What Ever Happened to Mocko?
Western States 2017 Race Report
It’s been a week since 369 eager runners toed the line in Squaw Valley to kick off this year’s edition of the Western States Endurance Run. Thirty hours later, only 248 of these brave souls (only 2/3 of the participants!) would survive the snow and heat to finish the 100-mile journey at the Placer High track. What began as the best-executed race of my life ended with 36 excruciating miles of walking. Despite having the hardest day in my racing career, I am fortunate to call myself a finisher. And I couldn’t be prouder.
The day began with the always-pleasant 2:30am alarm. Cup of coffee, bowl of oatmeal, several slices of toast, and we were out the door. Two miles into our drive from Truckee to Squaw Valley, a downed power line blocked our path and required us to take a 15-minute detour. This is why you give yourself plenty of time on race morning! Looking back, I now realize this power line was a sign that we should’ve just gone back to bed — this day was going to be r-o-u-g-h. Checked-in with the race officials, attempted one last bathroom stop (this may be the only race in the country with a longer line for the men’s restroom, which isn’t surprising when the entry list is 85% male), stripped down to my *FRESH* new Nike kit, snuck in one last effort underneath the patio deck (sorry, Squaw Valley Resort), and worked my way to the start line.
The gun went off and the race unfolded exactly as we all expected. Mr. Walmsley took off like a rocket and would build a 7-minute lead by the top of the first 3.5-mile climb (this guy is seriously impressive!). The rest of us mortals followed suit at a slightly more reasonable pace, marching our way up the 2,550-ft climb (couldn’t think of another place I’d rather be at 5 in the morning!). I didn’t think about it until much later, but I hadn’t needed arm sleeves or a jacket before the race. The sun had yet to rise and it was already warm — our first indication that this was going to be a toasty day!
Oh, and did I mention the snow? By the 3-mile mark, the trail turned from familiar gravel fire road to the white powdery stuff. We knew this was going to be a snow year, but I don’t think anyone expected this much snow. Impossible footing, multiple slip-outs, collapsing snow bridges, and easily lost course markings were just a couple of the pleasantries offered by this new course element. And when the snow dissipated, the fun was far from over as mud and flowing streams greeted us where trail once existed. Soaked shoes and socks, developing blisters underfoot, and a couple upper-thigh raspberries made the list of mile-10 discomforts. After reaching my first time checkpoint nearly 30 minutes behind my most conservative estimates, one thing was clear — this was not the day for setting records. Just another lovely day in High Country!
To Robinson Flat (mile 30)
I had been fortunate enough to link up with a pack of runners for the first 10 miles or so, but either the 1/2 jar of peanut butter or the entire loaf of garlic bread the night before forced me to “aggressively consider” a couple of unexpected pitstops in High Country. I could’ve let these breaks frustrate me as the other runners pulled away, but my recent racing experiences had taught me one thing in particular — the power of patience — and instead of slamming on the gas to catch back up to the pack, I locked into my own comfortable rhythm and kept moving forward. There would be plenty of miles ahead to make up time! And the patience paid off — I was catching up to runners between garlic bread breaks and the pace came much more easily to me than the previous year. An early indication of a great day ahead of us!
The first opportunity to see my crew came at mile 30, who confirmed that I was just minutes behind a large pack of runners, that Walmsley was some ungodly distance ahead of the field, and the snow was finally all behind us. Four weeks ago Robinson Flat had been buried underneath 8 feet of snow. Now, it was the same barren campground that I remembered from the year before (turns out that a couple 100-degree days can do wonders to melt snow!). I swapped out my two handhelds for a hydration pack loaded up with plenty of ice, a 1.5L bladder of water, and two flasks with ice cold water and electrolyte mix. I was ready to slosh through some downhill miles!
To Michigan Bluff (mile 55)
The next 10 miles made for some lonely running. I did not see any runners and struggled to find my rhythm, but I stayed hydrated and, most importantly, kept moving forward. Around mile 40, I was swept up by two runners including the Legend-of-Pacing-and-Top-10-Finishes, Mr. Ian Sharman. It never feels great to get passed, particularly when it’s a man who runs as intelligently as Mr. Sharman, as doubt too easily creeps into your mind. Did I go out too hard? Am I already starting to die? But instead of allowing negativity to creep in, I chose to latch on to this pack of runners and tagalong for the journey. We marched on to the next aid station and headed down to Devil’s Thumb, at which point both Sharman and my new Australian friend, David, slowed a bit. And I began to pull away. What?! Did I just battle through my first low point of the day? YEP!
