Western States 100 – 2010

Since this was my first time running Western States, I went into the race with a broad set of goals. I was fairly confident that I could finish in one piece under 24 hours for the silver buckle. But over the past few months my training had gone well enough that I though finishing under 20 hours would be a pretty good target to aim for. My stretch goal was to beat 19 hours but I figured that I would need to have a perfect day to pull this off. Well, it turned out to be a nearly perfect day and nothing went wrong until I crossed the finish line in 18:58:42 in 18th place.

I showed up at the start at Squaw Valley feeling better than ever. I was fully rested and all the nagging aches and pains from months of hard training were gone. It was hard not to get too caught up in the excitement at the start of the race. Everyone was amped up and ready to go and the energy in the crowd was pretty intense.

Once the starting crowd thinned out a bit, I managed to settle into a comfortable climbing pace on the service road going up the ski hill. I made it to the top in good time to see the a spectacular view of the sunrise over lake Tahoe with Chris Thornley enthusiasticly banging away on a huge gong.

From the top of the first climb we had a few miles of rolling hills through thick hard packed snow. Most of it was firm enough to easily run across. We hit a few spots that were melted off into thick, soupy mud and had a couple sections where the trail had turned into an ankle deep stream. Overall, it wasn’t too bad and I actually had fun running through this section. It would have been nice to continue with 10 more miles of snow on the original route since it was obvious that several runners weren’t quite as comfortable running through the snow.

Here’s a clip of Eric Lee demonstrating his snow running skills:

After this short romp through the snow and mud we turned onto the new snow route dropping down a nice dirt road with a long stretch of easy flat dirt road and some really beautiful single track winding along next to the French Meadows reservoir. Several faster runners passed me on this stretch but I just let them go and settled into a comfortable pace and tried to relax and enjoy the scenery. After the reservoir we had a short climb to Duncan Canyon aid station up through an open burn area on a fairly rough trail that looked like it has been cut just the other day. I had originally planned out my estimated pacing splits for my sub-20 hour goal, a safe sub-24 hour goal, and an 18:30 pace. The 18:30 split was really only intended as a reference point to watch to make sure that I wasn’t running too fast early in the race. I checked my watch at Duncan and was suprised to see that I had beat my 18:30 split by a full half hour. I felt pretty good and was running at a relaxed pace at this point so this gave me a good boost of confidence heading out to Robinson Flat.

From there, I kept chugging along running from aid station to aid station without thinking too much about the finish. The extremely long downhill section from Robinson to the base of Devil’s Thumb was much harder than I had expected. I ran some of the steep drops pretty well but was a bit slower than I would have liked on the gentler easy stretches where I knew the faster runners would have flown through. I hit my first low point of the day between Dustys Corner and Last Chance. As low points go, it really wasn’t that bad. I just wasn’t able to run as fast as I really wanted to here.

The heat was starting to build up and I hadn’t fully taken advantage of the ice and water buckets at the last aid station. Up to this point, I had been conservatively rinsing my hat and packing a small handful of ice in my bandanna. At the Last Chance aid station, the volunteer asked if I wanted to make a stop at the “car wash”. I finally got the right idea and grabbed the sponges and fully soaked myself head to toe. From that point on, I didn’t pass up a single water bucket at the aid stations, made sure my second water bottle was always full to dump on myself if I didn’t need to drink it all on the shorter sections. And I stopped to wallow around like a pig in every stream crossing and puddle with more than an inch of water on the trail.

By the time I started up the climb to Devil’s Thumb I was feeling a bit better. We hadn’t had a decent uphill section since the first climb out of Squaw so this actually felt good. I made it to the top in good time and wondered why everyone made such a fuss about that hill. That short break to stretch the legs out in a nice power hike was downright delightfull.

The next climb up to Michigan Bluff wasn’t quite as nice. El Dorado Creek at the base of this climb was a big milestone at mile 52.9. I checked my split times again and was just 5 minutes over my 18:30 pace at about 9 hours. While I was really happy to still be on track for an 18:xx finish at this point in the race, this is where my pacing goals started to backfire on me. My brain started to remind me that I had originally thought sub-20 would be a fantastic run and that sub-24 would be a respectable finish. I was well ahead of these goals now and could slow down and relax. There was no need to keep pushing. I could stop running and walk for a while. I could even stop and take a break if I wanted to. Eventually my brain and I settled on a compromise and I continued up the hill to Michigan at a slow grind.

