Well, it’s almost to the stage where I’m forgetting how challenging the Western States 100 Endurance Run was, so I guess that means it’s about time for a race recap. Ever so briefly, the pre-race couple of days were very enjoyable, and thanks to my crew of wife Ally, daughter Shannon and friend Greg, not stressful at all.
We stayed at the luxurious Squaw Creek Resort and Spa, which was just a few minutes drive from the race headquarters and start at Squaw Valley. One day I’ll return to the Resort/Spa to take full advantage of the many facilities on offer.
Packet pickup on Friday morning was just as organized as all the online race reports described – you’re treated like royalty from the moment you get weighed, to the moment you leave the village with a bag full of quality schwag. For the record, I weighed in at 140lbs, which would be used on race day to gauge loss of body weight at various checkpoints along the course.
After my traditional dinner of hamburger, fries and a Guinness, we retired early to bed with gear already laid out and alarm set for 3am. Sleep came easy and before I could stress too much, it was time to head to the start to pick up the timing chip/bib and get weighed in once again.
After much deliberation leading up to the race, I settled on the following starting gear, with plenty of reserve clothing/accessories packed just in case I needed them along the way:
- Merrell Bare Access Trail [Shoe Review]
- Injinji TRAIL 2.0 socks
- Pearl Izumi Ultra Short Tights
- Salomon EXO S-Lab Zip Tee
- Saxx Kinetic Brief Fly
- Garmin Forerunner 910XT
- Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab Hydro 5 Set
- Ultimate Direction Fastdraw 20
- MISSION Athletecare Multi-Cool
- MISSION Athletecare Cooling Arm Sleeves
- MISSION Athletecare Sunscreen
- Tailwind Nutrition
- Island Boost
- Endurolytes Extreme
- Headsweats Running Etc. Cap
- Endurolytes Extreme
After hanging out indoors for a while, it was soon time to stroll the few hundred feet to the start line. Naturally we took a few selfies for posterity’s sake, before Ally and crew made their way to snag a prime photo-taking spot. Hanging out at the start I bumped into Kaci Lickteig who had finished 2nd at the Rocky Raccoon 100 earlier this year and was one of the pre-race favorites for the Women’s race. It was nice to see a familiar face and chat briefly as the clock slowly ticked down.
Then, all of a sudden, just as race founder Gordy Ainsleigh was saying a few words, the final 10 seconds were counted down and we were off and running. The race start is a bit cruel with just over 2,500ft of elevation gain in the first 4 miles, yet the lead guys and girls took off as if the terrain was flat. Meanwhile I settled into a steady hike/jog to *save* my legs/lungs for the final 96 miles of the race. No point going anaerobic at this stage of the game, right?
The air was cool, but the atmosphere was electric. I enjoyed the hike, and unusually for me, chatted quite a lot with runners from North Carolina, California, Texas and Alaska. I also took the opportunity to glance back several times and was amazed at the long line of runners snaking all the way back to Squaw. The higher we climbed, the more magnificent the views became. The last section of the climb was pretty steep, but after power-hiking for a few more minutes we finally reached the summit. Again, the view of Lake Tahoe from the top was breathtaking.
After cresting Squaw, I think there was about 7 miles of rocky, rolling singletrack to negotiate – most of it downhill. I decided to take things easy this early in the race, as one of my biggest fears was destroying the quads leaving nothing left for the runnable miles much further down the line. The Lyon Ridge aid station was buzzing with excitement and offered plenty of support and encouragement, but on this occasion all I needed was a quick water top up.
The next 5 miles to Red Star Ridge were once again rocky, but rolled along nicely. It was also cool to see Kim Wrinkle doing his iRunFar-thing in this section, but unfortunately there was no time to stop and chat. At Red Star Ridge I took the time to drop off a couple of empty Island Boost packages, top off with water and refill my Tailwind soft flask. Aside from feeling a little light-headed (probably due to the average 7,000ft elevation), I was happy with how things were panning out.
