Thursday, July 10, 2008

Western States 100: The "Un"race Report

Five minutes after landing in San Jose the Wednesday before the Western States 100, I learned the race was cancelled. My first reaction was sorrow for Jamie and all the preparation he had put into the race. My second reaction was an emphatic "What?!?!?!". This was the first time this race has been cancelled in its 35 years, and it happened the year I was to participate, albeit as a pacer and not a racer. I am starting to get a complex: first, I missed out on the WS100 lottery, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 filled up in record time and I was an hour later in signing up, and I missed out on the Mount Washington Road Race lottery (I did get in via the Maine Track Club). And now God decided to scour the dry northern California landscape with lightning strikes resulting in approximately 800-1000 wildfires during my trip out there.

Step back a few days to Maine. The Saturday prior to heading out to CA I ran the Mount Washington Road Race. After that race the little annoying cold I had turned into something a little more serious, leaving me feeling quite nasty. The day after Mount Washington, as my cold raged, my youngest son Quinn was struck with a stomach virus and got sick in his crib. As I was cleaning his bedsheets, fear struck. Fear of catching this virus right before my flight, or even worse, of somehow transferring my cold or this stomach bug to Jamie. So in order to not freak Jamie out, I never wrote of this ordeal of told Jamie so as to not stress him out. Luckily, none of these fears ever came to pass. Back to the San Jose airport. So after recovering from the initial shock and entering the denial stage, I connected with Danny and we headed north towards Squaw Valley. Our original plans included hitting Yosemite for a couple days of hiking and camping before meeting up with Jamie. But there was smoke. Danny's parents were visiting CA and had just returned from Yosemite and their report was not positive: from Yosemite valley Half Dome was not visible. I have never been but apparently this means the smoke was quite thick. Oh well, maybe next time. (This would be the first time of many that I would utter this statement.)

After driving a couple hours we stopped off at Sonora for a short night's sleep. Sonora's an old sleepy ghost town with a lot of charm, but not enough to keep us there for long. Early Thursday morning we headed out. I say "early" with a bit of snicker because it was much earlier than I thought. When I rolled out of bed I was sure the alarm clock read 8:30 AM. While I haven't slept until 8:30 for probably 3 1/2 years, I wrote the late time off to my travel the day before and the late hour we got to bed. It wasn't until we checked out, finished breakfast and left town did I realize I had misread the clock by two hours. 6:30 AM wake up is more my style. Danny took a great scenic route up to Tahoe that took us through Calaveras County, made famous by Mark Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". Probably only a literature nerd and English minor like would notice this, but still cool.

After entering I-80 near Auburn (the WS 100 finish) and driving north for roughly the entire length of the WS 100 course (this interstate parallels the course), the reason for the race cancellation became painfully obvious. The visibility on the road was horrendous and the aroma was reminiscent of a campfire. Not good running air. So kudos goes to the race directors for having the courage to do what was right.

We rolled into Squaw Valley after noon and quickly found Jamie and his brother, Chris. We all decided to forgo lunch for a "quick" 4 1/2 mile run up the first hill of the race to Emigrant Pass, what I think is the highest point on the race course. Our starting elevation was just over 6200 feet and the elevation after the run up was just shy of 8800 feet. To hit the top, Jamie and I set out at a pretty decent pass which slowed to a walk after about 100 yards. The combination of the elevation and smoke zapped us. The rest of the run was done at a very controlled and even run/walk pace. The run up was great and lots of fun and I must say Danny had the best run of us all when considering his training has been pretty nil due to knee and foot problems. Once hitting the top we skirted the ridge for some hiking fun before starting back down. On the way down I couldn't pass up a dip in a water collecting basing from some drain pipes. While it felt really good, I did pick up some "mountain crabs", but it was well worth it. The descent was much quicker than the ascent and we quickly changed and hit dinner in the village. We were starving as we had skipped lunch and in dire need of adult beverages. Despite the sad news of the cancellation and the smoke that was quickly enveloping Squaw, we had a great time at dinner with excellent food and company. All's well that ends well.

Also of significance on this day I became an Uncle for the second time. My little brother Jason and his girlfriend Brandi gave the world my nephew, Hutton Matthew. The kid was 8 lbs, 12 ozs upon entering the world, so big kudos to Brandi for bearing this child. Congratulations to Jason and Brandi, and to me!

After our trip to Squaw, Danny and I were faced with the question of what next. It is a curious thing to be on vacation, and for me the first time I have been away from my family on a pleasure trip since the Riley's birth, and not know what to do. So we headed south towards Danny's home turf of San Jose with plans land in Big Sur for some camping. Mother nature had other plans. After spending a night in some anonymous place, we reached Danny's apartment early the next morning to retool our stores and plan the rest of the trip. The first thing we did was check on campgrounds in Big Sur. We were lucky to have done this because we learned that there was a voluntary evacuation of Big Sur in place due to the wildfires. Instead we headed down to Monterey and its most excellent aquarium. In the evening we headed over to surf town Santa Cruz for some dinner and to hopefully find a campsite. Unfortunately there were no campsites to be found anywhere, so after some dinner and people watching, we headed back to San Jose for a night of rest at Danny's.

