Dave Yeakel jr. at mile 99.99
Three years, 26 hours, 41 minutes, and 51 seconds………..that is how long it has taken to reach my goal of completing the Western States Endurance Run (“WS”). Stretching 100.2 miles from Squaw Valley on the edge of Lake Tahoe to Auburn California, it is regarded as the oldest 100-mile trail event in the U.S., steeped in history of the American West.
Over 1,000 hopeful runners qualify and apply each year for about 400 starting positions at this race. Roughly 100 runners are automatically selected by meeting pre-set criteria, like being fast at the prior year’s race or a favorite runner of the organizers, and the remaining positions are selected by lottery held each year in December. Having not been selected for the 2005 and 2006 runs I was guaranteed entry as a “two time loser” for 2007 hence the planning, training and preparation began in November 2006 as I secured my Squaw Valley Lodge room before the lottery weekend and sought advise from prior runners.
A race like this is so much more than just running, it’s about interaction with other participants, crews & pacers before, during and after the run. To me it’s a wonderful, although often painful, vacation. And so I arrived 3 days prior to the race just to soak up the experience and share in some pre-race activities like a flag-raising ceremony on Thursday morning to commemorate the trail and reflect on the lives of contributors who passed away during the prior year. The flag-raising is at the top of the first climb 4 miles from the start line and 2,500 feet higher at an elevation of 8,700.
I had known about this climb since I first applied to WS but it’s always more daunting when you stand at the bottom and look up realizing this is just the start of the race. Even with this first climb WS is a net downhill course, with 18,100 feet of climbing and 23,000 descending.
I am not a natural downhill runner! This I learned in 2004 while attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon and was reduced to taking walk breaks after just 6 miles on a downhill course that had only dropped about 600 feet. Fortunately, my legs have been partially retrained and beaten into submission this spring by running several races and training runs with extended or steep down-hills. Saying that I was worried about my downhill weakness is an understatement as my entire summer depended upon completion of this one event.
You see, I’ve committed to running the Grand Slam (“GS”). The GS consists of four of the oldest 100-mile races (Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch) encompassing a wide variety of terrain and obstacles. Each race presents its own hazards such as extreme heat & cold, humidity, downhill running, uphill climbing, technical trails, altitude, logistics, etc.; the objective is to finish each race within a 12 week period. Because I’m a little stubborn and enjoy a solid challenge, I also ran Massanutten Mountain Trails-100 (the hardest 100 east of the Mississippi) just five weeks prior to WS as a tune-up.
Friday morning packet pickup and medical check was the longest I’ve ever experienced for an ultra and took almost an hour. Luckily I had good company in Joey Anderson of North Carolina to share the line with. The pre-race briefing took place at 1:30pm and I had the chance to spend time getting to know Sean and Jack Andrish as well as catching up with Mike Wedemeyer who I met at my first 50K over four years ago. After the meeting I solicited dinner with John and Debbee Straub from Delaware who graciously agreed to a perfect pre-race meal of pasta in their suite. One of the best pre-race meals I’ve ever had in terms of perfect food and a low stress environment sharing the evening with another runner and crew.
At 5 am on June 23rd the nerves were finally calmed as I found a release to my energy with 400 runners beginning their ascent of the Squaw Valley ski slopes and the trails leading to Auburn. Upon cresting the 1st climb within 63 minutes, the trail quickly narrowed as it descends thru the Granite Chief Wilderness Area and the runners formed trains as they become limited by whoever is leading that group. Passing “off-trail” can be hazardous, so even though I felt good but decided to be patient and wait for clear opportunities to pass rather than forcing the pace and possibly hurting myself or burning up my quads early in a very long race.
A split sheet with estimated times to aid stations resided in my pocket for reference but it didn’t really matter as my primary goal was to finish within the 30 hour limit. Yes, I would prefer to run under 24 hours and earn a coveted silver buckle but I tried not to dwell on that and instead focus on consistency and each trail section as it unfolded. The high country of the first 30 miles was beautiful and quite different than running on the east coast. Out west the views stretch forever and provide a sensory overload when mixed with the smell of evergreens, mountain streams and crisp air without humidity.
Along the trail I caught up with fellow slammer Phil Rosenstein, and Badwater 135 entrant Brian Kuhn who was using WS as a training run. We had a comfortable pace and I felt in good company with these guys. Just before mile 23.8 and Duncan Canyon, I unexpectedly saw Dave Bursler of Delaware, when he passed me 25 miles later and I commented on his resurrection I had to chuckle at his answer regarding having oxygen again now that we had descended below 2,500 feet in altitude. It made perfect sense but reflecting back on seeing the effects of altitude on such an accomplished runner was a little scary as it reminded me it can strike anyone at anytime.
Somewhere before mile 25 I became aware that my left quad was hurting but the right felt great. This caused concern until I deduced that I was favoring my left leg to “brake” on the downhill sections. I began focusing more attention on my running style and by the time I hit Last Chance aid station at 43.3 miles and 9 hours 49 minutes into the run, both quads were equally sore and maxed out. Now it was just a game of attrition as the pain would not get any worse, the legs would just slowly lose power.