Having battled up the two mile, 1,800-foot ascent of Devil’s Thumb on numerous occasions, today’s effort felt incomparably difficult. Slow, hot, sweaty running. Words of encouragement from volunteers who promised “the aid station is just up ahead” didn’t help as the climb dragged on for at least a half mile longer than they had assured me (liars!). When I finally summited the Beast, I rewarded myself with a long break to refuel and bring down my core temperature. Today’s race was clearly just as much about moderating one’s body temperature as it was clicking off mile splits. With my shorts, head scarf and arm sleeves fully-loaded with ice, I trucked on to Michigan Bluff. The running legs returned (as they always seem to do) and I pressed on to El Dorado Creek, passing last year’s 5th place finisher, Paul Giblin, just before the aid station.
Me: (sarcastically) “Well, at least the weather is cooperating today.”
Paul: (mumbled in agreement in his lovely Scottish accent)
It’s always a relief to find you’re not the only one suffering in the heat. It must’ve been mating season because The Canyons were in HEAT! (dang, why didn’t I have that joke on race day?)
Beginning the 3-mile trek up to Michigan Bluff I soon passed a friend, Ryan Kaiser, and got word from some hikers that another athlete was just a 100 yards ahead. I marched on, brimming with excitement to have my conservative early pace now paying dividends at this stage of the game. Keep it in your pants, Mocko! At the top of the climb, I passed everyone’s favorite Swedish runner, Elov Olsson, and picked up the pace into the aid station. I was running (like, REALLY running!) and it felt amazing. I greeted my crew (who were surprised to see me ahead of schedule) with a big grin and pressed on to the most exposed portion of the course, Volcano. I could not be more pleased with the way my race was unfolding and how much better I felt than my previous States outing where I had found myself in a terribly dark, overheated, depressed state navigating this section. We were catching up!
To Foresthill (mile 62)
Making my way to the creek crossing below Bath Road, I knew the steepest descents of the day were now behind me (woohoo!). But with one lapse in concentration, my day suddenly turned — in crossing the creek, I slipped on a mossy rock and felt my leg snap behind me. A terrible fear suddenly descended upon me — did I just break my leg?! Two hikers on the opposite side of the creek immediately rushed to assist me, but fearing disqualification, I made sure they kept their distance. I finally climbed out of the water on my own volition and my leg (thankfully) seemed fine. Despite the scare, I passed my second-favorite Swede and legendary ultrarunner, Jonas Budd, just before Bath Road—Mocko got his groove back!
I had made it to Foresthill just inside my predicted window from my pre-race report. I still had my legs, my body felt as cool as possible given the heat, and I was in 6th place! My shoes had remained water-logged from the early miles slopping through the melting snow and my feet were a WRECK, so I made the decision to swap out my Wildhorses for a pair of lighter, more aggressive Kigers. It was a costly exchange as we had some issues re-tying my fresh kicks (my hip flexors were so tight that I couldn’t reach my own shoes) and the pitstop took more time than I would’ve liked. A little frustrated but far from deterred, I took off out of Foresthill to chase after 5th place. But I wasn’t thinking about 5th. I was thinking about the podium, chasing after 2nd, and if things weren’t going perfectly for our early race leader, dreaming of the top spot. Ridiculous thinking in hindsight, I know. I had executed the first 62 miles so perfectly that anything felt possible for these final 38 miles. And something remarkable and unexpected did happen shortly thereafter — just not exactly what I had imagined!
Down to the river (mile 78)
With pacer in tow, we tumbled down Cal Street — on a mission. The first mile was covered in under 8 minutes and felt easy. This was going to be an exceptional day! And in almost the exact same spot where Chris Denucci had passed me the previous year, I turned the tables and passed him. We pressed on through mile 64, ready to chase down the next victim up the trail.
And then something happened.
