Western States of Consciousness

Want to know how to adequately prepare for a 100-mile footrace, one that climbs 18,000 vertical feet over mountains, crosses icy rivers, dips in and out of steep, stifling canyons crumbling of rock, carpeted with poison oak and dense with Manzanita?

Eat razorblades.

Let me explain. One week prior to participating in the Western States 100, the most highly anticipated ultra-race on Earth, I arrived in California to ensure that body and mind were calibrated for the heat. My hometown of Murphys sleeps quietly in the Sierra Nevada foothills, an ideal pre-Western retreat. Five days and four nights I relaxed here, waiting for mercury to boil before pounding pavement. Taper was in full effect, so the runs were short, the rest was long and the food was plentiful…and sharp. While lunching with a high school friend, in mid-conversation I crunch onto something hard in my sandwich. Something unforgiving. Something cold. I spit out my bite only to discover a razor blade shard the size of a ring fingernail.

Believe me, I would have preferred a fingernail.

Finding another small blade, I decide to fully investigate each bite before proceeding to devour the entire meal, unaffected. You see, prior to this fateful bite, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the formidable 100-mile feat that lay ahead. But after eating my savory shrapnel sandwich…

Let’s go.

The Approach.

May my beak be always bent toward the high country.

Lurching up and over Donner Pass on Thursday, away from the pancake sprawl of the Sacramento Valley, it just feels right. Away from the browns and yellows and muck. Towards a space where granite armors Earth, where the pungency of pine and sagebrush surf thinning air beside the hunting Falcon. Mother Sierra, our celestial chiropractor. Always cracking my soul’s backbone into realignment.

Interstate 80 parallels the Western States course, revealing the scale of my journey ahead. Anxiety. Joy. Impatience. Confusion. Fear. Hunger. A suite of emotions arrives with me into Truckee, while friends and family trickle in later to firmly establish Basecamp.

Friday. Pre-race briefing. Olympic Village. (Note: ‘Squaw Valley’ is a repetitive slap in the face to Native Americans and should be vanquished entirely from our lexicon. Effective immediately.) Joe, Trevor, Jamie, Willie and I sneak out before the meeting for a quick run through this high sierra heaven. We stop to dip our hats and anxieties into babbling snowmelt. An official rock-throwing contest commences. In stark contrast to the race, the sponsors, the competition and the ego, we were free. For a moment, we were 5 disembodied juveniles tossed like dice from the grips of gods to wander in wonder, to laugh, live, heave and weave friendships through pockets of pine, all innocently drunk on elemental bliss and nothing more.

Then we return to the hype.

The pre-race briefing is thorough, hot and exposed. World-class elites are everywhere, being watched, interviewed, envied. By the end of it, my body shouts for fluid, my skin for aloe and my head for Advil. Returning to Basecamp that evening, family and friends circle wagons around steaming pots of pasta, salads and breads. The spread is great and the company even better.

Western States Crew + Organically Assigned Duties:

•    Pop – Crew Captain. El Jefe. Couldn’t do it without him.
•    Jamie – Assistant Crew Captain. Accommodations. MVP Badass.
•    Trevor – Pacer. Caffeine Coordinator. DJ.
•    Momma – Mother Goose. Photographer. Cheek-Kissing Specialist.
•    Sachi  – Medical (Reiki, Kinesio-tape)
•    Cathy – Inspiration. Veteran ultrastar.
•    Brother Ryan, Jess, Uncle Rock – Musical Score. Photography.
•    Orlando, Rory and Debbie – College Crew. Official Chest Pumpers. Beverages.
•    Uncle Rob – Technical Support. Smartphone Splits Specialist.
•    Aunt Gee and Aunt Susie – Photography. Logistics. Assistant Cheek-Kissers.
•    Cousin Blake – Manager of Team Morale. Comedian.

Like the evening’s developing weather pattern, an encroaching thundercloud of anxiety and anticipation manifests as a pounding headache and nausea. Barely able to stomach food, on the verge of projectile, I quietly slip out of the gathering several times to swivel my head on straight. Looking at the ceiling, I wonder: How the hell am I to run 100 miles tomorrow feeling like this? As with anything, the discomfort eventually subsides and I am able to rejoin everyone for the evening.

Race Day.

“You have to reach out to the horizon to keep up, as if you are seizing the horizon in
your paws.” – Larry Audlaluk, Elder of the Grise Fiord.

Rituals of caffeine, carbohydrates and crapping all help curb superstition to ensure a smooth race. Arriving to the start, nearly 400 runners huddle inside the lodge to compose a collective nerve-ending dangling riotously with anticipation. I immerse myself headfirst into this mob because I belong here, another strung-out set of eyeballs dazing with diffidence into the waking Sierra.

