Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Western States Endurance Run. Sat 27/06/2009

Western States 100
This is a long personal story. If you can stick with it I hope I don't bore the pants off you.

My Western States 2009 experience was a bitter-sweet one. The sweet aspects:
- I got to see the four searchlights sweeping across the night sky, drawing the night time runners towards Auburn.
- I got to experience the 'athletes' village' on the sports field of Placer High School, floodlit at night.
- I got to see some of the 'speed merchants', including many sub-24-hour runners, cross the finishing line in their moment of glory.
- The sweetest moment of all was when I checked the results monitor and learned that fellow countryman and good friend Jez Bragg finished third in the unbelievably fast time of 16:54:35. I knew he was good, but for someone for whom there was no opportunity back home to train for heat or altitude to finish so strongly with so much world-class competition is nothing short of heroic. He has confirmed his world class credentials in the most prestigious granddaddy of 100-mile trail races.

The winner was Hal Koerner (USA) in 16:24:55. Second was Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan) in 16:52:06. If the race had been 102 miles, Jez might have caught him as well for the No. 2 spot ;-)

2009 was the first time in the history of the Western States Endurance Run that the top three spots were taken by runners from three different continents. It is a great rarity, probably never to be repeated now that everyone, including foreigners, must go through the lottery due to the exceptionally high demand on this prestigious race. By default, the proportion of foreign participants will plummet after 2009.

The sweet aspects, most notably Jez' success, balanced nicely the bitter aspect; you will have gathered by now that I failed to finish. This was my 11th Hundred, third Western States and first “DNF”. I got a car ride back from Foresthill (62 miles) with the sodium medical research team. Many thanks to Tammi Hew for your care and concern, and to Dr. Rose Bruso for driving this sad wreck back to the finish and letting me sleep for an hour or two in your car.

My race began well. I had detected the familiar acclimatisation of my body to the conditions in the preceding week as I lived, slept, walked, and ran the trails at altitude. The 12+ mile lone run/hike from Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley on the Pacific Crest Trail, then the 6-mile jog on the Tahoe Rim Trail with Jez, Kiwi Paul Charteris (my WS pacer in 2006) and Simon Mtuy (the familiar WS presence from Tanzania) were paying dividends. The humidity, always very low at 10 – 15%, sucks the moisture out of you, but I kept well hydrated. The temperature, very cool when I arrived, was climbing to a peak for the weekend of the race. It was a little reminiscent of the scorcher of 2006, though this year it only reached the high thirties C instead of the low forties.

At 5am on Saturday I was medically assessed and researched, the gun had fired and we were powering our way up the mountain to Emigrant Pass by the light of the ski slope floodlighting. As always, I took pictures as I went. It was warmer than usual at the start – about 10 deg C, so shorts and vest were comfortable from the outset. The sun was soon rising behind us as we climbed higher and Lake Tahoe was coming into view. I arrived at Aid Station 1 (3.5 miles) below Emigrant Pass exactly on 24-hour schedule. I had decided to try to fuel myself better this year to avoid the premature turning to lead of the legs. I made a point of eating something at every aid station – a little piece of peanut bar. I made sure I stayed well hydrated with “GU2O” (electrolyte drink). I took a “GU” (gel) for consumption later.

Once over the top at 8,750' we were back into the cool shadow of the mountain. The run down the other side along the single track was easy, too slow in fact. The pace was set by the person at the front of the line and my running could not flow. There was no opportunity to overtake. It was a shame because I'm good on the gravity-assisted downhills. Thankfully, the person holding us up soon realised and stepped aside to let us pass. Ahh – into the zone of easy, naturally-paced running again. Before long as I ran in another line, I was overtaken by Steve Ansell, whom I met on Coyote Two Moons last year. He also enjoys the downhills. I took my cue and gave chase, doing some overtaking of my own. Things were feeling good.

