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Western States 2019

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Crossing the finish line of the 2019 Western States 100 with Zoey and Boden (not pictured) Photo: Paul Nelson

I know it's almost been 10 months, but I started writing this when I was just three weeks removed from my first 100-miler, Western States (WS), and it felt like it had already been a year.

Six years ago, I was training for road marathons but feeling like my running goals had become stagnant. I’d already run the Boston Marathon in 2008 and while I hoped to return someday, it wasn’t going to be anytime soon. I needed a new goal. Running wasn’t fun without one.

And then I happened to be on Twitter when Pam Smith from Salem, Oregon, won the Western States Endurance Run in 2013. A woman from my hometown – a mostly flat city with limited trail opportunities – won a 100-mile mountain ultra. I was intrigued and a series of races led me to some new adventures, like a 200-mile relay. I met new friends and became reacquainted with old ones.

This also prompted me to sign up for my first 50k in 2014. A month after, a fellow Bendite won Western States, and the race had my full attention. A 50k had taken me almost seven hours and was full of mud, hills and single-track trails. At 10,000 feet of elevation gain, it was by far the hardest thing I had ever done. Was I actually entertaining the thought of running 100 miles after all that? Of course. It became my new goal – just like the Boston Marathon had, back when I began running marathons in 2002.

Finishing my first ultramarathon at the McDonald Forest 50K in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018. With a handful of 50ks and a couple of 40-milers under my belt (and one 100k DNF), I was going for my third 100k attempt and first WS qualifier. The first wasn’t even an attempt as I’d succumbed to an injury just a week prior. The second was a year later at the same race, and I’d DNF’d at mile 50 due to not making a cutoff. A disappointing day, but numerous lessons were learned. A year later, I was prepped and ready to run the elusive 100k distance yet again, and I learn just before that I’m being given a ticket to run Western States. Wait, what?

Now I just needed a qualifier. Gulp. Nerves were frantic, but I left for the race start in the middle of the night and knew I’d be okay once the gun went off. Well, I didn’t even get to the start because of a car that hit a power line which landed across the road – the only way to get to the start. While I wasn’t the only one who missed an opportunity to run that day, my dreams were once again dashed. Plans and training needed a reboot.

Call it a hunch, but 2019 was going to be my year. I got my qualifier for Western States shortly after getting the job as editor of UltraRunning Magazine. I was born on January 19, and 19 continues to be my lucky number. It’s why I chose #119 as my bib for WS.

Aside from a huge snowstorm at the end of February and an injury just a month out from the race, training went fairly well. I hit almost all my long training runs per my coach’s schedule and completed all the races leading up to the “Big Dance” – including two days on the course at Training Camp.

Running the Smith Rock 50K in May before WS Training Camp. Photo Paul Nelson

While my overall weekly mileage didn’t build up as high as I’d hoped, I was feeling confident. Getting on the course just a month out from the race helped me understand what to expect in June. Unfortunately, I fell while crossing Volcano Creek when the water was at its highest. At mile 28 on the first day of training camp, I bruised my knee on a rock submerged at the bottom of the creek.

My injury made running hurt and when you’re facing 100 miles, pain shouldn’t be something to worry about at mile one. The last three weeks prior to WS consisted of heat training, biking, hiking on the treadmill and trying to determine when to start running again. The injury was healing quickly, but I needed to make sure I could actually run before attempting 100 miles.

Race week arrived and I had little time for anything other than work, taking care of my kids during their last week of school and packing for my trip. Crew bags needed to be prepped and my head needed to be clear – this wasn’t the time to do anything at the last minute.

Thursday morning before the race, my crew/pacer/running partner/friend, Glenn, and I, headed down to Squaw Valley, a 7.5-hour drive. Upon arrival, it was a mad dash to conduct a crew meeting, check in and freshen up before speaking at a women’s panel for Trail Sisters. I felt honored to be included with Kaci Lickteig, Alissa St. Laurent, Aliza LaPierre, Diana Fitzpatrick, Clare Gallagher and the woman I wrote about in our July 2019 issue, Karen Bonnett-Natraj. It comforting to be up there with the women I looked up to so much, but I felt a little out of place.

Western States Women's Panel before WS100.

