I have never had a landing like it. After an 11 hour flight to LA from London and a five hour layover, my one hour hop to Reno from LAX was coming into land perilously fast. The wings were wobbling and it felt like the pilot was considering going back up for a second approach. Nope, we hit the runway and bounced along, wheels screaming, engines screaming, women screaming, OK, me screaming and eventually, somehow, came to a juddering halt.
I was back at Western States.
In the days leading up to the race I had been featured in the local paper, the Auburn Journal, as someone who was slightly mad and willing to fly halfway around the world twice now to not even run the race of my dreams. You can see that article here.
But there is something very special about this race and I wanted to come back and do what I could to help a good friend out and take it all in not exactly from the sidelines, but on the edge of the sharp end of the action at the front of the race.
Pretty jet lagged, Jez (sponsored by The North Face) picked me up in our rental beast of a truck and before I knew it we were in Squaw Valley and I was ready to pass out.
The next morning after a pretty good nights sleep, all things considered, we walked over to the registration area so Jez could get weighed in and signed up and I could get ready for the 6k uphill challenge. I did this a couple of years ago and it is a great way to connect with the race and experience that first climb from Squaw Valley to Escarpment, with sweeping views to Lake Tahoe and mountain peaks all around.
With Pacer bib (in case it was needed) prior to the 6k. Photo: Jez Bragg
In 2012 I was wheezing going up and walked maybe 50%. This time around I ran most of the climb and came 16th out of 200 or so crew members doing it. When I registered and got my number and came back, Jez asked if I was chatting to Max. I had to look back. Max King had just done my registration for the run. That would be like signing up for a five a side back home and David Beckham handing out half time oranges.
For an ultramarathon geek like me, this place is an oasis. I spoke briefly to Nick Clark, said hello to Joe Uhan and then we were off.
On my way up I got chatting to a lady who turned out to be the wife of ultramarathon legend Karl Meltzer. It turned out I would see her a lot the following day too, as Karl was hot on the heels of Jez for most of the early part of the race.
Most runners got the cable car from the escarpment back to the resort, but I was in no rush and certainly didn’t want to climb all that way and not enjoy running the descent. That was one of the highlights of my trip, running down the sweeping mountain road completely alone and just taking in that I was actually back here.
Once back and showered, the race briefing took place where Jez was called up as one of the top guys to watch and for everyone to “see what these guys look like from the front”. It was then a case of hanging around and waiting for sleep to come before the alarm went off at 3:30am and the race started at 5am.
I gave Jez some alone time to get his things and head together and headed out to meet Barry Miller, a good friend who had got picked first time in the lottery. Barry isn’t messing around this summer and when he got picked, quickly signed up for Leadville, Vermont and Wasatch to complete the Grand Slam this summer. 81 days of racing and living in the US is pretty epic. Barry and I got some photos under the historic starting arch before having a quick coffee and he headed back for one night of ‘sleep’. (Barry finished in 26 hours- an amazing time considering he didn’t manage to get the training in he wanted and then joined Jez and I in Vegas after the run!)
Me and Stavros Bragg before the start. The nicest we would be to each other all day.
Jez and I had a quick dinner, tried to watch American TV, gave up and went to our rooms. I like to think I helped him sleep that night by trying to get him to watch ‘Blades of Glory’ which, I’m sure you will all agree is a cinematic triumph, but it fell on deaf ears. I giggled myself to sleep alone.
The Start- Jez is far right. Photo: Glen Tachiyama.
Amazingly, we both slept pretty well and we were up. He had 100 miles to run. I had 209 miles to drive. If you could bottle the fired up, pent up energy in Squaw Valley that morning you could quickly put Red Bull out of business. Both crews and runners alike were itching for the race to start and after a few photos, I took Jez’s jacket, wished him the best and headed up the track a bit to get some photos as he and the other leaders headed up the hill.
I’d love to take credit for this photo but it’s not mine. Jez takes an early lead…
From experience in 2012, I knew I had four hours minimum to get to the first crew meeting point which is Robinson Flat, 30 miles into the race. More likely five, but I wanted to be safe as there was a seriously elite pack at the front of this race. I headed back to the apartment, took all our cases down to the car, checked out and was on my way to find petrol (gas) and coffee (tea).
Whilst the runners had ‘just’ 30 miles to cover here, for crews it was closer to 140 miles as you have to drive all the way to the finish virtually in Auburn on I-80 and then double back on Forresthill road all the way to Robinson Flat. Whilst a long drive, it is unquestionably the most beautiful drive I have ever done and I even remembered the gas station from 2012. Once through Foresthill, the road narrows and it winds through simply stunning mountain passes but you could really see the damage in parts from the American Fire in August of last year.
