Runner Spotlight: Don Halke

The 2005 Western States Endurance Run

by Don Halke

Several years ago, I got it in my mind to try to run 100 miles. In 2003, I achieved that goal by running the Mohician 100, which is held in Loudonville Ohio. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I looked at friend and told him, never again! That feeling lasted for a day or two, until I started thinking about trying to get into the Western States Endurance Run (WS). But being a wee bit crazy, I thought it would be really exciting to run with the likes of Gordy Ainsleigh, who started it all, running alone when his horse was injured and unable to run the distance, and also run with other super humans like Tim Twietmeyer and Scott Jurek.

To be selected for the WS, I needed to have a qualifying time in a 50 mile or 100 race, and then be selected in a lottery process. The lottery is a very big production resembling something like the NFL draft. It is held at the Placer High School, in Auburn California. In 2003, I sent my entry in for the drawing but was not selected to compete. I ran another race, which qualified me for the lottery in 2004, and I was selected. Some of my California running friends, Ken and Ellen Crouse, went to the lottery so they could be the ones to call me to give me the great news. I was so excited.

It turned out that I was one of 5 runners from PA selected to run the WS. Another runner, Marcia Peters, who once shared her lunch runs with me before taking a job in a different city, was also selected. After a local newspaper covered the story of Marcia and I being selected for the WS, Marcia called me. It had been 20 years since we had spoken and we had a lot of stories to share. Marcia invited me to join her and some of her friends from the Lancaster running community for some training runs. She is a much more proficient trail runner than I am and was a great training partner for me.

Running ultra’s requires a lot of training and a lot of help from training partners. I had the fortune to have Marcia and several other very loyal friends, Carol Varano, Ellen Sigl and Elizabeth West, to keep me out on the trails to get the “time on feet”necessary to finish a 100 mile race. Since WS is run in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we needed to be prepared for long climbs, long descents and extreme temperature changes. My training partners trained with me in all kinds of terrain and in all weather conditions, including snow.

Finally, after 7 months of earnest training, it was time to head to California. This was a very special race for me and I was overwhelmed by all the support I had received and wishes of success from so many that have never run and many who are now too old to even try. I felt like I was running for an entire community and they were watching. And many people were watching, through their computers. WS had a webcast of racers positions that would be updated throughout the event. Many friends stayed up until late Saturday night following Marcia and my progress.

We arrived in Squaw Valley on Wednesday, June 22. On each of the three days preceding the race, informational meetings were held about the course, course conditions, crewing instructions, medical advisories and registration and medical check in. On Thursday, there is a trek up the mountain to Emigrant Pass for a flag raising ceremony and a reflection of the loved ones that have passed off the trail since last year. It was a very moving presentation and reminded everyone that just because we run, we are not immortal.

On Friday the registration is held, as well as a brief medical exam. The race directors require everyone to get weighed before and during the race. They monitor each runner for weight loss during the event, which could signal dehydration or renal problems. I never imagined that this would cause me problems during the race, but it did. By the way, the premiums are two shirts, coffee mug and a North Face back pack customized with the WS logo!

The race started at 5:00 AM. This is truly a trail race. The only roads were several to pass through two small villages and then for about a mile into the finish line. The race began by running up the ski slope of Squaws Valley. Like in the Wizard of Oz, don’t just follow other runners, follow the yellow ribbons! The lights were on to guide the way. By 5:30 the sun was beginning to brighten the sky as we were almost half way to the summit, which is approximately 9000 feet. After about 4.5 miles we crested Escarpment and began rolling along side the mountain, usually on snow. The first 28 miles had a good deal of snow, which was very hard and icy. Most runners fell at least a few times. Marcia and I proved to be good running partners through this country. We reminded each other about taking our electrolyte capsules and about when we should be taking our GU…also we kept a close eye out for of the yellow ribbons! At about this point, we saw a group of runners that had followed the wrong footpath, not the yellow ribbons, and had gone off trail. Unfortunately. They had to come back up a steep snow covered hill.

My wonderful wife, Melanie, was going to crew for me until the 62-mile point. At that time, my pacer, Paul would join me. Paul lives in the Auburn area and he volunteered to pace.

Marcia and I saw our crews for the first time at Robinson Flat (24.6 miles) and then again at Little Bald Mountain (28.6 miles). Although there had been other aid stations, it was nice to see a familiar face. At that point, Marcia and I were running comfortably and were under the 24-hour pace. But that was before the canyons. The beautiful canyons in WS are legendary. From Robinson Flat (elevation 6730) you drop into Deep Canyon (elevation 4800 feet) in 4 miles. Then you climb Last Chance( elevation 4200) only to drop into Deadwood Canyon (elevation 2800). Over the next 1.7 miles you climb 36 switch backs to Devils Thumb (elevation 4365), then drop to El Dorado Creek in 5.1 miles (elevation 1700), then climb7 switchbacks to Michigan Bluff, less than 3 miles away, elevation 3530 feet.

As Marcia and I entered the various aid stations, I started to get warnings about my weight loss. The officials would hold my water bottles and not return them until I ate and drank in front of them. Although I was drinking one or two 20 oz bottles of fluid every 5 – 7 miles, I was losing too much weight. But I was feeling full and it was difficult to drink more. Marcia thought this was funny…me losing weight! At the worse, I had loss 9 pounds and was in real jeopardy of being pulled from the race.

