Monday, August 10, 2015

Western States 2015: Team Gary Knipling

For this blog post, Gary Knipling and I share our perspectives as crew/pacer and runner at the 2015 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.

Sophie: Gary Knipling has been a loyal friend to me ever since I landed amongst the crazies of the VHTRC in 2004. We met on the trail at at the Catawba Run-Around (a low-key run put on by his son Keith), and later that year, Gary inadvertently paced me to a finish at The Ring (a long story best suited to be shared on the trail). In 2005, he was a big factor in keeping me from dropping at my first 100, Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, and over the years, he became an energetic fan of my sister's and husband's bands, regularly inquired on my children's lives and paths, and together we have forged a genuine "father-daughter" friendship that has filled a void after my dad, Chapin Carpenter, passed away due to complications of pulmonary fibrosis in 2011.

Gary finishing the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100. He is an 18-time finisher.

Gary is 71 years old. If you have run any ultra in the mid-Atlantic region in the past twenty years, there is a good chance that he has introduced himself to you at the pre-race meeting (with a list of entrants and a highlighter in hand to make sure he didn't miss anyone), filled your plastic cup at the end of the race with ice, Coke, and his favorite Knob Creek, or chatted with you on the trail while gripping a pair of mango panties in one hand. Gary is the quintessential "ambassador" of the ultrarunning world and he proudly represents the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. He makes everyone feel welcome, welcomes everyone, and leads the VHTRC "Blue Train" every summer to a destination race where we proudly wear our Happy Trails shirts while running in the mountains and celebrating at the finish line. With Gary around, life is always a post-race finish line party.

The VHTRC trip to the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Endurance Runs was Gary's choice of Blue Train race for the summer of 2015. He encouraged us on the club's Facebook page to enter one of the Bighorn races (100, 50, 50K or 30K). Most everyone got into their preferred race, and about 40 of us began to make our travel plans. When the Western States lottery was announced in early December, Gary hit the ultrarunning jackpot: not only was he chosen to run Western States in 2015, he also won the raffle for a spot in the 2016 race! This meant he would not be running the Bighorn 100, as he had previously planned, but instead he would run the 50K as his last long run a week before Western States.

Gary: The 10-day buildup for Western States, 2015, had been a fun time with many friends and fellow runners from the VHTRC. The annual Blue Train road trip was the week before with over 40 Club members running one of the events at the Bighorn Trail Runs in Wyoming.  I had planned on running the 50K distance at Bighorn one week before Western, just as I had done the two previous times I had run Western in 2004 and 2006. Being just slightly superstitious, I didn’t want to change a good routine! But one week before Bighorn, I tweaked my right calf muscle (the soleus) on a regular local training run, so I decided to play it safe and not run the 50K. My soleus bothered me quite a bit at first, but after some PT and good advice from friends who had had a similar injury and moderated rest, I was100% ready physically for the start of WS at 5:00 AM June 27th.

The Monday of Western States week I flew from Billings, MT to Sacramento to get a head start of experiencing the local flavor, excitement and thrill of the circus of Western States. I registered and attended most of the meetings associated with the 2nd Annual Medicine & Science in Ultra-Endurance Sports Conference held at Squaw Valley that Tuesday and Wednesday. Most of the participants and audience were MD’s, but I believe the lectures would have been of interest and benefit to any serious ultra runner.  Some topics covered were: "Screening for Participation in Ultra-Endurance Events,""Ultramarathoner’s Eye," and "Post-Exercise Recovery Methods."

