Friday, September 15, 2017

The Happiest Place on Earth: Fall Superior 2017 Volunteering and Pacing Report

It's September, and the Big Dance of Minnesota trail running, Fall Superior 100, 50, and 26.2, has come and gone. Once again, I was there to volunteer and pace. I wouldn't miss this one for anything. Sit back and enjoy some stories from 30 hours at Superior.

Getting to Finland

There are Car Logistics, so I drop my car at the (not yet set up) Sugarloaf aid station and walk the 1+ mile down the gravel road to Highway 61 so Samantha can pick me up and give me a ride to Finland, where we're both working. I bring along early dinner.

The next day, someone asks me, "Did I see you standing on the side of Highway 61 last night, eating a giant salad?"
"Yes. Yes, you did."

Jump around

Mile 51 aid station is at Finland Recreation Center, and it's jumping. Dawn is running a great aid station. The first dozen runners have come through and more are trickling in, but lots of crew members and pacers are already hanging out, the food's hot, and the music is playing.
Samantha: "You know what the difference
between ultrarunners and normal people is?
When 'Jump Around' comes on, normal
people jump around for, like, 15 seconds.
Ultrarunners jump around FOR THE WHOLE SONG."
A runner's mom comes over and asks Joy, Chalayne, and I whether one of us is a medical person. Without copping to the fact that we are, respectively, a nurse, an EMT, and a doctor, I ask, "What for?"
"My son is trying to decide whether to drop."
Joy: "If he has to ask, the answer is no."

Joy and I eventually 'fess up to being medical and go over to talk to the runner. We agree that he looks WAY too good to drop, even if he is throwing up.
ME: "Hey, Eric Nordgren once finished a 100 without eating anything for the last 40 miles."
HIM: "I know Eric. And, yeah, but once it took him 8 hours to get through Manitou Gorge and he dropped at mile 75."
ME: "Curses! Your logic is too strong for me. But now it's time for you to leave."
HIM: [gets up and leaves the aid station to continue his race]

We're handing out hot hashbrowns, quesadillas, and bacon. The temperature's dropping on its way to the high 30s and we're putting on more layers. Someone lights the bonfire and turns on the strings of lights as the sun sets.
Credit: Fall Superior Races
Lots of friends are coming through. Susan is running her 100th 100 miler today. She's characteristically focused as she throws down three cups of hashbrowns, and acknowledges my congratulations with a little smile. Bekah is looking a little wide-eyed but overall great in her first 100 miler. Andrea's running her first 100 too, and Samantha is ready to pace her when she comes in a bit before 10 pm. It's busy and exciting. 

Pacing: Finland to Crosby-Manitou (11.6 miles)

I'm pacing Joel and Kyle from here to Sugarloaf, mile 72. They've sent me a spreadsheet with their expected times in and out of each aid station, indexed to their splits from 2015, when they last ran the race. It's a model of precision and prediction. They arrive only 45 minutes after their best-case time.

Joel has told me he doesn't want to waste time at Finland. As soon as I hear they've arrived, I rip off my outer layers, change shoes, shoulder my pack, and bound over to where they've sat down (wisely, nowhere near the fire). "YOUR PACER IS READY! LET'S ROLL!"

(It's possible I've had a few cups of coffee.)

I ferry bacon, soup, and coffee to them. Jeff will also be pacing the next few sections. After only a small amount of fussing with technology, food, shoes, and lube, we're on our way across the soccer field and into the woods.

It's 11 pm. Finland to Sonju is 7.4 miles and we're power-hiking at a good clip. Quickly, we warm back up and are shedding hats and jackets, despite the cool temperatures.

The trail is pretty dry, the sky's clear, and the waning, three-quarters moon has risen. When I step off the trail to pee and turn off my headlamp, everything is outlined in dappled silver shadows.

Sound carries differently in the dense woods. Everything sounds very close and intimate. Conversation is easy among the four of us as we walk single-file.

 In the dark, we can't see how long the hills are or how steeply they climb. We're in a little bubble of light, specks of warmth moving through the night.

We reach Sonju in a little under two hours. It's a "minor" aid station, with no crew access, and in the past it's been a quiet, mellow place.

 This year, however, Maria is captaining Sonju and she's not one for doing things halfway. The theme is "Woodstock," and there's music, decoration, and costumes. Oh, my, the costumes.
Travis, who I paced last year, is there:
"Where'd you get the wig?"
"What wig?"
We laugh about how much better we're both feeling at Sonju this year. Last year we made a long stop here, in the rain, trying to get Travis's mojo back. This year, Joel and Kyle are hours ahead of where Travis had been, and we're all feeling great.

