Tuesday 3 July 2012

How to train for...Western States 100

This posting continues my irregular articles with tips on how to train for various major world ultras which I've personally run several times. I've been top 10 at Western States nine times (having run two different snow routes and the official course too), with a best time of 15:47. I've also completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning which involves four 100-milers in the same summer, starting with Western States.

So I now feel that I've learned enough about the race to be able to give a few useful pointers for anyone planning on running this iconic event. There are things I've learnt along the way that you may find helpful, as have runners who I've coached for the event over the past decade. You can find out more about coaching here.

I'll include posts on other races over time and have already written about how to train for the Marathon des Sables, Flat 100 milers like Rocky Raccoon and Comrades.

What is it?

Western States Endurance Run (WS100 or WSER) in California from Squaw Valley to Auburn is the race that began the concept of 100-mile trail races. The history can be found here but in summary, there was a 100-mile horse race along the Western States trail that had a runner attempt the course in 1974. This captured people's imaginations and it became an event in itself as well as spawning other races to lead to 96 North American 100-milers at the time of writing, plus many others around the world. It's also part of the 'Grand Slam of Ultrarunning' which involves running four 100s over one summer - WS100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100.

For me, the thing that makes Western States so special is the history with a beautiful course through mountains and canyons. It's also incredibly competitive, increasingly so in recent years (in 2012 the time for 10th place overall would have won the race outright almost every other year!) which creates an atmosphere of everyone peaking and not using it as a training run, as can happen at many races. It has approximately 1,500 volunteers to cover almost 400 runners (and their pacers and crews), showing how the running community really gets behind the event.

The race is extremely difficult to get into due to an over-subscribed lottery. However, there are several races within the Montrail Ultracup that offer entry places for the top two men and women who don't already have a guaranteed entry, rolling down to third if required. The top 10 runners from the previous year are given guaranteed entries too. Foreign runners can also get into the race with special consideration given for anyone who could enhance the competitiveness of the event.

What's the race like?
  • 100.2 miles (161.2km) of trails with 22,970ft of descent and 18,090ft of ascent - generally a downhill course that trashes your legs
  • High point of 8,750ft at Emigrant Pass, four miles into the race
  • Fairly non-technical trails as mountain races go so even pure road runners shouldn't find anything too difficult in the footing
  • A real silver buckle for finishers under 24 hours
  • Strict 30 hour cut-off with intermediate cut-offs and a bronze buckle for finishing between 24 and 30 hours
  • Several canyons that can be extremely hot (100F+) in an average year, plus the possibility of snow and very cold conditions in the earlier, higher miles - see the profile below

  • Start is pre-dawn and the leaders just finish before it gets dark but most people run through the dark and the full night
  • Pacers allowed from Foresthill at 62.0 miles
  • Although there are several points to get your feet wet in streams earlier in the race, the main dunking is at the American River crossing at 78.1 miles, although in high water years rafts take the runners and pacers over the water
  • Finish on Placer High School track 
The finish at Placer High track.

