36 Days to WSER: Double Triple Canyons

I met Tamyka Bell, a fellow Australian trail ultra-runner at the Bogong2Hotham back in 2010. We were both staying in the same hotel, and ended up chatting during the celebration dinner after the race. I had just recorded my first DNF at my first attempt at an ultramarathon, so I was feeling a bit down.

Tamyka (whose blog can be viewed here) had finished a number of ultramarathons including twice completing Western States. That night she made a prediction that within 12 months of completing my first ultramarathon I would attempt my first 100-mile race. The thought of completing a 100-mile race didn’t even interest me at that time.
Tamyka failed in her prediction although she only missed it by five months. Last year I completed the Leadville Trail 100 seventeen months after my first successful ultramarathon, a 50 km road race around the Hartebeespoort Dam north of Johannesburg.

As soon as I was accepted into Western States I started contacting people to get as much advice as I could about the race and the course. I sent Tamyka a message and she responded with some great suggestions, and also put me in touch with the Stevens Creek Striders. They are a running club based in Silicon Valley and have run the Last Chance aid station at Western states for more than 25 years. Tamyka had been paced by Dennis, one of the club’s members, during Western States. Dennis suggested a fellow runner at the club, Mike as a suitable pacer based on my target time, and invited me to join the club for a run the day before the Western States training runs.

That is how I found myself parked at Foresthill (mile 62 at Western States) on Friday 24th May about to embark on a route called the Double Triple Canyons. It involved running the Western States course in a backwards direction through the famed three canyons of Western States (hence Triple Canyons), climbing up to Last Chance and then turning around to complete the canyons once again in race direction (hence Doube). The total distance for the route was 60 km, but there would be some club members driving through to Michigan Bluff in order to shorten the course by 20 km and some would turn back early.

We set off along Foresthill Road, turned down Bath Road (home to the aid station prior to Foresthill) and then made our way onto single track. The track was marked and it was my first time setting foot on the “Western States Trail”. We descended for a few kilometres, crossed a creek and then commenced the climb to Michigan Bluff. We met up with the additional people joining at that point, and then continued on for our descent into the canyons.

The canyons at Western States are well-known for their extreme heat, with temperatures often reaching into the high 30’s on race day. The temperatures would be unseasonably cool all the way through the weekend so I would not be experiencing the canyons at their worst. But what surprised me was the tree canopy and shade that we descended through. I had expected that the canyons were a barren wasteland, devoid of trees, with the sun beaming directly down on unfortunate Western States
runners. But instead I was greeted by a beautifully forested run, in this case aided by moderate temperatures and a lovely cool breeze.

We reached the lowest point of our route and then commenced the ascent to Devil’s Thumb. The Devil’s Thumb climb is possibly the most difficult in the race, although in reverse direction it is actually longer although less steep. We had a mixed group of people and were walking all of the ascents so we gradually made our way up the long ascent. We stopped at a water pump just before the top to fill up with water and have a bite to eat. Then we continued to the peak where we glimpsed the rock formation that gave the peak its name.

Devil's Thumb on the Western States Trail
Devil’s Thumb on the Western States Trail

Mike and Dennis picked up the pace on the descent and we pulled ahead of the group to arrive at the bottom, and waited on a suspension bridge with lovely views of the river that it crossed. From there we had a single climb remaining, at least until the turnaround point. We hiked up most of the climb until it started to level out and then I coaxed some of the others to run slowly into Last Chance. After a stop at a spring located there to wait for the entire group to rejoin we set off for the return journey. We had completed just under 30 km.

On the way out I had been trying to follow the profile of the course but remember that each ascent would be a descent, and vice versa. On the return I decided to measure the distance and elevation changes for each of the major ascents and descents. Michelle, one of the members who had started out with us from Foresthill, experienced a locked hip and was struggling on the descents so Dennis volunteered to stick with her and drive her back from Michigan Bluff. We ended up with three of us completing the entire run. Lina is a Western States finisher who tirelessly lead us along the trail for the entire day. Mike, who will be running Leadville this year and will pace me at Western States struggled towards the end of the run, so I had the opportunity to test out my own pacing capabilities. And for me the day’s run constituted the start of a 4-day period that would involve 170 km of trail running.

After finishing we enjoyed a beer and some food. I also practiced some slightly more recommended recovery procedures by taking in fluids, carbs and protein in the form of a recovery drink.

You can check out the details of the run on MovesCount.com here.

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