Monday, 28 June 2010

Western States Endurance Run - The last 38 miles (the hard bit)

Downhill all the way...kind of (right to left).

Green Gate aid station at 79.8 miles when I'd just started to feel ok again.

Highway 49 aid station at 93.5 miles, just after darkness.

Do I look fresh with 6.7 miles to go?

Thank f*&@ that's over!

This very accurately reflects how I felt at the end.

So I got through to 62 miles and the Foresthill aid station ok. Everything was going well and I felt fine, plus I thought the hardest section was done after the famously hot canyons had been traversed. But accidentally leaving my timing chip at Foresthill was nothing compared to how much I didn't enjoy the last 38.2 miles.

I never expected the race to be easy but as I headed downhill towards Dardanelles at 65.7 miles I started to feel odd in my stomach. Then dizziness also hit me and all I could do was jog the easy downhills instead of running them. At the aid station I told them about my lack of timing chip and tried to eat and drink as much as I could, making sure to not just drink pure water but have electrolyte tablets too. I think I'd skipped putting the tablets in my water the previous time so maybe that was the cause, but I can't be sure of the timings as the time from Foresthill down to the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River at 78 miles is a bit blurry.

I know I kept leap-frogging Dan Barger over this sun-soaked trail (I didn't know his name until I saw the results) as we both went through better and worse patches. It was the sun which really hit me since the previous hot canyons had been generally shaded by trees, but this easy trail was exposed. I've no idea how hot it was but the results show that I ran those 16 miles between 3:21pm and 6:10pm so if it had cooled down, it wasn't by much. This is where I was meant to really eat away at the miles but instead I was going slower than before.

It felt like I was crawling along even though I think I managed under 11 minute miles. I even had to walk frequently on flat sections, never mind anything uphill. This was the least enjoyable running experience I've ever had, tied with the sand dunes on the long day of the Marathon des Sables. At least it wasn't as hot as the Sahara but it felt like I was being cooked inside my head.

It's at these times that you really question why you're doing a race and how important a finish or a good time is to you. I needed motivators to force me forward and at first I struggled to find them. Usually it's that I really want a good time to prove something to myself or to justify the training and hard work. But I was having so little fun that I couldn't even slightly appreciate the great views along the river valley, never mind focus on driving myself forward. But I did come up with a few reasons to keep pushing and these are what stopped me walking to the finish line:

1. Amy would be waiting at Green Gate at 79.8 miles and had to hike there in the blazing sun, so I didn't want to keep her waiting or force her to walk back uphill for a mile and a half in the dark.

2. If I walked it would take forever and I'd be forced to endure the fatigue and hell for many extra hours.

3. I'd already put in over 11 hours of running so I'd better not waste that by a really weak finish.

I have to admit I was also motivated by the thought that if I had a slow race I'd have to come back again so by making this one respectable I could avoid the hell again next year. At this point I swore to myself that I would never do Badwater. Never. It would just be like this the whole time and I'd rather have some fun in my races (even WS had been fun for the first 62 miles). I also questioned whether I want to do many other 100 milers or whether it'd be better to stick to slightly shorter races which I can enjoy the whole way through. Besides, I can do as many marathons and doubles as I like but a 100 miler requires a chunk of time before and after where I can't do as much running or racing, so that's a big sacrifice.

Almost disappointingly I didn't have any hallucinations (still never managed that), just lots of negative thoughts. It was also harder to judge distances as I felt I was going faster than I was.

But I eventually got to Rucky Chucky and looked forward to an easy dingy ride across since the snow meant more melt water and no foot crossing of the river. I stuffed my face with food and drink at the near side of the crossing, then enjoyed the 30 seconds of sitting down in the dingy while thanking the volunteers profusely for their help - I was so genuinely grateful that they were taking me 200ft closer to the finish without me having to do anything.

I'd had my race number on an elastic belt, which had snapped many miles before so was carrying the number in my hand instead. Therefore I almost went through the far side aid station unnoticed. I think almost everyone has a pacer by this point so when they saw me on my own they must have assumed I was someone else's pacer, just waiting around. I told them my race number so they could check me in and out and I had to repeat it several times since my neutral English accent seems to be impenetrable to most Americans. This became very wearing when I had to do it at the start and end of every single aid station. I spoke as clearly as possible and enunciated very clearly but only about once did people understand me on the first time that I said my number was 'four-zero-seven' (that number is firmly etched on my memory now). Obviously I'm thankful for the volunteers giving up their time but the officiousness of many of them plus the need to constantly repeat my number is not ideal when I was very tired and feeling like death.

