Western States 2014

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Did that really happen? I’m still in disbelief that Western States has already come and gone. It seems like yesterday that I was writing that last post, getting ready to head up to Squaw. The drive on Thursday wasn’t bad and before we knew it we were eating dinner at the Montrail house (thanks for the invite Topher and Byron!). It was fun talking with runners and crew members, and hearing stories of past years. On Friday, I went for an easy shakeout with Vargo, Magda, and Ghelfi before they did the hill climb. Magda and Vargo won, meaning my pacing duo was undefeated in races where they’d raced together (Cool, Cayuga, Hill Climb). No pressure to keep the streak alive hahaha. The rest of the day was spent dealing with last minute logistics, checking in, and eating. We hung out with the Nike crew for a while, and then I went and ate my usual pre-race pasta dinner. Rachelle arrived earlier than planned, so she and I found her some food with the Nike crew again, which proved to be a very nice way to keep my mind off the race. We got to bed around 10pm (I’m a firm believer that the sleep you get 2-3 nights out from the race is what matters, so I really don’t stress over sleep the night before). After what seemed like a short nap, the alarm was going off at 3:30am. Statesmas had arrived.

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Less than a minute to go! (not sure who took this)

I ate my routine breakfast of Wheat Thins, got my bib number, weighed in, and then headed over to the starting line. I was anxious, excited, and ready. I lined up near Dylan, Jorge, Brett, and Ian, planning on keying off of them, but especially Ian, for the first part of the race. Unfortunately Matt Laye was missing from the line as he had to DNS due to his ornery hamstring, but I have a feeling he’ll be on that line before long. Then, the gun was fired and we were off. All the way up the escarpment, my goal was to keep it feeling as easy as possible. That involved hiking most of it and I found myself again around Brett, Ian, and Jorge. Dylan and Nike teammate David Laney were up ahead with Krar, Max King, and a couple of others, but I was fine letting them go. Teagen and Julie were about 2.5 miles up and were cheering very loudly (thank you!). Brett and I got to the top of the escarpment together and were were welcome by Fernando, Staples, Laura, Stricklan and some others I’m sure I’m missing. Their enthusiasm was greatly appreciated! We crested just in time to see Ian absolutely bombing down the backside. What’s the rush I thought? After all, we had 96 miles to go.

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Brett and I at the top of the Escarpment (Thanks for the pic Laura!). Surely a sign of good things to come.

The next several miles were spent sorting out a bit of a secondary chase group, and I yo-yoed among several people as I had to stop 3 times to poop. At some point, someone joked that I was on pace to set the record for most poops at Western States. I hoped that wouldn’t be the case, as I had taken Immodium before in an effort to avoid a repeat of Cool. After #3 (which was the most scenic poop I have ever taken), things settled down for good. Heading into Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8), I was right behind Ryan Sandes, another guy who I knew had a good shot at placing very high, so I was pretty content with my positioning. I was happily surprised to see a couple of the Nike folks (Iris and Dave, I think) cheering for us as we went through. Jorge had caught back up to me by this point, as was evidenced by the entire aid station chanting “Hip hip Jorge!” for about 3 minutes straight. He and I ran together all the way until Robinson Flat (mile 29.7). We passed a couple of guys during this section and my legs were feeling like we had just started running (which was what I had hoped would be the case). The leaders were well out of sight at this point, and I was just focused on running easy and controlled and eating while I could still stomach it. However, my left knee had started to hurt a bit. I knew the downhills would stress my quads but didn’t think that would translate into knee pain. Looking back on it, I realize that my quads and IT bands got quite tight and started causing pain just above my kneecap. I was a little worried, but mostly relieved that it wasn’t my hip flexors.

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HIP HIP JORGE! Coming into Robinson Flat (credit: irunfar I think?)

At Robinson Flat, I saw my crew (Rachelle, Vargo, and Magda) for the first time. I swapped out my bottles, restocked on Gu’s and Picky Bars, and about 100m out of the aid station realized I had forgotten my sunglasses and to re-apply Body Glide and Chapstick. Dammit. 26 miles until I would see them again. Oh and I had forgotten to take my arm sleeves off but thankfully I saw URP Eric in a tree and he kindly accepted my offering of said arm sleeves. Jorge and I remained together for a bit longer, probably until near Miller’s Defeat, and then we separated a bit through the aid station. That was the last I would see of him. At this point, I was running pretty much alone but soon caught up with a man who introduced himself as Brendan Davies. He and I made some good progress (came through Dusty Corners together) and caught back up to Ian who had had a bit of a rough patch early on, but was recovering well. He also informed me that Sandes had stopped for a poop and was behind us, as I had been under the impression that he had taken off ahead. I moved past them and came into Last Chance (mile 43.3) pretty much alone.

me and brendan

Brendan and I working together

As I dropped down to the first river crossing of the day, I could hear Ian and Brendan’s voices above me on the switchbacks. Before they caught me, however, I came upon David Laney, who was in a bit of a dark patch. As timing would have it, all 4 of us (me, David, Brendan, and Ian) were all in the river at the same time and started our conga line up to Devil’s Thumb. Ian put on a clinic in powerhiking, while I alternated between hiking and jogging. Brendan jogged almost the entire thing, and David hung on as best he could. Coming up to Devil’s Thumb (mile 47.8), my right armpit was starting to chafe and thankfully Joe Uhan was there to liberally apply Vaseline (I owe you one, Joe).

