Let’s be honest this is the race,
you have read Born to run,
watched the countless Billy Yang youtube video’s,
Listened to stories regaled from past participants.
It’s not even a race it’s a fucking dream.
Back in early December I found out through a cascade of social media messages, that after my 3rd attempt I got into Western States100. Of all people, Gordy (the no horse, no worries guy) pulled my name out of the barrel. I had already committed to Comrades for 2018, but that would wait for another year.
In the below report, I’m not going to mess around with how I found myself,
had a spiritual awakening at mile 69
or looked defeat in the eye until it blinked,
Because the truth is you don’t have time to think, you must run 100 miles in under 30 hours. or for the very silly try to run it under 24 hours.
I purchased the UTA100 version of Hanny’s Allston’s training, then only slightly modified it for the 100-mile distance. I then spoke to her over the phone (I think 3 times) for some specific advice. For me Hanny’s training suited my lifestyle, anyone who is time poor of just lazy (me) should really consider downloading her training.
My average week consisted of:
Mon: Body Mechanic (Essentially core and technique training)
Wednesday: About 45 min run before the Body Mechanic (turned out to be a 1 – 2-hour session)
Thursday: Hill repeats (I dreaded these the most)
Friday: 1 – 2 hour run or rest depending on the week.
Saturday: Long run (Focused on 400 m of gain per 10k)
Sunday: rest or light run
Average weekly k’s between 50 – 80 per week. topping out at 90+ for my biggest week or about 8-11 hours per week. (this was significantly less than last year’s training for UTMB by about 15%)
The below are the facts (Improvements) from my training:
5k 21:24 —–> 19:35
6 foot 4:59 ——> 4:50
Also, my 4 hour – ish easy run has turned into a 3 1/2-hour easy run.
Something was working, I’m almost 42 now and I should have already reached my peak. Hanny & Body Mechanic are the only tasks I can attribute the improvement to.
The lead up
We (Nura and I) arrived in Auburn Wednesday before the race to attend an event held specifically for the international runners, we had spent the previous 4 days in San Fran. The event was great, free food, beer and a “goodies” bag (even the Mayor of Auburn was there), we were made to feel like family, nothing was too much trouble for local people that were hosting. But more importantly I got to meet my pacer Bob Crowley, somehow after putting a request in for a pacer I got the “God Father” of pacing. This guy was known by everyone, people would ask who my pacer is, and when I let them know, it was a mixture of shock, admiration and confidence that I was in the safest of safe hands.
We had built up a good friendship leading up to the race, we had done a couple of skype calls and maintained regular email contact throughout the 3 months lead up, he also acted indirectly as a coach giving me advice on my training.
My mind said 28 hours, but I had dilutions of a sub 24, but more than anything I wanted the finish, anything less would be a disaster. The original plan was starting back of pack and then try to work my way through the field, only to find out from experienced campaigners that 15 – 20 % get timed out at Robinson Flat (mile 30) because they get held back. My new plan was to get mid pack in the first 5 ks and then join the conga line from the top of the first climb and let the momentum of the race carry me through the singles track to Robinson flat. I promised my pacer I would keep myself in shape till Forest Hill (the 100k mark) and then we would make some decisions as to where we were physically and either chase a sub 24 of hold on for a buckle.
Managing the heat.
I had trained in a thermal top and my rain jacket to lock in the heat, it recreated training in 30-degree heat. As anyone that has run Western States will tell you, during the run it all about keeping cool. Bob was kind enough to loan me his prototype ice bandana, it had pouches to put ice in and I could tie it around my neck. It was a key component that got me to finish line. There are also 4 mountain streams at the bottom of canyons that I was told by locals/Bob to soak in. (Most of the race was between 28 – 40 degrees)
The morning ritual.
We slept in Squaw Valley the night before, so with a race start at 5am I only got up at 4am. I went through my ritual of having a shower washing my hair, lubing up and a new addition, rubbing Desitin on my feet. (it’s essentially a nappy rash cream but acts as an excellent barrier for the soles of your feet) We walked from our lodge to the start where I would receive my bib, I signed in next to Francois D’Haene. We spoke to each other like brothers, he wished me luck out there and I did the same to him.
Important to note that Coconino Cowboys were not the knobs, that I perceived them to be through their posts on Instagram, Jim Walmsley and the cowboys were just as chilled and open as any other ultra-runner.
I get it, I get why Richard Bettles and Geoff Evison say that the aid stations set this race apart.
