Western States 100 2017
GPS watches have changed the face of ultra running. We now have so much data available – calculated pace, distance, elevation gain – saving us time that one might consume pouring over maps and calculators – or, as in my case, giving me more information regarding my training and making me obsess over things I haven’t in the past. This year, my obsession was how much elevation gain (or vert in common vernacular) I was getting each week, and my attempt to match the vert to what was in Western States – 18k of up, 23k of down. It became a positive thing, as I got stronger in my climbing, and hills became a comfortable obstacle rather than a dreaded one.
Heat arrived in the Auburn area in time for me to run in the midday heat, and in the Sierra soon enough to melt enough snow to allow the race to take place on the regular course. I went into the race with several high mileage, high vert, high heat weeks, and felt in the shape of my life for this event. I was ready.
Race morning arrived with a bit of a hiccup. Nothing that we couldn’t handle, but Mark’s knee suffered some acute inflammation that made it impossible for him to drive and/or crew. Gratefully, friend Kim White was at the ready to get him driven home, and elicited the help of our running community to cover for his crewing. I gave my headlamps to Katy Gifford to hand me at Green Gate. Dave Lent had offered his help earlier so I asked him to meet me at the river with some food. Carey Williams drove Mark home and I started the race knowing he was in good hands, and that I too, was in good hands, no matter what, since Western States has amazing volunteers and full service aid stations.
It was warm at the start, making it easy to start without extra layers. At 5:00 we were off, some of us faster than others, as I watched several women slip away early on. Well, it isn’t a race until Foresthill in my mind, but it always makes me wonder how they so easily climb away, as I felt the altitude holding me back. My climbing was a steady jog, nice and relaxed for 2 miles of gravel road leading away and up from Squaw Valley, when we hit the snow field. My goal was to never get into a situation where I’m fighting the snow, the dirt, the rocks, the altitude, so I relaxed and kept my balance, trying to conserve energy. Craig Thornley, RD for the race, and long time training partner and running mentor, had caught up to me, and I was surprised to see him, but he does well at altitude and his fitness had really come together leading up to the race. I summited behind him, and enjoyed a few moments running down the snow free single track, only to be slowed by the frequent and at times precarious snow drifts that littered the way. I tried to stay upright, and managed to do so, but it took a lot of work. In between the drifts was water to splash through, and occasionally the trail would be clear and dry. I asked Craig if this was the muddy section he had described the day before at the race briefing, and he said “No, this is the wet section.” Oh great – I could hardly wait to see the mud. I caught up to KiwiFi, our gracious house guest for 2 weeks before the race, and we ebbed and flowed for several miles, along with Maggie Guterl and Kaytlyn Gerbin.
About 8 miles into our 100.2 mile journey, Maggie said “There’s Camille!” Just ahead of us, trying to negotiate a slippery snow drift, Camille Heron, one of the favorites, was flailing and squealing, unable to grip anything. Right past the drift began the dreaded muddy section, which upon reflection must have been rather comical watching us runners zigging and zagging and plunging into the knee deep soupy slop, trying to find some line that didn’t suck the energy out of us. When we finally emerged from this section we arrived at Lyon Ridge aid station, 10 miles into the race. I slowed down, got my bladder topped off, ate a tiny bit of food, and headed out again. My split was super slow compared to past years (2:37 rather than in the 2:00-2:10 range) but I didn’t let it bother me as I knew it was slow for everyone.
Back on the trail, I was again with Fiona, Maggie, my good training partner and friend Paulo Medina, and Kaytlyn. The trail disappeared over and over again under snow drifts shadowed by the tall trees. It was relentless and draining, even going slow. Finally the snow disappeared and we had some clear running. Not surprisingly, I waited until I got into the loose and technical rocky section to bite the dust, hitting so hard on my knee that I ripped right through my protective K-tape I had applied for just this occurrence. Sweet Maggie tried to tend to me, as I shooed her away, assuring her I was fine, that this is what I do. My shoulder, elbow, and hand were also a bit wrecked, but I shook it off. More than the spill, the altitude was really affecting me, reminding me that I really do not do well in altitude above 5000 ft. With the snow from the winter preventing training above 6000 I took a gamble, hoping that after all these years, surely the altitude wouldn’t be an issue. But it was. It was a struggle all the way into Red Star Ridge aid station. Again, I took my time to top off my bladder and eat a small PBJ before heading out. Ahead of me was Fiona and Kaytlyn. Fiona drifted further and further ahead on this long ridge section, while Kaytlyn and I hunkered down together and shared several mostly silent miles. It felt endless at the time. We passed a few men struggling early before hitting the many new switch backs on the way into the Duncan Canyon aid station where I was greeted by Matt Keyes and Bob Crowley, two of my running mates, who catered me with food, water, sponges, and general inspiration. “What place am I?” I queried. “Probably around 12th place – perfect place to be right now.” I agreed, and gingerly stepped down the stupidly steep, loose, rocky section of trail leading down to Duncan Canyon.
