Sunday, 27 June 2010

Western States Endurance Run - The first 62 miles

One minute to kick off.

Time for the first long hike of the day.

Sunrise over Lake Tahoe.

Near the top of Emigrant's Pass at four miles.

Desert hat in the snow.

Just a scrape, luckily.

The lake on the snow route.

Around Duncan's Canyon at 25ish miles.

Over halfway at Michigan Bluff aid station.

Compression socks for the last 38.2 miles.

Finally - the big one. Western States had been on my 'must do' list for a few years but it still seems like it sneaked up on me before I was ready.

The original and most prestigious 100-miler (100.2 miles, according to the organisers) hit its 37th running in 2010. I think it was Dean Karnazes' book, 'Ultramarathon Man' where I first heard about it and he certainly made it sound appealing if you're of the right frame of mind. It seems like the logical next step for an ultrarunner to take on a 100-miler after stuff up to 100k, so I knew I'd do it at some point.

But this isn't an easy race to get into. To give an idea, there were something like 1,700 entrants into the lottery (every respectable race has one these days...except Comrades) for around 350 places. There were other routes to get in, but these can basically be summarised as elite entries and old guys who started the race. To get those elite places, you either need to come in the top two men or women (you can't choose which, unfortunately) in some select races in the Montrail Ultra Cup or be top 10 from the previous Western States.

Over the years, the history and reputation of the race has only increased and it always attracts a very strong field. This year there were probably 20 men and 20 women who would be favourites for most trail ultras if they showed up normally. But when put together it makes for a great, highly competitive race which is very hard to call. I won't go into the main contenders as I briefly mentioned them in my last posting, plus there's plenty of chatter on the internet about them already. However, this year's men's field was almost certainly the best ever and probably the most elite set of (trail) ultra runners ever assembled. So I wasn't even on most people's radar...which was kind of pleasant. It meant nothing was expected of me, but also that unless I did well, I'd still be off everyone's radar.

Getting back to the actual race, it starts in Squaw Valley, a few miles from Lake Tahoe and at an altitude of 6,250ft, and goes through California's Sierra Nevada mountains to Auburn, at 1,280ft. Although there are certainly steeper races, it still has 18,040ft of climbing and 21,970ft of descent (yes, I know that doesn't add up, but it's what the website says). It is particularly known for the heat and temperatures in the gorges can hit dizzying levels - well in excess of 100F.

I won't go into too much detail about the history, but it started originally when Gordon Ainsleigh turned up to the 100 mile Tevis Cup Trail Ride in 1974 without a horse and said he'd run it instead. Completing it in just under 24 hours, he set the standard for the whole 100 mile running craze so now many races offer special belt buckles for finishes in less than a day. The silver 24 hour Western States buckle is one of the most prized targets for ultrarunners, although as long as you finish in under the final cut-off of 30 hours, you still get a bronze buckle.

I'd digested all the mystique of the race over the past few years and when I arrived in Tahoe a week before the race to acclimatise, I was more excited and nervous than I've been since I did my first ultra at London to Brighton. As I mentioned in my last posting, this sheen had worn off in the few days before the race due to the race taking itself too seriously. I stated that I thought the race was overhyped and took itself too seriously for what is essentially an amateur sport (no prize money at WS, although this year there was a $2,000 incentive for a new course record announced about a day before the race).

I hoped that the race would live up to its billing. So does it? Well, it definitely didn't disappoint by being too easy. But it wasn't quite as polished as I'd expect from such a prestigious event, as I'll explain below.

After a weigh-in and general registration on the Friday, I turned up around 4am on race Saturday for the race bib collection. Amy would be my only crew and I owe her massively for putting up with a week's holiday just for this race and for one of the longest days of both of our lives. Mind you, a holiday at Lake Tahoe isn't too much of a chore...

Sunrise was due around 5:30am and the race started at 5am. There was a huge amount of nervous energy buzzing around the runners and their families and friends, especially the newbies to the race. Although there were 24 aid stations along the course, most weren't accessible to supporters and crews since it goes through very remote areas.
Amy would be following the organiser's suggested path, especially as she's on her own and didn't want to get lost or have to do too much hiking to aid stations. That meant just seeing me at Robinson Flat (29.7 miles), Michigan Bluff (55.7 miles), Foresthill (62.0 miles), Green Gate (79.8 miles), Highway 49 Crossing (93.5 miles) and the finish at Placer High School (100.2 miles). The gaps between seeing her would be huge, with the first time being well over four hours in. And if things went to hell, she could be waiting a long time at each aid station. Obviously we went through the logistics before and set estimated parameters of when I'd get to each point.