When you run into an aid station you start to get excited 😊
An almost mechanical system takes over where someone will greet you, grab your water bottles and bandanna while they redirect you to the buffet of food. You stuff your face, they will ask if you are done? if yes then sponge bath time! Which consisted of sponge, ice water, your quads, your neck, your head. by the time you’re done you feel refreshed and ready to battle the trail again, you are so thankful that you forget that you haven’t got your water bottles or bandanna of ice, only to have a aid station member ask if you need anything else and they start to put your refilled bottles into your race vest and tying your ice bandanna around your neck.
Truly a conveyor belt of love.
The race (Start to Robinson flat 28 miles)
I remember hugging Nura tightly and almost crying before the start and with less than a minute to go finding a place mid pack and listening to AJW’s reciting “I pray not for Victory I pray for courage” and then the gun went off and a group of 369 of the luckiest ultra-runners headed up a ski run, 700m gain in 5k’s. I slotted in a mid-pack position and grounded out the hill.
The race is less than 400 runners and what’s unique is the field spreads out quickly into almost single file by the end of first 5k. I submitted at 2,743m (this is higher than any point of UTMB) and then got onto single track easing down the other side of the mountain. I could feel the altitude, but this was overshadowed by the fact that I was running the dream. Most of the terrain is single track and some jeep road (fire trail) nothing to be scared of but still needs your respect, not the set and forget terrain of Kedumba, it reminded me more of the terrain running down to cox river in 6 foot but with varying gradients.
Within the first 2 hours I was basically running by myself, there were other runners in the distance and behind me, but I didn’t have anyone breathing down my neck, so I could run at my own pace comfortably.
One thing that stood out from the high country was the pure beauty of the course, (No one talks about this?) you run through single track with knee high shrubs that don’t scratch you like many Australian plants do. The worst thing you must deal with is the mulch / dust, as soon as you got 30m behind a runner you would be eating dust until you passed them, it was almost like running on a pillow, the decomposing foliage from the winter past had turned the track into a rich dusty trail. The smell of the mountain flowers and the soft zig zagging of the mountain trail made for my trip to Duncan Canyon almost not feel like running but hiking.
My heart rate was telling me a different story, I was working quite hard for my effort. After being topped up at Duncan Canyon I began my decent to the bottom of the canyon, where I took my first major spill of the day, I caught my toe on a rock and did a superman/face plant in the dust. It was spectacular, but the damage wasn’t too bad, I had grazed my knee and agitated my cracked rib from a spill in training. I knew I was going to trip at one point and I had planned not to let it get to me, I dusted myself off and kept going.
Before too long I made the bottom of the canyon only to be greeted with what looked like a hot tub, this was the first mountain stream to soak in. There were 5 or so people just chilling in the water, I joined them and just sat in the water for 5 minutes, it’s completely foreign to anyone with time goals, but 5 minutes here could save you 30 mins down the track and more importantly save your race. The soak did me well, I was able to wash most the dust off and cool down my body. Three of us got out of the stream at the same time and we formed a train heading up the hill.
The climb up to Robinson Flat is a ball buster it just keeps going up and up, I don’t know what happened in this section, but the last mile of the climb I started to fall apart. I had let the train go and I started to get dizzy and many people passed me coming into Robinson’s Flat. The aid station chief also pulled me aside and asked me some questions but concluded I should perhaps rest? I managed to convince him that it was just the altitude and that that salvation was on the other side of the ridge.
The Canyon’s (Robinsons flat to Forest hill)
As soon as I lost altitude, I immediately felt better, I was currently hovering around the 24-26-hour finish and I gave myself a chance to push myself on the flatter jeep roads and I came into Millers Defeat crushing the run. My pacer Bob was also volunteering at this aid station. When I came in, he said I looked good and I should continue my momentum to Dusty Corners, he suggested to give it a little nudge.
I remember trying to push my pace a little, but the only comparison were distant other runners. I remember overtaking 5 and being overtaken by 2. It’s quite hard to judge your pace, my heart rate had settled coming out of the high country, but I just got into my “plodding” speed rather than chasing down other runners.
Somehow Nura (Who I left in Squaw with no car or license) had managed to get herself down to Dusty Corners. Nura was like a crew ninja she asked all the right questions and had everything on standby, great job crew ninja! For someone with no crewing experience, no car, she was doing a remarkable job hitching rides between aid stations and relying on the compassion of other people (and pacer Bob’s contacts). I remember coating myself with lube, Nura looked away as the 300 other people at the aid station watched😊
Dusty Corners to Last chance to where I would start the first of three major canyons, the infamous Devils Thumb. Thank goodness I had built this up to be a monster, there is no doubt it’s steep and hellishly hot and exposed, but it’s kind of short and you get to soak in the stream down the bottom, which I did along with about 4 other people. It was almost like a pool party.