This next 6 mile section was strangely absent of runners. I passed a couple of men, and nearing Duncan Creek took another spill. Ugh. This time I was filthy, but not bloody. Thankfully I was able to quickly dunk and rinse when I got to the creek, ridding myself of all evidence.
Now that I was below 7000 ft I started to feel much better, and I moved steadily, eyeing a woman in a pink jersey ahead. The climb out of the canyon was slow and hot, but of course eventually it all ended at Robinson Flat aid station, to the welcoming cheers of volunteers and spectators. Kim White grabbed my attention right away to guide me to my new crew, and quite unexpectedly I felt my face crumpling into tears knowing the Mark was not there, that he was home in pain, and selfishly I missed his smiling support and belief in me. Kim quickly caught my mood and turned it around, bringing me to Carey with my can of pork and beans and beverages. Everyone said I was doing/looking great, and the woman in pink turned out to be longtime running friend Amy Sproston. She left the aid station ahead of me, her pink jersey luring me along the new route of fast running road leading to Miller’s Defeat.
Six and half hours into Robinson Flat was quite a bit slower – close to an hour – than normal conditions produced, but it was slow for everyone. I clipped along the road, waiting to feel invigorated, but mostly felt like I was working. By the time I got to Miller’s Defeat, Amy was just leaving. Bob Crowley was there again, and said it looked like I was about 12th. I was happy with that. I trotted off, and slowly closed the gap between me and Amy. We chatted together for awhile, and then she pulled ahead. I wasn’t wanting to push any pace, so let her slip away. Then about a half mile from the next aid station, Dusty Corners, her brakes came on. “I think I’m going to pull the plug. My hamstrings feel like they are on the verge of injury.” It was a good call, given that we hadn’t really reached the demanding downhills and intense uphills of The Canyons yet.
As we pulled into Dusty Corners, my good friend Lee McKinley crewed me with a cold chocolate milk, gave me a fresh vest and bladder with Tailwind, made sure I was doused, and sent me on my way to Pucker Point trail.
Pucker Point trail for some reason, is one place I struggle mentally. It isn’t that hard, but it doesn’t change a lot, so one gets lured into thinking they are almost done, when it ain’t necessarily so. And again, I was so alone out there I had no motivation, inspiration, company to keep me engaged. By my own admission, that is lame – this was no time or place to complain about some stretch of the course that I find dull, for in the end, it does end, and it did. I flew down the service road to the Last Chance aid station, was given abundant attention and amused looks while I desperately tried to eat just one-quarter of a grilled cheese sandwich. It. Did. Not. Want. To. Be. Chewed. I eventually won, but that was 3 minutes of my life I will never get back.
I left Last Chance completely drenched and iced. I was still waiting for some magical mojo feeling as I made my way the next mile to the first canyon descent. As I approached I passed and reacquainted myself with “Minnesota” – John from Minnesota that I had run several miles with in 2016. I passed him just above the single track of Precipitous Trail leading to Swinging Bridge.
Trying to relax, let loose, flow, fly, was all for naught. Instead it was tense, jarring, jolting, hiccuping, all the way down. My quads weren’t sore, which was good, but they were fatigued and flat. Bummer. The descent, usually a joyful, wide-eyed, scary at times trip of 14 minutes, was 17 minutes of white knuckles and zero shock absorption. Bleh. I crossed the Swinging Bridge, ran to the spring just above the bridge, and laid down completely. Refreshed, I began the hike up to Devil’s Thumb.
With both Stephanie Violett and Paulo Medina, I had climbed this in less than 32 minutes in training, without going too deep into the well. I tried to back off of that effort a bit, but keep a good honest trudge up the hill into the heat. I jogged when I could to unfold my legs. I passed 2 men – one swearing at the climb, the other sitting on the side of the trail completely spent. Near the top a teenage volunteer encouraged me – I thanked him for being there, and he thanked me for running. I felt less than inspirational at the time, so was humbled by his words.
