Monday, July 01, 2013

Western States 2013: The Best Run of My Life Thus Far?

I finished the Western States 100 yesterday. It may have been the best run of my life; it was certainly the most enjoyable 100-mile race. Here are way more details than you could ever want.

It was really hot. I knew that going in.
I ran as a pacer from mile 62 at Foresthill to the river at mile 78 in 2005, and I fastpacked the course on a hot Labor Day weekend in 2008, and posted this report. The route I took then was different in a few sections, and I saw places at different times of day, but it was vaguely helpful to be a little familiar with the course, and to know how hot it could get. After the fastpacking, I didn't really love the course, and wasn't hugely interested in running the race. The best, and only above treeline, scenery comes in the first 4 miles, and then you're on hard dirt or gravel roads much of the rest of the way. But after the race, I'm a convert.

I went up to Tahoe on Thursday to turn in my drop bags and attend an info meeting early Friday. At the meeting, Tim Twietmeyer, he of 25 sub 24-hour States finishes fame, advised us to figuratively throw our pace charts in the river because of the heat. The winning times were 3.5-5 hours slower in hot years than in the best years. I'd also read a few places that you really want to save your legs for the last third of the race, since the course really starts being runnable there, and the weather will (usually) be better.

I'd been in this situation before: having trained more consistently than I ever have, being in close to peak form, being excited for a major internationally renowned event, finding out it would be crazy hot on race day, and having the experts tell me to forget about my plans for a PR. The first time was Boston in 2004. I qualified with a 3:06 at St. George, then ran a 1:30 half in Moab two or three weeks prior. I was all set to break three hours at Boston, nevermind that the race started at noon when it was already 85 degrees and Bill Rogers told me to forget about it because of the the heat, and because, you know, Boston has hills from mile 11-21. Who is Bill Rogers to tell me what to do? I went out fast...and finished in a miserable 4:03. So this time I tried to listen to Tim.

The Start:
The top of Squaw--it's all downhill from here
Despite a weird altitude-induced dream that I missed the race start because I watched a NASCAR truck race, did math homework, then went back to bed, I started the race just fine. I was mistaken by a random European for Rob Krar (who just set the Grand Canyon R2R2R record, and would finish second, despite it being his first 100 miler) and a female runner asked me "what lake is that behind us?" on the climb out of Squaw Valley, (Tahoe!) but I felt OK. Actually, I felt a tiny amount of PF in my right foot flare up, so I was worried about that, and then my left heal started hurting in a bone bruise sort of way, so I really wanted out of my Altra Lone Peaks and into my more protective Brooks Cascadias, and I didn't love the ridge run from mile 5-23. I did, however, stay on 24-hour pace, and it wasn't really that hot yet.
"What lake is that?"--Someone from the midwest

The Canyons:
Somewhere around Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8) I started feeling good, and crushed the climb up to Robinson Flat. Unfortunately my crew missed me by 10 minutes there, so I couldn't switch into new shoes, but I managed to stay on 24-hour pace for the next 5 miles or so to Miller's Defeat. After that I promptly lost it, and walked a lot of the Miller's Defeat (34.4)-Dusty Corners (38) section, which should have been 100% runnable. This was likely due to my no longer being able to eat solid food.
I felt a little less awesome at this point.
If you've heard anything about my last few ultras, then you've heard me talk about barfing. In short, I used to eat real food at ultras, but I could never get enough calories. So starting with Wasatch last year, I tried doing what a lot of the elites do: eat a disgustingly large quantity of gels. This made me barf. So I decided to go back to real food for this race, and to try and make myself eat more of it by carrying a little baggy of food with me from aid station to aid station. I ate only fruit from the get-go, and loved the grapes, melon, and strawberries at first, but by Robinson Canyon I was gagging, and knew that forcing any more down would make it all come back up. For the rest of the race (yes, 60+ miles) I had to try and get by with as much ginger ale (Sprite, as a less desirable fallback) and soup broth as possible.

After Dusty Corners I actually did OK, all things considered. I didn't do the splits in faster than 24-hour pace, but I wasn't losing much more time:
Dusty Corners (38) to Last Chance (43.3): 1hr 2 minutes for me, 1 hr for 24-hour pace.
LC to Devil's Thumb (47.8): 1 hr 20 for me, 1 hr 20 for 24-hour pace.
DT to El Dorado Creek (52.9): 1 hr 17 for me, 1 hr 5 for 24-hour.
EDC to Michigan Bluff (55.7): 1 hr 6 for me, 1 hr for 24-hour.

