Sunday, July 6, 2014

Western States 2014: Emergency Backup Aid Station Captains!

Important Note: This is going to be REALLY long. Most of you can run away now and find something better to read. Some of you have no choice though, and are stuck with having to at least scan through this. Sorry.

For the fourth year in a row, I headed up to the Last Chance aid station for the Western States Endurance Run 100.2 mile trail race. This aid station, which has been run by Stevens Creek Striders since forever, is at mile 43.3 and is not accessible to crews, so it's just us volunteers and the nearly 400 runners that pass through during a seven hour window.

This year was a bit different though, for two reasons:

  • In a wildly unlikely twist, both of our Standard Aid Station Captains had their names drawn in the lottery and were running the race. This meant we were going to be using Emergency Backup Aid Station Captains (EBASC). Fortunately, this wasn't their first rodeo, and even better, both knew that this wasn't actually a rodeo.
  • A wildfire last summer had damaged the trail in the area of our aid station. Weirdly, where the aid station actually sits showed little effects from the fire, but there was ample evidence on both sides of us. One of the biggest impacts on the race was that the Swinging Bridge, which is about 2.5 miles after our aid station, had been burned out, which meant the runners would have to wade across the river. I suspect very few runners minded this at all, since this is typically one of the hottest parts of the course, and getting to cool off in the river would be a huge win.

This is a still grabbed from a wonderful movie that takes you through the race. In the background is the burned out Swinging Bridge, and in the foreground is a runner taking advantage of the cold water. 
As is traditional, I headed up Friday afternoon with the goal of camping out and being fresh for the morning. For the second year in a row, I was Ice Boy, which meant stopping in Auburn to pick up 540 pounds of ice for the next day.

The Last Chance Minivan loaded up with ice.
A nice change this year was that, rather than going into the grocery store and trying to convince them I wasn't nuts for wanting so much ice, I headed to the WSER warehouse where they completely understood why we needed so much ice.

Since parts of the road to Last Chance are actually part of the course, the road is closed during the race, which means you have to get there early and stay late.
From Auburn, you drive to Foresthill, then take a right on something called Mosquito Ridge Road. You now have 20 miles of absurdly windy road to drive to get to the even more obscure and windy turn off to head to the "town" of Last Chance.

Friday night at the Last Chance aid station. Some assembly required.
About half the volunteers that work at this aid station show up Friday night, while the other half choose to drive in early to beat the 9AM road closure cutoff.

You're never too old for roasted marshmallows.

This is what the entrance to the aid station looked like once it had been assembled. This is the view the runners had when coming in.

This is the view the runners have when they exit the aid station. I had put up a few signs for friends running the race.

In their finishing order, with the bottom row being the three runners I knew that didn't get to finish. Also, the last sign was the first attempt at a Spanish sign. I've been told the verb is not quite conjugated correctly, but it was the best Google could do for me.

One very cool thing was that Penny was awarded a WSER Friend of the Trail plank for her years of service for this race.

Above is a picture of most of the Last Chance volunteers. We were missing a few people (Hi Curt!) that are normally here, but there were a number of first timers on hand to take up the slack.

Me in my costume. We have a Hawaiian theme.
Food preparation is a big job.

A couple of fun first timers were these two from Australia, who brought Bongo the monkey. Bongo evolved during the race to embrace the Hawaiian spirit, as you will see later.

A couple of Car Wash volunteers were practicing aggressive cooling techniques.

A bit after 11AM, our first runner arrived, Max King, who was running his first 100 mile race.

Usually the elites that come through first don't take the time to cool off before heading out to the hottest part of the course. Max was the exception, and he happily took the time to get wet before heading out. (It seemed like this year, many more of the elites stopped to get cooled off than normal. This was a warm year, but not as hot as last year's record-breaking heat.)

One of the aid station captains and the RD posing in front of a very important area. 
There are 25 aid stations along the course, and each year the race director, Craig Thornley, and the WSER president, John Trent, choose to visit several of them. This year they chose our aid station. With the EBASCs. They were actually a blast to have around, and seemed to have a great time. I'm pretty sure Craig actually took a turn squeezing a sponge over a runner's head.

One of the things that makes this aid station work so well is this natural spring - the water is absurdly cold and plentiful, allowing us to be very generous with cooling the runners. (The tradeoff is that it also makes this a moist place where the mosquitos thrive.)

We tried to warn the runners that the water was cold, but that didn't always help.

The Last Chance Car Wash Women - "Making you cooler than you already are!" Not an angel in the bunch, but they never hesitated to do whatever the runners requested when it came to cooling them off. 
Bongo alerting runners that it was over 100 degrees in the sun.

