The start of the week leading up to departing for California were fueled with lists, packing and re-packing. I really had no idea what the weather would be like at midnight or 3am during the run so was packing every item of running clothing from spare singlets to a winter hat and gloves. I’m an over-packer regardless but this trip was not the one to be stingy on any one single item I might crave (you can read that as cry for) at mile 80. The one really worrying piece of clothing not packed, not even in my possession still, were my running shoes! A couple of fresh pairs of Brooks Pure Grit 2 were clearly going the scenic route from Seattle, WA to NYC. Thanks FedEx, just what I didn’t need!
My toy store (REI Soho) proved my saviour. The sales rep confirmed slightly confused I really wanted two pairs of the same shoe on Tuesday evening. When I confirmed and said it was for an upcoming race, he replied “Huh, must be some race”. I smiled, agreed and went home to pack them.
I had a great appointment at Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center Wednesday morning. My nurse Emily and I discussed the upcoming race in detail and compared my results from Leadville for guidance. We agreed on one main change. Reduce the basal level of insulin less than for a normal 8-mile run or marathon. This is due to two facts. My energy expenditure level is far less over 100 miles and I needed to make sure my BG levels were not too high so I could eat along the way to bring in calories. I would need to intake 250-300 calories per hour. To top off my visit, my A1c had dropped again; 6.3. Could life get better? Yes, I was flying out to Western States!
Tiffany and I flew out to Reno, NV that evening. It would give us two full days to get settled. But once at La Guardia, we heard immediately of our delayed plane. It was back to being anxious again (just like those shoes!). We questioned if we would get stuck in Denver for the night (our transfer city) and looked at other flight options to get us out to California direct. As per usual with flying, we really didn’t have any control over this. The biggest stress and question was, when would we now get to Squaw Valley?
We landed in Denver over two hours late. Luckily, we’re both runners. A two-minute dash through the Rocky Mountains airport and a delayed second flight equaled a couple of delighted travelers high-fiving at gate 38. We would make it to Reno. We sat on the plane and I cheekily asked Tiffany if she enjoyed her first ever time in Colorado.
We landed in Reno at midnight, 3am east coast time. It had definitely been an ultra just
getting here. Yes I was tired but Reno-Tahoe airport is like a crazy dream. You get off the plane and immediately step onto wildly dated Aztec carpet with more slot machines than waiting seats. My highlight though was the taxidermy display of ram goats. OK, it was definitely time for bed. This idiot was delirious.
We woke up early, I inserted a new CGM site (so it would be at its most accurate for the race) and tried to bring my blood glucose down slightly. Stress, traveling and time zones play some games with blood glucose. We departed Reno on four wheels. A quick trip to Walgreens to get some water for the 90 minute road trip to Squaw Valley turned into a mass assault for anything and everything we would need for the race; fold away chairs, bug spray, Gatorade, Coke, Red Bull, an ice cooler, chips and chocolate! In a way, we were pleased it was done before we got over excited with all the build-up to come at race headquarters.
We chose a more scenic drive west which added thirty minutes (and probably thirty photos). We winded up Mount Rose and descended the other side to the north rim of Lake Tahoe. Neither of us had ever been here and we were uncontrollably excited with the beauty of the Californian great outdoors; huge pine trees, mountains with snow caps and of course, Lake Tahoe. The “vacation” had now firmly begun.
We drove through the vacation town of Tahoe City (where we would stay) and drove the five-mile stretch of gradual incline to Squaw Valley ski resort. Our plan was to be at the peak of the mountain for a Western States opening ceremony at noon. We had the option to hike the four miles up (2,550ft) or take the tram which would save the legs. I used my head and saved the legs. Even after we reached the top of the tram ride at High Camp, we still had to hike another mile (550ft of gain) to get to the ceremony at Emigrant Pass – the highest part of the WS course at 8,750ft elevation. I felt a slight lack of oxygen on the climb but really quite minor. The views were as warned, epic. It felt like I was back in Colorado. I feel relaxed on the mountains in the summertime. I cannot explain how or why I find such joy. I don’t need to analysis it in detail, I just know I am happiest here. Tiffany ran most of the mountain up and tested out altitude for the first time. I dared her to run a big section of uphill thinking she would bail and of course she did not just to prove me wrong! Two peas in a pod.
