At 5am, the runners were off with their headlamps glaring. No air horn, no starting pistol. Just the race director yelling "Get out of here!" when it was time. We watched the 156 or so runners turn the corner on the road towards the mountainous trails of the Shenandoah Valley.
The plan was for me to help crew James until it was time to pace him. I joined his father, John, stepmother, Marsha, his wife, Sarah, and his daughter, Ava for this task. All great folks and a lot of fun to hang out with while waiting for James to come in to an aid station, get him what he needs, and get him back on the trails quickly. Repeat.
James was looking very strong coming into each station, smiling at each one and in great spirits and looking very strong. He was, however, also very focused. He was passing more and more people. He didn't show signs of getting tired until the aid station at mile 48, but so did every runner we saw. Nothing out of the ordinary and he was going strong and still positive.
This aid station at mile 48 was also the same aid station at mile 58.2, somewhat unique in that they ran a rugged 10.2 mile out and back from here, meaning crews can just stay put for a while until they come back. I got in a nap here while waiting, as after he left this station for the second time, it'd be time to pace him at the next one.
James would be coming through the aid station at 64.9 mile aid station at any moment now. I had all my stuff together to pace him from here to the finish and was ready to go. A runner who had come in about 15 minutes or so ahead of him and was actually looking pretty good decided to drop. He told his would-be pacer that his heart was no longer in it. I had hoped his pacer and crew would have done more to talk him out of it. No such luck. I don't know the full story obviously, but it sounded like the guy was just at a really low point. I hope he isn't later regretting his decision.
Soon after, James came into the aid station a few minutes after 7pm looking great. With that one runner dropping, he was now in eighth place when we headed out and the runners were spread out pretty well overall, increasing the chance that his position wouldn't move much. Given James' energy level, it seemed a top ten finish was very likely, but of course anything can happen with over 35 miles to go in the race (course is actually 101.8 miles) with some of the hardest sections yet to come and to be done at night.
We were off, and made the infamous climb up Short Hill. Fortunately for us, the climb was still done under plenty of light while the sun was starting to set. My friend Sue has run (and was first woman for) this race a few times, and she told us this particular climb and the subsequent traverse is tougher in the dark, so we were happy to at least get the climb in the daylight. I was amazed at how quickly James was able to push up the mountain and also hold a fluent conversation as if we were merely sitting down and enjoying a cup of coffee back home.
As we traversed the ridge, nightfall had descended. We had views of the lights from the towns below along either direction. The ridge traverse was several miles long and we wouldn't reach the next aid station until miles 75.9.
We waited to hear the infamous whip-poor-wills that inhabit the area in great numbers. We saw them before we were heard them. We saw a few sitting right smack dab in the middle of the trail. One scared the crap out of me, taking off only when we were a dozen feet away. It's eyes glowed red from the light of my headlamp, making it look like a little winged demon as it took off.
Along the ridge, we caught up with the first woman, Amy Sproston. We exchanged friendly hellos and slowly passed her. Worth noting that I chit-chatted with her a few times after the race. Very nice and down to earth person, and very deserving of her first place finish.
Shortly after this, James began to have a bit of a low point. What I was impressed with was that it didn't really slow him down much. He still moved at a good lick over the rocky terrain. You could only really tell in his voice that he was at a low point. I did my best to feed him positive energy and told him he still looked great and was still moving pretty fast. In my limited experience, I get the impression that this is said often and not meant in ultras. It's the right thing to do. In this case, however, it really was true.
We approached the Edinburg Gap aid station at mile 75.9. James had expressed before that he was hungry and wanted to sit down for a few minutes and eat. The fact that he was hungry this late in the race was a good sign. It meant his digestive system was still working well, and hopefully would quickly convert the fuel to energy. We trucked in and James sat down and had some soup. Three minutes later, Amy flew in and left the aid station while we were still there. I thought that I'd give James another few minutes before urging him to get going. I didn't need to. He was ready to go and we were off. Our time spent here was less than expected.