Each aid station is famous for something or other; in our case, it's grilled cheese sandwiches.

Pagosa Springs Colorado is my hometown. It's a tiny place that's home to Roger Jensen, who I got to cheer for the second time through the aid station. (The first time was in 2011.)

This is just not right, on SO many levels.
Adding a bit of danger to the safety patrol.
The race has a number of safety patrols that run along with the runners. Seeing Catra was a great surprise when she came in.

Everyone in the aid station was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Standard Aid Station Captains, and Lina was the first to show up. She gave us a thumbs up!

The water was VERY cold.
Very very cold.

It was awesome to see Starchy come rolling through. He was looking great (tongue and trail runner gang sign notwithstanding)!

Two other runners that came through all perky were Ken "All Day" and Mr Brazen Sam.

Sam getting the full treatment, which should have made Jasmin a bit nervous. 
Getting the salt wiped off.
Peggy was the other Standard Aid Station Captain that came through. She was looking great and confident.

That weird forehead bump is ice under his hat. This was a common request.
This's what makes this so much fun - so many of the runners were having so much fun; it was really contagious!

Eric, son of Tom, who gets the blame/credit for me being here, and John "Scofflaw Runner".
Loren getting quality time in the car wash.
Bongo is really starting to get into the flow of things.
Rachel, the youngest woman runner in the race (according to Tony), getting cooled off before getting her buckle.

Before the race, Gordy posted on his Facebook account that his stretch goal was getting to Dusty Corners, the aid station before ours. It wasn't much of a surprise though seeing him well exceed that goal and end up going all the way to Foresthill.

Gordy is such a Rock Star - he must have posed for at least a dozen pictures before heading out.

Last year, Emily, who started the race knowing she had a nagging injury, ended up dropping from the race at our aid station. This year she was determined to not stop here, and she was successful!

Our day is done when the horses come through.
And that was about it. We ended up with only one runner dropping at our aid station, and that was because he missed the cutoff. The MASH tent at times had a number of runners laying on the cots, but they all continued on.

After everything was packed up, I loaded all the drop bags into the Last Chance minivan and headed for the finish line. I REALLY wanted to get there before the winner came in - I had missed him the last two years.

Rob Krar streaking to the finish, winning the race after he finished a close second in 2013.
I made it with minutes to spare.

Second place went to Seth Swanson, who managed to bring some of the trail in with him.
This race is limited to 400 starters due to permit issues for the bit that goes through a wilderness area. Without that limit, they could probably easily find 3000 or more runners that would love to start this race. This means that there is a LOT of competition for those 400 slots, many of which are automatic entries (the top ten men and women finishers are guaranteed entry, as well as top three finishers in a variety of races that are part of the Montrail Ultra Cup).

Mortals have to enter a lottery and hope to get their name drawn. New for this year was that runners that failed to get their names picked in previous years got bonus lottery tickets, which greatly increased their chances. So a first year entrant got one lottery ticket, while someone that failed to get drawn in the previous four years got five tickets for this year.

Seth, who has the decidedly non-elite number of 359, tossed his name in the hat with a single lottery ticket. And got his name pulled. And then went on to finish second. This is so cool! (Emily, John, and Peggy also got in with one lottery ticket. Lina had two. Roger was a ticket hog and had three. I know several people that had five tickets and didn't get in. If you are keen to learn more about the lottery process, click here.)

Stephanie Howe won the women's race.
Note that Stephanie also has a non-elite number. She had two tickets in the lottery, had one picked, and then went on to win the race. Nicely done!

A fun thing was that there were a number of kids that hung out around the track, holding out their hands for high fives as the runners came in. For Stephanie, a herd of the kids paced her around the track - I loved this!

(Yes, I know it's a bit weird that a 100 mile trail race, with a number of river crossings and many stretches of technical trail, finishes by having the runners go about 300 yards around a high school track. But it is the most amazing thing to watch, and as a runner, it must be such an overwhelming feeling to hear your name and back story called out as you go around that track. I often spend most of my time where the runners enter the track.)

Jorge Maravilla is easily one of the most entertaining runners out there. As he came onto the track he suddenly started sprinting. As he went past me he yelled "I'm trying to drop my pacer!" He did - wow that was amazing to see someone going that fast after 100 miles!

(At the 62 mile point, runners are allowed to have a pacer run along with them, mostly for safety reasons since for most runners this is where night running starts. "Dropping your pacer" is when the runner goes faster than the pacer is able to keep up with. As a pacer, it's something you don't ever want to have happen, granted with 300 yards left it's not likely Jorge really still needed one.)

