Monday, July 2, 2018

Western States 100 Race Report - 2018

Listen up kids: here's what can happen if you eat your Wheaties, drive home from work with the heater on as part of your heat training, and keep moving for 100 miles just to keep your pacer from barking at you:
Photo by the amazing Melissa Ruse / SweetM Images

The Western States 100 is the most iconic 100 miler in the world. I've been dying to run it for years but had never been selected in the lottery. This year I received a gracious invite from Karl Hoagland and Cory Smith of UltraRunning Magazine to run it! As a race sponsor, the magazine was provided with an entry they offered me. I was completely honored. 

My crew of Mel, Jared Thorley, and owners of the St. George Running Center Steve and Kendra Hooper headed to Squaw Valley a few days before the race to soak in the environment and festivities. Going to packet pickup the day before the race felt insane in the membrane. 

At the pre-race meeting, they told us that there would be 24,000 pounds of ice on the course to combat the forecast for high temps. There would be 1,700 volunteers. We were also told "If things don't go well and you're having a bad day, try to die near one of the two defibrillators on the course." 

The night before the race, we went out for pizza, then came back to the condo and watched Unbreakable while I pre-taped my feet. I always think about my kids while I'm running, so for a race this special, I wanted to take them with me for all 100 miles.

I managed to get a few hours of sleep before the alarm started howling at 2:45am. 2:45am is as morally and ethically wrong as trapping someone inside an elevator then forcing them to listen to Kenny G music. But bags under the eyes be damned - I was standing at the start line of the Western States 100!

The race started, and we immediately started climbing. Speaking of things that are morally and ethically wrong, a 2,550 foot climb to the top of Escarpment to start a race has got to rank up there.

I was one of what looked like hundreds of ants scrambling to the top of a mountain. This picture doesn't do justice to that sucker punch of a hill.

Once we reached the top, we dropped down on an incredibly beautiful trail surrounded by wildflowers. I felt like I was running okay overall, but by the time I got to the first aid station at mile 10.3, I was already significantly behind the pace needed to finish.

The race has a 30 hour cutoff. Then each aid station has a cutoff. There is also a pace guide for each aid station. For example, at the first aid station, average 30 hour runners arrive at 7:40am. I arrived at 8:01am. I hated that feeling of being up against cutoffs, but just couldn't seem to make up any time. The afternoon was brutally hot, and I feared that I wouldn't make the cutoff at mile 30. I knew my crew was waiting there so I kept pushing. I arrived at 1:45pm. (Although the 30 hour pace was 1:10pm.) Being so close to cutoffs, I only stuck around long enough to say hello, refill my hydration pack, and get a quick dousing of ice water. (The volunteers at the race were STELLAR. Each aid station had big buckets of ice water to soak runners with which helped a ton.)

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fighting some discouragement. I felt like a scrawny boxer in a fight against Mike Tyson. And not just Hangover Mike Tyson. I'm talking Tyson in his prime. I just tried to get from one round (aid station) to the next without getting knocked out.

I was going through kind of a low when I passed this sign just outside the Last Chance aid station. It helped give me a good boost. I later found out it was made by Allen Lucas. Clearly he thought I was moving so fast that I ran my feet right off. Thanks Allen!

Sometimes I'd see runners throwing up or runners with tear stained cheeks giving their absolute 100% to fight cutoffs. They were working so hard. I was working so hard. I felt so inspired by the people toward the back that I was able to share the trail with.

At Western States, what goes up must go really, really steep down.

And then it goes really steep up again. (During the race, runners climb a total of 18,090 feet and descend 22,970 feet.) For most people, a section called "The Canyons" is the most difficult part of the course. The heat is engulfing and smothering, and there are some pretty rough climbs. But the climb to Devil's Thumb is the most fierce. I was pouring sweat by the gallon. Then the saddest thing happened. It was so hot that a runner near me spontaneously ignited and turned into a pile of charcoal. I HATE when that happens!

I was still a few miles away from the Michigan Bluff aid station as the sun set on the horizon. By that time, runners were very spread out and I'd go quite a while without seeing another runner.

It was dark by the time I got to Michigan Bluff. This will come as 0% shocking, but I was still uncomfortably close to cutoffs. At that point, my friend Steve Hooper joined the party to pace the next 22 miles. (The word "party" is used very, very loosely here.) Steve is basically amazing. He had open heart surgery less than a year ago. It's a longer story than I have room for, but running literally saved his life. Unfortunately I had let myself get behind on calories and just couldn't seem to turn it around. For the last 45 miles of the race, my stomach felt like I swallowed a honey badger. I was walking a tight rope where my stomach was begging to barf, and I was begging it not to. Steve and I kept a pretty good pace, and he was patient with me at aid stations when I turned my nose up at every single thing he offered. Humans should never eat honey badgers.

