Western States has now become so popular that several thousand runners from all over the world qualify each year to enter the lottery for 360 slots. There are five “golden ticket” races that hand out 5 entries to women and 5 to men but those go to the winners of certain races. Beyond this everyone must qualify each year with a 100K or 100 mile race to even get in the lottery. Many of the qualifying races are now done by lottery too so you have to enter a lottery for a qualifying race to qualify to enter the lottery for Western States. Each consecutive year you qualify you will get more tickets in the hat but chances are still slim! I don’t know that I will make it in but I know at this point I will keep trying as long as I am able.
Since 2016, I’ve earned a lottery ticket for WSER each year by running a qualifying time at an ultra distance race. Each race has been a huge learning experience for both Jim and I. Each race was a chance to work on gear, crewing, and most importantly, fueling.
In November of 2018, I ran the Tunnel Hill 100-miler. I went into this race very undertrained. I decided to start and see how far I could go. I knew I’d see Jim every 10-20 miles so I had an out and knew if anything really hurt I would stop.
It was a GREAT day! It was not until about mile 90 that things started to get a little rough. It was 23 degrees, the water packs and ice cups at aid stations were freezing and I was getting cold. I had never run this far before so I was not sure what to expect. I finished in a little over 21 hours and was thrilled. Another lottery ticket! I was doing what I could to get into the lottery each year to at least give myself a chance to enter the race.
Beyond running a qualifier and getting chosen in the lottery, another way to get into Western States is by being chosen by an aid station after volunteering. So, starting in 2018, Jim and I decided we would volunteer each year.
WSER RUCKY CHUCKY 2018
Inn 2018, Jim and I volunteered at the Rucky Chucky aid station. This is at mile 78 at the infamous “water crossing” of the American River. It was such a great experience! We learned so much about the sport and about crewing and we had so much fun with the Tamalpa Running Club that we decided we needed come back in 2019.
WSER RUCKY CHUCKY 2019
We planned for a whirlwind trip to Rucky Chucky. However, much to my delight, this year I was asked three weeks prior to the race if I would be interested in pacing an international athlete, Thomas G from Switzerland from Rucky Chucky to the finish.
I said YES!!!!!
This year, the river was running very high and fast so unlike in a typical year, runners would be rafted across the river. As it was cooler, we learned from the aid station team meeting that if anyone went into the water, we should be very careful.
Once again Jim and I would be greeting runners and assisting them through the station by filling bottles, getting them food, helping crew find them, etc. By mile 78, some runners are very spacey and need the extra guidance.
The first runner Jim Walmsley came through before 4 pm. He was over 20 minutes ahead of the course record which is his and set the year prior. He was calm, cool, and collected as he refilled a bottle, grabbed a few snacks and headed out with his pacer. They ran to the bottom of the steps, submerged in the river to cool down and then ran over to the boats that would ferry then across the river.
The next lead runners trickled in over the next couple of hours as well as the lead female runners. The lead female runner and returning champion came in much later than expected (but still first) walking and limping. She had significant pain in her left thigh. After a stop at the medical tent, she headed out. Despite being in so much pain and knowing it was not going to be the day she had hoped for, she was still all smiles. She was chatty and friendly to everyone. It was so interesting to see the calm of these elite runners and compare it to the franticness of many of the runners yet to come.
Clare Gallagher was the second female into the aid station and we all knew she would catch the first female. She was hysterical to watch. She was happy and almost over the top giddy…she grabbed the bowl with ruffles and literally started shoving them in her mouth with crumbs falling away. All the while saying thank you, thank you for the help. She darted around grabbing a few other snacks and getting her bottles filled. Then to the amusement of all she grabbed a cup of ice from one of the kids helping at the aid station and dumped it down inside the back of her shorts. She grabbed another cup dumping the ice down her jog bra and to top it off she then grabbed a huge handful of ruffles and shoved them down her bra to. Then just like that she was off. We all looked at each other with that look of what just happened.
She won the race so it must have worked!
Brittany Peterson came in next with her pacer looking calm and like she was out on a jog, She had her whole crew waiting and ready. A Formula One pit crew couldn’t have managed her stop any better. One person massaged her legs, one changed out her pack, one fed her food while another fed her information about what was ahead and then just like that, very calmly she was off.