We reload on coffee and bacon (seriously, my runners were POWERED by bacon) and we're off again, this time just a 4.2 mile segment to Crosby-Manitou. Our stop has gotten us chilly and it's harder to warm back up. My hands are freezing and I pull my buff back on.

We're still power hiking, and we're still booking just-over-20-min miles. Solid for the middle of the night and ahead of the spreadsheet projections. Conversation meanders. Joel and I have a lengthy, likely-tedious-to-everyone-around-us discussion about Christian theology. I recite poetry and make bad jokes.

Right around 3 a.m. and we're arriving at Crosby-Manitou. The last half-mile is up a gravel road and we've got our first clear views of the night sky in a while. The moon is high and washing out the Milky Way, but thousands of stars still hang high above us. We spot Orion on the horizon, and Cassiopeia overhead, and collectively bemoan our lack of constellation knowledge.

100 yards out from the aid station and I hear Matt, the aid station captain, booming, "Welcome to Crosby-Manitou, fueled by Peet's coffee!!!" He's clearly been sampling his own wares -- it might be 3 in the morning, but he's WIRED.

We've planned a longer stop here. Joel and Kyle plunk into chairs by the fire and surround themselves with an explosion of drop-bag crap -- electronics, charging cables, batteries, food, socks, I don't even know what some of it is.

I've brought them coffee and bacon, eaten some fried potatoes and bananas, and I'm getting antsy. Matt and I sing along to "Lawyers, Guns, and Money." I joke around with other runners and pacers. I stage a one-person dance party to "Gangnam Style." Finally, I tell my runners, "Let's roll." Eventually, we do.

Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf, 9.4 miles 

At 3:20, we head into the Manitou Gorge. It's 9.4 miles that includes some of the gnarliest terrain of the course. The spreadsheet says it'll take 4 hours.

The spreadsheet's pretty good. It takes right around 4:05.

 The trail makes a bouldery descent and crosses the Manitou River in the first half-mile, and then we begin a long, steep climb out. This is the part everyone talks about, so I'm prepared for the preposterously steep, bouldery trail and its multiple false summits. Pumped on coffee and Zevon, I exclaim, "We're doing this thing!" Joel, Kyle, and Jeff agree that we are, in fact, doing this thing. We're in great spirits.

What people forget to mention about this section is that after you've climbed out of the gorge, you've still got 6+ miles of trail ahead of you. It's long, but we're buoyed by being through the hard part, and by the prospect of sunrise in an hour or so.

At the top of a ridge, we pass a runner who's off the side of the trail, sitting on a boulder. 
"Come along with us!"
"No, I'm going to rest a little here. But would you tell my wife that I'm still coming, just much slower than I thought?"
We get his name (John), his number (49), his wife's name (Angel), and promise we'll look for her at Sugarloaf.

Race cut-off is 38 hours. A 100 mile runner finishes at 37:59, to thunderous applause and cheering.
10 minutes later, he finds me.
HIM: "You probably don't remember, but you passed me in the Crosby-Manitou section."
ME: "John! Number 49! We tried to find Angel!"
HIM: "Here she is!" [I shake hands with his beaming wife.]
HIM: "I spent SIX HOURS in that section. Got into Sugarloaf and told Angel I wanted to drop. She wouldn't let me."
ANGEL: "He finished and said, 'Can you believe I wanted to drop?!'"
HIM: "I finished! My first 100! In 37 hours, 59 minutes!"
ME: "This is the awesomest thing I have heard ALL DAY."]

The sky lightens, the stars fade, the sun rises. The mud is deep and wet in this section. We're hopping from log to rock to board to avoid it.
ME: "This is like playing 'The Floor Is Lava!' Woohoo!"

Eventually, we hit an unavoidable mudpit, and we're all in shin or knee-deep mud. So it goes.

After a long time in woods and upland bogs, we cross the final stream, climb gently, and up ahead we hear the unmistakable sounds of Sugarloaf aid station. It's 7:30 a.m., the air is growing warm, and the night is over.

My pacing section is done. I'm sending them off with a fresh pacer, Kelli, but first, Joel wants bacon. Of course. I raid the table and return with good news and bad news.

ME: "Joel, they're making more but there was only one piece. The good news is, it's huge!" [I brandish a giant piece of bacon.]
JOEL: "This looks great. Now, I need about four more like this one."
ME: "Did you hear literally anything I just said?"

