Expect the Unexpected

7

Running 100 miles is a crazy sport. You can train and plan for months and feel like everything is lining up perfectly, but things very rarely play out the way you imagine. This was exactly what happened to me this year at Western States.

I had a great spring of training and racing, I wasn’t really injured, I heat trained in the sauna, I spent a ton of time on the course in preparation including lots of high country long training runs, and I felt like I was in the best shape of my life. I was hoping all of this could set me up to have a great day and my A-goal was to run sub-22 hours, which was cutting almost an hour off of my best time (2013- 22:51). A lofty goal but I thought it was possible.

I had decided on two mottos for the race. First, I would think about patience. This worked well for me at Lake Sonoma, a race where most everyone runs the first half too quickly and then blows up in the last 12 miles. Running 100 miles is not really about who’s the fastest but often who is smart and patient. My second motto was “you can do more than you think you can” for when the going got tough, which it inevitably does in a hundred.

Race day

I lined up at the start with my friends Kevin Skiles and Jerome Lourme. We were pumped. The gun went off and we are on our way up the 2,500-foot climb. In my opinion, this is the most difficult climb of the entire race but luckily everyone has fresh legs and adrenaline coursing through their body for a little help. We crested the top together (I was happy with our 63 min split) and headed down into Granite Chief. The wildflowers were beautiful and the morning air was still cool. I felt relaxed and chatted with those around me.

Kevin and I pulled into Lyon Ridge (mile 10) together and we were both feeling good and calm. I was trying not to worry about the fact that I was about three minutes behind my 2013 split and about 10 minutes over what I thought I would run. Patience.

As we started to make our way toward Red Star Ridge aid station, I began to feel really tired on the uphills. I was working harder than I should be for the pace I was going. Luckily my legs still felt decent on the flats and downs. Kevin and I separated somewhere in there and I actually didn’t even realize it because I was so focused on trying to figure out what was happening to my energy. One foot in front of the other. Just keep going.

I pulled into Red Star (mile 16) at 8:29am, much later than I had anticipated. Don’t freak out. Grabbed my drop bag and got out of there pretty quickly. Heading over to Duncan my body continued to feel tired and surprisingly I was having a bit of difficulty eating gels. I knew I needed more calories so I’d break open a gel and take tiny bits at a time but would end up dumping about half of it out due to feeling kind of nauseous. My biggest frustration with this section is I just couldn’t move at the pace I was expecting.

I arrived at Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8) feeling frustrated. My crew, Cory, was there with my supplies. I saw my friend Jimmy Dean Freeman there and complained to him that I was going so slow. He looked me straight in the face and said, “Keep going slow.” Jimmy gave me a big pep-talk the day before the race about not worrying about splits before Robinson and to just keep it calm and under control. I left Duncan with the reminder to just keep going slow but honestly, I had no choice. My body would not move how I wanted it to.

The climb up to Robinson flat was torture. Pure torture. I was stumbling, my head felt foggy, my stomach felt off and nothing seemed right. I counted my steps to 500 and then started again. I was searching for anything to distract myself from the misery. What was really blowing my mind was that I felt this bad so early. I totally understand when I feel like this late in a race, but mile 25? That’s crazy.

I finally reached Robinson Flat (mile 30) 10 minutes slower than in 2013 and feeling much worse. Luckily my crew was there, John Stevens and Victor. I told them how bad I was feeling and that we may need to readjust our pacing plan for the day. They reassured me that I was doing fine and to just keep going. As I was talking to them, Karl came up to me and gave me a kiss. This was a bad sign. It means we were both having issues. I told him to get going and I didn’t want to see him. I know that sounds bad but we don’t have the best of luck when we see each other in races so I was hoping I would not run into him at all. He took off and I was about a minute behind.

I could see Karl up ahead on the climb. I seemed to be gaining on him a bit so I figured he was probably trying to get me to catch him. As I got within about 40 yards of him, BAM! I fell. Luckily it was just in dirt and not on rocks. I was covered in dirt. I stood up and dusted myself off. Well, this is fitting for my day, I thought. I caught Karl about three minutes later. We commiserated about how awful we felt and how we didn’t understand what was going on. Did we not taper enough? Did we train too much/not enough? Did I peak at Lake Sonoma? We agreed it was probably going to be a rough day and we were just going to do the best we could, even if that meant slogging along at a slow pace all the way to the finish. I was VERY happy to be with Karl at this point. He helped lift my spirits and made me feel okay about my current state.