The next section down to the Duncan Canyon aid station, and then Duncan Canyon itself, was spectacular, yet a little taxing on the legs. The downhill was pretty long, and surprisingly for this early in the race, I found myself all alone with no-one close by. No worries though – a few more miles and I’d get to see my crew for the first time at Robinson Flat. The “few miles” turned out to be a grinding, almost 4 mile climb, which for some reason, I wasn’t really expecting. I’d read the course description numerous times before the race, but oddly this climb had escaped my memory. Ugh.
The aid station noise finally came into earshot just as the trail flattened out a bit. Great news! I jogged in to the aid station where a volunteer removed my hydration vest so I could get weighed. It was a bit overwhelming to be honest, with several people asking questions at the same – “What was your starting weight?”, “What can I get you?”, “What’s in your bottles?”, “Do you have crew here”? Thankfully, as I hopped on the scale I spotted my crew enthusiastically waving in the distance and was able to hop off the scale and bypass any more questions and the majority of the aid station tables. For the record, I weighed in at 136lbs, but with the scale positioned on a sand/dirt mix, I didn’t think it was that accurate – besides, I’d been religious about my fluid intake and was happy with my level of thirst.
Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff [68th Overall]
Again, it was great to see my crew at the aid station, but there was no time to hang around and chat. I dropped off my arm sleeves, gloves & empty fuel packets, as Shannon quickly switched out my Salomon soft flasks and Ally sprayed me down with MISSION sunscreen.
Out of Robinson there was a shortish 1 mile climb, followed by another 4-ish mile descent down to Miller’s Defeat (Mile 34). The legs still felt good and it was really nice to drop down to 6,000ft where the air felt more breathable. I remember really enjoying this dusty section of the course and for the first time in the race, managed to string together 4 miles in the 9:xx range.
Miller’s Defeat to Dusty Corners was another fun 4 mile section. I was able to stretch out the legs and even passed a couple of runners with a couple of sub-9:xx miles. Dusty Corners aid station was really enthusiastic too. I topped off my fluids and took advantage of a major sponge down before setting off to Last Chance.
This section rolled quite a bit, and I think there were a few sections where I decided to power hike instead of jog. A few runners around me commented on the temperature, but to be honest, I wasn’t finding it hot and the Mission Multi-Cool Buff was doing its job nicely. So far so good.
From Last Chance we dropped down another 1,800ft in the next 2.5 miles. The quads took a bit of a beating on this descent as I found it really difficult not to stride out. I guess I need to work on my descending skills. Thankfully, at the bottom of the canyon was a most welcome river crossing which really felt good on the legs. I could have stayed there for hours!
Once across the river, I was faced with the notorious hike to the Devil’s Thumb aid station – 36 glorious switchbacks on a 1,750ft climb. From what I remember there were only a couple of runnable sections on this climb, and I definitely worked up a sweat as I made my way to the top. At the aid station I took time to chug down some water, refill my bottles and stuff the cooling buff with ice.
Out of Devil’s Thumb there was a long (5 mile), gradual descent down to the El Dorado Creek. Halfway down the descent I noticed my 50 mile split was just under 10 hours – not too shabby, and well on pace for a shiny, silver sub-24 buckle. I forced the thought out of my mind though as there was still a lot of running left to do. It was also on this descent that I first noticed signs that my quads were getting sore. I tried to back off the pace a touch, but the braking action of slowing down seemed to put even more pressure on the muscles. With each painful stride forward, I decided my mind and body was ready for another climb.
Once across the bridge at the bottom (at least I think there was a bridge), the trail quickly steepened and I settled in for the almost 3 mile climb to Michigan Bluff (Mile 55.7) where I’d get to see my crew again. I was drinking a lot on this section of the course and at one point was a little concerned that I’d run out of fluids before I reached the aid station. Finally, the trail popped out onto a dusty, rutted road and in the distance I could hear the clapping and cheering of the Michigan Bluff aid station. Ah, civilization at last!
