Its Thursday June 15th, just 9 days before Western States and I am in a tiny bathroom on a cruise ship in Alaska watching my 11-year old son puke his guts out. We were on a trip of a lifetime before a race of a lifetime, but unfortunately he was given a dessert with either eggs or peanuts at our dinner and was having a bad reaction. As much as my heart was hurting for him each time he retched, I was holding my breath. Literally. He and Michelle BOTH had the flu. Like, the legitimate, positive-test, fever, feel-like-death influenza. Michelle was also in that bathroom. I am so screwed! How am I not going to get the flu before the biggest race of my life?!
Fast forward 9 days and I am on my hands and knees in the dirt at the Foresthill aid station, mile 62 of States, puking miserably into the dirt as Whit now looks on at me. Miraculously, I never did get the flu, but I was indeed having a rough day. “Sorry you had to see that buddy” I manage to say as I catch my breath, saliva and puke dripping from my mouth and nose. “I give you kudos for that Daddy!” he says as he laughs, holding up a Strava kudos sign they were giving out at the aid station. The irony. The love. The day….
My 2017 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run did not go quite as planned. I had never trained harder, never been more fit, and never been more prepared, yet the race had other plans for me and I had a rough day. I finished 5 hours slower than I hoped. I walked A LOT of the last 40 miles of runnable terrain. I puked. But this is ultrarunning and surviving to the finish on a brutal day is sometimes a bigger personal accomplishment than having everything go right. And so through it all, I find myself incredibly satisfied in the finish and tremendously grateful for everything that I had ironically traveled so many miles away from.
We arrived in Squaw on Thursday and just enjoyed the heck out of the festive prerace atmosphere Thursday and Friday. The mountains were incredible and you just couldn’t help but feel the energy of Western States. It was like all of the awesome people were here in Awesomeville, USA. And you’re not just seeing the elites you see in the magazines, you’re chatting with them in the elevators and in the expo lines. Hi Kaci! Hey Wardian! Hi Stephanie! What’s up Sharman! Tweit! Scotty Mills! Lord Balls! And so we relaxed, explored, checked in, and prepared for this epic journey that my family, my friends, and I were about to take over them thar mountains.
Race morning. Probably my favorite part of the day was just calmly walking from our lodge to the start line with my wife Michelle, our 11-year old son Whit, and Matt and Jo Thompson (pacer and crew). I felt incredibly honored to have them there just to support me. I can’t overstate that. It was noticeably NOT cool as I lined up a few rows back under that infamous starting clock and awaited the countdown and shotgun blast. Bang.
As the race started, I made a concerted effort to start easy and quickly found myself power hiking. Starting at 6500’ and hiking up to just under 9000’, the altitude would do a good job of keeping my pace honest. I quickly fell in line with several of the top women and enjoyed some solid conversation with Stephanie Howe and Sarah Keyes for much of the climb. A bit over a mile from the top, we were on snow and the tone for the High Country was set. Go slow, kick your feet in for traction, and saddle up for the ride! I was in fine spirits as I took it all in – whatever the day would bring, I was going to enjoy it.Many people complained or noted how difficult the next 10 or 15 miles were, but frankly, these were the happiest of the race for me. Trekking through angled, slippery snow. Hard to find course markings and constant wrong turns. Collapsing snow bridges. Knee deep mud. As much as it was arduous, I was a 10 year old kid, playing in the mountains. I had to take off my shoes three different times to shake the mud out, despite my gaiters. There were random steep climbs up exposed ridges, incredible snow-capped mountain views, and soaring eagles. It was really incredible. If there’s one thing I could say about the high country though, is that not enough is written about how tough it is. It was tough and super technical the entire time. This was no butter trail. It was nasty, rugged, beat-you-up running for 30 miles at altitude in full sun exposure. The magic started to fade around mile 15 when I started thinking man, its starting to get a bit hot up here! I’m not sure that I ever saw a single cloud during our time in California and the full sun exposure and altitude were starting to be felt. I was already grabbing snow and putting it in my Buff arm sleeves (note the sweet plug – thanks BUFF!) and my hat. But all was still happy and I kept trodding along as I rolled towards Duncan Canyon where I would first get to see my “Dry side” crew of Sophie Speidel, Annie Stanley, and Sarah Schubert.
