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Western States Endurance Run 2006:
Happy Trails in Brutal Conditions

By Sophie Speidel

See also: Sophie's Pictures on Flickr

I am writing this report of the 2006 WSER while resting with my family in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It has been a little over 72 hours since I crossed the finish line at Placer High School, and in that time my husband Rusty and I have traveled home from sunny and hot CA to rainy and flooded Virginia, slept about 6 hours total between plane connections, packing the car for the beach, and rounding up the kids. But every time I get the chance, I allow my mind to wander back to the Sierras, to that spectacular trail and the days spent with the gang from the VHTRC. Every ultra teaches me something about myself, and WS was no exception…so bear with me as I share some of the lessons I learned during the six months of race preparation and during the event itself. I also have provided a link to my photos, which also tell a story.

On Emigrants Gap
Author on Emigrants Gap on Thursday before the race

Short Version: My goal for WSER this year was simple: to finish in under the 30-hour cut-off without any stomach issues, sleeping issues, or a Death March to the finish. Despite the high temperatures in the canyons that reached 110 degrees, and the fact that the heat forced everyone to readjust their time goals by at least 2 hours, I felt like a million bucks all day long, especially climbing up to Robinson Flat (mile 30), Devil’s Thumb (mile 47) and Michigan Bluff (mile 55), as well as entering Foresthill (mile 62). I had gotten wet at every chance along the trail, in creeks and streams and at aid stations, and this really helped me stay cool and keep my core temperature down. But the one thing I did not deal with properly was my feet: I give myself an “F” in foot-care management. By mile 70, I had significant blisters due to wet feet, and my toenails were jamming with every movement…thus, my pace slowed considerably. Despite sitting at three aid stations getting help from the wonderful podiatrists, I had to accept the fact that I was going to have to slow down and gut it out in order to finish. I finished in 29:14, about 2 hours longer than the pace I had held all day. I am thrilled that I was able to reach my goals of finishing without stomach or sleep issues, but a bit disappointed that I ignored my feet for too long and paid the price. Lesson learned!

Preparation: I am a teacher and a lacrosse coach so I tend to approach my training and preparation much like I do with my team: by focusing on the little things I can control, such as training smart with quality trail miles, speedwork 1x weekly, one 6+ hour run at least twice a month, and weekly mileage that averaged around 60 miles per week, with the biggest week coming 4 weeks prior to the race, at 75 miles. I also started heat acclimatization about a month before the race, following a plan given me by John Dodds, who used it for his successful Badwater race last year. I worked up to 45 minutes per day in a 170-degree sauna, doing yoga and light stretching. I also did a ton of training on big climbs and descents, to prepare my legs for the infamous downhills of the WS course. I had fun re-visiting my favorite Virginia trails to run repeats: The Wild Oak Trail, The Priest, Three Ridges, Trayfoot Mountain, Waterfall Mountain, Bird Knob, and Carter’s Mountain, as well as the Promise Land 50K and Catawba Run-Around. These trails were perfect “training partners,” as all played very important roles in my success at WS. In fact, there were many moments while running along the WS trail where I was reminded of these trails, as they felt and looked the same, especially the Priest. Overall, I felt very well-trained and I tapered for 4 weeks prior to the race, and my legs felt great throughout. I won’t get into any more specific training information here, but feel free to email me with any questions, as I did with Annette Bednosky, Jeff Washburn, Mike Mason, Anstr Davidson, and Scott Mills. Their help and support as I prepared for WS was invaluable, as were the training miles I shared with Bill Potts, Bill Gentry, Jeff Wilbur, Quatro Hubbard, Heidi Johnson, and Michelle Huston. All of these loyal friends played a huge role in my success at WS this year.

