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June 26, 2008

Good Grief!

In hindsight, I was a witness. I saw the beginning of the end.

Last weekend, our kids were in a swimming pool with some friends, enjoying the ideal remedy for a freakish heat wave of three straight 105-degree days gripping our area. Normally under these conditions, the air is remarkably calm, to the point where even the leaves on the trees remain perfectly still. But for about 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon, everything changed.

Sitting beside the pool, I felt a hot breeze on my skin, then spotted a huge, dark cloud formation approaching over the hills on the horizon – and I immediately made the same “Whoa, this is serious” face that Obi-Wan Kenobi had when approaching the Death Star for the first time. It was only a few minutes after pulling the kids out of the pool that the electrical storm passed overhead, and we stood on the grass watching the lightning strikes travel further down the valley.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was also watching the demise of this year’s Western States 100.

The storm that passed over our house eventually caused hundreds of fires throughout Northern California, and further deteriorated what was already a widespread state of emergency; at one point, 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 in these situations, so I held a firm belief 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 might not happen.

And then they cancelled the race.

Believe it or not, my initial reaction was embarrassment. On Wednesday afternoon, I had posted my farewell thoughts before heading to the race - I wrote about how good I felt, how happy I was with my preparation, and how confident I was that I’d have a good outcome. All of which was now completely meaningless.

I briefly considered taking that pre-race post down, but decided to leave it alone. I figured that post in combination with the cancellation notice succinctly illustrated the range of emotions I experienced in just a handful of hours: from anticipation, optimism, excitement and joy, to … nothing.

Although this is a heartbreaking turn of events for everyone associated with the race, I certainly can’t say I’m upset by the cancellation – because I know it was probably the right thing to do. As much as I was looking forward to it, I’m sure that nobody loves Western States more than the race committee. They undoubtedly exhausted every last possibility to make this event 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.

I haven’t seen the sun clearly in two days. A few weeks ago, we woke up to ash on our cars and doorsteps, blown from prevailing winds near a local blaze. And – this isn’t an exaggeration - it’s been like this in almost every area of the state this week.

Thousands of Californians are evacuated from their homes right now, and hundreds have already lost everything. Nearly every firefighter in the state has worked overtime for the past month or more, traveling from one hotspot to another to try and keep the threats reasonably contained. In light of these things, it seems a bit selfish to get too worked up over missing out on a trail race, regardless of its stature.

Also, there’s this: remember all that stuff I wrote in my last Monterey Herald 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 - strange as it sounds – 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 …

There’s something emotionally 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 – and that’s what’s lacking right now. Not having the “100M finisher” label to attach to my resume will undoubtedly be a source of frustration from time to time, especially when I question precisely why it is I put myself through this crazy training regimen.

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 know I might make up for those last two items by jumping into another race somewhere, but that’s not such an easy thing to do. Right now, I really don’t have any other ultras on my radar, but I’ll evaluate my options (of which the primary one will be to do nothing) in the next few days and keep you posted.

It should go without saying now, but any plans from this point on will be considered tentative at best. Back in January, when I announced my race calendar for 2008, I introduced the post 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.


Backofpack 6/26/08, 3:08 PM  

Excellent post, excellent attitude. I always knew you were solid Donald, and a gentleman, and with this disappointment and post, you've proven it.

Formulaic 6/26/08, 3:37 PM  

Excellent post!

I can only imagine your disappointment at this turn of events. And then to hear your embarrassment!

I think that it is great that you left it up. These posts are about your thoughts and your feelings. That post was how you felt then at that moment.

It was perfect!

Spokane Al 6/26/08, 5:00 PM  

A terrific post and attitude. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves with the question, What can we do? and smile, take that stylistic left turn and head out once more.

Makita 6/26/08, 5:14 PM  

Well said. Way to move forward & remain solid. :)

keith 6/26/08, 5:19 PM  

that was a very good post. the right things will just come to pass. thanks for thoughtfully putting all those thoughts together.

i hope there isn't too much backlash on the board. they really did the right thing.

Addy 6/26/08, 7:48 PM  

Well said :) Even without your celebratory 100 miler, I'm glad you're feeling a bit happy about the journey you took to get there.

These fires definitely are seriously scary. The air smells like smoke a good amount of the time, and the sun was an erie blood red last night as it was setting. Beautiful, but erie.

I was just thinking yesterday, as I smelled smoke (bbq I hope?) while driving on a somewhat remote road for 13 miles through the santa cruz mountains how scary it would be to be in the middle of a forest during a fire, and how isolated you would be.

