The first race in my new home state of Washington is one that nobody seems to have heard of. Taking place in the town of Lynden, just 4 miles south of the Canadian border, even residents of the 12,000 population town had no idea that a race was taking place. While sitting down for a coffee prior to the race the waitress mentioned that she only realised the race (which ran straight past the restaurant) was taking place on her way into work that day, and vaguely recalled the first running of the event last year.
I signed up for the race as it offered a fast and flat course that is rarely available closer to home. I had initially been planning on attempting to break the 35-minute barrier, but the training disruption caused by an intercontinental relocation made that unlikely. After warming up I headed to the start line, noticing one other runner who had done likewise. It was the two of us that stood towards the front of the field as the countdown started.
Setting off from the start I needed to settle down into race pace, but I realised a problem. I had switched my watch from kilometres to miles earlier in the week, but had no idea of my required pace in min/mile. I was at the front of the race, using the first mile to perform some mental arithmetic to calculate what pace I should be running. It turned out I had set off slightly fast on the gentle descent out of town so I eased back as I ran alongside corn fields on the country roads with low-lying fog creating surreal, muted colours.
Oregon had not been part of my travelling plans until around three days before I crossed the state line from Idaho. But it certainly contributed some amazing running to my travels. Outside of my race at Western States (the Race Report for that can be read here), which was a magical running experience, I would classify my six days in Yosemite National Park and my eight days in Oregon as the running highlights of my trip. I plan to cover the sections of my Oregon experience in greater detail once I catch up with some recent race reports from the next stage of my travels. So for now, I will cover it in summary.
A number of great ultra runners, both trail and road, currently reside in Oregon. It doesn’t provide the elevation that draws elite athletes to Boulder and Flagstaff. Many parts of the state are particularly wet, not contributing ideal weather conditions for outdoor training. But the state does contain some of the best trails in the country, and not just in my opinion.
I do love running through forests, with trees whizzing by on either side and ground cover brushing my legs (excluding poison oak), bounding along soft dirt (and even occasionally muddy) trails, navigating around or over rocks and roots and branches. They are my favourite types of trails and they are plentiful in Oregon.
But I did say “not just in my opinion.” The McKenzie River Trail has been rated as one of the twenty-five best trails in the country by Runners World. Bend was named “America’s Best Trail Running Town by Outside Magazine in 2006. I didn’t bother to look up any accolades that might have been won by Ashland, but as home to two separate two-time winners of the Western States Endurance Run I think its inhabitants spell out its accolades. Of course the state did also manage to spawn a little shoe company called Nike and happens to be home to a city known as Track Town USA (Eugene).
So now that I have talked about the state in general, let’s briefly cover my running experiences.
After looking at route options from Colorado through to Oregon I determined that I would be visiting Idaho for my first time. I therefore looked at my running options in the potato state. I considered paying a visit to Sawtooth National Forest, but further investigation showed that much of the forest was closed due to severe bush fires raging in the area. The next option I looked at started right in the state capital, Boise. Ridge to Rivers is a trail system covering over 130 miles, with a number of trailheads right in town. The next step was to pick a route.
As usual I looked for a challenging option. The website for the trail system separates its trail into easy, moderate and difficult so I picked out a couple of the difficult trails, looked for any commonly used routes on Strava and MapMyRun, and put together a lollipop route. All that was left was to arrive in town and slot the run into my day. Unfortunately due to the timing of my travel it would be an afternoon run, and after some time enjoying the cool temperatures of Colorado I was back into summer running.
After a quick glimpse at the trail map posted at the trailhead I headed off on my route. Then a couple of hundred yards later I turned around and returned to the map to take a photo on my phone. I had made the mistake of passing up the opportunity to do that while running in Flagstaff and ended up having to ask some mountain bikers for directions, so at least I had learned my lesson. Then I set off once again.
After running parallel to the road for a short while I turned away and started to climb one of the ridges leading away from town. Being well into summer the ridges were covered in dry grass, making for a very brown panorama. The route I had chosen would climb up a ridge, occasionally reaching the spine of a particular ridge before peeling off and heading towards another ridge. In this way I made my way from ridge to ridge, occasionally descending but spending most of my time climbing. As I looked at the trail ahead of me and spied a high peak ahead of me that still required plenty of climbing I considered the name of the trail I was on (Watchman Trail) and realised that it should have been obvious that I had selected one of the highest viewpoints.