All of a sudden, I indicated to my pacer that we needed to slow down a bit. Something wasn’t feeling right in my head. Was it overheating? Fatigue? Fuel issues? Uncertain of the cause, I knew the first remedy was to pump the brakes, take a GU, and grab a swig of water. But my pace continued in the wrong direction, now reduced to a slow trot. I hoped a quick creek dip would bring me back to life. It did not. Denucci joined us for a plunge, stealing whatever magical revival powers this creek possessed. Denucci and his pacer passed us for good (he ended up having a great day — congrats, Denuch!). Then a pack of four runners. Then two more. All of the hard work over the last hour was unraveling in minutes. And like that, the day was lost.
My plan to start conservatively over the first 50 miles and slowly build over the second half had suddenly gone completely awry. And I had no idea what had happened to me. I made a couple of concerted efforts at jogging (or what I remembered jogging to be), but those attempts were short lived. Any small incline in the trail left me exhausted and dizzy (I could barely stay on my feet!), and all I could think about was the confusion running through my pacer’s head. Does he need a swift kick in the rear to get moving again or do I risk putting him into an even worse state of exhaustion? There was nothing left in the tank to muster anything more than a slow, pathetic walk.
It took an eternity, but we finally made it to the next aid station. In the last mile I had experienced a new race-day sensation — sleepiness. It was four in the afternoon, and all I could think about was taking a hard nap. And that was my plan. Get to the aid station, find a comfortable spot to lie down, and get some shuteye. But much to my disappointment, there were no cots at this aid station and the volunteers refused to let me rest for much time. I could not have been grumpier about their insistence that I keep moving, but they promised cots and a radio to message my crew at the next aid station, so we slowly gathered ourselves and made our way down the trail.
Donde esta El Mocko Show?
At this pace, the 5 mile trek to the next aid station would take closer to 2 hours than the 40–45 minutes that it would typically take at this stage of the race. And the Internet began to worry about their “beloved” Mocko Show:
More than once I would check my watch’s GPS, demoralized to discover that we barely covered a mile since last taking a split. The next aid station eventually arrived, but no cots nor radios as promised. I refused to continue without a nap and told my pacer to wake me up in four hours with enough time to make it to the river before the time cutoff (which was hilarious in its own regard because I never thought time cutoffs would be a consideration on race day). While I rested, he could go on ahead and alert the rest of our crew that we weren’t having quite the day we expected and that dropping at the river was a foregone conclusion. And while sleep was the only remedy I would consider, against my better wishes, the lovely aid station volunteers and my patient pacer convinced me to keep going. Sleep would have to wait.
The long, slow march to the river continued. Countless runners passed me (I guess we’re going to need a Golden Ticket next year!) and any hope of returning to running form was lost. Cat Bradley was the first female to find me on the trail and I was thrilled to see her and pacer/boyfriend Ryan charge on by looking fresh. I remember what that felt like! Magda and Fernando were next, Magda even encouraging me to run with her for a spell. Not today, Magda. At this point, the thought of dropping was not just a possibility, it was an inevitability. Each aid station brought on more disappointment and frustration, reminding me of what could have been. Every couple of minutes I would re-assess the situation with my pacer, trying to talk myself out of dark thoughts.
Me: “Chris, there’s a 90% chance I drop at the river.”
(1 mile later)
Me: “Ok, I can’t drop. Down to 50%.”
Chris: “Perfect! Your probability of finishing is going up!”
Me: “Is it? Oh, that isn’t right. I still feel like dropping.”
(1/2 mile out from the river…stumbling up a 100-ft climb)
Me: “Yeah…we are definitely dropping. I just…can’t…”
Me: “I’m so sorry…”
Eventually the sight of rafts improved our spirits. Not because we had reached another race milestone, but because I knew the end was near — I could finally end this terrible, horrible, very bad day. I marched into the aid station, tail between my legs, greeted by a rambunctious contingent of That’s Fine Track Club members who seemed dumbfounded by my current predicament. I’m sorry to let you guys down! I alerted the aid station leader that I would be dropping out of the race, who preceded to radio over to the other side of the river to alert my pacer, Airik (who had been waiting patiently for HOURS with the rest of my crew), that my day was over.