I left Devil’s Thumb a bit behind Ian and a little before Brendan. I caught up with Ian on the long downhill into El Dorado Creek and he and I had a nice chat. He gave me a lot of great advice about what was coming (thankfully I had run the canyons and Cal St. before, so I knew a bit of what was to come but his advice was still invaluable). At one point he remarked how he had helped Matt Laye beat him at Rocky Raccoon and was hoping that would not prove to be the case today with me. Ian put a good bit of ground on me coming up to Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) and by now, the heat had definitely become more of a factor. I hiked much of the climb (saw Tanner on the way up – thanks for cheering!) and was greeted at the top by Teagen and Matt and maybe Julie and Iris? Forgive me, I’m not sure. I was starting to feel the distance. Then I saw Fernando. I have never seen someone so excited to see me in my life, including my dog. He just started yelling, “VARNER IS COMING! VARNER IS COMING!” and sprinted back down the road to the aid station. That gave me a huge boost and I entered the station with a huge grin. My crew was again a model of efficiency, as I was cooled, refueled, and on my way within a minute or two. I saw no other runners in the station and knew Ian must have pushed on ahead.

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Nearing the top of El Dorado Canyon (thanks Teagen for the pic!)

As I headed into the last big canyon, my left hamstring decided to tighten up and almost cramped. I had to stop and stretch it for a bit but it loosened as the salt tablets and electrolytes sunk in. The climb through Bath Road and up to Foresthill was lonely, hot and exposed. I was feeling pretty fatigued at this point and just wanted to get to Foresthill where Vargo was waiting to pace me. By now, I had been told that I was in 7th. While my publicly stated goals coming in had been more modest, inside, I wanted a top 10 spot. So I was relieved to see that Miguel Heras had dropped at the Bath aid station (putting me into 6th). I was also a bit saddened because dropping sucks and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. But no mind, I had work to do. Heading into Foresthill (mile 62), I could see Mike Aish up ahead and then noticed Ryan Sandes coming up behind me.

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Approaching Foresthill (credit: irunfar?)

As I entered the aid station, Rachelle said I had to eat something. I realized I hadn’t eaten in a bit, but nothing sounded good. Except pickles. So I said I wanted pickles and the aid station crew produced a huge jar of them for me. Looking back on it, Rachelle meant I needed to eat something with calories, but hey, obey the letter of the law if not the spirit, right? Pickles it was. She also tried to give me a rather large ice pack to carry on my wrist for a bit, but I petulantly threw that to the ground saying, “No, it’s too big.” I immediately felt bad for snapping at her but it was too late to turn around as Vargo and I were already headed out.

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Vargo and I heading out of Foreshill (not sure who took this – sorry!)

Sandes and his pacer passed us fairly soon after we hit the trail and we stayed with them through Cal-1, where we bumped into Ian. Sandes was out quicker than us and soon I was yo-yoing with Ian again. We passed Mike Aish cooling off in a stream and Ian noted that he did not look good. At this point, I was really started to feel the distance and both of my knees were rather painful. The downhills were getting harder and harder to run and I was looking forward to every climb, as that meant I could walk/jog, recover, and most importantly, take some pressure off my knees. Getting down towards Rucky Chucky Near (mile 78), I went into a pretty dark place. I realized that I still had 7-8 miles to run with Vargo and then I would have yet ANOTHER 20 to run with Magda after that. I never doubted I would finish, but it certainly seemed as though the finish line would never get closer and I’d just be running forever. Vargo and I didn’t talk a lot, and I think that was probably a good thing, as I was angry and tired and hurting and would have made a terrible conversation partner. At least I had started eating Gu’s again and those helped lift my spirits and energy occasionally.

On one of the larger climbs nearing Rucky Chucky Near, Brendan went running by. He had dropped his pacer who came by shortly after and was looking strong. I was back in 7th (passed Aish, passed by Sandes and Brendan). I was able to keep him and Ian in sight but was convinced that they were both across the river by the time I got there. Turns out Ian had already crossed, but Brendan had spent some time in the aid station and he and I crossed at the same time. He picked up his second pacer, Ben, and they started running up to Green Gate. Seeing George and Ken and everyone else at Rucky Chucky Far was a huge boost, as was the refreshing river. I was more energized heading up to Green Gate, but that quickly faded as the exposed road was dusty and dry and hot. However, I knew that Magda and Rachelle were waiting at the aid station (mile 79.8) and I was starting to be able to run more of the uphills. Pat, John, Jarrett and Dave (I think?) were part of the way down the road and their cheering put some hop in my step.