The undulating trail brought us to A.S.2 (Lyon Ridge, 10.5mi.). Another piece of peanut bar, some Pepsi, another GU for later, more GU2O for the bottle and I was off. The sun was hot now as the trail undulated up and down along the ridge. I needed my first pee. As I was one of the sodium medical research rats, I dutifully pulled a plastic zip-lock bag from my bum bag, filled it and left it beside the trail for later collection. (The sight of pee bags beside the trail became a familiar sight; there were 20 'rats' in the sodium study. Somewhat later, the punishment imposed by this race upon the human body was shown by a bag of dark brown pee. What that person must have been doing to his body does not bear thinking about.)

I arrived at A.S.3 (Red Star Ridge, 16.0mi.). Amazingly I was still on the 24-hour schedule and I felt as though I had been running well within my capability, but I needed to sit down. Something wasn't quite right. Why did I need a sit-down recovery so soon? I had planned to waste minimum time at the aid stations, and here I was having to sit down at only 16 miles.

I downed a cool Pepsi and another piece of peanut bar before running off down the hill with two freshly filled hand-held bottles. The running didn't last for long. I was soon wasting my first downhill opportunities as the dreaded queasy feeling was making itself felt in no uncertain terms. Running was becoming increasingly difficult. I had consumed two GU gels so far and I didn't fancy any more. I was slowing down and getting consistently overtaken for the first time.

I plodded into A.S.4 (Duncan Canyon, 23.8mi.) and I was going downhill fast (metaphorically speaking, not in a forward motion sense, unfortunately). Another time-wasting recovery sit-down and refuelling (Pepsi, peanut bar, GU2O) and I was off, plodding my way in survival mode. Soon I heard a Kiwi accent call out from behind. It was Paul Charteris, making strong and steady progress. He was soon gone. The trail eventually descended towards the first canyon and the first real heat. I broke into an intermittent shuffle on the downhill that left me spent by the bottom. I was caught up by one of the medical support runners who was running the race in relay. He soon realised I was not well and he stuck with me like a guardian angel (like an early pacer) until he signed off at the next aid station.

After the long uphill drag and shortly before A.S.5 (Robinson Flat, 29.7mi.), I vomited for the first time. It was black and smelt putrid. I had long since given up running by the bottom of Duncan Canyon. I dragged myself into the aid station to a scene of wild applause, cheering and photograph-taking. I felt unworthy of such applause and wished I was invisible to suffer in anonymity. From two aid stations previously, I had regressed from being on the 24-hour schedule to being almost down to 30-hour pace. I was weighed by the WS medics. My weight was 134 pounds, only one pound down. I was “good to go”. “You must be joking”, I thought. I knew different. Next I was grabbed by the sodium researchers. This was the first of two 'lab rat' aid stations. They dragged a chair into the shade and sat me down to take blood pressure and blood. The first finger-stabbing was not too successful – lots of finger squeezing did not bring enough blood. Another stabbing and more squeezing eventually elicited enough blood to fill their capillary tube, then began the wait while the machine analysed the sample. I was informed that my blood sodium was rather high and I should stop taking salt. I hadn't been taking any. Perhaps I should just stop taking GU2O instead. It then began to dawn on me that I had hardly drunk any water. It was mostly GU2O – at least two litres of the stuff, plus Pepsi, plus a bit of 7-Up, plus some chicken broth soup. The two GU gels, which are very dehydrating in themselves, had tipped me over the edge cruelly early in the race. NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY.

The medical procedure must have taken a good 15 minutes, which would have been bad had I been pushing for a time, but under the circumstances I was glad of the excuse to sit down. Later, after my retirement, Tammi was to tell me that my blood sodium was very high and gave cause for concern, and she did not think I looked in any fit state to continue out of Robinson Flat.

I'm a veteran of ultras and used to a bit of suffering. I've certainly had my queasy moments and I can sometimes recover from them, at least partially. I set off again in blissful ignorance, clinging to the forlorn hope that, eventually, things must get better, perhaps after dark when it cools down a bit. All I needed to do was drink more water and less GU2O. My mind was too mashed to calculate that I had another nine hours to go before dark.

