10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, BANG! 5am countdown sent 369 crazy but lucky souls to run 100 miles with 5,500 meters elevation gain and 7,000 meters descent from Squaw Valley to Auburn on this last weekend of June. It was a cold Saturday morning and with snow all around it felt almost like winter.
The first four miles involved powerwalking 777 vertical meters up the Escarpment to Emigrant Pass at 2667m. The clear starry night gradually turned into a golden sunrise reminiscent of California gold rush days. This race was for a silver (<24-hour) or bronze (<30-hour) finisher belt buckle.
The tricky thing about Western States is getting in, as the number of runners is limited to 369, and over 5,000 qualified runners apply. I got selected in the lottery 13th on the waitlist. I proceeded to make crew and travel arrangements immediately. I got in just about three weeks prior to the start.
Risto and my son Jon had remained with me in The Village of Squaw Valley to help me start. My friend Dreama had agreed to be my Crew Chief and Pacer. Accompanied by her little daughter Addie and assistant Ellery she had taken our SUV to Robinson Flat already on Friday to camp there.
Calming myself with deep breaths, I found an easy rhythm aiming for approximately 30-hour pace. At the top I turned around to see an incredible sunrise over Lake Tahoe. Despite wearing two pairs of gloves the wind was blowing freezing cold, so I kept on going down on the other side.
The first 10 miles to Lyon Ridge were run mostly on snowy trails. Despite getting passed, I took my time, trying to avoid tripping. I arrived at the first Aid Station at 7:44, 4' behind 30-hour schedule. I took off my La Sportiva Blizzard windbreaker, put on sunglasses. Time to start running!
There was a long climb which I mostly walked and then runnable single track down to Red Star Ridge only five miles away at 25K. I was 4' ahead. The water they filled my soft bottle with was warm and funky tasting, so I quit drinking it. Otherwise everything was cool.
The single trail continued down to Duncan Creek. I had my white ice hat and cooling-effect-when-wet armsleeves on. I reached Duncan Canyon AS at 24 miles 26' ahead. The Aid Stations were really great. They had everything. No need to carry anything else really but water or electrolyte drink.
I felt good and headed to Robinson Flat where my crew would be waiting for me. The weather was nice, around 70F/20C. The temperature was considerably cooler than in previous years, The numerous creek crossings made it easy to stay cool and I found it easy to stay on 30-hour schedule.
The last uphill was quite tough but I arrived in Robinson Flat 50K point at 12:34, 36' ahead. Risto was there at the AS to direct me further to their chair. It was great to see my crew there ready to change my La Sportiva Akasha shoes to a slightly bigger new pair.
In a race like this the crew plays an important role. Your performance depends on the crew in many ways. Crew work can be every bit as tough as actual racing. I departed merrily to the last snowy patch of the day, shouting farewell until Foresthill.
We had divided the race course into four manageable sections (for me + 6 crew members + 3 cars):
1. Cold & Snowy High Mountains: 30 miles from start to Robinson Flat 50K, where Dreama, Ellery and Addie will camp overnight and be joined by Risto and Jon who drive there after the start;
2. Hot Deep & Steep Canyons: 31 miles from Robinson Flat 50K to Foresthill 100K, where my whole crew (Dreama, Will, Risto, Jon, Ellery and Addie) would be waiting, and after seeing me leave with Will (who would drive his own car). Risto would drive Ellery, Addie and Jon to sleep by the stadium in Auburn in our SUV, leaving his own car in Foresthill;
3. Cal Street: 17 cool night miles with a headlamp, hills and runnable trails) from Foresthill to Rucky Chucky 125K, Will would be my pacer for this section, while Dreama would try to sleep if possible and then drive Will's car to the river parking, take the bus to Rucky Chucky (no cars allowed there), and return car keys to Will;
4. The Last 22 miles: night/morning, rolling hills and runnable trails, where Dreama would cross the river on a boat with me and be my pacer until we all would all (except Will) finish together at Placer High School track in Auburn before 11am cut-off time on Sunday. Then Risto would drive home in his car and me, Dreama, Ellery, Jon and Addie would drive our SUV to a local hotel for the night.
