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.
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.
Robinson Flat to Last Chance
From Robinson Flat I had a last section of ascent over Little Bald Mountain and then I would not face another notable climb, but plenty of descent, for 15 miles (24 km). With my strategy I had expected more people to overtake on the descents I had already completed, but had barely been overtaken at all, and most of those people were now behind me once again. With the long descent ahead of me, and the easy pace I planned to maintain, I expected to see people pass by me during this section. I was feeling comfortable on the descents and maintained a steady pace as I passed through Miller’s Defeat. I caught another female runner, Joelle, a few miles further along and it was good to enjoy some conversation as we ran into Dusty Corners. We separated as we entered the aid station and I exited ahead of her.
I realised that the last few miles into Last Chance were a lot less downhill than I had remembered from my one run on this section, starting out with fresh legs from Robinson Flat. But I was still running at a good pace and felt comfortable. When I left single track behind for the road I knew the aid station was close. I arrived into the aid station and was greeted by some familiar faces from the Stevens Creek Striders including my first pacer, Mike, who would have to make tracks towards Foresthill to meet me there. I told Mike that I was still handling the heat well, and he informed me that I was fifteen minutes ahead of pace and inside the top 25. I then set out for the canyons.
Last Chance to Devil’s Thumb
A female runner had arrived into Last Chance aid station behind me but had left just ahead. I caught and passed her on the slight climb out of the aid station, but she then passed me as we started the descent. She asked me the distance to the aid station and then pulled ahead once more as we made our way down to the swinging bridge. At one point a camera man slotted in behind her, running along and filming her for around half a mile. He left her with a good luck message, and I realised that it was Amy Sproston ahead of me. I didn’t realise it at that point, but our battle would continue for over 56 miles, only finishing inside the last mile of the race.
[ Additional comment July 19th - I have just added a photo above of Amy just behind me at Duncan Creek (around mile 25) so our battle lasted considerably longer ]
I crossed the swinging bridge just behind Amy, and we both stopped at the waterfall just after it to cool off. We had a 1.8 mile climb up to Devil’s Thumb. I pulled ahead as I started the hike, knowing that there were only a couple of short sections that I wanted to run on this climb. When I reached those sections I increased my pace to a gentle run but could feel some slight spasms in my calf and hamstring muscles that are the likely signs of an oncoming cramp. I started to worry that I might have overdone my attacking on the earlier climbs.
I received a big cheer as I reached the aid station, and at my weigh in was registered at 138 lb (62.5 kg). They were concerned since that represented a 6-lb weight loss since that morning, but I reported that I was feeling fine and they let me continue while warning me to watch my consumption of caffeine and salts. I had them tuck some ice inside my buff, collected an ice popsicle and headed out of the aid station with cold water dripping down my back. I was one canyon down and still feeling well in control of the heat. But now I had the major 5-mile, quad-crushing descent to El Dorado Creek.
Devil’s Thumb to Michigan Bluff
Early in the descent I considered the weight loss, and realised that there must be a mistake. I had recorded a weight of 141.6 lb the previous day at the medical check-in, and there was no way I had put on 3 lb in a period of 19 hours, so obviously my recorded weight in the morning was wrong. A weight loss of only 3 lb was actually perfectly fine so I felt better about my nutrition up to that point.
I continued with my strategy of taking it easy on the descent, but it was on this section that I passed two top male athletes walking the downhill. I realised that simply running the downs at any pace and walking fast on the ascents would be considered fast from this point on. Part way down I was greeted by name by a male runner as they caught up behind me, so without turning around on the technical descent I asked who it was. It was Scott Wolfe, who I had run with on a couple of the training runs in May, and we chatted briefly as he passed and slowly pulled ahead of me. He mentioned that Cameron Clayton and Dave Mackey (two of the favoured male runners) had been sitting down on seats as we went through Devil’s Thumb aid station, so the heat was clearly taking its toll on the leaders.
We reached the El Dorado Creek aid station and took off together for the climb up to Michigan Bluff. We overtook Amy (who had passed me on the descent in the now-familiar pattern), walking the entire lower (and steeper) section of the ascent. I took one bite of a Clif Bar that I was carrying before realising that there was no way that I would be able to get any more down. Nutrition would start to get tougher from here.