How on Earth do you start training for that?
  • This isn't a road race and will be difficult to train for if you can't get into the hills and run a lot on trails
  • The two factors that cause the most issues are the heat and the pounding from the downhills, so these are both things that should be trained for, even though you may get a colder year like 2012:
    • Heat training can include sitting or any sort of exercise in a sauna, ideally from about 2-3 weeks out (most of the heat adaptations occur within about two weeks) but not too close to the race as this is exhausting and draining on the body
    • Long downhills of several miles will help to strengthen your legs, but if that's not available locally then power-hiking with a weight vest can simulate some of the adaptations in your thighs as a second-best option
  • Still include speed work even though your expected race pace will be low - hill sessions aimed at fast up- or downhill running are especially useful
  • Long runs will become more important than for shorter races - races can be ideal for fitting in 50k, 50-mile and 100k training runs but these will tire you out and require some taper and recovery time
  • Back-to-back long runs are excellent training but have to be weighed up against the time it takes to recover; two marathons/50ks on a weekend are particularly good and much less stress on the body than a 50-miler in one day and the race offers big training weekends like over Memorial Day weekend along the actual course
  • Although the first 40 miles are above 5,000ft, altitude is not a major issue compared to some mountain races and coming from sea level will have little disadvantage so altitude training is not necessary
  • Specificity is the key with your training so running trails with decent climbs and descents up to about 10-12% gradient will help - steeper training will make these seem easier (early on, at least) but there's not really any part of the course that's got greater slopes
  • Strength training on the legs is more important than for marathons due to the length and hills, but make the exercises specific to running, not just about building up big leg muscles
  • Core training is more important than for shorter races since poor running form over a full day (or more!) will slow you down a lot and raise the chance of injuries. However, sit-ups and what you may normally think of as core work for getting a six-pack won't be very useful because these don't help your muscles for the specific movements performed when running - as a general rule, exercises performed standing up and challenging your balance (like on one leg) will be most useful.
One of the aid stations along the way.

What mistakes should you avoid doing in training?
  • Bad or inadequate nutrition will slow you dramatically and the effect in a 100-miler is exponentially larger than in a shorter ultra. There're 25 aid stations with a wide variety of food and drinks, making some of the best-stocked aid stations in the US. So don't forget to look at who the sponsors are on the official website to try out their products so you know in advance whether they work for you in long runs or if you'll need to supply a lot of your own food and drinks. Your crew can supply these at multiple points along the course.
  • If you don't train for the specific challenges of the course (that specificity point comes in again) then these will be your undoing
  • Don't just focus on just uphill training as those downhills add up and can force you into a death march to the finish, even if well training, so the more you can do, the better
  • Don't just practice running as you will be doing some power-hiking, guaranteed (unless you break 15 hours). For example, in running sub 16 hours I probably walked up to 10 miles of the total distance, but a strong power-hike can be almost as fast as a jog and can be much more efficient
  • Heat stroke can be a significant risk so it helps a lot to train for the high temperatures, either using time in a sauna or jogging at the hottest part of the day with multiple layers on
  • Practice hydration in your training runs and try to get an idea of which sports' drinks you can stomach best, ideally trying out the brand of drink that currently sponsors the race since this will be available at every aid station even when your crew isn't there. The rate you need to drink at will vary with temperature and effort so doing training runs that simulate the race will give a better idea of the correct rate to drink at, but the feeling of thirst and the frequency and color of your urine (not clear but not darker yellow or brown either) are both good indicators.
  • Don't over-race before the event. It's tempting to try to do too many long runs or races to give you confidence but it's definitely better to turn up a little under-trained than a little over-trained, as the official race booklet advises
Early miles out of Squaw Valley.

Near the top of the first climb.