Pacers have yellow bibs. Ken was paced by Ann Trason, who is nearly as legendary as Gordy at this race. How cool is that to have Ann as your coach and pacer!
The next morning, Ken and team "All Day" stormed the stadium. He was definitely not Running Stupid.

Shortly after Ken came the first of the Standard Aid Station Captains, Lina. (It is not true she asked if she could do multiple laps around the track.)

Next came one of the happiest sights - Starchy being paced by Lavy! These two have quite a running history that began in 2012 at the first running of Inside Trail's Marin Ultra Challenge 50.

From a decidedly not sunny MUC in 2012.
That year, Starchy was heading down the hill to finish his 50 miler. Lavy came up behind him and decided she wanted to beat him. So they both sprinted down that hill to the finish - it was one of the most amazing efforts I've ever seen, and they've been running buddies ever since.

Webcasting video can be really intense. Especially when the pizza runs out.
The people at broadcast live from half a dozen spots along the course, capturing amazing moments and great interviews. You can see some of their work here.

I didn't get to see Roger finish in 2011, but was afraid he wouldn't have many people supporting him at the finish. HA! He came in with a huge posse - it was awesome! (Many runners, in addition to one or more pacers, will have a crew that drives to various points on the course to help with gear changes, special food [there's a great picture of Roger chowing down on a burger from a brown paper bag in Foresthill], and other things. From Robie Point, which is at about mile 98.6, the course goes on neighborhood streets and a runner is allowed to have as many pacers as they want - they can normally only have one at a time, but can swap them out at several points. Generally the crew jumps out and races down the hill with the runner - it's an awesome sight to see this large group of people explode through the gate and onto the track.)

The second of the Standard Aid Station Captains came in, paced by one of the Emergency Backup Aid Station Captains and Penny (without her award plank).

Next came Loren, still looking quite fresh (which is something a change of clothes will help with - he was in a very salty blue shirt when I last saw him).

Another fun (and thanks to Tony, loud) finish was Rachel and her posse.

And then the final runner I was following, Sam came in.

A favorite thing of mine is watching little kids pace their mom/dad/mountain man across the finish line. This was so cool!

At the end of the race, the first thing a runner does is get weighed. A runner's weight is tracked as they progress through the race, providing a clue that things might be going wrong before the runner knows it (or wants to admit it).

And that's about it.

This is a very special weekend (some refer to it as "Merry Statesmas") that I get a large charge out of from the inspirational runners. Yes, I plan to get into this race some year, but that's going to take some serious effort.

For now, I'm content to cheer and cool off runners.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures with snarky comments here and here. I also posted many more of my Last Chance pictures here and here.

PPS: Let me know if any of you would like your sign. I'll try to work out a way to get it to you.


Lia said...

I so wanted to get up to Auburn to see some finishers this year, but it didn't happen. I love what you captured, great writing and reporting as usual. I hope to be a part of Western States in some way soon... :)

notthatlucas said...

I forgot to mention that the finish line was a bit odd this year since they put fresh sod on the football field and wouldn't let any on it.

It would have been great to see you there Lia - you would love it! It's really a bit bizarre that the finish area is so open - there's even a field where you can set up a tent to take a nap in. The runners are so accessible and generally happy to talk. (You would make an awesome safety patrol runner. Or pacer.)

Lorenski said...

Great report of Statesmas from the point of view of Last Chance. And THANKS SO MUCH for all of the support. And the sign. Imagine the boost that gave me! At first I read it as, "Cat Buckled" and was like cute they know I have cats. And then I saw what it really said, which made much, much more sense. HAHA. But it was a moment I will never forget. I hope to see it again next year.

Ken Michal said...

Ah!! You were the one who made the signs at Last Chance!!! Thanks so much, Allen!! They really perked me up!!! Great to see you at WS and hope to see you on the trails soon!!

All Day!

notthatlucas said...

Out of curiosity, did you read all the signs? I worry that someone might feel bummed to not have one for them, but I'm really not up to making 400 signs. I keep waiting for someone to tell me to stop putting out those signs, but so far so good.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

A writer friend who had written for Scientific American (I think) said the reader should be able to get most of the essentialinformation mostly from the diagrams and pictures. (But I read most of your text anyway.)

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

A writer friend told me when you write for Scientific American (I think) that the reader should be able to get most of the essentialinformation from the diagrams and pictures anyway. (But I read most of your text anyway.)

notthatlucas said...

When you get in next year Mark, I'll use lots of diagrams and pictures on your sign.

mary ann said...

This was fun to read and I admire you for volunteering. I would have turned around at Mosquito Ridge Road. I did love Bongo, you knew I would. We have adult tourists who come to the museum with their stuffed animals for photo ops and I think it's quite wonderful.
The lottery is unique and admirable.
Great post, now I'll move along...