The Build Up To The Race:
I've known about The Western States Endurance Run since I first started running back in March of 2004. I've seen the belt buckles awarded to the sub 24hr, 100 mile finishers. I can tell you the course record is held by Scott Jurek in a time of 15h36m...and 27 seconds. I know Western was first run by Gordy Ainsleigh way back in 1974, two years before I was born. I know the race finishes at the Placer High School track in Auburn, California, and I know that this race had been virtually impossible to gain entry into for years now, as thousands of people apply annually for the less than 400 spots awarded. As of November 1st, 2008 I know one more thing about The Western States Endurance Run...I WILL BE A STARTER ON THE COURSE IN 2009!!!
Montrail hosts a seven race series known as The Montrail Ultra Cup, which culminates at Western States on June 27th, 2009. The only way to get into Western now is to win your way in (the race was canceled this year due to forest fires, hence all entries were rolled over into 09, making the already difficult process of gaining entry, nearly impossible) Top three male and female finishers from each of the six Montrail Cup races leading up to Western, are automatically guaranteed entry into the highly prestigious event.
This is where The Mountain Masochist Trail Run comes into play for me. After reviewing my only options at possibly getting my butt to Western 09, which was quickly shaping up to be the most competitive Western ever run, I figured I could tackle two of the now five remaining M.U.C. races. Although I was hoping to grab an entry in my first attempt and to save on the additional travel costs of racing a second event.
None of this of course, is meant to take away from the fact that Mountain Masochist itself is one of the biggest, oldest and most established ultra races in the United States, with this being its 26th edition!
I was fortunate to get my name onto the MMTR starters list and after talking with Rune Melcher he informed me that there were a handful of guys in the race who could all take a shot at the win and hence the top three podium spots. As the race grew closer additional top names were added to the mix, and as I boarded my flight on the Thursday before the race it was with the knowledge that this was being billed as 'The Most Competitive 50 Miler In The US This Year', and 'The Most Competitive MMTR Ever Held'. I was already rolling my change for that second flight to another of the Montrail Ultra Cup races in early 09.
I flew in and out of Raleigh, North Carolina, about three hours South of Lynchburg, Virginia, and I'll cover that in my next posting which will talk about everything outside of the race.
I did not arrive into Lynchburg until Friday afternoon, and after a lengthy search for some edible Gluten Free pre race food, I ended up eating Sushi off of the floor mat of my rental car. It was night time before I located a place I could eat at, and I was rushing to get back to the hotel in time for the pre race meeting. As I exited the sushi/steakhouse it was into a median I had not noticed on the way in...and hence into oncoming traffic! I threw the car into reverse, and my overpriced, under flavored sushi went airborne. I was glad it was a rental car because there would be no such luck in my own car at home. The Sashimi would have its own fur coat within seconds of touching anything outside of its protective casing in my little dog friendly Subaru.
I checked in for the race, met the Canadian transplant Race Director Clark Zealand, and previous race director David Horton, who is certainly a legend within the sport himself.
I should just say right away that without Clark's help this race would never have happened for me. He recognized a flat broke Canadian Ultra Runner and took me under his wing for a few days, allowing me to split a hotel room with him. It was 11pm before we were able to call it a night on Friday, and I had a short conversation with Clark before doing so.
I had mentioned my race plan to Clark, about starting conservative and moving my way up from there. I could see that he thought it was suicide with the guys in this field.
"Any chance that some of those top guys might pull each other apart at the front of the pack?"
"Hard to say. They are all very experienced, very fast runners."
With that, I grabbed 4.5hr of sleep and was up at 3.30am. A full thirty minutes in the shower to help me remember where I was and why I was there. Three bowls of G.F. cereal, and a 45min, 5am bus ride to the starting area.
Holy Crap It's Cold At 5am!
It was pitch black and freezing cold when I stepped off of the bus. I tried my best not to hide out on the buses like so many others, and forced mself into a not so warm 'warm up' run. The 6.30am start was upon us before I had time to blink.
I set off under the light of my Princeton Tec Eos headlamp, which would end up being the perfect light for our initial 10km of road running. Two guys shot off the front and I found myself in third place. I anticipated more people passing me and kept waiting for it to happen. Eventually pairs of runners started to move up and as I held my own pace I slowly drifted back into 11th place before stabilizing position. There was a group of five runners in a pack just up from me, and although we were all running the same pace, I did not waste the energy trying to catch them just yet. I was enjoying the solitude of the moment, in fact on my pre race 'warm up run' I stopped about a mile away from the race area, shut off my headlamp, and looked skyward at the stars above for minutes on end. I said I would not fire up my headlamp again until I saw a shooting star, but after about five minutes I figured it better to run the race rather than get run over by the runners once it started. There was not a cloud in the sky and I knew we were in for a beautiful day of trail racing!
