Tales from the Trails

Adventures from our very own chippers.


John Nichols 2012 – Some days you’re the windshield.  Some days you’re the bug.

For the last couple of years (2010/2011), the snow pack through the winter precluded significant training in the canyons until late Spring.  And in both of these years, a modified course was required, as the snow levels were so elevated even in June that some of the traditional aid stations were inaccessible.

This year, we had a dry winter, allowing us to get significant training past Michigan Bluff as early as February.  We also got to look forward to resuming the traditional course and running it snow free!

Winter training went well for me, logging a number of 100 mile weeks with several early visits to the canyons.  The Spring, however, was filled with challenges.  After going a couple decades with almost never being sick, my twin boys in day care seemed to bring me a cold every few weeks.  I also developed a significant ankle injury in April, but by mid-May, had this under control and seemed to be mechanically solid.  Biggest problem was a pervasive weakness when climbing.   My times at the Old Goat 50, American River 50, the Sonoma 50, the Miwok 100k, and the Silver State 50 were downright awful.  By the time I got to the end of May I started an early taper to see whether an elongated recovery period might get some kind of zip back in the legs.

Perhaps I’m just having an “old” year, perhaps the twins wore me out, perhaps those two episodes with the ticks and the antibiotics did some damage, but sometimes you never know. You just play the hand you’re dealt. About the only time I had this much difficulty in my Spring training was in 2007, and that was the year I ran 20:46.  So it goes.  Keeps things interesting!  I never know which “me” will show up race day.

Charley Jones and I did our normal June taper program, which included miserable sessions in the sauna, steam room, and running in three layers of sweats.  The heat is usually a significant issue race day.  However this year, we got the watch the 10 day forecast keep ratcheting lower, to the point it appeared it might stay under 80 degrees race day.  Would we get that lucky?  Yes we would.  Perhaps too lucky.  The day before, the forecast started to show the possibility of rain.  Ok.  Things were starting to get spooky on us.  Too much of a good thing.

Last year (2011) was the first time I’d worn a long sleeve shirt to start this race, but I still went shirtless after Red Star Ridge at mile 16.  My normal thinking would be to avoid overdressing, since the period of cool temperatures would be short.  The sun rises and we begin descending the mountain after that first hour long climb.  This year, however, I may have been blessed by a dicey experience with a flash snowstorm on March 31 out at Michigan Bluff.  That ill-fated training run was a reminder that when the mountain decides to change-up the temperatures, having some extra clothing and gloves can be a life-saver.  For this reason, I put on a short sleeve, a long sleep, a light rain jacket, and two pairs of gloves.  Seeming overkill turned into bare essentials!  Sure wish those gloves were gore-tex.  I still ended up with frozen fingers.


5:00am. Squaw Valley.  Race Begins.

 I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. – Red, from the Movie Shawshenk Redemption.

 Hope would be essential today.  Although the temperatures were indeed conducive to running fast, it was downright miserable the first part of the race.  Snow or no snow, it takes an hour to get up that first four mile climb.  And then at the top of the Escarpment, the winds were cold and brutal.  It was certainly an incentive to run quickly and get the $#(&% off that mountain!

Lyon Ridge aid station.  Mile 10.5.  135th place. 2:11

I reached Lyon Ridge in a little over 2 hours.  About what I’d expected, although I was having trouble finding a rhythm.  Mostly was just trying to stay warm and hoping the rain would stay reasonably tame.

I came into the aid station with Matt Keyes and John Trent, a couple of good friends.  I’d let them run on ahead shortly afterwards.  Matt was getting about an hour faster each time he’s run this race, and you could tell by watching him train this year, that he was likely to break out and run something special.  Matt would end up running a 20:18 on this day.  An exceptional run, but I think he can take another hour off that time.

Ah. My old enemy… stairs! — Po, from the movie Kung Fu Panda 2







Cougar Rock.  Just about done with the initial climbing, about 13 miles into the race. 


 Red Star Ridge aid station.  Mile 16.  132nd place.  Time 3:22.

I was a little slower than normal getting into Red Star, which was a little surprising, given that this was one of the rare times the first 16 miles of the course was devoid of significant snow.

I was so appreciative of the outstanding volunteers at the aid station.  Those folks must have camped out all night, given the remote location of Red Star.  At least I could run to keep warm.  Working an aid station must have been miserable in the early part of this day.

