The morning of my first Western States came early. My crew, Laura Kukta, poured a couple of Ensures down my throat, pumped some reggae, made me foam roll and then escorted me to the start line in Squaw Valley.
During my short drive to the village is where I began to realize that I was about to race Western States. Race, not run.
I'd often thought about participating in Western States and finishing in under 24 hours, but to be here racing 100 miles against the greatest ultra runners in the world was somewhat mind-blowing.
I was just going to have to trust that my last year of racing and training had me prepared for this physical and mental challenge. I was shooting for a top-10 finish based on about 18 months of hard training and a few challenging races. I was hoping that good genetics would cover the rest.
It seemed hard to believe that just a few years ago, I was just barely better than a middle-of-the-pack runner and I was, well -- let's be kind and call it "chubby."
Being sponsored wasn't remotely on my career trajectory -- unless Dunkin' Donuts or Snickers had been looking to advertise to the ultra-running community.
But here I was, after checking in and receiving bib number 29, standing at the starting line of the Western States 100, dressed head to toe in Salomon, Drymax, Rudy Project and packing a pocket full of Bonk Breakers. There wasn’t a doughnut logo anywhere on my body -- although I must say, as a former “good eater,” that the Peanut Butter and Jelly Bonk Breakers are outstanding.
Though the start line is at about 6,200 feet, standing there at 5 a.m., I didn't really notice the elevation. For reasons I can't explain, I don't notice elevation much at all.
Just a couple weeks ago, I had run up the Mauna Kea volcano from 9,000 to 14,000 feet without much difficulty. My mom tells me that I was born on the side of a volcano in El Salvador, so maybe that has something to do with it. Or maybe I just have big lungs. It’s hard to say.
I said hi to some of my friends like Tim Olson, Mike Wolfe, Nick Clark, Simon Mtuy and most of the other elite runners at the start line. It was surreal that I was standing there with these amazing runners, but even more than that, it was weird that I wasn't expecting to get dropped in the first quarter mile.
The gun went off, and soon we were all running up to Watson’s Monument at 8,713 ft. of elevation. As we ran to the top, the weather was windy and cold. I was freezing, and it looked like I wasn't the only one.
I looked around at Mike Wolfe, Timothy Olson and our pack of about eight guys and said, not entirely joking, “Hey guys, can we tighten this group up like a pack of penguins to keep each other warm?” Laughter broke out. And though no one snuggled up, it relaxed the mood, which was nice for my state of mind.
The first aid station was Escarpment at about 3.5 miles in. I found it interesting that I was the only one who stopped for a water refill, but then again I wasn’t concerning myself with what everyone else was doing. This was about staying on top of my fueling and hydration plan while running within myself.
As we reached the peak, I was just about 50 yards behind the group with Ryan Sandes, which was a nice confidence booster. But, eventually temperatures turned colder and hail began pounding on me -- which felt less nice.
Despite the conditions, I was relaxed. I was running along some of the most beautiful mountain views I've experienced in my short running career. Soaked from the hail, yet soaking it all in, I was smiling and thought about what an honor it was to be here.
At Duncan Canyon around mile 23.8, a crowd of volunteers and spectators were there to greet us. Among them was the captain of the Quicksilver Running Club aid station and friend, Greg Lanctot. He gave me his usual "hip, hip, Jorge!" cheer and I gave him my usual big smile.
Coming into this aid station is also where my friend Glenn Tachiyama caught me burning some spare energy, snapping a picture of me jumping down a steep single track. Coach wasn't too happy about my unique running form, but what a great picture.
At Robinson’s Flat at mile 29.7, I came to my first weigh-in. For the first time in my life, I was hoping I hadn’t lost a bunch of weight.
There I encountered Bryon Powell from irunfar, Andy Jones Wilkins and the future Western States race director Craig Thornley. Craig asked “how do you feel?” I shouted, “Are you kidding me? I’m running Western States, baby!”
After AJW joked that I was 12 lbs. overweight, I hugged a few people, posed for a picture and went to find Laura. Laura handed me some Bonk Breakers, an iPod loaded with music and some extra gels. I dropped off all my cold gear, hoping that we wouldn’t see any more hail.
I was only 8 minutes from the leaders, feeling confident, running an easy pace and maintaining a positive mental state.
I continued on the wet, foggy, green trails feeling emotional about being a part of this amazing endurance running community. It was at this point that I thought about the fact that, if it weren’t for Gordy challenging himself to run this 100 mile course at a time when there was no logical reason to believe that a man could run 100 miles through the Sierra Nevadas, this crazy sport might not exist.
Thank you Gordy!
Back to my race, I was on top of my fueling, putting down a gel every 30 minutes followed by a salt tablet at the top of each hour. I was convinced my plan was solid. It had worked well at Leona Divide and I knew that my body responded well to this simple plan. That said, I will admit to missing the peanut butter sandwiches and burritos that were previously my “fuel” source. But that was before I began chasing Timothy Olson all over creation.
