After running the Grandmaster 100K last month in the Arizona desert, I now share one characteristic with legendary ultrarunner Jim Walmsley, who has now twice set the course record at the Western States 100.
No, I did not win Western States. I haven’t even tried to qualify for it (yet). But we do indeed share one type of experience. I shall explain.
My usual plan with an ultra is to run it once, enjoy the experience, and move on. The Grandmaster Ultra is one of the select few I chose to go back to. The stark beauty of the desert, the challenge of the course, and the camaraderie of fellow 50+ runners was too strong a call to ignore. And it was among the few ultra choices available in early 2021.
I’d run the 50-miler in 2020 (just prior to Covid and all that), so I signed up for the 100K this year. A way different beast. In addition to the extra 12 miles, the last few hours would be run in the dark. I looked forward to the challenge.
Check out the incredible scenery below. Believe me, these photos don’t come close to full vision, wide-angle experience.
I arrived with lowered expectations, due to pandemic-related necessities. But aside from mandatory mask-wearing and slightly fewer food options, it was the same as last year, including bonfires at the aid stations after dark. The weather was perfect for running – in the high 30s at start, rising to around 60 degrees in the afternoon, then dropping fast after sunset. Good preparation was key. I made several checklists and packed my drop bag carefully.
I would be running the 50K loop twice, so I sent a drop bag to the halfway mark of that loop, and had another one in my car at the start/finish. I was all set. Or so I thought.
The first loop went exactly to plan. I finished it around 6 hours 15 minutes, right on schedule, feeling strong, and, unexpectedly, as the lead runner. I checked my feet – nothing serious going on – put on a fresh shirt and socks, drank a lot of Gatorade, and headed back out. At every aid station the volunteers congratulated me on being in the lead. I’d met the couple behind me, Gene and Julie, friends running together, and they congratulated me too. Did I mention how great the camaraderie is with trail runners?
Partway through my second loop I put on my headlamp, a new design that promised to be lighter and more comfortable than the standard headlamp. It was great. It’s light and so well balanced on the head I didn’t feel it at all, and its medium setting was plenty to light my way. The only thing missing is a red LED on the back for a rear light. So I clipped a couple bike lights to my belt instead.
I got to the halfway aid station still feeling good. It was dark and already noticeably cooler, so first thing was to switch out my sweaty shirt for a fresh, dry one. Only I didn’t have one in my drop bag. Somehow, despite my carefully detailed checklists, I’d overlooked packing one. Not good. My only option was the shirt I’d swapped out on loop one and left to dry in the sun. It was still damp. I put it on anyway, figuring it would be better than no second layer. And I had a wind jacket. It would have to do.
On my way back I encountered Gene and Julie again. “Your lead just keeps getting bigger,” Gene said. I indeed figured I could stick to my current pace. No need to hit the gas just yet. I refueled at the next aid station and began the next stretch, which I knew was the longest and toughest on the loop. And during that stretch, things began to suck.
First, the terrain seemed to have changed; I didn’t remember there being so much uphill. I became convinced that in between my first and second loops, a construction crew had come in, elevated the grade, and strewn extra rocks on the trail. And I was getting cold, due to my slower pace, rapidly falling temps, and wet shirt.
Every ultrarunner knows to expect highs and lows during a race of this length. I’d been marveling that even after 50 miles, I hadn’t hit a low. Now one showed up and gleefully reminded me constantly that I was sore, tired, and cold. And, by the way, there was still a long slog remaining to the finish. Those few miles seemed to go on forever. Finally I heard the noise and saw the lights of the aid station ahead.
I got there and stood by the fire a bit, which didn’t help much. I think my clothes were just too wet. So I moved on to the final aid station. It was less than two miles, but I was not in good shape. I was shivering and had to sit down. Fortunately, someone had some toe warmers, which I slid down my shirt. After a few minutes my core felt warm enough that I was ready to push on to the finish. It was nearly five miles, but mainly downhill. All I had to do was hold together a little longer.
Down the wide, gravelly road I went, feeling better from the warmers and a quicker, steady pace. I reached the bottom and the final turn to the finish. Just between one and two miles to go, on a nice soft runnable surface.
And I had a Walmsley moment.
At mile 93 of the 2016 WS 100, Jim was not only the lead runner, he was on pace to break the course record. Per his own account, all was on track – until he made a wrong turn, went two miles off course, and ended up walking the rest of the way.
And on my final turn by that highway I went wrong, ending up on a path that looked sorta right, except there were no ribbons. In daylight I would have figured it out pretty quickly from landmarks and the fence line. But it was dark, and I figured it had to be right. I kept going, getting more and more concerned. Then I saw a woman up ahead.
“Have you seen any ribbons?” she yelled.
Well, if I was lost, at least I had company. We ran on a little longer, not seeing anything familiar. So we decided to turn around and head back to the intersection. I took off hard, pleased to have a reserve to draw on, but frustrated I’d gone so far the wrong way. I estimated I’d gone over a mile off course.
I got back to the crossroads, found the correct path right next to the other one, got on it and continued hard to the finish, crossing the line at around 16 and a half hours. My second loop had taken ten hours.
And I’d finished third. Both Gene and Julie had taken the correct turn and finished well ahead of me. Julie actually won the race overall by about ten minutes. So I was second male finisher and earned a trophy instead of the winner’s belt.
I was bummed, naturally, but also amused at the irony. Last year I’d won the 50-miler by a single second, and the fellow I’d finished with had accepted his second-place trophy with good grace. Now after being unchallenged leader for nearly 61 miles of a 62-mile race, I had to do the same.
I did my best to smile as they took my photo. But I was suffering badly from cold and fatigue, so right after that I got in my car, cranked up the heat, and returned to my lodging. What a relief to get into a warm bed with dry clothes.
And how do I feel about it now? Just fine, thank you. One advantage of being over fifty is learning what’s worth getting upset over, and what isn’t. And a race result is a definite isn’t. Besides, it makes for a good story. And I like the trophy. People think it’s pretty cool. What was I going to do with another belt?
And one other thing may change as a result. I’d been thinking this would be my final time at the Grandmaster. There are too many other races that look like fun. But I was not happy with my time, even accounting for the wrong turn. If I’d won, I might just let it go. But now? I’m beginning to think I can do a lot better if I give it another go. Jim Walmsley did.