Tiffany and I ran out of Foresthill side by side, stride for stride. We politely turned down all requests to refill my water and eat the aid station food. We had all those options and more at the car, which was parked a quarter-mile down the course. I had increased my cushion from Michigan Bluff to thirty minutes ahead of sub-24 and felt pretty good, as was always the plan. The cushion was not but I was hoping it was here to stay.
At the car, I finally relieved my shoulders of the backpack and picked up two hand-held water bottles, perfectly prepared by Benny and Sean; one ice and water in the blue bottle, the other ice and Gatorade in the grey bottle. My glucose had dropped a lot to 99. I reduced basal again and grabbed some gels for the next stretch. I changed tops from T-shirt to singlet. What a difference all of this made. I felt lighter and fresher. I did however refuse to play the new socks/shoes game here. With Rucky Chucky river crossing in 16 miles, I was likely going to change them there anyway so I was reluctant to waste time and go through this process twice. We had what we needed; headlamps, gels and the last section of my wrap sandwich.
We took a left onto a dirt road. We would not see Benny or Sean until the end of Tiffany’s pacing at Green Gate (mile 80). The trail turned remote again almost immediately. We walked as I tried my best to eat the wrap. Not to my surprise, Tiffany had lots of news to tell me about from the day. But to my surprise, she told me she had been scheming a master plan all week with family and friends for this very moment at mile 62. She had gotten everyone to write a personal message to me that she then proceeded to read out as we moved along the trail. It was awesome!!! Everyone, that did that, thank you so much!!!
As I fought with my sandwich to go down, I listened to all the messages; a mixture of humor and seriousness wrapped (no pun) into one. The timing could not have been better as I was now feeling a bit rough around the edges. This was more than just cramped legs, my body was slowly shutting down. It was a huge lift to know I had the full support of everyone back in NYC, Hong Kong and of course England.
After a mile of fighting, I finally tossed away the food. My stomach had just shrunk too much that it was not happening for me. It was a long descent into the next aid so we ran sections of gorgeous single track at a pretty good clip. I let gravity take me down and rolled with that pace until the effort hurt or a climb appeared so walking made sense. This was going well for a while but after a few miles, I kept having to stop after a few minutes of running. I threw my hands on my knees, bent over and had to regroup. And then I would slowly start to walk until I was ready again. Luckily, Cal 1 aid station (Dardanelles) put a break to this stop start motion. Ice, refills and some fruit to go. Some cups of Coke pushed the glucose up and perked me up.
We hiked the majority of the next five miles to Peachstone. It was two separate climbs and the power hiking felt good as I had got tired of running. Tiffany made fun that she had to run to keep up with my long stride up the hills. But the humor was short-lived. I was, for the first time, sensing that five miles seemed really far away. I had been working aid station to aid station off my map with a certain pace to keep. That map got left behind at the Foresthill aid so we were now working with less information for better or worse. Was that why it seemed harder? Or was it that I wasn’t eating? Or was it that the sun was slowly setting and I was not looking forward to nighttime running? (I moved really slow during Leadville in the dark). Whatever the reason, I was hurting.
Aliens marked the entrance and exit of Peachstone. Either that or I needed some more Coke. (You find the craziest themes at aid stations, especially at night that this was fast becoming). We left Peachstone fairly quickly. I ate some fruit but not much else. My glucose was fine, my stomach wasn’t, so I had no great incentive to eat much. I was starting to feel sick so food wasn’t going to help that situation out too much.
I ran hard again on the descents down to Fords Bar(Cal 3) but kept stopping again. This scenario played itself out countless times so I was now being ‘that guy’ that would pass someone only to be passed back moments later. When I was just walking easy, Tiffany tried her best to get me to run in her comforting tone. I stubbornly refused. But the comment did not go away. It lingered and weighed guilt on me as the clock was ticking. I knew I had to keep moving, keep running the flats and downhills, walk the uphills. Just keep going while we still had sunlight. And most times after a delay, I would start running again. I told her “No sitting down at Green Gate, no shoe change”. I had planned to do both but was so fixated on time, I didn’t want to be stationary more than I had too, even in this numbing pain. I felt like I was losing time here although I wasn’t.
