Nation's oldest ultramarathon from Squaw to Auburn is race within a race

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013 - 9:03 am

A few minutes before 8 o'clock on a pleasant Saturday night last June, well before an ocher-tinged sunset took hold in Auburn, a lithe, bewhiskered and bare-chested runner from Oregon named Timothy Olson crossed the finish line at Placer High School to set the course record at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

At that same time, 45 miles back down the course, a lithe, green-shirted, bald-domed runner from Suisun City named Joselito San Gabriel was methodically making the climb up to Michigan Bluff, his energy draining as the canyon shadows lengthened.

By the time the lights were needed at the stadium, Olson, 28, had already been interviewed about his blazing 14-hour, 46-minute, 44-second victory in the race, which began before dawn in the cold of Sqauw Valley. He had been weighed and examined by a physician and even found time to put on a shirt.

Meanwhile, San Gabriel, 44, had finally crested Michigan Bluff at Mile 55, checked the time splits marked on his left biceps and down his left quadriceps, just to make sure he was still on schedule to finish before the 30-hour time limit.

Because, he knew, no matter how far you've gone and how close you come, no one is allowed more than 30 hours to finish what's considered the Super Bowl of ultramarathons.

So, while Olson and the other speedy elite runners left the stadium, showered, went out to dinner, settled in for a good night's sleep, awoke the next morning to have a hearty breakfast and head back to Placer High for the awards ceremony, back-of-pack runners like San Gabriel and Jerry Bloom, 59, of Shingle Springs, were playing a grueling game of Beat the Clock.

Such is the egalitarian nature of ultrarunning. Each year, as many spectators show up the next morning to cheer the stragglers hoping to finish before the 11 a.m. horn as they do the previous evening to see the male and female winners cross the line.

Western States, the nation's oldest ultramarathon, has always been a race within a race. Speedy runners are justly celebrated, but so too are the older and slower competitors.

In recent years, it's become a tradition for five-time Western States champion Tim Twietmeyer to help pace and cajole the final runners near the end. He will lurk on an uphill section near Robie Point, at the 98-mile mark, to encourage those "on the bubble" to somehow, somewhere deep inside them, find the strength for a late push.

He would be waiting for San Gabriel and Bloom, assuming the two could pass earlier aid stations before their respective time cutoffs. San Gabriel had run Western States the year before and dropped out less than halfway through, whereas Bloom was a nine-time finisher – four of those in less than 24 hours – who had been struggling all day and night.

It would be, to twist a cliché, a long night's journey into day for the veteran ultrarunners. By Mile 62, the aid station at Foresthill School, 38 of the 381 starters had already dropped – some because of injury and illness, others because of the mandated time cutoff.

San Gabriel, however, endured. He arrived at the aid station at 10:41 p.m., more than 18 hours after starting in Squaw Valley but an hour ahead of the cutoff. He met his crew, underwent a weigh-in to make sure he was neither dehydrated nor over-hydrated, and trudged off toward the American River crossing near Rucky Chucky, Mile 78.

Five hours, five enervating and lonely hours, later, San Gabriel reached the river. It was 4:11 a.m. – 10 minutes ahead of Bloom – and he was spent, although not hallucinating, like some runners. He was lucid and alert, but profoundly drained.

"I was getting sleepy, and I was caffeine-deprived," San Gabriel said. "I had to get there. (His crew) had my Ensure and my Starbucks Doubleshot. Those are my staples during one of these things, especially on a 100 (mile race), because I'm up all night. I need the Doubleshot.

"So by the time I reach the river crossing, that's the first time I realize, now I'm behind the clock," he said. "I wanted to be there at 4 a.m."

Not the cutoff time – he had about 40 minutes to spare – merely the splits he wanted to run to give him a cushion late in the race. After crossing the river, meeting his caffeine-wielding crew and hooking up with his pacer, friend and ultrarunner Jill Andersen, San Gabriel started to panic a bit.

"My pacer Jill keeps reminding me, 'We gotta move, make up some time,' " he said. "At each aid station, what's going through my head is, 'I need to make it to Auburn.' I had told my crew, if I beat the cutoff to get to the river, they should call my home and tell my wife to show up in Auburn. I knew from that point I had to get there, because I didn't finish the race in 2011."

After San Gabriel made the climb to the Green Gate station, arriving just before 5 a.m., 24 hours after the start, "all" he had left was 20 miles to go. It's the least vertical part of the course, those 20 miles, but one's body clearly starts to show the effects of the previous 80.