After the climb out of Robinson Flat around Little Bald Mountain, there comes a nice easy downhill run to A.S.6 (Miller's Defeat, 34.4mi.) and through Dusty Corners (38.0mi.), ultimately to the bottom of Deadwood Canyon (between Last Chance (43.3mi.) and Devil's Thumb (47.8mi.)). I had really been looking forward to this. However, by the time I got there, I could not run. I plodded the whole way feeling thoroughly wretched. I arrived at Miller's Defeat well behind the 30-hour schedule. Welcome to cut-off world.

The remainder is a blur. I wanted to drop so many times, but as long as I remained in front of the ultimate cut-offs, I carried on, one aid station at a time, forever hoping that things would improve. I needed a target. My ultimate one became the second and final sodium research station at Foresthill (62 miles). If I could get there, at least road transportation out would be the easiest, since this is the most accessible aid station, and the researchers would be able to get my data.

As I fell further to the back of the field, I witnessed an increasing amount of suffering. My day was positively spiffing compared to the one being endured by some other poor souls. At various points (usually on the steep climbs out of canyons when the suffer-fest was always at its worst) I would hear loud heaving and retching sounds from other men (never women, strangely enough). The aid stations were awash with people (men again) in various states of retirement, some with intravenous drips inserted. Devil's Thumb is a favourite location for this scene after that brutal, furnace-like climb. (It's always nice to meet the Buffalo Chips of Sacramento here – the sister club of my running club, Stockport Harriers. Usually we meet in happier circumstances, for me at least.)

On the descent to El Dorado Creek (52.9mi.) I heard more hideous sounds of illness before rounding a corner to see a man stretched out on the edge of the precipitous trail. He was being watched over by an Aid Station volunteer who had ridden at least a mile up the single track on his trail motorbike, which was leaning up against the cliff wall. I slowed briefly, taking in the scene before me and feeling very concerned for the victim, who was vomiting violently every few seconds. I got a “Carry on, nothing to see here” hint from the official. At around the same time I overtook another competitor who was weaving dangerously along the trail and running the risk of falling off the edge. He already had someone with him. Also at around the same time, a rescue helicopter flew overhead to evacuate a victim to hospital. By the time I reached the aid station way down at the bottom, two officials were starting up the trail with a stretcher to evacuate the victim I had passed at least a mile up the tree-clad, baking hot canyon side.

I could only walk down the hills when I would normally enjoy the gravity-assisted down-hill blasts. When it came to the uphills on the other side, it was a pained plod of barely 1mph, with sit-down rests. Trouble was, as long as it was daylight, as soon as I sat down I would immediately hear the high pitched scream from the attendant swarm of mosquitoes in my wake as they homed in for the kill. I had to keep moving no matter how sick I felt. Any semblance of effort magnified the nausea. The mosquitoes caused more acrid black vomiting, by default. It was total purgatory.

I hoisted my sorry bottom (I think the Americans call it a donkey, mule or something similar ;-) into A.S.11 (Michigan Bluff, 55.7mi.) as it was getting dark, to another scene of manic applause that seemed quite inappropriate – even obscene, by this point. I pretended they weren't there. I have never been here so late. I should have been well beyond Foresthill – Dardanelles or even Peachstone – by this point. I sat down and was treated to a cup of tea with milk by a kindly aid station helper, who managed to conjure up these rare ingredients from somewhere. I suspect she may have raided some personal supplies. It began to revive me; for the first time in many hours I began to sense some bladder action - some liquid was actually entering it. With a second brew warming my hand bottle I was out of there in the dark with 10 minutes to go before the cut-off. Official records state that I spent 18 minutes at Michigan Bluff.

As I trudged my way through the dark along the fire road with Volcano Canyon my next target, I heard the cut-off hooter sound in the distance behind me. That's a sound I thought I would never hear and hope never to hear again.

