Learning to Suffer – Western States 2017

I blazed past the final Aid Station at Robie Point without the thought of stopping and pushed myself until the track before crossing the finish line of Western States in a time of 18:30 and 20th place. In my mind, I knew that this was what I was capable of, unfortunately that isn’t how things turned out.

Rewind to the morning of June 23, 2017, the Friday before Western States. I hadn’t felt any anxiety or stress going into my first ever 100 Mile race. I was somehow remaining calm despite the hours ticking away until the start of the event. The early part of the day was filled with checking in for the race, talking strategy with fellow Team TROT runner Maggie Guterl, and attending the pre-race briefing meeting. During the briefing, Race Director Craig Thornley discussed the condition of the course including ice/snow as well as very soaked trail in the first 15 miles or so. The first two aid stations were also now having their supplies hiked in by volunteers since the roads could not be accessed still. Having run a small portion on the snow the previous day, some of my time goals were being refined and I was ready to let the day come to me.

After the meeting, we headed back to the house we were staying at. Also staying at the house was Rob, Rachel and Wesley Goyen, Jeremy Hanson, Anthony Stasulli, Maggie, Leah, Evy and Tracie. Maggie had two crews who would be leap frogging one another at the race and they offered to assist me as well if they happened to see me when I came into the different aid stations. My crew consisted of my fiancé Tracie Akerhielm and friend Erich Weller who would both be passing me as well, Tracie from 62-80 and Erich from 80 to the finish. We headed to the grocery store for last minute needs and once back, I separated out the items I wanted at each of the aid stations they were able to hit into different bags and placed everything into my Victory SportDesign Kodiak Bag which would be with my crew at each aid station.

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Photo: Western States

We discussed what I might need at each checkpoint and what they would have waiting for me there. This being my first 100 Mile race, we knew that this was a very loose plan and that things would probably change fairly quickly once the race started. Bed time came quickly as I planned to be up at 3AM and to depart for the race start by 4AM.

I was up immediately at 3AM. I had slept entirely through the night without any nervous wakes which was the first time in forever that I can remember this happening. I made oatmeal and drank water as I sat there visualizing the day unfold in my mind. Erich, Tracie and I departed for Squaw Valley and arrived around 4:20AM. I still had to pick up my race bib before 4:50AM prior to lining up for the start. Things were now beginning to feel real. I laced up my Lone Peak’s, Tracie sprayed me down with sunscreen and we headed over to bib pickup. I grabbed my bib and said farewell to my crew until I would see them again 30 miles later. Rob also was there to see me off and I gave him a hug as the final minutes counted down. It was really happening, there was no turning back now.

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Photo: Tracie Akerhielm

The gun went off and the race was underway. I kept to my game plan, knowing that I needed to conserve my energy for later in the race. I began to climb slowly, but with purpose. While running, I said hi to former Texan Zachary Szablewski and one of my favorite runners Dominic Layfield as we continued forward. Soon, I found myself surrounded by amazing ultra runners with the likes of Ian Sharman, Mike Wardian, Kaci Lickteig, Magda Boulet and many others. I latched on behind Magda as we went from trail to snow and followed her and Kaci all the way to the top of the Escarpment. It was tough to get solid footing or traction in the snow as it wasn’t compact and was slushy in sections.

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Photo: Sablle Scheppmann

Shortly after the top of the initial climb, we began to descend. I was right behind Andrea Huser for a short stretch where the snow went away and as soon as we hit snow again she bolted in front of Magda, Kaci and YiOu and I followed along. The next few miles were absolutely ridiculous. I must have taken at least 15 falls on the snow while attempting to follow the course markings that were halfway covered in snow as the course descended and climbed. Somewhere around mile 8 I came across a long stretch that most likely caused my biggest issue of the race. The ground in this section was extremely saturated with water from the snow melt. Some steps were fine, others sent my foot into the soil almost up to my knee. After half a mile or more of this, I could feel sediment inside of my shoe and socks that began to rub against my heel. Slowly, the rubbing created a hot spot and for the next 20 miles, every single uphill was painful.

