Thursday, June 26, 2008

Western States 2008: DNH like... Did Not Happen

If you are not familiar with ultra, there are a series of TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms) starting with DN which have pretty bad connotations. There are several variations/combinations but the most common ones are:
  • DNF (Did Not Finished): the scary one, the demon that most of us do not want to meet on the trails during a race. Actually some say that if you have never DNF'ed that means that you have not pushed enough. I disagree, I think that finishing an ultra is a key part of the game, unless you are getting your body into serious trouble and damages (physical injuries).
  • DNS (Did Not Start): this one happened to me and is usually the result of pre-race injuries. To me it is actually a proof of reason to make such decision. You have been training for an event, you are going to lose the entry fees and potentially other expenses (hotel, airfare), but you listen to your body and decide not to take the start. It happened to me last year and it is actually OK.
  • There is also another variation, DFL for Did Finished Last, which sometimes quite an accomplishment because it means that you did make it indeed within the cut-off time.
Why this introduction? You might have heard it already, Western States has been cancelled yesterday (Wednesday evening) by the Western States Board of Trustees. Actually, like many other runners, I did not receive Tim Twietmeyer's email personally but through others like aid station captains (I am one for Last Chance, with Robin) or various forums and mailinglists. Amazing how bad news fly really fast, preceded by rumors.

With that, I'm coming with a new DNx: DNH, for Did Not Happen (could also be DNO, Did Not Occur).

First time for this legendary event, in its 35-year history. There were years with too much snow, others with too much heat, others using another route around Duncan Canyon which was destroyed by wildfires about ten years ago. But no year as bad as this week.

A bad news for all. First all the runners as this is such a difficult event to get in (1,200 applicants for less than 400 spots). The ones who trained hard to make the cut-offs and get a bronze buckle. The ones who were dreaming of a silver buckle. The ones flying from abroad (Europe, Asia Pacific) and the East Coast. And the incredibly deep elite field that Greg (Soderlund, the Race Director) and Montrail had managed to gather in a single 100-miler this year. Like Karl (Meltzer) said, it was supposed to be the "Auburn track meet", while the Olympic Trials of Track and Field are happening this weekend in Eugene, OR. Bad news for the runners' families, friends and crews who had made all these plans to support us, the lucky entrants. Bad news for the pacers who also got involved in tricky logistics, for the joy of seeing their runner meet their goals and also have an opportunity to run on this mythical course. Likewise, a bad news for the 1,500 volunteers who had signed up to give their time and dedication to make this run happen. A bad news for all the other runners and relatives who were excited to follow the race on the webcast. And a very bad news for the ones who had to take the decision, i.e. the race management itself.

Of course, that is for the people touched by the run. Which is nothing compared to the people affected by more than 800 fires throughout California, and more than 300 in the area.

The real heroes

We, runners, all had our own dreams of showing what we were capable of on this course. With different levels of physical and mental achievements, but all with a grain of heroism. However, there is a lot of selfishness in this and my first thoughts when I got the bad news were to the firefighters out there. There are the real anonymous heroes to me, the ones fighting so hard and diligently to save others lives and properties, save the forest, save the trails we are enjoying all year around.
Actually one of the many good reasons for the WS Board to cancel the race is to leave the roads open for the firefighters to do their job. The Western States course is crossing many remote areas and, in the middle of such a natural catastrophe, the last thing you want is hundreds of cars of the runners crews going back and forth on the narrow roads and fire trails.

These heroes are so anonymous that I don't have a particular name to highlight. So let me just quote Tim and Greg's message acknowledging the support of the local agencies in dealing with the situation.
We would be remiss if we did not publicly thank the men and women of the American River Ranger District, particularly Jan Cutts and Ed Moore, for their consultation and constant flow of updated information regarding this very challenging fire situation. The City of Auburn, City Manager Bob Richardson, and officials from Placer County, in particular Tom Christofk, Placer County Air Pollution Control Officer, and Dr. Richard Burton, Placer County Public Health Officer, have also been invaluable sources of information and advisement. Thanks to all of these trail partners.
And, again, let's keep all these valorous firefighters in our thoughts and prayers.
So many stars aligned...

When you run an ultra, you realize how many stars need to be aligned to make it a good experience, for you and your crew. Starting with not getting injured despite many months and hundreds of miles of training leading to the race. Handling the burden of travel, either long flights or long drives and staying in new places, managing potential jet lag. The food and digestion. The sleep. Proper hydration. The terrain (rocks, mud, dust, creeks, etc.). The weather. The air quality. The fatigue and stress from work or other personal situations. The list goes on and on. And each of these stars gives you an opportunity to learn something new at each run and/or race.
This year I have hard time imagining that I had not aligned all the stars before the start. I did not have 300-mile training weeks like Tony (Krupicka), but I have never been as ready as for Western States this year. Even my drop bags for Robinson Flat and Rucky Chucky Far Side were ready and tagged one week in advance.

But there is a big star which needs to be taken account, to be never forgotten, another big lesson from this week: Mother Nature has a big say in ultra trail running. Snow has threatened Hard Rock until late in June, or obliged the Big Horn 100 race management to change the course last weekend. Here, and unlike what people may think, the fires are actually mostly natural. Just in one day (June 21st) the local Tahoe National Forest got hit by 3,200 lightning strikes. 3,200 sparks, lighten matches or opportunities to start a fire in such a dry season. The result: more than 840 fires throughout California, with 312 wildfires in Northern California. There are so many that the firefighters are only going after the ones threatening people and houses. For the others, Mother Nature is doing its healthy and natural forest cleansing job. Silently but with quite some smoke...

