Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Western States 100, River Crossing at Rucky Chucky - a View from the Sidelines

I just had the most amazing race trip to California, and I didn't run a single step. A friend had spent a lot of energy helping faciliate the San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors (of which I'm a 2nd year ambassador) volunteering at the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. The expectation was that the local ambassadors would have a lot of fun volunteering. This is referred to as the Mecca of ultrarunning for many. You have to qualify by being super fast and running 50 miles or more quickly, and then you have to be lucky to be drawn in the lottery. So when Peter found that we would be given the opportunity to volunteer at the Rucky Chucky Crossing of the American River at right around mile 80, I booked a plane ticket!

Friends and family said, "You are going to California to do what?!?"
"I'm going to wear a wetsuit and stand in a river waist-deep from midnight to 5 am and help these incredible athletes cross the cold American River at mile 80 of a crazy hard 100 mile race."
Yeah. Sounds pretty crazy.
My volunteer shirt. Each area had their own shirt and shirt color.
I knew it would be a volunteer experience unlike any other. I knew the airfare was worth the memories I would take home. I was so right about these things but had also underestimated how it would strengthen and build friendships and how it would inspire my own running.

First Stop - Visit the Finish Line

I carpooled with friends for this trip from San Francisco airport. 2 hours later and we were at the Auburn high school stadium that serves as the finish line. Runners enter the stadium and run 3/4 of the track to run through the arch.
The stadium where runners finish
We hung out and word spread that Timothy Olson was on course record pace. It was a cold year at Western States, and coupled with fast runners, it would end up being a record year for the men and women.
They were setting up the finish line!
Then, Olson entered the stadium. We all cheered loudly, I got the camera ready, and then snapped some pictures, held out my hand, and got a high-five from the winner himself. I'm not usually a starstruck person, but wow, was I here. 
Timothy Olson completing his series of high-fives coming into the finish

A happy Timothy waves to his adoring audience!

We then saw Ryan Sandes claim second place ten to 15 minutes later.
Ryan Sandes finishes strong with 2nd place!
Some quick fast food dinner and, since the aid station captain had mentioned yesterday that he'd had 5 people cancel on him, we decided to head to our volunteering gig early. We wound our way through super dark country dirt roads to arrive at the Rucky Chucky Crossing at mile 78 around 9:45 pm.

It Zips Up The Back

We found aid station captain Steve, and he was happy to see us. He put everybody to work and ordered us to change into our wetsuits and get in the water. I'd never worn a wetsuit. Changing into it took entirely too long as by the time Elise and I squeezed my legs in, we then learned that I had not paid attention to her instructions, and had put it on backwards. Argh.

20 minutes later I was squeezed into this sausage casing of a wetsuit. Lovely. Into the river, created from snowmelt, I went with my headlamp on. They had a cable strung across the river and a thick rope cable-tied to it. A raft was off to the side with a boater who could take volunteers to the other side or the occasional participant who didn't want to wade across, or was deemed unsafe to wade across safely.

We were spread out on the cable every few feet. We would shine our lamps low into the water, shout jokes and encouraging words to the runners and their pacers, point out dangerous rocks, grab a shoulder or arm to stabilize them, move gear that threatened to drop in and get wet, and hold the cable steady under the weight of runners leaning on it.
Seeing the Cable Crossing for the first time. Before I went to get the wetsuit on.
We'd start in the shallows and as a rested volunteer came back in, we would all move down, until you ended up in the middle with water almost at chest level. Which means for the small 5'0" women, it was at their armpits. Yowza. And then you moved your way up to the far end and then took a mandatory break to warm up as you got kicked off the other end with volunteers moving down the line.
Where I spent Western States
This picture was taken at the end of the volunteer stint at 5 am. From the near side of the river. Runners come down the canyon to the lower left light, which is where the cable starts. Then, they cross the river to the other side, which is the light on the far right. Then they start to work their way through the trees back up the canyon with the aid station at the top.

A Friendly Face

The strength of these runners was so impactful. They dutifully waded through this frigid river one step at a time. A few of us developed jokes to tell them and statements to get a laugh. The fellas always had the hardest time with that first step into the deeper water that caused certain body parts to get very very wet and cold. We heard all manner of obscenities and shouts that night. We would joke, "Only 3 piranhas spotted so far tonight." or "We've been accident-free now for 20 minutes!" and "If you round down, we haven't lost a runner yet!!"

We were thanked by everyone. People incredulously asked how we could stay in so long, not realizing until we answered that we were blessed with the wetsuits. A dozen times runners lamented our "awful job" we'd been given as volunteers, and I would say, "Awful?!? I flew all the way from Texas JUST to help all of you. There's nowhere I'd rather be than helping you fine folks." That would get a jaw drop then a huge smile. I was happy to let them know that what they were doing was amazing and meant a lot to all of us. Ironically, friends at the aid station on the other side of the river actually had a runner say to them, "Did you know there's a volunteer in the river who flew all the way from Texas to help?" They laughed and said, "Yep, that's Libby." So fun!
Waist deep, in a river, in a wetsuit, with a headlamp. Oh, and I can't swim.
Maybe midnight, I suddenly found myself face to face with Martin in the middle of the river. "OH, hi Martin!" This was buddy Suann's (@UltraLadySuann) boyfriend, and yes, I met him for the first time in the American River. We exchanged big smiles. He ended up running 7 minutes shy of 24 hours. Yep, silver buckle - on his first ever 100 miler.

Around 1 am, I hear from the far side of the river someone yelling my name from the rocks. Aside from our headlamps, it's basically pitch dark out here. A million stars, the silhouette of pine trees against a black sky, and occasionally little bobbing headlamps of runners coming down the canyon and then those who have crossed heading back up. I yell, "Yes, who is it?" It's Lesli, Josh's wife. And over the next hour, she's concerned we haven't seen Josh yet, with his pacer Jeremy who is also my running coach.