What about tactics for the race itself?
  • Beware of hypothermia in the early miles. Although the race is known for heat, it can involve cold, wind, rain, snow, hail etc early on - it's the mountains after all. So check the forecast and carry a little too much clothing if unsure as you can always leave it at an aid station or tie it around your waist.
  • Clock-watching and aiming for a sub 24-hour silver buckle can push you too hard, too early and it's better to go at a pace that your body dictates instead of a set schedule. This should lead to a faster finish time anyway and if that time is over 24 hours then you probably aren't in shape for a silver buckle and could DNF by aiming for one as the main target.
  • Related to the last point, like in most ultras, people tend to go out too fast at WS100. It starts with a steep climb and there's no need to burn yourself out at this point. This applies to the entire first half since the course gets easier in terms of terrain after Foresthill at 62.0 miles and if you're in good shape at this point you can run some relatively fast miles and catch up time. This will also be more enjoyable than going too hard, blowing up and death marching in on sections of trail that should be easy to run on.
  • Altitude can be a minor issue in the early stages and it's worth giving it a little respect by not pushing too hard, but that is already sensible as mentioned above. So, the not-going-out-too-fast is important enough to be in three different bullet points.
  • Blisters can also ruin your race. Having changes of socks and/or shoes can help, especially at aid stations after water crossings, but this isn't necessary. A better option is to find socks and shoes that don't cause issues in the first place. The shoes will be very individual, but I'd suggest a good fit with a fair degree of protection from the rocks and that don't allow your feet to slide around much. Socks are worth an investment to not just get the cheapest pair from Walmart and Drymax are the best I've ever tried and are what I use for all of my runs. I had no blisters from the 2012 WS100, although I may lose a toe-nail or two, which can't really be avoided with that much downhilling.
  • Not eating enough can end your race or at least slow you down a lot. Odds are you won't be able to force down enough calories during the race no matter how hard you try (although I can think of a couple of people who virtually manage to eat their own body-weight in an ultra!).
  • Be careful about markings which are generally good but if you stop concentrating or rely on the guy in front paying full attention, you may add on mileage. Every year I've run there have been men at the front who've got temporarily lost because the markings are not always perfect, and a minute of your mind wandering can lead to not seeing a turn.
  • Crews can make or break your race so it helps if they've been to the race before in some capacity, but the important thing is to brief them as well as possible with what you expect, exact directions for where and when to meet you and it's generally up to the runner to tell their crew everything the crew needs to know. I'd generally advise to not rely too heavily on the crew and use them as a bonus, so that if something goes wrong (a flat tire etc), the runner isn't screwed, especially mentally, from the crew not being there.
A well-trained and informed crew helps a lot.

  • Like most ultras, people tend to go out too fast, but Comrades has hot spot prizes for runners who get to various points first and still finish which encourages extra speed. So make sure you have a plan and don’t get carried away as everyone around you goes past you in the first miles.
  • Make sure you have a good idea of where the hills are from the course profile, which can be best understood if you're able to get out on to the course for training weekends, even once. Mentally it helps so much to know how hard and long a climb or descent is.
  • As well as learning about the course profile, it helps to know how far the gaps are between aid stations so you can plan the amount of food and drink you'll need to carry. Writing them out on your arm with their distances included is one option, as is a small, laminated card with them all written down.
  • Take the downhill sections easy, especially early on, as these can trash your quads and lead to walking earlier than you want to. It’s tempting to try to catch up some time but practicing a relaxed downhill stride in advance, with minimal breaking where the legs absorb a lot of the shock, can still allow for good pace on those descents. The course is rarely technical so downhills can be run smoothly and fast. By the end, your quads will be trashed no matter what you do, so the better you can look after them through the day, the quicker your time will be and the more chance of avoiding a DNF.
  • Just before it gets dark it's worth increasing your effort level slightly since you will slow down when the light fades due to the terrain being more difficult to traverse and your brain trying to tell you to take it easy as you've clearly been out longer than it wants.
  • Beware the chair, like in any ultra - if you sit down, you'll find it a lot harder to get going again.
  • Avoid trying anything new on race day. Have your kit, food, drink and everything else tried and tested in your long runs so there are no nasty surprises.
  • Finally, don't forget to smile and have fun as it'll make the day more enjoyable and you'll probably run better too.
You'll get a nice, shiny buckle at the end.


  1. Hey there Ian, you may want to flip the elevation map for the race. People will think that it is an UPHILL race, as opposed to a downhill one. : )

    Cheers and great work this year, Geoff.

  2. Great write up and great advice. You should submit this to the WS board for publishing in next years program.

  3. great article. thanks for the tips

  4. Cheers for the article Ian. Just picked up a lottery place for 2013 so your tips will be put to good use. Rob

  5. Thanks for a great insight into WSER Ian!! I've just won a place to run WSER13 and still in shock... your advice will be very useful in my training.

    Disco Stu (friend of James Elson)

  6. Great read although I prob won't ever get pulled for WS. The trng advice is spot on - thanks!

  7. Great read and training tips! Hope to be selected one day, but this is my first year in the lottery!
    My wife and I cheered you on at Leadville this year. We saw you in the last 7 miles or so down by Emerald lake.