Monday 1 July 2013

Western States: Surviving the Sauna

As per my last post, I was delighted when the day of the 'Big Dance' finally came around, after so many months of preparation, not to mention 10 nervous, forecast-checking days in California/Nevada beforehand. It was so much more than I expected in many ways: the huge level of support and kindness shown by those involved with the race, the scale of the ascent and descent, the pain and discomfort, the importance of crew and pacers in reaching goals. Oh and the heat. More a life experience than just an ultra marathon.

After the few days of cool temps and rain in the week before, the heat was turned back on before race day, with a heat wave forecast for inland California for the weekend of around 102 Fahrenheit (around 38 Celsius). Dan - my main crew, who lives in Reno - had offered up his holiday trailer in Truckee, 20 mins from Squaw Valley, so we stayed there after registration and an exciting race briefing on Friday, which was full of ultra stars. RD Craig Thornley presented the male and female favourites for the top ten then preceded to give a very specific weather forecast, with the stellar advice for every runner to throw their split goals away and aim to adjust them not only by 10 or 15 minutes but by a good couple of hours. The day before we'd been to a WS veterans panel and ultra legend Ann Trason - who won WS 14 times and held the female record for 20 years until Ellie Greenwood broke it last year - gave similar advice, to 'respect the heat'. 

Predicably I hardly slept the night before, but reassured myself that I'd had a solid ten days of early nights and good 8 hour sleeps behind me - rock & roll I know. We had a timing issue in the morning due to watches and alarms not being in sync so ended up being in a bit of a stress to get to the bib pick up for 4.15am, but we made it and the atmosphere and electricity at the start was incredible. Lots of hollering and whooping, motivational music and spectators and crews lining the steep trail 3.5 miles up to Emigrant Pass. 

The start took my breath away, literally. We'd hiked up the pass a few days earlier and I'd been relieved to feel no effects of altitude at all. But the race was a different story. Not sure if it was the results of adrenalin, nerves or tiredness but I could feel a tightness and slight wheeze as we neared the summit at 8,700 feet and for some miles after. Most of the climb was too steep to run but I fast-hiked/ran the gentler parts. From Emigrant Pass came a large section of the trail I had never seen and from the elevation chart it looked like this would be a steady, largely runnable section to just before Robinson Flat at mile 29, but there were far more climbs than I expected. 

I was in a longish chain of male runners for what seemed like miles and was keen to get some of my own space, so passed a few whilst trying to keep my heart rate steady. I was determined to stick to my goal mantras to not ever let my heart rate or exertion level climb too much, to run my own race and to constantly remind myself that it is the mind that controls my body, not the other way round - where the mind goes the body will follow. The first goal would prove to be impossible with the heat and climbs.

The oven was switched on earlier than expected, not helped by some exposed areas from Lion's to Red Star Ridge (miles 10.5-16) and surprisingly I found this early section really tough as my body was adapting to the conditions. Coming into Duncan Canyon at 23 miles was a boost, as the aid station was really lively and I had an ice sponge down by cheering volunteers, the first of very many to come.

I'd read detailed course descriptions obsessively, including AJW's and Craig Thornley's, but I seemed to forget how major the climb up to Robinson Flat was, 4 miles in total. With the heat increasing by the hour and knowing I still had the major canyons to come, this was tough. I hiked as fast I could and reached Robinson (29 miles) by 6.12, 8 mins ahead of 24hr pace. There was a lot going on there, and another lovely boost to see Rick Moyer, who I'd run with the w/e before. He was waiting for his runner Anna to come through. I was weighed and met Dan, already I didn't want the savoury food planned but took half an avocado turkey wrap, changed from Buff to cap for ice storing, picked up an iced neckerchief and set off for the mile climb out.

