Discover more from Writing on Running
Running Off Script
Understanding Zoe Rom's run at the 2022 Western States Endurance Run
As her pace slowed, gradually grinding to a stumble, Zoë veered to avoid catching her toe on rocks that protruded from the California dirt, and I listened as she vented her broken heart.
As her pacer for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, we needed to problem solve.
“What was that? Can you say it again so we can work on it together?” I asked.
“I just wanted it so badly for them…” She said, trailing off as her breathing grew labored. Her posture pitched toward her toes, restricting her breathing, making each stride increasingly awkward.
“Can you try to run upright? Focus on deeper breaths,” I urged, trying to bring her attention to something actionable.
Zoë Rom is an accomplished writer, podcaster, and emerging ultrarunner, but her form was faltering.
“I scratched my right eye earlier. It’s pretty blurry,” she replied. There was nothing to do other than keep moving.
Run, accept, adjust, repeat.
We needed to figure this out, because the two of us represented a small portion of Team Zoë’s attempt at Western States.
A combination of competition and scarcity makes Western States 100 particularly stressful. It’s a tightness that starts in your chest. Since only a fraction of the athletes who are capable are actually allowed to enter each year, the experience is tense long before the start.
In Zoë’s case, extra pressure arose from her being deemed deserving, yet not technically qualified. InsideTracker, the blood diagnostic service gaining popularity in the endurance sports world, was granted an entry as a race sponsor and, with the help of Zoë’s coach David Roche, identified her as an athlete worthy of racing in their name.
It was an honor bestowed with baggage. Outsider, imposter, pretender, many emerging athletes feel these, maybe no one more so than the runner who could be accused of cutting the line.
And so Zoë entered the race as an underdog, but her entourage of friends and coaches imagined the possibility.
“I could see a Top 10,” several athletes remarked to me in the days leading up to Western States.
“She could make the podium,” one ultrarunning veteran stated.
As her crew, we also visualized success, but none of us dared to voice such outcomes, for fear of adding to the already mounting pressure of this opportunity.
“How will you know when to eat?” I asked naively. As a road marathoner, I’m seasoned in endurance suffering, but fully unaware of what happens after a few hours.
“My watch will go off every 15 minutes, that’s what I’ve done before. If I’ve got one talent to flex, it’s my ability to take down gels.” Zoë answered.
As Zoë’s team sat around our hotel room, the night before the race, she outlined the plan to help her successfully to Auburn, the finish. Zoë’s parents arrived to deliver hugs all around. How the hydration flasks should be filled. How cooling bandanas were loaded and tied.
“That’s what worked well at Rio.” Zoë’s partner TJ said, in reference to her 3rd place finish at Rio Del Lago 100 Mile last year.
Racing one hundred miles is too much to fathom. So we wouldn’t. We’d plan for logistical success and mental capacity, each step devised by how it would unfold. How shoes might compress, how socks might soil, how vests are bound to chafe, how stomachs might turn. This process acted as if the race was simply the sum of a long series of tasks. Trust in our routine stood in place of stress for how to run 100 miles.
The obvious truth is that you can only run your own race. Yet this fact, which extends from 100 meters to 100 miles, willfully ignores the mental and physical impact of other racers. It’s a solo endeavor surrounded by excitement, adrenaline, and fear.
Even hours into the race, everyone knows that it’s too early to compete in a hundred miler, but that didn’t keep us from repeatedly checking her live tracking.
“She’s perfect,” one team member called out, sitting outside the top 20 at mile 18, and then moving into the high teens.
If only that weren’t everyone’s plan. Such is the contradiction of ultra running competition: while you might genuinely wish each competitor well, collectively you’re praying for “carnage.”
“You look better than anyone we’ve seen yet!” we exclaimed as she arrived into Robinson Flat Aid Station (Mile 31). Exposed between high-altitude pines, the sun felt uncomfortably close.
“She’s annoyed at how far back she still is,” TJ relayed. Our team’s hopes that a controlled effort would ascend her upward weren’t yet unfolding. Our expectations for Zoë’s toughness were matched by the other elite female competitors. The chances of out-performing expectations at Western States slim each year as the talent grows and the speeds increase.
At Foresthill, mile 62, Zoë reached us and was quickly enveloped in action. Equal parts pit stop and dance party, Zoë’s crew and family infused her with energy at the race’s emotional midpoint. Music blasted. Screams echoed. Crew members poured ice water down her front and back. A quick hydration vest swap. A change into new shoes. More handfuls of gels. Within moments she was ready to go again.
