It’s the kind of conversation that husbands and wives hope they never have to have.
“I’m sorry, but everything has changed. I’ve fallen in love and there’s no going back.”
We both stared at each other. A deep well of emotions flickered between us, but we were so overwhelmed that for a while neither of us spoke. After over ten years together, who could find the right words?
Then we locked eyes. Smiled. Hugged and held hands. It had happened to both of us at the same time and it was ok.
“We’re going to have to come back again next year,” I said. “No doubt,” he responds, “and next year I’m pacing you for more than seven miles.”
Western States had snuck its way into our hearts and it wasn’t budging.
For those who say that Western States isn’t the prettiest ultra out there, I simply have to shake my head. Go run the first 30 miles and tell me if you still feel that way. My plan was to take the race out conservatively because the combination of altitude and climbing up the escarpment didn’t play to my strengths — but who would want to miss all that spectacular mountain scenery anyway?
As if that wasn’t enough to fill my mind, the place already has a special connection for me. I kept thinking about all the times we’d taken our young boys to Squaw. Before I discovered running, we took them out all day, hiking, carrying them in backpacks loaded with diapers and formula, sunscreen and baby wipes.
All this pleasant distraction was probably the reason that I took a couple of spills down the technical descent after the climb up the escarpment. Looking down at my filthy, bloodied hand and legs gave me a strange sense of satisfaction. Well, this is supposed to be hard. Score one for the mountain.
I’d begun my first 100 mile journey at the back of almost all of the elite women. Letting them charge ahead was mentally challenging, but I knew the danger of trashing myself up front. I’d promised myself I’d still be smiling at Foresthill (mile 62) and I planned to keep that promise.
It didn’t bother me that I was 17th female into Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8). It was actually a higher place than I imaged I’d be at that stage. I had the pleasure of running with Meghan Arbogast for many of the opening miles and she reassured me that I was right on pace for a strong finishing time. A veteran of Western States, with deep ultra experience and well known for her smart pacing, I was in good company. Besides, the relatively slow pace allowed me to take on a ton of calories (250-300 per hour) without causing any stomach issues. The simplicity of drinking many of my calories with Tailwind in the bladder of my Nike race vest was a lot easier than fussing about with numerous sticky gel packets. Seeing my “B” crew, Kristina and Norm, at Duncan Canyon made for a seamless handoff with more premixed liquid fuel. (You need both an “A” crew and a “B” crew to make it on time to all of the aid stations that allow crew on the course.)
Anywhere that a runner gets to meet their crew is always a highlight and morale booster, and another one came right up. Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) was such a party though, that there was plenty to lift the spirits even if I hadn’t seen them there. The transition was once again exactly as planned. Some new premixed fluids, a spray of sunscreen, an ice bandana, a kiss for my hubby, and I was off. Now I was in 12th or 13th, we weren’t sure.
I met my “B” crew again at Dusty Corners (mile 38) after passing Nikki Kimball and Denise Bourassa. Both ladies looked solid and weren’t far back, so I didn’t hang around. A switch to a new vest with a prefilled bladder and I was ready to tackle the canyons. Soon Pam Smith caught up to me and we ran off and on together for a number of miles. The whole weekend, it was such a joy to meet and run with so many of these incredible ladies who have inspired me endlessly with their accomplishments. As we ran together, we passed Nike teammate Sally McRae. I believe this was on the descent to Last Chance (miles 43.8). Pam informed me we were F10 and F11 at that stage. She joked to me about how she wasn’t planning to really race this year after coming back from a stint of overtraining and so I didn’t have to worry too much about competing with her. Then she added, “that being said, if we’re still F10 and F11 at No Hands [Bridge, mile 96.8], I’m gonna have to race ya.” Chuckling, I thought to myself, Pam, I wouldn’t want it any other way. We leapfrogged through the canyons until eventually I passed her and didn’t see her again.
I felt good in the canyons. Not overheated, not overtaxed. I was consistently taking in calories and drinking water — and it was all going down well. I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with SoCal legend Jorge Pachecho, who had started the race with the flu and was having a rough day. Mark Lantz, who achieved his 10 day, 10 year buckle this year, also kept me company for a number of miles.
I guess I should have been concerned at some point because I basically didn’t pee all day, except for a quick stop about 12 miles into the race. That’s often the case for me in ultras, but over the course of 100 miles it’s going to catch up with you for sure. There’s always so much talk about hyponatremia and over drinking, but my tendency is to get dehydrated. I feel like I drank a lot and was sipping regularly (I wore a 70oz bladder in the canyons and drained it by Devil’s Thumb, which is the end of the first canyon). Mile for mile, I drank more in this race than I think I ever have in any other ultra. Still, I became very dehydrated. Since I was running well and taking in calories without issue, it took a long time before I noticed.