Friday – always my favorite time at Squaw Valley--was filled with hugs, handshakes and conversations with people I rarely see in person. It’s a time where everyone gets to pre-funk in the very mildest sense of the term, in our own ultrarunning way. At registration, I was greeted by each volunteer who ended our conversation with, “See you in Auburn.” The entire process of picking up your packet (sans bib) includes getting your picture taken, a wristband that won’t come off until the finish, and a huge line of swag to fill your bag. A lot of cool stuff to fill the day, but the buckle was waiting in Auburn.

Registration photo for WS100 Photo Luis Escobar

The pre-race meeting was nowhere near as warm as I’d heard about because for the first time since I’d been coming to the event in 2016, it wasn’t hot at the ski resort – it was actually chilly. Friday’s breezy, cloudy conditions almost required pants, but definitely called for a jacket to stay warm. The meeting still heated up a bit due to the amount of bodies packed into one room, but it felt like the perfect send-off before the start of such an iconic race.

Indoor WS pre-race meeting

I made sure to get a picture with Karl, Erika, Cory and Glenn under the starting line before Saturday morning, knowing that once I crossed the start I wouldn’t be back until 2020, and this was my first (and possibly only) year I’d be running. I was trying to soak up every second.

WS start line in Squaw Valley. L to R: Karl, Evie, Erika, me, Cory and Glenn

Every year from 2016-2018, my nerves would skyrocket through the roof before race day. I knew I played a significant role as crew and pacer for Karl, and I wanted to make sure I did both to the best of my ability. It’s strange looking back – those feelings are visceral every time I look at the photos I took prior to the race. It was electric and I couldn’t even imagine how it would feel to actually run the race.

Race bracelet

Surprisingly, I felt eerily calm. Glenn, Cory and I made it to an early dinner of pizza so that I could get to bed early Friday night. I made sure to eat all veggie (no spicy pepperoni) and a Sprite to calm the belly. Nerves were definitely present, but I kept them at bay. After saying goodbye/goodnight, I went back to the room, took a shower and prepped my clothes and gear for the next morning. I talked to my family and coach, and responded to all the well wishes I received. My movie of choice on TV was Elf – a random pick for sure, but that’s what was on. I have a hard time turning off the TV before a race because I know that means there’s nothing left until race morning but sleep, however it wasn’t hard this time. I was ready. I fell asleep for at least five hours without constantly waking up and checking the clock.

Alarm set for WS wake up!

It was 37 degrees on Saturday morning. I picked up my bib and stood inside the ski lodge while keeping warm and waiting for Cory, Glenn and Karl to show up at the start. Once they arrived, I gave them last minute instructions as well as my warm jacket. Aliza LaPierre and Yassine Diboun, both of whom I had just met two days prior, wished me good luck (in the dark). Right before the start, John Trent gave some heart-warming, last minute words of advice to all the runners and then we were off.

Next stop - Auburn.

The hike up to the Escarpment goes quickly, even though it takes most runners over an hour. However, it definitely doesn’t help to be hiking closely behind a runner wearing tights that include a mesh patch for ventilation. My attempt to pass a male runner wearing tights with a mesh patch right over his lower crack were ill-fated. While I tried to steer clear of looking straight up into his crack, I’d pass him once and then somehow, he’d return. It was one of those things that I knew I’d never forget, but it wasn’t the way I wanted to start the race.

Headed to the Escarpment at sunrise Photo Paul Nelson

We hit snow near the upper lodge and proceeded to keep a good pace. I also ran near Karen and Kyle Robidoux, who is a blind runner, and saw others who felt familiar. Lots of spectators climbed up to the top to cheer on runners – especially where we crested the ridge. Loud music and high-fives were plentiful. And then, as we funneled onto the single track, we turned to see Eric Schranz blowing his alpenhorn.

We made our way over the next six miles which included a fair amount of snow –berms packed over several months in the high country. We are talking feet of snow. If you can, picture mounds of snow that rise, drop, twist and turn between trees. The course was underneath that snow, and we had no choice but to follow it. I was grateful I didn’t fall much and only had to slide on my butt a couple of times. It’s worth mentioning that the snow was so packed, most footprints didn’t make a dent – and that was after 300+ runners had already trekked through.

