Western States 2018
“Stop. Focus on the moment. Stay in the here and now.”
I was 38 miles into my 12th Western States 100 mile endurance run and realized I had been in 20th or 21st place for miles and miles. There was no news of any of the women in front suffering or dropping, And my mind went immediately to “how will I get back in 2019?”
The morning had begun at 3:00 AM with a latte and some quinoa. I dressed in my laid out running costume, put some KT Tape on my knees as a protective skin for the inevitable fall(s), smothered my feet in Squirrel’s Nut Butter, and by 4:00 am, Mark and I were ready to drive to the start.
Temperatures were quite pleasant, just below 50, at the start area. It was great connecting with all the friends and meeting new ones, while waiting for the start. I huddled up with Steph and her crew, and Mark, to stay warm. Finally, after well wishing from John Trent, the countdown from 10 began.
With the chorus of watches beeping, we all leapt out across the start line. Per usual, many runners charged around and ahead of me. On the flip side, I started to feel my legs and my breathing became labored right away. Well, I did not warm up, which is the first time I haven’t, ever, but the shortness of breath never went away. I mostly hiked the climb to the Escarpment, chatting with runners I know, and convincing myself to stay relaxed. No one wins or does well because they raced to the top in the first 4 miles.
My good friend Maggie Guterl from Nathan hydration and her media guy Giuseppe were at the Escarpment, cheering wildly for me, as Giuseppe followed me up and over with his camera. I relaxed behind the runner in front and settled for not trying to pass runners for the next several miles unless I was really nipping heels, and it made sense to go around. The Granite Chief Wilderness is stunning and rough, with amazing vistas of the Sierras, beautiful high alpine plant life, streams of melted snow, on trail that wove up and down the high slope. My mind stayed on being conservative, to see if maybe THIS time I could turn around my die-off in the last 20 miles of this race.
Ten miles in we arrived at the first aid station, Lyon Ridge. It took 2:20, almost as slow as last year when we had mud and snow drifts to challenge us. Well, I meant to be conservative, but didn’t think it would be THAT slow. Chaz Sheya helped me resupply, and suddenly my legs were on board. Not sure if the stop allowed me a reset, but now I felt like moving. The altitude was not bothering me here, so I slowly moved my way up in the field, running with purpose, but staying in control. Running along Red Star Ridge offered views to the north and south, meandering under trees and out in open rocky stretches. I repeated Mark’s directions “toes up!” in my mind, over and over, as I attempted to balance the urge to barrel down rocky sections with the desire to keep all my teeth. Nearing Red Star Aid Station, I finally lost control and dove into a bit of trail, deep with loose dirt. I bounced back up, filthy, and stated “well I got that out of the way!”
Barely scathed, I buzzed on down the trail into the aid station, to Andy “AJW” Jones-Wilkin’s loud cheers. “There she is! On time as usual!” Well, I was a good 25 minutes slower, but I guess in the ballpark? I got washed up a bit while the great volunteers replenished my liquids, and off I went with a cheer from running buddy/volunteer Naked Jodie. Feeling okay still, I gathered in a few more runners, eventually catching up to three women – Fiona “Kiwi-Fi”, my athlete Rachel Kelly, and Jasmine Chiaramonte. The three had been running together awhile, so I just filed in behind while we chatted throughthe next couple of miles.
Passing a few men, one of them commented “Ah, NorthFace girl”. I thought nothing of it, until he came back up behind me and said “Hi Meghan, my name is Dean Kanazes – I’m not sure you know who I am.” I laughed “I know who you are!”. He continued “I just read what you wrote in the TrailRunner article about who inspires you, and I thought it was beautiful”. What he was referring to was this: “Anthony Bourdain. His goal was to bring people together from around the world across political, social and economic lines, through food, the one thing we all have in common. If I could do what he did through running, I would feel like I really accomplished something good in the world. I sorely miss him.” Dean went on to say he is a sports ambassador for the US State Department and has traveled to many countries to use running as such a common ground. He said he thought I would be perfect for that. I thanked him and thought about that off and on throughout the run. Certainly, it was not something I was aware even existed.
Still the caboose on the Kiwi-Fi train, we 4 women descended into the Duncan aid station to quite a scene. It was quite crowded for such a difficult aid station to get to. I was looking for Mark, while others started grabbing my bottle and pack before he could push his way through to me. I gratefully drank a chocolate milk, ate a banana, drank some soda, and had the volunteers drench me. Mark said I was about in about 20-22 place. Hmmm. That was definitely the furthest back I had been, but the day was young, the heat wasn’t real yet, and I was feeling good.
