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Adventures: > Carnage at Western States - 2006

  (carnage: n. [Fr. < L. caro, flesh] extensive slaughter, massacre)

  by Peter Holleran   @ www.mountainrunnerdoc.com

    "Lawrence, only two kinds of creatures get fun out of the desert - Bedouins and Gods,
    and you're neither. Take it from me: for ordinary men, it's a burning fiery furnace."

    "No, Dryden, it's going to be fun."

    "It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun."

    That pretty much characterizes the attitude required for participants in this year's 100 mile Western States Endurance Run to even think of showing up. Temperatures the week before the race were in the hundreds, even in Marin. It was beginning to look like record highs were possible, and that runners would be venturing forth into what was referred to in Lawrence of Arabia as "the anvil". Indeed, it was ironic that seven-time race winner and men's course-record holder Scott Jurek, who opted out of this year's race to run the "race from Hell" - the 135 mile Badwater Ultramarathon - where he is also course-record holder, had himself to support race leader Brian Morrison, who he was pacing for, when the latter repeatedly stumbled and collapsed near the finish line. Morrison clocked 18:05:13, but was disqualified for receiving illegal assisance, with the victory going to Graham Cooper of Oakland, California, in a time of 18:17:27. I thought of the words of Ann Trason, who once remarked that she drank more water crewing for Badwater than she did running Western States, and began to think that such hyperbole might have to be trimmed a little bit after this year. Veteran Tim Twietemeyer gave these pre-race words of encouragement: "It's gonna be a scorcher..You just go out there and try to survive." Couple that with the usual kind of witty advice given to ultrarunners only, aptly phrased by Coolrunning's Don Allison: "desire is paramount in a 100 mile run because let's face it: for the large majority of the race, you are probably not going to be feeling very good," and you have an idea of what it took even getting to, what to speak of actually departing from, the starting line at Squaw Valley. So for the 53% (211/399) who made it to the finish at Placer High School in Auburn, congratulations, while those unfortunates who succumbed to the elements can still hold their heads up high - which should be easy, as they are among the "elite" 1/100 of 1% of people without a brain to weigh them down, heh, heh - and should stand tall for attempting the nearly impossible. As Theodore Roosevelt once said:

    "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, at least falls while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat."

    A multi-year chart of temperatures vs. finishing rates created by Gary Wang for the WSER website shows the midday temperature in Sacramento at 105. The next hottest year was 2003 when it was 104+, with a finishing rate of 67% (in 2005, by contrast, the high was only 84, with a record 79% finishing; that was the year I was to run, possibly the only time a cold-weather lover like myself might have had a chance). By the time runners reached the first major aid station at Robinson Flat it was already near 100, and somewhat humid, and the canyons were even hotter - 110 - so it was to be expected that sun-baked road-kill would litter the trail. [Note: if comfort were a priority, holding the race in late September or early October, when the Sierra weather is near perfect, with cool temperatures, no snow, and little chance of rain, would be the logical thing to do, but that would probably be considered an insult to history. It seems to me, however, to have been pretty insensitive in the WS Trail Ride days to have made even the horses suffer through this thing!]   The course this year included a return to the historically more challenging route through Duncan Canyon, closed since 2001 when the Star Fire burned more than 16000 acres, as well as a new trail between Little Bald Mountain and Dusty Corners. Most runners this year were 2-3 hours (or more) slower than usual, with the list of DNF's on the race website peppered with the labels "metabolic", "hydration", "injury", or "late to cut-off". One heart attack victim was air-lifted to the hospital. Dean Karnazes remarked, "I've never seen so much carnage along a race course, and I'm talking about some really great runners going down." Rumor has it that many were hallucinating at the aid stations, giving bizarre messages to their crew (such as "let my wife know I'm O.K. - and tell Auntie Em to let Old Yeller out") and also getting confused over advice given them (one runner even asked, in parched, bewildered tones, "was that 'leave the gun, take the canollis?'," when what they were really told was, "keep drinking, and you may be able to continue").

    Tamalpans Glen Redpath (13th, 21:03:16), Dean Karnazes (15th, 21:38:31), Mark Richtman (19th, 21:55:07, Diana Fitzpatrick (28th, 22:51), Greg Nacco (38th, 23:29:24), Tim Fitzpatrick (48th, 23:46:49), and Gary Wang (49th, 23:48:11) had solid runs (with Greg and Gary seemingly heat-resistant, miraculously finishing in more or less the same time as their last race). Nicholas Wilton (82th) crossed the line in a respectable 26:37:56, with Philip Ramsey (144th) following in 28:41. Paul Berensmeier and Cindy Goh faced heartbreak, Paul at Michigan Bluff and Cindy at Duncan Canyon. It was double heartbreak for Cindy, as she had to drop out in 2005 after numerous sprained ankles on the snow that covered the first 15 miles of the course. Last year I had to drop out - in March - and was consoled by race director Greg Soderlund who told me that the hardest part of Western States is getting to the starting line. So all should take heart that they tried something few mortals ever do, ever can do, or even conceive of doing. (You still get a shirt as long as you have paid the entry fee, and I wear mine with pride, simply mumbling under my breath and smiling enigmatically when asked how I did in the race).

