In 2013, my sister qualified for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. She had one ticket in the lottery, so she was surprised when her number was drawn to participate. We had recently watched a film about the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Ian, from Ithaca’s Finger Lakes Running and Triathlon Company, showed the film in Ithaca, NY. A once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself to us: go support her for her first 100 mile race!! After lining up our parents and our good friend to watch the kids, Scott and I hopped onto a plane to San Francisco, and planned to drive down to meet Sarah and her crew in Squaw Valley for this epic event.
Our flight was a comedy of errors. Early in the day on Thursday, my parents brought us to Syracuse for our first leg, where we discovered AFTER eating a meal that we were delayed for 2 hours. When we arrived at JFK, we discovered we’d missed our connecting flight to San Francisco. We rebooked and finally departed around 8 p.m., inbound for a 2 a.m. arrival. Victory!! We knew we’d be driving overnight to arrive at my sister’s weekend rental, but we were going to make it. But, when we landed … and our bags did NOT. It was now 2 a.m. Friday and we had a 3-hour drive ahead of us. We were hungry, tired, and for some odd reason, dressed in nice travel clothing. We hadn’t carried our toiletries onto the plane, nor had we worn proper footwear or clothing for the race in case our luggage didn’t arrive. After many phone calls, the baggage crew finally told us we had to wait for the next (and last) flight to come in. As we were waiting, we saw a small bakery box sitting on the counter. I asked the baggage carriers what that box was? They said a gentleman on our flight just left it. We had seen that little bakery box with a gentleman in Syracuse, and now that it was here without its owner we wondered what was inside. We all eagerly opened it and saw delicious half moon cookies. The staff saw just how hungry we were and offered the box to us! We gratefully took it. Little did we know, these little sugary treats would be our breakfast on our long car ride later that morning. It was almost 5 a.m. and we were on our way to Squaw Valley.
The scenery was AMAZING as we pulled into Squaw, happy to be there but exhausted. Desperate for sleep, we opted against going to bed knowing that we’d miss all the pre-race festivities and really mess up our internal clocks. We got settled into the rental and headed off for a lovely hike at Squaw Valley. We hiked to the top of the mountain, enjoyed a delicious lunch back at the base and did some window shopping. Later that day, we gathered groceries for the weekend and met Sarah’s crew for the race. It was time. This was her weekend, and we were there to be a part of it! We went through the maps, learning the access points for crew. We weren’t officially listed as crew, but were unofficially there to help her. This was our first experience with ultra running, and while we’d been hearing about Sarah’s races for awhile, we didn’t really know what to expect.
The Big Event
The night before the race, we gathered at a welcome reception for athletes. We bought Western States shirts out of desire and necessity. Living on the East Coast, I look at a forecast calling for 100 degrees and don’t think about needing sweatshirts. So, on the last weekend in June, we bought long-sleeved WS gear. After an eclectic dinner, we all fell into bed around 10 p.m. Wake-up at 4 a.m. arrived quickly, and before we knew it we were wishing her luck at the start. It wasn’t long and they were off. Headlamps bouncing into the darkness straight up the Squaw Valley ski resort. It was incredible to watch these brave, well-trained souls as they ventured off for this 100-mile journey. Our first access point to see Sarah was at mile 30. We had time to pack up the rental and then drive through lovely terrain before meeting her crew for the first time. Sarah went through several check points that crew couldn’t access before this 30-mile spot. We met her at Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) but were able to access updates about how she was doing prior to that. She was running strong, ahead of her mid-predicted times.
We arrived at Robinson Flat, got settled, and enjoyed watching the front runners come through. We waited to see Sarah and made a plan for how to care for her needs. Soon she arrived, and we knew right away that the heat from the Canyons had really affected her. Her stomach was hurting, she was worried and scared and sad. She had 70 miles to go. I hung back and let her crew tend to her. They knew the right combination of tough love and compassion, and how to speak with her to really assess how her body was holding up. Before Scott and I knew it, we were watching her head back into the woods. The next time we’d see her would be at Michigan Bluff (mile 55). It would be dusk, and hopefully that would bring some relief from the relentless heat.
Scott and I enjoyed a full afternoon of hiking after stopping in at Forest Hill to watch the frontrunners. Of course, we didn’t yet know we’d be pulling our 2nd mostly all-nighter and embarking on a 2 a.m. headlamp hike the next morning. After hiking, we headed to Michigan Bluff. It was a lovely walk down to the area where we would wait for her to emerge. Our updates showed that she was slowing down, meaning she’d be eligible to pick up her pacer here, instead of having to wait until mile 62 at Forest Hill. This was both good and bad. I meant she wasn’t hitting the times she had hoped for, but she’d have the support from her pacer Desiree as she entered into the first hints of darkness. She came through and her stomach was still unsettled, but her morale was up from when we’d seen her last. We fed her and gave her motivation, and Adam walked with her as they headed out. It would only be 7 more miles until we next saw her. Little did we know that those 7 miles would be some of the roughest on the course for Sarah.
