Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Western States 2013 And The Start Of The Grand Slam

Day before the race with Jorge Maravilla and Cameron Clayton. I told them we should have waited til the countdown clock showed 14:45...

This year was hot at Western States. If you're reading this, you already know that (and you probably followed it on irunfar and Twitter). You also know that Oregon dominated the race with the male and female winners (Timmy Olson and Pam Smith) and 3/10 of the top men (I only recently left the state and still count myself as being from there) and 4/10 of the top women, especially three of the first four! Not bad considering the high at Auburn airport was 102F (39C), which is the measure used for comparison between the years. On the course itself it could have been as high as 110F!

The starters' list was deep as always with a good 10-15 men who'd place at the top of any trail ultra you chose to name and almost as many women. However, the heat meant that more would drop or fade than in a cooler year so the priority for most was to run an intelligent race and deal with the conditions and take advantage of the faster sections of the course. I was worried about an ankle sprain from three weeks earlier but it was only noticeable in the first half of the race and somehow faded after that so I think I got lucky in not damaging it too much.

Near the top of Emigrants Pass at dawn. Photo: Drymax Socks

I think of the race as being made up of four parts - the high country (miles 0-35), the canyons (miles 35-62), Cal St down to the river (miles 62-78) then the flatter other side of the river (miles 78-100.2). The heat didn't really hit until the end of the high country and that section was the most fun I've had in a race for a while. The weather was beautiful, the High Sierra views were stunning and I got to run with the chase pack behind early leaders Cameron Clayton and Hal Koerner (who both dropped later in the race). The good thing about 100s is that the early pace is comfortable but I usually can't keep up with the mountain guys on the climbs so I knew the training had paid off when that wasn't an issue.

WS profile, run from right to left

As we started to drop down towards the canyons the pack (which now contained Hal) split up with Hal charging ahead to take the lead. I had a bad patch from 28-38 miles but knew it was early on so focused on eating more and aiming to keep myself cool with ice and cold water on my head. It worked and I only dropped back to 8th place, not helped by a section of trail for a few miles with no markings on it which made me question the route, turn around then run back until I bumped into Rob Krar and Dylan Bowman.

Starting the canyons it was certainly getting hot but nowhere near the maximums for the day so there were no real issues and I had a few miles with Jorge Maravilla who I then expected to run with for the rest of the day. He faded slightly and at an aid station I was leaving as he entered so I missed out on more fun with him (trust me, running with Jorge is always a pleasure).

I hiked up to Devil's Thumb at 47.8 miles and had to concentrate on taking it easy as the temperatures rose, but at least the trees provided plenty of shade. The only thing that really helped to make it more manageable was having ice in my bandana around my neck and this was the single most important thing I did at each aid station, stopping me from melting. Immersing myself in every small creek or stream was also worth the time so much more effort was put into physical management than the previous cold year at the race. On average I probably spent 1-2 mins at each aid station after mile 30 and that was time well spent.

The favorite for the Grand Slam as well as a likely winner of WS100 itself, Nick Clark, was in the Devil's Thumb aid station when I got there so we set off down the long descent to El Dorado Creek together. He's not the chattiest of runners but both of us were suffering by this point anyway so we barely exchanged a few sentences. He did get to hear me grunt a lot and have some heavy breathing every time I took a drink then had to regain my breath. I also think Nick didn't want to let me pass, even though it was relatively early in the race so he pushed the pace downhill and we were frequently running around a 6:30/mile pace.

At El Dorado Creek the now familiar restocking of bandana ice was the priority plus taking on plenty of calories and a drink of iced coke. Rob Krar was there too and he must have left while my back was turned since I thought I was the first out the aid station and only found out much later that he was still ahead. However, I was in 5th at this point and over half-way through plus I was holding together well so kept looking after myself and not worrying too much about where the guys ahead had got to.

The ascent to Michigan Bluff went fairly quickly but not fast enough to stop the ice melting so I was starting to get woozy by that aid station at 55.7 miles. A restocking from my crew with military precision (literally - I had Casey Cooper helping me out and he flies those famous Obama drones so dealing with a dizzy Brit in the sun wasn't taxing for him) got me on my way but it wasn't long before Mike Morton caught me. We had a chat for a mile or so but he seemed to be almost unaffected by the heat so zoomed of and put a couple of minutes on me by Foresthill at 62.0 miles, which also ended the canyon section.

Foresthill with a pat on the back from Brett Rivers (SF Running Co). Photo: Drymax Socks

This is where the race really starts so I ate and drank, restocked on ice and eventually got out the aid station and on my way. Suddenly I felt great and the 3.7 miles down to Cal 1 took a mere 28 mins. The aid station volunteers commented that I looked like I'd just started running, although that short burst of feeling amazing only lasted a couple more miles.

Cal St was tough as ever and it always seems that the next aid station is much farther away than advertised. Since I had a GPS watch with enough battery for the whole race I could tell for once how close I was getting but it wasn't very encouraging as my pace was slower than I hoped but I did pass DBo while he had some stomach issues at an aid station plus Hal before he dropped. Luckily most of Cal St was shaded at this time of day so I was saved from the hottest sun of the day except on a few exposed sections, then again for the final miles to the river.

Even though WS100 is famed for the rope crossing over the American River at 78 miles between the two Rucky Chucky aid stations, I've never crossed it on my own and have been boated across every time. My fourth experience here was just the same, but I spent plenty of time in the water on the other side to cool down, just up to the point where I heard DBo getting into the boat on the other side.