About 8km into the race we approached our first hill. The runners ahead of me started to spread out and as the hill crested I leaned into the downside as I like to do. I was surprised to effortlessly move past five runners and up into 6th place. We crossed a bridge as the sun was starting to rise and shortly after doing so we finally left the roads behind. We turned into the trails after our first aid station at about 10km /mile 5.7
Dirt, I Love Dirt!
As mentioned in this posting, and numerous before, I have a Gluten/Wheat allergy, but I have also noticed that I race better when I eliminate maltodextrin from my diet, along with dairy and soy. This leaves me with few options in terms of readily available race foods. I knew my good friend Hays Poole, down in Raleigh, NC would be there to meet me at the half way point of the race. He would then act as my support crew and transport my own race supplies to crew accessible aid stations along the way. For the first half of the race however, I had no choice but to carry all of my own calories. In trying to come up with the absolute best system to accomplish this, the day prior I decided to hack apart my favorite running bag, to cut about a pound of weight from it. I then used the vest pack of the bag to carry my drink mixes, and I kept an empty water bottle in the shoulder strap, so I could shift bottles and always have the empty bottle ready to go when I hit an aid station. It seemed to be a good set up and as we hit the trails, and our first sizable climb, I went about putting some drink mix into the empty bottle. I could hear footsteps from behind, but was not looking back. I still had a few more guys to catch.
After about an hour and a half of running I finally caught up to the fifth place runner. Local Jeremy Ramsey was listed as a possible threat to win it all and he was running strong up ahead. Again I paced off the back, awaited a descent, said hi as I pulled up alongside, and was then able to gain my gap on the downhill. What surprised me was that not 2km later, I caught Sean Andrish for fourth place! It was at this point that I started to question my pacing. Had I gone out to fast? Was I going to pay for this later in the race? Had I gotten too excited? I was confident that this was not the case and had a brief conversation with Sean when I caught him on a climb.
Sean was another top threat, someone who had won the race before, and had managed two sub 7hr race times in the past! It turned out that Sean has epilepsy and he was on a new medication for it. Apparently the new meds were not agreeing with his running, and he said his legs felt like lead. I thought for sure that a top runner like this, who was suffering this much, this early into the race, would end up dropping. When I later saw Sean cross the line for 8th place I immediately congratulated him for sticking with it out there on a tough day!
Me to Sean, "How bout the lead three? They blazing it up there?"
"Yeah, but you'll catch them. Nice work so far!"
I doubted his assessment that I would physically catch the lead guys and as the climb we were now on grew steeper I continued to improvise my race plan. I was not sure of their exact lead, but as I now closed in about 2.5hr of running I was starting to feel the toll of the almost entirely fire roads running route. I actually spoke to myself out loud, to ensure that I was listening,
"Just maintain position. You only need a third place finish out here today. One of the lead three will crack. One of the lead three will crack. One...of...the...lead...three...will...crack. Just maintain your position!"
The miles ticked away as we ran through a burgundy, copper, and apricot colored landscape. We gained a few ridges along the way that allowed for sweeping vistas out over the rolling landscapes we were traversing. The temperature had shot up to about 27 degrees, and there was no better way to be spending the first day of November!
Hays Poole, Anyone Seen A Mr. Hays Poole?
As I approached aid station 10, which is just past the mid way point, I found myself hoping that Hays had found the exchange area without issue. To have to search out my own drop bag would take valuable minutes to achieve. As I came into the clearing I could make out very little but silhouettes in the sunshine.
Sweet! As much as I love my running backpack...for adventure runs, I could not get it off of my back quick enough in this race! I dropped the bag, grabbed a handheld from Hays, got a high five from Clark, and was through the aid station without having slowed down at all. So focused was I on getting outta there that I happened to miss what was going on right in front of me. It would be another hour before I would learn what had occurred.
After aid station 10 (43.3km) you go into the steepest climb of the race up to Aid station 11 (47.5km), and it would be aid station 12 (51.7km) before I would see Hays again. As I was speed hiking numerous sections of this climb I realized that I was going to suffer to the finish line. I just kept telling myself to stay smart and maintain position.
Aid station 11 was memorable because they were blaring the Rocky theme and you could hear it kms before you actually got there! It made it seem even farther away at times, but I did manage a short Rocky'ish' hands in the air dance as I approached and grabbed some water.
I arrived at aid station 12 and it had been just under an hour since I had seen Hays at aid station 10. I switched bottles and Hays looked at me,
"You're in second place."
I paused for a bit, somewhat confused, then looked back at him,
"NO, I'm in fourth"
"You, are in second, two guys dropped out."
Hays said this in a very Hays Poole kinda way. It wasn't like
"YOU'RE IN SECOND PLACE MAN!!!!"
It was, "You are in second."
My eyes nearly popped out of my own skull.
"ARE YOU SURE?"
I was about to keep arguing, as I like to do, but figured I should probably keep my legs moving, since I was in a race and now running in second place!
After departing Aid Station 12 there was another steep, yet short climb. I power hiked it and spent the entire time trying to calm myself down. There was still 30km and almost 3hr of running left to go.
