No Regrets: My Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report

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.

Photo: Cindy Lynch

Photo: Cindy Lynch

“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.

Photo: Jeff Allen

In the high country. Photo: Jeff Allen

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.

Photo: Cindy Lynch

Coke. It’s all about the Coke. Photo: Cindy Lynch

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.

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Photo: Kyla Casazza

Photo: Kyla Casazza

Photo: Kyla Casazza

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.

 

iRunFar thought I looked pretty good too :)

iRunFar thought I looked pretty good too 🙂

 

 

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.

Photo: Cindy Lynch

Photo: Cindy Lynch

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.

My people. So much love.

My people. So much love.

Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report

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.

Robert and Caroline Pre-race (Photo Heather)

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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.

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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.

Coming into Robinson (Photo Kyla Cassazza)

Coming into Robinson (Photo Kyla Casazza)

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).

Michigan Bluff. Still smiling! (Photo Kyla Cassazza)

Michigan Bluff. Still smiling! (Photo Kyla Casazza)

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.

Heading down Cal Street after Foresthill with pacer Kristina Pham (Photo: Gretchen Brugman)

Heading down Cal Street after Foresthill with pacer Kristina Pham (Photo: Gretchen Brugman)

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.

Deep in the land of suffer at Highway 49 (Photo: Peter Beck)

Deep in the land of suffer at Highway 49 (Photo: Peter Beck)

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.

Getting candy at No Hands Bridge aid station (Photo: unknown -- if this is your photo please let me know!)

Getting candy at No Hands Bridge aid station (Photo: unknown — if this is your photo please let me know!)

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.

With Men's Champion, Jared Hazen

With Men’s Champion, Jared Hazen

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.

Like I said, the massage kinda hurt (Photo: Robert Boller)

Like I said, the massage kinda hurt (Photo: Robert Boller)

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!

Rob Krar at sunset during the filming for This Is Your Day (Photo: Myles Smythe)

Rob Krar at sunset during the filming for This Is Your Day (Photo: Myles Smythe)