I turned around early during a wondrous, 1 week removed, post Western States run in Purisima Open Space with a wonderful group of friends from the Coastside Running Club. The Craig Britan (Soda Gulch) single track beckoned me but I promised my supportive wife that’d I’d be on-time. After all, she had sacrificed plenty in sleep deprivation, hotel snafus, oppressive heat, and chasing me 100.2 miles in the wilderness while crewing the Western States 100 last weekend – I couldn’t be late.
Waving goodbye to the group, I retreated to the car for a much anticipated snack of fresh blueberries. Driving home, munching on Nature’s popcorn, I was rolling them around in my mouth then “POP” I’d smash them, then another. Every berry felt unique and erupted with its berry-full, signature blend of sweet/sour mix of juices, no single berry the same. I was captivated in thinking our manufactured world, the one in which I run trails to escape from, is NOT, in any way, like these delicious blueberries. I can buy a Snicker’s bar in Squaw Valley, CA and one from Brownsville, VT (2,862 miles apart) and they’d taste identical as I satisfied my hunger from a vending machine in a building of 90 degree angles, perpendicular planes, and level floors at a comfortable 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
This expands beyond any race report, but I believe the physical perfections that we surround ourselves with manifest, mentally, as barriers – obstacles in our minds that are sources of fear when pushed into, and beyond. We have a fear of discomfort, incorrectly projecting that it’s a progression to pain. Over time, over a life-time, barriers accumulate creating a confining cage of mental captivity. Running 100 miles OBLITERATES these barriers, leaving you physically depleted at the finish line, yet with a mind so lucid and cleansed of all of life’s “trash” there are NO barriers in running, but more importantly, in life. In fact they are replaced with profound strength, rooted at the cellular level.
So, in short, running 100 miles is like eating blueberries.
My 2013 Western States was born from the 10 of hearts, drawn from the loony runners present at the Auburn WS lottery, placing me at the 2013 start line for a 4th consecutive year. I cheered like crazy while Jen, jokingly, called me a turd. I quickly booked hotels and contacted my A+ crew to let them know another year is a GO. A huge part of the WS experience for me is sharing the event and in sticking with that theme I recruited Sean and Kristin as pacer and crew for the 2013 ride.
An interesting addition to 2013’s race is that I’m a RRCA certified running coach, proudly training two wonderful athletes that are also running Western States: Mike Weston and Janeth Siva. Both are good friends and wonderful, experienced, runners. It was a unique experience to both coach and train with them towards a common goal – we motivated each other to no end. They are amazing people and it’s truly my privilege to help them.
Following my 5th place performance at Ohlone 50k I was whisked through a potentially WS race ending scare of season ending injury when my Achilles swelled, turned colors, and bunched up requiring an MRI to debunk a partial tear concern. I was FREAKING out because 5 weeks before the Big Dance I could not walk – while shuffling to the Doctor’s office I was being passed by ailing old ladies (and yes, I told them “Good Job”). Dr. Khan successfully guided me through recovery which entailed 3 weeks of NO RUNNING. With healing progressing very well I managed 2 runs before Western States: a 23 miler on the Tahoe Rim Trail one week prior and a 12 miler from Alpine Meadows (Five Lakes Trail) to the WS Start along the PCT and WS trails 3 days prior (a HIGHLY recommended run).
Pre-race we shared a wonderful home in Alpine Meadows a short jog from the Five Lakes Trailhead, complete with a swimming pond that the kids loved; a great place to cool the legs after a trail run. Staying with Ron and his family was a wonderful vacation, perfectly removed from the tensions of Squaw. The boys loved spending time with Ron’s daughter, Claire, while Ron and I spoke race day logistics while also enjoyed some hiking and light running. Unfortunately Ron was dealing with a persistent ITB injury that simply did not want to let up.
Friday was crazy day. Everyone converged on both the Alpine Meadows’ house and Squaw. Crew and Pacers: Hao, Cortney, Sean, Kristin, and Raju all showed up with TONS of great energy. We made Sean run the Montrail uphill challenge to burn of some Western States anticipation and, separately, had Kristin and John hike/run to the top of Squaw. We capped the day with a mandatory trip to see Dennis at Rosie’s in Tahoe City – a 32 year bar-tending staple that’s a fountain of good luck. We also drew some luck from Simon Mtuy, Hal Koerner, and Timmy Olson in the village.