San Gabriel slowed. Considerably. Now, his time-cushion was dwindling. He moved from aid station to aid station, hoping not to hear the dreaded horn at any one of them.

"I know I've got to get going, but at the same time, I know my blisters on my feet are getting worse," he said. "When I get to each aid station, I hurry through them. I can't hang out – no more than two minutes, even at the ones where (medical personnel) weigh you and talk to you and check how you're doing. That wastes minutes. I'm just hanging on now."

It was 9:07 a.m., 28 hours into the run, when San Gabriel reached the Highway 49 crossing (Mile 93.5). Bloom was two minutes behind San Gabriel at that point. Both had slightly less than two hours to go seven miles, but hardly a sure thing.

"They had to hold up my arms a little bit to get me on the weight scale," San Gabriel said. "I'm weak. But (his crew) gave me my Ensure and Starbucks, and I'm out of there. As I'm leaving (Highway 49), I hear them blow the horn. I knew there were only one or two people behind me."

The last four miles is a significant climb from the canyon floor at No Hands Bridge to Robie Point and then into the stadium.

"I can't even talk," he said. "I'm giving everything I've got. I just keep going. I've got to make that last big uphill to Robie Point before the cutoff. I get a little farther and then Tim Twietmeyer pops out on the trail. He's egging me on. He says, 'You've got 45 minutes, you're on the bubble. We gotta move.'

"Then, I see a bunch of people, some people I knew and some complete strangers start coming down from Robie running toward me to yell encouragement. They hiked up that last uphill with me, saying, 'Stay strong.' I can't get too emotional, because I've got to hold it together. I can't hold my head up, I'm so tired. I know I'm starting to get close because I heard the roars (from stadium fans) for runners ahead of me."

San Gabriel's crew joined pacer Andersen to form an armada around him for the final 1.3 miles. They tried to will him to pick up the pace, knowing time was slipping away.

Twietmeyer, meanwhile, turned his attention to Bloom a few hundred yards down the trail.

When San Gabriel reached the open gate leading to the Placer High track, he had four minutes to run 300 meters. He weaved in and out of the lanes. He looked down the entire time, so as not to trip over his dusty Brooks trail shoes.

"People are just going nuts in the stands," he said. "Now my wife and my three children and my mom are all on the track with me, running. I can't even smile or wave or anything. I'm too tired. I just got to get around the track."

As he rounded the final curve of the track, a group of ultrarunners from Southern California formed a human tunnel, arms teepeed, so that San Gabriel could pass underneath it. When he emerged, the clock read 29:58:00.

"But I still had another 100 yards," he said.

He crossed the finish line with 1 minute, 33 seconds to spare.

"I still can't even begin to explain how I felt," he said. "It was a life-defining, life-changing moment right there. We (slower runners) are more like the average person. We're just trying to get to the end. We're just trying to get there. All we can do is try."

While San Gabriel embraced his family, Bloom had just entered the stadium, his daughter running by his side, urging him on. The crowd roared as the seconds ticked off.

Alas, the 30-hour horn sounded while Bloom still had a few hundred yards to go. So close, so disappointing.

"I was fighting the whole time, trying my hardest," Bloom said. "I actually never heard the horn go off. People say to me, 'Oh, you must have been devastated,' but actually it was the biggest thrill I've had – all the people lining the track cheering you."

Bloom is among the entrants this year, still gunning for his 10th Western States finish, and he can rest assured Twietmeyer and a small army of Western States fans will be there for him.

"I'm thinking (a) 28 1/2- hour finish this year," he said. "I need that cushion."

As for San Gabriel, he plans to volunteer at the Foresthill Aid Station this weekend, helping Bloom and the 400 other runners.

"This race has so much meaning to me," he said. "It's a way of giving back."


WESTERN STATES 100-MILE ENDURANCE RUN

What: Many of the top ultrarunners in the world compete in a 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to Auburn.

When: The race begins at 5 a.m. Saturday in Squaw Valley. The first runner is expected to reach the finish at Placer High School between 8 and 9 p.m. The course will remain open until the 30-hour cutoff at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Who: 2012 men's champion (and course record holder) Timothy Olson will return to defend his title, but last year's runner-up, Ryan Sandes of South Africa, will miss the race due to injury. Mike Morton, the 1997 race champion, returns to run for the first time in 16 years. Two-time defending women's champion Ellie Greenwood is injured and will miss the race. Among the favorites is Rory Bosio of Soda Springs.

For more information, go to www.wser.org. For live race-day coverage, go to ultralive.net.

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

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