Western States 100: I’m not sweating– my body is crying

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” -Faulkner, from his Nobel acceptance speech.

Mile 35. The sky kept pouring, sometimes with sleet, sometimes with hail, sometimes with huge rain drops that are rare for the usually sunny California Sierra. The palms of my hands had begun to go white and wrinkly; I was moving but still shivering. My fingertips had been white since mile 5 and would stay white until mile 50. The remote course meant that I had only seen my crew once, at mile 30, and would not see them again until mile 55. And unlike every other ultramarathon I’d run until now, I had no close friends in the race to talk to and stay fired up with. It was a lonely, lonely time. Me vs. my own head.

“Why am I out here? What am I trying to do? Is it worth it?” It was the second of three times I’d consider quitting that day. But I couldn’t stop now, in the cold driving rain in the middle of nowhere in the mountains–I had to keep moving. So I did. And as I went, a higher level of psyche started to come back. So it goes, downs and ups, ebbs and flows. “Accept the low points and move on,” said 2010 winner Geoff Roes.

Just last week, legendary ultrarunner Scott Jurek came to La Jolla. Having won Western States seven times, he gave me some good tips and a boost of psyche!

The Western States 100 may have been the hardest day of my life. I’ve worked myself harder physically several times, on Khan Tengri, Philmont’s Cons Marathon, Leadville 100, Badger 100, and Badwater to Whitney, even maybe the PCT 50. But when adding in the psychological challenges of being alone, without a watch to know how far you’ve gone (Naked Wrist is sooo hard for a 100-miler), and on a course that very much exposed my weaknesses, I am not sure I’ve had to work as hard, mentally, ever.

Fitz Cahall’s famous Dirtbag Diaries piece on Three Types of Fun claims that you work harder and feel more pain on the days when you struggle a bit, not on your championship days. That was true for me today; I gave so much to this race even though the miles didn’t peel off like they have other times.

Tim Olson comes into the mile 30 aid station (Robinson Flat) in 3rd place. He would turn it up and finish in course record time.

“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” said Dostoevsky. It seemed very noble when I read that from the comforts of my sofa, and I memorized it. But on the muddy trail all the suffering and hurting sometimes seems not worth it. I’m not in it for the pain. In fact, I don’t like pain and I want it to stop. But I do believe that through encountering pain, you can learn and really expand yourself. So I am willing to confront it, even if, in the moment, I really question why am am putting myself through the pain.

Running Western States was hard for me both physically and mentally. Mentally, there was no clear need to run such a grueling event. At Badger, my first 100-miler, and I wanted to prove myself by finishing the race in a day. My second hundred, Leadville, I was running in memory of Tim and carrying his ashes. This time, my third 100-miler, I had no obvious greater goal. Consequently I had to dig so much deeper mentally in order to perform. I questioned myself a lot more this time.

Running pain is self-inflicted. If you stop, the pain stops. You can drop out anytime and are not forced to continue (unlike on some epic mountain climbs). This can make it mentally very hard to keep going. At Western States I had to cling to my very real, but fragile, belief that internal struggle was good for me, that Dostoevsky was right.

“The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again.” – Faulkner

Robinson Flat. Things are already ugly and will get uglier in the next few miles as the storm hits in full force…

I was in 47th place on Red Star Ridge, in the middle of the most picturesque views and amazing running terrain. Then came the infamous canyons, the relentless downhill drops. Sleek, thin runners lightly bounded down the steep descents as I cautiously chugged on down, humbled and demoralized at my falling position. But I let them go, reminding myself that my strategy was to make it up on the uphills (though there are 30% fewer of those on the course) and that I needed to save my quads for later in the race, as Scott Jurek had advised me last week. The last 40 miles are the easiest terrain, plus you have pacers. I just needed to get to mile 60.

Carlyn paces me up a hill at mile 79. It looks bad but I am feeling (relatively) good and cruising (relatively) fast.

