Trying to put this one into words is going to be really difficult. I'll give it my best shot, but I doubt I'll really ever be able to capture anything near what really happened on Saturday.
Driving from my campsite to the race start on Saturday morning I was strangely relaxed. I had been anxious about this race for several days but now that the day was here I was very comfortable. Maybe the calm before the storm. And as 5 am grew closer and closer I continued to feel more and more calm. About 3 minutes before the start I made my way to the front of the line of runners and then we were off. It seems so strange now to think of how innocent and unaware of things to come we all were.
Right away I was in a lead group that included, among others, all the top dogs - Tony, Kilian, Hal, and I. For some time we were all quiet, maybe waking up still, or maybe we were all nervous about how quick and how easily Kilian was "floating" up this climb. Less than a mile into this race and I knew that Kilian was a very unique talent. Ultimately he made some mistakes in this race but I saw enough to know that he is every bit as strong of a mountain runner as many people seem to think. Or maybe even a little bit stronger than most people think. In a race which contained dozens of amazing things one of the most amazing of all was seeing Kilian's raw ability first hand. I've never raced anyone with as much pure physical ability as Kilian.
At any rate, we climbed up up and away into the first light of morning. After this first climb we fell into line through the snow. Tony, Kilian, and I took turns leading the way through a 5 or 6 mile obstacle course of snow, mud, and running water. In spots you couldn't see the trail for several hundred meters and you just picked your way through the openings in the trees, glissading on the downhills, and holding on for life on the side slopes. I think some racers were annoyed with this stretch but I loved it. I would have been happy if there was twice as much snow as there was. Eventually though we dropped back below snowline and on the long steady downhill that made up the re-route section of this year's race several other runners used gravity (and in some cases probably fried their quads) to catch up with the lead group. Joining the "big 4" in this stretch were Josh Brimhall, Leigh Schmitt, Zach Miller, Nick Clark, Nick Lewis, and maybe one or two others that I don't remember. But eventually we would climb again and once again Tony, Kilian, and I found ourselves alone at the front. And it would stay this way all the way through Duncan Canyon, Robinson Flat, Dusty Corners, and into the first canyon past Last Chance.
Dropping down into the canyon at mile 44 I felt great. Tony was running in front and I really enjoyed his downhill pace. Fairly Conservative. But we still had 56 miles to run. Pushing downhills at this point would almost certainly prove detrimental later in the race. Just as I was thinking this Kilian stepped off on the side of the trail and took off around Tony and I like he was shot out of a canon! As soon as I realized this was happening he was gone out of sight. I stressed about this for about 3 seconds and then fell back into a rhythm behind Tony. I didn't really know what to make of this. Kilian seemed so strong I thought maybe I wouldn't see him again all race. But mile 44? I kept telling myself that any human running that hard downhill at mile 44 will have to be hindered by it later on in the race. Problem was that I had already seen enough of Kilian that day that I was starting to question whether he's actually human.
And so Tony and I were left alone. We were both feeling great and at some point in here we even joked a bit about how those watching along at home on their computers must be getting pretty fired up about how this was playing out. Neither of us spoke of it at the time but I think we were both running on a confidence level at that point where we knew that this strength we were showing wasn't likely to be a fleeting thing. We had gone out on record pace and then from there we just kept speeding up more and more. It never felt reckless though. I don't think any of the three of us would have run the first half of the race any slower if we had it to do over again, especially considering that Tony and I were both able to run the second half (in comparison to historical splits) even faster than the first half.
But then we hit the bottom of the canyon at about mile 46 and just as soon as we began the climb up to Devil's Thumb something turned off for me and I just had no strength going uphill. To this point on the day I hadn't felt like it was hard to keep pace with Kilian or Tony on the climbs but suddenly they were both out of sight (Kilian because he ran the downhill so hard and Tony because he was suddenly climbing a lot stronger than me).
