Benefield: Windsor ultra-runner's determination carried him through grueling race
In one of the most famed ultraruns on earth Saturday, Bob Shebest of Windsor set a personal record. But it wasn’t the personal record he was hoping for.
Shebest, 44, was hoping to crack the top 10 in the prestigious Western States 100 Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn. His goal time was somewhere near the 16-hour-and-change mark.
His day did not unfold as planned. With scorching heat beating down most of the day and after suffering debilitating stomach issues around the 77-mile mark, Shebest was slowed to nearly a crawl. He crossed the finish line at Placer High in Auburn in 25 hours, 40 minutes.
Only one other time in Shebest’s career have things gone so incredibly wrong, and you have roll the calendar all of the way back to 2009 to find it. At the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, Shebest lost his stomach and had to nurse his system back to health for hours in an aid station before returning to the trail.
And such are Shebest’s gifts that even in that case, he was able to run himself into sixth place. No such storybook ending to this one. This one unraveled in a storm of vomit and dry heaving, some staggering and a lot of walking.
What it didn’t end with is a DNF: Did not finish.
“The best way out of this is through,” he kept telling himself. “Waking up tomorrow having quit is going to hurt a lot worse than walking it in.”
His goal of a 16-hour finish fell away. Then the aim to beat 24 hours fell away. Soon he was left with only one goal: Finish.
“You can sit around and bitch and moan - that is no way to do it,” he said. “Lean against your limits, right? This is my limit today. I can’t go faster.”
So he went slow. He stopped. He barfed. He tried different ways to keep calories down. He kept walking. Sometimes he jogged. He just tried to keep moving.
He chewed on Jolly Rancher candies. He tried to take in energy liquids. He tried watermelon wedges mid-race for the first time in his life.
“Part of your process is problem solving. What is going to work?” he said.
He needed something that would provide enough energy to carry on but wouldn’t come back up.
“My stomach was in charge at that point. I didn’t want to be back on a cot,” he said. “You can only do what you can do.”
The head scratcher is that he came into the ultra-exclusive, invite-only race feeling great. Unlike when he raced there in 2016, his lead-up was pitch perfect. He was amped.
Then the heat, then the altitude - he doesn’t know exactly what did him in, but did it ever.
When I talked to him Monday, he didn’t paint the race as a failure. Sure, it was bruising and he was still trying to analyze what went wrong. But he wasn’t beating himself up and picking apart this piece of training or that part of execution.
He was trying to figure it all out. The day gave him loads of perspective.
At one of the aid stations, when Shebest was in the throes of misery, he saw another runner rip off his participant wristband in disgust and quit right there. The day was not going how that guy wanted it to go.
A few feet away, Shebest’s day wasn’t going how he wanted it to go, either. But as the other guy unraveled, Shebest held it together.
“What am I reflecting? Am I reflecting weakness or am I reflecting confidence and good humor?” he said. “I’m in the sport for the long haul. I’m a coach. I don’t want people to give up when it gets tough.”
As a coach he’s constantly giving out advice, playing cheerleader and trying to offer sources of motivation for his athletes. It’s humbling and thought-provoking when an elite athlete, even one as naturally positive as Shebest, is forced to reckon with their own worst days and to take their own advice.
Shebest, who teaches science and math at Windsor Middle School, is successful at running. He doesn’t have clunkers like this often. But you can learn from clunkers. They can make you a better coach. One of Shebest’s athletes was up in Tahoe rooting him on.
“This is going to help your coaching,” he recalled her saying. “Because you are going to know what it’s like for the rest of us in the back of the pack.”
And Shebest’s seemingly relentless positivity was tested, too.
“In the high country it was really hard to stay positive,” he said.
He remembered the Native American tale of two wolves fighting inside of every person. One represents evil, self-pity, regret and greed. The other represents love, hope, serenity, humility and kindness.
The question of the parable becomes, which wolf wins?
The wolf you feed.
“It’s easy to pay lip service to these things, but it’s harder when the rubber meets the road,” he said.
You know what else came to Shebest as he was forced to step aside countless times and let other runners pass him, or as he stayed longer in aid stations than he ever planned on because this time he actually needed aid?
He got to slow down for the cheers and well wishes. He got to give hugs to volunteers who helped him through. I’m guessing his story became a little richer for the people spending hours in the high country doling out watermelon and banana halves because they saw him suffering.
Having a rotten day sucks, but it’s humanizing.
“They saw this guy was on the struggle bus,” he said.
“There were a lot of hugs in the final 20 miles,” he said. “If I’m running out at the front, there is no stopping at aid stations and hugs.”
And a mission that didn’t go as planned can be invaluable on the next try. With just 3.4 miles to go, at the No Hands Bridge aid station, Shebest said that he heard Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” playing, just at the part where Robert Plant sings “Yes, there are two paths you can go by/ but in the long run/ there’s still time to change the road you’re on/ and it makes me wonder.”
It’s almost comical.
“Is Robert Plant talking to me?” Shebest said he wondered. Was the Golden God trying to tell him to change his life’s direction? To perhaps give up on this crazy-making running thing?
Shebest doesn’t think so. He describes his personality as being tied to running, tied to teaching and tied to coaching. A bad day in any of those ventures doesn’t call for quitting.
And there’s something else driving him.
“I still haven’t had my best race,” he said.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.