Tag Archives: Squaw Valley

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

Advertisements

1 Day to WSER: Rest and Registration

So here we are. Almost. It is one day out until race day and I have finally caught up with my blogging.

I woke up this morning and quickly churned out posts for the last couple of days after breakfast. Then it was time to shower and head over to race registration to let them know I am here and to hand in my drop bags. No run is scheduled today so I will simply relax and soak up the nervous energy emanating from 400 people amping themselves up to run a 100-mile foot race.

Western States Endurance Run - My Registration Goody Bag
Western States Endurance Run – My Registration Goody Bag

The final weather forecast shows that it will be one of the hottest races on record in the 30-year history of the Western States Endurance Run. Everyone you speak to acknowledges that there will likely be carnage out there tomorrow. With high heat comes high drop-out rates. But of course nobody says “I don’t think I will make it.”

I am in the best shape of my life and I have managed some incredible training, not only in terms of running quality (of which there has been plenty), but also in terms of enjoyment and the stunning sights I have seen. I will set out with a firm race plan in mind, but will mold it and shape it as I go. Early on Sunday morning I intend to find myself on the grounds of Placer High School at the finish line in Auburn. All that is required between now and then is 100 miles of running.

The race starts at 5:00 AM Pacific Time and you can follow my progress at www.ultralive.net/ws100 using either my name or bib number (261).

6 Days to WSER: A Truncated Journey to the Summit

I have two pacers for my run at Western States.

I will be joined by Mike for the section from Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. Through another Australian ultra-runner Tamyka, who has completed Western States on two occasions, I was introduced to the Stevens Creek Striders. The running club hosts the Last Chance aid station each year, and Tamyka’s pacer Dennis suggested that Mike would be the man for the job.

For the section from the river to the finish I will be joined by Louis. I met up with Louis through the pacer page on the Western States website. We had been in touch a few times since I landed in the US and would meet up for the first time to go for a run at Squaw Valley. We met up at the bottom of the tram and headed off for our return journey up to High Camp along the Granite Chief Trail. I had taken this trail a couple of times on previous visits to Squaw, a four-mile trail straight up the mountain to the escarpment.

Continue reading 6 Days to WSER: A Truncated Journey to the Summit

12 Days to WSER: A Trip Over the Highest Point

The previous day I had enjoyed a rest day by hiking four miles up a mountain to the highest point on the Western States course. Now I would start a longer run by commencing with that same restful four-mile hike.

Setting of from the ski village at Squaw Valley I ran and walked the four miles up to the escarpment. Then similar to the previous day I made my way up to Emigrant Gap and the Watson Monument that marks the spot. It was a lot windier at the top than the previous day so I quickly continued on my journey onto the trail that would take me down the other side.

The trail started to slowly lose elevation as we traversed towards the peak of Granite Chief. About half a mile down was a trail sign marking the Tevis Trail. The Tevis Cup is a 100-mile horse race that to a large part follows the same route as the Western States Endurance Run. The run was started in 1974 when Gordy Ainsleigh ran along with the horses to complete the equestrian race, but Google, Wikipedia and the Western States website can provide more detail on the race’s history.

I then entered into the Granite Chief Wilderness area. It was the proclamation of this wilderness area that threatened the continuation of the race. But once permission to continue holding the race was granted it was deemed that the number of entrants would be limited to the number competing the year before the proclamation. Therefore the Western States race is limited to 369 competitors over a five-year rolling average.

In heavy snow years the first 20 miles of the race can be covered in snow, and a modified snow route exists for exactly that scenario. After a promising start to the ski season the second half of the season was extremely dry and therefore our only encounter with snow on race day will be to view it in the distance. I crossed a couple of small, early creeks as the final remnants of snow melt down to feed the regions rivers. Then I started coming across a number of sections where the water was running down the trail. I crossed the first couple keeping my feet dry but then reached an extended section of ankle-deep water and it was time to get feet wet.

There were some great valley views as I crossed through picturesque alpine meadows and I ended up on a rocky road. I hadn’t decided on the exact distance I would complete for the day, but when I reached a green gate around five miles down from the pass I decided to turn around. Interestingly as well as that green gate there is also a green gate much further along the course just before the river crossing at Rucky Chucky. The reason these two gates are interesting is that there is also an aid station named Green Gate, which is located beside a gate that is actually silver in colour. Therefore there are two green gates and one Green Gate.

Granite Chief - Alpine Meadows and Canyons
Granite Chief – Alpine Meadows and Canyons

Continue reading 12 Days to WSER: A Trip Over the Highest Point

Squaw Valley Panorama

13 Days to WSER: A Hike to the Summit

I was due for a rest day so I decided to take the day off … almost.

The previous day after my run down to the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River I had driven over Donner Pass towards Truckee. I had camped in the Tahoe National Forest and woke up early to visit Squaw Valley, the start of the Western States Endurance Run.

I drove up to the ski resort, parked my car in the day use parking and put on my running kit. But the plan was simply to enjoy a short hike. That hike however would entail four miles of walking up a ski mountain. I walked towards the starting line for the race, intending to hike up to Emigrant Gap, the highest point of the entire race. Part of the reason for the journey was to scope it out since the following day I planned to return, but then to continue over the pass to check out the running down the other side.

Unfortunately the attempt was cut extremely short. As soon as I reached the service road upon which the race starts there was posted large signs advising that hiking was not permitted. I headed back to the hotel where I will stay prior to the race, where reception advised me that the don’t allow hikers since lots of maintenance vehicles use the road during the skiing off-season. There was however an option to hike up to the escarpment along the Granite Chief Trail. My new plan was born.

I headed across the ski village to the start of the trail and commenced my hike up the mountain. It was a steep hike in places and just near the escarpment I had to cross a couple of patches of snow. But after a little under 3 miles of hiking I reached the escarpment. There were a number of ski lifts spread throughout the area, as well as the terminus for the large gondola known as the “tram”.

I headed into the terminus building to chat with some of the staff there. I found a staff member who had run Western States before, so when he heard that I would be running he was glad to help out by pointing out the various features. He pointed out Squaw Peak and Granite Chief, as well as the way we would ascend onto the escarpment and most importantly, Emigrant Gap. I thanked him and continued on my way.

Squaw Valley - Escarpment Panorama
Squaw Valley – Escarpment Panorama

It was a little over a mile for the final ascent. I reached the top and spotted the Watson Monument that we will run past on race day. Then just behind it was the trail that will allow us to commence the 23,000 feet (7,000 metres) of descent that we will complete over a distance of 96 miles having started with a continuous four-mile ascent.

Squaw Valley - The Trail from Emigrant Gap
Squaw Valley – The Trail from Emigrant Gap

Continue reading 13 Days to WSER: A Hike to the Summit

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

Continue reading Upcoming Race: Western States Endurance Run