Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run: I think I can, I think I can…
The Western States 100 is a 100-mile ultramarathon that takes place on California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains trails each year on the last full weekend of June. Therese Iknoian completed the run in 2006, her first attempt and during the hottest race on record. This is her account of the challenges she faced.
Per Murphy’s Law, the temperatures just days before the 33rd running of the granddaddy of 100 milers on June 24, 2006, suddenly spiked to about 106 degrees. Humidity was sinking to single digits and the thermometer’s mercury barely missing records by 1 degree. That meant temperatures in the canyons that racers cross during the heat of the first day were forecast to reach up to 120 degrees faster than you could say fried-eggs-on-granite.
The weather gods were conspiring to make my first attempt at a 100-mile race far more challenging than I had imagined when my name was selected from a lottery of qualifiers in December 2005. There are those who question why so many people want to do this wacko thing that threads its way from Squaw Valley, up Squaw Peak, up and down through the canyons and peaks of the Tahoe National Forest and back down the western slope of the Sierra to the small gold country town of Auburn. (May I please speak to whomever planned the first 4 miles that gain 2,500 feet?)
“Why am I doing this?” I asked one day on a group training run, again aloud to no one in particular. Guess you start talking aloud to yourself when you log long miles, subsequently losing large numbers of brain cells. “Because you paid for it,” came a smartie response from behind me. So, on June 24, there I was, getting my money’s worth. And oooooooh boy did I get my full money’s worth since it took me just 11 minutes shy of the cutoff to make my way to the finish line. Pre-conceived notions of split times were quickly tossed aside. This Western States turned into the trail runners’ version of Apocalypse Now with runners practically dropping beside you – one minute they were there and then, poof, the next minute they were gone. A few aid stations looked like makeshift MASH units with all the bodies lying around.
My husband, Michael, dubbed me “tough bitch” when he joined me at mile 61 as my first pacer for the next 19 miles heading toward the American River in the dark of the night. Good thing he said it with a loving smile ’cause I was grumpy, and there’s no telling what a crazed and grumpy woman overdosed on GU will do. Somehow, the nickname TB stuck.
All I could do is keep the relentless forward motion in whatever way I could, be that jogging, walking or stumbling. A long hike in the woods gone awry. Where were my warm and fuzzy Kumbaya serenades with s’mores? Oh. No s’mores at this aid station? OK, OK, the potatoes dipped in salt will do, thanks, and fine ones they are.
But I digress. Or jump ahead. Or…OK… dead brain cells getting in the way again… I’m just off the track. You don’t want to miss the stories of the first 60 miles, now, do you? Nah, that’s where it hits 110 degrees, give or take a few, people are stopping to spill their guts on trees, and we all are shuffling through clouds of silty and ash-filled soil for about 15 miles. Why the ash and silt? The course had been returned in 2006 to part of its original route – the run had been rerouted after the Red Star Fire devastated part of the Tahoe National Forest about five years earlier. What that meant was about 15 miles in the mid-day heat (I was either a mad dog or an Englishman) with no protection from the relentless sun on debris-clogged trails. All we saw for much of that time was blackened tree stumps and fallen logs. We baked in the sun – we were the M&M’s in your trail mix after a few hours in your pack. Several dozen racers already getting sick or falling behind the cutoff at mile 23.
I scurried in and out of the aid station at mile 23 with about 13 minutes to spare, just way to0 close for comfort. That set me up for nearly 30 hours of clock-watching and counting seconds to make sure I stayed ahead of the cutoff gongs. Not exactly what I expected, but you take it as it comes. Except what came next is that I ran out of water about 30 minutes before the next aid station (mile 29.7). “Hey buddy,” I yelled ahead when I saw someone struggling in front of me. “I see you have four bottles.
Do you have a small slurp to spare?” When he turned around, I knew I was asking the wrong person. He was ashen and parched and grunted only, “I’m out too,” then turned back to his uphill slog. I was so thirsty I wanted to lick the damp muddy spots on the trail, but wisely decided against it.
So, you get the picture. Yeah, killing more brain cells. Huh? Did you say something? I had to keep reminding myself, “I paid for this, I paid for this.”
Did I ever think of dropping out?
