December 10th, 2011 was bitter sweet for me as I began receiving congratulatory text messages and Facebook messages about being selected in the 2012 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run lottery. I was coming off a tough year of running with injuries and a multitude of struggles in my personal life. I was beyond excited but at the same time I was quite honestly scared to death. To be drawn in the lottery in only my second year of applying was like winning the PowerBall as many applicants put in year after year and don't get selected! It was like Christmas had come early!
My experience with the Western States was my vicarious experience that I lived through my good friend and running mentor Jeff Genova. In 2010, I was fortunate to be a part of Jeff’s second Western States attempt. That experience put the crazy idea of running 100 miles with 42,000 feet of elevation change in my head even though I couldn't completely wrap my head around actually doing it. I watched Jeff go through a multitude of challenges with heat, elevation and an eventual a trashed ankle somewhere near 87 miles. Unfortunately the heat, ankle and dehydration caused him to DNF at mile 93.5. I felt his pain of the DNF especially after making it 99.1 miles in 2009 after his body shut down making it impossible to continue the remaining mile. Knowing how mentally tough and how committed he is to the sport of ultra running made me wonder if I had what it took to accomplish the amazing feat of completing the Western States. I knew that I couldn't take this challenge lightly and that it would take a nearly perfect training plan and a whole lot of commitment.
I immediately began trying to plan my attack which would prepare me not only for the distance but also for insane climbs, decent’s, heat and a little bit of altitude. Not an easy task living in Northwest Arkansas which has no elevation, heat but a different kind of heat and no climbs that compared to those of the Western States. My initial plans were to minimize my training days to avoid injury supplemented by intensive core training with Crossfit and a couple of training races at elevation. As I looked at races that would give me the challenge necessary to train for the race, I quickly found it to be more difficult than I had planned. Races were filling at a record pace and the races that I had previously signed up for in January were already filled in December. I quickly realized that I would have to sign up for every race I planned on running as soon as they were available. The races I ended up signing up for and running were Athens Big Fork (26.2 mile trail race with 18,000 feet of elevation change), White Rock 50K, Syllamore 50K, the 6 Hour Snake Run, Collegiate Peaks 50 Miler (at elevation with a good amount of elevation change), the Western States Memorial Day training weekend(32 miles on Saturday, 19 miles on Sunday and 22 miles on Monday -- all on the Western States Trail), followed by the War Eagle 50K.
The first couple of weeks proved to be quite challenging. I just didn't feel like I was able to get the necessary miles in and my body didn't feel good on trails let alone the challenges of running up and down the hills. As I have done many times before, I sought the advice of my running friend and mentor. Jeff didn't say a lot but what he had to say changed my entire training experience and proved to be exactly the right recipe for success. He told me that I need to go to a six day training week and build my base. This was a dramatic change for me because I had always tried to minimize my training days to avoid pain or injury. It was counterintuitive to run more days and avoid injury but I knew I had to do something different so I adjusted my plan to include mid-week runs of 5 to 8 miles with a hill repeat workout on Wednesdays followed by back to back long runs on the weekends. Amazingly, I found myself running stronger, feeling better, pain free and building more and more confidence. I averaged about 50 miles a week through February and built up to about 65 miles a week through April. By the time May came I was pushing 70 miles culminating in 80 plus mile weeks the last two week.
Each of the races I ran throughout my training, I worked on different fueling and hydration techniques. Each race got me closer to getting things figured out. After running the Collegiate Peaks 50 miler, I realized that I needed to hydrate more and more in order to keep my stomach (my historical nemesis) feeling good. I also found a system of fueling that kept me moving at the end of races which included Vespa, Honey Stinger Waffles, Sport Beans, GU and a Roctane drink mix. I was trying to take in about 350 to 400 calories per hour. I am still not sure if that is the right mix, but to some extent it got me through. The Memorial Day Training runs on the Western States trail proved to be a major confidence builder as I was able to run 72 miles of the course and run them pretty well. I got to experience the two toughest climbs on the course and while they were difficult they no longer scared me. The weekend following the Memorial Day runs I ran the War Eagle 50K and PR’d by nearly an hour! I couldn't wait for that weekend to be over because I found myself feeling like my training was becoming work. I wasn't looking forward to my runs and I couldn't wait for my three week taper and the War Eagle weekend marked my last week of heavy training.
