Altered States of Auburnness

Altered States of Auburnness

Information from the Western States Endurance Run website:

The Western States Endurance Run is one of the oldest ultra trail events in the world and certainly one of the most challenging.

The Run is conducted along the Western States Trail starting at Squaw Valley, California, and ending in Auburn, California, a total of 100 miles. The trail ascends from the Squaw Valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. From the pass, following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850’s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn.

Information from the highly respected and scholarly website :)…

An altered state of consciousness is a brain state wherein one loses the sense of identity with one’s body or with one’s normal sense perceptions. A person may enter an altered state of consciousness through such things as sensory deprivation or overload, neurochemical imbalance, fever, or trauma. One may also achieve an altered state by chanting, meditating, entering a trance state, or ingesting psychedelic drugs.  (Or, in my case…entering to compete in the Western States Endurance Run)

The reflective, or self-conscious, states of consciousness are:

  1. Pragmatic consciousness, the everyday, waking conscious state, characterized by alertness, logic, and rationality, cause-and-effect thinking, goal-directedness. In this level of consciousness, one has the feeling that he or she is in control and has the ability to move at will from perceptual activity to conceptual thinking to idea formation to motor activity.
  2. Lethargic consciousness, characterized by sluggish mental activity that has been induced by fatigue, sleep deprivation, feelings of depression, or certain drugs.
  3. Hyperalert consciousness, brought about by a period of heightened vigilance, such as sentry duty, watching over a sick child, or by certain drugs, such as amphetamines.

Information from my good friend and Western States pacer, Ran, upon hearing at the last minute that his good friend, Gil, would not be able to join us as a crew member at the run:

Mike: It’s you and me baby, and we’ll do just fine!


And so it began – My quest to complete the challenge of running the 38th edition of the Western States Endurance Run.  I really had no idea what to expect from myself as I had never competed in a one hundred mile race before. So I trained, but not very different than I had in the past.  I did not embark upon a crazy mileage counting schedule, although I considered it.  I did a little bit of research, but could not find much meaning in the experiences of others simply because they were just that, the experiences of others, not mine.  They were very interesting stories and experiences, but they were not mine.  So I stopped researching the thoughts of others and instead engaged in more introspective thought.  I tried to answer such questions as:

  1. Why do I want to run this race?
  2. What will I accomplish, personally, by completing this challenge?
  3. What will my perception of the challenges set forth by this experience be?
  4. How will I be able to deal with the problem-solving tasks this run throws at me?
  5. What will I find out about myself by competing in this race…and will I be able to accept my findings?

As you can see, my reasoning for taking on this challenge is entirely personal.  In fact it is selfish and quite irrational in a social sense.  I admit that and I am comfortable with that.  Some things you need to do for yourself.  I think the better you understand yourself the better you will be able to interact with others and, therefore, the better you will be able to help others in your life.  Is there anything more important?

Race objective #1:  Stay within the realm of pragmatic consciousness for as long as possible.

From the start of the race at Squaw Valley to the Mosquito Ridge Aid Station at mile 31 I believe I was able to do this well.  I, like almost all the other runners, powerhiked/ran the section up to Emigrant Pass in relative silence in the cool morning darkness.  One of the grandest ultramarathons in the world had begun, it was a beautiful day, and a multitude of personal challenges lay ahead for all of us.  What more could we ask for?

The snow and ice that was on the course up until around the Talbot Aid Station provided me with some of the most enjoyable trail running that I have ever done.  While the conditions were treacherous in places they offered ample amounts of exhilaration and challenge.  Running/bounding/skiing/crawling across this section was simply thrilling.

From miles 15 to 31 I was required to settle into a steady running groove that could be deemed neither too quick nor too slow.  This was difficult, especially as the field of runners evened out in this section with lots of skilled runners making up time they lost in the snow.  It would have been easy to pick up the pace here and burn lots of energy that would be needed later.  I don’t believe I did that, I believe I stayed alert, rational and goal-directed.  I believe I stayed pragmatically conscious.

Race Objective #2: AVOID lethargic consciousness.

When I look at my split time from Mosquito Ridge to Miller’s Defeat, a distance of 3.4 miles, I see a big fat 52 minutes!  I remember disliking this section immensely and now I know why.  It seemed to take forever.  If I recall correctly it was a gravel roadish out and back section that seemed to be purposeless.  Or maybe it just made me feel like I had no purpose.  Possibly, I dipped into a state of lethargic consciousness here.

