Saturday, June 23, 2012

Western States Melancholia

If you use the literal definition of melancholia, my subject line is far from accurate.  But, I am working today.  I'll probably work all day today and all day tomorrow.  Maybe I'll squeeze in a workout this weekend, but after four straight tough days at CrossFit, I need to rest at least one day this weekend.

So, I'll be working here in Vermont, but my thoughts will be in the Sierra Nevada mountains all weekend, thinking about the Western States 100 miler.

I think I first head of Western States around 1987 or so, about the time I ran my first half marathon.  And, I've wanted to finish the race ever since.

I didn't get around to running my first ultra until 1994.  I didn't start my first 100 miler until 1997, and I didn't finish my first 100 miler until 2001.  But, Western States has been in my mind for years.

I first attended the race in 2001.  My friend Cecil was running for the first time.  He asked me to pace and I gladly traveled from Vermont to CA for a vacation.  My wife and I got to do some really fun rock climbing in Yosemite in the week before the race.  When I got to Squaw Valley, there was just a feeling in the air that's hard to describe and hard to forget.

When I picked up Cecil in Foresthill that weekend, he was struggling after going out too fast.  He had been thinking sub-24 from the start, but that was not out.  He was suffering some lower GI issues.  His thought was that we'd just walk it in and get the finish.  I managed to coax him along to a time in the mid 26 range.  Running around the track in Auburn was electric.  But, as a pacer, I stopped short of the finish line.  I wanted to cross that line only when I'd earned it.

Later that summer, I finished my first 100 at Vermont and applied for Western States.  And, I got picked in my first attempt at the lottery.  In March of 2002, my training was going well, and I was enjoying skiing on the weekends.  I took a weekday off from work to ski at Jay Peak with some friends.  Before I'd ever made a turn, a bizarre accident left me with a torn ACL.  As I was lying on the ground, the ski patrollers thought I was crazy, because all I could talk about was how I couldn't be hurt because I had a 100 miler to run in June.

I already had my plane tickets for the race and my wife and I had a nice vacation to CA that summer.  By that point in time, I was about 6-weeks post-op from my ACL construction, and I was walking OK.  But, I was too depressed to go to Squaw Valley.  I used the web to follow my friend Jeff as he barely finished and then went on to run the Grand Slam that year.

At Vermont that summer, I crewed for Jeff and another friend Andy, who had a spectacular run despite a few crewing errors on my part.  I got back to running in August and tried to re-qualify for WS in a late season 50 miler.  My endurance was good, but I hadn't done enough trail work and I finished too slowly.

In 2003, I ran Wasatch instead of going to WS.   I managed a finish there, on a course much tougher than WS, but with more forgiving cutoff times.

For 2004, I applied to the WS lottery and didn't get picked.  So, I applied to the Hardrock lottery and got picked.  And, I finished.  So, after tearing my ACL in 2002, I got finishes at Wasatch and Hardrock within a year.  And I got picked in the lottery for WS in 2005.

Despite my two previous finishes, 2005 was a year full of mistakes.  I decided to switch to a vegetarian diet. I've just never been able to get lean, no matter how many miles I run, and my weight has been a never ending struggle.  In retrospect, the diet was a mistake.  I was sick a few times in the spring and I fell behind in my training.  In a last ditch effort to do a long run, my coach suggested I run the Squaw Peak 50 miler three weeks before Western States.  I did it with no altitude training, and it was a long day, but I finished around 15 hours.  And then, eating a veggie diet, I don't think I was able to recover before WS.  I ran conservatively at WS, staying ahead of the cutoffs early, but I was behind 30 hour pace.  By the time I met my pacer in Foresthill, I was under 30 hour pace and feeling pretty good.  I ran well to the river and up to Green Gate.  I had 6 hours left to do 20 of the easiest miles on the course.  And then, my feet started to hurt.  Badly.  I could barely walk downhills and running was next to impossible.  Time started to slip away.

I had made a conscious decision to not use NSAIDS of any kind during this race.  In hindsight, a little Ibuprofen or Alleve (was it on the market yet then?) might have taken the pain out of my feet and I would have been able to run.  My leg muscles were OK.  But, my feet were simply beat up.  I timed out at mile 93.    I'd mentally fallen apart on the course as the time slipped away.  I'd be lying if I said there were no tears from me, my family and the rest of my crew when my bracelet was cut off at Highway 49.  My friend Gordo had run a spectacular 26 hour 100 mile debut, but I was too depressed to even go to Auburn to congratulate him.

