Ten days have passed since the 2016 Western States Endurance Run. I put off writing a race report because I felt the kind of turned-inside-out fatigue and brain fog that a new mother feels the week after giving birth.
This post will be less of a race report than a catch-my-breath taking stock of the experience and of this past week. Mostly, I want to share the photos below.
But, if you’re looking for a blow-by-blow account of how my 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn unfolded, you’re in luck! Eric of Ultra Runner Podcast interviewed me on June 30, four days after the finish, and you can hear our interview here. In a conversation that proves I’m a blurter in need of a filter, I recount how I made up time, prevented meltdowns and ran maniacally after midnight to accomplish what I set out to do.
The day after WS100, I could barely form coherent sentences or walk down stairs, but my family and I had to wrap up work and move into action to get everything packed and organized for summer. We locked up our Bay Area home and hit the road to Colorado pre-dawn on Tuesday, when the delayed-onset muscle soreness that always hits two days after an ultra made my weight spike five pounds from inflammation and fluid retention. As I drove 14 hours the first day and six hours the next, my legs and ankles puffed up while my head buzzed with flashbacks from the weekend—Did that really happen? Is it really over?
We arrived at our “Chrome Home” aka Airstream with a tent annex, in the midst of a thunderstorm, and tried to unpack all our jumbled-up stuff into this tiny home. We plan to live here—on Deep Creek Mesa, six miles outside of Telluride, across the road from the parcel where my brother lives in a cabin my dad built—during summers, and eventually we’ll build a cabin and transition to living half of the year here.
As I bumped elbows and knees with my teenagers in our small living space and anxiously ran the still-unfiltered water from the well to see if it smells funny, our muddy dog splattered wet-dog smell on every clean surface, and I thought, How will we make living here work? I felt totally discombobulated mentally, achy physically and disorganized in every way. Complicating matters, we had to get back to the airport in 36 hours and fly to the East Coast for a family wedding over the 4th of July weekend.
Thankfully, the view of the mountains and a double rainbow outside our front door made me realize, No matter what happens or how unsettled this new situation feels, this is an unbelievably amazing place and must be the right move.
I used a limited reserve of mental acuity to crank out a short narrative about my Western States race for Trail Runner magazine, which will be published in a month or so. Meanwhile, several other Western States runners wrote excellent race recaps (like this one I recommend by Scott Dunlap), serving as further disincentive for me to write one myself.
So please excuse me for simply publishing a photo album with captions, rather than really telling the story, and please listen to the podcast if you want more details.
Morgan and I, along with our kids Colly and Kyle, showed up to Squaw Valley the Thursday afternoon before the race, and the next day, we took a photo under the starting banner with the countdown clock. Morgan was incredibly supportive before, during and after my race. I’m grateful he genuinely got into the whole scene, as did the kids.
I topped off my “All Day” tank with a nice visit with Ken Michal and Karen Gerosimovich.
One of the special things about the Western States Endurance Run is the opportunity to hang out with and get to know the top-level runners in our sport. The day before the race feels like a convention, with a who’s who of runners and ambassadors in ultrarunning milling about the Squaw Valley village. I had worried that I would feel overly anxious being around so many notable competitors, or that I would waste energy socializing, but on the contrary, all of Friday felt fun and relaxing.
In the photo above, I’m talking to Jim Walmsley, whom I’d interviewed earlier in the year for Ultra Runner Podcast. I posted the photo on Facebook with the caption, “This guy is one to watch Saturday! If everything goes right, I predict a course record.” I was right—he was ahead of pace for course record—but then as most people know, something went very wrong. Read the Outside piece on “Jim Walmsley’s Insane Day at Western States.”
Race day morning! I got up and to the start with plenty of time to use the bathroom and to calm my nerves by hanging out with ultrarunning friends. Here, I’m with Michael Li—whom I met a year ago at the San Francisco 24-Hour—and the indefatigable, peripatetic Noé Castañon, whom I feel like I’ve known forever!