Michigan Bluff (55.7) was a bit of a blur. Robert and Curt Casazza, a local and running friend, awaited me, telling me I was in 8th place. Joelle Vaught had just come in to the Aid Station but was looking rough. A brief stop and I was on my way, feeling energized. One more canyon to go, Volcano Canyon, and in the end it was a mouse compared to the monstrous Devil’s Thumb and the long climb out of El Dorado (I joked with one spectator at the top of Devil’s Thumb that perhaps a more appropriate name for it might be Devil’s Middle Finger).
I felt amazing coming into Foresthill (62). I was met at the bottom of Bath Road by my first pacer Kristina Pham and Curt, who assessed my needs before running up to communicate with my husband Robert on the main stretch.
Foresthill has got to be the best aid station on earth. With so many familiar and unfamiliar faces clapping and cheering it was impossible not to be deceived into feeling like something of a celebrity. I changed my fueling plan as I came in, deciding that since the Nike race vest was working out so well I should take that with me down the upcoming Cal Street stretch. There was work to do to get it ready and The Canyons race director Chaz Sheya and a couple of others all pitched in, giving me encouragement and a helping hand. Word was that now I was in 7th and I was all smiles, not too hot, not too tired. If my fueling was off, it wasn’t manifesting yet. This was what I had planned all along – to feel good at Foresthill and run a fast last 38 miles. I kept pinching myself thinking about how well things were working out. Adding fuel to the fire, I heard there was trouble up ahead. Some of the ladies were really struggling. I couldn’t wait to see if I could progress a few spots more on the most runnable sections of the course.
Inexplicably, a few miles down Cal Street and it all turned ugly. By mile 66 or 67, I became overwhelmingly thirsty, and also felt behind on my calories. In an attempt to make things right, I drank a lot. Too much. Then I added calories to the mix and my stomach just completely shut down. Endlessly sloshy with intense nausea. I tried everything over the course of the next few hours — gin-gins, ginger ale, coke, watermelon, Tailwind, Carbopro. My stomach reacted quickly with intense and sustained nausea each time. I walked a little, but still managed to run a lot of the Cal Street stretch. My stomach became worse and worse. We got to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky (mile 78) and I was despairing that I didn’t seem to know how to fix this issue. I had long since stopped eating and drinking but it was too little, too late. I stumbled over the river crossing, bonking and sick. On the other side of the river, the volunteer took off my lifevest and said with a sense of urgency, “I’ll do this quickly so you can get going.” What’s the rush, I thought. I’m barely able to move.
Just then, something made me turn around. Sally McRae was right at my back. That tough mother impressed the hell out of me with her near sprint past me and up the imposing Green Gate climb. It was one of those moments where, since I wasn’t in any state to give chase, all I could do was admire the effort and mentally cheer her on. Nice work, Sally. Atta girl. Go get ’em.
I hiked up the climb, giving my stomach more of a chance to settle. Curt had met us at the river and told me that most of the ladies field was still hiking up this same 1.8 mile hill, some looking bad. I was within minutes of advancing a number of spots. My body was suffering much less muscular degeneration than I expected — my glutes hurt more than my quads — but without calories and with the intense nausea, there was simply no energy to fight.
I met Robert at the top of the climb as darkness descended, picking up my very expensive, newly purchased headlamp. I turned it on. Out of battery! Now, I’m usually a pretty mild-mannered person, but this was simply too much. “What the *$#@!” I yelled at my crew. The battery had been fully charged that morning, but it must have been bumped on and the battery drained in between. The back-up headlamp was a twenty year old cheapo camping headlamp with a light so dim that it was barely worth the bother and a strap that had lost almost all elasticity. It jostled endlessly atop my head. I continued on my way, tripping and stumbling along the trail, bonking, dehydrated, nauseated and largely unable to see. As it turns out, there was one silver lining to the poor lighting. Fifteen minutes ahead of us, Joe Grant had seen a bear. And a mountain lion. Whether or not they were there when we passed, I wouldn’t have known.
The hundred mile distance is notoriously difficult to get right. At various points, I leapfrogged with Brett Rivers, Joe Grant and Ford Smith over the course of the last twenty miles. Even these extraordinary athletes, with deep 100 mile experience, are capable of having a bad day. As sad as I was for them that their day wasn’t working out, misery sure does love company. I took some solace from that.
I walked off and on for many miles on the most runnable part of the course. I lost giant heaping spoonfuls of time with each trudging mile, thinking I would be caught at any moment. Hours passed. I was planning to pick up my husband as pacer at Highway 49 (mile 93.5), and I kept telling myself that I just had to make it there and then somehow, magically, it would all turn around. There was no reason why this should be the case, but I had to tell myself something to make it through those dim miles.
