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June 30, 2008

The Best Laid Plans (Western States Diary)

I had a pretty rough time this weekend.

When the initial news about Western States came down, I tried to put a brave face on it, and keep things in perspective. Cancellation was the right choice. There wasn’t anything anybody could have done to prevent it. I’d move on and find something else to focus my attention on.

Then race weekend came, and it was a whole different story.

On Saturday, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to be running. All day long, I pondered what point I would be on the course at that particular time. When I climbed into bed, the place I really wanted to be was approaching the Rucky Chuck river crossing. Sunday morning, I kept wishing I was in Auburn, squeezing in a short nap before the awards ceremony.

Of course, none of that happened. And the more I thought about it, the more bummed out I became.

To make matters worse, I had to write a Monterey Herald article, explaining to all of my readers - about one dozen at last count, but they’re an inquisitive bunch – precisely why this event I’d spent six months writing about wasn’t even going to happen. It had all the makings of the most anticlimactic ending to a series since The Sopranos.

The article I submitted was basically a reworking of my previous two blog posts, polished up a bit with some Robert Burns and Mick Jagger quotes. I e-mailed it to my editor, along with an apology: I’m sorry this story didn’t have a better ending. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I honestly did feel bad for anyone who might have been reading along about the way everything ended.

Remember – my original intent was to capture the appeal of ultrarunning in general, and the Western States 100 in particular, to an audience that might not otherwise ever learn about it. The guy at the donut shop, the high school kid looking for baseball scores, or the soccer mom at the health club. Now those people probably think that not only are ultrarunners crazy, but their labors are potentially fruitless. And I’m the poster boy for unrequited ambition.

Nevertheless, it seems like a logical stopping point for the series – but as for me, I have no idea what to do next. There are a few upcoming 100-milers I’ve considered, all of which require a significant revision of previously scheduled family plans. I’ve also found out that everyone from this year’s WS race has an automatic entry to the 2009 event, but even that isn’t a certainty for me.

The buildup to this race was difficult, to put things mildly. I was really looking forward to accomplishing the goal, then shutting the training machine down for a while, and making up for lost time in other aspects of my life. The thought of starting the whole process over for next year’s race seems more than a little daunting.

For now, I’m making like Al Gore after the 2000 election: I’m dropping off the grid, growing a beard, gaining a lot of weight (that part was inevitable after fasting for so long to get to race weight), mourning what might have been and contemplating what still might be. Right now, the option that appeals most to me is to do nothing. After feeling sorry for myself all weekend, my motivation to do anything in the near future is nearly nonexistent – it’s like I caught all of the symptoms of post-race depression, without actually doing the race.

However, I’m fairly certain that I’ll snap out of it soon. Hopefully by next week, I’ll come up with some answers for which way to go from here. Until then, here’s my final Monterey Herald article for this year’s series.


Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 8: The Best Laid Plans

“The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry”
- Robert Burns, from To a Mouse

So, about that last article I wrote – the one where I said that today I hoped to be across the finish line of the Western States 100, resting easily with a sub-24 belt buckle in hand? Remember that one? …

Well, nevermind. It's not happening. For the first time in its 35-year history, the Western States Endurance Run has been canceled.On Wednesday evening, as I was packing my bags to leave, I received the following e-mail:

Dear Western States Runners,
It is with deep regret that we announce that the 35th running of the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run has been cancelled, due to the unprecedented amount of wildfires that have struck northern California in recent days and the health risks associated with these wildfires. We apologize to our runners for any inconvenience this decision has created.

Needless to say, I was stunned. This is the runner’s equivalent of being left at the altar: all that planning, all those hopes and dreams, all vanished with one heartless Dear John letter. And like a jilted fiancee, the only thing I could think to do that evening was make myself a large bowl of ice cream to smother my remorse.

The race was a victim of last weekend’s freak electrical storm that blew across Northern California, leaving hundreds of fires in its wake, further deteriorating what was already a widespread state of emergency. At the beginning of the week, there were more than 800 active wildfires in California - so the initial e-mail from the Western States committee warning that the race was threatened didn’t exactly come as a shock.

However, I tend to be an optimist, so I held out hope that something would be worked out, that weather conditions would settle down, and we would all be that much more grateful to participate in the event because we appreciated the possibility that it almost didn’t happen.

And then they cancelled the race.

Wednesday afternoon and evening were a bit surreal: within the span of a few hours, my emotions went from anticipation, optimism, excitement and joy, to … nothing. It all simply vanished.

Although this is a heartbreaking turn of events for everyone associated with the race, I certainly can’t say I’m upset – because I know that cancellation was probably the right thing to do. I know that the Western States committee exhausted every last possibility to make the race happen, and their decision wasn’t made irrationally.

These wildfires are seriously scary; their destructive power is rapid and unpredictable. There’s absolutely no way to assure the safety of runners, pacers, crew members, volunteers, aid station workers, and spectators across one hundred miles of mountainous terrain under the conditions we’re currently experiencing.

Besides - staging a trail race shouldn’t be anyone’s top priority right now. Not when thousands of Californians are evacuated from their homes, and hundreds have already lost everything they own. Not when every firefighter in the state has worked overtime for the past month, traveling from one hotspot to another to keep the threats reasonably contained. Sure, Western States is prestigious, but under the circumstances, it seems awfully selfish to get worked up over losing the opportunity to run it this summer.