Last Chance aid station is just that, a stepping off into a runner’s abyss. This crossroads is the beginning of the famous WS canyons, which drop precipitously fast and thousands of feet only to immediately climb back up and be repeated. These canyons retain intense summer heat like an oven and provide no cooling breezes forcing many runners to end their races during this 18 mile stretch of trail.
The canyons had consumed my thoughts entering the race but I was determined to focus on each descent and climb as I encountered them and soon they would be nothing more than a distant memory and another obstacle out of the way. Covering the 3.1 downhill miles to the middle fork of the American River took 45 minutes and the ensuing 1.4 mile, 1,300 foot climb to Devils Thumb with 36 switchbacks took about the same. One down, two to go I thought….that wasn’t so bad.
The ensuing 5.1 downhill miles to El Dorado Creek seemed to go on forever as the trail resembles an amusement park ride. Letting my legs loose on the straights I would gain speed before applying some braking to slow myself just prior to entering the switchbacks. The downward momentum carried me to the upper edge of the banked turns and I would lean harder to the inside hoping to stay on trail, repeat over and over for one full hour. I was forced to stop several times just to let the quads cool down and catch my breath from the mental concentration of not falling off the edge and hours of relentless running that were starting to take their toll on my entire body.
I began thinking about the nighttime hours and my friend and pacer Peter Lubbers who was waiting for me at Foresthill (mile 62). Peter lives in Oregon House, CA just north of the Auburn finish line. We had become familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses after racing each other in September at the Tahoe Super Triple (three races in three days totaling almost 125 miles) where he beat me to the finish line. Pete is a tall, fast, intelligent runner preparing for his first 100 miler at the Tahoe Rim Trail on July 21st. Our teamwork at WS provided me with a pacer I enjoyed sharing the trail with and hopefully some valuable training for Pete with an opportunity to witness firsthand the late stages of a 100 miler. The concerns that began rumbling inside my head concerned the fact I was going to be late to Foresthill and that I was becoming hot, tired and thirsty while losing some of that early race zeal.
Staring at my water bottles, ultra brain took over as I stopped drinking in an effort to ration my reserves for the impending climb to Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7). Thank goodness I had forgotten about El Dorado Creek’s aid station. It has been a long time since I can recall being so thankful to see volunteers, fruit and cold water. I really wanted to just camp out but I knew that a difficult climb was not going to just vanish because I willed it too, so I set out on the climb like a tired puppy with tail between my legs and tongue hanging out.
Unlike the climb to Devils Thumb this climb was longer, 2.8 miles versus 1.4, and felt tougher forcing me to stop three times that I can remember to catch my breath, stretch and summon just a little more energy to continue. It wasn’t really the climb itself that was so difficult but the time of day, cumulative mileage, and recent climb still resident in my legs that made it seem so difficult. That climb to Michigan Bluff was extracting every ounce of willpower from my body and even beginning to effect my mental focus…………my thoughts became “just get to the top, re-supply at the aid station and move on to the third canyon.”
Arriving at Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7 – 6:37pm) was like turning a page in a book. Pete had decided to show up one aid station early to check on my progress and, I believe, to visually inspect the package (me). Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of pacing (remember that stubborn streak) but I will tell you just like the aid station at El Dorado Creek, seeing Pete added 20% to my energy levels as I felt like I no longer needed to worry about him knowing my status. He quickly assessed my status, forced me to “GU up” as I had neglected consistent fueling, and advised me that he would be ready and waiting at Foresthill. With renewed mental and physical energy, I was off for the “easiest” canyon of the day.
I still don’t remember much of the next section, as I just tried to run steady and rebuild energy. Finally reaching Bath Road aid station and the first pavement of the run I took a long walk break until reaching “flat” terrain and turning left onto the main street of Foresthill, I felt like I had to run. Running into an aid station has become a subliminal requirement of ultras for me. That is unless it’s the middle of the night under cover of darkness when no one else can see me walking.
As promised, Pete was ready and waiting…as I arrived at 8:24pm, one full hour past my original goal…..this stop was budgeted for 10 minutes and I planned on spending every one of them regrouping for the final 38 miles. I changed shoes and socks, took a GU, pulled out the lights, attempted to pop a blister, drank my Ensure, two cups of chicken broth, and it was “429 out” as we exited the aid station. I had been concerned about my ability to run past 62 miles but with the change of shoes, cooling temperature, gentle downhill miles, and fresh conversation the miles seemed to be streaming from my legs.
The first two aid stations, Dardanelles and Peachstone, came and went without fanfare but I distinctly remember Fords Bar (mile 73). I thought we would be descending towards the river, but instead we started climbing to a ridgeline. Talk about playing with someone’s head! It was 11:20pm as we approached the aid station, and with 200 hard uphill yards to go we were greeted by two horseback riders. I did my best to hitch a ride to the top but neither they nor Pete were willing to let me concede to outside help.