    Other local finishers included Charles Savage (148th, 28:44:47), Jerome Lourme (161th), in an even paced 29:05:26, and Kyong Martin (189th), the "Little Engine That Could" - who I knew would make it no matter what - in 29:29:06.

    Tim Twietemeyer (11th, 20:33:49) achieved his 25th sub-24 hour finish and announced his retirement from the race, after a legendary "career" that included 5 wins and 15 consecutive top-10 finishes. The way I figure it, there would be no further sub-24 glory making it to the 26th, 27th, or 28th, the next significant milestone being the 50th, at age 72, which would be quite a commitment. Better to go out on top! The women's winner was Nicki Kimball, in an impressive 19:26:50, considering the grueling conditions.

    Interesting and unique, according to the September issue of Running Times magazine, was that the Department of Defense funded the 2006 WSER with $1.1 million to research the antioxidant and immuno-enhancing effects of quercetin under conditions of "extreme exercise and physiological stress." [Just to keep tabs on the money, were any runners in fact asked to take quercetin before or during the race?!].

    To show the human side of this year's Western States I asked the Tamalpan entrants to share their personal experiences and thoughts - warning them that anything they said could and would be used against them! Approximately 50% responded. The following are first person accounts in their own words, mixed with my editorial comments.

    Gary Wang:   "I ran a good pace. Started out slow then picked up going down the river. The heat didn't bother me at all   [Of course. We knew that. Girly-men are from Mars, Gary is from Venus - where it is 900 degrees!]. I have seen worse in the Canyons, so I was prepared. I will have to say the weather was more typical of WS weather in the past. It used to be hot like that all the time [sigh... E.T. phone home!]... This is my 9th Western, so experience with pace does help. It was nice to get back into Duncan Canyon. The new trail section is very exposed... It was nice to see all the familiar Tamalpan faces out there. River crossing is always my low point of the race, great to see Barb and Bruce's crew there. Nancee Kuehn cracked the whip and paced me to the finish under 24. Would not get it done without her help! Ran with Tim and Tom a bit a bit toward the end. It was good to run with them... ps: I didn't wear a watch, I forgot."

    Dean Karnazes:   "I used WS this year as a training run for an upcoming 50 marathon, 50 states, 50 days adventure I'm embarking on soon, so I didn't kill myself out there. This probably worked to my advantage, actually, as many of the guys who pushed really hard went down big....I saw Mark Richtman a couple of times along the way and he looked characteristically strong, but there is only so much you can do when it is over 100 degrees in the canyons...I've been running the past few days, so no recovery issues to report." [The ultimate understatement: I received this on Thursday after the race; the word "few" means 3 or more - as in Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday - which means Dean took no more than one day off (Monday) before resuming training. I realized in his case the word recovery is rather meaningless, for whereas running theory calls for one day of relative rest for every mile raced, with Dean "relative" itself is relative, with the formula apparently being shortened from one day to just 15 minutes! The following amusing statement of his, however, belies the idea he had been merely taking it easy]... "Though if I had run any faster, I'd probably be in the hospital." (!)

    Glen Redpath:   "My second WS (first was 2003) went pretty good. I started off well and from Emigrant's Pass ran in a small group of six (Nikki, Guillermo, Jorge, Hal, a French runner and myself). We stayed close for 25 miles but at Robinson Flat when I stopped to change my socks, POOF! the pack disintegrated. Ran alone until Devil's Thumb when my tank ran dry and feet gave out. The only thing I could stomach was watermelon and cantelope. Pretty much walked the next 7 miles to Michigan Bluffs. Thought I was through for the day but my crew bandaged up my blistered feet (thanks, nurse Judy) and fed me a turkey sandwich. With new shoes and fresh socks I started running again and kept running all the way to the finish, thanks to pacers Karl Hoagland and my brother Mike. Everyone we caught were very considerate and let us pass by graciously (this was no Dipsea race).   [thank God - can you imagine the stress of 100 miles of that?!] We saw a skunk between mile 80-90. Karl actually lightly nudged the skunk with his foot so it would get off the trail. [A risky maneuver to attempt AFTER the river crossing, if you get my drift] ... I am glad to have endured... All smiles..." [Please note: the latter was written one week AFTER the race].

