Monday, 27 June 2011

The Big Dance - Western States 2011

Eagle Falls at Lake Tahoe (not visible from the course at all)

Snow route course change

The last few days have been crazy for so many reasons. Doing a quick brain dump, some big highlights were:

1. a ski village with virtually every ultra celeb you can think of (almost surreal to walk around)
2. grown men dressed as Slash (Greg Lanctot) and the devil (Scott Dunlap)
3. seeing Tahoe again in perfect summer weather with family and friends
4. being part of an insanely competitive race
5. having flat-feeling legs but still giving the race a 100% effort (it is WS, after all)
6. spending all day trying to earn my spot for 2012 then finally breaking into the top 10 at 96 miles
7. bears upsetting the leading ladies in the last few miles

I don't think there's ever been a stronger ultra field put together (maybe TNF's 50 mile Championship Final last December). The sport is clearly moving onwards and upwards and it's great when this means more exciting races for both the runners and anyone crewing/spectating/pacing etc.

The build up days were fairly relaxed but there was clearly a lot of pressure on several of the top runners to win. Then the race started before the dawn at 5am on Saturday and it wasn't quite as fast paced as last year (nerves?). The snow was deeper and covered more of the course than even last year so we were running the C course (a variation on last year's B snow course). Conditions were cooler than normal with a high of maybe 90 degrees F in the second half but the snow was still icy and treacherous higher up. I heard that three people broke a leg on the snow, so I hope there wasn't anything too serious.

I slid all around in the high country and was glad to get temporarily out of it around mile 13. It was undoubtedly beautiful but this was lost on me as I tried to avoid twisting an ankle or breaking my wrist (note to self: practice this more since it should be fun). Then the course had some seriously easy terrain on a fire road where it was perfect for cruising at a decent pace. Duncan Canyon aid station came along at 23.8 miles and Quicksilver Running Club gave everyone a boost, including Slash and other costumes. Almost a quarter of the way through and everyone looked great, but I heard snippets from other runners that the leaders had had some wrong turns. I think Geoff Roes and Kilian Journet went off on a 15 minute diversion in the snow and some of the other leaders then did the same with Mike Wolfe and Dave Mackey doing something similar too. I gather that this left several people pissed off at the not always perfect course markings.

I was around 20th and felt like things were going well without having to push too much but that first section has to feel really easy. Soon after I started to feel much less positive and even the relatively slow 100 mile pace was tough. My legs had no energy and it was similar to Comrades a month earlier where I held the right pace for about 20 miles then the legs showed the lack of strength due to too much racing.

From 30-40 miles I was struggling and was seriously considering dropping out. I was still keeping up a decent pace and gaining positions but my legs were fairly trashed before hitting the three canyons which didn't bode well. I had the chance to run with so many excellent athletes up to this point and enjoyed chatting but kept thinking that this was not going to be a good day. Then I saw Geoff Roes at an aid station and he was hitting a really bad patch at the same time as me. I thought he was dropping but then he was running behind me and we managed a few miles together, both feeling a little sorry for ourselves. It seems the overtraining (over racing, really) that got me at Comrades hadn't disappeared fully, but it's still just about possible to run well in that situation, just not at your best.

It's a real shame to see such a great runner on an off day but when we ran down into the Devil's Thumb Canyon I could tell that he was much worse off than me. I was just flat and fatigued, while he had sore thighs and was fighting a cold. I hiked up the other side with Geoff and Sean Pope but suspected Geoff's day was over given he was hiking slower than me (it was a hard climb but the sort of thing he'd usually be able to run). I later learned that he dropped at just over halfway, but it was a pleasure to get to meet him and nobody's immune from illness hitting before a big race. I can see why he still chose to start since who wants to miss this race?

By this point I'd decided to give it my best shot and get everything out of my legs that I could. This race is not worth a tactical DNF and I was definitely capable of finishing so mentally switched gear and prepared myself to grind out the second 50.

The snow meant that the first time anyone could see their crew was Michigan Bluff at 55.7 miles so I got a boost from seeing Amy and her parents. Paul Terranova would be at Foresthill at 62.0 miles to pace me again as he did at Rocky Raccoon so I had that to look forward to as well. Unfortunately I took a wrong turn and missed Volcano Canyon, running off the wrong way for 3/4 of a mile before I accepted that there wouldn't be any course markings suddenly appearing and I had to turn back. I lost about 12 minutes and mentally was knocked off my perch, but ran the last canyon hard to reach Foresthill feeling good and faster than last year in 15th.

