Western States

IMG_3289Western States, it kind of broke my heart, but with most things that have the ability to break our hearts, I loved it. Running, like skiing, has been my solace for more years than I can recount. Its been one of my best buddies through more tragedy than I could ever have imagined, many personal triumphs, and the trials and tribulations of being a busy working mother and wife. Its one of the main reasons I also help organize the Steamboat Springs Running Series and volunteer race direct, I just just really love the sport. The outdoors and sports in general, have always been present in my life. Growing up on an island, water sports, the beach and tennis filled our days. When outdoor activity and exploration started to take priority after I moved to Colorado 25 years ago, it saved me from a few more bad decisions of youth, and kept me at peace when peace seemed like a pipe dream.

Why a blog now? Well, its only been in the works for 10 years, but you know, you blink your eye and a decade has passed. This will evolve no doubt, but for now its just musings on running, skiing, of course food and nutrition, family and being a mother, those are the things I love above all.

Last summer I ran both Bighorn 100 and Run Rabbit Run 100, and that was not necessarily the plan in advance. To my delight, everything went well despite Bighorn being a complete blister-laden, 100 degree suffer-fest, and RRR seemingly going off with ease, for a 100 that is. After a few prior bad RRR’s, my hometown 100, I was happy with the outcome. Not everyone can say they have a hometown 100, its pretty cool to sleep in your own bed and have the start 1 mile from home, especially with a luxurious 8:00 am start! I thought this summer Id back off of doing a 100 but then lo and behold December dawned with a Western States lottery gift. I was really excited and grateful for the opportunity, as we all know it can take 6 or 7 years to get in the lottery. Training started in earnest in January with many a pre dawn skin up the ski area with my girlfriends, strength training, hot yoga, and running with a purpose. Redhot 55K, Behind the Rocks 50M, and Miwok 100k, and I was ready. I knew about Western a decade or more before I started running longer distances, I am someone who was in awe of Ann Trason and loved reading about her accomplishments. To me she seemed like a fierce competitor floating over the trails, but one who was really only competing against herself, quiet and passionate. I also knew that as a race that started for miles in the mountains at about the same altitude that I live, and had a lot of downhill, which I LOVE, it was perfect for me. My goals were simply to have the best race that I could have regardless of if that was 23:59 or 29:59, and to stay present and happy, I think I succeeded in those last 2 goals. I had no doubt I would fall somewhere in that time parameter, no doubt at all. I also do well in heat, and as a RD Nutritionist, my food intake is typically the least of my worries. I always say I channel my inner South Carolinian when its hot. Perhaps be careful what your comfortable with. I also say you can eat your way out of most problems in a race, that is until you don’t have time to.

I have come to expect that the only thing we can be certain of is the unexpected. By now everyone has heard of the big blow ups at States, and the epic conditions of the 2017 edition. Here is a story from the middle of the pack, as what we hear of is mostly about those at the front. I especially loved the ladies race this year, and I love even more that some of the strongest women in the field struggled greatly with the conditions and then gutted it out for more pedestrian times of 22-28 hours, or perhaps they didn’t finish at all. They are human just like us, and some of the most humble and gracious runners I have met. Essentially even Jim Walmsley suffered the same fate as myself and many ‘regular’ runners, he’s human! Give the guy a break, he can run as he chooses and is young enough to be able to correct what he wants to over time, I like his passion. This blog is a long one, don’t worry I know people don’t usually read blogs this long, thats Ok. Ive got things to say and it will take as long as it takes. My next blog entry might be 3 lines:)