This section is the two largest canyons, just huge drops into boiling furnaces with steep climbs on the opposite sides, thankfully with the brief respites of the ability to jump full on into tributaries of the American River at the bottom. We all know I love bombing down stuff like this, but I wanted to follow the advice of the pros to not blow your quads for late stages by overdoing the downhills, so I tried to reel it in a little, still going fast, but not overstriding, and not going so fast that the friction in my shoes heats up and gives me blisters on the bottom of my feet (which are essentially the only type of blisters I get while not carrying extra weight in the form of a full backpack). The uphills, I power-hiked like the long distance backpacker I am. So I think I did about as well in these as was possible, given that it was 100+ f---ing degrees outside. I lost a few minutes because after swimming in the first river crossing, my shoes were wet and did not drain well, so my feet got all pruney and became painfully sensitive. Thankfully I was able to switch shoes at Michigan Bluff (55.7), because I met my crew, and this magic happened:

Why run a hundred miles? Because even if your girlfriend can't make it until later in the day, other beautiful women may volunteer to spoon feed you vegan ice cream.

So I got a nice boost there. Gazelle brought me yellow Gatorade. I won't ask the question "Why do ultras all use GuBrew now?" because I assume the answer is obvious ($), but seriously, that shit is gross. Can you buy it in a gas station in fly-over country on a roadtrip and get accustomed to it? No. Just give me Gatorade. (Or Powerade. They're the same thing.)

Anyway, I also got a nice boost from seeing fellow thru-hikers Ken and Marcia Powers at Michigan Bluff as well. But after I left Michigan Bluff, and after the niceness of dry shoes wore off, I started to struggle with my right knee. So I was pretty slow from Michigan Bluff through Bath Road (60.6) to Foresthill (62), 23 additional minutes over the 24-hr split pace.

Foresthill to the River, AKA "Cal Street":
At Foresthill I got quite the pick-me-up from a surprise visit from these lovely ladies. I also picked up my first pacer of the day, Yuch, a friend of Gazelle's. How many cynical outdoorsy long-distance runner academics who enjoy BS-ing about omitted variable bias are there in California? Apparently N>1. I had only met him for once for ~10 minutes before we started running together, but Gazelle knows how to pick 'em.

We shot off out of Foresthill, but I eventually realized that it was not cooling off, as I had hoped. The sun was fading, but I was descending into a hot canyon, so temps stayed high, and eventually my spirits waned. And I puked. Twice. And by twice I mean "as many times as it took to empty my stomach, plus a few dry heaves for good measure, on two separate occasions." Yuch hasn't done ultras before, so I think this caught him a little by surprise, as it should any normal person. Worse than that, at one of the aid stations in this 16-mile stretch, despite it being 80+ degrees out, after downing some iced ginger ale, I promptly began shivering uncontrollably. I think it's safe to assume this means I was extremely dehydrated. I was thinking I should just get rolling again to heat myself up, but I laid on a cot with a blanket and sipped broth and ginger ale for a good 10-15 minutes.

In the first half of the 16 miles, I only lost 10 more minutes over 24-hr pace, but in the second half I lost 35. That said, we picked it up coming into the river crossing at Rucky Chucky (78), where all four crew and pacers boosted my spirits and laughed at how animated I could still get about stale saltines. As planned, Yuch tagged out, and Gazelle brought me home.

See you in Auburn:
We started by crossing the waist-high American river, which is just about as refreshing as you could possibly imagine. I put on dry shoes on the other side, and Gazelle and I stormed up to Green Gate (79.8). We were crushing it, with Gazelle saying "hike faster" on the ups, or "start running" when it was flat, and just letting me fly as is my wont on the downs. Unfortunately, when we arrived at Auburn Lake Trails (85.2), I apparently only weighed 120 pounds, down from 130.8 on Friday and 132 the morning of the race. Sipping on water while running didn't feel good, and led to one my vomits, so I had been relying on soda and broth at aid stations, but I should have been doing more. A medical volunteer named Rachel asked me to sit and drink. I obliged. After a few minutes I weighed myself (on a different scale) and was back to 125. Volunteer Rachel volunteered that she couldn't forcibly hold me at the station, so I thanked her for her efforts, finished half of the remaining liquids she advised me to put down, and was on my way. We then ran great to Brown's Bar (89.9), though the split looks bad because of the time at the previous aid station.

