Saturday, 6 July 2013

Western States 100 - Running into the fires

Pre-race and registration

So the day had finally come, this is what I had been building up to for 6 solid months and arguably what I’ve been training for since I picked up Dean Karnazes’ book – Ultra Marathon Man. This was when I first became aware of the Western States 100, and I was captivated by Dean’s description of this epic race. Fast forward 4 years and I was now standing on the same start line of the WS100 that Dean had been standing on nineteen years ago in his debut in 1994.
 
My preparation for WS100 had gone really well. I had stayed injury free throughout my training and had logged 50 miles per week on average, plus some cross-training on the ElliptiGO. In those 6 months I had got my half marathon time down from 1:27 to 1:20, my marathon time down from 3:17 to 2:59 and had shaved an hour off my 50 mile time. All the signs were good. I knew to expect some high temperatures at WS100 of which we are not use to in blighty. A couple of heat chamber sessions at Kingston University Sports Science department and some hours spent in the sauna got my body (and mind) acclimatised as to what to expect out there. I was ready.

 The Thursday and Friday before the race were just surreal. There was I in the middle of Squaw Valley (1960 Winter Olympics venue) surrounded by the superstars of US and international ultra-running. I was staying with my friends Ken (producer of Running Stupid podcast) and Karen from San Francisco who are right in the middle of this vibrant ultra scene in the Bay area. Upon arriving at Squaw Valley on Thursday we got out the car in the scorching temperatures and who should be the first person that we bump into – none other than Ellie Greenwood WS100 course record holder and fellow Brit who smashed Ann Trason’s long standing record last year. Ken was in Ellie’s crew for her simply stunning back to back wins in 2011 and 2012. We chatted and chilled out for a bit before seating down to listen to a WS100 veterans panel discussion made up of Ellie, Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer, and Gordy Ainsleigh. Quite a line up and an absolutely fascinating one hour where they imparted their considerable experience, and wisdom to the totally hooked crowd. I even got to meet and shake the hand of the legend that is Gordy (the man we have to thank for the WS100 getting started 40 years ago).


Me and Gordy!
His advice to me was to get rid of the blue mohawk and bleach my hair all white which would be far better in the heat of the day as the sun. He had a point! Nevertheless the mo was staying and was already drawing many comments and admirers which is never a bad thing.
 
Friday was another surreal day of meeting the who’s who of the ultra-scene. Karen and I who were staying in nearby Tahoe City made the 10 minute drive back over to Squaw for me to check-in at 9am when it opened. The thinking behind this was that I would get through medical before I had breakfast and thus be my lightest weight which was written on my medical band. This turned out to be a great idea as I weighed in at 163lbs on Friday morning and 168lbs on race morning after breakfast. So evidentially my pre-race fuelling had worked perfectly gaining me an extra 5lbs of energy. Once through medical it was time to get all the ‘free’ WS100 swag. This included a Mountain Hardwear bag, hoodie, tech shirt, sun visor, mug, arm warmers, Injinji desert hat, and tonnes of GU gels. Most impressive! I then hung around to watch the start of the Montrail 6k uphill challenge which was a low key race for pacers and crew (and anyone else) that fancied flying up the first 3 miles of the Escarpment which is the first climb in WS100 and ascends 2,500ft in just 4.5 miles. Once I cheered Ken, Karen and Ellie off up the hill I headed for breakfast and some much needed fuelling (and shade!). It was just after 10am and the temperatures were already in the high 80s. By mid-afternoon they would be hitting 100F (high 30s)!
 
Breakfast and lunch were enjoyed in good company with none other than the legendary David Horton (if you don’t know who he is then shame on you!) and Ian Sharman who spotted my Team GB Olympic jersey and came over to say hello. I was loving the company and chatting about all things Western States and trying to learn as much as I could ahead of the race tomorrow from the best in the business. Ian was so laid back about the race and spoke of having a good battle with fellow Brit Nick Clarke. Ian would win that battle finishing in 4th place overall on the day with Nick finishing in 6th. Both of them simply stunning performances that I could never get my head around.

