|Team Pocket Food?! Photo Credit: Eric Walley|
As it should be, this is a tough race to recap. Two weeks have passed and I still feel the sting of my DNF and my stomach knots up a bit when I see Western States Endurance Run (WSER) race photos and reports from other runners.
That said, I am focusing more on the feelings and not as much on the facts.
|Hanging with my sighted guide Sablle at the Clif tent the day before the race. PC" eric Walley.|
The fact is that I ended up not making the time cut-off at the mile 15.5 aid station. I put in the training and am arguably as fit as I have ever been so this is a frustrating result. But this is what makes ultrarunning so great-there are so many elements that factor into a race and your overall success.
The fact is that the snow in the high country destroyed me. The snow was not like the 7-mile snow section we ran during training camp in which the snow was ankle deep and runnable even when it became tracked. The snow along the high country and ridge sections was packed, slick, pock-marked from the 350 plus runners who ran it before me, and incredibly difficult to navigate.
When I wasn’t falling, I was slip-sliding all-around. My sighted guide Steve did an amazing job with what he had to work with. He was describing the surface, snow bridges, how far down the snow went before it was dirt. And trying to keep an eye on the pink flag course markings! I actually hung onto him a few times which was a first for me.
I fell anywhere between a dozen and 20 times. I briefly knocked the wind out of myself and one time I twisted while falling backwards and my face and front teeth got very acquainted with a rock. But I promised myself I would get up after every fall and that I did. Sometimes a bit more slowly especially the one or two times I slid into a deep tree well that required me to claw my way out of.
Although I do have some usable vision, I cannot detect any contrast in the snow. Therefore, I could not see how high to step or which way the narrow running “lane” was slanted seeing that most of the ridge was off-camber.
Lets back up a bit. As mentioned, I went into the race fit, mentally prepared to grind it out and push harder than ever, had an all-star crew, and got a good night’s sleep the night before the race.
We arrived at Squaw Village around 4:30AM and quickly picked up our bibs and headed inside to keep warm. The temperature was about 39. Jill, Lucy and a few other crew members were there to keep Steve and I company.
At about 4:50AM we walked outside to the start line. This is when it became real. We were minutes away from starting the most historic, prestigious, and arguably competitive 100-mile race in the U.S.
We counted down from 10, I got all the feels, and we were off at the shot-gun blast. The start line atmosphere equaled that of my first Boston Marathon. The crowds were deep and LOUD!
The first 3.5 miles were a climb up the ski slope starting at 6,000 feet and taking us to about 8,500. It was a decent climb and my goal was to work hard, stay focused, not look at my pace, yet remain relaxed.
A ton of spectators climbed up the slope including members of my crew so it was so awesome to hear everyone cheering Steve and I on. Somewhere around mile 2 we moved off the dirt path and onto the ski slope which had groomed snow. We continued to move efficiently because although we were climbing the trail was level. We even slowly ran in a few spots that were flat.
|Steve and I cresting the final climb to the top of the Escarpment. PC: Eric Walley|
We hit a ridiculous step section that I knew was coming. But when we crested that I had no idea we were at the top of the Escarpment. The party-like atmosphere was surreal. There was music and a ton of cheers. My brother Jayson kindly hiked up at 3:30AM so it was awesome to see him-thanks bro. Eric Schranz was also up there with his horn thing. I told myself to stay focused and keep moving so apologies for not chatting.
We began a short descent and about a half mile in the single-track became pretty rocky. Steve and I pulled over to let a long line of runners pass. This is always a tough emotional moment for me because I hate having people pass me because of the terrain. But I knew this would happen and my spirits remained high.
|Early miles in the high-country.|
Shortly after this section the snow began. Around mile five I looked at my watch for the first time and I pulled a 30-miute mile because of the snow. Keep moving and grinding-you got this. Then another two miles in the mid-20s.
I was in trouble. Keep moving.
At mile 8, right after I took a fall and slid into a deep tree well, I saw two runners with orange vests on. This could not be good. The course sweepers caught up to me so I knew I was going to have a short day.
We ran into Lyons Ridge Aid Station and they do not have a cut-off. Volunteers asked if I was continuing (heck yes!) so on we went. I had about an hour to run 5-6 miles so I knew it was nearly impossible to make the cut-off. We hiked the uphills, ran the flats and the non-technical downhills, and continued to get crushed on the never-ending snow. A few times I slid down on my butt (you think baseball sliding raspberries are rough, try sliding on snow wearing running shorts!).
We came on one steep, off-camber snowy downhill and both Steve and the sweeper advised against sliding down it. So we hiked up to dry ground and did dome bush-whacking.
We arrived at Red Star AS between 11:10AM and 11:20AM and the cut-off was 10:30AM. The very kind volunteers had set aside some food and coke for our hour plus ride to meet my crew.
Then a volunteer cut off my race bracelet.
We got dropped off at the Forest Hill aid station which is the most active stop on the course because crew and the public are there. While walking up the street I saw Lucy coming toward me. I couldn’t even pretend to be stoic and we embraced while crying. I will never forget her support and words of encouragement. As a Dad, I am supposed to be her rock, so I am grateful that the script was flipped.