Steve saw lots of carnage out on the trails. We passed quite a few people heaving their guts out on the side of the trail. Eventually we reached the Rucky Chucky aid station at mile 78. I saw my crew for a minute, kissed my wife, then my friend Jared Thorley joined me to pace the last 22 miles. It was 4:13am when we set out to cross the American River. The river is wide and COLD. Every runner has to put a life jacket on and hold onto a rope as they cross. My friend Tony Nguyen caught this picture as I approached the river. It gives a pretty good idea of the toll that nearly 24 hours of forward motion had taken on me.
Photo by the amazing Tony Nguyen

I didn't get any pictures with Jared because we were trying to hurry as fast as we could to stay ahead of cutoffs. We pushed and pushed. Jared watched his Garmin like a hawk. Whenever I started to lag he'd say "Come on Cory, you've got to go!" I heard that at least seventeen million times. I would have given anything for the strength to punch him in the throat. We'd get to aid stations and I'd stay long enough to fill my hydration pack, put some ice in my hat, and then start running again. When I saw my crew, I'd give Mel a kiss but wouldn't stay to talk. She later told me she broke down in tears near the end of the race. She knew Western States was important to me, and she saw how much I was struggling. She wasn't sure I could make it. I definitely wasn't sure I could make it. I'm so thankful for the support Kendra gave Mel during the race.

Jeff Kozak was a volunteer at the mile 90 aid station and wrote a touching article for UltraRunning Magazine about the encouragement he gave me as I passed through. Admittedly my eyes got a little wet reading his description of the desperation I was feeling. You can read his article HERE.

At mile 96 I had accepted the fact that I probably wouldn't make it to the finish in time. There is a gigantic climb around mile 98 and I was spent. I had laid everything out on the line, and truly had nothing left to give. Jared kept pushing. Over and over I heard "Come on Cory, you've got to go!"

I managed to make it to the top of the climb. I had one mile to get to the finish line at the Placer High track. I was sure I didn't have enough time to make the 30 hour cutoff. Then out of the blue I saw my friend Paul Grimes. He hugged me and yelled "You've got this! You've got this!"

Later Paul wrote me this: "When I set out from the track, my intent was to find the last runner who had a chance to finish and do anything/everything I could to help that person in. I was nearly 100% sure no one behind you had a chance... and that you did. It was such an overwhelming experience to see the fate of your run teetering on the edge there. I can’t imagine the feeling of missing the cutoff by such a narrow margin after such a long arduous and emotional journey. To go through so much and be so close! I wanted so badly for you to feel the elation of hitting the track in auburn and so badly for you not feel the agony of missing the cutoff. You know the rest of the story and I’m so glad it ended the way it did! It was inspiring to see you not give up and summon the physical and mental strength needed to move in a way that must have seemed impossible to you!" I'm so thankful for his encouragement, and for the rest of my crew who encouraged me to keep going during that final mile. (Here's me and Paul at the finish line.)

Then as I got a little closer to the track, I saw my friend Kaci Lickteig. I look up to her so much. I admire her not only for her athletic abilities (she has WON the Western States 100!), but also for her radiating happiness, humility, and kindness. She gave me a high five and said she was so happy that I was going to finish. (This is a photo with Kaci a few weeks ago at Western States Training Camp.)

I can't describe the emotions I felt when I got to the track. I just had to circle the track to get to the finish line. As I approached the finish line I heard Celine Dion playing over the loud speakers, courtesy of my friends John Medinger and Lisa Henson who were the finish line announcers. Suddenly my ears hurt as bad as everything else on my body. With less than 5 minutes left, I crossed the finish line of the Western States 100!
Photo by the amazing Michael Miller / Mas Korima

I knelt down on the track absolutely overcome with emotion. (And if we're being completely honest here, overcome with exhaustion too.)