There are a number of sections in the upper half that can be run, and I did so for some of those although I could still feel some slight spasms in my legs. Near the top I was overtaken by one of the runners I had passed walking on the descent into El Dorado Creek, now joyously exclaiming that he was “back from the dead”. I would later find out that it was one of the local favourites, Jacob Rydman, who I would re-pass later and he would eventually make the tough decision to drop from the race.
I reached the aid station at Michigan Bluff to meet my crew once again. I took another energy shake, and told Mariano not to bother bring out any more of the food that I had given him. I would continue to take drinks at each of the crew points, but would now rely on food from the aid stations. From this point on my nutrition would heavily rely on energy intake from liquids in the form of both Gu Roctane and Coke, with plenty of fruit (predominantly watermelon and strawberries) as well as the occasional biscuit that I forced down.
Michigan Bluff to Foresthill
On the gravel road leaving Michigan Bluff I took the decision to walk a couple of the very gradual hills that I had never considered at anything but a run. But I decided that I was still following closely to my strategy. I had made great time on the early climbs through to Little Bald Mountain, very good times on the climbs to Devil’s Thumb and Michigan Bluff, and now I would start my defence of the ascents from Michigan Bluff (rather than Foresthill) through to the finish.
I reached the major road climb after Michigan Bluff, that I could walk without guilt, and then continued on my way into the final canyon of the day, Volcano Canyon. I mused that while there were a number of signs for the race that had been put up directing the way to Volcano Canyon, they did not give the alternative options that road signs normally provide, just in case I had decided that I didn’t want to enter yet another canyon. I returned to single track through the canyon, stopped at the final spring to refresh myself and commenced the ascent to Bath Road, where I would meet Mike.
As I made my way onto the tar of Bath Road I spotted Mike dunking his bandanna at the aid station. I only filled one bottle for the short way to Foresthill and we set off up the road. We starting walking, and I provided Mike with an assessment of where I was at. My stomach was still feeling fine although I was reducing the amount of solids I was taking, my legs were fine to run the flats and downs although I expected to walk a lot of the uphills from that point on, and I had no problems with the heat.
On the climb from Bath Road to Foresthill Road I was passed by Nikki Kimble. She would be the final person to overtake me and finish ahead of me, and one of only two people (the other being Scott Wolfe) that I am aware of to do so after Robinson Flat. Mike and I reached Foresthill Road and started to run into the aid station at Foresthill. People were lined up along the road and there was great support, and a number of people that I knew from my time in California.
Foresthill to Rucky Chucky
I passed through the aid station, with Mike and I both leaving with an ice popsicle in hand. We ran along Foresthill Road enjoying them before reaching the turn at California Street that would take us back onto single track. I asked Mike what time it was, and realised that I was still ahead of my pacing chart. I had been carrying a copy of my chart with me, including distances, times and paces, but had not used it for anything other than measuring distances to aid stations since Robinson Flat. I was running entirely by feel.
The section down to Dardanelles (Cal-1) is an easy downhill section and the legs were feeling very good on the descent so I set out at a good pace, and was reaffirmed by Mike mentioning that my stride looked good. I knew that my stride had altered slightly when my legs were spasming earlier but now they were starting to relax.
After Cal-1 we started the rolling hills that would take us through to the Elevator Shaft, the steep descent just prior to Peachstone (Cal-2). I had provided Mike with my plans for this section, which involved only four hills that I had planned to walk on if everything went to plan. My legs were now feeling fine on the climbs as well so I continued to maintain a good pace, although I did add in a couple of extra walk breaks whenever I decided that my legs required the rest. When we reached the Elevator Shaft I felt great and I knew that I had managed the early descents well and felt that I would be fine through to the finish.
We passed through Cal-2 and reached the major climb of this section. We then continued through to Ford’s Bar (Cal-3), after which we would finally descend down to the river. We reached the sandy section along the river, and a few times during this section Amy and I again exchanged positions as we alternated running and walking. I spotted another runner walking in this section, and when I noted the North Face singlet and spotted the beard from a side-on glimpse I realised it was Hal Koerner. He stepped off the trail, I said “Thanks Hal”, he wished me well, and I continued towards the crossing.
