Living Dreams: 2017 Western States 100 Race Report

A man giving the thumbs up on a mountain.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
John Muir
The top of Squaw Mountain.

I lived one of my long-time dreams as I climbed the snowy face of Squaw Mountain on my way to Auburn with 369 new friends, each of us inside of our dreams for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.

After summiting Squaw Mountain, the field of runners separated as conditions deteriorated quickly from snowy trails to foot-sucking mud, thanks to the 800 inches of snow this past winter that was now melting rapidly down the mountain. We crossed several mountain passes and streams and each vista seemed more beautiful than the one before.

It’s a good thing I did not have a camera with me because I don’t think I would have made the 30 hour cutoff time. Around each turn, I was in awe of the topography in the high mountain country of the Sierra Nevadas of California. Words cannot describe the beauty; it brought me to tears often in this 100-mile adventure.

As I ran the opening miles, my thoughts were of my wife Maria, my crew in this new adventure. I also thought of my family and friends who followed along from near and far. And, I thought about my recently deceased coach Steve Pye.

Minutes after I heard my name called during the lottery back in December 2016, I developed aggressive plans and goals for Western States. Who doesn’t, right?

But, my goals for this race changed when my coach and mentor Steve Pye was struck and killed on his bike on June the 8th. The emotional stress couple with some physical stress, as I grappled with an old back injury that threatened to keep me from even toeing the starting line. I realized I had to adjust to my circumstances. So, that’s what I did.

As we continued to climb along the trail ridges, the mountain flowers burst to life all along the sides of deep melting snow drifts. I felt myself in this moment – and I loved it.

Out of seemingly nowhere a large butterfly flew right next to me at head height for several hundred yards, staying in perfect pace with my every step. I’ve always felt a deep connection with the outside world but this moment felt extra special–as if the butterfly was there for me.

Further down the trail, I took a moment to get some a lot of mud out of my sneaker. As I did this, a large hawk landed just yards from me, on a giant downed pine log. We looked at each other for a few seconds. He flew off, but hung just overhead for what seemed like minutes, flying above me with the snow capped mountains in the background.

I imagined these animals as spirits of my family and friends who have left this world, who came to hang with me for just a few moments, to help me on my journey.

Okay. Are you high? You might ask.

Yes: high in the mountains!

I have no doubt that these moments were time spent with spirits.I felt a deep state of gratitude as I saw Earth’s beauty along with her creatures in harmony. For me, each of these moments was a sign: a sign that everything was going to be okay. I needed to just relax and be present.

I felt like I was running with my coach, even though we had never run one step together in this life. This experience brought me to tears as I ran. I almost had to stop running and catch my breath from the almost overwhelming feeling of loss, and yet gratitude for the limited time we had.

I may have also been aided in these sensations and feelings by the Grateful Dead cranking on my iPod. Possibly?

The first of the sock changes…

When I saw Maria for the first time at Robison Flat mile 30, she looked off. The first thing I thought she asked me was: “Do you think you will finish?” After she read a draft of this report, she corrected me. What she actually said was: “How is your back? Do you think it will hold up?”

That gives you a sense of ultra-brain. But, when she asked me that question–whatever it was–I knew in that moment that nothing was going to stop me–except my head if I let it. So, I shut off the brain and put one foot in front of the other.

I left Robinson Flat, and the next time I would see my crew would be Forest Hill, where I would find Maria, and our friends Karen, Tom, Kiki, Christine, and Vince, my pacer.

After Forest Hill, which is mile 62, the race went south–and so did my stomach. Due to the heat, my body was using most of my blood to cool itself, which was not helpful for digestion.

I recognized my body’s signals from previous experience: dizziness, sleepiness, apathy, vomiting. I responded to these signs and did what I needed to do: I slowed down, and took every opportunity to douse myself in cool water.

d45c4d92-a47d-454a-a414-c1b338efcb9f-400x400-3515462From mile Forest Hill until No hands Bridge at mile 97, I stopped to cool off at every river crossing and every aid station. This choice to slow down saved my race. I gave up speed to find the finish line–and it was worth it.

At mile 85, I saw two runners, both having much worse days than mine. One guy experienced severe back spasms, and was completely listing to the side. The other dude was having a complete mental breakdown, sobbing uncontrollably. His cries, “I don’t understand why this is happening…I don’t know if I can do this.”

As we left the aid station, I said to him, “Don’t wake up tomorrow and regret this moment. All the voices you are hearing now are lying to you. Don’t listen to them. You can do this. Now let’s go.”

Both of those guys found what they needed inside to finish. I watched both of them cross the line later that morning. The man with the back problem was the second to last finisher, crossing the finish line with only moments to spare. Their stories are inspiring. They reached their limits and kept moving beyond them. The human spirit is tougher than we realize.

Watching people overcome their demons–and overcoming my own demons–has changed me for the better.

“A teacher does not tell you what to see but shows you where to look.” ~Alexandra Trenfor
Boat ride at Rucky Chucky (mile 78) – Zombie stare.

When I first got my captain’s license and was about to make my first long solo trip to rescue a disabled fishing vessel, an old Boat Captain said to me, “What happens after you leave the dock and when you return, no one will ever understand unless they’ve been there.”

I’ve never forgotten these very true words. And, I find myself struggling to explain this experience of running the Western States 100, hoping you can understand. I was underway at the helm, Auburn was my heading. I found myself in uncharted waters, with a boat that felt just a little bit leaky. Those feelings of uncertainty, and the way we respond to the circumstances of the day, have all the makings for a truly epic journey.

You can feel like you’ve lived an entire lifetime in 100 miles – and you have the privilege of learning a life’s worth of lessons, if you open your mind and heart to them.

My top takeaways from Western States:
  • Keep chasing your dreams–they feel amazing when you catch them.
  • Listen to your body – it gives you all the signs you need to make the right choices for your day.
  • Enjoy every moment you have with the ones you love and hold them close. Tell them what they mean to you. Don’t wait. Our time together is limited. We need to allow ourselves to have a deeper connection with each other and nature.
  • In life or in racing, we must find a way to keep moving forward–no matter how hard or challenging any moment may seem. Keep in mind it will be over soon. We need to remember this when we hit an imaginary wall. We need to keep searching for the door–or window, or crack, or hole. We can turn back and leave the opportunity unfulfilled–or we can search for the way forward and keep living, keep taking the steps to get closer to whatever goal we seek. I like to open those doors and keep moving, to move on especially when I am uncertain of the outcomes.
  • We need to get out of comfort zones to truly live life. That’s the kind of living that feeds my soul.

Big thanks and Aloha to Maria, Mom, Dad, Tom, Karen, Kiki, Christine, and Vince for all your help to get to Auburn and keeping me on the trail.

Special thanks to my Coach Steve Pye up in heaven for helping me to be a better me.

We did it together!

“By the time we reach the finish we will have found, both physically and mentally, as many valleys and peaks as mark the trail. For those who come into Auburn arrive with a rare grace. The runners who press through the weary and lonely hours can get through only if they are tough and at peace with themselves. But we could not endure without the unspoken support of our companions on the trail and the palpable support of friends who waited with aid at the checkpoints, paced us through the night and kept us on the trail this day and months of training before”.—Antonio Rossman, LA Times Editorial, 1985
Living Dreams: 2017 Western States 100 Race Report
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