Sunday, June 28, 2009

Western States 2009: digging deep

I spent the whole day and evening with Dan Moores in my mind. As you might have read in my previous post (Western States: H -9), John Trent had shared with us three pieces of wisdom and requests, during the tribute he paid to Dan during the race briefing:
  1. Run with an open heart, to give some room to Dan;
  2. Smile at Bath Road, the aid station manned by the Auburn Running Company, Dan's store;
  3. Run smart, especially to handle the heat
Regarding the second point, I'm not sure how the smile came up after 60 miles, but I did thank the volunteers and stopped by to sign the board which was then moved to the finish line. It reads "Dan, you'll Always Be Running With Us."
I did pretty well on item number 1, at least I believe. Every other mile or so, I actually kept asking Dan how I could run smarter. I did not have any specific plan for this year's run except to make it an enjoyable experience in case this was my last Western States as it had became so difficult to get in through the lottery. Like in 2007, my second goal was to finish (with a 50 to 60% finisher rate, it is certainly not a given!) and my third goal was to finish under 24 hours (for a second silver buckle). Then, of course, with my Farther Faster mantra, I was hoping to improve my 2007 time of 20:24, depending on the circumstances, and possibly breaking 20 hours, based on my shape this season. To some, I also said that, with such a deep and extremely competitive field, I would be very happy to place in the top 20 again (bookmaker Karl Meltzer had 22 names in his short list). After hearing John's speech about Dan, I added one last minute goal: to honor the race. Which is an ambiguous one, because it may take many forms, from giving it all with the risk of burning out and dropping, to running a smart race to have a good finish, and finish alive!
With all that, my overall goal was not to stress as I believe this may be the major factor triggering my exercise-induced asthma in important races (this has not been confirmed by anyone from the medical field, at least not to me, but I am out of ideas in terms of correlations, having had crisis in any season and any weather). On purpose or because I am not a rookie anymore after 4 years competing in ultra running (although I still consider myself as a newbie especially when joining the Western States Endurance Run crowd), I was not overly excited. With about 18 races a year including 12 ultras, I probably race too much to maintain the excitement even within my crew, i.e. my family... Yet, Western States is unique for its very long history, being a prime event in North America in particular and in the World as you will see in the top 3 ranking. So, excitement there was on the starting line this Saturday at 5 am in Squaw Valley. So much excitement that, after one switch back on the road up to Escarpment, we missed a turn. I was following Dean Karnazes when, suddenly he turns and start running down. I thought he had forgotten his sun glasses but then, him and others started shooting "wrong way." Interestingly, I had done the same mistake on Thursday morning for our trek to the flag raising... Back on the right track, the elites had to come back to the front, so it was nice to review who was there finally (several key names where missing because of injury). I wished good luck to Scott (Jurek) and he replied with a "Bonne course!" (have a good race). Exchanged a few words with Benoit Laval, David James, Jasper Halekas, Victor Ballesteros, Marco Olmo, Beverly Anderson-Abbs, Caren Spore, Graham Cooper, some I would see again during the race, some I won't.

Between the leaders who were relentlessly running despite the steep slope and the back of the pack walking, the 400 starters stretched over a mile on the illuminated ski track. I reached Escarpment in 53 minutes and got on the single track on the other side of the mountain, followed by Eric Skaden. The pace was quite fast so there was really no need to pass, which is one main cause of injuries early in the race when runners try passing and trip down. Around mile 5 I caught up with Brian Robinson. Brian is known for being the first person to get the Triple Crown in one year (hiking the three cross-country trails in the US). More recently, Brian was the 8th runner to complete the crazy Barkley 100-miler. Brian and I ran together to Robinson Flat in 2007 and I owe Brian big time for setting a reasonable pace back then. Brian said that, because of the missed turn at the start, he was surprised to get in the lead for a short while. We ran together for a couple of miles, and with Nikki too. Going faster in downhills (Brian is so good at power hiking up hills), I caught up with Brian Morrison (first to reach the Auburn track in 2006 before collapsing) and Erik Skaden (2nd overall in 2006 and 2007). The pace seemed right although I was surprised and worried to be running with these fast guys. I finally lost them after the Red Star Ridge aid station (mile 16), thinking that I had better settling for a slower pace. In 2007, I started the race in 70th position and finished 18th. This year, the splits give me in 26th which, based on an exceptional deep and competitive field, was probably too fast of a pace for me.

Andy Jones-Wilkins passed me around mile 18 (he was fourth in 2007 and a favorite for the Masters division). I then ran solo to Duncan Canyon (mile 24). The aid station is manned by my other running club, the Quicksilver of San Jose, and it was a lot of excitement to see familiar faces. In particular, my teammates Pierre-Yves Couteau and Jim Magill, with Pierre-Yves putting some sun screen on my shoulders, arms and legs. It was also great to see Peter Defty who had several runners using Vespa on the race. Peter handed me a pouch which I quickly swallowed before the tortuous exit of the stations (short but steep and rocky down hill).