Fortunately, during a recent trip to Hawaii to crew for my buddy Steve, who was racing a half-ironman, I was hanging out at the Ironman village killing time and started snacking on samples of these delicious morsels called Bonk Breakers. I practically begged these guys to sponsor me.
I know this is self-serving coming from a guy who is sponsored by this company, but I promise you, as a former fat-boy, if you can’t eat a real PB&J, a Bonk Breaker PB&J is just as good.
As the race progressed, I began to recognize parts of the course that I had trained on during the Western States training weekend a few weeks back. Initially, I felt pretty good about seeing familiar ground. On the other hand, I still had 60 more miles to go, so how good could I really be feeling?
We ran up a short climb, before beginning the long descent towards the famous canyons, then to Devil’s thumb and back up to Michigan Bluff. This year we had record cool temperatures and missed the killer heat in the canyons. In some distant corner of my brain, I was probably bummed that I wasn’t going to experience the torture of fighting the heat.
Strange, I know. But that’s just how I’m wired.
At this point, I was also starting to wonder about my pacing. Was I descending too fast or too slow? Am I running too fast on the flats? I knew that if I miscalculated, I might find myself unable to run in the later stages of the race. And since I was running among the top 10 runners, caution became my guiding thought.
Descending down through Miller’s Defeat, Dusty Corners, and Last Chance was a nice change of rhythm. It was about 10 miles of downhill running and some beautiful technical landscape. I was still running in 8th place, enjoying my solo journey with no one in sight.
In this moment, running alone, my expectations disappeared. As if they never existed. I felt myself enjoying the purity of my legs dancing through the terrain. And at this moment, I felt free -- invincible. At the same time, I appreciated the feeling of having a kinship with all of the other runners 400+ runners who were experiencing this same journey in their own ways.
I smiled as I raced along, making sure to fuel and hydrate, not just to ensure that I would be able to run the entire distance, but to save me from the embarrassment of having my crew, Laura, take a Sharpie to my forearms and writing “eat” and “hydrate” as she had threatened to do, in the days before the race.
In truth, this wasn’t an entirely bad idea, considering my history of fueling negligence.
As many have heard, in my first attempt to qualify for Western States, at the Lake Sonoma 50 miler, I was so excited to be racing head to head with Timothy Olson and Dakota Jones, that I forgot to drink and only ate 4 gels the entire day. By the time I realized that I was dehydrated and bonking, I was being passed by a “who’s who” of famous ultra-runners, including Hal Koerner, Joe Uhan, and Nick Clark.
After a stern lecture from Laura and Steve, we developed the fueling and hydration plan that I used at Leona Divide, where I qualified for Western States. And because of the temperature and the elevation profile similarities of both races, I was using that same plan again.
I was now at the bottom of Devil’s Thumb. I power hiked and ran where I could. Completely ignoring the data on my Suunto, because it would have certainly been depressing, I focused on my short-term goal -- reaching the top.
I figured from there, I could focus on the next goal, Michigan Bluff, mile 55.7, just over half-way to the finish.
Having watched “Unbreakable”, I was aware that Michigan Bluff was a place where spectators congregated. I was anxious to get there. The weather was warmer than several hours earlier and I needed to refuel both physically and emotionally.
Approaching Michigan Bluff, I could feel the energy of the crowd. I high five’d my way through and made my way to the groomed fire road.
I was amazed at how good I felt out of Michigan Bluff. The mountain views took my breath away. I wasn’t racing, just running.
Coming out of the single-track trail there was a small aid station at Bath Road, mile 60.6. A volunteer asked for my bottle and said he would catch up with a full bottle. I jokingly told him I would give him a run for his money.
I took care of business at the aid station and ran off at a fast pace with the volunteer chasing me, yelling “hey, stop, seriously, I can’t catch you, that isn’t cool, I seriously can’t catch you”. I stopped and we shared a laugh before I went on my way.
At Forest Hill I saw past friends, scores of spectators and my friend Tom Wilhem. I was ecstatic to see him volunteering, guiding runners to the weigh in. I stopped gave him a big hug, told him how happy I was to see him. A volunteer said “Go, go, keep going”. I responded, “What’s the rush, Auburn isn’t going anywhere.”
I weighed in, refilled my water and moved on. I felt strong, still holding onto 8th position, now about 30 minutes behind the leaders. I was happy being in the top 10 and I knew there was plenty of racing left.
Among the masses, I spotted my crew, Laura, Rich Condor, David Smith and his daughter, Csilla. I rewarded them for their support by giving them a smile and leaving my garbage with them. It’s all I had.
Next up was Cal loop. Cal loop is a beautiful trail that winds down until reaching the Rucky Chucky River crossing. On this section, I pushed my pace a bit and my quads were feeling the day’s effort, but I knew that they still had more to give. My pacing seemed to be holding up.
Approaching the river, I was excited to experience one of the highlights of the race -- the Rucky Chucky.
Because of the strong current, the race leaders were required to cross in rafts rather than wade across. I understand that the water levels decreased later in the day after the dam was closed and that subsequent runners were required to wade across.
I’m not sure who got the better of that deal. After Andy Jones Wilkins said some encouraging words and I climbed in the raft, I spent as much time as I could soaking my head and body as we crossed the river.