NO! “NFNO” was on a Post-It on my car’s dash – short for “Not Finishing, Not an Option.” I had always said through the last six months of training that if nothing else, I can walk really fast. And, I always added, they would have to drag my sorry butt from the course. If I was too thrashed to run for a segment, which I sometimes was, I’d break into a power walk. Those became breaks to eat (oh yummy, another Tums tablet), drink, adjust clothes or apply lube to spots, which I did liberally to some … er … uh … personal places and hope no one was watching. Like my mother. Hi, Mom!
Did I ever doubt my finish?
Once, well, maybe twice, OK, OK, maybe three times, but only briefly since my TB self wouldn’t let those thoughts linger. Coming into the Last Chance aid station at about mile 43, I had gained about four pounds. That indicatied a slight sodium deficiency that could build to hyponatremia and sickness if I didn’t watch it. The nurse looked me in the eye and said, “I’m not worried about it, but listen to me. Take TWO salt tablets per hour ’til sunset. I left with three chunks of PayDay candy bar in one pocket, a GU in my bra, a chunk of watermelon in one hand, and a piece of potato dipped in salt in the other (lunch of champions!). I was already feeling some deep fatigue. By the time I made it a few miles down the road, I was beginning to feel nauseated. The next stretch was the hardest thing I have ever done. Shortly, I had about a 40-minute downhill singletrack run to a creek (at my current slow pace), which I would cross. Then, I would have one of the most unrelenting climbs of the event – up to Devil’s Thumb at about mile 48 –a steep climb guaranteed stifling in a breezeless canyon in the late afternoon.
Pass the barf bag
My stomach churned up more, and I began to overheat as I hit the climb. My heart raced, I felt dizzy, and my legs just wanted me to stop and sit down. But, as the race management warns, “Beware the chair” or, in this case, beware the inviting rock or tree stump. I passed several runners slumped over on rocks, looking like dead people, and another just hollering into the trees like a drunk out of his mind. “Are you OK?” Grunt once for yes, I thought. I finally dragged myself into the Devil’s Thumb aid station, feeling as if I was going to barf all over the first person who greeted me. Hello there, blaeooiiaaaeech, nice to see you. I leaned on a table, with sweat rolling off my nose and down my legs, feeling shaky and sick. And it was only about 11 minutes before the cutoff. If I didn’t make it out in 10 minutes, they’d snip off my wristband and tell me my race was over. NOOOOOOO! My mind screamed. NFNO!
Luckily, I had foreseen the possibility of nausea at this point so I had stashed a personally brewed bottle of peppermint tea in my drop bag, knowing it has always been my magic elixir. One of the medics took me to a chair where I sat down for about three minutes. I knew I had eight miles to the next major aid station. Could I make it? Well, sports fans, if I didn’t try, I’d never know, right? So I took my peppermint tea, another potato dipped in salt, and a few more chunks of PayDay and wobbled out of the aid station six minutes before the cutoff. I passed two friends who were working at the aid station and walking back to it, “Therese! You can do it!” “I don’t know, man, I don’t know,” I answered weakly. But, like magic, the tea worked its wonders. Good news: Nausea gone 10 minutes out, and I was shuffle-jogging again. Bad news: I didn’t get to partake in the Popsicle the aid station had promised me pre-race!
Onward. I staggered past the Deadwood Cemetery (you know, the names along this course just don’t create happy pictures in your mind … DEVIL’S Thumb? Miller’s DEFEAT? DEADwood? Not the mention the LAST Chance I had just come from).
OK, an exaggeration, but getting back to relentless forward motion at least. I began to question my ability a bit though. It wasn’t too much later that I heard from a friend on Safety Patrol that nearly 50 percent of the runners had been dropped, cut, gotten sick or simply didn’t make cutoffs. That made me feel better … in a sick kind of way.
And so it went for the next 50 miles or so, not able to sit or take a breather (gotta go, cutoff looming!), not able to waste a moment in aid stations, unable to change socks or fix blisters, pushing through the dark, up and down hills, whimpering a bit to myself and to my pacers. Contrary to the stories I’d heard about falling asleep on your feet, hallucinating, tripping constantly, and losing mental function, I stayed awake, alert, never tripped. I was also always able to make jokes and actually do math in my head, even calculating times to the next aid station.
