Friday, July 3, 2009

2009 Western States Race Report

“Because Your loving-kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You. Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. . . Because You have been my help, therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice. My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63: 3-8

Wow, Praise to the Lord! To sum it up in a single word, I would have to say, Epic. Webster defines epic as – extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope. Well for me, all aspects of the WS100 extended beyond the usual in both size and scope. The race management was first class, the army of volunteers was second to none, the competition was tough, and the course was brutally honest and unforgiving. This was truly an epic journey.

We arrived in Squaw Valley on Wednesday night after spending the day touring Yosemite National Park and spent the next couple of days soaking in the pre-race events going on around the Olympic Village. On Thursday I took a hike up to the flag raising ceremony at the Escarpment, which covered the first four miles of the course and then took an easy jog down, that was my last run before the race on Saturday. Friday was filled with excitement as everyone was at the official check-in and medical assessment. I had some trouble with blood pressure and had to wait a while for it to get back to a normal range (a little anxious). I was able to get it down low enough for them to put on the yellow medical bracelet that remains on your arm until you cross the finish line or are dropped from the race. The big buzz on Friday was about the hot weather that was being forecast for Saturday and Sunday, but little could be done about that.

I got a pretty good night sleep on Friday night and was up early at 0330 on Saturday. I ate breakfast, stretched and got over to the starting line about 0445. At exactly 0500, 399 runners crossed the starting line in Squaw Valley in quest of running 100 miles to Placer County High School in Auburn, CA, for 238 of them the quest would be fulfilled for the other 161 the Western States Trail would take its toll and the quest would have to wait for another year.

The first 4 miles of the course is right up the slope of the big ski runs in Squaw Valley, 2500 feet of climb. As I climbed out of the valley I was thankful to be in the middle of the pack as the lead group immediately went off course for about 3 minutes, they quickly corrected their error and passed me never to be seen again until the awards ceremony. I had two time goals for this race, first I wanted to complete in under 24 hours and if that was not possible I was going to finish in under 30 hours. As I ran into the first aid station I was about 10 minutes ahead of my 24 hour pace and feeling good. I knew the next seven miles to Lyon Ridge AS was mostly downhill.

Cresting the summit of the Escarpment and looking west, you could see the next 30 or so miles of the course, which was pretty incredible, almost as incredible as looking east and watching the sunrise over Lake Tahoe. Regardless of where you looked we were now in the wild and surrounded by the beauty of creation. The ridge running from the Escarpment, through Lyon Ridge and into the Red Star Ridge aid station was awesome and I was able to maintain my 24 hour pace, covering 16 miles in 3h:10m, it was 0810. At Red Star Ridge I had a drop bag with an Ensure and some additional Clif gels. I had been drinking plenty of water and taking S-Caps (salt supplement) about every hour.

The first section of the race (30 miles from the start to Robinson Flat AS) covers what is commonly referred to as the High Country due to the fact that you stay at about 7000’ elevation until just after 30 miles. The temperature was great but you could tell it was starting to warm up. The climb out of Red Star Ridge was along an exposed east facing slope and the sun was coming on strong. I continued with a solid pace along the ridge and ran hard on the downhill into Duncan Canyon and the first opportunity to see my CREW (Mom and Dad).

I am going to segway into the crew for a moment and provide them with the thanks and appreciation that is due. The WS100 is not an easy race to crew for, the aid stations are remote and far between. My Mom and Dad were at every planned stopped and provided me just the support that I needed to keep running toward Auburn. The common definition for CREW is Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting, these guys endured endless waiting and dealt with a cranky runner for the entire race and I appreciate everything that you did. Thanks for being a critical part of the journey.

Duncan Canyon was a blur, I was in and out in about 4 minutes. I got a new shirt, my FCA visor, put on sunscreen, drank an Ensure, refilled the water bottles and was down the trail to Robinson Flat. After a nice downhill section we crossed Duncan Creek, got good and wet and climb a gentle but long hill up to the Robinson Flat aid station and first medical checkpoint. I had covered 30 miles in 6h:13m and was in 97th place. I was still on the 24 hour pace. I weighed in 6 lbs over my starting weight which told me that my water to salt ratio was out of balance, I was holding onto too much water. So it was time to cut back on water and increase the sodium intake. I would work this out over the next couple of hours and it would not be much of a problem for the rest of the race.

Leaving Robinson Flat, I climbed for about a mile up to Little Bald Mountain and looking east I could see the Escarpment and the past 30 miles of trail. I was leaving the High Country and starting into what would be the hardest part of the course for me and many, The Canyons. The canyon section goes from Robinson Flat to Foresthill AS (30-62 miles) during this section there are three major canyons back to back and with the heat climbing into the 100s, they were brutal.