My pacing was not smart. When I ran, I really ran but the slumping over and walking were not doing me any favors. It felt like the right thing to do because the faster pace felt comfortable. That was the only defense I gave to Tiffany. I knew a slower but more consistent pace was more textbook but I couldn’t fathom doing that all the way to the river crossing.
This was a major mental pit full for me. I had stopped working on the small victories and now wanted the medium ones, this being the river crossing. Tiffany asked “What do you want?” “The river” was my smart reply. I only had the river to go off as a landmark, everything else around me was now feeling old. I needed the river crossing and was growing increasingly impatient. We saw it from high above in descending the mountain but it was the crossing, I craved for.
Leaving Cal 3, we passed a DNFing Jennifer Benna walking towards us with her pacer (husband). He said “Great job, get to the river before it’s dark”. What a great idea I thought. Imagine if I could make it to the Rucky Chucky crossing in daylight? And just like that, I made it my goal to see the famous crossing in daylight.
But my stomach was really in knots, shrinking by the mile, intestinal pain on the rise. I tried to force myself to be sick several times in a row. “Are you sure you should be doing that?” came from Tiffany. “Ann Trason said making yourself sick is sometimes the best thing you can do!”. I couldn’t have felt any worse by not doing it so it was worth a shot. Dry heaving is not fun mind and I eventually gave up.
I called for the headlamps to go on with about four miles to go before the river. I didn’t want to fall because we were being stubborn that the light was fading fast. I felt defeated that I had missed this ‘small victory’ opportunity. It was ridiculous. I was never meant to get to the river until 10:40pm but I had forgotten that and instead sulked that I missed out on a new small victory that I hadn’t even planned for!
My whole body language changed immediately. We heard screams and laughter down below on the American river but could not see who or where. “It had to be the crossing, right?” Tiffany agreed. We begun to climb higher but I wasn’t concerned with this. I had heard from the course meeting that you think you are at the river and then you tap on some miles. This was obviously what was going on, wasn’t it?
As we walked further away from the noise, I begun to get desperate “When is the course going to swing hard left?” (as if it must). A slight left ahead got my hopes up but that wasn’t it. Was it a hard right up the mountain side instead? That didn’t make too much sense but I would have taken it. My obsessive focus was river, river and river as if it would solve my energy low.
We walked almost for miles continuously on easy flat trails in search of Rucky Chucky. It felt aggressive for a walk (I have been informed since, it was not). This was my low and I didn’t even want to register it. I wasn’t eating right or drinking right. I managed to take down a Powerbar fruit smoothie but even that was tough going. Baby food was tough to consume? This was not pretty!
Finally, and I mean finally, lights and noise appeared. I got ushered onto the scales. I stepped on and half stepped off. Somehow, none of the medics made a fuss of this wobble. My weight was 173. Four pounds lost since Foresthill. “Do you want to sit down?” said a medic. It was a question, not a statement so I had a get out. “No. I’m fine” I responded.
I had changed my mind about not sitting at Green Gate (mile 80). I knew I had to and I would solider on for two miles more before doing so. I walked to the food selection at Rucky Chucky. I looked at everything and was convinced whatever I would have picked up would have quickly come back up. The low was getting lower. I needed Green Gate badly.
Lights guided us down some steps to the river bed. I got halfway and then it finally happened. After miles of wanting to, I was now a real ultra runner, I had been sick!! Just like Ann Trason, had said, I immediately felt (slightly) better. “Do you want to go back?” asked Tiffany. “No, let’s go.” Green Gate was so close, why sit down when I could crawl?
Grabbing the rope, volunteers with waders and powerful headlamps guided us across the hip deep water. There were lots of big rocks to climb up or around. I didn’t expect this. I joked to anyone that cared to listen “Even the river crossing is difficult”. A young volunteer replied “This is Western States”. I liked his reply. It was smart and true, something I would have said to a runner half complaining myself! So, I was having a rough few miles. Go figure. What did I think was going to happen? 100 miles of glorious trails hitting all my time goals, keeping my weight, staying cool in 102 degrees? This was all just part of the adventure. I had to embrace it more!!
I looked at the positives. I was still ahead of sub-24 pace, blood glucose under good control, about to get to sit down and then just twenty miles to go. Oh, and I had just run 18 miles with my badass girlfriend during the Western States 100. Time to make the glass half empty again! Life was definitely better than it felt!
