I am not a prolific racer, and 2013 has involved a huge amount of training all built towards one goal: racing the Western States Endurance Run. Therefore I hope everyone will excuse the indulgent length and breadth of this race report, and that some might even reach its end. It is possibly the longest piece I have written since year 12 English.
My training for Western States had been as near to ideal as I could ever have hoped or planned, as detailed very minutely in this blog. The running I had completed in California on the Western States trail as well as in parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon had provided a huge volume of quality trail running with both elevation and heat.
I have always been a strong climber so my worry had been the huge amount of descent that the race involved. My time on the course plus some very long descents into the Yosemite Valley had been very beneficial in strengthening my quads for those race-day descents and for boosting my confidence to handle those descents.
Prior to the race I had put a lot of thought and time into planning. I put together a pacing chart with planned timing through each aid station based on past results, as well as inputs from experienced runners. I prepared the nutrition and gear that I would require as I proceeded along the course, available either through drop bags or thanks to my crew, catering for any eventuality I could think of.
But most important to me was that I had planned a strategy, and I spent plenty of time in the final week prior to the race visualising that strategy in terms of how I would tackle each major ascent and descent. The course profile features the biggest ascents as well as the biggest descents in the first 62 miles through to Foresthill, and then features the most gentle and runnable sections from Foresthill through to the finish. Many runners trash their legs so thoroughly prior to Foresthill that they are unable to run the sections that should be the fastest.
My plan was to attack the ascents and defend the descents through to Foresthill, and then to defend the ascents and attack the descents from Foresthill to the finish. The common advice to a Western States novice is to take it easy through to Foresthill to ensure you are still running at the finish, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to make good time on the big climbs since they are my strength. My thought was that the long downhill sections would provide sufficient time between climbs that I would still be able to run all the way through to the finish. The plan did require a fine balance since obviously some muscles are used for both ascents and descents.
When the extended weather forecast started showing high temperatures for race day, the planning needed to be re-evaluated. Then as race day approached and it was clear that it would be one of the hottest races on record it was time to adjust the plan. I arranged to carry additional fluids for cooling down my body, and reconsidered my pacing chart. I also went for a few sessions in the sauna and steam room. I would sit in the heat with my eyes closed, sweating profusely, and picturing what it would feel like to climb out of the canyons with a temperature that was cool in comparison. While I had been expecting that a top 40 finish was likely in normal race conditions, I started to think that if I ran a smart race in extremely hot conditions then a top 20 finish was a realistic possibility.
The night before the race I shared a pre-race meal with my pacers and crew. I told them that I would stick to the pacing chart through to Robinson Flat (30 miles / 50 km into the race), but the race could proceed in many ways from there. We would all need to be ready to adapt as the day progressed since no planning could determine what would happen once the heat arrived.
Start to Emigrant Gap
Waking in the morning before my alarm I looked at my watch and decided it was late enough to get up, just before 3:00 AM. I downed an energy shake and banana, jumped online for a final update of email and social networks, showered, dressed into my neatly laid-out clothes and gear, and then headed for check-in. I picked up my bib number and timing chip, and was weighed in for the first of many times for the day.
I then headed to the start line area, where I met with Louis (my pacer from the river through to the finish) and his wife Linn. I handed them my wallet and phone, and we discussed how relaxed the start of trail ultras were. At a road race there would have been people of all levels pushing as close to the line as possible, yet when I headed over to line up with only five minutes remaining I could easily have moved forward beside the elites. I picked a spot about a quarter of the way back through the field and watched the start line clock tick down.
A shot gun blast … the race is away.
We set off at a run and the course very quickly commenced the 4-mile (6.4 km) ascent that starts the climb out of the ski village and over the pass. I walked plenty of the climb, but as per my strategy, continued to run whenever I decided the gradient was gentle enough. I passed, and was passed by, many people that I have met and run with over the preceding weeks, and we joyfully greeted each other. When I passed by Denise, last year’s 11th-placed female and a top-10 aspirant this year, I realised that I was now amongst the top females. Over the past year I have realised that I mix it up well with the leading ladies, so with their fewer numbers in relation to the men, I tend to gauge position and progress based on them.
I reached the top of the pass, turned around to walk the last few steps backwards while enjoying the view towards Lake Tahoe, and then set off forwards into the Granite Chief Wilderness area. As I crested I voiced in my head, “Auburn, here I come.” I looked at my watch for the first time since hitting the start button to see that I had reached the pass in 52 minutes, ahead of my conservative pacing for the climb, but with a long way still to go.
Emigrant Gap to Robinson Flat
I then settled in for the considerable descent down to Lyons Ridge. I ran and chatted for a while with Hendrik, who is Danish but currently residing in India. I pointed out some of the features I was familiar with from my training run along this section of the course, but Hendrik then pulled away on the descent, and then I reached the gate where I had turned around on my training run, and I would be on uncharted territory for the next 21 miles (33 km). Running in towards Lyons Ridge I had the first impression of the heat that we would face. It was before 7:00 AM at an elevation over 7,000 ft (2,100 m), and I was running in the shade, but the heat was palpable.
Just after the Lyons Ridge aid station I chatted with another runner for a while, who had apparently been told by one of the aid station crew that he was in the top 50. He mentioned that we were possibly on pace for a top 20 finish if we kept up the pace, and I discussed the fact that every runner was talking about the carnage that they expected in the heat, yet nobody thought that they would be part of that carnage. Obviously some of them will be wrong, and I hoped that would not include me.
I reached Red Star Ridge aid station, had my first sponge bath of the day, wet my buff, and continued for the descent into Duncan Canyon. Passing the aid station I dropped down to Duncan Creek, where I stopped briefly to cool myself down, and then commenced the long climb to Robinson Flat.
Crossing Duncan Creek with Amy Sproston just behind – photo courtesy of Facchino Photography
I fell in behind two strong females, with one of them setting a great pace and running plenty of sections so I sat on their tail. Eventually the stronger climber of the two pulled away from the second, so I stuck with her, and then eventually passed her and continued on my own through to Robinson Flat. I came out onto the road, spotted my crew for the first time of the day, and entered the aid station. I downed some energy shake, carried the rest with me, picked up an additional 8-oz (240-ml) flask of water (for keeping my body wet), and set out once again. I had reached Robinson Flat nine minutes ahead of my pacing chart, but now all bets were off. I would see my crew once again at Michigan Bluff, after two of the three canyons.
Along the course – courtesy of Michigan Bluff Photography