And when I say 100, I mean 100k not 100 miles…
This has been the hardest race report I have ever had to write. Having been back in the UK for almost two weeks, it has been too painful to write up until now. Even now I don’t feel ready, but I hope it is cathartic metaphorically putting pen to paper.
Where to begin. Well, as most people who know me are aware, this was the dream race- the ultimate challenge that I had focused on for seven years. It had become so much a part of me that failing to complete it has rocked me, but adversity does build strength and ultimately, despite it being pretty tough right now, I know this was my path and that I will come back from this.
In December of 2018 my name was finally called in the lottery, with 32 tickets of build up. 6 years of tickets and 7 years of trying to gain an entry. Less than two weeks after being called, I found myself on the cardiac ward at Truro hospital with an out of control infection having caused Pericarditis. I couldn’t run for 8 weeks, in the end, and felt that the Western States dream was over. I had to miss Trans Gran Canaria and the South Downs Way 50 mile race- my two key build up races. Training resumed in March, but with hindsight I was too scared to properly push the training until I had a follow up review with my cardiologist 5 weeks before States where he said I was in perfect health. But by this point, it was too late to really get into the shape I would need to run States.
If I could have deferred my place, I would have, but Western States has such a demand for slots that they can’t allow deferrals, understandably, and so with the meteoric rise in demand for this race I knew this may be my only shot for a decade or possibly ever, unless I was extremely lucky. I had to give it a shot.
I tried to put the negative thoughts out of my head and focus on somehow getting to Auburn in less than 30 hours. This would have been tough anyway with peak fitness, but I still felt it was doable.
Walking around Squaw Valley in the days prior to the race, I was conscious I was overweight and undertrained. The upside, was that Squaw Valley felt like home. I seemed to know 50% of the people in the ski resort and made new friends in addition to people I had known for years, both in person and via social media.
My welcome to Auburn and Squaw Valley had been amazing. After a night in San Francisco on the Tuesday after landing, I was up early on the Wednesday and found a train that would take me almost all the way to Auburn. I hadn’t realized until I boarded that this was the famous California Zepha, which travels daily and takes two days from San Francisco all the way to Chicago. It follows the railroad routes made famous by the cowboy films of my youth and was truly historic, even though I was only travelling a fraction of the route.
Once in Auburn, I had been set up by Bob Crowley with a host family- a lovely couple called Perry and Kathleen. Every year they open their doors to two international runners and this year myself and Thiago (a Brazilian runner and all round great guy) were the two lucky guests. Perry drove me around Auburn and helped me settle in and we then ended up at the barbecue which is organized every year to welcome the international runners to Auburn. If you are an international runner and are lucky enough to get a slot at States, Bob will take you under his wing and make you feel so welcome.
This was a great opportunity to meet some local heroes- some known and some unknown. I spoke with two guys who were so down to earth and lived in Auburn. Asking if they had run the race they both casually mentioned that they had both finished multiple times in the top 10 in the 80’s and gave me some valuable insights as to their approach. I also met Perry’s sister who had won the race in the 80’s. I was in awe.
Later, as dusk fell I also finally got to say hello to Gordy face to face. Having chatted for years online this was a major moment for me. I was too nervous to say hello in 2012 and 2014 when I was there crewing, but finally plucked up the courage and we had a great chat. He was also hugely supportive after the race when he knew how much it had hurt to fail to finish.
The next day I headed early to Squaw with my pacer, Manu and his wife. Manu was suffering from a cold and I could tell his frustration as he wanted to be on top form for the day. I also secretly panicked that I would catch the cold and so spent the next 48 hours necking carrot and ginger smoothies at an amazing little bagel place in Squaw Valley.
We arrived at just before 10am, quickly dumped my bags at the hotel and went to join the briefing for the hike up to Emigrant Pass, the high point of the course where the race crests the mountain before tumbling down the other side on the way to Auburn. This was my first chance to properly meet Craig Thornley, the RD of Western States and I really enjoyed the chance to say hello and have him welcome me as a runner. By the time I finished talking to Craig in the resort, I was alone and so hiked up the mountain by myself which was really special. I had run up here twice before during the 6k uphill challenge in 12 and 14, but this was my chance to take in the breathtaking beauty by myself and unhurried. I knew in less than 48 hours I would be heading up here as a Western States runner and it sent tingles through my body.