I steadily (OK, really slowly) crossed the river. My body now felt somewhat refreshed from the cool river water. I contemplated dipping my body in more at the far side (like I did in the canyons) but realized I had taken forever to cross the darn thing, I had better just get out!
After a mile plus of hiking the canyon road up to Green Gate, Benny and Matt came towards us to join in for the last mile up. Tiffany gave Benny the lowdown on my state of mind (not great!). I knew they were discussing how I was doing but purposely switched off and spoke with Matt. Maybe he had some magic energy that would get me out of the rut?
I wanted to be an hour ahead of schedule for the last twenty with Benny. That one hour cushion would have been a godsend to know I would break 24 hours. I wasn’t sure if I was there. In fact I knew I was shy but not just not by how much (I was 33 minutes ahead). Regardless, Tiffany had been awesome as I knew she would be. She saw me at my worst going through the motions and just helped me patiently and calmly keep moving forward. Relentless forward progress. I think she may have even joked after the weigh-in, I looked better at 173lbs!
My Brooks ID friend Katy Gifford was running the Green Gate aid station. She was there to greet me with a big smile, a hug and a much promised grilled cheese sandwich. Was this to be the magic energy? I slouched into a chair. I hadn’t sat down for 18 hours!! Needless to say, it felt like heaven.
As I looked at my grilled cheese sandwich figuring out how on earth I was going to actually eat it, I thought to myself ‘I feel…OK’. Not great, but a few gears up from being sick at the river two miles ago. Nearing 11pm, I decided to put on arm sleeves as the temperature would perhaps drop slightly, or maybe I just still feared my pace would and they would be useful for that. I reminded myself that my feet were already a mess and seeing them now would not do me any favors, so I pursued with the same pair of Grits for the last stretch.
After a couple of cups of hot soup and nibbles out of the sarnie, it was time to head out. We got about a minute into the journey and I asked Benny if he had the pacing map. He said no. I wanted it. I wanted to know my cushion. Benny assured me he knew exactly what time to be at each aid station, pace etc, so off we went. We had already spent longer than planned at Green Gate but it was important to regroup and get some energy back.
I had eaten about three mouthfuls of grilled cheese sandwich at the aid. Benny was holding it as he was more hopeful than me that I would eat more. We quickly got into a very easy running pace along flat single track. Real easy. I surprised myself that I no longer wanted to stop and have any breaks.
Benny ran behind (as was custom for the pacer) and we talked. Well, he talked. I was a good listener for the most part. When an incline came, Benny passed me the sandwich. “Eat” was the instruction. He wasn’t even asking me! One small bite and then some water to make sure I could actually swallow it down. The simple task of eating (what humans do to stay alive) was significantly harder than putting one foot in front of the other. These miles were all about eating, not running to stay on track for a successful result.
The ascent ended and I happily returned the sandwich to Benny. Back to running. But surprisingly, this repetitive task of climbing equals sandwich worked out. A few miles later and Benny had achieved his goal (largely against my will – could you tell?) and I had consumed the sandwich over five miles between aid stations.
Just before we entered the aid station, Benny made me stop for water. Not just a sip. Ten seconds of continuous drinking. “How many what…seconds?” I was not happy with this rule. Benny reminded me about my weight. So, we stood still in darkness on the trail at midnight and I chugged back ten seconds of water. As much as Benny was correct, I didn’t appreciate stopping anymore as starting again was the most painful exercise.
We rolled into Auburn Lake Trails aid at mile 85. This time, my name was called out over the MC. Things were getting personal and I liked it! But we hit a scales block. Dislike! I jumped on. “177”. I was back at starting weight. Like! And cue high fives between me and Benny. I sat in a chair. I hadn’t planned on this but was getting pretty exhausted and felt I deserved a minute or two off my feet. Benny didn’t show any major panic in his eyes so I assumed my time was good. I had given him full control of my pacing and ultimately my final time.
My CGM sensor had fallen loose so I was now working off blood tests only at each aid stop. Volunteers were eager to help me refuel but I had to politely tell them to hold tight while we drew some blood and saw where my numbers were. I was just above 200. So-so. Benny and me discussed basal rates and what to eat. Lots of broth and noodle soup was all I could take so that’s what it was. Some of the volunteers dropped their jaws to see two diabetics out here doing the numbers, figuring out carbs vs insulin vs energy. They had lots of questions for us! It was pretty awesome. I guess that’s a prime example of Team Novo Nordisk’s global mission of #changingdiabetes right there.