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Photo: Sablle Scheppmann

On top of the initial incident, the snow and mud continued, causing increasing friction on my heels. In addition, there was running water down some of the trail which made keeping my feet dry an issue. I was now running with Jared Burdick, he was stronger on the uphills and I made up ground on the downhills. We worked together for many miles until we hit the Duncan Canyon Aid Station at Mile 24.4 where I left just ahead of him and began catching runners on the downhill section. Then I hit Mile 28 and we started a climb that would continue through the next Aid Station and first crew access point at Robinson Flat (30.3). The constant uphill caused more strain and increased pain on my heels, slowing me significantly, and 4 of the 5 runners I had passed on the downhills started to pass me. I felt like I was in some sort of nightmare, moving in slow motion. I kept asking myself, why did this have to happen to me today? I hoped to snap out of it and all of a sudden everything would be fine, but that wasn’t possible. Into the Robinson Flat Aid Station I went and straight to the medical tent.

 

Photos: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

I spent the next 15 minutes immobile, sitting in a chair under the medical tent having my feet repaired as best as possible by the staff. All I could keep thinking was how unfortunate this was and that my day was pretty much done. I have never allowed myself to feel so bad for myself during a race like I did in that moment. I shed a few tears on the outside and did a lot of cursing done on the inside. Finally, my feet were taped up, Tracie and Erich helped me put on a fresh pair of Smartwool socks and also swap out my Lone Peak’s for the newly released Altra Timps. Without their encouragement and Rob reminding me that I still had time to work things out, I would have called it a day right then and there. I grabbed my new Nathan bottles, got a fresh dousing of sun screen and departed the aid station with positive thoughts.

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Photo: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

Getting from Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff was the only thing that began to fill my mind. I needed to break down the race into manageable chunks to get through. There was a short climb out of Robinson Flat before a few mile descent which was a welcome relief for my heels. The tape job was helping tremendously, but I could still feel them being rubbed with every uphill step. It was on this downhill section where I posted my fastest mile split of the entire day, right before entering Miller’s Defeat Aid Station at Mile 34.4. Here, I was welcomed by my friend Jenny Welch and Jim Picker who were volunteering. They helped me refill my bottles and get fresh ice into the back of my hydration pack. I was offered encouragement from them that helped me continue forward and I’m extremely thankful to them for that.

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Photo: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

The next 10 miles were by far the easiest part of my day. That being said, I was running at what I felt like was a reasonable pace, but was passed by a few runners who were really looking strong. My body was in a funk, I should have been able to crush these miles, but I just felt off. After leaving the Last Chance Aid Station at Mile 43.3, the canyons awaited. Ever since getting into Western States I have been told by just about every runner I’ve talked to about the canyons and how they’re incredibly hot. Coming from Texas, the heat in the canyons never impacted me. I actually passed a few runners going down into the first canyon, but then the climb up to Devil’s Thumb began and things were not going well. The climb up was terrible. My heels begged for me to stop, but I proceeded forward. Slowly, but forward. Eventually, I got to the Devil’s Thumb Aid Station. I spent a few minutes here refueling, drinking soda, eating some salted potatoes and getting doused with water and ice before moving on.

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Photo: Charli McKee

My quads were now shot and my pace was dropping off with each mile that ticked away. Another long downhill stretch to the bottom of the next canyon was ahead from mile 47.8 to mile 52.9. This section wasn’t that bad, but I knew wait awaited next. The climb up from El Dorado Creek to Michigan Bluff (Mile 55.7) terrified me with the condition of my heels. Again, I slowly made my way up the climb, determined not to give into the pain, but to embrace it and use it as encouragement to get to the next aid station where I would see my crew for the second time. The climb was my lowest point of the day so far. I wanted it to end, but the switchbacks and climbing never seemed to end. Finally, I emerged at the top and slogged my way into Michigan Bluff.

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Photo: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

I went over to Tracie and Erich where they had set up a chair for me. I took off my shoes and socks to look at my heels and the tape immediately came off of both. Just like at Robinson Flat, I hobbled over to the medical tent and spent the next 15-20 minutes getting fixed up so I could move on. At least I got to spend some quality time with my favorite people, cool my brain down and get a refresher on the remainder of the race.