I was out the aid station as quickly as possible and hiking up the trail towards Green Gate and Amy. Almost immediately I passed Hal Koerner, the winner of the previous two races, who was walking uphill slowly with a slight limp. He said he'd had some injuries coming into the race but it was a shame to see him drop.
Over the 1.7 mile climb to where I'd see Amy again (I really needed a familiar face), I somehow gained five positions to get into 9th. I didn't know that at the time and this was partly because a couple of those positions were due to people dropping. I think the food and drink from the last few aid stations was paying off, plus there was more shade. I came back into the more conscious world and was through the worst of the day, although I couldn't be certain at that point. Amy perked me up although she'd left the timing chip in the car as she didn't realise I'd take it off when changing my socks and shoes. At least my mind was put at rest because she said she'd give it back at the Highway 49 Crossing aid station at 93.5 miles, the last time I'd see her before the finish.

I'd planned to pick up my headlamp here but forgot. That meant I had to get to Highway 49 by 9pm when the twilight would have turned to pitch black. 2h30m for 13.7 miles, which looked like being tight, especially with at least one nasty climb left before 93.5 miles.

The next aid station was 5.4 miles away but I had a second wind and was able to run well over the undulating forest trails. The shade really helped and made me feel almost fine again. Either I was more screwed up than I realised or that 5.4 miles is actually a lot longer because I was running really smoothly yet supposedly averaged over 11 minute miles. I'm pretty sure I was only going that slow on the uphills and that I was going much quicker most of the time. Anyway, this section was enjoyable again and I had the new motivator that if I didn't get to Amy before dark then I'd be forced to walk slowly until I got my lights and that could force me to be out a lot longer.

Then there was a real gem of a boost for me at Auburn Lake Trails aid station at 85.2 miles. As I came into the station a volunteer jogged with me and acted just like I needed. He said all the right things and was really focused on getting me through the station fast (more so than I was). Also, he had a disposable hand flashlight which I could take. This was such a surprise that I was taken aback and it gave me piece of mind to know that I'd be ok even if it got dark before I reached Amy...not that it'd allow me to slow down.

All of the miles from 80-90 went by fast with one more position gained and there was still light as I started the climb up to the Highway 49 Crossing. I ran when I could, which was a big improvement on earlier climbs and I got there at 9:02, just a few minutes after darkness and 16 hours into the race.

I still didn't know what position I was in but hoped it was at least top 10, so I asked and was happy to find out it was 8th. Amy gave me the chip but I didn't even take any food or drink from her, just from the aid station. I'd not eaten much in the past couple of hours because the sugary gels and treats were just becoming sickly. That wasn't due to stomach issues, just the fact that I'd eaten about half my weight in sugar so far that day and probably wouldn't have any teeth left by the end. They weighed me at around 150 pounds, so I'd maintained around my starting weight of 149. I think the highest was around 151 at Foresthill, so I probably had taken on the water previously to that and not absorbed it, leading to my horrible 16 miles.

I didn't even take the headlamp from Amy but just kept the hand-held one I'd been given. Only 6.7 miles to go but I was going to make sure I'd jog and get through it. I don't like night running much, usually because it only happens when I've been running all day and am too tired to focus well. But the circle of light in front of me was mesmerising and I kept putting one foot in front of the other. Time lost any meaning and I'd sometimes look at my watch to find 20 minutes had flown by and sometimes that two minutes had crawled by. It was also difficult to know if I was going up or down unless it was steep, which was a weird experience.

Would I get to the finish and break down with emotion? Would I collapse from exhaustion? I really didn't know, but just kept staring hard at the track and looking for every piece of yellow surveyor's tape and the infrequent glow-sticks. I rarely got lost during the whole day but have to admit that the course markings weren't always frequent enough. I liked the Eco Trail de Paris 80km race where you could always see a piece of surveyor's tape. At WS, I'd sometimes go minutes worrying that I'd missed a turn or a fork, especially at night. Even in the light much earlier on there were at least a couple of turns that weren't marked and where I stopped, looked around with another runner and found no markings within sight. At these points I chose the likeliest looking turn but often didn't see tape again for a couple of minutes. It's only a small issue and most of the trail was well marked, but I expected more from this race, especially for a $300 entry fee.

