A feat in the heat - WSER 2022 (avec pics)
Back by unpopular demand – an account of my WSER
Be patient: I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.
A salacious “Gravity is a b*tch”, uttered by a fellow runner, greets the first, steep uphill known as the escarpment. The race only started a few minutes ago; the anticipation, the jitters and tension, the excitement and fear giving way to focusing on breathing and not going out too fast. I stay well behind: I can actually see the sweep team not far behind me. But this was the plan all along… go out slower than you want to – and then slow down further.
Fescennine remarks all around.
Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho
I’d whiled the time away before the start chatting with Loop stars Mild Sauce and Laura of the Flying Matzes. I badly needed to… rarely had I been this nervous before a race. I really wanted to bring this one home. After all, this race was the result of 7 previously unlucky draws, one intercontinental flight and countless hours spent running on the hills nearest to my place. For this race, I’d foregone steep mountain sides and technical trails in favour of gentler inclines, swapped rocky singletracks for hills and woods, forced myself to run when tired, while I would usually start hiking. All for the coveted buckle.
It's NOT all downhill from here
There's nowhere else I'd rather be
The first part of the race covers the high country, but I can feel that it is going to be a hot (VERY HOT) day. So I decide to get doused in cold water at each aid station. This would prove to be a wise decision. The 2022 run of the WSER was one of the hottest on record.
The heat training
Rewind the tape back to May, 2022: an unwilling runner from Northern Italy decides to face the unseasonable heat to train smack dab in the middle of the day – he’s been warned that one of the possible dangers of WSER is the heat.
He also looks online for a sauna and discovers that one needs to be careful when choosing one: some are apparently chosen by swingers for the thrill of transgression. After carefully weeding out the saunas attended by such riffraff (don’t get me wrong: I’m all for freedom, but “ewww”), he chooses a respectable sauna not too far from where he lives.
“I must’ve gone out too fast, after all”, I say to myself after seeing Mild Sauce at the Duncan Canyon (24 miles). She’s smarter and younger, fitter than I, so maybe this is not my place to be.
But I’m only looking to finish this thing – actually, I’d secretly harboured hopes for a GOOD finish, but I soon realized how foolish such harbouring was.
Duncan Canyon is also where I first meet Countess Fifi and my mate (also soon-to-be pacer) Roberto. Their sight is a welcome relief, they help me out with aid-station-related chores, and they raise my spirits.
The highs before the lows.
The Robinson Flat aid station is simply fantastic: you get a Tour-de-France style cheering, wonderful volunteers, and a chilly dousing to die for. I wish I could stay here for a looooong time, while pampered and treated like a pharaoh. But of course I can’t; I leave with a smile on my face, ready to tackle the heat and the following section of the course.
Little did poor, hapless Moose know that such jollity and mirth were soon to be quashed: after the Miller’s Defeat aid station, I enter the dreaded canyons section of the course.
Dreaded because this is the hottest part of the race, the one I was warned about, the one I was fearing the most. Also, slow punters like me enter this section in the hottest hours of the day, so we get the
best worst of it.
The trails there are not particularly technical, so I try to run whenever I can, helped by an ice-filled backpack and an equally chilly bandana for my neck. It’s likely also that my circumspect sauna training also played a role in me not succumbing to heat stroke.
A mouthful of dirt and the art of the creek bidet
Unfortunately, the trails are incredibly dusty, which means that if you have someone running in front of you (like I did), there’s about a half pound of dirt per mile cheerfully shoved in your airways. But I take it all in stride, mindful it could be worse, like that one time, years ago, when I fell face first in mud while running – Euromud is not very tasty, in case you were wondering.
At the bottom of the canyons, thankfully, there are creeks in which one can dip oneself, arse first, for a bit of respite from the torridness which surrounds us. There’s a small group of us sitting in the creek, and we glance at each other in compassion, our eyes glazed by sweat and fatigue.
Yeah, ok, but I almost want to LAUGH and I secretly grin (secretly ‘cos I don’t want to spoil the pity fête for the others), because these kinds of “bidet experiences” au naturel are just fantastically AWESOME. My formerly overheated perineum is experiencing some sort of nirvana.
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s soup
Aaaand… up we merrily (yeah right) go up to the Devil’s Thumb aid station (who comes up with these names anyway?). A fellow from the medical team, so I assume, tells me I have a surprisingly – and literally - salty face and need to replenish my salts, then tells me to ingest a boiling hot chicken soup.
