First and foremost, I’d like to say that spending 28 hours doing anything is not enjoyable. Not sleeping, not eating ice cream, not watching reality TV. 28 hours is a long time, and I found that out the hard way. However, everything I encountered on my 28 hour run is something that will stay with me for a very long time.
Brad and I arrived in Squaw Valley on Wednesday. I immedietly fell in love with the area. Everything was so clean, the mountains were gorgeous, and everywhere you went you were provided with miles of roads and trails to run and bike. I did short runs on Wed/Thurs/Fri and didn’t really “feel” the altitude. Sure, I noticed it, but I certainly didn’t feel impaired by it or anything. Arjun and Jen joined us late Thursday night and before I knew it, it was Friday and the race preparations were on. We stood in line for about 45 minutes to check in. They gave out some pretty sweet stuff – T-shirts, a fleece and a backpack. I had to weigh in, get my blood pressure checked, and most importantly, scope out the competition. I can honestly say I have never before stood among such fit people.
With that behind me, it was now a matter of getting through the worst part of the trip: the waiting. We couldn’t do anything super sweet since I was supposed to be resting, so we settled on going out to Lake Tahoe and a lunch with Frannie and Gill and their crew. We had a good time, Frannie and Gill answered all our last minute questions and then we headed back to the hotel to put together the final race plan. This included mapping out crew directions, making the final call as to what aid stations they would be at, and organizing my nutrition stuff and giving them a plan for what to have ready for me at each stop. Then, we made dinner, and as soon as I felt a little drowsy, I was off to bed.
3:30 in the morning came pretty quickly. I ate breakfast, went and picked up my chip and number, and then returned to the room for the final preparations. It was pretty chilly when we finally went out to the start around 4:45, but I was so nervous I barely noticed. The countdown came and went, and before I knew it I was hiking up the 4-mile trail to Escarpment. In these first 4 miles, you climb over 2500 feet, and it took me 1:03. I hiked the entire thing, but looking back I was still moving faster than I probably should have. Either way, I still gave myself a much more conservative start than most. In fact, the leaders were so eager to get moving, they took a wrong turn about 100 meters into the race and had to backtrack. It was pretty cool to be ahead of Scott Jurek and Hal Koerner for all of 30 seconds!
As I pulled myself up and over (yes, pulled myself…it was that steep) I had seven miles of downhill running with some of the best views I have ever seen in my life. It was awesome. I tried to balance my excitement with the voice in my head telling me to be conservative, so I stayed with a group and just let myself run, but didn’t push it too hard. By mile 16, I noticed that it was actually hot. That’s not a good sign at 8:30 in the morning. Neither is having to fill up your hat with ice to stay cool. I kept to my nutrition plan and just had to hope that my 2 bottles would be enough to get me to Robinson Flat. Unfortuantely, it wasn’t. I left Duncan Canyon and had 6 miles to get to my crew at Robinson Flat. I ran the first 3-4 miles, and stopped at the bottom to douse myself in cool creek water before starting the 2.5ish mile climb up to the aid station. Within the first 30 minutes of the climb, I was out of water. Hungry, hot, tired and dehydrated is probably the worst way to arrive at the first stop your crew can see you. I had to hop on the scale first, and the doctor took one look at me and said “you look….dry.” Yeah, thanks. I tried to just step around him but he held me there and looked me in the eyes and said “no, really, are you okay?” Yes, I replied, just thirsty. My crew is here, I’ll be fine. He let me go and I took a handful of foods, a couple of cups and went down to where the crews were stationed. Ready with mountain dew and smiles, they were great, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that things weren’t going well. I was 20 minutes behind the 24hr projected time, but that didn’t worry me. What worried me that I felt like shit. There was no way around it.
I said some choice words about how I felt to Brad, and in an effort to give me a boost he said “well, at least you don’t have to worry about Jenn Shelton anymore…we are pretty sure she died.” Granted this was a bit of an exaggeration, but sure enough I found out later that my biggest age-group competition did drop at mile 30. I can’t say I blame her. I tried to wash down a PB&J with some mountain dew, and promptly threw it back up. Crap. I looked up and just kept seeing more women come through, so I made the rash decision to just get up and go. About 200 yards after that, I stopped and puked again. Great. After another mile-long climb, we had a 3 mile descent to the next stop. This so called descent was a double edged sword though. Steep switchbacks were a quad-killer, plus it was in the wide-open sunlight. Any tree cover that may have been there once was no longer due to the forest fires last year. Again, it was hot. And dry. And dusty. I made it to the next aid station and made a beeline for a chair under the tent. Again, I tried eating, but nothing except watermelon was going down. I am not sure how long I was there, but a doctor came over after a bit and told me that his one peice of advice is just to keep moving. He said if you stay in one place too long, it’s only going to get harder (reminds me of my dad’s famous words of wisdom for my races: “well alyssa, it’s only going to get worse from here.”)
I nodded, but I’m sure my face just spelled out my doubts. Then came pivotal moment #1. An old man, probably 70 or even 80 years old, walked over to me and bent over so he was looking right at me. How do you feel? He said. I shrugged and said, well, I’ve certainly felt better. How old are you? 24. He got this very serious look in his eyes, shook his finger right in my face and said “I want you to promise me one thing today. Tell me that you promise you will not give up on yourself today. Just don’t give up, and you’ll finish.” I’m not sure why, but that man struck a chord with me. He helped me clear my mind. It wasn’t about making it in under 24 hours. It wasn’t about winning my age group. It was about getting to run around that track and finish the race. I had had dreams of that track since last December, and dammit, I was going to be there this weekend. I didn’t want to wait for it anymore.