I really can't fathom the fact that I was so close to cutoffs for the last 90 miles (!!!) of the race. There were so many times when I wasn't sure I'd even be able to make it to the track. To finally make it to the finish line left me overcome with emotion. I kissed the ground below me. Renowned photographer Howie Stern happened to capture the image.
Photo by the amazing Howie Stern / Howie Stern Photography

I stood up and was hugged by Jared Thorley, the man who helped me along that final 22 mile grueling push. I've never had to dig so deep before. I've never wanted to punch someone in the throat so much. Once I saw this picture from Paul Nelson, I suddenly didn't care that I hadn't gotten any pictures with Jared along the course. This picture is a perfect summary of the experience we shared.
Photo by the amazing Paul Nelson / Paul Nelson Photography

I gave Mel a kiss. She has been my rock and my greatest support and my best friend. I'm so happy I was able to share this moment with her. (Sorry about the 90 mile long anxiety attack I caused Mel!)
Photo by the amazing Paul Nelson / Paul Nelson Photography

After a minute, a nice man with an official-looking badge came over to say hello. Then he grabbed my arm and said "Let's go for a walk." Pretty soon I found out that "Let's go for a walk," means "You need to go to the medical tent." Don't worry. It was nothing that a can of Coke and a 90 second power nap couldn't fix. #imnotdead

At the awards ceremony I got to spend a few minutes talking with Gordy Ainsleigh who, more than 40 years ago, was the first person to show that human beings are capable of running 100 miles. 
Photo by the amazing Steve Hooper / St. George Running Center

The volunteers at the Western States 100 were exceptional. They were kind and encouraging and helpful. Finishing Western States was the epitome of a team effort. My crew believed in me when I had a hard time believing in myself. They helped me find strengthen I didn't know I had. I deeply love each person on my team. Thank you Mel. Thank you Kendra. Thank you Jared. Thank you Steve.

I can't express how thankful I am to UltraRunning Magazine for the opportunity to run Western States. Thanks to my great sponsors Altra Running, St. George Running Center, Tailwind Nutrition, Injinji, UltrAspire, and Dr. Pepper. (Okay, that last one may be wishful thinking.) 

At the finish line of the Western States 100, a dream came true. It was an experience I will always cherish. Running has taught me that we are capable of more than we know. We can do hard things. Being stubborn and determined can take you a long way. The harder you work for something, the more it means to you. Dream big. There is intense, deep satisfaction in knowing you gave your all.

If you are a runnerd like me and like reading about running, I just released my new book "Into The Furnace: How a 135 mile run across Death Valley set my soul on fire." It's full of juicy stories about embracing suffering, facing fears, and how to look people in the eyes after you have just thrown up on your feet. You can find it on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

My Training For The Western States 100

The Western States 100 is coming up in Squaw Valley, California on Saturday! I'm more nervous than a pig in a bacon factory. I've applied for the lottery for many years but hadn't gotten in. Then in October I received an email from Karl Hoagland and Cory Smith at UltraRunning Magazine offering a spot to run as part of their sponsorship of the race. When I read their email, I screamed. I am so thankful for this opportunity. 

I've tried to do everything I can to be prepared for this race. In February I ran 130 miles at the Jackpot Ultra Running Festival. In March I ran 100 miles on the deck of a cruise ship. (Proof that I sometimes make poor life choices.) And in April I ran the Zion 100. While those races got some miles on my legs, the difficulty of those courses was nothing compared to what I'll face at Western States. In my training, I've tried to do as much climbing and descending as possible. (The race has 18,090 feet of climbing, and 22,970 feet of descent. O U C H. 

I've worked on squeezing miles in between releasing my new book Into The Furnace: How a 135 mile run across Death Valley set my soul on fire. I'm completely honored that Oprah Winfrey ranked it as her third favorite book of all time, right behind The Da Vinci Code and Goodnight Moon. Thanks O! The book was just released on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible. You can find it HERE.

Western States is notoriously hot. So I've tried to get my body ready for the heat by running in the heat of the day (around 100 degrees in southern Utah right now). I sometimes wear a sweatshirt and wool hat. Unfortunately the trailhead where I often run is a mile from my house. When neighbors see me in this apparel, they just stare in pity thinking I'm as smart as a bowl of Jell-O.

I start whining when there are clouds that tone down the heat.

I've been able to do some running in some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

I've also been able to share some awesome adventures with my family.

A week or so ago I spent a few days with renowned photographer and videographer Derrick Lytle who is working on a project with Altra Running. I'm not sure what he has up his sleeve but I think the video will come out sometime after the race. I had fun hanging out with him on some of my local trails.

My best training for the race happened a few weeks ago at the Western States Training Camp. Over the three days of the camp, we ran the last 70 miles of the course. I was amazed by two things: 1) The beautiful scenery, and 2) How freaking hard the course is. It's one thing to see numbers like 18k feet climbing and 23k feet descent on paper. But to actually go up and down those mountains was, well, a little intimidating.

There is a section of the course called "The Canyons" where the trail is SO steep and SO hot. I was melting and bonked so hard. The canyon heat was around 7,425 degrees. The forecast for race day says it will be around 8,425 degrees. Here is an embarrassing picture of what that epic bonk looked like. (I was pouring sweat and trying my hardest to not barf. It's one of my greatest life achievements that I finished the training camp without vomit on my shoes.)

