Dawn was breaking on Wednesday June 20th. I had just got a weird call from United Airlines 8 minutes before arriving at Vancouver Airport indicating a change in itinerary. 13 hours delayed to Reno. I was panicked! Kristin was driving Ellie and I to the airport. We were slated to arrive early to the 39th running of the Western States 100 to get some rest and relaxing done and casually discuss the plans for Saturday. I was full of rage and fury at the prospect of Ellie being delayed that long. Ellie was calm and collected. A sign of things to come.
After a re-route through Denver we landed in sunny Reno only 3 hours behind schedule. We still accomplished everything we needed to that day, hit up Whole Foods for lunch and dinner, get a run in on the trails behind the Patagonia outlet as we did the year previous, and sit pool side, catch some rays and think about nothing.
Ellie was fresh off a phenomenal performance 3 weeks prior at Comrades. No doubt that effort had taken a toll on her legs and she was acutely aware of that but she had played the 20 days in between as smart as one could. The training was there, deep down Ellie knew it, I knew it, but those thoughts swirl through anyones mind of "have I done enough" or "should I have got one more long run in."
The crew team was filled with friends of Ellie and a balance of experience, wisdom, maturity and calming. Mike Palichuk was along to split pacing duties with me this year. I learned two things last year, (1) keeping up to Ellie for 40 miles is a race in itself and (2) the smaller segments we can break the race up in, the more motivated Ellie is going through shorter segments till a landmark. Mike has seen Ellie run throughout her career and no doubt Saturday was a special day for him to be with Ellie in those final miles. Ran Katzman is another North Vancouver local trail stud. Ran provided a very calming influence on the entire crew. He was also in charge of the meals for Ellie and the crew. He crewed/paced for Mike when he ran last year and his meals were the envy of all in the cabin. Ken Michal - Mr. Running Stupid needs no introduction! He is a bundle of energy that never seems to run out. Case in point, after running 71 hours and change at the Pigtails 200 miler he was still chipper and perky! Kristin Ohm-Pedersen provided some female companionship for Ellie as well to make sure there was that balance of raging testosterone and calming zen. Kristin has had experience crewing for me back when I could still run fast and compete so knows the importance of efficiency and precision at checkpoints.
We knew Western would have little to no snow this year and the weather pointed towards a cool year. I think we were all stunned at how cool it actually was.
The sight at the start line is magical and one you have to be at to fully appreciate its energy. 369 courageous athletes all with one common goal. Get to Auburn. The countdown was on and the gun boomed and the runners began their 2550' climb up to Emigrant Gap. The spectators screamed as loud as their lungs would allow, the runners waved, high fived and plowed up out of Squaw Valley. The race was on.
This year we had split into two crews. For crew A consisting of Mike, Kristin and myself, the race was also on. Duncan Canyon is 23.9 miles in and a 3 hour drive for us. We made a quick pit stop at the 7-11 for coffee and snacks before hitting the open highway for a few hours. As we drove up to Donner Pass rain drops began to splash the windshield of our Chrysler 300 Rental Car dubbed by Mike "the Gangster Car." Soon thereafter a full on rainstorm! Just like Vancouver we lamented.
We arrived at Duncan Canyon and mingled with the other crews and were entertained by Greg who was the Aid Station captain. The first 6 men were tightly bunched together and on a mission. Lizzy Hawker came in 9th overall and blew right through the station without taking anything. At this point she was only 8 minutes behind the lead male. The clock started to count the gap for Ellie. My gut said Lizzy was out hard, maybe too hard, but that's her style. While we wanted to see Ellie sooner rather than later but we also wanted her to run her own race and within herself.
Ellie came charging in 15:30 behind Lizzy. Rory was in tow with her. A quick change of packs and some instruction for the next station and she was gone on the climb up to Robinson Flat where she would meet Ran and Ken, the other crew team. Perfectly executed first 1/4 of the race by Ellie we remarked.
Dusty Corners sits at the 38 mile mark of the course. It was a much shorter drive for us so Kristin and Mike caught some well needed Z's (read zed north of the 49th parallel, read zee south of the 49th). The rain continued to fall heavily but blue skies were off in the distance. I figured by about Last Chance racers would be clear of the rainy skies. We caught up with other crews and had a chat with Peggy Moehl, one of the best ultra moms in the sport, no offence to other ultra moms!
The top 4 men came in together, 38 miles in and still a pack running together. Lizzy had fallen further back from where she was at Duncan Canyon. Lizzy still came through in the lead and stopped for nothing. Kristin started the watch and we began the count again. 7 minutes later Ellie charged down the trail and into Dusty Corners. Another quick exchange and a briefing on the races developments and Ellie was gone. She was looking focused, in the zone, smooth and efficient. As she charged down the forest service road out of sight I said to Sean Meissner who was crewing for Ryan Burch that I think this is going to be a good day.
On to Foresthill we went to get ready for the major checkpoint of the race and get ready for pacing duties. We went to the coffee shop to get wifi and follow the updates. Methodically Ellie kept chipping away at Lizzy until she made the pass down to El Dorado Canyon. As per last year I sent Kristin down to Bath Road to give Ellie some company for the mile and a bit into Foresthill. We reconnected with Ran and Ken who gave us updates of the exchanges at Robinson Flat and Michigan Bluff. All sounded positive. Montrail / Mountain Hardwear dudes Jimmy Hopper and Byron Pittam were hanging around awaiting the arrival of Ellie as well. The excitement was brewing!