Energized by the river, I was determined to run up Green Gate. About half-way up the climb, my friend, Rich Condor, greeted me. He said that I looked strong, that Mike Wolfe was just ahead, and that Ian Sharman was only 6 minutes up the trail.
I understood that this was a great opportunity to advance, but at the same time, I realized that it couldn’t be about that. There were too many miles to go. I was too inexperienced at this distance and I had no idea whether my current pace would hold up. I certainly didn’t want to push harder.
Still, a few minutes later, I passed Mike, moving into 7th place in the race. But that pass was less about me running hard and more about Mike beginning to struggle. I saw this as a cautionary lesson. If it could happen to a stud like him, it could happen to me.
We exchanged some encouraging words and I kept moving steadily.
Soon, I was at the next aid station and Laura was there to supply me with all the necessities -- like a moving supermarket. I let everyone at the aid station know “they looked beautiful,” which in comparison to my salt-caked, GU-stained body, they all did.
Heck, in comparison to me, these people were runway models.
As I headed out of the aid station, I surprised Rich, and myself, by making a split-second request for him to pace me. For days, I had been planning to run the race as a solo effort, but this late in the race, I was becoming complacent and felt like I could use a boost.
Without hesitating, Rich jumped into the race, going from crew to pacer in just a few seconds. In the last year, we had paced each other to wins in our first 100 milers, so it was good to have a familiar running partner and friend with me on the trails.
Reaching Brown’s Bar Aid Station was encouraging. Only 10 miles to go!
But immediately after the aid station my stomach let me know something was going on. Fortunately, it was just time for a potty stop. And Laura had me prepared with some Charmin to-go-towelettes -- very convenient.
I should see if Charmin is looking to sponsor an ultra runner.
As I came back onto the trail, a pound or two lighter, Zeke charged by, looking strong. But again, I knew that I needed to run my own race and not get caught up in a position battle this far from the finish. I was back in 8th place and based on the splits I was hearing, I felt good about my chances of holding onto my top 10 spot, so long as I didn’t do anything stupid.
Approaching Hwy 49 was a joy. My friend Erik “Dret” Wilde and my boy, Steve Kukta, were there grinning and shouting out splits.
Both Dret and Steve had raced a half-ironman in San Jose in the morning and had driven up to Auburn in time to see me at mile 93.5. Seeing them was a huge mental boost, and I got another jolt when Dret took over as pacer from Rich.
In the excitement of nearing the finish and seeing my buddies, I forgot to grab a flashlight, but Dret assured me we wouldn’t need it. I guessed that Dret still had some gas in the tank and was planning to test me.
I hoped I had something left too. It wouldn’t have been my finest moment to get dropped by a 45 year-old pacer who had just raced a half-ironman a few hours earlier (winning his age-group and finishing 7th overall as a 45 year old, it should be mentioned), and who had spent 4 hours in a car before hitting the last 6.5 miles of trails with me.
I will always remember those last miles, running with Dret, a 6’5” German guy wearing neon yellow from head to toe.
As we ran, Dret encouraged me in his own unique way. In his German accent, he said, “Keep moving Jorginator” (he nicknames everyone who proves him or her self a serious athlete the “ ____inator”. He, himself is the “Dretinator”). Before we knew it we were at No Hands Bridge.
As we began our final climb, I was still running some sections and power hiking others. Surprisingly, on our way up we heard two different cheers not far ahead. But still, I couldn’t bring myself to risk my position by pushing to catch whoever was up ahead.
Reaching Robbie Point was an epic moment. A large crowd was cheering and kids on bikes rode alongside, letting me know there was “one mile to go!” The neighborhoods were filled with people, some yelling my name. I was overwhelmed with emotion, telling Dret that I couldn’t believe the human body’s capacity.
A guy who was 30 lbs. overweight just a few years ago was going to finish in the Top 10 at Western States. Unreal.
Upon entering the famous Placer High finishing track, I had goose bumps and my heart-beat pounded out of control. I was smiling from ear-to-ear.
Laura, Rich and Steve joined Dret and me as we started running on the track. Laura looked over at me and said, “Want to race?” Without hesitation I bolted out, playfully, then remembered that I still had a few yards to go.
I ran down that last straight-away high-five’ing anyone with hands. And to my surprise, I still had the energy for my finishing heel kick.
It never occurred to me that I might be able to jump high enough to crack my head on the timing clock above the finish line. Fortunately, I jumped a little late and missed it by inches, sparing me the embarrassment of being the first competitor to take out the Western States finish line.
When it was all over, I finished in 8th place in 16:05.30.
It was truly a “Maravilla” day (yep, my name means “wonderful” in Spanish), and I’m looking forward to returning to this historical race with pocket full of experience and wearing bib number M8 next year.
I would like to thank the Western States Board, volunteers, spectators, my sponsors - Salomon, Bonk Breaker, Tamalpa Running Club, Drymax socks, Hawi Wind Triathlon, Mauka Running - and above all the two most influential and supportive people in my life Steve and Laura Kukta.
Love you guys!