Although it was my first proper 100 miler (Rocky Raccoon on an injury as a planned training run for this doesn't count as I shouldn't have even started that race), I saw no reason why I couldn't finish near the front if I ran a conservative race and so vaguely aimed for 16h40m, or 10 minute miling. Last year that would have been 2nd, but in this year's field I expected it to be more like top five (and I would have been spot on - that time would have been 5th).

I knew that my Comrades time included a 5:24 50 miles to finish the race over hills bigger than the faster US trail 50 milers, so that should make fast 100 mile times possible as long as the climbs don't waste me. I'd not done enough hill training, especially compared to the mountain-dwelling top guys although the hilly Miwok 100k felt good as a training jog, but WS is known for being very runnable so I had a sensible plan to jog through the harder first 62 miles then speed up a bit over the last 38 miles which were over easier terrain. Fellow Bend resident (while I lived there) and 100-mile specialist, Jeff Browning, gave me that useful tip and I think it's excellent advice as long as you're well enough trained for endurance.

This target probably sounds very cocky to any ultra veterans for someone doing their first 100, but I had enough results recently to have confidence that I could keep to that pace easily for the first 100k and the course kind of gets easier after that. I expected it to be the hardest race of my life, although in a very different way to Comrades, which was an all-out speed-fest. It would be more of a grind than keeping a high intensity level for a long period, but most of my recent ultras have been negative splits so it was worth a go.


Back to the pre-dawn darkness and I eventually lined up with the other runners as the clock ticked down to zero hour. I was stood next to the super-fast mountain lunatic Spaniard, Kilian Journet, who most people didn't seem to recognise. So I took a few photos and set my camera to take a video of the start. I had two watches on due to the Garmin battery only being good for around 10 hours, but I still wanted it to give me altitude readings through the mountains and canyons. As the gun went off, I tried to simultaneously hold my camera up and start both watches, but only managed to trip over some safety cones around the start line and start both watches late as I fumbled in the darkness to find the correct settings over the first quarter of a mile.

The camera was a useful pacing tool, forcing me to ignore the leaders and start off very gently, taking photos all the way up the four mile, 2,500ft climb to Emigrant's Pass at 8,750ft. I'm glad I took it easy, both to avoid wasting energy so early in the race and to enjoy the views as the sun rose over Lake Tahoe and the mist in Squaw Valley. Never before in a race have I planned to walk within a quarter of a mile, but it's a steep start and climbs are definitely my weakness so I power walked most of that climb, getting through quicker than I'd hoped and reaching the top in 53 minutes.

This year the course had been altered from miles nine to 23 due to heavy snow over that section of the course making it impossible to get the Lyons Ridge and Red Star Ridge aid stations in. Instead, we followed a lower course along a lake but still the same distance. This section was supposedly much easier and faster, but this was counteracted by around nine miles of snow-covered trails which would normally have been faster and easier. I'd done a total of 30 minutes of snow training in the preceding months and slipped around a lot, enjoying the camber about as much as I enjoyed running on the soft sand dunes at the Marathon des Sables. Admittedly, the snow did give better scenery and it was spectacular to see the forests and mountains when I was able to look up without sliding around.

About five miles in I tried to pass someone and slid down on to rocks and ice to knock my left knee and graze it. Not the ideal start but it uninjured apart from the cut so I hoped it wouldn't become a throbbing pain after another 95 miles (it didn't). However, it did look relatively hardcore when I ran into the next aid station with blood streaming down my leg thanks to my heart pumping harder as I ran.

After the first snow section we went below 7,000ft and it became very easy to run. Almost too easy and I had to hold myself back from running comfy six minute miles downhill as that would have been a bad idea. I was chatting to Devon Crosby-Helms on this relaxing downhill, one of the women's favourites, and let her speed off at around 6:15s thinking she would regret that pace later (she did drop around halfway so maybe that came back to bite her).

Soon I'd got well into the race and was leaving the pretty, snow-course lake views (not sure what lake it was) to climb up to Duncan Canyon aid station and get back on the normal course at 23.8 miles in 3h38m. At this point I was way back in the field, in 36th, but was dead on my planned splits and felt very good. On the climb up I passed a few people and kept to my other major tactic at the aid station - to eat and drink plenty by taking my time.