I arrived at Devil's Thumb (mile 47.8) about 3 minutes behind them and very concerned about the way I was feeling. From there dropping down to Eldorado Creek (mile 52.9) I held even with Tony and Kilian, still about 3 minutes back. I was still feeling really weak but at least I knew that I wasn't going any slower than them on the flats or downhills. I just had to find a way to get my uphill strength back. This certainly wasn't going to happen anytime soon though, as i just continued to feel weaker and weaker with every climb. I was eating enough. I was drinking enough. But for some reason I just couldn't climb the way I usually can. I went through Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) 8 minutes behind Tony and Kilian and things were not looking or feeling good for me. I think the large crowds of people at Michigan Bluff kind of began my revival though. There seemed to be several hundred people here and I think some of the energy that I got from all of these people helped me leave Michigan Bluff in a much better place in my mind than I was when I got there. I was still feeling really weak on the climbs. There's a gravel road heading out of Michigan Bluff that is sloped uphill ever so slightly. Not even what I would normally call a hill. On this day though it was a walker for me. Something had changed for me though. A few minutes before Michigan Bluff I was really annoyed with how weak I was climbing, but now I noticed that it wasn't bothering me as much. Instead I was slowly coming to realize that I needed to stop thinking about Tony and Kilian and to stop thinking about how bad I felt on climbs and focus on simply taking care of my mind and body in hopes that eventually I could turn things around and at least make a strong push to the finish. I took a lot of solace in this. Suddenly everything was really simple. I didn't need to catch Tony or Kilian. I didn't need to win the race. I just needed to take care of myself and let things play out as they would.
This was my mindset as I rolled into Foresthill (mile 62) 12 minutes behind Tony and Kilian and picked up my pacer, Dave Mackey. I told Dave that he's going to have to be patient, that I wasn't feeling very good, but I was very determined to be patient and do the work to turn this around. I have run enough 100's to know that there are always low points like this, but I've also run enough of them to know that with attention to nutrition, hydration, and a lot of patience these low points almost always turn around.
And so Dave and I ran. And I felt really tired and really slow, but for whatever reason I was just not too concerned. Almost like I knew things were going to get really good as we made our way further down the trail. It helped that Dave kept saying all of the right things. He talked often of how much better off I was being where I was rather than where Tony and Kilian were. I was in a place where I could just run my race and not stress about what anyone else was doing.
When we were first left Foresthill we took off a little faster than I was comfortable with. I thought maybe I could push through this pace and find a comfort in it, but finally after several minutes I told Dave that I needed to be more patient and find a more sustainable pace. And so we slowed even more. But somehow as we did this everything started to feel right. We started to build a collective energy between us that this was just a low point that we were going to get through and come out the other end stronger than ever. We didn't talk about this, but it was something that I was just feeling. And suddenly Dave's comments about me being right where I wanted to be were resonating with me. I think at first he was saying these things just to make me feel good about my situation, but somewhere around mile 70 it began to feel like this wasn't just something to say to feel better about a bad situation, but rather because it was true.
From here my energy and pace just seemed to build like a snowball rolling down a hill. Confidence is an amazing thing. And Dave and I were both feeling it and we began to speed up with every step. It was really an amazing feeling. Somewhere in the midst of this I told Dave that if I didn't catch Tony and Kilian it wouldn't be because of me, but rather because they would have pulled off a superhuman effort. I've had this feeling before late in a race, but it's always been as I'm pulling away from the field and smelling the finish. It's weird to be running 15 minutes behind with 25 miles to go and almost know that you are going to win.
At any rate, I didn't try to get too far ahead of things and just continued to focus on hydration, nutrition, and keeping as cool as possible. When we made our way down to the river crossing at mile 78 it was as hot as it had been all day but I knew that we would get to dunk in the water and then we would be in the shade for most of the rest of the race. That was a really good feeling to know that the heat was almost a thing of the past. The whole day I felt a lot better any time that I could get myself cooled off. All day I was looking forward to the last 20 miles of the race, knowing that it would be much cooler than the 50 miles previous to that.
And so we took a dunk in the river and began the climb up to Green Gate. I arrived at the river knowing that I was feeling really good and had turned things around, but I didn't really know how much until this climb up to Green Gate. The climb up felt effortless. I ran the climb at 10 minute per mile pace and cut 4 minutes into Tony and Kilian's lead in less than 2 miles! At Green Gate (mile 79.8) David Horton told me that I was gaining on Tony and Kilian and assured me that he wasn't just saying that to make me feel good, that I was really gaining on them. I looked at him and told him, "I know". I actually didn't "know" that I was gaining on them but I knew that I had to be. When you run uphill at 10 minute mile pace after running 80 miles you will be gaining on whoever is in front of you.