Over the next three weeks, I reduced my training weeks to 40 miles, 20 miles and 10 miles the week of the race. It was really difficult to just chill on the taper weeks because I was feeling very strong and my body wanted to run fast. Everyone that knows me knows that I didn't get the nickname “Slow Lane” for nothing. I like long slow runs, but with all the training my pace on shorter runs had dropped from an average of 8 or 9 minute miles to 7 to 8 minutes per mile. I traveled out to California on Monday the week of the race and ran a couple of days. On Tuesday I went out for a short, slow 4 mile run and when my watch buzzed after the first mile I looked at my watch and it read 6:52. It took everything I had to slow my pace to just under 8 minutes per mile for the remaining 3 miles. I just couldn't wait for the race to get here and get this thing done.
My crew and pacers were flying in on Thursday and Friday and as they got there it started to sink in that this was real and I was actually going to run the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. After only running for a little over three years and “not being a runner,’ I was going to run in one of the most prestigious ultra races in the world. My dream was here!
Getting to Squaw Valley on Thursday brought back memories of my experience in 2010. Once again it was Jeff, Ryan and me trying to accomplish this crazy thought of running 100 miles on the Western States trail. The only difference was it was me running. Jeff and Ryan were almost giddy about getting the chance to repay the grief that I gave Jeff while on the trail in 2010. Jeff talked about getting that chance for the past two years and it was finally going to happen.
On Friday morning check in began in the morning followed by meetings in the afternoon and getting final race preparations complete. I struggled to keep focused on Friday as the nerves were setting in like nothing I had ever experience before. A couple of IPA’s at lunch helped to lessen the nerves but honestly I was still a wreck. My emotions were all over the place and I found myself sitting upstair in the condo reflecting on the entire experience with tears in my eyes thinking of the sacrifice, the commitment and the incredible friends and family that were a part of it all. Trying to sleep that night was nearly impossible. My mind was going a thousand mile an hour. I think I finally got to sleep around midnight.
At 3:30 am on Saturday morning, Jeff came up the stairs to wake me up because he was heading up the hill with the Escarpment aid station crew to take pictures (he got a press pass giving him access to the entire course to take pictures) but I was already awake. The night before, Jeff taped up my big toe that was blistered during the War Eagle race and still tender so all I had to do in the morning was get dressed, get something to eat and get to the pre-race check in and med-check. I started the morning loading up with my old-reliable lube (Skin Strong’s Slather). I wore my Brooks Equilibrium CoRe Shorts, Brooks Cascadia Shorts, Injinji light weight socks, Brooks Cascadia 5’s, Rush Running Goat Shirt, Moeben Sleeves, Rush Cotton Gloves, Garmin 310XT and my Nike hat. I also wore my Nathan hydration pack loaded with everything I would need for the first 16 miles. After getting dressed, I carefully made it downstairs making sure I didn't fall down the stairs making all this prep for nothing. I had three bowls of Cream of Wheat with lots of butter and salt to get me started and then headed out to check-in. Before I knew it, it was race time. It was here and I was ready to go!
At exactly 5:00 am the shotgun blast signaled the start of the 2012 Western States 100 mile endurance run and everyone started up the dirt road toward the trail. The first 3.5 miles climbs over 2,000 feet so as the race starts everyone runs past the start line and almost immediately changes from a slow jog to an even slower power walk. The temperature was somewhere in the mid-30’s and rain was possible in the forecast. It wasn't long before a light mist began and then a light sleet or hail. Before I knew it, the wind picked up and the sleet began to feel like I was being sand blasted. About a mile up the trail, I saw my trusted friend, crew and pacer Ryan Holler. He was hard at it with his trusty iPhone taking pictures and providing encouragement. I was still caught up in the moment and don't even remember if we talked or said anything.
