An ultrarunner is born
I’ve done many adventurous things in my life.
I’ve traveled the world, fought fire in the Marine Corps, logged thousands of miles on my bike and climbed a few mountains — all mostly in the name of fun and fitness.
But this was different. Last weekend, I found myself perched on the starting line of the Western States Endurance Run, one of the oldest and most challenging trail runs in the world. And I’m not afraid to say I was completely intimidated.
Considered the granddaddy of ultramarathons, the Western States starts in Squaw Valley and follows a course originally used by gold and silver miners of the 1850s before ending in Auburn.
Along the way, runners endure more than 38,000 feet of elevation change over 100.2 miles of remote and rugged terrain. Deep snow in the High Sierra made this year’s event more of a challenge. With reports of drifts as tall as eight feet in places, race organizers were forced to reroute the course to avoid many miles of impassable trail.
Myself and some 500 other runners I felt an immediate kinship with set off.
The course immediately pushed back with a 4½-mile, 2,500-foot climb to 9,000 feet. The combination of altitude, exertion and competition made my head swell and nose bleed. The next 10 or so miles were blanketed in snow. We scrambled across steep mountain faces, sometimes on our hands and feet, and leapt over streams of cold mountain runoff. There were many times when thin layers of snow and ice camouflaged deep watery pitfalls, but their muffled roar was a dead giveaway.
I strained my hip at some point, and one runner was reported to have been evacuated by helicopter with a broken leg.
Forty-four miles into it, the game changed. The roughly eight-mile stretch between the Last Chance aid station and the mountain hamlet of Michigan Bluff presented some of the steepest and most brutal climbs on the course.
Each set of switchbacks rose to yet another relentless ascent. The climbing went on for hours as my iPod shuffled its way through every music genre imaginable. At what seemed like my darkest place, Miles Davis slowly trumpeted “My Funny Valentine” in my ear. It was like watching a violent movie scene scored to a slow love song.
The course loosened its crushing grip at Michigan Bluff, where my friend, John Schumacher, met me with a well-received double cheeseburger and soda.
From there, I was off to the tiny town of Foresthill. You would have never known it was nearly 10 p.m. in the middle of nowhere; the place was packed.
The sight of my friends and family nearly brought tears to my eyes. We hugged and chatted before my pacer, Brian Recore, and I got to the task at hand.
From here, it was all or nothing. There was no turning back.
Whenever I find myself in some remote place with a headlamp strapped to my skull, you can bet Recore has played a roll in getting me there. This was no different. The seasoned ultrarunner pushed the sport on me for years, and now we were pounding trail miles together en route to Auburn.
But the nagging hip injury I suffered in the snow was becoming worse. Over the next 40 miles, the pain graduated with each step. By mile 90, I was reduced to a slow limp. But I pressed on and soon could hear the sound of runners ahead of me hitting the stadium.
When my wife and kids met me a block from the finish, it was all I could do to hold back the flood of emotions. My son, Gabe, and daughter Melia grabbed my hands, and together, we ran across the finish line and into my memory forever.
I never planned to become an ultrarunner. The Western States changed all that.
Carl Costas is a veteran photojournalist who, after several years covering the Western States Endurance Run, decided this year to take on the 100-mile ultramarathon as a competitor.
WESTERN STATES ENDURANCE RUN
Distance: 100.2 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn
Male winner: Kilian Jornet, Puigcerda, Spain, 15 hours, 34 minutes.
Female winner: Ellie Greenwood, Banff, Alberta, Canada, 17 hours, 55 minutes.