The ceremony was packed full of Western States veterans, today’s best (Andy Jones-Wikins, Ian Sharman and Ellie Greenwood I spotted) and many first timers and their families. We could see the huge alpine country to the west and Lake Tahoe to the east. We were standing in between large patches of snow, still clinging onto their last few days. Seeing the snow seemed weird to me. It was the end of June and the temperature was in the mid-90’s.
Tiffany got a workout in by running the four-mile stretch down the mountain to Squaw. I hiked back the mile to the tram casually. I was definitely jealous but knew I had to be smart. She even beat me to the bottom! We spent the afternoon off our feet at some really important and worthwhile meetings. Cue, Walgreens fold away chairs.
A ‘crew’ clinic helped confirm our team plan for where to go to on the course and where not too. Tiffany scribbled notes as I tried to not stare too hard at the veteran talker’s silver belt buckle. She had it all worked out anyway; where to drive, when to be there and of course she knew her pacing leg from Foresthill (62) to Green Gate (80) by heart. She let me relax, she was fully on top of this. My other two crew members were Benny Madrigal from Team Novo Nordisk. A Californian who I regard as one of the fastest 5K to marathon runners of our twenty-something team. He has run trails all his life and would be my pacer from Green Gate to the finish. Sean McPherson and I met during The North Face DC 50K race in 2012. We placed 1st and 3rd but didn’t know we were both type 1 diabetics until months after the race. He would be a key crew member for me as he knew the course inside out (his parent’s live near Auburn). The third person also meant, they would all get some sleep.
The course meeting gave me some great tips, I otherwise would not have thought of/known. 1) don’t carry a full hydration pack of water up the first four miles, you can top up at Escarpment (first aid station). 2) run the first 30 miles to Robinson’s Flat super super easy and eat often. 3) put ice everywhere! The forecast was showing 101-102 degrees. Put ice in your bladder, bottles, cap, neck scarf, down your back etc and do it often. 4) cool off in the rivers of the canyons. Rather than cross the bridges and climb straight out of the 115+ degree canyon, go down the trail a bit further and cool off for a couple of minutes. I also got various stats on how long climbs were, where medical weigh-in’s were, where most people drop from the race (I ignored this part) etc.
The final meeting (Veteran’s panel discussion) of the day was one not to miss. It was a gem. The host was Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW), a seven time Top-10 WS finisher. The panel consisted of Gordy Ainsleigh (the grandfather of ultrarunning), Tim Twietmeyer (25 time WS finisher, 5 time WS winner), Ellie Greenwood (2 for 2 at WS and current course record holder) and Ann Trason (14-time WS winner amongst many other women’s records).
The advice was priceless. Well, Gordy kept talking about wanting beer on the course which I think is probably a no-go by the lawyers but it definitely loosened up the audience. The main subject was “heat”. We all had this fear now that we were not only going to be running the most famous ultra race of them all; Western States (many for the first and only time), but we were going to have to do it in fiercely hot temperatures, especially down in the canyons around the middle of the day. I had been on the fence about how to hydrate for the race; with two hand-held bottles or my backpack. Ellie talked hydration and sealed the deal for me saying “better to have too much water than too little”. I would run with the pack (50oz bladder and a 20oz bottle) for the first 62 and then switch to two 20oz handhelds with my pacers for the evening/night-time running which would cool off a little.
