Monday, September 12, 2016

Crewing States

       Once upon a time, I told myself I would enter the lottery for the Western States 100 any time I qualified.  I only qualified once, by running the Hallucination 100 Mile run.  Thank God that I did not get in to Western States.  There was no way I was ready for that.  However, when my buddy David entered into the lottery this past December, he asked if I would be his crew chief and pacer if he got in.  I said yes and I told him that he would get in.  He didn’t believe me, but sometimes I just know these things.  He had a 13.7% chance (4 tickets) of getting in and he did it.  Only 369 people get in each year.   It is quite by luck.
Getting in is only a small part of the battle.  Then you, your crew, pacers, and family need to commit to airfare, rental cars, hotels and a ton of other travel expenses that pop up.  But there was no way I could miss this.   I may never do this race myself, but I sure wanted to see this baby unfold firsthand.  
The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run is the world’s oldest 100 mile trail race.  For marathoners, this is equal to their Boston Marathon.  It is the Granddaddy.  It starts at Squaw Valley, California (home of the 1960 Olympics) and runs to Auburn, California.  Runners will climb more than 18,000 feet and descend almost 23,000 feet during this event.  This race is epic.
My husband Erick and I arrived in Sacramento, California on the Wednesday before the race.  We got the rental van and awaited our compadres.  David, his wife Amanda and his 20 year old daughter Hannah, along with their friend Tracey soon joined us.   
       After a trip to In-N-Out Burger, we headed to my least favorite place in the world, Walmart.  We picked some race essentials we knew would be hard to find up in Squaw Valley.  We got styrofoam coolers, sponges, boost nutrition drinks, bottled water, sunscreen, and more stuff than we could possibly need.  We had to pile this stuff on people’s laps for the drive to Squaw Valley.  We got the biggest van we could afford and it was “cozy” to say the least.

We arrived at Squaw Valley a few hours later.  As we pulled off the main road we passed the Olympic rings and the lit torch.   We stayed at the Village at Squaw Valley.  Arriving here to me, was like a child arriving at Disneyland.  This is ultra runner mecca for the weekend.  While Amanda and Erick cooked us dinner, the rest of us went out for a short run.  The elevation had most of us midwesterners huffing and puffing in no time and it brought Hannah and I to a walking pace.  It was humbling.  
On Thursday morning there was a hike up to Emigrant Pass that we all participated in.  It is a climb of 2,550 feet in four miles to an elevation for 8.750 feet.  The trek took some of us more than two hours.  When they warned us of this in advance  that this climb could be difficult for some, I did not think they were talking about us.  This is the first four miles of the race course.  I could not imagine trying to run it, hiking it was tough enough.  The views from the top were spectacular but we were all pretty happy for the tram to take us back to the resort.  
Amanda and Hanna on the assent

We had a meeting about “How to Crew a Western States Runner.” The lecture gave us insight on how to get from one aid station to the next, where we should stop for our own food, where to get ice and food for our runners, and how to plan for parking and shuttles to the aid stations.  These folks at Western States have this down to a science.  
Later that afternoon we attend the Veteran’s Panel.  The panelists gave insight into the course, the terrain, and other race strategy.  One major discussion was how to handle the heat.  The predicted temperature was to be over 100 during the day and around 70’s at night.  Ian Sharman candidly advised runners that runners may need to change their goal times with this kind of heat. 

On Friday. we went with David to get checked in for the race.  We were allowed to go with him through the runner check in.  It was a pretty cool process to see, more official than any race I have ever been in.  He had his photo taken and got a wristband he would wear until the end of the race.  He also participated in some medical research studies both before and after the race. 
That afternoon, David and I went to the race meeting.  The room was packed.  Every available space was filled by runners sitting, standing, and even peeking through the windows trying to be a part of it.  Because I hate being late, we had front row seats. Some awards were presented, important people were thanked and the notable runners came forward and were introduced to the crowd.  It was pretty cool to see all these people I had previously seen only in magazines and online, up close and in person now.  