Race Objective #3: Be wary of hyperalert consciousness (even if it sounds like fun).

From Miller’s Defeat at mile 34 to Devil’s Thumb at mile 47.8 I ran predominantly solo with good conviction.  The steep descent into Deadwood Canyon was spectacular!  I became revitalized here and ventured near hyperalert consciousness as I felt like I could run those downhill switchbacks forever.  I ran pretty hard here thinking only of how much fun I was having.  On the first or second switchback UP and out of the canyon it occurred to me that I hadn’t stopped for a dousing of water at the bottom.  In fact I couldn’t remember if there was a stream or not.  And now I was going up.  For how long?  Looking at my altimeter I remember wishing that I remembered the elevation at Devil’s Thumb.  I was not sure how much I had to climb.  My hyperalertness instantly disappeared and I found myself powerhiking as best I could.  For how long, I really didn’t know.

Upon reaching the Devil’s Thumb aid station (and seeing the devil – really – no hallucinations here) I had returned to a rational state and was looking forward to running steady to meet Ran at Foresthill.  It was not far now – a little over fourteen miles.  So I did.  I ran easily and steadily to El Dorado Creek at mile 52. 9 and then suffered the climb up to Michigan Bluff.  This was a tough section.  Lethargically tough.  It took some slow running into Volcano Canyon before I was able to renew some energy and run to Bath Road and, soon after, Foresthill with an acceptable cadence.

Running from Bath Road to Foresthill I remember thinking “How great is it that there is an aid station 1.4 miles from another aid station?  Only at Western States.  Woohoo!”  At that moment I happened upon the legendary Ferg Hawke who instantly cheered me up with a “Hi Mike, I’m waiting for David, but mind if I run with you a bit?”  Are you kidding?  You don’t know how great it is to see you Ferg!!  Thanks for the little chat.  See you in Auburn.

Entering the Foresthill aid station I was really really revitalized.  But I was wary too.  Really wary.  Just before the aid station, a guy said to me, “Heaven is just a few hundred metres ahead.”  He was trying to be nice and cheer me up, of course, but it backfired.  I became angry instead, thinking, that’s not effin heaven, there is still thirty-eight miles to go.  I’m not stopping here!!!

Race Objective #4 – Run with Ran like I always run with Ran

I have been running with Ran Katzman a lot in the last couple of years.  He is a very wise and purposeful runner and I enjoy running with him and chatting with him and not chatting with him and running and maybe stopping for a lake swim mid-run and maybe not and, well, you get the picture.  We are very comfortable running trails together.  I was extremely happy to see him at Foresthill.  It almost felt like home.  All I wanted now was simply to run with Ran for the last thirty-eight miles as if it was a typical weekend run.

Returning to a state of pragmatic consciousness, Ran and I ran the sixteen miles to the Rucky Chucky river crossing relatively well.  I was able to keep his pace, mostly, and we had some good laughs along the way.  Everything was good.  Could it stay this good? I hope so.  Three times I jokingly asked the river crew if I could row the boat across.  Three times they ignored me.  I guess it wasn’t really that funny.

As the ascent to Green Gate at mile 79.8 began I could feel myself altering states again.  Oh no!  Back to a lethargic feeling and, this time, with a stomach that decided to start doing somersaults.  Ugh.  We plodded on to Green Gate and then to Auburn Lake Trails and then to Brown’s Bar without any real sense of fun.  These were difficult sections that saw my intake of Tums at each aid station increase with the hopes that they would allow my bloated mid-section some relief.  No such luck – and I wasn’t interested in talking about it.

Reaching the Highway 49 aid station at mile 93.5 I do not recall much.  Reaching the No Hands Bridge aid station at 96.8 miles I do not recall much.  Making the ascent to Robie Point I remember Ran saying, “Only one mile left from those lights up there.”  And I remember him picking up the pace.  Man, he is really a great pacer.  As we almost reached the Robie Point aid station I also remember passing a guy and a gal running together.  The gal was struggling and the guy was waiting for her.  As we passed the guy, he said to us, “Great work.  I am very proud of you.  Very proud of you.”  It was dark and I don’t know who this fellow was, (Ran recently informed me that the gal was Helen Cospolich and the guy was her pacer, Roch Horton), but man I really want to thank him for that.  I mean I didn’t even know him and he was saying that he was proud of me while he waited for his gal friend.  Western States is the only race where I have ever had a fellow runner say something like that.  My guess is that he is a veteran of this race and he knows very well that it is more a personal soul-searching expedition than a running race.  Those few words hit me hard at mile 98.9.  I have to thank him for that. Thank you, Mr. Horton.

