By Scott Ludwig
Not to put any pressure on myself, but wanting to make it to the finish line of the Western States Endurance Run had become my own personal version of Captain Ahab’s elusive Moby Dick…Arnold Palmer’s never-achieved U.S. Open championship…Superman’s Kryptonite, for that matter. Mind you, trail running has no appeal to me, and I have no false aspirations of ever being proficient—hell, I’ll settle for competent these next 100 miles–on the trails.
Up until two years ago, the only run I failed to complete was my initial attempt in 1982 at running across the state of Georgia. Ten years later, I gave it a second try and was successful.
Now, two years removed from my initial failure at Western States, here I was again in Squaw Valley with two days to make my final preparations—both physical and mental—to give it a second (and absolutely final) try. Al, Susan and I had two days to eat, rest, strategize, and rest some more. (My pacer, Danielle as well as her husband Bill, would see me later this morning at Robinson Flats, approximately 30 miles into the race.) In fact, the two days before the race I slept for ten hours and seven-and-a-half hours, respectively—record amounts for me. Race morning Al and I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and headed for the pre-race breakfast/bib number pickup literally next door to our room at the Squaw Valley Lodge. We returned to the room immediately to avoid the pre-race tension that can be found as runners, crew members and race officials make last-minute preparations and adjustments before the starting gun sounded at 5:00 a.m. Me? I do better avoiding the mass hysteria, and besides—it’s a little late now to make any last-minute adjustments that may enter into your mind. Accidentally overhearing an innocent tip, reminder, or piece of advice this late in the game is never a good thing. Stick with what got you this far, and steer clear of any too-late-in-the-game suggestions or recommendations. Staying secluded in our room at the lodge afforded us this onslaught of self-doubt. We had our game plan, and we were prepared to execute. We had done our homework, and we felt ready.
4:55 a.m. Saturday, Race Morning, Squaw Valley
Susan escorts Al and I to the starting line, and takes a few ‘before’ photographs. Later—maybe several hours, maybe a day or more—the ‘after’ photographs would be taken. We’re hoping for the later, as we’re both shooting for running the course in 30 hours. The gun sounds promptly at 5:00 a.m., and we’re on our way up the Escarpment, a tremendous 4.7 mile climb up the side of a mountain gaining over 2,250 feet in elevation.
As we crest the mountain, we find ourselves running, walking and stumbling in snow, a good two feet deep in some areas. We soon learn the art of ‘butt-gliding,’ as it was easier sliding down the slopes than it was trying to maintain your balance and footing. Later, my butt cheeks will remind me that butt-gliding may not have been such a good idea.
Al and I remain together for almost 12 miles. Al took a few spills, and the only casualty I incurred happened about 8 miles into the race, as I stopped to get a rock out of my shoe by sitting on a fallen tree. I braced myself with my right hand, and quickly discovered a sharp, jagged branch puncturing my palm. It would be the only bloodshed I incurred all day, but it was painful. At least nothing bad happened to my feet. Not yet, anyway.
1:17 p.m., Robinson Flat
As I approach the 24 mile mark at Red Star Ridge, I fear that Al is having difficulty and is in danger of missing the ‘absolute cutoff’ (AC), which means disqualification from the race. The race officials are very strict with enforcing AC’s, which allow a little extra ‘cushion’ for those trying to complete the course in the mandated 30 hour time limit. I make my way to Robinson Flat (mile 30), where I see Susan once again and Danielle and her husband Bill for the first time. At this point I am already exhausted: the course has been altered slightly from two years ago, and the five miles leading to Robinson Flat were a never-ending series of tortuous uphill. I remember sprinting to Robinson Flat in 2004 and tossing my fuel belt (which was irritating my back) to Gordon (my ill-fated pacer), as I thought I was ‘running too fast’ to waste any time with idle conversation.
As I said, I was already exhausted (I would feel this way many more times) and gave my friends the ‘shoot me in the head’ sign. Just as I could tell their initial reaction was that my run may be coming to an end very soon, I could also see that their hopes of me finishing were rekindled after a few encouraging words from the three of them as I sat for a moment and drank some fluids while resting momentarily in a lawn chair. Susan informed me that Al had missed the cutoff at Duncan Canyon, and I felt sad, as I know how much Western States means to him.
Feeling (ever-so-slightly) refreshed, I got up from the lawn chair and resumed my journey towards Auburn. Danielle called out that she would be in Michigan Bluff to pace me. Michigan Bluff was 26 miles—and almost eight hours away. It would be dark when I met up with Danielle…and had access to my headlamp and flashlight for the first time.
5:03 p.m., Last Chance
I had been dodging AC’s for the past six aid stations, and the constant pressure was beginning to take its toll on me, both physically and worse, mentally. In fact, as I approached the Last Chance aid station at mile 43, I felt I would miss the AC and actually referred to another runner as my ‘mercy killing.’ Somehow I managed to make the AC cutoff by 12 minutes. I would live to face yet another challenge as I made my way to the checkpoint I dreaded most, Devil’s Thumb, a grueling two-mile climb incorporating 37 switchbacks into a 1,350 foot climb.