Tim warned about personal goal times and now was the time to adjust those. It felt like Boston Marathon ’12 heat wave all over again. “Don’t adjust your times by 10-30 minutes, adjust it by three hours” he warned. I looked over at Tiffany and said “I’m not adjusting my goal (sub-24)”. She look slightly concerned for my well-being. I knew in my head, if the conditions had have been cool, let’s call them ‘perfect’, I could perhaps run the course in 21 hours. That is a huge perhaps, as I only have one 100 under my belt and that was 28 hours. I used this completely irrational unknown fact to ignore Tim’s advice (sorry Tim). Let me emphasize my mental state; I did not come here for anything less than the “one-day” silver WS buckle.
Ann Trason, shamefully urged runners that when they would go through a rough patch (which we all would) vomiting could actually be a good idea to reset the ‘stomach button’. Some cringed, some laughed. I took note, although, I have never been sick while running. The general advice though was, never stop moving forward. Just keep going. I left Squaw glowing. We drove back to Tahoe City to check-in at the hotel and relax. This would be my last chance to get one more decent night of rest.
WS-eve. We grabbed breakfast on the lake before driving back to Squaw. Benny and Matt fro the team were now in tow having arrived late Thursday evening. I met up with the Sports Science department from my old university (Liverpool John Moores) as a volunteer for a heart study they were conducting at the race. Pre- and post-EKG analysis and ultrasound studies. I have always been interested in the heart and it was great to have a chat with some fellow Brits, seeing who still worked at the university from my time there. I would see them again at the finish line in a completely different state!
A ‘fun-run’ was kicking off at 10am. Being WS, this was a bit more than your 5k local town race though. Montrail (the WS sponsor) were putting on the 2nd annual 6K Uphill Challenge which follows the WS course. Benny and Tiffany picked up their numbers and were going to race it hard. I went back and forth on whether this was such a good idea to do but Matt reassured me “Do it with me, we will hike it at the back of the pack real easy”. Done deal. And I didn’t regret it.
Being the first few miles of the WS course, it helped me understand what pace I would need to do this at tomorrow to hit Escarpment (3.5 miles) in 55 minutes, which is 24 hour pace. We walked, hiked and ran small sections of flat, making many new friends along the way. I even bumped into Nick Polito (a fellow Brooks runner) as he was descending the mountain. Running is such a small and oh so friendly world.
We never saw Benny. I think he sprinted the whole thing and came top 10! Tiffany was ecstatic at the top too. She had come 3rd or 4th woman and loved it. I feel some more trail running is around the corner for her! Me and Matt made it in 45 minutes. My 6k PR!! So, it told me, I could hike this ten minutes slower tomorrow and be on pace. That was really good information to have without wearing myself out. We grabbed the tram back down and met up with Ryan Jones (my team-mate also running WS) and his wife Robyn for lunch.
I did my pre-race check-in which was super fun. I bumped into ultra legends Hal Koerner, Mike Morton and Timmy Olson who are all great guys and super approachable. As Matt reminded me, name any other sport where you get to compete with the best in the world? I even snagged an official pre-race bib photo with Timmy which was awesome! My weight was 177lbs and that got marked on my yellow wristband. This stat was an important one. Just like blood glucose levels need to be steady so does your weight in ultrarunning. I would need to eat and drink smart to stay around 177 and therefore increase my chances of having a great race.
We split from Squaw mid-afternoon and did the famous grocery store run for last-minute food items and breakfast. One last team meeting on the shore of Lake Tahoe and a ‘final supper’. A grabbed a beer to try to take the edge off what was about to unfold. I was hopeful I could get some sleep but I wasn’t convinced.
I was tucked up in bed by 9pm but not done quite yet. I ran the numbers one more time for each aid station arrival, calculating average pace per section. I’m very scientific, maybe too much so, but it comforted me to know my pacing variations over the course I would need to hold for sub-24. I wrote these notes on my elevation graph print out, taped it (to waterproof it) and put it in my race shirt side pocket. I would carry this with me and focus on the numbers to a) try to hold my pace back and b) to ultimately achieve a dream of mine for a long time – to complete the Western States 100 with a one-day buckle. Lights were out by 10pm. Time to dream.