The Big Dance

I thought 5.5 hours of running was rough… until I saw Mike Dixon run the Western States 100 in 22 hours 38 minutes and 57 seconds.

Dixon referred to the WS100 as “the Big Dance” of ultramarathons, and it was no surprise to his friends that he was invited to the Big Dance. The White Kenyan is a spectacular runner who built his base in New Jersey, but has been getting a bad-ass reputation all along the east coast in the last two years for his road marathons and trail ultras. His finish of Western States has now brought his reputation to the wild west.

Dixon will tell his story on his blog, no doubt, but I wanted to share a little from the perspective of a crew member.

So many friends wanted to support Dixon at Western States that there were enough crew members, pacers, and supporters to fill two SUV’s and two RV’s. Dixon and the SUV crews flew in two days before the race and stayed in South Lake Tahoe, which was amazingly beautiful… once we finally got there. We spent a hideously unacceptable amount of time in various airports that day, but were fortunate enough to run into Runner’s World Editor at Large and RVRR Masters team member, Amby Burfoot, who was on his way to Eugene, OR to cover the Olympic trials.

Go RVRR!

Now that’s a great way to start a running adventure!

On Friday, the day before the race, we ran a few miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail, which were gorgeous. The major difference between east coast and west coast trails is that east coast trails are covered in roots and rocks that will trip you up when you start dragging your feet (or if you’re just looking around desperately for pavement, like I usually am). West coast trails are not as technical; they’re really just dirt and dust, resembling what I would consider well-manicured paths. Not to say that the trails are easy (ha! I walked a couple climbs, I’ll admit it), but I appreciated not having to keep my eyes bolted to the ground, especially when the views were so breathtaking.

Running the Rim Trail.

The guys went to Squaw Valley for Dixon’s check-in and random pre-race shenanigans after the run. Naturally, the ladies went to the Brewery at Lake Tahoe. Priorities, people!

That night we ate an early group dinner, packed up the coolers, and went to bed before leaving dark bright and early on Saturday morning. The Western States 100 starts in Squaw Valley, CA, the home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. For such a monumental and impressive race, the start surprised me with its simplicity. No fireworks, no marching bands, no news crews, no mayor giving out high fives. It was just 383 anxious runners eating some pretty standard breakfast fare at the ski lodge before cramming in behind a modest arch that marked the start (and, later, the finish).

As snow flurries started to fall, the crowd counted down from ten and the runners were off at 5am, immediately heading up a ski mountain.

Seriously.

And they’re off!

Crew A’s first planned aid station, Robinson Flat, wasn’t until mile 30, but we hit the road immediately, hoping to nap in the parking lot before catching the shuttle out to the station. A chilling rain/sleet mix was falling, unsettling everyone a bit considering we came prepared for combating the historically high heat, and knowing Dixon had, too. Thankfully Crew B was able to change their initial plans and find Dixon a bit earlier than Robinson Flat. We learned through spotty cell service that they saw him and literally gave him the dry shirts off their backs.

We made it down to Robinson Flat with enough time to see some of the top men and the top women. The reactions of each runner upon seeing their crew were so incredibly different. Most runners looked miserable in the pouring sleet and heavy wind gusts, but many looked focused to capitalize on the abnormally cold temperatures. The first woman, Ellie Greenwood, jogged over to her crew looking excited about the messy weather, and commented that it was better weather than last year. Whether or not she was faking, her optimism got her through the finish line in record time that day- 16:47.19. Sick!

Ellie wasn’t the only runner to come through Robinson Flat with a smile. We spotted Dixon, but he ambled toward an aid tent before coming in our direction.

Thirty miles strong!

Four cups of hot soup broth later, Dixon walked over and we presented his options: new hat, new shirt(s), sock and shoe options, and various foods. I offered him a small chunk of turkey sandwich and he replied, “Nah. Don’t want too much fat early on,” which was…

COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE.