As I left Last Chance, one of the volunteers offered to pour ice water on my back. I accepted, and the cold literally took my breath away. However, in the process, it gave me a renewed vigor…a second wind…a chance to actually have a chance to make it to the finish line in Auburn.
6:36 p.m., Devil’s Thumb
The two-mile climb up Devil’s Thumb was without a doubt my finest effort of the day. I literally power-walked the entire way—up all 37 switchbacks—without so much as having to pause to catch my breath. Two years ago, I literally stopped at every butt-high rock, stump or ledge and sat to rest. It was almost incredulous to believe that I had been literally dreading this part of the course for the past seven months. I thought as I began my climb at the bottom of Devil’s Thumb that this may very well be the AC I miss, thus ending my quest abruptly, having gone less than halfway towards my goal of completing the entire 100.2 miles that comprises the Western States Endurance Run.
Only eight more miles—and a brief spell of running in the dark without light—and I will meet up with Danielle. If I can hold on and make one more AC at Michigan Bluff, I can ride the wave that is Danielle’s enthusiasm to the finish line.
9:13 p.m., Michigan Bluff
I made the AC with 17 minutes to spare, which isn’t bad considering I just ran the last mile in the dark. I spend a little more time than normal at this aid station, as I want to change my shirt and socks, drink a little concoction from my drop bag, and gather my lights. Bill provides invaluable assistance, while Danielle’s motor is racing as she can’t wait to pace me to the next checkpoint at Foresthill School, where we will meet up with Bill and Susan once again and see Al for the first time since he was removed from the race. A volunteer looks at the bottom of my feet and says the blisters on the balls of both feet look menacing. However, I don’t have time to hear that now. What do you expect after running in snow, slush and streams (which were unusually high due to rapidly-melting snow in 100 degree temperatures) for over 16 hours?
11:29 p.m., Foresthill School
At Foresthill School, runners are announced as if they were royalty as they enter the checkpoint. Danielle and I are met by our three biggest fans, and I immediately ask to see a medical volunteer to see if my feet can be duct-taped. The volunteer looks at my feet and advises that I not continue. I tell him that is not an option, so he takes out a needle and lances the (many? I can’t tell, because I’m not looking) blisters on both feet and tapes them up. After a couple pain-killers and a bite of cold pizza, Danielle and I are on our way for (what I’ve been told) the ‘easy’ part of the course. I wouldn’t know from prior experience, as Foresthill is where I dropped out of Western States two years ago.
Everything I would be seeing now I would be seeing for the first time. That is, if you can call maneuvering through the great, big, dark outdoors via artificial light ‘seeing.’
The Wee Hours of the Morning; Saturday turns into Sunday
Danielle and I make our way through the dark, her spirit as bright as her incandescent headlamp. We manage to dodge AC after AC—some by as little as four minutes—and it begins to wear on my psyche. For the life of me, I just can’t seem to gain any significant cushion on the time allowance. Cutting it as close as I was on a course I wasn’t familiar with was exhausting. Danielle tells me later that she was using her GPS wrist-watch to determine what point of each leg we were at and how fast we needed to run/walk to make it under the next AC. She would never say anything to me during the race; she would merely pick up the pace. For this—and many other things she did for me during the 12 hours she ran with me—I am forever indebted.
4:30 a.m. Sunday, Rucky Chucky River Crossing
I’ve heard about the mystique of this part of the race so many times that once I finish this passage, I never want to see, hear or say it again. As the river was very deep (due to the aforementioned melting snow), this year the river crossing was via boat (most years runners have to wade across the river via a guide wire), so it was virtually painless. However, jumping in and out of the boat with feet that felt like soggy sponges wasn’t particularly pleasant (the balls of my feet were literally shredding apart due to the continue exposure to moisture throughout the day and night and now day again).
Bill joined us for the crossing, and once again assisted me with a fresh pair of dry socks. I notice him grimace when he sees the balls of my feet…just before he grabs his camera to get a photograph of them.
Danielle and I have made up a little ground on the AC; in fact, we entered into the checkpoint precisely at the 30 hour cutoff, a full 15 minutes ahead of the AC.
8:06 a.m., Brown’s Bar
Brown’s Bar is the checkpoint I’ve been looking forward to the most, not only because it’s 90 miles into the race, but because it is in fact sponsored by a bar. And bars have beer, and after 90 miles and 27 hours of water and numerous fluids of the sweet variety, an ice cold beer would sit quite well, thank you. Danielle and I heard loud music blaring in the woods, which was a bit ominous as it was impossible to determine if the checkpoint was right around the corner or a mile or two down the trail. As we approach the aid station, the Rolling Stones’ ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ is playing on the stereo system. Ironically, there were almost that many (17, actually) AC’s I had to deal with during the race, and each one was in fact nerve-wracking, so the song was more than appropriate.
