Sunday, July 3, 2011

Western States 2011 - A Crew Perspective

Western States 2011

What a phenominal weekend down in California this past weekend. I was privileged to be part of Ellie Greenwood’s crew.

The journey started by flying into Reno on Wednesday to get a little sun and heat in (we don’t get much of that here north of the 49th). Mike Palichuk, who was also making his debut 100, Ellie, Kristin and myself landed midday in the lovely gambling town. We headed straight for the trails and hit up the Patagonia Trailhead for a 50 minute shakeout from the plane and take in some heat running. Then it was time to work on getting our pasty white skin converted to a more tanned look. Gotta look good for the cameras that may be present on Saturday!

Over dinner I went over the course with Mike and Ellie (yes I know I’ve failed miserably three times at WS!) but have a weird memory to remember distances, splits, landmarks etc. I was thoroughly impressed at how much homework Mike and Ellie had done on the course and I knew they would be in good shape come Saturday morning.

Like well behaved 100 mile runners Ellie and Mike hit the pillow at 9pm sharp at the Sands Resort and Casino. Sean Meissner made record time from Bend, Oregon to Reno and joined Kristin and myself for a night of gambling and shuffleboarding. Due to a pact the three of us made the details can’t be fully released but I can report two things; Sean lost a dollar in the casino and if Montrail ever starts a Shuffleboard Team there is a strong possibility Kristin, Sean and myself will not make the team. Ever!

Thursday took us to Alpine Meadows, our home for the next two days. Ellie was busy getting her picture taken and being famous so the crew, now joined by Ana, Jackie and Ken ( from San Francisco took care of groceries and getting things prepared. We shared the house with Mike and his trusty pacer/crew Ran Katzman from Vancouver.

Ellie is pretty laid back about specifics at stations. The biggest thing is seeing a friendly face to help make transitions a touch quicker and break down the distance from crew point to crew point. Ellie always has been pretty successful at just using what the stations have. We prepared drop bags, planned where is best for what and got both crews loaded with things Ellie would need. Mostly just a swap of hydration packs loaded with all the goodies ultra runners crave, Clif Shots, Clif Bloks, thermalytes, bodyglide…

Friday again both Ellie and Mike had great sleeps and managed to come down at 9am. Great stuff I thought. We did the usual pre-race briefing stuff and then had some lunch back at the cabin. Then one of the best moves I think Ellie and Mike made that day is we went down to a park at Lake Tahoe and just played tourist for a while. No one really talked about the race, just about the beauty of the lake, the area and we stood in the majestic blue Lake Tahoe soaking the legs.

Race morning came and what a sight to see 375 people head up the climb to Emigrant Pass. Due to the snow in the backcountry all crews had a lengthy wait to catch their runners at either Michigan Bluff or Foresthill. We went back to the cabin, had some breakfast, grabbed an hour nap and then cleaned up and started the trek to Foresthill.

Meghan’s updates on behalf of Bryon from iRunFar were great to keep us informed of the going on’s in the backcountry. Jackie and Ana were headed to Michigan Bluff to meet Ellie while Kristin, Ken and myself were stationed at Foresthill. I found some wifi in the Subway so set up the Ellie Express Headquarters there to follow the progress. We got a little concerned about the report iRunFar tweeted out of Dusty Corners with Ellie looking sad and having shot quads and hammies. Not the best to have that feeling heading into the canyons but lots of time to pull it back together as well. It was also sad to learn Geoff was having a rough go and falling out of contention.

We followed the reports up to Devil’s Thumb and left the confines of the friendly Subway to see the lead men come through Foresthill. Kilian and Jez came through neck and neck and looked like they were out for a Sunday stroll.

Reports came through that Tracy was still leading through Michigan Bluff and still slowly pulling away from Ellie. Suddenly Jackie and Ana appeared at Foresthill screaming to get over here quick we need to talk! Oh shit, Ellie’s not in the car is she?! “Ellie was rough at Foresthill, she puked three times and cried for a bit.” Poor Ellie. “She also said to get here before you start pacing her to make sure you don’t push her, she’s worried about this!” (In hindsight isn’t this hilarious?!) “Did she say the codeword?” I asked. “No, but she said you can’t push her!” Ellie and myself had a codeword that once she said it we switch to get her to the finish line by any legal means possible. Until then she gets pushed and treated like she’s trying to win regardless of how much she vomits, cries or how many blisters she pops all over the crew!

