Western States 2015 – Squashed

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I toed the line at Western States feeling as close to 100% as I could. My shin bugged me enough in the weeks leading up to the race that I didn’t run at all the weekend before. During race week, I ran about 5 miles a day and saw my PT, Hal, twice. The second time (Thursday) I left feeling basically 100% with no pain in my shin. Rachelle and I drove up to Squaw mid-morning, arriving around 1pm in time to grab lunch in the Squaw Village. Inevitably, we bumped into friends and hung out for a bit before checking into our hotel across the valley. We had dinner that night with my parents, had a couple of beers with the Gu and Nike crews, and were in bed at a reasonable hour.

I went for a shakeout the next morning before watching the start of the hill climb, and ended up running with Bob Shebest (San Diego 100 winner) who was warming up for the climb. My shin felt pretty good – not quite as good as Thursday, but good enough. After that, we ate a late breakfast with some SFRC folks, went to the runners meeting and headed back to the hotel for a relaxing evening and dinner in Tahoe City.

Saturday morning saw us up around 3:30am. We packed the car and drove over to the start, arriving around 4:15am. I pooped twice before the race (quite a pleasant surprise as I usually go during the race –the coffee helps with that, as I didn’t start drinking it pre-race until February). The start was considerably warmer than last year. I didn’t even consider wearing arm warmers, while last year I was happy to have them. Nike teammate Ryan Bak even decided to shed the shirt he was wearing before the start. I said a few final goodbyes/good lucks to Rachelle, my dad, and other runners and made my way to the front of the start. Within a couple minutes, we were off.

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21seconds to go… (Photo Credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

Last year, I took it really conservatively in the early miles, and especially on the first climb out Squaw. I wanted to be a bit more aggressive this year, and stay with the front pack, as I had greater ambitions knowing what lay ahead (versus last year where I really didn’t know what to expect). I ended up getting to the top of the climb in first, with Bak and Ryan Smith immediately behind to me. Laney, DBo, Krar, Seth, a couple of Frenchmen, and several others were right with us as well. Coach Koop was up at the top and gave me the “pump the brakes” sign, but I was only a couple of minutes faster than last year when I stopped twice to poop on the climb, so I wasn’t worried. I didn’t convey that to him at the time, but knew how my body felt and things were really relaxed.

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Hiking up the escarpment with Bak and Smith (Photo Credit: Mike Hermsmeyer)

I led initially on the descent towards Lyon Ridge, but was passed by several guys when I tripped and went sprawling harmlessly into some grass. The trail is fairly technical in the high country and I was wary of it. I didn’t want to try to move too fast and stay with the group of 5 that went on ahead, so I settled down and found myself in front of DBo, Krar, Seth, and Gediminas Grinius. We basically stayed in that order through mile 10 at Lyon Ridge. Things were going well so far. I was a little annoyed by the rocks on the trail, as I spent the entire time looking at my feet making sure I didn’t turn an ankle on a rock, but I knew that the trail mellowed around mile 30 and that there was plenty of time to run. My shin wasn’t giving me any problems and the rest of me felt pretty good.

However, at some point in the next 2-3 miles, I slowly came to the realization that I wasn’t having fun. At first, I had thought it was just my annoyance with the trails, but as I kept moving, it became clear that I was in a mental funk. I couldn’t quite place why, but I did know that entering the race, my excitement was nowhere near the levels it was last year. I didn’t think much of it, but after a long spring of successful racing (Sonoma, Boston, World Championships, Dipsea), I think I was just worn down mentally. I found myself dreading running another 85 miles, even if my body felt pretty good. About this time, Krar, Dbo, Seth, and Grinius all moved past me. I could still see the leaders on certain turns, and was only 2-3 minutes back, but something told me they were already out of reach.