Let me back up a little. After our pre-race dinner we had gathered for a quick meeting. Dixon had told us in this meeting that, in order to fuel properly, he needed us to insist that he eats no matter what he said on the course. In my mind, this meant Harry to Dumbledore, Drink of Despair style. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I summoned my inner Harry Potter (“accio inner Hogwarts-self?”), emphatically laid down the law with an iron fist, and he took two bites. (What actually occurred: I insisted once more, meekly cited his meeting request, and he obliged.)

I’d like to think the sandwich (expertly-crafted by members of Crew B on Friday night) is what got us this, before he ran off into the fog:

See, the sun is coming out!!

And there he goes…

So Dixon was back on the trail, working his way from aid station to aid station, whittling down the miles as the sun came out… while Crew A had a picnic at Jack in the Box, Jersey style.

West coast fast food, east coast style.

After demolishing our food and drying off in the sun, Crew A hoofed it over to Foresthill, where we could park and catch a shuttle to Michigan Bluff, mile 56. The road leading to Michigan Bluff was an insanely tight downhill road with contstant switchbacks. Crap. How in the world are you supposed to get someone excited about five miles of unrelenting uphill coming their way when they’re halfway through running 100 miles?

I’d tell you the answer, but I don’t actually know.

Dixon rounded the downhill bend, coming into the Michigan Bluff aid station, no longer shivering, in what looked like a completely different day.

Two thumbs up!

He talked to the volunteers for a few minutes, they filled his water bottle with ice, and he ate a decent amount of fruit (no wrath this time). We walked with him up the road and he talked about his second wind after coming down from altitude. The canyons were tough but his lungs had opened up. All good stuff. Then he asked, “So what does it look like to the next aid station?” Shoot. Us: “Well… it’s really… scenic…,” and then he said the best thing ever: “I’m sick of the downhills. The canyons killed my quads.” We informed him that it was actually the complete opposite, and he took it pretty well. “Anything but downhill is fine with me,” and got back on the course. Phew!

Crew B and Jayson, the first pacer, met Dixon five non-downhill miles later at Bath Road. Crew A rode the shuttle back to Foresthill and waited there for Dixon and Jayson to come through, enjoying the sunshine with the RV crews, who had met us there. It wasn’t long until we saw our runners, as Dixon had been picking up his pace since leaving the mountains.

Mile 62

Slapped some more sunblock on him, gave him a headlamp and more turkey sandwich, and he and Jayson were back on the road. Crew A hit a grocery store for dinner. While waiting at the deli counter we met a couple in their 60’s who had run Western States many times in prior years. They now continue to keep the weekend free every year and volunteer, describing their experiences as if they were part of a community coming together for a block party once a year. They see old friends and catch up, all while supporting the hundreds of runners cruising through their old stomping grounds. It was incredibly uplifting and inspiring to us newbies.

After dinner we drove to a location where we’d hop another shuttle and go to Green Gate, the 80th mile. We met up with Crew B in the parking lot, where they had been sleeping since we left them at Foresthill. The two remaining pacers, Bill and Dave, got onto the next available shuttle. Unfortunately this station was down one shuttle, which was sitting in the lot with the hood up, and Crew A managed to squeeze onto the next.

After a decently long ride on the bus, we were dumped out into the dark and jogged just under two miles down a bone-dry dirt path to Green Gate. Only one of us had been smart enough to bring a headlamp (it wasn’t me), so we stuck close together running in the pitch black night. We got to Green Gate sweaty and dusty, arriving only a few minutes before we saw Bill and Dave leading Dixon and Jay through mile 80.

Dave and Dixon at Green Gate.

Green Gate was quiet. Dixon didn’t need any new clothes or extra food, and didn’t say much, but we were happy to see him. He ran on, now paced by Dave. Jayson, tired from pacing (which included crossing a freezing, waist-deep river at Rucky Chucky), and Bill, who would be pacing next, trudged back up the dusty road to the shuttle with us, all the while admiring the unbelievable amount of visible stars and hoping we didn’t get mauled by a bear or some crazed hick (both seemed highly likely at the time).

