Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Western States 2019

Summitting Squaw. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Sometimes I look back on the things I loved in childhood, where my favorite novels were wilderness survival stories and my favorite TV show was High Mountain Rangers (That link will take you to a fuzzy version of a particular HMR episode about a woman in the overall lead of a 100 mile trail race across the Sierra.), and it seems like I must have just sprinted out of the womb with a desire for adventure, wilderness, and endurance sports. I don’t know how a girl becomes such a thing at a young age, but when I first heard about the Western States 100 as a kid, I knew I wanted to run it one day.

My first actual encounter with the race was to volunteer at one of the Memorial Day Weekend training runs in 2004. I’d never run an ultra before, but I was supremely ultra-curious. I’d lived in Truckee, very close to the race course, for a few years, and I needed to see this thing with my own eyes. I would be working the Michigan Bluff aid station, but I and the other volunteers had arrived much earlier than necessary. So Shannon Weil brought us all back to her place to hang out for a while. 

I had absolutely no idea who Shannon was at the time, but I felt so welcomed into the Western States community by her. When I saw the Wendell Robie Cup sitting in her living room, with Ann Trason’s name engraved 14 times, my eyes about popped out of my head. We drank cold sodas and lemonade on her porch while Shannon shared stories from past races and from recent training days when she had hosted Scott Jurek. This was back in Scott Jurek’s heyday, and I was honestly like, “Umm, you know Scott Jurek? He stayed at your house? You are the coolest person I’ve ever met. Tell me everything!” I just sat there soaking it all up. I could not possibly have gotten a better introduction to the world of Western States! 

Fourteen years later, and I was a 5-year loser in the lottery for Western States. (It had taken me 5 years to get in the first time, but I never actually won the lottery - I just got shuffled in under the now defunct Two-Time-Loser rule to run the race in 2011.) I am typically very matter-of-fact about the Western States Lottery. Don’t expect to get in, and you won’t be disappointed! But 2018 was different. This was my 6th year in a row, I had 32 tickets in the hat, and I was sitting in Sean Flanagan’s lucky seat. (I am sworn to secrecy about exactly which seat this is, so don’t even ask.) So when Shannon Weil stepped onto the stage to pick the next 20 entrants, I had a good feeling. I’m totally in to the whole symbolism of these things, and I felt it would be rather poetic if Shannon pulled my name.

And then she did.

With Sean and Jenelle, at the lottery.

Coming full circle, my growth as a runner, developing my own roots in this historic community. These turn out to be the themes of Western States 2019 for me. For most of my running career, I have always been about faster or farther. I am unashamed of my competitive nature. But this year would bring me no improvement on either of those fronts, and I am happy to discover I’m finding joy in my running and racing in spite of that.

Western States is an incredibly special race for everyone, and I am no different. Just winning an entry makes you feel like the whole universe loves you, even if it denied you on 9 of 10 previous occasions (which it did). One result of the excitement that surrounds the race is that I immediately had the support of my best running friends for crewing and pacing.

Jenelle. In addition to running hundreds of training miles together, we had attended the lottery together for the last two years where she won in ‘17, and I won in ‘18. There’s something awesome about sharing that moment with someone who completely understands the significance. She has run the race twice herself, in addition to crew and volunteer duties on other years, so I knew she was the perfect person to have as my crew chief. I would trust Jenelle with my life. (Plus, as you’ll notice in this race report, she’s an incredible photographer.)

Jamie. This woman has finished Western States six times, including one top-ten finish, and she is the one who originally showed me the ropes by taking me on countless training runs on the course. If there was anyone I wanted coaching me through this race, it was Jamie. I asked her to pace me, but after a significant injury prevented her from running all spring, she teamed up with Jenelle to help crew.

Donald. Over the years, we’ve shared a connection through races, writing, adventure runs, and epic pacing gigs. Donald has been my pacer at both my fastest 100 mile race and my slowest, and he keeps me entertained with dad jokes, Harry Potter trivia, and showing off his knowledge of Hamilton lyrics. He’s the perfect mix of low key, knowledgeable, entertaining, and supportive.

My training went about as well as could be expected, given our epic winter and my inability to leave work at a reasonable hour most days. Luckily, Truckee, Tahoe City, and Squaw Valley plow their bike paths, and I spent most of my mid-week runs on these trails. I blew through two pairs of YakTrax, and I discovered that when the weather is so bad that driving anywhere is simply not an option, I can actually run a whole lot of laps on the 1.5 mile loop in my neighborhood. I had a nice, progressive race schedule (WTC 50K, Sonoma 50, and Miwok 100K), and Jenelle and I went down the hill most weekends to train on the course.

Running stormy laps in the 'hood.

Finishing a long run in the rain in Auburn with Jenelle.

