North of Auburn, CA on I-80 you might notice an ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY sign that credits Gordon Ainsleigh for keeping the stretch of highway litter free. If that caught your eye you're probably an ultra runner or know someone who is. If you're not or don't - Gordy Ainsleigh was first to run the 100 miles of trails from Lake Tahoe to Auburn, which gave birth to the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, which gave birth to ultra running. Gordy made his inaugural solo run amongst trained race horses going the same distance and though ultra running remains a tiny subset of running in general, its proudest moment comes every June with the annual running of the Western States 100.
In December 2004 I got lucky being selected to participate along with my ultra-buddy, Michael Davenport. I'm now 2 for 5 through the WS100 lottery (Michael's 6 for 6). Once selected my winter and spring were predestined to long training runs, build-up races, and frequent visits to the WS website anxiously tracking their snow report.
The morning before race day (wife) Michelle and I went for a quick trail run behind our hotel then over to Squaw Valley Resort for race check-in where we met up with crewmate, Peter Block. Peter had flown into Reno that morning and, as in our past adventures, rented our race vehicle. We took in the pre-race briefing, purchased extra t-shirts, and hung out with other runners and crews.
Before dinner I managed a 1 hour nap while Peter relaxed and Michelle hung out at the pool. We ate at Dragonfly, our favorite Truckee restaurant, discussing race strategy and pacing segments. By 10 o'clock I had my supplies packed, clothes laid out, alarms set, and was under the covers.
Turns out that those alarms were unnecessary. Instead of sleeping I spent the night trying to ignore sounds of the parking lot & hallways and adjusting our room's heater / air conditioner. "Good thing I got that hour nap", I convinced myself at three in the morning listening to a wake-up call echo from a room next-door. I readied in the bathroom allowing Michelle another ½ hour of slumber.
Michelle and I drove 18 miles to the predawn bustle of the Resort at Squaw Valley. Runners and their crews were eating, drinking, adjusting, and collecting on the patio starting pen under a near-full moon and camera flashes. An overhead digital clock ticked away the time we had for second thoughts. A shotgun blast met the clock at zero, then runners began funneling under it and up the mountain. We were on our way!
Lake Tahoe had a great ski / snow board year. About 150% of their normal snowfall. Good for skiers & riders, but after a cooler than average spring bad for 100 mile runners. Due to snow considerations the first aid station was relocated down the mountain from the 4.5 mile mark to 2.2 miles. We wouldn't hit the second aid station until summiting the ski mountain and running down the backside to mile 11.5. Covering that stretch were patches of refrozen, crusted and rippled snow. On the downhill sections I was forced to throttle back. Being a poor technical downhill runner is one thing. On snow I become more awkward than the "Aflac duck" - slipping, braking, and struggling to stay out of the way. I grew used to the phrases, "On your left", "Let me know when you're ready", and "When you get a chance…", as others came up from behind to pass.
Soon ultra-buddy Michael caught up, "Hey Bill, how're those Masai's working out for you?" he politely inquired of my new shoes.
"They feel fine, but I'd rather be on a snow board. Sleep well last night?"
He'd gotten four good hours. That was four hours more than me, which made me start to feel tired and question my chances. In 2003 I ran Western States 100 under 24 hours and earned "the" silver buckle. That race came without too much exertion causing me to set my sites on a 22 hour finish. But now here I was - tired early and so very far to go.
Things perked up for me while making my way down the "high country". As we dropped in elevation the day wore on and the refrozen snow turned to soft & mushy snow. It was still slow-going, at least for me, and lasted until we made it to Little Bald Mountain. There at 28.6 miles were Michelle and Peter. I reported to them my snow frustrations. I traded Michelle my defective water bottle (the nozzle refused to open - even an earlier aid station attendant couldn't pry it up with his six inch knife) for one that worked. Peter assured me that I'd see no more snow.
He was right! This was the trail that I remembered. Dusty with rocks and long downhill sections. The sun was beating but the air was dry, cool and easy to breathe. Oversized pine trees turned stature-normal and my shoes finally got a chance to dry. The course narrowed and for five minutes of running was lined with American flags. I pulled into the Deep Canyon aid station at 33.7 miles singing "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue".
