Saturday, July 4, 2009


Uncle John opened my door, and I awoke. I stood up, my head perfectly clear. We were going hunting. It was my first hunt. I dressed quickly. We drove into the Ozarks in central Missouri. We hiked in before dawn. I sat by myself on a hillside from dawn until dusk, sucking on the bag of hard candies Uncle John had given me. I didn’t get a deer.

Last Saturday I awoke with the same sense of anticipation. My alarm was set for 3 am, but I woke up at 2:45. The stars glistened through the mesh across the top of our tent. I proceeded methodically, as I had the morning of the hunt some 30 years before. I fried 2 eggs on the cook stove. I mixed apple sections in with plain yogurt. Every action was deliberate and in service to the project, finally imminent, upon which I embarked so long ago. Any agitating thoughts, those that circulate and press urgently into consciousness were displaced by the simple demands of getting ready. Those demands occupied me clear through to pinning a small black ribbon on my race shirt just minutes before the 5 am start. There was no question of my taking this time. I calmly looped the minute strip of material and stuck it through with the safety pin. Dan Moores had embraced his perfect rest. It felt right to honor him during this event. There were hundreds of us; each with our own story. What we were doing demands that. There is no inherent value to completing the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. We were each seeking something that we had invented for ourselves; something resistant, or antagonistic, to the normal pushes and pulls of life on earth.

The goal is elusive. We are governed, after all, by immutable natural laws. I climbed to Michigan Bluff, over halfway through the run, with Erik Skaden. He told me the temperature wasn’t high compared to other years. Meanwhile his face glowed red, sweat dripped from his shirt, and he gulped steadily from the large water bottles gripped in each hand. There was no escaping the work of that climb, nor the need to dissipate the heat generated by that work. We were escaping something else though: the expectation of middle aged men on a hot summer Saturday. I might have been taking my kids to the water after a few chores around the house. If we were feeling adventurous we may have traveled somewhere for the weekend. What no one expects, when they ask about your weekend plans, is that you will be running 100 miles. There is a freedom in that – short lived though it is. I met Gordy Ansleigh in the Auburn Raley’s on Thursday night. He looked well. He smiled and chatted easily. He broke expectations when he completed, on foot, what was then a 100 mile horse race. That was better than 30 years ago. Thousands of people have completed the run since then. We have created our own expectations, and we can’t escape those.

The experience itself creates plenty of temptation to stop or change course. To plan and prepare is certainly a commitment, but it is no guarantee against what will come up. I was on Lyon Ridge within the first two hours of running. I caught myself focused intently on the rocks just in front of my feet. It felt tedious, and I deliberately lifted my eyes 15 feet ahead. I stepped on a rock wrong and popped my foot forward, pinching my Achilles. The pain wasn’t intense, but it was sharp and persistent. That pain would haunt me for the next twenty hours. On the descent into Deadwood Canyon, 45 miles into the run, the big toenail on my left foot began to separate from the rest of my toe. The ensuing pain and tenderness would inhibit all my downhill running from then on.

At Auburn Lake Trails, 85 miles into the run, I was stopped for weighing 7% less than I had at the start. I was forced to drink, and it made me sick. For the next several miles I struggled to steady my eyes on the trail. It constantly shifted horizontally. I knew I was dehydrated. I suspected my blood sodium was low as well, and that any fluid I consumed was stuck on the wrong side of cell membranes, and some of that fluid was putting pressure on my visual cortex causing my perceptual irregularities. I searched the side of the trail for a gap in the foliage in which to curl up. I thought of the aid station workers who would be sent back with a gurney. They would have to hike many miles to the nearest road crossing.

Canadian Gary Robbins caught up with me while I tried to recover my senses at Brown’s Bar, 90 miles into the run. He had staggered from Ruck-A-Chucky, where 78 miles into the run I passed him seated at the aid station, pale, feet badly blistered. He seemed incapacitated except for his voice, which rung out clearly: “I won’t quit!” And here he was 22 miles on, his body like an abused rag doll, his voice still ringing like a church bell: “come with us” he said. I got up, dredged from my own misery, and started moving out of the aid station. Robbins is a guy that men would follow to their deaths.

That is our ultimate hedge against natural forces. We persist, no matter what. Damage to our bodies is the converse of physical pleasure. It represents a natural force that would dictate our choices – except that we have denied that possibility. We won’t be swayed. There is a freedom in that. The finish line at Placer High School looked like a MASH unit. I lay down on a cot next to a young woman, pale and gaunt, hooked up to an IV. I sympathized with her, though I wasn’t as bad off. I had stopped trying to drink in the last 10 miles, and had recovered my stomach and perception. Shortly after I stopped at the finish I was able to drink and absorb my drink mix. After I slept briefly, and the sun came up, I recognized the woman on the cot next to me. Krissy Moehl had pushed the last 15 miles and finished 2nd among the women, behind another brilliant performance by Anita Ortiz.

