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Scott Cunningham

Scott Cunningham

2:26 PM on Monday, July 8, 2019   •   Edited

Western States Pacing (Part 3)

I’m 28 miles into a 38 mile run I know will be the longest run of my life to this point and I’m feeling good. The sun is up. I’m seeing elites, Mark is in good spirits and I’m thinking it will be a casual run/walk/hike to the finish so the next 10 miles shouldn’t be too bad. It DEFINITELY shouldn’t be ANYTHING as hard as marathons or the ONE ultra marathon I did where I had stomach issues and tired legs, but it’s still going to be 38 miles and Mark was talking about how it’s fast down to No Hands Bridge (a spot I look forward to getting to for some reason) and says he will point out where Jim (Walmsley) took a wrong turn during his first race where he was dressed like 7 time Western States Champion Scott Jurek (who was pacing a blind runner and I was really hoping to see). I start taking in the scenery, the river, Mark mentions how the pack will “bunch up” now that it is getting closer to the finish. We see a guy Mark ran with in the beginning miles of the race who says something to the effect of “didn’t you have a much harder goal?” in reference to the sub-24 they were aiming for yesterday, and both surprised to see the other at this point. As my watch reads Mile 30.07 Mark points out where Jim turned right. I snap a photo and talk about how I’d heard a podcast where the person who actually marked that turn was interviewed. WE turn left…and climb. The only problem is I can’t climb. It hurts. Like “can we end this shit now? Where is the pickup for pacers who get dropped? How pissed will Mark be if I tell him I can’t keep going and how would THAT fuck HIS race at THIS point?” hurt. The back of my left knee (bicep femoris? Plantearis? Semitencinosus major?Lateral Collateral Ligament?” HUTS LIKE A BITCH! I can’t hike for shit and that is what Mark is doing.

I understand how Billy Yang felt. I understand how\ Sally McRae felt. The HIGH of “It’s Western STATES!” HAS WORN OFF and now it hurts. What the fuck am I going to do for the next 7 miles? When does this hill end? Why is it getting MORE technical? Am I going to drag Mark down if he looks back at some point and sees he is pulling away from me? Do I ask him to slow down from 15-22 minute pace to 30 minute pace so I can hang or do I try and run/jog up this? CAN I even run? Billy could run (I think) when he couldn’t hike. I didn’t practice hiking EVER in training because you don’t hike/walk to a 3:05 marathon (unless you’re REALLY badass) and I did ZERO hiking so far this year but I see why it’s important. Maybe I should have trained a little more for this task. Seems like a reoccurring thing in my life. Fuck it. Deal with it. Imagine how Mark feels at this point. Remember how he half joking/three –quarter seriously said to work on visible suffering and complaining about trashed feet after 18 miles compared to 80 miles? Suck it up butter cup. Fuck this hurts. When does this even end? Shits’ getting HARDER as we get CLOSER to the finish AND we just got chicked (passed by a female) so I REALLY hope Mark doesn’t want to find some fifth gear. Throw this bitch into low-low (reference to off roading and having dual transfer cases) ultra torque range and go. All while noticing Mark has some MONSTEROUS calves. Maybe that’s from lots of hiking or hill repeats or something. Summiting Mt. Evereast (or so I think) and seeing Highway 49 (RHODES!!!! THERE IS HOPE FOR THESE PEOPLE!!!) I assume the aid station is literally right there…I mean….YouTube shows it there. Right? It’s called the “Highway 49 Crossing” Aid Station RIIIIIGHT!?!?! Whatever. Hey look….some random guy just sitting in a chair where we take a right hand turn to go to the ACTUAL aid station. No…not a hallucination. He is real. The other people around me see him too.