College Friends: Debbie, Rory, me and Orlando.

5 minutes.

Hands trembling, I pin the number 378 to my shorts. Something compels me to go mining for meaning with this arbitrarily assigned number. How’s this: 3+7 = 10. Pair 10 with 8 and you get 108, one of the most sacred numbers in all major eastern religions. 108 beads on a Tibetan Buddhist mala. 108 hindu deities. 1 for the individual. 0 for emptiness. 8 for infinity. My swift numerological conclusion provides an immediate injection of inspiration.

Could’ve also been the Espresso Gel kicking in.

Armed at the hips with organic rice syrup and sodium. A paper-thin Patagonia Houdini shell makes me feel vulnerable, as if I’m entering a battle against brutish, club-wielding thugs with nothing but a hand-carved slingshot wedged into my shorts.

Western States is no exception to creeping race starts. All the sudden, 3-2-1 and it’s on. A volcano erupts spewing molten cheers and screams. Photos strike like lightning. Clock starts ticking and 400 soft animal bipedals begin their quest. I realize in these first minutes that this is the only time we will all run together. I am flanked by 400 unique motivations, 400 individual fires flickering fiercely towards Auburn. Some set out to win, to swallow the course record whole. Others conquered cancer or addiction and now wish to take on previously impossible feats. Some shoot for their 2,000th Western States mile. Others, their first buckle. But for one moment, just a few winks worth, these 400 fires compose a constellation rotating together on a shared axis of possibility, thrust forth together into the darkness, the void, the Mystery.

The Tempest (Miles 0-30)

“If you want to speak to God, tell it to the wind.” 
― African Proverb, Ghana

The first stretch up to the Escarpment provides a 2000+ foot vertical heave in 4 miles, a perfect grade to calibrate mind for the day. Heads and hearts all reach towards Emigrant Pass while the wind attempts to rip us from exposed road and trail.

I befriend Wind, no matter her ferocity. A whetstone to sharpen the senses, Wind helps lungs to breathe and eyes to see. She is connective tissue binding the animated totality of our world—the earth, the seas, and the air. Such currents of dancing invisibility dictate the slopes and sands of our world, traveling as sculptors on flying carpets carving texture into our inner and outer ecologies. I always drink Wind when invited.

Cresting the Escarpment, the lead pack of hungry wolves disappears ahead. Yassine and I find ourselves negotiating technical single track together. A short pit stop leaves me alone, never to see my great friend and training partner again until Auburn. Sleet, hail and rain soak my shell to the core and I am instantly transported back to Oregon training conditions.

Riding the wonderful Lyon and Red Star mountain ridges, I am ice cold but solid. Not pushing too hard. Effortless gliding. Hiking when necessary. I find myself leapfrogging with Mike Wardian, Jez Bragg and Ellie Greenwood. All exceptional runners, I scribble mental notes on their approach. A long stretch of downhill brings me to a very good mindset, tapping into some quality states of psychological flow. Present and unattached. Showing up for each moment. Goal-setting and feedback, both advocates for presence. Nutrition. Breath. Form. A non-grasping mind focused not on aid stations or the finish line, but of only the next step, the following breath. Just master that. That’s all you have.

Miles melt and I ride into Robinson Flat Aid Station (Mile 30) soaked to the soul, 5 hours into the race and excited to see my crew for the first time. The lion roar of this aid station is like nothing I’ve heard.

Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

The Trials (Miles 30-62)

Sitting somewhere in the Top 20, I remain conservative and cautious not to use too much too soon. Thoughts of my 2011 San Diego 100 DNF linger in some dark chamber within, adding to my reticence. Nutrition is calculated: 2 gels and salt every hour, plain water in one Ultraspire handheld, Coke and Oreos at the aid stations. I never feel a low point. Zero cramping.

I find myself running with two strong lead women: Rory Bosio, Aliza Lapierre, as well as David Kadunc, a Slovenian Solomon runner. The girls speak of endless gossip and I can barely handle it. Filmmaker JB Benna pops out of the woods and joins our caravan to capture some single-track footage. Queue in Rory expressing her to love on film for Anton. “Single and ready to mingle” sticks out in my mind.

Eventually we make it down past Last Chance (Mile 43) and into the canyons to begin the steepest climb of the race: Devil’s Thumb. 1,500 feet. 30+ switchbacks. 1.7 miles. I shudder at the thought of getting hammered by heat under normal conditions. I imagine the devil’s green thumb aerating the earth with his red-hot trident, leaving cleavages scorched and smoldering.