Finally, my stomach began feeling a little better. The sloshing and nausea was lessening. By the time I reached Highway 49, I felt I could carefully take in some calories again. After about 25 miles with nothing, it was essential that I found some small replenishment that wouldn’t be rejected. I grabbed a roll of Lifesavers candy from my crew, which turned out to be my savior, and just in time too. My husband joined me and I said a temporary goodbye and thank you to Kristina and we were on our way. A few pieces of the best tasting candy ever and guess what — I could run again! I jogged the next few miles, amazed at the difference in my physical state. We gently picked up the pace, with me moving as fast as my still-deficient body could go.
Then, descending to No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8), I thought I might have heard voices behind us. I grabbed some hard candy at the AS and shuffled across.
As we began climbing again, Robert looked over his shoulder and whispered “Runners!” — but we couldn’t tell if it was a male or female competitor. My resolve flickered like a flourescent bulb for a moment before it finally turned on, full blast. Robert switched off his headlamp and we silently bolted up the switchbacks towards Robie Point aid station (mile 98.9). Adrenaline took over. I felt like I was really moving but the headlamps persisted and on one turn they were close enough to hear – two women’s voices. I was convinced it was Pam Smith, coming to make good on her promise to race me at No Hands!
We re-doubled our efforts and snuck into the aid station telling the volunteers to please not cheer or announce me by name or number. The less information that F9 got before she actually came in, the better. My whole crew was waiting for me at the Robie pick up location, but I wasn’t stopping. “We’re being chased, let’s go!” I urgently whispered. Thrilled to have my team running with me, we shared an eerily quiet middle of the night push with nothing but the sound of our footsteps racing up the road and down towards the track. I ditched my race vest on the road and sprinted the last few yards, the enormity of the moment sinking in (see video here). For as bad as the last thirty-plus miles were, I had somehow managed to defend my F8 position. A a top-ten finish guaranteed my return next year. It also gave me enough points in the race series to become the 2015 Montrail Ultra Cup champion.
Breathing hard, I was whisked off to the medical tent after finishing, a voluntary participant in the medical study conducted by Stanford’s Dr. Marty Hoffman. Even though I had consumed what seemed like endless amounts of water, I still had lost 5% body weight and there was talk of an IV. I was also experiencing ‘ultra eye’ in my right eye –- a harmless syndrome caused by swelling in the eyeball which caused some temporary vision loss. Combined with the fairly useless headlamp and calorie deficit, it was no wonder I had been stumbling around on the trails.
As part of the study, I was randomly selected to receive a massage right after the race. It was truly an excruciating experience, but it’s a couple of days later now and I feel less sore than I would have expected to be — so maybe it actually helped.
I’m elated to have the opportunity to come back again next year. I’ve never experienced anything like the amazing vibe that stretched from Squaw to Auburn last weekend. Both me and my husband were blown away by it all. Regardless of how many years I am fortunate enough to be able to run in this, the most prestigious, competitive and oldest 100 mile footrace in the world, it now owns a piece of our hearts. It’s something we will always want to be involved with.
A shout out to my Nike team manager, Pat Werhane, and the whole Nike crew, for their support. In addition, many congratulations to my teammates for their exceptional performances. Kaci Lickteig, after struggling deeply at Michigan Bluff, fought back to a spectacular 2nd place. Sally McRae ran a smart, strong race start to finish, ending in 7th, and David Laney also did us proud with his 8th place finish. We’ll all #seeyouinsquaw next year!
It’s hard to express the level of gratitude I feel to all those involved in this race. Thank you, thank you, thank you. To all of the volunteers. To Race Director Craig Thornley. To Gunhild Swanson and Nikki Kimball — my heroes. To every single person who participates in and assists in making this event happen. You made this one of the most incredible experiences of my life and the truth is, I might just be obsessed. [In my haste to publish this post in a timely manner, I completely neglected to thank some of the most important people. I thanked them privately, but to have omitted them here is a huge oversight. My eternal appreciation is due to the people who epitomize what this ultra community is all about. They are people I didn’t know very well going into this adventure, but I like to think I know them a lot better now. My crew and pacers: Kristina Pham, Curt Casazza, Norm Bouillard, and their families. They sacrificed much to assist me in this, my first 100 mile journey. And my husband, Robert Boller. No matter what, I know he’s always got my back. In case you can’t tell from the rest of this post, it’s possible I might kind of like him 😉 ]
I’m over-the-moon excited to announce that a documentary film which focuses on the 2015 Western States race is in the works! The film is produced by USL.TV’s Mike Cloward, directed by Michigan Bluff Photography’s Myles Smythe and features 2015 Men’s Champion Rob Krar, UltraRunning Magazine’s Karl Hoagland and me! Please be on the lookout for it at a film festival near you later this year. You can keep informed of previews, updates and locations by LIKE-ing me on Facebook at Caroline Boller Running. Thank you!