The Longest Day - Page 2
Does it begin at Squaw Valley, California, when the gun went off at 5 a.m. on June 27 and 400 athletes went hooting and hollering up the hill in the pre-dawn twilight (only for the whole lead pack to promptly take a wrong turn, led by two former race champions)?
In the end, I think the story starts the first time I fall down. I'm running along a relatively flat fire road just after Lyon Ridge, chatting with Josh Brimhall, a speedster from Las Vegas whom I've met before, and Leigh Schmitt, a new acquaintance from the East Coast. All three of us have won 100-mile races before and had good seasons up to this point, but we are all first-timers at Western States, and this year we are barely even considered contenders for a top-10 spot by the pundits. This 2009 edition of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, always one of the sport's most competitive ultras, boasts perhaps its most stacked field ever, generating an unprecedented level of hype and anticipation since its first-ever cancellation last year.
Leigh, Josh and I, in fact, chat about the differences between this race and other more laid-back events. I launch into a description of the contrasting attitude at the Bear 100, where, instead of Western States' day-long series of medical checks and race briefings, the pre-race briefing starts with race director Leland Barker saying, "We were planning to have a weigh-in this year, but I can't find my scale, so we'll skip that." Just then, I forget to watch the trail, catch a toe and fly through the air, landing in an explosion of water, gel packets, dust and blood. It will be the first of several yard sales, and only the first of many physical and metaphorical slaps to the face.
Already, I can feel that this will not be an easy day. My heart rate has been too high, my breath too short in the thin mountain air, my legs feeling tweaky far too early, everyone around me moving too fast and confidently. There will be no cruising the high country, surviving the canyons and flying home from Foresthill, as I had visualized many times in the preceding weeks. Instead, the "surviving" part of the race will start early and never stop.
The high country (which I'm seeing for the first time) is a lot of fun, but it is no cruise. The terrain is technical and entertaining, but unrelenting. Following an initial four-mile climb out of Squaw Valley, this 20-mile section between 7000 and 9000 feet has a mostly downhill profile, and I hoped it would go relatively smoothly. Instead, it feels like no good downhill goes unpunished by an uphill section. No runable trails go unfollowed by an awkward, quad-busting descent, and much of the terrain is rocky and technical, demanding my full attention and slowly draining my energy.
Nonetheless, by the time I arrive at the Duncan Canyon aid station at mile 24 and see my crew for the first time, I am feeling positive. I'm running with Leigh, just ahead of Josh and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, a strong Japanese runner who has terrific results in many international races but is a nearly unknown quantity in the United States. My experienced crew of Jeffery Rogers and Ethan Veneklasen shepherds me through the aid station in seconds, and I head down into the first canyon of the race.