Devil’s Thumb aid station was filled with friends attending and teasing me. Elke, Bruce, Denis, cooled me down, gave me coke, encouraged me to eat. I asked about where the next woman ahead was. “Steph just left a few minutes ago after spending about an hour.” Oh rats. That was not someone I was hoping to catch. She was my favorite for the win going in. I was disappointed for her, knowing she was struggling that much. I left feeling good enough, not awesome, but I started to feel better going on down the second of the canyons. I didn’t push, just let gravity do its job. Frankly, I was disappointed in how I felt. As previously stated, I had never felt so fit for this race, and the weeks leading up I was full of excitement at how good I felt on my runs, how fun and effortless running had become, and now, it was just a chore. And I wasn’t even half way. Truth be told, I was fit for running from Robinson Flat to the finish. That first 30 miles really took its toll.
Regardless, the decent to El Dorado Creek was okay. I was greeted by Kevin Rumon and Scott Vosburg who had me out of there quickly. I still believed I was in 11th place, having passed Amy at Dusty Corners, and seeing nary a female runner for miles. I began the hike out and was surprised and pleased to find myself jogging up many of the sections towards Michigan Bluff. Passing one young man, I encouraged him, to which he replied “thanks! Stupid running….” Finally at Michigan Bluff, Carey and Scott Wolfe had me covered. I got drenched with sponges, drank an entire Odwalla Chocolate Smoothie, and asked about other women. “Emily is still here, so you just moved up a spot. And we have a Mark waiting for you in Foresthill.” What? Wow! How awesome.
Tenth place on the way to Foresthill sounded great. I ambled along, running with a couple of guys along the way. The final of the three canyons, Volcano, went pretty well. It’s fairly steep and legs are usually a chewed up as well as the toes, but I made it down in one piece. A full submersion in Volcano Creek was heavenly. I hiked then ran when I could all the way to Bath Road. I hoped, selfishly, to see my first pacer, Caren Wick, there but alas, I was on my own. I jogged along with another runner, passing another female. She said “Go girl! You have a lot of women ahead to catch!” Now in 9th place, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Carey came running down Bath Road to escort me out, letting me know that Mark was just past the aid station, with my Dad and Mark’s parents, and the Caren was ready to take me to river. He said I was looking great and that there were a lot of women not that far ahead, not doing so great. I told him I just moved into 9th.
We cruised into the celebratory Foresthill aid station where each runner is announced over a loud speaker. I doused really well, drank some soda, then found my Mark who tended me quickly and positively – I was so happy he had made it out, sprinkled with some guilt for the pain he went through to get there. I waved hello to Dad and Mark’s parents, and as quickly as possible, Caren and I started our journey to the river. I had told the group I was in 9th place, and no one had time to respond. Given the tardiness of my arrival since the high country had slowed me down, I knew I would be crossing the river in the dark, and the crew was ready with an extra light for me. I gingerly warmed back up and ran what I felt was a decent effort in this shady section that was my favorite ever since I paced my friend Ed in 2005, making me fall in love with this illogical activity. Caren was supportive and sensitive to my needs. We rolled into Cal 1 aid station where friend Bruce LaBelle was working. “Great job Meghan! You are looking good! You’re 13th woman!” Wait, what? 13th? I argued, which now seems quite silly, that I was in 9th place. Bruce assured me otherwise, and had the lady with the clip board read off the bib numbers of the women ahead of me. Not that I would even know who they were – I was still stuck being incredulous. Bruce then said “Don’t worry about it. You are doing great, you look strong, and there are several women ahead of you that are really struggling. You WILL be top 10.”
I observed the switch in my brain from being “awesome top ten” to “13th place.” I felt defeated, like I had a false sense of my capability. I went from excited to “crap”. But at least I knew that top 10 was indeed still important and that coming back next year was still desirable. Caren didn’t let me grovel for long, and kept me moving and got me back in a positive mode.
We hit “Mackey Hill” and hiked good, and cruised back down to the really runnable section between Cal 1 and Cal 2. Rounding a corner mid-way, we were alarmed to see Yiou Wang prostrate beside the trail with Topher Gaylord tending to her. Her eyes were closed and she wasn’t moving. I asked if we could do anything, and he said help was on the way. We later learned she had suffered heat exhaustion, but recovered well enough to walk to Cal 2 and end her day there.
