|This picture says it all. Photo: Rachel Ekberg (my sister)|
Rather than launch into a wordy account of my Western States experience - from aid-station to aid-station; split-by-split - I thought, perhaps, I'd do my best to portray the raw emotion I'm feeling now, and was feeling throughout the day. Maybe I'll dive into minute details and play-by-play action, maybe I won't; like attempting to run 100 miles, we'll see where it goes.
To set the framework, however, I'll start by saying that in the week leading up to the race, I was addicted to the book, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption". This heart-wrenching biography of Louis Zamperini recounts his unbelievable experiences as a world-class miler, WWII fighter pilot, prisoner of war, and redeemed soul. You see, as a POW under Japanese authority, Louis was faced with some of the most brutal beatings a human being can endure. Yet, time and time again, his will to live endured. Each day, he was starved, beaten, and brought to the brink of death - yet, somehow, found a way to press on. That is, until one day - after intentionally not allowing his will to be broken - it all came crashing down.
Possibly the most evil of Japanese prison guards, nicknamed "The Bird" would beat Louis daily (on purpose, for a purpose). Trying to break him. Trying to crumble him to pieces. Yet, Louis fought this evil daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. He would not allow The Bird the satisfaction of seeing his soul broken. He would not allow himself to be humbled like that. Until one day, Louis' beating from the Bird was so severe, that it broke him. His soul was finally crushed and he knew it.
Many times throughout the day at Western States on Saturday I thought I was done. I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my physical limits. "The Bird" - the course, the competition, the heat - beating me down - seeing if I would submit to its rule. And yes, my body felt like it had had enough, numerous times. But, by God's grace, my Spirit continued to endure.
Shortly after leaving Miller's Defeat Aid Station (mi 35), Yassine Diboun took off and I hit an absolute low. On a point in the course that is ridiculously easy, flat, and downhill; I was stumbling along at 10min pace, my quads completely shot, and already prepared to tell Connor Curley that I was dropping at Dusty Corners (mi 38).
Yet, after getting refreshed by Connor (and Dom Grossman), I had new life breathed into me and ran a decent stretch from Dusty to Last Chance (mi 43). There, Jesse Haynes and Karl Meltzer came into the aid just after me and Karl and I set off together down into Deadwood Canyon. I had never chatted with Karl before (for those unfamiliar, Karl has run over SIXTY 100-milers and has won 35 of them - the most of anyone, ever).
Karl's experience and words were timely. He provided the right words at the right time and got me moving along with him pretty well. That is, until we hit the steep, switchbacked descent down to Swinging Bridge. My quads just couldn't bear the grade and I slowly, painfully tip-toed my way downhill. Jesse Haynes passed me and once I reached the bottom, I walked all the way up Devil's Thumb.
At Devil's Thumb, I saw Dave Mackey sitting in a chair, dealing with stomach issues. He offered me some Ibuprofen to help off-set the pain and I was hydrated enough, so I took it. After cooling off, I tried to run out of Devil's Thumb (mi 47.7), but couldn't. My brain - probably sensing some sort of danger - completely shut my body down. In what is an almost all-downhill 5.5mi stretch to the bottom of El Dorado Canyon - I walked everything.
Again, formulating the excuses in my head of why I was gonna drop at Michigan Bluff - beaten down again. "The Bird" taunting me in my desperation. It's funny though, not once did I become negative. Not once did I lose my joy. I accepted that my body was shut down for whatever reason and tried to find the utmost joy in the midst of my suffering - encouraging other runners as they passed and trying to crack a few jokes here and there.
In fact, along Deadwood ridge - Luis Escobar was there taking pictures. I laughed because here I was walking a flat section while one of the most respected photographers in all of ultrarunning was snapping photos of me. Pretty uneventful. Although, he did have a few Coors Lights' on hand.
As an IPA guy, I hate Coors Light. Tastes like piss-water. Yet, to try and add some excitement to my dire circumstance, I asked Louis for a beer. This seemed to excite him tremendously and he put one in my hand immediately. I popped the top and chugged half of the can. Delicious (did I really just say that?). Seriously. It hit the spot. This pumped up the guys and I continued walking. No life in my legs, but a good portion of beer in my stomach.
Another :30 of walking and all of a sudden Scott Wolfe passes me (aka "Monkey Boy").
"BGD! Fix yourself! Do you need anything!"
"Actually I do, do you have any S Caps?!"
"I went swimming in the river so I might not, but let me check.....Looks like I do! There ya go!"
Monkey Boy handed me 3 S Caps and I devoured them. Trying anything to get the brain back on board so that, hopefully, the body would come around.
Nothing. Therefore, I prayed, "God, if you want me to continue, send me a miracle. I need one!"
Shortly after, Rory Bosio came down the trail - smiling and showering me with positivity.
And then, it happened. I was running again!
My brain latched on to her kind words and like a timely drug in my veins, whatever she "injected" into me was taking effect.
I started running behind her, both of us laughing at the absurdity of running 100mi's in this heat, but both set on finishing.