Heading into Lyon Ridge (Photo Credit: Bob Shebest)

Heading into Lyon Ridge (Photo Credit: Bob Shebest)

I spent the next 4-5 miles trying to figure out if I wanted to continue with the race if I wasn’t having fun. I know that sounds silly, but it plays a huge part in why I run. The races I’ve run this year were fun and inspiring. Sonoma was my first big race of the year and I really enjoyed it, not only because I won, but because there was a lot of strong competition to test myself against. Boston is impossible not to have fun, and Annecy, while difficult, was also fun because it was the World Championships and the course was absurdly beautiful. Western was fun last year. Maybe ignorance was bliss, but knowing what lay ahead (hours of pain and suffering) just took me to an unexpectedly dark place very early on. I figured that if I could keep moving, the funk would lift. I didn’t want to drop simply because I wasn’t having fun.

As I was wrestling with whether I wanted to keep going, my knees started barking. Quietly at first, but steadily louder. By the time we hit Duncan Canyon, they were rather painful and the prospect of running 75 more miles on them was seeming like less and less of a possibility. I started trying to remember Rachelle’s phone number so I could call her and tell her I dropped. But, I resolved to get to Robinson Flat. Last year they started hurting (due to tight IT bands I suspect) about 30-35 miles in, but didn’t get really bad until Cal Street. It took me nearly 2 months to recover last year and the prospect of putting my body into that sort of situation again (both during the race and in recovery) was completely unappealing. I started hiking more in the hopes that they would calm down, but they didn’t. When they started hurting while I was hiking uphill, I knew a drop at Robinson Flat was inevitable and spent the rest of the time coming to terms with it. Someone likened it to a death in that you go through the 5 stages of grief: denial (it’ll pass – they’ll feel better if I hike a bit), anger (why are they hurting so early? Why is my body letting me down?), bargaining (just make it to Robinson and my crew and maybe things will turn around), depression (#pityparty), and acceptance (I’m listening to my body. I told myself I’d do this before the race and it’s the sensible thing to do. I’m ok with that). I probably lapsed back into the anger/depression phases multiple times as my blood sugar rose and fell with Gu consumption. Even though I ultimately decided I would drop, I forced myself to keep eating and drinking just in case something miraculous happened (spoiler: it wouldn’t).

Heading out of Duncan Canyon (Photo Credit: Luke Tamagna-Darr)

Heading out of Duncan Canyon (Photo Credit: Luke Tamagna-Darr)

Anyways, back to the physical realm… For a while, I was worried that I was off trail, as no one came up behind me for probably half an hour. Then, Sondre, Sharman, Laney, Houck, and Terranova all made their way past me. We exchanged words of encouragement and soon I was coming into Robinson Flat. I saw lots of people I knew (Tanner, Matt Trappe, Bryon Powell, many Marin runners, and my crew) and all were cheering. On the trail, I had come to terms with myself, but seeing other people suddenly placed a big weight on my shoulders. I felt like I was letting them down by bowing out. I couldn’t even high five The Big Stapler when I reached my crew. I just put my hands on my knees, my head between my legs, and cried. I sensed Rachelle coming over, along with Tim Tollefson and Monica (the rest of my crew). I think I mustered an “I’m done. I’m sorry,” through the tears, but it may not have been audible. I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye. I felt like I had let my crew down.

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Thinking I’m in good spirits hiking towards Robinson Flat (Photo Credit: Chasqui Runner)

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Running my final steps into Robinson Flat (Photo Credit: Nancy Hobbs)

After a few minutes, I stopped crying, slowly stood up, and made my way towards the volunteers, who were asking if I was all right. I told them I was going to drop. One guy decided that needed to be announced to the entire forest and yelled: “WE’VE GOT A DROP” about 3 times at the top of his lungs. In retrospect, this is hilarious to me but at the time, I wanted to tell him to shut the hell up. They seemed like they were in a rush to summon the aid station captain, who was the person who had to officially remove my wrist band, but I don’t know why – I wasn’t going anywhere. She appeared with a pair of scissors and asked twice more if I was sure. I said I was and with an inaudible snip, my race was over.

I walked back over to my crew, drank some water and Coke, and tried to eat but realized I wasn’t hungry at all. In what would become a theme for many throughout the day, I had drained my water bottle completely before the 2nd and 3rd aid stations. For it only being 9:45am, it seemed abnormally hot. Almost every racer that came in after me was taking on ice either in arm sleeves or a bandana, which is not something I noticed last year. As more time passed, I felt increasingly upbeat. I saw that Bak was still in the aid station and went over to talk to him for a bit. He would end up dropping there as well, unfortunately.

