by Jackie Merritt, Milestone Sports athlete
PART I – PRE-RACE
The Western States Endurance Run was not my first rodeo. Still, there was something very different about the weeks, the days leading up to the race. Different in a good way. In most races that I can remember, I have been expected to win. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But there is always pressure, both external and internal, to be the best. Not at Western States though. Now suddenly the east coast “wildcard” would get the chance to run with the big dogs in arguably the most competitive 100 mile race in the world in the most competitive year in history. The tables had flipped and suddenly I felt the weight of expectation to perform lifted from me. Honestly, it felt good.
We flew into Sacramento 3 days before the race and I went for a short pre-race run in Auburn to preview the last few miles before the finish line with my pacers Matt Wilson and Jeff Merritt and a very chipper AJW (I have never seen my coach AJW more in his element). That run was HOT. Like really hot. Like 110 degrees hot. I started sweating as soon as I stepped foot out of the car AC. We all knew it was going to be hot but it was that pre-race run that really made me realize the heat on Saturday was going to be no joke.
After 3 days of pre-race shenanigans and activities in Squaw Valley I started getting anxious. I was just ready to run this thing.
PART II – RACE DAY
The High Country
The race went off and so started the long grind up the escarpment and the ascent into high country. Fellow east coaster Maggie G (aka Maggatron aka Beast from the East) and I started together and I felt at ease with the steady pace. Maggie is actually the one who planted the seed of making a WSER showing in my head about 2 years ago. This would eventually evolve into my long-term goal. Her impressive and smart race last year where she finished F8 was inspiring and gave me hope that I too might be able to come over from the east coast and crack into the Top Ten this year, my not-so-secret goal. (Here is her 2017 Race Report.)
But then about a mile up the climb, I started to not feel so good. I had a sudden onset of a headache and could taste iron in my throat. The work felt harder than it should have and a wave of nausea hit. Altitude. Maggie and other people around me seemed unfazed but I knew, at this point in the race, I had to back off. So Maggie and Meghan Arbogast and Kaytlyn Gerbin and Sarah Keyes and Emily Harrison pressed on while I hung back and tried to get it together.
Then came the ice.
I knew there would be snow but I definitely underestimated the extent of it and how poor the “running” conditions would be. It was deep and icy and footing was pretty difficult. I was still running but my pace was annoyingly slow for the effort I was putting in. Then after summiting, it seemed to get worse on the downhill and flat sections up in high country that I was looking forward to running fast on. We were running on an icy side cambered trail that left me slipping and sliding and falling. And I fell a lot. On top of that, the trail was difficult to follow in the snow; there were many downed trees and bush whacking involved. Not exactly what I was expecting. People were passing me in droves. Everyone was struggling but, whether real or perceived, I was struggling worse. All of it on top of the altitude was tough, physically and mentally. I was frustrated and discouraged.
Rolling into the Lyon Ridge aid station at mile 10.3, I was almost half an hour behind my projected “conservative” splits. I needed to take a few minutes here to not only refill my bottles but just get it together. It was then that I made 2 decisions for the day: 1) I was throwing away my pacing chart and never looking at it again, and 2) I was not going to battle the elements. I would not fight the snow, the ice, the heat or whatever else the day would bring. I needed to adjust.
The snow continued and I meandered forward, trying not to be frustrated by the inability to run much. I had actually caught up with Camille Herron at Lyon Ridge and for the first time all day, I thought I found someone who might be struggling more than I was. We jockeyed back and forth for a couple miles and then I think she stopped and ran back to the aid station to drop out of the race. Then came the 3 miles of mud from the snow melt through the flatter rolling stuff on top of the mountain in high country. It was the deep kind of mud that sucked your ankles into it, and sometimes even my entire leg past my knee. I tried but there was no skirting around it. Again, lots of trudging, not a lot of running.
Then finally, around 20 miles, things in the high country started to open up and become more exposed, more dry, and I could see rocks-lots of them! I welcomed the dry, technical, washed-out and roll-y trails with glee. Finally, I could RUN! After not pushing it through the snow and mud, I felt energized and fresh. I took advantage and picked up the pace, passing a number of people who had passed me in the snow.
On the nice steep descent into Duncan Canyon (mile 24, pic left) where I would see Jeff and Matt, I felt fantastic. The altitude stuff finally seemed to be leaving me. I was not really hot yet but they started pouring cold water on me and icing me down immediately. Ice in my pack, iced bandana, ice in hat, ice in side pockets of my shorts. This would become my ritual at every aid station for the rest of the day. I was also excited to see Maggie at this aid station and hoped that we would share some upcoming miles together.