My pacing task had arrived: run with her for 18 miles, down and through the famous Rucky Chucky river crossing. A bubble-blowing unicorn was hoisted in celebration as the crowd cheered and Zoë and I began to find our rhythm down the road, momentarily joined by her coach David Roche.
“You’re perfect, exactly where you want to be,” he reassured in a soft tone, intended to contrast and calm from this emotional spike. “How do you feel?”
“I’m doing well, I just wish I was moving better.” Zoë expressed continued frustration with her stagnating standings. The expected attrition from some of the top contenders wasn’t materializing and the pressure of competition weighed heavy. For this day to turn her way, Zoë would have to make moves, and soon.
Now I was along for the ride.
The difficulty of the downhill Western States course is often discussed and trained for, and still difficult to execute. Though entirely runnable, it tempts racers to rush, all while pounding their quads for hours.
I was here to help, but only by following her lead. As a first-time ultra pacer, I understood I had multiple jobs: psychological steward, provider of positivity, and cool-headed problem solver. The one thing I was warned against was pushing the pace. As a competitive marathoner who often paces under six minutes per mile, I’d assumed Zoë’s rhythm would feel slow, but it didn’t. An eleven-minute mile dropping over 500 feet should have felt easy, I figured, but awkward footing made me tired and unsure.
“Ouch!” She yelped.
“What was that?!” I asked in alarm.
“A rock hit my plantar. It happens sometimes in these shoes.” Another small thing in a series of so many small things. “It’s been tough from the jump,” she confessed. Her detached tone signaled a racer seasoned enough to expect and overcome misfortune, but still clearly annoyed. You can block out setbacks with intention, but little things add up.
I shared Zoë’s frustration. This meandering single track was far from technical, but the shadow play of bespeckled sunlight forced our pace upward.
“Ugh,” Zoë let out a half sigh in disgust. I’d missed her glance down at her wrist but caught the disappointment in her eyes as she cast them back upward from the bad news.
We were slow. And slowing.
As the setting sun continued to fall over the western canyon walls, long shadows reached across the cottonwood branches, and cool air settled into the eddies of the American River, as we struggled to find a solution for our declining pace.
“After Green Gate…”
“Once I get to Green Gate…”
“I’m hoping to make moves coming out of Green Gate, those final 20 miles.”
Everyone hopes to make late moves as others slow. Our issue was that Zoë’s legs wouldn’t allow it. To our horror, we were succumbing to the very misfortune we’d hoped others would experience.
Western States demands such acceptance in the sine wave cycle of spirit, that a racer will stumble forward, blurry in one eye and blistered on both feet, favoring one Achilles, while repeating the mantra: This is just a low point, it’ll pass.
Find a solution. Continue on.
But the energy within our shared distortion field was growing turbulent, even as Zoë remarkably continued to ingest a gel every 15 minutes. Then the cycle of her emotions began spinning faster.
“Dammit!” she muttered below her breath. “All that heat training! So many trips to the gym! And the mountain days!” Her list of training successes, previously reasons to believe, was souring.
That’s the double edge of expectation - when so much is possible, disappointment can hit twice as hard. From the InsideTracker blood tests confirming she was prepared, to her coach reinforcing that she deserved to play on the professional stage, how is an athlete to process as it all slips away mid-race?
“David has invested so much in me!” Her voice cracked with gratitude for her coach. My chest tightened and a pit lodged in my throat as it occurred to me what I was witnessing. “I wanted to do well for him.”
She voiced a core endurance truth: none of us rise to these heights alone.
Arriving on race day prepared to perform requires a team, as much for logistical support as for psychological fortitude. This collective aspiration provides focus in times of confusion, meaning in moments of doubt. But for all the benefits of teamwork, race day must still be carried out on a single athlete’s stride.
“I know they will all love me no matter what, but…” She trailed off, “You know that was never in question Zoë,” I responded. I could feel her nodding but didn’t look over; we had to focus forward. Always forward.
The beauty and brutality of her effort was that it was equal parts important and irrelevant. Zoë’s community supports her unconditionally. From the starting line celebration, we would be there. Which made the current state of her stride so distressing.
