Written by Tremayne Dill-Cowdry - https://dill-runs.blogspot.com
After Western States 2017 I still felt incomplete. Yes I'd finished, yes I got a buckle but it wasn't the race I had wanted. I had reached Foresthill and completely shut down. This has happened twice now. Once at the Barcelona 24hr track race and at Western States 2017. It is a very strange situation, you are not injured, nutrition is good, well trained yet you can't run. This has played on my mind since WS I have analysed every aspect of that race trying to work out what it was. The conclusion was it was culmination of two key things, altitude and heat. I pushed too hard too soon and the lack of oxygen completely stripped my body of energy. I followed that by hitting the canyons heat and powered on regardless. My body was completely broken come Foresthill and although my brain was still focused on finishing sub 24 my sub conscious was stopping me running. My sub conscious was preventing any more damage to my body by stopping me running. I firmly believe this to be the case and had another very experienced runner concur. This wouldn't happen again bring on Western States 2019.
I felt I needed to go back. My dream in limbo. That elusive silver buckle still in Auburn. There is no way I could leave it. I thought I'd just throw my name in the hat with a 5 year plan to get back in. So year 2 and 2 tickets in the hat and for the first time in many years I didn't watch the draw. Then a message pops up on my phone from Jim Kepfer in Auburn. Gordy just pulled your name!! Shit I was in!!! I took me all of 10 seconds to decide I was going to go and within a few hours my flight was booked, hotel booked and messenger group set up with the fellow Brit runners.
I trained hard for this and under the guidance of Kim Collison got myself in to super shape. I cleared the diary of races and decided to concentrate on learning the Bob Graham route in the lakes. The mountain running and weekly leg session in the gym prepared my legs for what was to come. I planned every step of the race, my nutrition, clothes, strategy, everything ! I was ready.
The build up during race week was fun but I remained focused. I was here to race, I was here for my silver buckle! The only thing that broke my concentration was meeting my running hero Scott Jurek. Total legend and left me speechless. I had so much to say to him, so many questions about his multiple WS wins, Spartathlon wins, Badwater wins, Hardrock win, he's even done a Bob Graham!. So much to say but my tongue tied in a knot and nothing come out apart from "Can you sign my hat".
Shit FFS you meet a running legend and that's what pops out. Funny really.
Race morning arrived and all the Brits congregated to chat but I was zoned in on the race, working all the bits through in my mind. I had to wish everyone good luck and go do my own thing. I stood in the start area and soaked it in. This is it this is my moment. I completely focused on not going off too fast. If I flew up that mountain with my heart rate through the roof and panting like a over heating pug I would have just mimicked 2017. I really didn't want to do that this was key to my race plan. Just concentrate.
|Lets do this|
The gun boomed and we were off. I ran for about 50 metres before settling into a hike. I had an hour and twenty in my mind to reach the Escarpment. I hiked hard and held back from any running. The urge was there but I knew It was not in the plan. I'd been training to heart rate and was aware spikes in my heart rate were not what I needed. I controlled my breathing and worked hard enough not to lose too many positions. As we strode on I was passed by several Brits. Matt Brand, Keith James, Annabelle Stearns and Ammon Piepgrass all passed me. It was so tough not to get my racing head on.
I reached the top in just over an hour. I was a bit fast but more importantly I hadn't overly exerted myself. It was freezing at the top! I'd decided at the last minute to wear a long sleeve over my pack and I needed it. I also had a spare pair of socks as gloves. Good job too because my hands were numb.
|The high country|
I started running once over the top and kept it to a steady jog. My timings were simple, Robinson in 7hr, Foresthill in 14hr that would give me 10 hours to cover the last 40 mile. I can average 5 mile an hour in the late stages so if I had the perfect day sub 23 was possible. My first goal though was Robinson. The snow wasn't as bad as 2017 but there were banks of it everywhere over the first 6 mile. Luckily I'd choose a grippy shoe and waterproof sock which served me well. I was running well, slow but well. The air was thin and the altitude was playing its part. Every time my heart rate spiked I backed off and let it settle. That meant holding right back. I got to Lyon Ridge and felt fine I drank some coke and moved on. The snow thinned as we carried on along the ridge, the views were spectacular. I passed the spot where I had fallen in 2017 the trail is pretty rocky on the ridge and I was taking extra care this time. I paused for a few views this time instead of running flat out across rocks while trying to look round. Red Star Ridge came and went I was a little up on schedule but no dramas I was just concentrating on not falling and keeping my heart rate in check. The snow was thinning all the time with minimal snow banks now. There was one particularly steep one so I tried to show off by skiing down it. Epic fail. Crashed onto my backside and skidded down on my knee giving me a nice ice burn to think about.