I should mention just how accessible the running “celebrities” are here at Squaw.  Almost every time I walked out the door from our hotel, I would bump into someone famous in the ultra running scene.  Sally McRae, Ann Trason, Ian Sharman, Sage Canaday, Bryon Powell, Gordy Ainsley, David Laney (my friend and former coworker but more notably,  Ultra Runner of the Year for 2015) and many others were just hanging out in the area and welcomed you if you wanted to say hello or take a photo with them.  I saw Podcasters from The Ginger Runner and Ultra Runner Podcast as well as Running Stupid.  I fully admit, I was a total run groupie and took every opportunity to meet these amazing and talented runners.  This is one of the coolest things about running as a sport.  You can toe the line with the best of the best in this sport, compete in the same event.  I can’t think of another sport you could do that in. Yet the coolest thing as when Bryan Powell asked to take a photo of my tattoo, which reads “Relentless Forward Progress”  also the title of his book.
David and I with Tropical Jon Mettinger and the RD-Craig Thornily

Me with Sage Canaday and Bryon Powell
With Sarah Lavender Smith
Coach Ken (from Running Stupid Podcast) his wife Karen and I (I knew them before WS100)

David and I with Gunhild Swanson
Sally McRea and I (OMG love her!)

The Ginger Runner and I!
With Ann Treason, what a legend.

Eric from Ultra Runner Podcast.
Ethan from Ultra Runner Podcast

Ian Sharman and I.  Wow, his accent....and hot!
My friend David Laney- Ultra Runner of the Year.

Gordy those hands!

       Friday evening, David went over his gear with us.  We had decided on what aid stations we would be at and what he would need at each one.  He’s a pretty low maintenance guy.  He doesn’t bring drop bags.  So he would rely on what we had, which was pretty minimal.  Sunscreen, bug spray, Tailwind, Boost, an extra pair of shoes and socks, lube, a dry shirt, raincoat, flashlight and headlamp.  We all tried to get to bed early to rest up for the long haul ahead.

       Saturday morning we headed to the start area at 4:15 A.M.   At 5:00 A.M. the runners started their journey of 100.2 miles to Auburn.  After David was on his way, we headed back to the room to load up the van and headed out.  Our drive to the first aid station was over 100 miles and down so many twisty canyon roads that I swore we were lost.  I was beginning to fear we were not going to make it to the aid station before David arrived.  It took hours to get there.

       At Robinson Flat we were treated with seeing all the front runners come through.  We expected to see the happy, smiling David we usually see early on at races.  What we saw shocked us all a bit.  Less than 30 miles into the race and he looked quite worn and thin.  He sat on a log and assured us that he had been drinking, that is was just really hot.  He had been keeping an ice bandana around his neck to help but the heat was just brutal.  We slathered him with sunscreen and he went on his way.