Hitting my stride I caught up with Colonel Thomas Bright of New York. Deep in the forest we shared lazy down hills passing through historic mining areas along the Western States trail. Beyond the Last Chance aid station the bottom drops out and you dip 1500 feet in just a couple miles of switch-backs. A footbridge sees you over the rushing waters of the Middle Fork American River. Then more switch-backs; this time up 1500 feet in 1¼ mile to the Devils Thumb aid station.
If you're not enjoying the trail by now you're in trouble. Another descent plunges you into El Dorado Canyon. I received a scolding from the aid station attendant when he noticed that both my water bottles were near full, "You had better drink them on the way up!"
Climbing up I caught a few runners. One was Gordy Ainsleigh whom I thanked for starting ultra running and all of its adventures. He claimed that early Indians should get the real credit - he just helped make it popular. At the top of the climb is the small town of Michigan Bluff. It's a true California town with paved roads, homes and businesses. I've only been to Michigan Bluff four times, always by foot - three WS100 races and one WS100 training run. Three times they've weighed me. This time I was just under my pre-race weight of 146.5 pounds. Peter greeted me and asked how it looked for a sub-24 finish. I wasn't completely sure but figured that I was off my target pace by about an hour. After 12:48 at 55.7 miles there was still a lot of trail & doubt between us and Auburn.
Michelle welcomed me to Foresthill at the 62 mile aid station. Decked out in racing singlet and shorts she was eager to start her pacing segment. I wasted little time with weigh-in and swapping Peter my sun glasses for a headlamp. I chased after Michelle, down busy blacktop of Foresthill until we jumped back into the narrow, dusty switch-back trail. She not only did the pacing but the thinking and wanted to cover as much ground as possible before the shadows set in. Other runners tried to hang with our pace - one did and bravely moved on when darkness caught us. Nightfall slowed me significantly. Michelle continued to pace patiently, waiting for me atop of small hills. About three miles before the river crossing a strong running presence overtook us. It was him, Gordy Ainsleigh. Michelle ran back to me, "If we hurry we might get on the same boat! Wouldn't that make a great photo op?"
Much as I wanted to I couldn't pick up the pace. We finally made the river crossing checkpoint (mile 78) at 18:21 (11:21 p.m.). My weight was fine as I was eating & drinking consistently all day. Because of the late snow season the river was rushing dangerously quick. In cubic feet per second it was rated 2000 and that's 10 times too fast for runners to ford safely. Ending the race there was never a consideration so the directors set up a river shuttle service. Volunteers vested runners and their pacers with safety jackets then plopped us into a raft tethered to a cable stretched across the river. At the helm was a professional rower. We were on the other side quicker than I'd ever made it by foot! Though we were passed a few times Michelle cajoled me up the next 1¾ mile hill to brilliantly lit Green Gate aid station.
Peter met us there. I sat down for the first time since getting out of bed that morning. Peter brought me soup and cups of coke. Michelle brought me quarter sandwiches, which I could not eat. We chatted with David Bliss who awaited arrival of Lisa, his wife. I was suffering. Michelle reminded me, "You've rallied before, you can do it again over these last 20 miles… let it happen!"
It was 15 minutes past midnight. The top 15 runners had already finished. They're true superheroes of this event. My crew handled me like Alfred handles Bruce Wayne - always and selflessly dedicated to my best interests. Michelle was right and when it hit me I stood up and headed for the exit. The volunteers pointed it out - downhill and into the darkness.
I started off in a slow shuffle but that morphed into somewhat of a slow jog. Soon I was catching others and decided that my legs were strong enough to keep up a decent pace. I wondered if I could get back to 24 hour pace. I wondered if the moon, just four days past full, would help illuminate the trail. I got to the 85.2-mile checkpoint at Auburn Lake Trails and looked at my watch. The larger readout said I'd covered the last 5.4 miles at 24 hour pace. The smaller readout said I was at the 20:01 mark. "Hey, I can finish this under 24", I thought, then moved hurriedly to the next aid station. I kept telling myself that "You have no need for another bronze buckle.", and "Silver is the only acceptable mineral to mine from this race."
