Beautiful Disaster

By Scott Ludwig

How do I feel after training for (OK, maybe not training, but certainly worrying about) the Western States (WS) Endurance Run for seven months?

How do I feel after spending over $1500 for an event I didn’t even complete?

How do I feel after investing five days of my life (which I’ll never get back) to travel to California to run (well, mostly walk) only 62 miles of a 100 mile event?

Humbled…embarrassed…but mostly RELIEVED!

Relieved that I can now speak of it in the past tense.

If that’s the case, you’re probably wondering what led me to Squaw Valley at 5:00 a.m. on a cool, crisp morning on June 26, wearing unfamiliar running garb—trail shoes, fanny pack, water bottle—and staring at a 3.7 mile climb up the side of a freakin’ mountain.

Al Barker, that’s what.

After Badwater last summer, Al expressed an interest in doing something ‘out of the ordinary.’ So he talked me into entering the WS lottery via the ‘buddy system’ and to his delight and my dismay, our names were selected.

Before I knew it, Al and I, along with our support crew of Susan Lance-Parker and Gordon Cherr, were on a flight to San Francisco. Upon arrival, we rented our ‘support vehicle’ (a Cadillac—only in California, folks!) and drove east to Truckee, where we stayed for two nights prior to the start of the race and got acclimated to the elevation.

The day before the race, Al and I checked in with race officials who slapped a fluorescent yellow band on our respective wrists with our name, race number, weight and pulse (mine, ordinarily 52, registered at 64; Al, ordinarily 50, registered at a whopping 86…he was admittedly ‘nervous’). The altitude did strange things to our bodies, elevating our pulse and blood pressure and inhibiting our ability to breathe.

At the official pre-race meeting, instructions were given to runners and crew. The top male and female runners were introduced, as well as half of the 1300 volunteers responsible for the event (well, maybe not half, but it seemed that way in the hot sun).

Noted ultrarunner Ray Krowelicz sat next to me at the meeting and told me I’d do well and that I’d have no problem with the course (‘it’s runnable’). I told Ray I was terrible on trails and feared the worst. Guess who proved to be right (hint: it wasn’t a ‘noted ultrarunner’).

I left two drop bags with the volunteers to be delivered to Michigan Bluff (55.7 miles) and the Rucky Chucky River crossing (78.1 miles). The plan was for Gordon to pace me at the allowed checkpoint (Foresthill School, 62.0 miles). At that time it would be around nightfall (my calculation derived with ‘noted ultrarunner’s’ help), and he would bring my flashlight and headlamp. We expected that I would hit 62 miles around 8:00 p.m. (although Ray thought I’d make it by 6:00). The only thing we were all right about was that when I hit 62 miles it would still be Saturday. Barely, as it turned out.

We all ate our ‘last meal’ at Subway (none of us barely saying a word) and were all fast asleep by 6:30—8 hours before our 2:30 a.m. wakeup call. At 4:00 a.m. race morning we were at Squaw Valley eager to get the show on the road. After Al and I made our final pit stops (5 for Al, 1 for me), we were at the starting line for the countdown to the start. It took us 25 seconds after the starter’s gun to get to the starting line so we could begin—WALKING for the next 4.5 miles up to the Escarpment, going from an elevation of 6200 feet to an elevation of 8700 feet. Al and I experienced ‘sausage fingers’ (swelling caused by altitude pressure) and realized—in a field of 444 runners—there were only 20 or so runners behind us.

Once we reached the summit, we turned a corner, ran for the first time, and came across our next ‘opponent’—a huge patch of ice! Al went in front of me and slipped, and when I put out my hand to stop him, I did a cheerleader-quality split, hypterextending my right knee and pulling my left groin in the process. Terrific, and only 95 miles to go!

Next, I found myself running alone (what happened to Al?) on an 8-inch wide path with razor-like shrubs attacking my legs from both sides. Am I having fun yet?

Not to worry: things only went downhill from there (and when I say ‘downhill,’ I means lots of UPhill). I felt like I was Indiana Jones: fending off five attackers only to turn the corner to face TEN attackers…then, after defeating them, being chased by a rolling two ton boulder.

I saw Gordon and Susan at Robinson Flat (24.6 miles) which, as it turned out, was the brightest spot in my day. It lasted all of twelve seconds. I gave Gordon my fanny pack (thus sacrificing one of my two water bottles) as it was bouncing and tearing a hole in my back. I would rough it from that point with my remaining handheld water bottle which, as it turned out, was a big mistake.

The next thirty miles offered some beautiful scenery; I was actually moving so slowly on occasion that I had time to enjoy it. The view, that is…not the event.

The three canyons between Last Chance (43.3 miles) and Michigan Bluff were without a doubt the beginning of my end. The climb up Devil’s Thumb (the first canyon) required a climb of 1600 feet in only 1.7 miles, and required traversing 36 switchbacks (which caused me to flashback to the hellacious switchbacks on Mount Whitney at the end of Badwater last summer). The second canyon, requiring an 1800 foot climb in 2.8 miles to Michigan Bluff (but only 7 switchbacks…7 looooooong switchbacks!) led me to Michigan Bluff. I stopped to have my big toes examined and tended to, as they were both tearing apart due to my altered foot strike caused by my accident on the ice. When I took off my left shoe, the medical team was horrified by the condition of my big toe. Unfortunately, they were ‘ooing and aahing’ over damage to my toe incurred at Badwater last summer—they didn’t even notice the toenail was tearing apart from the cuticle! A video team taped the whole ‘repair’ process (for an upcoming documentary, I understand); the duct tape was a nice touch. I only had to have a large blood blister lanced and taped on my right big toe.