PJ shows up just outside of Pointed Rocks and runs us in in field of knee high weeds and single track that looks created from water runoff. PJ last left us at Foresthill mentioning he MIGHT meet us a Rucky Chucky. I’m going to say it’s a safe bet to assume I said “That PJ is full of CRAP” when we crossed the river in the middle of the night and he wasn’t there. I probably wouldn’t have been able to see him anyways…I mean…it’s pretty dark out there, plus with all the celebrity crushes, I mean sightings, I’d be dizzy from how much my head would spin. He jogs in with us and distracts mark why I re-evaluate my life choices including who my friends are and who I married at this point. The knee can run. Walking hurts. Its 6.5 miles to the finish. Another fucking hour of this shit (HA! Hour…YOU’RE FUNNY! Check out this guy…6.5 mph after 90+), no more like 2. It’s been 10.5 at this point. It’s 8:44 in the morning. 30 hour cutoff is 9:15. 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Mark said that’s about where he felt comfortable…like REALLY comfortable. SWEET! We can relax. What’s available for food? It’s morning and I’ve had some coffee, I’m not tired (SO WEIRD), and it HOPEFULLY won’t take much longer. No PB&J. Turkey sandwich? Why not. I haven’t tried that up to this point, but I also haven’t tried pacing 38 miles of the Western States Endurence Run through the night, across rivers, over mountains, up and down hills, with knee problems, so why not? What could POSSIBLY go wrong? I have an iron stomach and I’m awake enough at this point it’s just a coast to the finish. It took all of 1 minute and two seconds to cruise through the Pointed Rocks aid station. Just enough time to grab something to take with me.

Apparently “protein” is what could have gone wrong. “sugar” is delicious. “Protein” is heavy and takes time and energy to digest. Time and energy are three things I don’t have. Time counts double because I don’t have time to deal with this bullshit of a stomach not wanting to cooperate all of a sudden when the knee decided earlier it didn’t want to cooperate and previously it was everything leading up to this point. So as we leave Pointed Rocks with the pacer that just won’t say anything and the torque monster ahead of me we start passing hikers and runners and people just out and about. I’ve accepted the regretful truth. Mark won’t be axe murdering me to take me out of my pain. He’s just going to drag me along to the finish line and make it look easy. Well Mark was saying the cruise down to No Hands Bride is easy. I saw a “discussion” IRunFarMedia has on YouTube with the 1983 winner and runner up. Tim talks about splits and when Jim Howard hit this point in the race he was in Second. Jim talks about hammering the downhill to catch up to second. Well he’s top 2. We’re (what’s the opposite of sub? DOM?) DOM-24. He dropped like 6:00 pace and ran the last 6.5 miles to CATCH Jim King in 56 minutes. WE are AT LEAST…TWICE as good. 12:30 would be adding even MORE to that cushion if my stomach will cooperate. At least it’s downhill, we’re running, and my knee isn’t bothering me. SOMEHOW I’m still ABLE to run (didn’t seem to be that way in my ultra) fast enough to keep up with mark (12-14:00 pace. I think he felt sorry for me here) and after a few switchbacks we’re at No Hands Bridge. Hmm..that seemed shorter than expected. Maybe blocking out everything but just getting to the next aid station ACTUALLY works. Maybe Mark ACTUALLY knows what he is doing here and just wanted to showboat by brining me along to certain death provoking effort.

No Hands Bridge is an ICONIC spot of Western States. Flags on both sides, overhead, spectators hike in to see people, and it’s pretty cool. This is one spot I was looking forward to and originally I’d have “seen” it in the dark. Mark was kind enough to sabotage his entire race FOR ME to be here when I could get this moment, and three photos at 9:24 am. Technically 4 if you count the photo of Mark at the aid station SMILING because we’re OVER 30 minutes ahead. Cool. 3.5 miles to go. Short of a catastrophic failure, and maybe not even that, we’re going to be there before 11:00. Bunch up with some other runners doing the last 4ish miles with pacers and maybe some friends and family who have come out to cheer people on.

