I am still tired, creaky and cranky three weeks out from finishing the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. Sitting on the couch, incessantly refreshing the iRunFar Twitter feed for Hardrock 100 results, I can’t help but wonder how the heck do these guys do it. Jeff Browning and Jesse Haynes, veterans of the sport, who I had raced three weeks prior, were both running 100 milers this weekend, with Browning finishing 4th at Hardrock and Haynes 1st at Tahoe Rim Trail. Un-freaking-believable.
I’m not sure how they do it, but maybe the answer comes with experience or just old man strength. Either way, I am gaining more experience and getting older too, so hopefully I can stay healthy and find out!
I ran the Western States 100 in 2015 as my first 100 miler in 19:07 (hr:mins) (race report). The overall experience was incredible but I left a big chunk of time on the course. In 2015, I was not prepared physically or mentally to actually race the 100 mile distance. I promised myself as I crossed the finish line in 2015, that if I could get back to Western States in 2016, I would be ready to race, not just run.
Fortunately, I was able to regain entry for the 2016 race via the “Golden Ticket” race series at Bandera 100K in January (race report), which gave me 6 months plan my attack for the June race.
I did several races including Way Too Cool 50K, American River 50 mile (race report) and Quicksilver 50K. These were perfect building races and there was plenty of time to recover in between. These went well and laid a solid foundation for Western. It also gave me more experience in racing.
In training, I decided to focus on improving my hill climbing and preparing for the heat. I usually average 60-70 miles a week with 1-4,000 feet of climbing. In preparation for Western, I wanted to increase the amount of climbing and I was able to get three consecutive weeks of 11-13,000 ft. During one of these weeks, I spent two solid days with David Laney on the Western States Trail. We did one hot day in the Canyons with a good amount of climbing followed by a hard push down “Cal Street” the next day.
As a third year Radiology Resident, I was also preparing for my National Board Exam, scheduled for two weeks before Western States. Fortunately, the exam center is located in Tucson, Arizona, aka “the surface of the sun.” After taking the grueling ultratest (650 questions over two days), I spent an extra two days running in the Arizona heat and got in a solid climb on Mt. Wrightson up to 9,500 ft.
In the four weeks prior to the race I also hit the sauna for the first time. I had not placed much emphasis on preparing the body for heat in the past, but this year I decided to give it a shot. This by far provided the best cost:benefit ratio of any of my preparation. With little effort other than standing in a 180-degree room, I was amazed to see a reduction in my resting heart rate.
Most of my crew and I arrived in Squaw two days before the race. My crew and pacers were amazing and it was a blast to have good friends to share this experience. All the girls grew excellent beards!
This year my goal was a top-10 finish, which would provide automatic entry into the 2017 race. My training had gone very well and physically I was ready. In the final week before Western, my focus turned to being mentally prepared, as I learned from racing this year that mental barriers are often the ones that restrain us the most.
There was a palpable excitement at the start. I lined up on the left in the second row of runners surrounded by some seasoned pro like Jeff Browning, Jesse Haynes, Ian Sharman, and David Laney. I had briefly chatted with Browning and Sharman the day before about the race. I figured if I am running anywhere near either of these guys, I would be running a smart race.
The first climb up the escarpment felt smooth and controlled. Laney led the charge with other favorites like Sage Canaday and Jim Walmsley sitting back. Though I could tell people were excited to get the race started, the pace stayed in check as we exchanged a little banter during the climb and enjoyed the sunrise over Squaw Valley. I crested the Escarpment faster than I expected but the effort was noticeablely less than the previous year.
The rolling high country was a little more technical and rocky than I had remembered. Walmsley, having held back early, started his assault on the course and cruised by around mile 7. I briefly chatted with Laney and Sage before they both entered the chase. Otherwise, I ran with a few others including Sharman, Mario Mendoza, Stephen Wassather, Andrew Miller, and Bob Shebest as we passed through the first two aid stations.
