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Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

For first timers, the starting line of the Western States Endurance Run can be a terrifying place. According to one veteran of the race, there's more condensed energy in that staging area than any other spot on the planet.

The run traverses the Sierra Nevada, traveling 100 miles on trails used by American Indians and gold prospectors from Squaw Valley, Calif., to Auburn, Calif. Racers climb roughly 18,000 feet and drop about 23,000 feet.

Standing there alongside all those other runners at the start, you stare up at the face of Squaw Valley Ski Resort and try to imagine how the next 24 hours will unfold.

"Did I put in enough miles?" you wonder. "When, exactly, will it start to hurt?"

And of course, it's all conjecture because you've never done this before. You might as well be climbing into a rocket ship headed for the moon.

The question of why anyone would want to subject themselves to the pain and punishment of running 100 miles is a difficult one to answer. I struggled with this question when people asked me this during training and I always seemed to fall back on the responses I heard from other runners:

Because it's hard.

Because life is too easy

Because it makes me feel alive.

I still am not quite sure what drew me to Squaw Valley on the last full weekend in June. For sure, my training partners had something to do with it, especially Craig Thornley, a fixture in the Eugene running community who has hooked enough people on Western States that he should probably be getting a cut of the race proceeds.

"I absolutely love the training and the planning my whole year and my vacations for this one event," explains Thornley, who has finished the race five times and hopes to run it five more.

"I love the event, I love the course, the competition. There's no other race where so many people are peaking for one race. There's no other ultra like it, whether it's 100 miles or 50 (kilometers)."

The mystique of Western States

Western States doesn't just afford the opportunity to run a lot of miles; it offers the chance to do it alongside some of the best ultra-distance runners in the world. It also provides a connection to the roots of the sport of ultra-running, meaning any race longer than the 26.2-mile marathon distance. The event inspires such devotion that people are willing to wait years just for the chance to register for it. It requires months of preparation, and a significant portion of entrants never even make it to the starting line because of training injuries.

Western States has been called "the Super Bowl of ultra-running," "the ultimate ultra," or as this year's winner, Ashland's Hal Koerner, put it "the biggest 100-miler in the world."

Western States isn't the only 100-mile race - there are at least 41 of them in North America - but it is the oldest, and there is a rich history surrounding the event. The contest grew out of a horse race known as the Tevis Cup, which has been held every year since 1955. On Aug. 3, 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh, a veteran horseman whose animal went lame, attempted the race on foot. He finished in 23 hours and 42 minutes and a tradition was born.

Ainsleigh, now 60, still competes in the race he unintentionally founded. He finished this year's event in 29 hours and 30 minutes.

Just as running the Boston Marathon is every road marathoner's dream, every ultra-runner wants to record a Western States finish. The race's 24-hour finisher's prize - a silver belt buckle that reflects the event's cowboy history - is also one of running's most coveted trophies.

The race attracts an array of competitors with different goals, and you're just as likely to see fit, athletic types as you are dorky scientist-looking dudes. Some are hoping to finish in the top ranks; others are just trying to go the distance. This year, men outnumbered women roughly three to one.

Numerous Eugene-area runners have run at Western States. Coburg's Jeff Riley and Eugene's Ed Willson both have completed the race. John Ticer, a Eugene firefighter, ran for sixth place in 2005 and Ruth Anderson, an ultra-running pioneer and Eugene transplant, earned two bronze Western States belt buckles during the 1980s.

To the line, and beyond

At age 34, and having competed in 10 ultra-marathons - the longest 66 miles - I had come to Squaw Valley to follow in the footsteps of the roughly 3,400 other past finishers. I was there with Thornley and Riley, plus 389 other runners, and I was one tightly wound bundle of nerves. Other more-experienced runners tried to persuade me to enjoy the nervous anticipation.

"The first one's the best" they assured me. "You're jumping off into the great unknown."

A shotgun blast announces the beginning of Western States, but I was so keyed up at that starting line I didn't even hear it. I imagined all those nerves would simply float away as I climbed up the face of Squaw Valley, but the butterflies stayed with me for the first 30 miles.