 

Photos: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

I was feeling rough and was also nauseous. I tried chewing a ginger chew and taking tums, but everything that went into my mouth felt like it was going to come right back out. I sipped on soda and had a Red Bull while being repaired. I decided to go with just soda in one bottle and water in the other since I couldn’t stomach any real food at this point. Now, only 6.3 miles separated me from picking Tracie up as my pacer. I knew that all I had to do was make it to Foresthill and I would be able to get this race done, no matter how slow. There was one more dousing with water, my vest was filled with ice and I was ready as I was ever going to be to continue.

 

Photos: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

One step at a time was all I could think about. Each step got me closer to Tracie and closer to the finish line. I had some alright feeling stretches during this section, but overall it was very pleasant or eventful. I was walking a lot, especially on steeper inclines and steep downhills were still the worst. Finally, I hit the road section that would climb up to Foresthill and it was a death march up to the top and a slow jog into the aid station. Erich had run back on the trail to meet me and I went through the aid station briefly to get some chips, part of a PB&J sandwich and an entire can of Mountain Dew in hopes that they would somehow cure my sabotaged stomach and body at the same time. I then headed over to a chair that my crew had set up for me and told them to give me 10 minutes before I headed out. I needed some time to refuel and refocus. I was glad to see Tracie, Erich, Jenny and Jim. I felt disappointed in myself, but knowing that I had so much support comforted me and lifted my spirits.

At this point, I knew that I could still average somewhere around 16-18 minute miles the rest of the way and still finish under 24 hours. This would be way off of my original goal, but with what the day had thrown at me I set my sights on a new objective. I packed my headlamp in my vest along with restocked bottles of soda and water and started down the road with Tracie.

 

Photos: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

Having Tracie with me provided a humongous boost. I pre-apologized as we began for running so slow and told her what had been going on with me throughout the entire race. She kept me motivated and focused on continuing to move. I had a good stretch of a few miles where I was moving at an alright clip and I was starting to feel a little better. All of a sudden, I had to pull over on the side of the trail and it felt and looked like everything that I had put inside of my body throughout the entire day came out on the side of the trail (this probably happened another 10 times from then until the finish). After that happened, I kept on moving but questioned what exactly was left inside of me to keep fueling me. I knew at that point that soda was going to be the way to go for the rest of the race along with water and that was exactly what I continued to use for the last 35 miles.

We continued to click off 11-15 minute miles, just trying to make our way from aid station to aid station. Eventually we made it to the Ford’s Bar Aid Station at Mile 73 and pulled out our headlamps as it was getting dark quick. It was just 5 more miles from here to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, followed by a 2 mile climb up to the Green Gate Aid Station where Erich would take over for Tracie. I wished I could run as we made our way along the river. Even the flat sections were giving me trouble now. I would have walked every single step if it weren’t for Tracie pushing me when I needed it and encouraging me along. Eventually we made it to the river crossing and jumped into the boat that would take us to the other side of the crossing. As soon as I got in, I laid back against the boat and knew if I closed my eyes that would be asleep for hours, so I had to fight the urge. The crossing was such a cool experience and I wish that it could have lasted longer so Tracie and I could have enjoyed a few more moments together without having to run. The next thing I knew, we were on the other side of the river and we hiked almost the entire next two miles up to the Green Gate Aid Station at Mile 79.8.

Erich was waiting for us in the aid station as as soon as we were close enough I told Tracie and him that I needed to sit down for 5 minutes before continuing. I had my bottles refilled with water and soda and the aid station volunteers gave me some warm soup in another attempt to settle my stomach. Just before leaving, I put a second headlamp in my Nathan VaporKrar vest because I wasn’t sure if mine would go out before getting to the finish or not. At this point, I just needed to average under 20 minutes per mile for the last 20 miles and I would be under 24 hours. I knew these final miles would be difficult, but they would also lead me to the finish where I would see Tracie again and that gave me the motivation that I needed. I gave Tracie a kiss and Erich and I made our way into the darkness.

I hadn’t run with Erich in quite a while so the next 5 1/2 hours provided a great opportunity to catch up. At this point, I was considering a 13 minute mile to be my top speed. Erich did a great job at keeping me moving and we would run for as long as I could manage and then walk until I was able to run again. We began to move well, for my current state, and I was actually passing runners. I didn’t know how, because if I was passing someone then it meant they were really having a hard time. Leaving the Auburn Lakes Trail Aid Station at Mile 85.2, I was actually feeling a little better and still passing a few runners. Then, all of a sudden something changed. My pace slowed and a few runners who I had passed came back by me and overtook me. Erich and I were still moving, but it was extremely slow going. We then descended into the Quarry Road Aid Station at Mile 90.7.

