Western States Endurance Run…one of the epic events in ultrarunning and a mere 8 hour drive from Santa Barbara, yet, I’ve never attended. Until this year.
Do you remember growing up as a kid, watching the World Series or the Super Bowl and imagining yourself there, in a uniform, making that last out or catching the touchdown pass to win the game? Did you ever grow up and make it to that moment? Did you at least get yourself to the game to witness it from the stands? Were you able to help some of your favorite players during the game? Well, if you answered yes to any of those you’ll understand my experience of pacing a runner at Western States this year.
No, I didn’t grow up dreaming of Western States. Growing up I probably didn’t even realize that people could run 26.2 miles, let alone 100 miles through the mountains. Recently, as I’ve pushed the limits of my own running, I’ve become aware of the elite ultra event that many distance runners aspire to, the Western States Endurance Run.
Pacing Western States
On June 26th I left Santa Barbara, California for the 8 hour drive to Squaw Valley to watch, crew, and pace a couple of friends in the race. I made it to the Squaw Valley Resort at 10:15 AM on Friday morning, a few minutes too late to participate in the Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge, a “quick” run up to the top of the escarpment, a 2,000+ foot climb in just 3.5 miles. With most of the runners on the mountain I found Jess Soco and Tyler Tomasello. Luis Escobar was also there, playing like a giddy kid with his new drone flying camera, soaring high above the running expo and making dive bombs around the grass, even hovering over a stranger’s head as she sat enjoying her somewhat peaceful morning until the feet of the drone knocked her on the side of the cranium. Ooops!
I met up with Juan Escobar, Ultra Marathon runner of Mexico’s Ultra Marathon Caballo Blanco, known as a Mas Loco, and my runner for the race. The week prior I mentioned to friends in Santa Barbara that I was looking to pace someone at Western States since I would be there anyway. Juan’s name came up and we met on Facebook, exchanged a few messages, and agreed on the logistics. I would join Juan at the mile 68 Foresthill aid station and run with him the last 38 miles to get him to the finish line.
I met Juan and his crew member, Kelley Koehler, and we signed in as runners and pacers. We relaxed and enjoyed a few cold beers and made our way to the packed runner’s information meeting where we learned about the course, thanked the volunteers, and got a chance to see the front runners and elites who would be vying for the title the next day.
Dinner, drinks, guitar playing, Fireball whiskey, and a hot tub session followed and we were off to bed later that night for a few quick hours of sleep before the start of the 2014 Western States Endurance Run.
I arrived at the start line around 4:30 AM and most everyone was already there. I couldn’t find Juan in the packed crowd of runners but Maria Walton and I stood in the back to watch the lineup and subsequent start. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BANG…and they were off, a long trail of headlamps weaving up the escarpment.
With no real commitments for the next 12 hours we all headed back to bed for more sleep. I was planning on an all night run, so I wanted to get as much rest during the day as possible. A few hours later we woke up and met in Luis Escobar’s suite for a pancake breakfast before making the 2 hour drive to Michigan Bluff.
Michigan Bluff was at mile 56 and we arrived about an hour before the frontrunners. We found a shady spot just off the trail, laid out blankets and waited. I was almost asleep with the first group came roaring through. The rest of the afternoon was a mix of me trying the sleep as runners passed and fans cheered. I didn’t get much of a nap, but at least I was being pretty lazy and taking it easy.
Everyone around me was in a festive mood, having fun, joking, and laughing. I was purposefully more reserved, keeping my energy level low and saving myself for the night run. Out of all of the ultramarathons I’ve participated in over the past two years I was taking this run the most serious. I felt the nerves of anticipation as I knew that this race was not for me to win or lose, it was for Juan and I had to be on my best game. It was something I had never felt before, but I was looking forward to getting out on the trail with Juan and getting to work.
Shortly before dusk Juan made his way into the aid station. He was looking good and feeling good as he weighed in, refueled, and prepared for running after dark. Kelley offered to pace him from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill and they were off. The rest of us packed the gear and headed to the cars for the short drive to the next aid station.