At the top I met Joseph Chick- a long time facebook friend from Ashland, Oregon and his lovely wife Jamie. Joseph is the only person I know who took longer than me to get a place and we both appreciated quite how lucky we were to be there. He hadn’t had the best start to the year either and we both knew we would have a battle on Saturday and Sunday to make it to Auburn, but I am delighted to say that he did make it.
The next 24 hours were a whirlwind of registering and saying hello to loads of people. I met Scott Jurek and Luis Escobar on the Thursday evening, along with Matt Brand who I was staying with in Squaw. This was the equivalent of meeting Keith and Mick from the Stones for many people and was the icing on the cake for an incredible first day in the valley. I also spent some time with my crew chief, Ellie, another Auburn resident who put her hand up when I was looking for some help and she was just amazing. More about her and her family later.
The Friday was also very special and one person who joined me for the race was someone I hadn’t seen in four and a half years but holds a very special place in my heart, Alicia. We last saw each other at Brazos Bend in 2014 when I race the race to honour her husband, Lon who died earlier that year. It was emotional to have her and her family come to California to support me and made the trip even more special for me.
Friday night involved a very early night for Matt and I and our alarms went off at 3am to prepare for the race start at 5am. Coming from the UK, I had been waking at around 3am most days prior to the race anyway, so this wasn’t as big a deal as it sounds. The second our alarms went off, we were up and filled with adrenaline which we tried to keep in check. This pretty much involved multiple trips to the bathroom and we made sure we left a good amount of change in the room for the poor maid when she came to clean later that day.
Once we had bib numbers pinned on and bags dropped, it was a waiting game. With 5 minutes to go I stepped out into the fresh mountain air at 4:55am…and promptly had a nose bleed! Fuck sake. Was anything going to go right? I hadn’t had a nosebleed since I was a kid, so whether this was the altitude or extreme nerves I don’t know, but I shrugged it off as I had a battle I was about to fight.
Counting down from 10 stood behind the Western States starting arch I had a tear in my eye. This was it. This was dedication and this was my dream. This was years of hard work and this was passion. I made a vow that I would give today my all and most of all, I would enjoy myself. Yes this would be a tough day, but this was my day and I wanted this more than a real lottery win.
Starting in the valley and with a climb of over 2,500 ft in the first four miles means that the race start is not anticlimactic, but it is a hike and a chance to temper some of the emotions and adrenaline. But even at a hike, with the air getting thinner and thinner it was hard work. We soon encountered the snow and found ourselves hiking up through freshly prepared ski runs (extremely rare even by Western States standards). After an hour and 15 minutes, I crested the top and looked around to see the stunning view of Lake Tahoe at sunrise behind me. I’m running Western States. I had to pinch myself.
I saw Eric Schranz at the top with his alpine horn and full lederhosen- quite a sight at 6am and I started to run down the other side of Emigrant Pass in a long line of runners as we enjoyed the initial snow free single track.
Every part of my race felt like a really slow version of Unbreakable- running with no headphones to take everything in, I even had the soundtrack in my head. In the high country I was slipping and sliding on the snow and it reminded me of JB Benna following Hal Koerner in 2010. The snow was really hard work and whilst it was cold early on and so pretty compact, I fell over a lot and had to slide down some parts, causing cuts to my hands and legs as I tried to maintain some sort of control. It was slow going for sure and I reached the first aid station towards the back of the field. I had expected this and wasn’t worried yet as I knew if I could just get through the snow inside the cut offs to 30 miles I could make up time later on. I needed to be patient but I also needed to push. Offsetting the slow pace was the sheer beauty all around me. I hopped back and forth here with Sharon Sullivan but then lost her until I next saw her when she passed me at mile 43.
As we got closer to Robinson Flat at mile 30, the snow became less of an issue but the first real climb of the day was due just as things were starting to warm up. By Western States standards, this was a cool year and another reason I am frustrated I couldn’t make it, but on that long climb to Robinson it started to hit me a little. We had run the first 30 miles at an average elevation of over 6,000 ft and whilst I hadn’t really noticeably felt it, I had tripped a lot and was slow. Some of this was fitness, but a lot of it with hindsight will have been the altitude hitting this sea level dweller.
