When my running mentor, 52 year old Lori Barekman, was selected to run the Western States 100 mile Endurance Run, I immediately volunteered to do whatever she needed to assist in her successful completion. Our mutual friend Liana Hibbard served as the chairman of our crewing committee, while 28 year old Ericka Jennison took on the pacing duties. She and Liana had successfully paced/crewed Lori to her 50 mile qualifying race at Firetrails in the previous October.
In the months preceding, Lori had lined up a training plan and included us in many of the training races. Lori and I both ran the Grizzly Peak 50k, where she took 2nd in her Age group, and was 2nd woman overall. At the Miwok 100 K Liana and I crewed Lori. I was honored to pace her the final 12 miles from Tennessee Valley through Muir Beach, up to Cardiac Aid Station and into Stinson Beach. The course was shortened to 60 K due to fire concerns. Once again Lori won her age group. However, she had planned on a 60 mile race to determine her endurance over 50 miles. Without time to schedule another 50 mile plus race, Lori forged ahead with her training plans.
Between races I would meet with Lori and some other ultra-runners for a Thursday night run in our local state park. In the early Spring, we could run by headlamp over technical trails for a 4-7 mile distance to prepare for the running in the dark the race would require. As summer increased the day length, our evening runs soon did not require headlamps anymore and it became just another run.
Soon Lori had outgrown my pace and distance ability. Her weekends became 30/20’s, 30 miles on Saturday, and 20 miles on Sunday. Thursday night runs got to be longer distances in shorter time periods. In April, she checked the Annadel Half Marathon race course markings before the race, and then lined up with a race number to run it a second time. Memorial Day Weekend she and Ericka ran back to back runs from Robinson Flat to Foresthill on the WS100 course, and From Foresthill to Rucky Chucky the next day. We knew she was constantly improving in condition, despite the inky unknown of the mileage above 50.
Soon we all met to discuss our Crewing Strategy. We determined we would meet Lori at 5 points along the course that were crew accessible. Lori and Ericka made up drop bags for aid stations we would not be attending and coordinated fueling strategies. Lori’s friends and family made plans to meet along the way to cheer Lori on.
Race Day -1
I met Erica, Lori and Lori’s mother, in Squaw Valley the Evening of June 27th . The next morning Lori and Ericka checked in and delivered drop bags while I participated in the Montrail Uphill Challenge that goes from the base of Squaw Valley to the High Camp Tram station near the top of the Squaw Valley Property. It took me an Hour to cover the 6 kilometers and 2500 vertical feet. Speedy ultra-runner Chandra Farnam was there to greet me at the top with a hug and photo op. After catching my breath, she suggested we run back down, so we descended in less than half the time it took to climb, chatting along the way.
That afternoon I picked Liana up from Auburn where we had positioned her car close to the finish. We did not want to be driving an extra 120 miles to retrieve it after 30 hours on our feet. We all enjoyed pizza that night and prepared for a 3:00 am wake up before the 5:00 am start. Liana and I both had difficulty sleeping with a next door neighbor noisily Skype-ing in the middle of the night. After the second request she quieted down, but morning still came with a vengeance
The Start line of Western States is similar to most ultras that start before daylight, with the exception of people (runners and non-runners alike) getting their photos taken under the start line, and the volume of the crowd, the excitement in the air is electric. Flashes are going off, with the Eastern horizon turning grey. What is particularly impressive is that the starting gun is a shotgun. After the runners have stretched out along the trail, discussion turns to whether to go back to bed for a couple hours or get a coffee and stay up.
We chose to get another 2 hours of sleep before we packed the car and headed to Robinson Flat for the first of our Crew Accessible Aid Stations. In the Trailblazer SUV, we had Ericka, Lori’s Mom (Hereafter referred to as “MOM”), Liana and I along with all our luggage, and crewing supplies that included 27 pounds of Ice. The day had already begun to heat up as the sun stretched across Squaw Valley.
We made our way down the highway and turned off on to Foresthill Road that narrowed down to a narrow undivided paved mountain road for the last 18 miles. Near the end we encountered the volume of crew traffic lined up to park at the Forest service trailhead that served as an aid station. Not wanting to miss Lori, I went ahead with a pack containing the essentials and a chair, while Liana parked the car, and followed after. At the aid station I met up with Alan Marshall and Becky Wells who were already ready and waiting. Shortly after, Lori’s husband Wade, and his family arrived on scene.
Next to us were the family and crew for another renowned local ultra-running veteran, #51 Kelly Ridgeway. When Kelly came in I watched them as they tended to her with an efficiency and speed I admired. It was clear they had done this before. I asked them a couple questions and they were very helpful in quieting my anxiety about crewing a 100 mile runner.