The Foresthill nightlife was kicking off. A steady stream of headlamps came in, one by one, and then left two by two, the runners with their pacers. The course passes right down the middle of town, straight past the bars that were full with local residents enjoying their Saturday evening out. I prepared my running pack, donned my headlamp, and waited for Juan to arrive.
As Juan came in with Kelly she grabbed some gear and he weighed in. I tightened my pack and the three of us jogged down the road to Kelley’s car where she departed and Juan and I turned down a quiet deserted street and toward the trail. Once we were out on the trail and there was no turning back Juan said “Everyone told me to get a pacer who either knows me, or a pacer who knows the trail…” I knew neither. I had just met Juan the day before and I’d never even been to Squaw Valley or Auburn, let alone run the Western States trail. The challenge was on!
Juan was in good shape, except for his quads. He said he was pretty trashed from the first part of the race and was having a hard time running down hills. We took it easy and tried to get everything moving again.
Having just met Juan the previous day I hadn’t yet figured out how the pacer/racer relationship would work or how I could motivate him to keep moving. I could tell he was struggling so I just followed behind for a few miles, watching his feet move in the beam of my headlamp.
The downs were especially brutal for Juan. He tried everything to get past the pain and jog down the hills, but it just wasn’t working. He got creative and starting grabbing bushes and tree branches and we descended the mountain, doing a sort of improvised Tarzan swing / Olympic skiing moguls routine that wasn’t quite as good as a run, but faster than a walk. I kept close behind him, zigzagging across the trail to avoid being whipped by tree branches along the way.
After a few miles of winding downhill on dark trails we came to the bright lights and music at Dardanelles aid station. Juan was grabbing food and drink the aid station leader was barking orders at me to get Juan in and out of the aid stations in a minute or less, something I would remember for the rest of the race. In no time we were alone again on the dark desolate trail inching our way forward.
We passed two more aid stations before nearing Rucky Chucky and our first close call on the cutoff time. From Ford’s Bar to Rucky Chuck we had 5 miles. I looked at my watch, made some calculations, and informed Juan that we were going to cut it close. My pacing responsibilities kicked in. For the next 5 miles Juan pushed ahead while I kept track of progress and motivated him to keep running on the flats and power hiking the uphills. I stayed behind Juan until he eventually asked me to attack the hills for him. I would power hike ahead and he would follow closely, focusing on my feet.
We neared the river and flood lights came into view, lighting the entire river crossing. We passed through the aid station a half an hour ahead of the cutoff, quickly waded through the chest deep icy cold American River, and started trudging up the next climb with water still sloshing out of our shoes.
We had escaped the threat of the 5:00 AM cutoff time, but we had a lot of work left to do. From Rucky Chucky we climbed to Green Gate where Kelley was waiting with food and drink for Juan. After a short break we started moving but the trail snaked down the mountain and Juan pushed to get his legs to work in downhill mode. After some tiptoeing, grimacing, and trying different strides Juan’s legs finally started cooperating and we picked up the pace. From Rucky Chucky to Auburn Lake Trails we had 7 miles to cover in 2 hours before the cutoff. A tall order, but the sun was coming up and we were ready to get moving in daylight again.
Juan kept his head down and churned forward. We took a quick break to pull out Juan’s secret weapon, an iPod. With tunes jamming, Juan set a good clip and we started knocking out miles. The golden hour would be 7:00 AM. We were still running when we hit 6:30 AM, we had lost time against the cutoff. Next 6:45 AM passed, not good. Then 6:50 AM. 6:51 AM. 6:52 AM. We were cutting it very close with still no indication that we were anywhere near the aid station. Juan started rationalizing the run, preparing for the letdown of not making the time cutoff. We rounded a corner on the trail and I saw it…blue pop up tents. The aid station had turned off the music so we couldn’t hear them but we could see the tents and the volunteers. I yelled to Juan to pick up the pace, told him I’d get his water and food, just get weighed in and meet me at the other side of the aid station.