At the bottom of Duncan Canyon I could not find the trail on the other side of the creek and had to wait for two runners to come through. One of them was Michael Wardian, whom I knew from pacing him at the North Face 50-miler last December. Michael just flew back from Europe where he placed 6th at the World Championship of road 100K, quite an intense long run to prepare for Western States instead of tapering! Anyway, like in December, Michael got out of fluid and I was also getting out of gas, just one mile before getting into Robinson Flat (almost 30 miles). I decided to change shoes and, fortunately, Chuck Wilson gave me a hand. He was there crewing for Christine Miller. Despite the help, about 15 runners passed through the station and I retrograded to 40th. A tough setback from a mental perspective. That was my first physical and mental low point of the day. Fortunately, the next 13 miles were mostly downhill, including my favorite aid stations manned by friends (Dusty Corner) and club mates of the Stevens Creek Striders (Last Chance, where I served as the aid station captain for several years before getting the Western States virus...).

As Dan (Moores) was still in my mind, I was so thrilled to see Tom and Mike at Last Chance, two long-time volunteers battling cancer. I gave them a hug, before getting assisted by one of my work colleagues, Michael. I enjoyed the buffet and the "car wash" from Dick, who received the Friend of the WS Trail award in 2007 for many years of service to the runners at Last Chance. I had caught-up and passed Brian (Robinson) before Last Chance but, with all the time I spent enjoying the Striders' company, he left the station ahead of me. On the way down to swinging bridge (Deadwood Canyon), I passed Benoit Laval who was walking, before dropping at Michigan Bluff. Benoit told me Marco (Olmo) was 5 minutes ahead of me, but Marco also dropped at Michigan Bluff, after the "deadly" canyons.

I felt good going down Deadwood Canyon, like in 2007, and passed Brian again. I felt so good that I power walked the 37 tortuous switchbacks up to the infamous Devil's Thumb. On the way, I passed Kriss (Moehl) and Brian Morrison, which might have an indication I was still going too fast. Up at Devil's Thumb aid station, the third medical checkpoint, my weight was still right on 130 pounds, which was perfect after 48 miles in the heat and almost 9 hours of running. Again, Brian (Robinson) flew through the aid station and passed me. I lost him just before going down El Dorado Creek, the third canyon. I even had to walk in this long downhill section as I was out of gas for the second time, and short breath as well. The 3 miles up to Michigan Bluff, from the bottom of the canyon, seemed really long with the heat and mostly walking. Finally, I found the family waiting for me at the station and, like in 2007, the medical staff asked me to stop for a while to work on my fluids and salt. I was down to 125 pounds and stopped for 19 minutes. Since my power hike to Devil's Thumb, I felt thirsty and that would last for hours after the race, despite drinking ounces of water, Gu2O, soup and Coke. Looking at the picture, I just realize that the medical staff T-shirt of this year had the following inscription: "Tell me where it hurts." Well, my joints (knees, ankles, hips) hurt and I was wondering if that could be linked to dehydration. When I left Michigan Bluff, I was still ahead of my 2007 time chart, but down to 13 minutes as opposed to 33 minutes at Robinson Flat. It was 4 pm and hot, although I did not feel too bad about the heat thanks to the handkerchief I was wearing around the neck, filled with ice cubes. Gordy Ainsleigh certainly did not have this luxury when running this course more than 35 years ago, 1,500 volunteers, tons of ice, drinks, water, food. Here is a quote from this Sunday's Auburn Journal edition:
"In that first race, it was so hot I couldn't even focus on the road. There was a lot of convection currents, and my brain was baking. I made the decision to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I could not put one foot in front of the other. That was the last time I considered quitting."
Indeed, when you cannot run anymore, you still have the option to walk. As long as your vitals are ok, hence the 12 medical checkpoints along the course. The reporter added that Gordy, now 62, had competed in 23 editions of WSER, with 22 finishes. Unfortunately, Gordy dropped at Miller's Defeat this year. Anyway, back to my race report, I did a lot of walking before feeling better in Volcano Canyon (I definitely have good quads!), thinking even more of Dan as I was approaching the Bath Road aid station. My third high of the day was to meet with the family again at Foresthill (mile 62, or km 100), especially Max who was going to pace me from Foresthill down to the river. We had great running sections but overall more walking than in 2007 when Rob Evans paced me. I was back on the same schedule as 2007 at Foresthill and lost 12 minutes on the 16-mile section down to the river. Max had never run more than 10 miles and really enjoyed the experience. He was amazed by the beauty of the trail and the views, as well as the kindness of all the volunteers. 3 miles before the river, we caught up with Brian (Robinson) again, who was now paced by his wife, Sophia Lewis (7th woman at Western States 2003).
By the river (Rucky Chucky) my weight was up a little, around 126-127, good enough for the medical staff to let me continue. My second pacer, Adam Blum, who paced me at Rio del Lago last September, and the sponsor of our rhoquick running team, was waiting for me on the other side of the river. I was so tired and it was almost the end of daylight, I got really cold in the river and was shivering when reaching the other side, where I changed shoes for the second time (the Cascadias 5, the 2010 model Scott Jurek was running in at the start). Nikki passed me at the bottom of the uphill to Green Gate, she is so fast hiking up the hills. I would keep seeing her from time to time in the next 22 miles to finish just a minute behind her. But that was definitely not the Nikki we know, she really had a bad day, yet she tought out a 4th place (disappointing for her who is used to overall wins, but at least she can come back next year with an automatic entry!).