It’s both hard and not hard to remember how those early miles went. There was one point where I passed Karen and I swore she said she bruised her butt, but I wasn’t sure how serious she was – it was so early. I knew she was tough and still standing, so I continued on after mentioning that I had done the same (more scraping that bruising, but still).

Most of my thoughts were directed at moving forward as efficiently as possible, as they often are early in an ultra. Fueling, hydrating, body/gear check are all on the brain, but my other thought was cutoffs. What if I didn’t make them early on? I continued to bounce this idea around in my head pretty matter-of-factly. If I didn’t make the cutoffs, that was just the way it was. I would explain that I was moving as efficiently as I could manage, and any faster would have gotten me in trouble later on. There was no doubt in my mind I was moving exactly how I should.

Climbing in the high country. Photo Facchino Photography

I went through Red Star (AS #2) feeling good and wanting to see my crew at Duncan. I had been to Duncan as part of a crew and knew what to expect. When I arrived, I flew in with a huge smile on my face. I was happy and feeling good – and I wanted them to know I was happy to see them. I drank and ate and got my ice bandana, not knowing how hot it was going to get. Soon, I was off – no chair time, just adding GU to my pockets and leaving behind gloves and arm sleeves. Then it was down to Duncan Creek where I crossed carefully, considering my previous injury – then it was up to Robinson.

High Country climbing Photo Facchino Photography

Crossing Duncan Creek Photo Facchino Photography

When I arrived, Karl and Erika awaited with a chair and full spread of all my gear. Karl asked about hot spots on my feet and there were none. I left the Advil with them because at mile 30, I had absolutely zero knee pain. Once I was out of Robinson Flat, it was a fair amount of downhill grade and helped me gain more time on the cutoffs.

One my way to Dusty Corners at mile 38, all seemed well and my speed and spirits were up. I promised myself some Coke at some point during this time and it helped – and then sadly, it didn’t. After seeing my amazing crew at Dusty, there was a point when I sort of crashed and reached a lower point in the race. My stomach wasn’t tip-top and while I attribute it to Coke and a gel flavor I wasn’t fond of, I was struggling.

Duncan Creek Crossing Photo Facchino Photography

There were cow bells ringing before Last Chance aid station, and all of the runners around me thought the aid station was getting close–but they were real cows with cowbells… it wasn’t until I heard “moo” that my hopes were completely dashed. My only indication something was up was that they were ringing above us and we were going downhill.

Last Chance was incredible as the “aid station before the canyons.” It was around this time that I started grabbing saltines –this fuel helped me throughout the rest of the race. I also had ice in my pack but this didn’t seem to help on the way into the canyons –it was hot but not terribly. Once down at the swinging bridge, it was cool in the shade on the way up to Devil’s Thumb, but I still wanted a popsicle. I passed a few runners who were struggling, but I still felt like I made good time on the way up. I continued my stomach experiment – trying what I had in my drop bag which included my GU drink powder.

I left Devil’s Thumb knowing that the upcoming part of the course was very familiar, and I was looking forward to seeing my crew at Michigan Bluff. I also knew that first I had to go down to El Dorado and back up again. While it seems like it went well, looking back, I’m sure my stomach was still giving me problems. I arrived only to be met by Karl a little bit up the trail. He informed me that Erika would be able to run with me and while I was a little confused about where she would start, it was very clear once I arrived at the aid station because she was geared up and ready to run. The sun had gone down and I was cooling off. I changed into long sleeves and Erika somehow got a couple of headlamps from very kind people so we weren’t left running in the dark (mine had lost its charge). Note to self – make sure headlamps are charged (or have batteries) the night before the race. Erika and I left Michigan Bluff and I couldn’t have been happier. She was a pro and so positive. We caught up on the winners/DNFs and laughed a lot. While I was looking forward to reaching the rest of my crew at Foresthill, I wasn’t ready to leave Erika just yet.

We headed into Foresthill with Cory waiting –it was much quieter than I have seen in previous years, but still such a great point in the race. John Trent was waiting and I got to give him a hug, while my crew helped with food, gear change and more. It’s easy to remember but seems so long ago.

Glenn and I started down Cal Street and I remember thinking how much downhill there was in the dark after running it twice during the day and not feeling quite the same. Glenn kept me going, even with a bad stomach. We were passed by Ken and Tonya, a couple of Bendites, and it was great seeing familiar faces. At Cal 2, we sat and I got some noodles and Mountain Dew, which perked me up and got me on my feet. Shannon, the volunteer who helped me, was from the PNW and we enjoyed talking to her.