I pulled ahead of Rory and then started catching other people near the bottom of El Dorado Creek. I rolled into El Dorado feeling fresh and after a few min of sponges, dousing, and ice (and a quick glance at the thermometer which read 95deg's in the shade!) I ran every step of the climb up to Michigan Bluff (mi 55.7).
I reached the top in :39 and jogged easily to the aid where my crew of family and friends were waiting (much longer than they expected! ha!). It was exciting. I was back from the dead, running strong, and convinced I was going to top-10.
All of my loved ones there were incredible. Although, I was shocked to hear that Joe had to drop. .....Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em ..... as he likes to say.
I set off from Michigan Bluff running strong. Passing more people and running everything and it feeling effortless.
Again, I ran every step from the 'Bluff to Foresthill (mi 62). But shortly after Bath Rd aid (mi 60), my pacer Mike met me partially up the road and we started running together.
I filled him in on what happened, jokingly apologized for taking so long and told him I was focused on getting it done. Again, all of my loved ones - friends and family - were there at Foresthill and their presence - whether I coherently acknowledged it or not - was invaluable. I felt the love more so than the heat and it fueled me beyond words.
Mike and I set off from Foresthill and I just barely caught a glimpse of Joe and his family/friends and Joe gave me the look of, "You got this. Go get it."
I told Mike that I was weary of this section to Cal-1 (mi 65) because of how much downhill it involved and my quads - as they had been just after Robinson Flat (mi 30) - were still destroyed, but I wanted to try and manage this section the best I could.
We made good work and Mike reassured me that we were moving well. We really were as the split to Cal-1 showed a :32. Very good in this heat with blown quads.
The aid workers - as they had been all day - were absolutely phenomenal in anticipating our needs and acting quickly. We got what we needed at the aid, cooled off and set off for this tough section from Cal-1 to Cal-2 (mi 70).
Again, I ran every uphill and moved well on the flats. Then, danger began to creep in again. 2 miles out from Cal-2, my body started shutting down again. The quads just couldn't take anymore pounding which made elevator shaft quite comical as it took me maybe :10 to get down it.
I stumbled into Cal-2 (:50) and lingered. I was fearing this next section as there is a good portion of downhill running so Mike and I started walking out from the aid. Then, Monkey Boy and his pacer Julie Fingar went by! I was so pumped for MB that he was absolutely nailing this course and this hot day. He was moving impressively.
I tried to get my legs moving, but as had been the case previously after Devil's Thumb, nothing was working. So we walked. Multiple times I tried to run, but couldn't. It's weird because again, I was in a great mental spot, but for some reason, the body would not respond. It completely shut down again so Mike and I enjoyed the luxury of a nice casual walk to the river.
However, in an attempt to get something going I started power-walking. Mike commented that I looked like one of those race-walkers in the Olympics and we both laughed. Yet, in this desperate attempt, for maybe 3 miles, I averaged 14min miles, just walking (not bad!).
As we approached the River Crossing (mi 78). Walking 22 more miles just didn't sound appealing (as it shouldn't!). Not only that, but in the back of my mind, I feared doing something to jeopardize my health as there was obviously a reason why my body kept shutting me down. I'm sure the body sensed some sort of perceived danger that was going on and the brain made the ultimate decision to try and stop me.
And there, in the distance, I saw my wife Sara. She started walking toward me and we just embraced. We held each other there. I wanted to break down and weep. I had experienced more pain in the last 40 miles than I ever had in any race previously, by far. "The Bird" continued to beat on me and by my wife holding me, she was letting me know its ok; its ok to hurt; its ok that you feel like you've had enough. I needed that love and reassurance from her. She's an amazing wife.
I couldn't give in though. I wanted to. I wanted to say I was defeated. The Bird's lashings had finally gotten to me. I wanted to admit that. But my Spirit, again, endured. My body was further broken, but something inside me was still holding on.
I looked across the river to Connor and said, "Do you want to walk to Auburn?" He did. Not sure why, but he was down. What a loyal friend. Again, blown away by the love and support I received from everyone out there.
Actually crossing the river was interesting. From what I've heard, it took me the longest to cross the river out of everyone that day. It was pitiful. But I had to keep going. I'm not sure why. I should've stopped at the River, but I pressed on.
After was seemed like 10min, I finally got to the other side - a good friend by my side - and we walked up to Green Gate, now 9pm with the sun starting to fade behind the distant canyon walls. It was mostly light-hearted chatter. Rehashing the day, the unbelievable performances by some, and the not-so-great days for many.
Following the beams of our headlamps, in this lonely section away from civilization we made our way toward Auburn Lake Trails (ALT, mi85). Passed by numerous people. Until finally, a mile out from ALT, Matt Keyes came along.
"Jake, your running, c'mon lets get moving!"
"Dude, I've tried so many times, my body won't let me."
"Start slow, c'mon, start running."