The last aid stations at No Hands Bridge and Robie Point were in a party mood and seemed surprised to see me with no pacer (well, I've never needed one before). I didn't spend much time at them as I wanted to finish and get the ordeal over with, although I was feeling generally ok.

Even over those last 6.7 miles there's plenty of up and down and the last 3.4 miles from No Hands Bridge (which was beautifully lit up with outdoor Christmas-style lights) is virtually all uphill. All I could see outside of my circle of light was the full moon, which provided no helpful light on the tree-covered paths. At any other time it would have been a stunning stroll, but I still couldn't fully appreciate the scenery. Then I saw two lights in the distance behind me, probably five minutes back. I certainly wasn't going to let anyone catch me now so I sped up and powered on to the road into Auburn, wanting to avoid a sprinting race for position. People were sat outside their houses cheering, although many only cheered after I passed and they realised I was in the race and not just some strange guy jogging on his own at 10:20pm (the lack of pacer again made me look like I wasn't in the race).

Finally I entered the track at Placer High School and ran a solid victory lap into the finish for 17h26m19s. It was great to finish, really relieving. There wasn't euphoria, just exhaustion, but I shook the race director's hand and refused the chair as I wanted to walk around to keep the blood moving and avoid stiffening up immediately. Well, I avoided the stiffening for a few minutes anyway.

What was my impression from my first 100 miler? Well, I have more respect for those who are out for longer than me. No matter how slow you go, it's a hard, hard slog. And the slower you go, the longer you have to suck it up.

WS was great but also disappointing in some ways. The course is spectacular and a real challenge, plus it's generally organised very well. And if you want a race against the best trail ultra runners in the world, it's the place to go. But running 100 miles is a lot less fun than running 50 for me. Plus I can actually run 50 rather than walking or shuffling and I prefer running.

At 63 miles in and for the remainder of the day, I was convinced I'd never return and that I wouldn't use the automatic entry from getting top 10. I've never finished a race and sworn to never do it again, but I did say that immediately after the finish...before changing my mind 30 minutes later. I know for certain that I don't want to do Badwater or any longer races, but I've already entered Rocky Raccoon 100 in February and would like to have a shot at the course record of 13h16m (at least that's all running). UTMB in 2011 is not a certainty, but I'm coming round to it now. And although I didn't enjoy much of the day, it is VERY satisfying to finish and good to know that I didn't cave in when it got tough, even when I stopped caring about the race.

I think I learned a few things out there on the trails and I definitely pushed myself in a new and interesting way. 8th wasn't bad for a first attempt, although the time and place were worse than I'd hoped for. One thing I'll definitely not do wrong again is getting lazy with taking my hydropack off and not putting Nuun tablets in. I'd also want to do more mountain training and heat training for WS for next year. UTMB would probably be more fun since the only issue I had was heat/hydration related and it's definitely not as hot there. But I couldn't get away with the lack of uphill training that I had this year.

WS won't overtake Comrades as my focus and 2011 will definitely be all about nailing Comrades with a gold. But a month later I'll be lining up in Squaw Valley like a drug addict waiting for his fix. Besides, I have to check out the normal course after doing a snow year.

Ultras have inspired me and driven me for the past five years and now I can branch out into 100s as well. Not exclusively, but I'm definitely up for throwing in a couple of them each year.

Congratulations to all the finishers and especially to Geoff Roes for smashing the course record by 29 minutes, finishing in a mighty 15h07m. Anton Krupicka led most of the way with Kilian Journet but they finished in 15:13 and 16:04, respectively, after Killian dropped off the pace with 20 miles to go. Mind you, if he'd not run 1,000km across the Pyrenees three weeks earlier then he would have been a bit fresher and maybe the heat got him too. Those three ran really impressively, but there was plenty of hot competition behind them too. And fellow Brit (now Colorado-based), Nick Clark, almost pipped Kilian for 3rd with a sprint over the last couple of miles and a time of 16:05. Not bad to have five of the top 10 (those four plus me) doing their first WS.


  1. Ian,

    Great report. Enjoyed reading this - super honest and open. Thanks.

  2. Congratulations on a superb run Ian.

    Thanks for the report. You described it really well.

    All the best for your next challenge.

    John Kynaston

  3. Ian firstly phenomenal performance at Comrades. Truly. I really hope you break the 6 hour mark next year and get gold to boot.