The deficit leaving Michigan Bluff was 36 minutes. Lots of miles left but certainly some work would need to be done starting instantly to get that gap erased. I sent Kristin down with the other pace bib to run down to Bath Road and meet Ellie. I figured an extra mile and a half with a friendly face might be welcome at that point. Ellie was in 6th place leaving Michigan Bluff. We saw Anita Ortiz coming in and Nikki right behind her in 4th and 5th at Foresthill. Behind and charging was Kristin and Ellie! Game back on!

We spent some time changing Ellie’s shoes and socks and getting some calories in her. The quote of the day came from Ellie during this change. “I can’t push but I really want to hold this position or stay top 10 cause even though this hurts right now I might want to come back next year and do it again!” Classic. There crew shared a good laugh while Ellie popped a golf ball sized blister. Down the road we left in search of some runners. I knew this part of the course is in Ellie’s strengths and some damage can be done as long as she keeps getting fuel in and keeps it under control for a bit. Someone yelled out as we ran down the street, “go get ‘em Ellie your in this!” How true despite the gap at the time.

We talked about the scenery and what she thought of the California backcountry. Within a mile of Foresthill we passed Anita. One down four to go. We shared some stories. Ellie was definitely coherent just having some stomach troubles. While the pace was faster than any other woman on the course at that point it stayed tame and relaxed and in a rhythm. Things were going to be just fine. We talked about last years race and how Tracy went hard from the gun and faded from Auburn Lakes in but had a large enough lead to hang on. We both knew that if someone knocks an amazing run out of the park they earned it but Ellie was in position to pounce as soon as that pace fell off.

A few miles later we passed Nikki. I must say Nikki was so positive and cheered for Ellie as she ran down the trail. We heard her for at least a mile hooting and hollering to go chase!

Just before the 70 mile aid station we passed Joelle. She looked decent still but the Ellie Express was starting to roll! I’m sorry to learn Joelle didn’t make it to Auburn but she looked chipper when we saw her!

The pace stayed great all the way to the river. Power walk the uphills. Relaxed on the flats and a shade faster on the downhills. Along the way we passed Hal, Ryan and Scott Jamie. You never take satisfaction in passing someone who’s race is in jeopardy or struggling but passing names of this caliber gave Ellie some confidence in the race she was running.

We had a helicopter keep flying over us as we approached the river and were meet by Jackie and Ana. A boat was ready to cross so we made a quick exchange here to make sure we were solo in that boat across the American River. Montrail President Topher Gaylord and his wife Kim were also at this aid station as well. I didn’t catch the whole exchange as I was getting a plate of fruit for Ellie but when I returned Ellie was trying to take off her Fairhaven’s and show Topher a blister and he was just saying get your shoe back on! Into the boat with some fruit and a bag of salt and vinegar chips for some snacks on the river crossing. The cold water felt nice to splash on the legs and head.

Another classic Ellie line on the other side of the river once out of the boat we’re ready to begin the 2 mile climb to Green Gate and the aid station asks if we need anything. We changed packs for Ellie on the other side and Ken and Kristin are a mere 15-20 minutes away. Ellie politely says no thanks to the aid station on needing anything and asks if they can use the half bag of chips left for other runners! They look kind of amused and confused at the same time. You don’t want anything at mile 78 but want to donate food for other runners coming through?! Cool beans!

Ken and Kristin report the deficit (still dropping) and how Tracy and Kami looked, felt, what they said to the crew, how long they stayed. Ellie is very splits oriented and this information was taken at each station either from crew or I would check with the timekeeper at aid stations to get the lowdown.

I think from here is where it may of clicked for Ellie that completing the comeback was doable. Although she was still having some stomach and bathroom issues the pace was picking up when we were running, the short hills were no longer being walked and there were no major downhills so running them the pace picked up as well.

Auburn Lake Trails we learned Tracy and Kami were dead even. We made a decision coming in to refill her Nathan pack so we could save time not having to do it at Highway 49. This would be the last fill. There were enough gels, bloks and calories to get her to the finish. About a half mile out of ALT the pace kicked into another gear and this was the beginning of the assault on the final miles of the Western States Trail. Darkness was approaching, I gave Ellie an exact briefing of distances to each aid station left, elevation, terrain. She just put her head down and hammered. We were cruising the section from ALT to Brown’s Bar. Nothing needed to be said. I would throw out a “helluva pace” but it was quite clear now this was the move and she was in a zone that you may see in a 10k race. It got dark about a mile from Brown’s Bar. I asked if she was okay without headlamps until Brown’s. Yup. Good keep the hammer down!