Off again. Benny was not saying much about my time cushion other than “you’re good”. As me and my team had discussed hours ago on the shore of Lake Tahoe, if I could control my pace in the first half of the race, Tiffany and Benny could motivate me and drive me on as my body tired for the last 38 miles. I trusted them completely. We also knew this tactic would mean passing runners who were now falling apart towards the end of the race.
Sure enough, this was happening. Seven spots had been taken in a few miles since Green Gate. Our pace was nothing to blow anyone’s mind but to me it felt great, to others around us it, it probably looked great, and that’s all that mattered. I knew I wasn’t going to see any of these people again until after the race. I knew the pacing for the last twenty miles had to be between 15-18 minute miles from memory and we were running most of this, so I figured we were going 10’s. If that was right, we were banking loads of time.
Brown’s Bar aid station could be heard from far away. These guys were here to party first, volunteer second! The speakers blared out The Killers as we crossed a tiny bridge decorated with Christmas lights (yes, really, this one topped the aliens – I was not hallucinating!) to the aid. I sat in the chair. The chair was fast becoming a mini reward for making the next aid station. Benny and a volunteer grabbed me more chicken noodle soup and cups of broth. Lots of them, my appetite was back to an extent.
The station was sponsored by Rogue Valley Runners from Ashland, OR. Owner (and WS racer) Hal Koerner was probably tucked up in bed at this point (he probably was but unfortunately with a DNF at the river). I talked excitedly about my upcoming trip out there in August. Benny was probably wondering why the hell I was talking about a future trip to Oregon during my Western States race! It didn’t make sense to have a random conversation about Oregon, where to go, what to do etc but that’s how relaxed I felt about my race at that time. I was definitely on the upswing.
Benny was anything but freaking out that I was sitting down and taking my time. I didn’t know it at the time but I had more than doubled my cushion time since Auburn Lake Trails. The only thing I needed to do better was get my glucose lower. As if 88 miles wasn’t enough to wear you out, now my sugar wasn’t coming down below 200.
Benny and me discussed the numbers again and took a bolus of insulin. We ideally wanted this number back at 150 range ASAP. The route to Highway 49 aid would be a mix of descending, flat and ascending. The pace remained steady with some confidence to it. And why not? Ten miles to go and Benny kept reassuring me the silver buckle was locked up, no matter how many times I asked him!
We crossed the road into Highway 49. US flags led us into a cheering frenzy. It was 2:30 in the morning but you wouldn’t have guessed it. Sean grabbed me a chair. Blood test. Glucose was back on target with 130. This was surely diabetic runners high right? I had iced water and iced Gatorade in my handhelds in no time. We were about to leave and I asked Sean, “Where’s Tiffany?”. “Um..you wore her out. She’s sleeping in the car” he said. We smirked although I knew she would be upset she missed me here. I would see them at mile 99 for the final push. 6.7 miles to go and the silver buckle was safe. Dream locked up!
We marched out of the aid. “OK, Benny” I said. “We have 6.7 miles to go. I have an hour and a half to do 6.7 miles right for sub-23, correct?”. Benny paused. I don’t think he wanted to tell me what he had already been planning since Green Gate. “Yep, that’s right” he said. “So, are we going to do this or what?!!” I said. It hadn’t crossed my mind until then, that I was cutting myself short with a sub-24 goal!
Before I could get too excited though, we had to climb a long hill but from that point on, it was gradual downhill all the way through grasslands to the famous No Hands Bridge. We didn’t mess around! I almost tripped a couple of times on some rocks and had to slow it down to avoid a potential wipe out. My fear came from cramping up rather than actually taking a layer of skin off. The legs were really stiff and heavy, the earlier mountains had done their damage on them. The section to No Hands Bridge was only three miles long but the last mile seemed to drag as the bridge just wasn’t coming into sight. When we did eventually catch a glimpse of it, we shouted out a couple of “woots” of pure excitement.