Sharman, Shebest and Miller pulled ahead of me after Duncan Canyon Aid (mile 24) before the climb up to Robinson Flat. I decided I would try to keep my heart rate down on the majority of the big climbs, which for the most part meant hiking, especially in the high country at 7-9,000 feet. My heart rate was low and I was feeling good and controlled.
I saw the majority of my crew for the first time at Robinson Flat (mile 30) and saw a ton of friends. I was feeling great and running well within myself.
I ran alone from Robinson Flat down to Last Chance aid station (about 14 miles) before entering the Canyons. Running alone, my mind started to wander and I needed to keep my effort up as I found myself easing off pace with no one in sight. In retrospect, I could probably run faster through this section.
After leaving Last Chance (mile 43), I was feeling both dread and excitement about entering the Canyons. Last year, this is where I really started to feel bad so it gave me a boost of confidence to be feeling good this time around. I was staying cool by keeping my clothes wet and with plenty of ice in my arm sleeves, hat, and bandana.
I was alone when I started the Devils Thumb climb and saw Tropical John Medinger as I hiked up, which gave me a nice boost. Near the top I was reminded that I was still in a race as I spotted Jeff Browning grinding up the climb behind me. I reached aid and headed out just before Browning, but he quickly caught up. I thought, “I can learn a lot from this guy” as he pulled out of sight down the El Dorado descent. I again decided to hike the majority of the Michigan Bluff climb and was starting to feel the heat.
Michigan Bluff (mile 56) gave me a big boost as I saw more people, I knew including friends from Minnesota, Kurt and Sonya Decker, along with one of the Radiologists I work with Chuck Lau, who surprised me by volunteering to serve on the medical staff! It was really great to feel all the support. Jenny and the rest of my crew was really rocking at this aid and got me in and out fast.
I was surprised to hear Laney was only a few minutes up and not feeling great. I entered Volcano Canyon and caught up to him on the first climb. We ran a bit together down to the stream crossing but then separated. Just before leaving Volcano Canyon, Chris Mocko, a local Bay Area speedster, caught me on the climb right before hitting Bath Rd., as I was hiking.
To this point I had been taking gels but really could not take many more. I switched mainly to liquid calories and GU chews. I entered a new mental space here where I focused on just moving forward. I was hoping the relatively conservative early miles would pay off. Having run this section relatively fast with Laney in training on tired legs, I knew I could move fast through this section and catch people. At this point, I was sitting just outside the top 10, so I knew this was my chance.
I picked up my first pacer and good friend/training partner/on-call coach, Mario Fraioli, on the climb up Bath Road just before the Foresthill aid station (mile 62). As we began the descent to the river on Cal Street, Mario reminded me of something very important in racing ultra. He said, “You always have more in you than you think you do!” This resonated with me. As my mind said slow down, I pushed the pace a bit I did have more than I thought.
I continued to move well and we were able to catch Mocko, Tofol and Shebest before hitting the river (Rucky Chucky mile 78), pushing me up into the top 10!
The cold water felt great and the volunteers reminded me to keep two hands on the rope as a previous runner had been swept downstream. I would find out later this was Jim Walmsley.
I grabbed the rope with two hands and laid on my back and spontaneously decided to try a float technique which worked amazing. Kinda like a Tyrollean Traverse but in the water, I floated on my back and hand over hand cruised across the river.
We hit the other side and picked up second pacer Mike Aish. He told me Sharman was just ahead. Aish, having battled Sharman several times at Leadville 100, was excited to help me give chase.
Aish kept me moving well with real-time coaching on relaxing my form. A former 2-time Olympian in the 5K and 10K for New Zealand, he did not let me back off the pace for the next 10 miles of rolling, runnable single track. We spotted Sage coming out of Browns Bar (mile 90), and I ran hard to catch him. Sage was clearly fighting with everything he had left but graciously encouraged me as I went by.