2 am, Josh and Jeremy arrive! Josh gets to me first, big smile, and I give him a big hug and lots of encouraging words. Jeremy next and another hug. This was Josh's first 100, and I never get to see Jeremy because he doesn't live locally.
A picture of Josh later, when he would come in to the finish
A few minutes after Josh and Jeremy, another hug for Dallas runner Nick, who was making this his 2nd 100 miler and would end the day only a couple minutes after Josh.
Nick as he would look coming into the finish later.

Now It's Just Plain Cold

I took a short 20 minute break after that, my first and only break, to get some pizza, some pulled pork, and Elise fixed me a hot steamy cup of hot cocoa - such a doll! The volunteer spread of food was pretty great, along with the volunteers that tended to that. You didn't know how cold you were until you got out of the river. And my shoulders and thighs ached slightly from stabilizing the cable and staying on our own feet.

Through the 3 o' clock hour, it got colder and colder. Low 40s in the air temperature. At some point the water was feeling warmer than the air, which was weird. To warm my hands, I would dip them in this river that had been created from snowmelt. Weird. You could see your breath in the air. The jobs closer to the bank were less fun because less of you was submerged so it was colder.

At 4 am, I'd spent a total of 5 hours in the river and had enough. The volunteer group was a good number. And I knew I needed extra time to get out of my wetsuit and changed in the dark in the SUV at the campsite. And man, peeling off a wetsuit is definitely a skill I need to work on. I also hadn't realized how numb my fingers were.

See It Through to the Finish

A couple warning horns in the half hour before aid station close. And then that final honk at 5 am that showed that the course at this point was closed. Sadly, 2 runners and their pacers came in minutes later. There were tears. That was rough. Friend Laura was sweet and gave them rides into town.

We went back to the finish line in the stadium at 6 am and stayed until exactly at the cutoff. There were some touching finishes. I was able to scream and cheer in Josh and Nick. I was able to meet Josh and Martin's crews and hang out with Suann and Jeremy a bit. We saw a local, very social runner, who had an entourage cheering for him as he was the last official finisher, a little over a minute before the 30 hour cutoff.
Josh Witte completes the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, raising his arms in triumph!
Nick Polito finishes the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run!
Right before the cutoff horn, a runner appeared coming into the stadium. The crowd went into an uproar. I fought through the choking feeling in my throat, and even though I knew he couldn't make it in time, I found myself instinctively screaming "RUN! RUN!" I knew there was no sprint left in the man. He had just come 100.2 miles! The announcer said it would be too late. He announced the man and said this would have been his 10th Western States finish. That's when I left the stadium, in tears, as I heard him finish unofficially 17 seconds past the 30 hour mark. I cried to the car and regained my composure. It completely broke your heart to witness this. He looked happy coming around the track, but I hurt for him so bad.

Homeward Bound

A long 2 hour drive back to San Francisco. I'd slept a restless 30 minutes all night but the adrenaline was still there so no sleeping in the car for me.

Flying out of SFO ended up being a disaster. And by our 3rd plane change due to "broken part" issues, I crashed hard and slept the whole plane ride. Home at 2 am instead of my originally planned 9 pm arrival. But worth the trip.


That's the word that I keep using in descriptions of the weekend to others. I can not express how hard the memories of the runners and the people I was surrounded with are now engrained into my consciousness. An amazing weekend that I think will help guide my own running in the future!


  1. Amazing and so inspiring!!! I so wish I could have joined, but I arrived in Sacramento at 10pm, exhausted and jet lagged! Glad you got to meet my good friend Elise! She is a doll! I can't wait to meet you in person in a few weeks! :)

    1. She had the nicest things to say about working on the marathon committee with you! Maybe we'll get to meet finally at SF Marathon expo!

  2. Oh my goodness, that (finishing 17 seconds late) just makes my heart hurt. I hope I'm not in that position when I do my first Ironman... and I don't know that I could stay and watch people come in at 17:01 (17 hour cut off) without bawling (and I'm just about as stoic as they come, usually...)

    Sounds like an amazing weekend. Crazy fun + little sleep usually seems to = great bonding experiences. Maybe someday we'll see you go through those arches? :)

  3. It's so inspiring just looking at the pictures you took; I'm sure seeing it in person was even better. The incredible fortitude and determination those runners must have! I'm sure they greatly appreciated you volunteering. And you got an amazing experience out of it to boot! I'm glad you blogged it so that I can live vicariously through you!*

  4. My runner and I hit the river crossing at 3:30 AM, man was that cold! And I kept thinking about you all down there all night, helping others achieve their dreams. Thank you!

  5. AWESOME recap! So many amazing memories... great meeting you and Elise! See you back in SF in about a month! :)

  6. Great recap really enjoyed your perspective as volunteer. I have had the privilege of crewing for my son in law Tim Olson the last two years. It has been such an incredible experience and very difficult to describe to others. After experiencing it in 2011 I knew I would be back in 2012. We met so many wonderful people and were able to see many of them again this year. The thing that amazes me the most is the lack of ego and camaraderie amongst the runners. They are also so welcoming to casual runners, non runners and anyone who have come to experience Western states.

    1. Thank you, Debbie, for your comment. It was amazing to watch Tim finish this year and win. And then for me to get to help so many in my own small way. I am so struck by how these are all such nice normal people with good hearts and a love of nature who decide to go out and do such extraordinary things!! In the two weeks since Western States, they've inspired my running and have already helped shape my training plans for the fall!