Normally I drop shirts, gloves, etc. at this aid station.  Today I kept everything, and started the seven mile stretch to Duncan Aid station.


 Duncan Canyon aid station.  Mile 23.8.  137th place.  Time 4:52.

 I hope this turns out better than your plan to cook rice in your stomach by eating it raw and then drinking boiling water… — Tigress, from the movie Kung Fu Panda 2

I went without a crew this year, figuring I could rely on drop bags and the outstanding aid station volunteers.  But at Duncan, I did see Jim Maragelis, who was crewing for Gus Exarchos.  Gus crewed for me 5 years in a row, but this year was running his first Western States.  He would s earn his first buckle, coming into Auburn about 10:30am the following day.  Great job Gus!

Jim was extremely helpful to me.  I was soaked and was having significant difficulty keeping my soggy shorts up, despite tying them as tight as I could.  Fortunately, I had placed a couple of spare safefy pins on my gaiters.  My hands were too frozen to make use of these, but Jim was able to use them to fasten my shorts to the under armour I had on underneath.  This was a big help.  The day was miserable enough already.  Running with my shorts down around my knees was an indignity that I could skip going forward.











Picture Halfway to Robinson.  Two pairs of glove were insufficient. It’s about to get really ugly when we get back into the open.

 The stretch from Duncan to Robinson is perhaps the most difficult in the race.  And today, we added wind, sleet, and a bit of hail to the recipe.  I took a pretty good tumble at about mile 26.  No harm done, but now my soggy gloves were covered in mud.


Robinson Flat aid station.  Mile 29.7.  143rd place.  Time 6:26.

By the time I got to Robinson I was completely miserable.  Putting the weather aside, I just was struggling to run and my gut was twisted in knots.  Sometimes the altitude makes folks a bit queasy, but this was something else.  I felt awful.

I got through the medical checkpoint and saw the port-a-johns off the right.  Seemed like a good idea.  As it turns out, I spent over 15 minutes in there.  Burned some time, but I came out a new, lighter man, and felt much better.

I started the two mile ascent up Little Bald Mountain with more optimism than I’d had for the last few hours.


Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight

You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.– from the song “Lovers In A Dangerous Time” by Barenaked ladies.


Miller’s Defeat aid station.  Mile 34.4.  164th place.  Time 7:28.

I lost about 20 places in this stretch, but I only recall maybe one or two people passing me.  I think I lost those places when I was hiding in the port-a-john at Robinson Flat.

It was still difficult to tell whether I could find a gear that would allow me to put a faster time in play.  The next few hours in the canyons usually clarify what might be possible.


Dusty Corners aid station.  Mile 38.   144th place.  Time 8:08.

Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.  — Red, from the Movie Shawshenk Redemption.

When I’m having a good day, the five mile single track stretch from Dusty Corners to Last Chance aid station is usually where I find the rhythm.  Today … I had nothing.  I could run at a steady pace, but I was unable to find a faster gear.


 Last Chance aid station.  Mile 43.3.  147th place.  Time 9:11.

By the time I reached Last Chance the sun had finally come out.  Broader patches of blue sky emerged.  It was warm enough to toss the gloves, and remove the long sleeve shirt.  However, given my distrust of the weather this day, I went ahead and tied the rain jacked around the waist.  Perhaps it would serve as a talisman to ward off further showers.

 Off to the canyons!  I was able to find fast downhill gear, making good time to the swinging bridge, just before the ascent to Devil’s Thumb.  However it was the climb up Devil’s that confirmed my prospects for a fast time were receding, and my chances to finish in under 24 hours might be at risk.  Took me about 10 minutes longer than normal to complete that 1.7 mile climb.


 Devil’s Thumb aid station.  Mile 47.8.  148th place.  Time 10:26.

 I always enjoy the Devil’s Thumb aid station, as it’s a chance to see several friends.  The Buffalo Chips Running club provides the volunteers for this aid station.

It’s often a turning point in the race for many folks.  You have just completed the most difficult climb, you are at the 48 mile point, and there are two more difficult canyons just ahead.

I guess it comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living or get busy dying.  – Andy, from the Movie Shawshenk Redemption.

 John Blue gave me words of encouragement and predicted I would perk back up and find the gear to finish under 24 hours.  I was less confident that would be possible, but this was the point where I made that simple decision … to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got to Auburn.  Finishing was now the priority.  I decided to just work my way through the next couple canyons until I got to my pacer, Karyn Hoffman, at mile 62.  That would be the point where we’d determine whether a sub 24 finish could be put into play.