On the climb up to Highway 49, I heard footsteps and thought Sage might have caught a second wind. It turned out to be a second-wind for Chris Mocko, who was passing me back. I was running in 9th now as far as I could tell, so I knew a top ten was possible but I would need to keep working. Ethan Newberry, the Ginger Runner, was randomly out in the middle of the woods cheering which gave me a great boost!
I came into Highway 49 (mile 94), this year in the light and was told Walmsley was just ahead. I caught Walmsley as we began across the Cool meadow trails before descending to the river. He was walking and encouraged me with a smile as we passed. “8th I thought to myself. Top 10 is happening.”
Hitting No Hands Bridge (mile 97) in 8th place I knew I would finish but would have to push hard. I tried to dig deep but felt like the shovel was scraping the bottom of the barrel. I was moving forward but not fast. At that moment, Mike spotted two headlamps gaining from behind only 2 miles to the finish. Every states runners worst nightmare. Having to race up the last climb of the race at Robie point!
I gave everything I had left with a final grunt push to the bottom of the Robie Point climb. I had reached my mental limit for the day. Though I could probably physically run the final climb, mentally I was spent. Kyle Pietari caught me. I hiked hard but Kyle pulled away.
Reaching Robie point, I was greeted by my friend and pacer from last year, Fernando, and his big cheers and encouragement helped me to finish strong. I was able to run again and ran in hard trying to catch Kyle. This reinforced that it was mental fatigue that held me back on the Robie Climb. I hit the track and saw my crew and it was an amazing feeling! I did the last half a lap on the track finishing in 17:07, 2 hours faster than last year and in 9th place, 11 places better than last year.
I was fortunate as Haynes was breathing down my neck and took the coveted 10th position only a few minutes back.
I could not have been happier to hit my goal of finishing in the top 10. Ninth place means a guaranteed entry to Western States 2017. I gave everything I could out there. Most importantly, I gained experience regarding what it takes to race a 100 miles. I am slowly finding the balance of effort, nutrition, and pure guts. I can’t wait to come back and apply my new knowledge, one year older and one year wiser.
HOKA RACE RECAP VIDEO by Billy Yang
Craig Thornley and the Western States crew for putting on a great race. I hope to come back and go after the elusive sub-16 hour time!
Jenny! Thanks for your unconditional love and support. You’re an amazing person and keep me inspired to find new adventures and to be the best person I can on and off the race course. You’re the best!
My race crew Amy Leedham, Kristin Neland, Chris and Tristan Blagg. Totally spot-on and kept my nutrition/hydration up and body temperature down all day!
My pacers, Mario Fraioli and Mike Aish. Best damn friends and pacers in the business. Thanks for sharing the trails with me and pushing me into the top 10. I hope you have another free weekend next June!
John Medinger for his finish-line announcing and encouragement up Devils Thumb.
Chad “Chuck” Lau for volunteering on the Western States Medical Staff and being out there to support me.
HOKAONEONE: I can’t thank them enough for their huge support including the HOKA team including Sunny Margerum, Peanut Harms and great photos from Justin Britton. I ran in the ultra lightweight and cushioned Clayton shoe for this race. They felt super fast all day and had enough protection for the rocks!
Headlands Brewery: Tasty and after-party enhancing liquid support.
SimpleHydration: Providing a simple but effective way to carry water. Always had one filled at the aid station to chug or take along as needed.
Bliz Eyewear: The photochromic lenses were perfect for the mixed bright sun and shade. Worked perfect!
Average heart rate:
– ClifBar—Nut butter-filled
– 12 oz Redbull
– Vespa CV-35
– 1L Gatorade
– Amphipod bottle (20 oz), Ultimate direction Body Bottle Plus (17 oz), Simple Bottle (13 oz)
– Tailwind Endurance Fuel (150-200 cal/20oz bottle) and Cliff electrolyte drink
– GU Roctane/Huma gel (1 every 30 minutes)
– GU Energy chews, as needed
– Vespa concentrate
– Coke, as needed
– Hoka OneOne Clayton
– Stance Fusion Run crew socks
– Fenix3 HR
– Bliz Tracker Ozon Black