How Western States Was Won
Before us lay 100 miles of rock-strewn trail that snaked its way over the imposing Sierra Nevada Mountains. Once a route for gold prospectors and pony express riders, it is now a highway to athletic achievement and a measure of individual toughness.
There was great relief when the gun sounded, announcing the start of the 1984 Western States Endurance Run. Almost 400 runners scrambled up the Olympic ski slope at Squaw Valley. There was a lot of nervous anticipation and pre-race speculation accompanying the race this year. All the experts had already finished the race in their minds, with Jim Howard, myself (if I could keep from getting lost), or perhaps a newcomer finishing on top. I was relieved to be leaving the guesswork behind and return to the reality of running 100 miles on the Western States trail.
If it was not for the first four and half miles, which climb from 6,200 feet to 8,700 feet, I think we might see some sub-five minute miles. For me the start is a literal sprint, with high knee lift to avoid the scattered rocks in the first 50 yards. Fortunately the barrage of photo flashes keep the ground lit well enough until the course steepens and the pace reduces significantly
I have always enjoyed the section of trail up to Emigrant Pass because I felt I was the best at it. That was before I met Skip Hamilton. Skip is from that sportsman’s paradise—Aspen, Colorado, and first gained my attention and respect with his overwhelming win at the Leadville 100 in 1983. Skip is a good-natured mountain runner with an eye for beautiful scenery. He befriended me two weeks before the race when we trained together on the trail.
From the start I was in the lead and out at a fast clip. The dark early morning sky quickly brightened as I pumped my way effortlessly up the trail. After about a mile and a half I was a little surprised to hear a familiar breathing pattern approaching from behind. Out loud I said, “I bet it’s Skip,” as I turned around to see the familiar 39-year-old climber. Content to run together, we ascended at an unprecedented rate. Halfway up the mountain the route jumps off the jeep road and onto a narrow steep trail that cuts its way through a sea of manzanita. With Skip on my heels, we pushed up the mountain to the top where spectators were hiking along the trail. In the last half-mile the trail becomes particularly steep, but we kept the intensity up, even over the snow field below the summit. Behind us lay expansive Lake Tahoe framed by distant mountains; before us lay an endless series of forested ridges and rugged deep canyons.
Our time to Emigrant Pass (4.5 miles) was 38 minutes. In 1982, I was the first to the top, taking 44 minutes. Last year I was timed in 42 minutes. This year, when I glanced at my watch and saw our time, I turned to Skip in amazement and gasped, “We should slow down!”
We paused at the top to drink some fluids and rethink our pace before jumping off into the silent wilderness. A short way along the trail Skip sighted the silhouette of a runner coming across the ridge behind us. It was 44 minutes after the start. We took the runner to be Barney Klecker, but at that point we decided to forget about the runners behind us and just help each other run as efficiently and effortlessly as possible.
The trail from Emigrant Pass to Hodgson’s Cabin is difficult to negotiate as it follows the side of the mountain, weaving through trees and streams. This was the first time in several years that the trail was fully visible and not hidden by snow. Aided by a generous number of yellow ribbons, we made all the appropriate bobs and weaves to arrive at Hodgson’s Cabin well ahead of schedule. I left the aid station there slightly ahead of Skip, but he soon caught up. Thus began a series of efforts by us to satisfy our individual pit stop needs yet still run together. One of us would lag behind at an aid station, but the other would run a little easier allowing the laggard to catch up. We felt the companionship and encouragement was well worth any time we may have sacrificed.
Because of the absence of snow, the ridge trail leading to Cougar Rock and the Red Star Ridge was extremely rocky. The additional downhill jarring in those early miles may be more taxing than in a heavy snowfall year. Both Skip and I seemed to be much stronger than we had been in training runs earlier. We reached Red Star Ridge, the 17-mile mark, at 7:27, almost two and half-hours after starting.