I needed a few minutes and told Erich that I had to sit down for two minutes here before continuing. One of the aid station volunteers came over and said hi, they happened to be a friend of a friend who had told them to wish me luck when I came through. This was another unexpected encouragement that made me feel very grateful for my friends. After that, Erich led me out of the aid station and we were ready for the final 10 mile stretch. I wanted to give my all but was beginning to break down. I struggled on the next mile that was entirely downhill. Then, as we started climb again I could see headlamps behind me. First, one runner passed me, then another, and another. I felt like it would never end. Just as I thought it couldn’t get worse, my headlamp died at mile 92. I dug into my vest to find my spare headlamp and could not locate it. After finishing, Tracie let me know that I had left it at Green Gate where she had found it before leaving. Now, Erich and I were sharing one dim headlamp, which was making forward progress an even bigger hassle. A mile later, my watch died.

Relief came when we reached the Pointed Rocks Aid Station at Mile 94.3. I didn’t spend any time at this aid station, I had nothing refilled and left as quickly as possible. There must have been 8 runners in the aid station when we arrived and I left before at least 5 of them. From here it was only 2.5 miles to No Hands Bridge. This was definitely one of the hardest stretches as we were making our way in the darkness. Erich did his best to get me to run in stretches and we passed two runners as we made our way into the next aid station. The lights of the No Hands Bridge Aid Station was welcoming and now I felt that the finish line was within reach. Erich said the 2 mile climb up to Robie Point was the final push and to give it my all. He got me motivated and I ran as much as I could up into the Robie Point Aid Station at Mile 98.9.

I obviously wasn’t in the mindset of getting to the finish as fast as possible as I stopped at the aid station and began looking for a cup of soda. Erich told me to just keep going and I took a small sip and we began to run. We expected to see Tracie here as well as Jenny and Jim who were going to run with us onto the track, but none of them were. We kept on running and eventually we saw them waiting for us and we all started down the final mile together. Shortly after, we ran into Jeremy and he joined along. All of a sudden the lights of the track were in sight and we entered the track and began the final few hundred meters.

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Photo: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

It felt like a dream to be finishing after everything I encountered along the way. We rounded the final corner. Tracie and Erich ran alongside me through the finish line. 23 hours, 3 minutes and 11 seconds. More than double the time I had ever run at one time. I gave Erich a hug and Tracie a kiss. I know I wouldn’t have finished without their help. They dug me out of a dark hole and kept me going. Rob, Jeremy, Anthony, Jenny and Jim all came over. I thanked them all for everything that they had done for me throughout the day. Running in and finishing Western States was an incredible experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It taught me a lesson in running and life; no matter how bad things get, if you keep your head up and surround yourself with positive people, you will pull through and succeed.

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Photo: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

Shortly after I finished, when asked if i would ever run another 100 mile race again I rather dismissively replied no, because why would anyone want to go through something like that again? But, deep down that wasn’t the true answer. Yes, I would do it again. Yes, I would gladly welcome that pain. Why? Because I can’t get enough. I want to run, I have to run, I need to run. Without these running races in my life, deep down a part of me would feel incomplete. Now, it’s time to take a break, rest, recover and come back stronger than ever.

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Photo: Anthony Stasulli / Trail Racing Over Texas

In conclusion, I would like to thank everyone who wished me well and followed my progress throughout the day. I would also like to thank Tracie and Erich for being my rock solid crew and pacers. Big thanks to Rob, Jeremy and Anthony for being my supplemental crew and helping me at Robinson Flat and Michigan Bluff. I’d also like to thank my sponsors for their support; Trail Racing Over Texas, Altra Running, Nathan, Victory SportDesign and Outlast Sports Nutrition.

Strava (First 93.3 Miles)

Gear:

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2 responses to “Learning to Suffer – Western States 2017

  1. Pingback: Ultramarathon and Trail Running Daily News | Monday, July 10·

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