We discussed the check point updated that we had received via Ultralive.com and expected Lori in the time period that reflected a 27-28 hour pace. She was on schedule and pretty jubilant as she passed through the medical check. Lori even stopped to take pictures of her family before she came far enough down the line for us to tend to her. It was clear she was having fun in her first Western States Race.
When Lori arrived a little after noon, we packed her bottle with Ice, changed out her Hydration pack with ice and Tailwind solution. Her seven year old daughter, Mariana, sprayed her arms and legs with ice water, and reapplied sunscreen. As a final step we gave her a chocolate Ensure, and a frozen Ensure in her run vest for further along the trail. Lori left, snapping photos of us, 29.7 miles down with 26 miles before we would see her again.
Liana got Mom Barekman transferred into Wade’s vehicle for the remainder of the trip, and the three of us made our way down the hill towards Michigan Bluff, where we expected Lori between 6:30 and 7:30 in the evening.
Since it was mid-day we headed into Foresthill for lunch. The most popular place other than the School which served as the checkpoint and aid station was Worton’s Market. The coffee and deli counter fueled us up as we looked over the Canyon carved by the Middle Fork of the American River. From there we made our way to a side road near the Michigan Bluff Checkpoint where we connected with Shawn Sullivan. Shawn is another local trail runner who had made the trek up in the morning. He had been inspired during Memorial Day weekend training runs and hoped to pace a runner along the course. Ericka Shawn and I pulled up sleeping pads in the shade for an afternoon siesta, while Liana checked in with Wade and the rest of the clan who had also stopped to eat in Foresthill. Liana collected us at 6:00 pm to hike down the ½ mile long, steep road to the aid station. Mom Barekman stepped lively along with 7 year old Mariana and the rest of the family.
Now Liana had collected check-in times while we were napping and Lori’s pace looked especially fast going into Millers Defeat at mile 34.4 and Last Chance at mile 43.8. These downhill sections are followed by a steep climb up to Devil’s Thumb with 1500 feet of gain followed by another deep canyon known as El Dorado. Michigan Bluff is at the top of the 1800 foot climb out of the hole that can be as hot as 110 degrees F. Lori had mentioned that this hot section could be her toughest stretch, and expressed concern about the heat.
We arrived in Michigan Bluff and surveyed the runners coming in. None of the runners we saw ahead of Lori looked “good”. We even saw one we thought was close to getting pulled from the course. Volunteers were dousing runners with water and few were running in or out of the aid station. Crews were spending 20-30 minutes getting their runners cooled off, and fed. As Lori’s early arrival time passed, I found myself getting nervous. My mind began manufacturing disturbing scenarios. Shadows began growing long when Lori came walking into Michigan Bluff at 7:02 pm.
No longer did she have a goofy smile or joke with us. I could tell she was perturbed that she had gained weight in some of the aid stations and made us remove her hydration reservoir that held the Tailwind solution. She even ditched her tiny mp3 player “because it was too heavy”. She sipped on a cup of chicken broth as we applied insect repellant. Even Chandra our friend encouraged Lori to eat before the next aid station. We shooed Lori out of the aid station with two Ensures, and began the long hike back up to the car.
Lori had left her drop bag for this section with us, and in our hurry to attend to her, we neglected to give her the headlamp intended for this section. Granted there was enough light to make it to the next checkpoint, but the fact we had slipped up caused me some consternation and Liana chided me on my outburst. On the 20 minute drive to Foresthill I stewed about not sticking to the plan. Luckily we found a parking spot close to the aid station, and Liana kept my mind and hands occupied as she sent me to change into running gear to accompany Lori from the Bath Road aid station 1.4 miles away.
I walked/jogged about a mile and a quarter and met Lori flanked by Becky and Alan hiking with authority up the hill out of the Bath aid station. Lori was chattering excitedly and both Becky and Alan were all smiles. I immediately realized my worries had been unfounded. Lori was BACK! We ran the last half mile into Foresthill at 8:39 pm as passing crews shouted encouragement and commented on how good she looked. The evening was cooling and Lori was certainly perked up despite not having her headlamp. I peeled off as she entered the aid station and met up with the rest of the Crew where Ericka waited at the pacer pick up point. We rigged Lori with light and she said good night to her daughter and husband before jogging off into the sunset with Ericka alongside.
At this point we sent the family off to dinner in Auburn. It was before 9:00 pm. Just then a race official called out asking for volunteer pacers. Our friend Shawn stepped up and accepted. We then spent the next 30 minutes getting Shawn ready to pace. Liana took charge of his car, and dead cell phone, and sent me ahead to dinner. Liana then made contact with the runner’s crew, the wife and son of Gregg Holst, a 54 year old from Pennsylvania. After she got Shawn matched up with his runner, she met me in Auburn, along with another couple (Ryan and Kim) that knew Lori and came to watch the race on a whim. We four ate a late dinner at the Auburn Alehouse and convoyed to the Green Gate Aid Station shortly before midnight.
