June 29, 2009

Western States 100, An Epilogue

This one is hard to put into words. I’m not sure if it is because there is so much to say, or because there is so much I just don’t know how to say. In short it’s been a long road with many bumps and turns along the way, and I wouldn’t have made it without the help of my family and friends.

Saturday, June 27th. 5:00 am. Literally the moment for which I’d been waiting three consecutive years. It finally came. When it did, a crazy, chanting group of some 400 eccentric runners started up the face of Squaw Valley, destine for the small town of Auburn exactly 100.2 miles away. We would travel on foot over mountains, under forests, across canyons, through a river, beneath the blazing sun, and then into the darkness of night. It was a surreal feeling to be there at that moment, with so much anticipation. As I pushed up the mountain, I couldn’t help but think to myself, will I get through this?

Start to Robinson Flat (First 29 miles). From the start at Squaw Valley to the top of the Escarpment, the first 3.5 miles, is the steepest and highest climb of this race. Starting at 6,200’ above sea level and rising to 8,720’, this section had me checking and rechecking my heart rate, which was reading north of 160 bpm for the entire climb, just power walking. This was a much higher rate than I anticipated, which had me a little concerned with some 97 miles to go. Once we summited, I looked back over Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains, and felt a nice, important rush of energy.

For the next 26 miles we ran what was for me the hardest part of the course. This was mostly a single track, up and down, winding trail at or above 7,000’. My goal here was to eat and drink as often as possible, avoid overexertion, and try to get through the section with minimal episodes. I knew my body would have to work 20% harder through this section just because of the altitude. All was going well, so well in fact I decided to celebrate by listening to some music on my Ipod. Then, just like that, my left ankle buckled as I was rounding the tight, rocky trail. I felt a sharp pain shoot up my leg. Shit! Did that just happen? I just sprained my ankle and I have 83 miles left to run! I stopped, collected myself, then began slowly walking. My ankle was stiff and in pain, but I could still walk on it. After a few minutes, I started to jog slowly. I continued to feel pain, but it was muted by the endorphins now rushing through my body. I continued gingerly through the most technical sections of the course.

As the miles crept by, my confidence began to return. Having experienced an ankle sprain on a long run before, I knew that there was a good chance the pain and stiffness would work itself out if I continued running. And it did. After a couple hours I didn’t feel the pain anymore and I was able to get back to my normal stride. I deemed this ankle sprain to be a blessing in disguise, forcing me to slow things down for the long run ahead. I continued through the long decent into Duncan Canyon, and then up the 1,400' climb to Robinson Flat. In terms of difficulty, this was not far off from the first climb up the face of Squaw because we were still at altitude. The heat was also beginning to set in. Seeing my crew at Robinson was a welcome site. They made sure I got my nutrition and got me on my way.

The Canyons – Robinson Flat to Forrest Hill (Miles 29 to 62). If there is one dreaded section of the Western States trail, it would be the canyons. Hot, steep and unrelenting, the canyons come in the middle of the course, when the sun is at its highest arch. I knew the heat would be a factor so I loaded up with more water than normal, carrying at certain points 110 ounces in a hydration pack and two hand held bottles, 60% of which I would dump over my head along the way to stay cool. This strategy worked as I never felt too hot, even with temperatures

reaching triple digits and climbing the nasty Devil’s Thumb and Michigan Bluff ascents. What I didn’t do so well was to conserve my quads on the descents. I’d been told by many Western gurus that running with any intensity down the canyons was risky business because my quads could really suffer, which would slow me down later in the race. I moved quickly down these descents despite these warnings. I met my unflappable crew again at Michigan Bluff (Mile 55) and Forrest Hill (mile 62) for a much needed, but quick break. My pacer Rob McNair joined me at Forrest Hill for the rest of the run.

Forest Hill to Auburn (miles 62 to 100.2) – Western States veterans all say that you need to save your energy until Forrest Hill, for it is here where you can really run. The trail is smooth with a gentle downhill and it is the most runable section of the course. I entered the section with some life still left in my legs. As Rob and I continued down the long winding single track I knew every step I took in daylight was a step faster than I could take at nightfall. We pushed under the fading light.

At the end of the Forrest Hill trail we reached the river crossing at Rucky Chucky. Nightfall had set in. Here we crossed the American river, submerging ourselves in the chilly, chest high running water, stepping on boulders illuminated only by glow sticks glimmering beneath the surface. The glow of the lights in the river and a long cable beckoned me across. As I stepped into the water a cold shiver ran through my body. After 78 miles of running, my mind was beginning to slip. The mountain water was a good wake up call. Volunteers were in rafts telling us where to step, and where not to. The whole thing reminded me of a scene in the movie Apocalypse Now, when American Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Marten Sheen) and his men were stuck at night at a bridge under heavy fire by the Vietcong. Lights flashing, people barking out orders. Organized chaos.