Volcano Canyon is not a big canyon compared to the previous two, but it seemed huge by this stage. I had never before covered this ground in the dark, not even in 2006 when the world of hurt was so much worse for most runners (except me). I passed another very ill runner somewhere down there. He had someone with him. I seemed to be the only one who was going it alone. I promised to advise the next aid station when I arrived but unfortunately, such was my predicament it had completely slipped my mind by the time I arrived.

I hit civilisation and A.S.12 (Bath Road, 60.6mi.) 1.5 hours behind the 30 hour schedule. I needed another sit-down and some sort of rehydration, but what could I stomach? I settled for two cups of 7-Up with ice. They went down well. I burped some gas, which was even nicer. Then I was persuaded to try an inky-dinky mini wafer-thin savoury biscuit. It was about the size of a postage stamp and you could almost read a newspaper through it, so it couldn't do any harm, could it? (Remember the Monty Python sketch, Mr. Creosote and the "waffer-thin mint".) As I languished in the chair, Dean Dyatt (also met last year on Coyote Two Moons and always dressed to a theme - this time it was co-ordinated flames to ward off a repeat of last year) appeared up the hill out of the darkness to meet his brother, who had been waiting for him. They soon left for Foresthill; the cut-off was getting perilously close. He seemed to be going OK as far as digestion was concerned. As for me, I knew I was done for but the aid station captain tried to give me encouragement, to continue as long as I was ahead of the cut-offs. He had been in my predicament before yet had continued against all the odds to complete the thing with minutes to spare. Slightly encouraged, I got up and began the walk up Bath Road. Within 30 seconds I was convulsed by the most comprehensive, involuntary emptying of my stomach contents so far. I wrenched off my bum bag and supplementary light from around my waist to provide some relief for my cramping abdomen. The multiple soaking of the warm ground at the edge of the road brought forth a damp, humid smell, as if a shower of rain had just fallen. The remnants were still black and putrid. I laid down on the road, head downhill, not my preferred orientation but I was too far gone to move, to let the latest bout of nausea pass. I heard the aid station captain say that he would be back in 5 minutes and if I was still there he would do something (I did not catch what it was).

A comprehensive vomit can work wonders. Within a minute I was feeling a whole lot better and was back on my feet, plodding uphill towards the main road and the left turn downhill to A.S.13 (Foresthill, 62mi.). I was greeted warmly as always. My name was announced on the PA system with great fanfare. I felt such a fraud. Any semblance of celebration seemed so inappropriate. I was weighed. I was not too lightweight, so fit to continue. Yeah, right. I was then greeted by Tammi and her crew of medical researchers. I had reached my goal. I was their last 'rat'; they had been waiting for me. Tammi could not believe I had made it that far after how I appeared at 29.7 miles. I was offered a chair but I found lying down on the warm tarmac to be far more comfortable. They didn't like that because it didn't look good. I sat on the chair and let them do whatever they wanted with me (blood taken, etc. I forget the fine details now). I was waited on hand and foot by so many caring people – food, drink, melted Popsicles, whatever I could stomach. Now that I was sedentary and after my recent stomach-emptying, it extended to just a little more than a wafer-thin biscuit. I sat there and let the cut-off happen, which only took around 15 minutes in total. Most of that was taken up with the medical research. The siren sounded and the merciful release was complete. There was no point in struggling on. There would be no better place to retire, and I surely would have done sooner rather than later. The 62 miles had taken me 18.5 hours to complete.

Immediately, the aid station began to be packed up. Before too much longer, as soon as I was ready, Dr. Bruso was driving me and Tammi down to Auburn. I was in the front seat and trying to adopt any position and think any thoughts to keep the nausea at bay. In my haze, I watched the scanning searchlight beams draw closer as we neared Auburn. In the final few yards of our journey our route joined the race route. We drew alongside a seriously sub-24hr runner as he descended the final hill to Placer High. Dr. Bruso and Tammi shouted wild encouragement to him. He was in the zone and hardly flinched. He had one goal – to finish in the best time possible. Even this encouragement would not deflect him from that goal. I felt so envious. Even on a good day, a sub-24, or to finish in the dark, seems so beyond my capabilities.