Difficult as it was, we all tried to keep our concerns to a minimum.  Amanda and Hannah really wanted us to go to the next aid station to see him.  They were very concerned about how he looked.  I had to make the difficult decision to overrule their concern and press on to the aid station that David told us to be at.  (If we had gone out of our way to the next aid station, nor our assigned one- we could risk missing him because the distances are so far when you are driving.)  Our next time to see him was at Michigan Bluff, mile 55.7.  I made sure the crew got fed and we restocked on our own supplies and gassed up the vehicle.  We had to park a few miles away from the aid station.  We waited in the vehicle trying to stay cool.  We could see the marks on the road where other car tire had melted from the heat.  It was a brutal 100 degrees.  It was tough to just stand outside, let alone think of running in it.   We had been told to expect our runner to look quite bad coming into this aid station as they would have just spent a long hard time in the canyon.  True enough, when David came in he looked horrible.  He had the thousand yard stare, the lights were on but no one was home look.  His face was very drawn, almost skeleton like.  I was forced to hid my concern as to not worry Amanda any further.  David sat for a few minutes while we helped him regroup.  Amanda pleaded with David to wait here a half an hour until his first pacer (Tracey) could join him.  I really hate to be the bad guy but I knew if this happened his race could be over.  He needed to keep moving forward.  We got him refueled and I stuffed his headlamp in his pack as I knew dark was coming and he did not anticipate needing light for yet another few miles, I was not going to take any chances.  He made his way down the road and we hightailed it to our van.  I could not bear the though of him being alone looking the way he did.  I had a plan, but we had to move fast.  
I knew I could meet him about 2 miles from where we left him if we hurried.  I changed into my running clothes while we drove (hopefully no one had to see that...)to the the Foresthill aid station, mile 62.  As soon as we arrived I hauled ass to meet David.  I’m slow, but I still waited about 20 minutes for him.  He had not expected to see me and looked quite glad to have the company.  We walked up a paved hill, when we hit the trail again he said he felt like running.  He said his stomach was acting up.  He rarely deals with this, yet I deal with is a lot at my races.  He ran about 1/4 mile before he started vomiting on the side of the trail.  I told him it would be ok, that this was no big deal.  Throwing up was just a way to reset your system.   I handed him a paper towel to clean himself up and then he handed it back to me!  (Oh the joys of ultra running.)  Not one to litter, I shoved it in my pocket and we moved on.  He ran until we met up with his wife and daughter slightly before the aid station.  Once there, I dug into my suitcase and found some antacid.  I shoved them into David’s mouth before he know what I was doing.  We got him resupplied and Tracey was ready to pace him through the night.  I asked her two things.  Make sure he eats and make sure he drinks.  She said she would take care of it.  It was a great relief to know he was not alone
Erick and I with Tony at Rucky Chucky.
We headed to the aid station I was most looking forward too, the river crossing at Rucky Chucky.  I had seen this in many photos and videos over the years, but to experience it as a spectator was inspiring.  There was a short time prior to this that we were able to rest, but I never slept more than five minutes straight.  My brain would not shut off, I had a goal.  I needed to get David to that finish and there was no chance I would let anyone oversleep and miss him at an aid station.  I checked his progress on the internet (when available) and when I thought we were within an hour of him arriving we headed out to catch the shuttle.  It was nothing like I imagined.  It was about a 20 minute drive in a short school bus that we had just seen them change the tire on.  I had no idea how bad the road would be to get there.  After living in Michigan all my life I thought I knew what a pothole was.  This gave new meaning.  I was glad it was dark out as I could barely see what we were about to hit prior to bouncing out of my seat.  Once at the aid station we met up with my long time friend, Tony.  For several years he has worn a wetsuit and stood in the freezing waters all day and night to help runners cross the river.  He and the other volunteers do an amazing job to keep everyone safe.  The runners that came through seemed to be revitalized, as if this was a major event in the race for them.  It was exactly as I thought it would be and when David and Tracey came through I was thrilled.  David walked to the aid station and he took food and drink and he looked like a new man.  My heart filled with relief to see him out of that dark place he had been earlier.  His face looked full and his color was back.  I knew he was going to be ok.  It was so amazing to watch Tracey and David cross the river.  Tony was so excited to meet David in person while helping him cross the river, they had been Facebook friends for several years already but not met in person until this day.

The next aid station was where I would get to pace David.  It was Highway 49, mile 93.5.  While driving there we saw No Hands Bridge lit up at night.  My heart thumped with excitement knowing I would cross this with David shortly after daybreak.  We arrived at the parking area and I told the rest of the crew to nap.  I was up every five minutes again checking my phone for updates.  They were happy every time I told them to set their alarms for another half hour.  I was so restless, I just wanted to get there and start running with David.  To help him get to the finish.  I finally woke the crew for good and we caught the shuttle to the aid station.  We sat down and waited for our runner.  When David arrived he looked great.  He refueled and gave his wife a kiss and we were off.  Tracey told me to stay ahead of him but keep him in sight.  I did exactly as she said.  I am not as fast of a runner as David but I did the best I could.  He followed at my pace, he talked little, I talked a lot.  Luckily we have this understanding that he doesn’t have to answer or reply while I yammer on, he has yet to tell me to shut up.  We ran down such a mix of trail, it was single track them wide enough for two people and a minute later you had a huge drop off on one side.  He told me as we approached No Hands Bridge that he wanted to walk across it.  Walking across No Hands Bridge with David will be a highlight in my running life forever.  I was just that cool, something I had heard about for many years but almost could not believe I was a doing.  The temperatures were beginning to rise again and the sun was baking us even this early in the day.  As I knew we were beginning our climb I told David to take one last look around as this was the last time he was seeing this scenery.  Near the top of the climb I looked back and said, “That was some hill.”  David said stoically, “That was NOT a hill.”  I had to laugh at my flatlander opinion of a hill but since David had just climbed up and down the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the past day, I guess his opinion of a “hill” is vastly different from mine.  When were nearing top and about to leave the trail for good and head onto pavement, David told me to stop.  I immediately thought something was wrong.  He asked me to come back to him.  I did and he embraced me and he thanked me for all I did to help him achieve this goal.  I was overwhelmed.  His sincerity and thankfulness was beyond words.  Even as I type this tears come to my eyes. 