 The lengthy pre-race briefing was after lunch in the heat of the afternoon sun but luckily we bagged a spot under a huge pine tree. The top 10 males and female were paraded in front of the attentive onlookers and we were told in one uncertain terms that if we wanted to survive the heat tomorrow that the first thing we should do is to throw away our pace bands in the nearest river. The heat was what everyone was talking about. The weather forecast for race day would have temperature (in the shade) peaking at 105F (41 Celsius) with the canyon sections being at least 5 degrees hotter. Friggin’ heck!! And the word on the street was that it was already looking like being the 2nd hottest Western States in its 40 year history!! My attitude to the temperatures was simply one of ‘bring it on!’. I had done the heat training and I wanted to put it to good effect. In my mind I was ready for it.

 

Race Day

Race morning and Karen and I were up at 2:45am to get everything together for the 5am race start. I microwaved my pre-prepared quinoa, banana, chia seed and cactus nectar porridge which really hit the spot, and got ‘Buffed up’ in my team kit. Lube and plasters were applied where necessary, and SPF50 cream smothered over any exposed skin from head to toe. We headed over to the start where I met my WS100 ‘crew’ for the very first time – Helen Fong (from Auburn) and Clint Welch (from Sacramento) had got up at 12:30am to get over to the start in time to see me off.


Team Buff!
They would then be aiding me every step of the way for the next day from aid station to station along the route, and pacing me from the Foresthill aid station at 62 miles to the finish. I went through some race plans with them which included handing them a pace band I had made up with every aid station split for a 22/24/30 hr finish. The plan was to start at a 22hr pace (13 minute miling) and gauge my effort. If that pace felt even remotely too fast I was going to slow it down but if it felt sustainable and my heart rate was keeping in check and my core temp also under control then I would look to continue at this pace. Ultimately the three time goals on the band represented my A goal, B goal and C goal. But nothing was to prevent me from finishing. There was no ‘quit list’ in this race – it was either finish or someone would have to drag me off that course with an IV sticking out my arm. There would be no repeat of my pitiful performance in the SDW100 last year where I dropped my sorry arse out of the race at 83 miles simply because my legs hurt too much. I was a different person now and I was out to prove that fact.

I walked over to the start line with just 10 minutes to go. I never like hanging around too long. I was buzzing with adrenaline and excitement. I was actually standing on the start line of the Western States Endurance Run where so many ultra-champions had stood before me and made history. Surely the greatest trail hundred in the world. This was it and I was ready to give it everything I had. I said my goodbyes to Helen and Clint who I wouldn't be seeing again until Robinson Flat at mile 30 and edged a little closer into the pack.


I was certainty pumped up for this one!
It was still dark as a fire burned brightly right in the middle of the pack. After a short battle speech from new race director Craig Thornley the countdown from 10 began and before long we were sent on our way into the fires of the Sierra Nevada mountains to pit our wits against this legendary race.

 

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat (29.7m)

The 2,500ft climb from Squaw Valley (6,200') to the top of Emigrant Pass (8,750’) that I'd read and visualised on so many occasions was exactly as I had imagined. It was a slow hike with short sections that you could get into a short trot before walking again. This is of course unless you're one of the front runners who I watched fly up the mountain with ease.

The views from near the top were amazing as you looked back down over Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe. It was already light upon reaching the first check point at 3.5 miles. The sky was piercing blue and you just knew it was gonna be a scorcher. I hit Emigrant Pass aid station at 5:45am which was a full 24 minutes ahead of Dean Karnazes in his debut WS100 in 1994. This wasn't something I was aware of at the time obviously (I'd probably have slowed the heck down if I did!) but I thought it would make for an interesting side show in this race report.

I didn't need anything from the super eager volunteers as I was carrying two 750ml bottles in my Ultimate Direction SJ pack. We were now approaching the steepest section of the climb. It’s only a short section but it was a hands on knees job. In the snow this climb would indeed be super tough such was the steepness but with the recent rain and high temps there was no snow at all on the course. It soon levelled out as we continued to climb single file up the trail to continue to the top hiking and jogging as the terrain dictated.


