle at Western States.  For chrissakes, Ellie ran a full 7 hours faster than me.  Yes. SEVEN HOURS.  And Tim was nine.  And that is freaking awesome.

Also notable: I am a clairvoyant! My exact words to Dom on Friday: "I saw Tim on Thursday.  He was calm. Like scary calm. I think something crazy is about to happen."
CONGRATULATIONS TIM - NEW COURSE RECORD 14:46:44 - so, so so deserved
(photo: Chandra Farnham)


Why this goal is so meaningful to me is that:
1.  It's still hard to break 24 at States.  You've got to keep it together and you've got to RUN the race.
2.  It's still the fastest I've ever run 100 miles.
3.  It's the first time I really felt like I understood how to complete a 100, and then executed.
4.  It's a huge leap from having yucca spikes removed from my knee only seven months ago.
5.  If I look back at where I was just a few years ago, something like this was so far off the radar, it's silly.  I've come a long, long way.

"Tis not a feeling soon to leave.
Neither are the tan lines.
Regardless, I will say this:  I freaking love my silver buckle.  To me, it represents a new era of Katie DeSplinter - a woman who now trains with confidence rather than in fear, who judges success by personal effort rather than time or placement, who understands that progress is rarely immediate and greatness is a long-term goal.  I am not perfect.  I am not the best.  I am not even anywhere near MY best.  But gosh durnit, I am so completely happy and satisfied with my running... and well, my life... and at 29 years of age, I think that's a pretty amazing thing.  To me, the silver buckle represents finally achieving a state of balance with competitiveness/drive and happiness/self-worth.  Plus, it helps hold up my pants, since I'm too cheap to buy a pair that actually fit.

Now the dispensing of the gratitude:

Monica (aka Momica) - Dad being a truck driver or not, the amount of hours you drove was the polar opposite of the number that you slept, and I'm unsure how it was even physically possible.  Thank-you for your endless support, positivity and help!  Can't wait to crew you when you run 100.  You are probably laughing right now; but I know you will.

Junebug - There are people that come into your life that are just a natural fit, and you are definitely one of those rare gems.  Your completely chill attitude combined with your extreme attention to detail and time make you the absolute ideal crew person and I'm so grateful that you've been with me through both the race that didn't go as planned and the one that most certainly did.  I thought about our time together during your Western States a lot out there, and I thank you for the inspiration!

Suzanna - I can't even begin to explain how clutch you were and how honored I was to have your help.  Both back in January when you showed me the canyons (and hiked out with me when I thought my knee would never function again) and last weekend when you cruised me right on down to the river.  The time went by so quickly and sour stomach aside, I actually had a lot of fun!  I have a tremendous amount of respect for you and knew that if I just listened to you, I'd get it done.  Thank you for being there for me!

Dom - I don't really know where to begin with you, and I certainly won't know where to end, so I'll just say this.  You are an incredible, loving, supporting man and I am so lucky to have you in my life.  Having you with me those last 20 miles meant the world to me, and no doubt, you are a huge reason why I've been able to get where I am today.  Thank you.

Coyotes & Friends - Your support both on-course and online was insane.  When I couldn't sleep after the race, but could finally mentally process words,  I crawled to the bathroom and began scrolling through my phone to uncover texts, posts, tweets and the likes that moved me to tears.  Thank you for your love!

New Balance - Thank you for making the 101 and the 890 which carried me 100 miles with 0 problems. On a larger level, thank you for your dedication to the sport and supporting a small-time girl like me who just loves the mountains and wants to be in them every day.

Injinji - Thank you for keeping my feet totally and 100% blister free!  The new trail sock was the absolute jam and I wore the same pair the entire race.

SaltStick - Proud to report that my post-race blood test showed complete and total electrolyte balance.  You guys are why!  Thank you!


ONWARD!

Thug life.
(photo: Chandra Farnham)



**If you'd like to make a joke about how the nice age group jacket I received would have been helpful earlier in the race, you're too late.  That ship has sailed.

7 comments:

  1. I read every word and am left even more impressed by your sheer will and grit. I have to say, not the least bit surprised by your <24 hr finish. Not one bit.

    Congrats to you and your crew for getting the dang thang done.

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  2. " He kept right on running and left me there."... For me, this is the singular moment that defines the event. You two make a great team.

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  3. So I've fiiiinally finished reading this. HR100 madness delayed me :) Fantastic! I meant to congratulate you like 17 times when I saw you at HR, but alas, poor manners. Anywho, congratulations!!!!! You are an inspiration! And that last photo is hilarious. Top notch!

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  4. It took me a week to read this at work, bit by bit. But once I got to Bath Rd., I couldn't stop. Absolutely amazing, and so detailed. I hope to one day grace the trails of WS100 but in the mean time, it's awesome reading others' experiences. This was so much fun reading.

    Congratulations on sub 24. I hope that buckle is resting on your mantle, or somewhere else you can display it proudly.

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  5. I recently listened to the Trailrunner nation podcast with you, Jimmy, and Billy on reasons why to be happy you didn't get chosen to run WS. And after hearing your story, I had to go back and read your blog on WS. Most rave reports are the same lame boring read about what they ate and how they trained. This was entertaining, suspenseful, and REAL! Thank you for always keeping it REAL!
    P.S. I got in this year! Looks like I will see you in Squaw!!!!!

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