I spotted the road converging with our trail, and when we stepped foot on it I knew that we had 1.5 miles to the river crossing. A few more rolling hills and then we descended to the Rucky Chucky Near Side aid station. A few steep stairs took me down to the river.
Rucky Chucky to Highway 49
I was directed towards the cable leading out into the water, and across to the other side. Volunteers stood holding onto it along its entire length and directed foot placing and informed about water height. The water was up to chest deep and I had been looking forward to its cooling effects.
But a few steps into the water the cooling started to trigger my sore calf muscles into a cramp. A full calf cramp took hold, but one of the volunteers instructed me not to release the cable.
I leant down against a rock and asked Mike to stretch out the cramp. I then gingerly continued across the river, eventually reaching the other side. I stretched out both legs against a rock, and then started climbing out from the river with a full crew.
Louis and his wife had been waiting, along with Mariano and Joe, so the group of us started the walk up to Green Gate. I decided to take a toilet stop, and when I exited the port-a-loo I mentioned that I have never had so many people wait for me in the toilet before. On the climb up I filled in Louis on how I was feeling. When the group of us reached the silver gate that is Green Gate I collected my headlight and hand torch, dropped off my hat and sunglasses, and Louis and I set off.
There was still a few minutes until sunset, and then longer until we lost the final light for the day. I started running, and the legs were feeling really great. so I decided that I would follow a ploy that Tim Twietmeyer had mentioned using, pushing a good pace before losing light since running at night would force you to slow down anyway. There were lighter and darker sections but eventually I had to admit that it was time to pull out my headlight.
We passed through Auburn Lake Trails, where a bunch of children were manning the food tables (under the supervision of adults) and I very enthusiastically thanked them for their help. About four different people offered me soup, but I suggested that it was possibly the last thing I felt like in the warm weather. We set off once again at a good pace and I overtook a number of people, which had me feeling even better. Along this stretch I overtook Amy once again, and this time as we passed I asked “Since we have been passing each other for 50 miles now can I just check that your name is Amy?”. She confirmed that it was, asked my name, and we were finally introduced. The Brown’s Bar aid station was very audible (a very party-like atmosphere and we were even trying to determine whether they had a live band) from a long way off and it seemed to take a very long time to reach it.
We reached a section of gravel road and I knew that there was a turnoff to the left back onto single trail. I was sure it would be well marked but I wanted nothing to interfere with my race at this point, so I instructed Louis to keep an eye out for it, so we carefully inspected the left side of the road with minute care as we moved along. The turnoff was marked well and when we turned off we then had the climb to Highway 49 ahead of us.
We walked and ran, I overtook Amy once more, and soon heard (and then saw) cars passing on the highway. We ran across the highway and entered the aid station, and the final medical check for the race. I was followed in by Amy, but then was surprised to see another runner follow me in as well. From the cheers around me I realised that it was Andy Jones-Wilkins. Interestingly, the pacing chart that I had put together (and was not really following any more) had input from Denise Bourassa, whose pacing chart was helped along by Andy.
Highway 49 to No Hands Bridge
I met my crew once again, and by the time we exited the station both Louis and I had lost track of the other runners. We were unsure exactly who was ahead of us and who was behind. We could see and hear Andy ahead but were unsure where Amy was. A little part of me thought that it doesn’t really matter since my target had always been to arrive to race against myself and the clock, but considering how well I was doing against the competition it was hard to ignore the relevance of each position.
Eventually Louis and I both spotted the blue shirt of Amy, so we were now running behind both her and Andy. There was a short climb out of the aid station, before we reached a meadow and then started the descent down to the lowest point on the course, No Hands Bridge. When we started the descent I was still running, and feeling relatively fine (although a little exhausted) yet I was unable to match the pace of the two in front of me. Slowly their lights moved away as I ran.
On the descent down towards the bridge I clipped a couple of rocks, managing to regain my balance, but I informed Louis that I would slow down a little as I did not want to trip. On one of the rocks I kicked my right big toe quite hard, first assuring myself that I had not broken it, but then noting that I was sure to lose it later.
