By Jack Andrish
Oh my; it's June 24th and I'm in line again for the check-in to the Western States 100. It seemed like only a month ago that my name had been drawn from the lottery. But that was December and many months ago. Many months of attempts to train for this adventure in the mountains and canyons of the Sierras. Attempts I say because through a conspiracy of injuries, travel commitments and weather, this winter/spring was my worst for consistency. Did I say I lived in Cleveland where the year 2005 brought a record snowfall? Well, it did and for all of us in Northeast Ohio, it made the trail running a bit tough. And injuries; I sounded like a patient from my own clinic. Start running; slowed for snow. Start running; stop for foot pain (Oh, could this be a Jones type stress fracture?). Start running; slowed by hamstring pain (Oh my, could this be the time I would be unable to "run through it?"). Start running; stop for ankle pain (Oh no, not a medial malleolar stress fracture?). This was my winter/spring, until May. With May came hope. My training was more consistent and a few days running the hills and trials of Allegany State Park in New York made me feel a bit better about my chances in California. So here I am at the check-in, along with 400 of my "closest friends." The energy level is thick. At weigh-in I'm up 6 pounds from last year; perhaps not a bad thing? And my blood pressure is up; no, it must be the altitude and the excitement. But I get my wristband with all of my "vitals" tattooed and it is official. I'm signed, sealed and delivered for the start of the WS 100, June 25, 2005.
The morning of the start was cool but not cold. The trip up to Immigrant Pass was chilly, but not bad and the rest of the day would be unseasonably cool temperatures for the canyons and beyond. That was very good news. But did I mention the snow? This year the mountains around Tahoe received 150% of their usual annual snowfall, and it showed. Although not the "bad" snow years of the mid-nineties, there was still lots of snow pack to traverse for much of the first 20+ miles of the course. And for "unsteady" runners like me, it was just another obstacle to muster through. One thing I've learned about myself from prior experiences is that I cannot afford to cut too close to the cutoff times. I need a "cushion" to help when adversity strikes. And adversity will strike, everyone, at sometime during a 100 miler. The only variables are what and when and how we handle it. I suppose in some way, that is part of the attraction. We know that physical and mental challenges await us and the hope is that we somehow will make good decisions and push beyond what can seem insurmountable. And so, my split times from last year, which I had carefully inscribed into a laminated card as my goals to meet or better, this year, soon became a relic. Engulfed by the high country, I became insecure. Why am I here? Perhaps I am too old for this and perhaps I should put a stop to 100 milers, at least. Perhaps the time has come for me to hone my golf game.
After the High Country of the Sierra, the infamous canyons of the WS trail did not disappoint. Spared of the normal heat, however, they came and went with only "the usual" nausea and vomiting. I joined Sean for my pacer at Michigan Bluff, sooner than I had hoped, but necessary because darkness was near and I was "behind." But Sean provided a lift to my spirits and we pushed on through Volcano Canyon, Forrest Hill, and onward to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. Last year this stretch was my ‘mystical experience." It was mystical enough this year to the point that we had made up my lost time and arrived at the Rucky Chucky more than an hour ahead of the 30-hour pace. The feeling of "comfort" however, was short lived. This year, because of high flows in the American River, runners were not allowed to cross by wading along a towline, but rather were ferried across in a raft. That was good for safety, but only 4 runners/pacers could use the raft at a time and the waiting time was nearly 30 minutes! So we waited in the middle of the night to cross the river and begin the final stages of the "run." It was about this time that I began to slow down; inconsequentially at first, but little by little I was losing time.
And then came Auburn Lakes at about 85 miles. We moved through the aid station and Sean sent me ahead while he updated supplies. Almost immediately I came to a stream. Now that is not so bad. There had been plenty of streams to cross along the way, but I had developed open blisters on my left foot and the last crossing I had walked through had ignited such a fire in my foot that I was reluctant to repeat the feeling if I could avoid it. So I carefully eyed a path through the stream using a series of rocks and boulders. As I got to the other side I had a dilemma. The stream bank was a good foot above the water and I had the choice to step up upon the bank from the boulder I was standing on or turn left and wade through the water to a more gently banked slope. I chose the former and stepped up. I soon knew I had made a bad decision. My quads were failing me and I starting teetering. I knew I was going to fall, but I was trying desperately to fall toward shore and not backward. I tried, but failed. It is somewhat mystical, I suppose, when accidents happen. Everything goes slow and fast at the same time! I could feel the fall, but then suddenly the boulder arose from the water and hit me in the jaw (and arm and chest and face)! I could feel the pain in my mandible and wondered how it could not be broken and how I would handle that. And then, instantly and simultaneously I felt the pain in my head and wondered if I was going to get a subdural, or even worse, epidural hematoma. I lay there in the water as I did hear another runner yell back to me if I was "OK." I was a bit stunned and just sat there until Sean came by and asked why I was lying in the stream. But he soon saw blood and realized that there had been an accident. So next comes the:"self test." OK, the jaw works; OK, the arm works; OK the head seems clear; OK, I can breathe; so let's go!
And so, as you can guess, the next and final 15 miles were a struggle. My legs were gone. My "run" was nothing more than the equivalent of a slow trot. Good walkers were blowing by my attempts at running. My right shoulder and chest hurt; my scoliosis was collapsing with my left rib cage painfully impinging into my pelvic brim. Oh yes, the blisters had not gone away either. I was ready to turn it in. I saw no way of continuing. I was beaten. But Sean would not let me quit (I was having delicious illusions of being rescued at the next aid station and finding a comfortable, warm bed; pain free!). Amazingly enough, we made the time cut-off at Brown's Bar at 90+ miles and even more amazingly made the time cut-off at Highway 49; amazing to me because of the significant climb required to get up there. And then most amazing was that we got to No Hands Bridge in time to be allowed to finish. No Hands Bridge is only 3 ˝ miles from the end. Three and a half miles but with a last gasp climb out of the canyon floor. This time I had nothing left. I struggled up and into Auburn with the last mile ahead of me, but now knowing I was not going to be an "official" finisher. But finisher in an "unofficial" way was fine by me at this point. We moved up hill and then down into the Pacer High stadium and track. I wasn't sure if I would be allowed to actually enter the track, but everyone was so kind. It was community! I could hear and see my friends from Ohio and my friends from Virginia (Happy Trails) and my friends from ultrarunning events not even from Ohio and Virginia. And it was clear that it mattered not that I was "unofficial." I had covered the distance as best I could. And that, after all, was why I was there in the first place; to cover the distance as best I could.
So now I'm at 30,000 feet and on my way back to family and friends and work. Next year this time, I'll be 62. And where will I be and what will I be doing on the last weekend in June?
June 27, 2005