What a difference a year makes!
By Olga Varlamova
Western States 100M trail race. The Boston marathon of ultrarunning. The legend of Gordy Ainsleigh. My dream. My dream of running there in sub-24 hrs and placing in top 10. Did I really think it’s possible? No way! But it was nice to have a dream...
Year 2004. After making it without any real hardship through Umstead 100M I decided I am ready for a dream. WS beat me up and ate me alive. No, not physically, though it was painful. Emotionally, I was blown away. It showed me a real world of prime athletes with genotype of lots of fast-twitch muscles and hard training regimen, yet the most kind human beings. It was love at first site. I was to come back.
September 2004. The whole family packs up and moves to Portland, Oregon. Mountains are calling. This is a premier ultrarunning community with a great training ground. Columbia Gorge is 30 miles away. Forest Park is in the city itself. Trail ultramarathons are held practically every weekend. A trail ultrarunner is in every other person. Scott Jurek lives almost next door (in Seattle). I sign up for his training schedule and get sucked in to a local ultra community. Not being the most obedient client, I interspersed my training runs with many more races than planned, but loved every minute of it. February was the last time my feet saw roads - I started running only on hilly trails every day. Best advice was heard on the long runs during the beautiful Gorge weekends, from Gail, Greg, Mike and so many others the list will just take too much space. My legs stopped being sore after hard downhills. I learned how to run uphill. I began to believe into myself. LT runs, intervals, hill repeats, back-to-backs, a couple of well-run tune-up races...what an amazing 6 months I had!
June 2005. 2 weeks before WS100, I run a Capital Peak 50 mile race. Scott opposes, but I persist. I am known to be not the smartest in important decision making. John Pearch is an RD and personal friend. No, he did not twist my arm, nor did my Marathon Maniacs teammates who decided to include me for a team competition. The course measured at 56M, I got sidetracked for an extra 2 and under rainy cold muddy bushwhacking conditions run for over 11 hrs. The body is drained of energy. I wonder what will happen?
June 23rd. I fly to Sacramento. Nick Palazzo, my pacer from last year, joins me again. His first remark - my legs doubled in size. I am not sure if it’s a compliment, I am a girl after all, but try to think positive. Maybe it’s muscle? There is nothing I can do about it anyway. His second note - I am totally a different person, much more relaxed and seemingly unconcerned about the run.
June 24th. We go to check in to Squaw Valley. Wow, in a past year I’ve met so many people, it seems I know everyone now. That makes spending a day a paradise. There are friends from Northwest, from East and everywhere in-between. The female field is thick. The RD talks snow for the first 25 miles. I have a pace chart for 23 hrs. Hmmm...
June 25th. I took a sleeping pill the night before, but toss and turn. My last memory of a dream is as I pace my friend Rob Hester at CCC (what is planned for later this summer) I tell him to listen to me and stick to my advice, I KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT!
The alarm doesn’t work, but both I and Nick wake up a minute before it supposed to go off. We eat breakfast with many other runners staying at Truckee Inn and make it to the start. My number is 46. I have faith in numbers. For the Umstead I had 65, same as my high school. My sister is 46. She lost her only son this year, my only nephew, who I helped raise from his very first day. I am sure they’ll be looking over me...
5 AM. Gun goes off and we begin climb to Emigrant Pass. My breathing is totally erratic. I wonder if that 58-miler was a bad idea. Every move feels more exerting than ever before. Legs are strong, but heart rate is as if I am seeing a bear or flying to space. I think back to my talks with Gail, Greg and Glenn. I have a Grand Slam planned this summer, sub-24 is secondary in this picture, so I discard my pace chart and slow down. We hit snow as soon as we reach the peak. It is not that bad, hard-packed, in patches for 100-300 feet, but slanted and making it too dangerous to run on. Actually, it makes it kind of fun, like been kids and playing outside. I take in the view. Between snow, there are streams and run-offs, so the feet are wet. It’s OK, I am running in new Cascadia that I tested in that famous wet Capitol 58-miler of mine. I see Ronda and smile. It seems we have some friendly competition going. We finished last year in the same time, seem to be equal runners, live in same town and both trained with Scott Jurek. But now - we are just two runners who happen to have the same goal. We both are focused. We say encouraging words and continue on. Just so happen we are close in pace and enter most of aid stations in the first half almost together.
Red Star Ridge. I don’t look at my watch as I don’t care. Oh, the watch. I am known to forget to eat on the run, so Gail lent me her watch that beeps every 45 minutes to remind me to have a gel. I also carry a bottle of water and a bottle of Clip2 that I refill every aid station. My body is exhausted, moving is an effort and it’s an interesting feeling like legs are going by themselves despite not been directed by the rest of me. I perk up, thank Gorge for the training and start looking around. The views are simply breathtaking! As if my breath does not struggle enough. I run with Dawn and tell her I vowed to enjoy this run to its fullest no matter what.
Robinson Flat, first crew-visiting aid station. I change socks and on the way out see Walter with camera. Of course I stop to pose - I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t, what cracks him up. I set a small goal - see if I can run next section as well as I did last year (this was one of my stronger sections in 2004). Crowd always charges me and I fly. We see an official photographer and I thank him for coming out to help us preserve our memories (last year they were taking pictures by Cougar rock, but due to snow conditions in High Country the place was changed). At Little Bald Mt station Micheal and Stacey are cheering for Ronda (and all the Team Oregon runners), and Nick feeds me with Ensure. It doesn’t sit well and I puke it soon after, sticking with only Clip2 from now on.