Concerned for my health, the race doctor rushed over to check my vitals.
Doc: Have you urinated recently?
Me: On myself? Of course.
Doc: What color was it?
Me: Clear as day.
Doc: Have you been eating?
Me: If you aren’t throwing up you’re doing something wrong, right?
Doc: Your heart rate?
Me: Feels high.
(He checked my wrist)
Doc: 60 beats per minute.
Me: (in my head) Well, that’s a bit encouraging…
I turned to a friend who was standing behind a roped-off section, remembering that he too had been subjugated to walking during a 100-miler just the year before. I knew I had 22 miles to go. If he had been able to walk that distance, perhaps I could too.
Me: Kris, how long did you walk during your 100 miler?
Kris: I would never do it again.
And suddenly it was over for me. Any glimmer of hope had faded, and the waterworks erupted (not the first shedding of tears on the day, and certainly not the last). I was not going to finish this race. I called for a friend to come over, who just stood there next to me. There was nothing to be said. No words of encouragement could help at this point, and the race official returned to my side to make the drop-out official by cutting off my race wristband. But before I allowed him to end my journey 22 miles short of goal, I had one final moment of hesitation. I thought about my buddy Andrew Chapello who had dreamed of just getting the chance to race at States and had snuck-in via the lottery two weeks prior to race day, about Ben Koss who aggravated an injury a month ago and was forced to relinquish his bib, all of The Mocko Show fans who were eagerly awaiting updates online, and my hysterical family who was without a doubt going crazy on the East Coast, uncertain if a cougar or heat stroke had taken out their beloved son/brother.
And by some act of the Western States Gods, I got out of that chair, performed a (tasteful) jiggle by the aid station table, and headed towards the rafts. We were finishing what we started!
The Show Must Go On
I crossed the river, made it up the 1.8 mile climb to the next aid station, and strapped on a headlamp borrowed from a friendly volunteer. And the journey into the night began. We had 20 more miles to go and at our current clip of 17-min miles, this effort would take a good 7 hours to reach the finish line. Holy moly. The goal to finish before sunset was adjusted to finishing before sunrise. And now the 30-hour cutoff seemed more within reach than the elusive 24-hour mark.
“But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” — Rocky, Rocky Balboa
But we kept our heads down and kept moving forward (well, I kept my head down. Airik’s headlamp died so he had to remain focused on the trail ahead to avoid falling). Each 25–30 minutes meant one mile closer to the finish, one mile closer to glorious rest. Airik tried to play Two Truths and a Lie to pass the time. I wasn’t having it (and they were actually some pretty good truths!).
The Long Goodnight
We reached the mile 90.3 aid station, where I found the cot that I had been dreaming about all day. DANGER! DANGER! RED ALERT! I rushed to the cot and, against the advice of my pacer and the all-knowing aid station volunteers, I closed my eyes for the Long Goodnight. The whole world was spinning and I could hear my pacer discussing with the aid station chief on how best to revive me and get me moving again. Seemingly hours passed, and offers for food and drink to entice me off of the cot fell short on stubborn ears. Airik finally cajoled me to open my eyes with the promise of hot coffee. I awoke to a nun in pantyhose hovering above me. Was I still dreaming? Or was this The Matrix? Half expecting Morpheus to show up offering me the choice of a red or blue pill, I took the red pill and slowly dragged my stiff body off the cot and back into the darkness. What I thought had been hours of sleep had actually been mere minutes — things must move more slowly in the dream world. In a final moment of weakness, I asked…
Me: “What would happen if I dropped out now?”
Aid Station Chief: “You’d have to wait until the aid station shutdown.”
Me: “When is THAT?”
Me: “Uggggh. I guess I’ll keep going.”
I had 11 hours to complete 10 miles. Looking back now it seems that it was impossible for me to fail, but in that depressed state doubt lingered as to whether I could make it that final 10%. What if I fell back to sleep? What if I cramped? What if a gorgeous babe wanted to pick me up at Highway 49? I pressed on, cautiously optimistic the Hwy 49 babe would come to my rescue, believing I would need the full 30 hours to make it to Placer High. Sorry, team — we aren’t getting any sleep tonight!