We watched as we helped many different crews each with their own way of doing things. There were full fold up picnic tables set up for some, chairs or blankets out for others, all sorts of various food and drinks ready and open, massage oils, topical analgesics, various sport fuels, regular food and special concoctions. Some set-ups were so complicated while others so simple.
We watched runners run to their crews and watched all the various idiosyncrasies of each. Some were in and out losing very little time and others hung out for a bit to catch their breath.
In talking to some of the guys at the aid station who had run the race previously, we learned there is a sweet spot of too much time and too little time at the aid station. Observing all the different runners and crew was a great lesson for me and for Jim.
At the river there is no cell service and very little communication. Once an hour the timing booth would get an update via sat phone and update the timing charts so crew could look up where their athlete was. This was always a couple hours delayed but better than nothing. With each update of the afternoon my runner #116 was running strong. I got a little nervous as he was running sub-24 hour pace for much of the day and this was several hours faster than he had estimated. In the back of my mind I was doing the math and wondering if I could keep up. I knew it was still a long way to go and anything could happen. Based on the reports I was getting I was ready to go around 10:30 pm just in case. I had never met Thomas in person and did not want to be unprepared when he got there! We had chatted on the phone in the weeks before the race, so I at least knew a little about him, his running and what he hoped to do.
Just after midnight, Thomas and his first pacer arrived at Rucky Chucky. Thomas had a big smile as he said hello and he went to the food tables as I chatted with his first pacer to get a sense of how he was really doing, what he had needed so far and any other insights. I learned they had been walking much of the last 13 miles as Thomas’s stomach had gone sideways. OK we are miles 78 and have to get to 100. Coaching hat on!
In talking to Thomas he so far had made the same mistake I had made in one of my 100K races. He had been using all liquid nutrition. In practice this had gone fine but he had never been to mile 78 at Western States because how do you practice that? In my experience, getting some solid food in really helped as did ginger! I grabbed some candied ginger and had Thomas grab a couple quarters of a sandwich before we headed for the river. We got in the boat, ferried across, were helped out and taken to the drop bags on the other side. Thomas and I both had dry shoes there in case our feet got wet during the river crossing.
I changed shoes while Thomas got his long sleeve shirt and vest out of his drop bag. We stuffed a few things into his pack and we were off.
The next aid station, Green Gate, is 1.9 just miles away. Just. They were not kidding when they said it was a big climb. We power hiked much of the way and would run sections as Thomas felt he could. We chatted about how he was feeling, what he had tried and what to try next. He was feeling better so we decided to try a little more solid food at the next aid station. We started to get to know each other too. I learned about his family, work, hobbies other than running, etc.
At Green Gate I saw that Thomas was not fully processing things so when asked what he needed he was not sure how to answer. So, I gave the aid station volunteers a short list of what he needed. While they took care of him, I grabbed what I needed.
After a couple of minutes, we were off for the next aid station – Auburn Lakes Trails @ 85.2.
We did a combo of running and walking during this section. It was single track trails and very dark. There were a lot of roots, rocks and wash out spots so the footing was not easy. I learned Thomas likes to run downhill VERY FAST! For the first bit, it felt like we were doing intervals. Every time he found a downhill, suddenly we were off at break-neck speed. I like to run downhill but in the dark on rough unfamiliar trails, I’m a little more cautious! I quickly learned that it was okay to let him get a little gap as I could make up the distance on the flats or ups. I told Thomas not to worry about me and that I would be there. We took turns in the lead as sometimes he wanted me to lead so he did not have to think. On downhills, he could go faster so he would take the lead.
We got to the top of a hill and could hear the noise and see the lights of the aid station below. Thomas had been hiking a little at this point but told me it was a requirement to run into every aid station with a smile as if we felt great. So off we went, flying down the hill.
And, what do you know it was Christmas in July!! At this aid station, there were all sorts of blow up Christmas characters, Christmas music and Christmas lights. It was really fun! We grabbed a little more solid food for Thomas, some ginger ale and coke, found the honey buckets and were ready to go.