El Dorado Creek aid station.  Mile 52.9.  145th place.  Time 11:30.

 Once again, I managed to pull together a good downhill gear on the 3.5 mile stretch to El Dorado creek.  However, my climb to Michigan was predictably anemic.  That Michigan Bluff climb has owned me for months!


 Michigan Bluff aid station.  Mile 55.7.  150th place.  Time 12:30.

You got to let go of the stuff from past – because it just doesn’t matter! The only thing that matters is what you choose to be now. — Po, from the movie Kung Fu Panda 2

Michigan Bluff is usually the first time I look at the watch and set a time goal.  The general rule is you can double your Michigan Buff time and that gives you some sense of when you might finish.  I was at 12:30.  That would imply 25 hours.  I’ve also found you can add 10 hours to the Michigan Bluff and if you are running really well, that becomes a possible finish time.  In this case, best case might be 22:30.  At that point, the 25 hours seemed like the more likely outcome.

I made up 10 places on the way to Foresthill, but I recall only passing a couple of folks.  Michigan Bluff is a big aid station for crew access, and it comes after the most difficult sections in the race.  I was in and out of the aid station in less than a minute, so probably passed several folks doing a pit stop with their crew somewhere along the access road.


Foresthill aid station.  Mile 62. 140th place.  Time 13:55.

14 hours into the race and feeling rather beat up by the day, it was good to see my pacer Karyn.  We switched bottles, gathered headlamps, etc. and got moving down Foresthill Road to California street.  Last year I made it to mile 80 in daylight, so I was able to skip the headlamp until after the river crossing.  This year, I would need the headlamp by mile 73.

I took advantage of the downhill stretch to the Cal-1 aid station, making in there in 35 minutes.  I’d finally found that elusive gear and was running better than I had all day.  The sun was setting and I wanted to see how far I could go without using the head lamp.

We ran straight through the Cal-1 aid station and made it to Cal-2 in under an hour.  That’s right up there with some of my best years on that stretch.


 Peachstone aka Cal-2 aid station.  Mile 70.7.  129th place.  Time 15:35.

We passed about a dozen people on since Foresthill, and got through the Cal-2 aid station quickly.  This was about a 2 mile downhill stretch and I decide to run it as fast as I could with the remaining daylight.

 Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. – Andy, from the Movie Shawshenk Redemption.

 I made it.  But there is a steep half mile plus climb on the way to Cal-3, and I broke pretty badly on this stretch.  I probably red-lined it more than was sensible over the last couple of hours, but I wanted to cover as much ground as possible in the daylight, and the sub-24 was back in play.  If I could just hold it together with some reasonable running through the night, I had enough time to do it.

I struggled for the next hour or so working my way to the River Crossing at mile 78.  I was OK, but needed to recover a bit from the “jail break” pace we did since Foresthill.  After the River Crossing, it would be time to go back to work and “ugly” my way to the finish line.  Karyn was encouraging me to keep some semblance of a pace going.  I was trying to stitch together the courage required to do what was required the last 22 miles.


 Rucky Chucky River Crossing.  Mile 78.  123rd place.  Time 17:16.

I’ve yet to spend more than about a minute at the near side Rucky Chucky aid station.  My friends Chuck & Trish Gotfredson run that aid station.  It’s just too friendly and inviting, so best to get out of there quickly.  The river crossing always feels like a point of no return for me, so it’s good to jump right in.

Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine, or maybe I just don’t want to. – Red, from the Movie Shawshenk Redemption.

I usually look forward to the river crossing.  When the water level is low enough that we cross using the cable, the cold water can do wonders for cramped and tired quads.  However, on this cold day, it was a bit breathtaking.  I would need to get moving quickly to ward off hypothermia.


Green Gate aid station.  Mile 79.8.  126th place.  Time 17:57.

 After making the two mile climb to Green Gate, we immediately turned right and began the five mile single track to the ALT aid station.  I train on this section of the course most of the winter, but usually in the opposite direction.  I’m always surprised at how many uphill sections crop up during this section.  Of course, by mile 80, minor inclines turn into major challenges.