We waited around a bit and cheered Brett, Stephen, DeNucci, and many other friends as they came through. Then, we drove to Michigan Bluff. In the car, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so happy that I was done running for the day, it almost seemed wrong. I had saved myself hours of pain and suffering (both mental and physical) in the present, and weeks of recovery in the future. I had also saved a couple of friendships, as asking Tim and Staples to go for what would have been very long hikes with a very cranky runner would have ended poorly for our personal relationships. We spent a couple of hours at Michigan Bluff, which would claim many competitors, including DBo, Houck, and Topher. We cheered those we knew and those we didn’t, hung out with various crews, and had a great time. As I saw the state in which people entered (save for a few), my decision to drop was continually reaffirmed. Finally, we headed back to Auburn, showered, ate, and went to the track to watch the finish. It was a lot of fun and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how impressive Krar (holy balls), Seth, and Jared were on the day. Magda, my pacer from last year who I desperately tried to get to pace me again, was first woman, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Kaci and Stephanie also ran very strong races and deserve huge congratulations. So does every person who finished. It was a day in which the elements conspired against the racers, and those who made it all the way to Auburn are stronger than they know.

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Nike team – Thanks for all the support guys.

For me, the immediate future will be spent getting myself back to 100% on all fronts. While my shin didn’t bother me on race day, it is back to feeling a little iffy again. I was rushing it and forcing things in the weeks before Western and now I want to give it a chance to recover on its own. Mentally, I think I’m a little burned out at the ultra distance for the time being, but it’s nothing time won’t fix. I’ve now got a score to settle with States (although I highly doubt I’ll try to get back next year). My current mental state makes sense to me, as I’ve had a pretty big year so far and feeling the need for some down time is natural. I’m signed up for CCC in August, but have yet to book my plane flight, and may not. I’ll have to see where I am in a week or two. Regardless of that decision, I know that I am already excited to race some shorter road and cross country races in the fall, which makes me not too worried that I will re-find my stoke for the longer distances in the near future. If anything, this experience has imparted to me how important being mentally ready and excited for an ultra is. Ultras are long, hard endeavors and I now realize that I can’t run one competitively if I’m not in it mentally. Like many runners, I run because I enjoy it. I race a lot because it’s a ton of fun and don’t see that changing. But, I don’t ever want that to disappear because I placed myself in races that didn’t enable me to toe the line with that nervous energy we all know so well. It’s something that needs to be nurtured, and racing with high expectations too often seems like a good way to kill it. For those supporters out there, don’t worry. Like the sand people, I’ll be back, and in greater numbers.

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About afvarner

Runner. Donuts. Sneakerhead. Not necessarily in that order. Nike Trail Elite. Picky Bars. Gu. Vicory Sportdesign.
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8 Responses to Western States 2015 – Squashed

  1. Ian Sharman says:

    Alex, sorry it didn’t go to plan this time, but it’s so easy to underestimate how much all those other hard efforts take out of you mentally, even if your body is physically 100%. The more I do these races, the more I realize that 100s need to be events that really excite and motivate you, otherwise there’ll be periods of apathy or dread within them (I had that for large stretches this year and only really kept going because I wanted to keep the top 10 streak going – if I’d dropped to 11th I’d almost certainly have DNFed).

  2. BILL KATZ says:

    YOU ARE A GREAT RUNNER AND A GREAT GUY ALEX.

  3. Liza Howard says:

    Great report. Thanks for writing it. Love the last line. 🙂

  4. Douglas says:

    Love the star wars reference to finish it off.

  5. Sally McRae says:

    Proud of you Alex; you’ve had an astounding year thus far and you inspire athletes around the world to run with joy and for the true love it. Thanks for being out there to cheer us on at Michigan; you rock!

  6. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News, Fri, July 3

  7. pbfvoo says:

    great report alex – and there’s definitely lots to look back on and appreciate. “like the sand people …” – i love it!

  8. Pingback: 2015: A year in review | And miles to go before I eat…

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