We moved up Rucky Chukcy to Greengate, were my fearless crew waited for us. They had hiked 1.25 miles in at 10 pm just to see me wave at them and keep moving. From there we made our way through a very runnable section of the course. And it was here where my quads began to give way. I’d been running some 18 hours by now, up and down tens of thousands of feet of mountain trails, and my legs were now saying enough already! Every step I took hurt. Wait, I remember saying to myself, you can’t give up now! And so I persisted in a fight with my quads for the rest of the night, pushing them as they pushed back. I had to shorten my stride just keep my legs from buckling under my own weight. I continued this battle as Rob and I made our way over the dark undulating trail toward the finish line.

Finish Line – Placer High School. How does one describe the feeling finishing a 100 mile run? How does one tell a story of spending three years to qualify, train, plan and then run a 100 mile race? I don’t know if this is possible. I do know, however, that as I ran the last half mile of this long journey, the pain began to melt away. When I saw the finish line, I could hear my crew and friends yelling for me. It was a moment for which I had been waiting a long, long time. And then, just like that, 23 hours and 28 minutes after taking my first step, I crossed the finish line.

I can't say how much help I received from others to make this possible. My crew, which included my wife Jen and friends Laura, Rob and Jeff, where phenomenal. They met me at every stop throughout the day and night, often hiking long distances just to see me for a minute. They took great care of me. As for Rob, my pacer, I simply couldn't have made it those last 20 miles without him. His words of wisdom along the way gave me the confidence to push through the dark moments. Thanks guys, running 100's is truly a team sport and I had the best team!


Mel-2nd Chances said...

I am in awe. You ran 100 miles. Incredible. Most of it on a sprained ankle! Congrats on all your hard work and patience and determination... I don't know how you do it, but you did. Rest up your body, and your ankle. A well-deserved break :D Congrats again!!

Author said...

Cheers Willy! I knew you could do it!

It blows my mind that anyone could run 100 miles through those mountains!

Jimmy Jam! Coming at ya on one bum ankle and a lot of heart!

Tyler Booth

Joe said...

Epic journey Willy! Absolutely epic! Rest a bit then start getting ready for the Grand Canyon, it will feel like a 10K after WS! Huge props my brother to you and your team!

Molly said...

Congrats Willie! Amazing!! I can't wait to hear more details live. I just can't imagine it.


Anonymous said...

Awesome performance! Inspiring. Congrats.

704Studio said...


Amazing adventure, you really did leave it all on the course. It is hard for me to imagine running 100 miles, but I can't imagine running 100 miles with a sprained ankle. Pure guts, determination, courage, fortitude, every good word possible will fit in here!


Unknown said...

Great job, Will.

Way to fight through it.

Thank you for the race report.


Scott Dunlap said...

You DID IT! I hope you are staggering around with that belt buckle fixed firmly on your jeans. It was a tough day out there, and the silver buckle is a very big deal. Way to tough it out!

Now go gain some weight back. ;-)

Unknown said...

Words can not describe how proud I am of you. You are an extraordinary “renaissance man” in every sense of the word. Husband, dad, son, friend, CEO, and athlete and after following your blog for these many months let me add “amazing and gifted writer”

Michael Friedl said...

Great story, Willie, and really really great accomplishment! I followed the intermittent webcast of your progress and am SO proud of you. Let's have a "jog & grog" after your ankle is recovered.

Bill Ramsey said...

Willy: What an extraordinary pleasure it was to see you come into the stadium in Auburn on Sunday morning. Sub-24 couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Congratulations! Bill

Gary Valle said...

Will, thanks for sharing the adventure. Following your run on the web site, I never would have guessed that you had sprained your ankle! Great preperation, super support, and a superb run. Congratulations!

Will Cooper said...

Thank you everyone, for your words of support and congratulations. Your comments are a definate source of energy for me...thanks for your support!!

Greg said...

Duuuuuuuuuuuddddee! I am SO happy for you. Seriously. And that time is simply insane. I hope to have the goods to do Western States one day. I am in awe. Congratulations, I know how long you waited for this and how hard you trained. Can you teach me how to do it? Cheers, bro!

CoachTief said...

I'm interested in what you do after a 100 mile run like that. Have you started training again and how do your legs/feet feel? I can totally understand how running that far is a team effort.

Peter Lubbers said...

Fantastic job. Awesome time given those conditions. You looked good coming into Michigan Bluff and apparently kept up the good work!
Take care!

home exchange said...

Whoa... Dude, that's impressive! Sorry that the ankle hurt! Hope you're feeling better.

Sydney Hunter said...

Wow! I came across your blog after searching "Born to Run" on google and stumbled upon your interview w/Christopher McDougall. Seriously, I'm about to finish his book and find myself so inspired. I began to read your blog and saw you mentioned San Joaqin Hills and thought "wait a minute, this person who runs 100 miles can't be in Orange County?" Needless to say, you are in my backyard. I kind of look at these ultra-runners as mini idols...at least to me. Makes my marathons seems a bit too easy. Your Western States account gave me the chills- what an incredible accomplishment!

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