Entering the aid station I removed my hydration vest and weighed in at 138.5lbs. That’s more like it! I bypassed the food/drink tables and jogged along to where Ally, Shannon and Greg had set up my supplies. After 50+ miles of running, it was really good to see them again. I switched out bottles, stocked up with Tailwind/Island Boost and took a minute or so to cool off with the giant MISSION cooling towel. Aside from the quads, everything felt good, although I’m pretty sure I whinged a bit about the two “brutal climbs” that I’d just negotiated. I didn’t hang around too long at Michigan Bluff and after a quick “See you at Foresthill”, I was off running again.
Michigan Bluff to Foresthill [66th Overall]
I ran part of the next section down to Volcano Canyon with another runner whose name escapes me at the moment. It was good to chat a bit, but he soon left me as the singletrack dropped off the closer we got to the canyon. I expected this section to be a bit flatter and, despite taking things pretty easy up to this point, was surprised at how much the downhills were already hurting.
The climb out of Volcano was a welcome respite for the quads, and it was nice to power hike the paved Bath Road section with one of Shannon’s friends who was looking for her runner (she was on pacing duties). From Bath Road it was just over a mile to the Foresthill aid station where I’d get to see my crew again and pick up Greg who would accompany me the last 38 miles of the race. This was a fun section along Foresthill Road with lots of cars honking their horns and folks outside their houses shouting and cheering.
The aid station was a bit overwhelming and quite hectic – lots of crew, and plenty of pacers all waiting anxiously for their runners. After a quick weigh in (138.5lbs again), and a few cups of coke, I exited the station and jogged along to find Ally, Shannon and Greg. Greg was raring to go, but I needed a few minutes to take on board more fuel and liquids, and also stuff the Petzl Nao Headlamp into my hydration vest for later on along the course. It was kinda nice to get going again, but as we headed out I realised it would be much later at night when I’d see my crew again at Highway 49 (Mile 93.5). 31.5 miles seemed so far away.
Foresthill to Highway 49 [77th Overall]
After running solo for much of the first 62 miles, it was great to have Greg for company and to chat a bit as we started the descent down to the American River Canyon along Cal Street. The 16 miles to the Rucky Chucky river crossing passed pretty quickly, although fatigue was definitely setting in and my quads were locking up.
Foresthill to Cal-1 was a nice descent, but it was hard to stretch out as my quads rebelled. Cal-1 to Cal-2 was a lot more technical, with numerous rollers along the red-soiled terrain. I think I stopped to shake out some rocks from one of my shoes along this stretch, and was surprised how tough it was just to bend down. Cal-2 soon arrived, however, and after topping up fluids and squeezing down an Island Boost, we were soon off again.
Cal-2 to Cal-3 was more downhill and more rollers. We hiked the ups, jogged the flats and suffered through the steeper parts of the descent. Once at Cal-3 I knew there was only about 5 miles to go to the near side aid station. Thankfully the singletrack levelled off a bit and we were able to run a decent pace along this stretch. At least it *felt* like a decent pace at the time…
I expected the singletrack to continue all the way to the river crossing, but it ended kind of abruptly and turned into a dusty fire road instead. I think there was a bit of a hike involved along here, before the road dropped down gently to the aid station. Once again I jumped on the scale (140lbs – back to my pre-race weight), topped off fluids and as darkness was almost upon us, strapped on a waist lamp and the Petzl Nao.
The short, steep descent to the river was slow going. My quads hurt and it was difficult to pick out a boulder to step down onto. The river crossing, however, was awesome. The cold water felt great on my legs and the support from the volunteers manning the guide rope was fantastic. At the far side of the river I mentioned how good the water felt on my quads, but at that precise moment, my right foot slipped on a rock and I nearly cramped up big time. Thankfully I successfully avoided the cramp and was able to jog slowly up to the far side aid station where our drop bags were waiting.