Reaching the top of Emigrant Pass at 4 1/2 miles in
The top peaks at over 9,000ft and I was fully expecting to be feeling the attitude effecting me but there was nothing noticeable as I crested the top to the support and cheers of on-lookers. One comment to the passing runners was that it's all downhill from here to the finish which made me laugh. The facts however were that we had a little over 16,000ft of climbing ahead of us before we got to Auburn but even more challenging was the 22,000+ ft of descending that would shape my race.

The next section was an awesome rolling trail which was mostly down hill and very runnable into the woods and on the ridge line towards Lyon Ridge at 10.5 miles. The trail was a little technical with rocks and roots, and twists and turns and the occasional small stream crossing which meant wet feet from the start. It was mostly single track meaning that we were in a procession of runners with little opportunity for overtaking. I was trying very hard not to follow the pace of the person in front and instead dictate my own pace which I did with a handful of runners deciding to overtake me on this section. I was having a ball and thoroughly enjoying my Western States experience.


The trails were stunning
 
I hit Lyon Ridge aid station exactly on pace matching my split on my pace band for 22hrs in 2:04. I grabbed some fruit whilst a volunteer filled both my bottles for me. GU Brew electrolyte in one and water in the other. Despite only being 7am in the morning it was already hot as I gratefully accepted a hose down from another volunteer with a spray gun. Keeping core temperature down was going to be the key to surviving in the heat and dousing yourself with water at every opportunity was the best way to do this.

The next section to Red Star Ridge was more technical trail that gradually descending for 5 miles of relatively easy running. The views across from the ridge to the near and far mountains were spectacular however you always had to keep one eye on your footing. On the steeper twisty switch backs down to the aid station I took a fall after kicking a rock and losing my balance. I wasn't going too fast so was able to kind of roll forward onto the rocks that strewn the trail. A grazed hand and a little knock to my new Ironman Timex watch was the only damage. It was still working and luckily I noticed that the fall had stopped the stopwatch. I continued down the switch backs with hyper awareness of any potential trip hazards ahead. 

I made Red Star Ridge at 16 miles in good time and spot on pace for 22hrs once again. This was the first drop bag stop where upon arrival the super efficient volunteer force who had already been notified of your impending arrival were ready with drop bag in hand. I had 8 such drop bags at various points on the course. In them were 9-bars, nákd bars, fruit purée pouches, and gels. I replenished my stocks and went on my way eating as I hiked out of the station.

The next station was a big long descent to the bottom of Duncan Canyon which was a blast. Despite the heat I wasn't noticing it too much and I was keeping my core temp under control and not pushing the pace. It was more of a sustained moderate effort with gravity doing much of the work. The Duncan Canyon aid station came out of nowhere as you descended a steep trail turned a corner and suddenly you were faced with a hive of activity. I was a few minutes ahead of my 22hr schedule coming into the station at 9:30am and feeling great. A volunteer was right with me the second I arrived and filled my bottles whilst another guy with a bucket of water douse ice water over my head and neck. The water drenched my top providing an instant and very welcoming cooling effect. I had also kept my freebie WS arm warmers on which might seem strange in the heat but keeping them on and wet provided a great cooling effect and blocked out the sun reducing any burn and direct exposure.

Leaving Duncan Canyon the trail continued to descend to the very bottom which was another few miles of continuous descent. At the bottom was the first major stream crossing where a photographer was located capturing our antics as we crossed. As Ian Sharman had recommended the day before over lunch always take the opportunity to cool down. So I crouched down in the water and frantically scooping the water over my head and body for instant relief. From here there was a very long and sustained climb to the top at Robinson Flat which was the first crew point. I was learning that it was in fact the climbs where I was strongest compared to others around me. This pattern would continue for much of the race being passed on the downs but making up time on the climbs where my speed hike was extremely effective. 

