Flashbacks and Feelings on the Journey to the Western States 100

People keep asking, “Aren’t you excited about States?”

Six days prior to the Western States 100, I answer with, “Yes, but….” there’s so much more to say. “Excited” doesn’t capture the range of emotions when contemplating the opportunity to race a 100-miler that I’ve studied for so many years.

We arrive in Squaw Valley late Thursday afternoon, and the race starts 5 a.m. Saturday, June 25. Here’s the live webcast to follow along (I’m bib 246), here’s iRunFar’s twitter feed for updates, and here’s the website if you want more details.

The race prep & preview

I am excited! I imagine what it’ll be like to see the sunrise from the top of the Escarpment; the familiar faces of runners, volunteers and my venerable crew chief Errol “The Rocket” Jones who will encourage me along the way; the segments of the trail I practiced running over Memorial Weekend.

I’m even excited for the furnace-like heat (temps are forecast to hit 100), because I want to prove I can avoid a meltdown while steadily hiking the climb past Devil’s Thumb at Mile 47—more than 1000 feet up in less than a mile—and keep going through two more infernal canyons.

I’m excited for Foresthill, aka Pacer Central, at Mile 62, where I’ll see my family, the Rocket and my trusty pacer Clare Abrams. I picture the sun going down, the temps cooling off, and Clare and me booking it just like we did when she paced me to a fast finish at my first 100 (Rio del Lago 2014).

Mostly, I’m excited for that magical final mile when Rocket and Clare run me in from Robie Point to the track at Placer High, and my family joins for the final lap in front of cheering spectators—the ultrarunning everyman’s Olympic-like finish.

The Rocket and me at a training run for Lake Sonoma 50 in March.

The Rocket and me at a training run for Lake Sonoma 50 in March.

Clare and me cooling off in the river during the Western States Memorial Weekend training run. This is the river we'll cross at Mile 78, probably around 10:30 - 11 p.m. Saturday night.

Clare and me cooling off in the river during the Western States Memorial Weekend training run. This is the river we’ll cross at Mile 78, probably around 10:30 – 11 p.m. Saturday night.

Part of what makes this so exciting, of course, is being a part of a race with such a deep field of top-level runners. Looking at the women’s entrants, I counted two dozen who are undeniably better than me in terms of speed, endurance and experience, all of whom have a shot at top 10. That means top 20 will be highly competitive.

For me, success will have little to do with how I place relative to others, and everything to do with how I execute the race. I want to break 24 hours, and in optimal conditions I should be able to; but this year, with extremely high heat forecast midday Saturday, success becomes defined less by the finish clock’s time and more by the absence of serious problems. Avoiding careless mistakes (such as going off course) or unlucky mishaps (such as falling) also defines success.  If I run smart the first half and strong the second half, and if I maintain a positive and determined mindset, I will feel successful.

The famous Western States Endurance Run profile -- the only elevation profile I'm familiar with that reads right to left.

The famous Western States Endurance Run profile — the only elevation profile I’m familiar with that reads right to left (click to enlarge).

I could have trained more, but I’ve done enough. I’m ready enough. To boost my confidence, I remind myself that, since January, I:

  • Raced two strong 50Ks: Sean O’Brien 50K in early February and Marin Ultra Challenge in mid March.
  • Surpassed my goal at Lake Sonoma 50M in April.
  • Ran more than 1350 miles, in addition to strength training for 20 – 30 minutes three times/week—not very high by some ultrarunners’ standards, but good for me. In 12 of the past 24 weeks, weekly mileage fell between 60 – 80, with weekly elevation in the 13K – 16K range; in other weeks, mileage totaled 40 – 60. I had only three “off” weeks with weekly mileage in the 30s. This means I achieved consistency and avoided injury.

Yeah, yeah, goody for me. Now I need to process the more complicated feelings, because on race day, I intend to stay focused, positive and business-like. As much as it’s part of the gift of ultrarunning to spend hours letting the mind wander, I’ll try during Western States to avoid ruminating about my entire past and contemplating the future (which I have done during past ultras, leading to embarrassing emotional breakdowns).

The head trip

I’m excited, but fear sneaks up on me. I catastrophize and visualize debacles like my crew’s car overheating and not reaching me.  I dread that the heat or a bad fall could keep me from the finish, in spite of how much I commit not to quit.

