When we were asked to crew and pace at Western States 100 for Gary Bennington we were very excited, but we had no idea what we were in for. Lots of highs, a few low points, but generally an amazing week of taking it all in!
We had met Gary and Kate at Vermont 100 last year and although I didn’t finish the race we tried to help them out as much as possible while trying to crew for Catherine too. We developed a friendship with our Quebec friends and when Gary was the only one to get picked in the lottery for WS100 they asked Joan and myself to accompany them to Crew and Pace. We didn’t think twice about it, the chance to experience the biggest event on the Ultra calendar could not be missed.
We made arrangements to arrive in Sacramento with in an hour of each other and then would drive to Squaw Valley from there. Unfortunately things didn’t quite work out that well. Our flight out of Buffalo was delayed by about 90 minutes due to the weather in Chicago (huge thunderstorms rolling through), but apparently Gary and Kate had it a lot worse as they were delayed hours. We got to Chicago with some time to spare, but assumed our connecting flight would be delayed too as everything in Chicago was delayed! Nooo, not our flight it was still on time, probably the only one. We still made it on time and off to California we went. Gary and Kate weren’t so lucky. They had a lot of problems dealing with the United ground staff trying to get answers and didn’t leave until hours later, and even with the delays would still miss their connection. We arrived almost on time in rainy California (!!!) and when we got there found that Gary and Kate’s flights had become a disaster. They would eventually switch to Delta and go through Minneapolis, but not get to Sacramento until after 7 pm. We had 5 plus hours to wait! We spent a lot of time “relaxing”, ate two meals and watched youtube video’s.
Gary and Kate finally arrived and we picked up nice rental car, fully loaded Ford Taurus, and then drove off to Squaw Valley in the dark, arriving at the Olympic Village Inn fairly late.
We woke up in the morning to some incredible views of the surrounding mountain peaks. The temperature was quite cool but nice a sunny. We decided to head over to North Lake Tahoe to pick up supplies since it was only about 15 minutes away. A beautiful little town and some great eating at the Damn Café! Back at Squaw we had a walk around and ran into Simon Mtuy in one of the cafes had our pictures taken and chatted briefly (elite athlete # 1 met). We went to the newbies meeting to learn about the race in the afternoon and then it was back to the room for dinner and relaxing.
Thursday morning was a chance to go to the top of Emigrant pass for the flag raising ceremony. I volunteered to accompany Gary on the cable car, while the girls decided to walk the 4 miles up the mountain! The girls got an early start while we waited to take the car. We met up with Will Jorgensen from Tennessee there, who I had met at O24 and had won that event. The cable car only took you up to about 1 mile from the top and we arrived just in time to greet the girls and then climbed to the top for some spectacular views and meeting a number other folks up there. On the way back we met up with Ellie Greenwood and had a good chat with her too. Too bad she wouldn’t be running this year due to injury. Later we went to the legends panel discussion which was a great information session and then met with Anne Trason, Gordie Ainsleigh and Andy Jones-Wilkins.
Friday was a flurry of activity and meeting famous people. There was the race check in for Gary, pacer sign in a browse through the limited “expo” and buying lottery tickets for next year’s race. We met up with and had great talks with Catra Corbett, Tim Tweitmeyer and Karl Meltzer amongst others. Later in the day we went to the pre race briefing and got to see all the favourites to win the race.
Race morning came quickly, we were up at 3:30ish for the 5 am start. I slept ok and apparently Gary slept well. It was a short walk down to the race for us and it was a cooler than expected morning, but I’m sure was nice for the runners who were expecting extremely hot temperatures well above 100F. At 5 am the rac got off without a hitch and off the runners went for the 4 mile climb up the mountain. We wouldn’t see Gary for about 5 plus hours at Robinsons Flat aid station at 24 miles in. So we went back to bed for a nap for a while.