Western is also difficult physically. Its steep, prolonged downhills are hard for big guys, and especially for me. Most of my training is alpine climbing, where you get good ultrarunning training while power-hiking up, but hiking down isn’t the same as training for running down steep descents in a long race. I knew this but I still underestimated how unrelenting those Western States downhills are. By mile 52, the the bottom of Eldorado Canyon, the longest and steepest descent, I had fallen to 95th place and was wincing at every stride downhill.

Western States was the first race I’d ever had real thoughts of quitting, and they all–all three of them– came in the first 50 miles. I regrouped and reminded myself that if there is one thing I’m good at, it’s performing in the face of adversity. With gentler terrain and some uphills coming up, I clawed my way back. Thoughts of letting by crew down and betraying my own self by quitting kept me going to mile 55 where I saw my crew again, for only the second time. That the rain went away about that time also helped a lot. One small final canyon and then the terrain eased at mile 60 when simultaneously I got my pacers.

Most races allow pacing starting at mile 50 but at Western you must wait until 60. It is a whole lot more difficult to run alone for 10 more miles. But I knew once I made it to my pacers, Daniel, Carlyn, and Luke would guide me home. Once I was back with my crew, I still had a lot of physical pain to endure. But all psychological doubts were gone.

Very stoked to finally reach my crew and have Carlyn pacing me at mile 62.

I had a surprise visit from my college buddy Eric and his friends at mile 78, at the far side of the river crossing, just at nightfall. The cold river crossing woke me up, and my mom also surprised me by meeting me on the other side. The good energy from that, as well as Daniel’s masterful pacing, got me to mile 90. Despite a minor freakout/ mini-breakdown at the loose and steep downhill at that time, I recovered and met the crew again at mile 93.

There Luke rekindled my stoke, pacing me through the crossing of No-Hands Bridge and finishing hard in 22:34. Officially my fastest 100-mile time yet, and in plenty of time for the sub-24 hour silver buckle. Three 100’s, three big buckles. And I would have surely missed the big buckle time cutoffs at each of those races without my pacers; keeping going at a decent clip that late into the night is impossible on your own. It’s a team effort out there.

The finish line with my pacers. It was such a great life-affirming event. The endorphines have already started kicking in and will last for days. If you have bad news for me, tell me now! I don’t care about anything!

While I made it back up from 95th at halfway into 89th place by the finish, I was still well off of my idealized 20-hour pace. It wasn’t my best performance ever, but I tried the hardest, and so by that very real metric, it was my very best race. Like Faulkner predicted, I not only endured, I prevailed. Over myself, and over my weakness. On paper, I maybe should have done better. But internally, on that day on that course, I know it was my proudest effort.

The Western States course is nice, but there are way more beautiful parts of the Sierra Nevada and for sure better running trails. But nothing beats Western States in terms of history and atmosphere. Western States is “The most iconic 100-mile footrace in the world” as Competitor Magazine put it. The organization, the volunteers (cannot be emphasized enough), the competition, the vibe–all are unparalleled, even comparing it against the Leadville 100, which is itself a storied and incredible race. To have run both of these truly great events, I feel really fortunate.

And the history is made each year. This year at Western States, both men’s and women’s course records fell with the most stacked field in the history of the race. A top 10 finish at western states is indeed more than elite, it’s star status. No other ultramarathon in the USA has this level of competition. Indeed, with my greatest effort at any race yet, my time still got my lowest “score” on Ultrasignup of any of my ultras due to the high competition. Of course, coming in I knew I couldn’t win. But that’s why I was there. Not to look good, but because I wanted to run with the big guns. I was stoked with the allure of being part of this most prestigious race.

My psyche was a little off but not every day can be your best day (“only the mediocre are always at their best”). But it wasn’t a bad day for me either, and it was much worse for some others. Around mile 28, I heard some very strange noises that I thought was a burro or a deer bellowing. It was a woman having an asthma attack right in front of me; she began writhing on the ground. It was two-time ultra runner of the year Kami Semick, who placed second at Western States last year. I was scared and had no idea what to do to help her but other runners with asthma came up behind us and were able to give her some of their inhaler shots. I had a hard day but for others like Kami it was harder.