A very quick transition in and out of that station and time to strap on headlamps. All of a sudden I felt a touch dizzy and lightheaded. I had been neglecting calories and fluid in all the excitement (my mistake) and figured this is best for Ellie to go ahead solo. The pace was great, she had the zone. 5k to Ken and Kristin at Hwy 49, 5k more to Ana and Jackie at No Hands and then just shy of 4k to Robie Point (where I said I would re-join her).

I ran/walked the next 5k out to Highway 49 just laughing to myself. It was unreal what had just happened. From reports of Ellie sad at mile 38, to barfing and bawling at mile 56 to now running a time trial like she’s on a track! I knew she would catch Tracy as Kami was reported to be pulling away. I hoped she would catch her and knew it would be close but she may run out of miles. The only thing Ellie said after leaving Brown’s Bar was “dammit this always happens where I get a burst of energy near the end!”

I came into the 93.5 mile station giggling. Ken and Kristin looked terrified! “What happened?! Ellie tore through here and didn’t change anything and said wait here for Ryne!”

“We started time trialing and I couldn’t keep up anymore! Lets go to Robie.” Ellie was 3 minutes behind Tracy and 9 ½ behind Kami. Tracy is her’s. Kami….tight. A few minutes later Ana and Jackie texted the report from No Hands. “Ellie’s leading!”

I can’t even begin to describe the reaction from the three of us in the car. Kind of like the shot by Tiger Woods on hole 16 at the masters. Is this REALLY happening?! I mean I knew at the pace she was on 3 minutes on Tracy over the 6.5 miles left was doable but how in the world did she put 9 minutes and counting into Kami in 3.3 miles?!

I started running back down to Robie Point while Ken and Kristin parked the car at the high school. I found a rowdy crowd at mile 99 and informed them Ellie was winning and asked if they had any information on what the gap was after No Hands. Jackie had caught up as well and ran down the hill to Robie Aid Station to get Ellie. Shortly headlamps came into sight and it was Ellie and Jackie! Ellie said she saw a bear and chased it up a tree. I visioned it of a bear being on the trail. Ellie very politely asking it to move, the bear refusing so Ellie picked it up by the scruff of the neck and threw it up a tree. That’s the zone she was in! We charged through the raucous ovation at mile 99. One mile to go, no one in sight! Ellie keeps saying it’s not done yet all the while accelerating. Shortly later we are joined by Ken, Kristin, Topher, Kim and Geoff Roes. The eight of us try to hang on to Ellie charging down the road at 6’s! Geoff comments its the fastest he’s run all day and the best he’s felt (he’s also wearing Molokai Flips!). It’s great to see Geoff come support Ellie despite his day not panning out. Ultra running camaraderie and respect at its finest.

No lights in sight, the track section is all that remains. Ellie blasts around the track sealing her place in history with not only the second fastest time ever but the biggest comeback ever!

I’m equal part dumbfounded and giddy and what just happened. I don’t know if I can entirely explain it or put it on paper. It was one of those things you needed to be there and see to believe it actually happened. Ana went to the announcer at the track once back from No Hands as they didn’t have a report yet and told them Ellie was first through No Hands. They didn’t believe it. Ana said I was standing there I guarantee she was first through No Hands. They still didn’t believe it!

I was honored to be there and be a part of that beautiful day and historic run. A special thanks naturally to the crew of Ken Michal, Kristin Ohm-Pedersen, Ana Shapiro, Jackie Muir but also to Mike’s pacer Ran Katzman, Sean Meissner, Meghan Hicks, Topher Gaylord, Kim Gaylord, Geoff Roes and all the heroic aid station volunteers. In one way or another not only did you make this a special day for Ellie but really gave me a sense of why I enjoy being in the ultra community with your passion, care and love.

Lastly congratulations to you Ellie. You are one of the most humble runners I have ever come across and for that you’ll always have my utmost respect. When things were dark you still smiled, you still enjoyed the beauty of the course, you still laughed, and you still put up with me (well for 30ish miles anyways!) Enjoy and savor the moment of your remarkable achievement.

Happy trails!