The Final Exchange (mile 94)
By the time mile 94 rolled around for my final pacer exchange, I had long-since assumed that my crew had abandoned the mission and found somewhere comfortable and cool to sleep in Auburn. It was 2am, my final pacer, Caroline, had a flight to catch in a couple of hours, and Team Mocko had now been up for over 24 hours. Airik, it looks like it’s you and your favorite grumpy runner until the finish! But, to my great delight, my entire crew was waiting for me! And while I’m sure they were battling the same fatigue that threatened to close my eyes for good at any moment, they didn’t show it, and they sent me off with enough enthusiasm and encouragement to last the next 2 (maybe 3?) hours. Six miles ’til freedom!
The trek to Placer High continued, serving up some of the most painful miles of the day. My quads were shot, my feet were riddled with blisters, and my neck and shoulders ached (they aren’t used to holding up my big old noggin’ for 24 straight hours!). As we approached the lights of No Hands Bridge, we flirted with the 24-hour deadline. But the goal wasn’t a time. It wasn’t even a position. It was just crossing that finish line. And at this point, no matter how long it took, I knew we were going to make it. The climb up to Robie Point took forever, but we made it, and my crew greeted me one final time to usher me to the finish line. So the best crew in the business, with the grumpy runner/walker who was too darn stubborn to quit, chugged along for one final mile, hit the track, and kicked it home in front of a scattering of sleepy fans and volunteers.
Twenty three hours, twenty two minutes, and thirty one seconds.
It was far from the day I expected, but I couldn’t be disappointed with the day I received. In another reality, Chris Mocko at the river made the easier decision and dropped out, and he left the race defeated. But not this Chris. This Chris, with the help of the most supportive crew and fans in the world, figured out a way to keep going. And I couldn’t be prouder for it.
So what happened to Mocko?
In looking back at the day, I’m still a bit dumbfounded about the Catastrophe at Mile 64. I know it wasn’t from “blowing my wad” too early — I ran a conservative, intelligent first 100k and felt strong leaving Foresthill. I know it wasn’t a fueling issue — I had no issues with my GU-every-30-minutes protocol. It wasn’t even a hydration issue — I had more than enough fluids with me thanks to the hydration pack that I had been schlepping since mile 30. Or was it a hydration issue? I was so worried about remaining hydrated that I may have actually over-hydrated. Hyponatremia is “a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in your blood is abnormally low” (SOURCE: The Internet). I had been so worried about getting dehydrated like last year that I may have been taking in too many fluids without properly balancing my sodium levels. The fact that my body felt completely depleted despite frequent urination makes me think that H2O was the culprit. Thanks a lot, Al Gore.
And what’s next for The Mocko Show?
It’s now been four months since I left my job. Four months of hard training, 350 miles of racing, more than 2000 total miles on the trails, and at least a dozen Costco trips. That’s exhausting. And I’m now ready for a mental/physical/psychological break. For the next two weeks the priority will be ice cream, pizza, and whatever deliciously sugary, unhealthy products that I’ve been denying myself for the past several months (look out, Costco muffins!). I have my eyes set on a couple of eating challenges (stay tuned for more!) and days filled with TV and dog walks rather than long runs and hill repeats. It shall be GLORIOUS!
But I’m also hungry. Hungry for competition. Hungry to see my Western States fitness translated into a solid race performance, perhaps with slightly less heat, snow and power walking. I’ve begun planning out my race schedule for the remainder of 2017, but I’m still not exactly sure where the chips will fall. I do know that I want to run one more 100-miler this year and then finish 2017 with a 50-mile jaunt in my backyard at The North Face 50 Endurance Challenge. After all, “this is my house, I have to defend it.”
I’m excited to get back to training with a solid block in the mountains this Summer and then transition to faster trail running and threshold work to improve my aerobic capacity. And get back to racing/competing again!
The outpouring of supportive messages and words of encouragement before, during, and after Western States from all of you has meant the WORLD to me. With your support, I plan to return to training with a newly-instilled sense of purpose and the hunger to prove that I can compete with the best in our sport! In the immortal words of a favorite 90's one-hit wonder:
“I get knocked down, but I get up again…you’re never gonna keep me down.” — Chumbawamba