The drop offs from the side of the road were incredible and I was glad I was at the front of the 300 odd crew vehicles and would mostly be alone rather than trying to drive a 7 seater beast around blind bends on the wrong side of the road as cars came towards me.
Waiting for Jez at Robinson Flat.
At Robinson Flat I got set up and chatted with a few other crews. Most crews wouldn’t get here for hours so I knew they were all waiting for the top runners and many of them were great runners in their own right. America is such a friendly place that as soon as people see you are alone they are quickly come over to say hello. Whilst I was crewing alone for the whole day, never once did I feel alone.
First up Rob Krar and Max King came absolutely steaming through and were gone in a flash. Quickly followed by Ryan Sandes, Nick Clark, Ian Sharman and a couple of others. Around 20 minutes later Jez came through and I knew this was exactly where he wanted to be based on his split cards, of which we both had a copy. Jez is very much a ‘race- mode’ kind of guy and I knew he would want to get in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. I had gels lined up, coke, replacement water bottles, ice, real food and a cap all ready and accessible at a grab.
I waved and shouted as I saw him coming and he shouted one word that froze my bones. “Socks”. Oh, fuck. Where the fuck are the fucking socks? Fuck. I dived into my backpack, not having anticipated he would want these so soon. Thankfully someone was watching over me and they were right at the top. Like a really awful Formula 1 team, but pretty slick for an ultra, Jez was changed and gone within 30 seconds. The first stop had gone well. Back on the road.
Gel handover after ‘Socksgate’ (which wasn’t as bad as ‘Ricepuddingsgate’ of 2012.)
Next stop was Michigan Bluff at mile 55, but before Jez got there he had 25 miles of the ‘Canyons’. These are three steep and baking hot descents and climbs and are what end most peoples races. I on the other hand just had to poodle back down the mountain road to Forresthill with the air-con on, get a sandwich, sit in the sun, read my book and pick up some more ice. Crewing is seriously tough at times like this.
Michigan Bluff is a really strange little place. It is an old mining town, but town is like calling Staines ‘New London’. It is really only about 20 houses, but they make up for it with rusted car lawn furniture. I still can’t quite work out if it is charming or sinister but I lean towards the former- it has character! How people live there in the winter I have no idea- it’s hard enough to drive down to on a baking summers day. Some of the windiest streets I have ever driven on, but the views make everything so spectacular that everyone goes 10mph max anyway.
Once at Michigan Bluff runners have completed over half of the race (55 miles) and the toughest part of the course. Even the elites are suffering here and shortly after Miguel Heras dropped from the race. No one looked good and it was starting to get really hot. Very different to how I remember it in 2012, but also not a patch on last year’s heat-wave.
Jez came in again around 20 minutes after the lead runner and was looking really good. We didn’t say much as I knew I would see him in seven miles time again at Forresthill and all he needed was fresh water bottles, ice in the cap and a bag of salt caps. He certainly impressed other crews here and looked on a mission to start reeling in the ones starting to struggle.
I quickly packed up, got to the car (via a short shuttle bus) and was gunning it towards Foresthill. This is the tightest time for crews- particularly for the lead runners who bang this section out in less than an hour and I didn’t want to miss him before he headed down the Cal Streets to the river where I would next see him at mile 80.
I have to say, one of the highlights of my race was driving alongside the path that leads from Bath Road to Forresthill, where those who have seen ‘Unbreakable’ will remember it is where Kilian is filmed running in with Salomon team manager and pacer, Greg Vollet, Hal Koener with Eric Skaggs (who gives the most un-godly ‘whoop’ ever) and Anton with Jenn Shelton. I was driving along chatting to Ryan Sandes and his pacer out of my window who asked me to drive ahead and tell his fiancée, Vanessa, he was arriving. As Jez chased Ryan down I spent a bit of time with his crew later in the race and they were an awesome group, all totally dedicated to getting Ryan to Auburn in the fastest time possible.
As I got to Forresthill, parking was at a premium so I had to squeal into a side road, dump the car and leg it with the cool box and back pack of supplies to get set up by the time Jez arrived. When I got back to the car I realised all the windows were open, I had left in such a hurry. No sooner had I found a spot to set up, I spotted Jez’s distinctive yellow North Face shirt coming through the crowd and I shouted at him where to stop. By this point he was focussed on caffeine and so coke and red bull were the order of the day, along with more gels. A pretty easy stop. I told him where the others were, estimated times, who looked bad, who had dropped and generally kept him abreast of what was happening in front. Pretty much anything could happen now and honestly he was looking stronger than anyone else I had seen.
