Western States 100: The Final Chapter

Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.
— Roosevelt
My crew (Larry, Sarah, and Megan) and me two days before the race.

My crew (Larry, Sarah, and Megan) and me two days before the race.

"Don't blink," said my friend Larry as we ran the weekend after the Western States lottery. "It will be here before you know it." Six and a half months and several hundred training hours later, I found myself standing in the dark, among a crowd of runners, staring up at the iconic white arch that read "Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA." I stood in complete awe as I watched the clock count down the minutes until the start of the race. A runner approached me: "Are you okay? You kinda look like you're freaking out." "I'm great," I said with a shaky voice. "I just can't believe I'm actually here." As the race clock ticked, the crowd started to count down: 5...4...3...2...1. It was time. I blinked, and six and a half months had passed before I knew it.

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat (miles 1-29.7):

I began the 2,550 ft. climb up the Escarpment out of Squaw Valley and quickly felt the effects of the increasing altitude. As the sun slowly started to rise behind me, I began to hike backwards to see the orange and yellow light shine over the mountains that surround Lake Tahoe. "Wow," I thought. "I'm really here." The crowd was quiet, but the energy was deafening. 

The roughly 4.5-mile climb up the pass was mostly silent until runners began to reach the top where we were greeted by a small crowd that had hiked the climb in the pre-dawn hours to cheer us on.

Once at the top of the climb, I dipped over the other side of the mountain and followed the Western States trail into the high country of the Sierras. The terrain was dusty and rocky, quite different from the sections of the course I'd seen before. The wildflowers -- brushstrokes of blue, red, and yellow against the mountain ridgeline -- were as breathtaking as the climb to reach them. 

Running in to the Robinson Flat aid station. 

Running in to the Robinson Flat aid station. 

It wasn't long before the temperature started to rise and the exposed trails of the high country started to get hot. Even at a high altitude, my watch showed that it was well over 90 degrees. I made a conscious decision fairly quickly to run conservatively. I knew that if I tried to push my pace, they heat would impact me too early.  I was conscious of my effort, taking time to fuel, hydrate, and cool off in every stream I crossed. 

As I made the long climb out of Duncan Canyon, I saw the trail lined with carnage, runners who were beginning to feel the effects of the heat and the altitude. I made my way to Robinson Flat, the first aid station where I would see my crew. I started to shake because I was so hot. 

Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff (miles 29.7-55.7):

When I reached my crew at Robinson Flat, they were ready for me. Having seen so many overheated runners arrive at that aid station and subsequently drop, they knew they'd need to be ready to cool me down. They sat me in a chair, gave me food, covered me with a cold, wet towel, and packed ice into my clothes. I started to shake: "I'm getting cold," I said. "I'm ready to go." Still a little nauseous from trying to cram in calories in the heat, I began to walk out of the aid station. As I left, Megan looked at me: "Keep your head," she said." She watched me fall apart mentally at Pine to Palm, and we both knew that keeping my shit together would be the key to me finishing this race. "I've got my head," I said.

While I had never seen most of the first 30 miles of the course, the subsequent 70 or so miles following Robinson Flat were very familiar territory as I had run them in training camp three consecutive years and had paced many of them. Entering the canyons felt like going home. I knew what lie ahead. Butterflies replaced nausea, and I embraced the challenge with excitement. 

After spending several hot hours on the exposed trails in the high country, the canyons felt relatively temperate, and I began to feel comfortable picking up the pace. The miles passed quickly, and I was amazed by how good I felt. 

When I reached the climb to Devil's Thumb around mile 46, I was surprised to catch up with my friend Stephen, whom I expected to be hours ahead of me. Nauseated, he was sitting on the side of the trail. I wanted so desperately to help him, but there was nothing I could do. I asked if he wanted me to send help back, but he said he didn't. Seeing him struggle made me push harder; I would finish this thing and I would do it for him. I reached the top of the climb in a personal best time of 39 minutes. Elated, knowing I would  get to see my crew soon, I quickly left the aid station.

Devil's Thumb was soon followed by another climb out of the canyon, one that I expected to be difficult. Surprised again, the climb was not as hard as I anticipated. As I reached the top, I saw Stephen's wife, nervously waiting for him. I told her how he was and when I last saw him, and then we ran into the Michigan Bluff aid station together. 