I was embarrassed and stopped to take of my race bib. Maybe not having a bib on would hide the fact that I had already DNFd? (PS its kind of hard to be anonymous while using my white cane!).
My crew notes said that if I ended up dropping, I was committed to sticking around and cheering. But this was tough and hard to endure. I held off on drinking a beer for an hour or so because I wanted to deal with this with a clear head. On numerous occasions I heard folks come up to my crew and ask them how their runner was doing. I heard my crew get quiet and tell them I DNFd. But I had to stand out there and be a part of this wonderful community.
|endless gratitude for this crew's support and friendship.|
We saw the top 15 or so runners come through then drove to the finish line. We cheered the top men and then we all needed food.
Jill and I were back at the finish line track around 6AM Sunday and hanging out with my guide Amy and Eric S. I was very happy that both Amy and my pacer Krissy were able to jump in and pace their friends.
I was also thrilled to see my friend Danielle T finish strong. And fellow Topo Ambassador Joseph Chick, after being in the lottery for seven years, get it done. And Oliver T, who l did a few training runs with in Boston, cross the line after also being in the lottery for seven years!!! And being on the track for the Golden Hour (29-30) and seeing the raw emotion of the finishers was well worth it. And to stand with most of my crew, including Lucy, and see two runners finish at the end (one with 22 seconds to spare) was mind-blowing. I’ve never experienced so much energy and excitement at a finish line.
But the feelings are still raw. I had the opportunity to head to San Francisco after the race and spoke at Transports running store (thank you Sarah D.) in Oakland and Clif HQ. This was tough but it helped me process the events. We also got some family time in and hit up a local mini-golf course (I won!) and Six Flags (my stomach was hurting so I DNF after six rides! J
I am incredibly thankful to Clif for the tremendous amount of support as well as Craig Thornley, the WSER race director and the entire race committee. Together, they helped to raise so much awareness about athletes who are blind/visually impaired.
But I felt the pressure leading up to the race. I appreciate and certainly embrace the opportunity to raise awareness but at the same time I sometimes wish I could be just another runner. And DNFing with this level of attention is brutal although I know it happens to so many folks.
I also feel that I disappointed my community and peers. Although I know no one thinks this it still upsets me.
Although never an excuse, I am upset that my lack of vision was the determining factor. Who knows if I would have ultimately finished without the snow? But I wanted my fitness, mental toughness to push through the elements, to determine my outcome. And not my eyes. I also know that there is more I can do around my training. I need to continue to improve my balance and ankle strength and work on my climbing.
I am 200% certain that a runner who is blind/visually impaired can finish Western States. If that is not me, then I want to be there when one of my very capable peers crosses that line. Who’s up for this?
Trail and ultra running is a wonderful sport centered within a beautiful community. It brings me so much joy just to be a part of the tribe. I am incredibly thankful for the support and well wishes both pre and post-race. Collectively, we opened eyes (pun intended): more runners signed up to be sighted guides, and others will continue to push boundaries.
I did not sign up for Western States to be the first person who started it. What motivates me is challenging myself to take on big adventures and leveraging this opportunity to raise awareness. As I reflect back on the young people who are visually impaired who got into trail running within the past year and came to visit me during Wester States training camp. I am starting to understand and be a bit more comfortable knowing that for them seeing someone do what I do (what we all love to do) has an impact on their lives.
Like life, ultra running is filled with ups and downs. So this experience is a reminder to always keep things in perspective, learn, and keep moving forward.
While in decent spirits, I told Steve that I was not having fun. Tripping, falling, rolling my ankles was just not fun. I run because I enjoy actually running while recognizing that there will always be walking/hiking. But I miss being able to open-up my stride, hammer a trail when I want to and not when the terrain dictates it. So I am going to spend some time thinking about this. I love the challenge of a course like Wester States but I want it to be challenging AND fun.
A big thanks to Jill and Lucy for putting up with me over the past seven or so months. From long weekend training runs, to obsessing about the logistics and plan, to taking time off work to come out and crew. Thank you.
Team Pocket Food?!-you all inspire me (please know how infrequently I use that word) not only to run, but to be a good human and to give back to our community. Thanks for being you and most importantly your friendship.
Clif (& Brooke): dang, I had no idea how all of this was going to pan out and you absolutely exceeded my expectations. From the sponsor bib, to supporting my crew to ensure I had the best team possible, to the marketing and social media to raise the bar about runners who are blind/VI. You reminded me how companies can not only make money but have outstanding values. Thanks for a great ride.
Topo Athletic: thanks for not only putting outstanding shoes on my feet (I ran in the all-new, incredibly amazing Mountain Racers) but for all of the little ways that you support me and our Tribe. I know more brands are following your lead in engaging athletes of all abilities.
Nathan Sports & Squirrel Nut Butter: a special thanks for making sure I had the right gear. I very much appreciate your support. And a special thanks to the Foreseeable Future Foundation for their support and the work they do to support individuals who are blind/visually impaired.
Finally, if you are interested in being a sighted guide or are looking for a guide. Check out United in Stride.
Beer: our crew hit up Knee Deep Brewing and Moonraker on Sunday. Both brew delicious beer and it was nice to see other WSER runner at Moonraker.
I hope to see you all on the trails and roads. Happy running.