Race Objective #5 – Finish the race.  Just finish the race.

From Robie Point at mile 98.9 to Placer High School at mile 100.2 Ran would not let me walk.  I did a little bit, but he wouldn’t let me, but I did, and he wouldn’t let me.  It went something like that.  Ran really was the greatest friend and pacer at that moment – he wanted to celebrate as much or more than I did and he was going to make sure I was going to run!  I wanted to and I did, but I also wanted to finish the run upright.  With half a mile left, as he encouraged me to run, I said, “We’ve got a long way to go.”  It was dark.  I am sure he shook his head at me and wondered what kind of state I was in.  At that moment we saw the stadium lights, heard the race announcer, and picked up the pace.  We were in the Western States – the only states that mattered at that point.

Very special thanks to Ran Katzman the most caring, thoughtful, and prepared pacer in the world – a true gentleman in every sense of the word, Ryne Melcher and Kintec, the WSER Board of Directors, the WSER organizers, the race volunteers (wow, you people are good) and all of the tremendous athletes who participated in the Western States Endurance Run this year.

Race results:

Please check out the Running in the Zone website where Dan Cumming has kindly re-posted ‘Altered States of Auburnness’:

  • Jason Eads

    July 2, 2011 at 3:03 pm Reply

    Awesome report, Mike and great job at WS100. I couldn’t agree about Ran Katzman and his kindness, wisdom, and ability. I’ve only run with him once, but what a pleasure it was. You guys make a great team.

    I envy your ability to introspectively assess this type of journey – you’ve got it right, man. Way to face the demons and come up a winner! Congratulations on all of the small victories along the way, but especially the ONE BIG victory: earning your silver buckle.

  • Paps

    July 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm Reply

    Great job Mike and enjoyable recap! It was a lot of fun chasing you for 90 miles but I can’t believe our pee break together outside Brown’s Bar wasn’t enough of a highlight to make your report. Funny that we could run the entire race so close together but only cross paths once.

    Congratulations on a great day!


  • Caitlyn

    July 2, 2011 at 9:44 pm Reply

    I can’t even can’t even…. WTH?!! A very, very interesting analysis of something us mortals don’t even believe is real. Wow. Congratulations.

    Now that it’s done, how are you different? What did you find out about yourself?

    Thanks for sharing this intimate experience of impossible achieved.

  • Ellie G

    July 2, 2011 at 11:40 pm Reply

    There is nothing to say Mike other than a massive congratulations. Just like Mr. Horton I am very proud of you and just wish I could have shared more of the race with you than watching you bowl down the final 100 metres of the track at Auburn, but I’m glad I was there for at least that. We’ll need several post-run java sessions to analyse this little jaunt. Congratulations to Mike and Ran, two of my most favourite running buddies in the whole world. Happy trails x

  • Mister Mike

    July 3, 2011 at 4:30 am Reply

    Thanks Jason – great to see and talk with you at WS. Caitlyn, I am not sure. You learn a lot about yourself working with the kids we work with and you learn a lot about yourself running a hundred miles. I’ve discovered that a lot of the things you learn are the same – the need for patience, perseverance, thoughtfulness, understanding, creativity, adaptability, fortitude, fun…and really the list goes on. Dave and Ellie! Great runs for both of you!! Great great running. I admire both of you immensely. And I always have.

  • Gil

    July 5, 2011 at 6:44 am Reply

    I was SO looking forward to joining you guys there, for so many reasons… After reading this post, I have even some more. As a newbie to running, this whole western states thing looks inconceivable and magical at the same time. And you seem like exactly the guy I would love to be there for, being a small part of your amazing experience.
    So I promise that if you guys give me another chance I’ll show up! (I’m sure Ran explained the circumstances of me vanishing like this)
    And as for your pacer, well, after almost 30 years of being a very close friend, I can only say that everything you said is an understatement… 🙂
    You are an inspiration!

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