As the miles ticked by I could feel the air thickening and my lungs filling with oxygen. I ran to feel and I could now step it up. I dropped into Duncan eventually reaching the icy waters at the bottom. The water was thigh deep and very refreshing, I dunked my head and felt revitalized as I marched out the other side. I ran into Robinson feeling good and about 15 mins up on my predicted time of 7 hours. This was a major stop for me. I took my time and changed shoes and socks also powdering my feet. I ate lots of fruit from the aid station to clear the sugary gel taste from my mouth. I repacked with supplies and headed out after a good 10 min stop. I was still under the 7 hours but half hour outside the 24hr pace according to their timings.
I had worked on nutrition this time knowing that it wasn't quite right last time. A high percentage of runners puke at Western States. The heat really doesn't help keep stuff down and puking is not great when chasing a tight time schedule. Once your gut has emptied you are in a world of trouble because you have to get all those calories back in your system or you will bonk but when you try to eat you feel sick again. Vicious circle. I felt sick last time and stopped eating. This time my strategy was to get 200 cals per hour in and top up at checkpoints. I was carrying mountain fuel, gu and hi 5 gels. I was to take 100 cals of either every half hour. Straight away the mountain fuel made me feel sick so I ditched it. The Gu is my rocket fuel but again it was making me feel queasy so I had to just force one down every two hours or so. My main fuel turned out to be the High 5 gels, they are pretty liquid and easy on the stomach. They are around 90 cals but don't pack a punch like a gu. I had brought enough of these to have one every half hour and topped it up with fruit, redbull, coke, mountain dew and the odd cup of soup. This was all I ate but it worked. This gave me the magic 300 cals an hour.
I ran out of Robinson and bumped into Jim my pacer for later. It was good to see him, we chatted briefly and I ran out feeling strong. I was able to run pretty well from here. The trail seems to descend for ages and its a good time to make up on the 24 hr cutoff. I ran into Millers Defeat and loaded up on ice in my hat and backpack but soon after I realized it wasn't really needed and the ice in my pack was actually burning my back so I had to stop and empty it. I kept the bits in my hat and for the rest of the day all I needed was a few cubes in there to keep my head cool. Through Dusty Corners and last chance I was really running well. I seemed to be gaining places with only the occasional runner passing me.
I reached the top of Deadwood Canyon and ran the switchbacks down. Mt quads were in good shape and the heat wasn't too intense but I descended steadily knowing what lie ahead. At the bottom I took a breath and walked round to the stream that comes down the hillside. I washed my face, dunked my hat and started the hike upto Devils Thumb. It is about 1500ft straight up with about 35 switchbacks. I hiked strong with the thought of the aid station at the top pulling me forward. I had to stop a couple of times feeling faint. I actually thought I was going down but held it together. I reached the top and breathed a sigh of relief. Matt was in there looking pretty ill. I really wanted something cold but was drawn to the soup and ended up having several cups. A nice rest from the sugary stuff. I left straight after Matt and he was doubled up puking on the trail. I so wanted to help but what can you do? A few words of advice and I pressed on almost straight back into running. El Dorado Canyon was next and it passed without incident. I hiked out the top and ran into Michigan Bluff. The reception was incredible. I picked up some supplies from a drop bag and drank a selection of cold drinks and ate some strawberries. Annabelle was in there preparing to leave and it was good to see her looking strong. I walked up the main street and the atmosphere was incredible with almost everyone of the dozens of people giving words of encouragement. My pacers Jim Kepfer and Pete Korn were there and it was great to see them. Not having ever met Pete. I took an ice cold redbull from them and drank it as we walked and chatted. My mind was now getting firmly into 24hr mode. I was feeling great and I told them we would be running for that buckle come Foresthill. As I rejoined the route a supporter said "All flat to Foresthill". Great I thought not remembering the trail.