    As a first time over 100 miles that is an incredible effort. I know that you will probably be a little dissapointed with the time and the last third but that is where 100 mile races are such a massive step up. Ive only run two but my final third times in each have been a DISASTER. To place top 10 against that field is out of this world and its great to have a fellow brit up there doing the business.

    Its actually quite frightening what you could go on to achieve in this sport and your passion for it seems to continue to grow rather than diminish.

    Im off to Badwater with James in a couple of weeks, then UTMB. Ill be at Rocky Raccoon in Feb so will be in touch.

    All the best with the upcoming rest day ;)....


  4. Hi Ian

    Well done on both the 8th place and the excellent race report. I haven't run the Western States, but UTMB is an absolutely awesome event, as I raced it last year. You wont find any faults there, as the organisation at UTMB is superb!

    Maybe you should target UTMB next year. With your performance at WS you could well be right up the very top end of the field.

    All the best with your recovery. Have you got an ultra or only a marathon next weekend?


  5. I've done the Mt Blanc marathon and also heard a lot of good stuff about UTMB so it's definitely a must do. But I'm happy with my first effort at 100 miles since it went relatively closely to plan and I learned a lot. Should help for next time. See you all at races somewhere in the world.

  6. Ian, thanks for that honest, objective and detailed review of that race (you could even call that a "critical review").

    Given your race history and your own (usually accurate) predictions about your race performance I was not really surprised to see you in the top ten but this is an incredible performance nevertheless. In particular since you had to dig deep for this.

    Although I am not in your performance category I felt similar about "shorter" races (Marathons, 50 milers). I cannot say they are "easier" but much more predictable and reproducible. But I think here lies the actual attraction of a 100 miler. The challenge. A 100k race is so much more under your control. Is it not? And following your own brainstorm of that race it appears that you have changed your mind about that (or any other 100 miler). First you were annoyed about the fact about "losing control" (after 60 miles). But later your (reluctantly?) accepted(?) the challenge and finally enjoyed it? I hope so!

  7. It was critical, but I always am (I've just been lucky to find so many excellent races and this one just had a few rough edges but is still brilliant). I actually think shorter distances are harder and 5k is my least favourite distance. If you lose 15 seconds on that or go off at the wrong pace, your race will be off what it should. Ultras are easier to pace, in that you just stay comfortable as long as possible. But with stuff taking half a day or more a lot more things can go wrong with the body, so management of that is the main challenge.

    I can pace a 50 miler better since I've done enough to have a good idea where my edge is, but 100s are new to me, so it'll probably take a few to find the limit which allows me to run well through the whole event. It's a fun challenge and opens up a whole load of great events around the world to me, so I'm glad that it didn't put me off 100s.

  8. Congrats on the great finish. I wasn't surprised to see you in the top-ten either!

  9. Ian, 100s aren't just a longer ultra...they're an entirely different sport! As you found out in the last 1/3, shit happens. Maybe it was the heat and lack of electrolytes this time, maybe it will be your legs next time. But there will always be something (usually multiple somethings) in 100s that don't go as planned. The races are just too long for stuff not to happen, and it's how you respond when the unplanned happens that will usually dictate your race outcome. You responded perfectly on the way to the river. Your 3 points about why you should keep going were great impromptu motivators (that's usually what most people use a pacer for). A 2:45ish from FH to the river is right on par for runners in the 17 hour range. It seems like you should be able to run faster, but you've already been running for 100 km (I know you said you felt great at FH, but 100 km is still 100 km), it's the heat of the day, and there's a lot of up on the way down. You kept your shit together in that section, slowed down a little, but that's just what you had to do to get right again. That's the overcoming adversity part of 100s.

    To just say that you're going to average 10s for the entire race, especially without ever having run the distance and without knowing the course, is a very lofty goal, despite your success at Comrades and other races. And I'll be damned if you weren't close to it! I know you had that goal and didn't think it to be lofty, but trust me Ian, it is very lofty. So don't be hard on yourself for your finishing time.

    You definitely had me laughing when you had swore off 100s. That's easily the most common thing ultrarunners do during 100s...and then we're stupid and have short-term memory loss, forget about the pain and are usually planning our next one a day or two later.

    As for Rocky in Feb...not sure if you're aware, but Clifton's 13:16 performance there is a world record for 100 miles on trails. Just something to think about in the middle of lap 4 when you're starting to feel it!

    Congratulations on an excellent WS debut run, Ian! Very impressive!