Upcoming Race: Western States Endurance Run

Last year my running focussed around two main targets: the 89-km Comrades Marathon in June and the 100-mile Leadville Trail 100 (pre-race information here and race report here) in August. Despite improving on my Comrades 2011 time by over 35 minutes, my Comrades 2012 race was a bit disappointing as I missed out on my target of a silver medal (achieved for running a time under 7:30). Leadville more than made up for my disappointment.

Leadville was my first 100-mile race and I had no idea what to expect from the race or myself. I looked at target paces and they all seemed so slow due to the extreme distance and the extreme challenges (starting and finishing at 3,200 metres of elevation with a total ascent of over 4,800 metres and a single climb of 1,000 metres over a 3,800 metre pass). I set myself a target that appeared realistic but there was no way to really know how my body would feel after equalling my furthest run to date (89 km at Comrades) and still having over 70 km remaining. As it turned out I was so far ahead of my stretch target at the 60-mile mark that I was able to relax and enjoy the remainder of the race. I took extra time at aid stations and walked sections that I definitely could have run if I had been pushed for time. Already by the next day, rather than swearing I would never run 100 miles again, I was already contemplating what time I could run at Leadville if I went all out. I thought about the time I could cut out at aid stations, the sections I could run instead of walking, and the sections where I should lift my running pace. I had a better understanding of what my body could withstand, so it was obvious that for my next 100-mile race I would leave everything out on the course.

Despite the very small percentage of the population willing to consider running such a distance, there is also a limited number of events available, and only a few races that really capture the imagination of the runners wanting to participate. Therefore it is considerably more difficult to secure an entry for a major 100-mile race than it is to secure an entry for a major marathon such as New York or London. I went for a three-pronged strategy in my 100-mile race applications for 2013, with all races taking place in the US.

First up was the Western States Endurance Run, the world’s oldest (and generally considered the most prestigious) 100-mile trail race. As a point-to-point race between Squaw Valley and Auburn in California, the race has a net descent although it still features around 5,500 metres of ascent (but 7,000 metres of descent). The race runs through a protected wilderness designation that would normally forbid the race from taking place, but since the race pre-dates the protection of the area the organisers were given congressional permission to continue running the event with the proviso that they could only allow as many participants as ran in the year the protected designation was declared. As such the race is limited to 369 competitors per year based on a 5-year rolling average. Entry to the race is through a lottery process that is oversubscribed by a factor of around 10 each year. Entrants must have completed one of a select number of qualifying races before being allowed entry into the lottery.

Western States Endurance Run -  Route Profile
Western States Endurance Run – Route Profile

Second on my list was a newer addition to my bucket list of runs, greatly helped by Scott Jurek’s great book “Eat to Run”. I knew of the run before reading the book but it was Scott’s description of the gruelling nature of the run, and the associated feeling that it would play to my strengths, that included it on my list. Some people might have been observant enough to realise that I have avoided using the term “race” so far in this paragraph, and that is because the organisers of the Hardrock 100 clearly state that they consider it a run rather than a race. Obviously that does not stop some of the best trail runners on the planet from coming out to race a course that includes over 10,000 metres of ascent (and equal descent) and a high point over 4,200 metres of elevation. The run completes a single 100-mile loop of the area surrounding the town of Silverton in Colorado. Known for the familiarity of its regular runners (the Hardrock family is commonly referenced) Hardrock 100 allows only 140 entrants. In a new process starting for the 2013 race, 35 spots are allocated in a lottery for runners who have never completed the race, 35 spots are allocated in a lottery for veterans with five or more Hardrock finishes, and 70 spots are allocated to applicants with one to four finishes.

Hardrock 100 - Route Profile
Hardrock 100 – Route Profile

The final option on my list was a return to Leadville. Leadville allows entrants based on a first-come, first-served basis. With entries opening after the lotteries for both Western States and Hardrock were completed, it provided a great option in case I didn’t experience any luck with the lotteries.

The races take place respectively in late June (Western States), mid-July (Hardrock) and mid-August (Leadville). Therefore whether I would run Comrades in 2013 was dependent on which race I successfully entered. An entry into Leadville would mean another double target of racing both Comrades and Leadville. An entry into Hardrock would allow me to run an easy Comrades, but with an entry into Western States I would forego Comrades to ensure I arrived ready to race hard.

The Western States lottery took place on December 8th. I eagerly followed the results on the internet while they posted names as they were drawn. By the time the lottery concluded my name had not been drawn. With the odds in the Hardrock lottery being even slimmer than Western States I already started mentally preparing for Leadville. I bemoaned by luck on Facebook, but a Canadian friend informed me that additional entries are given away to foreigners to boost international participation. Then on December 9th I found out that I had been selected. I was one of three South African residents selected to run Western States, alongside last year’s 2nd place runner Ryan Sandes, and 9-time Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce.

Now all that remains is to log a few miles of training, fly to the US, and then run 100 miles through the mountains and canyons of California. I am afraid you will need to wait until July for my race report. But I won’t be silent between now and then.

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