Fear and Loathing in the Western States
It seemed like a good idea back in February, it really did. With my Team In Training Anchorage Marathon trip scheduled for June 22nd, I learned the Western States 100 mile run would be the next Saturday, June 29th. With my friend Jim Garcia running, I offered to re-route my return trip in order to crew for him in the race. Western States is the big enchilada, the grandaddy of all 100 milers.
Posted Thursday, 11 July, 1996
It seemed like a good idea back in February, it really
did. With my Team In Training Anchorage Marathon trip
scheduled for June 22nd, I learned the Western States 100
mile run would be the next Saturday, June 29th. With my
friend Jim Garcia running, I offered to re-route my return
trip in order to crew for him in the race. Western States is
the big enchilada, the grandaddy of all 100 milers. It runs
through the Sierra mountains in California from Squaw Valley
on Lake Tahoe to Auburn, near Sacramento. There is a waiting
list every year to gain entry into Western States. Many of
the USA's top ultra runners turn up each year to test
themselves over the rugged terrain. For years, California
natives with the opportunity to train on the course have
dominated the race. Garcia would have his work cut out for
him to achieve a top finish.
But that's all later. Because on Thursday afternoon June
27th, I was seriously questioning my decision to go to
California at all. Little did I know I'd soon be questioning
my sanity too. All because I didn't consult a map. Really.
Did you know that Reno, NV is closer to Lake Tahoe then
Sacramento? You see I had a flight scheduled into Sacto,
thinking that was as close as I could get to Tahoe. Flying in
Thursday evening, I needed a (cheap) way of getting to the
condo that Garcia had rented in Tahoe. Anyway, I managed to
get my flight re-routed to the much closer Reno, due to
arrive at 10 pm. All I needed then was a way to get to the
condo, some 30 miles distant.
A Budget Limo service assured me they could deliver me
to the condo, as soon as the driver returned. While waiting I
popped a quarter into the slot machine at the airport, and
three dollars worth of quarters popped out. Turns out, that
change would come in handy.
The driver showed up and off we went. As fate would have
it, this guy had no idea where the condo was. By the light of
a nearly full moon, we circled Lake Tahoe, futily looking for
Silvertip Road. By midnight, we had come full circle back
into Nevada, and my driver was getting tired of looking for
Silvertip Road and tired of looking at me. Lake Tahoe is 72
miles around, and this guy had absolutely no clue. I
suggested we stop at a 7-11, where I tossed down my quarters
for a Lake Tahoe map. I located Silvertip, which was the good
news. The bad news was that it was 30 miles away and 4 miles
off the highway and the limo driver said he would only leave
me on the highway. So there I was at 1 am on route 89, with
all of my luggage and the temperature dropping fast. Oh I
should mention that when I was given the phone number to the
condo, someone had transposed a number. In trying to call
Garcia at the condo, I kept getting a no such number message.
So I schlepped it to another 7-11 and managed to beg a
ride from two derelict looking gen x-rs out for a late night
snack. Turns out they were from Boston too, and took pity on
me. At about 2:15 am, I walked into the condo I thought I'd
never see. Garcia was happy to see me, I think.
Friday was the usual pre-race routine. I tried to catch
up on my rest, but did go with Garcia to the number pick-up.
All crew members were supposed to attend a briefing, but I
decided rest was more important. Most of the runners seemed
loose and confident, despite the mammoth task ahead. The
field was the best Western States had seen in years, and the
weather looked decent, if a bit hot. Later that night, my
friend Jim " Dr J " Azzola, who lives in San Jose, arrived at
the condo. He had agreed to join me as Garcia's two man
"crew". I say that euphemistically, as most runners had full
crew teams of up to a dozen people.
It didn't take long on Saturday for things to start
going wrong. We all got up at 3:30 am for the 5 o'clock start
in Squaw Valley. Soon we discovered that among his clothes,
drinks mixes, food, drugs (mostly legal), and other assorted
knicknacks, Garcia couldn't find the keys to the rental car.
As I was supposed to be driving the car to various points on
the course, this was something of a problem. At 4:15, we
decided to have Dr J drive Garcia to the start. I called the
rental car agency to find out how we could get a key for the
car. They told me to go (back) to the Reno airport. When Jim
came back, we departed for said location, only to find upon
arrival the key in fact could not be made. So we were down to
one crew car, and already running late.