On the Southwest side of No Hands Bridge there is a long gradual climb to Robie point. The road is wide and smooth enough to drive a vehicle down without any hesitation. There is a shaded spot with some trees and you can hear the river roaring below. In the distance comes a male runner with a black dog. He has salt and pepper colored hair, heavy on the salt, looks about 6’3 (I’m 5’8 and he is running downhill at me) and looks to be the correct age and build. It’s twenty five time sub-24 hour finisher Tim Twietmeyer. He has the only 2,500 mile buckle from this race. Mark and I agree it won’t ever be done again because of the lottery. I think it’s mostly because doing this for 25 years takes A TON of commitment. It would be like the winner doing it until his mid-50s and not even Scott Jurek did it 10 times. Top 3 people I wanted to see, maybe get a photo with, at Western States. Just cruising downhill with his dog encouraging people. What the fuck? He’s on the board. Shouldn’t he be at the finish or doing something super official making him too busy to run to No Hands Bridge with his dog on a Sunday? Sheeeeeeet. Well there went THAT chance at a photo (although to be fair I didn’t yell out and ask for one because I’m sure he’d have turned around without hesitation). Just finish. We’re chillin. Mark points out the river and I try to get some more photos but can’t. I tell him to throw me into the river with all his energy (it’s a couple hundred feet below) so I can cool off. Mark has other plans for me…like showing me why he was talking about the climb out of Robie Point when we weren’t even to the river. I mean…we climbed to Highway 49 already and he’d talked (warned me) about that and I survived. It’s mile 98 or 99 at this point. Is this race really so cruel to put some hard, steep, technical, rocky, requires lifting your foot over your knee to get over sized rocks in the trail in the last two miles of the race? Yes. Fuck you Western States. Gunhild went 2 miles off course with her son and had to get over that PLUS deal with THIS BULLSHIT. The mental strength required NOT to give up at that point is flabbergasting. You looked at this hill, said “fuck you” and chugged that bitch out in low-low ultra torque monster mode, but you had Rob Krar waiting for you. THIS hill would CRUSH any normal person mentally because there isn’t a “fast” way up. It’s ALL heart at this point. I’m about ready to sacrifice my leg and any running I have planned for the next month just to get up at this point. Mark gets a douse of cold water from a sponge two spectators offer, we pass people going to the river with their families (seriously? Today? While we’re climbing up this thing? FAAAWWWWWK) and cheering us on. And then I see it. Robie Point Aid Station. 1.2 miles. ASPHALT! PRAISE THE OIL AND ROCK GODS IN THE SKY IT’S TIME TO FLY! PJ is there taking photos (thumbs up to the camera. Fake it until you make it). No more of this dust/rock/uphill/requires skill to run bullshit. Roads are flat and safe and you can drive a car on them to cheer people on so there should be LINES of people coming up. Plus…the top of the hill is marked with that line of flags you’ve seen in all those finisher videos of people run/walking the last mile. I take a photo of the first portion of the road. It’s vertical….like…FOR REAL vertical. When you get to the top you discover it is a false summit and Mount “Wanna Curse Yourself” continues. I take a second photo. Both I text to a friend who asked how the race went (expecting a sub 24 hour finish and respectfully waiting 5 hours to ask me how it went) along with Mark’s wife Janet texting “Hey Scott. At No Hands yet? Gonna Make it?” fuck yea we’re going to make it. This bitch is in the BAG. I reply “Robbie point. Road climb” because I HATE hills. Fuck hills and whoever invented them and whoever thought it would be cool or acceptable or a good idea to put them in the last miles of a 38 mile 12 hour story telling experience.

And then it happens….from out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason to happen. The biggest, and weirdest, rush of emotions hits me like a jab to the chest that I wasn’t prepared for. I’m not talking about how you feel when you get a gift you didn’t expect, you win a race, you passed that test, had a kid, or lost a loved one. I’m talking about this overwhelming hit to the heart like heroin entering your arm and coursing through your veins controlling every dopamine receptor in your body you didn’t know exist and pumping them with one of the weirdest moments in your life. It’s like runners high but I just want to stop and cry. Less than two miles from the finish. With an asphalt hill ahead of me. I think “what the fuck was that?” as I fought back tears of joy. That has NEVER happened in another race and this isn’t even a race. Having this absolute rush of emotions come out of nowhere and hit you as hard as it can without knocking you over, make you want to stop everything you’re doing before you continue on, then be gone as fast as it hit you isn’t something I’d ever thought could happen. “Fuck that was weird” I think as we cross under the flags and PJ points out a house he took a photo of last night with “WS 100” in lights along the side.

Somewhere along the course Ann Trason lives/lived so maybe I’ll get to see here. Mark said he’d point it out but he didn’t and I’m not even sure she lives there anymore. Plus she will either be there cheering people on, volunteering elsewhere (like Dusty Corners or Michigan Bluff) Another spot along the way there is a “Mile 99” sign (never saw it) and Mark starts to saw how it’s downhill but quickly points out there is another hill THEN it is downhill to the finish. As we do this down/up thing towards the final hill Mark is pointing out a lady who wrote a book or something (can’t remember the details but she is pretty elite) and then…

Spectator: encourages Mark, PJ and Me.
Mark “Hey you’re that guy…ummm I’m sorry I can’t think of your name”
Spectator “Christ Denucci.”
Me: “HOLY SHIT YOU’RE CHRIS DENUCCI!?!?!?!” (Hoka One One sponsored athlete, doctor or something elite level in real life, seems like he’d drink PBR with you at the finish line and introduce you to his wife and kids., 5th place 2017, 9th place 2016, 5:58 beer mile, etc.)