Getting to Escarpment meant the I was finally going to start running and I was going to get to see Jeff for the first time. As I came up to the top of this 3.5 mile climb, Jeff was there but he was kind of hard to see because the fog, rain, sleet and wind were blowing pretty hard. Jeff had set up near the top and was getting pictures of the front runners and all the runners to follow. I gave him a smile and thumbs up and headed down the trail. As I got past him, I thought I heard him call my name but the wind was blowing pretty hard. I looked back and he snapped another picture. That picture was later deemed the Sasquatch picture because I looked just like the pictures you see where Sasquatch looks back over his shoulder as he is walking away.
That was the last I would see of any familiar faces until Robinson flat 27 miles more down the trail.
Over the next 27 miles the weather didn't change much. The temperature hovered in the lower 40’s and the rain and sleet continued intermittently. When I finally got to Robinson Flat I immediately had to weigh in and med-check as one of 10 med-checks on the course. As I stepped on the scale I watched the dial hit 200, 210 and then finally rested on 219 lbs. That was 11 pounds higher than my race start weight! After sitting in the medical seminar on Thursday, I learned that weight gain may actually be worse than losing weight. Hyponatremia can be fatal if not addressed quickly and that kind of weight gain was an initial indicator. I followed the Dr’s guidance to reduce fluid intake and to avoid any salt intake. In hindsight, I think the temperature had a lot to do with my weight gain. I wasn't sweating but I had been hydrating like I was going to see much higher temperatures. For the next 13 miles I slowed my fluid intake and fuel intake to avoid any salt and at the Last Chance Aid Station my weight had returned to my race start weight. Unfortunately, this miscalculation of hydration and fueling as well as the modification made at Robinson Flat got my stomach in a place that just didn't feel right making it difficult to fuel and hydrate appropriately. My stomach ended up not being right through the remainder of the race.
One of the things a runner looks forward to the most is seeing familiar faces at different points during the race. For me Robinson Flat was the first time I would see anyone I knew since the very beginning. As I entered Robinson Flat, one of the aid station volunteers asked if I had a drop bag and if I had a crew that was meeting me. I quickly answered yes to both questions and began the search for Jeff and Ryan while the volunteer retrieved my drop bag. I walked to the end of the aid station where runners had to check out of the aid station and no Jeff, no Ryan. My excitement to see my crew quickly disappeared and turned suddenly I was overwhelmed with disappointment. The volunteer must have seen the disappointment on my face because he quickly began taking on the role of my crew. He got me back to the task at hand and started untying my shoes. He started asking me about my fuel needs and how I was feeling and commented that I was doing great. He sat there with me as I changed my socks and shoes and got me out of the aid station as quickly and efficiently as if I had my crew there with me. Aid station volunteers are the salt of the earth. They give freely of their time to make our experience the best it could be with an encouraging word and a smile. Leaving Robinson Flat I knew that the toughest part of the course was right in front of me and I had to get back to business.
As I was approaching the two toughest climbs on the course, I was feeling pretty good, other than my stomach discomfort. I was moving along running the downhills and flats and conserving energy on the uphills. Devils thumb made very clear a serious flaw in my training plan. My ability to climb was nowhere near that of the runners I encountered throughout the race. Men and women both young and old passed me at will on the uphills. I just couldn't climb like everyone else. I was constantly being passed any time there was a significant climb. It was frustrating because I could catch people and pass them on the flats and downhills and then those same runners plus several other runners would pass me on the next climb. I will be better prepared next time. Before I knew it I was climbing up to Michigan Bluff where I would finally see my crew for the first time since the very beginning.
