"AJ, look up there, around 11 o'clock, it looks like we've got company." My pacer Jeff Hutson spotted a light bouncing up to Robie Point about 20 minutes before the end of the WS 100. I knew I was in 11th place at the time (10th male) and I thought maybe, just maybe, I could reel one guy in. So, we ran, hard.
Then we hit Robie and turned onto the pavement. The light ahead was bobbing away.
"OK, AJ, now it looks like we've got someone behind us. Look!" Jeff pointed down to the road leading up to Robie. He was right, two lights were bobbing up the trail about 45 seconds back.
It was 18:30 into the race. I was battling brutally blistered feet and trying my best to stay positive. And, to add stress to the system, I was now in a battle for 10th male. I put my head down and powered up the climb (this would be the first time in 6 races at WS that I would run every step from No Hands to the Finish)
When we crested the hill the light ahead of us was out of sight but the light behind us was right there, closing. I knew I had five minutes left to hold my spot or end my streak of consecutive top-10's at WS. While I know it'll eventually come to an end I didn't want it to be now.
"I'm thinking, how fast can I run 1200 meters?" Maybe the speedwork would come in handy after all.
Well, by the time we got to the entrance to the track the light behind us was out of sight and Mark Lantz (the 9th place runner who had staged an amazing comeback from Foresthill) was rounding the final turn toward his 9th place finish. My kids came bounding up to me and we continued our sprint around the track. In the end I edged out Victor Ballesteros for 10th place by 20 seconds. He had surged from 26th place at Foresthill to 11th at the Finish. Incredible.
My 6th run at WS started oddly as the lead group of 40 or so runners took a wrong turn about five minutes into the race and added a bit of excitement to the proceedings and served to mix things up in the early going. I knew I was in for a long day when I started to blister at Red Star Ridge. It became clear that I would need to gut it out but with trashed feet and that my normally consistent downhills would suffer.
Since I have five years of data for comparison I was able to see how bad it really was. I ended up doing the descent to Duncan 6 minutes slow, the descent to Deadwood 5 minutes slow, the descent to El Dorado 8 minutes slow and the descent to Volcano 10 minutes slow. By the time I hit Cal Street my feet were thoroughly trashed and I knew my planned 2:30 was unattainable. Damage control was now the order of the day. Quads and stomach were fine but I knew the push to the finish would test my ability to balance, focus and persevere.
As far as the competitive aspect of the race, it proceeded as planned but only up to a point. I was 22nd at Robinson, 15th at Michigan, 10th at the River, and 10th at the Finish. In contrast to past years, I had nothing left to close with from the River. It was partly my fault but more an issue of the depth of the field and the quality of 100 mile racers who were in the mix.
Aside from the fact that I was quite surprised at the DNF's from Scott Jurek and Dave Mackey, there was absolutely no way to fake it into the top-10 this year. Kaburagi from Japan was incredible from start to finish and his 2nd place finish absolutely obliterated Tim Tweitmeyer's Masters' Course Record. Jez Bragg from the UK proved a bunch of prognosticators wrong and proved KiwiPaul correct. His 3rd place was the Real Deal. Jasper Halekas did what we all thought he could do and hammered out an amazing, pacerless sub-17 hour 4th place while Kevin Sullivan, from Andover, MA, who chased me through the hills of Vermont last July, established himself as the new beast of the East, with a sub-17 of his own for M5. Zach Miller, Leigh Schmitt and Erik Skaden all powered through amazing races and Mark Lantz got it right on his 4th try and got the top-10 he'd been striving for. In the end, it was truly an amazing group to be part of and I was happy to be the caboose.
Of course, just after Erik and before Mark and I came the extraordinary Anita Ortiz who showed that you can make the move from mountain running to ultras and concluded an extraordinary run leading to her new title as WS Champion. Not bad for a mother of four who took a wrong turn and passed me like I was standing still between Green Gate and ALT!
From my perspective, there are three important takeaways from this year's race:
1. Non-American runners should not be taken for granted anymore: The 2nd and 3rd place finishes by Kaburagi and Bragg have set a high bar. It'll be fun to see how it unfolds from here.
2. The East Coast has arrived: Sure, we've had Morton and Clifton but the races this year by Sullivan and Schmitt (as well as Miller who only recently moved west from Michigan, I think,) suggest a changing of the guard and could lead to some exciting races in the years ahead.
3. Experience, schmexperience! I admit that I have been consistently guilty of suggesting that course knowledge and race-day experience are critical to success at WS. Perhaps this is no longer true. In addition to the Women's Champion, of the top-7 men, only Hal had run the race before. Erik, Mark and I were the other "experienced" guys and we got our clocks cleaned.
As for me, I am currently en route to Silverton to begin my preparation for Hardrock. I have no idea what to expect but if it's half as exciting as my weekend at WS it will make for a summer to remember!
I'll try to write more when I get settled in Silverton. I hope you're all having a great summer!