Climbing this last hill then taking a left we see Janet who jumps in with PJ, Mark and I to the track. Back before Mark and I hit Robie Point we were around runners discussing the finish, and who can cross the finish. I think “fuck I HATE when people finish this race and their pacer is holding up a phone recording/taking photos of the back of their head. Cross the finish line and let the professionals take the photos.” Jokes of doing some huge jump/hand wave thing blocking out the runners face are made. Not once did I ask Mark what he wanted. It isn’t my finish. If he wants me to cross the finish like I’ll find out in the last turn. I’m not here for the finish photo. I’m here to make sure Mark FINISHES. If he wants me in the photo GREAT. If he doesn’t want me in the photo GREAT. I’ll figure that fine detail in the last 30 seconds. Until then it’s the FARTHEST thing from my mind. I’d just like to stop running at some point…like soon. Oh yeah, we run the track backwards this year for some reason. I mean….why do anything normal or the way we’ve always done it when I’m in town. Fuck THAT shit. Let’s make this interesting.

I see the gate. I see the track. I see the crowds of people outside the gate and in the stands. Janet reminds us to follow the track and might have said it’s a U turn. We make the U turn and the crowd is cheering us on. MARK…somehow in all his calm, quiet, reserved self, decides to (insert finger quote) drop the hammer (insert finger quote) when we hit the track and is now speeding up…like A LOT. Thanks Mark. I thought we’d coast to the finish 30 minutes ahead of the new schedule we came up with around sunrise or somewhere in the last 11 hours but apparently I didn’t get that agreement in writing AND signed. Fuck it just run. It’s like 100 meters. It’s more of a gallop but it feels like a sprint and this track is kinda nice. Janet and PJ peel off. Janet tells me to go with Mark. I point out Courtney Dauwalter (female race favorite for many. Dropped 14 hours in) waving to use as she walks the track. The timer above the finish line says 29 hours and twenty something minutes. We’re like 30 minutes ahead. “We’re there” (in that voice Jim Carey has when they get to Aspen in Dumb and Dumber which is kinda how I feel at this point). It hits again. Harder than the first time. “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” according to Mike Tyson. The second biggest punch of emotion his me like a Mike Tyson TKO and I have NO plan on how to deal with it. “holy fuck. Hold it together. Holy shit.” Just like the first time it happened I have no idea where it came from, what brought it on, how to control it, what it will do to me over the next 30 seconds, and as fast and hard as it hits me it’s gone. Twice in the last mile I’m almost brought to my knees with emotion so hard and unexpected I want to ride that high like a stallion through the night and it’s not drug induced or store bought and you can’t bottle that shit up and save it for later. It’s self-inflicted and there hasn’t been any other way for me to find it until right now. I signed up for this shit with no clue what I was in for and now I’m 100 meters from the finish line of Western States. As we cross the finish line Mark and I are handed a shirt. I’d seen this logo as stickers on water bottles and figured it was some other race. It kind of looks like the San Francisco 49ers logo but it says “29er.” Hmm…wonder what that is about.29:26:23. Bronze Buckle. Finisher Medal. An official 29er.

Orange water bottles and Altra inflatable couches are at the finish along with a high school football game sized crowd. Practically standing room only and that is no exaggeration. People have traveled from out of town JUST to see the finish. They don’t have friends or family in the race. They just came to see the finish. Other people have runners who finished earlier and they’re sticking around to see everyone finish. This isn’t a ‘ok I’m done now let’s go home” kind of thing. It’s weird. Road runs are all about “me” and when we’re done there aren’t many who care about anyone finishing behind them other than a “oh..yay…congrats on finishing.” (insert golf clap) I snap a quick selfie with the only 2019 Western States entrant that matters to me. I see Jamil Coury (Mountain Outhouse, Aravipa Running Race Director, Sub 24 finisher) and ask for a quick photo. He looks exhausted. I assume it’s a combination of work, pacing, and planning that’s kept him up for as long, or longer, than me. He smiles for the photo (I made it quick) and told him I loved the videos. He IS technically working right now so I appreciate the five seconds he had for a fan, while also trying not to interrupt what he came here to do.