The 10 miles between Green Gate and Brown's Bar felt really strange as Adam and I felt we were doing well, yet we did not see any runner. I was in 30th positiong and it seemed like a big gap formed with the front runners. Finally, we passed three runners as we quickly went through Brown's Bar (nice potatoe soup, and super cool station staff there!) and a few more as I started sprinting up to Highway 49. Agnès and Alex were there, my weight right back on 130 (phew!), and we left in a hurry when I hear Simon getting in the station. Simon has been a top 10 finisher at Western States and I took that as a sign that he would finish strong. I was then in 25 th position, with 6.7 miles to go. We passed a few runners before the illuminated and legendary No Hands Bridge and literally sprinted the way up to Robbie Point (I'm anxious to see the splits). We had 14 minutes to finish under 21 hours when we hit the road, with 1.4 miles to go including some steep uphills. Seeing the clock in the last 100 yards showing 20:56 was a relief: my final time was 20:56:49, 32 minutes more than in 2007. 22 nd overall versus 18th, 18 th man versus 15th, and 7th Master instead of 4th in 2007. Overall, not farther (this was my 3rd 100-miler), not faster, but definitely tougher that what I ever experienced in running. Yes, I told you, I am still a newbie! Still running with my (open) heart, based on my feelings, and maybe not smart enough from time to time. But smart enough this weekend to finish in one piece!
I got cold on the finish line but not bad enough to get a bed in the medical tent (several runners were getting an IV...). Graham (suffering from shin splints) and Simon arrived together, 12 minutes after me. Agnès, Alex, Adam and I left the stadium around 2:45 and I was in bed by 3:30 am, 25 hours after getting up on Saturday morning, for 6 hours of sleep before getting back to the Auburn High School for the award ceremony. Which, with temperatures still above 100F and many heroes to celebrate, was turning to another ultra experience. Here are the top 10 men of this competitive 2009 run, with three continent represented in the top 3 (America, Asia, Europe):
I am thankful for so many things and people on this Sunday night: having been part of this legendary Western States tradition, having done everything I had to get to the finish line under 21 hours, the relentless work of 1,500 volunteers who make this race possible, the associated logistic and hard work of race director, Greg Soderlund and the WSER board, all the people involved in maintaing the Western State trail (and hopefully making it am historic National trail for further generations to enjoy), the crews and my loving one in particular, the blast of running 16 miles with Max, the support of Adam, all my fellow runners whom, as Tony said, I competed with, not against, and even the challenging weather conditions without which Western States would not be what it is.

See my Picasa album for more pictures of this long day (200+ commented pictures, and a few short videos). And see you on the trails or the blogsphere soon. My next races are in August and I will spend three weeks in France in July, so I will enjoy the well deserved break. Hope you have a nice summer break as well!

PS: ahh, blogging on Sunday when the race ended less than 24 hours ago is ultra blogging, please excuse the typos, I will correct them later, time to go to bed... Sorry too for the long post. This is also ultra blogging, yet, a short recount of a long day...


sylvie Legon said...

gysadibJe viens de tout lire et je suis é-pa-tée ! Mais tu es complètement marteau ! Ah la la, heureusement que je ne suis ni Agnès ni ta mère ...
Affreusement désolée pour ton ami décédé ...
J'ai vu sur Youtube l'arrivée des 1ers, le troisième larron avait la frite, c'est délirant.
Bravo à toi et aux tiens et merci pour nous faire vibrer (presque tout Voiron te connait maintenant !)Mon père est très intéressé, il a fallu que je lui traduise tout l'historique de la course)
Gros becs

Unknown said...