I bombed down the steep descent out of the aid station and started flying down the mountain pretty fast. Perhaps too fast? I had not seen a course marking in a while. I had heard about people going off course on this section before. The paranoia was enough to stop me dead in my tracks and start back tracking uphill looking for pink flags. Soon Maggie caught up and assured me we were on course. I wave of relief washed over me and I turned around and continued down the mountain. I thought Maggie would be right there with me, but she wasn’t. I could tell she was going through a rough spot and I figured she would probably catch me on the next climb up to Robinson Flat.
I felt great but had been experiencing one big problem since all the mud that was starting to slow me down up the climb…my feet. I had actually stopped and sat down for a few minutes after going through most of the mud to take off my shoes and socks and rinse all the grit off my feet in a rushing stream in high country. But then we had hit more mud after that and more gritty sandy dirt had found its way into my socks. I was started to get some hot spots on the backs of my heels that was uncomfortable especially on climbs. I could feel my body making subtle alterations in my gait to compensate and alleviate pressure spots. Not good. When I rolled into Robinson Flat and saw my family, I took a few minutes to clean my feet and shoes, tape my feet and change into dry socks. I left the aid station with new feet, lots of ice and feeling million bucks again.
Then came the fire.
The sun rose higher overhead and the heat of the day set in just as the course opened up to the most exposed sections of the day. The ice I had packed all over my body melted quickly on these sections and I could feel myself pouring sweat. I didn’t complain once though. Not even silently to myself. I thought back to that one day a month ago after a mid-day run in Atlanta when it was over 90 degrees and the humidity felt like a rain forest. After the run I told AJW how miserable it was all he said was This week is the last week you get to complain about the heat. After this week, you will love it. And that was the last time I ever complained about the heat. Everything felt scorching hot and I was baking. I just told myself I LOVE this.
I ran by myself for a long time. No one passed me and I passed no one. And for what felt like long stretches of time I did not see my crew. The steep climb up to Devils Thumb was brutal but I power hiked up that thing like I meant it. I saw AJW halfway up tending to a fallen runner. He told me “only one more mile of this!”. One more mile? ONLY?? I thought it was more funny than it was demoralizing. Plus I was starting to pass a few men going up the climb who looked way worse than they should have at mile 47. I felt bad for them but it made me feel like I might be doing something right.
At the top of Devils Thumb I stopped for longer than I normally do at aid stations. I ate, drank and poured cold water all over my body. I loaded up with ice. The journey through the next section would be a hot one.
A nice long downhill followed by an equally long climb dumped me out to the Michigan Bluff aid station where I finally saw my whole crew again. I got hosed down, iced, fed and I was off again. (See a short video clip). Unknowingly to me, I passed a couple of women here who were sitting down at the aid station. I was still eating solid food (a great sign) and feeling good. I told Matt before I left that when I got to Foresthill, I would be ready to run.
PART III – THE SURGE TO TOP TEN
Running into Forest hill at mile 62, I felt almost fresh. Matt met me at Bath road and ran into the aid station with me. He told me I was the only one he had seen running up the climb to road, which made me believe that I had to be feeling better than a number of people ahead of me.
I loved California Avenue. Coming into the Foresthill aid station, this felt like the most lovely road I had ever run on. The effort level it took for me to run at sub 8 minute/mile pace after 62 miles felt like nothing. Nothing. I wished the race would continue at this slightly downgrade on this road for the next 38 miles. But alas, it would not. Still, I enjoyed the feeling of freshness coming through this aid station, the cheers of the large crowd, and the attention of my crew. I tried to make this a quick stop so I would not lose momentum. After swapping my pack and getting ice, I took my can of Coke and a taco to-go and ate it while running through the crowds down the rest of the road.
Drinking a Coke, eating a taco and rolling down Cal Street.
When we hit the first big descent, I knew this was going to be a good section. I now had Matt running with me and this did something to further lift my spirits and motivation. Matt filled me in on the women’s race ahead. Yiou Wang was winning the race and looking strong. Before long we had passed a few men and soon came up to someone lying on the side of the trail covered in blankets and surrounded by about 5-6 people from the medical team. It was Yiou Wang. It was sad to see that her race had taken a turn for the worst for whatever reason and made me consider keeping my pace more in check. I reminded myself that we still had over 30 miles to go.
