A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Full Western States Report - Buying Myself 3 More Weeks of Slam-Mania!

This is going to be one heck of a race report. There are hundreds of pictures that I took during the race and will need time to sort out. I will post them here in the future. As for now, I'm going by the photos that are already available to me, like this one:

Me showing off my bib number before the race...this picture was used for the Western States webcast the next day while I was running.

So let's see what I did...I was involved with the original 100 mile ultramarathon, the one that started the current ultrarunning phenomenon, the one that now questions the marathon as the “ultimate race”. I've rubbed elbows, and even became Facebook friends with Gordon Ainsleigh, the first man who actually dared to challenge the impossible and run 100 miles in a horse race back in 1974. I've met the other 30 people who dared to attempt the Grand Slam this year, and the photographer (Michael Lebowitz) who is taking pictures of our exploits in each of the 4 races of the Slam.

But best of all, I get to run the actual Western States 100 course, for a crack at one of the most prestigious prizes in ultrarunning, the coveted Western States Belt Buckle.


With this report, I'll just focus on my race. Forget the hoopla surrounding the race. I'll report about that a little later on.

The Start

Woke up race morning at Silver Creek Campground. Took the primitive approach to this and brought my tent along with me to sleep outside under the stars. It was a great experience.

Got to Squaw Valley a little after 3AM. Ate some of the food they had there and hydrated very well. Emotionally, I was ready and focused. Heck, I was doing the biggest race of my 23 year career here. No pressure, right? The only strategy I had was to race in the moment and see where that would take me.

10 minutes before the race, we all gather at the start line. Was with Reiko Cyr and Jackie Choi as we counted down the minutes. The first part of the race was a 2,500 foot climb, and thus a power hike to the top of Emigrant Pass. Just put one foot in front of the other enough times and soon we would be at the top! I had my action cam on my head and ready to take pics of the early, beautiful part of this race.

The starting gun goes off, and off we go! The road out of Squaw Valley takes us higher and higher, into the heart of the Sierra Nevadas. As we climb, the camera snaps photos along the way, taking pictures of the entire valley of Squaw, the looming mountain, and Lake Tahoe in the distance. The photos are impressive; I'm glad I took the camera with me.

I settled into a good power-hike rhythm up the mountain. I get to the first Aid Station at the Escarpment, drank some fluids, and marched into the Escarpment itself. Needed my hands in the early part as the Escarpment is quite steep, but soon I was on top and making my way towards the Watson Monument and Emigrant Pass itself, the very top of the climb. Time to finally run!

The back side of the pass was breathtaking as well. Wound up talking with a few people while running, with one being Will Jorgenson, another Slammer aspirant. We talked about other ultras, training, even A-Rod and the Yankees as we get to the top of Red Star Ridge.

Those early miles were a blur, but I felt very good at that point. I was running on all cylinders and managed a good pace through the early miles. The first test was coming up though, our first canyon of the day, Duncan Canyon.

Duncan Canyon itself lies between the Duncan Canyon Aid Station and Robinson Flat. At this point ot the race, the heat was now starting to assert itself. The descent down into the canyon is characterized with several switchbacks. It is the first of many significant descents of the course and one where runners need to preserve their quads. At the bottom of the canyon is a creek that can only be crossed by going through it. Wet feet and ultras are not a good combination, and this is something that will be significant in the later part of the course.

With the heat asserting itself, some of the runners are already immersing themselves in the creek to cool themselves down. I had none of that, crossed the creek, and started to climb the other side of the canyon.

The Duncan Canyon climb at mile 27-30 is a tough slog. It is here that I have found some runners starting to falter a bit. The difficulty of this course is starting to make itself felt!

I climbed Duncan Canyon very well and found myself at the Robinson Flat Aid Station in good time. I joked with the volunteers, exclaiming, “that climb is nothing!”. I grabbed water and some bananas and continued on.

At this point, the course starts to turn downhill. I was motoring along nicely, getting through Miller's Defeat and Dusty Corners Aid Stations, and finally started to approach Last Chance. I was anticipating the next 2 very large canyons (Deadwood at miles 44-48 and El Dorado at miles 49-56) with cautious optimism. Being strong at this point, the visit to the canyons was well timed.

The Canyons

At Last Chance I visited the Port-a-John and took an extra couple of minutes to prepare for the first canyon, Deadwood canyon, with 37 switchbacks on the 1600 foot climb to Devils Thumb. I met Wade Blumgren, who is preparing for the canyons by resting a bit before going for it; he looked really good.