I was fortunate to land a spot on Team Gary Knipling along with longtime friends Quatro Hubbard and Tom Corris. All three of us had run Western States, and since we were familiar with the course, our job was to support him at aid stations, keep him moving, fed, and hydrated, and take turns pacing him to the finish line. Crewing at WS is incredibly fun without the pressure of running the race. Since we had each run at Bighorn the weekend prior (Q and I had run the 50, and Tom the 50K), we took a few days to explore Yellowstone and Cody before arriving in Squaw Valley on Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, we hiked up The Escarpment to the traditional flag raising ceremony that officially opens the race week festivities. Here WS Board members John Trent, Tony Rossman, and Mo Livermore welcomed, runners, family, and crew into the Western States family, and we remembered members who had passed away the previous year. This was very poignant and made me feel very fortunate to be part of a sport that treasures its history in the way the folks at WS do. We sang "America, The Beautiful" and looked out at the Granite Chief Wilderness, where the runners would be heading on race day. I had goosebumps and couldn't wait to get started--and I was just crewing!

Our Western States group in 2006: Quatro, Gary, me, Scotty Mills, Keith Knipling, and Scott Crabb

2015: Quatro, Gary, me and Tom. A smoky sky due to a forest fire in South Lake Tahoe

Gary: My honorable VHTRC crew and pacing Team of Tom Corris, Quatro Hubbard and Sophie Speidel arrived on Wednesday and our “home base” was the Squaw Valley Lodge which was within yards of all of the activities of race registration, pre-race meetings, etc. All day Thursday and Friday there was a building up of energy, excitement, anticipation, and hope. Just walking around the “village” of Squaw Valley was like being in a fantasy world of accomplished ultra athletes. After the yellow bands were placed on the entrant’s wrists following check-in Friday morning, all of the “official runners” were “labeled” as such. I’m guessing I bumped wrists with a dozen or more people I never met, but we shared the same bond and camaraderie and expectations for the weekend ahead. It was with pride that I walked and socialized with my crew and we proudly proclaimed that we were not only from the east, but we represented VHTRC Land. Each of our small cadre of Club entrants did the same.

My crew protected me from any and all negative influences, and even arranged for an hour-long massage for me Friday afternoon – just the second time I had ever had one. By early Friday evening I was as ready as I could have been both physically and mentally, and I was impatient for the start. 

Sophie: Thursday afternoon was spent meeting with Gary and determining where he wanted crew during the race, what items to pack in his drop bags, what items we needed for the coolers, and then shopping for all of it. Gary likes to take in liquid nutrition during his 100 milers, so we bought plenty of water, sweet tea, smoothies, chocolate milk, Yoo-Hoos, and sweet pickles. The weather forecast was calling for very hot temps in the 90s at the start of the race with cloud cover and cooler temps in the later miles. From our experience at WS in the very hot year of 2006, we knew that early hydration, steady calorie consumption and a slow, manageable pace would be critical for Gary's success. We were also paying close attention to his soleus --he was feeling better each day leading up to the race, but the big question was whether the soleus would give him trouble in the early miles.

Gary holding court at our crew meeting. He's saying, "I want milkshakes at every checkpoint."

On Friday, Gary checked in, got weighed, and socialized with his fellow runners, while many friends, family, and crew members ran the Montrail Uphill 6K Challenge up the mountain. I joked that this was the perfect way to allow everyone not running the race to "take the edge off" since the energy and electricity of Squaw Valley had been buzzing non-stop since race week began. Quatro and I ran/scrambled up the technical course to the top, enjoyed the view and then bombed the descent in time for a quick lunch at the Fireside Restaurant, a Starbucks ice coffee, Team VHTRC photo and the required pre-race meeting. By Friday evening, we were ready to get the show on the road and move our guy down the trail. Wake up was at 3:00am.
Q leading the way up the Montrail 6K Challenge

When Gunhild Swanson was introduced along with the top 10 females at the pre-race meeting, we had no inkling that her triumphant fist bump would foreshadow her finish on Sunday morning!

They're off!