A side note on goals and adjustment is necessary here. I won’t hide the fact that I wrote down 18 hour splits for this race. That was a stretch for sure, but that’s what big races are for and my racing doppleganger Chris Roberts rolled out an 18:45 last year, so I was hoping some epic training could give me bragging rights for years to come. But with the snow and mud and chaos of the high country, I rolled into Duncan Canyon a full hour behind those splits. Oh well. You can worry about splits all you want, but you better throw them out the door once the gun goes off. Your body will do what it will do on race day and I was gonna listen to it. I could tell it was going to be a long day and so by mile 24, I happily let my “race plan” float away and was prepared to run happy and run by feel from here on.Seeing “The CRUT Laydehs” at Duncan was awesome! They cooled me down, gave me an ice bandana, shoved ice down the arm sleeves and changed out my bottles and I was off! It was great to see Alissa Keith and her husband as well. Although you tend to see your friends at aid stations for a mere minute, the energy of that stays with you for miles as you reenter the wilderness alone. Sophie left me with words of wisdom as I descended into Duncan Canyon. “Don’t worry about your time, John – I want you to underperform!” I can do that! After an hour in Duncan Canyon, which was a preview on the heat and exposure I would get for the day, I soon climbed up into Robinson Flat, mile 30, where I would see my “wet side” crew of Michelle, Whit, Matt, and Jo for the first time. Robinson Flat was awesome! You’ve just finished a rough and tumble 50k in the wilderness and suddenly you are on Party Street! Hundreds of people cheering you in (Hi Bryon Powell!) and you are just praying you can find your crew. There they were! Hey guys! We’re at Western States!
It was so great seeing them and now I had even more “bonus crew”. Todd and Alexis Thomas filling bottles, Helen MacDermott pouring water on my head, and Amy Rusiecki helping my change my shoes while Michelle and the rest of my crew did their thing. What a boost to see so many friends from Virginia! I was cooled down and loaded up as I trotted out of the aid station ready to tackle the Canyons. Bye guys! See you in 25 miles!! Many people detail the race topography as “The high country” followed by “the canyons”, however the hot canyons really don’t start until mile 43. I would propose that we add a descriptive name to the section from Robinson Flat (mile 30) to Last Chance (mile 43) and call it “The Shitty Section”. This section is essentially an exposed, dusty, miserable half marathon on fire roads (with a little trail thrown in) and it tells you in no uncertain terms that the day is going to be hot and sunny. No offense to the race, but this section is mostly uninspiring and on a particularly rough day like today, it really did set the tone for rough things to come.
At Dusty Corners (mile 38) I once again saw Sophie, Annie, and Sarah and they got me in and out quicker than I liked. It was only mile 38 and I was already starting to feel really hot and beat up, despite the fact that I was being conservative. “Underperform!”, Sophie reminded me. Not a problem!As I ran down more hot dusty trail, I was soon hit with the first REAL blasts of heat that the day would offer. These were like evil winds of devil’s breath that would hit you like a furnace. Whoa. Underperform. The mere act of running slow was getting me really hot and so even here on the buttery Pucker Point trail, I took many walking breaks just to keep the effort really low.
It also hit me for the first time just what a hard day it was going to be for my crew. As I thought about Sophie, Annie, and Sarah driving for hours on these hot dusty roads just to get to some hot, dusty aid station to see me for like 2 minutes, I became a bit emotional. Michelle and company would have similar experiences. A hard day to crew. Perhaps it was the guilt of feeling selfish or the gratitude that I have friends who would actually do that for me, but for the first time I felt the enormity of my friendships that were on full display here at Western States. Not to mention all my friends at home who were watching from their computers. All that dust must be making my eyes water!!