After leaving Last Chance, I was prepared. The first mile out of Last Chance was a gradual downhill along an unimproved road. After reaching a gate, we turned towards a single track trail with a sign accompanying it warning everyone about the precipitous nature of the trail.That must be the start of the canyon...

Deadwood Canyon. Here we go!

I was prepared for the agony of the climb out of the canyon but was unprepared for the precipitous drop of the trail into the canyons. The many switchbacks that descend into this canyon is not enough to mask the sheer drop of the trail, and my quads were definitely reminding me of that. I knew I was going to have to pay for the jarring and the abuse later, but right now, the focus is to get to the bottom just to make it stop!

After what felt like forever, I finally got to Swinging Bridge at the bottom of the canyon. I was thankfully done with the descent, but now was staring at the climb out of this hellish place. 37 switchbacks, right? Well, it's time to start counting.

The start of the climb was deceptively easy, after about 5 switchbacks, I felt OK. But the trail starts to climb steeply after that, and my legs started to groan in the process. It was about here that I was really starting to feel the heat also. The only thing I could do at this moment is just keep putting one foot in front of the other and hopefully count to 37 before I collapse.

It was the top of the climb that was the worst...with 2 switchbacks to go, I was eagerly awaiting the top of the climb...but switchbacks 36 and 37 didn't come. Instead, the trail turned steeply upward. The extra work that my already burdened legs had to do to get up the steeps here simply stunned me. Finally, after the steep sections were done, switchbacks 36 and 37 were counted and 1600 feet of climb, I finally arrived at the top of the canyon to the Devil's Thumb Aid Station, stunned and confused.

The Devil's Thumb Aid Station was prepared for this, as they had cool, damp towels to drape on the poor, stunned runners' heads to get them to think clearly again. They also had popsicles which were a godsend! I took an extra couple of minutes just to get my bearings back before leaving the station. Heck, we have another canyon to traverse right away, yikes!

I was weakened and just downright stunned by Deadwood Canyon, but I told myself as I left Devil's Thumb Aid Station to start running, even if very slowly, to see if I can “jump start” myself again. About two miles afterwards, I found that I was running at the regular pace again, much to my relief. We had El Dorado Canyon to traverse now, so I gave it my undivided attention.

The descent to El Dorado Creek wasn't as steep as the descent into Deadwood Canyon, but it was long and arduous. My quads were already very tired from the course, the descent still was very taxing. There was one other thing in this canyon that I felt that I didn't in the other canyons.

The heat.

This canyon was downright stifling. It was hot, there was no wind, and the air literally scorched my face as I descended towards the bottom. I knew I was running in temps way above 100 degrees here. As it turns out, I found out later that some of the recorded temps here exceeded 115 degrees in this canyon! As it turns out, I still wasn't really adversely affected by the heat. I felt it, yes, but I didn't slow down because of it.

I got to the bottom of the canyon and into the aid station there. I felt OK, but was now worried about this climb out of the canyon. 2.8 miles and 1800 feet of climb to Michigan Bluff. Luckily, the side of the canyon where I'll be climbing is rather shaded. Temps were stifling, yes, but to be out of the sun's eye while climbing this imposing canyon was a godsend. I started to climb up the canyon.

The climb was not as rough as Deadwood, but it was significant nevertheless. I can start to feel the fatigue settling in as I labored up the path. With the sun getting lower and lower in the sky, I find myself wondering what the night will bring on this course. The one thing I started to feel though during this climb out of the canyon, was that blisters were starting to form on my feet.

Finally climbing the 1800 foot canyon wall and reaching Michigan Bluff, I took a quick assessment of myself and found that I was still breathing. They had some real food at this aid station. I decided to try a grilled cheese sandwich. My system violently reacted to it, and I had to vomit it up as I was leaving the aid station. Oh well, looks like we're staying with bananas and watermelon for a while longer.

As I left the station, one of the volunteers congratulated me on finishing the canyons. I mentioned to him that we had one canyon left, Volcano Canyon. He taunts, “that little itty bitty thing?”

That made me nervous. A “little itty bitty thing” here in the West can be more than I bargained for.

Signs for Volcano Canyon were present on the dirt road climbing into the Volcano Park. After climbing several hills on this road, the trail turned single track again, and made a huge descent into the canyon. More switchbacks. My poor quads were really aching with pain descending into the canyon and I felt the blisters growing on my feet. Looks like I need to address my feet at Foresthill Aid Station at Mile 62. I mercifully reached the bottom of the canyon and started the painful climb up the other side.