The day dawned warm, amidst a vicious southwestern heat wave, I new it was an omen that at 4:30 a.m. I was very comfortable in a tank top and shorts at the base of Squaw. We started, and wow, I cannot explain it, I was in Western States! I was teary eyed as we started up the steep service road, my plan was to hang back and conserve. I was happy my sometimes crampy calves were feeling good on the climb. About halfway up the ski area, we hit snow. I live in Steamboat and I was ready for the snow, I obviously run in it….. a lot. As the sun came up the snow was awash in the most beautiful pink glow and I looked over towards the Palisades to where I had spread my beloved friend Max’s ashes many years ago. This would be a good day, Max would appreciate this type of effort. I passed people once we hit the snow but as we dropped off the backside of the escarpment, I quickly realized I was behind many more slower runners than I would have liked, with no way around. It was gorgeous though, the Granite Chief Wilderness is absolutely stunning. Quickly we hit the snow for what has now been described over and over as an epic section of tangled trees, rushing streams, mud, and strange snow. The snow was almost un-runnable, it was slick in a bizarre fashion, not really ice, not really slush, but vey slippery and people were falling everywhere. I probably faired better than many. There were snow bridges over rushing water and some larger men were falling through. Again, I wanted to pass but there was not a lot of good options. We went through this for miles and at some point it turned to mud. Not just any mud, but mud that at times I sunk in up to my mid calf and even my knee, people were losing shoes left and right. Where there wasn’t mud and snow, there was full on rushing streams running through the “trail” and tangles of downed trees everywhere. This is what you get when you follow 5 years of drought with a 700″+ winter. The people around me were getting frustrated, but I was just in the moment paying attention to where I was stepping. All of the sudden I remembered where I was and yelled out “We are running Western States!” I was so happy, I didn’t even mind the shit-show conditions. In some ways it was sort of just epic and fun, adults playing in the mud and snow and water. We hit the 10M aid station and I remarked that we must be coming in much slower than usual, they agreed, asked if we were OK, we all laughed, and they sent us on our way. The next section to the ~16M Red Star Ridge aid saw more snow but it was not as constant. I did fall on my hip very hard somewhere in here and knew at some point my IT band would get angry because of how I fell, and it did later on. This was a beautiful section. When we entered Red Star I was relieved and running happy. I was comfortable until one of my running mates remarked that we just entered only 30 minutes under the cutoff, what?! Never in a 100 or any ultra for that matter have I even looked at cutoffs that early, I thought it must be a mistake, it wasn’t. I also knew there were a ton of people behind us and I worried for them. Everyone in this race was qualified to be there, but conditions dictated a slower pace. I grabbed some food, filled water and left. I realized it had taken 4.5 hours to run 16 miles, insane. Up until then I had diligently been eating a gel every 45 minutes and taking a Scap every hour or so, drinking water well and feeling great. I got a hug from Comrades champ Camille Heron who had dropped here, as would 30 more people due to fatigue, injuries and being timed out.

This is where the decision was made, I had to throw out everything I knew about being smart in running a 100, and make a choice: run at a comfortable pace in the ever warming temps and surely risk not making a cut off at some point, or push it hard and risk blowing up to garner a cushion. I am a stubborn person….the choice was to push, I’d make the same choice again today. The conditions basically wrote part of all of our stories up to that point, they slowed us mid pack runners mightily and beat many of the front runners to a pulp. During the next section, still in the mountains, it was getting very warm, I put my arm sleeves on and got them wet, I was wearing a neck Kooltie that I had pre-soaked and carried in my pack up until then. I ran well, passed people and had gained time at the next aid Duncan Canyon, what a party! Let me say without exception the volunteers at States are barre none the best Ive ever encountered. Not only do they treat you amazing and care for you but they truly care about you finishing. It was hot, I sponge bathed, iced my bra, iced my sleeves, drank, ate and set off. Duncan Canyon was next and it was a great downhill rolling singletrack to the same type of uphill, it was getting very hot though, the heat was worrisome. At the bottom of this canyon there was a great stream, I sat down and cooled myself and my semi- aching IT band off and then set out. I was surprised that most people ran right through and didn’t stop, I sat there for only 1 1/2 minutes maybe but it did a world of good. On the climb I passed most of the people that didn’t stop. Let me recommend if you run this race that you stop in every creek and cool off, thats what got me through the hot year at Bighorn. My crew was at Mile 30 and I wanted to see them, welcome to Robison Flat. I came in there feeling hot but great and my crew, my amazing husband Dave, my 5.5 year old son Max, my awesome friend Courtney who flew out to help, and my friend Shawn. This is what I love about our sport, the people. Courtney had quite a travel schedule to get out there from the Tetons, and Shawn and I met at Miwok 100k in 2016. My headlamp was dead at the 5:00 a.m. start, he shared his with me, we ran 62 miles together. I had a bad stomach for first 30 miles due to something I ate the night before, he stuck with me, only caring to finish even though he’s typically fast. We stayed in touch, are friends, and here he was pacing me, he lives in Cali so knows the course fairly well,  I love these stories. I think at Robinson I changed socks, as my feet had been in mud and water for 30 miles, I ate a bit, drank, iced and was off. States is notoriously bad for your feet, I lubed them up several times with Trail Toes, and they were good. The crew said I looked great compared to everyone else, and it was already roasting by then. I was still eating at this point but had probably started to slack on my salt and electrolytes slightly, but still doing well. My SCaps had all gotten wet in the creeks. I think I popped 1 x strength tylenol here, trying to warn off IT issues, it was tight but I was happy and running well! I slowly was making time back on cutoffs, 30, 40, 50 minutes, an hour and 15 I think at one point. I knew the hottest canyons were ahead.