For the first time in the race I sat down and let a volunteer change my soaked shoes/socks. With 22 miles to go, it would be nice to at least start off with dry feet. The volunteer struggled a bit with my Injinjis, so I bent forward and helped her out. Greg changed his shoes too and after a few more minutes we were off power hiking to Green Gate – a steady 2 mile climb on a rather nice fire road.
I made sure to drink plenty on the climb and munched on a couple of dried pineapple pieces which I’d stowed in my drop bag. They tasted great and made a pleasant change from Tailwind and Island Boost. This section of the race was quite busy with several pacers making their way down to the far side aid station to meet and pick up their runners. It was also quite cool to be moving along with just a headlamp lighting the way.
We reached Green Gate in 61st position overall (the best of the day), quicker than expected and mentally I was still feeling good. Unfortunately it was on this next section to Auburn Lake Trails that I realized my quads were 100% shot and I wouldn’t be running much, if any, of the remaining 20 miles. The pain was intolerable and frustratingly I was forced to hobble down the descents one sorry step at a time. I’m still wincing at the very thought. Thankfully, I was still on pace for a sub-24 finish and was able to stride out on the flats and hike the ups at a pretty decent clip.
The 5 mile stretch to Auburn Lake Trails seemed to take forever, and by this time my Garmin had died and I was reliant on Greg to keep me up-to-date with regards to pace, estimated finish time etc. From what I can remember, ALT was a great, fully-stocked aid station, but with me reduced to a walk-only mode, there was literally no time to hang around.
Somewhat despondently, we headed out of Auburn Lake Trails faced with another rolling 4.5 miles to go to the next aid station at Browns Bar. I kept telling myself at least there were only 15 miles to the finish and in my mind mapped out the distance of a comparative route that I run most weekends. One step at a time, Steve. One step at a time.
Greg and I chatted often but also went quiet for long stretches. I think the stretch to Browns Bar was predominantly a quiet one, aside from the numerous times we were passed by runners moving quicker than us (i.e. not walking). I probably bugged Greg a lot on this section asking “How far since Auburn Lake Trails?”, “How much further to Browns Bar?”, “How much time in the bank for my sub-24?”. It was also frustrating as I felt like we should be running this allegedly-easy section of the course, but my legs just wouldn’t allow it.
Finally, Browns Bar came into earshot with some crazy loud tunes playing in the distance. It was a bit weird though as the closer we got, the quieter the songs became. Did we miss a turn, or did we have to run some kind of crazy loop to get down to the aid station? Suddenly, the tunes got louder and the aid station miraculously appeared before us! [Note: we found out after the race that Rogue Valley Runners who man the aid station apparently like to confuse runners by messing with the volume of their music. Thanks guys – it certainly worked for us.]
Out of Brown’s Bar came another painful 1.5 mile descent (are you kidding me?), followed by a 1.75 mile hike to Highway 49 where Ally and Shannon would be [patiently] waiting. Again, this section seemed to take forever, and the steep descent did nothing to help rejuvenate my quads. After being passed by at least another 4 or 5 sets of runners accompanied by their pacers, the Highway 49 streetlamps soon came into view and it was just a short hop across the road to the aid station.
I could sense Ally and Shannon were concerned about my dramatic slowing from Foresthill to Highway 49, but they didn’t mention it, and just made quick work of switching out my bottles and getting me on my way. I sat down briefly for some reason (not sure why to be honest), and decided to swap my Petzl Nao (which was starting to annoy me) for my Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp. Might as well have a bit of comfort for the final 6.5 miles, eh?
Highway 49 to Finish [87th Overall]
Heading out of Highway 49, we were greeted by another 1 mile gradual climb up to Cool Meadow. I would have loved to have run this section of the course but my legs were having none of it. Once across the meadow, there was another annoying 2.5 mile descent down to No Hands Bridge. Again, the pre-race plan was to run this section quite hard and make up a bit of time, but all I could do was keep up a pretty good walk pace.
The bridge soon came into view and was semi-lit up with Holiday lights. A nice touch, but all I could think about was one more climb, and just over a 5K left to the finish. As we crossed the bridge, Greg reassured me that I was on for a sub-23 finish if I could just keep the same pace going. However, I knew the climb up to Robie Point was a tough one and it would take a real effort to reach the Placer High School track in time.