At this point we were starting to drop in altitude. We plugged along together and I started to feel a bit better as we neared Dusty Corners (mile 38). We weren’t running fast but at least it didn’t feel like every step was a major struggle. Just before Dusty, Karl all of a sudden stopped running and started walking. His Achilles was tightening up and becoming an issue. So he walked and I told him I would run ahead and tell Cory, our crew, to have his other pair of shoes ready for him.

Karl made it into Dusty just as I was about to leave. I gave him a kiss and we said our goodbyes and good lucks. I was hoping and praying that things would turn around for him but knew there was nothing I could do about it to help in the moment. So I left solo. (Karl ended up getting some treatment on his leg and was able to have a great finish. Not what he was hoping for but he got his seventh silver buckle, which is incredible to me.)

I was no longer looking at my watch or concerned about anything other than trying to keep myself from feeling miserable again. Things seemed to be turning around and I was feeling grateful. I passed a couple of guys on the Pucker Point trail as “Another One Bites the Dust” played on my ipod. I giggled to myself. I got to Last Chance (mile 43) in really good spirits. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was actually three minutes ahead of my 2013 split at this point. Off I went into the Canyons. Many people consider the canyons to be the most difficult part of the course, but I’ve always felt okay with them. I think it’s because there is a lot of hiking and by that point in the race, I love a good excuse to hike.

The long descent down to Swinging Bridge was annoying but not horrible. I stopped at the creek at the bottom and cooled off with a couple of other runners. As I started up the 1.5-mile, 1,800-foot climb, I realized I was actually doing just fine. People around me were struggling much more than I was. Toward the top I saw a good friend elite ultrarunner, Topher Gaylord, lying on the side of the trail. He told me his whole body was cramping and he couldn’t get up. I felt so bad for him. Not because of his pain, but because he told me his day was over and he didn’t think he would be able to continue. He has been known to come back from the dead before so I was thinking he might be able to continue eventually. He didn’t.

I saw some of my Wednesday Night Running friends at the top at the Devil’s Thumb aid station (mile 47.8). They took great care of me and got me going. I realized I was now just slightly ahead of 2013 splits and decided I would work toward my B goal of getting a PR. Reasonable and doable I thought at this point.

One more long descent and then a 2,000-foot climb up to Michigan Bluff aid station (mile 55.7). My crew, John and Victor, were there and I was now 12 minutes ahead of 2013 and feeling pretty good. Apparently I was 17th woman at this point, but I had no clue and honestly didn’t care. I was just running.

I made my way out of Michigan Bluff, through Volcano Canyon, and up to Bath Road where Victor was waiting for me with a Coke. A heavenly, heavenly Coke. We hiked up Bath Road together as Victor told me to just stay under control and don’t think about splits and time. I told him that I would just try and be steady and do what my body would allow.

We made it into Foresthill (mile 62) at 6:21pm, 20 minutes ahead of 2013. I was feeling really good about this and knew that my legs were feeling decent enough to possibly have an okay split to the river. My crew was waiting for me in Foresthill and had everything ready for me, including my toothbrush. This made me happy!

Victor and I took off together down the road with people cheering and yelling both of our names. Victor has many fans! As we continued down the trail, he encouraged me to be controlled and if I needed to walk, it was fine. He gave me the great advice that pushing the pace down to the river would not help in the end and if I was able to just scale back slightly in this section it would pay big dividends for the last 20. Thanks, Victor! You were spot on. My time with Victor was fun and enjoyable and I just felt so thankful to have him with me.

A strange thing about my whole day up to this point, was that I had barely seen any women. The elite women had clearly taken off from the start and I guess most of the other women were behind me? I didn’t really know what was going on. Soon after Victor and I left Cal 1 (mile 65.7), we finally saw a woman and it was Kerrie Wlad. I recognized her right away and actually introduced myself as we passed. Kerrie was running her first 100-mile race and had run her way into WS by finishing fourth at Lake Sonoma (she’s fast). She was very supportive and encouraging, and I told her she was doing great.

About two miles later, we passed another woman who happened to be a pre-race favorite to possibly win, Michelle Yates. I knew at this point I must be doing okay. I still had no clue what position I was in and again didn’t really care because I knew it wasn’t top 10.

It started to get dark for us while we were running through Sandy Bottom near mile 75. I turned on my light and we kept plugging forward. When we turned onto the fire road with about a mile and a half before the river, we could see a light ahead. We slowly got closer and closer to the light and just before the river passed Joelle Vought, another elite runner.

My crew was again waiting for me at the river (mile 78) and they told me I was 12th since I had just passed Joelle. Someone also told me that Meghan Arbogast was 20 minutes ahead. I thought, “Oh cool, I’m in 12th. I’m really happy with that.” There was no voice in my head saying, “Hey, you can go catch Meghan!” I figured there was no way I could hunt her down…it’s Meghan.