Coming into Robinson Flat at 30 miles was an absolute blast as I milked the crowd support and jumped on the scales for the first weigh in. I'd lost 4-5lbs from my 168lb start weight which wasn’t too bad but meant that I needed to continue to hydrate and eat in the extreme heat. Once again I was right on schedule and at this point hitting the aid station at 10:50am which was almost one hour ahead of the mighty Dean Karnazes (in 1994). Now had I known this at the time also knowing that Dean finished that year in 21hrs I would have started to question my early pace! But I didn’t feel that I was pushing hard at all, my core temp was fine, heart rate normal, and my legs were feeling great. I high-fived my crew and got to work at refuelling from my drop bag. This included my baked sweet potato with almond butter which inside the foil was actually hot. I ate half as the heat really suppresses appetite and it wasn’t hitting the spot. However what I was eating loads of was fresh fruit from the aid stations which included water and catelope melon, strawberries and blueberries. I avoided all the other sweet stuff on offer such as Oreos, M&Ms, peanut brittle and peanut/jelly sandwiches. I think I was getting just about enough calories from the fruit, energy bars and gels I had been taking although in hindsight I was definitely a little light.
 

Robinson Flat (29.7m) to Devil’s Thumb (47.8m)

I left Robinson Flat in 69th position and on cloud 9 to the cheers of the spectators lining the trail. The next section was really runnable slicing through the amazing landscape with towering pine trees lining each side of the trail. It was just after 11am now but the day was certainly heating up as the trees made for good cover from the sun beating down. I was in my element and running with ease but being careful to keep my pace in check even though this section had a significant net down hill. I was mostly running completely alone by now as the field had started to thin. I was surprised how quickly Miller’s Defeat aid station (35.3 miles) came up. Rolling into the aid station at 11:47am I was right on schedule two minutes ahead of my target 22hr pace. The usual first class assistance from the awesome volunteers was right on hand with a chap immediately filling my bottles for me whilst I perused the food table. The variation on offer wasn’t massive so I stuck to what seemed to be working well devouring lots of fresh fruit. Next up was the ice bucket using a sponge to soak ice cold water over my head, and neck. 

The next section to Dusty Corners (38 miles) was only 2.7 miles and it soon popped up as I maintained exactly the same pace arriving at 12:26pm still two minutes ahead of schedule. My memory here is a bit vague so let’s continue to Last Chance (43.3 miles) which I reached with my biggest margin ahead of target at 6 minutes inside 22hr pace. I won’t lie that I was already at this early stage getting quite excited about how well I was running and how consistent my pace had been, hitting all my splits on such varied terrain. I wouldn’t say that I was getting ahead of myself as I knew there was still a long way to go but I was enjoying myself and who can blame me!... I was smashing it.  

At Last Chance I met Peter a volunteer from Peterborough, in the UK. Peter was ace and asked me lots of questions to assess my condition and see what I needed. He asked what I had been eating (I replied mostly fruit) and he said that I needed to get a lot more calories on board especially in this heat. So I took Peter’s advice and dived into my drop bag, and had some bars and a gel. But the aid station food still wasn’t doing it for me. He also asked whether I had been taking S-Caps (sodium replacement capsules) regularly. I had not touched them and was relying solely on the GU Brew electrolyte drink available at the aid stations. The problem with this is that it was quite weak so I probably wasn’t getting enough salt to replace what I was losing from sweating in the extreme heat. Peter advised that I took two S-Caps at every station from now and so this is exactly what I did.
 
I left Last Chance feeling in reasonable condition and form, and I needed to be because the next section was about to get a whole lot tougher and open my eyes to what Western States is all about – the canyons! The five mile section from Last Chance to Devil’s Thumb traversed Deadwood canyon plummeting 2,000 ft in 3 miles along steep, twisting switch backs which made the going extremely tough and started to mess with my feet. I started to get passed by other runners who seemed to be able to manage the downhills a lot more nimbley than me making me feel even more sluggish. Upon reaching the bottom we crossed a bridge and was then faced with a 2 mile 1,500ft climb straight back up the other side. However before this I took the opportunity to cool off in the river. I jumped straight in and laid on my back fully immersed in the cooling waters. I could have laid there a lot longer such was the relief from the heat of the canyon but I had a race to run! Upon getting out I soon realised my mistake - my mobile phone was in my pack! It didn’t survive the plunge.
 