Well that wasn't true I passed through another canyon through to Foresthill. It wasn't as harsh as the other two but a canyon all the same. I hit the tarmac and hiked up to the main road. It was around this time last time I overheard a conversation where a pacer was saying to his runner how unlikely getting a sub 24hr would be from this point would be. Well those words resonated in my head. It was happening today. I ran into the aid station and time for another main stop. Sock change, foot powder and food. Jim was expressing concerns about the time it was taking but it was 10 minutes well spent. I had reached there bang on my schedule and spent 10 minutes sorting stuff so I was now 25 minutes outside 24hr pace. This was not an issue I was going to get my buckle.
|Get me off this boat|
I explained to Pete my pacer for this section that I felt good and wanted to run to the river. I explained pace and what I wanted from him and we started running. It was an amazing section and everything felt right. Pete knew I'd be getting a silver and so did I. It was one of them moments when all the stars aligned. It was now or never I was so focused all that mattered was running. Had I succumbed to negative thoughts now I would have never forgiven myself. Pete was incredibly positive and every so often I'd pull up and he would allow me 1 minute before we ran again. Over that next 16 miles we picked up time and places only briefly stopping at aid stations for redbull or coke. At each aid station another few minutes was taken back from my 24 hr hour deficit. Darkness arrived and we donned head torches at about mile 70. We caught up with Annabelle just before the river I stopped and we exchanged positive words but it really was time to run so I wished her well and pushed forward. We were so close I preyed she would maintain her pace and get her buckle too. By the time we reached the river we were evens on the 24hr cutoff and nothing was going to stop me. We changed pacers at the river and I clambered into the boat. Willing it across as I just wanted to crack on.
Jim my trusted pacer from 2017 took over and we started the long hike up to Green Gate. I was super positive but I could tell Jim was still well aware this was borderline. He had been in this position many times and seen many fail. We ran straight after Green Gate through some undulating trail which I didn't care much for but I was getting through it. We got a good pace going and were picking off other runners. The run was massively undulating and the climb to highway 49 was a real sting in the tail when you feel the trail should be getting easier. I ran into Pointed Rocks aid station mile 94 it was around 3am, Two years previous I had reached here at exactly 5am and 24hrs elapsed. I grabbed some coke and ran through. Jim stopped for a pee but I just ran and left him to catch me up. I ran and ran to No Hands Bridge and didn't enter into the bridge party atmosphere I just pressed on. It was around now that I felt I would do it and started to well up. I pulled it together though as there is still a bloody massive climb to go to Robie Point. My body now started to shut down as it was hitting home I was going to make it. Pains in my legs came followed by fatigue and the lack of will to run. I hiked up as hard as I could.
I came out the top of Robie Point around 4:10 am and knew it was in the bag. Pete was at the top having decided he couldn't go home knowing something special was going to happen. We ran easy to the track chatting about how things had gone but my mind was elsewhere. The years of training and effort were firmly in the forefront of my mind this was it. We entered the track and Jim said they would meet me at the other side of the line. I said no way join me and cross together. A wave of euphoria hit me as I crossed the line in 23:24:59.
I was under no illusion coming into this that sub 24 was right there on the boundaries of my ability. It was no fluke. All the tiny details meant minutes on the day, that 35 minute buffer could have been lost in the blink of an eye. An extra minute in each aid station, a few too many walking breaks, puking from eating the wrong food. Coupled with a specific 16 week training program. Weekly hill reps, gym sessions, speed work, saunas it all amounted to that 35 minutes saved. I ultimately had the perfect race and hit my target. It doesn't get better than that. No complaints, no excuses.
The big question is would I go back? My philosophy has always been if you have the perfect race don't go back because you can only fall short but I love this race with a passion. It is part of me and under my skin so yes I will go back. I am a silver buckle holder and no one can ever take that away.
I just want to mention some of the other Brit runners, Matt Brand, Ammon Piepgrass, Tim Lambert, Keith James it was lovely to meet you all. Well done to Beth Pascal and Tom Evans for flying the flag for the UKs elite.
Most importantly though Ian Brazier, Richard Leahy, Annabelle Stearns and Sharon Sullivan. You guys really made it a trip to remember.
Anyone in the UK interested in a brand new Ultramarathon for 2020 check out the North Downs Way 153 on my website www.hitthetrailrunning.com it will be a future classic.