Then my face goes numb. Mark finds his pacer from last time to rub in my face how much better THAT guy was (not really) and meet a few other people. Someone tells me to grab a water bottle out of the horse trough of water/ice mix at the finish (I think these are only for racers for some reason) and I go sit in a chair in the shade…under the Altra tent. At this point I don’t care if this is some elite’s chair. I’ll get up and move if they ask me, but honestly I think they’d look at me and say it’s fine. Janet asks if I want food. PJ offers to get me a drink “Mountain Dew or Coke.” While I wait for PJ to get back I look around. Oh look…Jeff Browning. Right there. I should ask for a photo. Na. I’ve had enough. The memory is good enough for me. I wonder how he did while PJ comes back “I got you both.” Fuck. SWEET. Mark tells me Ann Trason is in the stands…really? Why am I not surprised? The most winningest female in the history of this race who lives/lived along the course, offers support at aid stations, answers phone calls in the middle of the day/night to encourage runners and has so many trophies she leaves them at running stores all over to display, is chillin in the stands. Janet tells me my face doesn’t look as white as I regain feeling. Awards are in an hour and a half or something like that. I need to walk to the truck to get stuff to shower, get the potential Poison Ivy/Oak off me and also consider taking a nap. As I sit there waiting for something to happen I see two people enter the track with 90 seconds left. The last person is rounding the corner and starting the 200m finish “sprint” with less than a minute to go. I don’t think he will finish. I can’t watch but I have to.
Everyone in attendance goes ab-so-FUCKIGN-loutely NUTS. They LOSE…THEIR…SHIT. For this one guy they have never met. Who has 100 meters to go and for the next 30 seconds is the only person in this race who matters. If he falls, walks, cramps, cries, gets hyponatremia like Brian Morrison in 2006 (who was in the lead and paced by Scott Jurek), it’s all over and everything done for the 30 hours doesn’t count for shit. Anything is possible. No one can do anything because if you help your runner physically they’re disqualified. You just wait. You look at the clock, then the runner, then the clock again, then lose your shit when he finishes and you hear “had it in the bag the whole time” because you were JUST there and it felt JUST as hard. I see EJ (local race director, idol, pretty baddass guy), his son and girlfiend (doing TRT 50 miler…certified nutjob in my mind at this moment) and make sure I have my 29er shirt and water bottles in my bag before I walked to the truck with Mark, Janet and PJ.

After the race Mark wanted to take me to eat/drink at a local place. I took a nap in my truck for fear of falling asleep on the drive home. Somethign about how caffeine works for a long time but when it wears off the “payback” comes hard and you pay your toll. I wake up, get a rockstar (because after all the caffeine I’ve had for the last 24 hours I probably need MORE at this point) and head back for a group photo at the finish before the 2 hour drive home. The next days at work just seemed lack luster. No one cared. No one asked what I did over the weekend (not like they’d comprehend or fully appreciate it) even though I was walking funny, but that’s not uncommon because I self-inflict pain on myself from races often enough people just assume it’s normal. This kind is different. This self-inflicted pain, along with the highs I got along the way, pull me out of some kind of depression funk I’d been in for a while. Who knew the treatment was to go run trails with a guy I’d met online a few years ago who wants to axe murder me in the middle of the night.

Things I learned:
PB&J and Mountain Dew every 5 or so miles works for an ultra. Caffeine pills about every 2 hours worked for getting through the night without feeling “weary” which I STILL don’t know the definition of.
Western States is a good spot to see elite athletes.
You NEVER know who you’ll encounter along the trail. It might be a professional runner. It might be someone trying to finish a 100 miler and needs a different stimuli to get them through a rough patch.
There is more important shit in the world and your day to worry about than the petty minutiae most people (including myself) focus on to make their day shittier or better.
Having someone waiting for you makes a big difference.
Pacing is still hard as FUCK even when it’s slow.
Quitting apparently gets easier each time you do it (no actual proof in this) which is enough motivation NOT to quit.
You’ll never forget your first.
Mark's official record.
Time In
Time Out
Section Pace
Lyon Ridge
Red Star Ridge
Duncan Canyon
Robinson Flat
Miller's Defeat
Dusty Corners
Last Chance
Devil's Thumb
El Dorado Creek
Michigan Bluff
Dardanelles (Cal-1)
Peachstone (Cal-2)
Ford's Bar (Cal-3)
Rucky Chucky
Green Gate
Auburn Lake Trails
Quarry Road
Pointed Rocks
No Hands Bridge
Robie Point

No Hands Bridge looking North

Jamil Coury

The turn Jim missed dressed like Scott Jurek.

Mark at No Hands Bridge

No Hands Bridge looking South.

Mark crossing No Hands Bridge. We saw Tim around those trees on the left...I think.