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Vargo and I climbing up to Green Gate (thanks Pat!)

I came into the aid station with a smile and recovered for a couple minutes while my crew iced me down. Matt Laye and Bridget were also there cheering (and at Michigan Bluff and probably at Foresthill – thank you!) and everyone got me and Magda on our way quickly. The 5 miles to Auburn Lake Trails aid station (85.2) were an eternity. My knees were really starting to get to me and I was pretty cranky. Thankfully, I had chosen my pacers wisely and Magda did exactly as I’d hoped – chatted with me and tried to keep me from thinking too much about the pain and fatigue that were setting in. We finally reached Brown’s Bar and know that there were “only” 10 miles to go was great. But by this point, every downhill was excruciating. On the flip side, I felt like I was running more and more of the uphills, if only for the reason that they were all I could run without huge discomfort. Shortly before we hit Highway 49 (mile 93.5), we passed Brendan, who was walking on one of the uphills. I was surprised and offered him a few words of encouragement as we went by. At Highway 49, we saw Rachelle and Vargo and I picked up an extra bottle because I didn’t want to have to stop again until the finish. We pushed up the climb to the meadow, cursed my way down the other side of it, and came into No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8) ready to be done. Mark, Matt, Rickey, Bridget and probably some others were there, but I really didn’t see anyone as I was experiencing complete tunnel vision. But thank you for cheering. I heard it and it helped.

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Magda leading us home out of Robie Point (not sure on photo credit)

Climbing up to Robie Point (mile 98.9), Magda and I heard voices down below us, which she didn’t mention, but we were both looking back to see if Brendan was gaining back on us (apparently he was, but we never saw him). Once we hit the pavement, Magda really kicked my ass into gear and we charged up the final hill, past Bernie (thanks for yelling!), through the neighborhood and towards the track. In the last half mile I saw ex-Rebel teammates Ben and Woody who were basically screaming at me and that really helped me push the final bit. After the left turn onto Finley, I could see the lights of the stadium. It was amazing. Rachelle and Vargo joined Magda and I for the final stretch into the stadium and as I got onto the track, they cut over to the other side to see me finish, leaving me alone.

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Getting closer… (thanks Ben? Vargo? I was so out of it I don’t remember…)

I picked it up a bit on the track, not because I was afraid Brendan was coming, but because you’re supposed to run fast on the track. I did slow a bit to savor the final straightaway, and crossing the finish line brought an immense sense of accomplishment that I really haven’t felt in running before. I finished 7th overall in 15:53:42 and couldn’t be happier about it.

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So close! (thanks Jarrett!)

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Done! (thanks Tanner!)

The rest of the evening was spent recovering (mostly prone on the ground), eating, and talking about the race with the other finishers. Krar won. Seth was second. DBo ran an incredibly smart/gutsy race for 3rd. Brett finished 9th overall, marking arguably the best performance out of our Mill Valley bros, and Jorge had a bit of a rough day, but finished strong with a smile and a heel kick. What else would you expect? Laney had a rough second half as the moisture really started bugging his feet, but gutting it out like that in his first 100 miler was really impressive.

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Aftermath (thanks Chris!)

After a couple of hours sleep, we ate breakfast with Dylan, Harmony, and his parents and then headed over to watch the final finishers. That was really moving – seeing those folks who had been out there for 30 hours coming across the line. That takes a different level of mental fortitude that I’m not sure I have. The awards ceremony was a lot of fun (yay buckles!) and then Rachelle and I were driving home and it was over.

A few odds and ends and thank yous from the experience, in no particular order:

- I thought I found some dark places towards the end of Lake Sonoma. That was nothing compared to where I went in this race. As I said before, I never doubted I would finish, but it certainly seemed at times like I would simply never reach the finish line.

- The work that goes into putting on this race is hard to comprehend. As David Laney put it, “They could charge $1,000 for this thing and I’d still pay to run it.” The race organizers, volunteers, sponsors, and everyone else involved were absolutely on their game all weekend. My sincerest thanks.

- Rachelle – I picked you to crew for me not only because you’re my girlfriend, but because I knew you could do it and do it well. A lot of people were a little skeptical of me picking a first time crew person, especially with this being my first 100 miler, but I know what you’re capable of and you did an incredible job. Thank you and I’m still sorry for throwing the ice pack and being short with you in Foresthill.