We stormed into Auburn Lake Trails aid station at 6:55 AM and the first volunteer cheered for Juan enthusiastically, saying “just get out in 5 minutes, you got this!” We had spent the last 2 hours passing countless runners and their pacers and had no idea if they were going to make it through behind us, but Juan grabbed a handful of potatoes, I grabbed his full water bottles, took a drink of Coca Cola, a we were off with only 3 minutes to spare! The euphoria of beating the cutoff time quickly dissipated when we realized that we now faced another cutoff 8 miles away with only 2 hours and 20 minutes to get there.
We wound around the side of the mountains on nicely manicured trails. Though I had not been running as long as Juan over the past 24 hours I was feeling tired. I stayed right behind Juan, watching his feet like a metronome, working to keep myself from going into a trance and dozing off to sleep.
Juan, a little beat up from the second cutoff push, started out slowly, eventually regaining his pace. We pushed ahead looking for the next aid station, Brown’s Bar. Juan was slowing down a bit and I started asking what was wrong. After a few questions he narrowed it down, his music playlist had run out. We needed the energy from the jams. With fresh music in his ears we pressed on ahead, winding around the mountain, wondering how far the next aid station was. Eventually we could hear music, we got excited, and then it died. The aid station must have started to tear down the gear.
We finally came around a corner and saw the aid station volunteers. I knew we were in trouble, but my sole job of the day was to keep Juan moving. We grabbed some food, filled water bottles, and were off. We had 3.7 miles to cover in the next 40-45 minutes. Juan was now 90 miles in and we were facing a sharp downhill descent and his legs were not up to it. During the last 30 miles I noticed that Juan kept taking out his laminated race sheet with splits, cutoff times, and the elevation profile of the trail. This was okay, but we lost time when he consulted it. I had asked Juan if I could take a look at it and then decided not to give it back so he could focus instead on the trail.
About half a mile out of the aid station Juan looked ahead at the wide canyon that we needed to traverse and realized what I already knew from looking at his laminated elevation profile, we were not going to make the next cutoff. He stopped, confirmed it with me, and although I offered to go with him as long as he wanted, he decided to go back to the aid station. I gave him a huge congratulations hug for traversing 90 miles of the Western States Trail and we headed back up.
Juan seemed to be relieved to be done. He told me that he had wished that we missed the previous cut off so he could sit down and rest. I felt a bit like I failed. I knew that we hadn’t, but I wondered if I should have pushed him faster in the first 10 miles we were together, maybe then we wouldn’t have had to race so hard for each of the cut offs. Maybe I should have told him to turn on his music earlier and get in the groove. Maybe I should have taken his map earlier so he didn’t spend so much energy checking his splits and looking at the elevation. Maybe…there were too many “maybes” and no one knows how it could have happened, but in the end I was proud of Juan for pushing through as far as he did and I was honored to be part of his day. I truly think that if Juan had been able to run or jog the downhill sections from Foresthill to the finish he would have made it. He was in good spirits, he was alert and positive mentally, his nutrition and hydration was on target, and his form looked good on the flat sections and uphill. Juan was impressively strong in all areas of his run, it was just the darn downhills that we had problems with. Juan covered 90 miles in just over 27 hours and I had spent a good 10 hours out on the trials with him. It really was an honor to be able to spend those miles on the iconic trail with my friend Juan.
The drive to the finish line was bittersweet for both of us. We were happy to be off our feet, but we both would have preferred to sit down once Juan crossed the finish line. Once we reached Placer High School we found our friends and got Juan to the medical tent to sit in a chair and get his feet checked out. He was tired, sore, and had some blisters but was generally in good shape.
We all got cleaned up and waited for the rest of our friends. Jess Soco made her way to the finish line and finished strong with her friends and crew. We were all proud of her race, even more because she did it in Luna sandals! Later we attended the awards ceremony and then headed off to lunch with everyone. It was an amazing weekend with great friends. Then, just like that, we were all splitting up, taking off in all directions, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before we’d all see each other again.
To read Juan’s race report click here: http://elpasotrailrunner.blogspot.com/2014/07/western-states-100-endurance-run-dnf.html
For some great Western States photos click here: http://luisescobar.smugmug.com/2014-WESTERN-STATES-100-MILE-E/