Just before the Michigan Bluff aid station and after a 2 mile climb, I had just crested the climb and to my pleasure I saw a familiar face. Finally, I got to talk to someone that I knew. As we headed to the aid station, Jeff and I talked about how I was feeling and what my plans were. I told Jeff that I didn't think I was on a 24 hour pace any longer. He confirmed my thoughts and said that I was over an hour off the 24 hour pace. At that point my goal changed from sub-24 to finish. I felt confident that finishing would not be an issue as long as I could avoid injury. Over the first 55 miles I had developed a small hotspot on the ball of my left foot and another one on the outside of my big toe on my right foot. I told Jeff that I was going to take my time at the aid station to work on hydration and fuel while I had my feet taped up. I probably could have pushed through as the hotspots were not really bothering me but I knew that I could probably avoid problems if I addressed them at this point. The other positive about addressing the issues at this point was that John Vonhoff (author of Taking Care of Your Feet) was working this aid station and he would be the person working on my feet. John spent a little over 30 minutes on my feet and I worked on getting rehydrated and fueled since I now had my weight gain issue behind me. Michigan Bluff was super cool and really got my spirits lifted. I got to see Jeff, Ryan and one of my best friends who had driven over from the Bay area with his son. It was super cool to see Dave and Hunter and really got my spirits turned around.
Over the next 7 miles, I ran really well and felt like I might get past the stomach issues. I knew that I only had about 5 miles until I would see my crew again. Crews are allowed to meet runners at Bath Rd and accompany them the remaining 1.7 miles to Forest Hill. I was excited about seeing them again and getting a chance to catch up. I got to Bath Rd pretty quickly, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, as I left the Bath Rd aid station there was no Jeff or Ryan. I thought for sure I would run into them somewhere along the road heading into Forest Hill. Nope. I got to Forest Hill and once again the incredible volunteers welcomed me to Forest Hill. They asked if I had a drop bag and if I was meeting a pacer. I didn't have a drop bag at Forest Hill because that is where I was picking up Ryan as a pacer. After a couple of minutes of looking around for my crew with no luck, I picked up some GU from the aid station and started to head out. Just then, Ryan came running up looking a little out of sorts. He explained that they weren't expecting me for another 20 minutes so he and Jeff got a hamburger and fries. They were just finishing up when the runner update came across Jeff’s iPad saying that I had reached Forest Hill. Ryan and I stocked up on fuel and I picked up my MIO headlamp as it was going to get dark soon. I also changed shirts into my long sleeve Brooks Nightlife tech shirt and we headed out.
Over the next 16 miles Ryan talked and I listened. Every once in a while I would respond but it was few and far between. At this point in the race, I was still running the downhills pretty hard and slowly walking the flats but my stomach was becoming a bigger issue. I was spending more time in the aid stations trying to get my stomach to feel better. Tums or Rolaids would temporarily help my stomach distress but it was short lived at best. In and effort to resolve my stomach problems, Ryan suggested that I try to back off a little on the downhills and run a more consistent slow pace. This seemed to give a little relief and as we approached the Rucky Chucky Near aid station I was starting to feel ok.
The Rucky Chucky Near aid station and the Rucky Chucky Far aid stations are separated by the Arkansas River which in some years requires a raft crossing. This year, however, was a crossing on foot which in the middle of the night makes for a precarious situation. Ryan the gentlemen he is allowed me to lead the way. What I later realized is that Ryan was no gentlemen. He was actually using me to see where the deep parts of the river were so he could avoid them. Whenever I would sink past my waist he would alter his course. Payback for Ryan occurred very quickly. As we got to Rucky Chucky Far where we were scheduled to meet Jeff who had a change of clothes for Ryan. I had a drop bag with a dry shirt, socks and shoes. Unfortunately, Jeff was not there and Ryan had to deal with falling temperatures and wet shorts, socks and shoes. About half way between Rucky Chucky Far and Green Gate, Jeff came running down the hill with two back packs of stuff for Ryan and I. Jeff explained that one of the shuttle buses broke down causing major delays. Bus issues at Robinson Flat caused that miss as well. It wasn't a good day for bus rides anywhere near the Western States Trail on this particular day.