       We hit the pavement and were surprised to see spectators.  Residents were on the streets to cheer us on.  There were balloons on the side of the road marking the course and kids on their bikes yelling and clapping for us.  We pass small neighborhood parties along the way and then we see Amanda, Hannah and Tracey.  Erick had dropped them off and then driven to the finish to meet us.  We all ran in and basked in the knowing that David was doing this.  That he would be getting his Western States 100 buckle.  We traveled down the streets of town and made the last turn onto the track of the Placer High School in Auburn.  To run this last segment on the track with him was amazing.  We rounded the last corner and David stopped.  He reached out and calls all of us in for a massive group hug and took a minute to thank us, there was no doubt the amount of appreciation he felt right now.  It took a team effort to get David to his finish. I was thrilled that he asked me to be a part of it and even happier that he achieved his goal.  We let him slip away from our embrace and we watch him cross the finish line, 27 hours, 35 minutes and 38 seconds after his journey began.  The race may have taken place in slightly more than one day.  But the memories will love on forever.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Vertical Mile

My Vertical Mile

I work with a very talented group of athletes.  Most of them are elite runners and have a mile PR (personal record) in the four and a half minute or so range.  Regardless of the exact time, it is impressive and it is fast.  When I came back to work after my vacation I was able to tell them I beat their mile PR.  I told them that my mile PR was 120 miles per hour, but it was vertical.  They laughed and I told them about my first time skydiving.

I had no intention of skydiving, it wasn’t even on my radar.  Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, well-it just didn’t make any sense.  Then we wound up RV camping at an airstrip in Huntington, West Virginia for the weekend of the Marshall Marathon.  When we pulled into the campground I saw a giant sign at the entrance that said, “Skydiving.”  It was a beautiful Vegas style sign and I immediately asked my husband about it.  He told me the campground airstrip runs a skydiving class and also has vintage WWII biplanes you can ride in.  It all sounded interesting but nothing I had even thought of doing before.  He, on the other hand was very interested in flying in the biplane.  His family has a strong background in aviation and one day he will get his pilot license.

After setting up camp we sat outside and watched the skydivers take off in their tiny planes and later jump, parachute and then land in the field nearby our camper.  It was pretty cool.  I could have watched it all day.  But then I discovered the campground had a bar.  After putting down a few gin and tonics and sampling some fried green tomatoes, I chatted the bartender up on skydiving.  She told me she had just turned 50 and she jumped for the first time on her birthday.  She said it was by far one of the most amazing things she had ever done in her life.  I saw a bumper sticker on the wall that said “I (heart) Skydiving”.  I snapped a photo and posted it on my Facebook page with the comment, “To jump, or not to jump...that is the question?”  Several comments showed up and most were positive.  One from my financial advisor that said, “Sure, your  life insurance policy premiums are paid up.”  Many friends I would never imagine said that they had done it and loved it.  I told my husband that I was probably going to do it the following day.  He suspected the alcohol was talking and that this was not actually going to happen.  
      The next morning he went to the hanger to meet with the pilot that did tours on the 1940 Steerman, the WWII biplane.  While they were flying, I talked with one of the skydiving instructors.  I asked him what the hardest part about skydiving was and he said it was that you really have to go against everything you know.  He said a lot of people have a really hard time just stepping outside the plane while you are in the air.  It goes against human nature to step outside of a plane while in flight.  Yup, I can agree with that.  I then took a short walk to the office and signed a waiver for my first skydiving jump.
About a half hour later my husband landed in the biplane and was quite excited about his flight.  He told me that the pilot let him fly the plane quite a bit, other than the take off and landing.  I didn’t want to cut his enjoyment short, but I knew they were waiting for me at the hanger for my jump.  I met with Phil, my jump instructor.  He had me watch a short video, basically about how I can’t sue them if I die and how I can change my mind in the plane and they will be ok with it.  He then helped me get into my jump suit, had me put on a cap and goggles, then strapped an altimeter on my wrist.  He gave me some basic instructions on what to do and what not to do.  He said that we would jump at 10,000 feet and free fall at 120 miles per hour.  Then at about 5,000 feet he would indicate to me to pull the chute.  He said if I didn’t do it soon enough, he would do it on his own and not to worry.  Then after he pulled the chute, I would have to step on his feet and push myself up so he could loosen the harness.  He also explained how we would steer the parachute once it is open and the proper landing technique so we would not get injured.  
       I got on the tiny airplane.  The pilot is the only person that has an actual seat.  I sit on my butt behind him, my legs straight out.  Phil is straddled over my legs facing me.  On the passenger side there two guys, both sitting in the same positions that Phil and I are in.  It seems weird to be in a plane, facing backwards and not be in a seat.  I’m the person that gives my husband’s hand the death grip when we take off and land on a normal commercial flight.  I’m the person that gets nervous when we hit the slightest turbulence.  I usually look at my husband and ask, “Is that normal?”  He will say, “Yes it is just us going through a cloud,”  I know that when his face shows no panic, then it is ok.  He’s not here with me.  I search Phil’s eyes when the plane bounces a little and he pats my leg.  He knows I’m nervous even tough I haven’t said a word.
It takes about fifteen minutes to get to 10,000 feet.  The two guys next to me have jumped before.  They are making jokes and have no trace of nervousness.  The guy up front opens the door and my heart is in my feet.  It is very cold and windy.  He has to work a bit to open the tiny door as it opens upward.  Once he latches it up, he and his friend work their way to the door and they jump so fast that I swear it didn’t happen.  

