Western States from the back of the pack

By Paul Blackman

Among the items runners received at check-in for the 2002 WS was a t-shirt proclaiming this 100-miler to be "the first and the best." Despite gorgeous scenery and excellent organization, I'm not entirely sure the second half is true.

Paul Blackman finishing JFK in 1989
Paul Blackman finishes JFK 1989
My sisters' (my crew) and my first day at Squaw Valley would certainly lend support to the boast. The crew briefing was excellent, giving them a good idea of what to expect during Saturday-and-Sunday's run. The make-up briefing following the mandatory runners' briefing on Friday probably was nowhere near so effective. Runners with the option should get their crews to Thursday's briefing, where the optional runners' briefing was also useful.

And the WS store, opened Thursday and Friday, offered about three or four times more stuff than WS's Internet store, which, in turn, has about twice as much as was available opposite the post-run lunch on Sunday in Auburn. I enjoyed shopping in Squaw Valley; I'd have preferred shopping in Auburn, being reluctant to buy 100-miler souvenirs until I'm sure I can complete the 100-miler in question -- which also rules out my ever even thinking about buying WS "100 miles/one day" stuff.

The medical check was odd in two ways. First, my weight was about five pounds lower than I'd have expected, which at the time pleased me, since I generally lose weight between weigh-in and the start of an endurance run, disguising what are generally slight weight gains during races. There was some talk on the run, however, that others, too, weighed in about five pounds light. If the scale was off, that could have potentially disguised 1-1.5% weight losses during the heat of the next day's run. In addition, my blood pressure reading was ludicrously high, but a different machine, and operator, got a reading in the normal range.

Soon after the endurance run began, it was clear that the scenery, as advertised, is spectacular, particularly for the first 28 miles. After that, I'm not sure whether it was the scenery or just me that went downhill a bit.

My oddly low weight started to become an issue at the top of Devil's Thumb, where the weigh-in suggested a 10-pound weight gain, and concern about kidney function. The doc suggested I sit down, but I settled for some chicken soup. But the concerns continued through Michigan Bluff, where the doctor recommended that my sisters make sure I kept taking in salty foods like chicken soup, which I dutifully had been doing at the well-stocked and generally beautifully managed aid stations. (In deference to VHTRC, I should note that they are unimaginatively well-stocked; there is greater variety overall and with competing aid stations at MMT, and even more, of course, at BRR.) Unfortunately, after coming to expect Cadillac versions of aid stations, with great volunteers, two of the smaller aid stations between Devil's Thumb and Rucky Chucky were more Yugo-like, with little interest in refilling bottles, apparent resentment at my using some of their insect repellant, and concern at one station that they were running low on water -- not something one would expect on a day blessed with relatively average heat, especially since I was almost two hours ahead of the (fairly generous) cut-off time. They weren't out of water, but decided to stop making the soup recommended because of my, uh, huge weight gain.

To help keep track of where runners were, WS posted times of runners on its web site. This proved useful for some relatives and friends trying to follow my progress from afar. But it didn't work as well for what race management envisioned as a way to keep crews from pestering officials regarding how far the crews' runners had gotten. The idea was that crews, using cellular telephones, could contact friends who were following progress on the web site to figure where their runners were. Unfortunately, cell phones often didn't work on Foresthill Road, although there was some spotty reception off the main road, and postings were not done quickly enough always to be useful. For example, my sisters were expecting information on when I left Devil's Thumb to let them know they might expect me at Michigan Bluff anytime after 2 hours later, ending one of the longer separations between crew sitings. But the friend following the web site wasn't able to tell them I had left Devil's Thumb until 3 hours after I had begun the trek to Michigan Bluff, after they had seen me and were leaving Michigan Bluff for Foresthill School.

One other organizational mini-failing came at Foresthill. We had been assured by race management at Friday's check-in that pacers would be available. When I reached Foresthill, however, my sisters were told none was there. I was disappointed but not terribly surprised, partly since I couldn't imagine a 100-miler where race management could find pacers for all who might want them. A pacer certainly wasn't promised in the pre-race materials; WS provided all that it promised, and then some. WS just failed to provide at Foresthill something extra race management suggested would probably be available. It was a mini-failing because, 15 minutes after the nick of time, a pacer was found. The volunteer who found the pacer was trying to find my sisters before I took off, but it was too late. Another one of WS's great volunteers, she then tried, unsuccessfully, to see if word could be gotten to me at an aid station that a pacer would be waiting for me at Green Gate, to give me something to look forward to. So I didn't hook up with my new best friend until Green Gate, but that was sufficient to get me to Auburn on time. Had I had a pacer for 38 rather than 20 miles, would I have been able to maintain 28-hour pace? I don't know, and it doesn't much matter; I was paying for 30 hours of trail and aid and I pretty much got it. My volunteer pacer was excellent, checking with my sisters in advance to see whether I would be interested in chatting or silence, and how much I might still be interested in running. And he had run over the last section of the trail before the race so that he knew what was coming, and could assure me, despite all the evidence in front of me, that some of the endless uphills actually would eventually end.

And it did, at, as the brochure they mailed us all said it would, with "the ultimate circling of the floodlit track and the applause of crews and spectators." Okay, it was no longer floodlit. And most crews and spectators were concerned with other runners. But, after going 100 miles on a variety of surfaces, the final 0.2 miles was on a delightfully soft surface, and there was certainly a little applause, and none was really needed to make me happy about finishing my first 100-mile trail run in 15 years. I had my sisters and my pacer with me, and I could see the finish line. The only runners at all unhappy around that point, I gather, were those who hadn't been properly briefed, or neglected to read the materials we were sent, from whom information on the necessity of now running 2/3 of a lap elicited expletives. They should have read the materials we were sent. But, then, so should race management; careful reading suggests that updating material is added but outdated information not as often deleted. (For example, in the year-by-year history, it is reported that one year was the "only" time weather and course conditions caused the time limit to be extended beyond 30 hours. A few years later, though, another extension is reported.) But no race is perfect; WS is just better than most.

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