So coming up next: Miller's Defeat, easy 4 miles down the dirt road, with some big trees around. I made it 40' ahead. My AS-routine went as follows: get my ice hat and soft bottles filled up, eat and drink something you fancy, get sponged with ice water, and get your ass back on the trail moving on.
Dusty Corner's was another 4 miles down, 44' ahead. While eating I chatted with Gordy Ainsleigh there, the legendary man who started this event by running it alone in 1974. After saying goodbye to Gordy, I made it easily enough to Last Chance at 43 miles, 46' ahead. So far so good!
Next up the steepest of them all: Deadwood Canyon. The heat bouncing off the canyon walls created the infamous oven effect. It was 30C/85F. Then climbing up 36 switchbacks to Devil's Thumb at 48 miles/77K, 37' ahead. I had lost my appetite for most foods, but forced myself to eat a popsicle and pieces of fruit.
Then came the seemingly neverending steep-ish downhill to El Dorado Canyon. At 53 miles/85K I had passed the half-way and it was 6:56pm, and 34' ahead. When a volunteer asked if I wanted bug spray myself, I refused. I'm used to mosquitos in Finland, they don't bother me that much.
The climb to Michigan Bluff at 55.7 miles/90K seemed to take forever, but I was ok with 35' ahead. I took my spare headlamp from the drop bag I had sent here, as it would be dark after 9pm. They asked if I wanted a pacer to Foresthill, but I said no thanks. Maybe I should have said yes.
I was looking forward to meeting my crew in Foresthill 6.3 miles away. The dirt road was easy, but then there was a technical section, where my spare headlamp wasn't quite powerful enough. I struggled to run without falling down, as I felt nauseous and exhausted. Suddenly Risto and Jon appeared on the road in front of me. It was great to run with Jon to Foresthill 100K.
We ran pretty fast and soon Will joined us. Just as we ran to the AS at 62 miles/100K at 10:12pm and 33' ahead, I stupidly forgot to watch my step and faceplanted on the asphalt. I felt dizzy after the fall, and they took me inside to be inspected by a doctor. I had some minor roadrash on my elbow and knee. I felt ok five minutes after the incident though. It wasn't a big deal.
Will forced me to eat something, and then we were good to go. Now we had lost so much time that we were slightly behind 30-hour pace. Will gave me my main headlamp and a handheld torch. We were going to catch up by running down the Cal Street to the river!
Dardanelles AS (Cal-1) didn't have timing function, but Peachstone (Cal-2) at 70.7 miles/114K did. We were there 1:03am, 37' ahead. We were killing it! We hoped Dreama would notice our unexpectedly rapid progress online, as we didn't carry any phones to call her.
Will made me eat, although I just begged to sleep for a minute. Will said no. Then I begged the lady at the AS if I could lie down and sleep for 10 seconds, but also she said no! She said sleep deprivation is normal, and offered me Red Bull, Mountain Dew and Coke instead. Tough love!
The next one, Ford's Bar at 73 miles, also lacked timing. It was a steep climb up there, and we passed a lady who had fallen and hurt her leg so badly she could hardly walk with her pacer. There was nothing much we could do to help, so we simply kept on going. I was happy to be able to run.
Fortunately the last 5 miles would be runnable trail along the American River. We arrived at Rucky Chucky river crossing at 3:22am, 38' ahead. But Dreama wasn't there! We shouted and looked around in panic. Had I ran 80 miles for nothing? Is this where my bizarre journey would abruptly end now?
Gordy was there and asked me kindly: "Would you like to lie down and have your spine adjusted? It only takes a couple of minutes!". I really wanted to get going. "No way, there's no time to waste! Can you please get me another pacer?", I said. He couldn't find anyone at such a short notice.
Then I had a crazy idea: "Gordy will you pace me?" He seemed surprised. I went down to the river to put on a lifejacket and cross it on a raft by myself. Then the river volunteers told me to wait a second, as Gordy had agreed to pace me to the finish as soon as he can put on his running shoes.
Suddenly Dreama appeared at the last moment in front of me, said something about not expecting us so early, and jumped into the boat with me. She had already given the keys to Will and told Gordy that we are ok. We were back in business!