I was warned by another past crew member that Green gate was where “things happen”. The combination of a long hot day, and the late hour make normally rational people forget things. Keys get lost, supplies get dropped, exhaustion sets into the crew.
Despite the late hour the parking along the road above Green Gate was crowded. It was 1.7 miles to the Aid station from the end of the road, and I had to park nearly a mile from there. We fumbled in the dark with supplies, and I worried we might miss our runners. (I had mistakenly thought they would arrive an hour earlier). I ran down ahead to Green Gate, leaving the three behind and found they had not come through yet. So I sat down in the dark to wait.
Somehow, Liana and I missed one another in the dark and crowd at the Green Gate Aid Station. While I waited there, she hiked all the way down to Rucky Chucky (another 1.7 miles down the canyon). Cell service was spotty at best, and we had no good means of communicating. After Lori and Ericka came through I hiked out, while she waited there for Shawn and his runner until 4:00 am (another 2:25 hours). Behind the headlamps they looked good. The aid station had topped off their water, and I changed our Lori’s Ensure once more. They trotted off into the darkness with 20 miles to go to the finish and 13 miles before I caught them at Highway 49.
Here is where it got crappy. Liana hiked out 3.2 miles of steep uphill to return to a Shawn’s car with a dead battery. Now after 24 hours with no sleep something like that really upsets people. Once Liana got a jump start she rallied and continued on to No Hands Bridge four miles from the finish. I had been waiting in Cool where the shuttle was taking people to Highway 49.
Highway 49 Crossing and Robie Point
The Highway 49 aid station is a work of art. It has more amenities than some race finish lines I’ve been to. Pancakes, smoothies, eggs, hashbrowns, coffee, and hot chocolate. They announce the runners before they cross the highway over a PA, so sleepy crews can shuffle to tend to their runner. These volunteers from Shadowchase Running club from Modesto know their stuff!.
When Ericka and Lori came into Highway 49 they both were smiling and chipper. Ericka remarked that the aid station volunteers would look at Lori and come alive. I suppose it was a welcome relief from cranky runners. One other crew member for another runner said “My husband has been an absolute a-hole since mile 60. Your runner is in a better mood than I am!” Lori drank 2 smoothies and some Coca Cola, and I gave Ericka her Starbucks Frappaccino for the final push. The crowd of Crew and Volunteers roared as they trotted out of the aid station where others had plodded.
I hustled to get back to the car and then to Auburn. As I walked to the Robie Point aid station I found myself welling up with emotion when Liana texted from No Hands, two miles away: “They’re out!”
Forty minutes later Ericka and Lori strode into view around the corner and barely broke stride through the aid station. I joined them hiking the final uphill section and nearly broke down in tears as Lori’s family joined in the last quarter mile before the stadium. Ericka and I joined hands with Lori and her daughter Mariana before we ducked off to the side to let Lori and her daughter finish together as the clock hit 26:59:15. A moment I will remember forever…
The rest of the morning was kind of a blur. Liana and I tried to find Shawn and his runner and missed them by seven minutes at No Hands Bridge. During the night we were sure he was going to DNF, he had come alive in the morning hours. I rushed back to Robie Point and accompanied Shawn and Gregg the last 1.3 miles, and Gregg’s first WS100 finish in 29:42:22.
There was two hours between Shawn and his runner finishing and awards. At this point the adrenaline and emotion of the moment are mixed with the 30 hours of no sleep. You find your patience thin, and thought processes jumpy. As a crew member I felt an obligation to tend to Lori but the family had her completely taken care of. Our pacers Shawn and Ericka accepted our services though. Ericka’s parents were kind enough to leave a cooler with some Lagunitas as they retrieved Ericka’s car from Squaw Valley. Even though it was still morning, 38 miles and 95 degrees made a cold IPA appropriate.
We lounged under the canopy on the Placer High school Football field, eating popsicles and ice cream passed out by volunteers until the awards ceremony. It seemed to drag on forever until Lori’s name was called and we hooted and hollered and generally made a fuss before we made our way back to our cars to drive back to our lives, and a long nap. (I managed 12 hours straight when I got home)
168 hours after that weekend, I’ve had plenty of time to digest what I was so honored to be a part of. It is still hard to convey the emotion you feel when “your runner” crosses that finish line. We were lucky to have such an upbeat and positive runner who ran a smart and strong race. I can only imagine the heartbreak of the 106 runners, and their pacers and crews who didn’t make it to the finish. That said, I will crew again if the opportunity presents itself. Despite the long hot hours, it is just too rewarding.