The climb up from Deadwood Canyon was slow going. Unsurprisingly upon finally reaching the top and rolling into Devil’s Thumb I had fallen off the 22hr pace but only by 7 minutes. Considering the harsh terrain and increasing heat I took this in my stride. Interestingly looking back at Dean Karnazes’ time in 1994 he reached here at 3:31pm. I was 55 minutes ahead!  

It was now over 100F, and in the canyons nearer 110F (43 Celsius!). I was almost half way in the race now and everything had gone better up to this point than I could have ever dreamed. But the question is whether my Western States dream would continue… I was about to find out.
 

Devil’s Thumb (47.8m) to Foresthill (62m) 

My feet had started to feel the effects of the descents in the first canyon and this next one was not going to help matters. The descent from Devil’s Thumb to the bottom of the canyon at El Dorado Creek plunged 2,500ft in 5 miles. This wasn’t going to be fun. My feet took a battering and with each step my pace slowed further. Again runners passed me on the down hills as my pace couldn’t match theirs. Upon finally reaching the bottom it was a straight 3 mile slog up the other side from 1,700ft to 3,530ft at Michigan Bluff. This climb was slow going for everyone and in actual fact I was one of the faster climbers on the trail passing every runner that had passed me on the descent. This gave me some confidence that whilst I was losing time on the descents my climbing ability meant I wasn’t yet leaking too much time. 

Michigan Bluff at 55.7 miles was a welcome relief from the hot trails buzzing with activity, and tons of cheering spectators and support. After being weighed in I met up with crew member Clint who took good care of me. He put loads of ice into my bandana which he tied around my neck, and we focused on refueling. A volunteer asked how much I was eating and like Peter at the earlier station said I wasn’t getting enough calories. He insisted that I ate more so I tucked into a few Oreo biscuits. The sandwiches on offer simply weren’t appetising, and there wasn’t enough other savoury options for my liking.  

I had reached Michigan Bluff in 11 hours 36 minutes, averaging 12:29 pace. I was now 17 minutes behind a 22hr finish pace so it was time to turn my attention to sub 24 hrs and ensure I kept up the pace and didn’t let the Silver buckle slip through my fingers. At this point I was still confident of achieving this goal and upon leaving Michigan Bluff I was about 35 minutes ahead of 24hr cut off. I was also 40 minutes up on Dean!
 
The next section was quite demoralising mostly because I wasn’t expecting another canyon. In my mind I was expecting quite a nice run between here and Foresthill at 62 miles which is where I would pick up Helen my pacer. However I obviously didn’t study my profile map enough as there was firstly a shallow but prolonged climb on wide open gravel roads which radiated the heat right at you. This was was followed by a steep 1,000ft drop into volcano canyon. A very apt name considering the red hot dirt trails and roasting temperatures. These were the most intense temperatures I had experienced to date with little air movement. Eventually I made it out of the stifling canyon and onto the first proper road on the course at Bath road aid station. From here there was a short 1.5 mile climb to Foresthill. I walked up the road getting in some gels and continuing to hydrate. 

Helen was waiting for me 0.5 miles outside of the Foresthill aid station and we promptly jogged into the biggest party on the course. This was where it all happened with most runners picking up their pacers to help them get through the remaining 38 miles and the night section. Crews lined the roadside in their American pick-up trucks and SUVs and cheered and clapped as we passed. This was exactly the pick-me-up I needed after the previous sections which were starting to wear down my high spirits just a little. The rest of my extended crew also met me here, with Clint, Karen and Ken all there with one goal in mind… Get me the hell out of here as quickly as possibly. After running 100k you would think it would provide at least some time to reflect on what one had achieved and at least enjoy it a little but it’s often said (and it’s true) that the race only really begins at Foresthill. Reaching Foresthill was the easy bit. It what happens between here and the finish line that will determine how good a race you have.