Another climb gets me efficiently in and out of El Dorado Canyon, through to Michigan Bluff and onto Foresthill (Mile 62), where a huge crowd awaits, surely the biggest gauntlet of spectators I’ve ever run through. Trevor and Jamie meet me a half-mile out to run together into the aid station.

Quick inventory: 62 miles down. Slightly over 10 hours. Feeling fresh and level-headed. The whole crew is there to provide support and Trevor is ready to pace, but I decide to go it alone to river. I’m in a great headspace and want to keep it going. I even reject music prepared for this section. (A tough playlist to deny, however: Sleigh Bells, Bad Religion, Working for a Nuclear Free City, Tune-Yards, Mutemath, Helio Sequence, etc.)

Best Crew in the World

Always time to give Momma a kiss.

Exiting the crew stop through a paved stretch of cheers and encouragement, I realize how little experience I have in the distance ahead. This is only the second time I’ve ever dabbled into mileage over 100K (2010 Pine-to-Palm 100.) Giddy for the opportunity, I continue forward.

The Descent (Miles 60 – 80)

Get ready for downhill, as this section from Forest Hill to the river provides hours of quad-trashing fun. I pass a few runners and float the technical sections downwards. Afternoon sun leaves the exposed trail bone-dry, but newly acquired hat and sunglasses help to deflect any heat.

Run. Drink. Eat. Repeat. I begin to get worn by routine. It’s hot. I’ve been running for 12 hours. Still 30+ more miles to cover. Aid stations take their damn time to appear and I start attaching my weakness to their convenience. Stomach is beginning to reject gels so I incorporate broth and saltines. I begin to regret not picking up Trevor for this section. Lonely. The noise in my mind is becoming too loud and I gracelessly enter the lowest point yet of the race. Just push through, Nick. Follow that tiny slice of light guiding you through this dark room to the opening beyond, one leading to a fresh, new mindset.

Breathe. Patience. Enjoy.

Seeing the American River raises my spirits. I know the crossing is still a few miles away, but I can’t help but peering down its spine of shimmering diamonds in search of volunteers, rafts, runners and refuge. Scraping through this section, I finally see some activity in the distance. The infamous river crossing, a highlight along the Western States course. Daydreams leading up to the race took me to this very moment often, a passage through some numinous threshold. The flowing water offers elemental variance to the hours of pounding hard earth and rock.

Crew surprises me at the river crossing, and I am lifted by their smiles and support. Crossing with a cheesy grin, I perch on the raft, sitting for the first time since the race began 13 hours ago. A brief respite, in the eye of the storm.

Trevor meets me at the other end and we join forces to tackle the remaining 22-mile final section of this journey together. I can’t be happier to be in the company of a good friend and running partner. Countless outings with this guy, circumnavigating volcanoes, exploring new routes. Trevor is tough as nails. An angry swarm of bees could attack his every pore and he wouldn’t say a word. I, however, have much to fuss about. After many hours of downhill running, this stout uphill transition out of the river takes its toll, and miles begin to pour like molasses. Nausea accompanies me all the way up to Green Gate Aid (Mile 80).

The Darkness (Miles 80-100)

Aligned with the summer solstice, Western States provides a maximum amount of daylight for runners. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the Sun’s grace than by traveling on foot, from its first waking yawn to the final flash. I am drip-fed solar sustenance all day and salute it for the company as it sinks to west, painting the surrounding hills eggplant purple.

A click of the headlamps and the world shape-shifts into new forms.

Through the Auburn Lake Trails, Trevor and I move at a solid pace, cutting through night with an 8:00 min/mile pace nearly 90 miles in. Our chats are infrequent, orbiting often around the simple, beautiful things in life. Family. Work. Wilderness pursuit. Passions. Love.

Approaching Brown Bar Aid (Mile 90), a few trips and kicks of rock expose my wavering condition. Irritable. Fatigued. Attempts fail to internalize the suffering, and vulnerabilities leak out. Quad muscles? Fried. Arches? Hyper-tight. Calves? May explode at any moment. Hips? Metal-on-metal grinding. The vivacity at Brown Bar releases me from this pitiful inventory and propels me into single-digit mileage territory.

Crossing No Hands Bridge, (Mile 96) is surreal and inspiring. Lined with colored light and blasting music, I’m over 18 hours in and my spirits are raised as I can see the lights of Auburn along the ridgeline. Trevor and I work together to tackle these last few miles of uphill. Reaching Robie Point and hitting pavement catalyzes a triumphant eruption of spectators, drums, music and claps. Words almost do this moment a disservice. The final mile cruises over pavement through a well-composed Auburn suburb and all harbored pain becomes subordinate to this blissful moment of completion.