 Gary: The first 4+ miles to Emigrant Pass are uphill with little running. It was a big boost to hear so many runners note the “Happy Trails” and I was proud to be associated with their comments regarding BRR and MMT. Although I hadn’t seen her before the start, I caught up to Gunhild Swanson over halfway to the summit. We talked for 6-8 minutes; mostly about how lucky we each were to be a part of something so special as WS. Just seconds before 11:00 AM Sunday, Gunhild would make Western States history in the most amazing and unbelievable way. I was so lucky to have witnessed and seen, firsthand, her finish which I believe will be recognized as the top two or three best moments ever at Western.

For the first 20 miles of the run I felt very confident and in control, and I thought I would finish the run with no major problems. I ran with just a few runners that I knew and was still moving up through the spread out groupings of runners. This part of the trail was quite dusty so I was intentionally avoiding bunched up runners and content with finding a gap in the flow while still using my dampened bandana to avoid sucking in too much dust. I saw Quatro and Tom at the first crew access aid station at Duncan Canyon (~ mile 24) and was happy that they were enjoying watching the parade of who’s who runners participating, I tanked up with my favorite aid treats and moved on toward Robinson Flat six miles away. 

This would become the “high water mark” of the run for me at not even ¼ of the distance. 

Gary at Robinson Flat, mile 30. He arrived with 30 minutes until the absolute cut-off.

Sophie: I arrived at Robinson Flat in time to see women front runners, including Stephanie Howe, Magda Boulet, and Robin Watkins come through, and all looked hot and tired. This did not bode well for the back of the pack, and there were quite a number of runners who dropped out at Robinson because of the heat and subsequent stomach issues. I had gotten word that Gary moved well through Duncan Canyon AS, which meant that his soleus was not an issue. Hooray! It was time to switch mindsets from preparing for the worst (a strained soleus) to the best (getting Gary successfully fed, hydrated, and moving). He arrived with about 30 minutes until the absolute cut-off, and he took a wee bit too much time sitting and socializing with his pal Greg Power. We sponged him off, gave him a strawberry milkshake at his request, put ice in his bandana and wrapped it around his neck, and sent him off down the trail. I was worried that he had only one handheld bottle and carried another smaller bottle of lemonade, but he reassured me that this is was enough.

 Gary: In the next six mile stretch to Robinson Flat (~ 30 miles), the dry heat of the exposed sections of trail were draining me of energy and causing me to slow down. More runners were passing me, and the only runners I passed were a fellow sitting on a log and another curled up in the shade of a Douglas Fir sleeping. I recalled this section from ’04 and ’06 and remembered that I had been moving well and chatting with fellow runners. This was very different this year. It was great to see Sophie and other west coast acquaintances at Robinson. I stayed longer than I should have but I needed to try to change something. Even though I drank so much, I still felt thirsty when I left the aid station. It would get worse between there and Dusty Corners eight miles away after another long stretch of exposed hot trail. At Dusty, Tom and Q tried very hard to get me back on track and energized. I left Dusty just 10 minutes ahead of the absolute cutoff and started the seemingly helpless situation of fighting the cutoffs for the next 10 aid stations. 

The WS trail at the top of the climb out of Robinson, looking towards the exposed section that leads to Dusty Corners

Sophie: Having two crew vehicles at WS is very helpful; it allows the runner to have crew at Duncan Canyon, Robinson Flat, and Dusty Corners, before the real "meat" of the race happens in the canyons and the climb up to Devils Thumb. Tom, Q and I met up at Foresthill (mile 62) so we could take one car to the next crew checkpoint, Michigan Bluff at mile 55. We got to Michigan around 5:00pm and given that Gary was going to arrive after 8:00pm, he was allowed to have a pacer start from there. Q drew the short straw and had the great opportunity to pace Gary 23 miles overnight to the mile 78 Rucky Chucky aid station at the American River crossing, where I would take over.