They take off with their new pacer. I peel off my mud-crusted gaiters, shoes, and socks and enjoy the sensation of dry feet while eating a few aid station burgers with bacon.
Kyle (front) and Joel, crushing it in daylight.
Credit: Zach Pierce

Sugarloaf Volunteering

Joe and Jan are running the aid station again, and as usual it's a well-organized, well-staffed, laid-back oasis in the woods. This is my fourth year at Sugarloaf, and every year it gets another accoutrement or two: this year, there's an actual porta-potty! How civilized!

I chase my bacon burgers with a cup of coffee and I'm ready for some aid-station action. I butcher a watermelon, fill runners' water bottles, chat with crew and pacers who await their runners.

A cure for nausea

Scott comes in. He's in pretty good spirits, a little queasy but otherwise feeling great. Last year he'd come in right at the cutoff and with a bad ankle sprain, so this is great. His crew sprays him down with sunblock as he sits down for a short rest.

 I bring him a ginger candy.
ME: "This is good for nausea. Just tuck it into your cheek and let it dissolve."
HIM: "Thanks." [sticks the wrapper in his vest]
ME: "Hey, I can throw that away. Do you have other trash you need to get rid of?"
HIM: "Actually, yeah. I've been picking up trash along the trail."

He begins pulling trash out of his vest pocket: a gel wrapper, a piece of foil, and then... a ziplock sandwich bag with some dried green leaves in it.

ME: "What's that?"
HIM: "No idea. It's not mine, I picked it up off the trail."
[My friend Jim, waiting for his runner, has joined us.]
JIM: "It looks like... weed."
ME [starting to giggle]: "Uh, yeah, it actually does."
SCOTT [also laughing]: "I've never smoked pot. Is this what they call a dime bag?" [He holds it up in the air and looks around.] "Ten bucks! Anyone?"
 JIM: "You totally picked up someone's stash!"
ME: "I'm gonna throw it away. It's probably crappy weed anyway. Though, hey, it might be good for your nausea!"
[I take the bag and the rest of Scott's trash and throw them in the trash bag.]
JIM: "Are you sure you actually threw it away?"
[We all giggle like little kids. Other people are giving us weird looks.]

Scott heads out, in good spirits. 

Duct tape and determination

Jim waves me over. Angela has just come into the aid station and needs some advice.

Angela is one of the "Gnarly Bandits," a group of runners attempting to run a series of 4 100-mile Upper Midwest races and a 100k, all in one season. I'm the series director this year. I know that Angela did the Gnarly Bandit two years ago (and then ran a 150 mile trail race a few weeks after completing it). Her sweet, smiling, petite, blonde appearance masks the legs of an endurance athlete, the heart of a champion, and the determination of a crazed badger.

She's fallen somewhere in the last section and slammed her dominant right hand on a rock. "It's a little swollen," she says. 

It is indeed swollen, and painful to move or manipulate. Her question is not "Is it broken?" It isn't "Should I drop?" No, this is Angela. Her question to me is, "Can I wait till Monday to get this looked at?"

 I could examine her hand further to get a sense of whether this is a bruise, a sprain, or a fracture. But as I think about it, this doesn't seem like the most important issue at the moment.

"Let's just talk about getting through the race for now. The worst-case scenario is that something is broken," I tell her. She nods. "If it's a simple fracture, then yeah, you can wait till after the race to get it looked at. But the worst-case scenario for a fracture is that it's damaged the blood supply to your hand. If that's the case, you need to stop right away, 'cause not finishing is sad, but gangrene is much worse."

 I examine her hand. Her fingertips are pink, warm, and have rapid capillary refill. She's got normal sensation in them. She can move her fingers and thumb, though it's painful to do so.

"Right now, it looks like you've got good circulation to your hand. I want you to check your fingers at every aid station. If they start to get blue, or cold, or numb, you need to stop and go to the emergency room." She agrees. (I think I use the phrase "or your fingers might turn black and fall off" at some point in this discussion.)

We decide to gently wrap her hand, both to protect it and to remind her not to try to use it. We roll up one of her buffs and put it in her hand. Another runner has an Ace bandage and brings it over, and I gently wrap it around her hand and wrist.

I realize I don't have safety pins handy and I've cut off the velcro edge. But just then, someone brings up a roll of duct tape. Perfect! We tear off a couple of long strips and secure the Ace wrap.
I didn't get a picture, but Zach Pierce did at Temperance
 "Try not to fall on it if you can," I tell her, unnecessarily. "When I broke my elbow at Zumbro, I think I re-fractured it going down Ant Hill and it hurt just as much as the first time." Angela shudders in sympathy (but she's still smiling as I'm taping her up, and asking how other runners are doing).