At Leadville this year I paced Mike (check out my Pace Report) for 40 miles but only joined in from Twin Lakes, thereby missing the race’s major ascent of Hope Pass. I made up for that a couple of days later while stopping by Salt Lake City.
Mount Timpanogos is the second-highest mountain in Utah’s Wasatch Range. There are two main trail options to the top, and I chose to start from the Timpooneke Campground trailhead at an elevation of 7,370 ft (2246 m).
I immediately started out by climbing from the trailhead, running most of the lower trail. The lower sections of the trail were well protected by foliage, providing shade but also blocking out views of the surroundings. Once I went above the tree line I had increased views but could also feel the heat of the sun beating down. As I climbed up the mountain I came to the conclusion that the local hikers and trail runners must be a bit lazy, since there were plenty of well-worn trails short-cutting many of the switchbacks.
No, the heading is not a typo. After running the Leadville Trail 100 Run as my first 100-mile event last year, this year I returned not to race but instead to pace. I would pace Mike, one of my pacers from Western States (check out that Race Report), for the final 40 miles of his race.
I arrived in Leadville on the Wednesday afternoon before the race. I was sharing a house with Mike (who is an ex-pat Canadian), Dennis (a transplanted New Zealander who first suggested Mike to pace me), and another Australian also called Mike who was just out for the race. The Australian Mike mentioned that he was speaking to another friend and it sounded like he was starting a joke when he mentioned that he was sharing a house with an Australian, a New Zealander and a Canadian. On Friday we were joined in the house by Duncan (Mike’s coach and the official Leadville coach), and another runner coached by Duncan along with his wife. Therefore by Friday night the house (which can sleep up to 14 people) was populated with a total of 7, including 4 racers, 2 pacers, and 1 crew member.
We spent time relaxing, preparing (pacing charts and drop bags), attending race events (mandatory briefings, optional briefings, race registration), and even squeezed in a couple of last runs before race day. On the Thursday Mike and I went out for a 7-mile run along the Half Pipe section of the course, and on the Friday I completed a solo 6-mile run along Turquoise Lake. On Friday night we sat down for an early dinner, and I even felt relaxed enough to enjoy a beer. Then it was off to bed in preparation for an early morning start. Despite feeling relaxed about my involvement on race day I still struggled to sleep, possibly only sneaking in 2-3 hours before being woken by my alarm at 3 AM for the start at 4 AM.
I walked with the guys down to the start line, grabbed a coffee once they were in the starting pen, and then positioned myself in front of the start line to watch almost 1000 people (up from 800 last year) run down 6th Street on their way out of Leadville. Once all the runners had cleared the area I walked back across the start line (which is also the finish line), as I would do once again more than 24 hours later.
Mike would run the first 50 miles to Winfield, where he would pick up Duncan as his pacer on the return leg over Hope Pass. Once they reached Twin Lakes on the return I would join Mike for the final 40 miles back to Leadville. Therefore I needed to make my way to Twin Lakes. I had arranged to work with the crew for Denise Bourassa, who I had met at Western States, through until her return to Twin Lakes so that I could await Mike there. Then Mike and I would return to Leadville on foot. It was to be my first time crewing a trail race as well as my first time pacing a trail race.
I was very keen to run to the summit of Green Mountain, a peak just outside Boulder. Anton Krupicka uses the mountain as a key part of his training, reaching the summit more than 200 times per year. I decided that I would be happy with summiting just once.
There are many options for a starting point since the mountain can even be reached when starting downtown, and also provides many trail options. I selected a loop that would start and end at the Chautauqua Park Trailhead, as taken from a hiking website. I set off in the mid-afternoon and immediately commenced the ascent that would take me up 2500 ft (750 m) to the summit.