    Cindy Goh:   "After an emotional week of disbelief, denial, sadness, anger, I finally got out of my funk about WS. I had trained as hard as everyone else. Note that I am not as fast as everyone else. [Who is?! - or as slow either - but NOT so important here anyway, it only requires 18-minute miles to finish in 30 hours] At mile 10.4 the Lyon's Ridge aid station ran out of water [not a good sign] and was rationing. You either had GU2O or nothing. I left with only one water bottle heading out to Duncan Canyon. Talk about heat and open spaces. Rationing water and conserving energy, since it appeared like it was going to be a long day, marked the demise of my race, and I missed the cut-off by 7 minutes. Could I have run faster? You bet I could. But at what expense - an IV in my arm for dehydration? [maybe two, and a stretcher] I was pretty parched. After the event I felt I had started out set up for failure. Next time I plan to bring filtration to collect water from the creeks we ran through. I WILL be back for 2007." [Right on!]

     Jerome Lourme:   "I went in with the blissful ignorance of the uninitiated, salivating at the prospect of a glorious sub-24 hour run in the mountains I loved so much. Ran the first half conservatively, dunking my shirt and hat in every creek, hydrating like a drunk camel, drifting toward 26 hour pace. I made it to Robinson Flat in tears, on a low from heat and altitude, exhausted, realizing I had only run 50k with the toughest sections still to come. I left the aid station after 18 minutes of mental apathy, my pace on a par with most other runners, quite a few who were struggling, vomiting or sitting lethargically by the side of the trail [delightful]. I developed blisters and my right shin hurt from tight shoes, reducing me to a crawl on the steep downhill to the bridge at the base of Devil's Thumb. From the top of the Thumb down to Eldorado Canyon I tried to position my foot to minimize the pain, agonizing on a descent I had enjoyed so much in training, reaching Michigan Bluff after 8 pm, now on 30 hour pace. After this the race became something of a blur. A second dawn came almost unnoticed, and I barely stopped at Ford's Bar, where the stereo was going full blast. [Hard to ignore this wake-up call]. Changed pacer at Highway 49 (great to have friends sacrifice a night's sleep to help you realize a dream), struggled to No-Hands Bridge and walked the final climb to Robie Point. By then my feet were a mass of blisters and I had no desire to run, just enjoy the mile walk to the track with beautiful crew Susan, Melanie, Ron, Renee, Judy & Phil. The blissful ignorance was replaced by gratitude, humility, and the yet-unexpressed certainty I would come back to States." [Note: it seems to take the runner a week or more to forget all the suffering, imagine how great it was, and start looking forward to his next battle - er, race]

     Philip Ramsey:   "Weeks before the race the talk was about the persistent snow that blanketed the course at the higher elevations. Who knew that it would be the searing heat that would do us in. It was hot, not just in the canyons but everywhere, and the return of Duncan Canyon was a cruel addition to the misery. The "valley of scorched trees", as I call it, provided little shelter from the morning sun. After mile 31 a large pack of us decided to stick to a slower pace, stay hydrated, and bide our time until nightfall when we planned to make up for lost time. "Conserve to preserve" was the relevant phrase once chanted by Greg Nacco at a previous WS. But we were flirting with cut-off times and those who stopped to adjust their shoes, etc., were no longer seen by the group, which, by Michigan's Bluff had been reduced to two, and only one of us had a flashlight. Things were looking dim, when my crew and pacer stepped in for the rescue. My first pacer, Dave Kindall, a road racer but trail "newbie", jumped at the chance to find out what the mythical 100 miler was all about. He guided me to the river with time to spare and got a free boat ride as an added bonus. Bob Akka, a graduate of my 'Pacer Development Program', took over from there. Things went well until the sun rose again. By No-Hands Bridge it was another searing hot day and my only motivator for finishing was to get out of the sun. I've raced WS three times before, one a sub-24 hr. finish, but this was my slowest ever (28:41). I have a new respect for the course [curse?] and those who stumble but finish before the cut-off...I would also like to acknowledge the accomplishment of a 'closeted' Tamalpan, Jonathan de St Paer of Mill Valley, who finished his first 100 miler with a time of 29:04." ['closeted'? - does that mean he: (1) rarely shows up, or (2) used to be a Tamalpan, but doesn't pay his $20 anymore?! Listen, I MADE Jerome Lourme promise to become a member as a condition for inclusion in this article. The Gazette alone is worth $20, and you get 12 action-packed issues..So come on people, stop skulking in and out of Arch Rival or Fleet Feet once a month to sneak your copy, get with the program!]

     Finally, comments by Tim Twietemeyer at Devil's Thumb summarize an oft-repeated theme of Western States (excerpted from www.thenorthface.com):   "This is where you need to turn off your brain, because from here on, nothing makes sense. You've just climbed 1800 feet in under two miles and probably saw visions you've never seen before. When you reach the aid station, you're almost half way to the finish, but it seems like you've used 90% of your available energy. There's still over 50 miles to run, but it seems like it'll be hard just to extract yourself from a folding chair. The point - stop thinking, keep moving toward Auburn, and have faith that sheer will can overcome logic to get you to the finish line." [Why didn't I think of that? It's a piece of cake!]

     "Non-runners think of the pain, the agony and the exhaustion and ask why.
     Runners think of the pain, the agony and the exhaustion and ask why not."