Sarah hadn’t been able to eat much at Michigan Bluff, and somehow we had let her leave without any food on her person. Desiree had food, but according to the rules of the event, she was not allowed to assist Sarah in any way. Sarah needed something, and it killed Desiree not to be able to help her. Luckily, Sarah found something in her pocket that turned out to be just enough to keep her going. They arrived at Forest Hill in total darkness. This aid station was so exciting! They had music, a Dr. Seuss theme and it was on the town’s main street. We were ready for Sarah when she came, knowing it was very critical to get good food into her system before she hit the river crossing. The next time we’d see her would be mile 78, just after she crossed the waist-high river.
Scott and I were really hungry by this point. It was a bit after 10 p.m. and we suddenly realized we must have food! We had missed our opportunity to buy anything local as all the restaurants had just closed. So we drove to Auburn where our choices included Taco Bell or Denny’s. At 11 p.m., we settled on omelets at Denny’s, enjoying the chance to sit and relax before heading to the Rucky Chucky Far Aid Station. We drove there and got settled into a parking spot on the side of the road around 12:30 a.m. Truly exhausted, we reclined the seats and set our alarm for 2 a.m. We were zonked in less than 30 seconds! Soon enough it was time to begin the 4-mile trek down to the river. We wandered down alone as Sarah’s crew was in a separate vehicle. It was surreal, walking with our headlamps. The temperature was brisk, and I was grateful for our Western States apparel to keep us warm!! We arrived at the river and got comfortably settled on rocks. This was one of the most interesting times of the entire event; watching the personalities of the participants as they emerged from the river. We cheered for each person, and their reactions were so very different.
One man replied to “you look great!” with “NO I DO NOT! I am awful!” as he trudged up to the aid station. The woman following him came out of the water with a huge smile in her fun-colored outfit and ponytails as though she’d just run a 5K saying “this is AWESOME!” Sarah finally emerged. We were getting very worried. She was starting to get close to the 30-hour cut off times. She had come SO far. She came out emotionally beaten up. This was the time that I was able to be most helpful to her.
I am her sister. I realized as we were walking up the hill that even though I am not an ultra runner, I know her as well as any of her crew members. I talked to her all the way up the hill, and just really tried to connect with her and encourage her to go the distance. I knew that these next 15 miles would make or break her race. She had to get through until morning and if she was ahead of cut off times when we saw her at Highway 49 she would make it! Her fiancee Adam asked her if she’d smile if he wore a skirt when he took over pacing from Desiree for the last 10 miles. She gave a weak smile and we knew we’d see Adam don his skirt!
We grabbed another hour of sleep before heading to Highway 49. This stop requires you to take a shuttle, so we got ourselves settled and onto the shuttle. This time we were with her crew and we all gathered together at the Aid Station. Adam was in his skirt, ready to take Sarah to the finish when she came through. We didn’t have to wait long. She had gained speed and came in very strong! They had pancakes at the Aid Station (Sarah’s favorite). She snagged some pancakes and pretty soon the happy couple was heading into the beautiful morning sun.
We were down to the last 7 miles. We went to the end of the course and walked to a neighborhood. This neighborhood always has a great block party to cheer on the participants. It was impossible not to be excited while cheering with all these supportive neighbors. Soon, Sarah and Adam came up the hill and we all joined in to run with them for the last couple of miles. As we got close to the finish, Janet, one of Sarah’s crew, dropped her phone. The case shattered on the pavement. Scott and stopped to help at the same moment that Sarah started racing. Janet shouted “Go!! You are going to miss her! I can pick this up.” Suddenly I realized that I was going to have to sprint to catch her. She had caught her final wind and we were far behind. My parents had asked that we get a video of her crossing the finish, so we HAD to catch her. I told Scott to go and I tried my best to catch up. As she rounded the corner onto the track, just 100 yards from the finish I finally caught up. Scott got a video for my parents, and Sarah had finished. She did it. She came in under 30 hours. Her first 100-mile event and we were there for the entire thing!
When asked if either of us would ever run a 100-mile trail run, both Scott and I say “we’d never rule anything out!” but I was thinking “I’m a road runner.” I also know that I tend to like a lot of the same things Sarah likes. Scott was very inspired and immediately started thinking about doing a 50K for his next big event. Later this year after two marathons, I put my name in for the New York City Marathon with Scott. Scott’s number was chosen and mine was not. I moped around for about a week and then decided I needed a goal. I didn’t have another fall marathon that I was really psyched to do, so I began to look at ultras. After talking with a few people, I chose Green Lakes Endurance Run, a 50K in August. I was excited! I had a plan. Now, halfway through a 16-week training plan, I am feeling excited. I have even more respect for the trail than I did when I wasn’t running trails. In fact, just last night after a particularly challenging 14-mile run on part of the Cayuga 50s course, I called Sarah and said “I don’t know how you did Western States! I am so impressed!” Ironically, when I called, Sarah and Adam were en-route to Western States. This year she’s there writing for irunfar.com. She will get to enjoy the excitement as a spectator. I am happy for her! And I’m proud to have been able to support her and be inspired by this epic event.