Okay, so now I was in 12th, and I felt guilty for even thinking of it, but Caren said she was thinking the same. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but we were focused on getting into the top 10. Having Caren on this ride was so helpful in making the miles and hills and curves and drainages pass by until we finally hit the Elevator Shaft – a steep, rocky, technical descent that signifies proximity to the next aid station. We cruised into Cal 2, where I asked for soup and soda. While we consumed our calories, I looked up to see another female runner hauling into the aid station. “Caren, we need to go!” and we quickly scampered down the trail. In a matter of seconds, said runner blew by as if we were Sunday joggers. “Good job Meghan!” she yelled out. “Who is that?” I queried. “Jackie Palmer!” Holy cow. She was moving so fast! It didn’t seem sustainable, but I wasn’t in the best position to judge that.
We cruised comfortably down the switch backs, when before me I saw the slight body of Miss Casey Lickteig. She was walking, with her pacer just in front. As I came to her side, she was in tears, and I grabbed her in a hug. She said “You have some women to catch!” and so I went on. Within minutes, I spotted Steph Violett going up 6 or 7 or 10 minute hill with her husband, Zach. Wow, I didn’t expect this. Caren and I hiked hard and reached the top in 7 minutes, just behind them. They kept their gap all the way to Cal 3, where upon arriving, Steph was in a chair, emotional and spent. I hugged her tight. “Meghan, I am trying so hard!” I assured her I knew she was and was touched by her determination and dedication to this race.
I had soup and soda, and Caren and I hustled out. Now in 11th, I just wanted to get to the river. Dusk was approaching and as we hit the Sandy Bottom, I turned on my hand held light. I wasn’t breaking any speed records, and I had every intention of running the hills, but reality was I didn’t want to. We hiked the last two climbs on the way to the river. Upon arrival, my next pacer Lee McKinley, who had crewed me at Dusty Corners at what seemed yearsago, popped into view. Caren exited with a hug, and Lee and I made our way to the raft for the river crossing. Long time comrade Andy Jones-Wilkens (AJW) chased me down. “Meghan -y0u’re in 11th place! The perfect place to be at the river!” My reply – “I think 9th would feel a lot better.” We learned that the 10th place woman had left 3 minutes before us, and had spent a good deal of time at the aid station.
Chris Thornley paddled us across the river, and I felt lucky to connect and be in his boat, as our friendship goes back many years. He deposited Lee and I on the far side, and I started looking for my friend and coachee Dave Lent, who would have some food and my lights. Lee and I were up about half way to Green Gate when a voice in the dark said “That looks like F6!” It was Dave, who gave me my lights, some pork and beans, some Starbucks Frappuccino, and encouraging words. We walked, then jogged up to the top. I was greeted by another coachee Gina Lewis, plus Katy Gifford. I was refueled and well lit and told that the woman ahead had left 10 minutes ago. Off Lee and I went towards ALT, the next aid station. Moments of running well were acknowledged by Lee with accolades, but when we finally reached ALT aid station I was stunned and disheartened by the split of 1:17. We inquired about the next woman ahead, and hearing that she had left just 4 minutes ahead, I was somewhat encouraged. Full of soup and soda, we left with some purpose. Within 5 minutes we spotted a head light and in moments we were upon the 10th place woman. She was without a pacer, and seemingly fussing over her headlamp. We asked if she was okay, she replied positively and so we slipped by. A few minutes passed before Lee asked “So Meghan, now that you are in 10th, do you feel comfortable relaxing a little?” My reply definitely was one of angst – “Not really Lee! I feel very vulnerable at this point!” and we kept looking back, checking for headlamps that might be coming from behind.
It was quite a strange, the lack of runners I had encountered most of the day, but especially this section from Green Gate on – as if no one else was in the race. Normally I encounter several pairs of runners/pacers, either me passing them, or being passed, but not tonight. It made me both uneasy and lazy. I kept puttering along, not super motivated to go hard or fast, when I got a good nose bleed – probably from the dust and dry air. It annoyed me all the way to the newly located Quarry Road aid station (just down the trail from the old Brown’s Bar aid station) where a group of Habit Clad volunteer Nuns were ready to assist. They were all good friends of mine from Ashland – Rob, John, Susan, Hal – they gave us soup and some tissue for my nose, and were happy to see I was in 10th. I inquired about the next woman up, and was told she was with Dan Barger, about 10 minutes ahead. It did not seem likely I could catch her, as I wasn’t moving very fast, but off we went, trotting along to the quarry trail turn. Up ahead I could see another light, and Lee and I hiked hard until we caught up. It was the pacer/husband of Jackie Palmer, whose headlamp had pretty much died, so he had set his wife free to finish without him. He tagged along with us to the highway 49 crossing. Another big change here – the aid station moved up the trail a mile, so with little fanfare, we jogged/hiked up the gnarly, rocky, messy trail until we were abruptly stopped by 2 runners. They were on the side of the trail, facing in. One of the runners was walking up the trail, side stepping her way. I shone my light on her, and saw that it was Clare Gallagher, one of the top runners from Colorado. “My legs are fried” she uttered, eyes wide like a deer in the headlights. This looked serious. I asked the other runner if she was her pacer. Nervously giggling, she said yes, obviously concerned about Clare and perhaps unequipped with what was happening. Lee and I asked if there was anything we could do, and upon a “no” we made our way to the aid station, a mere half mile away.