We came and passed through Cal 1, the first of 3 aid stations on this section. When we hit Cal 2 I saw Meghan Arbogast, the woman I had been running right behind all day. She took one look at me and she and her pacer bolted out of the aid station and down the long descent ahead. I grabbed my bottles and took off blasting down that mountain. My legs felt great and I had no intention of holding back. We passed Megan and minutes later passed Stephanie Howe followed by Kaci Leikteig, two former WSER champions. Kaci even cheered me on as we passed even though I knew she must be having a horrible day. It was really awesome to hear that coming from someone who I consider to be a role model in this sport.
After waiting literally all day, passing those 3 women within 5 minutes seemed to bring even more life into me. I was no longer complacent with running smart and steady and waiting for them to come back to me. I knew the skilled technical downhill running on this section was where I would excel in this field of strong women. I was going to make up as much time as I could here.
So I started crushing those long descents like I didn’t need quads tomorrow. After 16 hours of running this took a tremendous amount of focus and a considerable amount of pain tolerance but surely enough, I started reeling in women over the next hour or so and picking them off one by one. Later I would find out that my split from Foresthill to the river crossing was the fastest of the entire women’s field!
The course ran along the river for what felt like a long time before I finally heard the unmistakable booming voice of AJW below and knew we were finally at the river crossing, mile 78. By that time it was just after sunset (9pm). I had just passed 9 women on that section and AJW said in confidence that I was now in 8th place. Despite pushing the last section, I was still feeling good and confident that I could at least maintain my position in the top 10 for the next 22 miles. And really, I thought I might even be able to pick off a couple more chicks.
Coming up from the river was 2 miles uphill on a dirt road to the Greengate aid station where I would see my crew again. I reluctantly strapped on my headlamp and braced myself to face the long night ahead. Night running has never been my favorite thing. Jeff met us at the bottom of the river and the 3 of us grinded up the long climb together. Here Jeff briefed me on the women ahead of me, the closest being Kaytlyn Gerbin, about 10 minutes up. He seemed genuinely impressed with the progress I had made moving up the field in the last section and told me that he was so proud of me. Jeff is not the person who tells you that you’re looking good to try to make you feel better or run faster. When Jeff says something like that, I know he really means it. I really took his words and encouragement to heart and braced myself to run even harder for the last 20 miles.
At Green Gate, mile 80, I finally saw my crew. I tried to scarf down as many calories as I could before heading into the night, but at that point my stomach has started to sour and turn with any solid foods. Coca Cola, ginger chews and Tailwind it would be for the rest of the night!
Jeff and I took off and I was on a mission. I convinced myself that I was hurting much less than the women head of me and that 10 minutes was not that much of a lead. I was surging over the climbs and pushing the downhills and the flats. To my surprise, the trail was mildly technical and some sections required some skilled footwork. Jeff remarked that this would give me an advantage over all of the Westerners in front of me. True or not, I had to believe it. In my mind, it was now a 20 mile foot race and I was going to leave everything out there.
We ran together for about an hour and a half, mostly quietly, just in each other’s presence. He knew I was too exhausted to talk and knew that I didn’t expect him to either. Just being in each other’s presence and sharing the peaceful night was enough to give me a boost. We came and passed the next couple aid stations with no crew access. Stopping at each one of them made me feel pretty woozy so I was really trying to expedite the bottle refilling process. It’s a fine line pushing hard so late in a 100 mile race and I felt like I was coming dangerously close to that line.
Then Jeff started having headlamp problems. He was running behind me and his headlamp suddenly dimmed and soon went off completely. His lamp was USB charge only and he did not bring an extra light with him. He was doing his best to run behind me in the light of my lamp but doing this was pretty challenging in a forest that was dense and dark and littered with rocks and roots. In the meantime, I could see a couple of headlamps in front of me at every large bend in the trail around the lake and knew I was reeling someone in, slowly but surely. Then we hit one steep and technical downhill and I took off, leaving Jeff behind. I paused at the bottom of the hill, casting my light up in hopes that he could quickly catch back up, but he was still all the way at the top. In that moment I had to make a decision to go back and get him or press on…I pressed on. I pressed on with feelings of guilt for leaving my husband there in the dark and alone but I knew it was what he would have wanted.
Minutes later I came to the mile 90 aid station and saw Kaytlyn and her pacer there. They took one look at me and bolted out of the aid station and down the hill ahead, just as Meghan had earlier. I took off after them, leaving my bottle with a volunteer and then had to stop and run back up to get it. But I grabbed that bottle and bombed down that hill, passing Kaytlyn in the process. I felt them surge immediately to chase me. I pushed up the next roller that followed but they charged harder and caught me seconds later. I hung with them for a minute, up the hill and over the roller. But with 10 miles to go, we were running sub 7 minute miles and what felt like a suicide pace with so much race left. I knew neither of us could hang onto that pace for the rest of the race. I made the decision to let her go with the lead, hopefully burn out in a few miles, and then try to pick them off after that happened. But they disappeared quickly into the night and I wouldn’t see them for the rest of the race.