She's ready to get moving, and takes off as soon as I give the all-clear.

Rick is crewing for Lisa, who hasn't arrived yet. During this interlude, he's disappeared off to his car and returned in running gear. "I'll pace her for a little ways," he tells me, and takes off after her. 

12-plus hours later, Angela finishes the Superior 100, 15 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Her hand's still duct-taped together, still hurts, but she's beaming.

On Monday, she confirms that, yeah, it's broken.

Just a flesh wound

A woman running the 50 mile comes in, covered in mud and with blood running down her face from an abrasion at her temple.
"Would you like me to clean up that head wound?"
She's busy filling her water bottle and barely looks up. "No thanks."
"Did you lose consciousness when you fell?"
She's out of the aid station 
before I can ask any more tricky questions. 

Skin deep

My friend Kevin comes in, maybe an hour ahead of cutoff. He's been fighting injuries all season and went into the race undertrained but hopeful. But the Manitou Gorge has taken a lot out of him and his feet feel terrible. He's looking pretty demoralized.
Luckily, his wife Lisa is there and she is the greatest force for positivity that I know. She and I gang up on him.
"Kevin, you look awesome! And you got a new tattoo! It looks just like mud splatters but I can tell." He smiles wanly and drops into a chair.

We cautiously peel away his mud-soaked gaiters, shoes, and socks. His feet are white and streaked with mud. "I think I want to wash my feet," he says.
Lisa brings a towel and a pitcher of water. He pours, then realizes he's so stiff he can barely reach them.
What the hell, my hands are dirty anyway. I help out. Lisa gets out her camera, which strikes me as incredibly funny, and the moment is immortalized:
Not the worst feet I saw that weekend.
"Your feet are macerated, but the skin's intact. Your problem is literally skin-deep," I tell him.

I let Lisa manage putting socks back on, telling her, "I'm cool washing nasty feet, but my personal idea of hell is putting toe socks onto wet ultrarunner feet."
He eats and sits a bit longer. When I come back by, he's in dry socks and good spirits. Shortly afterward, he gets up and continues. 

Sparring with the master 

Jim, Ron, and Rick have been hanging out at Sugarloaf for hours, waiting for Lisa. She's been having a tough time overnight, fighting cutoffs, and they're a little worried. She's someone who has given so much to the trail community, working medical support, pacing, crewing, and volunteering, and we all want to see her have a good race for herself.

Lisa makes it in, less than an hour ahead of the cutoff. She's tired, demoralized, slumped in a chair, and announcing that she wants to drop.

Jim, Ron, and I prepare the full-court press.
HER: "I couldn't eat anything for 20 miles. I only just started feeling better."
ME: "That's awesome! You're eating again!"
HER: "My legs are shot. I want to stop."
ME: "They're going to feel so much better now that you can feed them!"
HER: "That last section was REALLY HARD."
ME: "Yep, that was the hardest section, and now it's done! No other section has as much vertical gain as what you just did!"
HER: "Bullshit. Carlton Peak? Moose and Mystery Mountain?"

I step away, laughing, to confer with her crew. "You guys," I say, "you know the problem here? It's that fully half the lies that I tell ultrarunners, I learned from Lisa. She's the MASTER."

JIM [to ME]: "Try and get her to laugh."
ME: "Lisa, you wouldn't believe the stuff going on at this aid station. One of the guys filling water bottles suggested using Coke to clean out wounds!" (True!)
LISA (chuckles): "That's a TERRIBLE idea!"
ME: "And then Scott brought in someone's pot stash off the trail!" (We all laugh at that one.)

 Ron and Jim are fixing her shoes, helping her change out of tights, filling her pack. I'm still working on her.

"Hey, I'll make you my super-special snack I only make for runners I really, really like: a peanut-butter banana."
"I'm allergic to peanut butter." 
"Lisa, you're killing me."

"This is just temporary pain, like childbirth. You got through that, you can do this."
"Robyn, I had short, painless, precipitous labor with both my kids."
"Lisa, I hate you for that, but I love you anyway. Now get going."

(At some point in the morning, I overhear an aid station worker saying, "Everyone has a super power. Robyn's is pep talks.")

Grudgingly, she gets up and shoulders her pack. I turn around to help someone else, and when I look back, she and Ron are gone, down the trail.

Troubleshooting 101 

Andrea's in the aid station and has a case of what Marcus calls "Superior shin" -- her anterior tibial tendons are angry and inflamed, and every step is painful. But she's come 72 miles and she's not ready to quit.