The Event: I got into WS in December, along with fellow VHTRCers Quatro Hubbard, Keith Knipling, Gary Knipling, Scott Crabb, Brian O’Connor, Bryon Powell, Scott Mills, and Prasad Gerard. Tom Corris, Bunny Runyan, and Alex Papadopoulis were to be our crew. My husband Rusty and I decided to make this race a vacation and celebration of our 17 years of marriage---our anniversary was on race day. We flew into Sacramento on Wednesday before the race and drove to Auburn (after a stop at the Roseville Target for more drop bag supplies). I got goose bumps when I stepped out onto the Placer High School track---a place I had seen in the WS documentary, “A Race For The Soul” and read about in numerous race reports—and here I was, finally! We drove the last mile of the race from Robie Point, and saw the American River for the first time. This was the only part of the course that I saw before race day (with the exception of the climb up to Emigrant Pass, which we did on Thursday). I was not able to come to the WS training runs, and though I know it would have been helpful to see the course ahead of time, I felt very well-prepared by training in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I am glad I was able to see that last mile, though!

Rusty and I stayed with friends in Reno on Wednesday night and while he went mountain biking on Thursday, I hooked up with the rest of the VHTRC Blue Train for the hike up to Emigrant Pass. It was hot for Squaw Valley (about 85 degrees), and we took a lot of water with us, but still went dry….a sign of things to come. At the flag raising ceremony, we sang “America, The Beautiful,” paid homage to those connected to the race who had passed away since last year’s race, and we were welcomed by Shannon Weil and Mo Livermore into the Western States “Family.” I got very weepy at this point---I was getting nervous for the race but was also overcome by excitement that I was on top of this gorgeous mountain with my close buddies, about to take on an adventure I had dreamed about ever since becoming an ultrarunner. Yes, the WSER has a lot of hype attached to it, but the people who put on the race are truly sincere, friendly, supportive, and very interested in helping each runner successfully complete the Run. At the pre-race meetings, I saw Tim Twietmeyer, Gordy Ainsleigh, Dean Karnazes, Barry and Lucinda Fisher, Lisa Bliss, John and Terry Rhodes, and Nancy March, all folks who I had read about or seen in the documentary. Very cool!

The days and nights before the race were filled with VHTRC social hours and lots of eating. We ate in Tahoe City Thursday night, brunch in Truckee after the pre-race weigh-in on Friday, and had pizza and pasta in Squaw on Friday night. There was lots of laughter, some Knob Creek, a lot of water to stay hydrated, and much sharing of race strategies. I almost forgot I was about to run a race, since we were having such a great time being together. Another lesson: running 100 miles is much more rewarding and fun when you can share it with a crew of friends and family, and I was fortunate to have both with me. The pre-race meetings were helpful given the fact that most of us were newbies to WS, and that the snow conditions and heat were going to play a significant role on race day. In the end, though, we were getting antsy and ready for the thing to start!

Race Day. Despite my lame attempts at convincing others that “it’s not that hot out, “ race day dawned clear and hot, even at 4:00 am, when we went to check in. Photos were taken, last-minute hugs were given, and the infamous WSER pre-start energy level was palpable. Scott and Leah Jurek were there helping check runners in, and the VHTRC gang were outfitted dutifully in our white, heat-reflecting shirts (my BRR 2006 shirt came in very handy as I wore it until mile 62). At 0500 the gun went off and off we went, up to Emigrant’s Pass to the cheers of the crowd. I power walked alongside Gary before he took off, and stayed near Gordy Ainsleigh the entire way up. Many folks would thank Gordy for starting the race back in 1974 as they walked by, and he was very humble and gracious. I reached the top in 55 minutes right on 24 hour pace---a pace I wouldn’t see again all day. I filled up all three of my bottles at this AS, and was glad I did as I heard later that they ran out of water (briefly) at the Lyons Ridge AS (mile 8).

The next 22 miles were on single track trail with snow, slush, snow run-off, mud, and dirt. It was relatively cool until mile 10, and then the oven got turned on. I found myself running in a congo line of slower runners, which was actually a good thing, as it forced me to keep my pace slow. I knew it was going to be a tough day when I saw a runner throwing up at mile 14. By mile 24, I was running at 30-hour pace, which kind of freaked me out since I thought I was running relaxed and easy, but way faster than that! Tom Corris saw me at Duncan Canyon AS and reassured me that I was running a “very smart race” and that was good to hear, so I just tried to maintain that pace all day long. By mile 30, many runners around me were falling apart because of the heat, and I heard later that Duncan Canyon (mile 24) and Robinson Flat had an unusually large number of drops. When I weighed in at Robinson, my weight was exactly the same as my pre-race weight, which was a good sign that I was drinking and eating enough.