This ridge divides into three ridges; it is where I became lost in 1983 and approximately where Barney Klecker is said to have become disoriented and dropped out this year. This year I made no mistakes and stayed on the trail, which was marked better than in previous years. Skip and I stopped momentarily to fill our stomachs and bottles with our favorite drink. The nine miles from Red Star to Duncan Canyon has no water, so we wanted to be prepared
There are many beautiful vistas from the ridge top, and the views compete with the hazardous trail for the runner’s attention. At around 20 miles I was not concentrating enough on foot placement, and my foot caught a root bringing my knee crashing down on a large rock. Feeling faint and staggering, I thought that this year’s race had come to an end. At first I could only limp but eventually I reclaimed my stride. Skip reassured me. “Well, maybe this is a blessing in disguise.”
We had been running at a torrid pace over the rugged terrain and this was just the excuse we needed to slow down. It is so easy to run to one’s limits while the pace slowly eats into one’s reserves. This might not become apparent until 70 or 80 miles into the race. My knee soon recovered and I was hardly aware of any pain
Pulling into Duncan Canyon (26 miles in 3 hours, 38 minutes) I was very pleased to have a quarter of the race behind me and to be feeling so well. It was hard for me to calculate what my expected time at this aid station should be, but I knew 8:38 a.m. was a great time. After Duncan the trail is a little smoother, which was a real relief. I was carefully monitoring my left achilles tendon, which had experienced sharp pains four days before This section of trail is well wooded with several streams to cross and hills to climb, but all of this was a minor inconvenience compared to the long steep climb at 29 miles. I felt surprisingly strong up the hill that climbs a couple of miles and then flattens out in a beautiful meadow before climbing some more. It was easy to endure the long uphill knowing that the first major aid station¾in my mind, a real milestone was just ahead.
Skip and I came in to Robinson Flat (32 miles, 4:37) together. After a quick weigh-in I plopped in a chair and received aid from my crew. This year I changed my diet and consumed mostly liquids. My main drink was a glucose polymer mixture called MAX. At major aid stations, I also used a homemade shake that included juice, strawberries, bananas, protein powder, yogurt, granola, and electrolyte powder. This system kept me well hydrated and allowed me to absorb nutrients as quickly as possible.
The rocky trail that descends from Robinson Flats was uncomfortable for my achilles so I adjusted my foot strike slightly, landing on my heel. At Deep Canyon, Skip and I made real effort to slow down on the gravel road. We both wanted to be fresh when we attacked the hills leading to Devil’s Thumb and Michigan Bluff. The heat was quite noticeable now, and would become a large factor in the race.
At Deep Canyon II I switched to a more stable but heavier pair of shoes, to reduce the strain on my Achilles. Then, after drinking fluid and dousing myself with water, I continued happily along the relatively flat dirt road to Last Chance. My curly hair and chest-clinging bandanna were dripping wet; this was an essential element in cooling my body and allowing me to run at my best. Others wear hats and light-colored clothing, but this system works best for me.
Skip left Deep Canyon II a little after I did, and he did not catch up until Last Chance at 46 miles. At the shaded gardens of Last Chance I was greeted by two pre-teens, undoubtedly future ultramarathoners. One had a “Jim King Fan Club” T-shirt on, while the other wore a “Cowman Fan Club” shirt. I knew I was in good company. They enthusiastically escorted me to the medical personnel for a weigh-in. I lingered at this stop in the hope that Skip would pull out with me, but he remained when I set out on the descent to Deadwood Canyon.
There had been a bad mud slide on the descent to Deadwood and much of the trail had been destroyed. Fortunately, forest service crews had worked hard to provide a new, smooth, debris-free trail. Still, the trail is steep and my quads were really getting sore. I think I may have been overcompensating for my left knee and achilles because my right quad was unusually sore, especially for that early in the race. This concerned me quite a bit, as I did not know how it would feel after another 40 or 50 miles. I decided to make as much time as I could since I feared being reduced to a shuffle by the end.