For the rest of 2005, my attempts at long distance races went poorly and I was sick a lot.  At Christmas time, I returned to eating meat and immediately started to feel better.  Without a WS qualifier in 2005, in 2006 I paced at WS and I ran the Vermont 100 and ran a PR around 27 hours.  I wasn't selected in the WS lottery for 2007, so I returned to Vermont.  They'd lengthened the course and made it more difficult as well, and I ran 26:04.  It was a really good run for me.  And then, I got picked to run WS in 2008.

Everything went well that winter and spring.  I managed to combine skiing and running through the winter months.  As ski season ended, I ran a PR in a tough early season 50K near Boston.  My weight was in the low 180s, my best ever for WS.  We spent a week in Yosemite before the race.  My wife climbed while I hiked and did a few easy runs.  As we left Yosemite to head for Squaw Valley, I very distinctly remember telling my wife how excited I was.  It was finally all in place - good health, good fitness and I was even thinking I had a chance at a sub-24 if things went well.

We were in Carson City on the way to Squaw when my wife noticed we had a message on our cell phone.  It was my pacer Deborah, telling us that the race had been cancelled due to forest fires in the area.  We had another message from a crew member confirming the cancellation.  I don't even know how to describe how I felt.  Punched in the gut wouldn't do that feeling justice.  I drove on in silence for a while.  Finally, we needed gas and I stopped.  I went to the bathroom inside the gas station and as I was leaving the station, I saw a beer cooler.  I bought a six-pack of Sierra Nevada.  I sat in the back seat of the car, drinking beer, and kind of weeping silently.  I think that as I drank those beers, I moved from the classic Kuebler-Ross Denial stage to Anger.  Within 24 hours, I'd achieved Acceptance and we ended up having the best family vacation ever.  On Sunday morning, I hiked from Squaw to the top of the pass and looked down into the canyons.  The smoke was thick.  Running in it would have been dangerous.

But, that was MY year.  That may be the one that haunts me forever.

I was automatically in the race for 2009.  All I had to do was pay.  I didn't even need to re-qualify.  In April of 2009, I ran a PR on the same course I'd PR'd the year before.  Two weeks later, while playing kickball, I was sprinting towards first base when I hurt my hamstring badly.  I had partially torn a tendon.  I managed to limp through one more 30 mile training run, but in my mind, I knew I had no chance of finishing.  I was pulled from the race after I missed a time cut-off at mile 23.

Later that year, I had a platelet rich plasma treatment for my hamstring and it helped tremendously.  But, in some ways, it's like my running career died on a kickball field.

In 2010, I entered one ultra, the Catoctin 50K, with my friend/pacer Deborah.  I wasn't in good shape and I caused us to time out at the turnaround.  I ran in a 100 mile relay later in the year and then almost stopped running.  I started CrossFit and ended the year with only 235 running miles.

In 2011, I ran my slowest road marathon ever, did the 100 mile relay again, and not much else related to running.  I ran 255 miles in 2011.

So far this year, I've run 37 miles.  Every mile that wasn't part of an interval work has been no fun at all.  I am still working hard at CrossFit, I do short intervals, I ride my bike and I try to stay active.  But, it's hard to even consider myself a runner in any way any more.

And yet, once a year, I am overcome by feelings of "what if", knowing that I'll probably never toe that line again.  Knowing that I had my chances and it never happened.  And, it leaves me feeling pretty depressed for the day, despite my excitement for friends who are running.

Many people would consider finishes at Wasatch and Hardrock as bigger accomplishments, but WS is the Super Bowl, the Boston Marathon of ultras in the US.  And it haunts me still.


Harriet said...

Nice post. I admit that while I think about ultras (still), I've given up on the really long ones. My dream was to walk 100 miles in 24 hours at an official walking race; I could only do it unofficially.

That is probably in my rear view mirror for good; once you get off of the training treadmill it is a bear to try to get back on. I haven't been able to.

Dr Andy said...

Excellent post. I was thinking yesterday how lucky I was the race was cancelled in 2008 not 2007.

I also find it hard to accept how much harder things get as we get older. It is just 5 years since I finished WS, but I'm not sure I can even train for a 50. I think sometimes it is best to move on to something new so I' thinking of buying a road bike.

One quibble, I don't think you paced in 2007 as I don't remember you being there unless I am mistaken.

Dr. M

Damon said...

You are right. I paced in 2006.

Damon said...

Oh, and I bought a road bike three years ago and I am really glad I did. I'm working today, but only for another hour or so. And then, I'm going out for a ride on my bike.

Jeff Farbaniec said...

I know it's no consolation, but you get my respect for everything that you HAVE accomplished.