Race day was relatively smooth until I left my bottles at the house – a Western States without bottles in record heat would be like, well, stupid. So we turned around and got them with plenty of time to spare. We saw Mike Weston at the start supremely focused on race day logistics with his crew, Connie. Ron made the call to start the race, which was wonderful to know his WS experience would continue into Escarpment.
The start goes with some brief, yet wise Gordy words. The mass of 373 runners waves up Escarpment. I hear Kristin yell and wave a blurred hello as we march up towards the barren slope’s flood lights. I pick a comfortable cruising pace, purposeful, yet scanning for elite females (that’s an awkward sentence to write). My ‘moving’ goal in-race and throughout training has been to place within the top 10 females. In particular I thought I had a chance to pace off Meghan Arborgast so when I saw her on Escarpment I tried to lock pace, however, she charged the steep sections more aggressively than I. Once we summited she took off strong. I had the feeling many of the runners’ strategies was to go out fast in the cool temperature then dial it back in the oppressive mid-day heat.
Through the stretch of Lyon Ridge (10.5) and Duncan Canyon (23.8) I was the backend of a train of competitive female runners none of whom I recognized but could tell at least 2 of them, one turned out to be Emily Harrison, was in the hunt for at least top 10. They pushed the pace but slowed significantly on the climbs. Emily was 3rd in line while I was 4th. I watched as she was gapped on the technical downhills, even slowing me down, but quickly caught up on the flats and ups. I could tell Emily was fast, having a Rory Bosio look about her, however, she blew me away with a move that was outstanding. After making up ground on a flat the trail pitched uphill to a sharp right-hand turn, then morphed into a long gradual uphill straight away. On that quick pitch Emily BLASTED by everyone after having sat back for at least ½ hour, took the turn and was GONE. I mean GONE. We wrapped around the turn and could see at least 100 yards down the trail and NOTHING – she was GONE. That broke up our train as the lady that was 2nd in the line chased, as did I. I never saw Emily again.
Emily later went on to finish 7th place female in a blazing 20:28 in her first 100 mile race. I later discovered that Emily has a marathon PR of 2:32:55 after only running 3 marathons in this iRunFar.com article!
At this point in the race the temperature was slowly climbing, yet my heat training combined with staying constantly wet and with an ice bandanna nullified most negative effects of running in the heat. A side benefit was controlled hydration and electrolyte intake as I kept my sweat rate in check throughout the day.
The push to Robinson Flat (29.7) was big. I needed that mental boost in seeing my crew and knowing a big chunk of the course was behind me. I came running in feeling good, but a little worn. Everyone was great! Jen, Hao, Kristin, and Courtney were all smiles and pure positive energy. I was behind 20 hour pace, my goal to this point, but had still planned to dial back the pace in the rising heat. I spoke the words, “I’m going to slow down now.”
Ironically, I felt like I was slowing. I walked out of Robinson eating. Yet my splits told another story, I was building speed into the heat of the day. I was getting stronger as I ran to perceived effort and ample breaks at cooling streams without a pace chart. All I had was a reference to the 24 hour pace at the aid stations, of which I was well ahead of. I even lost track of what aid station was what, not really caring… simply running and enjoying the day. The elusive ghost cows greeted us on the trail outside of Robinson, only to be heard with the clanging cow bells wafting through the evergreens – declaring their encouragement masked in shyness.
The descent down to Swinging Bridge (~45) was tough in that my feet were soaked causing me to alter my running to protect some already developing hot spots. In retrospect I should have stopped and tightened my wet shoes. Two years ago I almost stepped on a rattle snake on this section so I ran, eyes LOCKED on the trail, looking for snakes. Finally I reached the bottom, the river, Swinging Bridge, and I see something I’ve never seen my 3 years of Western States races, runners in the river!
My competitive side simply passes on jumping in places as I wave down, knowing there’s a sizable pool on the far side of the bridge. Among the river waders is Simon Mtuy, an elite into himself and former holder of the fastest ascent/descent up Mount Kilimanjaro – I’m star struck. I power hike up The Thumb slowly pulling away from some Salomon decked out racers that had also splashed in the stream with me. One after the next I reeled in runners on the climb in a slow motion attack. I see an elite lady (F9 Ashely Nordell) ahead in bad shape; I checked in with her then carried on.