The only thing really memorable for my heat baked brain about the next sections were that there was a few sections that I ran fast, I enjoyed myself and I was chatting with other runners. At Last Chance, I think, I talked with Ann Trason. She was directing runners to the trail after the aid, she told me it was a beautiful singletrack, asked me my name, looked me up in the program, remarked on Steamboat and said ‘Ill see you on the track Cara’. I knew I’d give Ann Trason a high five on that track, oh hell yeah I would! I set off on that section like I was floating, it was so nice, trended downward, I felt great after a few minutes of feeling the heat before, and I was floating on my Ann interaction, it was just cool. Im not much of a fan girl about anything at all, people are all just people, but chatting with Ann at States was cool. The next aid stations and areas were a blur but Devils Thumb, I remember well, it was a living hell. These are the real canyons, they are hot and steep. On the downhill I couldn’t run super fast because my IT was aching, funny enough that pain just vanished at some point down the road, and it was fine. It was insanely hot, I had heard 110-115 in the canyons at the time we came through…the hottest part of the day. This is where my nutrition faltered. Let me give you a tip, SET YOUR WATCH ALARM TO EAT! When you are suffering in conditions that are outside of the norm its easy for 2 hours to go by and not eat anything, eat every 45 minutes, trust me. I thought I was still eating enough but I wasn’t. In hindsight I know I should have switched to liquid nutrition solely, with some aid treats along the way. Its hard to think straight in that heat but Tailwind, Carbopro, anything would have worked well. At this point I was suffering more from exertion than anything. I knew if only I could sit for a solid 30 minutes at an aid that I would recover and go on, I didn’t have that luxury. That lack of time was my nemesis all day, that puts mental stress on top of the physical.  Going up Devils Thumb we came across a man who had fallen and was unconscious at one point, we headed up to get help but of course could only move so fast up the steep trail, he had runners stay with him, and we sent aid. People were really suffering up that climb, I remember that climb as hell on earth, lots of carnage. Its steep enough on a good day Im sure, but in this insane heat, it was almost unbearable. Up to the Thumb, and into Eldorado, I think this is where I faltered more. I was partnered up with another runner, Daniel, at this point, a super nice guy I met, who had run 5 100’s last summer. He pushed me downhill and I pushed him uphill, the opposite of my usual MO. The effort up the Thumb left little to carry me in and out of a searing Eldorado canyon. Down, down, down and back up. Now it was super hot, I was covered in mosquitos that I could barely swat off of me, and it was getting dark. I was having visions of mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and I had no headlamp heading to my crew at Michigan Bluff, mile 55. I never thought it would be dark by the time I got to Michigan Bluff. Race tip: bring a small headlamp there just in case. All day I wanted it to get dark, so it would cool off, but it was dusk and still hot as hell. It was also very abnormally lush in those canyons, so much so that people were having breathing problems from allergens, it was humid as well. I hit my inhaler a few times but was doing Ok, I think the low altitude at this point helped me on that front. I was pushing hard but had lost a lot of time, it was just so hot. There is a big difference between 95 and 110 degrees! At the aid station before Michigan Bluff this amazing man in a Hawaiin shirt that had seemingly been at every aid station I had been at, told me I was doing great still, perhaps a bit of a lie, but I was moving and many others were dropping out, so I chose to believe in what he was saying, ate a few popsicles and took off. I made it to 55 without a headlamp in the dark, eaten alive by mosquitos, my buffer of time severely shortened. I was still happy though, I loved this race. I saw my crew, changed clothes because they thought that would help, I was very nauseous and left. The clothes I changed into felt hot, who would have thought it would still be so warm at night.  I left without a pacer and quickly realized that everyone out on the trail had one, we forgot you could grab a pacer at 55 if it was dark. My watch died at 47, this was stressful because I had no idea how far I was, when I plugged it in a week later it said I hit 46 miles at 12 hours, and that there had been 13,000 + of climbing already. Maybe that was wrong, who knows. My HR felt out of control as I went into another canyon, I could not get cooled down. It was the cumulative effect of not being able to sit for more than a few minutes and not being able to thermoregulate. I also got my period the next morning and that really hinders thermoregulation, always my nemesis at races, perhaps that came into play, who knows. I simply could not cool down, it was one of the strangest sensations Ive ever had, it was an awful feeling. I had heat stroke once as a child. I was still happy though, albeit concerned. I lost all of my time here, I was very nauseous and hadn’t been able to take in much for fuel. Maybe a gel, some chews or a waffle between dry heaving, but only every two hours, I was still drinking but not enough. My stomach was good all day, the heat just turns you off to food. Again, I should have gone to liquid nutrition, lesson learned. My back had now been seized up for the last 3 hours due to dehydration more than likely and falling early on. I ran into Forest Hill mile 62 ready to get Shawn, I ran in and out of the aid station without stopping, I barely had time, maybe 10-15 minutes. I then sat down with my crew on the other side. I started shaking and convulsing, I just needed to lay down, and they didn’t want me to. If it had been any other race, I would have had time. The only thing that would have helped was sitting down for 30 minutes , I didn’t have that luxury.  I had broth, changed hats, and miraculously got up and left. Max woke up and saw me in that state and was really upset, I bet it was very scary for him. I was not about to drop out though, no I was not. Shawn and I left, I could speed walk but not run, the Cal Street sections in any other conditions would have been my bread and butter, my quads felt fine, I have quads that seemingly don’t tire. This is originally where I planned on picking up speed, Ive been able to run well at the end of 100’s in the past. I can usually be on my deathbed and then still bomb downhill, I chalk it up to thousands of days of skiing over the last 20+ years. I was just so hot, I had nothing in the tank, I choked down food but it was hard, I was ill, we made it to Cal I, I was optimistic. I was the last person still out there who hadn’t dropped, the sweeps were behind me, and super nice, horse sweeps were behind them. Ive never been in that position, I was profusely, in my stupor, apologizing for keeping them up this late. At Cal I aid my back seized, I was very sick, we kept on until 3-4? miles down the trail until I started to stumble, my vision went in and out. I wondered if I was having a stroke, kidney damage? I am a mother, is this safe? I wanted to keep running, my body was rebelling, I couldn’t cool down and it was 1 or 2:00 am. I needed to rest thats all, I didn’t have time. Shawn joked that we were going to be the DFL, with 6 seconds to spare and that if we passed someone we should let them catch back up, lets be the DFL (dead fucking last). At least I would finish, I AM FINISHING, I knew I could race a 300 around that track if need be. My last two 100’s I finished the last miles running 8 minute pace, I had it in me. My mind raced, how could this be happening, its States. I cant just get back in next year, this cant be, I cried. Then I started to black out. I could take aid and get help or keep going and probably not make Cal II in time. I was in real trouble.

