Running the Dream
By Olga Varlamova
My first encounter with the famous WS100 was back in December of 2002, when I joined the VCTC and heard from Firdaus that he was accepted into this run by lottery. I looked at the website – and my dream was born.
The best preparation for this run was the training camp that race officials hold on Memorial Day weekend when the last 70 miles of the run is split between 3 days. I made sure to go. It was just fantastic! All the people I met there, runners and volunteers, the weather, beautiful sky without a single cloud and – the trail. Now I knew what draws people back time and time again to this run. This trail, besides the pure history – the miners, the horse riders’ cup, and the first 100M trail race – has a soul on its own. Mountains are calling you. Canyons are testing your inner strengths. Views are magnificent. The thin air leaves you gasping for a simple breath. Yet it’s not only that. There is something else that I found so inspiring and so deep about it that can not really be explained by words. I fell in love with this trail. It has become a part of me so amazingly quickly I couldn’t do much but to live this love. I also made new friends one being Mike Pastore from South Carolina who ran Umstead this year as well. We will share our anxiety during next month via email. The whole stay at the camp had not a single bad moment for me. I was ready.
Or so I thought. The weekend after the camp was my last long run and I did it on the Overlook mountain in Catskill – 1700 feet elevation change in 2.5 miles up and down 4 times – with my good friend Dick Vincent, race director of the Escarpment trail run, the one who is responsible for me falling in love with trail running. I had been battling shin splints since before the Umstead and all that mileage and downhill running did me in – I got a stress fracture in my lower right tibia. There was no way I was not going to make it to the start of WS. The following 3 weeks were the hardest I’ve ever had. No running – doctor’s order. Not a single step. And this is at a time when I am scared in anticipation. At this point it didn’t matter, I was going.
Now is the time to acknowledge my wonderful support crew. My husband couldn’t go as we decided it would be too much pressure to have kids around and we don’t have family here to care for them. But I had 5 wonderful people who flew all the way out to CA to offer me help and encouragement. My pacer was Nick Palazzo, who’s been in the ultrarunning world for 20+ years and is famous for the movie “Running on the sun” about the Badwater 135 mile run in Death Valley. We’ve run at the same races here in NY but never really talked until he offered his knowledge and help. Amy Peterson, my friend from my first year of running NYRRC races and who came to cheer me on at my first marathon, was all psyched up to come to Lake Tahoe for me again. My good friend and lately a running partner from work Shannon Moran and her boyfriend Eric accepted my invitation as well and their young energy and enthusiasm were just great. Ian Brooks, the announcer of the races at the NYRRC, who was interested to see another side of the running community and did his best to make our stay before and after the run more enjoyable. “Crew” stands for Cranky Runner Endless Waiting. That is what they had ahead. It was a “dream team”. They were all pumped up and ready for whatever this run would bring them.
Those couple of days we spent at Squaw Valley were filled with electric atmosphere all around. We visited some of the pre-race meetings, wandered around the resort and Lake Tahoe, met old friends and made new friends, and by Friday I was just a nervous wreck (and a pain in a butt for everyone around me). Having had practically no sleep for the last week didn’t help either.
Saturday at 3 am the alarm went off. I felt pretty calm. That was it. Nothing to be frightened about. Today is about the trail and me. There was not a single doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t arrive at the finish line (why would I start otherwise?), but at what cost and with what time? I picked up my number and got myself to the starting line. The gun went off at exactly 5am and we were off. From the starting elevation at 6200 feet we climb 4.5 miles to the top of Escarpment ridge at 8750 feet. It was a hike for most of us, sometimes pretty steep. The altitude didn’t seem to bother me. The only snow we had to go through was a 60 foot patch at the top. Photographers took pictures of runners, volunteers refilled our bottles and we went into the trail system. For quite a while I ran with the famous Monica Scholz, the woman from Canada who did 22 100M runs in 2002. She is such an amazing and down to earth person! Next to us was a guy who is interested in bird watching and one of his objectives was to identify 100 birds – by mile 10 he had counted 12. I was taking it easy, hiking the uphill sections (I have a rule – if it’s above 3% grade, I am hiking) and taking it very easy on downhill. I was also resolved not to pay attention to my watch so I don’t screw up my rhythm. The first major checkpoint and crew access were at Robinson Flat (24.6M) I arrived at exactly at 10am, 30 min ahead of my projected 24 hr pace. Here I have to admire the organization and volunteers at this run – it was unbelievable! Seconds – literally – you spend at the aid station - you are weighed in, your bottles are refilled by an assigned volunteer, and food is given to you as you walk out. This is where my Dream Team came to see me for the first time. I was feeling fantastic. No pains (Voltarene helped), no blisters (I used insoles from SofSole, my sponsor for this year), no stomach problems (keeping it all down with Energice, another sponsor’s product). I changed socks and went off in 1 minute flat. I would see them next at Little Bald Mountain, 28.6M, only 47 minutes later. I was still moving at a good clip but started to feel tired. Looking back, I realize the cause was as simple as not getting enough food. I was drinking a lot but was so focused on leaving the aid station that I forgot I had to eat. I arrived at Deep Canyon aid station (mile 33.7) almost 50 min ahead of 24 hr pace. The last aid station I felt great at was Dusty Corners at 38 miles.