I continued to push the pace, and felt like I was giving it everything I had. Here is where I saw some serious race carnage. Fast men that I recognized as internet sensations of the virtual ultrarunning world were keeled over on the side of the trail, usually vomiting. Before long I was running up a shallow climb and saw Clare Gallagher walking slowly with her pacer. She was not chasing me. Coming into the next aid station to see my crew, I found myself in the F7 position.
When I saw my crew at Pointed Rocks, mile 94, I begged Matt to run with me again. But he was in street clothes and I didn’t want to wait. I swapped packs one last time and left in a hurry. I realized about 100 meters out from the aid station down the next hill that I had not swapped my headlamp for one with new batteries and was not confident it would last the rest of the night. I ran back up the hill to get another one. But after starting out again with the new one, I realized the batteries in it were dead. So I ran back up the hill again and waited while my crew fumbled around trying to change out the headlamp batteries. In the meantime, someone from Clare’s crew, the Rocky Mountain Runners, gave me his headlamp. I took it and took off again. I probably lost a few minutes here with this headlamp mishap. But more importantly, I cannot lie that this, combined with the lack of pacer, felt like a big momentum crusher so late in the race.
I spent the next several minutes talking myself out of a mental low, convincing myself to get over the headlamp thing and stop being so hard on myself for being underprepared for the simple things. Physically, I felt great. There was just a part of my brain that was trying to tell me that I didn’t. Again, the words of AJW resonated with me…Pretty much everyone has cashed it in with 7 miles to go. Not you though. Here, you’re racing. HARD.
Once I snapped back into the right mind set, I felt ready to blast it in for the last 7 miles. I had seen most of the section and knew what was coming. Most of what I remember from this section was dust. Lots of downhill at first, and dust. I was grateful for the headlamp I was able to get, but it was not as bright as my Nathan Fire lamp and tougher to see the trail through the dust. This made it more challenging to fly downhill like I was before. Still, I was determined and pushed things the best I could without falling on my face.
The No Hands Bridge aid station (mile 96.8) was an exciting place full of energy in the middle of the night. The whole place was lit up like Christmas tree, bustling and full of life. I took a cup of Coke to go, not really stopping but brought the energy with me. I pushed through the next 2.5 miles of flat followed by an uphill grunt to the last road before the finish. I could see the lights at the top of the climb long before I got there. When I finally got there, Matt joined me at the road. When we reached the top of the climb we took off on the road, soon to be joined by AJW into the finish.
The last half mile was pretty glorious. A small downhill dumped out onto the track for the final 300 meters. The illuminating stadium lights and energy of the small crowd at the track felt as magical as I had always imagined that it would. When I first learned about Westerns States when I started running 9 years ago I always imagined what it might feel like but I never dreamed I would be making the lap as I closed on a Top 10 finish. I thought about that moment every single day in training and it often fueled me through my toughest of times. And now I was F7. Wildcard F7!
BONUS #1: MY GEAR LIST
Saucony Peregrine – The treading, responsive cushioning and water draining ability of this shoe made it really perfect for this race. I wore the same shoes the entire race.
MilestonePod – Check out the gait and running form data for my 40-mile surge toward the finish! The Pod running tracker survived through the snow, ice, knee and ankle sucking mud, and about 30 stream crossings with full water submersion! Trail tested to the max.
Nathan VaporHowe 4L – This race vest is perfect for Western States. I often forgot that I had it on except that ice in the upper back pocket all day really helped me survive the heat! It was soaking wet all day and still comfortable. I switched between 3 of the same vests all day.
Nathan Fire Headlamp – It’s bright and it feels really light on your head, the perfect combination for me. If my pacer and I had stuck with this for the entirety of the night there would have been less issues late in the race!
Saucony Bullet Tight short – Ice in the large side pockets of these spandex shorts all day was amazing.
Tailwind Nutrition– Not sure exactly how much of this stuff I drank but it was a lot! When solid food is no longer an option (and even when it is) Tailwind saves the day! My go-to flavors on this day: lemon, naked, raspberry buzz.
Farm to Feet – Greensboro Low sock
BONUS #2: Check out this little video of my family giving a “tour” of some of my gear while waiting for me at Robinson Flat.