“Itty bitty? Who's he kidding? This canyon sucks”

I finally made it to Bath Road, only 1.4 miles from Foresthill Aid Station. I was tired, sore, and the blisters on my feet were making themselves known. I had fresh socks in my drop bag at Foresthill, along with my headlamps and a new shirt, so I was looking to Foresthill with hope that the new stuff will renew me for the rest of the trip. The big mountains and the canyons were over, now it's time to enjoy the trails by the American River.

The Night and the Blisters

I got to Foresthill Aid Station, and found myself in the middle of a party! This was clearly the largest, and the most important aid station on the course where people pick up their pacers, and get going on some of the easier trails of the course. I spent some time here assessing my feet (yeah, those feet were getting ugly), changing my socks and shirt, and getting my headlamps. I started out dry, fresher, and with renewed confidence, found myself going fast and steady downhill to the Cal-1 aid station. The daylight was waning, so during the run I had to turn my headlamp run.

Here comes the night. I'm always nervous to see what night has to bring in these races.

Descending into Cal-1, I was initially strong, but was getting a bit weaker as I arrived at Cal-1 Aid Station. The blisters were getting worse, and my alertness was fading a bit. I decided to take a bit of time here and eat a lot before I set my sights on the next Aid Station, Cal-2.

It was between Cal-1 and Cal-2 when I started getting some real bad news.

The blisters on my feet got real bad, and with each painful step, had to slow down the pace a bit. The dark and isolation of the trail didn't help either, as I felt utterly alone with my dark thoughts. It was a long haul to Cal-2, and I was feeling it every step of the way.

I got to Cal-2 stunned. At this point I knew a sub-24 hour finish was out the window, but should still be a shoe-in for a sub 30 finish. With the Grand Slam always in the back of my mind, a sub-30 finish is as good as a sub-24 hour finish in that it would allow me to move on to the next race in the Slam, Vermont. So I set focus on finishing the race to move on in the Slam.

The shorter distance from Cal-2 to Cal-3 initially was fine with me, but there was a horrible climb right before Cal-3 that destroyed my feet. It was time to address these blisters. I stumbled into Cal-3 and asked if I can get the blisters treated here. The guy had a First-Aid kit, but told me that the next aid station, Rucky Chucky, had a podiatrist that can help me with my blisters. He did help me by covering up some bad spots on my feet, but now I was faced with a painful 4.7 mile slog down to the river before getting treated.

So what did I do? I started off. The volunteer wished me well, and off I went.

This section was by far the toughest, and the most defining part of the run. I needed to get to Rucky Chucky to have any chance of finishing the course. So I put all my grit and determination in getting down to the river.

It felt like forever, as I was doing about a 15 minutes/mile pace at this point, but I finally reached Rucky Chucky.

As I stumbled in, I asked one of the volunteers where the podiatrist was. He said he was on the other side of the river. So I decided to get the crossing over with quickly.

Except that it didn't go quickly.

I envisioned the Rucky Chucky Crossing to be one of the highlights of the course. It turned out to be a nightmare. We had to navigate large rocks on the course, and whenever I had to take a step in a deeper section of the river, I was uncontrollably shivering whenever the water got waist deep. Plus, the blisters on my feet were screaming with pain as I traversed the river.

After what felt like forever, I finally emerged onto the other side of the river and asked to see a podiatrist immediately. He was there, but told me that if I didn't have any dry socks in the drop bags (which I didn't), that it would all be for naught. I told him I had fresh socks at Auburn Lake Trails, the next aid station. He told me there was a podiatrist there and he can treat me there then.

Great. Blisters, now wet feet, and now I'm to run another 4+ miles to get treated. Oh, and as to add insult to injury, I found my running shorts to be split on the bottom. This is turning out to be a rough night!

Still, I soldiered on. I managed to get some energy back as I ran towards Auburn Lake Trails, and passed some people along the way. When I got to the aid station, I felt OK again.

But I still needed to get my feet checked, so I stopped.

The medical staff at Auburn Lake Trails were great. They knew I had a dry pair of socks to put on, so were willing to tackle the blisters for me.

When I finally took off my shoes and wet socks for them, they knew they had their work cut out for them. One of them exclaimed, “oh #$&%”, and took out his camera to film my feet for posterity,

On both feet, there were blisters on the outside of the heel. There were big blisters right underneath the midfoot, there were some blood blisters underneath the toes, and there were numerous small blisters in between the toes. The treatment turned into a project.