We run on. I feel better. The day progresses, and I realize it’s not going to be hot this year. I don’t use ice at all. A few times a small cloud covers the sun and a light breeze touches my face. I enjoy the people I encounter on the way, and we share stories. Dusty Corner gives me a surprise hug and a kiss by Tony (*tc) who crews for Cary Miller. I make next small goal - not to get hard on myself when I bonk on my way to Last Chance. I do bonk, and I don’t judge. I just continue on. Actually, I am feeling much better than a few hours ago, and gain 10 min on 24hr pace. I still don’t make any long-term plans. Next goal - to climb Devil’s Thumb strong and not to sit down. Last year I set 5 times on the way up and 12 people passed me, this is where I gave up my game and was ready to call it quits. Not this year. Climb? What climb? 1800 feet in 2.5 miles is not a climb, we’ve seen much worse in the Gorge! I charge. In fact, I have a mental assurance I could jog up if I wanted, but hold it back, passing 5 people and capable of talking with Dawn and Pam Reed on the way up. I begin to have fun.
Next section brings memories of dead quads and a long chair sit down at the bottom of Eldorado Canyon. I decide to take it easy on the steep downhill portion (me, the famous downhill buster!!). I feel great and after grabbing a few strawberries, jump for a Michigan Bluff climb. This “hill” makes me laugh this year. How was it that last year I planned to drop as soon as I reach the top? Why? Had it not been in the middle of a 100M, I’d call it flat! I come into the final turn and see Maura and lots of people screaming my name. It feels fantastic! Nick changes my bottle and I am off. I remember this section from 2004. We discussed it with Scott and decided this is why I had to save myself on those 2 climbs - so I can have a boost here, on my way to Foresthill. I didn’t like this portion, don’t ask the reason. Just didn’t. Hard bonking, more sitting, more judging...well, it all happened again, but without the latter. I just accepted it and moved on. Ronda passed me what seemed to be for good, picked her first pacer and ran strong and fast, pulling away in a horizon. I got to Foresthill with about 25 extra minutes on 24 hr pace. Tony helped me change socks while I cursed minor cramping in hip flexors and Nick got my Starbuck coffee and headlamp. I took off without waiting him get ready.
Yes, the year indeed was different. I loved this next section last year, both in training and in a race. I was awaiting for it the whole day. I was almost an hour ahead of my last year’s time and enjoyed the daylight, yet - something started to go wrong, namely my stomach shut down. First I could not digest even liquid calories anymore and I began to slow down. Despite it I passed a few runners and vividly remembered where we turned our lamps on before and how this year it was still light. We only needed it after we left Cal3 station and started along the American river. A couple of miles before Rucky Chucky I bumped into Ronda. I was sure she was on her way to 22:30 finish, but she apparently lost much of her vision (again!! with some side effects of the allergy medicine she’s taking) and straggled on downhill portion. She did run away strongly (as she was all day, cheerful and focused and strong) to a 22:59 and 8th female.
Oh, the river! This year we had a new experience. The water current was 10 times higher and wading across was out of question, so the race management opted for rafting. Four people got in (2 runners and 2 pacers) and a girl rowed across in a minute. As much fun as I had last year crossing the river, having dry feet was nice. I also realized that I am 55 minutes ahead of 24 hr pace and powered up to Green Gate in a bliss. My legs, that were never tired to begin with, got a new life. But - the digestive system disagreed with proposed good time and threw in a case of severe diarrhea! My, was it painful and time-wasting! I would run forward, pass people, stop dead for a duty not to be described here and repeat again. A few times I cried. From cramps and unfairness. I felt so strong! Why??!! Than I’d call on the soul of my deceased nephew, my sister’s strengths to go through that and my husband’s love and support and believe in me. I had this strange phrase in my head: “I will fight until I can fight no more”, and I kept saying it to myself. The Brown’s Bar had Immodium, thank you Hush Harriers!! It gave me hope (and an hour later an opportunity to start eating and drinking again), and I was still moving at a fast clip despite all the stops. The dream finalized. Sub-24 was possible. Actually Nick said we had it in a bag, but I didn’t want to relax. He also urged me to show him the No Hands Bridge with all the illumination in the dark, and I was more than happy to comply. It was my pleasure, but I didn’t even stop to savor the moment. I was on a mission. In fact I was leaving aid stations at such a speed (I couldn’t eat or drink anyways) that I was leaving him behind and having him catch me on the trails. Most of the times, between pain and mental focus, I was forgetting I had a pacer. I was all by myself, with a clear vision of all the hard work I put in, all the sacrifices I’ve made, all that my family had to endure, all the faith that my friends had in me...nothing was going to stop me now, I was to see the Placer high school track in a dark!
Last climb to Robbie Point. Nick gets cheerful and tries to joke I might place. I know who is running Western and dispose this idea rather angrily. We enter the track, I push on one last time and make it. 23:15. What a beautiful time. It is dark. In fact, I don’t have many spectators. I wipe off a tear. Scott rases his head from the sleeping bag (yes, he did win, again, “jogging” to his Swan song 7th time) and tells me I placed 9th. I stand in disbelief. It’s wrong. It is not right. Next - well, it means next year I am in! No lottery, no waiting. I will have another great day, because there is nowhere I would rather spend 24 hrs than running the WS100!
A shower later I had a privilege to see great friends crossing finish line of the prime event in ultra-world. Sweet weekend had icing on a cake with each and every one of them.
Sure, I can start another long list with thank-you’s but I’ll stop. You all know who you are. You are on the list this report is going to. You are in my heart. You always will be. I am blessed with friends and consider myself to be the richest person in the world for that. Thank you all.