As soon as I arrived at the finish I needed to be medically assessed, first by the cardiac researchers (weight, blood draw, blood pressure, ECG) then by the sodium people (weight, blood and post-race DEXA scan to measure bone density, among other things). I found the lie-downs for ECG and DEXA scanning to be quite relaxing.

The nausea continued. I tried to eat and drink to recover while lying down in the medical area. (It would ultimately take me 48 hours to get properly hydrated again.) I watched other people in a worse state than I – many still being sick, on I.V. drips, one collapsing in front of my eyes. Eventually, pressure on the stretchers (or “cots” as the Americans call them) was so great that I had to vacate mine. After all, I was only feeling sick. I tried to continue my sleep on the grass outside but even though it was very warm and dry, dampness was seeping through from the ground. I got up and wandered around again, still on my rehydration and refuelling quest. I wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway. It started to get light around 5am. As I was feeling lost and not knowing where to go to recover, Dr. Bruso kindly offered to let me sleep in her car. I welcomed the hour or so of fitful sleep before the rising sun shone into my eyes to wake me up for good.

I returned to the field to watch and cheer more finishers, escape from the sun as much as possible (it was HOT), eat and drink, chat with different people (including Mo Livermore*, one of the Western States 100 founders), attend the presentation ceremony then get the bus back to Squaw Valley.
*Mo is a very kind and caring person who takes great interest in the runners. She always welcomes me back every year. She has never forgotten how I survived the furnace-like conditions on my first running in 2006 without a single salt tablet. I only drank water between the aid stations and I never ate a single GU. I got my sustenance right in 2006 more by luck than judgment. I now know where I went wrong this year.

I learned that Paul Charteris was forced to retire at 80 miles with a calf injury that eventually prevented him from even walking. I felt very sad for him. Completing Western States had been his dream since he paced me in 2006.

Some big names were forced to retire, including Scott Jurek (who was expected to win), Dean Karnazes and Jen Shelton, among others. The Western States 100 takes no prisoners.

I returned to Squaw Valley to be met most surprisingly my the proprietress of Poole's Guest House, where I have stayed every year for WS. Ann had been following the race's progress avidly and was most concerned when I had dropped. She had envisaged physical injury. Not being used to ultra runners, she was not aware of the stomach issues that can plague the ultra runner if he does not get his sustenance exactly right. I was very grateful for the final uphill car ride from a most welcoming and caring host.

I so wish I could return next year to enjoy such hospitality, drink more water and less GU2O, eat no GU and make a better job of the Western States Endurance Run. To see the projected movies and light display at No Hands Bridge I have heard so much about, and to finish before dawn, would be my dream goal, but having to now take my chances via the lottery means that it will be most unlikely. For the same reason, the familiar yearly appearance of Tanzanian Simon Mtuy will stop as well. The international colour of the Western States Endurance Run will recede after 2009, which is very sad.

Here is my photo album.


  1. crikey nick. what a vivid read. i seriuosly take my hat off to you for doing stuff so tortuous in the first instance. there is no shame in your dnf but i hope you go back and rid your demons.
    btw will the pics be xxx rated ? ;)
    well done, even if you dont think so yourself it must have been one hell of an ordeal. hope you're recovering well.

  2. UC, the photos could have been so x-rated but some decorum was in order, so they're quite bland. The most x-rated ones are probably the ones of the bodies draped over the rocks in the Tahoe Rim Trail run blog ;-)

  3. hey Nick i followed your run every step of the way on the live webcast. I've got absolutely nothing but respect for you and the almighty effort you evidently put into this race. quite how you continued after 30 miles for another 30 miles in the heat and the tough terrain in the state you were in is nothing other than super human! it is truly inspiring and I will take this into my 50 ultra which is less than 2 weeks away now!! I think an important point that you should take away from your whole experience despite successfully completing 10 hundreds in the past is that running 100 miles should never be easy, and it is the sheer enormality of the challenge that drives ultra runners to even think about attempting such distances! If anything a DNF will make your next 100 finish even more satisifying, and perhaps more meaningful. Keep in touch and let me know your race schedule as I would love to meet up some time soon...