Finally, I reached Last Chance aid station (mile 43) and it was one of the best all day. I had just completed “The Shitty Section” and knew I would now be heading into “The Canyons”. I was looking forward to the challenge and the change of scenery, but I pulled into Last Chance feeling overheated, beat up, and having a mental low. But the volunteers were filled with so much energy and suddenly I found myself getting soaked, re-iced, and refueled by like 5 different people at the same time. All I could do was laugh as ice-cold water was poured on my head and all my needs were met by these incredibly upbeat strangers. This was a recurring theme at every single aid station, all day long, but there was something special about Last Chance that just really transformed me back to a happy runner (for about 30 minutes anyway…;). Even when leaving the aid station, they had about 20 random “Go ‘blank’ Runner!” signs, about half of them addressed to elites (“Go Magda! You don’t have to work at Taco Bell anymore!”) and then half to random entrants. And there was a sign:
“Go John, the RD from Virginia! We can’t wait to hear ‘But it’s a dry heat!’ Enjoy that first WSER Silver Buckle!”
Wow, how about that to get you pumped up! Thanks Last Chance, I love you guys!
The descent into Deadwood Canyon was awesome, and all I could think about was Killian in the Unbreakable movie. More fun than difficult, I soon found myself crossing the swinging bridge and looking for that spring I heard so much about. Sure enough, just before the climb to Devils Thumb there was an awesome creek, occupied by two runners already, waiting for me to lay down in, which I readily did and just laid there for a few minutes, fully submerged.
I knew the climb to Devil’s Thumb would be tough, with its 36 switchbacks per AJW and by switchback number 1, I could tell it was going to be a rough one. The cooling effects of the stream were instantly gone, it was well above 100 degrees, and this climb was just ridiculously straight up. Around switchback 15, I saw a runner sitting on a rock and was shocked to see Brian Rusiecki. I picked Brian to be in the top 5 because he is such a tough and seasoned runner. He was having trouble breathing and wasn’t sure he was going to be able to make it out of the canyon. Shit. I told him I’d send someone down and kept climbing. The climb took forever and we were all baking. Finally, after forever, I arrived at Devil’s Thumb aid station. Kinda wrecked. Sitting in a chair in tears was former champion Stephanie Howe. Hmmm. This was going to be an epic day indeed. After another awesome ice/water cool down and a high five from Dave Mackey (Hi Dave Mackey!) I proudly announced “I am WALKING out of the aid station!” as I headed down into El Dorado Canyon, the canyon that ultimately broke so many of us that day. Looking back, I was pretty wrecked leaving Devils Thumb, but I didn’t dare admit that to myself.
At this point in the race, almost halfway through, I was a mix of optimism and suffering. I was so hot. My legs felt terrible. My stomach was now starting to turn – I was feeling nauseas and having some cramping. It just seemed like anything I did to cool down only lasted 10 minutes and then I was back to roasting again which was making the stomach worse. On the other hand, I held on to the mantra that “it never always gets worse” and knew that if I could just hang in there, I could be feeling great in a few hours. So onward into this last canyon.
El Dorado canyon was an oven. Sun above, roasting rocks below and you were getting cooked. This was all about survival as I continued to take it really easy, but was at least still running well. At the bottom of the canyon I took a few minutes to go under the bridge and lay down in the river. Why isn’t this river cold??!! Argh. Hopeless heat. Another great aid station, more ice and fuel and I started the 3-mile climb to Michigan Bluff where I would again see my crew!
This climb took forever and I looking back I can say that this is officially where my day started breaking down. My hiking became slower as I continued to bake in the heat. I started getting passed by a lot of people, and I really didn’t care. I told Michelle I had three main goals going into this race. 1) FINISH. 2) Sub-24 hours. And 3) No medical. I was not going to be someone who needed an IV or got rhabdo so I hiked SLOWLY out of Duncan and into Michigan Bluff.As soon as I got near the aid station, I was greeted by Todd Thomas and again it was so great to see a familiar face. He ran me over to where Michelle and company were waiting and I told him to make sure they had a chair waiting for me. I hadn’t planned on sitting down all day, but now my race plan was officially getting tossed into the oven. Michelle and crew had everything ready for me but I just needed to sit my butt down in a chair and take a few minutes to recover from the damage that Deadwood and El Dorado canyons just inflicted on me. If this was a Rocky movie, I just got pummeled for two full rounds by Drago and limped back into my corner, hoping I could have some more time before the bell went off again. My crew was again awesome, cooling me down and getting some soda into me. I was already abandoning my nutrition plan and was hoping good ol Ginger Ale would come and save the day. But it was too hot and even that wasn’t sitting well. I got up out of my corner and headed back into the ring for another round – 7 miles to Foresthill. Lets do this Drago!
