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July 21, 2009

The Moment: American River Crossing

How do you compress a 4,000-word race report with more than 40 pictures into a 600-word newspaper column with zero allotted photo space? That’s the question I faced in writing last week’s Monterey Herald article.

Here’s the back story, in case you’re unfamiliar: last year, in addition to my regular running column, I did an extended training diary series in the months leading up to the Western States 100. It built up a fair degree of anticipation within the community (especially, for some reason, in retirement homes – I’ve got a HUGE following in the over-80 demographic), which of course led to some public dismay when the 2008 race was cancelled.

This year, I kept my training relatively low profile. I didn’t really mention it in the Herald column – and since much of the octogenarian crowd can barely use e-mail, let alone search for a blog on the inter-web, most of my fan base who followed along last year had no idea that my candle for Western States still burned, or that everything finally came to fruition at the end of June.

So I wanted to write again about the Western States 100, to bring everybody up to speed, provide a description of the event, and give a sense of the overall experience - all in about one-sixth of the space that I used for my official race report. And as everyone around here is fully aware, brevity isn’t exactly my strong suit.

In my final entry of last year’s training diary, I waxed philosophic about why ultrarunners do the things they do. This year, instead of psychological analysis, I tried to capture a solitary moment; a snapshot of the race that could somehow encompass everything that was good, bad, and crazy about the act of running 100 miles.

And I knew immediately what moment I’d pick.

The American River crossing at mile 78 was the segment of the course I was most looking forward to before the race, and remains the most indelible impression in the aftermath. Cautiously stepping through waist-deep rapids (assisted, as always, by generous support crews), nervously clinging to a guide rope that I could barely wrap my fingers around, when by body was simultaneously blowing up and shutting down, with my race goals long since obliterated, knowing that I still had almost eight hours ahead of me but uncertain if I could actually do it … that’s my Western States experience in a single moment.

It was great, it was terrible … and I knew I had to include it in the Herald article. But instead of trying to make sense of it all, I left it somewhat inexplicable – either a “you get it or you don’t” kind of thing. For the newspaper crowd, I figured that would be enough - however, I made sure to steer people toward the full blog report if I somehow piqued their interest.

One postscript to this story: the day after the article ran in the paper, my 89-year-old grandmother called me to report that the maintenance man at her retirement complex spent his lunch break reading the column out loud to a small audience of listeners. She said I’m some kind of folk hero at the hacienda now … so I’ve got that going for me, I guess. The Monterey Herald article follows below.

(And if you’re really looking to kill some time, the whole training diary series remains on my right-hand sidebar.)

Running Life 7/16/09 “Surviving the Western States 100”

Last year, I wrote several articles about training for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, only to have the race cancelled due to wildfires. Don’t worry - I won’t take it personally if you’ve forgotten.

I, on the other hand, never forgot about the race – if anything, my desire to participate grew even stronger during the fall and winter. This spring, I trained my tail off, and finally toed the line last month with the best ultrarunners in the world.

Western States took me to some unbelievable places, both physically and psychologically. Some were wondrous and exciting. Others were dark and terrifying. A few were just plain bizarre. The end result was a journey that was both humbling and empowering, discouraging yet ultimately uplifting.

The race begins in the former Olympic Village of Squaw Valley, where you rub elbows with the superstars of ultrarunning, see the Olympic rings displayed everywhere, and gaze at the tall mountains you’re about to climb. You can’t help but be inspired - and more than a little bit intimidated. By the end of the race, 160 of the roughly 350 runners at the start line would drop out at some point along the way.

Over the course of 100 miles, I completed 18,000’ of climbing, and 21,000’ of descent traversing one rugged canyon after another en route to the finish line in Auburn. In the two steepest and tallest canyons, temperatures reached 105 degrees on race day. Fortunately, there were river crossings at the bottom of each canyon, where I soaked in the water for several minutes in order to lower my body temperature enough to survive the heat.

The river crossings continued throughout the race – in fact, the biggest one came in the middle of the night. It’s situations like this – standing waist deep in class 3 rapids of the American River at 1:30 in the morning, after running 78 miles with another 22 still to go, so fatigued that you have spasms in every muscle of your body and so sleep deprived that you start to hallucinate – that make you either fall in love with ultrarunning or realize just how crazy the sport is. Or, if you’re like me, both these things happen.

During the 28 hours I was on the course, I battled sore feet, muscle pains, dehydration, mild renal failure, and severe nausea. I danced on the razor’s edge of medical stability, needing several minutes of observation at some mandatory health checkpoints. I was so debilitated that I could barely walk at times, and so discouraged that I wondered why I wanted to.

There’s a popular saying that the person who crosses the finish line of a 100-mile race is far different than the one who starts it – and at Western States, that’s especially true. The course breaks you down in every conceivable way - physically, spiritually, psychologically - and makes you question every aspect of your being. It strips you of all pretense and reveals the very nature of your soul.

Sure, it’s not the most pleasant place to be, but surviving such a gauntlet instills an unbelievable feeling of accomplishment, as well as a sense that anything is possible. All from the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

If all this sounds insane, believe me – this summary barely scratches the surface. There’s a very detailed race report and photo tour of the Western States 100 on my website which may give you the full measure of how crazy and amazing ultrarunning really can be.


Stuart 7/21/09, 9:00 PM  

A good moment to choose and a very eloquently waxed piece!

Backofpack 7/22/09, 5:48 AM  

If that doesn't send them to the blog, I don't know what will!

Mark 7/22/09, 6:36 AM  

Excellent article...you captured it!

Home exchange 7/22/09, 7:51 AM  

Wow, that river crossing looks prety hefty and complicated! Great photo! Cool post :)

olga 7/22/09, 12:24 PM  

I think you should try and get to Hardrock, mister "changed man". I certainly can't even find words for this one, so I need your help, you smooth writer:)

Annette 7/22/09, 1:08 PM  

Nice job!
By the way, I'm currently reading Dean Karnazes' book and it made me think of you. You've definitely got the writing ability added to a variety of experiences. . . . when's that memoir being published? :) Just sayin'. . . . .

smilinggreenmom 7/22/09, 4:29 PM  

Great work! I definitely relate to the sore muscles...ugh. I have to recommend the one thing that I have come to rely on- Topricin's foot cream and they have a pain cream too that helps me with soreness and inflammation. I just cannot stand taking oral pain meds (especially with all the info on acetaminophen coming out) and maybe this would help? I enjoyed your story :)

Gretchen 7/22/09, 11:47 PM  

Nice one, Donald. Probably my fave of your MH pieces.

RBR 7/23/09, 12:51 PM  

Yep, that was definitely "the moment" for me when I was reading your report. (Err, that sounds creepy, but you know what I mean.)

Lucky Monterey Herald readers. I should have my parents in Carmel save your columns for me. I will never be able afford to live in your readership area :o)

Dave 7/26/09, 12:46 PM  

Donald, You write so well. I really enjoy it. I forwarded your RR, as well as Matt Crownoever's (he writes very well too.) to a Ironman blog buddy. She responded that I had to quit sending the reports to her at work because, "You ultrarunners are making me cry and I am embarrassing myself." She was moved by you 100 mile guys...as well as I.

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