  4. Kind words, Stu. Thank you. You are right. This DNF will make me appreciate every future completion all the more. Even though I suffered on all my LDWA 100s until last year, I finished every one. The inevitable result was that I took completions for granted. This year's WS was a rude awakening of what can happen when I get something as basic as hydration so wrong. Over 12 years' experience was still not enough. Ultra runners must never stop learning how to adapt to different conditions.

  5. Stu, sorry, forgot to wish you all the best on your first 50mi. I know you'll do well. You've got speed.
    My future events are all the Vasque series plus plenty of others to fill in the gaps. This weekend is the White Peak Walk (26mi, as a run), followed by the Manchester-to-Blackpool bike ride on Sunday in aid of The Christie cancer hospital.

  6. Sorry things didn't go your way. I've dnf'd for much less (am a wusser getting tougher though) and am in awe at how far you got feeling so bad. Hope you get a chance to have another go.

  7. I saw you several times between Michigan Bluff and Foresthill, and knew you couldn't be doing well (though I also saw you take a gazillion photos of bugs and slugs) so I didn't say anything. . . but I'm really sorry. I thought for sure I would finish but ended up timing out at Peachstone. Anyhow, I'm sorry it didn't go as planned.

  8. That was a wonderful report Nick. I'm sorry the day didn't go as planned. I remember you from 2006. I was pacing a runner that day. We spoke briefly somewhere on the Cal St. section. That was day, and the performances of runners like you inspired me to give it a crack in 2007 and again this year. Good luck in the lottery.

  9. Thanks so much for all your kind comments.
    Burton, you did well. Your report was brill. We both have two completions under our belts now!
    Danni, I think I remember you. I wasn't very talkative by that point. I was taking photographs to take my mind off the real job in hand. I'm sorry you timed out.
    I'll definitely be entering the lottery for next year.
    Sherpa, thanks :-)

  10. just checked out the photos Nick. great! really give a good idea of just how technical the trails are out there. i'm tempted to throw my name into the hat for the ballot but then again i should perhaps achieve the distance in uk conditions first before attempting it in the extreme heat and attitude of WS!

  11. Hi Nick. Ultracollie directed me to your blog. What a fantastic report. Riveting from start to finish. I'm so sorry the way it turned out for you, but your hideous experience has been invaluable for me - I'm considering doing my first 50 next year and am just beginning to think about eating and drinking; I now know the importance good old fashioned water! All the best in the ballot for next time.

  12. Thanks Hayfella! The hotter it is, the more water you need. Just having a cup or two of electrolyte at aid stations keeps everything ticking over. At least that's how I now realise it works for me.
    Best of luck with your first 50 and the preparation for it.
    Ultracollie seems to be doing a good job of publicising my exploits. Thanks UC. Keep it up! ;-)

  13. Nick you crazy man, there you were talking about me and then you go and do this!!!!! I will keep an eye out for you at the Bramhall parkrun.

  14. Hi Shiz,

    I've got a week off next week (Sat 25th July) so I hope to be at Bramhall. It seems a long time (probably is). If you hang around afterwards to await my finish we can have a chat.

  15. Hiya Nick, I stumbled upon this blog while browsing the net. I have been running for 20 years but have only done 4 marathons plus around 8 halfs. My next 26.2 is Berlin in September. The reason I got here is I am thinking about 'running further' ie a 50/100, but am unsure if I can step up or even how to train properly for one. I am 46 in December, am I too old to be thinking about such a thing?
    My best time for a marathon is 3hr30m in New York last year. Any advice?anyone?

    great read by the way - I could almost feel your pain!!