28 Days to WSER: Hot Canyons and Dark Nights

The idea for my second weekend in the US came from two people I met during my first weekend.

I had managed two runs through the canyons along the Western States trail, known for their scorching heat, but both runs had been in pleasant temperatures with a cool breeze. Denise had mentioned on Memorial Day that the advanced forecast for Auburn the following Saturday was for temperatures in the 90’s. It would be a great opportunity to experience the canyons in the heat.

The final day of the training runs had been from Green Gate to the finish at Placer High School, a section that I will complete in the dark on race day. Walter had forwarded me an invitation for an informal group run at night over that section of the course.

Therefore after a few days hiking along the Tahoe Rim Trail I returned to Auburn to follow the ideas of both Denise and Walter.

Just before 1PM I parked my car in Michigan Bluff, ready to hit the canyons during the hottest part of the day. My plan was to run from Michigan Bluff down through the canyons, and then up the long climb to Devil’s Thumb. From there I could turn around and return to the car for a total of around 16 miles (25 km).

I took my Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest, fitted out with two 17-oz (500-ml) Salomon soft flasks, since my intention was to race Western States using that same setup (although maybe down-sizing one to an 8-oz (480-ml) soft flask. Furthering my testing of gear for race day I was also wearing a new pair of The North Face shorts, my tried-and-tested Salomon shirt (which was used at Leadville last year), and an iPod Shuffle. The last item is definitely the most contentious item that I was testing.

I have never been a fan of using music on a run. My perspective has always been that most people use music to distract themselves from the run, while I endeavour to connect with the run. If I am hurting on a run then I don’t want to use music to take my mind off that pain, but I would rather battle through it and know at that end that I pushed myself and won. But I know that last year’s second place finisher at Western States, Ryan Sandes, uses music during both training runs and races, and also recently watched a Kilian Jornet video (titled “How I Prepare An Ultra”, which is well worth checking out on YouTube) where he mentioned that he also uses music. Therefore I thought that I would give it a go.

After a very short climb out of the town of Michigan Bluff I began the descent into the canyons. It was a hot day and the canyons definitely felt warmer than the previous weekend. On the descent I greeted a runner headed in the opposite direction, and when he asked whether we had met before we stopped for a brief conversation. I mentioned that I am Australian (which might also have become more obvious as we continued to talk), as that is a point that would likely have stood out if we had met previously. I mentioned my plan, and he suggested that the canyons weren’t as bad as most people make out, although I wiped my hand across my forehead and held it up with plenty of moisture to suggest that they are still tougher in the heat than they had been the previous weekend.

After crossing the bridge at the bottom of my descent I had the much longer climb out of the canyons that is only experienced when running the reverse direction to race day. Part way up the climb I started thinking about my turnaround point. I had opted for Devil’s Thumb since continuing through to Last Chance would have been too far in distance and would have stretched out my finishing time too late. But I realised that rather than turning around at the top of a climb I could instead turn around between those two options, thereby adding in one more descent as well as a tough climb. It worked from both a distance and time point of view and was therefore easily adopted: I would turn around at the suspension bridge after Devil’s Thumb.

I stopped briefly at a water pump before Devil’s Thumb to fill my soft flasks, then continued to the top and immediately began the descent down the other side. Part way down I heard the unexpected sound of a trail bike engine. Trail bikes aren’t allowed on the Western States trail so I tried to determine whether it could instead be a chainsaw engine due to some maintenance work. But the sound closed in quickly, and I was forced to step aside as two trail bikes zoomed past me on the trail.

Upon reaching the bottom of the descent I made my way onto the bridge, crossed exactly halfway and then turned around for my return journey. I immediately started walking on the steep ascent of Devil’s Thumb, but was pushing a fast pace. I managed to find a couple of sections on the climb where I could run, and was maintaining a fierce pace. My legs were really enjoying the climbing, maybe the benefit of having hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail for a couple of days and no longer having to haul a heavier pack up the hill. I reached the top and had completed the climb two minutes faster than I had the previous weekend, which I had considered a good ascent, and this time in even hotter weather.

I descended into the canyons once more, allowing myself to pick up considerably more pace than the very controlled descent I had made the previous week. I had wanted to attack the Michigan Bluff ascent the previous week as it had seemed to have a number of sections that could be run, but had found it more difficult than expected. Having carried around my iPod for the entire run but having not used it yet I decided that I would try it out for the climb. I had loaded it with mainly hard rock music, and had it blasting in my ears as I started the ascent. I found much myself able to run some good sections of the climb, although I would attribute that to my strong climbing on the day rather than the music. I powered to the top in a considerably better time than the previous week.

I made my way back to my car to enjoy a recovery drink and a stretch in the shade since I would be running again in around 3.5 hours. I drove back to Auburn, had an early dinner, checked into my accommodation for the night, and was soon on my way out to start run number two for the day.

The night run from Green Gate to Auburn is an informal run organised by one of the locals, with the 22-mile run including one aid station at around mile 15. Meeting in the car park of Placer High School in Auburn I spotted some familiar faces. Among those faces was Mariano, who I met last year when he rented the second bedroom of the two-bedroom house that I had booked for the week leading up to the race. Also there was Steve, who I had run with at the second training run the previous weekend, and one of the guys working at the local running store called the Auburn Running Company. We stood around chatting while people arrived before hopping in cars for a lift out to the starting point.

As soon as we were dropped off being started taking off immediately. I was not entirely sure of the route, and it would be unmarked, so I knew that I would have to follow people for the duration of the night’s run. I had run quite hard during the afternoon realising that it was likely that I would need to run slower than my ideal pace for the evening’s run.

I caught up with a group of runners ahead of me and fell in behind me as we started off with light still in the sky. Starting on the road, we descended for a while before turning onto the single track of the Western States trail. After a while headlights started being switched on as darkness started to fall. The group I was following briefly took a wrong turn but soon turned around and ended up in an even longer line of people, with possibly 10 people snaking along the trail. As we continued people would drop off for walk breaks or toilet stops so we gradually whittled down in numbers.

After a while I ended up in a group of four. Mariano, who was extremely familiar with the route, was leading the way followed by me, another runner in this year’s race named James, as well as his pacer. Mariano maintained a great pace and as we snaked our way along the course we could see the headlights of other runners behind us at a number of points. We then saw some lights ahead of us and managed to gradually catch and then pass a group of runners. I congratulated Mariano on his great pacing and we continued to push along. But on one of the climbing sections leading up to Highway 49 Mariano slowed for a walk break and we ended up with three of us.

We crossed the highway and stopped briefly at the well-stocked aid station. Then we were off again with 7 miles remaining. We made our way to No Hands Bridge, and then began the climb up to Robie Point. I took the lead for possibly the first time on the run, but I noticed James’ pacer starting to struggle and backed off the pace slightly. Eventually James and I picked up the pace once again and took off together. Dropping a pacer on race day is not uncommon, and you will rarely see a runner slow down to wait for their pacer. James and I reached the tar at Robie Point and then had the final climb before descending into the school. Once we started to descend James really picked up the pace and I let him get slightly ahead, but he slowed down at the end and we arrived into the school car park together. It had been a great night of running, and the pace had definitely been faster than I had expected.

We chatted with other runners as they arrived for a while, and shortly before 1AM I jumped in my car for the short drive to my accommodation and a well-earned rest. It had been a very dark night’s run, with the moon not even visible. It was important to note that with exactly 28 days until race day we can expect similar moon conditions that night as well.

You can see further details of both runs on MovesCount.com here and here.

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