The day was heating up but was still cool enough for me to keep my gloves on. There were several stream crossings, including one with a rope to stop people being swept away. The race is known for the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River at 78 miles which involves a rope but I hadn't expected so many times where my feet (and up to the knee) would get wet - there were maybe 10 of these. I'd guess there was more water flowing than usual due to the late snow melt and this was very obvious in the waterfalls around Lake Tahoe, especially Eagle Falls which I visited in the preceding week.

There was a decent climb up to the first major aid station for supporters at Robinson Flat at 29.7 miles and we got into the snow again. Many of the aid station during the day had medics and scales to make sure anyone with hydration or salt-related issues (in particular) could be helped or even pulled from the race. I think this aid station was about the 2nd time I was weighed, but all was fine since I was still spot on 149 pounds like when I started. A gain (too much drinking or lack of absorption of liquids) or loss (the opposite) of more than 3% would get them worried and potentially hold me back until I got back to somewhere close to normal again.

As I popped out the aid station, Amy was waiting for me with a change of T-shirt (pointless in hindsight since the new one was wet by the next aid station as I threw water over myself to keep cool) and to take the camera plus my excess clothing from the colder and higher early section. She gave me more gels and food then I got going again. I thought it was a downhill straight after Robinson so was annoyed to find it kept climbing for a mile (note to self: I really should memorise the course profile better in future). That meant it stayed snow-packed until the course eventually went down again and gave great views into the lower sections of the Tahoe Forest.

As I wouldn't see Amy again until 55.7 miles, I suspected I'd be less fresh and perky so I'd told her not to worry if I looked rough, especially as the hardest part of the course is the oven caused by the canyons from Last Chance aid station at 43.3 miles to Foresthill at 62.0 miles. But from around 31 miles to Last Chance is mainly downhill and easy, wider trails. I was cruising and enjoying the chance to go a little quicker without expending much energy at all. I even saw Sean Meissner (another Bend area ultrarunner) who was there to pace a female Montrail team mate of his and it was encouraging to have him tell me I was looking strong. However, if my forced slow pace and mere 38 miles of running had tired me out, I hate to think how long I'd have been out for.

I was making sure I stayed on top of hydration and took Nuun tablets with all my water in my backpack. So much so that I gained a little weight and had a high of around 150.5 pounds as I went through the canyons. First was the steepest, with a long, zig-zagging path down then a sharp, 1,500ft climb up Devil's Thumb. I had a good power walk going and passed a few people to get to 17th by the aid station there at 47.8 miles, not feeling the heat at all.

A brief mile later and I went down an even longer drop to Eldorado Creek at 52.9 miles, which I'd heard is the point where a lot of people drop due to the heat and the nasty 1,800ft climb to the next aid station. I was 88F on the thermometer in the shaded aid station but I still felt absolutely fine. No issues from tired/sore legs, no problems with the heat and no problems with hydration or my salt balance and I'd got past half way, so all looked rosy. But, I've done plenty of races that long, hot or steep so I hadn't yet reached the unknown of distance and time where I couldn't be sure how my body would react.

The climb to Michigan Bluff was longer and higher but less steep than the one to Devil's Thumb so I was able to jog sections of it and get myself to the next point where I'd see Amy. After 9h17m she got to see me for the second time, after some driving time but mainly a lot of waiting round (I knew there was a reason I'm marrying her). I got more supplies and filled myself up at the aid station on food and drink, trying to get as variety of food to cover as many vitamins and salts as possible.

Then I jogged off to go through the last, smaller, canyon and back up to Foresthill at 62.0 miles. Again, I was happy to feel completely fine and to get to see Amy again relatively soon. I was weighed in then stocked up before doing my one change of socks and shoes. Since the harder, slippery and wet trails were behind me, I opted for road shoes and knee-high compression socks. These would hopefully keep my calves feeling better as well as protecting me from the poison oak in the last 20 miles of the race.

After a mile of running I realised that I'd taken off my timing chip when changing my kit but forgotten to put it back on. Amy would probably have driven off and I didn't want to run back up the road anyway. Instead I decided not to stress about it and to make sure I informed every aid station as I went through. I'd see Amy again in 18 miles and even if she didn't have it then, she could give it back to me at 93.5 miles so I'd have it at the end. It seemed to be ok as there weren't any timing mats and this proved to be the case - the only timing mat was at the finish. Yet, I couldn't help worrying slightly that I'd be disqualified or that people wouldn't believe that I'd not cheated. Not much I could do except keep running, so that what I did. Besides, I soon had a lot more to worry about, but I'll have to put that in a separate post as I need a rest.