My parents were an essential part of my crew. Here we are after the awards ceremony and I’m sporting the sub-24 Silver Belt Buckle I was just awarded. Now you know which side of the family my haggard fashion comes from.

Some people had great days. Tim Olson and Ellie Greenwood both set course records. While conditions for records were indeed especially good (cool), I think better times will continue happening in years to come as the sport of ultrarunning and Western States 100 in specific becomes more and more competitive.

Trying to predict the champions was hard. I predicted Nick Clark (finished 3rd) or maybe Dylan Bowman (7th) or Ryan Sandes (2nd) for men and Kami (dropped) or Krissy Moehl (4th) for the women (full results here). I actually thought Tim Olson didn’t have a chance as he got beaten handily in a couple of races this spring. Turns out he was running an excessive number of races on suboptimal rest on purpose this spring, viewing running in the fatigued state as training for Western States. It worked!

“Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, “I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.” It’s more then just a race, it’s a style. It’s doing something better then anyone else. It’s being creative.” -Prefontaine

Pre made art by running. Faulkner and Dostoevsky made it by writing. I’m not sure my running or my writing is art yet, though getting to that level is my goal. Still, I think I have begun to understand the pain, the internal struggle, the human condition, that they all talk about. Finding strength in pain, and growing from it. It’s universal.

(PS: Also, check out this awesome talk Krissy Moehl gave about struggling at Western States 2009, learning from it, and winning the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc two months later.)

Scarfing a burrito at the mile 62 aid station. Haggard? Or maybe you can call this art?!?

About zoomloco

I zoom-zoom loco like the pony express.
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6 Responses to Western States 100: I’m not sweating– my body is crying

  1. Garret says:

    Great post Ben.
    When’s the Dirtbag Diaries podcast from? A friend asked me where the types of fun thing came from. Obviously it existed before the podcast, and I’ve actually heard different definitions that having nothing to do with expectations (type 3 is basically not fun at all–not fun while you’re doing it, not fun to tell stories about after).

    • zoomloco says:

      Hey Garret,
      Thanks. I think the Dirtbag Diaries “types of fun” is from Dec 2009 (see here: http://www.dirtbagdiaries.com/fun_divided_by_three).
      I first heard of types of fun in Kelly Cordes’ (American Alpine Journal editor) post in Nov 2009 here http://kellycordes.wordpress.com/2009/11/02/the-fun-scale/
      Kelly says he heard of it in 2001 from a climbing partner…
      BTW I wasn’t joking that I thought that Western would be harder than Leadville, for me that was right because Leadville more fits my strengths. Wasatch? I have to take a careful look at the profile and see how steep those downhills are…

    • Skye Schell says:

      Garret – right on. The “three types of fun” meme has been around the NW for a while, and Fitz used a different version for his podcast. The one I learned a while ago:

      (Type 0 – fun at the time, but then huge regret)
      Type 1 – fun at the time, good stories
      Type 2 – not fun at the time, but great to think back on / tell stories
      Type 3 – not fun during, not fun to think back on

  2. Skye Schell says:

    Awesome post and race, Ben! Still want to do another?

    • zoomloco says:

      Skye, I still have a ways to becoming a more complete and better person. Until I am saint-like, I find it helpful to do my penance in suffering in these types of events, purifying my intentions and burning away the trivial things, exposing my psychological weaknesses and learning a lot along the way. ( A lot like the movie The Mission, perhaps?) So, do I WANT to do another?– I am not sure. But I should–it’s good for me, it’s fulfilling–so I will. Type 2 fun. See you at Wasatch!

  3. lstefurak says:

    Good work, so inspiring!

    Here is the elevation profile for WS. Killer downhills.

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