Whip-Poor-Wills of Death
We began a more gradual ascent up the next ridge. James was starting to feel better and it showed in his voice and in his pace. We made it up the ridge with no problem and began another traverse. It was a little after midnight and we began to hear our first of many whip-poor-wills. This would go non-stop until the next aid station. I've heard others who have done this race before describe it as maddening, like a form of Chinese water torture. We enjoyed it though.
We caught up with Amy and passed her again, once again exchanging greetings. We mused that she had first woman in the bag, which was awesome.
James continued to look strong and was moving great. In the distance, we saw the sky illuminated with flashes of lightning, but never heard the thunder. We did feel the rain though. And the wind. Man, did it blow hard. Fortunately it passed through quickly. Never getting soaked, we dried off quickly. Eventually we were descending and came to the Woodstock Tower aid station at mile 84.1.
The next aid station would be Powell's Fort at mile 89.3. The section leading up to that didn't feature any huge climbs, but lots of rocks. James wanted to hold seventh place, so we focused on keeping up as best of a pace as possible to avoid anyone passing us.
There was a sharp descent before reaching Powell's Fort though. I remember being in awe of James as he flew down this rocky, technical section. He is one of the fastest I've seen on sections like this. I seriously had trouble keeping up with him. Amazing, especially at this late stage in the race.
The Field Mouse is Fast, but the Owl Sees at Night
As friendly as everyone was at this aid station (and all of them for that matter), we just refilled our water bottles and wasted no time getting the heck out of there. The next few miles were actually on dirt roads, which were very rare on this course.
About ten minutes after leaving the aid station, we could hear the volunteers there cheering loudly. Obviously another runner was coming through and not far behind. We kept up the pace and the long dirt roads allowed us to see far behind and in front of us at times. We vowed to turn off our headlamps whenever turning around to see if we could see the runner behind us. We didn't want to let him/her know we were on the lookout. We never did see anyone though. At least not yet.
Five Miles to Go
Another quick in and out of the final aid station at Elizabeth Furnace, and we were off on the final climb, which would lead to a final downhill to the finish. We powered up switchbacks of the final mountain and were a good way up until I noticed something. I looked down and could see the headlamps of another runner and his pacer! Crap! They were still several minutes behind us, but we had to pick it up. James immediately suggested we shut our headlamps off, hoping they hadn't seen us yet and we didn't want them to know they were close to us. We did that, as the morning light was just enough to move along safely.
We crested the top and soon discovered the trail down was a huge treat... it had hardly any rocks or roots! As a result, we flew down. We really booked it hardcore. Once again, I had trouble keeping up with James. Jeez, the guy is 97 miles into a race and still flyin'!
We joined the road which was a good sign, as it meant we were close to the finish. A short path back into the woods brought us to the open field we would traverse to the finish line, visible in the distance. Nice! We ran into the finish, James earning his seventh place finish in 25:23:50.
I can't say enough nice things about James. A huge thanks to James for allowing me the honor to pace for him. A huge thanks to his family for allowing me to stay with them at the chalet they rented at the race start and finish and feeding me as well. It was a real thrill to help someone get a top 10 finish, especially on a course as hard as this one. It's a great thing to happen to a great guy like James. I am really, really stoked for him.
On a selfish note, the benefits were numerous for me as well. Not only did I have a blast, but I got in a great training run, close to 37 miles at night in some pretty rugged mountains. It was a great preview of a course that I hope to run myself next year. I was also able to pick the brains of many who had run the Western States 100 before and got some valuable insight as a result.
Placing: 7th out of 156 starters (55 runners DNF'd).
Overall time: 25:23:30
Distance: 101.8 miles
Elevation: 19,200' gain, 19,200' loss.
Overall pace: 14:58/mile
Ran 36.9 miles @ 18:09/mile pace.
AHR/MHR - N/A
Rugged trails, some dirt roads.
Mid 60s to lower 50s, some rain, some clear skies.
Shorts, short sleeved shirt, Moeben sleeves.
James (red shirt) early on in the race (photo courtesy of Anstr Davidson):