Nonetheless, I knew I was not in the same kind of shape I had been in back in 2011. I was not expecting a PR for the race, but I thought sub-24 was probably possible. Everyone likes to tell me how 2011 was a really fast year. Yeah, okay. They are probably right (jerks). But you know what else was faster in 2011? Me. So my finish time goal was simply “finish as fast as I can.”

They say everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame in this life, but when you run Western States, you are a rockstar all damn day. And night. Being relatively local, and having spent the last 16 years meeting other ultrarunners in the community certainly helps in that regard. This was one of the many differences from my race in 2011. I believe there was only one aid station the entire race where I didn’t personally know the volunteers. Even if you don’t know anyone, the volunteers at States are THE BEST and will treat you like a queen, but nothing keeps a girl going like being greeted with smiles and hugs from friends every few miles.

Mugshot at check-in.
Ready to rock on race morning.

I wore my now famous “I Love Butter” hat. I’ve yet to have any ultrarunners recognize as band merch from the band Hot buttered Rum, but I love wearing it to races because I always get a ton of smiles and positive comments on it.  Well, the fans at Western States blew my mind with their awesome love for my hat. And for butter.

Summiting that first climb at Squaw Valley might be the pinnacle of those rockstar moments. It’s hard to believe the number of people who make the four mile hike up at 4:00 in the morning to watch runners crest the mountain at the same moment the sun peeks above the horizon. I’d been chatting with Kelly Barber and Curt Casazza on the climb, but when I reached the summit, all at once I felt both completely alone and surrounded by a raucous crowd. 

Celebrating the rockstar life at the top of the Escarpment. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

The beauty of the sunrise and the cheering crowd filled me with energy. I saw so many people I knew and heard so many people cheer my name that I can’t recall all of them. Jenelle, who had also given me a ride to the start, was there, along with countless running friends, coworkers, and even parents of students. Like getting my name pulled in the lottery, it was an outpouring of love and support that I’m not sure I earned, but I soaked it up and smiled all the same. I knew I needed to carry their energy with me, fuel to get to the finish line.

I enjoyed the high country, even though it was snowy and slow. It’s the one part of the course I had never seen. The weather blessed us with cool, overcast skies, and I kept my long sleeves and gloves on almost until Duncan. Although it was well-marked, the intermittent snow made the course a challenge to follow. I practiced some team route-finding with the runners near me as we picked our way across snow fields, creeks, and downed trees. Looking at my splits, it’s clear that I lost a lot of time between the Escarpment and Red Star at mile 16, which is where most of the snow ended. Alas, those would not turn out to be the slowest miles of the run for me. 

The high country.

Getting the full treatment from the amazing volunteers at Duncan.

The climb up to Robinson at mile 30 might have been my favorite part of the day. The bird song rang through the trees and the perfume of wildflowers floated on the wind. I made some of the climb with Tom Wroblewski, and it was during these miles I met Cris Francisco. Cris and I ran together all the way to Last Chance before parting ways. These auspicious meetings and making of new friends are some of the greatest joys of racing.

The climb to Robinson.

Jamie’s daughter, Clara, ran me through the aid station at Robinson. When I first started running with Jamie, Clara was just a little kid, so it was pretty awesome to see this young woman now a full-fledged, capable part of the team. 

Clara guides me through Robinson. We both have our game faces on! (Photo: Jamie Frink)

Jamie was there with food and supplies, which I shoveled down so fast that I didn’t realize I had eaten too much until it was too late. I trotted out of the aid station feeling weighed down and bloated, grateful that I was in for a long stretch of mellow downhill.

I blew through the next two aid stations without eating anything while my body worked on digesting the Robinson Flat Buffet. I cruised the downhill with Cris while we traded stories of some interesting training runs we’d each had in the spring. He asked me about what was coming up in the course, and I took pleasure in sharing my knowledge. From that point to the finish line, I’d done countless training runs on the course, so I knew those miles intimately.

Once we hit Last Chance, I was home. The Canyons. My favorite. I felt amazing through this section. Like I was flying. Like sub-24 was definitely going to happen, and maybe even faster. Thus, when I make the comparison to my 2011 splits, it is hilarious because it turns out I was most definitely not flying. I passed a lot of people and did fine, but I was significantly slower than this same section of the course eight years ago. Regardless, I had a blast in the canyons. 

Jamie and Clara found me again at Michigan Bluff, and before I knew it, I was at Foresthill (mile 62) with the whole gang. Donald ran me from Bath road into the aid station where John Trent was on the microphone showering me with accolades. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I do recall that at one point I turned and blew kisses at him. My advice for this race? Have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously, even if you are serious about the race itself. (Also, did I mention you’re a total rockstar as a Western States runner?)