After Robinson, we descended onto the original trail that had been closed off since a fire in 2001, and it was brutal. The trail was nice and downhill, and the views were spectacular, but the sun was out in full force, and there was no shade. This would continue for the next few hours, until we hit Last Chance AS (mile 43), when we hit shade and the first descent into the canyons. Here I was reminded of the Wild Oak Trail back in Virginia, and I thought about all my friends back home who were following on the webcast…their good kharma got me down to the bottom, to the wonderful creek before the climb to Devil’s Thumb (mile 47.8). I sat in the water and just relaxed---it was wonderful. I climbed up DT in a very good time and felt very smooth, despite passing many runners who were throwing up. I just kept drinking my Sustained Energy and water, and keeping myself cool with my wet bandana.

At the Devil’s Thumb AS, typical WS aid station volunteers were out in full force. I was met at the weigh scales by a nice young woman who asked me what I needed. I told her, “three bottles filled with water and ice (I would add the SE powder later), a cup of fruit, a cup of chicken noodle soup, and the podiatrist.” I sat while the podiatrist looked for blisters, as I was beginning to feel hot spots, and he couldn’t see any, but he dried, powdered, and lubed my feet. He asked me if I had a drop bag here with clean, dry socks, and I realized that this was the only AS where I did not have a drop bag. Lesson learned: pack dry socks and blister prevention stuff for AS that come after big creek crossings!!!

Michigan Bluff
Sophie at Michigan Bluff

Leaving Devil’s Thumb, I ran along a wonderful trail into El Dorado Canyon. The WS trails in general are very runnable, with hardly any rocks, and this one was a perfect example. My toes started to feel a little sore, but in general I felt great. I saw Scott Crabb as we hit the bottom of the canyon, and we marched up to Michigan Bluff together (well, I was a bit ahead of him here…). It was AWESOME to come into Michigan Bluff---lots of crowds, cheering, crews, families…the VHTRC crew, Rusty, and my pacer Gretchen and her son Ben were all very helpful. It was about 7:30 and I knew I needed a light for the next section, so Ben found one for me and I was on my way to Foresthill. I loved running this section at dusk…it was quiet and the sun was setting, so it was getting cooler.

One more descent into Volcano Canyon, and then another climb up to Foresthill was ahead. I think WS is a climber’s course, for sure…particularly in the heat. The cut-offs got too tight for those who struggled on the climbs, and my buddy Quatro experienced this firsthand, and missed the cut-off at Michigan Bluff by four minutes. Q is much stronger on the downhills than I am, and if he had been able to get to Foresthill, he would have made up lots of time on the last 38 miles of the course. But on this day, with the weather and trail conditions, it was not to be. He would be the only one of us to drop, but he was very upbeat when I saw him at the finish.

When I got to Foresthill, it was 9:00 pm and dark. I was on 26-hour pace at this point and felt great, in control, and my legs were feeling fresh. Everyone had told me to take it easy in the canyons so I would have legs for the last 38 miles, and I was so glad I did. I picked up Gretchen but (stupidly) delayed seeing the podiatrist and just changed socks, and we descended into the Cal Street section, which is all downhill for 16 miles. All was going well until I started to really feel my blistered feet. My toenails were jamming into my toes and I was slowing to a walk. It was pathetic to have all these people and their pacers pass me on this runnable, downhill, section! Gretchen was fantastic, being supportive yet firm that I keep running. We hooked back up with Scott and his pacer, and this really helped me keep moving. We got to the river crossing and had to wait in line to go across in a raft, as the water level was too dangerous for the usual fording by foot. It was a surreal site---lights glaring, music playing, and we were in line talking to all the other runners and volunteers about the day’s adventure, and it was 3:30 a.m.! When we got across the river, I had a podiatrist clean, lance, and tape my blisters, and this worked well for the next section.