Next came the canyons, or so I thought. After the climb we began a steady descent into Miller's Defeat aid station at mile 34 and the trail turned out to be very runnable for 16 or so miles from Robinson. The heat was radiating but I felt good and energetic, with the neckerchief really making a difference (thanks Dan). At Dusty Corners aid station I got creative with ice on the suggestion of the vollies - down the back, bra, in the cap. I was also taking s caps every hour and forcing down the odd potato with salt and piece of banana at each aid station. I ran into Last Chance station at 43 miles in 8hrs 47, 8 mins ahead of 24 hr pace, although I wasn't checking goal splits at the time as didn't want to get too obsessed. It was pointless as to a large degree the level of shade was guiding pace. I saw lots of runners stopping to walk as they entered exposed and baking ground. Last Chance is named for its stunning views of Screwauger canyon and is also the starting point for the descent into the first major canyon, Deadwood, which comes before the notoriously steep 2 mile Devil's Thumb climb up the other side. After refuelling for what would be a 1hr 20 min 4 miles, I set off on the first real quad thrashing descent of the day. Reaching the creek in the airless depths helped with cooling down for a moment, but the grade of the climb up to DT aid station was still punishing, and sapped my strength. A guy and girl appeared behind power hiking super strong and chatting about doing the Grand Slam, so I left them pass and tried to get into a rhythm. I was incredibly thirsty all of a sudden and drained a lot of water. Murdo McEwan had told me he had a friend working the DT station above so that was nice to look forward to, and when I arrived he was brilliant fun, telling me he was related to the McKay's and moving me swiftly through the pit stop of being weighed, watered, iced and sunscreened. I can't remember if it was DT or another aid station but a some point I was told I'd lost 8 pounds and asked not for the first time if i was peeing. They said I would need to drink and eat much more in order not to be stopped by the next medical team until I gained again. 

Eldorado Canyon came next, with a 5 mile downhill thought to be the best in the course, and a longer ascent than DT but gentler gradient. The descent was the hottest of the entire race, literally like running into a hairdryer, and I was wholly uncomfortable for the first time in the race. The aid station at the bottom, with its buckets of ice, was simply an oasis and respect to all the volunteers who stuck it out there for hours.  I felt stronger hiking out than I had at DT though and passed a few folk, including an English man living in America wearing a tutu. It was definitely too early for hallucinations. He assured me Badwater was hotter than this and I silently swore (not for the first time either) never to consider that race.  

Michigan Bluff at 55.7 miles arrived in 12.16, 4 minutes ahead of silver buckle pace (again, had no idea it was this close). The atmosphere was fantastic despite the heat there, with big groups of people sat outside their houses with picnics and beers, cheering and whooping. My weight was back up again and I stopped just for a few minutes with Dan to decide whether to get my now blistered feet patched up here. We decided on Foresthill and I grabbed a chia bar and banana and moved out fast to tackle the next and final canyon, Volcano. Tutu man and I kept swapping position until I finally passed him for good on the road climb before the descent. Once again it was baking and by the climb out and up to Bath Road my energy was dwindling. After a refill and sprite I cracked on, just 2 miles on the road to get to Foresthill and mile 62.

Running into Foresthill I felt strong and excited to meet my pacers, the Dubes, and pass the turning point into the more runnable section of the race. What can I say about the Dubes - I knew I was lucky to have them help me out when I mentioned them to a few people before the race and was met with big smiles and recognition, they are really well known and loved in the Californian running community. Plus, with 10 WS finishes between them they are extremely well versed with the WS trail and pacing.

The plan was Erik would pace me until Green Gate, then his brother Marc would take over, with Tera running with me from Highway 49 to the finish. Erik first took me to Brad Payton, who I'd run with in Auburn last weekend - he's an ex-firefighter and was on medical and foot care duties at FH. He patched me up and I gritted my teeth for the first few painful steps of running, after Dan and Tera had refuelled me and walked us out the station.

We started the famously runnable section 16 miles 'downhill' to the river, which was broken up by 3 aid stations, Cal 1, 2 and 3. I felt relatively strong and determined to prove to myself I was in good running condition for this crucial section. It was great to chat to Erik who did a thorough job of briefing me on all that was coming up. 

But soon I hit a low, between Cal 2-3. With still 30 miles to go I was struggling to deal with the fact it hadn't cooled off. On hot days in Europe,  it cools after sun down and you need sleeves! Here, I needed the river! It was still in the mid 80's f/30 c and I felt like I couldn't get my core body temp under control, with my head glowing and claustrophobic. The aid stations helped, and I continued with the ice rituals. I also began taking Gu Roctane caffeine gel to help my energy levels, as I couldn't eat much else.

