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.