During the climb out of Michigan Bluff on yet another exposed fire road, my stomach began to painfully cramp. I’m not sure exactly what caused this, but every time I tried to start running it was like 10/10 stomach pain and I just couldn’t do it. Crap! Just keep walking. Underperform. I kept waiting for the painful cramping to stop, but it wouldn’t. Soon the road turned downward and then into some nice downhill single track into Volcano Canyon and I still found myself having to walk every step of it. Megan Arbogast Laws passed me. She was running and looking great, I was the exact opposite. What a rookie! For the first time, I started doing math for what pace I would need to still get that sub-24 hour finish. Just keep moving. Do not stop.
By the time I arrived at Bath Road, I hadn’t eaten or drank anything for almost 90 minutes. My mouth was dry and I was starting to get a bit nervous about the day. Matt and Sarah were waiting for me at Bath Road and I tried to fight off the disappointment. I was supposed to arrive in Foresthill preserved and ready to run. But instead I arrived dehydrated, way behind on calories, and about 2.5 hours behind those stupid splits that I didn’t care about anymore. I couldn’t help but feel bad too, like many runners that day, that I was letting my crew down. They would have none of this, but still it was a true emotion. Maggie Guterl said it well in her post-race entry explaining her tough day: “I screwed up our plans of being done at some point in the night.You guys got no sleep. You had to wait a loooong time for me between aid stations. It was hot. You guys were dirty and hungry. It wasn’t the epic day we all envisioned.”
So as I finally reached the aid station, I again sat down in a chair and tried not to panic. I could tell Michelle was looking a bit concerned, and I wish I could’ve just faked it that I was ok, but for the first time ever in a race, I didn’t quite know how the heck I was going to get to the finish line. I knew I needed calories and fluid, but when I tried to think about my options, I started getting more and more nauseas.Suddenly, as the crew was helping me change socks, I knew I was going to puke. I quickly got out of the chair and dropped to my hands and knees and just started puking my guts out. It was so miserable. You are definitely not in control of your body during times like this and all you can do is hold on and pray it ends soon. Retch after retch came and I could feel the silence of the crew behind me. I looked and saw Whit with a concerned look on his face, much like mine was watching him puke on the cruise ship a week earlier. Finally, my stomach abated and I returned to the chair. This is the part in the movie where Rocky just got the living crap beat out of him by Drago and he barely made it back to the chair before the 10 count. And then Sophie calmly says “Ok, listen. Now your stomach has reset. What you need to do is just sip water and sip a gel, and go slow. You’ve got this.” I so needed that right there. Simple instructions and a new plan. Just sip water and sip a gel. You’ve got this. The crew loaded me up with ice and water and suddenly there was nothing more to do than to get up out of that chair. I got up and the whole crew and I slowly made our way out of the town toward Cal Street. Its funny because I felt so terrible and weak but there is a great picture of me and the entire crew heading out of Foresthill and we are all smiling and laughing about something. THIS was my moment at Western States. With Michelle, my partner in everything we do. I wasn’t going to let her down. And Whit, so cheerful and encouraging, and reminding me that I have much more important things in life than a race. Sophie, the veteran who had been a calming and confident presence all day. Annie, so excited for me and full of optimism still. Sarah, somehow still treating me like I was in race mode and encouraging me to get out of every aid station and run. Jo, just being there for Michelle all day and capturing some great memories on film. And Matt, who was just about to start an epic 10-hour pacing duty, but could not have been more perfect. I am still humbled that they were hanging around for this prolonged show that was clearly headed deep into the night. I sip my water and my gel and Matt and I headed down Cal Street.