 


Refuelling at Foresthill Aid Station

My crew were amazing and managed to change my soaking wet Injiniji socks into a dry pair whilst I sat and enjoyed an ice lolly. The only part that didn’t go according to plan was that I had wanted to also change into a dry pair of shoes – my La Sportiva Crosslites. However they were very well hidden in the crew vehicle and couldn’t be found so I had to stick back on my wet Hoka’s. Things happen, good and bad, and I simply had to get on with it. Upon leaving Foresthill with Helen we were 30 minutes in front of the 24hr cutoff time. Knowing how my feet were feeling, I knew this didn’t provide much of a cushion and with many hard miles ahead it was at this point that it was apparent that it was going to be a long night ahead. Furthermore I was now just 9 minutes ahead of Dean as he chased me down (figuratively speaking) making up 30 minutes on me in the last section!
 

 Foresthill (62m) to Rucky Chucky (78m)

There is one notable thing about ultra-running and that is by it’s nature it’s a solo sport. Whilst a very sociable one off the trail both before and after races you will often find yourself alone on the trail with only your thoughts for company. Having a pacer changes this which whilst less common in the UK, in the US having a pacer on such events is definitely the norm. Having Helen alongside me for company, conversation and pacing was an enormous help psychologically. 

Helen’s task was simple – keep me running at a sub 24hr pace (14 minute miling) between here and the finish line and the silver buckle would be mine. The issue was that I was barely hanging on to the required pace over the next two sections up to Peachstone at 71 miles. This section of trail was best described as undulating with some steep but short intermittent climbs. Below the trail to our left was the mighty America River that we were heading towards and crossing at the famous Rucky Chucky crossing at 78 miles. However that was too far ahead. For now I was more concerned with the immediate challenge of simply making it to the next checkpoint inside the 24hr cut off.  

We hit Peachstone aid station at 8:22pm 12 minutes inside the cut off. I had lost 18 minutes since Foresthill in just 9 miles, and I still had 29 miles to the finish. My hopes and dreams of the silver buckle were fading as fast as the sunlight. Despite this Helen was still very positive, encouraging me to move faster and asking me lots of questions about my family to take my mind off the pain. To any non-ultra runner a 14 minute mile pace seems ridiculously slow, and I would agree. But the toll that the last 70 miles had taken on my feet was now baring down on me heavily. My legs were in still in good shape, and my fitness was there and I really don’t think I was paying for my early pace. But my feet were completely trashed caused by the constant soaking they were getting combined with the extreme heat. This had caused a lot of friction with the inevitable blisters and folding skin on the sole of my foot which was the cause of the pain with every step I took. I was losing the fight. 



One of the many descents on route

I think it was on the section to Fords Bar at 73 miles where I voiced my concerns to Helen that I simply couldn’t keep the required pace to go sub 24hr. I think Helen knew it already such was our pace but sometimes you want to ignore the obvious signs. For me though I wanted to ‘enjoy’ the rest of the race and remove the pressure and accept the inevitable decline. Once we accepted that I wasn’t going to make it in under 24 hours we could push on with a new agenda and goal to stop the rot and not leak too much more time in the remaining 27 miles. With what amounted to a trail marathon still to go there was still plenty to do however so we set about the task in hand. 

After yet more tough long climbs and a final descent to the river we eventually reached the Rucky Chucky river crossing. For me this was one of the most famous points on the course pictured in Dean’s book as he crossed the river grasping the rope in his hands looking a picture of health and fitness. I didn’t quite look as good at this point. Dean crossed the river at 9:51pm. Helen and I crossed it around 2 hours later just before midnight. It was a great experience plunging into the dark waters. Its about 50 metres across with a rope between each bank and loads of dedicated volunteers in the freezing water assisting you as you picked your way between the large rocks and holes that littered the riverbed. Once across we met up with Clint on the other side who had been patiently wondering where we had got to. On the other side was an aid station and foot medic. It was time to try and prevent any further deterioration to my feet and see what they could do. I had a dry pair of socks but unfortunately no dry shoes. The Sportiva’s were no where to be found. The medic did a great job under the circumstances and patched me up as good he could whilst I enjoyed a hot soup and some food from my drop bag. We must have spent a good 20 minutes here but now that sub-24hr was a distant dream the time pressures were all but gone.


