It’s never a good sign when the runner you are following ends up on the edge of a cliff, calling out “Hello? Hello? Is anybody out there?”
Traversing the Eastern Sierras, running along the base of Mount Whitney and not that far from the edge of Death Valley, Wild Wild West is the 3rd oldest trail marathon in the United States.
Kista, Sheri & I arrived at Lone Pine mid afternoon. The town thermometer said 85 degrees. An hour later it said 87. It kept climbing into the low 90s. The promised cool down did not look like it was coming. We checked into the Dow Villa motel. Sheri stayed behind to do her ritual and Kista and I went to collect our stuff at checkin.
After checkin, we sat by the pool. There was another group there who stopped to talk. They weren’t running. The older woman’s husband had been a Wild Wild West runner every year, and had just passed away. They’d come to the race to commemorate him.
Lone Pine is a town that has served two distinct purposes over the years. For a long time, it was home base for the countless movies that were filmed in the Sierras near here – Gunga Din, just about everything John Wayne ever did (John Wayne is the town mascot), all sorts of westerns going as far back as Hopalong Cassidy… The other big deal in Lone Pine is that it is home base for Mount Whitney, which is the highest peak in the United States. The town also has an ultra running history. Wild Wild West is the 3rd oldest trail marathon in the USA, Whitney Portal is the finish line for Badwater, and the Dow Villa Motel, official motel/hotel of Wild Wild West also serves as Badwater HQ during the event itself.
We gathered at the campground start at 5:30am, for a 6am start. Elevation 5,000 feet, and we were supposed to climb up to 6,600 feet before working our way down to the Alabama Rocks and then into Lone Pine.
The climb began on a sandy fireroad heading gently up. Up, up, up. We arrived at the first aid station, refilled, and then headed back up.
And then the excitement started…
Around mile 6 or so, the trail markers seemed to head up an imaginary path basically up the side of the mountain. Nobody who’d run the race remembered this part, but the markers were clearly there and so we headed up, and up, and up, through deep sand and brush, until the markers ended and it became abundantly clear that this was a fuck-up.
Looking down from the edge of a cliff we could see the fireroad below us. Now all we needed to do was figure out how to get back down there, a sandy scramble through the brush that resulted in scratched legs for more than a few folks. The detour was almost a mile of unrunnable terrain that added about 30 minutes to everyone’s time.
A nice downhill run, the first of several stream crossings, and trail markings once again. Everyone was happy.
And then the sun hit…
Another long climb, this one up to 6,600 feet. Kista caught up to me on the climb, and blew past me on the long, long downhill that followed.
I’d slept poorly and as things heated up I started fading. The altitude was getting to me. My heart was pounding a little harder than I’d like. I was sucking for air & my legs felt heavy. I was probably feeling residual effects of the 52 miler just two weekends earlier (and Ragnar the weekend before that – both seem like they happened so long ago). Sand is also my least favorite terrain. I don’t run sand well. My toes instinctively try to grip when I lose traction, and my bad toe on my left foot was hurting. A lot.
Let me pause for a second in this story, give things some perspective. This was not Badwater. What I was considering adverse conditions would have been welcome to anyone running 135 miles on hot tarmac through Death Valley. I feel like a complete pussy writing this report…but at the moment, it was not Happy Time and I was starting to get miserable.
By mile 13 I was starting to consider dropping. At some point I’d picked up a cloud of gnats that had followed me swarming around for at least 4 miles. It was getting hot. The sand was killing me. I had nothing but hate for the race.
I tried to drop at the 20 mile mark but the dude at the aid station yelled at me and told me to shut up and sit down and drink some water and listen to him because he knew what he was talking about. He ordered me to drop down to the marathon, and I didn’t really feel like I had any choice since it seemed the only way I was going to get back to anywhere with shade.
Badwater Ben was taking photos just before the 19 mile mark, which means I’d pass him coming out of the aid station and back down the road. The arrows pointed off the sand and into the dirt. Badwater Ben Jones is an enormously important part of the ultra community, and is at all the races taking photos and being of service. I stopped to take a picture of him, then with him, and then went off the road.