Carey was there again with his friend Jeremy Anderson, much to my happy surprise, with more chocolate milk and a bottle of Tailwind. They reiterated that the next female was about 10 minutes ahead with Dan. I let the aid station volunteers know that Clare was in trouble so they could think about sending someone down trail to check on her. Then off we went on the last descent of the race, to No Hands Bridge.
This section I have run so many times over the spring – I really know each twist and turn. It is technical in many places, so I was keen to stay upright in the dark. Lee joked at one point “I think we are going just a little bit slower than we did on our workout 2 weeks ago, but only a little!” Ha – we had gone so fast on that day that water was streaming from my eyes, trying to keep up with Craig, while Lee and pal Joey Montoya held on for dear life. We were now going WAY slower. As we finally approached No Hands Bridge, a few signs were lit up by our headlamps, slightly freaking me out as they looked like runners headlamps coming from behind. Thankfully, we arrived to the bridge with no one in tow, I drank some coke, and headed across the illuminated and laser lit bridge, and Lee quickly caught up.
I wasn’t entirely out of gas, but without being chased and with no head lamps in front of us I wasn’t motivated to go into the pain cave. We jogged and walked and jogged and walked all the way to the last climb, where I finally had reached the limit of my hiking strength. My legs were spent. Not bad, 97 miles or so into the race. We finally emerged onto the pavement of Robie Drive, and hiked up the road. Again, with no headlamps chasing us and none in front of us, well under the 24 hour time, we strolled. As the road flattened, I found some mojo to start jogging. I mentioned to Lee that Carey and his wife Jaime might well be up to see us pass in front of their house, and as we approached, here came Carey jogging towards us. I gave him a quick hug and the 3 of us ran quietly across the White Bridge, then down the road to Placer High School track.
From above the stadium I heard the familiar voice of my friend John Medinger “The Queen is in the house!” I gave him a royal wave, while Lee and I stepped quickly around the track. John gave out my thanks to my pacers Lee and Caren, and to my “short” suffering husband (given we had been married for just one month). Carey cut across the grass to meet us at the finish line. Mark Falcone of the Western States board was there to place the medal around my neck, and Mark’s mom Joy was there to greet me, even though it was well into the middle of the night.
My time of 21:57 wasn’t taken lightly. It was a very tough day, and I was grateful to get into the top 10. It was one of the slowest years ever, and definitely one of the hardest for me. There aren’t many ultras that don’t throw you a curve ball, and this year from Western States to the runners, it was a doozy. With that many miles, the little things that I forgot to do or took for granted – such as running on snow banks and running at altitude in particular – impacted my day from the get go. This race will always have my respect.
Huge thanks to my sponsors Altra Running, Injinji socks, Squirrell’s Nut Butter, UVU Performance wear, and Nathan Sports for giving me the best possible gear to get to the finish line in relative comfort. Thank you to the 1500+ volunteers that cater to the 369 runners, doing their best to help each one of us succeed. Thank you to RD Craig Thornley for taking this race to the next level and for mentoring and training with me. Thank you Caren Wick and Lee McKinley for traveling with me from Foresthill to the Finish. I seriously did not want to hit Cal Street alone, and certainly didn’t relish the thought of running for 20 miles in the dark without good company. Thank you Kim White for rallying our running community and setting me up with crew when my one and only Person, Mark, could barely walk. Thank you Bill and Joy coming to watch me at Foresthill and the finish. Thank you Dad for bringing Mark to Foresthill so I could see his smiling face and have him crew for me where the access was better for him to get around. And finally of course, thank you husband Mark Laws for being with me spiritually every step of the way in both training and racing, with your undying support and belief in me.