But that didn’t mean it was easy. My first pacer, Michael, passed me off to my second pacer, Steve, about an hour or so before sunrise at about mile 80. We had managed to get me just ahead of the alleged “30-hour runner” times and I knew that IF I didn’t slow more, but keep steady forward motion, I could make it in – but still only by the skin of my teeth.
Beer breath and George Thorogood
Yeah, no kidding. I still wasn’t hallucinating. Too bad. The Hash House Harriers (those that say they are “drinkers with a running habit”) have for years organized the aid station at about mile 90. You could hear the rock music blaring from about 15 minutes away, which after miles in the quiet darkness of the forest is a bit of a jolt. A chirpy blonde sorta swayed as we entered the area. “GU drink,” I said, looking to be directed to the sports drink. “Goobers?” she asked. Sigh, I had been warned to avoid the Jack Daniels’ shots at this stop, and I could see she hadn’t. “Sensory overload,” I mumbled to my pacer, Steve. “Gotta get out.” He fetched a cup of chicken soup for me, and she sorta did a Leaning Tower of Pisa sway toward his face, smiling like a drunken sorority girl. He escaped down the trail after me with the cup and said with a grimace, “Sour beer breath. Blech. Not what you want to smell at 8 a.m.”
An hour later, we were coming into the crossing of the trail over Highway 49 (only 6.7 miles to go) with the next morning now heating up again and the sun fully out, I whimpered my way up a steep and rocky climb, with Steve behind me. “I don’t remember this climb being so steep,” I mumbled. Not as if I’d ever done it after having 93 miles in my legs already. I knew I had to make it to Highway 49 by about 9 a.m. to have the best chance to slip in before the cutoff time of 11 a.m. and be counted as a finisher. I had definitely come too far not to make it. “Steve, how are we doing?” “OK,” he said, “just keep pushing.” Everything had turned into super slo-mo.
Tick, tock, tick, tock
At 9:01, we raced into the aid station. A second before, I had unclipped my small hydration waist belt, handed it to Steve, and asked him to get the one-bottle carrier that Michael would have iced and prepped for me for the last two hours. Michael saw us coming: “Therese! I have the chair set up here!” “No time!” I yelled back, grabbing a sloshing cup of sports drink in one hand and a potato in the other as I moved right on through after being weighed-in for the last time. Weight back up to those four pounds over starting weight, but the medic didn’t seem concerned. (The worse part was finding out later I had in my hurry missed the bacon being served! Now THAT was a bummer.)
There was a swarm of runners around us, all pushing to make it. I found out later than a whopping 25 percent of finishing runners came in during the last hour – a Western States rush hour like never seen before. Michael later told me he saw “the fire in my eyes” at that point. We hauled butt down to the next checkpoint (OK, yeah, I know, “haul” is quite relative here but it sure felt like hauling). We got to the No Hands Bridge station at mile 96.8 miles a few ticks before 10 a.m. I knew from analyzing splits that most people in this time range take an hour from there because of the climb, fatigue, and exposure. I had no time to lose. I ran-walked, ran-walked, ran-walked, starting the signature Therese whine-whimper again that came when I felt nearly spent but not willing to quit. It wasn’t until I reached the last checkpoint, which spit runners out off the trail and onto the road to the track, that I began to feel as if I would indeed finish the fight without screaming uncle.
The sweet finish of my first Western States 100
A crowd at so-called Robie Point where the trail meets the road – the last checkpoint at mile 98.9 – cheered on everybody. It was 10:30. Michael was waiting, and I let him douse me with ice water from his bottle as I kept moving. Whoever thought ice cubes down my backside and shorts would feel this good? One last climb before the last stretch to the track. I could feel the finish looming. Then I saw it, the final left turn into the track.
Was I now hallucinating? Nope! My crew leader, Cynci, stood at the corner next to my mother. My pace suddenly picked up. My mom got flustered and fumbled the camera lens, then dropped her purse. Ah, Mom, there are certain things one can count on.
Of all the things I don’t remember, it’s really that last couple of minutes as I floated around the track. And I do mean floated. Not sure how I managed that after 100 miles, but I had a spring in my step and a smile on my face … at least that’s what the pictures I later saw seemed to indicate. The race clock read 29:50:14 as I made it the last steps of my great adventure – one that is called by those in the know as a “race for the soul” since everybody changes in some way over the course of the event. You learn things about yourself – good and bad – about your friends and about your thoughts and needs that you never would otherwise know.
