Katrin Silva of New Mexico finished the Western States 100 in 24:58:32!
Enjoy as she shares her adventure with us.
“The thing I don’t like about Western States is that you show up at the
starting line in the best shape of your life and a day later you are in
Auburn in the worst shape of your life.”
– Andy Black
June 29, 2013. It is here! A very long day begins at 3:00am in Squaw Valley and ends 25 hours later on the Placer High school track. During the time in between, I experience a range of mental, emotional, and physical highs and lows that resemble the jagged course elevation profile.
I enjoy my hot shower and short night in a comfortable bed, knowing that the next night will be spent awake and running through the wilderness. At 5:00am, under the very first light of dawn, almost 400 runners take off toward Auburn along the Western States trail, hoping to get there within 30 hours.
When the gun goes off, I take off running but slow to a powerwalk almost immediately. The climb up Emigrant pass is steep, and with over 99 miles left to go it seems unwise to waste energy. A gorgeous view of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe greets me upon reaching the top, and I settle into the conga line heading down the single track, somewhere in the middle of the pack, when water starts squirting from my hydration pack hose. The bite valve has come off, and I spend precious minutes backtracking to look for it while I visualize the misery of death from dehydration after all the water has drained from my pack and it has warmed up to the forecast high temperature of 102 degrees. The prospect fills me with panic and dread, but then I remember that my pack has a shut-off valve. My stress levels go down to normal. Drinking involves some additional effort, but is still possible, and I seem to remember packing a spare bite valve in the crew bag.
The scenery is beautiful, and the morning still cool. I feel great, and decide it is time to move up a little. Keith, aka the man in the pink tutu, is in front of me, and we pass several runners while chatting amicably about his grand slam plans, Leadville, and Hokas. He says he wears the tutu to make running 100 miles look easy. After watching him catch up to runners and then leaving them behind as though they were standing still, I develop my own theory: he is a super athlete and wears it to demoralize other runners who might take themselves too seriously otherwise. Getting dusted by a bald guy with a British accent and a ruffled skirt will fix any delusions of grandeur. Eventually, he leaves me behind on his way to a sub-24 finish, but this is one of the many indelible, surreal images of this race day: Keith running along the Red Star ridge, his pink ballet outfit contrasting sharply with the varying shades of green mountains and the blue sky. I feel lucky to be alive, and lucky to have found this sport.
My crew – David, Bobby, and Margaret, greet me at Robinson Flat. The place is buzzing with energy. The aid stations at Western States are like a cross between a pit stop in a formula one race and a friendly, cozy but professionally managed roadside cafe. I weigh in at five pounds less than this morning, which is not good, eat some watermelon and peanut butter sandwich, then replace the bite valve, put on the cool tie in preparation for the heat of the day, hug my wonderful husband, and run off toward the canyons.
I feel strong, and pass more runners. Temperatures are definitely on the rise, but I feel prepared for dealing with oven-like conditions. The bandanna around my neck is doing its job, and the ice I have stuffed down my bra and under my hat is slowly melting. While cruising down a fairly easy stretch of beautiful downhill, one little root catches my toe and sends me tumbling down the trail head first, narrowly avoiding a cow patty. I thank my lucky stars, scrape the dirt and pebbles off my knees, assess the damage and decide it is not worth the emergency band-aid in my pack. Onward, down to the river and the ominously looming Devil’s Thumb. Several runners, fellow New Mexican Ken Gordon among them, are cooling off in the river before facing the steep climb, but I decide against it because of my tendency to sprout blisters inside wet shoes. I have lots of time to regret this decision as I struggle up the almost vertical incline in the sweltering heat of midday. In retrospect, the blisters would have been more tolerable. We pass a runner lying motionless on a log by the side of the trail. Concerned questions and some gentle prodding elicit a weak thumbs-up sign. My stomach, which has been cooperative so far, refuses to continue as a team player with my other body parts. I feel nauseous, and a piece of ginger brings only short-term relief. Ugh.
After traversing hell for what seems like (and probably was) several hours later, we reach heaven, where friendly angels in green T-shirts drape a cold towel around my neck, hand me a Popsicle, and gently remind me to drink more. I come close to experiencing a religious conversion, but after a few minutes, my core temperature drops and wonderful but but very definitely human aid station volunteers come into focus. I force a boiled potato and some watermelon down my dry throat and into my protesting stomach, and walk on out. Ken tries to coax me into a run, but the potato is unsure of which way it should go, and I would rather barf in the privacy of my own port-a-shrub than in front of Ken. Besides, the 24 hour goal I am now abandoning is still within his reach. Once alone, I keep walking, drinking, and chewing pieces of ginger. The sun is merciless, but I am slowly beginning to feel better and break into a jog. The climb up Michigan Bluff is longer but not as grueling as Devil’s Thumb. I drain almost my entire hydration pack. By the time the aid station comes into view, I am once more hydrated, smiling, chatting with other runners, and looking forward to seeing my wonderful family.
My weight is back up to where I started, and my stomach can handle part of a turkey sandwich. I fall into the chair, the first time I have allowed myself to sit down, and tell David to force me into action again in five minutes. Dry socks feel amazing, as does more ice and cold water. Refreshed, I head out.