"When I stop and stretch it, it feels better for a little while. And I can run a few steps at a time before I have to walk!" Dang, there's no quit in this one. Even though you can see how painful it is, I want to help her. We loosen her laces. Her crew rubs Bio-Freeze on her shins. We talk about rolling a cold can of soda over the tendon, we talk about icing it, we talk about using hiking poles. Eventually, she gets up and heads off, because never mind the pain, she wants to keep going.
Allan is in with 30 minutes to spare. A shoe had catastrophically failed 20 miles ago so he's in his backup pair, and they're rubbing his ankles. Luckily, he's got a plan.

"Take some duct tape, would you, and fold it over and over again to make a pad about /this/ big and three-eighths inch thick. I'm going to put it under the heel of my insole."

We banter about how much better he looks than last year, when he barely made it out of the aid station. He doesn't need much else -- he makes his own homemade energy gel, he's got a laminated pace chart rubber-banded to his vest, he's self-reliant. He's in great spirits and his eyes are twinkling.

"Al, what's your line of work?" I ask him.
"Before I retired, I was an engineer," he answers.
"Let me tell you, that surprises me NOT AT ALL," I laugh. "That was my first, second, and third guess."

As the cutoff time approaches, then passes, we get a couple of runners who are ready to drop with injuries and, in one case, peeing blood. We pack up the aid station, waiting for one last friend, Kevin C. His crew, Elizabeth, and I bemoan his missing the cutoff. "Now I can't use all my motivational lines on him! Dammit, Angela kept going after I literally TAPED HER ARM BACK ON!"

Kevin C. rolls in over an hour past cutoff, relieved to be done. He's gotten remarkably far on almost no training as a full-time student and part-time worker. He's tired, but we laugh a little about how he'd rather have been working at Sugarloaf like he did two years ago. The trail sweeps are with him, and with their arrival, Sugarloaf is finished for another year. It's time for a hot shower, a square meal, a nap, and some fellowship and joy at the finish line.

The happiest place on Earth

A short drive, a shower, and a square meal later, I'm at the Superior finish line. As night falls, the crowd, hundreds strong, bursts into cheers and cowbell ringing as headlamps appear heading into the finish line. A bonfire burns, music thumps, there are dogs and kids and spouses and runners all in various states of jubilation and fatigue. Runners sprint, dance, jog, and groove their way across the finish line, their exhaustion forgotten for the moment.

I've come to recognize that when something stirs strong emotions, it's worth paying attention to what it is, and why. The Fall Superior finish line is like that for me. It's a palpable feeling of achievement, of months or years of dreaming, of mud-bound painful lows and soaring highs.

Massive credit to all who undertake this journey -- runners, crew, pacers, volunteers. You all join together to make the magic happen. And for a few hours every year, there's no happier place on earth than the Superior finish line.

See you next year.
Photo: John Storkamp

Friday, June 2, 2017

Western States Tourist: The 2017 Western States training camp report

Executive summary

This is a long report, because I ran a long way -- 63 miles in 3 days. Western States training camp is an awesome way to see the course in a low-pressure, fun, manageable way, and I loved everything about it. Get a cold beer and settle in for a long rambling story. (But don't worry, there are pictures!)
Living the dream!

Training for training

The Western States training camp sounded too good to be true: 70 miles on the Western States 100 course over the three days of Memorial Day weekend, with aid stations and shuttles, for $140? Anyone could sign up, whether running the race or not? It sounded like a relaxed, fun way to see a renowned course that I might never see as a runner. Friends had done it in past years and loved it. I cleared my schedule for the last weekend of May, and when registration opened in December, I signed up. 

Although the weekend only covers part of the 100 mile Western States course, I knew the mileage I'd run would be big for me. With guidance from my awesome coach David, I've steadily built mileage over the last 9 months or so, almost injury-free. But even so, my greatest weekly mileage to date was 51 miles. This spring, if you asked me what I was training for, I told you, "I'm training for Western States training camp."

After a good run at Chippewa Moraine 50k and a week's recovery, we planned a week of big miles capped off with back-to-back 20-milers, followed by a short taper. I also sauna trained, for up to 30 min twice a week. Things went off the rails midway through the big week with a calf pull after long hill repeats, evolving into a weird peroneus brevis/flexor digitorum problem that pretty much kept me off the roads and trails for a week. But by the Tuesday before Memorial Day weekend things seemed better and I managed a series of cautious but increasingly confident weekday runs before leaving for Sacramento Friday morning. I hadn't done all the training I wanted, but I was feeling healthy, hopeful, and eager to get on the trails. My goal: "See as much of the course as possible without messing anything up."

