Tag Archives: Michigan Bluff

Race Report: Western States Endurance Run

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.

Training

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.

Pre-Race

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
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
Along the course – courtesy of Michigan Bluff Photography

Continue reading Race Report: Western States Endurance Run

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.

Continue reading 28 Days to WSER: Hot Canyons and Dark Nights

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

Continue reading 36 Days to WSER: Double Triple Canyons