From Squaw to Auburn - My Western States 100 Race by Billy Yang [video]
BUFF® Staff / 6-22-2016
“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” -Jim Valvano
Just several yards outside of Duncan Canyon aid station at mile 24 is when I first felt it: a sharp pain in my right quad muscle.
What’s going on? I’ve gone less than a marathon and I’m already feeling quad pain?
Yet there it was. And as the miles through the hot and historic trails of the Western States 100 Mile race wore on, it became increasingly undeniable. Soon both quads were in a full downward spiral of the beat down only a course like this could dish out.
To note, it hasn’t been a very magical day to this point. I’ve only had one 100-mile race to draw upon and this was a far cry from the near perfect day at my last 100 the year prior. Still I tried to remain optimistic and hopeful that a sub-24 hour finish would be in the cards after narrowly missing it on my first 100 mile attempt (by 21 seconds).
It is widely understood that Western States can unravel any best of intentions in 3 primary ways: 1) the oppressive heat, particularly in the still recesses of “the canyons” 2) stomach issues, usually as a result of the body working overtime to cool the skin drawing blood away from the digestive tract and 3) blown quads, from the relentless downhills predominantly (and almost strategically designed and placed) in the first half of the race.
I managed the heat great: a UV Half BUFF® on my head filled with ice at each aid that had some. An extra cold water bottle to douse myself with on occasion. But I had focused so much on the heat leading up to the race, I did not adequately respect the downhills and appreciate how much they could slowly but surely shatter my race goals.
Fast forward to mile 48. I had just left the Devil’s Thumb aid station. The climb up there was almost infuriatingly easy - mainly because the run down to the base of it was extremely painful and awkward. My quads felt as if they were repeated hammered by a Louisville Slugger bat. To add insult to injury, my feet started to feel as if they were being ripped apart due to repeated soaks at various creeks in a futile attempt to revive my quads in the tepid waters of the canyons. That’s when I broke down into tears.
Despite my earnest attempt to race patiently in the first 100K of the race, in retrospect I fear that it lent to repeated braking down the trails of the famed Western States course. And now, the race of my dreams had gone from bad to virtually impossible. I thought about my poor crew waiting at the next aid station in Michigan Bluff. I thought about my late father. I thought about all the heroic efforts of the finishers before me and how I wouldn’t be able to ink my name among those that were able to earn that prized finishers buckle. I started to wonder about that fateful and exciting December morning when my name was drawn during the Western States lottery and how undeserving I was of that spot. Hell, I even thought about the hundreds of dollars I’d poured into that weekend. The pity party knew no bounds.
During the long descent down into El Dorado, I was passed by dozens and dozens of runners. I told a friend of mine as he passed to please inform my crew I was dropping out once I reached them. I was hobbling. I was dejected. I was giving up. It all felt so hopeless.
After seemingly a lifetime of negotiating the rocks and dirt to the bottom, an aid station finally appeared. I sat down and informed them of my intentions. They offered up some encouragement while I humored them by taking in a few calories and popping a couple of Acetaminophen’s. I still had to make that final long climb up before I could see my crew and officially tap out after all. After several minutes of purging my one man pity party and reluctant refueling, I thanked the gracious aid station workers and slowly made my way up towards Michigan aid station.
Then something happened. My mood started to lift. I still felt very strong hiking uphill, even managing to pass a few runners. Next thing I knew, I started to allow myself to open up to the possibility of finishing. Implausibly, I decided that I would inform my crew of my intentions of finishing, whatever it took.
Relief swept over when I finally reached my crew at Michigan Bluff aid station at mile 55. It was both light-hearted and business all at once as they immediately went into damage control mode. I laid down while the medical staff looked over my macerated feet. My crew/pacer Jimmy started to massage my quads. My other crew/pacer Josh grabbed some calories for me. My friend and Western States great Ann Trason came by to check on me and offer words of encouragement. So did John Trent, who gave me priceless support and pep talk once at Robinson Flat at mile 30 and now here before I took off into the night. I was going to fight the cut-offs and aim to arrive at the finish under 30 hours to be an official finisher. It was just before 8pm.
My race would be a tale of two halves - and this is precisely when the second act unfolded.
I started running again. Not regularly yet - a shuffle here, a shuffle there. For a minute. Then two minutes. I smiled at the glorious sunset before switching my headlamp on.
Feet still felt raw. Quads felt as if acid and cement were poured in. But I was running again. More importantly, I started to believe.
I ran nearly every step up Bath Road en route to Foresthill. All along, my strategy was to be able to make it this far and be able to run the much more forgiving last 38 miles. While it wasn’t pretty here I was, poised and ready. My crew was impressed by how quickly I’d made it. I loaded up on more calories before my pacer Josh and I descended into the darkness down Cal Street.
Stomach was still good. Heat wasn’t really a factor all day. The Acetaminophen I was taking at the aid stations did just enough to take a little bit of the edge off for several minutes at a time. And while I still had to gingerly hike the downhills, everything else we ran. Like a man possessed, no longer chasing race cut-offs but as if I were catching up to an invisible version of myself that should have been much further ahead.
By the time we crossed the river and made our way to Green Gate aid station at mile 80 to pick up my last pacer Jimmy, Josh told me we passed over 30 runners. I knew by this point of the race, the finish was no longer in doubt.
Jimmy and I continued down the path to Placer High and got to witness the sun coming up as the finish line loomed. At one point Jimmy told me “we’re running everything”, quads be damned. And so we did. Up Highway 49. Down into No Hands Bridge. Up Robie Point.
It was hard not to get emotional during the final mile. But this time, for vastly different reasons. It was the accumulation of the entire day and the friends that helped me get to this point. It was profound gratitude at its utmost. I was raw. I was beaten. But I was still standing and running. And I was about to finish the race that I had long only read and dreamed about running someday myself.
The victory lap around Placer High was sublime. I couldn’t stop grinning. A kid ran across the field just to slap hands with me. My friend Joel who sacrificed so much to crew and document the race ran me in. Andy Jones-Wilkins announced my finish. Race Director Craig Thornley greeted me at the finish. And of course, so did the rest of my crew. I thanked them profoundly and profusely. After 25 hours 49 minutes and 52 seconds, my journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn was finally complete.
It wasn’t the sub-24 hour finish I dreamed of. But given the entirety of my journey from Squaw to Auburn, it meant so much more.
To watch more of Billy's films visit his website: http://www.billyyangfilms.com/