Coming up the Escarpment. Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer

Coming up the Escarpment. Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer

I said goodbye to Victor and picked up my new pacer, Christina Williams. I was looking forward to running with Christina because we always have a good time together. We got hung up in the river for six minutes and I was extremely frustrated to be standing still. But on the bright side it was cooling my legs down and numbing my sore feet a bit. We hiked up to Green Gate (mile 80) and I saw Joelle sitting down changing her socks, not realizing until then that she had gotten across the river before me. So, all that told me was that I was NOW in 12th because I left Green Gate before her, but with the knowledge that she would probably come chase me down once she got her shoes fixed.

I told Christina I just wanted to run and not think about splits or time and I still considered myself out of the top-10 hunt. We ran along the singletrack chatting and catching up and having fun girl talk. My energy was surprisingly still good and I was able to eat gels, coke, and chicken broth and I was sipping on watered down Tailwind for a few extra calories. We made it to ALT (mile 85) and headed out toward Brown’s Bar.

I knew at this point that I had a big enough cushion to hit a PR without having to even push from this point on. I was very comforted by this. Unfortunately and fortunately, this all changed a few miles later.

We were running along nice and steady and about a mile (maybe less) before we got to Brown’s Bar, we passed another runner. Again, in the dark you can’t tell who anyone is and it’s hard to distinguish men and women. As we were passing this runner, I looked toward them and realized it was Meghan Arbogast, the Queen. One of my idols. The unstoppable, amazing, Meghan. I believe I said to her, “Oh my gosh…Meghan.” And her reply was, “Holy crap! Erika, you are having a fantastic race!” I had mixed emotions passing Meghan. Yes, I was happy to be moving into 11th but it was Meghan and I love Meghan. I knew that she was not having the day she wanted if I was passing her and I didn’t like that. I thought for sure she would track me back down.

Once we passed her I thought, “Well, I’m in 11th. That’s pretty sweet. Just like 2013. I’ll take it.” Again, no thought of going for top-10. I hadn’t heard anything about who was in front of Meghan so I thought for sure whoever it was had a solid lead.

What seemed like only a minute or two after passing Meghan, we rolled up on Pam Smith (2013 winner of this race) and I was baffled. We said a few encouraging words and I could tell she was hurting. After we passed her I stayed quiet until we were far enough away so that she couldn’t hear us. Then I said to Christina, “Holy crap, I’m in the top-10!” I was in a state of shock and disbelief. I now found myself in the middle of a RACE and it was on.

I noticed my pace got a little quicker and we discussed exactly what we needed to do at the next aid station coming up shortly. At Browns Bar (mile 90), I told to one of the aid station workers that I just pulled into top-10. He told me Nikki Kimball (solid as a rock WS runner who always finishes top-10, including three previous wins) was just up ahead. I was more focused on the women behind me but happy to hear this news too.

Photo: Gary Wang

Photo: Gary Wang

We quickly left the aid station and ran down the technical trail. Just as we got to the bottom of the trail and onto Quarry Road, we passed a runner but not Nikki. Two to three minutes later we could see two lights up ahead. I could tell that the pacer kept looking back at us and then I saw the pacer’s light illuminate the runner…it was Nikki. She knew it was a girl behind her because we were still talking and I’m pretty sure she could hear us. She continued to run and I continued to stalk her and just inch up on her slowly for about a half-mile. As we finally passed her I said, “Nikki, this is a surreal moment for me. You are one of my idols.” She was very sweet and expressed her gratitude but then quickly said, “Where are the other women? I HAVE to be top-10 this year.” Nikki was going for her 10th consecutive finish in the top-10. I gave her the scoop and she was grateful. I was now in 9th and in front of Nikki Kimball…terrifying!

Let me tell you, it is a very scary thing to be running from Meghan, Pam, and Nikki. All of whom I have watched for years just destroy their competition. And now I was the one being hunted.

I thought we were moving well enough to put some good space between us and Nikki quickly but she continued to hold on a little too close for my comfort. I hiked hard on the ups and ran the flats and downs and Christina continued to monitor the lights behind us. There continued to be some distance between us but the lights didn’t seem to go away.

We pulled into Hwy 49 aid station (mile 93.5). I saw my crew, grabbed some Coke and hit the trail. Just as we were leaving the aid station I could hear people cheering for the next runner. Dang it! I couldn’t seem to shake her. We hiked hard up the trail to the meadow. Christina knew I was working hard but encouraged me to take in the beauty of our surroundings by gently saying, “Wow, it’s so beautiful up here.” I took a moment to look around but kept running. We began the long descent down to No Hands Bridge. About half way through this descent, Christina fell…hard. But just like the great pacer she is, jumped up and said, “I’m fine, I’m fine. Just go!” So we went. Our lights were getting dim which was a bit of a problem on this singletrack trail. We passed one runner and his pacer about five minutes before the bridge.