I really don’t fancy something hot in this natural, beautiful, open-air tandoori oven, but also don’t want to question him: word has it that in the past people have been forced to retire from the race for non-compliance with the instructions of those manning the aid stations.
The scene goes like this (some dramatization may have been added):
Aid station fellow: “You really need to replenish your salts, your face is kinna briny and you’ll end up like a dried gherkin”
Me: “Hot, salty chicken soup when the outside temperature is probably over 100F? Ea-sy pea-sy, sir.” And I fake an unconvincing approving face.
But I get to next-level faking when I ingest the scorching, lava-based concoction in front of the fella, and I do it smiling and with gusto – as if I were Sir Ernest Shackleton being handed the hot soup upon his arrival on Elephant Island.
After this ordeal, I spot some ice lollies (oh yes, I mean popsicles) on the table and proceed to taste, with double sampling, all of the flavours available there, to the amazement of the lovely lady in charge of the popsicle bowl.
I leave the aid station, but only after having received much encouragement from our friend Laura, who was probably there all along but whom I only spotted as I was departing. I really needed to see a friendly face! Thanks!! 🤩
The following descent to El Dorado Creek and uphill section to Michigan Bluff see me at my lowest point in the race – a shapeless mass of organs and limbs trying to fight the force of gravity; jetsam and flotsam in a sea of fatigue and helplessness; a former also-ran, barely progressing on a red carpet readied by the fickle trail gods to laugh at my unspectacular likely demise, only pushed by the prospect of finally seeing our Countess FiFi at the Bluff.
"Where's the ambulance?"
There, I try to eat a turkey sandwich she made for me, but honestly it feels like eating mattress foam (to be honest, I have never tried mattress foam. But I’m guessing it tastes exactly like this soulless bread). So, two bites it is and a few minutes of rest.
I get to Foresthill as the sky turns dark; I get someone to fix my foot blisters, rejoice at seeing the wonderful Matzes who convince me I’m still looking great (I’m pretty gullible, you see) and then get going again, but this time in the company of my pacer pal Roberto.
Thank you Laura and Kynan - you guys ROCK
I don’t remember much of the night hours spent on the trail, apart from
a. The wonderful JoAnn of the medical staff at Cal-2, who, upon my request, gives me a cream for my sore muscles. It may well have been a cream pour le visage - I’m a firm believer in the power of the placebo effect; so I feel much better.
b. The awesome 24-hour party people at Cal-3.
c. Chatting with legend Gordy Ainsleigh before crossing Rucky Chucky.
d. Crossing the river – so awkwardly I wish there wasn’t a photo record of it.
e. Roberto going quiet after I surprising start running again after Green Gate and never stop for at least 1h30 minutes. He says he doesn’t want to burst my running bubble.
The awkward moment of silence - ahem.
"Hold on to the rope, you fool!"
And so, with the first light of day, we get to Quarry Road; a Måneskin song blares out full blast, and we spot Scott Jurek, who BEGS the two Italian trail running superstars for a picture (loosely based on a true story). We grudgingly agree – after all we’re still the humble snotty kids who started out on the street.
Just this once, Scott.
The rest is just a dream, so vivid it may be real – knowing I will soon be a finisher of this race, the 30-hour time barrier ghost having been banished and left in the dust somewhere in the night, a lonely No Hands Bridge and the Pointed Rocks aid station - a welcome sight, with the Countess giving me the last bits of encouragement. What a star.
"Did I remember to shut the gas at home?"
It’s just past 8 am, but the day’s already hot as St. Pacer and I tread upon the tarmac in Auburn, thanking onlookers slouched on camping chairs and awkwardly smiling at everyone. Roberto lets me have the stage for the last 300 metres on the Placer High School track. I hear the speaker say my name and a bunch of info of no interest to anyone, and I slow down: I want to make these moments last forever, I don’t want to wake up, this dream can’t be over so soon.
Where's the toilet?
But the finish line is there, and with it a finish line photo op, the feeling of elation, the sight of the Countess, the hugs of my friends, a few of which I didn’t expect to see (Alice! Mark! Jukka!).
Ice cream - NOW PLEASE!
Right then I’m not fatigued, I can’t wait to bask in the glow of the remembrance of a lazy, scorching weekend in Northern California. A weekend which I will always treasure – because life, the one worth living for, is probably made of silly choices like this one. A choice made to discover once again I’m the luckiest person alive, because I can count on a bunch of punters who love me and dream the same dreams as me.
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