- Vargo and Magda – I picked you guys to be my pacers because you’ve run long distances and know the dark places the miles can take you. I would not have finished as well as I did were it not for your selfless efforts. You put up with my bitching and moaning and cursing without batting an eye. I’m not sure how I can repay you, but hopefully some opportunity will present itself.

- Ian Sharman – we ran together for so much of the race that even Strava linked our activities (proof!). Thank you for the advice. I may not have been able to say much in return at times, but your willingness to impart knowledge knows no bounds (although maybe you want to give Matt Laye a little less so that you and I have a fighting chance, eh?). Also, Rachelle had a great time chatting with your crew, Adam and Olivia, at the aid stations.

- Brendan Davies – we also ran together for a lot of this race. It was a privilege to share the trail with you and I hope it happens again in the future. Congratulations on rallying out of Highway 49. I was running scared for much of the last 5-6 miles.

- My parents – Thank you for cheering and supporting me in this endeavor. I know it must have been nerve-wracking at times (especially for mom), but knowing that I have your full support in running and in life means so much to me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to thank you both enough.

- The Nike Crew that came down for this race was amazingly supportive of David, Sally, and me. You guys were absolutely awesome in addressing all of our needs, making sure we were taken care of, and cheering for us out on the course. The trail team/family is awesome and I’m so happy to be a part of it. Teagen, Julie, Iris, Jarrett, Pat, Truax, Roulo, Matt (I think that’s it?) – thank you and hopefully I’ll get to see you all again soon!

- Thank you to everyone out on the course (and at their computers) who cheered for me and all of the other runners. Off the top of my head, I remember seeing Matt Laye (aka Mopy Dick – heal soon!), Bridget (Donde esta Jorge?), Fernando, Laura, Stricklan, DeNucci, Nuno, Tanner (thanks for the photos!), The Big Stapler, Harmony, McManus and Charlie, Bernie, Ben, Woody, Chris, Uhan (thanks for being so liberal with that vaseline – truly a godsend), George, Ken, Laura, Rickey, Galen, Larissa, Victor, Charles, Ghelfi, Ethan, Billy, Denis (I’m hiring your for Squamish cheering captain). There are hundreds more I’m sure I’m forgetting, but thank you as well. You were instrumental in all of the performances on Saturday.

- Some people have asked me what surprised me most during the race. Hands down, the boogers. The combination of dry air, high altitude, and dust made for some epic booger-producing conditions in my nostrils. I’d be lying if I said that I also didn’t look forward to the uphills because that gave me a chance to pick my nose as well as resting my knees.

- 100 miles is damn far and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Congratulations to those who finished, and to everyone who got to the start line in Squaw. Even if you didn’t finish, your efforts are remarkable. – I’m happy I picked Western States to be my first 100 mile race. The experience was like nothing else. I will run another 100 mile race, but it almost certainly won’t happen between now and Western States 2015, if that soon. However, I am already thinking of ways to improve in training and on this course come race day, so let’s just leave it at that ;-P

A few other random photos that I liked (not sure on credit on most of these, sorry!)

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Foresthill (someone sent me this but i can’t remember for the life of me who – but thank you! great filtering!)

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Jorge and I looking particularly majestic

leaving foresthill

Vargo and I heading out of Forsethill. My dad photobombs again. (thanks Charles!)

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River Crossing (so fresh and so clean – thanks Jarrett)

strava buckles

Strava Buckles (Larissa!)

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Thank you, team. Just thank you.

top 10

Top 10 Men and what do you know, I’m behind Sharman again

About afvarner

Runner. Sneakerhead. Not necessarily in that order. Nike Trail Elite.
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9 Responses to Western States 2014

  1. Ian Sharman says:

    Great running with you virtually all day. I think the only time we were more than 3 mins apart the whole day was right near the end. Glad you had such a strong debut and I can only think how crazy it’s going to be next year – sub 15hr for the podium?

  2. Marc Laveson says:

    Was fun following the race, especially the Mill Valley boys. You killed it; congrats!

  3. Peter Birney says:

    Damn fine race, Alex. I’m bummed I couldn’t make it down to spectate but was receiving updates all day and cheering from Portland.

    Rest those legs and I hope to see you around soon.

  4. Pingback: Daily News, Thurs, July 3

  5. Karen says:

    Awesome run/write up – I’m glad it hurt a little bit. I was beginning to fear you were made of invincible magic ;-) Also, I hope you were sentient enough to hear them announce your Krispy Kreme prowess as you ran around the track – the live stream picked up and I thought it was pretty fabulous.

    Congrats, again, on an awesome race!

  6. Rachel B says:

    Loved reading this account! Congratulations on an amazing race – it was really exciting to follow :)

  7. Pingback: 2014 Western States 100

  8. Pingback: Daily News, Thurs, July 3 | Ultra Journals

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