In around 45 minutes they tried to drain all the significant blisters. My left foot was a bit worse than my right, with a big blood blister smack-dab right on the balls of my feet. After 45 minutes I was getting a bit antsy and eager to shove off, so they made quick work of the rest, put my dry socks on, my shoes, then wished me a lot of luck. I felt wobbly getting up, but the thought still hasn't crossed my mind whether to quit the race. In my mind I still had time; if I was to do a 25 min/mile pace I would still finish ahead of the 30 hour cutoff, so off I went.

The first mile was very slow as my legs slowly loosened up again to running, After that mile I settled into a slow but steady rhythm to get to the next aid station.

The Next Day and the Painful Last Stretch

During the 4+ stretch of miles to Browns Bar Aid Station, the light from the dawn slowly returned, and during that stretch, I turned off my headlamp to face the new day. Yeah I was a bit frustrated that I still had not reach mile 90 yet and that I felt less than stellar at that point, but part of me was still happy that I had survived the night and was still moving toward the finish. I also resolved myself to no more significant stoppages at aid stations. Whatever the condition of my feet would be I would just have to deal with it and bull through the remaining part of the race.
I reached Brown's Bar at 89.9 miles, and as quickly as I came in, I downed a few drinks and salt tabs, I was quickly off for the next aid station. At this point I had to do a 30 min/mile pace to finish the course, which gave me a bit of confidence.

The next 3.6 mile stretch sucked. It featured a huge uphill section that just kept going and going until I finally started to hear the sound of cars in the distance. Highway 49 Aid Station shouldn't be far behind then. As the roar of traffic got closer, the sun started to make its presence felt on the second day; the day promises to be even hotter than yesterday, so I had to get myself prepared.

At the aid station they had lots of bacon, which did appeal to me. So I had about 3 strips of bacon, washed it down with some Gu Brew, then quickly left the station seeking No Hands Bridge.

No Hands Bridge was the lowest part of the course, so I was expecting a downhill jaunt to that aid station. Instead, I was faced with a steep and daunting uphill for the first mile of the stretch. Crsing under my breath, I took the climb and then found myself in a sun-exposed field with no trees. The furnace of the day was turned on at this point.

At that point, the course went sharply downhill. And that is where I discovered I had no quads left to steady myself down the hill.

I couldn't keep straight down the hill, which featured yet more switchbacks (I'm starting to hate switchbacks now). I had to slow myself to a crawl to keep myself steady as the steep downhill was jolting through my exhausted quads. I was loudly cursing at this point, at which a volunteer came out of a corner (who must have heard me) tole me that the bridge was only a quarter mile away. The ground finally leveled at that point, which finally enabled me to hobble at a good speed to the aid station at the bridge.

I'm at 96.8 miles. 3.2 miles left. C'mon Pete, that's a 5k race! You can do this!

The Finish!

I crossed the bridge, started to run awkwardly again, and hoped for the best. At this point I knew I was finishing, but at what cost? I knew that I would survive the first leg of the Grand Slam and at that point I thought, “that's exactly what you wanted all along, right?” You survived to fight another day! No matter what condition I'm in, I now have 3 weeks to fix it before doing it again in Vermont. I bought time!

So I settled for the less than stellar time in Western States. I made one last awful climb to the Robie Point Aid Station, got a cup of Gu Brew in, and started the last 1.3 mile run on the asphalt towards Placer High School and the finish,

There were people along the road cheering me on as I slowly crept toward the stadium. I had to crack a smile every so often because it tends to be always emotional at the end of a 100 mile race, and I was coming to the end of THE ORIGINAL 100 mile race. I basically survived the second hottest Western States 100 in its history, and got through a lot of adversity to get there. As I got onto the field, some of the people I knew was cheering me in towards the finish. I crossed the finish line with a time of 28:51:35. A bronze buckle finish, but I'll take it. My Grand Slam goal still lives, and I'm happy for that.


My feet were utterly trashed. At Placer High School, I was wondering what condition I was going to be in 3 weeks when Vermont starts. But that is what the Grand Slam is, buying more time to stay alive. In my mind I bought 3 more weeks. I will try to heal up as best I can during those 3 weeks and hope to toe the line in Vermont as close to 100% as possible. At that point, it's back to “survive the race” to buy 4 more weeks to Leadville.

Such is the life of a Grand Slammer. Keep buying time, stay alive for as long as possible, and hope to make it to the end. I survived the first leg, so in the grand scheme of things, I was successful. On to Vermont!

1 comment:

  1. You have earned the moniker Iron Pete with this race. Amazing race and way to tough it out. Good luck in Vermont!

    ReplyDelete