I knew that Anton would run the entire ascent so I decided that I would only walk if it became extremely steep. I started out on the Mesa Trail, eventually reaching the Bear Canyon area and continuing onto the Bear Canyon Trail. That trail took me up the mountains through switchbacks that I recognised from the great short video titled “The Runner in Winter” (you can check it out on YouTube here). I was running up a section that Anton descends in the video so I started wondering whether I might be running his loop in reverse direction. That appeared quite possible since I had taken my route from a hiking website, and it is often the case that hikers prefer to tackle a loop in the opposite direction to trail runners since they generally prefer to ascend a gentle slope and descend a steeper grade, while trail runners prefer the opposite.
I turned off the Bear Canyon Trail onto the Green Bear Trail, and as I neared the top I spotted some movement to my right. I found myself exchanging looks with a feline, luckily a bobcat rather than its bigger cousin the mountain lion. I stopped and took a couple of quick photos, which I certainly wouldn’t have done if it was a mountain lion, and then continued on my way.
Moab is famous as a mecca for mountain bikers rather than trail runners. But any trail that can be cycled can be run. I went out for a couple of runs on the famed slick rock that makes up many of the trails in the area.
My first slick rock experience was in Canyonlands National Park, running a trail that involved a combination of slick rock and sand. Since traversing slick rock leaves no visible trail as it does on dirt or sand, the trail was marked by a series of rock cairns (piles of rocks). Upon reaching a cairn it would be necessary to locate the next one and run towards that. The trail I followed was a well-marked one but even still it is occasionally difficult to locate the next marker, particularly at a running pace.
The other interesting part about running on slick rock is that it is no softer than running on roads. I normally consider trail running as having less impact on the joints (due to the softer surface), but requiring more work from the muscles (since more energy is absorbed by the surface). Therefore running on slick rock surfaces has the impact of road running but requires the concentration and focus of trail running.
I was looking forward to my visit to Flagstaff as I had heard about it as an up-and-coming location for trail runners, following on from cities such as Boulder in Colorado and Ashland in Oregon. Rob Krar, who took second place in his first 100-mile race at the Western States Endurance Run, is based in the city. It boasts an elevation of 6,910 ft (2,106 m) and a mild summer climate amongst the intense heat of its surrounding Arizona environs.
Following a two-week break after my own 100-mile jaunt at the Western States Endurance Run I would run my very first post-race steps in Flagstaff. I had thought that it would be great to bump into Rob on the trails, but unfortunately no such luck presented itself.
I performed some searches on the web for some trail running options but found a distinct lack of information. Therefore I paid a visit to a local running store named Run Flagstaff to ask the staff there for some suggestions. They were only too happy to help with suggestions, although they did apologise for the lack of climbing in the area when they heard that I had just completed Western States.
The next morning I set out for my first run from the regional Buffalo Park, located right in town. I ran straight through the park to access the huge warren of trails that are immensely popular with mountain bikers in the area. Immediately I began to ascend and I thought back to the comment about the lack of climbs in the area. Apparently setting out from altitude and then climbing 1600 feet (500 m) doesn’t count as a climb, and I had left the tougher run until the following day.
I had felt great on my hike out of the Grand Canyon a couple of days earlier but unfortunately my legs weren’t enjoying the run as much as I would have liked. I pushed on and was rewarded by overtaking a couple of mountain bikers on the climb, which is always enjoyable. I had researched my route and loaded it onto my Suunto Ambit to follow but upon reaching a complex intersection involving multiple trails and a forestry road I found no sign indicating the trail I had planned to follow. Luckily the mountain bikers I had overtaken caught up to me and I asked them for help. They weren’t quite sure but one of them was kind enough to call up her husband for directions, and he provided a couple of options to get me back on track. As it turned out the map was slightly deceptive as the trail I wanted was a very short way up the road. I regained the trail and was back on my way.
I completed a loop over a pass but unfortunately my route did not take me past the lookout that apparently provides views over Flagstaff. I eventually made my way back to Buffalo Park, and was glad to have made it through a first run back of over 16 miles (26 km).
You can see details of this run at MovesCount.com here.
For my second run in Flagstaff I would run up towards Humphrey’s Peak, the highest point in Arizona at 12,637 ft (3,852 m). I had mapped out a fairly long lollipop route and had not decided whether I would actually bag the peak, which required an additional out-and-back section from the loop. I would decide during the run based on how I felt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).