Heading into Foresthill (mile 62). (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Jamie, Clara, and Jenelle. "Team Gretchen!" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Kaycee Green escorted me through the aid station where the rest of the Strider family had everything ticking like a well-oiled machine. It was a blur of smiles and hugs and tutus, until I departed with Donald to find my crew. Now I had Jamie, Clara, Jenelle, Donald, and Sean Flanagan at my service. This race is seriously a 100 mile party, and I love it.

My stomach had turned a little sour, but I dutifully ignored it. My super power during 100-milers is my ability to eat. I once ate a hot dog and a cup of chili at mile 60 of a 100 and never had a problem. So I shoved a few things down my throat and a few more in my pockets, and Donald and I ran the gauntlet of the cheering throngs on our way out of town.

Heading out of Foresthill with Donald. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

My legs felt great, and the 16 miles to the river have a lot of nice, runnable downhill. I kept a decent pace all the way into Cal 2 as darkness set in, and I was pleased to see that I was still on-track for a sub-24 finish. What didn’t please me was the deteriorating state of my stomach. 

“Gretchen’s in the house!” Mike Holmes announced upon my arrival at the aid station. After giving me a much needed hug, he gave essentially the same commentary that John had in Foresthill, but Mike doesn’t need a microphone to hold the attention of the crowd. Another chunk of the Strider family was holding down operations at this aid station, and I was joyous at seeing JoAnn, Andy, Marisa, and the crew.

“What do you need?” JoAnn inquired as I looked over the smorgasboard with distaste.

“My stomach does not want food,” I said, making a face and finally beginning to feel concerned. Sure, it was mile 70, and these things were bound to happen. But 30 miles is way too far to run with no calories. 

“Ignore it and eat something anyway,” JoAnn offered, which, frankly, is the same advice I would have given in her place. I popped a few peanut butter banana bites in my mouth and didn’t linger.

“Donald, I’m leaving!” I called over my shoulder as I shuffled down the trail. I knew he would catch up whenever he was ready.

Looking back, I think of Cal 2 as the beginning of the end of sub-24 dreams. The trail to the river crossing continues to be fairly mellow, and as the miles ticked by, my nausea ticked up. It felt like I slowed to a crawl - the only thing that seemed to keep it from getting worse. Voicing my status to Donald just made me feel depressed about it, so I tried my best not to whine. Mentally though, I knew I was entering a dark place that was brand new to me.

I was anxious to arrive at Rucky Chucky because I was in serious need of a bathroom. I had one final hope that emptying my bowels would alleviate all the problems, and I could also tell that I had started my period. I’d known this was imminent, so I was prepared, but it did seem like a less than auspicious moment for it. 

It must have been near midnight, and I felt immense gratitude at seeing Jenelle waiting for me at the aid station. She led me through the maze of crews waiting for their runners to the bathrooms. I nearly cried when I saw they were all occupied. Then someone else’s pacer guided me to a hidden, unoccupied bathroom, and I nearly cried again because runners are so awesome. Seriously, I clearly had my own guardian angel showing me an unoccupied bathroom in that moment.

I dealt with my various needs, and made vigorous use of the handwashing station before Jenelle led me back toward our stuff. I took only a few steps before pausing.

“Ooh, I don’t feel good,” I moaned, giving Jenelle a panicked look.

“Here, sit down,” she said, guiding me toward a chair.

“Is this your chair?” I asked her.

“No, but it’s okay.”

I just gave her a wide-eyed look and giggled. With no energy to argue, I plopped down into the anonymous chair.

“Do you want to try eating something?”

“I don’t know,” I whined. I seriously was at a loss. Typically, I can tell my crew and pacer what to do and what I need, but at that moment, I felt like a lost little kid. Take care of me! I wanted to cry. Fix it! Whaaaa!

Jenelle handed me a sea salt & vinegar kettle chip, which is one of this world’s greatest pleasures. I took a tiny mouse-nibble and waited to see what would happen. Immediately I knew it would be nothing good. 

I looked at Jenelle in alarm. “I think I’m going to be sick.” My eyes darted fearfully around, taking in the fact that there were people and their belongings everywhere. Where should I go? I didn’t think I would be able to stumble away from the aid station in time. “I don’t want to puke on this person’s chair,” I squeaked.

“It’s fine. It’s okay,” Jenelle assured me, and then she quickly and quietly alerted the people nearby that I was going to be sick. They grabbed their stuff and fled like I had the plague, which was fine by me. Then, I tossed my cookies. 

Gross, and not super fun, but it was over with quickly. I felt pathetic, near tears, but when I looked up to see Jenelle snapping photos, I couldn’t help but giggle.

“Yay! Western States!” she said with a tentative laugh.