On the west side of Little Bald Mountain the trail started down through the burned out section of a past forest fire. The signs of rebirth were abundant; unfortunately the new growth was not tall enough to provide any shade on the trail. I ran through Miller’s Defeat aid station and got sponged off with ice water, refilled and pushed on down the trail. On the way down to Dusty Corner’s AS I had the chance to run with Dean Karnazes (The Ultramarathon Man) for a couple of minutes and told him that his book is what got me excited about running Ultra’s (so he is to blame). I wondered why he was back in the pack and asked how he was doing, I thought his answer was great, he said “today is the kind of day that makes you re-evaluate your expectations”. This coming from a guy that was going for his 12th Western States finish, spoke volumes about the conditions on the trail. Dean quickly pulled ahead and vanished down the trail and ended up calling it a day at Foresthill AS.
I cruised into Dusty Corner’s AS, 38 miles and got to see the CREW again. This was another quick stop and I was back on the trail. I was still on my 24 hour pace but the heat was starting to take a toll. The next time I would see the CREW was at mile 55.7, Michigan Bluff AS and that would be after two of the three canyons.

Out of Dusty Corner’s I had about 8 more miles of downhill running to get to the bottom of Deadwood Canyon. The first 6 miles were on good trail and a fairly gentle slope. Leaving the Last Chance AS, which by the way is the only aid station on the course that I can’t remember anything about, I had about 2 miles before the bottom dropped out of the trail and we went straight down the side of Deadwood Canyon and a series of very narrow switchbacks. I kept a good pace but could tell I was getting extremely hot, at the bottom of the canyon; I took a couple of extra minutes and totally submerged myself in Deadwood Creek. This got my core temperature down and I was ready for the climb up Devil’s Thumb, so I thought.

As soon as I started up the first of 36 switchbacks (1500’ of climb in 1.5 miles) I knew that I had completely underestimated my ability to climb this slope. I started moving up the hill very slowly, laboring step by step. The trail was shaded but the air was stagnate and it was very hot. After about 6 switchbacks my stomach revolted and I vomited violently. I took a couple of minutes to recover and then started moving up again, counting the switchbacks as I went. I was making 5 switchbacks a milestone, and taking a short break and re-hydrating. It was during this section that I had serious considerations of not completing the race. I never once thought that I could not finish, this was different, I was having thoughts about if I wanted to finish, was it worth the pain that I was going through to finish. I have never experienced those kinds of feelings during an Ultra, but they were real and I was having a hard time suppressing them. In pre race planning I had estimated 30 minutes to climb out of Deadwood Canyon, it took me an hour.

Devils Thumb AS looked like a MASH unit, runners all over the place, on cots, getting medical help, or like me, just sitting in a chair with a very blank expression on their face. This was the first time I had to sit down during the race and boy did I need it. The good news was my weight was back to pre race numbers at 174 and all I needed to do was to cool off and continue to keep hydrated and moving. It was now about 1530, I had covered 47.8 miles in 10h:33m and was having serious motivation problems. I had just completed one of the three canyons and the next two would not be any easier, picking myself up out of the chair and continuing to Michigan Bluff took a leap of faith, knowing that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” PHIL 4:13 was the thought that kept me moving down the trail.

I had a 5.1 mile, 2500’ descent to El Dorado Creek in front of me and then a 1700’ climb to Michigan Bluff. Somewhere on the way down to the creek I passed the mid point of the race, I maintained a pretty good pace down into the canyon, fortunately my legs were still in good shape. When I got to the bottom of the canyon I took another opportunity to dive into the creek and cool off and then I started the long haul up to Michigan Bluff and my CREW. This climb was slow but not as hard as the Devils Thumb climb, my attitude was improving the higher I got on the canyon wall. I came into Michigan Bluff at 1803, 55.7 miles and 13h:03m on the trail. I had fallen behind the 24 hour pace but it was still a possibility. It was great to see the CREW and they got me out of there in about 8 minutes, I wanted to stay longer but Mom was pushing me to get going. Two canyons down, one to go, Volcano Canyon.

The name, Volcano Canyon, sounds worse than it turned out to be. After some initial climbing and some more vomiting, the descent into the canyon went well and the climb out, although slow was the best of the three. I passed the Bath Road AS and climbed up to the Foresthill Road for the one mile downhill run into the Foresthill AS at 1952, 62 miles complete, 14h:52m, The Canyons were behind me, the Lord provided me with the strength that I needed and the faith to continue. I was about 52 minutes off of the 24 hour pace and I had serious doubts about being able to finish 38 more miles in under 9 hours. The good news is that I had overcome the very strong desire to quit and recommitted myself to finishing the race. My weight was checked, still 174 lbs-good, and I got ready for the night portion of the run. Mom and Dad were on the spot as they were for each aid station and they got me going before 2000. My faith was renewed but the canyons had taken a toll on my body and I was moving slow.

I walked down Foresthill Road for a moment in an effort to get the body loosened up after sitting for a while and eventually started running on the next section of the course know as Cal Street. Cal Street is a 16 mile section of the course that takes you from Foresthill AS to the river crossing at mile 78. This section was mostly downhill with some shorter steep climbs thrown in for good measure. I made it the 3.7 miles to Cal 1 (Dardanelles AS) without having to turn my light on, which was my goal leaving Foresthill. From Cal 1 we had some pretty good climbs and steep descents over the next 5 miles moving into Cal 2 (Peachstone). At Peachstone I was able to take in some soup broth and extra calories. It was a short 2.3 mile run from Cal 2 to Cal 3 (Ford’s Bar AS) and then a final 5 mile push to the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78. I arrived at the river at 0047, now 19h:47m into the race and I still had 22 miles to go.