I had set myself a very loose target of 7 hours to Robinson, but rolled in in just over 8 hours. This wasn’t the end of the world, but it did mean I had work to do. I saw my crew quickly but didn’t need much. I didn’t change shoes as I had initially planned- one, to save time and two, because my feet and socks felt pretty decent so I really didn’t see the point.
After Robinson Flat there is a gentle ish 13 miles of flat and downhill and I knew here I could make up some time. I was joined here by two women who I think looking at the photos since were Denise and Terra. They were great fun, but at the time I was starting to feel a bit sick and I was probably not the best company. We hopped back and forth and whilst I tried to chat, I tend to go deep within myself on these races and am just not chatty. If you are both reading this, I hope you finished and sorry if I was a quiet, grumpy Brit- I am usually pretty happy!
Despite feeling rough, I was making up some time and eventually made it to the Last Chance aid station at mile 43. I was about an hour up on the cut offs and feeling tired but OK. I knew the canyons were next and whilst the temperatures weren’t as a fierce as usual, this did nothing to change the steepness of the descents and the climbs. Plus, it was still about 80 degrees down there and muggy as hell, so it wasn’t exactly cool either.
As I made my way out of Last Chance, I felt the soup I had just drunk rising back up and a build-up of saliva in my throat. I knew what was next. Doubled up at the side of the trail, I released everything and as always, felt amazing. Next was the Pucker Point loop and the drop down to Swinging Bridge, a huge descent before a 2000 ft climb up to Devils Thumb. If I could keep up a good pace here, I would be well within the cut offs and on my way to Auburn. I knew this was a key point of the run.
As I descended my quads were pretty painful, but functioning. I knew I had to replace the salt I had lost through my puking so was gently sipping on water and taking an s-cap every half an hour. I was also maintaining Tailwind to build up some calories in the system. This seemed to work and after an hour of steep descending, I hit the bridge. I dunked in the river and started to make my way up the other side.
Within about 10 metres, I was sat on my arse literally unable to move. I felt like I had been hit by Tyson and I had to forced myself to my feet after 5 minutes and start my way up the climb. This was the most horrific climb of my life I thought it would never end. 3 times I had to sit down and each time, my confidence was knocked. The only thing that kept me moving were the horrific mosquitos that attacked every inch of my exposed flesh. In the days after the race my legs and neck were swollen up like balloons and were so painful.
Eventually I was about to crest the top when I heard the blow of a horn, meaning there was just half an hour to leave the aid station before the cut off. At this point, I felt it was game over as I crashed into a chair and mumbled for some soup and coke. I tried to drop but the team just wouldn’t let me, saying everyone looked like shit here and this was the hardest climb of the course done. If I could just keep a hiking pace and jog when my legs came back I would be OK.
My pacer had flown all the way from Germany for this. I had waited for 7 years for this. I had invested thousands of pounds to be here, both now and in the past years as crew. This had become my life, so I forced myself from my chair and started to walk. A walk turned into a jog and a jog into a….well a jog. That was the best I could manage.
Heading through Deadwood Cemetary, it was one more huge descent and climb and I would then be at Michigan Bluff, mile 55. If I got here after 8pm, my pacer Manu could join me here rather than mile 62 and realistically getting there before 8pm was unlikely so I made this my focus.
I also had one more serious problem- it was going to get dark soon and I had no headlamp with me. I needed to get to Michigan Bluff ASAP to catch the daylight or I would be climbing in the dark. With snakes using the trail to stay warm overnight and cougars hunting at dusk and dawn, it was fair to say I was shitting myself.
And then as I descended with two other guys, we saw a bear just off the trail eating some berries on a nearby bush. Worse, it was only a cub so there was a mother no doubt nearby. Worse again, every twist and turn down the switchbaks was blind so whilst I desperately needed to make up some time, I was petrified of every rustle in the bushes and every turn possibly leading to a bear encounter, so I was tip toeing when I should have been bombing. All of the locals had said bears are not what you need to worry about, but tell this to an exhausted Brit who already has a hard enough time at home with dogs!
Fortunately, we made it to the bottom and Momma was nowhere to be seen. I had an hour and fifteen minutes to make the next climb within the cut off, but it was almost 4 miles of straight up. This was going to be almost impossible, but I had vowed to myself that I would not quit until I was pulled.