Both crews were ready for some sleep, so we drove to the mile 94 parking lot to nap, Crew A ready to pick up Dave when he and Dixon reached Highway 49, and Crew B ready to send Bill out into the night to bring Dixon through the final miles. Sleep felt amazing, even though it was sitting upright in our SUV, and the two glorious hours passed quickly. Not long after Bill shuttled out to mile 94, we saw Dave get off the bus and we were ready to go. Next stop- Placer High School. The finish.

Thankfully it was a short drive to the school, as the crews of both cars were at our wit’s end ready for real sleep sick of eating sandwiches antsy. On the drive Dave told us that Dixon had been hitting some pretty extreme highs and lows, but there were several times where he was moving so quickly that Dave had a hard time keeping up.

We reached the school and parked next to the track, where we saw volunteers sleeping on the infield, and runners coming through the finish to a quiet celebration. The arch that had marked the start now marked the finish, decked out with a tiny flag from every country. Crews A and B met the RV crews at the entrance to the track, and we headed out to mile 99, Robie Point, to run the only mile we could with Dixon. Many walked, but a few of us jogged, hoping to catch Dixon and Bill before they reached Robie Point.

One mile to go!

Lindsay, Mike, Tom, and I reached mile 99 just in time. I had barely taken in the atmosphere- loud music, bright lights, bonfires, excited chatter- and we saw Bill and Dixon running in. I can’t really describe the look on Dixon’s face at mile 99, but imagine the look kids get when they see the tree all lit up on Christmas morning. (And then imagine that look on someone who’s run 99 miles.) That look was why I jogged out to mile 99.

Lindsay, Tom, Mike, and I turned and ran with Dixon and Bill, all of us incredulous. Dixon was smiling, talking, laughing, debating his choice of shirt (you’ve got to look good for the finish!), and picking up the pace. We caught up to the rest of the crew who jumped in and joined Dixon for the final distance to the school. We saw the bright lights of the field and heard the soft announcements from the finish line, and made way for Dixon to bust out and shine in his last quarter mile when we saw the door to the track.

Not only did Dixon pick up the pace on the track, he kicked and hit a pace that left “Western States’ biggest entourage” (according to the finish line announcer) in the dust. The entire entourage jumped and whooped from 100 meters back when he crossed the finish line, probably waking all the sleeping volunteers. (Sorry!!)

Much like the start, there was no pomp and circumstance, just ice baths and plastic lawn chairs for tired soles souls. Thanks to endorphins and caffeine, Dixon changed into clean clothes and prepared for his immediate post-race vacation. After a lot of congratulating and gentle pats on the back, Dixon and the RV crews boarded their behemoth vehicles to plan their next move, and Crews A and B started our two-hour drive to Lake Tahoe.

On our way to Lake Tahoe as the sun rose on Sunday morning.

We arrived back in South Lake Tahoe completely exhausted, yet oddly wired. The race was over. Dixon was done, and we didn’t do anything to get him disqualified, lost, or injured. Success! After about five solid hours of sleep, we made the most of our afternoon in Lake Tahoe and hit the beach not once, but twice (once to relax in the sun and once to roast marshmallows at sunset). That is how you recover from crewing Western States.

If you want to learn more about the Western States 100, check out “Unbreakable,” an excellent documentary made about the 2010 running of the WS100.

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4 thoughts on “The Big Dance

  1. Totally a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both Dixon and crew! What I can’t get over are the various climate zones you experienced in those 22 hours. The perfect soundtrack for WS 100: Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

  2. Awesome recap Li! Gene is absolutely correct, I am so lucky to have such great friends! It is so interesting to hear the stories of what took place as I was out on the trails. Thanks again!

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