After Green Gate you get onto what are some of the most enjoyable trails in the entire race. Rolling singletrack deep in the forest with lots of shade and just enough ups and downs to keep you distracted from anything else. I'm still not sure if Dave was telling me this to make me feel even more confident than I already felt, but at first he told me we ran an 8 minute mile and then the next mile he said we ran 7:30! Whatever the pace was it was fast. I could feel it and it felt great. By Auburn Lake Trails Aid Station (mile 85.2) we had passed Kilian (who was laying in a stream when we passed him. We moved past him so quickly that Dave didn't even notice it was him) and were only 3 minutes behind Tony! That was another 9 minutes that we gained in 5.4 miles!
At this point I knew I was going to catch Tony and I began to strategize about what would be the best time to pass him to give myself the best chance of staying ahead of him all the way to the finish. I didn't want to continue pushing too hard and not have enough gas to finish pretty strong, but I also didn't want to slow way down and lose the momentum that I had. I decided to run a little more relaxed for several minutes (but still at a pace faster than what I presumed Tony was running) so that I would catch him sometime near the next aid station (mile 89.9). As it were I caught up to him around mile 88.5 I would guess. I saw him and Jen (his pacer) walking up a short hill about a hundred yards ahead. If it had been a bit earlier in the race I would have run with Tony and chatted with them for awhile but this was late enough in the race that I decided to make a tactical, decisive pass. I rested behind them for a bit and then got right up behind them before announcing my presence. And then Dave and I were gone with nothing more than a quick, "hey Tony". I still feel bad about this writing about it now. It is of course the same way I would do it if I had it to do over again, and I would imagine the same way Tony (or any strategically wise runner) would have done it to me, but earlier in the day I had really enjoyed running with Tony and I kind of wish we could have run together some more at this point. But this was a race and I was determined to do whatever I could do to improve my chances of being the first one to the finish. And in this case that included a quick, decisive pass that would hopefully put Tony out of the race for the win as quick as possible.
For about a mile I thought for sure this strategy had worked. I couldn't see Tony behind me and I was still feeling great. There was one problem though: Dave and I had been so focused on me for so long that I think we both had neglected to pay much attention to how his body was doing, and somewhere around mile 89.5 Dave informed me that his body wasn't doing very well. His stomach was hurting and I don't think he had nearly enough calories and liquid in the almost 30 miles that he had run with me to that point. Just moments after he took a bit of a fall on the trail and then pushed hard to catch back up to me he informed me that he wasn't going to be able to continue on at this pace. For a moment I considered slowing down to see if he could turn it around and keep with me. Dave had been through so much with me at this point, and had helped my race so much that I almost couldn't bear the thought of leaving him behind. I thought that maybe it would be better for me to slow down for awhile and hopefully give him the chance to bounce back, knowing that once he bounced back he should have no problem staying with me to the finish.
Ultimately though, this was my race and it was time for me to push along on my own. After Dave stopped I felt pretty good for another mile or so, but then, sometime shortly after Brown's Bar Aid Station (mile 89.9) I began to really feel the accumulation of 90 miles on my legs. I knew I only had a minute or two lead on Tony, and I knew that this was going to be a long 10 miles to the finish. When I hit the climb up to Highway 49 I kept trying to take solace in the fact that at least this time I was supposed to be running up this hill. In the Way Too Cool 50k this spring I had taken a wrong turn and run all the way down this hill to the river and then had to climb back up, in a move that cost me the win in that race. It felt good to get another shot at this hill, this time in a much less frustrated place in my mind, but my body was really starting to hurt and part way up the climb I turned around and there was Tony, no more than 30 seconds behind me! I had blown by him 4 miles back, but since that time I had lost my pacer, started to slow quite a bit, and now he was about to catch back up to me.
This was one of those very clear points in a race that I knew would be the decisive point. Seeing him that close sent a shot of adrenaline through me and I knew that this would either be the thing that was able to propel me ahead for good or that I was going to give one last push and just not have enough energy left in the tank. Lucky for me when I gave the push there was more fuel there. Almost right away after seeing Tony I sped up a lot and began to feel a lot better. I cruised through the Highway 49 aid station (mile 93.5) with a one minute lead (Same as my lead had been at Brown's Bar), and told myself that I was not willing to let this race come down to the climb up to Robie Point. I was going to run the downhill to No Hands Bridge as hard as gravity would allow and if I still had enough to climb hard up to Robie Point then it was meant to me, but there was no way I was willing to leave No Hands Bridge at the same time as Tony. And so I pushed hard out of Highway 49. About a mile past the aid station you cross a meadow and then begin a 2 mile downhill. Once I got to the downhill I just let my body go. It hurt. It hurt bad, but I just kept speeding up faster and faster. Eventually I was running so hard down this hill that it didn't really hurt anymore. I got to No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8) and was pretty sure I must have increased my lead on Tony, but I still had no way to know (as it turned out I had a 6 minute lead at this point) so I just breezed through the aid station and began the final climb of the race up to Robie Point.