We think of freedom as the breadth of choices given to us. I can make an abstract connection to that kind of freedom – mouth my gratitude for the blessings of being born into this time and place. That isn’t the kind of freedom I have sought, though. One definition of freedom is “the capacity to achieve what is of value in a range of circumstances.” I can make sense of that. I placed a value on striving for my best performance at Western States. I had a wide range of resources available to prepare myself, not the least of which was the quarter-century of my own running. I am disappointed. I prepared and ran the best I knew how. I took time away from my family to train at altitude. I did not achieve as I had hoped. As much as we pursue it, freedom eludes us.

I was subdued, once again, by the relentless vicissitudes of the Western States course. It wore me down to a murmur, and left me on the floor of my cell. In those confines, though, the echo of that murmur has resonated into a booming chorus that won’t let me sleep. My blood has been agitated into froth. In the first quieter hours I thought to myself that the hundred isn’t for me. I should rest, regain myself, and train for a couple of 50 mile races in the fall. I’m good at those. That would make sense. Meanwhile the waves of unrest were building, steadily washing across the boundaries that life is so good at preparing for us. I couldn’t compose my experience. The story didn’t sound right in my own head.

We spent the night before last in the mountains just west of Denver. We arrived, and slept, in the clouds. The mist persisted through the night. We left early for the long driving days across the heartland heading east. We camped in Lawrence, Kansas. The thunderstorms were interminable, racking my fitful sleep. The gnats clung to the underside of the pop top of our van. They infested the campground, swarming all the buildings and sites. The hum was audible from a distance, resolving into a buzz only when single gnats found their way into our ears. Swatting them was pointless. They don’t live as individuals. Better to think of them as cells of a large and fluid organism.

A lot of things are that way – significant at a scale we don’t discern. Even our choices, so seemingly intimate with the person we think ourselves to be, cannot always be understood at face value. I have characterized my thinking in the past as “rational.” That is, I applied reason in the pursuit of valued goals. I fooled myself. Of course I can, and do, try to calculate the risks and rewards of my choices. What has always mattered to me, though, is the freedom to smack down the easy choice right in front of me. I will not quit. A strange relationship I have with myself – impossible really. I can’t choose, but I do. I have to calculate, but I don’t. I should put hundred-milers out of my mind, but I can’t. No, no. I will run another hundred. And another. Until I get it right.


  1. Nice report Eric. I had issues with the the Bluff too. We differ only in pace.

  2. Great report Eric, and congrats on the finish.

  3. Eric, You are a fierce competitor and co-conspirator. Given the conditions, you ran one hell of a race. It's truly an honor to toe the line with you. I look forward to seeing you out on the trails again soon.

  4. Eric, You may have not reached the level of success that you wanted, but you suceeded. Congratulations on completing an extremely tough run, but also for being persistent and gutting it out. You are a winner and one day all things will click together and you will reach that level of desired success. Rick

  5. well said Rick!! my thoughts exactly!
    My heart literally broke for you eric when I saw via the webcast they had you stopped at an aid station for a good chunk of time..( I assumed someone *had* to have stopped you or else you'd been on your way you had ran so strong for 85 miles!) I figured it was a weigh in that held you up. I hate that happened and that you got sick. But you really did run SOO extremely well and toughed it out and finished!! head up high and shoulders back for that one-- that is a job well done.. I really hope in the weeks that follow you can look back and see that you did your best in the situation you were in on that particular day, at that particular time, and that is all any mere mortal can do..
    I think that is one of the beauty and appeals for 100 milers is that it is such a very long race and so many different things can and will occur along the epic journey the runners embark upon.
    We were here in southwest va pulling for and cheering for you, grossman!! :o) Enjoy your blog! can't wait to watch you completely annihilate the next 100 miler you run!! because we all know that is what is going to happen!

  6. Grossman,
    Reading about you suffering is difficult, especially knowing what you sacrificed for this particular endeavour. That race course is difficult in the best of conditions and as Coach Nippert put it, "it's a crapshoot." You will nail your next 100 mile run and it will make Western States a distant dream. Out of failure is success only derived. I can relate on that note. You will come back with vegence and will crush in your next attempt.

    Nick Whited

  7. Hi Eric - I was in the cot on the other side of you from Krissy. The first time I sat up was in surprise and disappointment when they announced your finish. I also very much did not have the race I wanted to and felt capable of on that day. If I did one of these things again it would in large part be because of the example of guys like you and Brian Morrison who keep coming back to give it another try despite the disappointment. I think there is a lot of inherent value in striving for that perfect race year after year, rather than having one good one or throwing in the towel.

  8. I REALLY appreciate the folks who have commented on my posts. I am just now back home and able to take some time to read and reflect on everything. My family has had quite an adventure these last several weeks of being on the road.

    Take note of Victor's comment. He finished very close to me at WTC and Miwok. He strikes me as quiet, steady, and strong. If I have to be passed, at least its some consolation to be by a guy like Victor.

    The story will continue...