River Crossing at 3:30 a.m. funny faces Photo Facchino Photography

We finally made it to the river crossing where I said goodbye to Glenn and picked up Karl for a 16-mile journey starting around 3:30 a.m. We crossed the river in a raft with a few other runners and their pacers, and reached the other side in what felt like just a few seconds. But I got up and climbed out of the boat ready to finish the last 22 miles. Karl and I cruised up to Green Gate and then ran the runnable.

Getting out of the raft Photo Facchino Photography

The sun came up around 5:30 a.m. and when we neared ALT aid station (mile 85), we ran into Ken Michal and Dean Karnazes. Ken is one of the UltraRunning Magazine ambassadors, and Dean is a columnist for the magazine. I had just met Ken the day prior and had never actually met Dean in person (just on the phone or via email) until right then. I wondered why Ken was standing high above the trail on the bench memorial, while Dean wasn’t sure what to do. So I hugged Dean and asked Ken not to drop (he proclaimed he was done). Later I found out he’d been having to run with the “lean” for 20 miles and DNF’d at mile 85.

Karl pushed me pretty hard after ALT. Keeping ahead of me, we climbed and descended, and I followed his lead. When we finally got to Brown’s Bar aid station (Quarry Road), I got to meet URM columnist Jeff Kozak, who I’d only talked with on the phone. Karl let me visit the port-o-pottie and then I let him visit the bushes while I ran ahead. He eventually caught back up with me and we finally reached the Highway 49 crossing. My memories of this trail have always been from running it in the dark, and somehow, the trail didn’t seem nearly as grueling during the daylight hours. Climbs I had absolutely feared never appeared, and in their place were reasonable hikes that were manageable – even after 90 miles. I found it to be wonderfully strange and a huge relief – those big hills never materialized. But then again, I had been awake for over 24 hours.

We reached Pointed Rocks aid station (mile 94) at 8:45 a.m. where I picked up Cory as my pacer and said goodbye to Karl. Karl predicted that if we arrived at 8:45, I would have about a 15- minute buffer and be in good shape for finishing – I was hoping he was right. Cory and I then headed down, down, down to No Hands Bridge. It’s a rocky, steep descent but again, much more manageable in the daylight (in previous years, the fine dirt on this trail would fly up into the glare of a headlamp and blind you during the night). Cory and I caught up on the evening hours, the finishers, my crew and family. It was so great to see him and feel so close to the finish. We only had six miles to go and I could hear the highway. Soon, I could see the bridge. I WAS SO CLOSE. My experience crossing No Hands in years past has always been in the dark. The first year I paced Karl, there were old movies playing on screens as we headed down the trail and then twinkle lights across the bridge. The second year there were still movies playing and the third year, all I remember is that we turned off our headlamps and walked across the bridge to look at the stars. It was Karl’s final (and tenth) Western States and he wanted to remember it.

Crossing No Hands Bridge at mile 96.7 Photo Cory Smith

We got down there at 9:30 a.m. and I realized I had 1.5 hours to go three miles. I was going to make it. I walked the bridge and Cory mentioned how proud he was and I let my emotions surface for the first time. We started passing hikers and other runners on the trail as the sun began to warm up. It was all I could do to keep running--each shady spot provided a little reprieve from the rays of the sun. We finally hit the climb up to Robie Point (mile 99), which wouldn’t have been bad, except hikers were actually coming down in the opposite direction. On the climb to the final aid station at the top of the hill, a volunteer kept pleading with me to run 10 more steps. I did it once and then kindly but forcefully said, “no.” It’s a great way to motivate those who are cutting it close to the 30-hour cutoff, but I knew I had enough time to spare.

We reached the aid station and the volunteer said, “Is she from Oregon?” We nodded and he said, “Her family is right up the hill.” My dad was just up the road waiting – I saw him and raised my arms and shouted, “I did it!” I wanted to stop and hug him, but I was in no shape to be moving any direction except straight to the finish line. Up the asphalt hill I went, worrying about how my dad was going to have to climb that hill with his bad hip to meet me at the finish. Seeing the spectators out in the chairs in front of their houses was awesome – in past years we cruised through Auburn in the wee hours of the morning and usually all that was left was a ghost town of empty tables and chairs, along with abandoned bottles of beer.

