I wrote most of this post before Western States 100 and, after a 24 hour plus day, added a race recap.
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On June 24, 2017 I will run 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California. During this trip, I’ve thought a lot about the power of affirmation; you know, superman posturing, playing the part, faking it ‘til you make it. That is why I am writing now, weeks prior to actually running the Western States Endurance Run, that I will not quit, I will push myself beyond what I think I can do, and do it with a smile. I have been working toward this day since December of last year when I was offered a sponsor spot invitation to the oldest 100-mile race in the world. My training, which included running all winter in single-digit temperatures (often at 4am before hospital shifts) in New England, amounted to me running more miles per week than I ever have before. Mentally I am ready.
Rewind six months ago to a cold morning in the Adirondacks when my idea for the L’Amore Montagna Tour was born while daydreaming over a warm cup of coffee. As someone who always has perpetually rotating goals, wander lust is just a part of my character. I also place great importance in cliché sayings like, “You only live once.” This quality is probably repercussion from a car accident I was at sixteen, a car accident that could’ve taken my life. In the years directly after the accident if you’d asked me how it had affected me I wouldn’t have known. I was a teenager, I was invincible. It hasn’t been until recently that I have realized how every step has led me here.
In the weeks before departing on a two-month cross-country running trip leading up to Western States, I gathered supplies, created a route and organized group runs across the west. The truck build was completed with little time to spare before my departure date, but has held up well. I would change little about the current build except to maybe extend the drawer under the bed to have more storage and add cubbies to the ceiling of the cap.
Some sixty days ago I drove away from my town, a town where I felt like I belonged more than ever before. Away from a wonderful man that supported my decision to take this trip and a job where I finally felt comfortable. I drove away from stability and into uncertainty. Thankfully, I only had one “Oh, shit” moment while driving through Ohio, but that quickly receded into the rearview mirror, along with the familiar New England landscape. It wasn’t until the Tetons first came into view that I knew I was doing the right thing.
I believe that our beliefs and emotions are manifested from our experiences.
The trip has not been all roses. From being on antibiotics, to missing the women’s Zion traverse FKT by 67 seconds, car accidents and food poisoning, there have been challenges. There have also been huge highs. I have met multiple people that opened their homes and selflessly offered me a place to stay. I’ve made new friends and acquaintances all over the country, including connecting with my La Sportiva Mountain Running® teammates. After spending one weekend with them at the Broken Arrow Skyrace, they feel like family.
One new friend in particular played an integral role in my final preparations for Western States. Two and a half weeks before race day, I arrived in Tahoe City and put a few feelers out on social media looking for help running parts of the course. Jack quickly responded offering to help shuttle me so I could run point to point on sections of the trail, plus offered driveway space to park my Tacoma. Having run the race himself multiple times, Jack’s family originally homesteaded land on the Western States course in the early 1900’s and today Jack continues to embody the spirit of Western States by supporting others through volunteering, pacing and crewing at the event. I felt like I was in the presence of a guru. For five days I was a sponge, absorbing as much as I could from Jack about the course. Jack’s shared knowledge and experience allowed me to feel more relaxed and confident going into the biggest race of my life. The more I become involved in the tight knit sport of ultra running, the more I see the community is not that large.
A couple weeks ago, I had the honor of sitting on a panel of runners assembled by the Auburn Running Company. The room was full of locals whose knowledge of racing vastly exceeded my own. Armed with a notebook and pen, I went in hoping to glean some wisdom from their experiences, and I left realizing that this isn’t a race, it’s a way of life. The love for this event was palpable in the room. The experiences of these people have left them with increased hope, belief and trust that we can do more then we know we can. That night race director Craig Thornely, said something that will always stay with me; “If everyone could watch the finish at the Placer High Track, the world would be a better place,” and now I know why.