We didn’t sleep or rest long as we had a long drive to get to the first aid station. We basically had to drive to Auburn from Squaw Valley before heading back towards Robinsons Flat. It was about 2 and half hours driving with a stop at McDonalds for some egg mcmuffins. The drive to Robinsons Flat was spectacular after we drove past Foresthill, and the road got narrower as we went. It was a bit of trek from the car to the aid station and the temperature was climbing quickly. We were there plenty early and Gary came in later than expected, so it was a long time at this spot. Gary was feeling really good and was obviously taking his time, everything seemed fine at this point. It was another 20 odd miles to the next place we could see him so it was going to be a long day for him. And it was only going to get hotter. We drove back to Auburn from here and the proof was in pudding as we watched the temp gage on the car climb from 87 f to 103 f in Auburn, most of the temp change happening in about 15 minutes. We did some shopping and were able to track Gary on line. When we were done we headed to Foresthill aid station and watched some of the faster runners go through while we waited things out. At about 5:30 pm we headed to Michigan Bluff aid station. This involved some more tight roads and then a walk down (or bus ride) a steep hill to the small town. It was a happening place with lots of activity as runners came and went. As we hung around we realized that Gary may not come in before 8pm and thus I would be able to pace him from here, so I got ready to run. We saw lots of runners we knew or had got to now over the previous days. I also bumped into Alex Nemet who is also doing the Mid-west Grand Slam, although he is doing the Super Slam (5 races). He was pacing a runner too.
Gary came in at just after 8pm, a fair bit later than we were expecting him and in hind sight he didn’t seem himself, it was a tough race out there and he was suffering a bit, but the sun had gone down and hopefully it would start to cool off and that may help. Once he was ready we were off… but only walking, he needed a break and this was it. It was also up hill for the next few miles too. I noticed Gary wasn’t very talkative at all and his walking was slow, but kept trying to urge him on, eventually he told me that he needed quiet and didn’t want have to listen, so I kept quiet as much as possible, but….
I though the first section was only a couple of miles, but as it turned out it was at least 5 miles as it seemed to go on forever (a sign of things to come). We did do some running here as there were some good down hills that you really didn’t have an option on. Gary did well on these. It was soon getting dark and headlamps were pulled out and switched on. We came into the next aid station and found out it was only 2.3 miles to Foresthill and the girls. This should have inspired Gary, but he wouldn’t run at all even when we got to the road into Foresthill. We got there and the aid station people and medical folks took Gary for the usual checks and tried some trick questions to check his mental state. “Is your name Eric with a c or a k?”, “The name is Gary with a G” he responded.
Once we got going again we should have been running really well for a while as this next section is some of the most runnable terrain on the course, but Gary wasn’t interested. We had passed Catra at the aid station, but she had quickly caught up and passed us again on the trail. There was a lot of gradual downhill here and we walked it all across a few creeks etc. then we hit some up hills, but they were intermixed with many miles of runnable flats and downhills. We walked on, every now and then I could get Gary to run making sure to encourage for every bit he did run. When you’re walking the aid stations seem to be many miles apart and I was trying to figure out how far apart based on our pace which I estimated at 15 minute miles, but apparently it was at least 20 minute miles.
As the miles went by Gary running became less frequent and no matter how much I encouraged him he wouldn’t run, his mood also started going south too. He started talking about dropping. The walk to Rucky Chucky, again on very runnable terrain was painfully slow and Gary had stop to pee almost every ten minutes. He was beginning to walk unsteadily too and even his talking was sometimes labored. About 2 miles from The river he ran out of water. At this point he was determined to drop no matter what I said.
We came into the near side aid station and told the medical people that Gary wanted to drop. They weighed him and checked him out, but only by talking to him and looking at him. His weight was up as it had been throughout and the medical person (doctor?) said that Gary seemed perfectly alright, but it was up to him whether he wanted to go on or not. Shortly after a race official came over and said all the things that I had said to Gary to try and get him to continue, but he must have said with a certain appeal as Gary decided it was time to continue. I had figured the river crossing alone would help bring him around and it did! Boy was it cold and it was almost up to your chest at the deepest point. The volunteers that were standing in the water helping you across should be given a buckle themselves, standing in the water four hours and giving great directions on where to put your feet as you went across.