I was nervous about my condition, Im in healthcare, I understand the signs of real distress………I took the aid and got on one of the horses. I was scared on the horse as the trail had steep drop offs and the horse, Willie the Paint, was big and I couldn’t reach the stir ups. I was so out of it Im not sure I was fully aware I had just ended my race, actually I was not aware. Leon, Willie’s owner,  led me and Willie on the trail because the horses were not trained for two people to ride on them. They assured me Willie would not fall off the trail with me attached, although he was placing his hoof very near the edge over and over. I could not eat because I was scared to take my hand off the bridle for fear of falling in my depleted state, but I could drink out of my pack. Within 30 minutes I started to feel a little better. I had just needed to be off my feet and drink, I knew it. I thought maybe I could hop off and run back to where I started the horse ride, no of course not, I had taken aid, my mind was racing, it sunk in what had happened. We came to an impasse in the trail, I got off finally after a very slow hour, and went around the downed trees on foot, one of the horses behind us got spooked by something in the brush, and fell off the side of the trail with his rider, just as I had feared. I thought I was hallucinating, surely I was…I wasn’t. These amazing people, whom I also apologized too 1000 times for whatever reason, run sweep year after year, the horses don’t fall ever, this one did. Rider and horse recovered but were both beat up, I couldn’t believe this was happening. Thank you to Leon and his wife for caring for me out there, they were so nice. I walked to the aid station, my race was over, at mile 70 ish, Shawn was there waiting for me. He had gone ahead and was drinking a beer waiting for me, I didn’t even realize it was truly over until I was there. They took my wrist band after I had been there for a while. I was sad to see some other people I had run with earlier, the woman in a sports bra and the guy from Atlanta. I fell asleep for a few minutes, not from being tired but from exhaustion. We got a ride to Dave and that was it…it was maybe 4:00 am, who knows, maybe 5:00. Ive run mountainous 100’s and not been that tired. I’ve never run a race that didn’t get cold at night. It was sort of a harrowing last 5 hours for me, I loved it though and felt fully alive, thats why we do this, doesn’t it sound fun?!