I'm so glad that all the runners and associated people aren't going to be put at risk for something horrible, as dissapointing as it is.

Rainmaker 6/26/08, 9:23 PM  

I was bummed to hear about it - as I know you've worked so hard to get ready. And no buffet tables?!?!

But, you're running is quite simply going to be so damn strong now - you're going to rock the rest of your year this year....and be out there next year!

Dori 6/26/08, 11:16 PM  

I stopped by to offer my condolences. It must be a big disappointment after all that training. Of course, cancelling the race was the right thing to do, but that doesn't make it easier to swallow. It's kind of like when Reagan cancelled US participation in the 1980 Summer Olympics and all those athletes in the peak of their career didn't get a chance to prove themselves. But Donald, you proved yourself through your training. A friend of mine was also planning to race; he's still going up for the race clinic and other events.

21stCenturyMom 6/26/08, 11:48 PM  

ooph! That was quite an ending you put on that post. This whole thing feels like such a catastrophe but at least none of us have lost a home yet so there's always that. The air is foul here and the fires area all far away. What an awful thing.

Lori B 6/27/08, 7:54 AM  

I have followed your WS100 progress and wanted to say how sorry I am for the cancellation. My heart goes out to all the runners and volunteers. It takes a lot of time, money, effort and sacrifice to get to the starting line of a 100. And you're right, it is the journey that's most important but I hope there is a finish line for you in the near future. Best

a.maria 6/27/08, 8:16 AM  

okay, this... "There’s something emotionally 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 – and that’s what’s lacking right now. "...

is exactly, EX.ACT.LY how i felt at my race.

jeez. took me like 9 posts to say the same thing it took you two sentences to do!!

i feel for ya. but know that after a week or so, like you said.. the finish line matters less and less. it really IS the journey that makes all the difference in a race!

Anne 6/27/08, 1:23 PM  

"Good Grief" was a very good post. You've got the right perspective. Hey, have they passed out painter's masks yet?!

mindy 6/27/08, 8:16 PM  

Hey, I heard that this year's WS-ers get automatic entry into next years' race - hope you go for it in 2009, Donald! And there's our East Coast Vermont 100, too...they opened up more spots just for the WS-ers. We have hills out here too, I'm just sayin'...

Coach Tammy 6/27/08, 8:42 PM  

So sorry Don. I think that the 100M, just like Ironman, is not so much about that one day. It's about a celebration of the commitment to the training it took to get you to that day.

So today, I celebrate you. Congratulations my friend.

SLB 6/27/08, 10:44 PM  

All we can do is attempt to control what is in our grasp. Great post and an even better attitude. It looks like it’s going to be a long hot fire season up and down California!

Jamie 6/27/08, 11:13 PM  

I must agree with Mindy, come on out to New England for the VT100! But hey, we have next year to look forward to for WS. Delayed gratification is all. Look forward to following your blog between now and then and see you next year if not sooner.

robtherunner 6/27/08, 11:44 PM  

You were the first person I thought of when I heard the race was cancelled. I even talked about it to a running buddy of mine. I am not sure what this is supposed to mean other than you have taken all of us along on the journey and we can sympathize with the cancellation and what that means in the scheme of things. You didn't get that chance to reach that outcome that you have been training so hard for. I know you're good for it though. There's no doubt in my mind that you would have been successful and I hope you subject yourself to all of it again next year. Take care, Donald!

Speed Racer 6/28/08, 4:56 PM  

It takes a big, big man to take this as well as you are. If you do wind up doing another 100, and it happens to be Vermont, then I will personally make sure that there is a whole CASE of ice cream sandwiches in the last 25 miles of the race waiting for you. You can hold me to that.

Darrell 6/29/08, 6:16 PM  

Not that you need my advice, but WS100 is what you dreamed of, WS100 is what you trained for. Would running any other race be the same? It seems like you'd be cheating on WS100.

Vickie 6/30/08, 6:29 AM  

Sorry to hear of the cancellation, after all your training and effort, but it is better to be safe than sorry. The race committee did the right thing. There will be other races. Who knows where this will lead you now?

triguyjt 6/30/08, 5:14 PM  

saftey first. your right. the race director and everyone connected with ws100 had nothing but the best for everyone in their plans to scrap it for this year.

and lets all praise the firefighters and ems people who do their jobs in these extreme weather events...

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