Marcia was always able to run down trails faster than me. Somewhere between Devils Thumb (47.8 miles) and El Dorado Creek( 52.9 miles) I was trying to catch up when I took an incredible fall and caught my right foot. It immediately screamed at me and began to swell. At about this time, something else also began to happen to me. I started to have a little problem with dizziness. It was very strange. I knew something was happening to me but could not understand it or explain it. I remember telling Marcia my foot was hurt, but cannot recall if she said anything. I recall seeing another friend, who passed me. Marcia was already ahead of me, heading towards Michigan Bluff. I do not remember how I got there or anything about the aid station. I recall Melanie was there, as well as Marcia’s husband, Larry, and pacer, Dave. I remember them getting me to sit in chair. I was dizzy and could not think clearly or explain what was wrong. Melanie told me later that I kept telling her that something was wrong, but I would not explain what it was. Somehow I got up and walked to the next aid stations, Bath Road and then Foresthill’s. I don’t think I ever ran. And looking at the elapsed times between these aid stations, I probably walked the entire time. I cannot recall Bath Road Aid Station at all.

As I approach Foresthill’s, my pacer, Paul, joined me and walked me into the aid station. I was never very interested in having a pacer, but with this race, it is an excellent idea. Besides the dangers of falling off a path, they are rattle snakes, bear and an occasional mountain lion. ((I actually saw a rattlesnake on the course.)

At Foresthill’s, I was weighed and came close again to being held. I had my foot taped by a doctor. She taped it tight with medical tape and duct tape. I could barely fit into my shoe and could not tie it, only knot it with the very ends of the laces. I do remember the doctor suggesting I get my foot x-rayed.

I could not think clearly and never went to Melanie to get my night gear. Paul made me stop and say good night to her and she then headed for the hotel. Melanie told me the next day that I arrived at Foresthills at about 9:30PM. This is the 62 mile point and from here we will drop dramatically to an elevation of well below 1000 feet. This was going to be very important to me for me to continue the race.

Melanie had explained to Paul that I was not acting right. Paul was pretty sure that I had suffered altitude sickness. He knew if I would be able to get to lower altitude and take it easy for a few hours I would be fine. I don’t remember much of the first few miles with Paul. I recall looking at my watch and seeing 18 hours 18 minutes being counted, which put us at 11:18PM. I recall doing the numbers again in my head, splits needed. I told him if we can reach 70 mile point before 1 AM, we only need to do 3 miles per hour to make it before the cut off. He asked me to repeat what I had said. He asked me how I was feeling. I told him that except for my right ankle/foot, I was feeling great. Then Paul started to laugh. He said that I had been rambling for the past hour or so and he had to hold most of the conversation. My mind had cleared and I was back in the race! It was really amazing.

I continued to have difficulty running downhill, especially with my foot taped so tightly. I was able to put a burst on the dirt road that lead to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, and the to power walk the hill up to Green Gates. Somewhere around the 90 mile mark, I told Paul that we needed insurance. I asked him how fast he could run. I started to run, fast. I ran pass many runners. Paul asked if I saw their faces, I didn’t even try to look. My ankles hurt so bad, all I wanted to do was run fast and get as many miles in before it gave out completely. We made it to Highway 49, after passing many runners who were left wondering where we came from. Paul estimated we were running at about a 7:30, which seems fast when you are on a trail 90 miles into a race.

I was able to make one stronger surge up a hill, destroying a few more runners, crossing over a meadow and down a long trail towards No Hands Bridge, until I fell again. Once again I caught my foot on a root. After this fall, I was only able to run short bursts of a few hundred feet at a time. Fortunately we were at the 94-95 mile point.

Paul and I power walked up past Robie Point, towards the Placer High School track and the finish. About a mile from the track, my friend Ken Crouse came and took pictures of Paul of me. Ken has run the WS twice and it was very nice seeing him and talking with him as I approached the stadium.

As I entered the stadium, I gave one last burst. My name was announced and photos were being taken of my new friend, Paul and me. I asked if anyone was closing and he told me that I needed to pick up my pace. There were 4 people on the track! I was flying and pictures showed both feet off the ground.

I finished at 28 hours 32 minutes 12 seconds, in 246 place. Tim Tweitmeyer, who had run the race in 18 hours presented me with a medallion and hung it around my neck. I was a member of the WS club. A finisher!

I was immediately led away for a medical evaluation of blood pressure, weight and blood testing. The testing is to determine risk of renal failure by measuring the CPK protein. Almost every year people end up at the hospital after this race with renal shut down. Melanie and my friend Ellen, who I had not seen since 1999, came over to me. Ken, Paul and his wife Christina all gathered around. Christina was so moved she asked if she could give me a hug. (She did, despite my 100 miles of perspiration and trail dirt.) The emotions at that moment were overwhelming.

I sat on the ground, in the shade, enjoying a Coke and for the first time in 28 hours, not moving!

And I thought of all those people back home who had there fingers crossed and held up prayers that I would make it. And I thought of the 88 year old friend who told me that she was so proud of me for trying. I sat there at the finish, realizing it wasn’t the destination that was important, but the endless training and continuous struggle on the trail to get there. And I thought how blessed I am to have all these friends and family that shared in this experience….

One final note: Marcia finished with a 27:37 and was 208th place, out of 400 starters, 318 finishers. She is a great trail runner, a fantastic training partner, and a very special friend.

Runner Spotlight: Don Halke