The sky was orange, and I could see Lake Tahoe in the distance behind me as I crested the upper reaches of the ski resort. The Tahoe fires hadn't yet begun and we enjoyed clear skies and crisp temperatures - near perfect running conditions.

The course soon entered a rugged alpine area, and I began to see some of the downhill stretches I had heard so much about. Before the race, I was warned by just about everyone about the downhills. Unless I wanted to finish walking sideways, they told me, I had better strengthen my quads during training.

Heat is another element runners prepare for during training. Last year the mercury climbed into the 100s and left wilted runners all over the course. The finisher rate in 2006 was a mere 52.6 percent (as compared with 68.9 percent this year), and the front-runner collapsed just three-tenths of a mile from the finish line.

Knowing about last year's heat scared me into action. During training, I often ran in a wool ski hat and several layers of clothing. I tried to run during the hottest part of the day.

This year heat was less of an issue, but I still followed the advice I had been given. I doused myself regularly and never passed a stream without dunking something in it. I left my hat on while running in the sun, took it off in the shade and dumped the contents of my water bottle on my head before refilling it.

To help take my mind off the pain, I ran the first 50 miles of the race with an iPod, which did surprisingly well when soaked with water. Even more important than tunes, though, was hydration and fuel, which I carried in the form of water, sports drinks and electrolyte gels. I ran with two water bottles, plus a waist pack containing food and salt pills.

Problems and dangers

Runners pass through 23 aid stations on their route from start to finish. Each table is stocked with an array of carbohydrates - boiled potatoes, pretzels, fruits - plus a few extra surprises, such as pizza, Coke, chicken broth and M&Ms.

Like most of the runners, I relied on my own support crew to supply me with other essentials. Most runners also use two pacers to help keep them on track during the final miles of the race. Pace runners are allowed during the last 38 miles.

The dangers of running Western States include the obvious bumps, bruises and scrapes you can sustain by falling. Dehydration, hyponatremia (low blood sodium), heat exhaustion and hypothermia are also concerns.

Runners are weighed several times throughout the race. The measurements are used to help keep track of hydration needs. Hydrating isn't just a matter of drinking lots and lots of water. Runners need to replenish both the water and the salts lost during exercise, and going too far in one direction or another can lead to disastrous results.

Monitoring your condition throughout the race can be a bit of a guessing game, especially when you're tired and particularly if you're new to a 100-mile race, as I was. I had stomach troubles throughout the day, a problem I couldn't seem to solve no matter what I tried. I had difficulty keeping anything down and I ran the final 50 miles on chicken broth and Coke.

I was not alone in having gastrointestinal issues. I saw top-rated ultra-runners emptying their stomachs all over the course. When you're running long distances, your body tends to shut down its non-essential systems, so it can devote its energy to protecting vital organs. This leaves runners with a sloshing mess in their stomachs that has nowhere to go but up.

I'm told even the best runners do a certain amount of force-feeding to make sure those calories stay down, which suggests that in this sport, holding your nose and stifling a gag reflex can be just as heroic as charging up a steep single-track.

Kidney failure is one of the scarier concerns facing anyone who braves a 100-miler. The muscle tissue damage that can result after a race causes the release of the protein material myoglobin into the blood plasma, and too much myoglobin can clog the kidneys. Re-hydrating and replenishing electrolyte stores at the finish is usually enough to prevent any problems, but there have been cases of runners requiring dialysis.

Lost in a daze

Along with not causing my kidneys to fail, my aim in running Western States was to finish in the top 20 or even the top 10 - the top 10 men and women finishers all earn a guaranteed entry into the following year's race. Until about the halfway point, my goal was still in sight, and I came into the Michigan Bluff aid station at mile 55.7 in 26th place.

My crew later told me I looked ashen at this point, but most of the other runners probably looked pale here too. After all, we had just climbed out of one of the hottest and most difficult sections of the course.

I had one more section to go before the Foresthill aid station at mile 62, which is generally acknowledged as the point where the real racing begins. I was thinking a lot about the running I still needed to do and, apparently, I slipped into a bit of a trance.