As the sun rose, I had my only sleepy moment of the race, and I asked Gretchen to let me take a “little” nap. Her response: “No way, Jose. Keep moving!” I look back now and realize that I would have very likely missed the 30-hour cut-off at the finish line if she had let me sleep. Not soon after this episode, Gary breezed by us on the trail---the last time I had seen him, at 30 miles, he had looked pretty bad. But now he was running strong and it took a major effort to keep up with him! Scott Crabb and I took turns leading, and eventually Gretchen and I hooked up with Gordy, who was running strong downhill. We had a ton of fun hiking the uphills to Highway 49 while talking to Gordy about his thoughts on the race. He told us that this was the third hottest year: the first year in 1974 it was 115 degrees, and 1977 it was 110. Both of those races were held in July, I believe. In any case, Gretchen and I had great fun walking and running with a Legend!!

We saw Ben right before we reached Highway 49. He ran ahead and told Rusty and the gang that we were coming, and it was great to see them after being out all night in the dark. The sun was out at full force, and it was only 8:00am! We ran the through the most beautiful meadows after that AS, and Gretchen told me it reminded her of the trails near Ojai…for me, it looked like an African landscape. It was gorgeous. We got a bit carried away and pushed the pace, which was a mistake, for very soon I started to feel nauseous for the first time the entire race! I was warned that anything could happen in the last 5 miles of a 100-miler, and here it was, happening to me. We slowed to a walk, and I fortunately had a piece of candied ginger that my friend Michelle had given me long ago---luckily, I had the foresight to put some in my drop bag for mile 92. I nibbled on the ginger and drank Coke at No Hands Bridge, which was 3 miles from the finish.

Finish Line
Sophie at the finish line

We took it easy, jogging and walking, up to Robie Point, 1.1 miles from the finish line. Here the neighbors were having their Sunday coffee, cheering for the runners, and there were many greetings chalked on the asphalt for the runners. Some folks had programs in their hand, and they yelled my name out loud. I told Gretchen, “I love the ultrarunning community” and promptly burst into tears. It was hilarious. As we neared the track, I saw Rusty and Tom Corris, gave Gretchen a big hug (and all my hydration pack stuff) and entered Placer High School track. The announcer said my name (correctly!) as I was running, and mentioned that it was our 17th wedding anniversary---just as Alex P. was jogging alongside on the grass with me. The announcer then said, “and her husband just ran a few yards with her.” HA! Rusty was at the finish line ready for the photo opp, and before I knew it, I was across the line, safely home. They weighed me (I was 5 pounds heavier than my start weight), and took my blood pressure. I was finally back in Auburn, having run 100 miles across the Sierra Nevada. Incredible.

The Aftermath. As we sat together underneath the shade of the tent, eating the post-run brunch of eggs, bacon, and pancakes, Gary pulled out his Knob Creek and Coke and the VHTRC party got started. It was great to see Prasad’s wife as well as Scott’s, and the rest of the morning was spent sharing war stories. In classic post-100 miler traumatic stress fashion, I told Keith that I was done with 100-milers and was going to stick with 100Ks and shorter races, and he agreed, as did Quatro. This race was unbelievably brutal because of the intense heat, and I am so grateful that I actually finished in under 30 hours, because the list of folks who dropped out--good, strong runners, who typically finish WS in 24-27 hours---was long. I am humbled and in awe of the history behind this incredible event. I truly believe that anyone who wants to experience the essence of the sport of trail ultrarunning should attempt WS at least once---the organization is first-rate and the trail is truly special.

Sophie and Gretchen
Sophie with Gretchen at finish

Many, many thanks go out to my family and friends who supported my dream to finish WS, and who never questioned or judged me as I put in the time to prepare. I love you all! I am particularly grateful to Rusty, my best friend and husband, who supported my desire to run this race from the get-go, and to Gretchen and Ben, the best pacer/crew team I could have had. It was wonderful to see Ben get so excited about the event and for him to see his mom help a friend fulfill a dream.

Finally, to the VHTRC: in 2002, I did not know any of you, and I had never run longer than 26 miles. Something called trail ultramarathons brought us together (thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Anstr Davidson’s website), and now I count you among my closest friends. The VHTRC spirit of friendship, support, encouragement, wisdom, humor, and inclusiveness are the reasons I was able to finish Western States 2006. I am so very fortunate to be part of this group of friends. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me to reach this goal. I will always be grateful.

See also: Sophie's Pictures on Flickr

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