What happened to me? The same thing as everyone. Slow epic high country and then dangerous heat wave on race weekend, a perfect storm. I’ve seen a lot of talk about why they didn’t run the snow course, it would have helped many people finish, including your truly. I am a RD, race director,  myself, and because of this, I trust their judgement. They are the experts, and it is what it is. If their board meets next week or so and realizes they made the wrong decision than I am sure we will hear about it, they all had friends and loved ones that didn’t make it as well I imagine. Its their decision to make. This one stings, Im not sure why.  Over the last week or so I’ve been heartbroken, horrified, sick to my stomach, happy, sad, embarrassed, proud, all wrapped into one. Im hard on myself and do not give myself the leeway I extend daily to others. Why? I don’t know, I guess its the Scorpio in me, and old habits die hard. I wondered if the hype was exaggerated for States, but I fell in love with it, the people, the race, the history, it was beautiful. I loved that the women’s field was blown apart and then they picked up the pieces.  They had the time to sit though, and that helped. To all of the elites, all of the way back to the last female finisher, whom I had run with early on….. bravo!!!! You are all amazing, and I am so happy for every one of you for finishing, what a great day, and a hard earned victory, savor it.

Whats next? I feel really good and am happy that in my 40’s I can still recover well. So its on to the next challenge, I find I need one in front of me. Challenges like this are what help keep me going in a busy life, its nice to have something of my own, even when it sometimes breaks your heart, its stress relief in the end. If your not failing at some point, your not living, and yes its all just fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After a nice 2 weeks Im giving myself of hiking and very little easy running, Ill start back. Next week is Hardrock 100 and Im pacing my buddy Will. I can only extend my most heartfelt gratitude to my friends and family that took time out of their lives to support me at WS, I can never repay you, you are the best, I am here for you always, and you are a part of the story. We are part of the epic States of 2017, Im happy we can say that, and of course Ill be in that lottery again next year!

10 thoughts on “Western States

  1. Loved it!!! You were on my mind through that entire race and I hated not knowing what was going on, now I know. You are a bad ass Cara and happy to have each other😘love you!

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  2. Ooh – goosebumps. Thank you for sharing – that was so emotionally intense to read..I can’t even imagine living it! Though I can’t run any longer, and i’m mourning that part of my life, I truly love to hear about other peoples experiences. Reading this was a vicarious thrill for me. Keep on inspiring!

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  3. Great first post. I am so familiar with so many of those places for various reasons it brought back a ton of memories. I’ll share one. In college, at Regis, I took a climbing class and we climbed Devils Thumb. It was a beautiful hike in to the site. Getting ready I could feel the adrenaline building because the exposure is huge. A 5.8 traverse with over 100′ exposure gets you focused real fast. The climb up the thumb (easy part 5.2) was actually relaxing. The top was just awesome. You can only imagine the views and of course this memory of a very small pond with shrimp in it. Yup, there is a small pond with tiny brine shrimp at the top of that thing. And then the rappelling. Over the over hang section 5.11 free rappel to a small landing to set up for the easier second. I only found out a week ago that a friend of mine on that climb was terrified. I thought he loved it as much as I did but he vows never again. I’d do it tomorrow!

    Thanks for sharing your story and sparking such great memories!

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