Reaching the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78 was incredible, I couldnt wait to get in. There were aid stations on both sides and a guide line manned by 20 or so volunteers in wetsuits. It was dark and head torch time by now, and the entire area was beautifully lit by glow sticks and night lights. the vollies seemed worried we'd find it hard to wade waist deep but I would have dived in if theyd let me. It was over all too soon and Erik had us moving through fast to tackle the 2 mile climb up to Green Gate, mile 80, which we reached in 18.07, 13 minutes ahead of 24 hour pace. Thank you Erik!

We couldn't find Marc at GG and it turned out there'd been a slight mix up with timings. With a quick 'come on, lets do this!' Erik got back on the trail with me. My brain was getting fuzzy though, as when a runner came up behind me I stopped to let him pass and didn't even realise it was Marc, who had arrived after all. They swapped and Erik headed back. I'd like to say I got chatting to Marc but pretty soon I was feeling sick again, and I was getting blurry, double vision as I had in the last stages of the West Highland Way race. We ran/hiked until Auburn Lake Trails, where I hit a new low, sitting down for a minute with medical volunteers asking me questions. I couldn't focus on their faces properly and didn't know what would make me feel better. They asked was I peeing? Was I eating? It didnt help my confusion that the aid station was decorated with Merry Christmas signs and lights (I'd read about its Christmas-in-June theme but forgotten about this in my fog). Marc pointed out the vision issues were probably due to glycogen depletion, perhaps the onset of hypoglycemia, and he was totally right. I had another caffeine gel, a few bites of quesadilla and some coke and we set off again for the 4.7 miles to Brown's Bar. I don't have much memory of this section but I ran when I could, taking a few minutes walk here and there. Brown's Bar was even wilder than Auburn Lake Trails and is known for its parties, beer and loud music. We heard it a mile before we saw it and didn't stop long, just a quick refill, coke and out. I will need to get back there one day to join the party!

I was surprised to discover we were still on 24 hour target en route to Highway 49, at mile 93.5, in fact 15 or so minutes ahead of plan. 6.7 miles sounds so close now, but I still wasn't convinced I would make it. I never considered DNF'ing but the soles and sides of both feet were becoming agony with every step, I could feel large, new blisters and the loose stones on the descents were torturous.

At Highway 49 Tera couldn't be there so Erik swapped with Marc to run with me again to the finish. There was a climb then a few miles of trail I'd run previously with Rick, but it was so different in the dark. Erik tried to make me take another gel and I should have, to give me energy for the Robie climb, but I couldnt. The miles up to No Hands Bridge were just gritting my feet against the foot pain, but when we reached the bridge it was so beautiful, lit up with fairy lights. We had an hour or so to make it up the steep climb up Robie point and another mile and a bit on road, including a steep climb. I felt like even in training the Robie climb had taken a while and I had zero energy for it. But it turned out shorter than I remember at around 20 minutes, leaving a safety net to get to the track. People say its all downhill from Robie and the top of the road climb into the High School, but it all seemed uphill to me! 

Marc joined us and then all of a sudden I was on the Placer High track, with 300 metres to go. I crossed in 23 hrs 39 mins. It was brilliant to see everyone on the other side, but nothing sunk in. I needed to get my feet seen to and predictably, as in the West Highland Way, as soon as I sat down in the podiatry tent, I felt sick and ready to pass out. They switched me to the medical tent, in between people on IV's, and took my blood pressure which was low but not too low. You'll be glad to know we didn't get any photos of the feet, but they were certainly a picture.

I performed some dry heaving following by some real sickness later on and after a while I passed out for 2 hours on the cot Dan had set up for me in the camping area, awoken by the blazing 90 f sun and no shade. I heard the announcer shout out for fellow Brit and Team Buff UK athlete Stuart Blofeld and then Ultra 168's Marcus Warner coming into finish. It was great to hear Stuart finish, he'd passed me early on in a blaze of cheering and positivity, and had struggled with foot problems in the last miles. I was amazed at the strength and dedication of the runners coming in later and later, having to run into a second day of roasting heat. Sunday was hotter still, at 107 f in Auburn, and sitting out with hundreds of others the award ceremony would prove to be an endurance challenge in itself.