The image of my friend Paul Charteris’s 2009 Western States experience haunts me. His dream of running Western States—years in the making, then suspended another year by the 2008 fire that canceled the race—ended in this defeat (excerpted from this profile I wrote about him):

His leg simply ceased to function, as if it had a will of its own and went on strike. Charteris lost mobility around mile 83. Sitting by the trail while waiting for assistance, he glimpsed the glow of floodlights 17 miles away that illuminated the Auburn track where the Western States finish was taking place.

“The sun was coming up and birds were starting to sing,” he says. “I put my leg up and watched the final runners go by.” … Medics carried him off on a stretcher …

My anxiety and jumpiness stem not just from the race, but from what happens after June 26. Training for Western States provided an antidote and distraction from other matters on my mind—personal things (life transitions like making a home in Colorado and seeing our daughter off to college; a back-burnered work project that needs my attention), and global things (the specter of Donald Trump, Orlando, climate change).

Something unreal yet way too real happened one week ago—something that partially explains why I savor the purpose, focus, escapism and sense of control that preparing for the Western States 100 offers.

Last Tuesday, I drove with my 15-year-old son, Kyle, to downtown Oakland to pick up Morgan from work so the three of us could go to an Oakland A’s game (a summer kickoff tradition). Kyle and I talked about the Orlando massacre on the way there. Morgan waited on the sidewalk of 14th Street, and I realized I had passed him, so I pulled over to a loading zone and called him with the phone in speaker mode. Realizing I needed to circle back, I pulled forward to the intersection of 14th and Franklin. Just then, Kyle and I heard a deafening burst of shots right next to usmore than a dozen shots, so numerous and rapid they could only come from an automatic weapon—just down the block on Franklin. We’ve heard it enough in the movies and on the news to know it was gunfire, not firecrackers. Morgan, about a block away, heard it too, and he yelled into the phone as Kyle crouched down, get out of there, get out of there. I had to drive so I had to keep my head up even though I wanted to duck. People dressed in business clothes ran panicked along both sides of the sidewalk and across the street; in the rearview mirror, I saw cars driving erratically and wondered if it was a drive-by and if the shooter’s car was right behind me. I kept one hand on the steering wheel, one hand holding Kyle’s, and I drove calmly, sounding like a 911 dispatcher as I asked Morgan to report his location. I stopped at red lights because it was too dangerous to run them with other cars speeding the other way, and Morgan repeated back in the phone, just go, get out of there and Kyle next to me, wide-eyed, kept saying, “what the … what the…”

And everything turned out OK for us. We found Morgan and made it to the A’s game. I drank beer and got teary watching the pre-game LGBT tribute for the Orlando victims. But an innocent 16-year-old girl was killed on that block (see story), three others also shot and injured. Few people care enough because it’s too common and because the victims are black and brown instead of white. They blame the shooter, not the society that raised him to be violent and hopeless, not the gun that got in his hand, and thus the cycle of gun violence repeats. My mind starts to imagine how horribly easy it could have been for one of those bullets to hit our Subaru, because we love spending time in downtown Oakland—we really do, it’s a wonderful city and deserves so much better.

Ultimately, I have to stop thinking about the incident and not let my imagination consider the possible outcomes. All I can do is all I can do: live life to the fullest through experiences like Western States and travel, try to give back and avoid apathy, and try to raise kids who are peaceful and who care about their world.

Kyle and me a couple of weekends ago, at my daughter Colly's graduation.

Kyle and me a couple of weekends ago, at my daughter Colly’s graduation.

It’s about the journey, not the destination

The week prior to that shooting, when I was down in my hometown of Ojai for a final week of training before starting to taper, I recognized another emotion: wistfulness, a precursor to nostalgia, as if acknowledging the end of something. It’s the feeling I got in May of 2010 as our year-long trip around the world wound down, which made me reflect on the trite but true adage that the journey matters more than the destination.

I was in Ojai indulging in a midweek 22-mile mountain run because my daughter’s high school graduation and my 30th high school reunion bookended the week—milestones that make me shake my head in disbelief at how much we’ve all grown up.

On each switchback up Gridley Trail to Nordhoff Ridge, blooming yucca shot up from dusty chaparral.


The yellow-blossomed stalks looked like nature’s version of candles on a cake, so I pretended they were there to mark celebrations and milestones.