I take about 10 minutes to just walk and get my shit together, and suddenly, I don’t feel like death. Despite no food or water for nearly 2 hours now, I start to feel some life coming back and next thing I know we are running. I could never get into a rhythm, but still it felt good to run. I told Matt I felt like a high schooler driving his car on an empty tank of gas. Every so often I find a few quarters and we run, but then we run out of fuel again and we walk. And then another quarter. Sometimes a nickle. Sometimes a dollar. I’m begging for a ten, but it never comes. But we are making forward progress down these sweet Cal Street trails and it is very good to have a friend as we experience Western States together.
One gel turns into another and after about hour I was feeling much less defeated. It still hadn’t cooled down much, but running and making progress feels SO good! We pass by Yiou Wang, who was previously leading the womens race, but who was now laying down on the trail on a towel with medical all around her. More carnage.
Eventually Leif Van Acker and his pacer Rudy Rutemiller catch up and we enjoy some time commiserating on the trail together. As we pull into Cal 3 aid station I hear “John!” – I look and see its Mike Wardian, sitting on a chair. Man, it has indeed been a rough day! I get some soup and a coke and Thompson and I start the 5-mile stretch to the river and suddenly I am feeling great.
This 5-mile stretch was the best part of the entire race. High on a bluff above the river, we watched the last of the sunset as we ran towards the river crossing. Despite what I had just been through at Foresthill, running suddenly felt effortless. My legs felt incredible and my breathing was easy. Soon we were running 7:30 pace and just flying by runner after runner. It was a bit reckless and didn’t make the last 20 miles any easier, but I just needed some momentum and it made for one of the most memorable stretches of running I’ve ever had in my life. We passed Kaci Lickteig, last year’s champion and many others as we finally, with new strength and optimism, made it to the river.Crossing the river on a boat was surreal and I enjoyed the 2 mile hike up to Green Gate with Sophie, Annie, and Sarah. My stomach started turning sour again on the climb but I was still pumped just not to be laying on the side of the trail somewhere. I saw Michelle, Whit and Jo at the aid station and remember just feeling bad they were there at such a late hour – it was 10:30pm and they had a long hike and windy drive to get back to Auburn. See you at the track! Even though it would be a LONG time, it felt really really good to say that.
The next 20 miles honestly all felt about the same. Incredibly tough. Mentally exhausting. Anytime my heart rate got up a bit, my stomach instantly felt like it was going to puke again. I could power hike really well, but I could only run for about 100 yards before I had to resort to walking again. I just wanted to throw caution to the wind and run, but I knew that we were now starting to chase cutoffs for a 24 hour finish. I had to keep up about a 15-20 minute pace for the next 20 miles in order to get that silver buckle. Sounds easy, but with so many miles and a queasy stomach, I didn’t know if I was an epic puke fest away from having that goal shut down.
Matt was a superb pacer. He didn’t get frustrated or impatient, he simply encouraged me and helped me pass the time and keep my goal in sight. I can definitely say that if I hadn’t had him there with me those last 20 miles, I would have never got that silver buckle. I saw Sarah again at ALT aid station, then more power hiking. Saw Hal and Carly Koerner at the Quarry Rd aid station and then more power hiking. I was hiking about 15 minute miles and it felt like I was never going to get done.
Eventually we reached Pointed Rocks aid station, mile 95. Located in a beautiful meadow and stocked with delicious chicken noodle soup and coke, I finally could feel that we were going to make that track before the 24 hour mark and it FINALLY cooled down. The exhaustion and suspense from the past 6-8 hours had finally been replaced with some celebration and peace.
Leif passed me like I was standing still and I was so proud of him for finishing his first hundred miler so strong. As we made our way down to No Hands Bridge, we took a moment to soak it all in. Here was that iconic bridge all lit up, the gateway to Robie Point and the finish.
