By John Hart
The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run is the ‘oldest and most prestigious’ run of its length in the world. First completed in 1974 the course covers the path that settlers and miners used to go to and from the gold mines of Nevada and California over the Sierras. That’s cool. But that’s the only cool thing about Western States.
Scorching hot temperatures, especially in the deep river canyons, more than make up for Western States’ modest elevation profile – 18,000 feet up and 23,000 feet down. Unfortunately, nothing about running all day in temperatures over 100 degrees appeals to me. I can sweat with the best of them – ask my running partners and my wife. I’m the guy who gets cold on January runs, not because it is near zero, but because I chill in my sweat drenched clothes. I’m the guy who has his office window open all winter fighting the consensus setting on the thermastat. I perspire almost continuously from April through October. Why would I sign up for Western States? One reason: in this sport EVERYONE who has ever been anyone and EVERYONE who will ever be anyone has plied the red soil and rocks of the Western States trail. I’m no one, but I wanted to leave my footprint on that sacred ground, too.
All winter and spring I tried to ‘heat train’ to prepare for the hottest run of my life. That effort was almost entirely futile in Montana. I managed a handful of long runs on 80+ degree afternoons (sans water) and a 50 mile race in the pine forests of Arizona in late April. That was it. New snow dusted the mountains around Missoula two weeks before race day. Four days before race day it was 51 degrees and poured cold rain where we stayed at Lake Tahoe. But, as luck would have it, every day after that was 15 degrees hotter than the last. Race day – June 29 – had a forecast of 103 degrees. Western States for me would be baptism by fire. And it would dish out the 2nd hottest weather in its 40 year history.
I’m a smart runner, despite what my daughter thinks about my overall intelligence. I had a prudent plan to compete, stay hydrated and finish strong. I did everything according to plan. I left every aid station with two water bottles full of water/GU Brew and ice. By mid morning I left every aid station with a hat full of ice cubes. I stopped at every water crossing along the course – roughly 20 sources – and doused myself. I peed consistently and ate good fuel on a regular basis. And everything went very well through the first 62 miles.
The tiny town of Foresthill hosts the largest aid station along the course at mile 62. Melissa, Maisie, my sister-in-law and nephews were there with cheerful words and handmade signs. I felt fantastic, until I stepped on the scale for a mandatory weigh. I’d weighed 175# that morning at 5 am at the start in Squaw Valley. My weight had been between 170-174# ever since. At Foresthill I looked down and saw the needle at 180#. What? How could I be gaining weight after literally dripping all day from every sweat pore? My first thought was the scale was wrong and I tried to ignore the possible implications of 180#. The aid station guy raised an eyebrow and looked at my hands to see if they were puffy and for other signs I was retaining fluids. I basically ran away from him with a quick assurance that I was just fine. And I was.
What I decided as I ran away from Foresthill was to drink a bit less and back off on the salt tablets that I’d been taking every hour. I had peed about 45 minutes before I arrived at Foresthill at 6 pm. I wouldn’t pee again until late morning the next day. While I had an uncomfortable urge to pee throughout the night, every time I stopped nothing came out. When I did finally pee several hours after the finish, it was the color of coca-cola and the consistency of beef broth.
Everything went downhill after Foresthill: the trail, the sun, and me. I began feeling bloated and slightly nauseous by mile 70. So I did what every ultrarunner is taught to do, and that I had done successfully in the past. I tried to vomit. I stuck my three middle fingers so far down my throat that they might have emerged the other end. Nothing. A couple more attempts, same result. How could I have gained 5# but nothing was in my stomach?
Rucky Chucky aid station sits at the bottom of the American River canyon next to the banks of the river at mile 78. Upstream we’d run in and out and up and down the walls of this canyon for most of the late morning and all afternoon and evening. Volunteers at Rucky Chucky had seen 106 degrees that day so it had been just as hot on the course upriver, or damn close. It was just dark when I arrived and still in the 90’s. Melissa had been waiting for my overdue arrival. She said I looked gray. I felt weak, nauseous and light headed. Another mandatory weigh showed 164#. Proof, I thought, that the scale at Foresthill was just wrong and I’d been alarmed and cut back on fluids for no reason. Now the aid station doctor made me sit down for 15 minutes and eat and drink continuously before I could leave. No problem. I had to stop and regroup anyway.
