Thursday, July 4, 2013

Last Chance and a Running Mama

Last weekend was the 40th official running of the Western States Endurance Run. This is an amazing and magical weekend where nearly 400 runners head out from Squaw Valley, intending to end up in Auburn less than 30 hours later.

Four years ago, Coach Tom at San Jose Fit tried to convince us to volunteer at the Last Chance aid station, which has been run by Steven's Creek Striders for forever. I was new to all this, and wasn't entirely sure he wasn't just pulling our legs about runners going 100 miles, so I gave it little thought.

The next year I discovered trail running, learned that there really are races longer than a Marathon, and worked at a couple of aid stations. So, a year too late to be there with Coach Tom (who passed away), Coach Curt and I headed up to work at the Last Chance aid station for the 2011 version of the race.

Last Chance is an amazing aid station. It's at mile 43.3 and just before the first of the notoriously hot canyons. It's also in the middle of nowhere - forget cell reception or easy access; in fact, stretches of the rough dirt road that lead to it are part of the course, which means once you are there, you can't leave until the race is over. And you have to get there early before it closes.

The Last Chance Minivan, with 400 pounds of ice, leaves the main road.
So a lot of us show up Friday night and camp out. With the mosquitos. A LOT of mosquitos. And this year, a bear. (Apparently some miners around there have taken to feeding a bear, so there was a bit of concern that it might visit us. Thankfully, it didn't.)

We had a traditional campfire, which this year was not really needed since it was still very warm. But it's traditional, and seems to frighten the mosquitos.

Yes, I know those are stars and not snowflakes. I have no idea how to draw snowflakes.
Last year was very peculiar. We woke up Saturday morning to rain. A cold rain. Up higher, the runners faced brutally cold weather with sleet and fierce winds. That was not going to be the case this year. It was hot. Very hot. It turned out to be the second hottest running of the race ever.

One of the important areas of the aid station is lovingly called "The Car Wash," where runners get cooled off with sponges full of cold water and ice that they can liberally put anywhere that will make them feel better. (Runners are remarkably creative at finding those places.)

A guy named Dick had been the head of the Car Wash for many years, but gave it up this year. Since I happened to be standing in the wrong place at the end of last year, I ended up inheriting the buckets, sponges, and the task of supplying the bulk of the ice we need. 400 pounds of it. On top of that, the volunteers were encouraged to bring a bag or two to add to the pile - I suspect we ended up with over 600 pounds all together. (And had maybe 70 pounds left over at the end.)

I'm willing to bet that we also have the best decorated porta-potties on the course!
Curt filling a bucket. I think between the two of us and a couple of others,  these buckets got filled 40 to 50 times during the day.
One of the cool things about this site is that there is a natural spring about 100 yards from the trail. This spring supplies unlimited cold water that we use liberally at The Car Wash.

The view the runners have as they come up on Last Chance.
Pre-runner briefing. We were thanked for not getting eaten by a bear.
I'm not sure how many people were volunteering at the aid station, but there were a LOT, including medical people and the radio operators.

The runners have the option to supply a drop bag that they can use here. The bags might contain special food, fresh shoes or clothes, or anything else the runner might think that they might need at this point.

No - he does not have a bladder condition.
The runner lounges for runners that need a bit of a break before facing the canyons. These were more popular this year than any of my previous years here.

And before we knew it, the first runner arrived! Hi Hal!

Each runner is weighed as they enter the station. (Volunteers in red shirts are medical. Note the Hawaiian theme. Aloha!)

The second runner, and eventual winner, Tim came in and was met by Dennis, who did not in fact tackle him.

The first runners through generally do not need a lot of car washing. So the car wash people started causing trouble with the spray bottles.

Alison joined us at the Car Wash and turned out to be very popular with the women runners that were keen to get ice put in places that were WAY out of Curt's and my comfort zone.

Go Keith! You'll see him again in a bit.
As the runners left us, they checked out of the aid station and headed into the woods, and after a bit, down a steep trail to the heat of the first canyon.

Tawnya - a bit of ice and Kent is a changed man! You should try this at 3 AM just for fun!
The race also has a bunch of safety patrol volunteers that go along the course looking for people in trouble. They were busy this year.

 I knew five different runners in the race, and it was fun when they started showing up. Like Catra the Awesome.

One of my favorites was Janeth, AKA Running Mama, who was attempting her first WSER 100. We'll see more of her later.

A HUGE crowd favorite was Gordy, who was the very first person back in 1974 to think that this course, which was actually set up for a horse race, would be fun to run on foot. Gordy is not normal.

Dan freshening up a bit. The cold water was a bit shocking.

The cutoff time for our aid station was rapidly approaching and one of my runners had not made it in yet. And then I heard her number called out by the spotter and ran up to meet her. Don't let the smile fool you - she was in a fair amount of pain and ended up dropping at our aid station. The amazing thing was that she had been in pain for a while, and still managed to make it this far and make the cutoff!

Shortly after Emily came in, the sweeper horses arrived - our official cue to start packing up since all the runners are in. We got them some fresh water to drink.

Before Emily left, I gave her her sign. (I made signs for the runners I knew and put them along the trail as they exited our aid station. Last year's extreme weather sadly meant a number of runners didn't make it this far. This year, all my runners made it!)

Curt and I got to take the drop bags to the finish line. The coolest thing was getting to drive the Last Chance Minivan onto the football field!

We missed the first few male runners coming in, but got to see the female winner, Pam! This was SO cool!

A bit later Keith came in. Curt and I stayed at the finish line all night (although we both got a short nap) - it was just so cool to see all these runners that we had seen 56.9 miles ago coming in to finish this race.

This runner was a blast when he came through our aid station many hours ago. I meant to ask if he had worn that umbrella hat all night long too.
Eventually the night was over but the runners kept coming. They started at 5 AM on Saturday. The end of the race is at 11 AM. The closer we got to 11, the more fidgeting and tension you could feel.

There was still one runner I was waiting for - Janeth. I had been tracking her progress all night and was thrilled that she was going to make it. Ken "All Day" couldn't take it anymore and headed back up the course to find her and help run her in.

Meanwhile, a group of us, including her husband and a shirt-challenged son, were waiting here.

Janeth is the one in blue. She was pumped up and running faster than I do at the start of a 5K.
There was zero chance of her being lonely on her way in - she had a huge crew coming in with her and it was so exciting to see her enter the stadium.

Janeth was joined by her husband and sons.
The family coming down the home stretch.
Done! With over an hour to spare!
I loved this finish. It still chokes me up a bit when I look at these pictures. Amazing!

And that was it. Curt and I packed up and headed home, tired but smiling. This is a magical event and I love being involved with it, and I love that the Last Chance people keep letting me come back.

One of the things that strikes me at these events is how normal all these runners are. Even the elites (the winner finished in a bit over 15 hours - the heat actually made this a bit of a slow race, compared to last year when many records were set) come across as normal people that you wouldn't think twice about if you saw them on the sidewalk. I love that it's not out of the question that I could one day run this race.

That day is still a ways away though.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.


Thorlos SM said...

Hey, this is Jen at Thorlo. These photos are great -- especially the "Think Snow" one! Thanks for sharing, and email me sometime at to let us know how your future trail runs go!

mary ann said...

Notthat, this really is a fascinating report. Well done! I could feel the heat and I think it's great that you helped at the Car Wash. Wowza and congrats to all. Love this...