"YOU'RE GOING TO WESTERN STATES!! Whoa, whoa, whoa, calm the hell down. You are not going anywhere till you finish this race with a top three placing. WESTERN! NO, nothing, so far so good, nothing achieved yet, still 30km to go. WHUP WHUP. GARY, get it together, wake up, you're starting to cramp up out already, there are three hundred runners still coming up behind you...some faster than others, but none the less, one mistake and you'll get passed like you're standing still! WESTERN, WESTERN, WESTERN, WESTERN!! Gary...ahh screw it, WHOOOOO HOOOOOOO!!!!"
At aid station 13 we headed out onto an 8km singletrack loop. It was some of the only singletrack in the race, and something that I was really looking forward to. By the time I hit this section however, at km 54 my legs were fully shutting down on me. I could not run any uphill at all, and was even struggling to pace out on the flats. I was fully aware of the fact that the last 25km of the race had significant downhill in it and went about conserving my energy in every way that I could. I hiked the climbs, slowly ran the flats, and just made sure that my legs would hold up on the descents. You can only loose so much time hiking a climb verses running it, but if you are forced into hiking downhill then it's game over! I actually remember looking at my watch during this and thinking, three hours till the finish...three hours till the end of your racing year! Suck it up baby!!
This section was beautiful and it was amazing to me how deep the leaves were that we were running through. There was foliage along the entire course, that goes without saying, but here in particular they were up to a foot deep in places. You just stepped in and hoped for the best. The funny thing is that there was a photographer in this section, and as passed by I stepped onto what appeared to be leaves...and I sunk in water up to my shin! I swear he was just waiting for me to do this!!
I really did feel like my race was falling apart during this section and thought that being caught for 2nd was inevitable. I never gave up on myself or stopped giving it 100%, but I just didn't see how I would not be caught as I felt as though I was moving backwards at times. I started mentally preparing myself to be passed for 2nd and to get ready to fight till I collapsed for 3rd!!
I somehow got through this section without being caught. In fact as I sit here today, looking at the splits, I am absolutely shocked to see that I ran the section from Aid Station 12 to the end of this loop in 1h02m, which is tied for the fastest split in the entire field, with only race winner Eric Grossman! Just goes to show that your pain is rarely as bad as you think it might be, and that absolutely everyone is suffering just as bad or worse at that point in the race. I remember telling my buddy Luke Laga, as I was pacing him during his first 100 Miler The Kettle Moraine 100 back in June,
"Don't ever convince yourself that your pain is any worse than what everyone around you is suffering from. If you do you're simply giving yourself an excuse to drop."
As I came into aid station 13 again, Hays told me I had a 15 minute lead. (I thought he meant over 3rd, but would later learn he meant 4th as he knew this was all that mattered to me) None the less, this was exactly what I needed to hear. Eighteen km to go, fifteen minutes in hand. There was no way I was going to be caught before that finish line!
Aid station 13-14 was almost all downhill. Hays was hoping to make it there in time, but he missed me by a few minutes. It was alright though as I knew I could fudge my way through the last few aid stations with fruit, water and some coke.
From aid 14-15 was another climb, which was good cause I needed the break to walk those sections. Again the leaves were so deep and thick that I actually found the noise of it all started bothering me!
"Damn rustling leaves! I can't even hear myself think out here!!"
It was time to end this race! We had some awesome singletrack running after this climb and with a blanket of leaves covering the ground it became increasingly more difficult to distinguish the actual trail. Thankfully the MMTR was pretty much the best flagged course I had ever run! On top of that there was basically an aid station every 5km! The race organization was certainly showing that it had been around for over 2.5 decades!
It's All Downhill From Here!
I hit aid station 16, the last one on the course. Just over 6km to go, and almost all downhill! I stopped at the aid station to try and get some food into me before the descent. I stuffed in some bananas and oranges, and then promptly turned around and spit them out. I then placed my hands on my knees and tried not to puke. There was nothing wrong with the fruit, my stomach was gone. It was time to end this race!
I thanked the volunteers and then leaned into the downhill, trying to appreciate every second of it, and to stay in the moment as much as possible. Before I knew it there was a 'one mile' marker sprayed onto the ground, only a bit of road running left to conquer.
I could hear the finish line, then it came into sight. I was going to do it, it was going to happen, and for the first time all day, I finally allowed myself to believe that I was Western bound. I burst through the line and Clark Zealand was there to give me a huge hug in congrats, followed shortly thereafter by my awesome crew Hays Poole!
(No I'm not drinking as I cross the line, I'm yelling in excitement!)
I FREAKING DID IT! I needed some luck to pull it all off, but none the less, Western States 2009 here I come baby!!!
Again, sitting here looking at the splits, somewhat in shock, from Aid Station 15 to the finish, I had the fastest closing time of 1h09m47s! Must have been the adrenaline kicking in! That and race leader Eric Grossman knowing he could have run it in backwards for the win at that point in time!
(Top Ten, with Eric on the right and moi on the Left)
(More to come on the entire weekend experience, but that's plenty for now)