 And the white line’s getting longer and the saddle’s getting cold
I’m much too young to feel this damn old
All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole
I’m much too young to feel this damn old

–       from the song “Much Too Young” by Garth Brooks

On a good day, I can do this stretch in about an hour.  Tonight, I used up almost a 1:20 to grind this one out.


 Auburn Lake Trails aid station.  Mile 85.2.  124th place.  Time 19:18.

 Mile 85 is another medical checkpoint.  I got on the scale and it showed 159.  The aid station medic asked me my starting weight.  I said 159 and quickly got off and started toward my drop bag.  They caught up with me and decided to check my wrist band, which confirmed the 159 weight.  That was pretty funny.  I suppose it is rare to be right on.  Usually it’s a few pounds over or under.  And I always thought it was less about your weight, but whether at mile 85, you were still coherent enough to convincingly lie to the aid station personnel!

 I’ll put one foot in front of the other one

I don’t need a new love, or a new life

Just a better place to die

– from the song “One Foot” by Fun.

 That’s actually one of my least favorite songs by the group “fun”, but it really did pop into my head at that point.  I was really suffering at this point, but I decided I would find my way to Auburn before dying.

We were 35 minutes under 24 hour pace.  15 miles to go.  Should be doable.  Karyn continued to be the supportive and encouraging pacer, but I had the feeling she would stomp on my liver if I bungled getting the sub-24 finish.

The next five miles are perhaps the most runnable on the course.  Similar to the stretch from Dusty Corners (38) to Last Chance (43).  But for some reason, it seems so long.  I’m sure the fact that you’ve already completed 85 miles has a lot to do with it.  Darkness adds to the challenge.  But I think the cruel trick is the relentless number of similar looking turns that make you hope you are near to the mile 90 aid station.  For this reason, I make sure I look down at my watch before starting out.  I know it’s going to take an hour, so I decide to just put my head down and go to work for an hour.  Otherwise, the false positives you get nearing the mile 90 aid station are torture.


 Brown’s Bar aid station.  Mile 89.9.  125th place.  Time 20:28.

Karyn is keeping a close eye on me at this point.  She can tell I’m fading, but also have enough suds to maintain the pace necessary to get us to Auburn before sunrise.  She gets us in and out of the aid station and she pushes me to keep steady progress.

 Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes, really. Pressure and time.

 — Red, from the Movie Shawshenk Redemption.


Highway 49 aid station.  Mile 93.5.  119th place.  Time 21:31.

Finally we made it.  There is something endless about the final stretch of single track after the climb up Quarry Trail.  Reaching Highway 49 usually provides a bit of a second wind.  There are some challenging stretches yet ahead, but we are now close to a 10k from the finish.  Just a matter of pressure and time …

We saw Jamie Frink’s husband Jim, who told us Jamie was stalking us about five minutes back.  Karyn tried to use that to motivate me, encouraging me to pick up the pace.  I laughed.  Jamie was going to torch us!

We worked our way up the initial mile climb to the city of Cool, and then started the descent to No Hands Bridge.  This is a nearly 3 mile downhill stretch.  Most nights I can summon up one more gear to make up some time on this downhill.  Not tonight.  I had nothing.  I was having trouble seeing.  Was it my headlamp?  Was I getting disoriented by Karyn’s hand held flashlight?  I think I was just spent.  I’ve found I can keep things laser-focused for about 21 hours, and then I get flaky.  Worked pretty good the last couple of years when I was done close to 21 hours.  Good thing Karyn was there to keep me from wandering off into the woods.

Sure enough, about a mile later, Jamie Frink cruised on by and then proceeded to beat us like we owed her money.

No Hands Bridge aid station.  Mile 96.8.

5k to go!  But it’s a really hard 5k.


Robie Point aid station.  Mile 98.9.  119th place. Time 23:07

Karyn kept pushing me to keep running.  I thought I was running!  Kind of embarrassing when you are having trouble keeping up with your pacer who is walking.


Finish Line. Placer High track.  Mile 100.2.  122nd Place.  Time 23:27:44.

23:27.    My 7th finish in under 24 hours, 8 finishes overall.  This was a few hours slower than I’d hoped, but I was pleased with my efforts.  I had a rough day, but was able to salvage the sub 24.











Picture Finish Line. 

There’s a crack in the gutter where a flower grows
Reminding me that everything is possible
Yeah reminding me that nothing is impossible
You gotta live for the one that you love you know
You gotta love for the life that you live you know

– from the song “Hey Hey Hey” by Michael Franti.