Paul and I ran strongly down towards the river and this section wasn't nearly as hot as last year, making it much more comfortable. I felt like I was going fast but really it was the tired legs exaggerating things. Then I saw Hal Koerner sat at the side who had to drop with trashed thighs. That meant two big guns out but still plenty of talent left in the race. We gradually caught a few people and passed a Japanese guy who I initially thought was a woman from behind from the way he was dressed (if you were there you know who I mean, but I can hardly talk about odd running costumes) and a Korean guy who I'd heard has the Massanutten 100 record as well as a 3rd place at WS a few years ago. Both these guys let me pass and I thought were out of it but then zoomed past me minutes later.

We raced down to the river and Paul and I managed to get enough of a gap that they couldn't see us so we had a boat to ourselves at 78 miles to cross the American River. This was the second year in a row of the water being so high that boats were required but one day I'll get to cross it myself on foot.

From this point Paul and I were in 100% race mode since I was 11th and top 10 is the big aim which gets the guaranteed entry for the next year. I expected someone to drop after the river (last year I was gifted about four places there) but nobody in the top 10 did, so I had to chase them down if I wanted it. I did!

At the start of the day I wouldn't have been happy with the prospect of 10th but I still had a chance at a very respectable time which would be much faster than I ran in 2010 and sometimes you have to adjust your targets mid-race.

I had a slight issue with running out of water for a mile leading up to Green Gate at 79.9 miles but soon got over it and seeing my crew helped boost me along. By this point you expect your legs to feel sore but I hadn't deteriorated as much as I'd feared earlier so felt like I was hammering along at a crazy pace when it was really much slower than when I'd been cruising earlier. The aid stations didn't quite fly by but I kept up a solid effort and just focused on getting to the next one.

At Auburn Lake Trails Paul checked how far ahead 10th place was and it was an eight minute gap with exactly 15 miles left. By Highway 49 at 93.5 miles it was a three minute gap and I got a final boost from seeing Amy so headed off in hot pursuit. After spending the previous five or so hours just focusing on catching the top 10, I was going for bust and nothing short of catching him would be enough. I didn't know who it was but I hoped I could go past strongly, put on some distance then tackle the last few miles uphill in the dark.

I don't think I've ever gone that hard for so long in a race and it was completely exhausting. My breathing made me sound like I was giving birth and I was dancing a fine line between staying mentally alert and bonking by taking on regular gels.

There's something intensely satisfying about racing and pushing yourself as far as you can but it's not necessarily fun at the time, especially if you fail at your goal, whatever it may be. That's why I couldn't let the hard day's work go to waste.

I know it's possible to have much more fun while also running as hard as you can, especially on beautiful trails in canyons, but this time it was just a pain fest. I'm really feeling it today and have never been this bad after a race before.

However, the day turned into a big success for me when I overtook Dan Olmstead with a little over four miles to go, charging downhill in the approaching darkness as if it was a 10k. The hard work wasn't over and I was paranoid about being caught all the way to the finish where I hit the Placer High School track just as AJW was finishing in 9th (in a huge PR of 16:39). I virtually collapsed and was a basket case but 16:40 and 10th was enough to make it all worthwhile.

I was never really in the proper race for the top positions and that was hard to take early on in the race but once I decided to see what I could do on tired legs, it became every bit as exciting (and stressful) as running for the win. The men's race was extremely close with four men under 16 hours and 14 under 17 hours. It sounds like a classic and eventually finished off with Kilian being the worthy winner but hotly followed by a several guys on top form.

1. Kilian Journet (Salomon) 15:34
2. Mike Wolfe (The North Face) 15:38
3. Nick Clark (Pearl Izumi) 15:50
4. Jez Bragg (The North Face) 15:55
5. Tsoyushi Kaburaki (The North Face) 16:04 (50 minutes off his own 40+ masters' record)
6. Tim Olson (Pearl Izumi) 16:18
7. Graham Cooper (??) 16:34
8. Dave Mackey (Hoka One One) 16:36
9. Andy Jones-Wilkins (Patagonia) 16:39
10. Ian Sharman (The North Face) 16:40

Damn that wrong turn! Full results here.