No, I hadn’t had time to soak for a few minutes in cold creeks, banter with my crew, or fix my swollen and blistered feet. I had however found time to keep smiling and thanking volunteers … who will never know how close they came to becoming a barf bag.
Where do I sign up for next year?
Note: The 2006 33rd running of the Western States 100 (www.ws100.com) had its lowest finishing rate by a large margin, sinking to 52.6 percent or 210 of about 399 starters. Nearly 25 percent of them finished in the last hour. Of 90 women starters, only 34 finished. The first person over the finish line just over 18 hours after the start collapsed after he stepped onto the track with 300 meters to go and had to be nearly carried to the finish (he was later disqualified), and then spent two days in the hospital on IVs.
— Therese Iknoian, No. 213
The 2006 WS 100 Gear List — Tested by HI Travel Tales and Therese Iknoian
Apparel and footwear
- Sugoi Tactic T
- REI Trail Run Shorts (yeah, we know…no points for name originality)
- Patagonia mesh bra — now a collector’s item since along with Patagonia it is emblazoned with Montrail’s Run Like a Girl slogan
- Injinji performance crew socks — to protect each little toe individually
- Sun Precautions long-sleeved, white shirt, ripped up the front for ventilation and stripped of cuffs and collars — to dip in all ice buckets and creeks for cooling and heat reflection
- Montrail Mountain Mist XCR shoes – mile 0 to 30 – for dry feet in the snow
- Montrail Hard Rocks – mile 30 to 100.2
- Race Ready trail gaiters – mile 0 to 30
- Dirty Girl gaiters – mile 30 to 100.2
- Pearl Izumi Nada Pullover – mile 0 to 3
- GoLite Ether Wind shirt – carried just-in-case, mile 62 to 80
- CamelBak FlashFlo pack — mile 0 to 62 — old version circa 2002 because the redesign eliminates some pockets and utterly mandatory trail features
- CamelBak Alterra pack – mile 62 to 93.5
- Nathan Elite1 waist pack- mile 93.5 to 100.2
- Ultimate Direction Retractable Tube Clip – until it broke a few miles into the race.
- GoLite mesh cap
- Buff scarves, multiple – for neck and face protection from silt, dust and sun
- Hydryx neck bands and wrist bands – incredible thirsty chamois-like material that holds water for longer cooling
- Salt Stick salt capsule dispenser
- Princeton Tec Quad headlamp
- Princeton Tec Impact XL flashlight
- Rudy Project sunglasses – mile 0 to 55
- Ryders sunglasses – mile 85 to 100.2
- KINeSYS spray sunscreen
- Proderma stick sunscreen
- Protech facial sunscreen
- Timex Ironman watch
Food and nutrition
- GU – espresso (with caffeine), plain, vanilla
- PowerGel – new plain 4X sodium
- Clif Shot Bloks – black cherry (with caffeine), cran-raz, lime
- Jelly Belly Sport Beans
- PowerBar Endurance drink – fruit punch
- Succeed salt and electrolyte replacement tabs – about 22-25 total
- Tums Peppermint extra strength tablets
- Cheese sticks
- Deli Turkey Slices
- Peanut Butter sandwiches
- Peppermint tea
- From aid station tables – boiled potato chunks dipped in salt, chicken noodle soup, watermelon, orange slices, peanut butter sandwiches, potato chips, Gu2O sports drink, PayDay candy bar chunks
Gear and stuff seen on the trail
- A new use for duct tape – a wide swatch stuck over the word “Patagonia” on a Montrail Patagonia race team singlet. Nathan written over the tape in felt pen.
- Nathan Eltite 2V two-bottle waist pack – surprising the number of Nathan-branded packs we saw despite its relatively recent entry into elite hydration.
- Ultimate Direction FastDraw and Nathan QuickDraw Plus hand bottle carriers – the choice of many ultra runners for quick filling and quick access.
- Dirty Girl Gaiters – the inside secret of ultra and trail runners.
- Road running shoes from the likes of Nike, adidas and Saucony – many ultra runners insist on road rather than trail shoes for some odd reason.
- iPods (and a few other types of personal music systems) everywhere. Tuning out or tuning in providing a means of personal motivation and needed distraction when the brain was frying in the heat.
- Princeton Tec headlamps and Tec 40 and Impact XL hand-held lights were everywhere.