And I tried as hard as I could. I tried to run again, for the hundredth time. Still not willing to give up hope. It just wasn't happening. Matt departed after some good words and finally, we reached ALT. It took quite awhile to "walk" the downhill into the aid and I told Connor I wanted to sit down. I hadn't sat down all day, and I knew I shouldn't, but I did.
For me, that last physical act was my breaking point. I finally reached my absolute limit after countless "perceived limits". I wasn't getting up. I was done. Connor knew it. He hugged me and let me know that it was ok. He knew what I had been through and he knew that if I didn't want to continue, there was no way anyone was going to convince me otherwise. It took me a moment to finally admit it, not wanting to still, but knowing I needed to be done. I needed to humble myself and accept the humility. My ego needed it. Something in me had to die. My pride had to die. Throughout the day, I kept finding ways to breathe life back into it. But I finally had to accept that my pride and ego had to be crucified, laid in the grave, and the stone rolled in front of it.
Sure, I absolutely could have walked for 6 or 7 more hours to Auburn, but I had had enough. My Spirit, my will, my determination to finish was broken. I was a broken man. And I needed to let that happen. Not everyone can understand what I mean by that. Some refuse to accept it. Some believe it's more honorable to crawl to the finish if you can. And they may be right. But for me, I had been humbled so many times that day, and finally had to experience the ultimate act of humility by willingly quitting. Nothing was wrong with me, ultimately. I just knew, for me, I needed to be done.
I wonder how Jesus felt when he knew he was going to die. He seemed to fight it at first, crying out, "Father, let this cup pass, but not my will, but your will be done." And he submitted, was beaten, drug to the cross, crucified, and died. Not a pretty picture. And certainly not the "American Dream" of a house with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and all the material possessions you could want.
Furthermore, in the Sermon on the Mount he says, "The way is hard and narrow that leads to life and there are few who find it. The way is wide and easy that leads to destruction and many enter into it." I still don't fully get that. I'm a work in progress and still growing in my faith, but its experiences like I had out there where you sort of get more of a picture of what that means on a physical level. Simple as you read it, mind-blowing trying to live it.
And there you have it. I laid down for hours at ALT, wrist-band still on. Still technically "in the race", but in those 4+ hours I was off in the bushes, laying down next to Connor, body in absolute pain and not able to sleep, blankets wrapped around me; nothing changed. My will and desire to finish never revived. I knew I made the right decision.
And at around 3:45am, my wrist-band was officially cut. DNF.
After finally falling asleep that morning at 6am and waking up around 12:30pm (sorry I wasn't able to make it to the awards, I had a very tired pregnant wife who needed sleep!) I was in such a positive mood. Its weird, I should've been "bummed" that I didn't finish. But, again, I pushed myself to my absolute limit that day and was satisfied with that. Even Sara was shocked by how well I was taking it.
Yesterday, it was nice to catch up with Joe and hear the details of how his day went. And also spend the day with Sara, the Curley brothers, Joe's family/friends/crew, and just relax - eating a ton of food.
And then, when I got home last night. Both Sara and I standing in our kitchen, I pulled up that photo of us embracing at the river, and I hugged my wife right there and just started weeping. Crying my eyes out. Even now - writing this report - I've probably cried about 20x's. It's healthy. All the pain and emotion I was trying "not to feel" out on the course on Saturday, I'm allowing myself to feel it now. To let it sink in. Tears of joy. I'm grieving my loss, the death in me that took place out there, but it's a part of moving on.
You see, even though The Bird inflicted a tremendous amount of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain on Louis while in the POW camps - and eventually he was broken - his story didn't end there. He survived the war, made it back home - and through even more trials with alcohol abuse, trying to cope and block out the pain that the war inflicted upon him - he found redemption. He found Christ. He found resurrection power.
Often with life, something must die so that something else may live. Our pride must die so that a humble spirit may live; hate must die so that love may live; unforgiveness must die so that peace may live in our hearts. And then I get a further glimpse and understanding into the deep and unfathomable mysteries of why Jesus had to die.....so that I may live. Me. The punk kid that I am. Weird. True love is truly eternal and other-worldly.
A big reason why I'm drawn to 100-milers is because of the spiritual parallels I see. The amount of faith, joy, love, hope, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, suffering it takes to do one of these is counter-intuitive and against our human nature, seemingly. Yet, there is a strange addiction, at least for me, to be brought as close to the "point of death" that I possibly can be in order to truly feel alive and experience life to its fullest. I'm not suggesting this is the only way, but it's how I get my kicks. To each their own.
Above all, something had to die inside me out on the course in my first Western States 100. By faith, I'm eager to see what is going to resurrect in its place. God's got a plan. And He is good.
Will I be back? Just yesterday Joe and I were trying to figure out a way back into the race. I hope I can run it again next year. I'd like to use the experiences I've gained to try and piece together the kind of 100-miler that I know I'm capable of running.
In the meantime, I'm taking a month off. It's time to let this sink in further, accept it, release it, move on, and see what the next season of life and adventure brings.