Rucky Chucky (78m) to Auburn (100m) 

Once set all three of us made our way together up the long two mile climb to Green Gate. I suggested that Clint may want to take on pacing duties from Helen for a while. I felt guilty that Clint had been hanging around so long for me and he was such a great guy that I wanted to give him some action and experience of running Western States. After all it is the oldest and most renowned trail 100 in the world so he deserved to get a taste. I know Helen felt disappointed by this and had her heart set on running the whole thing from Foresthill but above all else a pacer duties are about self-sacrifice. And some fresh energy from Clint might just get me moving a little faster.

 We reached Green Gate at 12:43am in 128th place out of 385 starters. Earlier in the race at Michigan Bluff I had been as high as 63rd but that was almost a marathon ago and a lot had changed since then. We left Helen to get some sleep in Clint’s truck before she would make her way to Highway 49 at 93.5 miles to meet us. Clint and I set off from Green Gate heading for Auburn Lake Trails. Almost immediately upon leaving the aid station we missed a turning off the trail and continued down a steep technical section for a further ½ mile. It was only when two headlamps came towards us from the opposite direction that our fears were soon realised. We hadn’t seen some marker ribbon in a while and we had indeed screwed up. This was a bit of a sucker punch as I left Green Gate with a bit of renewed optimism and was determined to start afresh and push on so adding an extra mile was hard to take. The next 5 miles were the slowest of the entire run (or should I say ‘walk’). Clint did his very best to keep me moving forward but my feet were screaming at me with every step and I didn’t feel much like moving. 

We finally made it to ALT at 85.2 miles. Not helped by the extra mile we had dropped a further 40 places in just 5 miles (of course I didn’t know this at the time and it would have scarcely mattered even if I did). At this point in the race and in fact throughout the race my positioning was not something I was remotely concerned about. As with most ultras it’s just about pitting yourself against the trail and seeing who wins. At this point the Western States was definitely kicking my arse! However I wasn’t down and out and was still moving towards the finish. We took some time to recuperate at ALT as the aid station volunteers showed some signs of concern for me. I was mainly just very tired and probably the least cheerful I had been all day. Very unlike me so a big sorry to the ALT volunteers for not getting the Ultra Disco Stu experience! ;-) They had some great food at ALT as I tucked into chicken noodle soup, pancakes with syrup, and a coffee. It’s amazing what a bit of good hot food can do. 

I changed into a fresh Buff long sleeved top despite it still being in the high 70s. You do get cold at the aid stations so at the time it felt so good. We left ALT around 3:45am and I felt a whole lot better. The next 5 mile section was way better. The extreme fatigue had been replaced with renewed hope that the finish line was less than 15 miles away, whilst we could also look forward to sun rise which brought a new day and would surely mark my completion of the Western States 100.  

Clint still showed concern for our pace however. Whilst we had just under 9 hours to cover the remaining 15 miles, which seemed ample time, nothing is certain in ultra running and he rightly wanted to keep me focused on the task at hand and moving forward. We struck a good runner/pacer relationship as Clint would constantly tell me if we were moving fast enough (sub 20 minute miling was the goal – yes I know…. 3mph!! My nan could move faster!!). It’s in this section to Browns Bar at 90 miles that I found ‘something’ extra in the tank and lit the booster rockets. On what was a very narrow trail with very little room to pass I went ahead of Clint who had been pacing, and picked up the pace from a fast hike to actually running! We flew into Browns Bars with renewed optimism that we wouldn’t be stretching the 30hr cut off, and got straight out of there only taking time to fill a water bottle and grab some S-Caps. 

The 3.5 miles to Highway 49 were non-eventful (which is not necessarily a bad thing!). I managed to maintain the pace and keep it below 20 minute miling, and now that it was daylight it felt like the final march to the finish. Baring an extreme melt down or fall down the side of the trail the bronze Western States finisher buckle was mine for the taking. Coming into Highway 49 was great reuniting with Helen who would pick up pacing duties once again and enjoy the final 7 miles to the finish.