When Erik told me I had finished 17th female I was surprised, I thought I had drifted into the 20's or 30's. He also filled me in on the top performances, an incredible run by Tim Olsen of 15.17, showing he could win in the second hottest year ever as well as a freak cool year, and an equally amazing run by Pam Smith of 18.37 who just last year had finished in 28 hours - a PB by 10 hours!

The Western States further confirmed one thing. Completing races like this isn't just about running long; they introduce me to inspirational new people, help me see special places, build mental fortitude for other areas of life - and generally make me one very happy girl. I also think that when you are pushing so hard that you need encouragement (from crew/pacers) with the very basic of human needs - water, sustenance, movement - this fosters a lot of goodwill and connections to other people, which for a sport that is essentially very solitary is quite amazing.

Thank you so much to my wonderful crew and pacers as well as the hundreds of volunteers and organisers involved, who played such a huge role in getting me to the finish line in sub 24 without blowing up. Thank you also to all my lovely friends and family at home who followed and supported so closely from afar, as well as Buff UK, Likeys and for their sponsorship of my kit.

You'll all be glad to know my peeing is back to normal, and my feet are definitely on the mend. I have vowed to take care of my body through R & R until getting home and back into training for the next ultra, the Devil O' the Highlands. I'm also keen to work out where the bad blister problems originated from, as in other races this year I've managed to avoid them and I am certain I could have run faster in the last 20 miles if wasn't for this. Perhaps just the extent of the heat or perhaps I need to start taping my feet before long races. 

Another post coming soon with more photographic evidence :-)


  1. I'm a Brit living in the SF Bay Area and I am seriously overwhelmed by your run. We were camping in Wine Country that weekend and it was unbearably hot, we were convinced they'd cancel WS! Congratulations a million times on your incredible run! Next time you're in SF, drop me a line!

  2. Fantastic read! :) An awe-inspiring account of human spirit, strength and pure grit! What an achievement!!!! O_O
    Might catch you at the Devil of The Highlands! As you skip on by...! ;)

  3. Superb Caroline, absolutely superb.

    What an amazing performance in those conditions!

    Recover well and I look forward to catching up at the Devils.

    John Kynaston

  4. Thanks everyone :-) Yes look forward to seeing you at the Devil - if it's raining and cold I won't be complaining!!

  5. Well done again Caroline!! A great race report and I'm still stunned by your strength and fortitude to overcome the pain and break sub 24. From the way you described it I'm sure you were hurting every bit as much as me . Way to go girl!!! I'm not worthy

  6. Congratulations! Nice write-up. I enjoyed reading it.

    I was a volunteer photographer at Duncan Canyon and I have a shot that I believe is you;

    Also, as the "small world" note, I was camping in the tent area and overheard a woman on the phone talking about how bummed she was not to be able to get out there to pace Caroline... :-(

  7. Awesome read Caroline. Massive congratulations.

  8. Congratulations Caroline, fantastic run! It sounds like an amazing experience, inspiring :)

  9. thanks Karl & Lizzie. Lizzie - read about your third place at Lavaredo, massive well done with that one too!

    Tonya - thanks so much, love that photo. Might stick it on the blog if that's must've overheard Tera Dube, she wasn't able to pace for the last part in the end but was a huge support anyway - and her husband & brother in law paced me right through to the buckle :-)

  10. Absolutely fantastic result Caroline, one of the toughest years and you got yourself your buckle, RESPECT!

    I'm just back from my holiday in Spain, lots of runs in the 30 degree + heat but nothing compared to WS this year, and you ran a whole day in it, simply amazing what you and the rest of the competitors had to endure. Inspiring and humbling :-)

    Best of luck with recovery.

  11. Robert - thank you, was over the moon to finish, especially as I wasnt sure my body would do the job at some points. Cant imagine how I'd feel now if I hadnt finished after all that prep. Hope you had a fantastic hol in Spain, sounds lovely! Thanks again for all your metabolic efficiency help and advice. Quite sad the period of training for WS is over in a weird way!

  12. Unique and wonderful. Thanks to the curious readers who sent you the pics and thanks for the explanation!
    western scale


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