Gary: The Swinging Bridge over a fork of the American River at about mile 46 marks the start of the very steep 1 ½ mile climb to Devils Thumb aid station. I made it there with just a couple minutes to spare, but I needed to be out of the aid station by the allotted time of 7:00 PM as well. I was hoping the cooler temps of the evening would help me but the benefit was only so-so. My Team was waiting for me at Michigan Bluff (~ mile 56), and knowing that Quatro would be able to go with me from there was encouraging. I barely made it to Michigan in time, and would not have if a medical volunteer had not escorted me with her light the last ½ mile since I foolishly had not expected to arrive there after dark and had no light of my own. I could not stay in the aid station (because the clock was ticking) but Quatro had planned for my dilemma, and had food, liquids and my light to take with us. We were officially in the last-gasp group of runners fighting to stay ahead of the sweeps, and we witnessed the culling process that needs to take place to maintain century run integrity. The only runner we saw after Michigan Bluff that finished this year was Mario Raymond, who somehow was able to run the last 38 miles in about 9 hours after running the first 62 in 19 hours. Mario passed about 80 runners after Forest Hill School to finish in 28:04 (and NONE passed him). 

Sophie: Michigan Bluff was stressful. The sun had set, the clock was ticking, and there were a few other crews waiting for their runners along with us. The captain of the aid station, Kevin Sawchuck, gathered us together when there were 30 minutes left until the absolute cut-off. He emphasized that they wanted to do everything they could to help our runners finish, and that our runners had to out of the aid station by the cut-off time of 9:45. He would blow a horn with 20 minutes to go, then another at 10 minutes, and then he would make sure we were out of the aid station before the cut-off time. He also urged us to NOT let our runner sit down at this point, but to check in, leave, and then get aid outside the aid station (crews can give aid to their runner within 200 yards of the aid station). When Gary arrived at 9:43pm, we rushed him out, even though he wanted to sit. Q and Tom got his nutrition needs and met him on the other side of the aid station --which was a good 30 yard walk from the entrance. Everyone was yelling, "Go, go go!" and it was a tense moment.

Q waiting to pace Gary. You can tell from the look on his face that it was getting tense.

Gary: After Forest Hill, it was more of the same for me. Quatro worked so hard to keep me moving, especially knowing and feeling the mostly downhill trail for 16 miles to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. There are three aid stations before Rucky, and we witnessed a few runners at each being picked off by the cutoffs. I was so tired and sleepy and begged for a 5-minute lay down/nap from Q. He treated me like a 7-year-old-spoiled kid saying: “If you’re good and gain 10 minutes at the next aid station, you can lay down for 5." All I did was continue to shuffle along and bitched and moaned into the endless night, never gaining that 10-minute cushion.

Sophie: This was going to be the pattern for the next 5 aid stations. Crew were allowed to meet their runner at mile 60 at Bath Road and give them aid, so I walked 30 minutes from Foresthill to meet Gary and Q, and had carried a variety of drinks with me for Gary to consume. At 11:10 they popped out of the woods, and I told him that he had to get in and out of the Foresthill aid station by 11:45 to make the cut-off. We power walked up the hill, then started running together at the top. I could tell that Gary was struggling-- his breathing was labored and he kept asking us for "cold ice water, cold, cold ice" over and over. We were able to check out of Foresthill with about 5 minutes to spare, and after a quick sit and chat with well-wishers, we moved Q and Gary towards the Cal Street loop which would take them down to the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78. Our VHTRC buddy Mario Raymond, whom we were helping as well, was the last runner to leave Foresthill just as the sweepers on horseback were making their presence known. And, as Gary noted above, he passed over 80 runners in the last 38 miles!

!n 2006, we crossed the American River in boats due to high Sierra run-off...

In 2015, we crossed the river on foot. The volunteers were wearing wetsuits, sitting in the river and directing our foot placement with the help of glow-sticks in the water. Crossing the river at Western States is, to me, a defining moment as an ultrarunner.

