Western States... what can you really add to the saturated discussion around the most high profile ultramarathon on the continent? It's the original hundred miler and the perhaps the one that garners the most attention worldwide, along with all the lore and the hype that entails. Maybe that's why it's taken me almost six months to get around to writing a report. Originally, I planned to draft something up in the few days following the race but that didn't happen - largely because I didn't want to churn out another blow-by-blow account of an event that thousands of other people have already written. Western States was my twelfth hundred mile finish and it's getting harder to assign them the same personal meaning and transformation as the first few. Don't misunderstand me, I still love the actual intrinsic act of running trails all day and all night, but the reports come harder now. I'd like to think that there's some benefit to putting off the report, maybe the time has given me some perspective and the things that were vivid enough to remember are the more important take-aways.
It took a long journey of six years to get from my first lottery application to the starting line. There were times when I was at risk of losing my qualification status and other times I nearly didn't bother applying as my attention shifted in other directions. In 2014, both Western States and Hardrock conducted their lottery drawings on the same December day, with 'States going first. I felt a sense of relief when I saw my name finally come up on the Western States Twitter feed and in that moment just sort of mentally wrote off my chances of getting into Hardrock as well. The probability of getting into both was remote, somewhere under 10%. Yet that same evening, I happened to be riding the Boston subway to Harvard for an Ueli Steck slideshow with my wife when my phone started buzzing. Hardrock too. Well, that complicated things, but I knew we'd find a way to make it all happen. Improbable news received in an unusual location (I don't get out much).
My good friend and crew/pacer Nate picked me up from the San Francisco airport around midnight and the moment I got in the car I got hit with a mix of anxiety and excitement that this was finally happening. The next two weeks would be more ambitious than anything I've ever done, in an athletic and logistical sense, but I had a plan and the means and support to succeed. I trust Nate, he's got my back, but he'd only be the first of many people to help me along. With a sense of mission we drove eastward for hours to reach lake Tahoe in time for sun rise. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote, I was "a man on the move and just sick enough to be totally confident".
The pre-race festivities at Squaw Valley were humming with a buzz and excitement that I was largely immune to. Knowing only one or two people out of hundreds, I felt like more of an outside observer - people-watching the Bay Area Mutual Admiration Society. The feel was distinct from the bigger east coast ultras, or even Hardrock or Wasatch - more friendly than I'd been lead to believe but let's just say it was still very California.
In a nutshell, the course starts at the base of the Squaw Valley ski area, climbs up service roads to the Escarpment and then descends through forests on a mix of single and double track to cross a few deep drainages (the Canyons) to the town of Foresthill. From there, "Cal Street" is a wide trail that more or less contours downstream above the wide American River, which you'll cross and then finish up on rolling trails to the town of Auburn. Except for the first few miles, it doesn't really strike me as a mountain race. It's generally hot, dusty, descending, and fast but more technical (in places) than I expected. While moderately scenic, I'm left wondering what kind of course could be put together in the same area if more time were spent actually in the mountains nearby, but I had the same thoughts about the Leadville course and I'm sure that's my own personal bias speaking.
Trying to keep Hardrock in the back of my mind, I made an effort to go out easier than usual. Up the Escarpment, people streamed by me and though I was often the first to switch from a run to a hike when the grade steepened, everyone generally stayed in sight. The singletrack descent that came next was what I'd been waiting months for and my pace could be viewed as a little on the aggressive side. Maybe for everyone else, I thought, but I'm Adam Wilcox. This is my strength. I just hammered thousands of feet down the Osseo Trail last month at twice this speed after 25 hard miles in the Whites to tie up the Pemi Loop FKT. Surely this is a reasonable decision.
I really should have been able to handle it, but by Duncan Canyon near the 50K mark my quads were already beginning to get sore. As it got hot out I started pulling back and Stephanie Howe, who I'd been running with for a while disappeared down the trail ahead of me. I wouldn't see her again. Despite getting close to the top-ten, I let that fantasy go and tried to regroup and run in damage control mode for a while. Tenth place at a modern Western States requires finishing times that are often faster than what Scott Jurek used to run to win the race outright. Tenth place was a pipe dream to begin with and I had other things to consider.