Tons of people passed me in these last few miles, but I really didn’t care. I didn’t have anymore to give and I wasn’t racing them anymore, just that clock. When we arrived at Robie, there was Sophie and Annie, steadfast and excited to join us for the journey around the neighborhood and down to the track. They made me run even though I just wanted to walk and we soon had the lights of the track at Placer High School in view. I told them that I wanted them and the rest of the crew to all join me in that lap around the track. Together. Michelle somehow had Whit awake, even though it was just after 4am, and we all started running around the track together as Tropical John Medinger announced our arrival to the sleepy souls who were actually there.
And finally, the finish. Getting to stop. The greatest award of every 100-mile race. There were no tears. No lengthy hugs. No primal screams. There simply was no energy left for any of that. There was an incredible group photo and then there was a numb, exhausted collapse into yet another chair. The best chair. The finish line chair.
It took me about a full week to process my emotions about this race. There is so much hype and buildup that it simply makes it hard to weed through it all and find how did it all effect you? I think I’ve figured it out now. I learned a lot at Western States.
Western States was an amazing event, but its not THE event. I mean this in a big picture way. There is SO much hype leading up to this race and I totally got caught up in it. Heavy training, personal expectations, and everything that makes WS a big deal. It became an obsession. Now perhaps my perspective would be different if I had an amazing finish, but for me, putting that much into any one race just makes me feel like I didn’t quite respect all of the other things going on in my life during that time. I have zero regrets in my preparation and I LOVED Western States – it is an incredible race with amazing volunteers and infrastructure. I hope to make it back one day! However, THE event is taking the dogs and Michelle and Whit to Sugar Hollow for a hike. THE event is running Jarmans with the Dehs at 5am on Tuesdays. THE event is hanging out on the deck of Annie’s cabin watching the sun go down on Three Ridges. THE event is the Hellgate prerace and the Masochist finish line. THE event is life where you are, with who you are with, right now. I don’t ever want to forget that.
Appreciate – no, cherish – your family and friends. I didn’t cry at the finish line, but when I was sharing my race story to all my friends on a huge group message thread we had going on, the waterworks started turning on. Friends who traveled all the way across the country to share this experience with me and help. Friends and family who were glued to their phones tracking the race all throughout the day (and night!). People who seemed more happy and impressed with my finish than I was. Something about Western States made me see everyone back home in a new light and I can honestly say I have a new appreciation for the incredible people I have in my life. Yep. Hashtag BLESSED people! When I look at that sweet silver buckle, I’m not going to think of the mountains, the course, the heat, or the hype. I’m going to think of my friends and family.I have a lot to learn about running 100s. I can’t really point to any mistakes on the day, but when the Queen Megan Arbogast/Laws passes you at mile 55, you can’t help but feel like you could’ve done something smarter, like she does. More than anything I probably need to continue experimenting with some different fueling options, as it was my stomach that really hurt my race. But maybe I’m just not suited to run in 110 degree heat! (Wait, is that not normal?!)
I am not getting older! I will admit, that several times during this training cycle I either said or thought something like “well, I’m going all in for States because I’m 41 now and probably about to pass my prime. Well tell that to Jeff Browning(45), Jesse Haynes(44), Magda Boulet(43), Meghan Arbogast(56), Ildiko Wermescher(52) and Andrea Huser(43) – all top ten finishers at Western States and all older than me! I’m not saying I’m going to ever be as fast as Bronco Billy or Magda, but after seeing these awesome people crush it at states, I sure as hell am not going to slow down!
I have to thank BUFF USA and Casey Rolig/Mitchell McGuinness for offering me this sponsor spot for the race. The new UV arm sleeves were awesome all day! Also Tim Kirk and Altra for the sweet new Lone Peak 3.5s. To all of the incredible volunteers at Western States – wow, you were amazing. Thanks to Matt, Jo, Sophie, Annie, and Sarah for coming to Western States with me. I will never forget your friendship! And last, thank you Michelle for being an amazing, amazing wife and partner. You are so selfless and I am so thankful everyday to have you in my life.
If you’ve made it through this race report, then you too can run 100 miles!