Phil tells me to work my way to the door, so I crawl on my knees to get there. Phil then has me sit on my knees facing away from him and he approaches me on his knees and connects our harness together.  He pulls them very tight and I feel a sense of calm because he is close and he is completely calm.  We are facing the open door of the plane and he tells me it’s time to step outside to the platform.  Platform is a generous word for what I need to step on.    It is really a piece of metal that was about 10 inches by 4 inches and mounted over the wheel of the plane.  I’d say it was about the size of a women’s size 9 shoe.  I’d say two shoes but I’m not sure both of my feet actually touched it.  As I put my right leg out of the plane to try to reach the step the wind flings my leg backwards.  I hadn’t anticipated how strong the winds were.  You are not allowed to hang on to anything on the plane when you step out.  They don’t want you to put a death grip on the plane and not let go.  Phil said to try again and plant my foot.  I managed to get it there.  He said to get my other foot out and I’m pretty sure that as soon as my foot got out of the plane we just jumped.  

The next thing I see is the world sprawled out me.  It was like the scene in the movies where you see everything coming at you a million miles an hour.  I saw the Ohio River, curving and separating Ohio and West Virginia.  Phil had instructed me earlier to push my stomach out and let my arms and feet fall behind me towards the sky.  We free fall at 120 miles per hour for about 5,000 feet.  I know Phil wants me to pull the chute but my brain and my hand aren’t connecting and he pulls the chute for me.  Then in an instant we go from being parallel to the ground to being perpendicular.  He indicates it is time for me to step on his feet to loosen the harness.  As I step on his feet and feel the straps loosen- I yell, “Don’t drop me!”  He laughs but he knows it is a strange sensation when the harness loosens it feels like you are sliding off and that you are being let go.  He guides my hands to the handles of the chute and lets me control our direction.  I turn us so I can see the area where the Marshall Stadium is and downtown Huntington.  I wanted the birdseye view of where I would be running the marathon the next day.  Then we turn back towards the airfield and see some pretty fancy houses, farm land and the windy river.  I see the airstrip and our campground and our super cute Winnebago RV.  I can see my husband standing on the side of the field watching me as I come in for my landing.  Phil tells me it is time to lift my legs up so that they are parallel with the ground.  I have to do this so our legs don’t get tangled up on the landing, so we don’t get injured.  We hit the ground on our butts and put skid to a stop pushing a nice little pile of fall leaves over us.  I breath easy, knowing I survived and didn’t break any bones and will be fine for my race the next day.  Phil and I get up and he unhooks the harness.  I give him a big hug and thank him.  My husband is all smiles and I can how proud that I did something so adventurous.  I get my first jump certificate from the office and they say I get a free drink at the bar, kind of funny as that is where it all started.