Michigan Bluff to Foresthill (miles 55.7-62):

At Michigan Bluff (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Michigan Bluff (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I approached the aid station, I saw my good friend and pacer, Larry. I yelled with excitement: "I still have legs!"  I felt stronger than I had ever felt at this point in a 100-mile race. "You're just getting stronger, Des!" my friend Sarah said.

I reached Michigan Bluff at 7:45 p.m. Runners are allowed to pick up their pacers early if they leave the aid station after 8:00 p.m., so I was faced with a choice: I could sit there for 15 minutes and pick up a pacer early or I could continue on. I quickly ate, dropped some gear, picked up my headlamp, and decided to keep going. I would pick up my first pacer at Foresthill as originally planned.

As I ran out of the aid station, I heard Megan call from behind, telling me that our friend Drake was leaving too. "Work together," she said. Drake and I had both had pretty lonely days on the trail, so we decided to run the 6ish-mile stretch to Foresthill together. As we ran together and chatted, we both slowed a little, but we both savored sharing the trail time with a friend. As we made the climb to Foresthill, we chatted the time away and watched the sky turn orange and yellow once again. It would be dark soon.

When Drake and I reached Bath Road near Foresthill, we saw Megan, who would be my first pacer. It was dark, but I could tell by her voice that she was excited and smiling. As we ran side by side to meet the rest of the crew. Megan said "You're in Forestall, Des!"  "Foresthill!" I said.  "I made it to Forest fucking hill!" I ran faster.

After eating and restocking a few things, Megan and I were headed down Cal Street and into the night. 

Foresthill to Green Gate (miles 62-79.8):

As Megan and I ran, it felt like any other weekend, and we were both happy that it felt nothing like the death march that was Pine to Palm last fall. With every step, I felt increasingly motivated by Megan's positive, happy energy. The time passed quickly, and we both looked forward to seeing our friend Shannon at the Peachstone aid station (mile 70.7).

As we approached Peachstone, my attitude was still positive, but my energy started to fade quickly. I was exhausted, my feet hurt, and all I wanted to do was sleep. When we reached Peachstone, I was greeted by  Shannon's bright smile and a big hug. She and Megan sat me in a chair, gave me some broth, and started the one-minute timer. Sitting felt amazing, but Megan and I knew I couldn't stay long, One minute passed and I was up again and we were headed out. 

As we started to run, my energy dwindled and my feet hurt more and more. I was starting to get hot spots and I was reduced to a slow shuffle. Megan and I made the conscious decision not to deal with my feet until reaching the river. We knew that I'd likely change my shoes after crossing and that Larry would be there and would be better equipped to deal with them than we would. I tried to stay positive, but I couldn't help but start to worry that I was moving too slowly to make the cutoffs. Megan kept reminding me to stay out of my head and helped me focus on the positives. "What are three things that are going right?" she'd ask. "Name three people who are thinking about you right now," she'd say. It was dark, but Megan helped me focus on small slivers of light. "Keep your head," I chanted to myself. "It always gets better," I repeated. "Who are you doing this for?" Megan would ask. "I'm doing it for Larry, and for Sarah, and for Moe, and for Stephen, and for everyone back home who believed in me."

The miles between Peachstone and the river passed slowly, as I knew they would, but eventually we saw the bright lights of the aid station and the moon reflecting off the water.

Crossing Rucky Chucky with Megan (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Crossing Rucky Chucky with Megan (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As we descended to the river, I heard a voice yell: "Desiree and Megan!" It was our friend Eric from Portland. He greeted us with a smile and hugs. "Welcome to the river," he said. I started to tear up. "Welcome to the river," another volunteer said as she put a lifejacket on me. "You're going to finish Western States." Tears started to stream down my face. I had always told myself that if I could make it to the river, my chances of finishing would be high. I had made it to the river. If I could stay ahead of the cutoffs, I was going to finish Western States. 

When we reached the other side of the river, we were greeted by the cheers of Larry and Sarah, who were patiently awaiting our arrival. I told Larry that I had hot spots on my feet and wasn't sure how we should deal with them. As Sarah set out food for me, Larry sat me down in a chair to assess the damage. "You have a blister on your heel," he said, "but your feet look pretty good. We agreed that I should change my socks and shoes and that that was all we'd do. I ate as much food as I could stomach, which wasn't much, and the four of use began the climb to Green Gate, where Sarah and Megan would continue on to the car and Larry would take over pacing.