Rucky Chuck (the river crossing) was now only 5 miles away and I knew once I got there the run was mine, nothing could stop me. Just a few miles prior Pete & I had discussed whether 24 hours was still possible but at Fords Bar I did the math and it became reality that the time deficit was too big to overcome in the remaining miles. With new found peace, we moved on to crossing the river and an experience that I had looked forward to for 3 years.
The American River was quite pretty with the floodlights dancing off the crystal clear waters. Even in a low water year such as this, I was submerged to my waist during the crossing and it was quite exhilarating (COLD) in the middle of the night. I had opted not to change shoes after crossing, instead a change of socks waited for me at Auburn Lake Trails, 7 miles away. My intent was that everything would dry on the 1.7-mile hike up from the river, but I neglected to plan on the lack of sunlight and serious heat. It wasn’t cold, except for being in wet clothing, but it certainly was not hot.
Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2 – 3:06am) was a fun aid station. It was here that I enjoyed bantering with the volunteers and offering limited encouragement to Steven Clegg a 1st time 100 miler, as I changed socks and put on a long-sleeve shirt. As Steven complained about his aches and pains I reminded him that it always hurts but that when he crosses the finish line those memories fade replaced by the joy of the accomplishment. His girlfriend was pacing him and so I also reminded him that she hadn’t put up with his training routine and whining the last 6 months to have him quit now so he better just get moving. We exchanged positions once or twice on the trail and I tried to offer encouragement each time, I’m glad to report that he crossed the finish line just 5 minutes behind me and looked none the worse for the extra mileage he endured.
Unfortunately for Pete, those miles after 85 just seemed to make me slower as the accumulated miles and early morning sleepless hours combined. We were still advancing, just not as fast as I desired and poor Pete had tried to get coffee at two successive aid stations to be met with the words, “we just started another pot if you want to wait”. Being the considerate pacer he was he opted to push forward.
As we progressed towards Highway 49 aid station (mile 93.5) I noticed that we were soon going to share in the best part of these long runs…..the second sunrise. I warned Pete that regardless of how many people we had passed during the cover of darkness I was confident we would soon be passed by people who appeared like they had just started running.
Indeed, with Pete’s pacing assistance and efforts to keep me fueled and moving forward, we had progressed from 170th position at Foresthill (mile 62) to 139th at Browns Bar (mile 89.9). It wasn’t long before those resurrected runners started “sprinting” by intermittently and I felt helpless to pursue at the speeds they were moving. It is truly a strange phenomena that runners appearing dead on their feet hours before find new life with the second sunrise.
After passing thru Highway 49 and patching up a blister, there remained only one more significant landmark to cross over, No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8). The bridge had become another of those defining moments for me as I had watch the 2001 video “A Race for the Soul” numerous times and have seen numerous pictures of this landmark over the years. The trail meanders thru a beautiful meadow prior to the bridge descent, which coincides with the lowest course elevation at 540 feet.
Once we cleared No Hands Bridge my race moved into the realm of surreal. Although I felt fairly good, I just didn’t feel like running. Perhaps I had spent all of my emotional capital, perhaps I just didn’t want the experience to end, whatever the situation Pete and I continued our trek to the finish. We had one final climb of several hundred feet and then it would be over. Leaving the dusty trail for the final time at Robie Point (elevation 1,130 feet) we were greeted with footprints painted on the road leading us to the finish.
Yes, I became complacent, as my finish was absolute, yet I couldn’t do any split calculations in my head, craved real food & coffee, felt exhilarated and sad all at the same time. My feet in particular hated the pavement and ached with each step. We entered the final ¼ mile of the Placer High School track and I really wanted to go run slow and soak it in. I had waited three years for this moment, just traversed 100 miles and wanted to remember every footstep around that track, but it was not to be.
Instead, after just 50 yards of running on the track I heard the timing mat chirp as another runner entered the track behind me. Competitiveness was NOT surging thru my veins but I really didn’t want to be passed in the last few hundred yards of glory. Pete’s concerns revolved around not wanting my finish line picture to be distorted with another runner in front (the things these runners think of). I saw Pete turn around and check out the competition so I couldn’t help but ask our status. “You are at risk”, Pete calmly stated……ok, let’s pick up the pace. He checked again and looked at me, “still at risk” as we entered the final turn of the track we increase tempo further as if doing mid-week speed training. As Pete pulled to the right of the track and I thanked him for the first of many times he gave me the last shot of adrenaline as he simply said “it’s going to be close”. It felt like 100 miles were suddenly compressed into 60 yards as I entered a full blown “sprint” holding off the final challenge and finishing 145th of 270 finishers (392 started the race).
The Western States Endurance Run was everything I anticipated. A tough run on a historic trail filled with emotion, friends and memories to last a lifetime. It was not the hardest 100 I’ve done but it was the most fun, especially the final 38 miles shared with Pete. Hopefully, I will not have to wait another 3 years, 26 hours, 41 minutes, and 51 seconds to enjoy the same feelings again.
On to Vermont and part two of the Grand Slam.
Dave Yeakel Jr. (#429 – out)
Dave: Congratulations on the great finish! Thanks for the wonderful story and all the best in Vermont!