Day 1: Robinson Flat to Foresthill

Not a normal year

I reached Auburn Friday afternoon with two bags full of running gear and recovery tools, and filled the motel fridge with four days' supply of good food. An early bedtime and an early wake-up later, and I was on my way to Foresthill, the base of operations for the first two days. 

The morning was clear and sunny as I drove up the wide, climbing Foresthill Road. Temperatures were forecast to begin in the low 40 and climb to near 80; the following days would be warmer, but dry and crisp. It was easy to spot the start area at Foresthill Elementary School; hundreds of trail runners were sorting gear at their cars or making their way along the road to the school. 

The vibe was different from a race: a little more relaxed, though still focused. I saw my Minnesota friends Holly and Scott there (Holly is running Western States this year), as well as Janet and Mike (Janet's running it too). Maria and Doug had come as well. I checked in, ate a banana, visited a little. 
Janet and I at the start!
15 minutes before the shuttle buses were to leave, race director Craig Thornley began his briefing. "This is not a normal year," he started. "Which is good!" The extraordinarily wet winter had left snow at the higher elevations on the course. The road was covered with snow beginning 4 miles below the usual start at Robinson Flat (6800' elevation). We'd start the day by running those 4 miles up to Robinson Flat, then take a shortcut around a damaged section of trail just after it. In total, it would add about 2.5 miles to the days run, bringing it to 34 or so, the first 7-8 miles of which would be snowy. 

After a few more instructions about logistics and some Western States trivia, we boarded four school buses and began the winding, climbing drive up to our starting point.
Out where the buses don't run

Snowfields and sunshine

After a 45 minute drive past fire-scarred pine forests and steadily up and up, the buses came to a halt just before a long stretch of snow covered the road. We piled out and, after a bit of leg-stretching and picture-taking, began following the pink flags as they marked the way up the road. 
On our way at last!
We climbed steadily, partly on packed or softening snow, partly on bare road, occasionally climbing over or detouring around a downed pine. A few speedy runners passed me, but most of the group was content to hike the uphill road, running the occasional downhill section. I chatted with Janet, her friends Hallie and Desi, Brian who was training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, and others. The air was still cool, but the sun was strong and I was soon comfortable in a tank top and shorts. 

At Robinson Flat, the snow was deep...
Bathrooms were open, though!
...and we veered off the road across it, following a trail detour that eventually brought us out to a forest service road. Here, we began a steady gentle downhill and snowbanks alternated with running streams of meltwater on the gravel road. It was easy to jump over the little streams and keep feet dry. I knew the day held a LOT of downhill running and the next day did too, so I ran as lightly and smoothly as I could, focusing on running economy rather than speed.

After the first 3-4 miles past Robinson Flat, the snow ended and we followed a sharp (but well marked) turn onto the official Western States course. Occasional brown trail markers joined the pink flags to show the way. I had a talk with Mike from Alabama, who had run Western States ten years ago, and with a few other people. The woods smelled piney and dusty. The sun continued to warm up. It felt great to be out in such a different, beautiful place.
Passed a few of these signs!
The training run had fully stocked aid stations, but fewer than during the race. The first was about 11 miles into the run, at Dusty Corners. I got there in about 3 hours and took my time, filling up my pack (the 2L bladder was getting pretty low), putting on more sunblock, emptying trash, thanking the volunteers -- many of whom will be back in a few weeks for Western States.

Descent and climb through the canyons

Not long after the first aid station, we began descending into the first of the famous "canyons" -- down to Deadwood Creek. It was steeply switchbacked singletrack that went down, down, down. I had caught up to Mike and I ran this section with him. We had a good time moving down through the shady green trails, pausing to marvel at the noisy little streams and the giant tree trunks that crossed the trail.
Me and a big tree. I'm such a tourist.
"You know what the first rule of running is?" he said.
"What's that?" I asked.
"What goes down what goes up."
It struck me as a bit pessimistic, especially on a point-to-point run.
"You know what my first rule is?" I replied. "Run the mile you're in." (After all, it's hard to run anything else!)

At the bottom of the canyon, the swinging bridge crosses the creek. It's cool and noisy and beautiful and would be a great place to stop and spend an hour.
The view downstream
I didn't stop, though, but immediately started the steepest climb of the run, the 2-mile switchbacked climb out to Devil's Thumb. Here, I left Mike behind and found a slow, steady rhythm. The first two-thirds of the 40 minute ascent were in the shade and I enjoyed listening to the fading sound of the river and in gauging my progress upward by how far down I could look. I passed a few runners, and a few passed me, but mostly I had the trail to myself.