And at 5 a.m., we’re off! Chris Jones, always present to take photos when he isn’t running himself, snapped this pic of me approximately a quarter mile past the start, and posted it online with the caption, “Just 99.7 miles left, Sarah!”
I loved seeing my friend and Ultra Runner Podcast host Eric Schranz on the top of the Escarpment, the first climb, playing his alpenhorn and wearing authentic lederhosen! He hiked the horn the 3+ miles up there in the pre-dawn hours, to serenade runners. I simultaneously laughed and teared up because the sound of the horn and the sight of the Sierra range at sunrise struck an emotional chord in me. In this crazy sport filled with characters like Eric, I feel very supported and accepted. I felt confident on that summit that it would be a good day—or else, I would make it a good day.
On Lyon Ridge, approaching Mile 20 (I think), a photographer (Keith Facchino) was there to catch runners passing the iconic Cougar Rock. It was still early morning but starting to heat up.
Gary Wang took these pics somewhere along Lyon Ridge during the first few hours of the race. I’ll make a few notes here about my favorite pieces of gear: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta hydration vest (read my review on it); Novara Sun Sleeves from REI, which I bought only about a week before the race, and they turned out to be an excellent way to reflect sun and cool off my arms by getting them wet and packing with ice at aid stations; my trusty Hoka Challenger ATR 2’s, and Julbo Race 2.0 sunglasses (which I won for free in a raffle and love!).
Joseph Condon took this photo somewhere near one of the aid stations in the first half—maybe Duncan Canyon around Mile 24—I’m not sure where. The smile is genuine—I was feeling good! I’m not sure how or why my left thigh grew several inches in circumference during that stretch of trail, however :-).
Coming into the first major crew meeting point, Robinson Flat (Mile 30), I expected to see my crew chief Errol “The Rocket” Jones, but not my family; the plan had been for them to meet me later so they could sleep in and avoid the long, winding drive to Robinson. But Kyle, Colly and Morgan showed up and totally surprised me, as these next two photos show:
At Robinson Flat (pictured above), while Rocket and my family applied sunscreen on my legs and refilled my bottles, I drank a carton of vanilla milk—one of the unusual things I like to drink during ultras, but I find the mix of sugar and protein really satisfying.
I’m not sure which creek crossing the photo above shows—it may have been a little one on the way to Duncan—but it marks the start of the canyons portion of the course (Miles 30 – 60), and we went through several creek crossings. By midday, temps hit the low to mid 90s in the canyons but often felt hotter in pockets of stagnant, furnace-like air. I used water crossings to get the buff around my neck, my hat and my sleeves wet, and in the deeper creeks, I sat down to cool off my whole lower body. (Photo by Facchino Photography)
The volunteers and their aid stations at Western States are simply incredible. There’s something like a 5-to-1 volunteer-to-runner ratio at WS100, and as you enter each checkpoint, you’re individually assisted with bottle refills, gear fixes etc. This aid station, called Last Chance, at Mile 43 was one of my favorite. Dressed in leis and Hawaiian prints, the volunteers called it the “Last Chance Car Wash,” and with sponges and buckets, they gave us each a full soaking. I took off my hat so they could put ice in it, and I pulled open the neck of my shirt so they could put ice down my bra, all of which helped me cool down without over-hydrating. Here I’m pictured with Chaz Shaya, in the blue shirt on the left, who was having a really rough day due to rolling an ankle and overheating, but he finished heroically. Many thanks to the volunteers I remember there who helped me: Judith Cernoia, Julian Martinez, Alison Boudreau and Allen Lucas who took that photo (sorry, I know there were more but I don’t remember names!).
Running out of Last Chance, the volunteers had a row of signs encouraging some of the top runners by name, with funny sayings. I was so happy to see this sign, which referenced my blog’s name—it made me feel like a VIP and boosted my spirits before a challenging section (hot, exposed fire roads followed by the steep climb up Devil’s Thumb).