I caught up to Galen Farris whom I had run with before. We chatted for a while, then looked back and BAM, there was Simon walking up the biggest climb on the WS course with ease using every inch of his 6’8” frame to cruise past everyone. He caught us and pressed forward, inspiring me to chase. We entered Devil’s Thumb AS (47.8) together. Now, Simon is amazing and THE nicest person on the planet. I love Simon. However, it SUCKS to enter an aid station with him. Every volunteer flocked to him draping towels around his neck, filling his bottle, and fetching popsicles while I stood there sponging myself, listening to a mental orchestra of crickets within my second tier, manzanita scrub brush..
Yet, this spurred me to push the next sections. I love Simon but MUST get to all aid stations before him! Another long downhill and we dropped into El Dorado Canyon, immediately struck by heat. Hot, humid, South Carolina like heat – it felt like walking through warm glue. Again Simon was swimming in the river and I took off. The climb to Michigan Bluff was a bit of a low point, although not too bad. My energy was low, I was walking alone, and the heat started its nasty grip that would last throughout the race (even at night). I hiked most of the uphills and ran the flats – that was, until Simon emerged below me. I waved hello while commenting on his swim then took the hell off. At the top of the hill was the “Go Guy” holding a small index card size sign that simply said, “Go”. They even skipped through their playlist to give me a personalized summiting song (I forgot what it was… something about a long day or some crap).
Michigan Bluff was sweet! Hao and Courtney were there (congratulations, they’re expecting a little boy). I weighed in, likely well over their boy’s soon-to-be birth weight, at 140 lbs (1 lbs off start weight). Simon came in shortly after and the town erupted! I loved watching his 2 boys greet him with a fresh pair of shoes. I missed Eli and Max and knew they were only 1 hour away at Foresthill (62).
I took off slowly, intent on finishing two handfuls of sandwiches and quesadillas. I was soon passed by the iRunFar founder Bryon Powell, which was damn surprising since he has a 19:24 WS finish to his name. He frolicked through the high-speed, 5 cameras, foot strike experiment as giddy as a honey covered badger. A polar opposite, I walked up to it, ran only by the eager-eye running scientists then stopped directly afterward and pronounced, “I’m going to finish eating now!”
Onward to Volcano Canyon after lunch! I ran some uphills, never seeing Bryon but I did catch another elite female looking quite tattered and walking slow. After offering some encouragement to blank acceptance I went on, running to Bath Road alone (which came up much quicker than usual, I was pushing fully expecting Simon to emerge once again). At the aid station was the wonderful Sean, eagerly awaiting an evening run. I muttered some crazy talk about the Kilimanjaro champion chasing me then we took off for Foresthill.
Foresthill was awash with a Grand Coastside welcoming committee. I heard Kristin before I saw her (I was so glad she was a part of ThePureRun team). George Miller was at medical and I could not pass up a good high-five from him. I skirted through the aid station then went straight to ThePureRun pit crew. It was ON like I’ve never experienced before. I was eating, answering questions, throwing my shoes off, switching bottles, hugging my kids, kissing my wife, posing for pictures, being a Dad, being a Husband, being a Friend, meeting new people, wincing in pain, and eating some more all in the span of 2-3 minutes. It was AMAZING! 100% thanks to my wife and a very special thanks to Hao for stepping up to a level of competitiveness and focus on fast that’s new to both him and I. He was orchestrating a lot behind the scenes and I really noticed.
Sean and I were off to the river, the long run of 17 miles to the river. It was great seeing Sean’s enthusiasm for the event; when I invited him to pace I knew he’d love it (I’ll need to apologize to his wife now). We ran conservatively letting an occasional runner/pacer pair pass, then usually returning the favor as their energy faltered. Smooth and steady – I remembered last year pushing too hard only to crash just before ALT, I pulled back intentionally to guard from the falter. Sean and I locked on with Matt Keyes and pacer, whom drug us down the mountain at a good clip. For a time we ran with a gentleman, David Ross (scroll about 1/2 way down), that holds the world record for fastest marathon in a wetsuit at 3:25 exclaiming, “Running a marathon in a wetsuit is a helluva lot easier than this!”