The Canyons were hot, as expected, and my spring heat training seemed to be helping mentally. The temperatures in the mid 90s didn't feel distressful, but it seemed to be taking a physical toll on my body just the same. The aid stations were superbly run, if a little confusing and chaotic, and I took an icy sponge bath at every one. I got to run with Joe Grant for a while, who I'd be seeing again at Hardrock, before falling in with Aliza LaPierre. We passed through Foresthill more or less together but I couldn't keep up on Cal Street and ended up alone until the American River a bit before dusk.
The river crossing was a few hundred feet wide, up to waist deep with a rocky, uneven bottom and a moderate current, so there was a rope to hold onto and glow sticks under the water marking the best places to step. I took my time here, not wanting to slip and trigger a muscle spasm. Emma Roca, a Spanish runner behind me was a little less patient and she gave me a pat on my wet ass cheek to hurry up. I hadn't known we were such good friends.
Exiting the water, Nate was ready with my night kit. I was planning to use my trusty, bright LED headlamp but when I went to give it a quick test before heading off into the evening, it wouldn't work. No light. Nothing. I was sure I'd put in brand new lithium batteries, but we frantically sourced a new set from the aid station. Still nothing. We spent the next five minutes checking and rechecking that the batteries were oriented correctly before an aid station worker took pity and gave me his personal headlamp. It was small but the batteries were "pretty new" so it should be adequate. I thanked him profusely and headed on my way.
As I was leaving, Kaci Lickteig tore past like she was on a mission, looking serious and stronger than anyone I'd seen in hours. She'd go on to put an hour and forty minute gap on me in the last twenty three miles. I mention this because it's one of the most memorable hundred mile pacing jobs I've witnessed - someone who I hadn't seen since the start passing by looking like she was just getting started while I'd worn myself out and begun to circle the drain. There's a lesson here that I should've learned years ago.
My borrowed light was never that bright to begin with but started getting dim less than an hour after I turned it on. Occasionally I was able to join up with another runner and borrow some of their light but then I'd have stop to pee or something and be back to stumbling into rocks on my own again. Until I groped my way into the next aid station and begged the first available volunteer for new batteries. That just so happened to be Hal Koerner, a man who's won more hundreds than I've entered, including Western States. I stood shirtless, sweaty, dusty, and wobbling in place a little while Hal fumbled to open the light and apologized for taking so long. He was more worried about those extra couple minutes to get me fixed up and on my way than I was.
Before the race, I wasn't sure if I'd want a pacer or not but I asked Nate to join me for the last ten miles. It was slow, I bled time and there was a lot more walking than I would've liked but I wasn't really bothered that much. We crossed No Hand Bridge, decorated with about a quarter mile of Christmas lights, and ground out the final miles into Auburn and the finish. Western States, finally done.
Almost immediately after finishing I thought it would be a good idea to take advantage of the massages being offered in the hopes that I'd recover a little quicker for Hardrock. The masseuse was rather merciless and made me hurt like a S.O.B, but it seemed to help. Nate and I then went to a nearby house in town that'd generously been offered to us, punched in the garage door code and went to sleep. I remember thinking to myself, I sure hope this is the right place, because if it's not and we're trying to get into some stranger's house at 2 in the morning, I can't really run away.
The next morning I got to bear witness to the most dramatic race finish I'd seen (until that point). Western States finishes on a high school track and Nate and I took up spots on the bleachers to watch the final finishers come in. I sat down and declared that wasn't getting up for anything because my legs were sore and stiff. We watched what we thought was going to be the last finisher come into the stadium and make his way around the track, when another person appeared. Gunhuild Swanson, age 70, arrived with what we were sure was not nearly enough time to make it across the line before the thirty hour cutoff. The entire crowd, including me, got to it's feet and cheered, though I was sure we were going to watch a heartbreaking failure as the clock ticked over 30:00:00 with Gunhuild still on the front stretch after 100 miles of effort. I'm told she ran a seven minute-mile pace around that track and I believe it. She made it with only six seconds to spare and the whole place erupted.
My biggest take away from Western States is this: it's a microcosm for California itself. You'll spend years hearing the popular opinion about how it's the best thing in the world. Once you get there you'll see that, yeah, it's pretty cool and it certainly has it's standout moments, but I can't help feeling that it's ultimately oversold. While it's a nice place to visit, I sure wouldn't want to live there. I'm grateful to have experienced Western States and I'd like to come back some day. It might not be the best trail race in the universe but it's good enough.