However slow, it took me only 55 minutes and as I entered the aid station and saw all the wonderful volunteers I immediately felt better. I was still 30 minutes ahead of 24 hr pace but I already knew (maybe I gave up too early) 24 hours would not happen today. I finally started to eat, downing some soup and potatoes and moved into Eldorado canyon. There were some steep downhill sections there and by the end of the canyon my quads seized and I had to sit in a chair. Beware of the chair – they don’t say it for nothing. Next to me was Bethany Hunter, a young girl from VA who has set course records at all trail ultras she went to. We met the day before when the winners of different 100M runs were introduced. It just wasn’t her day. She said she wasn’t feeling well since mile 11 and planned to drop out at Michigan Bluff to save her energy for the upcoming Vermont 100M in July. Sitting next to her gave me an excuse to spend more time resting and applying a cold towel to my thighs. We moved together to the next climb,not as steep but just as miserable as the previous one. My right quad wasn’t doing so well, I felt a shooting sharp pain of a pulled muscle every so often, but overall my body felt a tad better.
At the top of Michigan Bluff I came around a turn and entered a huge crowd – all the volunteers, spectators and the Dream Team! They were cheering so loudly, it was a bizarre and surreal experience after hours of being alone. I made it to the weigh station (still the same number) and dropped on the massage table – my right leg was screaming with pain. Getting massage and words of encouragement from a cute guy definitely helped. I sat with my crew for a couple more minutes and received a jolt of energy from them (as well as more rubbing on my thighs) while changing my socks and eating soup again. We decided that the new goal was to drag my sorry pathetic behind to the finish line even if it takes me a whole 30 hours. I was relieved to see their enthusiasm towards my new target. Putting one foot in front of another was my primary focus now. Guys sent me off into next section and Amy met up with me at Bath Road aid station. We walked together to Foresthill School, the official place where I was to pick up my pacer. I spent another few minutes there, first giving a kiss to a volunteer boy dressed up in a Hawaiian skirt which made everybody laugh and lightened my mood, and then getting another massage from Shannon and Eric anddouble-espresso from Nick.
Slowly moving on to Green Gate (2 miles up) the pain snuck up on me: my shin, my quad, behind the knee, ball of the foot, my toes, and all on the right side! The approach from now on was to not make stops at the aid stations, but make progress onward however slow and painful. We were supposed to meet the Dream Team at the Green Gate but they were late due to an encounter with a wolf-like dog and a wild imagination (they also met a bear – and I didn’t see a single animal) and we went on to the next section. I was still jogging a bit and walking at a very brisk clip and even passing people on occasion. The section from Green Gate to Brown’s Bar (managed by Hash Harriers with blasting rock music) was rolling hills and I tried my best to execute Gordy Ainsleigh’s (the man who started this run) advice of walking 15 steps and jogging 15 steps (he said it would make it a 12 minute mile – I don’t believe I was doing it that fast but Nick kept reassuring me it still was quicker than only walking). At Highway 49, 7 miles from the end, we saw the crew girls and I told them I will need my hat back for the finish. Why? Because in the last hour I was keeping myself busy by thinking that I need to look good for the final official picture and having a headlamp and hair all salty and messed up wasn’t going to cut it (I took off all my braces before I entered the track for the very same reason). Imaging how much fun people at the aid station had when they heard this! And I was dead serious! I was always together with my mind and trying to have fun no matter what. The only thing that would give away my tiredness was that I couldn’t keep the numbers in my head during the night part of the run. I would look at my watch, note the time and estimate the approximate time to the next aid station only to forget it 10 minutes into the run. Anyway, with pain getting stronger and the next section being pretty steep downhill all the way to No Hands Bridge I fell off my walking pace and Nick finally took the matter in his hands and by telling me to move on and stop pretending. I was walking like a crab – sideways, not being able to straighten or bend my right leg at all.
The rest of the day was very fuzzy. Scott Jurek won for the sixth time in a row in a course record time. In women’s division it was Nikki Kimball from NY State on her first try at the 100M distance! We had shower, some rest, went for an award ceremony (very long and hot but certainly well worth attending), ate some food and drove to the airport for an overnight flight (very uncomfortable) - and I was back to work on Monday. The soreness went away couple of days after the finish (I attribute my speedy recovery to regular yoga practice), but I was limping for a week. All the guys from the Dream Team seem to have had a great time and offered their help in the future. This is a fantastic feeling knowing that I dragged my friends into this ordeal and they loved it, they were inspired by runners, volunteers and beautiful surroundings and they long for more!
There are not enough words to express my gratitude to my crew (Amy, Shannon, Eric, Ian) and my pacer Nick for their unbeatable support throughout the run and the days before and after. My deepest heartfelt thanks to my family, my husband Oleg and my boys Alex and Stephen, for their patience during my training and (especially) my tapering, for their believe in me and their endless love, and their putting up with the crazy mom who travels around the country participating in runs most people don’t know exist. Thanks to my running club VCTC for their encouragement and warm wishes those two years I’ve been a part of it. And thanks to all those guys from my work and yoga studio and all the friends who followed my progress on the web cast during the run – knowing how many of you are watching me didn’t allow a single thought of dropping out!
There are many amazing trail runs in this country and in time I will try to run most of them. But there is one thing for sure – I can’t wait to see the application form on the WS100 website for the next year! California trail beckons me, and I will be back!