I jumped out of my car to find my friend Bruce Falzarano waiting in a parking lot about one mile from the start of the California International Marathon. I had dropped off a carload of runners and found him there, ready to run and qualify for his fourth Boston Marathon.
“I got in,” he said, and that’s all he needed to say. You see, the day before, Bruce had been one of about 350 runners selected in the Western States100 lottery meaning he could run the race. His odds of getting in were around 3%.
“I’m in dude,” I said, and like that I volunteered to help him along his journey.
The Western States 100 is the Dayton 500 of endurance running. One hundred miles, two sunrises, 18,000 feet of climbing and umpteen blisters in one day – this describes Western States. Only the most primed athletes have a chance of finishing; to win, one must be truly gifted. To get in you have to first qualify for the lottery by running a mere 50 miles in less than 11 hours. After that, and eight hours of volunteer work, it’s all luck. Western States makes the 26.2 miles of a marathon look like a weekend 5K through the park.
Two weeks after Bruce qualified for Boston, he assembled a group of runner friends at a local restaurant to swap marathon war stories. When the glory waned, we pressed him on Western States. You could tell he’d been thinking about it and despite saying he would never attempt such an unthinkable event, he committed to running it. Suddenly, the group around the table became his pacers and crew.
We met again several times in the six months leading up to the race. He assigned us all roles and asked me to be his crew chief. To me, that’s like being a crew chief at Daytona, because this is running’s grandest stage. It was an honor to be asked to help him achieve this dream – a unique mix of fitness, mental fortitude, and luck.
The tone of our frequent meetings grew more serious as the day approached. Bruce originally wanted his crew to be a roving band of cheerleaders. As runners, we understood he needed more technical support than just rah-rah and assured him that he could count on us to provide food, hydration, cooling, medical, and moral support. As he ticked of training runs of 40, 50, and 62 miles on the weekends his confidence grew.
Race Day. The crew assembled mid-afternoon for our first meet up with Bruce. He had been running since 5:00 a.m. and we planned to meet him at the first crew accessible aid station at roughly 7:00 p.m. We got there and his instructions were simple: “get me ice cream, get me a burger, and keep the positive attitude flowing.” Being new and inexperienced, our team of four was abundantly eager. Our provisions for him far exceeded his needs and our enthusiasm poured from us like water spilling over the top of a bursting dam.
We stood watching for him at 5:30 p.m. He did not appear for three more hours. As we anxiously waited and cheered each runner, other crews would tell us their runners’ names in advance so we could cheer for them. We won the loud contest. As time passed, our concern mounted as Bruce fell almost two hours behind his predicted pace. And then he appeared. Kim, from the crew, jumped like she just had been selected on the Price is Right, and the crew quickly scrambled to make sure all of his goodies were easily accessible.
Bruce looked great: smiling, sweaty, and swollen. We threw a quick towel over him as he downed the burger and ice cream. It provided such a lift that he took time to shoot a photo of us on the way out. He spent about five minutes there eating and gushing about the course. As the sunset loomed, we fitted him with a light and off he went.
We looked at each other, proud we supported him and confident we could go the distance and meet him at all stops along his journey. We even lied when he told us he was on a 29-hour pace, not letting on that he was really on a 30-hour pace and in jeopardy of the cutoff. We packed up and headed towards the next aid station hoping he could make up some time.
When we reached the town of Foresthill, the largest and brightest aid station, we had our roles nailed. As Kim and Bill laid out his provisions, Teri and I ran to meet him about a mile-and-a-half up Highway 49. Nightfall descended, and runners continued now with headlamps. The atmosphere felt like Woodstock meets the Olympics with a strange mix of NorCal flavor and sweat. Soon, Bruce emerged from the dark having made up at least 30 minutes over the last segment. We hustled him out of the aid station as he took his first pacer (runners are allowed pacer runners over the final 40 miles of the course).
To this point, the work felt easy. We helped him in the waking hours and we could have made it home to catch Letterman and sleep. But, Western States is about resolve. Bruce’s attitude in those aid stations was calm and focused. He simply would run or as he put it make relentless forward progress, walking when necessary, but always pushing hard towards the finish. We could tell he would make it if he kept this resolve. So we silently vowed to do the same and keep him moving.
We arrived at the next aid station, Rucky Chucky (yeah, funny name), on the bank of the American River at about 2:00a.m. If they handed out crew awards, we would have won ours here. We had the place to ourselves save for the aid station volunteers and a few steely crew members. But, most of the runners through the aid station were only accompanied by their pacer without support. So, we provided them the support they needed. I can’t lie, getting amped up and cheering on strangers at 2:00 a.m. is pretty fun. We danced to the strange mix of gangsta rap and Christian rock and started to make up our own songs about Bruce. My favorite: “Falzarano. Why don’t you come to your senses?” sung to the tune of the Eagles’ Desperado.
Our ideas got loopier. Teri thought she could discern runners’ shirt colors in the pitch black. When she saw a shirt that appeared lime green, we would all yell Bruce. If the runner wore two lights instead of one, same thing. We yelled ‘Bruce’ at people for about an hour till we actually got it right. After the race he asked, “How did you know it was me?” Trust me, we didn’t.
After about two hours, he appeared and scarfed a hot dog, then flew to the next aid station across the river in like two minutes. And his demeanor here was the same as aid station one or frankly, from our dinner meetings. Despite this short visit, it was here where we began to appreciate the magnitude of the event. I have never seen anything close to the runners’ tenacity. People totally spent, falling, whining, spitting, sweating, limping, hobbling, crying, shaking, and bleeding just kept moving forward. Relentless forward progress by all. These people were putting themselves through hell for a belt buckle and to prove they could finish.
We met up again with Bruce four hours later under the morning sunrise, his second, at the last two aid stations. His determination steadied and he fixed on the finish line. Runners came in completely beat up by the night course, yet marched on through the final seven miles. Bruce’s spirit began to soar as his dream was in reach with time to spare. The final aid stations turned into our mutual celebrations.
He finally emerged from the trail and met us, his family, crew and pacers to run the last mile. Bruce thanked his daughters and joked with his wife. He thanked us all for being there to help him and he never cracked. When he reached the track at Placer High School to complete his 100-mile journey, scores of admirers gathered to the track’s edge to slap his hand. And after 29 hours, 28 minutes, and 58 seconds he crossed the finish line completing 100 miles of running in one day.
After the race, I jumped out of my car, dropping off Teri at her home, and reflected on the event. The Western States was not a race achievable by only invincible athletes, but by dedicated mortal people. To see a man run that distance and put his body through such stress and adversity still gives me chills. It proves that you can “bag the big elephant” as the event literature proclaims if you stay the course and don’t give up. Big dreams need relentless, relentless, relentless pursuit. Not giving up took on new meaning as did the hard work and dedication Bruce put in to even make it to the start. Everyone associated with Bruce’s race got stronger by watching his example.
I’m sharing this story with you because your Western States is out there and so too hopefully is mine.
If you like this story, check out crewmember Kim Box’s motivational recap of the same event at: www.kimboxinspires.com