We made it down to No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8). I grabbed a Coke and dowsed myself with water. I wanted to get across the bridge and out of sight so anyone coming down wouldn’t be able to see us and would think we were long gone. As we were on the far end of the bridge, Christina looked back and said she saw four lights coming down the hill approaching the bridge. That means we had two runners and their pacers not too far behind us. I knew one of them was probably the guy we just passed and I was convinced the other set was Nikki and her pacer. I was still running scared. My mind was focused on getting to Robie Point. I knew if I got there with a minute or two lead, I could do it. Motto number two popped into my mind…you can do more than you think you can. Just go!

I moved forward as fast as I could. We hit the steep climb up to Robie and I hiked hard, knowing every step was getting me closer to an unimaginable dream. When we got to Robie Point (mile 98.9), John and Bob Gilbert were there to run in with us. I told the people at the aid station to tell the next woman they see that I’m REALLY far ahead. They said they would cheer extra loud so I’d know she was there. The four of us hiked up the steep pavement hill and never heard any cheers.

As we crested the hill, I was told that we were also going to break 22 hours, my original A-goal for my race. I was thrilled. I had forgotten about time. We inched closer and closer to the track and it all started to sink in. Is this really happening? On the final descent after crossing the white bridge, I said to my friends, “Holy crap, you guys! I’m freakin’ F9.” A wave of pure joy came over me.

We entered the track and I felt like I had wings on my feet. There was a runner about 100 yards in front of me who Tropical John was talking about already so I calmly waited my turn for my moment. As soon as I heard the voice of God say, “On the back stretch…” I knew it was for me and I screamed. I don’t remember anything that John said. All I could think was HOLY CRAP this is really happening. And then I was in the final chute and I heard John say something about F9 and I screamed again and threw my water bottle into the air. My lanky arms started jutting up and down in the air and I could no longer contain my excitement. I crossed the line, bent over and yelled, “OH MY GOD!” Did I really just pull that off? What just happened?

21:47:25 was my official time. I have never been more proud of myself and so thankful for so many good friends and supportive people in my life. I am so lucky for my pacers, my crew, and my wonderful friends who all believed in me.

Erika and Nikki Kimball. Photo: Gary Wang

Erika and Nikki Kimball. Photo: Gary Wang

Heading into the race this year, a few people kept telling me they thought I could finish top-10. As nice as that was to hear, I actually didn’t really want to hear it. I wanted to run sub-22 but had no notions of cracking top-10. There were at least 30 women in the race who should have finished ahead of me and I like to think I’m a realistic person. I just didn’t think it could happen. Once I thought I was too far behind on my 22-hour goal, I just ran. I looked for the beauty in the trails, felt lucky to be running a race that so many are dying to be a part of, talked and tried to encourage other runners along the way, and thought about my family and friends. There’s something really nice about just knowing you are going to do the best you can and not concerning yourself too much with the outcome. That is, of course, until I found myself in top-10. 🙂

What a day. What a race. What a crazy freakin’ sport.

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About Author

Erika is the Contributing Editor for UltraRunning magazine. She grew up as a soccer player in Portland, OR but turned to ultrarunning when she moved to the Bay Area after receiving her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Chapman University. She continues to work part-time as a PT, primarily with the elderly. Erika ran her first ultra in 2008 and has now completed over 30 ultras of distances ranging from 50K to 100 miles. The 100K and 100-mile distance are her favorite.

7 Comments

  1. Amazing race report. I felt my heart racing as you described breaking into the top 10 and trying to hold on. WOW! Very happy for you and your amazing accomplishment.

  2. Skip Brand on

    Killer race report and watching you at Forrest Hill was inspiring! You rocked Western States and congrats! What a life accomplishment for a great writer, runner and person!

  3. Great report! I can never read enough about continuing to put one foot in front of the other when times get tough, that there may be better times ahead. Thank you!

  4. Diane Forrest on

    Erika, wow! Congratulations on a spectacular achievement! I love how you pushed through feeling so lousy early on but stuck with it and then to finish as F9! I also love how you and the other elite women were all so encouraging of one another. Thank you for writing up such a great race report. I hope you enjoy some good rest and recovery.

  5. Big Johnny Burton on

    Great race report Erika. And what an awesome performance! Congrats!!!

  6. Isaac R. Medrano on

    Simply amazing! Thank you for sharing. I shall be turning to your words and experience as I dance beyond 50k for the first time this December! Congratulations Erika!