I skidded down the hill to get back on the trail, and soon Rachel was right behind me. We shared the next 2 miles, down into Duncan Canyon to the creek, where I doused well but didn’t lay down as it wasn’t quite hot enough. Jasmine caught up and followed me out for a bit, then went around and in a few miles we both caught back up to Fiona. I passed them both on the long grind up to Robinson Flat, to the cheers of the many volunteers and friends. Running buddies Melissa “MJ “ Johnson and Jamie Frink got me wet, and Jamie brought ice to my crew, Nick Banaszak, who was ready with a fresh pack. He told me I was in 19th. AJW came up again to cheer me on. “Hey Andy, is 19th place still okay at this point?” He said it was perfect! It was still so early, and I am known for moving up through the field. But 19th seemed a bit ominous. Fiona left just ahead of me, and as I trotted out, Billy Yang came up with his recorder to interview me on my way out. I wonder what I said…
I kept my effort easy down the gravel road. It was heating a bit, so I kept wet with the water from my pack. I could see Fiona stretching out her lead, and occasionally another male runner ahead. Once back on the trail, I heard one runner say to another – “Check out the view! Don’t forget to enjoy it!” I felt so lucky to live where I can train up here and enjoy the views, as I am known to have all kinds of accidents when I take my eyes off the trail.
Miller’s Defeat aid station is a short distance from Robinson Flat, and as such I only needed a dousing. I was pleased to see longtime friend and 10-time finisher Luanne Park there. She gave me a big hug which boosted my spirits. Bob Crowley and Glen Carnahan, both of whom had been at Duncan were now here as well, and the hometown feeling I got from them was welcome.
The dirt road to the next aid station, Dusty Corners, is deceiving. It is pretty flat, but just feels like a grind. I was joined by a runner from Australia for a while. He told me there were 12 Aussies in the race, and that he and another were both from Brisbane, both were architects, and both got in through the lottery on the first try. After a bit he faded, and I was on my own as the road finally began descending. About a half mile before the aid station, I saw a canopy off the side with a few folks, and recognized Tropical John “TJ” Medinger amongst them. I yelled hello and they looked up and yelled “It’s the Queen! All hail the Queen!” That carried me all the way in.
Mark was ready with a new pack full of ice water. I guzzled a Pepsi, ate some banana, and he said I was in 20th. Steph was in 5th or so and looking good. As I got ready to leave, our buddy Lee McKinley offered to run to the trail head with me. As we ran I told him how miserable my first 10 miles were, and he said “and now you have that behind you!” I headed down Pucker Point trail, alone, moving well, and thinking, where was the carnage? Where are the women who went out too fast? How will I get back in next year? And then I would do my best to stop my mind and focus on the beauty around me, the joy I was feeling for being here now, trying to be present.
Pucker Point trail is about the flattest bit on the entire course. It offers some great views of very steep canyon walls, if not a bit sketchy at times. It tends to wind on and on, and I resisted the urge to look at my watch too often lest I get disappointed with how far I still had to go to get to the next aid station. But as all things do, it ended, and I cruised down the service road to the eager volunteers. Someone refilled my pack, and I pondered the food choices. I went with some Mountain Dew, and stuck to the gels. A good dousing got me cooled and I was on my way to the Swinging Bridge.
Hitting the precipitous trail down is always a highlight for me. It is a short descent and can be pretty quick. You have to keep your wits about you to stay upright. I heard steps behind me but they never got close enough to catch me. Finally at the Swinging Bridge, I was happy to see running friend Brad Payton, volunteering with radio operations, and taking photos as well. While some runners chose to go below the bridge to dip in the river, I always stop in the small creek just past the bridge, with just enough depth to sit in. I got thoroughly drenched and was soon on my way up the steepest climb of the day to Devil’s Thumb.
I felt decent, no real issues, and pretty much alone. When I neared the top and my number was radioed in to the aid station, I heard my name called out to me before I even arrived. Again, so many friends along the way – Elke came to take my pack and refill it while I drank coke and grabbed more gels, while another volunteer loading me up with ice. I asked if there were any women close by, and if anyone was suffering, and basically, no. I left quickly, making my way for another mile before reaching the long descent into the next hot canyon to El Dorado creek.
Gravity was my governor as I let myself fly down. It was heating up but I kept wet, never letting the heat take hold. After miles of glorious gentle descending, I hit the last half mile of steep rutted out trail, putting the brakes on and feeling the effects of over 50 miles on my legs. Aye aye aye, when would I get to the bottom?