Also, there’s this: remember all that stuff I wrote in my last article, about how the satisfaction is in the journey, and how most of us already have the self-realization of ultrarunners even before we stand on the start line? Well –I know this might sound strange – to a large extent, I actually believe it. Even without Western States happening, I’m quite satisfied with where I’m at right now, and with the trails I’ve covered to get here.

And yet … it all feels so incomplete.

There’s something undeniably uplifting about actually crossing a finish line, and having a tangible accomplishment for all of that hard work. It’s like a validation of everything you believe about yourself – a validation that right now is somewhat lacking. Not having that “100-mile finisher” label on my resume will probably be a source of frustration from time to time, especially at those times when I question precisely why it is I put myself through this crazy training regimen in the first place.

Finally – and least importantly, in light of everything else - I’m also sad for missing out on what promised to be a fantastic experience. Part of me feels like Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound in a rainstorm, lamenting the game that will never be. All I really wanted was to play - and now the opportunity is lost.

I might make up for those last two items by jumping into another 100-mile race somewhere, but for many reasons, that’s not such an easy thing to do. I’m a bit of a rudderless ship right now – but over the next several days I’ll start evaluating my options. One likely scenario is to do nothing, and try my luck at starting this whole process over again next year.

Despite our best laid plans, the things we hope and plan for sometimes don’t materialize. Or as Mick Jagger said more simply, you can’t always get what you want. That’s just the way life goes.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll find a race to complete this journey more rapidly, to more quickly satisfy my 100-mile itch – but it should go without saying now that any plans from this point on should be considered tentative at best. In January of this year, when I started telling people about my race calendar for 2008, I usually prefaced the schedule with the following quote: If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Little did I know how prophetic that would turn out to be.


Jamie 6/30/08, 6:49 PM  

Hi Donald. I know what you mean. When I visited Squaw Valley for the first time on Thursday and looked up towards Emigrant Pass, it really hit me.

The Vermont 100 has opened up 40 slots for would-be WS runners. If you can make it out, you have a free place to crash and I can also help out with transportation. I already have a few others crashing from out of town and the more the merrier. Important to keep looking ahead, eh? Take care man, I've really been enjoying your blog.

olga 6/30/08, 9:05 PM  

Just don't grow the beard, darling. It wouldn't look good on you:)
What more can I add?

Rainmaker 6/30/08, 9:11 PM  

So like Al Gore - are you gonna release a movie too? Cause I might watch it if ya do. Impending SAG strike not withstanding.

RunBubbaRun 7/1/08, 3:42 AM  

Eventhough it was the right thing to do to cancel the WS100.. A bowl of ice cream or neither another 100might not suffice..

But I would give a different 100 a shot. Your definetly trained and roaring to go..

Hopefully everything works out, because a 100 mile itch is a hard one to get rid of once it has been a part of you in so many ways.

pilotboywa 7/1/08, 5:28 AM  

Thanks for this post. It's really hard to imagine what everyone who was planning to run must be feeling, but you did a really good job of putting in to words what most are probably feeling. I can't even imagine what I would be feeling if that had happend to me.

keith 7/1/08, 5:44 AM  

Make that 13 readers. And a subscriber, at that.

Nice job putting that into words.

keith 7/1/08, 5:45 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Backofpack 7/1/08, 8:16 AM  

Of course you were bummed all weekend - how could you not be? I was bummed and I had no stakes in the game! I kept thinking back to last year and the investment of time, dollars and hope that went into the race, and I kept thinking of all the runners who did the same and didn't get to start. I'm sure it was even harder for you, with young children and a non-running wife. Sheesh, I got cranky with Eric last year over his training eating up all our weekends and I am as involved as he is in our running world. It has to be way harder when you're the only competitor in the family.

You are handling this with grace even through your disappointment. I hope you figure out a way to make it work for another race or for next year, though I can certainly understand the difficulties of both. Sometimes life just isn't fair!

21stCenturyMom 7/1/08, 8:20 AM  

I'm sorry this has got you down so hard. You should have come to our disco party - our runner seemed in reasonable spirits. He is definitely going for it next year but I can see how that might not work for everyone.

I'm looking forward to the "I've snapped out of it" post. I'm sure it's coming at some point.

Thomas 7/1/08, 12:12 PM  

Donald, I really think you should sign up for another 100 mile run in the near future. A number of races have opened slots for WS runners, and it would get that frustration out of your system.

jen 7/2/08, 3:05 PM  

Donald, great essay. I like your "left at the altar" comparison. I had a couple analogies in mind but they were all sexual and rather inappropriate. Grow the beard, gain the weight, then shave it, lose it, and go kick some ass. We'll be waiting.

Legs & Wings 7/4/08, 10:32 AM  

Very sad. I guess the fires are really bad in California. I just read this about Big Sur: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2008/07/04/bigsur.html

Hang in.

Annette 7/4/08, 6:40 PM  

I am so sorry! I can totally understand the big bowl of ice cream! I think I'd be in quite a funk for awhile. I don't know what else to say. It's like trying to think of something to say to make someone feel better at a funeral.

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