My quads are beginning to hurt, but the sun is losing some of its blunt force. I reach Foresthill around 7:15 pm, still feeling strong. Margaret is wearing her pacer number, and we exit at a brisk trot. The trail is beautiful, rolling and smooth, and for several miles the 24 hour goal moves within reach once again. Then my quads begin to really hurt. They cramp and seize on every little downhill. Darkness falls, and my energy level plummets. The pain is so intense I almost cry, and for the next ten slow, excruciatingly painful miles, I walk, break into a shuffle, walk again. I whine. I complain. I curse in German, and in English. Margaret is positive and reassuring. Yes, we have done three quarters of the race already. No, I am not the biggest wimp she has ever paced. She may be lying at this point, but if she does, it is out of pure kindness and compassion. I concentrate on moving forward. Anybody walking still beats anybody stopping. The 24 hour mark slips once more into the realm of fantasy. I don’t even care, I just want to finish. Or lie down and sleep. Or be devoured by a bear. Anything to end this misery, anything but run. The last five miles to the river crossing feel more like 15 miles of agony.
There are stairs leading down to the river. My quads recoil at the sight, but for some reason I manage them unassisted. Cold water to my waist feels surprisingly refreshing, an the sight of people in wetsuits standing in the river all night, helping runners find their way along the treacherous and slippery rocks fills me with overwhelming gratitude. Dry shoes are waiting in my drop bag. My legs feel refreshed, or maybe just numb, as we hike up to Green Gate. Luanne Parks has come back from the dead. She passes me, looking strong and confident, and invites me to tag along for a 24 hour finish. David takes the pacer number from Margaret, and we actually take off running for a few miles.
Once the effect of the cold water wears off, my quads begin to scream again. I slow to the fastest walk I can manage, sigh deeply, and watch Luanne and the silver buckle disappear into the dark, trying to convince myself that bronze is a lovely color for a belt buckle. The night is warm and very beautiful, filled with moonlight and the sounds of crickets and frogs. David and I spend a romantic couple of hours powerwalking through the enchanted forest. A deer stands right next to the trail and looks at us with interest. In spite of my trashed quads and what feels like a huge blister on my left foot I feel a deep sense of joy and peace. A few similarly struggling runners pass us, and we pass some of them. Conversation ebbs. The next aid station has a Christmas theme, and a helpful elf patches up my blister while I munch on a piece of quesadilla. A few runners are slumped in chairs or curled up on cots, and I feel fortunate to be able to move, however slowly.
We walk toward Brown’s Bar, occasionally attempting a shuffle. My head lamp dims, and a branch slaps me across the bridge of my nose. I pay no attention. Rock music sounds in the distance, and the hum of a generator. Time for a battery change. Someone asks me politely if I would like to clean the blood off my face, but since battle wounds mean I am still a tough chick, I decline. Ten more miles. The finish becomes imaginable. I manage to break into a slow trot once more, then a climb toward the highway crossing serves as a welcome excuse to walk again.
Bobby is excited to pace me to the finish. I know he has been apprehensive about being able to keep up, but my snail-like pace reassures him. I try to focus on the beauty of the darkness just before dawn, and the magic of this race, rather than my now totally defunct quads that feel more like hamburger meat than actual muscles. The blister hurts quite a bit and seems to extend over half my sole by now, but the legs hurt so much more that my brain is unable to focus on both pains at once. This is probably a good thing. More climbing. More descending. This has to be the last hill. I find the energy to run across no hands bridge at dawn. Three more miles, a 5km. Anyone can run a 5km. I have run 97 miles, I can suffer through three more. Breathe. Another uphill. Another downhill. We turn off our lights. More hills. The town of Auburn. A paved road. Like a tired horse smelling the barn, I straighten up and weakly trot a few steps at a time. Robie Point. One more hill. One more mile. I begin to think of finish line pictures, wonder how my hair looks and whether the salt crust on my face is noticeable. I am also grateful that photographs are digital and not scratch and sniff.
The stadium appears. I have visualized this moment since December. Around the track, heroically breaking into what I perceive as an all-out sprint that on the video turns out to be a shuffling jog-trot. 24:58. Less than an hour off my dream goal. I lie down on the grass, happy and exhausted and utterly drained of all energy.
One of the most grueling and beautiful days of my life is over. I cannot wait for the next chance at the silver buckle.
What Western States has taught me:
- Elevation profiles can be deceptive. This looks like a much easier course than Leadville, but it isn’t. There is actually more elevation change involved, the up and down is relentlessly constant, and the heat is a force to be reckoned with. Like a pina colada with a cute umbrella stuck in it, this race packs an unexpected punch. The 22,000 feet of downhill mixed with the oven-like temperatures form a concoction that looks quite harmless from the outside but becomes lethal once ingested.
- There is no substitute for experience. I am still not really sure I can finish this distance, and the only way to acquire confidence is to run a few more 100s.
- It is legitimate, and sometimes inevitable, to reassess one’s goals during a 100.
- There is nothing to be gained from fighting hills, or heat. These factors are things I cannot change, and any attempt is a big waste of energy.
At my next 100, I will practice more and better:
- Pain management
- Quad maintenance
- Running my own race from start to finish
At my next 100, I promise to practice less:
- Whining in English
- Complaining in German
- Cursing in Italian
- Asking my pacer in 30-second increments when we will get to the next aid station, especially if she does not know the course any better than I do, and I know that she doesn’t know it.
- Moaning aloud with every downhill step after mile 75
- Making grunting sounds with every uphill step after mile 82
- Trying to keep up with people who are clearly in a different, much faster and potentially superhuman league
– Katrin Silva
Special thanks to Katrin for sharing her Western States adventure with us!
Posted on 08 Jul 2013
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