I was the only person crewing an elite alone, but whenever I stopped and needed help quickly re-filling bottles someone would jump in and lend a hand. It really was a great spirit out there and I was really grateful for any help I could get. As I said earlier, whilst I was crewing alone, I wasn’t once alone all day.
As Jez headed from mile 62 down to the river at mile 78 I grabbed a coffee in Foresthill, finally met and said hello to Joseph Chick who was waiting to pace Yasine Diboun and then headed to the car to get to Green Gate.
When I first thought of Western States I knew it was a wilderness race but I hadn’t appreciated just how wild some parts of California are. The roads are narrower in parts that some of the Devon country lanes I learnt to drive on and often have perilous drops off with no guard rail. The drive to Green Gate is one of these. In 2012 I drove only the main road highway section and then took a shuttle bus down to Green Gate, but the bus option was scrapped this year so I had to drive all the way down a road called Sliger Mine Road. I would suggest looking this up on Google maps if you want to see how remote California can get. Again, I was fortunate to be one of the first crews to have driven there because it was so narrow and the locals were flying around the bends. The road twists and turns for miles until finally there was the dead end where we could park.
After parking, it is a one and a half mile hike down to the aid station on a steep dirt road, but the views are absolutely spectacular. Whilst most of the houses around there are a little run down, there is one built into the hill that looks like Bill Gates should own it- both years I have been I didn’t have my camera with me at this point but it is just an incredible piece of architecture.
As I was setting up for Jez’s arrival I found out that Max King and Rob Krar had just gone through and both were looking a little frazzled, with Max being dizzy and having to sit down for a minute or two. After 80 miles in this heat and at that pace I still don’t know how they were even standing at all. To run 100 miles is absolutely incredible, but to race 100 miles is just a whole other world.
Jez and I had agreed that once I got set up that I would continue two further steep miles down to the famous American river, where runners this year were crossing using a rope for support as opposed to rafts which have been used in recent years when the dam is open further upstream. This was an iconic moment for me and one I have seen hundreds of times on YouTube as runners cross for the final 20 miles. Jez joked before the race that with even 80 miles on his legs, that he would beat me up the hill the two miles to Green Gate. He was smiling when he said it, but I was secretly crapping myself that he actually might. The ultimate humiliation.
On the way down I saw Ryan Sandes, Ian Sharman, Alex Varner, Brett Rivers and Dylan Bowman come through and I let them know where others were in relation to them, for which I was thanked. Again, going back to a football analogy it was the equivalent of having a chat mid-game with the Chelsea squad and really quite surreal to see these guys battling it out right next to me.
No sooner had I got down to the river I saw Jez’s yellow t-shirt halfway across the river, pulling himself across and battling the strong current whilst about 20 volunteers stood in the river with him balancing the rope. It is incredible how people do these things for runners- it was a baking hot day but the river is really cold and these guys would stand there day and night until the last runner came through.
Jez came out, we had a quick chat and made our way through the aid station and up towards the hill. I had come down with a bottle of coke and one of water for him, but let him know they were a little warm. I think he asked if I had put any ice in them and I believe I replied along the lines of “yeah, I did, and if you’d been a bit quicker they’d still be cold, pal”. So I drank them.
Hey, this was a race within the race- we had money on this- and I needed to psych him out a little. I think I further compounded his annoyance with me when I kept taking the inside line as we twisted and turned up to Green Gate. Eventually, he realised I was clearly the better runner (when given an 80 mile head start) and he sent me ahead with his bottles to get ice water and cold coke ready for when he came through. I joke, but I was blowing at this point and only just got the bottles ready by the time he arrived. Yes, maybe I had been sat on my arse for most of the day but it is stressful, anxious nervous sitting and so I was pretty tired as well and wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t got things right.
From Green Gate it was only 13 miles to run to get to Highway 49 at mile 93, but it is really runnable. I estimated two hours max so I had to really rush. I packed up, hoisted the back pack over my shoulders and slung the cool box over my chest. It was then a mile and a half up the hill to the car where I passed Victor Balesteros who had just finished pacing and we commented that “this is the hill that keeps on giving, right?”
Ryan Sandes looking less than his handsome best at Highway 49. Somehow he clung on.