At last, voices from the aid station reached my ears. I glided across the bridge and Scott Vosburg quickly refilled my pack and gave me updates the best he could. Another woman was in and out before me, but basically the report was everyone was looking pretty good. Still in 20th place, I started to think again about the end result, what this would mean for next year, and again, I shut my mind off to that which I had no control over. Moving up 10 places? Not likely. Time to practice gratitude for being able to race this magnificent organism 12 times and treat it like the it might be the last time.
Climbing up to Michigan Bluff is never easy at this stage. The bottom third is pretty steep, but the higher you get, the more runnable it is. I had one runner pass me, and another introduce himself as Nathan, a friend of Nicole Kalageropolous’, who stayed behind me. Having run this umpteen times, I didn’t ever wonder where the top was. At the sign of the U-tree, I started to run, and came into Michigan Bluff to loud cheers, and to Mark, who with Jamie, got me replenished. I asked Mark if he would walk up the road with me to the end of the aid and give me news. He told me how the women were doing, that Steph had started to fall back in position, but that Courtney was now in the lead.
Running now down Gorman Ranch road, I was again alone. Shortly after, another Nathan joined me, and then passed me. I hiked and jogged until the top of Volcano Canyon, the last canyon of the day, and let myself unwind. Toes up, I had nary a stumble. Near the end of the descent I caught back up to Fiona, who admitted she just wasn’t having the day she hoped for. Welcome to ultrarunning.
We both plopped down into Volcano Creek to cool off, then hopped back out onto the trail. We stayed together all the way to Bath Road, where we both had crew waiting to drag us up the hill. My first pacer, good friend and fellow runner, Laura Matz, met me with an ice cold Gatorade, and crewed me on into the Foresthill aid station, to the loud cheers of spectators. I ate soup, then went to Mark where he was ready with a fresh pack and words of encouragement. Mark’s folks Bill and Joy, plus my Dad and brother Stephen were also there. I was outside my expected time of arrival by 30 minutes, so made sure I had a light to get me to the river in case it got dark.
Laura and I gently rolled down the front street to California street, and headed onto one of the best and most runnable sections – the Cal Loop. There isn’t a loop, but that is the name. My legs unfolded and I felt myself starting to fly down. It was surprising and exhilarating. We soon caught up to Fiona and her pacer Amy, flew by them and kept rolling. In and out of drainages along the side of the canyon wall, all the way to Cal 1 aid station. I took as little time as possible, and had Laura continue to lead me on out for the next section. With one big climb, the Dave Mackey Hill, I slowed way down, but soon regained some rhythm. Laura was great at keeping me moving, never too far ahead, but enough to motivate me. Down the Elevator Shaft, I really got rolling, and when Laura stopped for a potty break, I put enough distance on her to Cal 2 aid that I had her worried she wouldn’t catch me.
I downed some salty broth, drank some soda, grabbed gels, and we were quick on our way again. The glorious switchbacks down to the river were just slightly less easy than I had hoped. The fatigue was catching up to me. Laura continued to remind me to eat a gel every 20 minutes. Good thing, as it took me about 20 minutes to nibble my way through each one. Seven minute hill came and I patiently waited for my legs to get on board the cruel climb that took us away from the river we had just arrived at. Clumsy legs carried me into the Cal 3 aid station, where volunteers threw some crackers into broth to give me a few more calories. As we left the aid station I thanked Laura for walking up the hill. Soon we were jogging along again, above the river, as dusk approached. We stubbornly held off turning our lights on until we were about a mile from the river crossing, when it was dark enough to trip on a pebble.
Knowing I had to get Green gate without food, I ate soup and soda before Laura and I donned the PFD’s and began our luxurious cold water bath, also known as The River Crossing. Chris Thornley, captain of operations there, rowed his boat over to me as I got in to give me his signature hug. Volunteers in waders and life jackets were spaced an arm length apart with very good instructions on where to put our feet and how to avoid banging our legs up on large rocks. Chafe in parts unknown made themselves known, adding to my vocal range of squeals, but by the time I reached the far side, I was feeling pretty darn refreshed.
Laura had me hiking in earnest in no time and getting me to work on my next gel. When the road flattened we jogged, and in about 30 minutes we were at Green gate, where Mark had my fresh pack plus chocolate milk. I had soup in the aid station, and apparently quite curtly said “no” when Katy Gifford offered me a second cup of soup.
Laura turned the pacing reins over to Kim White, and with a quick kiss from Mark, a hello from Dave Lent, we were gently running down the trail. With Kim in front, she led me well – just enough ahead to pull me along.