So yes, I’m excited (and nervous) about Western States and about what the future holds. But I will miss this training cycle.

Ever since I received the gift last December of a coveted spot in Western States, the training cycle provided extra structure and purpose to life. The goal motivated me to push myself and get better, while also feeling part of something bigger—a grand tradition, a special community. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished: Getting to the starting line fit, healthy and prepared.

I can say this for sure: I’m going to treat this weekend like the once-in-a-lifetime experience that it is. The more I think about it, the more excited I get!

Whatever happens June 25-26, however, I’m grateful for these past months. I appreciate all the opportunities, challenges, relationships and close calls that serve as reminders of what matters.

For further reading & listening:

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15 Responses to Flashbacks and Feelings on the Journey to the Western States 100

  1. John Nguyen June 20, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

    I’ve followed you and your blog since I began ultra running a handful of years ago. I’ve read about your ups and downs and everything in between. You are a such a talented writer and runner! And I especially like how you balance it all while being wife and mother of two! And now, you get to run the Super Bowl of our sport! Too bad I’ll be in Hawaii with my family, or else I’d be at the Duncan Canyon aid station cheering you on! This race really is special, whether you run, volunteer, or crew. I look forward to hearing all about your race experience!

  2. Allen Lucas June 20, 2016 at 2:54 pm #

    Wow – I love that you scored The Rocket! The ladies field is pretty intense this year, but the heat could really get to some of those new to 100 miles. I’d say your chances at sub-24 and top 20 are pretty good. I can’t wait to get you through Last Chance and see you sprint around the track in Auburn. It’s going to be epic!
    Allen Lucas recently posted..Getting our GECKO on for the sixth timeMy Profile

    • Sarah June 20, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

      Thanks so much for being out there Allen — say hi if you can at Last Chance!

  3. Sean Grove June 20, 2016 at 4:06 pm #

    I’m looking forward to my once-in-a-lifetime chance to run States some day, but for now I’m excited I’ll be out there again crewing and pacing and cheering people on, like yourself, living their dreams. Good luck out there, run well!
    Sean Grove recently posted..Embracing The Suck at The Canyons 100KMy Profile

    • Sarah June 20, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

      Thanks for being out there next weekend. I’m going to read your Canyons report soon!

  4. SDA June 20, 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    Sarah, I will be cheering for you from New England this weekend and wishing you a fabulous day. I have also been following you for quite a while and have benefited greatly from your insights and honesty. My oldest son is also heading off to college next year and his good friend will be at RISD, so I will be in touch if you want to explore some NE running next year! Embrace the day with all of its ups and downs. It is your day and you are more than ready. Go get ’em!

    • Sarah June 20, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

      Thank you so much!

  5. Lisa June 21, 2016 at 3:00 am #

    I have been following your blog and listening to you on URP as I have begun my journey into ultra running. You have inspired me and I have turned to your blog for guidance along the way. Wishing you the best of luck from Virginia Beach next weekend! You are going to have an amazing experience and what an awesome opportunity! You got this!

    • Sarah June 21, 2016 at 6:09 am #

      Thank you, Lisa!

  6. ScottD June 21, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    I think you’ll have an epic day, filled with smiles, triumphs, and laughter. Rocket and Abrams…hard to go wrong there.

    I’ll #seeyouinsquaw …


  7. Jen Hammond June 21, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

    Nice blog. Sounds like you’re as ready as can be! Have some fun out there! I paced my husband a few years back and he was pushing the cutoff, so he forgot that it’s also about enjoying the time out there! The plentiful volunteers and Cadillac aid stations rule — and the start is like none other. Absorb the beauty, history and legend, that is Western States…

  8. Sarah June 27, 2016 at 4:34 am #

    I am in complete awe of you, Sarah, and to say that I am proud of all that you continue to accomplish is an understatement. Besides your siblings, I am one of the very few of your devoted followers who can say they have known you since you were a child (!). I honor all that you do day in and day out and appreciate your sharing it all with us via your blog. Thank you!

  9. djconnel July 5, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    Congratulations on the incredible result! I look forward to reading your race report.


  1. Ultramarathon Daily News, Tue, June 21 - UltrarunnerPodcast - June 21, 2016

    […] Where’s co-host Sarah’s head six days before the Big Dance? Right here. […]

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