At the bottom of Deadwood, it was really hot so I soaked myself at a stream pouring off the rocky canyon wall. Then came Devil’s Thumb, known as one of the great cripplers of youth. It rises 2,700 feet in two miles, making for a 25 percent grade. In 1982 I was told that no one could run this section, but fortunately I did not listen. I always like trying to get through it as quickly as possible. This year I ran well although my shoes were heavy and soaked with water. I must confess it felt much better on the downhill. My time at the top of Devil’s Thumb, after 51 miles, was 7:23.
The best thing about Devil’s Thumb was being on top. There I enjoyed one of my longest aid stops (a couple of minutes). My crew was particularly responsive to my needs and I left refreshed and encouraged. Skip came in about 15 minutes later, and he stayed 15 minutes behind until Michigan Bluff.
The trail to Eldorado Canyon is a long descent of more than five miles. The further down you run the hotter it gets. One of the highlights of the narrow trail is a small stream that trickles across the trail about halfway down, just when refreshment becomes a necessity. My downhill stride was not as fluid or as fast as in training runs, and I had to be careful not to trip on the rocky trail. Lush El Dorado Canyon is the site of historic mining exploits and Chinese camps, but the 104-degree temperature really detracted from the sightseeing. El Dorado to Michigan Bluff is the last of the big climbs, a hot constant grind to the top, broken only by one cool stream one mile from the bluff. Some people are impressed that I run up these hills (others are depressed), but the truth is that I don’t want to be in those canyons any longer than I have to.
Michigan Bluff (60 miles) is the biggest aid station on the course and the first real sign of civilization. Cheering spectators crowd the rural outpost as I was led to the scales. My weight was perfect, and my crew began attending to my needs. Together they washed, fed, watered, massaged, encouraged, and read Bible verses to me; then they pointed me on my way. What a crew!
Out Of Michigan Bluff, it was hot and dusty with little shade. After a gentle uphill, the yellow ribbons sent me plunging down a rocky, twisting trail towards Volcano Canyon. My quads took a lot of punishment on this stretch. Every step sent tight contractions to already sore thigh. Surviving this, I filled my water bottle at the bottom before ascending the delightful uphill to Bath Road.
I received a horse and rider escort up Bath Road (and marathoners complain about motorcycle fumes). Nonetheless, it was nice to be on the roads where I could receive continuing aid from my handlers and not contend with rattling downhills. Soon I headed down the pleasant roadside towards the small lumber town of Foresthill. As I passed camera crews, spectators, and friends, they all commented on how great I looked. More than the coveted award of a cougar sculpture, I probably deserved an Oscar because inside I felt terrible. Although I was able to maintain a good pace, my burning quads registered their continual complaint.
Between Foresthill and White Oak Flat, the course alternates between flat trail and gently rolling country roads in a rural community called Todd Valley. Just before White Oak I heard my first report on Jim Howard’s position: he was 20 to 25 minutes behind. Position reports at Western States are as accurate as weather reports—not very. I kept pushing ahead, keeping in mind how he closed the 30-minute lead I had last year. I reached White Oak. Last year I made the mistake of leaving White Oak without adequate fluids and then running hard with my fresh pacer. This eventually led to a very dehydrated and depleted Jim King sitting for 16 minutes at an aid station with 14 miles to go. So this year I left White Oak well hydrated and ran conservatively for the next five miles. My pacer, Mike Calvano, a wild and crazy marathoner from Huntington Beach, was loaded like a pack mule preparing to cross Death Valley. Mike was eager to go and monitored me closely as we set out for the final marathon. The grade down to the Rucky Chucky River crossing was not as painful as I had anticipated. My quads were holding up, but I still had more than 20 miles to go.
In previous years there has been a boat to carry the runners across the river. This year simply a rope stretched across sufficed. Unfortunately the dam upstream had not restricted its flow quite early enough and when I came across it was still a rushing current. Brave volunteers manned the rope as I pulled my way across, fighting hard against the current. The one consolation was that the cool river was really refreshing.