Running to the track with everyone.

I finally reached my kids, husband, mom and crew as the run to the track continued to drag on. Boden even said, “Mom, you just ran 100 miles, you can run this last part!” But the little hills were too steep and I walked as fast as I could during that final mile to make my legs move. Closing in on the entrance to the track, I got high-fives from elite ultrarunners and many others. The scene was a blur – my kids entered onto the track with me as I made my way down to the turn-around and then back around to the finish line. So many people were cheering – it was nothing like being on the track at 4:45 a.m. in prior years when the bleachers are empty and all you can hear is the boom of Tropical John Medinger’s voice. I couldn’t hear anything but cheering. It. Was. Awesome.

Almost to the finish! Photo Ron Arnall

I crossed the finish line in 29:25. I’ve never felt the need to raise my arms in victory, but this time, I did. I had done it. One hundred miles. It went so well that several months later, it’s still hard to put the experience into words. The gratitude I feel is still so overwhelming – for the opportunity, the support and the love I felt while I was out there. It truly was life-changing, but I think I’m still trying to grasp the depth of it all. I ran Western States and finished.

Finish line feels with Zoey and Boden (not pictured) Photo Gary Wang

I must thank my crew, family and friends for supporting me through this adventure:

Thanks to Karl and Erika for the opportunity and for volunteering as my crew and pacers. Your words of advice and support and encouragement throughout training and on race day helped me throughout and got me to the finish. You are the best – thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The buckle

Thank you to Cory and Glenn.

Cory, I know you were hoping that Karl’s tenth Western States would be your last stint as crew chief and pacer, so I’m honored you kept with it for one more year. I wouldn’t have had it any other way – you’re awesome.

Glenn – I am so grateful you got to join me for the “big one.” Having you there meant so much after all of our years of training together. While I know that running from Foresthill to Rucky Chucky at a snail’s pace was tough, you helped me get through a very difficult part of the race. Thank you for always being there for me, no matter what.

To my family – thank you for putting up with this crazy sport of mine and supporting me throughout. I couldn’t do it without you all – I love you!

To my coach, Sean – you were there in the beginning of my marathon days and it only seemed appropriate to have you be the one guiding me to the finish in Auburn. Your unwavering positive support throughout training was the best and I’m so grateful, thank you!

And to everyone who followed me or sent me words of encouragement throughout the weekend, thank you for your love and kind words. I felt every single one of them out there.

Here are some things I never want to forget about WS100 2019:

1.) Glenn Browning, my friend, running partner and crew/pacer, called me every morning the week we left for Squaw Valley just to make sure I was doing okay.

2.) Scott Wolfe (Monkey Boy) gave me a hug on Friday and said, “It’s your first hundred – don’t fuck it up.” (side note: I saw him on my way to the track as I finished and reminded him that I indeed DID NOT fuck it up.)

3.) My nerves never got the best of me. I was calm – even before the start-and focused on getting to Auburn.

4.) My hike up to the Escarpment “exposed” me to European tights with butt crack mesh. I did my best to avoid the runner wearing them but wound up looking up, directly into the ass region of the runner for more time than I had hoped.

5.) Don’t attempt stand-up peeing until you’ve practiced it, ladies. It was messy, and I am sure I smelled a little of urine for most of the race.

6.) Cowbells are sometimes worn by actual cows and this was a new experience. I thought the bells were a sign of an aid station until I heard “Moooooo.”

7.) I had so much fun chatting with Erika who unexpectedly got to pace me from Michigan Bluff. It was a welcome relief and an awesome surprise.

8.) I got the best email from our amazing columnist John Trent before leaving for the race—so great that I printed it and carried it in my pack during the race.

9.) Riding in a raft during a race is so fun. Especially at 3:30 a.m. when you’re delirious.

10.) After the sun came up, Karl and I were both a bit (a lot) tired. However, Karl kept reminding me that there was a long, gradual downhill coming up and after about the fifth reminder (it’s coming up!) I had to laugh.And he kept telling me (and most of the other runners we passed) “You’re running like Walmsley!” It’s one of my favorite memories.

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