Me and two others made our way up the climb and we took it in turns to lead the way. As dusk turned to night, they fortunately had headlamps and we shared the light as we pushed and encouraged each other on. Twisting and turning up and up and up, we then heard voices above us as the sweeper team made their way behind us. This was not how I planned it, so I ignored the sweepers and gritted my teeth. As the voices above got louder, we realized they were some guys helping motivate the runners to make the cut offs. They were so loud and asked our names. For the next mile all I heard was ‘COME ON TIM!” as they screamed at me. One had a spare torch so I could push ahead a little. After an eternity, we hit the top and there was Manu. I had four minutes to get through the aid station to make the cut off. I let out an almost animal like scream and forced my busted quads to move. We ran through Michigan Bluff like I was possessed and as I made it through with less than 2 minutes to spare, I collapsed to my knees and puked all over myself. Lying there in a puddle of my own sick, I knew I was giving it my all and if I didn’t make it, it wasn’t for lack of effort on the day. This was a very surreal moment and oddly, one of my proudest running memories to date. There will always be a little bit of me at Michigan Bluff. Literally.
Alicia was here too and seeing her helped me get back up on to my knees, wipe my face and get a new tshirt on. If I could just make Forresthill at mile 62, 7 miles away in the next hour and a half, I would have enough time to finish as the cut offs get a lot more lenient after that point. The only problem was, my legs just weren’t obeying my brains orders.
Manu and I set off into the night and I was the very last runner at this point, with the other guys behind me not having made the cut off at Michigan Bluff. The sweepers were there and I told myself I would not let them catch up until I could move no longer.
I told Manu I was in a world of pain and just needed to hike for a bit to try and open up my legs but my quads were rock solid and spasming. I tried so hard to run and had tears of anguish and frustration running down my face. It was becoming apparent that I just wouldn’t be able to make it and as we hit the bottom of Volcano Canyon, I told Manu that my day was done. We hugged it out and I said I was so sorry.
The sweepers caught us and we walked slowly up to Forresthill. As the adrenaline left my body I felt faint and even struggled the gentle walking pace up that final canyon. If I could have just found 15 more minutes, I would have made it through and had 38 miles of ‘easy’ running to Auburn.
But I was trashed. I sat in a chair and John Trent came over to console me and remove my runner wristband. I think I was in shock as whilst I knew it would have been a battle after whats happened these last few months, I honestly thought I was going to finish. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but it was like I was in mourning. I have struggled to come to terms with it since too, unlike any other DNF.
Ellie picked me up and drove us back to her house as it was now midnight. I feel asleep as soon as I got in the car and woke up at 5am on her sofa, confused and still fully dressed in my running gear. I sent a few messages to let people know I was ok and fell asleep again.
Ellie was amazing, as was her husband and they set me up with a shower and a fresh set of clothes from my bag. We then went to breakfast and I headed back to Perry and Kathleens where I dozed on and off by the pool. Manu came by later and we drove to No Hands Bridge so I could walk across it and then had an amazing meal with Perry and Kathleen. The next morning I left Auburn for San Francisco.
In the days after the run and in the two weeks since I have thought how to write this report, it has become increasingly clear to me that this isn’t about the race, its about the place. This little corner of California has embraced this obsessed runner and welcomed me into their town. The people I have come to know as a result of this race are now lifelong friends. Not just from Auburn, but from all over the world.
Funds permitting, I will be back next summer or another summer soon to either pace someone those last 38 miles or run/hike them quietly by myself. The Western States trail is my church and whilst it didn’t go my way, I ran 62 miles of Western States and followed my dream. Not many people in life set themselves a goal and actually follow it though, but I was there and I was proud to be there. But yes, of course I am gutted too. Its cut very, very deep.
On a larger scale, my running has been poor for sometime now. I have gained weight, lost speed and in all honesty lost a lot of the spark and motivation I once had. My last 7 years have been all about qualifying and watching a webcam in December to hear my name. On the one hand I am at a loss now as I wont be in the lottery this December and on the other hand I have an opportunity to get my spark back. Get some form back. Get some fun back and find my thrill of running again.
With my children growing up fast and owning two small businesses, I am flat out in so many ways away from running. But running is a huge part of who I am and I need to find my way again.
In short, my Western States dream isn’t over. The trail is there 365 days of the year even if the race is just once a year. Western States has defined my 30’s and it will continue to shape me into my 40’s. I love it more than ever. The people, the place, the smells, the feelings, even the thrill of seeing a wild bear. Its magic. It’s just magic.