Friend Kristin, from Portland, helping me out of the river, Megan behind me (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Friend Kristin, from Portland, helping me out of the river, Megan behind me (photo by Sarah Duncan).

The climb felt long and strenuous, but my feet felt much better in dry shoes and socks. Still, I stumbled along the rocky road in a sleep-deprived stupor. When we reached the Green Gate aid station, the four of us stopped to part ways. Megan gave me a hug: "I don't know how I'm going to do this," I said. "You can do it," she replied.

Green Gate to Highway 49 (miles 79.8-93.5):

Larry and I headed off into the darkness. "We're going to turn this race around, Des. You're going to eat and we're going to start running." I thought he was being unrealistically optimistic, but I respected his experience and I listened to everything he told me. He knew where my hot spots were and he  watched me run. He then started telling me how to adjust my gait so I could run and not shuffle. "Use gravity," he said, "not effort." It wasn't long before my shuffle turned into a jog and my jog into a run. Soon, I started to wake up and I started to eat. We had turned my race around. Larry was right.

I felt an unprecedented sense of confidence being able to run so late in a race when, previously, I had been reduced to a shuffle or even a death march. I was running and running at a good pace. Confidence restored, Larry and I began to chat like it was any other weekend run. Before we knew it, the birds were chirping, the sun had risen, and we were at Brown's Bar aid station (mile 89.9). We had turned my race around and I was going to make it. We quickly refueled (I with gels and soda and Larry with beer -- "I only have 3 miles left," he chuckled) and we began the 3.5-mile stretch to Highway 49, where Sarah would take over pacing.

Highway 49 to Placer High School (miles 93.5-100.2):

The meadow outside the Highway 49 aid station. 

The meadow outside the Highway 49 aid station. 

By the time we reached the Highway 49 aid station (mile 93.5), I had been running strong for quite a while. I was excited and I was determined to finish. As I grabbed some food, I heard Larry say to Sarah: "She's back." I could feel his confidence in me, and I was ready to make the final push. As Sarah and I started to leave, I looked back at Larry. Overcome with gratitude, both for his positive energy and wisdom during the night, I turned back and gave him a hug before finally leaving the aid station.

The stretch from Highway 49 to Auburn is a beautiful, albeit difficult one. Anticipating the heat that was setting in again and the climb that was ahead, I tried to savor the runnable trail while it lasted and the beauty that surrounded me, while chatting with my dear friend Sarah. 

Crossing No Hands Bridge (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Crossing No Hands Bridge (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

The time it took to reach No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8) seemed to fly by, despite being reduced to a tired jog. As we descended to No Hands, my voice started to get shaky with emotion and I had difficulty talking. "When this is over," I said, "I'll be able to say I left every ounce of everything I had in the Sierras." As we crossed the bridge, a volunteer said: "Congratulations. You're about to finish Western States." The tears that had been welling in my eyes, tears of awe and surprise, lack of confidence and return of confidence, tears of pure unadulterated joy, streamed down my face. 

Crossing the finish line with my crew by my side (photo by Jennifer Love).

Crossing the finish line with my crew by my side (photo by Jennifer Love).

As Sarah and I made the hot climb to Robie Point, it started to sink in, and I stopped in the middle of the trail: "I'm going to finish Western States, Sarah." "Yes, you are, Des!" As we neared the top of the climb, we started to see the crowd of spectators and then Megan, Larry, and our friend Jennifer  waiting to run the final mile with us. "Everyone in Portland just started cheering, Des," Sarah said. Megan pulled out her phone and started playing Fight Song by Rachael Platten, a song I had listened to no less than 1,000 times during my training, though I never mentioned it to her. "I smell rubber," Larry said. "I see track," said Sarah. I ran faster. My feet touched down on the track, but the finish line felt so far away. That .2 miles may as well have been another 100, and yet I ran faster. "I can't hold this pace," I thought. I ran faster.  "I need to stop," I thought." I ran faster. 

Megan, Larry, Sarah, and me post awards ceremony. 

Megan, Larry, Sarah, and me post awards ceremony. 

They call it "The Golden Hour," the hour before the final cutoff by which runners must complete the race in order to be considered finishers. I crossed the finish line in 29:10:19, 49 minutes and 41 seconds before the finial cutoff, running a sub-7:00 pace, surrounded by overwhelming love and support, and feeling stronger than I ever have crossing the finish line of a 100-mile race. I crossed the finish line during the Golden Hour, but I felt like I won.