I got hardly any pics during the middle part of the race. (I wasn’t carrying my phone to take photos; all of these photos come from others—and I appreciate their photos a lot!) Fast forward to Michigan Bluff—Mile 55—where I met The Rocket and my family. This was a very business-like stop with a lot to take care of, in terms of gear swaps and refueling/rehydrating, so Colly got just this one photo of Morgan shoving ice down my sleeves:
On the way out of Michigan Bluff, around 5:45 p.m., The Rocket jogged with me a ways to give me encouragement to believe in myself, to keep going and not get frustrated. (Thanks to Janelle Potvin for the photo.) Errol knew I was getting worried about being behind pace for my sub-24-hour goal. Having his expertise and spirit by my side helped enormously. Watch this short video of The Rocket, which I was involved with developing last fall, for a look at what makes him special.
Fast forward to nighttime, after I picked up my extraordinary pacer Clare Abram at Mile 62, and we made it to the Mile 78 river crossing around 11:05 p.m.
In the deepest part, the American River went up past my waist and felt amazing. I needed it. As described on the podcast, I did not run as well as I hoped on the Cal Loop (Miles 62 – 78) due to stiffness and fatigue. The cold water provided relief from inflammation and jolted my energy level. (Photos by Facchino)
What happened after the river? In a nutshell, we ran and hiked as hard as we could in the final 20 miles. The essay that will come out in Trail Runner illuminates these hours in the night, when I frantically did the math in my head to calculate pace and pushed hard to close the time deficit.
I’m so grateful to Clare for being by my side! She paced me to a fast finish in my first 100M, too (read the report here, “How to Plan and Run a Successful First-Time 100-Mile Ultra”).
Fast forward five more hours to the magic moment, approaching the high school track in Auburn. I had moved up from 171st place at Mile 10—right in the middle of the 353 starters—to finish in 98th place out of 280 finishers (a 79% finish rate, which is pretty high given the day’s high heat). If you read my last blog post, you know I did not think I could crack Top 20 women, given the caliber of the top two dozen female runners. But a few of the top women dropped out, and I passed a handful I didn’t expect to pass, and consequently finished 17th female.
It’s hard to articulate the satisfaction of seeing the clock and realizing we had closed the time deficit and built a time cushion—that relief, combined with the profound joy of seeing my kids’ faces look so genuinely proud of me and excited to sprint by my side. As we ran toward the finish, I heard John Medinger’s voice on the loudspeaker announce my arrival, and I saw Morgan and several friends and my first coach, Alphonzo Jackson, cheer me on. The moment was everything I dreamed it would be.
Afterward, I hung out with The Rocket and Clare, and we rested until the awards ceremony when I got the coveted sterling silver buckle.
In addition to expressing my sincere gratitude to Clare, Errol, Morgan and my kids, I also want to thank the WSER Board, in particular Mo Livermore, who showed up at several spots along the course to cheer me on. Seeing the board members I’ve gotten to know—Mo, RD Craig Thornley, Tropical John Medinger, Tim Twietmeyer, John Trent, Diana Fitzpatrick and Tia Bodington—along the course and during the awards ceremony, I have deeper respect and appreciation for the time and energy they devote to this event, and to the work that goes into maintaining all aspects of the WSER. I should also mention board member Karl Hoagland, whom I enjoyed running with and leapfrogging at times on the course.
This was my first time experiencing the Western States Endurance Run, and it lived up to the hype and prestige of its reputation, thanks to the event management—the spirit and dedication of all the people involved behind the scenes—as well as the runners who grab most of the attention.
The pic above shows where I’m working now. I’ve caught my breath and am happy to settle into summer, get back to work, and get back to a running routine post-WS100 recovery (after a touch of tendonitis in my foot goes away). Next up: volunteering at the Hardrock 100 on July 15, running Kendall Mountain Skyrace in Silverton on July 23, and then running the Telluride Mountain Run on Aug. 6.
Mostly I’m going to savor this family time and this place, grateful for our time together in this environment.
The photo above is a flashback to 2003, when my kids were 5 and 2, on the property we bought. We used to take walks here, since it’s right across from where my dad bought five acres in the early 1970s.
Now, that same table is our dinner table in good weather!