The last section climbed out of the valley and found an area of direct sunlight. It was hot, but very beautiful.
Up up up!
When I finally reached the top, in a little grove of pine trees, I let out a whoop. I'd done one of the two big climbs and felt pretty good! I was jubilant as I ran into Devil's Thumb aid station shortly afterwards, now 20 or so miles into the day. They had watermelon! And ice! And one of the volunteers dipped into his personal stash of sunblock! Happiness, joy, and only 8 miles to Michigan Bluff.

Down to Eldorado Creek was much less steep, and a peaceful solitary run. I met a couple backpackers on their way up who shared their trail mix -- delicious after eating mostly gels! This time, when I reached the creek at the bottom, I stopped, took off my shoes, and put my feet in the ice-cold water for a few minutes. Wow! That felt really good.
The view from the bridge. I joined them. Definitely the right call!
 The climb up to Michigan Bluff was longer, but nowhere near as steep as up Devil's Thumb. I once again found my pace and went steadily up, eating and drinking as I had been all day.

The Michigan Bluff aid station had the vibe of a block party, with as many visiting neighbors as volunteers. Every runner was greeted with a hearty "Welcome to Michigan Bluff!" I joked around with a few of the great volunteers there as I again filled my pack and hat with ice water and my mouth with watermelon and salty potatoes. Many of them had run Western States themselves a time or three, and most volunteered at the aid station year after year. What a great organization!

"Need anything?" a helpful volunteer asked.
"Ice in my pack, please.... that's enough, thanks!"
"More ice anywhere else?"
"Aw, I bet you say that to all the runners," I told him.
"Yeah, but it isn't working!"
"Maybe you should try a different pick-up line."

I couldn't stay any longer; it was time to go on. "Only 10k more!" they told me, and I headed off, now in the midafternoon sun. Down the road, up the road, and suddenly I was descending steeply on singletrack again. Another canyon? Sure enough, I was on the way down to Volcano Creek.
No bridge here, just a few ropes to hang onto while fording the knee-deep water. "WOOOO I LOVE THIS SPORT!" I yelled as the cold water shocked my feet and legs. "We get to play in the water! And eat snacks! How awesome is this?!"

Refreshed and energized, the steep climb back out of the canyon felt easy and do-able. Once I hit the road, I knew I was close to Foresthill... though the climb up Bath Road was longer than I expected. But at last, I was on the road, I was running... and then I was back where I'd started that morning, after nine and a half hours and 34 miles of running. Grinning, still, from ear to ear.

Interlude: The most joy

I drove back to Auburn, walked a little creakily up to my motel room, and texted my coach:
(beer + no bottle opener = sad)
Then, the important question of the evening. Being David, he gave the right answer: 

Wow, I thought. The most joy? Well, I'd had an amazing time running. I wasn't tired of running yet. I wanted to see the course, and heck, the next day was "only" 18 miles. If all felt good in the morning, I wanted to run.

Day 2: Foresthill to Rucky Chucky

I awoke feeling a little stiff but overall pretty good. Running sounded like a great idea, and today's itinerary promised to take us on the "Cal Street section" of the course, all the way down to the American River crossing, which seemed like it was going to be pretty great. I headed off to Foresthill again.

The crowd was smaller today, though still with a few hundred runners. After a pre-run briefing that covered bus logistics (today we'd run from Foresthill and buses would return us afterwards), Western States trivia questions, and a warning not to swim in the American River, which was very high right now, we started off down Foresthill Road.

We turned onto Cal Street and soon we were on double- and singletrack trail again, descending gently, then steeply, through shady wooded groves and across little lively streams. About a mile into the run, as different paces were still shaking out on the trail, a voice behind me said, "Excuse me," and a shirtless runner flew past me, moving with inhuman speed and grace down the steep slope. I -- and everyone else on the course -- had just enjoyed a Jim Walmsley fly-by.

I'd been a bit concerned about the downhill running I would do today, after yesterday's descents into canyons, but even though the course ended 3000 feet below Foresthill, I felt my quads loosen up as I ran, and it all seemed okay. The morning air was cool, though the sunlight held a promise that things would heat up, and I enjoyed the wildflowers, the madrona trees, and even an impromptu lesson from another runner on how to identify poison oak. I ran a bit with Mike-from-Alabama again, and talked a bit with other runners, but also enjoyed long stretched of peaceful solitary running. Before I knew it, I was at the first aid station of the morning (Cal-2), and we were almost halfway through the day's running.