The river crossing was surreal. It was about 30 yards across the American River and the water was about chest high, it felt great (I am the second guy in the picture following Scott Dunlap). There were two huge aid stations, one on either side of the river and the river itself was lined with volunteers tending a cable strung across the river. The volunteers in the river were insuring that each runner got across safely. It was a truly impressive operation and I thank each an every volunteer for their time and effort.

I spent very little time at the river and after crossing I started the steep climb up to the Green Gate AS and my CREW. I arrived at Green Gate about an hour later and took too long of a break, about 20 minutes of resting and recouping. I think that Mom and Dad saw the toll that the trail had taken on me and let me recover a little. So at about 0200, I was ready to get going for the final 20 miles, the next time I would see the CREW would be at the HWY 49 crossing, mile 93.5.

The last 20 miles of the trail is the Homestretch, mostly gentle terrain through meadows, in and out of small canyons, there are two descents back to the river level and two significant climbs including the 700’ climb up to Robie Pt at mile 97. I ran the entire race without a pacer, so I had a lot of time alone on the trail with my thoughts but you really get the sense of isolation at night on the trail. The glare of my headlamp would only illuminate about 30 feet ahead of me but I was able to look to the sky and let the view of the stars remind me how vast the area was that I was running through and always confident that I had the Ultimate Pacer running with me.

At mile 85, I came into the Auburn Lake Trails AS and was about 4 lbs under weight; the medical staff wanted me to sit down until I could gain a couple of pounds. So after eating some watermelon and drinking about a quart, I gained the 2 pounds and was given clearance to proceed. Now, I knew exactly what was going to happen and I was not surprised when after less than a quarter of a mile down the trail I gave back the 2 lbs that I had just consumed and with that out of the way, I continued down the trail towards the Brown’s Bar AS. I got into Brown’s Bar at about 0500 and only stayed for a couple of minutes knowing that HWY 49 was the next AS and it was only 3.5 miles away. Out of Brown’s Bar there was a good downhill section and was able to turn off my headlamp for this because the sun had started to rise—AGAIN! The last 1.5 miles of this section was over the first of the two big climbs, but we overcame and emerged at the HWY 49 AS at 0604, 93.5 miles and 25h:04m on the trail.

I could definitely smell the barn and only spent about 4 minutes at this aid station. I thanked Mom and Dad and told them I would see them at the High School shortly. I left the AS and climbed up to the Pointed Rocks section and some beautiful meadows and then started down a very steep and seemingly never-ending hill to No-Hands Bridge AS. I finally got to the AS refilled water bottles and left immediately for the last 3.5 miles to the finish. I wish I could say that I ran the final stretch strong but the truth is that I was spent and the final hill is a very real challenge. The slope up to Robie Point is east facing and even though it was still early in the morning you could already feel the heat building. I walked most of this final hill. 1.3 miles from the finish I came to the Robie Pt AS. I came out of the woods and off the trail for the last time (the rest of the course was on the paved streets of Auburn). I continued a slow climb up the streets of Auburn towards the Placer County High School, knowing that in short order I would be crossing the finish line of the 35th Annual Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.

I began running Ultramarathons about 2 years ago and from the beginning my goal was to complete the WS100. I had a very bittersweet experience over the last half mile of the course. I had not really thought about my running goals after the WS100. I focused solely on preparing for this race and now I was less than 5 minutes away from completing it, then what? I pushed that aside as I ran down the hill toward the High School and onto the track for the final steps of my 100 mile journey. It had taken 27h:09m:47s to run from Squaw Valley, CA through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Placer County High School, Auburn, CA. During that time, the Western States Trail challenged the limits of my physical, mental, and spiritual conditioning. It was an epic journey in every sense of the word.
I have emerged from this experience, a man that continues to be blessed with an incredible support network of family and friends that allow me complete these events. I am still struggling to find a solid answer to the question; why do you run these distances? Because it’s fun is not a good answer. But I do know that I am running for a very noble cause, Injured Marines, I truly believe that God smiles while I run and I hope that others can see what His presence in my life allows me to achieve. The journey is the destination; the destination is unknown; the journey continues. Run Strong!

God Bless and Semper Fi, Huffer


  1. Well done put there! So much to overcome and you did it.

  2. Mike,

    Great report; really enjoyed it. It's amazing to feel that "magic" feeling that only 100 milers can elicit. There's just something about taking away all physical barriers that forces our human nature to finally rely upon our Creator.

    In Him,


  3. Huffer,

    Congrats on your finish! I have enjoyed following your progess leading up to the WS100. It looks like your hard work paid off, sub 24 or not, it was an inspiring run. I am happy that this was a wonderful experience for you and your family. Happy belated 4th of July, and thank you for serving our country.

    In Christ,
    Mike B

  4. Nice Job Mike. Hope to run into you again someday on the trails.


  5. The Western States Endurance Run was first completed in 1974 by Gordy Ainsleigh.


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