I kept waiting for the switchback that would signify the final descent to the bridge but it took a long time coming. Louis knew this section of the course well so it was useful when he pointed out a widening of the trail that we could expect, and then some steps along the trail. Eventually we reached the switchback and took a turn towards the No Hands Bridge aid station.
At the aid station one of the volunteers asked whether I was chasing the guy ahead of me but I had already resigned myself to my current position. He suggested that the runner was just a minute ahead of me, but I know that most people’s perspective of time is quite far off when judging distances and times in a race. I could not see Andy’s light so the gap was clearly larger. Louis asked whether I wanted to wet myself down with sponges, and while the temperature had reduced to a comfortable level I had kept myself wet for the entire day, so I decided that I would do it once more.
No Hands Bridge to Auburn
We set off across the bridge and commenced the gradual climb along the broad trail before we would reach the steep single-track climb to Robie Point. Louis had been looking back periodically to check for lights behind me, and as we reached the steep climb he noted someone behind us. I was now being chased, but I felt confident that I could hold off anyone from that point due to the hill remaining.
We started climbing, running a lot more of the lower section than I had expected. When we reached the upper section of the trail, I started walking and Louis was concerned that we would be caught. I told him that if someone caught me on this hill then good on them.
I complained that my hand torch was sticky and kept transferring onto my hand, but Louis simply pointed out that I wouldn’t have to worry for long. He had a good point. The same applied to the chafing under my arms that I had started to notice for the first time. It also applied to the saw skin on my ankle where I thought I had scratched myself (it was actually chafing from my calf sleeves). Then there was possibly my feet and many of my muscles that I had not even considered for many miles by that stage.
We finally heard the noise coming from the Robie Point aid station, followed by their lights, and then reached the aid station. Mike was waiting for us there, as we would run the last 1.3 miles as a team. I knocked back a final cup of energy drink, filled just one water bottle, and off we set. Linn was there as well, and set off with us at a gentle running pace in her summer dress. The road would climb steeply for one-third of a mile (500 metres), before levelling out and then climbing one more time before the descent to the finish.
As we ascended Mariano jogged down to us to join us as well. Louis asked how far ahead Andy was, and I was surprised when he responded that the gap was just 150 metres. I decided that I had to try for it so I started picking up the pace. We reached the top of the steep climb, turned a corner and spotted the lights of Andy and his pacer. We all picked up the pace even further. Someone in the group asked whether we should turn off our lights, and I instantly responded “yes, do it”. Having seen Andy’s pace earlier I wanted to get as close as possible before he noted us and responded. I continued to pick up the pace, and we had dropped Linn, so the four of us (Mike, Louis, Mariano and I) pushed along running through the streets of Auburn under the dim street lights.
Andy’s pacer turned around and spotted us, spoke to him, but I noted no increase in pace. I realised that he had nothing left. We overtook Andy on the final climb of the race, he shouted out encouragement as we passed, and we took a left turn for the descent to Placer High School. As we descended I kept up the pace and we spotted another couple of lights ahead of us. It was Amy and her pacer. By now the pace was feeling like a sprint, and we continued to reel her in. As we closed in I noticed her look behind and I told her that it was me. As we passed I said that it had been great racing her, and then we continued on.
We took the final turn, ran towards the school track and stepped onto the track surface for the final partial lap. I made my way along the back straight, turned to ensure that neither of the two runners I had overtaken in the final mile were within closing distance, and then took the final turn. I glimpsed the clock and realised that my time was going to be good. I pushed all the way across the line to record a time of 19:24:44. My initial pacing chart had been for 19:30. Despite running in the second hottest ever Western States Endurance Run I had broken my target time by just over five minutes.
My run was good enough for 13th male and 15th overall. I was also the first foreigner home, and quite possibly the first amateur as well.
It had been an incredible day. I am thankful to everyone that helped out in my efforts, especially my pacers and crew, but also every person that I trained with, every person that provided me with advice, every volunteer involved with the race, and many others that I will forget to mention. I doubt that I will get another chance to prepare for a race like I did for this one, but I know that I certainly made the most of this one chance.