Access to the crew stations at Western States is so
remote, it requires miles of dirt road driving to get there.
Giving up on reaching Garcia at mile 30, we set out for mile
40, arriving there at 11 am, four hours of straight driving
from Reno. Luckily, no runners had yet arrived at that
station. Soon they arrived, led by Scott St. John, a 2:18
marathoner. Defending champ Tim Tweitmeyer was in sixth
place. Garcia turned up in 12th place at 6:38 on the clock,
30 minutes behind St. John. He looked pretty good, not too
distressed at all. Crowd favorite Ann Trason was nowhere in
sight. Trason had won the tough Comrades 54 miler in South
Africa only 12 days earlier. She had won seven consecutive
women's Western States, and finished in the top five overall
for the past several years. I figure she was just running to
win the women's race in 1996. Like a lot of other things this
weekend, I was wrong about that.
As we headed off to the mile 55 station at Michigan
Bluff, the day was heating up with a vengeance. Dr J's car
had no air conditioning, so we stopped and bought two bags of
ice, ostensibly for Garcia, but I popped open a bag just to
cool down my neck and back. I had another small detail on my
mind. I was to be Garcia's official pacer over the final 38
miles of the course. Each runner is allowed a pacer, someone
to help them in case they fall into the river, I guess. I'd
paced Jim two years ago in the Vermont 100. Seriously, a
pacer can provide much needed moral support over the final
tough miles. A pacer is also something of a pack mule,
carrying extra water bottles and supplies. In the meantime,
it was getting so damned hot in the car, we were able to heat
up a burrito that Garcia had left for Dr J. just by leaving
it on the dashboard.
When we arrived at Michigan Bluff, mile 55, a real party
atmosphere was developing. Hundreds of fans, family, and crew
had gathered to see the front runners go by. We found a spot
in the shade and waited, assembling Garcia's assortment of
supplies. At about 2 pm, St. John came steaming into the aid
station, with Anderson close behind. Eight more runners and
45 minutes went by before Jim came running towards the
station. As I was helping him with a change of shoes and
socks, ice, and ibuprofen, the crowd roared for Western
States queen Ann Trason, who was in and out of the station
while Garcia was sitting down. That's the last we would see
of her on this day.
Then it was on to Foresthill and mile 62. Now I was
really getting nervous. I was hot and tired from having been
up since 3:30. I knew Garcia would be counting on me to pump
him up and hold the pace. I mean, is there anything worse
than bailing out on your runner, when you are the one
supposedly providing the support? At 4:17 pm, we left the
comfort of the Foresthill school parking lot for 38 miles of
mountainous trail in the high Sierras.
Thankfully, I felt pretty good as we started out. The
trail went predominantly downhill for the first few miles,
passing through small brook streams. The quiet and calm was
welcome after a day of confusion. All that mattered now was
one thing: running to the finish. We passed Eric Clifton at
mile 65 and Courtney Campbell at mile 68 to move into 8th
place. Both men looked tired and defeated. This buoyed
We hit mile 70 at 6:00 pm., then the trail started
getting tough. Both the uphills and downhills became more
pronounced. He slowed to a walk on some of the ups. We were
running on a high ridge overlooking the American River,
several hundred feet below. I knew we would be working our
way down to river level at mile 78, the Rucky Chucky (really)
river crossing. The two of us slowly slogged onwards towards
At 7:30 we reached Rucky Chucky. A long red rope
stretched several hundred yards across the river. Waist deep
in ice cold water, we pulled ourselves across. Cool! That's
the sensation my legs felt after a day of heat. I only wished
it could have lasted longer. On the other side, we continued
on up a huge mountain trail. Only 22 miles to go. Without
saying anything, we both knew the hardest running was yet to
come. With less than an hour of daylight left, we reached
mile 80 at 8 pm. The race took on a sense of urgency then,
and Garcia picked up the pace, running at a pace I found
incredible 15 hours into the race.
