I spent a weekend in Squaw Valley crewing for a friend who was running in the Western States 100 mile endurance run. Only 400 athletes from around the world are lucky enough to test themselves on this difficult trail each year. I personally find the concept to be a little over the top but was excited to play a supporting role. I had no idea how emotional the experience would be!
Shortly before 5:00am on Saturday morning, I watched as numerous teary athletes, filled with anticpation, emotion, and passion hugged their loved ones and headed to the starting line. They had 30 hours to make it to the finish, 30 hours of climbing and descending to the tune of 19,000 ft up and 22,000 ft down. While the best in the world can break 16 hours, most of these ultra-runners will take at least 24 hours to make the trek and it’s a road filled with adversity.
My athlete, Steve Bernhardt, was prepared and confident. He finished the race in a respectable 27:27:28 last year. This year he had 24 hours in mind but the course had other ideas. Re-routing due to snow meant tougher conditions and some unexpected climbs. Steve was getting dehydrated. At the 31 mile check-in, he was 7lbs under weight. The race officials made him sit until he was within 4lbs of his starting weight. That could have been the end of his day, but these athletes have unyielding determination and 35 minutes later he was back on the course. When we saw him at 52 miles he looked pretty beat up and I wondered how he could possibly continue.
After some food and taping of his feet, he headed out with the same confidence that started his day. I wanted to cry. We saw him again at 63 miles…more taping…fresh socks, fresh shoes, and finally his pacer, the person who helps a runner stay focused during the most difficult miles. We were able to hike up a climb with him at 78 miles and then patiently waited to see him at 93 miles. As the athletes filtered through this aid station, the volunteers had to help many of them stand on the scale. They were too wobbly to step up on their own. However, one by one, they continued. So did Steve, walking more than running, he continued on auto-pilot. I was amazed. Nothing would keep him from the finish.
I walked most of the final mile with him, listening to the adversity he faced on the course. His body was thrashed but his spirit was on fire. He made the best of every challenge, always looking forward, testing himself physically and mentally, knowing he would make it. I watched him try to run the final lap around the track with his wife and son cheering through their tears. He crossed the line in 27:27:32, almost identical to last year but it was a completely different race. Talking to him afterwards, it was clear that he was better, happier, and stronger for the experience.
WS100 is a great analogy for the best and worst we face in the journey of life. Struggling to get past our toughest challenges does make us stronger and happier people when we finally cross the finish line. Maybe that’s why, inspite of his wounds, Steve can’t wait until next year!