Suddenly there was a stretch of technical singletrack. After 20 miles of sand, I was in heaven! This is the stuff I run well! I blew down the singletrack, flying, full of new energy, most of which was just mental. There was a steep climb back up, but still, this was what I’d been waiting for. Had the whole race been like this I’d’ve been killing it.
I asked the guy at the next aid station how much more of that track I was going to see. He told me I was lucky – that was the end of it. Nooooo!!!! I live for that stuff. No more sand…please…no more sand!
A few miles running down a rocky road. Not nearly as much fun as the singletrack, but still better than sand. There was a headwind, which was actually very welcome ’cause it cooled me down more than it slowed me down. Gravity is my friend on any kind of technical downhills – I let it do all the hard work and just concentrate on foot placement. I turned onto tarmac. Very very seldom am I happy to see tarmac, but here I was grateful for two reasons: it meant to me that the race was nearly over, and it wasn’t sand.
Wrong on both counts. After maybe 100 meters on the tarmac, the arrows pointed left, into a long straight trail of…sand. Noooo!!! Make it stop!!! More cursing ensued. I think I probably set my world’s record for saying “Fuck this shit!” I meant it, too.
I was gaining on a couple of folks. Of course, running through sand is like, well, running through sand. It sucks. So gaining on people is done at a very slow pace.
I saw a bleached cow skull on a stake against some barbed wire. At that moment, this symbolized the run for me.
Finally, the end was in sight. I attempted a sprint, but there wasn’t one in me. I did manage to pass a few people and crossed the finish line in what I was certain would be a low point for me, but turned out to be enough to take 3rd place in my division.
There were some important lessons here. The first is technical: I need to learn how to run in sand. I believe Kista actually gave me suggestions at one point: the slipping occurs on push-off, so shorten the stride considerably and don’t try to get any push off. Also – forefoot strike.
A second lesson is that even though nobody really feels much like eating when it’s 90 plus degrees out there, you’ve got to, especially when you running in heat and at elevation.
The third and perhaps most important lesson is that if the course is sandy and you can’t find traction and it’s too goddamn hot…well, everybody on the course is experiencing those conditions. It wasn’t just me who was tanking out there, as evidenced by my placing 3rd.
A special shout out to the volunteers: volunteers at ultras rock in a very big way. First of all, we are so very dependent on them, on the food, on liquid, on filling up our water bottles and keeping us moving – basically, they serve as crew for all the runners. At mile 20 I was forced to stop, I was forced to cool down, I was chastised for not consuming enough liquid, and I was not allowed to drop out. They saved the race for me.
We’d spotted a stream in the park where the race ended. I headed straight there from the finish line and soaked my feet in ice cold mountain water. It felt so very good. Once I felt sufficiently recovered I headed back to the finish line to watch for Kista and Sheri.
Sheri crossed the finish line looking surprisingly happy and un-destroyed. 3rd place female finisher, and a PR. How she did it on that course I’ve no idea. Kista came in a while later, looking like I’d felt while out on the course. She told me she’d had a breakdown at mile 20, and the last third of the race had been brutal. Still, it was enough for 2nd in her age group.
Those of us who placed got wonderful little arts-and-crafts style awards that we all think are meant to be used as ashtrays. We posed for photos for the town newspaper. After that, we took the shuttle back to the campground, hiked in the heat to the car, got changed and headed into town for food.
There were a number of runners at the cafe, and the talk was careening towards conspiracy. Folks were getting worked up about the trail marking snafu. Did some of the front runners do it? Why did the race director refuse to tell anyone what the winning time was? Had someone been paid off? Or perhaps, as the race director suggested, it was just ineptitude due to having a novice marking the trail.
I’m not sure I passed whatever tests Wild Wild West had to offer. I’m pretty sure I didn’t fail them, either. There’s obviously a lot more learning to do. I could have been more graceful when faced with adversity, and I could have staved a lot of it off, too. When I wasn’t staring at my feet thinking when will this end, it was a beautiful course. In the end, this run kicked ass as much as it kicked my ass, and next year should be even better. I can honestly say that once I was finished, I decided it was awesome! Next year I’ll be better prepared.