We eventually got to the river, and alas, just missed crossing in the light. As always the river was abuzz with activity: lights, people, medical, and the river crossing. I ate a cup of macaroni and cheese (freaking YES, remember this wonderful food) then to the rope. The river felt AMAZING – THE perfect cooling temperature, but not too cold. This was the cooling needed from the day long heat of 102+ degrees. I peer back and Sean is having a blast grinning ear-to-ear really taking in the entire experience. THAT moment is why I asked him to pace me, for him to hit that rush of WS and he 100% found it in the river.
We made it to the other side, expecting ThePureRun crew but only see Hao. I asked if Jen was okay, and he deflected the situation some but did assure that everyone was alright. Little did I know there were 2 big items going on behind the scenes that sent Jen, Hao, Kristin, Courtney, and Uncle Murray on a wild adventure. One being our Auburn hotel was cancelled without us being notified (introduce get hotel in Roseville to the fun) and the other being the crew was falsely notified that I was 10 miles further up trail than I actually was (Green Gate vs. Peachstone). Rightly so, my crew DID NOT PEEP A WORD of this to me during the race, but I could tell there was A LOT of improvisational work happening behind the scenes. Thanks crew for getting me through the race while juggling crazy!
We hiked up to Green Gate while I was eating, finding Jen and Kristin ½ way up the hike. This hike is always so nice, because you get to check-in with your people and simply talk, about real stuff without the heavy burden of GO GO GO I can’t stay here. When you’re moving, you’re good. I tried doing some simple math too, pronouncing, “This next 30 miles is going to be a slog!” To which Jen and Kristin looked over and told me I only had 20 miles to go. Hot Damn then, I was ready to go!
Hao and I floated off for the horizontal canyons leading to ALT. The Coastside Running Club awaited and this time I felt good, really good. Hao guided me in pace, hydration, and eating keeping me on task and moving well. Our mantra was on par with, just keep eating and the remainder of the race will work itself out. And it did.
I ran into ALT yelling CRC! Hallelujah Goat! Checking my number was good friend Ron. I was surprised to see him after getting word he had dropped from the race at around the 20 mile mark. I hugged him, marching further while still yelling and whistling.
My first impression of the ALT aid station was of confusion. It looked different and, although obviously Christmas themed, my mind conjured a county fair carnival. I vividly remember looking down the expanse of the aid station and thinking it was like a illuminated carnival at night. I could almost hear Laughing Sally’s cackle then a deep voiced heralder projecting, “Step Right Up, everyone’s a winner!” In fact, I even had to step on a scale while everyone tried their hand and guessing my weight. My guess was 4 lbs down from my starting weight (Bhhheeeer, loser). The doctor’s let me pass, aided with the CRC crowd proclaiming me a Rockstar. Hell, I felt fine. I ate well there, other than shying away from the Bodas children offering me GUs – yes, I made a vomitus face, nothing personal kids.
The warming moment was saying hi to everyone. I remember turning and a semi-circle of wonderful Coastal friends were there to wish me luck: Margaret, Eric, Norm, Chris, Bryan, Amanda, Gary, Mor (and I know I’m missing people). It warmed my heart to no end and gave me special “powers” to haul ass the next 15 miles. Eric told me I was in the top 50 of Western States – that was the first time I had been told my place. It was inspiring, mostly seeing how EXCITED everyone else was for me. I still couldn’t comprehend it, but also, I knew my long-term goal is WELL BEYOND just top 50. I appreciated the milestone but also expect more of myself. With a quick picture of HG and I, pacer and runner were off with food in hand.
I faultered some at Brown’s Bar and in stretches leading to Highway 49. In part it was due to transitioning to a different fueling (real food) and within that likely not taking in enough calories, but also, it was still really hot. That sneaks up on you as your mind expects cool because the sun is no longer up, you project that, but it’s not reality. Then you slow your drinking, stop using your cooling techniques employed earlier in the race, and things get challenging energy-wise. Also, my feet were beat to hell and hurt. Every step was painful due to bruising and blistering.
Note to self: Try changing into more cushioned shoes at mile 60 to avoid this. It happened throughout the Grand Slam too in 2011 so it needs to be addressed.
I am proud that I NEVER took and single capsule of pain relievers. I had Tylenol on me, right at my waist. If taken early I probably could have pushed the 22 hour barrier but I chose not to, running this race pure. I’m sure it aided my recover but also was a testament to being better trained for the later duration of this 100 mile race.
