Monday, March 10, 2008

What is it about Western States that intrigues me so much?

This is a long post. I'd tell you to just "delete it", but it's not an e-mail. So, I'll just apologize in advance.

I first heard of Western States in 1987, I believe. I'd just finished a Saturday long run with friends and I turned on the TV and caught a Wide World of Sports episode about WS. Instantly, I knew that I wanted to do that race someday, just as I'd known I wanted to try triathlons after watching a similar broadcast about Ironman Hawaii.

A few months later, I moved to CA. I joined a running club. We had a member of our club, Dave Scott (not the triathlete) who had a few top-10 finishes at WS. We had a few other ultrarunners as well. But, my focus was on triathlons and road racing. By 1989 or 1990, I decided to switch my focus just to running.

I still heard about Western States from people, but it seemed so impossible that I just put it out of my mind. One guy that I ran with at lunch was obsessed with the race, and he was always injured as well. I began to link ultras with injuries in my mind, I believe.

I became obsessed with a sub-3 marathon and a sub-80 minute half. But, I seemed to come up short repeatedly. By 1993, my marathon PR was 3:02 and my 1/2M PR was 1:22. I was also starting to feel burnt out on road racing. Plus, my wife and I had our first child in 1993, which changed our lives quite a bit.

I decided to focus on trail running and racing for a while. I ran a handful of slow, fun trail marathons in 1993. I decided late that year that I was recovering well from trail marathons and it was time to try an ultra. I picked the 1994 version of American River 50 as a target race. As part of training, I ran the Jed Smith 50K in January and Cool Canyon Crawl in March, back when you could still get into that race with a paper application. In April that year, I ran my first 50 miler in about 10.5 hours or so. I've now run AR50 five times, and I honestly forget which year was which. I've run as "fast" as 9:39 there and as slow as 12:10 or so.

I remember telling my wife at the mile 44 aid station that this was the stupidest thing I'd ever done. That feeling lingered for quite a while and I found myself training on the roads a few months later. I couldn't shake the feeling that the sub-3 marathon was still in there somewhere. In May of 1995, I ran 2:57:35 at Avenue of the Giants.

And then, I was faced with a big "what now"? To be honest, getting to that goal burned me out a bit and I took a break from serious running. Regretfully, I gained almost 40 pounds in one year and at the 100th Boston in 1996, I was in terrible shape. I was sick and out of shape and I quit at mile 12 or so.

I decided to try some ultras again that summer. I ran a few ultras that year and I was finally getting into decent shape. Then, I moved to Alaska. For me, that pretty much killed the dream of Western States. I wasn't in CA any more and I didn't get to hear the frequent conversations about "States", as people there call the race.

But, I kept up with ultras and in 1997, on a family vacation to VT, I tried the VT100. I had no clues about in-race nutrition for a race that long and I fell apart somewhere after 75 miles. At mile 81, I sat in a chair and refused to continue.

The next thing I knew, my wife was pregnant with our second child, and our daughter was born just under 9 months after my VT100 attempt. I changed jobs late in 1998 and we moved to Vermont. But, I was traveling a lot for work and despite entering Leadville in 1998, I never made it to the starting line.

Western States was still in my mind, but it seemed so far away.

For various reasons, it took me until late in 2000 to get in good shape again. I was in good shape for the NYC marathon that year, but got sick just before the race and had a poor race (3:43 when I was shooting for 3:15).

I decided to use my fitness level to try the VT100 again. My friend Cecil was running Western States that year and asked me to pace him. I attended WS for the first time and I was blown away by the atmosphere of the race itself. It was way different than any other ultra I'd ever run or attended. Cecil was running his first 100 and ran a tough and determined 26:23. He's since run sub-24 a couple times and is in the race again this year.

At the VT100 a few weeks later, I had some nasty blister problems that really made the race a struggle, but I managed to get through it. My friend Dr. Andy may have saved my race when he handed me a flask of banana Hammer Gel at mile 44 or so. Andy and a college buddy Jeff paced me to the finish, listening to me whine about my feet and watching me barely trudge along. I finished dead last and swore I'd never run another 100.

A few weeks later, I sent in my app for WS 2002. I got picked in the lottery, paired up with a friend from CA who would go on to complete the Grand Slam as his first four 100s. But, in March of 2002, while skiing at Jay Peak, a friend of mine fell over and landed hard on my knee, tearing my ACL. I was done for the year. I was too depressed to even go to the race while on vacation in CA that summer.

I had surgery in May of that year and ran two ultras late in the year. But, I couldn't qualify for WS. I ran Wasatch in 2003, qualifying me for the 2004 lottery for WS. I didn't get picked, so I entered the Hardrock lottery. I got picked there and finished Hardrock in 45:37:30. Then, I got picked for the 2005 WS race. After finishing Wasatch and Hardrock, I think I was starting to believe that I was now a decent ultrarunner and WS would simply happen because I showed up. I had a coach training me, but I'm not sure if I really took my training that year seriously. And, my coach was a believer in lower mileage than I'd used the two previous years. I arrived at WS with only 760 running miles for the year - way too low, in my opinion.

We had lots of snow early on that year, but cool temps through the canyons. I took my time on the snow and then felt like I was moving well later on. But, around mile 80, the wheels started to come off. I'd run a difficult 50 (Squaw Peak) 3 weeks earlier and I don't think I was recovered enough, especially given my mileage base.

At mile 93.5, I missed the time cut-off. Here I am, sitting in a chair after that DNF (the photographer didn't know much about using light, or perhaps I was trying to hide in the shade):

I tried two more 100s that year to re-qualify for the lottery. I don't know why I didn't just run an easy 50 and qualify. But, I DNFd both Haliburton Forest and Javelina, and couldn't even apply for the 2006 race. In 2006, I finished the VT100 for the second time, but I lost the lottery for WS. I did pace at WS that year though, just from Foresthill to the river crossing. In 2007, I finished VT100 again and this time, against great odds, I got picked in the WS lottery for the 2008 race.

So, I've been thinking about this race for over 20 years, and I've been applying to run it since 2001. That's not really all that long, but this is my 3rd time being accepted.

The first time, I didn't make it to the starting line.

The second time, I didn't make it to the finish line.

This year, I certainly hope to erase those two prior disappointments. Then, I can hopefully find something else to obsess about.

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