We had already discussed en route here, no more blood tests at any of the aid stations, refill bottles at No Hands Bridge and go. Time was precious if we were going to break 23 hours. Tiffany and Sean were there to our surprise. It was awesome. I told her, we were going to try to break 23 hours. She kind of already knew by the clock and the urgency Benny was putting on me to keep going. We ran off over No Hands Bridge, the lowest point of elevation of the course but with runners high. 3.3 miles to go. We were on a mission!
I still had lots of work to do. Benny and me discussed it plenty. We knew a 14-minute pace would seal the deal. Easy right? Well, we had to climb all the way up to Robie Point aid (where Tiffany and Sean would meet us for the final mile) which would leave 16 minutes of time remaining to cover the last 1.3 miles. If I only had 10 minutes, I was going to go for it I told Benny, but I would rather work at almost maximal effort now and relax for the last mile and enjoy mile 100 with everyone.
I didn’t mind changing my technique as running was really exhausting but the power hiking was losing me time (or so I thought). We caught six more runners and powered on through them. They were all pretty toast. I was close (to toast) but my new-found goal of sub-23 was driving me on like no tomorrow!
We heard cow bells at the top of the climb. Robie Point. In and out, without stopping. I checked the watch. 24 minutes to cover 1.3 miles! My body relaxed, I felt euphoric. We hiked the asphalt road following the orange spray-painted feet that I’m sure are for Western States? (we had been following yellow ribbons and glow sticks up to now). Tiffany and Sean met us at the crest of the hill and we did a mini-celebration. I think this is when Benny told me he had the pace sheet the whole time but didn’t want me to see it!!
We walked fast but didn’t need to. All the work had been done and this was now the moment to enjoy the occasion. I thanked everyone again and again for all their hard work. If I didn’t have such great friends who were organized and committed to the race, the sub-23 wouldn’t have even been a talking point. The bonus of going under one more hour is credited to them and I include my other team-mates, Matt and Laura in that as well.
We ran a section of the mile. I knew from watching countless Western States videos, you turn left and then a second left, through a narrow gate and onto the famous Placer High School track to the white finish arch wrapped in flags from across the world. In between left turns, I wanted to see the next left so bad. Marshall’s were there to show us just that turn I wanted along with a few die-hard locals who were staying up all night to cheer us home.
Onto the track we went for the 250m finale. I looked across the field and saw the famous white arch with my own eyes. It seemed surreal. Was this really happening?! This moment was special, really special. It turned the bend and ran down the final stretch and across the line shouting in celebration. 22 hours 53 minutes. I had believed in my dream that sub-24 could happen and achieved it. The sub-23 was just the icing on the cake to without doubt, the run of my life.
Tim Tweitmeyer was working the ‘graveyard shift’ handing out finisher medals. It was great to meet him. A true legend of ultrarunning winning 5 of his 25 sub-24 finishes at Western States. What a great person to receive my medal from!
I celebrated with the crew and crawled into a white plastic chair at the finish line. My glucose was 110. Nailed that too. Will someone please wake me up now?! A couple of others snuck-in under sub-23 which was awesome to witness. I went off to do some heart rate testing with the John Moores Sport Science team. Within minutes of the tests starting, my body just broke down completely; shivering and cramping everywhere. The new goal for my crew was to get me to bed! And so we did just that.
I found out later that day I came in the top 50 men spots (60th overall). It took a few days for everything to sink in and while hobbling around NYC with two banged up blistered feet, it finally hit me how perfect everything went, how precious health is and to stick your neck out there and try to achieve great personal things, not matter how small and inconsequential they are to others.
I’ve had days and now weeks (yes this blog is very late) to reflect on everything from Western States. I’ve had conversations with Tiffany, Benny, Matt and others about what’s next and when. What does this all of this mean anyway?
For starters, my confidence has sky rocketed. I knew I could do it. Even with the hot conditions, I was adamant it could be accomplished, but I still had to execute the plan. I’m a few hours (8 to be precise) shy of winning the thing, but I know I can do better. Not just in Western States or 100 mile races, in everything. I know I can work harder, work faster and keep pushing the limits. Because all that limits do are hold you back.
I already know that my diabetes doesn’t limit me. I’m excited to explore this “no limits” attitude in life and future races starting with my first 100K distance race in Colorado at the end of September. I’ll probably have a dream about it soon and hope to make that one come true too.