Just before dark, Garcia suddenly pulled up. A long
black and white striped rattlesnake was stretched across the
trail. Neither of us wanted any part of it. He shoed him of
the trail with a stick and we sprinted hard for nearly
a minute to get away. Great. Now it was getting dark and I
wouldn't even be able to see what was on the trail.
We turned on the flashlights and continued on. Now, I've
done a lot of things in my running career, but running on a
narrow trail in the middle of the wild in the dark is
not one of them. But it was sure going to happen now.
We heard voices from faraway, which meant an aid station was
coming up. At mile 86, we suddenly emerged into a clearing
and there it was. A nice big stop with dozens of people
milling around. There was even a campfire. Gee, wouldn't it
be nice to stay here and sit by the fire for a while? Well,
that's exactly what St. John, Anderson, and Mike Morton were
doing. All three front runners had retired from the race.
Just like that, Garcia was in 4th place. To paraphrase Woody
Allen, 90% of success inn ultrarunning is just continuing to
The euphoria he felt leaving mile 86 was short lived.
Sean Crom, who had been behind Jim all day, passed us in
short order. This didn't upset Garcia too much, as 5th place
seemed just fine. We ran along, knowing each step was one
closer to the finish. At 10:25, we hit the mile 90 stop. Rock
music blasted as an enthusiastic group greeted us. Surely
these volunteers were happy to see anyone come running in. 10
miles to go. Damn, it seemed a long ways away.
Right out of the mile 90 station, I finally took a nasty
fall, tripping on a rock and pitching forward, landing hard
on my left shoulder. A piercing pain shot through me. The
surprising thing to me was that it took me this long to take
a fall. Garcia was amazingly staying nimble enough on the
downhill sections to avoid falling, although we both made
many slips and half falls. I got up quickly and kept running,
if only to avoid the embarrassment of having him run away
from me and not being able to catch up.
Another roar greeted us at the mile 94 stop in Cool
Canyon. What were all these people doing out at 11:15 pm? Not
two minutes out of that stop we heard another roar. That
could mean only one thing - another runner close behind.
Incredibly, Garcia began really running hard, lifting the
pace to an uncomfortable level, at least for me. The guy is
simply the fiercest competitor I've ever seen. The next
destination was No Hands bridge at mile 97. I could hear the
traffic and see the bridge hundreds of feet below. Inwardly,
I groaned, knowing it was all downhill trail to reach that
point. Much to our dissapointment, Bruce Linscott and his
pacer passed us just before the bridge. That one was tough.
There was no chance of keeping up with Linscott's hard pace.
Garcia immediately slowed to a walk. Now it was a matter of
getting to the finish line, period.
The final three miles from No Hands were an exhausting
grind up and out of the hole to Placer High School. We had a
little less than an hour to beat 20 hours. That provided the
immediate goal, but Garcia seemingly had no interest in time.
I told him he would care later, if he didn't now. Finally out
of the forest, we had 1.3 miles on the streets left at 19:38.
Just to see the streetlights was uplifting. I encouraged
Garcia to run a little, knowing that would do the trick. He
started slowly, then built up to steady pace. All of a sudden
he kicked into a higher gear, and I was straining to keep up.
On to the track we ran for the final 200 meters, which he did
in 40 seconds, crossing the finish line some 19 hours 49
minutes, and 22 seconds after the gun fired in Squaw Valley.
His 6th place finish was among the best ever achieved by an
east coast runner, one without the advantage of being able to
train on the course. There were surprisingly few people at
the finish line. We were all exhausted and happy to have it
done. It was after 3 am before we finally settled in at the
hotel and 8 am when we got up the next day. It was stunning
to know there were still many runners out on the trail,
trying to finish before the 11 am cut off time. At the awards
ceremony on Sunday afternoon, all finishers received their
belt buckles, the precious ones being of the silver variety
that read " 100 miles - one day ".
Tim Tweitmeyer defended his title, running a time of
17:42. Ann Trason was 3rd in 18:57. My respect for these two,
the other 73 runners who broke 24 hours, and the 200 more who
finished under 30 hours is immense. Having seen
this course first hand will do that to you. Back in the
relative comfort of Boston, it's hard to believe all that
happened in such a short time. But then, I knew it would be a
good idea back in February, I really did.