The rest of the race fulfilled my worst fears of a hot day at Western States. More than 20 people passed me. I had to force myself to take food and fluids. I couldn’t run up anything close to a hill and barely shuffled along on the flats and downhill. If I stopped moving I got so light-headed I had to sit down or put my hands on my knees for support. I was staggering all night, and I was scared. Scared that I would pass out, stroke out, or collapse before I got to the finish line. I had no idea what was going on in my body or why food and fluids hadn’t revived me. In fact I was deteriorating even at such a slow pace. I was also scared that someone at the next aid station would wise up to my condition take some medical tests and make me stop or pull me from the race.
Nothing short of a full collapse was going to keep me from the finish line. Why? If I didn’t finish I’d have to do the race again. That thought alone kept me going. I had no great desire to run Western States in the first place – except to say I did it – and I NEVER wanted or intended to do it again. In fact, the only way I’d ever do it again now is if my daughter’s life depended on it.
Actually, throughout that endless night of torture, I never thought once about dropping out. I thought about many things, but not quitting. I thought about Missoula’s local hero Mike Wolfe who pounded out 6:30 miles over that section of the course in 2011 in hot pursuit of Killian Jornet and the lead. I thought about my Mormon ancestors who walked across the Great Plains to Utah, some pushing handcarts – an oversized wheelbarrow – full of their few belongings. They endured for months without aid stations, drop bags, or a cheerful crew to support them. That’s real guts and true courage. Without their sacrifice then I wouldn’t have an opportunity to do these silly, self-indulgent 100 mile adventures now. I thought too about my selfless pacer, John Fitzgerald, who joined me at mile 60 when I was feeling great and then had to stay with me throughout my demise until the very end. Without John’s help and guidance I would have been much slower and fallen much farther back. I also thought, as I often do in long runs and races, about my younger sister who has rheumatoid arthritis. She’ll never give up and quit, and neither will I.
Finally, just before 4 am, I ran a lap on the famed Placer High School track and across the finish line. It had been 22 hours and 56 minutes since we left Squaw Valley and climbed over the Sierra mountain pass. I was the 50th male finisher; 62ndfinisher of 408 starters. Absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and not too bad for an over-heated old guy from the north country. But I could do a lot better on a cooler day and I expected to do better even in oppressive heat. So much for expectations. The old axiom is oh so true: 100 miles is a long way to run and anything can happen at any time to make it feel even longer.
In the end, I dug deeper than I’ve ever dug before. I experienced more pain than I thought I could endure. At this writing I’ve already forgotten the depths of pain and misery. That’s a good thing. Forgetting is the reason we keep doing these awful but intensely-satisfying races. But I’ll never do what I did to my body in another race again, probably.
I don’t know what happened to my body. I wish I did. My symptoms strongly suggest ‘exertional rhabdomyolosis,’ a not-too-terribly-uncommon condition for ultrarunners. Basically, my kidneys were overworked and clogged from excess muscle breakdown. What caused it? I don’t know. Probably haywire metabolic changes caused by excessive sweating in ridiculously hot weather. What could I have done differently? I don’t know.
I did everything I could to prepare for the race and excel to the end. I ate very well and kept my weight down all winter and spring. I trained as hard as I could but not to the point of injury: a fine line at age 46. I consistently – my wife would say obsessively – lifted weights, went to yoga and pilates, and did my little session of core exercises in the front room with evening jazz on the stereo. I didn’t even have a drink of alcohol for SIX months before the race! For those of you wondering, yes, life is really too short for that kind of austerity. When I toed the start line I had done everything I could to have a solid race at the big rodeo that is Western States. I can’t think of one thing I could or would do differently. But it didn’t end the way I dreamed it might.
The good news is that I don’t have to run Western States again. I’ll certainly run more trail ultras. I may even do more 100 milers someday. Those will be in cooler mountain conditions where I’m more comfortable tracking down the competitive. When they come, though, I will be hungrier and humbler for what happened on the hallowed Western States trail.