I had so, so much fun at the training camp. We ran during the day, then did the things that normal runners do in the evenings. We hung out and talked, went to a film festival, and ate Taco Bell at 9:30pm. The last day of the training camp finished at the high school track in Auburn, CA where the finish line will be on race day. We were then treated to a meal that tasted like it had been prepared at the hands of angels.

A huge part of what made the weekend so fun was going with my friend and Taco Bell accomplice Jared Thorley. We ran into a bit of a dilemma on the last day of the training camp. After the run we needed to head to the airport. But it would be considered an act of terrorism to get on an airplane without showering considering how we smelled. So we found a hose near the finish line and made ourselves less like terrorists.

I'm excited that Jared will be coming to crew/pace at Western States. We've shared many absolutely miserable miles with each other over the years. Chances are we'll find a miserable mile or two (or 70) at the race this weekend. My friends Steve and Kendra Hooper from St. George Running Center are also coming to join in the crewing/pacing extravaganza. Steve has talked about Western States as long as I've known him. I'm so glad they are coming.

And crew chief extraordinaire will be Mel. We just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary and there is nobody I'd rather share the adventure with.

If you're bored this weekend, there is race tracking at I'm bib # 316. The race starts at 5:00am Pacific on Saturday and the cutoff is 30 hours later at 11:00am on Sunday. You never know what will happen in 100 miles. But I'm hoping that despite the challenging course and oppressive heat, I'll be able to make it to the finish line before that 30 hour cutoff.

HUGE thanks to UltraRunning Magazine, Altra Running, Tailwind Nutrition, St. George Running Center, Injinji, and UltrAspire for their support of my running nonsense.

See you in Squaw! 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Zion 100 Race Report 2018

I thought I'd mimic last year's Zion 100 race report by telling you about my experience in hashtags. I almost didn't run the Zion 100 this year. My legs were still kind of buggy from running a 100 miler on a cruise ship three weeks ago. The biggest issue is that with my limited time before the family wakes up or after they go to bed for the last three months, I've been completely focused on wrapping up my new book Into The Furnace: How a 135 mile run across Death Valley set my soul on fire. More info HERE. Instead of taking that time to run, I've been working on the book. #couchto100miler

Ultimately the night before the race I decided to give it a shot. I didn't want to be left wondering "What if...". I asked my daughter Kylee if she'd make a few baggies of wet wipes for me because #iassumepineneedlesarescratchy . When I came home, she had these awesome baggies prepared for my drop bags. I prayed I wouldn't have the kind of intestinal issues that would require this many wipes, but better safe than sorry. 

At the start line I spent some time talking with my friend and #lumberjacklookalike Danny Widerberg. Danny, the legendary Pam Reed, and myself are the only people who have run the race consecutively each of the 7 years since the Zion 100 started. This is generously due to the fact that Danny, Pam, and the RD were willing to count my solo run of the Zion 100 a few days before the actual race in 2016 because I committed to work at the finish line of the official race. #iwouldkilltogrowabeardlikethis

It poured rain for hours making trail conditions similar to running on a Crisco-covered Slip And Slide. It was around 2.4% enjoyable. While running with friend Maria, she said she thought the rain was a fun challenge. #shewouldnotpassaliedetectortest

There is always some kind of weather issue at races. Either we're pointing out how hot a race was. Or how rainy it was. Or how windy it was. Or how cold it was. Or how muddy it was. There is always something. Perfect race weather is like mermaids, unicorns, and enjoyable Celine Dion music. #theydontexist

When we got to the first aid station we saw delicious snacks like these M&Ms. #ithinkiwillpass

Then we had the distinct pleasure of going down the Flying Monkey Trail. #criscoslipandslidesthatgoupmustgodown

As difficult as the trail conditions were, it does help keep you hyper-focused on staying upright and distracting you from grumpy knees and feet. Mercifully once we got off the mesa, the rain eased up and trail conditions became much better. #icouldntthinkofawittyhashtagtoputhere

From there we traveled the long Dalton Wash dirt road to the trailhead of the Guacamole Trail. The trail is miles and miles of punishing slickrock that leave your legs feeling like guacamole. #puremush

The parts of the trail that weren't slickrock were still slick and slimy like creamy peanut butter. #myshadowsaidhello

A couple of hours of slickrock brought us back to the Guacamole aid station before heading back down the road we climbed earlier. #nomorepeanutbutter