The climb was indeed pretty brutal and coupled with some confusion regarding the distance to Robie, I was just ready to hit the asphalt and be done with the race. The folks at the Robie Point aid station provided a huge boost, however, and as we hit the last slope of the day, it hit me that I was about to complete the Western States 100 Endurance Run. Ally and Shannon were waiting just beyond the 99 mile marker, and it was really cool (and emotional) to follow the painted WS100 footprints and stride out together towards Placer High. The school floodlights soon came into view, and it was such an amazing feeling to hop onto the track and run the last 250m to the finish line, just as I’d imagined so many times in the weeks/months leading up to the race.
After crossing the line and thanking Ally, Shannon and Greg, I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself. I chatted briefly with Kim Wrinkle (iRunFar.com), sat down for a while to reflect on the race, but soon started to feel chilly. Ally went back to the crew vehicle to grab warm clothes and some compression gear, whilst I weighed in for the final time (140.5lbs would you believe), before heading to the medical tent to snag a cot and a blanket to keep me warm.
The next 6 to 8 hours were a mix of snoozing in the car, chowing down on the post-race breakfast, sitting in a chair icing my feet and attempting to stay out of the sun. Finally it was time to head to the Awards Ceremony where the Top 10 Male/Females were announced, and every finisher presented with their respective buckle.
Thanks to the Merrell Bare Access Trail and Injinji TRAIL 2.0 socks, my feet are the happiest they’ve ever been post-100 Miler. Aside from a couple of small hot spots, they look almost the same as they did before the race. My quads, however, took several days to come around, and 9 days on, are still a teeny bit tender. I thought I’d prepared enough for the Western States 100, but in reality I guess I was nowhere near ready for the almost 23,000ft of descending after all. In all honesty the 18,000ft of climbing wasn’t too bad, and I felt pretty comfortable hiking at a good clip where I needed to. I’m just a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to run much in the last 22 miles and take advantage of the “easier” sections of the course that I kept reading about.
Deep in the latter miles of the race, I remember telling Greg that I had no plans to return to the Western States 100. Despite the trashed quads, I had no doubts along the way that I could finish (which of course I did), but I wasn’t feeling the need to return and put myself through the pain and suffering of a very challenging 100 Miler. Of course, just a day or two after the race, thoughts of “I could do this better” and “Maybe if I tried this?” started to creep into my mind, and maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be entering the WS100 Lottery again.
I would also like to officially thank Ally, Shannon and Greg for their tireless work last weekend in supporting me. Running 100 Milers is tough, but it’s arguably just as tough, if not tougher, to crew these races. I owe each of you big time. Also, the online support I received via Facebook and Twitter was amazing, and it really kept me going to know that so many people were tracking my crazy journey to Auburn. A sincere thank you to everyone.
Finally, thanks to Hammer Nutrition, Tailwind and Island Boost for fueling me through the 100 miles with no stomach issues whatsoever. Aside from a couple of pieces of dried pineapple, I stuck religiously to a liquid only strategy, and it worked tremendously. I did tire slightly of the Tailwind taste in the last 10 miles, but I think if I’d been running, that wouldn’t have been so much of an issue.
So, lots of positives to be taken from the race – I finished with happy feet and a happy stomach, and achieved my pre-race goal of earning a Sub-24 buckle. There’s also the knowledge that I can definitely do better if I’m lucky enough to get another shot at the race one day. We’ll see, I guess…
Other Online Race Recaps:
Ian Sharman – Sharman Ultra
Juan Escobar – Tales of an El Paso Trail Runner
Max King – Western States and All That History
Alex Varner – Western States 2014
Larisa Dannis – The Dark Horse
Mike Aish – California Dreaming
Dylan Bowman – Western States 100
Pam Smith – Western States 2014: One Great Big Fake Orgasm
David Laney – Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run