Somewhat inspired, I got up and jogged on. I wish I could say that from that moment on, it all got better. But, true as my dad’s words, it actually got worse. I made it about a half mile before I felt overwhelmed with heat, dizziness, and nausea. Dry heaving, I sat down on a rock. I didn’t know what to do, and after a few minutes two women who were safety volunteers on the course came up. They asked if I was okay and for the first time that day I said no, I wasn’t. One of them ran back to the aid station to get me some crackers, while the other talked me through the race thus far – what had I eaten, drinking, am I cramping, etc. I kept telling them I’d be fine, just move on, but they refused to leave me. In fact, they promised me that they’d get me up and running and up to Foresthill (mile 62) where their shift was over and my pacer would be. They wouldn’t let me quit. In those 20-30 minutes, I was passed. A lot. I saw Justine Morrison (my other age group competitor) go by. I saw others who were just happily running along. And there were others who didn’t look so happy, but at least they were moving which was more than I could have said. Finally I was ready to get up. I managed a slow run to the next aid station, where I got some potatos and chicken broth in me. Just keep moving.
The next part of the race felt like a bad record stuck on repeat. Down quad-burning switchbacks for a couple miles, then back up identical ones on the other side. Soon I was facing the infamous climb up Devil’s thumb. That one mile climb took me one hour. I don’t know if it was my nutrition, the heat, the altitude, or all of the above, but I have never been so tired climbing up a mountain. Finally, I made it up to Devil’s Thumb, and for the first time I honestly thought I might really make it to the end. But as I looked down at my watch and saw that I was within 7 minutes of the 30 hour cutoff, I realized there was still a lot of work to be done. I checked in with my new besties the safety runners and let them know I was going to take off, I’d see them up there. They caught me after 2 miles and said I was making great time. It was more of the same as we went on, only now I was paying attention to taking breaks on the downhills to eat, drink and recover. I was feeling likea new person, I didn’t want to ruin that again. At last I was at mile 52 of the race, and had one more 3 mile climb up to Michigan Bluff where I’d see my crew again. At the bottom I came across Justine, laying down on the ground with her hands over her head. “It’s just not my day” she said shaking her head when I tried to encourage her. I understood, and I went back to my own seat, where I promptly threw up so hard my ab muscles seized and cramped and I was stuck in the throwing up position for a couple minutes before the muscles released. Awesome. The WS powers that be were not going to let me feel better even for a minute. Up we went, and finally I came striding into Michigan Bluff, and I could see the looks of shock written all over Arjun, Jen and Brad’s faces. “you look so much better” was all they kept saying. I know, I know I said. But I had to keep moving.
At this point it was 8pm. I had gained some time on the cutoff, but I was able to pick up my pacer here because I was so close. So Brad got ready to go, and we took off. The next few parts are a blur. It got dark, and we kept running. Up and down, up and down. There was never an opportunity to stretch the legs out on a flat section and really run. It was always up or down. Not to mention it was up or down on the side of a mountain. One wrong move could easily send you tumbling down into the darkness.
Coming through Foresthill at mile 62, I had gained 45 minutes on the cutoff. A quick change of the shirt and shoes, and I was able to give my feet a small bit of relief. It was still dark though, and I was still running. And I still had a long way to go. I got into a routine at the aid stations: sitting, eating 2 cups of broth, 1 Gu, a cup of soda and some chips. Sometimes it came back up, sometimes it didn’t. I stuck with it until the river crossing. Crossing Rucky Chucky is another one of those pivotal sections. It’s one of the great moments you have heard and read so much about, and finally it’s your turn. The cool water presented some relief, and my mind was somewhat at ease because I had always heard that after the river crossing, it’s “easy.” Let’s just say, whoever thinks that, is dead wrong. Not counting the 1.25 mile climb out of the river, I still had a long rocky and mountainous way to go. In many respects I was glad it was dark so I couldn’t really see what was coming. Although the next 20 miles probably took me 5.5 hours, it went by fast. The sun rose again, and before I knew it I was finally at mile 98.6 where Arjun and Jen were ready to head to the finish with me. Of course, it was “a mean 1.3 miles” remaining, as Arjun pointed out.
My lap around the track was pretty unreal. I crossed the finish line in 28:09:30, weighed in (gain of 2 pounds!) and finally sat down, this time for good. For the first time in a long time, I had finished a race where I didn’t care about my place. I had no idea where I finished, and it simply didn’t matter. Western States taught me that I never want to be the runner who drops at 30 miles because it’s hard. I never want to be the runner who drops because it’s simply not my day, and I won’t win this one. For the first time in a long time, I was at a race where I’d be lucky to do well, but I was luckier to have even gotten there in the first place. Coming back from a rough start and gaining almost 2 hours on the cutoff time taught me more than winning, and hopefully I can keep this perspective for all my races in the future.
The next day at the incredibly hot a miserable award ceremony, I received my bronze belt buckle. It no longer mattered to me that it wasn’t silver. By staying out there when things got bad, I proved to myself certain things, and I showed that I respected not only the race, but the sport. Sometimes you have to be humbled to really feel like you won. In a strange turn of events, I also found out at the awards ceremony that I did in fact win my age group. It was a sweet icing on the cake to follow in the footsteps of so many women runners who have won the age group before me, but it no longer carried the weight it did before. Every bit of that awards belongs to my crew, the women who ran with me, and the man who told me not to give up on myself, just as much as it may belong to me.
“We had done this thing we had set out to do, and instead of becoming larger because of the experience, we became smaller, more humble more aware of how little we know: about the world in general, about ourselves specifically.”
– Richard Benyo in “The Death Valley 300.”