Tuesday 30 June 2015

Western States 100 2015 - Crazy As Ever

Top of the first climb. Photo: Matt Trappe

Every year I've lived in the US I've been lucky enough to run Western States 100 from Squaw Valley to Auburn. It's the most famous US ultra and the one that means the most to people in general. That also applies to me and I want to keep going back to it many more times to get at least 10 finishes.

Why does it mean so much?

I think it's a combination of several factors:

1. The history - it's the original 100-miler that started the entire concept in the '70s.
2. The variation of the terrain - mountains, canyons, a run to the river then gentler trails to Auburn.
3. The competition - it's certainly the most competitive 100 in the US and I'd argue it's more competitive than any other US ultra due to the fact every single competitor treats it as an 'A' race and it's mid-season instead of at the end when many runners are tired. I think this year's event is probably a deeper field than UTMB, despite a smaller number of racers.
4. It's damned hard - the course is very runnable, meaning there's less chance to have any kind of break, even the hiking has to be at a really fast pace and time can't be wasted at aid stations at all. The extreme heat also makes it very interesting and hugely affects the race dynamics.

Pre-race briefing with the introduction of some of the elites. Jesse Haynes next to me, who unfortunately had to drop. Photo: Matt Trappe

It also means a lot to me personally because it's like a big reunion every year. Many friends from around the world and US turn up and I sometimes only see them this one time per year to catch up away from the virtual world.

Thursday before the race - group photo at the top of Emigrant's Pass. Photo: Ian Sharman

Hike/jog with Magda a week before the race on Mt Rose. Photo: Ian Sharman

Race report:

It was very warm at the start, despite the 5am time and 6,200ft altitude. The classic initial climb up to the Escarpment was very pleasant and I was with Brett Rivers and Chris Denucci for much of it, chatting about the fast pace ahead of us. We crested the four miles in 48 mins, around four mins off the leaders, but at least a minute quicker than I've done it in previous years (yet it felt more relaxed). For once I didn't zoom downhill and tried to cruise and keep things easy. For the first time I had a Heart Rate Monitor to keep myself from going too hard (a LifeBeam hat-based HRM which was way more comfy than a strap, hence why I had this option for the first time). However, my HR was surprisingly high for the comfy effort, probably related to the altitude.

Duncan Canyon aid station with Quicksilver RC (my club) at mile 23. Photo: Jeff Clowers

The lead pack was about 15 deep and once I caught the back of it I held back to avoid running their race and instead focus on my own plan. So far, so good - a decent pace and nothing feeling too tough. Then through the mountains I kept things chilled and ended up getting to Robinson Flat at mile 29.7 in 4:42, a few mins slower than 2014 and 13 mins off the lead. I was in 16th just before the aid station then 11th as I left it, partly due to drops from the super speedy Ryan Bak and Alex Varner. I expected those guys to run fast and was disappointed they wouldn't get a chance to see what they could achieve. This was the first chance to see Amy and she crewed expertly to hand over new food, drink and headgear.

Things were certainly heating up, but didn't feel bad yet and I was very positive about the outlook of the race. Then I had the first of several emergency pit-stops by the trail, a sign that I maybe had a minor bug from food the day before or even from earlier in the race. Luckily that didn't get much worse and had a minimal effect on the day.

Then the long downhill section starts, which always feels great at first but tends to coincide with a low patch most years for me around 35-40 miles. I was running around David Laney, who looked comfy too. So we chatted briefly but he was going uphill faster while I moved downhill quicker. Given it was mainly downhill I ended up staying ahead through the steep canyon and up Devil's Thumb - the steepest, sharpest climb of the day.

DBo was sat in a chair in the burning heat at the aid station and his day ended soon afterwards unfortunately. Yet another favorite was out and the brutal course claimed another victim, a recurring theme on a day when only 253 people finished (compared to 277 at the extremely hot 2013 race). I was very tempted to join him in a seat but kept moving.

Somewhere in the first half. Photo: Matt Trappe

The next section through two more canyons was hot and felt a little tougher than usual so by Foresthill at mile 62 I was mainly focused on survival rather than racing hard down to the river. I used ice at every single aid station from mile 23 onwards, putting it in my bandana and filling one of my water bottles completely with ice then topping up with water so I could keep pouring it over my head, neck and body throughout the next few miles. Most aid stations were around an hour apart and the ice always fully melted within 20-30 mins. However, I can only imagine that's harder to deal with for runners farther back in the field since their ice would last for a shorter proportion of the time they're out in the sun.

Matt Laye joined me for pacing and it was a fairly slow pace for the next 16 miles as I felt gradually more and more sorry for myself. My energy was low, legs were tired and things felt generally worse than the last few years at WS. I seriously considered dropping, but reminded myself that so many people want to run this race and I have the chance to keep going with no valid reason to stop other than I felt bad. I wasn't injured, I wasn't even walking, plus I was in the top 10 (8th at this point) and REALLY wanted to continue that streak for another year to make it six in a row. In fact that was the main motivation I clung on to.