At the Green Gate aid station, Jeff and Ryan switched the pacer bib and Jeff and I headed down the trail. With less than 20 miles to go, I was confident in a finish. I was starting to have a hard time keeping my eyes open and the attachment points at the bottom of my quads were really starting to kick making the downhills harder and harder to run. Jeff was super accommodating over the last 20 miles. All the talk of getting me back for riding him so hard during the 2010 WS was just that, talk. We knew that we had plenty of time to finish under the 30 hour cutoff so we took our time at the aid stations especially those that had warm fires. My stomach began to become more of an issue around 85 miles or so and I started fighting back the urge to throw up. Finally about 88 miles or so my stomach decided it needed to get rid of whatever was left in it. From that point on, my stomach was in a much better situation.
Jeff and I reminisced as we ran the same section that I had paced him in 2010. As we ran past the place where he trashed his ankle, we re-lived the experience with runners having to step over him as he was in the middle of the trail that was only 18 inches wide. We re-lived the downhill where he decided he could not wait any longer to empty his bowel and how Gordy and his pacer were coming down the hill behind us as he was squatted down taking care of business. He used some key phrases that I used to try to motivate him. Those phrases should never be used because they didn't work then and they didn't work this time either. As we approached Highway 49, the memories started to flood in for me because this is where Jeff had to drop in 2010 due to his injury.
Leaving Highway 49, I was starting to feel exhausted and my quads were really kicking now. It didn't matter if it was uphill, downhill or flat -- my quads just hurt! I knew that we had a climb and a decent to No Hands bridge (which I was not looking forward to) and then one more climb to the finish. The downhill to No Hands Bridge was extremely uncomfortable but I knew that at this point nothing was going to stop me from finishing. I could taste it! When we got to No Hands Bride, Ryan and Shannon were there to meet us. As we were walking across No Hands bridge, Shannon walked up beside me and grabbed my hand. I looked at him like WTF!
He just smiled as Jeff snapped pictures.
The next 3 miles were totally surreal! As we came out to Robbie Point there was a little over a mile to the finish and we were about 20 minutes away from 9:00 am. If I finished after 9 am my time would be 28 hours and something. I like the sound of 27 hours and something better than 28 hours and something. I think Jeff must have too because neither of us said a word to each other but we power hiked the hill and then started running at a pace I hadn't run in 40 miles. As we entered town, people all along the route were clapping, cheering and congratulating us! My emotions continued to build as we entered the stadium and I saw the stands filled with people cheering. While I circled the track, the announcer called out my name and provided a brief resume of my running career. I cannot describe the feeling of crossing the finish line after 27 hours and 55 minutes. I can only say that it ranks up there with the birth of my children -- definitely one of the proudest accomplishment of my entire life. I am constantly talking about leadership principles with my job and one that I try to live by deals with giving your team the ability to accomplish the impossible because when they do everything become possible. This race for me was the “impossible” which now for me makes everything possible.
This adventure wouldn't be possible without the support of my wife and kids. They sacrifice so I can chase these silly dreams and do things that most people never think possible or would ever consider. Mike Rush with Rush Running turned this guy who wasn't a runner and didn't want to be a runner into a Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Finisher who now claims “Runner!” Jeff Genova, running mentor and incredible friend who runs slow with me and provided the inspiration behind the dream. Ryan Holler, friend and spiritual counselor who helped me out of the toughest struggle of my life. Brooks shoes and apparel. Skin Strong Slather -- I finished the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run applying Slather before the race and finished 27 hours and 55 minutes later with no chaffing!!