As I was feeling a lot of pain in my thighs, my calves, my back, my…well, my BODY, I also asked for a massage. The masseuse couldn’t believe how stiff my legs were, but she managed to loosen them up to the point that, when I stood up, they actually felt refreshed. However, my toes (and now my right heel) were still hurting. Terribly.

Did I mention the sun had now set and it was dark? Or that I was still seven miles away from Gordon…and my flashlight? Or that I still had one more canyon to negotiate?

I borrowed a small penlight (from Chris of Tucson—God bless you, Chris) to use through the third canyon, requiring a 6.3 mile journey. When I got to the bottom of the canyon, it was pitch black. The penlight, emitting a beam of about four feet, was difficult to navigate by, but I managed to finally make my way to the Foresthill School checkpoint (62.0 miles).

Did I mention that I noticed a runner update board in Michigan Bluff and that it indicated Al had dropped out at 43.3 miles (appropriately named Last Chance)? Or that if I knew I would be rescued I would have dropped in my tracks and waited for the rescue team? Or that any semblance of desire to finish this damn race was now gone? After all, this was Al’s dream (not mine), and the event combined two of the four things I hate (the four things being hiking, camping, hunting and fishing—you can figure out the two I’m referring to). Or that, in an effort to move out of the way of a participant who wanted to pass me, I lost my balance, slipped on pine straw, fell backwards, and struck my head on a boulder? I decided I was in hell. I couldn’t wait to make it to Foresthill…to call it a day. Literally, a day!

I walked with Chris and his pacer (I found out later pacers were allowed after 8:00 p.m., not at mile 62 as we thought) the last 1.7 miles to Foresthill. A volunteer walked with us, encouraging Chris to complete the event. She stated that ‘the hard part is over at 62 miles’ and that the course was ‘technical’ (the kiss of death for me) right before the river crossing. Thank God she wasn’t aware I had no intention of continuing, or she would have directed her comments to me as well as Chris. I simply walked along in silence, acting as if the thought of quitting never entered my mind.

Upon arriving at Foresthill School, I couldn’t locate Gordon, so I asked a volunteer to find him for me…while I sat in a lawn chair. I told the volunteer I might drop out of the race, but I’d tell her for sure in a moment. I weighed in and realized I had lost six pounds in the last 19 miles. I also realized I had not consumed a single calorie during that time (all I had consumed was water; lots and lots of water). Then I saw Gordon running across the parking lot–attired in the appropriate gear, wearing his headlamp, holding my lights in his hands, and most disturbing of all, EAGER TO RUN! I asked Gordon if he would be disappointed if I called it a day. After all, Gordon had trained and prepared for his 38 mile stretch of the WS course…and he’d been waiting for several hours to take center stage. Gordon told me I looked pretty beat up, and he would understand if I dropped out (God bless you, Gordon). I walked back to the volunteer and told her ‘number 134 is dropping out of the race.’ With a nod from the volunteer, it was over. I was officially out of WS.

The next four or five hours was a blur, but suffice it to say that I slept in five different spots during that time: in a volunteer’s vehicle for the ride from Foresthill to the finish line, one the sidewalk next to the finish area, in a volunteer’s vehicle in the finish area parking lot, in our support Cadillac, and in a hotel room (note: the original plan didn’t call for a hotel room, as Al and I were supposed to be running during the night).

The four of us woke up the next morning and returned to the finish line, where we witnessed many accomplishing what Al and I could now only dream of doing—finishing the WS! I saw Chris from Tucson finish, and was proud of him for doing it. After all, I knew volunteers had required him to gain weight before leaving two checkpoints and at Michigan Bluff he was so cold that I left him lying on a cot underneath two blankets, certain that his race was over. Like Ray Krolewicz the day before, I was wrong.

I spoke briefly with Don Allison, the editor of Ultrarunning, and he seemed to have a hard time believing he was talking to the same person who finished sixth at Badwater eleven short months ago. Like I tried to tell Ray yesterday, I’m terrible on trails. Maybe ‘terrible’ is an understatement.

Sunday afternoon, the four of us went running (although I wouldn’t call what Al and I were doing running). After our run, Al and I spoke with the famous ‘Cowman,’ who told us he was writing a book on his life. I thanked him for getting me national exposure on ESPN during coverage of the 1987 Boston Marathon (I was running next to him, and cameras were always looking for ‘the runner with the horns on his head’). We then saw Monica Scholz, who played leap frog with me at Badwater last summer (although she eventually finished in front of me). She was excited with her WS states, as she ‘finally’ finished in the top ten. She was set to return to Badwater in two weeks, and we wished her well and told her we’d follow her on the webcast.

We saw local legend Tim Twietmeyer, working with several young boys to clean up the field where only moments before the grand finale of the WS had taken place. He is also the only runner I saw cross the finish line during my ‘nap’ on the sidewalk the night before.

Now that it’s over, I have no regrets. Just an overwhelming sense of relief—relief that I’ll never run another trail as long as I live.

Al is another story, however. This morning—only eight days after our beautiful disaster—he told me he’s going to try WS again someday. Susan wants to try it too.

I, however, am staying where I belong. On the roads.