When I awakened from my daze, I found myself headed down a rock strewn fire road surrounded by manzanita bushes. The road narrowed and twisted and still I kept running, and then suddenly, I could go no further. I had reached a dead end. I was no longer on the race course and probably hadn't been for some time.

It took me 40 minutes to climb out of that canyon. I was mildly dehydrated and my goals for the race had evaporated along with the water in my system. Now, I just wanted one of those belt buckles.

But first I would have to get to the finish line and I would have to do it before 5 a.m. It seemed like a reasonable goal, but I was quickly learning not to take anything for granted in this race. I was still 40 miles away from Auburn, after all.

My brother-in-law was there to meet me at the next aid station. He accompanied me from miles 62 to 78, and running with him helped boost my sagging morale. At the end of our stretch together, we got to experience one of the highlights of the Western States course, the crossing of the American River on foot.

I saw lots of struggling runners in those final 38 miles, and if I learned anything at Western States, it's that, in a 100-miler, everyone has problems.

While climbing up one particularly steep section, I came upon a runner who seemed to be taking the prize for bad days. Bent over a rock and nursing a muscle cramp and a bloody gash on his leg, he explained to me how he had fallen, scratched a cornea and lost a contact lens. He switched to glasses but was still having problems with his depth perception.

After I left the runner, he spent the rest of the afternoon tripping over tree roots and tumbling over rocks. He slid down an embankment, lost his glasses, battled stomach problems and took a wrong turn 20 miles from the finish.

Despite all that, he still went on to finish within 24 hours, a fact that astounded me as much as Koerner's 16-hour, 12-minute finish.

But even Koerner experienced some dark spots, despite what appeared to be a perfect 100-mile run. He briefly lost focus during the final seven miles of his journey after deciding to walk up one of the hills. It was there, he says, that he finally began to feel the ravages of 93 miles of hard racing.

"I started feeling the grit in my shoes, and I started feeling my knees," he explained. "My back started going and my stomach started hurting."

When I asked Koerner - a veteran of more than 20 100-milers - what a rookie runner like me still had to learn, he talked about learning to lead the entire field and learning how to set your own pace rather than chasing down other competitors. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn.

Finished, at the finish

My crew chief paced me for the last 20 miles of the race, helping to keep me focused on getting to the end. We wore headlamps and carried flashlights, and although we seemed to be moving well, I averaged just four miles an hour during that final stretch.

As I neared the finish line in 54th place - more than 22 1/2 hours after I had started in Squaw Valley - I felt undeniably slow. My training partners had already come in - Riley finished in 10th place at 18:22, Thornley crossed the line in 15th at 19:56.

I thought of Koerner fast asleep in a hotel room somewhere. I was a long way from my initial goal of a top-20 finish, and my sister was now running with me, taking the tiniest baby steps in an effort to avoid outpacing me.

But Western States has a way of making all of its finishers feel like champions without resorting to "everyone's a winner" kind of cliches. The race ends with three quarters of a lap on the track at Placer High School, and even at 3:30 in the morning there's a scattering of people in the stands to cheer you on. I saw the smiling faces of my crew, my wife, my friends and training partner, and after I crossed the line, Tim Twietmeyer, a 25-time finisher and the race's president, shook my hand and joked with me about my antiquated profession.

"They still have newspaper reporters?" he asked.

I stepped on a scale, had my blood drawn for kidney analysis, allowed a volunteer to take my blood pressure and then thanked everyone around me for staying up so late.

I expected to feel relief at the finish line, but instead I experienced more physical discomfort than I had when I was running. Sleeping afterward was awkward. It was as if my muscles wanted to continue firing.

The next morning, an announcer read my name and the names of 269 other finishers. Then Twietmeyer presented me and 99 other sub-24-hour runners with a silver belt buckle.

The inscription on it read: "100 Miles. One Day."

Lewis Taylor is a reporter for The Register-Guard. He hopes to compete in the Western States Endurance Run again next year.


NBC will air its coverage of the 2007 Western States Endurance Run as part of the Jeep World of Adventure Sports Series at 12:30 p.m. PDT on August 11.
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Title Annotation:Sports; 100 miles. One day. What it's like to push yourself to the limit.
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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