As I suspected, there was a keg—of a fine red beer brewed locally. I don’t recall the name of the beer, but I’ll forever remember the taste. Interestingly, the ‘bartender’ asked Danielle if my stomach would handle a beer at this point in the race. Danielle answered in the affirmative without as much as a second thought. Good girl. Like I said earlier, forever indebted.
9:11 a.m., Highway 49
Bill and Susan wait at Highway 49, the next-to-last AC I have to face. As was the case with virtually every AC so far, this one was a challenge as well. A long uphill took Danielle and I to Highway 49, and just as we were about to reach the top of the hill the course took a sharp left turn and took us almost another roundabout mile to get us to the checkpoint. Once again, we made the AC, this time by a mere four minutes.
I ask Danielle to run ahead with my water bottles to have them refilled, while I proceed to the next checkpoint. I figure I don’t have the luxury to wait for them to be filled as I have up until this point. Danielle agrees, and I head on to the next and final AC at No Hands Bridge, another 3.5 miles down the trail. If I make this AC in time, I am guaranteed a finish, whether I make it under the 30 hour limit or not.
I’ve come too far not to finish. Danielle tells me later that two runners we’ve been leap-frogging throughout the early morning missed the AC at Highway 49 by less than one minute. Both wept openly when they were removed from the race. I understand completely.
A couple hundred yards into this leg of the race, Susan catches up to me with my two water bottles wearing Danielle’s pacer number. I find out later that Danielle had a foot injury, but didn’t want to worry me with her problems, as she figured I had enough of my own. I felt bad that I couldn’t sense her distress, but I admired her courage for the tough 38 miles she had endured with me—mostly in the pitch dark of a moonless night.
Although my feet were literally screaming in agony, I ran this 3.5 mile segment as hard as I possibly could. The next checkpoint was the final AC, and there was no way I was going to miss this one after dodging sixteen bullets up until this point. I remembered everything Gary Griffin taught me on the trails of Pine Mountain, and planned out my next three steps and threw caution to the wind with my trust of the stability of any rocks I may encounter. His advice proved worthy, as I made this final AC at No Hands Bridge by 20 minutes, and found myself actually five minutes ahead of the 30 hour cutoff.
There would be no more cutoffs today. I was going to finish the Western States Endurance Run. I decided to enjoy myself—cutoffs be damned.
9:59 a.m., No Hands Bridge
I’m convinced this course was laid out by the Marquis de Sade. After 97 miles of tortuous passage of repeated ups and downs over tough mountain trail and 17 absolute cutoffs, you just might expect the course to give you a break for your final three miles. Not a chance. The climb to Robie Point was—for me, anyway—practically debilitating. It was all I could do to take one small step at a time, slowly making my way up to the summit. I realized when I ran the previous section as hard as I could that I would have little, if anything left for this final segment. Susan initially had high hopes of me breaking 30 hours, as she repeatedly said I only had a little over three miles to go with an hour to do them. However, I’m not sure I could have covered these last three (primarily uphill) miles in one hour if I was starting fresh. They were that difficult!
After reaching Robie Point, there was one more significant climb out of the trail onto the asphalt that would lead me to the finish line at Placer High School. Al and Bill had walked out on the course to join Susan and me for the final mile or so. Danielle would join us later, they said, as she was waiting outside the track, nursing her injured foot. We enjoyed ourselves, and made sure to smile at all of the residents of Auburn who were still lining the sidewalks, encouraging the remaining few runners who had managed to make that one last absolute cutoff at No Hands Bridge. I was damn proud to be—I found out later—the last of them.
Danielle met us about a half-mile from the finish line, and gave me a big hug and apologized for not being able to pace me the final few miles. I told her she had done a terrific job, and she had nothing to apologize for. In retrospect, I’m not sure I could have made it this far without her. Indebted, remember?
The five of us—Danielle, Susan, Bill, Al and I—entered the track, pausing momentarily so Bill could capture the moment on film. We proudly circled the track to the applause of the many runners, crew members, officials and Auburn locals who were on hand to pay tribute to every last one of us who had made it through the mountains.
11:16:58 a.m., Placer High School Track
For one brief moment, I’m certain time stood still. And after the anxieties, training and self-doubt I experienced about this event over the past two years it well should have. Somewhere out there in the mountains I ran my 103,000th lifetime mile. For now, the only mile that mattered…the only quarter mile that mattered…was right here—right now—on this track in Auburn, California. The end seemed too short…too sudden…for what had preceded it. As Danielle, Susan and I crossed the finish line, a volunteer draped a medal around my neck, symbolic of officially completing the Western States Endurance Run.
Seconds later, a large television camera was planted in my face and I was subjected to a string of questions about the race. I’m fairly certain I answered them coherently, although I can’t recall now specifically what they were. I remember telling him about butt-gliding…where I was from…how tough the course and the heat had been. What I didn’t tell him was that, unlike many others, I had no desire to return in the future.
On this particular day I overcame my demons and conquered my Kryptonite. There is no need to return.