Refuelling at Highway 49 aid station
 
Leaving Highway 49 around 6:30am we had 4 ½ hrs to get to the finish. The pressure was off and Helen and I fast hiked the remaining sections with a tiny bit of running interspersed just to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete invalid. There was one section where we passed through several meadows that reminded me of the trails back home.
 


Passing through the meadows at mile 95 - could be the North Downs Way

 
The highpoint (not elevation wise) was crossing No Hands Bridge at mile 97. This is another of those famous points on the course which marks a significant milestone. From here you climb for 2 miles up to Robie Point which is just a mile from the finish at PlacerHigh School running track.
 

This isn't No Hands Bridge!

No Hands Bridge!
 
I was realising my dream which was to finish the Western States 100. Whilst we all have time goals that help guide our training and pace on race day ultimately it comes down to one thing…. Do you have what it takes to finish? Helen and I picked up Clint at Robie Point just after 8am and enjoyed the walk in through Auburn town passed admiring locals who had come out to witness what is one of the biggest events in the ultra calendar.


In Auburn and the final mile - all smiles!

I would have loved to have run the last mile as if it had some significance to do so, but my feet were toast and the hard tarmac was anything but soothing. We shared a great moment as an adult deer was standing on the pavement looking straight at us as we passed. Despite now being in the urban jungle this was my the first wildlife sighting of the entire course! I’m quite grateful for that in that we didn’t bump into any brown bears or mountain lions which are both common sightings in the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

Just before the final approach to Placer High School running track who should appear running up the road in the opposite direction but no other than the legendary Tim Twietmeyer who’s completed Western States no few than 25 times in under 24 hours! I high-fived Tim as he passed which was a super cool way to end my Western States journey. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill I entered Placer High School running track and started the ¾ lap round to the finish line. I ran alongside Ken down the back straight whom made this whole experience possible for me, and then we parted ways as I got into my stride in the last 200 metres and blasted down the home straight.
 
 

I’d done it!! I had finished the Western States 100. It was simply an amazing feeling as stood there at the finish trying to soak in the last 27 ½ hours. My exact finish time was 27:30.24.
 
Job done!
 
A medal was placed around my neck (I would get my bronze buckle later), as I hugged and thanked Helen and Clint for everything they had done for me. I couldn’t have finished it without them!


The medal tasted oh so good!
 
Picking up my Bronze finisher buckle
 
 
 
And so that was my Western States 100. It was an absolutely epic race, and everything I had imagined and a lot more. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t disappointed not to be coming away with a silver belt buckle. That is what I had trained intensely for 6 months for, and I felt that I had the form and endurance to run well under 24 hours, even in that heat. But form and endurance are just two factors of many, and having the perfect race requires a lot more pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place. Could I have taken better care of my feet on the day to prevent my downfall? Perhaps yes, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and this is where you learn so much in every ultra you complete. If, and when I return to Western States one day I’ll be sure to take at least three changes of shoes and 5 changes of socks! But for now I am one extremely happy Brit and will covet my bronze buckle, and wear it with pride for many years.

 



8 comments:

  1. Well done Stu not only on a really good race but on a great race report - almost felt every step of the way. Great stuff.

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  2. congratulations Stu, this is the stuff of dreams, well chuffed for you

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  3. Awesome work fella. Great report and great to see you living the dream!

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  4. Well done Stu, fantastic report ... you've done yourself proud. Got the medal, got the Buckle :) Many congratulations

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  5. So proud of you. An epic run, just what dreams are made of. If you don't dream big dreams then you just settle for the norm which is definitely not you. Well done for a great report too.

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  6. Nice work! Well done, Completely fantastic!

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  7. Great work Stu -- I met you in the medical tent after the race (the Kiwi wilting in the heat but equally chuffed to have finished States!). Remember the mohawk. Way to hang tough! Best wishes, Will

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  8. Unique and wonderful. Thanks to the curious readers who sent you the pics and thanks for the explanation!
    western scale

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