Before I knew it, I had made it to Foresthill and met my pacer, Mike Poland. It was a huge relief to finally meet Mike and have some company on the trail. And running through the cheering crowds at Foresthill gave me a huge adrenaline boost. Mile 62 was also a big milestone in the race. Up until then I had only run a marathon, a 50k, a 50 miler, and a 100k. These were distances that I’d done before – nothing more than training runs or ultra races that can be finished in a reasonable time within one day. Stepping out of the Foresthill aid station, I crossed over into the 100 mile race. My quads hurt and I was tired but this is what I was here for.

Foresthill to the river was a pretty tough grind. My energy level and pace was up and down. I’d run some decent stretches and then would slow down and just kept grinding away. A few runners passed me here but I just let them go – it was still too early in the day to race anyone. But overall I was still doing pretty well. My quads were burning but I’ve been in worse pain before. We made it to the river crossing a little bit behind my 18:30 goal but still well ahead of my sub-20 target. Victor Ballesteros, Phil Kochik, and I all crossed the river in the same boat. I knew both of these guys were fast and Victor had closed in on Andy Jones-Wilkins last year to chase him onto the track and was only seconds away from stealing the M10 finish from Andy. So after a short dip in the river to cool off my legs, Mike and I grabbed a quick water refill and charged up the hill to Green Gate. Since I’m not as stong on the flats and downhills as most other runners, my plan was to pull ahead on the uphill and hopefully fool anyone behind me into thinking I was too strong to chase down. Victor made it out of the aid station ahead of me but I managed to leave Phil behind on the climb to Green Gate.

Mike and I kept rolling along at a pretty steady pace on the leg to Auburn Lake Trails. It was starting to get dark here but the footing was decent so we kept the lights off as long as we could. We could see another runner’s light up ahead and I really didn’t want anyone behind me to get the idea that they could possibly chase me down here.

Brown’s Bar aid station was pretty wild. The place was lit up like a christmas tree and we could hear music blasting from a mile away. A huge guy in drag met me at the aid station to help me through as the volunteers filled bottles. If anyone wants to volunteer at the race, this would be the aid station to work at. This crew was ready for a wild all-night party.

At the Highway 49 aid station, I hit my last low point of the race. Up until this point, I had no idea what position I was in. There could have been 10 or 30 runners ahead of me and that “what if” thought at the back of my mind had kept me going in the chase. But as I enterred the station a volunteer announced that I was currently in 21st place. I looked at my watch and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d be able to break 19 hours. I could just keep chugging away steadily to get to the finish with a respectable sub-20 time finishing somewhere in 20-something place. It wouldn’t make much difference if I passed someone or if someone else passed me here. So I set out moving pretty slowly thinking I’d just keep moving and I’d get to the finish when I got there. I had no intention of racing anymore. I didn’t want anyone to catch me and didn’t want to chase anyone. I just wanted to finish at my own pace. My legs were hurting pretty bad here and I just kept focusing on breathing and picking one foot up after another to keep moving forward.

As I closed in on No Hands Bridge at the base of the final climb, I passed another runner on the final switchback into the aid station. And when I arrived at the aid station, I saw Victor standing there and he wasn’t moving very quickly to leave. I could make it into the top 20! I was back in the race! Mike was trying to get his water bottle refilled and was attempting to drink one of his red bulls and I yelled at him drop everything and go.

So we took off across the bridge to tackle the last climb to Robie Point. The first section started up a smooth dirt road gradually climbing up with an occassional roller. I managed to keep up a running cadence to push through this section. The last stretch turned onto a pretty steep single track trail and I alternated between a grinding jog and power hiking to keep pushing up as hard as I could go. I thought the last aid station was at the end of the climb but we still had about a quarter mile to go up on a steep paved road before we hit the easy home stretch through the neighborhood to the finish. I settled into a power walk up this last incline and passed the first woman, Tracy Garneau. Just as I cleared the crest of the hill at the 1 mile to go sign, I looked back and saw another set of lights right behind me. I heard the pacer telling his runner to get ready to kick out the last mile hard. Oh crap! I took off as hard as I could make my legs go. When I hit the track, I glanced behind me and saw a runner (and later realized it was just Mike who had dropped behind me) and then looked at my watch and saw 18:59. There was still a chance to break 19 hours! When I rounded the corner to see the finish clock, I could see the seconds ticking away and crossed the finish with 18 seconds to spare. After a second look, I realized I had read my watch wrong and I actually finished in 58:42, not 59:42. According to my GPS, I ran the last mile in 7:30 and ran the loop around the track in 5:00 to 5:30 pace. I put absolutely everything I had into this race and while I might nitpick about specific points throughout the race where I could have done better, I have no doubt that this finish was the absolute best I could achieve.