Just after picking up my pacer, Matt Laye, at Foresthill. Photo: Stephen Ingalls

In long ultras it's vitally important to know why you want to finish and to have extremely good reasons why you'll push rather than fade, why you'll still care about the race when you feel like death. In general, a couple of good reasons for me to keep trying are that moving faster means the suffering ends sooner and that if I give less than my best I'll have to live with it for months or even years. It's a character test - are you as tough as you'd like to believe?

The river was heavenly since I was falling apart mentally and was extremely hot. It took me five minutes to cross from one side to the other since I lay there with just my face above the water multiple times to cool down. For the first time all day I was a little cold...but after about two minutes of hiking up the other side I was hot again. One year I'd like to stay there for ages and just hang out before moving on.

The river crossing. Could have stayed there hours. Photo: Matt Trappe
This is how most of the river crossing went. Photo: iRunFar

Matt was feeling the heat too and I was mainly silent, but he also wasn't talking much through the fast, flatter single-track from miles 80-90. We passed Francois d'Haene with his pacer, Frosty, just before Hall Koerner's Oregon-manned aid station at Brown's Bar (mile 89.9) and he was walking, looking demoralized and lifeless. I shouted encouragement and told them the next aid was virtually around the corner, but he'd dropped from the lead at halfway to 8th after I passed him and clearly was having a bad day.

Matt mentioned he had some vertigo at this point from getting water in his ears in the river, plus the heat was affecting him. He hadn't done heat training and after running a marathon in those temperatures he was fading. So just before the climb up to Highway 49 (mile 93.5) he slowed and walked it in while I kept chugging along at steady ultra shuffle.

By this stage the proximity of the finish is motivation enough and I was able to rally enough to keep pushing, albeit at a slower pace than previous years. I hadn't planned on needing a headlamp but did include it in my crew bag so Amy passed me that so I'd be able to see the final miles. I turned it on around mile 95 on the run downhill in the trees towards No Hands Bridge, now secure that I'd end up top 10 but not sure if anyone right behind was surging or if someone ahead was fading.

I've never enjoyed the final 20 miles of the race since it takes such a huge effort to avoid slowing, but at least this time I knew it'd feel especially good to finish because I'd come so close to giving up multiple times. I was paranoid that someone would catch me and I'd have to sprint to the end, but luckily I had enough of a gap behind me that I was able to finish the final couple of miles at a more relaxed pace without really digging in - at that point saving a couple of minutes didn't make much difference and there was nobody ahead within the next 10 mins or so who I had any realistic chance of getting close to.

Done and done. Photo: Matt Trappe
Ultra Running Magazine's Erika Lindland was the smiliest person of the day and ran herself into 9th to earn another entry for next year. Photo: apologies, I'm not sure where I got this but it epitomized the event

Unlike previous years where I sprinted around the track, this time I jogged and gave high fives to kids. The finish line couldn't come soon enough but another epic day on the trails was over. It was an hour slower than last year, yet I got 7th in 16:44. At this rate it's technically feasible to do 10 races with 10 different top 10 places - so far I've got 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th...so mainly the podium left to aim for :)

Before the race I knew it'd be a really memorable day for many reasons. My own race is one small part of the overall story and there are hundreds of people who overcame incredible challenges through the 30 hours of the entire event. Rob Krar's 14:48 was frankly superhuman in that heat and with the pressure of being the defending champ. Gunhild Swanson's finish with six seconds to spare under the cut-off was incredible too, especially since she's 70 years old!

Tim Twietmeyer cheers for Gunhild Swanson as she finishes and the crowd goes wild. Photo: Ian Sharman

However, my favorite memory comes from seeing Magda Boulet win her debut 100-miler, despite going two miles off course in the first half. I've really enjoyed coaching her and getting to know her over the past six months - a real star of the running world, an Olympian and a super fun person to call my friend. Seeing her cross the line was fantastic after dominating her ultra races for the past seven months (six straight wins!). I had five other clients running too, so seeing them afterwards was very rewarding, despite one of them not having a good day and having to drop due to the heat.

High Fiving Magda at the finish. Photo: Nate Dunn

I'm tired now, but with each day that passes I get progressively happier with how the race went. Perfect days in 100-milers are rare and I know I can learn more from the imperfect ones, especially when I aim to make the best of it. My fitness was higher than ever before pre-race so I'm just a little disappointed I couldn't improve on last year's time or position, but I got to run Western States and I also get to do it again. Full results here. Plus my incomplete Strava data before the watch died.

The memories of pain fade and the shiny silver buckle remains. Thanks everyone at the race, the volunteers, organizers, runners and supporters.


Shoes - Altra Lone Peak 2.5
Socks - Drymax Maximum Protection Trail
Eyewear - Julbo Venturi
Nutrition - mainly a mix of Clif Bar Organic Energy Food pouches, gels and Shot Bloks
HRM - LifeBeam smart hat
Hydration - UltrAspire Isometric handhelds and Alpha pack
Keeping the ice cool for my crew (Amy) - Hydro Flask 64oz growlers