As we exited the aid station I had to laugh as Thomas yelled to the timing guys who had to write down each runner who left, "Merry Christmas!"
I could tell he was feeling better.
We had about another 5 miles to reach Quarry Road. This was another very dark section, in dense trees with not much ambient light. I led a lot of the way on this one and later overheard Thomas telling his wife he thinks he slept through this section! Apparently all he remembers of large parts of this was staring at the reflective dots on the back of my shoes.
There was one part of this section where I know Thomas was awake as we were just 10-15 feet past another runner who was stopped and having a hard time. Thomas stopped and asked me for the candied ginger I was carrying. I thought it was for him but then he jogged back to the other runner and offered it to him saying it might help his gut. What a cool thing to do for a fellow runner!
We made it past Quarry Rocks and onto Pointed Rocks Aid station we went. This would be mile 94.3. Just before the aid station we came out of the dense forest into some big fields of grass. It was just twilight and foggy so there was a hint of light not from our headlamps, waist lamps and flashlights. As we came into the field we had three deer standing next to us that looked at us and scampered off. It was very cool to see them there in this light.
There was some great downhill running on the way to No Hands Bridge and now that it was sunrise we could start to see a little better. It was amazing to come around a corner as the sun was rising and look at the sun over the river below. We could see the bridge we would be running to with flags from each country represented flying. We paused for a moment for photos and as I looked at Thomas he had tears in his eyes. The emotion of it all caught him. I think it was the first time he really knew he was going to do this! It still gives me chills thinking about it.
We got to the bridge and it was beautiful! We took pictures of Thomas by the Swiss flag and just kept going. From the end of the bridge it is another two miles of trail/dirt road to Robbie Point – mile 98.9 and the end of the trails. Thomas had a burst of energy here and we were able to run almost all of this last two miles.
We waved at the aid station but did not stop. 1.2 miles to go! I texted Thomas’s wife that we were here and close.
With 1.2 miles to go, the runners come out into this very cool neighborhood of windy roads and houses built on the edges of ravines with spectacular views. You could tell it had been a sight to see during the dark hours as there were chairs and couches lining the streets as well as string after string of Chinese lanterns of all sizes and colors. A few wonderful folks were still out on their couches with coffee instead of wine now cheering on the runners. There were no other runners, so Thomas got his own private cheer!
Around one corner we came face to face with a man walking his two goats down the road! He said hello and then looked at Thomas and with a straight face said, “No, you are not hallucinating, you really are seeing two goats!” I had to chuckle at this as it really could have been our imagination or a hallucination at this point!
We kept running and each person we came across would tell us last hill and this is the last mile. By the 4th or 5th person and a good ¾ of a mile from the first we just broke out laughing when we heard this. Finally, we came around a corner and could see the stadium seats by the track where we needed to be. Thomas’s other pacer joined us and we ran the last couple of blocks. We asked Thomas if he wanted us to peel off at the finish so he could get a photo and he asked that we both run through with him.
We entered the track and had ¾ of a lap of the track to go. His dad was standing there with a little Swiss flag that we handed him. Thomas had a huge smile and the fatigue faded away. We ran that ¾ of a lap and crossed the finish line with Thomas! What an amazing moment.
He was a little stunned after we got done so I gently turned him to see his wife and 16-month old daughter. Thomas’ parents were also standing on the side with grins a mile wide.
THE DREAM IS ALIVE!
While I still have not finished my quest to do the race myself I have loved being a part of it these past two years. It has been humbling, awe inspiring, educational, rewarding and fun to be able to help so many athletes and crew and to see first hand how much of a village this very cool event takes.
I have learned even more how much attitude matters for both the runner, volunteer and crew. I have learned that it is really hard for the runner this far in to do much problem solving so knowing ahead of time what some of the issues might be and having someone to help makes a big difference.
Volunteering was wonderful and then being able to help Thomas on this journey was incredible. It was rather surreal to be running on the Western States course that has been on my list for so long!
Thomas is an amazing runner and friend and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I don’t know what 2020 will bring but I do know I will be somewhere on the Western States course again cheering on everyone I see.
No matter what life adventure you are training for or wanting to take on, go for it! Keep a smile, thank those around you and enjoy the journey!