Amazingly I had a lot of uphill strength still. I imagine it was mostly from fear and/or adrenaline. I was able to run the entire climb up to Robie and I heard at the aid station there that I had had a 6 minute lead down at the bridge. Dave had gotten a ride from Highway 49 around to here so he joined me for the last mile of the run. I was almost certain I had it wrapped up as soon as we hit the pavement (1.2 miles from the finish), but I was still looking behind me for several minutes to make sure Tony didn't have one more surge in him. Finally with less than a half mile to go I fully relaxed and fully accepted that I was going to win. And with that I let all of the stress flow out of my body almost instantly. Just seconds earlier I was looking over my shoulder and dwelling on the pain and fatigue in my body, but now everything loosened up and I had a huge smile on my face. There were people everywhere and I was overtaken with gratitude for all the support that I had gotten from friends, family, race staff, race volunteers, and maybe most of all the complete strangers who were just out on the course as fans. As you get near the finish there are hundreds of these people and I couldn't help but thank as many of them as possible.
And then I was onto the track for 300 meters of childlike excitement. I was excited to be done. I was excited to be the first one done. I was excited to be finishing faster than anyone ever in this race. But most of all I was excited for how amazingly fun and satisfying my run had been. If I was in to racing with a strategy this would have been the perfect strategy. everything had played out almost perfectly for me. I've had days in which I've been much stronger physically, but I don't think I've ever had a race where I was as strong as this mentally. To struggle for 25+ miles in one of the most competitive 100 mile trail races ever and still be able to find a way to win doesn't happen without some serious mental patience, strength, and stubborness.
And so I made my way around the track with a huge smile on my face. I slapped hands with everyone lined up down the straightaway to the finish and I jogged slowly across the finish line. And I sat. And all the fatigue and pain went out of my body. My Dad and Brother who had been out on the course as my crew all day were there, and hundreds of other people were there. And for the next 2 or 3 hours I don't remember much of anything. I talked to a lot of people. I talked to Tony for a few seconds after a congratulatory hug at the finish. I would have liked to talk to Tony for hours about his experience. Hopefully we'll get a chance to do that sometime in the future.
The smoke still hasn't completely settled from this, but now my life is pretty much back to normal. I'm back to Alaska. Back to work. Still haven't been able to run yet. Maybe try to get out for 3 or 4 miles tomorrow. I'm not really sore still, but very tired in my legs. The swarm of attention from media, friends, and strangers has been shocking. I knew Western States had a lot bigger following than any race I've ever run but I really didn't know that it was this much. It's been a little overwhelming at times, but mostly nice to talk with people about this run. I feel like I still need to talk about it a little more to get it worked through my mind and be able to move on. Almost every few hours I find myself drifting back to this race in my mind and I remember some part of the race which I hadn't previously thought about, and often these previously forgoten moments feel really important. I guess after a race like this I might expect this to keep happening to some extent for the rest of my life.
The only other thing I should say is a huge thank you to all of my friends and family who supported me in one way or another for this run. Notably my Dad and Brother who flew out from New York to be my support crew for this one. It was awesome having them out there. Also Dave Mackey, my pacer. It's easy to joke about me "dropping" him and presume that he wasn't that valuable because of that, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I am quite certain I would not have been able to make the turn around in my race had I not had Dave's support. He seemed to know exactly what to say all the time to keep my mind in the right place. It was the ultimate selfless run on his part, one that I will be appreciate for the rest of my life. Also all of the voluunteers and fans out on the course on Saturday. It really was amazing just how many of you were out there. Good stuff. Also to all the racers who lined up and ran this race, specifically Kilian and Tony. It was an honor to race these guys (and everyone else in the race) and I can't wait to have a chance to do so again. And lastly the biggest thanks of all to my girlfriend who was back in Alaska for this one, but who gave me more support and strength in this endeveor than I would have thought possible. I'm one lucky man to have had all of your help and support. Thanks.