My spirits lifted as we were rowed across the river just below the rapids. We stepped out safely on the other shore and powerwalked up to Green Gate at 4:15am, 40 mins ahead of 30-hour pace. We could do this, but I needed to run all the flats and downs in the last 20 miles! And I had to eat more, which seemed to be consistently the most difficult problem.
It was 5 miles to Auburn Lake Trails. I felt nauseous and exhausted once again, but Dreama made running so much fun by distracting me with funny stories and small talk and stuff that I wanted to keep on running anyway. I was looking forward to sunrise, which can sometimes give a second wind.
Then we passed Ken Michal, whose Runnig Stupid podcast I had followed for years. He leaned badly sideways and seemed unable to talk. Dean Karnazes was pacing him. His first book Ultramarathon Man had inspired me to run Western States 100. Sadly, Ken was forced to drop out at ALT.
Soon we were able to turn off our headlamps. I kept on tripping on trivial obstacles, scratching my knees and hands a bit. We passed a memorial for lady killed by a mountain lion. It probably wasn't pretty running, but we reached ALT at 85 miles/137K 41' ahead.
It was five miles down to Quarry Rd (previously Brown's Bar) at 90.7 miles/146K. We heard music blasting, but somehow I didn't feel like dancing. Hal Koerner, whose ultrarunning book I had read, was one of the volunteers there. We were 58' ahead. My buckle was in the bag already for sure.
The trail to Pointed Rocks at 94.3 miles/152K dropped first down to the river, but then it climbed up Cool limestone quarry. I found this a challenging part of the course. This AS was formerly called Highway 49 Crossing. I got a well-earned strawberry smoothie there. We were 42' ahead.
No Hands Bridge is a famous landmark across the American River once again with various flags 2.5 miles further. At 96.8 miles, we had only 3.4 miles to go! Woo hoo, smelling the barn! This is the lowest altitude on the course. I had to visit the bushes after the bridge,
While walking towards Robie Point, we suddenly bumped into Austin Twietmeyer, whose video '100 with Austin Twietmeyer' inspired me. It shows him fighting his way to a 29h26min finish last year, when his dad Tim paced him. We chatted briefly.
I felt like puking, but nothing would come out anymore. I was empty. Like 25-time finisher Tim Twietmeyer says, in Western States 100, it's best to accept what the day gives you. Today it seemed to give me a bronze buckle with nausea, and I surely would accept it with gratitude.
The winding uphill went on and on. It was hot. We finally reached Robie Point at 98.9 miles 10:07am. In 1955 Wendell T Robie had ridden 100 miles in one day on his horse, This feat started the Tevis Cup horse race, which then lead to Western States 100 when Gordy's horse was unable to run.
Dean Karnazes wrote about reaching this point for the first time like "It struck me that my past as I knew it had suddenly ceased to exist. Nothing would ever be the same to me from this point on, I'd been profoundly transformed by this journey in ways I had yet to understand." Well said.
Time to run the last half-mile to meet my crew before the stadium gate! I let out warrior roars all along the way. People were cheering left and right as we ran on the street. There was my crew now, and we ran through the gate. Only 250 meters to the finish line on the track!
My amazing super-duper crew went to the separate finish chute on the left, and I crossed the finish line in 29h 26mins - the same time as Austin had finished in the video the year before. 100.2 miles/161.3K done! They hang the finisher medal around my neck.
I sat in the medical tent for a while to down a cold drink in the shade and chatted with Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning Jason Koop about our forthcoming Tor des Geants 200-miler. Then I took a shower and changed clothe before I was awarded my bronze belt buckle. Happy times!
The community is what makes this event so special in my opinion. There are over 1,500 volunteers working for the race organization. Many of them know each other well, as they come back year after year. The atmosphere is very inspiring and positive. People are very kind and helpful.
This completes my Ultrarunning Triple Crown: Comrades Marathon in Africa, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in Europe, and Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in America. Mission accomplished.
By the way, my long-time blogger friends Dreama and Will have written down their take on this episode as well. Check their blogs out, as they are great ultrarunners and engaging storytellers!