As the trail continued to descend, we came within earshot and then sight of the beautiful, green American River at last.
Views like this for most of the day!
Along this stretch, I meet up with Mona and Julie, who proved to be amazing company for the rest of the day.
Mona (left) and Julie (right), photo credit Mona Gutierrez
They were hilariously entertaining, accomplished runners and struck a great balance between moving efficiently down the trail and stopping to enjoy every shady scenic overlook and cold stream along the way. They shared my philosophy that it wasn't a race, so as long as we were ahead of the sweeps (and we were, by an hour), why not have fun along the way?

At last the trail stopped descending. We'd reached the river! Trails that had been dusty and occasionally rocky now became sandy. The shade gave way to bright unbroken sunlight and the air was warm.
Sandy riverbank trails
When we got to a creek crossing not far from Rucky Chucky, Mona and I were at last ready to join Julie, who'd been plunging into streams all along the way. The water was everything I'd hoped for -- an ice cold shock to my legs and core.
So good! Photo credit: Julie Melendez
We reached Rucky Chucky a little under five hours after starting. The Western States course crosses the river here; most years it's fordable but this year it'll be on rafts because the river is high. For the training run, after stopping at another well-stocked and friendly aid station (I heard Stephanie Howe was volunteering at it, but I didn't recognize her) and loading up on ice in my hat, bandana, and pack, we climbed the 2-mile, steep, dusty, exposed dirt road to the Driver's Flat staging area, where the shuttle buses would pick us up. In the meantime, the organizers had a pretty excellent finish-line oasis set up: a grill with burgers and hot dogs, massages from Monsters of Massage (AWESOME!), music, and a shady place to sit and tell stories. It was a great way to end another incredible day of running. 

Day 3: Finish line out-and-back

What would bring me the most joy? I asked myself Sunday night. After 52 miles of running in two days, I still felt pretty good. Certainly my downhill muscles were stiff, but nothing felt injured. I'd been eating, sleeping, and recovering like it was my job. I was definitely up for some more running. On the other hand, the run on tap for the training weekend was Green Gate to the finish, 20+ miles, and I didn't feel like I needed that much running. I also wanted to run earlier in the day than the scheduled run (which didn't start till nearly 9:30), to avoid the worse of the heat. I decided I'd start at the finish line, and run out-and-back, probably for a total of 8-12 miles, depending on how things felt.

The Western States finish is at the Placer High School track in Auburn. I arrived Monday morning just as the training run organizers were opening for business. I said hello to a few friends, did a little stretching, and headed out through town, looking for pink flags as I went.

After a small amount of random-walking, I found my way to Robie Point and the trail, and went downhill towards No Hands Bridge. 
First view of the river!
As I descended, I enjoyed the coolness of the morning and saying hello to passing runners. The trail passes a beautiful little waterfall... 
Good place to cool off!
... and soon comes to No Hands Bridge, with insane views off both sides. 
Upstream; the line at the top is Foresthill Bridge
I was having lots of fun so I kept going, starting the climb up from No Hands Bridge toward Cool. It's a long, steady stretch of mostly doubletrack trail and there were plenty of runners and walker out enjoying the morning. I decided I'd turn around after an hour and a half -- I didn't have anything to prove and wanted to keep my mileage more sane today.

At the 90 minute mark I still felt good, but going back seemed like a fine plan too. I turned and started descending back to the river. I took my first and only fall of the weekend along here, bloodying my shoulder, elbow, knees, and hands, to the horror of passing runners and hikers. But it seemed pretty minor and I washed up in a creek, then more thoroughly at the No Hands aid station.  
My view on the way back
The climb from the bridge back up to Robie Point was steep but I knew I was near the end, and the day was still cool. It was fun to come up the road and see the mile 99 sign: 
... and to see red footprints painted on the road, leading back to the stadium. I crested the hill and jogged gently down to the stadium as my Strava told me I'd gone 11 miles, a little sad to be done running, but overpoweringly happy to have had such an incredible weekend.

Final thoughts

I don't know whether I'll ever run Western States. Heck, I'm not sure I'll ever run at 100 miler. But I'm still riding the high from this weekend and I don't know when I'll come down from it. Being a "tourist" on the course was, for me, truly living the dream.

When I fell on Monday, I told concerned runners not to worry, I now had the Western States 100 in my blood. I was joking, but I do feel like this weekend unlocked something new in me. The knowledge that I can exceed my own expectations and my own previous limits. The confidence that I can train for things that are hard and show up ready to take them on. The elation of living in a body that can become something new through patient, transformative work. And the embrace of an accepting, encouraging community.

I wonder what else I can do?
Ready for great things!