Jean, man, you are an inspiring dude. Mega miles before this Western States run and all at a quick pace - and then to find time to write reports and post pictures - family and job too!! This was a heavy post though.... I hope your body bounces back smoothly from this weekend's efforts. - Gus

Steve Patt said...

Way to hang tough, Jean. Wish I could say the same. This was the first race in my entire life when I even heard the word "cutoffs" until they finally got me at Cal 2. Sure wish I was fast enough to stay 19 minutes in one aid station and still finish under 21 hours!

My Cascadia 4's I was wearing for only the third time - one short test run, one "Steve's to the Sea" 46 miler from Cupertino to the Pacific, and 70.7 miles at Western States, and there's already a hole in the toe (in the mesh on top where my right toe hits the mesh)! Get the product improvement team on this, will you? ;-)

Cupertino Running Again said...

Amazing season, results @ WS100, and blog. Jean you and your family are truly inspiring!

Jasper Halekas said...


Congratulations on a strong finish on a tough day. I was just happy to survive at times out there.


JBoy said...

This is a huge performance.. again. I'm very impressed by all the effort, faith and courage. You are a great great sportsman. For sure you run with your open heart, how can you do that without it?. Take a long rest. You did not need to proof again that human can do extraordinary things. This race is amazing, crazy, but so rewarding when you finish as you did. Against congratulations, I know at our age there is no more national recognition from new papers or federal organization, as there are for sportsman between 16 to 30 years but there are a lot of them who are no more able to reach what you just achieved. You are inspiring.

Jean Pommier said...

Thank you (merci!) all for reading through this long report. There are so many other personal recounts, all sources of inspiration, that's what makes ultra so special.

Jasper, I'm glad your focus and harder-than-ever training paid off, kudos to you!

Steve, I used Cascadias 3, 4 and 5 in this run. I logged 498 miles so far in my pair of 3s and never encountered the issue you mention. 164 miles in the 4s and they still look brand new (except for the dust!). Anyway, I'll put you in touch with the folks working with Scott on this shoe.


Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Congratulations on a great performance Jean! I'm glad to see you did so well on a tough day and finished in one piece. You are an inspiration!


Victoria said...

Félicitations! One of the best parts of Saturday was seeing you go through Foresthill and your son leave with you as your pacer-- what a great way to share an event! Seriously, great job-- it was a tough day out there.

Adam Blum said...


The big payoff of pacing you is watching you hang tough through those physical and emotional lows. I can tell you for sure that it was something that I drew on in longer ultras.

I am reading Bergland's The Athlete's Way (which I recommend). It talks about the immportance of the cerebellum to performing well: running instintictively with the reptilian brain.

But (as someone who myself has very limited instinctive cerebellar talents) what I enjoy about running with you and watching you run is how _cerebral_ you are about it: analyzing all the factors with humor and then using your cerebrum to direct your body to perform. Its no accident you perform so well under adverse conditions. Thanks for letting me witness it.

- Adam

- Adam

Unknown said...

Congrats on a strong finish on a very tough day (and night)! You always impress me not only with your speed on the trail, but with the amazing speed with which you manage to complete your reports. I'm hoping I can just find the motivation to START mine within the next week!

pepesport2003 said...

Awesome man, read the live feed on Saturday and was very impressed. Too bad Scott had some problems. Very impressive non the less, congrats.

Erwan said...

Felicitations pour finir dans le top 20 masculin encore !
Quelle belle course.


P.S. Je vois que Kaburaki est venu aussi. 2eme... pas mal.

Dave Combs said...

Jean, congratulations on an excellent run under very trying conditions--VERY well done!


Gretchen said...

Congrats Jean! That is such an impressive finish on what was an extremely tough day. Feel proud!

John Trent said...

Congratulations on a wonderful run over the weekend. Against the deepest field our race has ever had, on one of the most challenging days we've had in a long while, you ran a race that you should always be proud of. In the words of our good friend Dan Moores, you truly honored all of the virtues that we associate with WS: courage, determination, care for your fellow competitors and your family and crew and volunteers. WS has no better honor than knowing its runners are people like you. And thanks for your previous post about you and your family's concern for Dan's well-being. I'm sure wherever Dan was on Saturday, he was smiling that you were smiling for him.
All the best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Merci pour le partage de cette extraordinaire aventure.
J'ai noté ce que je n'ai pas compris
A mercredi

Dave - Atlanta Trails said...


Congratulations on hanging tough on a super-hot day! You have nothing but my admiration. Hope to (finally) see you on the trails soon!


swolfe said...

Enjoyed reading your report, Jean. Congratulations on your race and finishing strong on a tough day. Seeing you running with your Son, Max, on Cal Street was one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a race. What a great memory for the both of you.

Be Well


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