Saturday morning we headed to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The goal was once again to find a campsite, but we had no luck. The air around the Santa Cruz Mountains was relatively clear of smoke so it seemed that all of Northern California's campers had moved to this area and filled every available campsite around. Danny and I had originally set out to hike through the majestic coastal redwoods, but after driving in and seeing the beautiful forest, I started daydreaming about a run through the trees and set about talking Danny into running the trails. This wasn't difficult as he quickly agreed and we set out on the longest trail. Our run through the park took us 11.6 miles in just under 3 hours. This time included many stops for photos of the cool water falls we ran by and the unbelievable trees. There was also a bit of climbing during this run, as we climbed over 2300 feet. The best part of this trip though had to be the cookout we had at the conclusion. Danny had been kind enough to grab some beautiful steaks for us to grill at our first campsite, but as this campsite never materialized we ended up toting the steaks all around Northern California for few days before deciding they had traveled enough and we plopped down on a picnic table and cooked them right then and there. I also learned that squirrels eat more than nuts. As we were waiting for our steaks we started munching on beef jerky (a must for every backpack). A curious squirrel was milling about so I threw him a piece of jerky (sorry, I know one shouldn't feed the wildlife but I couldn't resist) and he woofed it down. So I proved that squirrels are carnivores, or I had just created the first of a new species. Watch out humans; squirrels will now be coming for more than just your bird seed!

After the day at Big Basin, the trip became a little more domesticated. We headed back to San Jose to Danny's apartment (after stopping for some gelato in Los Gatos, a neat little town) and were lucky enough to meet up with Danny's roommates. We had a great dinner with them and then hung out and chatted. The next day we attended Danny's church, and then headed over to the Santa Cruz mountains for some winery hopping, watched opera in the park in Los Gatos (a friend of Danny's was singing), and then went to see "The Happening". What a waste of money. Do not waste your time. I think M. Night Shyamalan committed career suicide with this one. Forced dialogue, many awkward moments, and completely predictable story all contribute to a terrible experience.

On Monday we went on a tour of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. While this is no doubt a tourist attraction and somewhat kitschy, it is still a site worth seeing. I saw a documentary on the place some years ago and when Danny asked if I wanted to see it, I was game. The house was built over a period of 38 years by Sarah Winchester, the heiress of the Winchester Rifle fortune. She lost her husband and daughter early in her life. After consulting with an occultist, she bought a house and started building on to it for the rest of her life. This was because she was told and believed that this was the only way to keep the spirits of those whose lost life to the Winchester rifle at bay. So she built, and built, and built...stairs to the ceiling, doors on the second floor that open to the outdoors, and all kinds of thing that have the number 13 associated with them (windows with 13 panes, closets with 13 hooks, chandeliers with 13 candles, etc.). Crazy chick. But she built an interesting house.

After this tour we ate some more Mexican (fish tacos again - yummy) and set off for one last run before I headed back home. So Danny picked a local county park with some trails and we did some running. The local county park that Danny chose was a gem. The Almaden Quicksilver County Park in Santa Clara County is an unbelievable place. Almost 35 miles of trails, complete with quicksilver mines and tons of wildlife, are available for runners, horses, and bikers. It is also the home of the Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose, and their two races including the Quicksilver 50 Mile, 50K and 25K races in early May and a series of shorter races in October (Danny, if I lived out there I would sign up with these guys). Also of note is that they run an aid station at Western States. Good on to them! Our run was amazing. We made our way around the trails (periodically tasting our fish tacos and beer), dropping into little canyons along the way as we skirted a ridge ascending and descending many saddles (the satellite photo of the course shows this pretty well). We spotted quite a few black-tailed deer (first for me), one of which sported a 6-point rack. Our goal was to do a nice loop which would take us by a still open quicksilver mine tunnel, but we failed to spot the turn and after about 35 minutes of running, we decided to turn back for the parking lot (on the way back it was hard to not turn off the course and cross the canyon to jump in the pools that we could see from the trail - see the detailed photo). We finished our run around 5 PM, and quickly headed home to allow me to clean up for my red eye that left a few hours later.

So ended my trip. While Danny and I were continuously faced with changing conditions courtesy of mother nature, we always kept our sense of humor and laughed off our relative poor luck. All in all, it didn't matter what we were doing. I have known Danny now for more than half my life. He is in the truest sense of the term my best friend. With the absence of all the epic events we had planned (WS 100, Yosemite, Big Sur), it left us with more time to simply relax and catch up. I got to join Danny at his church for a Sunday service. I greatly admire Danny's faith and his commitment to his religion and his community. I only wish I had an ounce of the faith Danny lives out every day. Much like the many excuses people garner to justify not running or not being fit, I carry with me excuses for my weak display of faith. I have so many excuses for not taking time on Sunday's to go to church (namely my long runs). This is something I have to work on, if for only to give the option of exploring faith themselves. Anyhow, I hope everyone out there has a friend as great as Danny. He has a way of handling my moods and eccentricities with grace and like an old pro (he's been doing it for half his life). I can honestly say that this extra time Danny and I got to hang out left me with very little regret for having missed the Western States race and all our other original plans. Also of note, Danny stepped his running up in a big way and was with me on every run we did, despite a foot injury and a lack of run training. Never once did he grumble, not even when I suggested we run Big Basin Redwood SP as he was getting all geared up to hike it. What a guy and what a friend.

Finally, boy did I miss my two little ones, Riley and Quinn. I really never expected to miss them as much as I did. I couldn't help but feeling like I was missing something the entire trip. I was nostalgic many times as I watched parents playing with their kids or cleaning up messes in restaurants as their food grew cold. I am a lucky guy to have a family that is super supportive of all my running. If they didn't travel with me to all my races, I might have quit racing a long time ago. Now I am one week away from my second Vermont 100, my cold is gone, I have just about cleared my lungs of the smoke residue from the trip, and I had Quinn's stomach virus. There is nothing that should get in my way now. Wish me luck.

To view other photos of my trip, check out my Picasa web album.

Cali Trip


Jamie said...

Awesome report, Stephen! I enjoyed the read. Hey, Moe is playing this weekend. I would have emailed you back but knew you had left work. My desktop PC kicked the bucket, and I don't have access to all of my email addresses. Back to Moe, I'm regretfully opting out, need to save $$$. See you tomorrow.

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