Within no time Ellie and Kristin came charging into view and the crowds gave Ellie a raucous ovation. Again, a quick exchange of packs, lather sunscreen on, shove a few salt and vinegar chips in, wash it down with a Coke and boom! Down Cal Street Ellie and I charge.
We have about 18 miles together before I hand her off to Mike. Quite the contrast to last year when Ellie had been going through a major rough patch. Everything from my observation looked great. She wasn't breathing heavy, weight was spot on, cadence and form was fantastic. But this was different, last year she was hunting, this year she was the hunted. Ellie was very aware that there were hungry runners behind and kept her motivation and worry levels at a high. Last year she had erased a 36 minute deficit and nothing is a given until you are across the line. We chatted about this and that and spoke of the sections as we went through each one. Ellie stayed in a great rhythm. We made sure aid stations were pre planned to be as efficient as possible. I would listen for the beeps on her garmin signalling another kilometer completed. When enough beeps passed to put us within a kilometer of the checkpoint I would ask her to start thinking about what she wanted to eat or drink.
It was almost robotic that Ellie was chipping away at the course. No doubt she was hurting, but everybody hurts goes a famous song. The quads were holding up from the abuse that Comrades put on them 3 weeks earlier. I was doing math in my head on the CR and no doubt it looked like it was going to happen. But we didn't talk about it. Kilometer by kilometer, aid station by aid station. In no time we were at Rucky Chucky Near Side. Ran and Ken were there to shout encouragement and give us Coke and chips to take across the river. Craig Thornley advised us at the station we would be boated across. In we went and Ellie used the quick paddle across to splash cool water out of the American River onto her. With a major checkpoint at Green Gate a mere 2 miles ahead we plowed right through the far side aid station and like last year I made a donation of a bag of chips to the aid station.
Ellie's power hiking was rhythmic and masterful. The power and pep at this stage of the race was inspiring to see. Within no time Kristin and then Mike came into view. A change of shoes which they had ready to go and after 80 brilliant miles in the Montrail Bajadas it was now the task of the Montrail Fairhavens to take Ellie to Auburn. Quickly Ellie and Mike disappeared down the hill and en route to Auburn Lakes Trail.
Kristin and myself continued the hike up to the shuttle and on to the Highway 49 station. We again caught up with Peggy and chatted. Krissy from all reports was having a phenomenal race as well. I was well aware that Ellie arriving to Hwy 49 in daylight would no doubt mean a record. We guestimated that she would arrive around the 15:35-15:40 mark. By 15:39 Ellie had charged into the station, swapped packs again, downed a coke and some chips and was out of the station on a mission.
We were bouncing with excitement! While we didn't know Ellie hadn't looked at her watch yet, we knew we were a short drive away to Placer High from witnessing something very special. We sent the info to Ran and Ken who were at No Hands and went to the track and awaited Ellie's imminent arrival.
The announcement came over the loud speaker that Ellie had cleared Robie Point at 16:34 and I couldn't help but smile. Yes there was 1.3 miles left, but it was going to happen. Ken and Ran went down to meet her, Kristin and I remained trackside.
Last year Ellie let out no emotion until the finish line, sprinting all the way around the track not believing she had won until she hit the timing mat. Minutes later we saw bobbing headlamps and screams. As Ellie came onto the track she unleashed a scream. She knew she had done it. The impossible had been achieved. Ann Trason was and is the queen of queens. Her records and list of victories are jaw dropping. She was in a league all to her own. Until Saturday night. Ellie tore around the track with a jubilance that reminds you of kids running around a playground. Mike was on cloud nine. Ken and Ran were beaming with enthusiasm. Karen who had rushed up from San Fran to see the finish was going wild. Kristin was screaming. I was smiling ear to ear. The announcer serenaded her around the track to the throng of media awaiting at the finish line. 16:47:19. History.
Records are made to be broken. Ann's impressive record stood for nearly two decades. No one had come close. To break Ann's Western record is an amazing achievement. To break it by 50 minutes, or an average of 30 seconds per mile, is unheard of. It was a flawless race by Ellie executed brilliantly. I think we can all agree that record may stand for 2 decades at least. It's a record I view as comparable to DiMaggio's 56 game hit streak, or Cy Young's 511 wins. Maybe once in a lifetime someone has everything come together and something magical occurs. I'm honored that I had a front row seat to witness that magic Saturday night in Auburn.
While Ellie's talent is unexplainable in words, the part of Ellie I admire most is her humility. Every sport has champions. My sport, our sport, has a champion that is an ambassador and a role model for the sport, for running.
Perfection is hard to define and hard to measure in certain contexts. My day was filled with reconnecting with old friends, making new ones, running with a teammate and friend along a gorgeous trail, seeing all of Ellie's hard work and dedication come to fruition, being able to share in the celebration of a performance for the ages. I'm perfectly content with how my day went on Saturday June 23rd.