Kim somehow managed to keep me going and interested in moving just a bit faster. Little stories, words of encouragement, and at last we arrived at ALT aid station. I was surprised by friend Dennis Gamroth, who approached and asked if we needed help. “Where’s Pam?” I asked, referring to friend and past champion Pam Smith, whom he was pacing. “Over there” he said and pointed to the cots. She poked her head out and waved at me. She had struggled for the last few miles keeping her stomach contents inside, failing miserably. She waved encouragingly, and after a 2 cups of soup, Kim and I were on our way again. Again, she praised me for all of the food I managed to ingest, and so we were now on our way on one of the most monotonous sections – ALT to Browns Bar – but given the darkness, it was less boring. At some point, she took a dirt dive, for me, she claimed, but bounced up so quickly one would have hardly noticed. On and on and on we went until the Brown’s Bar bridge. Yes!
We began the descent with me claiming “I love this descent!” Although I “felt” quick, I don’t think I was…. And with about 100 yards to go I caught a toe or something, sailed through the air, and actually screamed before landing. Kim was more worried about my screaming than anything, but the scathing was minimal. Lots of bleeding from my hand was quickly remedied with the buff around my wrist. We stumbled into the Quarry aid station to the welcoming from Hal Koerner, John Price, Susan O’Rourke, and Jeff Kozak, all very good friends of mine. I asked about getting my hand and knee cleaned up, to which Hal responded “you’re being a bit of a drama Queen…” So I ate my soup and set off with Kim to finish this last bit of trail before crossing highway 49. Being familiar with the trail made it much more manageable, but I was getting very tired.
We crossed 49, and I struggled up to the Pointed Rocks aid station, where Mark was waiting with more supplies. I downed another chocolate mile, put on a fresh pack, and Kim and I were off again. Maybe because of the sugar in the milk, or just the idea we were getting close, I asked Kim to let me lead, and I felt like I was flying down the trail towards No Hand Bridge. Well, it lasted for a bit, and then I just stepped aside and said to Kim “okay, that was fun, now you go”. We got to No Hands and I drank a couple cups of coke, and we headed across the bridge. Only 4 miles to go, and Kim brought up stories to keep me moving all the way up to Robie Point.
Once there, Mark and Laura were on deck to bring me home. I gave Laura my pack, took off my lights, and off we trudged. I teased Mark that I took my time to get there so he had time to park and meet me. I was exhausted and had no reason to push at this point. When the road flattened we jogged up to our friends home, Jamie and Carey Williams. Carey was waiting outside, at whatever crazy hour it was, to give me hug. We moved on, up to the White Bridge, and there I once again let gravity do its thing, pulling me down to the track.
What seemed like an eternity, TJ finally announced “The Queen is in the House!” I gave the royal wave, while he went on to give my pacers and Mark the very just compliments for getting me across the finish. With 50 yards to go, I “picked it up” thinking I was dropping my crew, only to learn later that they all had a hard time not passing me. I crossed the finish in 22:16. Not my fastest, not my slowest. Eighteenth female in an incredible performance outcome for the women! It is an exciting time for us in this sport!
Number 12. I hope it isn’t my last. Even though there is so much suffering, I never thought “I don’t want to do this again.” A bit like childbirth.
Final thoughts on Western States – I have contemplated for days what it “is”. For me, it is a giant living organism. A single cell creature with a semi-permeable membrane. Inside is the nucleus, which is the board and the immediate volunteers in command, and centrally governed by Craig, who took this race from great to phenomenal. The stalwart volunteers are like mitochondria – the powerhouse of the cell – 1700 of them, giving countless hours, seemingly never tiring. Then we have the runners and their crews and pacers. We make up the most variable portion of the organism. The membrane lets us in via lottery, sponsorship, racing, or being top-10. But the cell just as easily spits us out when the day is done, through that selective membrane, and begins to open back up tiny little gates after the amoeboid organism rests and recovers from this job well done. Yes, the top tens are afforded the luxury of living in this cell until next June, but it turns out that the runners are the most expendable component of this creature. I say this to remind myself and others that this race is never, ever about one human being, but rather about the collective energy and spirit of a tiny corner of the world, that we are lucky to be a part of.
A huge thanks to my crew and pacers, Mark, Laura, Kim, Nick. Mark just kept showing up everywhere, always with a smile and full of positivity. Laura and Kim – a dynamic duo that practiced gentle toughness on me for 38 miles. Nick drove all the way to Robinson Flat with his tiny kiddo to crew me for 5 minutes. Thanks to my sponsors The North Face, Injinji Socks, Nathan Hydration, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, and NOW Foods. Thank you Joy and Bill, Dad and Stephen for coming out to Foresthill to cheer me on. Well, sure I could do this on my own, but the joy in sharing this experience with people you love makes for a richer experience. Thanks to Western States board and RD Craig Thornley for throwing the best party in ultra-running there is.