Finally, echoes and lights emanate from the famous Auburn track find my ears. Goosebumps. I made it. The world’s most coveted 100-mile race has come to an end. I have imagined this very moment for a few years and wrap my arms around Trevor’s shoulders as we approach the track at near 6 minute/mile pace.

Totally oblivious, I am gaining on a runner in front of me, and our feet both hit the track simultaneously. His pacer yells at him to outrun me, so a drag race immediately ensues. I can’t believe this is happening. Delirious. Nearly 19 hours of running. All day. Over 100 miles. And I am engaging in a full kicking sprint to the finish? Really? The duel fortunately works out in my favor and I pass him on the last turn to finish strong. Then it happens. I am done. My watch stops ticking. My headlamp stops shining. My crew arrives full of smiles, tears and joy.

The battle is over.

100.2 miles. 18 hours, 50 minutes. 34th place overall out of 320 finishers. 7th for my age group.

Body shattered but spirit on fire. Post-race is a blur. Seizing whole body shivers. Hobbling with parents as crutches to the car and hotel. Two ice baths. Denny’s at 3am. A fitful sleep, but resting nonetheless in a state of absolute ecstasy.

Post-Mortem.

My entire life, a 28-year old package of flesh and bone, full of triumphs and failures, fears and ambitions–they all brought me here, in their own way, to this race, to this decision, to this magnificent moving meditation in the Sierra. After qualifying at Waldo last August, my focal point has been to get right here, to the Western States finish line.

Several months. Several races. Thousands of miles. Skipping coworker happy hours to train. Exchanging countless weekend mornings with my sweet, sweet girlfriend for 30-mile long runs in the Gorge. Hours, many hours out there — in the wild, on the trail, through mud, up and over mountains, down dimly lit roads. Late night runs. Early alpine starts. In love with the trails one day, then completely out of tune with them the next. Experiencing the harrows of overtraining. Fatigue. Irritability. Playing an endless game of hide-and-seek with sleep.

Wake. Run 9 miles. Eat. Crank at work for 8 hours. Run 8 more miles. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

In this routine I constantly sought balance, selflessness and sanity through it all—with friends, family and the wild world. I tried to direct psychic energies towards participation in other important spheres as well, like our urgent fight against the egocentric, capitalist machine happily driving us all down a road of assured ecological disaster. Organizing the Rim-to-Rim Against Nestle Run has tied me into local environmental issues. I also scraped the barrels of time during my Western States build-up to exercise creative expression: Singing. Playing music. Writing.

All of this to say is that this journey was much, much, much longer than 100 miles.

Western States is only a day, a 30-hour festival celebrating a process. But the real magic is truly exhumed in the sarcophagus of process. The journey. It is the sharpening of skills, the discipline, the commitment, the relentless pursuit of passion, the cultivation of relationships, the expansion of self-reliance, the personal discoveries about your place in the greater cosmic blueprint.

All the hype, all the real-time splits, all the fanatics and tweet-heads and data I can do without. Too much emphasis to this side of the sport veers strongly off-course, and we end up losing the simple magic of it all — to simply follow the ribbons, those colorful ornaments dancing playfully with Wind to show us the way — through the sleet and over the ridges; down through canyons, the trials and tribulations of which life will certainly deliver; over rivers and ever-changing currents; through the darkness of night and onwards until we reach our destined place, our niche, a more authentic, complex and attuned self. Attuned to the Call. Your Call.

Let us not get too lost in the noise.

I can say without a doubt that Western States 100 was the most enjoyable race of my life. Mind and body remained steel-strong the entire 18+ hours. Body never wavered, and the execution was seamless. There’s no doubt I have much to learn about the 100-mile distance. It wasn’t my boldest race. But this race taught my many lessons, and built confidence in my next approach.

There’s more to come.

I cannot thank my crew for your support, those driving several hours to share this with me. You all are so much closer to my heart after this experience. A memory we’ll all never forget. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing to see so many of the people in my life I love most all in one place, all together. This by far trumps the acquisition of any gaudy belt buckle.

All of this for the wild and nothing more.

Sub-19 Hour Group

10 thoughts on “Western States of Consciousness

  1. This is awesome Nicky! so excited to have shared it with you! Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. lots of love, Debbie (cant wait to see you soon!)

  2. Nick-Nick…reading your dialogues after the fact always gives tons more meaning and understanding to what we were fortunate enough to witness at the Western States. We were proud to be there….. with and for you! As for me, I am happy with “Assistant Cheek Kisser” anytime, while you continue the running! xo GG

  3. You made us all very proud “creating your daily masterpiece”….you got heart son!
    Not a bad literary recap either.
    Love ya, POPS

  4. Pingback: A Video Project Success in Turkey | The Jasmine Dialogues

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