“The important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become.” – Charles Dickens
Should I start at the end? Not the literal end, but the figurative one.
Any Western States enthusiast will hear over and over that crossing the American River is an iconic part of the race. Runners can’t wait to get to its refreshing waters. At 78 miles into the race, it should be a celebration that the finish line is within reach. All that awaits is 22 miles of gentle, forgiving trail, practically devoid of the rigors of traversing the canyons or the endless miles of downhill that trashed quads abhor. And this year, I arrived when it was still daylight.
But no, the river is not my happy place. It’s a place where, two years in a row now, the story of a glorious day of racing reads like a book slammed shut, right at the point when you just can’t put it down. I’m not sure exactly what it is. All I know is that the frigid waters don’t invigorate me as I stumble across, struggling to gain purchase on the slick rocks. The beautiful downhill momentum of the previous 16 mile Cal St stretch of the course is washed away. Soaked for the umpteenth time on the course, the pain of pulverized feet becomes impossible to ignore any longer. I’m bonking, but I can’t bring myself to eat a thing. I know the darkness is coming. The river reminds me that I’m more tired than I’ve ever been.
“I am here for a purpose and that purpose is to grow into a mountain, not shrink to a grain of sand. Henceforth will I apply all my efforts to become the highest mountain of all and I will strain my potential until it cries for mercy.” – Og Mandino
It’s not like I planned to be bearing down on second place at mile 75. I can assure you, it surprised me as much as it probably surprised you. With all of the talent in the ladies field, I knew it would take a near-perfect day for me to be up where I was. By all accounts, I sure was having it.
I started the race conservatively, knowing that the hundred mile distance rewards the patient. No matter where I was in the women’s field at this stage, I had learned last year that it was largely irrelevant to finishing place. I chatted away with Nicole Studer and then Chaz Sheya, and was sorry to leave Chaz when he sprained his ankle at mile nine. Right away my stomach was bothering me, a common theme in ultras. But this time, finally, I knew I had the tools to deal with it the best I could. After only managing 50k at May’s The Canyons race, I had sought invaluable advice from nutritionist Meredith Terranova with respect to race day fueling. I’m certain I had a better race because of it.
At Red Star Ridge (mile 16), I failed to grab any solid food. I thought I had another gel on me or there was another aid station before Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8), but there wasn’t. All I had was water. No big deal as it was early in the race, but it was too bad to have missed a fueling opportunity. By the time I came into Duncan, I was weak and lightheaded. I ran into the aid station with a somber look on my face. What had been a fairly unimportant crew stop on my race plan turned into a critical one as I grabbed the extra calories I needed to continue running strong.
Within minutes, I was feeling better. Then it was just a short stretch to Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) where I knew I’d get more star treatment from my primary crew team. I made my way into Robinson feeling amazing. What an experience it was! I arrived to crowds of people calling me by name, clapping and cheering wildly. I passed by Andy Jones Wilkins and gave him a huge high-five. My crew worked quickly and diligently. They had been instructed not to tell me my place in the women’s field until Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7), so I had no idea I came in 9th. Sure I was a little quicker than last year, but I thought there were so many ladies ahead.
After Robinson, I got into a rhythm and cruised along. Throughout the race my climbing was better than it has ever been before. I felt strong, confident and the miles simply flowed. Gradually, I passed some women, and entered the Canyons floating. This is normally my weakest section of the course, but instead, against any realistic expectations going into the race, this is the section where I effortlessly passed many of the top ladies. I ran into Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) to see 2014 race champion Stephanie Howe and ultrarunner friend Kelsie Clausen jumping up and down, wooping and hollering to greet me. Holy cow, that was fantastic! I eased over to my crew in disbelief. I’m in THIRD?! Wow.
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” Michelangelo
Part of me urges caution. How can I be in third place? This is Western States! Many of the best ultrarunners in the country are running today. It’s not called the superbowl of ultrarunning for nothing. But I also knew that 100 miles is a long way and anyone can have a bad day, just as anyone can have a good one. I felt smooth, controlled, totally solid. There were no red flags or warning signs of over-exertion and I didn’t feel the heat at all. I was ready to seize the opportunity. A brief stop in Michigan Bluff and I was on my way.