Gary: When the lights and bustle of Rucky finally came into view, my entire Team was together again. Sophie & Tom had hiked in my special cooler with my likes. At Rucky, I did a good job (I thought?) of getting some calories and liquid in me, and I got “piggy” with trying to get some aspirin and S Caps down as well. I was doing well until the second S Cap got caught in the back of my throat and without any chance for a second swallow, all I had worked for came streaming out. There was no time to consume again. Sophie took over as my pacer and we were ushered/forced out of the station. I was the last runner allowed to cross the River which had to be a relief to the string of volunteers lined up in wet suits making the ~ 60 yard crossing safe. The waist deep water was cold but refreshing. I thought how nice it would have been to submerge myself into the River, but every precious minute did not allow for that. I had taken my light with me across the River, but Sunday’s dawn was breaking and the light was unnecessary. I needed to make up time somehow but it was not coming easily on the two-mile climb to the next Green Gate aid station. Once again, at Green Gate, the volunteers encouraged me with haste to move on through the aid station stressing that I was the last runner on the course.

Sophie: Crossing the American River on foot was a total blast for me, since in 2006 we had to take a boat across. The water was moving very swiftly but there were amazing volunteers in wetsuits holding the cable and directing our feet on the bottom with glow sticks. There were HUGE boulders in that river! Poor Gary had to really stretch his tired hip flexors to get over some of them. It took a good five minutes to get across the river, take off our life jackets, and start the climb up to Green Gate. Q had done an outstanding job of getting Gary to gain back some time on the run to Rucky Chucky, but the slow going river crossing was eating into the cushion. Gary worked really hard on the climb up to Green Gate, and we arrived with 5 minutes to spare. The volunteers ushered us in and out quickly, and soon we were running all the flats and downhills and moving quite well. I was cautiously optimistic that we were banking more minutes by the pace of our running. Gary did stop every time he needed a drink ---this is his habit-- and the climbs were tough.

Gary: The six-mile section to Auburn Lake Trails was a series of PUD’s (pointless ups and downs) that went on and on and on. We passed one runner and her pacer in the first mile after Green Gate. Instead of getting a boost for now not being DFL (Dead Freaking Last), I just knew we were both in real trouble. It was on this section where a lady runner had been attacked and killed by a mountain lion before 2000 while alone on a training run. Since I was not saying much, Sophie was talking and singing to herself to ward off any possible lurking predators.  I was still aware enough to think it would be exciting to get a glimpse of a mountain lion. Sophie didn’t think so. 

Although I had run Western twice, I had not seen any of this trail in the daylight. So much was runnable but my capability was limited to more of a downhill shuffle. Sophie was doing her best to keep me running, but I was running low on everything – mostly time.

Gary working the PUDS (pointless ups and downs) on the Auburn Lake Trails section
 Sophie: It was on these same ALT trails in 2006 where Gary blew by me like I was a tree standing still, en route to a 28:32 finish at age 62. I was thinking about that moment and hoping we could summon a similar second wind, but Gary was having trouble eating anything solid and he desperately needed the calories for energy. I got him to suck on a Clif Blok and a pretzel, but basically his stomach had shut down and even drinking fluids was hard at this point. At one point he asked/ranted/whined, "Gosh, where is that aid station?" so I ran ahead to find out. The cut-off time was 7:00am, and when that time had come and gone on my watch and I still had not found the aid station, I turned around and found Gary. I decided to not say anything about missing the cut-off while out on the trail, but instead just encouraged him to keep moving.

Gary: The protocol for the warning for runners of impending aid station shutdown at WS is one horn blast 10 minutes prior to the cutoff and one at the time when no runners can continue. I had become accustomed to hearing the shutdown blast at every aid station since Devils Thumb. Knowing the hard cutoff time at ALT was 7:00 AM, when my watch said 7:00 I was expecting to hear a horn. Maybe my watch is suddenly wrong? Maybe we were off trail? Are we that far from the station? Sophie ran ahead to find answers. When she came back, she affirmed we were on trail. As we approached the ALT aid station, there was a most-polite applause from the dozen or so volunteers assembled; but for the first time since mile 30, there was no urgency in their actions. I saw two runners in chairs wrapped in recomposed states of mind. I stood there wondering. That is when Sophie gave me the bad (or good?) news. I had timed out.