Brown's Bar was rocking like a high school party with no chaperone. You hear their music a full ½ mile before seeing their Christmas tree lit checkpoint. A handsome man in a red dress met me and filled my bottle. I asked if we had dated in the 80's. He thought it was the 90's. I asked for the best pace calculator among the group and wondered if I could get in under 24 hours. Their smiles stiffened and they looked at me like a doctor before delivering bad news, "Um, you needed to leave here by 2:20. It's now 2:54."
"Oh, okay, guess I misread my watch at the last aid station", I said squinting at the smaller readout. It had said 20:41, not 20:01 - oops, my bad.
"Yeah, but you look good… just run faster… you'll make it… it's mostly downhill", was the encouragement that veteran volunteers learn to give freely.
It was that last line, "it's mostly downhill" which I feared the most knowing that the trail was ruggedly downhill to the river. Even with my headlamp and a handheld flashlight rocks were able to ambush my feet and stumble my progress. Once along the riverbed things were temporarily smoother until the climb up through the rock quarry. It took me over an hour to make those 3.6 miles but there awaited Peter at the Highway 49 aid station. This last scale showed that if nothing else I had maintained my weight well for the past 23 hours. I now had only 6.7 miles to go accompanied by supreme pacer, Peter Block.
He led the way and did his best to light up & point out the natural trappings of rocks, roots, uneven steps, and low-hanging-trail-obstructing vegetation. That kept me upright. We talked about past races and joked about his "nuclear sweat" (a label given to him by his track-star daughter who forbids him to wear white shirts while running). That kept me from getting uptight. We made it to checkpoint No Hands Bridge and had our picture taken. I savored one last coke before we pressed on. It was 3.4 miles to the finish, mostly uphill as daylight was about to break.
No one had passed me since Michelle's pep talk back at Green Gate (80 mile mark). As I chased Peter up the trail I sensed that someone was getting close. We hit the last aid station, Robie Point at 98.9 miles and were welcomed back to civilization by enthusiastic volunteers. They cheerfully asked how they could help us. I asked if they could turn back the clock one hour. They offered sympathy but no miracle time warp.
A message chalked on the street read "This is the last hill!"
Though technically correct the message failed to mention the ½ mile of false summits. To make sure that I wouldn't get passed I ran after Peter who ran 15 steps ahead. Peter recognized a couple hard-core neighbors who throw an all-night party one mile from the finish. Seems they remembered him from two years earlier too; there was some bonding going on until I caught up. They invited us back after our finish. Another neighbor complimented me for running uphill this late in the race.
"Isn't this the 'Endurance Capital of the World'?" I asked.
"That's what they say", he responded.
"Well I don't want to be seen walking here", I slapped his hand.
Little orange footprints painted on the road led us - but not always on the best tangent. I'd witnessed the 2nd sunrise of the race. Outside the track a volunteer radioed our bib number to the announcer in the grandstand booth. We stepped onto the track for our last 300 meters. Michelle snapped off action photos along the backstretch. My name boomed over the speaker system as we hit the far turn. Peter warned me that more than 3 steps on the inside line could get you disqualified in a track meet. I repositioned my footfalls - wouldn't want to risk it at this point.
The clock was a few seconds past 24:52 when Tim Twietmeyer shook my hand and welcomed me home. He finished the race himself more than 6 hours earlier. One of those superheroes I spoke of. Gordy finished in 23:47 - that along with his ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY work surely qualifies for side-kick status.
Peter, Michelle and I checked into our hotel for a quick nap. Four hours later Michelle and I came back to the track to cheer the final finishers, have breakfast and watch the awards ceremony. Scott Jurek won his seventh consecutive in seven attempts. Annette Bednosky was first female finisher in her first Western States 100. They both delivered gracious and moving remarks when offered the microphone. You rarely get that in professional sports.
After the top ten male and female finishers were duly recognized silver buckles were given to 105 sub-24 hour finishers and bronze buckles to 213 sub-30 hour finishers.
Congratulations to all who answered the call to go the distance! What a great event managed and directed by truly generous folks. Thanks to the 1300 Western States volunteers who give freely of their time so that runners can get their best time. My sincerest gratitude to Peter and Michelle who've again provided me the greatest chance to reach my goals in this greatest of adventures... although these changes have come, long may we run!