Rucky Chucky. Photo: Gary Wang.

Rucky Chucky far side. Photo: Patrick Sweeney.
That just left the last 22 miles of easier trails but with destroyed legs, a stomach that wasn't desiring any food and plenty of heat whenever there wasn't shade. I now had a last minute pacer in Gary Gellin since he'd offered to run two days earlier although I'd planned to run solo. Dylan was under two minutes behind so I was running scared and knew that if I faltered he'd catch me. Ahead was Timmy Olson, followed by a charging Rob Krar and determined Mike Morton, but they had 24+ mins of a cushion so I'd only catch them if they blew up. It wasn't worth worrying about and all I could control was my own race by making sure I got to the finish as fast as possible, preferably in daylight.

I grunted and groaned my way through those miles with Gary talking and me generally giving short answers. At least I was running the easier stuff and power-hiking well on the slower terrain, but I had several bouts of giddiness that were only partially fixed by small amounts of food and drink. Dbo remained a few mins behind and I managed to extend that gradually to five mins by Highway 49 at mile 93.5. A final burst of energy allowed me to run hard down to No Hands Bridge and fly through that aid station without taking anything on board.

The gamesmanship came into play now and I told Gary to not use his headlamp on the final ascent to Auburn and to not talk so Dylan wouldn't have a clue how close we were if he was catching. It was fully dark by halfway up the climb but the adrenalin was pumping and it was easy enough to get to the top unscathed. That just left the final 1.3 miles through Auburn from Robie Point, which I powered through so that I could end the pain sooner.

As ever, the last sections of the race felt like hell and I questioned several times why I think it's a good idea to do these races. I completely avoided thinking about the rest of the Grand Slam on purpose as that was too overwhelming and it's only a couple of days later that the other three 100s this summer seems like a good idea.

It was an emotional race and drained me completely, leaving me feeling temporarily empty and wiped out at the finish. The only emotion I really felt was relief that it was over, but as I recovered in the following hours it all seemed worthwhile. Still, I strongly believe that this race is a hugely enjoyable endeavor for 364.5 days a year with just a mere half day of nastiness after about 50 miles into the race. Being in Tahoe and Squaw Valley pre-race is incredibly enjoyable and exciting plus it's the best chance of the year to catch up with ultra friends from all over the US and also the world.

Finish line with repeat winner Timmy Olson and Gary Gellin. I think Timmy had time for a shower, meal and sleep! Photo: Shahid Ali.

All results are here and the top 10s were a lot more spread out than last year with a lot more carnage. In hindsight I can enjoy the spectacle that is Western States and pretend I loved every second. Well, I did love most of it.

Awards with my fast coaching client Henrik Westerlin (2nd left), his wife Barbara and pacer Victor Ballesteros. A solid  20:46 for Henrik in his first 100.

One down, three to go. My 16:20 is 1:54 under the Grand Slam record set by Neal Gorman in 2010 but it's just the beginning so there's a lot to deal with before I can get too excited about the record being achievable. Nick Clark finished in 6th in 16:56 so he's also comfortably under the record so far.

Neal's 2010 race times were as follows:

Western States 100 - 18:14:00
Vermont 100 - 16:33:11
Leadville Trail 100 - 18:47:54
Wasatch Front 100 - 21:19:11

Total - 74:54:16

Thanks so much to my the organizers, my crew and my wife plus my sponsors - here's the gear I used in the race, which I spent months deciding on and it all worked perfectly:

- UltrAspire Alpha and Surge hydration packs (switching between the two)
- Scott T2 Kinabalu shoes
- Drymax Max Protection Trail Running Socks
- Julbo Dust Sunglasses (blue)
- About 60 Clif Shot gels

Plus some general photos in and around Tahoe and Squaw from the week before the race.


  1. Congratulations on a steady, well managed race, Ian. What was your fueling/hydration plan and how did it unfold? Keeping your stomach intact in that heat is a major accomplishment. Congrats again!

  2. Great run Ian and I have to admit, I thought you and Clarkie would have been in the reverse position (Clark 4th, you 6th). You showed me wrong! Got to be good to get a solid one in on the get go on the Grand Slam, and I would guess Vermont will play into your strengths, while Leadville, and especially Wasatch might play into NIck's; regardless, it will be fun to watch it unfold this summer.

  3. Exciting stuff! Congrats on your 4th place finish! A 16:20 is freaking awesome, especially in that crazy heat! You should be able to crush that course in cooler weather!

  4. I tend to have a fairly solid stomach from training it up for years on long runs and races so I grazed at the aid stations to get some variety then basically ate 2-3 gels between each aid station plus a couple of Clif Shot Bloc chews through the day. Lots of cold coke too and energy drinks in my hydration pack. I'd guess I took in around 400-500 cals/hr throughout the day then a bit less in the final 2-3 hrs.

  5. Amazing read Ian! Mad props and congrats on an amazing run. Especially loved that pic of you fully submerged in the river. How long were you in there for?

    Did you find it helped your legs at all running right after that?

  6. thanks for posting the RR and beautiful photos!

  7. Well done Ian. As always, you ran a smooth and controlled effort and finished strong. It was a joy to watch you and Jorge gallop past me below emigrants pass. You are a class act. Hope to run with again someday.

    It was a solid day out there for SCOTT.