Coming into Highway 49 I passed a runner. When you’re pushing into a new class of runners with faster times, everyone has a kick and everyone runs strong. There was NEVER a single runner that was easy to pass. Each one of them made me work as I did to them, dragging each other up hills, through energy depletion, and foot pain using the adrenaline of competition. That headlight, that I looked back on after passing, never went away easily.
We ran into Highway 49 with the flood lights casting bright, white light across the road crossing announcing “Number 154, Franz Dill” or probably Fraaaanz (thanks stupid Franz Ferdinand band for an adult life of name mispronunciations). I saw Kristin and Jen there! I went over to say hellos then back to graze. No breakfast stuff on the grill, we were told it was too early. I wasn’t feeling the food and heard Jen yell out, “Just Eat It!” I jumped into a Weird Al mouth solo of the song, laughing, and stuffing my face with quesadillas. Someone got the reference and I broke a grin.
I said the words I had waited all day to say to Jen , “I’ll see you at the finish line.”
They reverberate in my mind, releasing another capsule of energy as I pulled away from my crew and into the trails of Cool. I passed another runner at the top of the hill who looked ragged. Yet again, it’s never easy. Him and his pacer locked onto us through the entire section to No Hand Bridge. Not only that, the pacer had the light of a Coastguard helicopter projected onto my back, casting a shadow across the trail making it impossible to see my foot landings. I got pissed and ran, zoned out, and ran. Before I was complaining about my feet KILLING ME, but now, I was silent using 152% of my brain power to dampen that pain so I could run. We ran into the aid station then bolted. To my pleasure, they stopped. Something was ailing that runner. Hao and I drove to the finish with minor fantasies of breaking 22. I had no watch and had NO clue what time it was. He drove us hard to Robie Point. We heard the cheers and night-time sub 24 enthusiasm, the bellowing night parties hitting the witching hour of 3:00AM still welcoming us to Auburn. Hao and I shared how great THIS, this wonderful singular moment in life is – representative of months, even years, of hard grueling work. The peak of Robie Point is more beautiful than the track because you’re still alone crossing the “trail finish line” a mile before crossing back into real life to cross the civilized finish line.
Hao and I hit the track, the wonderful track! I scanned for my boys who were goofing off at 3:00AM at the high school. In year’s past I crossed with them both. This year Max (5) refused because he didn’t’ want John Medinger to talk about him on the loud speaker. Eli ran up to me, eager as can be. I reached out to hold his hand yet, he pulled it away and said, “Dad, I want to go faster.” I looked down while furrowing my brow, “Okay, let’s do it!” He took off at a sprint with me following. John called the race as “Franz coming across the finish line and LOSING to his son!” I loved it!!!
I cannot thank the small village of people enough that helped me accomplish a new Western States and 100 mile PR – all the volunteers, the race organizers, the Coastside Running Club, but most importantly my crew and family. I could feel everyone from the Coastside pulling for me, especially all my new friends from Empowered Fitness. My wife and sons, whom I adore with all my heart, are THE ones that allow this to happen. They not only become so selfless on race day to help me, but through the months and years, they’ve excused my multi-hour runs, our lack of vacations that did NOT include a race, and my constant distractions all for that finish line, all for that buckle, all for allowing me to find and take part in something that I’m good at.
My PureRun athletes also did excellent. Mike Weston persisted through a foot injury, an in-race ankle injury, and the record high temperatures making it to the fabled Devil’s Thumb aid station when the caught by the cut-offs. I’m so proud of him and know, with certainty, that all aspects of his training were tuned, yet his injury was the gating factor. He’ll be back to CRUSH the thumb and beyond.
Janeth, easily the strongest person I know, clawed her way to the finish having nearly a perfect day to finish in 28:51. Tackling two bouts of record heat Janeth’s training, rock-solid will finish attitude, and excellent support earn her a coveted buckle.
Congratulations Mike and Janeth! Ya’ll ROCKED it.
Other Western States Goodies:
- 2013 WS Race Statistics
- 2013 WS Race Results
- Timothy Olsen Post Race Interview
- Pam Smith’s (Woman’s Winner) Race Report
- Pam Smith’s Blog
- UltraFriend John Burton Killed WS!
- Emily Harrison’s Blog
- Ron Little’s Blog
- A Runner’s Quest for a sub-24 Finish
- Top Female Jen Benna’s WS100 DNF Entertaining, Informative Read.