I cruised through the last canyon and up Bath Road into Foresthill (mile 62) a little after 4:30pm — 11.5 hours into the race — feeling on top of the world and wearing an enormous grin. I had just completed what for my skillset is the hardest section of the course, but I was feeling better than ever before. I chomped at the bit to cruise down the buff trails of Cal Street. I’d been riding a flow-state high for over 30 miles at this stage but it showed no signs of relenting. Never in my life could I imagine feeling this incredible 62 miles into a race.
After careful attention from my somewhat stunned and ecstatic crew (who barely got there in time), I picked up pacer Curt Casazza, telling him to stay behind me and let me set the pace. I didn’t want to upset the balance of whatever magic was happening. The miles flew by and I was in a groove. I knew I had to be gaining on 2nd place’s Amy Sprotson. By Cal 1 (mile 65.7), it was confirmed that she was within a few minutes’ striking distance [I didn’t know it, but in reality, she was about 16 mins ahead, which is still a lot of ground to make up]. Don’t think, just run, I told myself.
Despite diligent efforts to push through, I started to slow down after Cal 2 (mile 70.7), but not by too much. I was still making good time. Then Devon Yanko passed me a few miles after Cal 3 (mile 73). She was moving well, and I was starting to bonk, so I let her go. There’s still time, I thought. Just keep moving, Curt encouraged.
But before long, it was no use. My world came crashing in, and I was feeling every ounce of the deep fatigue of 78 hilly, hot miles. At the river, complete exhaustion washed over me. Despite this, I still had some fight left. Sure, I hiked up Green Gate, but it seemed much less imposing than last year in the daylight. The plan: change shoes, eat food, get moving. I was pale as a ghost, completely drained. Friend Ethan Veneklasen tried to impart some encouraging words as I struggled to pull myself together. Stephanie Howe and Kelsie Clausen, there to crew Stephanie’s husband Zach Violett, who I had passed earlier in the Canyons (but who ultimately finished well ahead of me), also saw that I was in distress. Even though the sun still shone, I was mentally entering a deep, dark place. A heartfelt hug from Stephanie, combined with all the other caring words I had received along the course of the day readied me for one last push. I let the calories settle in for a few minutes of shuffling until I was able to pick up my feet once again and at least move forward with some momentum.
By ALT (mile 85.2) though, I had nothing left. My right hip flexor was seizing up, making my steps small and painful. My quads were destroyed. I was bonking (again) and nauseous. Mentally and physically, I was done.
I picked up my next pacer, my husband Robert, at highway 49 (mile 93.5). He knew my race was over. Even then, I had no regrets. I gave it everything I had until I couldn’t give any more. It’s simply not possible to grow as an athlete unless you put it all out there, take a risk, and see what you’ve got.
In the end I got it done, sharing a few miles walking (painfully) hand in hand with my amazing husband under the stars. There was no quitting. I honestly never considered it. I owed it to all those who covet a Western States spot, and to those who support me in my endeavors, just as much as to myself to see it through. As for my husband, this has been his journey too. Balancing a workload that has transitioned into almost a full-time job (that I love), juggling family life with two young boys, and the stress of both buying and selling a home has meant that I’ve had to get creative trying to find time for running. While I manage to fit it in, I’m always chasing the clock to try to make it happen. It’s not easy. The little things like strength training have been sacrificed as I take the time to drive to trailheads and squeeze in 3-5 hour runs. Training for 100 miles takes a time commitment that involves the entire family. It’s tough on everybody. I’m ready to put this training block behind me and get back to a more sustainable routine.
Despite the outcome of Western States (12th place in 22:06), it was a privilege to be able to run this race again. I love the journey of running 100 miles of trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn. The race organization and buzz is unparalleled, and the volunteers are the absolute best anywhere. They make this race. I’m so thankful to my crew and pacers, who executed to perfection. Crew and pacer Curt Cazassa, his lovely wife Lhia who took outstanding care of the kids for the weekend, their daughters Kyla and Mari, my friend Cindy Lynch, and helping hands Fern Blanco and Chris Perillo, thank you. To my husband, for your unwavering support as crew chief, as pacer and for the million other ways that you make this happen, thank you. To my coach, Mario Fraioli, whose guidance I trust completely, thank you. Thank you to my sponsors, Nike Trail, V Fuel, and Victory Sportdesign. None of this is possible without all of you.