Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Western States Weekend 2013

Heat. Bloody, ridiculous heat. The Thursday before this year’s Western States weekend, that was my biggest concern. Now, two weeks later, I just remember it all as incredibly fun, and the heat-factor as simply adding to the excitement and challenge. Easy to say, since I didn’t have to run the entire 100 miles, but still. It’s funny how that works.

As with most years, this year I did a combination of volunteering at the race, and pacing for Jamie. An awesome combination of activities for those who didn’t get a slot on the starting line.

Working the check-in table with Stan. (Photo by Chipping Fu)

Friday morning, Stan Jensen and I gave out wristbands at the check-in at Squaw Valley, allowing me to greet each of the runners and wish them luck. It was great fun because I got to chat with many friends, foreign runners, and elites alike, all of whom were excited to be there. There’s an electrical energy coursing through the runners at Western States check-in, and it’s quite contagious.

Checking in Tim.

Jenelle checks in with her crew.

By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, and it was too hot even in Tahoe, I started to worry about the heat. Jamie, with four silver buckles in four years, has been an incredibly consist runner at Western States. She’s also good in the heat, so I knew she’d do well, but triple-digit temps are going to be a huge challenge for anyone. Like me, for example. I even started to worry about my task of pacing 40 miles in the 80-90 degree temps I’d face overnight. Unlike Jamie, I tend to wilt when the mercury rises above 80.

In preparation for my pacing gig, I skipped the start and slept late Saturday morning. By the time I met up with Jamie’s crew (her husband, Jim, and friend, Nicki) in Auburn at 3:00, I felt excited and ready in spite of the heat.

Team Jamie: Nicki, Jim, and me.

Calvin cheers on his mom with his uber cool shades. "Go Mom!"

We headed to Michigan Bluff where we happily absorbed the race drama unfolding all around us. The front of the race had already gone through, but we witnessed some of our speedier friends looking strong, as well as a few elites whose races were already coming apart. We squeezed into the shade with hordes of other crews, discussing strategy for how to help Jamie when she arrived, depending on how she was feeling. I sucked down coconut water, and generally felt that there is no better way to spend an afternoon.

Waiting patiently at Michigan Bluff.

Most brilliant aid station poster ever!

Jamie’s spirits were high, which made us all happy, but she kept apologizing for being slow. Ha! We just rolled our eyes at her and assured her she was not slow. Slow is all relative, I guess. She was about 30 minutes behind her splits from previous years, but I was actually pleased with that. It meant she was wisely dialing things back a bit in the heat.

Walking Jamie out of Michigan.

By the time she arrived at the circus that is the Foresthill aid station, she was charging. She’s a master at getting in and out of aid stations quickly, and soon we were heading down toward the river together.

Leaving Foresthill

Most of the time as a pacer, I think of my job as keeping my runner company, monitoring her nutrition and hydration, and assisting with staying on-course. None of these things is very challenging with Jamie at States, so I don’t usually find pacing too stressful. This year, however, I was also paying a little more attention to her pace because I knew sub-24 in the extreme heat would be a tall order. I also had pacing duties from Foresthill to the finish, instead of just Foresthill to Green Gate, which is my usual gig. Somehow, I felt this meant I had to take things more seriously.

She made great time to the river, and the water as we crossed felt wonderful. I even wished it had been colder since, even though it was 11:30 at night, it was still painfully warm out. I would have dunked myself completely under if not for the cell phone in the top of my hydration pack.

At the far side of the river, I calculated that we had made up 15 minutes on 24-hour pace since Foresthill. I was excited! I knew if she could make up another 15 minutes by Highway 49, she still had a chance at sub-24. Although she was still passing people and moving up in the race, I could see by ALT at mile 85 that we were unlikely to make that goal. I felt like she was moving strong, but the watch is always so damn honest.

I didn’t mention the unlikelihood of sub-24 to her at this point, for fear it would take some of the wind out of her sails. I figured my job was still to keep her positive and focused on moving forward. By the time we reached No Hands, I know it had to be obvious to her, but it wasn’t until our watches actually hit 5:00, on the climb up to Robie, that she acknowledged it. And in the predawn light above the glow of the river, we kissed her sub-24 streak goodbye with a few philosophical words. Sad, but in its own way, kind of beautiful. I couldn’t criticize her for feeling a little disappointed in spite of an incredibly impressive race because I totally understood it. I would have felt the same way. But every race is different and can’t really be held to the same expectations as its predecessors. And thank God for that, or running a hundred miles might start to get boring.

Two days later, she said this Western States was her favorite. With the exception of my one time as a racer, I think it was mine, too.

At the finishline with my badass best friend.

The finish line at Placer High was its usual, emotional site of joy. I witnessed many friends make their lap around the track, and I cried every single time, starting with Jamie.

Clare, Scott, and Jamie after Scott's finish.

Was it hot? I barely remember. I just know that Jamie kicked ass and never gave up. I was lucky to be there. One of the beauties of Western States is that, even though it’s hard to get into the race, it’s so easy to be a part of it.