A quick run through the aid station on the other side and then a 2.3 mile uphill climb to Green Gate. Gary seemed rejuvenated at this point, walking much better, but still very quiet. I even got him to run a bit and after the next aid station he was running a bit more, but from here on in it got tough for him. Less running as we went on. Green Gate was over 80 miles so we “only’ had 20 miles to go. The next 5 miles to Auburn Trails was tough, the sun was coming up and I thought that that might help, but it only seemed to go further downhill. We walked into Auburn trails at 85.3 miles just after two toots of the horn indicating there was only 30 minutes to the cutoff, Gary got weighed with the usual results and kept on going through the station picking up a cup of soup. I was looking forward to something different to eat and I was rather hungry. So I was very happy when they said they had pancakes, yippee. They also had real maple syrup!!! I ate up a plate load and on I went to catch up to Gary. We had 4. 3 miles to get to the next aid station. At the rate we were going we would be lucky to meet the cut offs and it would take us about 90 minutes at least.
I started counting down the kilometres at this point and Gary told me there was no way that he would be able to go beyond the next aid station even if we beat the cutoff. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would get pulled anyway. I was walking much faster than Gary so I would walk for half a kilometer and then wait for Gary and announce how far we had left, then walk on again. This was easily runnable terrain, but it seemed like the longest part too. There was some good points to this part though, we saw a doe and a fawn on the trail in front of us and she just stood there and watched us. Eventually I could hear the aid station at Brown’s Bar so I knew we were getting close, but soon the music stopped and I got concerned that they were shutting the aid station down and we would miss them. In hindsight that would never happen a as they know from the last aid station who is still on the course. But I was concerned for Gary and ran on to get to the aid station. I got there and they were packing up, but would leave until all runners were accounted for, I assumed we were the last on the trail. AS it turned out we were still ahead of the cutoffs, I told them that my runner was going to drop here, but they said that he couldn’t. They were not allowed to let anyone drop at this aid station and that we would have to go on. I said there was no way Gary was able to go on. Once he got there they had to steady him as he was very unsteady in his feet. They sat him in a chair which he soon got out of to lay on the ground. That’s when the fun began! Gary started throwing up and then got the shakes, he was either to hot or too cold. He was going into shock. One of the aid station volunteers, obviously well trained in first aid at the minimum took charge and never left Gary’s side, keeping comfortable. This aid station was in a ravine, very remote and only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles. Eventually another runner and her pacer came in (they were the last) and dropped too.
We soon loaded Gary into one of the trucks and five of us took the long slow arduous drive up to the road. I could see why they didn’t want anyone dropping here. We had to stop regularly to deal with Gary’s muscles seizing up.
Eventually we got back to the finish line area and went to get Kate and found her and Joan quickly. At this point they had called 911 to get Gary to the hospital asap. Before the Ambulance arrived Gary had a seizure to add to the fun and also banged his head when they were removing him from the truck.
Joan and I located the car and followed to the hospital where Gary was already hooked up to an IV and seemed to be out of it completely. I thought maybe they had sedated him, but apparently not. He was restrained too as he was fighting to get out of the bed and remove the tubes in him. It wasn’t looking good at this point, but the doctor didn’t seem to concerned. He told us that it looked like he may have Rhabdomylosis which is when the Kidneys cannot flush all the waste product from them that they have been to clean out of the system. The waste product is the result of the muscle breakdown that occurs during events like this. This can be caused by dehydration. Eventually we heard that the medical team for Western States were thinking it was form of Hyponaetremia. Gary’s recovery was slow and steady at first then remarkably fast. We kept in touch with Kate when we left via texting and she kept us up to date with every detail. Gary was treated like royalty by the Western States team, they arranged for visitors form the Ultra elite crowd who came by and brought him food and chatted for hours. They have also kept in touch me to know what happened while on the course too.
Although a scary ending to an amazing event, we have all said we’d do it again in a heartbeat. There is nothing quite like Western States.
Gary is home now and resting in Montreal, he’s been given a clean bill of health, but told to not run for about 2 weeks. We are all glad it all ended positively.
Before you go and DNF - try defecting to communism. - I’ve learned quite a lot about psychology in recent years. It usually goes something like this. I run an ultra and get myself into a slump. I get myself ...
6 days ago