I often joke about being a dirtbag. But the truth is living out of my truck part time (sometimes only on the weekends), I don’t really feel like one. Honestly, I don’t think I could do this full time. Besides needing to have an income, I would feel completely selfish and somewhat useless. I’ve thought a lot about why I was taking this trip and besides the “life is short” motto, I now know I want to inspire others to follow their heart. Even to my own ears, this sounds a little mushy and is a tad selfish, but I do hope what I do shows others they can pursue their goals too. In some ways running ultras could make the world a better place.
Well, things did not go as planned. Western States 2017 is already being talked about as one of the toughest years due to conditions; the year of fire and ice. With a 33% drop rate, 2017 is ranked as the fourth hardest year to date.
The race can be broken down into three sections: the high country, the canyons and the river. Before the race, we talked about the record high snow fall that had been dumped on the eastern sierra, all of us taking guesses at how many miles of snow we would need to run through during the first leg. Because of my training, and familiarity running in those New England blizzards, I felt right at home during this section; going from flag to flag through calf deep mud and over downed trees. Splashing through the streams that had overrun the trail, I laughed to myself as I remembered friends’ advice to keep my feet dry; little did I know how wrong I was to not take their advice more seriously at this early stage. The snow lasted on and off until just past Red Star Ridge (approximately 15 miles).
Coming into Robinson Flat was like entering a parade route lined with excited onlookers. I spent a few minutes with my crew, traded my handheld for a vest and left thoroughly iced down. The next infamous canyon section was sure to be hot. On the day I previewed the canyon section, it was 50 degrees and it actually sleeted on me, very different from race day. As I made my way from Devils Thumb to Eldorado Creek and finally Volcano Creek the temps hit triple digits but I felt surprisingly okay. At each aid stop, I loaded up on ice in my vest and used an extra soft flask to spray myself between streams crossings. High fiving volunteers on my way in and dancing my way out I was feeling good, totally reenergized after each aid.
But after leaving Michigan Bluff, my feet really started talking to me. My feet had been wet almost the entire day and I knew they were in bad shape; I could feel the blisters that had replaced my pinky toes pressing against my shoes. I arrived at Bath Road walking; my stomach was no longer accepting sugar and my patellar tendons (those linking the kneecap to the top of the shin) were tight and sore. I left Foresthill and immediately starting doing the math on how much time I had to still make a 24-hour finish. What was bad got worse and I was soon below my needed 15 minute per mile pace to finish sub 24 hours. My pacer and I would jog/shuffle for twenty feet at a time but soon even that felt impossible. “Why do I do this?” I whimpered after losing the ability to run completely, submitting to a walking pace.
Walking with a limp, I could feel the creases on the pads of my feet becoming more swollen with fluid with each step. Following a surreal raft ride across the river at Rucky Chucky (mile 78), I began the slow uphill walk to Green Gate where my crew had been eagerly waiting for hours. I sat down and cried. My crew slowly peeled my shoes and socks off to reveal stark white, pruned feet with fluid filled sacs surrounding almost every toe, both heels and the bottoms of both feet. After multiple attempts to relieve my foot pain without success I thought I was done. We discussed cutting the blisters open and duct taping my feet, we thought about trying larger shoes, and finally settled on cutting open my current shoes to relieve pressure. The crew began to prepare to walk back to the car when Maggie Guterl came through; her words of encouragement got me standing again. And so ninety minutes and one beer later, my pacer and I began our nine hour walk toward Placer High. There aren’t many people I’d walk through the night with but my pacer, Corrine, kept me going. I guess you could say my initial race predictions were right, I didn’t quit.
Just as I didn’t realize the effect the car accident had on me at sixteen, I don’t think I’ll fully actualize the impact this trip has left until later; it will take a while for the multitude of learning experiences and thousands of memories to settle. From seeing the first rays of sun above Zion Canyon, to running around the track at Placer High School toward the finish of Western States, there are some things that will always stay with me. But you see I have a terrible memory. The sound of the wind in the pines will fade and the feeling of dust between my toes will be forgotten and I may have to do this again.
Preview Photo: ©Sarah Keyes
Photos 1-3: ©Justin Pallack
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Keyes is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running® Team.
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