The ALT theme was "Christmas in June" --the volunteers were amazing.
 Sophie: Finally, after what seemed like hours on that section of trail, Gary and I ran into the mile 85 ALT aid station. I smiled at the volunteers and made eye contact with them. They smiled back, and in that quiet moment, we made a decision together: I would be the one to tell Gary that he had missed the cut-off by 5 minutes. I was very grateful for their sensitivity and compassion. And so I turned to my friend, who had worked so hard for 26 hours to get 85 miles, and said, "We missed it. It's 7:05." He looked back at me, and in classic, humble Gary Knipling fashion, smiled at me and all the volunteers and said, "Well...gosh. Gosh! That was close. Can I please have a chair?"

Gary: A chair was offered. Initially I just stood there. Sophie brought me a cup of ginger ale and ice. The chair was so inviting and I sat down. It was suddenly a relief. After a couple minutes of showing appreciation to the dedicated volunteers, I saw a folded up cot nearby. I asked if I could use that and a young lady promptly set it up for me. As I gingerly sat on the side and then spinned my butt around to lay prone on my back, my thoughts were directed to Quatro: “Hey Q-Man. There, Big Buddy. I wish you could see me now!” 

My Western States attempt was foiled and done.

Sophie: Crewing and pacing a runner in a 100 allows for people to bond on a very deep level, for the runner to be vulnerable and trusting, and the crew and pacers to honor this trust above everything else. Pacing, in particular, speaks to my passions as a counselor and as a coach, and I was able to do a little of both while on the trail with Gary. Like so many others on that day, I witnessed courage, humility, strength, and love. I learned about perseverance, determination, and the power of positive thinking. And I am determined to live my life with these values leading me. 

Thank you, Gary, for being an inspiration to all of us.


Frank Probst said...

Great write up on a great attempt. You got farther than I could have made it and I am proud of you and your effort.

Unknown said...

Sophie, Thanks for sharing this, I read the conclusion with tears in my eyes. As an aging cyclist realizing we all eventually "time out"; Gary inspires me too. I know little about ultra but am impressed with how you all respect and love each other. Gary's son Keith is married to my daughter Tracy so he's part of my family too.

Sophie Speidel said...

Thanks, Mark. I'm a huge fan of your daughter Tracy, too. I feel blessed to know and run with Tracy, Keith, and Gary. I believe that ultrarunning, at its core, is all about the people and our relationships. I'm so glad Tracy found us!

Martha said...

(wipes eyes). This is an incredible write-up or a hard-fought battle by Gary and crew. I love that Gary is always having fun, even when he's not. I know we'll be seeing more from this young man! :)

Kim said...

Great report both Sophie and Gary. Really appreciated hearing this. Hope to see you both on trails soon!

Mel said...

I had tears in my eyes as I finished this post (I am NOT a crier!). Good job and my condalances, although I found your post and story so compelling and powerful I have a hard time counting it as a "failure". FWIW I've ridden the Tevis cup a couple of times (the horse version of this race on the same trail) and have been pulled at Fransico's (85 miles) on one of my attempts and while it's heartbreakingly close to the finish, it's also a life time away when the ride/run isn't going well (my ride was NOT going well even though I wasn't OT). I hope to qualify/get picked and run WS100 some day and I really appreciated you taking the time to tell your story - I'm much more likely to be at the back of the pack with you then front or even mid-pack and you gave me an entirely different perspective on the race.

~Mel (

Sophie Speidel said...

Mel, I am fascinated with the Tevis Cup! In my former life I was a rider of hunter /jumpers and loved seeing the sweeps on horseback at WS ( except at the end!). Best wishes as you pursue your dream of running WS one year -- it is truly magical.