From the river there is a long shadeless climb of about one and a half miles, which I ran strongly. Then the trail curves up, down, and around, paralleling the American River below. This section of trail seemed to drag on and on. When boredom threatened to overtake us, Mike or I would break out with a chorus of a corny song about monkeys having no tails in Zambuanga. Finally we arrived at Auburn Lake Trails. The aid station volunteers must have just arrived as well because the drinks, which were packed in ice, were still warm. I proudly weighed in a mere three pounds down (compared with six pounds last year), but I still knew enough to guzzle a lot before moving on.
Departing from the aid station, we were greeted by the steepest downhill of the course. I shuffled as best I could, trying not to aggravate my inflamed thighs. I have never cried during a run, but I almost did then. The pain was so intense I began to doubt if I could endure any more. Sharp pains would pierce my leg and it seemed that at any time my right quad would seize up. At that moment I thought of Jesus Christ on the cross and the pain that he endured. This made my pain seem rather trivial. ‘”For our light affliction which is but for a moment works for us far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
Eventually the trail bottomed out at the sandy edge of the river. At this point we were looking forward to the Highway 49 crossing where my crew anxiously waited. A long gradual climb led us there in good time.
My crew was excited, as were we there with just seven miles to go. After a quick refueling, Mike and I set out. Not knowing where my competition was, we were not taking any chances. Fresh in my mind was last year, a race in which Jim Howard was not far behind and finally overtook me with less than a mile to go. For all I knew he was lurking in the bushes ready to pop out at any time. With Mike’s assurance I mustered all the courage I could for the last long downhill that leads to No Hands Bridge. With the temperature beginning to drop, the gradual winding trail can be run very fast, but I was limited to a stiff-legged gait, which I pushed as much as possible. Mike and I began our rejoicing as we crossed spectator-lined No Hands Bridge. We had just heard a report that no other runner had yet reached the Highway 49 crossing. The final four miles were, fortunately, uphill. Adding to our joy was that we knew that the finish would be reached in well under 15 hours, something I was told was impossible.
Leaving the wilderness behind we stepped onto the pavement at Robie Point. With a mile and a half to go, it was more of a parade than a race. The streets of Auburn were not as crowded as in previous years so Mike and I wondered if anyone would be at the stadium for the finish. This was the first time anyone finished in daylight and apparently it was not expected. Nonetheless, Placer High School Stadium erupted when I stepped on the track in front of hundreds of Western States fans.
I could not help but smile, for this was the end of a very long journey. Not just 100 miles, but three years of effort, prayer, and planning. I crossed the finish line with a leap, letting out my exuberance.
After weighing in, exchanging hugs, and answering reporter’s questions, I called for my crew and we ran a victory lap—around the track, not back to Squaw Valley.
It was a time of rejoicing. My time of 14:54:19 broke the old record of 16:02 set by Jim Howard and Doug Latimer in 1981. Twice before the record had eluded me: in ’82, my rookie year, I won with a 16:17, and in ’83 Howard and I closed with a 16:07 and 16:08 respectively. Last year I was satisfied with my effort; this year I was satisfied with my time.
I was also pleased to have won against valiant competition. Skip had run strongly with me to break all records in the first half of the race before he fell victim to the scorching heat and dropped out at Foresthill. Bruce Labelle and Howard, running near each other, had pushed hard to catch me. Labelle finished in 15:47, the second fastest time ever, while Howard dropped out with 13 miles left, suffering from exhaustion and breathing difficulties. Perennial high finisher Rae Clark finished third with a fine time of 17:11. Always tough Doug Latimer popped 17:28 to steal fourth position, his sixth buckle, and masters honors.I do not believe that winning Western States necessarily qualifies me as the toughest runner in the world. Certainly one has to consider T. J. Key, who fell victim to a rattlesnake bite six weeks before the race. Before the race a swollen and throbbing leg kept T. J. bed-ridden. However, to everyone’s amazement T. J. ran and finished the 1984 Western States Endurance Run!