The ladies' race was equally thrilling and we'd hear updates at the finish as they passed the last aid stations. It seems the lead changed a few times in the second half but Ellie Greenwood flew through to take the win in her first 100 miler and is only the second lady to break 18 hours (the other is Ann Trason and I keep telling Ellie she needs to take down some of Ann's records...I'm sure it's just a matter of time).

There was a bear (supposedly with cubs) in the last few miles which held the lead women up. It seems that Ellie stopped briefly, then a male runner came along and they chased the bear off. The next ladies (Kami Semick, then Nikki Kimball and Tracy Garneau) had a concertina effect as they each got stopped by the bear for several minutes. Then Kami narrowly beat Nikki in a sprint finish on the track. I'm sure other blogs will tell the story more accurately.

The top ladies were:

1. Ellie Greenwood (Montrail) 17:55
2. Kami Semick (The North Face) 18:17
3. Nikki Kimball (The North Face) 18:17
4. Tracy Garneau (The North Face) 18:22
5. Rory Bosio (The North Face) 18:37
6. Aliza Lapierre (Salomon) 18:45
7. Megan Arbogast (Sunsweet) 18:50 (3 hours off the 50+ masters' record)
8. Amy Sproston (Montrail) 19:36
9. Becky Wheeler (??) 19:46
10. Pam Smith (unsponsored, but not for long) 20:40

Great day for The North Face as well as for Brits with Nick C, Jez, Ellie and myself up there. And I'm 99% certain that the top five men will all be at UTMB in August, as will Geoff and plenty of other fast guys. I think the women will mainly be skipping it in favor of the 100k Road World Championships in September in the Netherlands.

WS 2011 was something very special to be part of and I'm very glad I didn't opt to drop. Friends from the UK also came over to run and most finished. In particular, James Elson kicked off his Grand Slam (WS 100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100 in the same year) with a 28:25. Not as fast as he'd hoped originally but after being completely injured from Rocky Raccoon in February he's barely put together a couple of days of running and told me last week that he can't really run downhill. I have no idea how he forced himself through the course but I'm seriously impressed. Two whole weeks of recovery then he'll be on the Vermont starting line.

Time for a rest and a couple of weeks completely off.


  1. Ian, awesome race once again and an excellent write up. I never understand how you guys can run so hard on sore, tired and trashed bodies. Impressive. I guess this is what makes a true ultra runner!? This years race was always going to be a classic and it didn't disappoint. 16:40 on an off day is soooo impressive and lets face it, those top 10 finishing times are pretty darn close. Brilliant.

  2. Congratulations on gutting out the 10th place finish. Your reports are always such a pleasure to read, Ian, and this one really stands out among the rest. Speaking of rest, please treat yourself to plenty of it in the days/weeks ahead.

  3. An awesome effort in those miles of second half, Ian.

  4. I've still never run a race through the night (by design) so I can't get my head around all those runners who were out until dawn or later. I don't think any of the finishers had anything less than an epic day on the trails. And I love the fact that they didn't have enough silver buckles to go around :)

  5. Great race! Congrats on the 10th place finish and PR!

  6. Awesome report and way to be so resilient especially in the last stretch there. Enjoy some rest and I look forward to keeping up with your upcoming adventures. You have inspired me on the costumed racing front as well. Looks like a blast. Looking to sort out two outfits for my fall races.

  7. Way to hang in there despite the tired legs.

    Also, thanks for the thorough account of the race.

  8. Great day for you and The North Face. Sorry you couldn't hang out long for my guitar solo at Duncan Canyon.

    Oh yah... Graham Cooper represents "The Olympic Club" in San Francisco.

    Have a good move up to Bend.

  9. Great stuff Ian, always admire your race IQ...congrats on the M10 and well earned spot next year.

    Good to see you and Amy again as well.


  10. Ian - sorry we didn't get a chance to connect this weekend, but just wanted to 'stop by' and congratulate you on another strong showing.

    Sounds from a previous comment like you're moving up to Bend. Enjoy your new environs, and get up in the hills ;-)

  11. Great race report Ian!

    Congratulations on getting the automatic qualifier for next year's WS!

  12. Looks like I need you as my manager - ha!

    Anyway, nice meeting you and congrats on a great race. So I guess this means we'll be seeing you in the Netherlands, then, huh?

  13. That's what M10 is all about, Ian. Nice job!