Back at the car I was dripping in sweat so poured a load of water over myself and got in and put the air con to full blast. I too was on Red Bull at this point and whilst driving steady (promise, Mum) I was pushing to get to Highway 49. Here too you cannot access by car alone, so I had to stop in the town of Cool (oh, the irony) and hop on a shuttle bus. I was the only passenger and the lady driving knew I was in a hurry so she left with just me and we had a good chat for the ten minutes or so to the aid station.
This is a really iconic one for me. In ‘Unbreakable’ this is where Geoff Roes has just taken the lead and steams through to everyone’s surprise with Anton quickly on his heels. Today, it was a bit less raced with runners coming through every three to five minutes but still bloody close together for 93 miles into a race. The top guys had nothing between them at all and on another day I genuinely believe anyone in the top 20 could have won- and do regularly win most races that aren’t so stacked with the world’s best on one day.
When Jez left Green Gate he was in 10th place and I said how rough everyone looked in front of him and it was his to sweep up now. If you don’t know, being 10th is key at Western States as the Top 10 men and women get an automatic invite back the following year. Shortly after Jez left Green Gate, Jesse Haynes (who was top 10 in 2013) came through but was looking tired. I didn’t have too many concerns about him catching Jez but was more intrigued as to see how many Jez would overtake between there and Highway 49.
As it turned out I was wrong, somehow not one runner faltered on that section and everyone rallied. Testament to the fitness and mental strength of that field it was very inspiring to see. After the same runners I had seen at Green Gate went through I was expecting Jez next, but just like in ‘Unbreakable’ I was shocked to see Jesse bound down the hill and into the aid station. His partner, Keira, gave him a verbal kicking and fresh bottle of water and literally threw him back on to the trail. Then , Jez was coming in. I did the same but had pre-filled one with coke and one with water, he took the coke and I said he had a minute down on Jesse and to chase him down. It was seriously exhilarating stuff and the focus on both Jesse and Jez’s face was like something I have never seen before.
I don’t know who looks more knackered here. Stressful handover before Jez heads to chase Jesse. Photo: Stephen Ingalls.
My final task was to get to Auburn, park at the finish and run up to Robie Point which is where the Western States trail enters Auburn. I was then set to run the last mile with Jez, which was truly an honour. Anyone reading this knows how much Western States is a huge part of my life and to have the opportunity to enter the track with an elite runner and friend as ‘Tropical’ John Medinger’s booming tones echo over the PA system, mentioning my name as Jez’s crew, was a dream come true.
I heard that Jesse had rallied hard and now had a gap of six minutes over Jez, who was now in 11th place. I saw Jesse come through as I was heading up to Robie Point and congratulated him and got a high-five in return. At the end of the day, it is just running and these guys are gracious and kind, even if racing at the sharp end. I then saw Jez emerge from the last climb into the beam of my headtorch.
“Get that out of my eyes, Ginge”. Charming. We jogged the last bit with Jez looking at his watch constantly and even then I almost couldn’t keep up. He was super focussed and we didn’t chat much and I only realised after because he wanted to beat his 2009 time of 16:55 (which he did by ten minutes).
We entered the track and I said “It’s all yours, mate- take it home”. He then ran the track whilst I cut across to be there to congratulate him at the finish.
Jez kindly held the clock up whilst Craig Thornley looked for some fresh rivets. Photo: Bryon Powell/ iRunFar.com
What a day. What a race. What an experience to have the privilege to be a part of. Absolutely magicical.
Jez’s first comment to Bryon Powell at the end was “I don’t know what is worse, coming fourth or 11th”. It was an incredible run. To put it in context, Jez finished 10 minutes quicker than when he was third in 2009 (a time that would have made him 2nd that year), but he just so happened to be up against 10 other running legends in 2014 and there was no margin for error whatsoever. I think overall he came away happy with his run, but slightly disappointed with 11th, which I can understand.
Max King begged me for a photo the next morning. How could I say no?
That was it, Western States 2014. Twice I have crewed and learnt so much. In 2015, hopefully it will be as a runner. I just need to qualify again for the lottery in a few weeks and if I qualify, who knows, it might just be me?
Hop-a-long and me the following morning.
Seriously- if there is any race you dream to do but either aren’t yet ready or didn’t get lucky with an entry, just go anyway. Find a way to get involved- volunteer, crew or pace. You don’t get a buckle, but you get so much more.
36 hours later- me, Barry and Jez all looking exhausted outside The Bellagio, Las Vegas.