I knew exactly what she meant. Like, don’t forget to enjoy this. But also, you worked so hard for this race, have been anticipating it for years, and puking is totally not unusual, isn’t ultrarunning a great sport, lol? As well as, you know it could be worse, so don’t complain. But mostly she just meant, isn’t this thing we do beautifully ridiculous?

“Yay! Western States!” I celebrated, returning the laugh. I mean, you have to laugh. You know?

Immediately post-puke. The low point of the race, for sure. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

"WTF, Jenelle, are you taking photos??" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Double thumbs up. "Yay! Western Sates!" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

I spent what felt like forever at Rucky Chucky, but who knows how long it was, really. All my concerns about time were left in the dirt along with the contents of my stomach.

I felt quite good by the time we walked the steps down to the river crossing. Weak, but no longer nauseous for the moment. I was so pleased about this that I was completely giddy and ridiculous, saying all kinds of silly things to the lineup of volunteers who were there to outfit us with life jackets and get us safely loaded into the boat. 

If you ever want to witness a precision operation by a fleet of well-trained volunteers, you should check out how they do the river crossing at Rucky Chucky sometime. They have volunteers guiding you down the steps, putting your life jacket on you, snapping the buckles, guiding you into the boat, and unhooking the boat from the anchor. Then, a master oars-person ferries you swiftly to the other side where another volunteer quickly hooks the boat to the anchor, and still more volunteers guide you out of the boat and take off your life jacket. It’s probably faster than doing the river ford.

I bounced happily on my seat as we flew across the water. “Look! We are just sitting here and we’re moving down the trail! This is the best part of the race so far. Do you think you could just head downstream and row us all the way to No Hands Bridge? Please?” Like I said, I was kind of giddy.

On the raft. Totally delerious. (Photo: Donald Buraglio)

The remaining 20 or so miles of the race were simply an exercise in moving forward as well as I could and staying positive. The only real calories I took in came in the form of whatever electrolyte drink they were serving, and they only way to keep the nausea from totally taking over was to keep my effort level low. 

“You mean you’ve never puked in a race before?” Donald was amazed. (After our Western States cheer, I’d also cheered to Jenelle, “My first puke in an ultra! Yay!”)

“No. Never.” I assured him.

“Wow, I get sick in pretty much every 100,” he said.

“God, then why do you keep doing them?” I absolutely could not imagine doing this again if I thought I would get sick. I guess we just fool ourselves that way. As Mark Twight famously said, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun!

Donald kept me entertained on the trail, and Jenelle showed up at Pointed Rocks with papaya enzymes for my stomach. The enzymes helped a bit and tasted pretty good, too. 

Sunrise at Pointed Rocks aid station. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Jenelle and Sean were both there to run me in the last mile from Robie Point. It’s pretty awesome to have your own cheering section following you in. 

Stoked to be arriving at Robie Point. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

One mile to go! (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Crossing The White Bridge with Donald and Sean. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Just past the white bridge, a woman walking toward us cried out, “There’s butter at the finish line!” I gave her a genuine smile. I’d gotten cheers like that all day. I told you that hat was a brilliant idea.

I was happy to duck across the line in just under 27 hours, and happy to be done.

Kaycee not only led me through Foresthill, but she was there at the finishline, too! You can't tell from this photo, but she was still wearing her tutu. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Full Circle.  (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Western States 2019 wasn’t my best race or my fastest race, but it was also far from my hardest race. I picture it in my mind as this experience with a multitude of branches, roots, and curling vines, reaching out to other days and people in my life, connecting me to the many moments that came together to form the adventure of Western States. The friends who were out on the course volunteering, the friends who crewed and paced for me, the friends I trained with, the people at the lottery with me (and the ones who went through years of losing the lottery with me), the family who supported my training, the other runners who inspired me, the non-running friends who were excited for me, the new running friends I met on course. The days of running in the dark, on the ice with my YakTrax, on snowmobile trails, in dumping snow, driving hours to the trailhead for weekend long runs. Those branches reach all the way back to that afternoon sipping lemonade on Shannons porch listening to stories, all the way back to that ridiculous episode of High Mountain Rangers, all the way to a high school girl in Southern California dreaming about a trail race through the Sierra Nevada. It’s a race that permeates an entire year of your life, and for many of us, an entire lifetime of running. A lifetime of following passions and developing a community that surrounds it. This year, I found the love from that community to be the greatest reward I can imagine.

With my pacer on the best day of the year: at the track in Auburn, CA on the last Sunday morning in June. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Sean and I cannot contain our excitement waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. (Photo: Helen Pelster)

They say you're not a true Western States runner until you have BOTH colors of buckles. Okay, I might have made that up, but I love my shiny new bronze buckle as much as I love butter! (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

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