For a few minutes after finishing, I felt suprisingly good. Unfortunately that would change quickly. I had originally volunteered for the research program and headed over to give my blood sample. They said my sodium levels were a bit low and I would be a good candidate for their hyponatremia study. They planned to give me a high sodium solution IV and then retest a blood sample after an hour to see the results. To get started, all I needed to do was stand up so they could take my blood pressure. I couldn’t get up. I could barely get one foot underneath me, let alone exert any effort to push myself up off the ground. So a couple people grabbed me by the arms to pull me up. I still couldn’t get my feet under me and as soon as they pulled me up to a vertical position, I passed out. After one or two more attempts at this, one of the lead medical staff came over and told the research group that they couldn’t have me for their trial and several people picked me up and carried me horizontally over to the medical tent. My legs started cramping and spasming for a while but after 2 IV’s, a couple S-caps, and a few cups of broth, I started feeling better. Within a few hours I was back to feeling normal – just plain tired and hurting. Eventually I managed to get up and move out of the medical tent and found a nice open space on the grass to sleep for a few more hours.

I spent Sunday morning shuffling around the finish area. My legs were in pretty decent shape and nothing was seriously hurt. I had a sore spot on the top of my right foot and my right big toenail looked like it would probably come off. I watched my friends Paul Grimm and Eric Lee finish early Sunday morning and we all enjoyed relaxing at the finish for the rest of the afternoon until the awards ceremony.

This race really lived up to it’s reputation. The competitive field was incredible, aid station volunteers were outstanding, and I’ve never run an ultra trail race with so many spectators. The runners, volunteers, and crews out there really helped to keep the energy level and excitement going all day long. Even the live webcast system helped. I had no idea who might be checking but the thought of friends and family refreshing their browsers to check in on me made me think, gee I should get moving and knock out a decent split on this next section to give them something to watch. Hearing the announcer at the track say, “here comes our second runner in the top 20 from Fort Collins” was awesome. I had no idea what happened up at the front of the pack so it was great to hear that Nick made it in. I knew he’d run well but am still amazed at just how well he did coming in 4th place and very close to overtaking Killian for 3rd. Overall, it was an incredible weekend. Even though I didn’t run with them during the day, it was great to be out there with my good friends Nick, Paul, and Eric on the course. I will definitely consider running this one again. Maybe not next year …there are so many other events that I’d still like to run. Right now it’s time to get ready for Vermont. In less than three weeks I get to do this all over again.

Here are some great photos from Michael Cook. Most are from the first 30 miles with a few from Foresthill and the finish:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/mncook/sets/72157624241587299/show/

Glenn Tachiyama has been gradually adding some really amazing photos to his Facebook album this week:
http://www.pbase.com/gtach/wser2010

And some more photos from Luis Escobar:
http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=6376727&id=340040187316#!/album.php?aid=235533&id=340040187316&page=2

And finally, here are my own photos from the weekend:

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Friday check in at Squaw Valley. The starting clock counting down.Friday check in at Squaw Valley. The starting clock counting down.

Friday check in at Squaw Valley. The starting clock counting down.25-Jun-2010 12:35

We'll start up this hill at 5am Saturday morning.We’ll start up this hill at 5am Saturday morning.

We'll start up this hill at 5am Saturday morning.25-Jun-2010 12:36

25-Jun-2010 12:37

Eric, Paul, Mike, and I after lunch at Lake Tahoe.Eric, Paul, Mike, and I after lunch at Lake Tahoe.

Eric, Paul, Mike, and I after lunch at Lake Tahoe.25-Jun-2010 13:44

Best race schwag ever. The Montrail packs are pretty sweet.Best race schwag ever. The Montrail packs are pretty sweet.

Best race schwag ever. The Montrail packs are pretty sweet.25-Jun-2010 17:00

Gathering at the start.Gathering at the start.

Gathering at the start.26-Jun-2010 05:55

Ready to go.Ready to go.

Ready to go.26-Jun-2010 05:56

26-Jun-2010 06:01

The first climb at daybreak.The first climb at daybreak.

The first climb at daybreak.26-Jun-2010 06:08

26-Jun-2010 06:09

Incredible sunrise over Tahoe.Incredible sunrise over Tahoe.

Incredible sunrise over Tahoe.26-Jun-2010 06:49

26-Jun-2010 06:49

26-Jun-2010 06:50

26-Jun-2010 06:50

26-Jun-2010 07:16

26-Jun-2010 07:50

French Meadows reservoir on the snow route.French Meadows reservoir on the snow route.

French Meadows reservoir on the snow route.26-Jun-2010 09:00

On the way to Duncan Canyon.On the way to Duncan Canyon.

On the way to Duncan Canyon.26-Jun-2010 09:41

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