What really matters...

This is another good opportunity to reflect on what is really important in our life, and why we are passionate about ultra trail running. Health, life balance, exercise, personal physical and mental challenges, stress-killer, way to reconnect with nature, source of inspiration, ...

If we do include health in the mix, then there is no question the run had to be canceled because of the smoke pollution hazard. Whatever you use to define life balance, health must be part of the equation. With a bigger coefficient than the personal accomplishment of covering a distance in a given time.

In all the debates and heated discussions following the cancellation announcement, it went all the way from "what a catastrophe and bummer" to "it is not a big deal, there are other things more important in life and there will be other runs."

Now, the story which touched me the most in all this buzz is the grief that Ninegirl is going through and for which she was hoping running Western States could help her. She just lost her husband, Roger, two weeks ago, and was going to run Western States to find some peace and re comfort. Roger was a Tevis Cup finisher, the 100-mile horse race which gave birth to Western States. I can't think of a person more affected by this missed opportunity. All my sympathy, Kathy.

When grief can be a reason for running ultras.

For me, the other lesson out of this is that I improved in terms of flexibility, such a key skill for ultras. I could have been devastated or angry, but I was just so prepared for anything to happen (ok, I concede, during the run), and to take it easy, that I was sad of course but not as much as I would imagine if that happened a year ago. Yes, there will be other races. Actually, this year, I was impressed how some elite runners just canceled some of their races to focus on one event such as Western States. I think this is a key for outstanding performance indeed (keep your mental as focused as possible on one event/race). Yet I'm happy I had done so many races during this first half of the season (8 ultras since January). At least the training has been used!

Did Not Happen?

OK, it's Thursday and I had planned to hike to Escarpment Pass for the raising of the flag. But, with no update from race management on the program of this weekend (they announced "runners activities" still up before we all leave the area), I preferred returning to work.

I will go to Squaw tomorrow (Friday) to get some of the WS 2008 excitement. Not sure about showing up at the start on Saturday morning to commemorate the 35th edition. May be too tempting to run to Robinson Flat... 50K like... the Summer Western States Fat Ass?

So a bit of the event will happen this week and my DNH is a bit harsh for all the work put in by race management but, of course, the real thing is gone, vanished. DNH, go back home and come back next year (anxious to see what the selection rules will be for 2009...). Quite an expected outcome.

More over the weekend with news from Squaw.


willgotthardt said...

Awesome post Jean, you are a classy person/competitor.

Of course I'm sorry you can't race this weekend, I could sense you were dialed-in like so many others.

One acronym reference that perhaps was lost in translation...DFL, I've always heard that to mean Dead ****ing Last. ;-)

See you somewhere out there soon.

Will G.

Unknown said...

I am always moved by the way you experience life and empathize with other people's suffering. Your post speaks of who I know you to be: sincere, passionate, loving and grateful...I am sorry that you couldn't race. You demonstrate grace when faced with disappointment and a great sense of the relativity of things.
Here's to many successes ahead for you on the trail and on the path of life...
Christian F.

Unknown said...

Great post Jean. I think you expressed beautifully the full spectrum of emotions that all of those who were entered in the race must be going through right now.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Great post covering all the complexity of this tragic situation.

I'm glad you mentioned all the firefighters out there, I've been thinking of them, even though I have no faces or names on which to focus.

That's way too sad about Ninegirl. Thanks for mentioning her.

Even though it would mean no chance for me to run it next year, I really don't mind if Greg Soderlund and the WS Board decide to give all you guys the right to run next year. It's enough you lost your fees and the focus of the season.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

btw, I'll give you credit for coining DNH unless I find someone else did first.

Anonymous said...

Désolés pour toi.
Oui, ton texte est très beau et émouvant.

Rajeev said...


Thank you for your beautiful perspective on the Western States events this week.

You have been automatically entered into next year's race so that is a small consolation.


Dave - Atlanta Trails said...

You best blog entry yet.

You rock, Jean!

P.s. Are you going to cheer on my Germans on Sunday? I cheered you guys on against the Italians two years ago :)

Anonymous said...

désolée pour toi Jean et tous les coureurs. Je me faisais une joie de te suivre comme au costa Rica. j'espère que ces incendies ne vont pas trop détruire la foret;
Mon anglais est malheureusement encore trop approximatif pour comprendre tout ton article, mais je ne désespère pas!!!chloé a reçu ( avec sa classe) la coupe recompensant le gagnant du challenge multisports ( une épreuve en piscine et un parcours chronométré en gymnase)ils étaient tous très fiers ainsi que leur maitre qui les avait bien entrainés
Ce n'est pas le meme niveau , mais de voir la joie de ces enfants, c'était très émouvant.
A bientot

Brigitte RAJCA

Alan said...


Great post - very good job conveying both the situation, the support for the firefighters, what Ninegirl must be going through, and your own emotions. You will be back next year - and your bags will be packed and tagged one year one week in advance :)

Anonymous said...

Bonjour Jean,

On a fait un bout de chemin ensemble à la reco UTMB 2008.
J'ai en projès de faire un 100 milles en 2010 ou 2011, la WS me semble bien. J'aurais besoins de conseils pour les procédures d'inscriptions, les réglements,...

Merci de tes conseils,
Bien sportivement,

Julien Chorier