“Zoë, we don’t care about the pace. We care about the fight.” A tear escaped from my eye as I realized that my responsibility had shifted from aiding in her competitive effort to simply helping her continue on.
Then, she began to walk.
As the final daylight slipped away we were engulfed in a cloud of insects that we were now moving too slowly to escape.
Past successes can weigh heavy in contrast, once a day isn’t going well.
“This is so much less climbing, why are my legs so shot?” she wondered in frustration. Then the silence we’d lived in for hours was broken by a cheer from down below.
“Go Zoë!” bounced along the canyon wall. Stumbling downward, we were approaching the riverside aid station. Who could identify us at this distance? Her father, of course, who had been tracking our movements and place with precision.
A father’s call into the darkness does not fix a daughter’s stride, just as a mother's silent support while standing a few steps back could not turn our day around. Both actions reinforced the love that Zoë carried with her since sunrise.
We were all here for her.
An emotional highlight of Western States, the Rucky Chucky river crossing, is swarmed with neon lights, cheering volunteers, and every type of aid you could ask for.
Soon after TJ arrived to troubleshoot. “So…” he asked carefully, “What are you dealing with Zoë?”
“My legs are shot,” she answered. “It’s a cascade of things. My left Achilles is killing me. I hit my right plantar on a rock. My calves hurt cause my stride is off. My hip flexors are done.” Her assessment left little room to inject optimism while entirely avoiding the impending decision.
TJ accepted the news without reaction. As a professional skier and ultra runner, he’d undoubtedly found himself in similar situations. The three of us were now progressing at over 25 minutes per mile, each moment of quiet exertion seeming to linger longer than the last.
“This sucks!” She blurted out. “I HATE walking! I wanted to RUN this!” Her outburst shattering the remains of our script for the day.
It’s relatively simple for an athlete to fight with all their might in pursuit of their loftiest dreams. The true measure of desire is when they’re forced to recalibrate in pursuit of dwindling gains that demand increasing effort. Sure you can give it your all for the win, but would you endure for over a day if the prospect of even your lowest goal was already gone?
Did it even make sense to continue? That was the question we were all considering but would not dare to ask.
Slumped in a folding chair surrounded by her crew, Zoë surveyed her depleted state.
“It’s sixteen miles until the next aid station where we could get her out,” crewmember Drew dropped a hammer on our hopes.
“I don’t want to get stuck out there,” Zoë admitted.
At that moment our day was done. The remaining aspirations of our team wafted away, alongside the smell of aid station tater tots.
While ink is spilled endlessly on stories about the untapped reserves of human performance, about mothers flipping over cars for children, climbers ascending for days without food, and cyclists continuing on while asleep, the truth was that, for all of our team’s passion and belief, this hundred-mile run was just a game. And ours was over.
Twenty miles from the Western States finish line, Zoë Rom extended her wrist and asked an aid station captain to slice off her racer’s bracelet, officially ending her day.
Did Not Finish.
Three simple words to capture years of aspiration, months of effort, and hours of exertion.
All of a sudden time slowed, adrenaline stopped, and fatigue set in.
We were spent.
Dejected, together our team began the slog up a dirt road away from this renowned event. Each arm slung over a teammate’s shoulder, Team Zoë gently lugged our depleted hero uphill, her blistered feet dragging slightly in the smooth California dirt.
What were we to make of a DNF? What could we take from a day gone awry?
What I witnessed wasn’t a comeback or unexpected failure. It was the beauty of seeing an exceptional athlete fully extend beyond the depths of her ability on a given day. Like continuing to drive a car well after the gas gauge is on E, just for the joy of discovering how far it can actually go. It’s only in such instances of failure that we see ourselves most exposed.
No cliche about teamwork, effort, or process assuages the competitive pain of failing to finish. No amount of focus on the “journey” shelters us from the truth that we didn't get it done. We frame these sorts of days together, hoping that their collective investment will bring the most from an individual effort, even if often it doesn’t. That’s the secret.
Although the upstart athlete aims for an ideal outcome, the sooner they are able to stare straight at the fear of failure without flinching, the sooner they’re able to dance along the precipice of their most profound abilities, fully unburdened by expectation and uncertainty.
The hard part is that it hurts.
The beauty is that it hurts.
As time passes and this DNF begins to fade, our competitive heart still aches because we care, it still burns because we dream, and its chambers remain full because, on this day we gave everything, together.