Unfortunately my stomach emptied itself right after BB, but it didn't slow me down that much. I wasn't in pain before or after, it was just my stomach hitting reset. I don't know what fraction of the liquids Rachel made me down was lost after BB, but it wasn't everything. My knee started acting up again right before BB, and again right after, but we rolled into Highway 49 (93.5) in decent shape. Volunteers there were a little concerned that I only weighed 125, but I was a little concerned that I'd weighed in a bajillion times and there were only 6.7 miles left, so give me a break.

I gritted my teeth, swung my right leg a little sideways to bend my knee less, dropped into No Hands (96.8), and ran nearly every step of the way up the 900' climb to Robie Point (98.9). Amy and Ashley met me on the final street, and I sprinted to the finish around the track, in a 100-mile PR of 25:30:34.
Dropping the pacers on the track. Photo by Yuch.
I collapsed, then dry heaved uncontrollably for a minute or two, because that's how I roll (around on the ground). Luis Escobar was there to photograph this, and he told me I looked beautiful, which completed the making of my day. (The man knows how to shoot runners: just scan the google image search to be amazed.)

So that's it. I didn't break 24 hours, but I did set a PR by 26 minutes, and given the heat, I think I crushed it. The buckle's not silver, but it will still keep my pants up. Granted, Tim Olson did win the race in only 31 minutes slower than his course record pace from last year, but I feel like there's a fairly decent chance I could've taken 90 minutes off my time in friendlier weather. And maybe it's the course, which is lower-altitude and more downhill in the second half, but this was easily the best second half of a 100 I've ever run. Perhaps it is the only enjoyable-while-it's-happening second half of a 100 I've run. At no point during my second 50 did I make my standard "I love running 50-milers, you get to sleep in your own bed" comment. Except for the immediate consequence of barfing (once) or as part of emptying shoes of rocks (twice), nowhere did I sit down in the dirt to rest, which I almost always do during the night. Again, that might be the course, since there are 24 aid stations, far more than at most races, but it still feels good.

And I ran smart. I didn't overdo the downhills, or push too hard in the hottest part of the day. That left me energy to spend, which I spent happily, in the last quarter. I feel much sorer today than after Bryce, but bigger picture, that feels much better. If I have an average 100, it's this: run a fast 50, bonk hard, run hard the last 5-10 when the sun comes up, and feel fine mere hours later. States was: run an honest 30, keep going, keep going, crush the last 25, and limp around for a few days. This is much better.

And the race was an experience. The race is extremely well organized, and the fan support is wonderful. I used to discount the whole thing because people would call Western States the "hardest" race, even though this is obviously not true. But Western States is hard, it was my friend Ben's last race, and it deserves respect. 2013 was the 40th year, it's the oldest 100-mile race, and it can be hot as a motherf---er. But at least it's a dry heat.

Here are my splits from

Huge thanks to Z&B for the hosting, A&A for the surprise, and Gz&Yuch for the pacing. I'll definitely be back some day.


  1. Garret, After seeing Emily's post on fb about your completion of the Western States race, I was telling a neighbor about it. He used to be an endurance runner (and maybe biker?) but is now an endurance rider. Last year he spent 2 months in the saddle on the Pony Express trail.

    Anyway, he told Uncle Calvin and I all about the history of the Western States race and Ken "Cowman" Shirk. It was quite interesting. He said there is a race in Vermont where runners and equestrians still travel together and that you should join him on it (Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Race). He's headed to VT this week for a gathering with his girlfriend's family. He may extend his trip if he can borrow a horse to ride in the race.

  2. I was actually hoping to do Vermont this year, but I was dumb and didn't register when I had the chance, and then it was full the next time I checked (it fills up really fast for runners). I didn't know it was still horses and runners simultaneously though. It seems like that's the only one. That's cool, except for the stepping in fresh poop part.

  3. Congratulations! Impressive showing and a good read, too.

  4. really excited about your performance even though I am a little late. hell yeah g!

  5. Thanks, Krud! Your ANWR pics are rad, by the way.