At the bottom of Dalton Wash Road, Mel and Kylee met me with a cinnamon roll and a cup of hat Ramen Noodles. They basically rock. #everyaidstationneedscinnamonrolls

We crossed the desert floor between Smith Mesa and Gooseberry Mesa. It's always cool to look across the valley and think "Hey! I was up on top of that mesa a few hours ago!" #whileslidingoncrisco

Next on tap is the punishing climb to the top of Gooseberry Mesa. The trail ascends around 1,500 feet in less than a mile. It. Is. V E R T I C A L. But the great views at the top make you forget that your lungs have filled with molten lava. #okaythatsalie

Unfortunately, for some reason, I had the Beach Boys song Kokomo stuck in my head on repeat. I suppose it could have been worse. #celinedion #spicegirls #backstreetboys #aruba #jamaica #ohIwanttotakeyoutobermudabahama "comeonprettymama #wellgettherefastandthenwelltakeitslow 

The top of Gooseberry Mesa is another hefty chunk of slickrock that puts your legs through a cheese grater. The twelve miles up here feel like twenty. But then you get to an overlook called The Point and all your hard work is rewarded. It's my favorite part of the whole course. #themesakindoflookslikeacheesegrater

Many of my hours on Gooseberry were alone. By this point the miles were catching up to people. For some reason I was feeling pretty good overall. Every once in a while I would catch up with people who looked like they had entered the pain cave. #whoknewpaincaveswerethisbeautiful

While running on Gooseberry I finally broke down, pulled out my phone, and started listening to some ESPN Dan Le Batard podcasts I had saved. #kokomowasmakingmecrazy

I was almost to the Goosebump aid station as the sun was setting. Watching the sun go down was seriously beautiful. These are the times when you stop running and pull over to truly enjoy a magical moment. #patrioticsunset

I ran almost all night by myself. I always suffer intensely at night while running 100s. I get so tired that I start sleep walking and the sleep monsters are absolutely suffocating. For some reason it didn't kick in this time and I was able to keep my steady pace going. Once I made it down the vertical descent off Gooseberry, the miles become much more runnable. The problem is that most of the time, my legs are fried by this point. This year I still had some energy so I was able to keep pounding. #couchto100mileplanpayingoff

The last 24ish miles cover a variety of trails in the Virgin Desert. There is a red loop, white loop, and blue loop, all on different trails. While on the red loop I saw this beautiful sunrise over Zion National Park. #herecomesthesun #doodoodoodoo

When I finished the red loop, I took off my night tights and changed into shorts. I didn't realize until ten minutes on the white loop that I forgot to remove the timing bib from my tights to put back on my shorts, meaning that it would show I didn't check out of the aid station. A few months ago an ultrarunner got caught cheating. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with that. Fortunately between my Garmin tracking of the race, volunteer Laura Western who checked me in after each loop, talking with friends during each loop, and a couple hundred pictures and videos I took during the race, I've got plenty of proof that I covered each step of the race. I pushed as hard as I could for the last five miles. It was so strange to feel so good. That NEVER happens! #expertdeathshuffler

After 28 hours and 42 minutes, I crossed the finish line of the Zion 100. It was only the second time in my life where I felt like things clicked for the whole race. (The only other time was when I ran a sub-24 hour race.) It has been so many years since the last time everything clicked like this that I forgot what it felt like. I truly couldn't have been happier. I then went over to the awards table and looked at all the custom belt buckles. I waited until one said "I love you. I want to come home with you." #iloveyoutoo

It was great to see Jackson who had been working at the finish line all day. #isthisblackmailmaterial

One of the happiest moments of the day was waiting at the finish line for my friend Jared Thorley. He desperately, desperately wanted a sub-30 hour finish. I saw him a few hours earlier and didn't think he had a prayer. But with 11 minutes before that 30 hour goal, Jared made it to the finish line. He dug SO deep for that. His finish was a beautiful thing to watch. #achievetheimpossible

I love how every race is an adventure. As you are standing at the starting line, you have no idea what is in store. I love the people and the atmosphere of the ultra community. An ultramarathon is an opportunity to see beautiful places, breathe fresh air, then breathe molten lava as you climb ridiculous hills that fill your lungs with burning magma, and be surrounded by people who are willing to dream big. This is a race experience I will always cherish. #gettherefastandthenwelltakeitslow #thatswherewewanttogo #waydowninKokomo

I must thank Mel and my amazing kids Jackson, Danica, and Kylee. I love them so much and am so thankful for their support. Huge thanks to all the incredible race volunteers. And thanks to Altra, Tailwind Nutrition, Injinji, St. George Running Center, and UltrAspire. I feel so blessed.