I was running the down hills as best I could, but I was still being overtaken by people? I thought this would have been one of my strengths but because of the rockier terrain, I was taking it easy. I was however hiking the hills quite well and making up plenty of places I lost going downhill (The strength was there, the coordination was not). Devils Thumb aid station is another highlight. Known for the home-made popsicles, nom nom nom nom soooo good! They were literally stocking you up with fuel and ice and sending you back out to Hell.
To me Devils Thumb to El Dorado creek is the toughest section of the race, even though I was coming in at close to 6 o’clock in the evening the heat was relentless, similar terrain to Devils thumb but just sooooo long, switch back after switch back down hill, smashing the quads and calves because you are constantly adjusting your pace for the upcoming rock garden you were about to negotiate. You can almost reach out and touch the other side of the Canyon, but you just keep heading down hill.
Sometime down the trail I jumped a little when I heard the rattle of snake, I got out of there quick smart! Eventually you get to the bottom of the canyon and you are greeted with another aid station. They had a Thermometer there and it was reading 40 degrees in the shade at 6ish…… just take a moment to absorb that.
I didn’t bother to soak in the creek this time and just attacked the hill. By this time my iPod had crapped out, but it was time for my first bit of caffeine for the day. It was an instant boost, I chased down 5 people on the climb, which again is relentless and hot, but I was having fun, I came into Michigan’s Bluff happy and ready to take the final canyon.
Michigan’s Bluff is a great aid station full of runner’s crew (Except mine, who were waiting at Foresthill) they also have a numerous “foot people” there who all wanted to look at my feet I resisted the temptation and made my way through to the last major canyon. Volcano, the shortest and least steep of the 3 major canyons, I really enjoyed this section, very similar to the steep section of quarry road in Hornsby, again I took the opportunity to soak at the bottom,
I was chatting to this runner as we were soaking in the cool mountain stream and we were noticing other runners running by not even trying to get their shoes wet. We both just looked at each other and leant back and cooled off with not a care in the world. We both got out at the same time and stated to work together to catch people and pass them. Don’t think we even said a word to each other during the climb, just a subtle glance of appreciation to each other when we reached the top
Out of the canyon and onto some real bitumen, it was 8:30ish, by now I had a fairly good idea that a sub 24 hour was not going to happen, but I was well on track for a sub 26 and more importantly I knew I was going to finish. (I had built up a 3-hour buffer on cut offs). Bob was good enough to meet me before I got into Forest Hill, we ran the 1.5 miles on flat road together before we got to the aid station, Ninja Nura was again there to greet me with supplies, which included a change of shirt and socks.
Forest Hill to fuck I’m fucked (Rucky Chucky)
I had done exactly what Bob had asked got myself to Foresthill in one piece. It was now time for Bob to pace me home. 60k’s to go, reasonable quads and a happy attitude. Not much to do other than run.
Everyone knew Bob! I’m pretty sure there must be a shrine or statue of him somewhere in Auburn. (if not, there should be) We were now running the infamous “Cal loop” to get down to the river crossing (18 miles of easy running) I was running well and decided to show off a little to Bob, pushing the pace as much as I could and trying to catch runners. It was dark now and we were running under the guidance of head lamps, it is great having someone there to pace you and I love this aspect of Western States. I was making good pace sub 9ks on undulating terrain. Somewhere in between Cal 3 and Rucky Chucky things got fucked up, I started to lean to my right and feel dizzy, I was still 1.5 miles from the aid station. (This was the first time the lean had ever happened).
To this day I don’t understand how or why this had happened. Calories were OK, fluids were good, I had swapped to soups and broths and had taken some pain killers at Foresthill (4 hours earlier), Did I push myself too hard? I still felt like there was plenty in the tank and I was enjoying the race. But when I came into Rucky Chucky where I met Nura and a friend of Bob’s Coco I was all over the place, walking with a lean and very light headed and still with 22 miles to go (For future reference if I’m ever dumb enough to do this again, THE RACE STARTS AT THE RIVER CROSSING.)
Rucky Chucky to the Finish.
The crossing of the river was uneventful, but I remember really having to concentrate just to do simple tasks, I was getting tired and the daemons in my head were getting louder. There is a 1.5 mile climb out of the river to Green gate from there Bob had worked out a plan, he could see I was hurting. It was all about getting to the next two aid stations, first was Auburn Lake Trails (ALT) and then Quarry road, then we would only have 9 miles to go and I could almost walk it in. I did my best to run with my lean and made it through to (ALT) swiftly clocking 14-minute miles., but by the end I was lent over like an upside-down L. I kind of looked like a zombie or the hunch back of Notre Damme. I made the mistake of going and seeing medical at ALT, they told me to sit down and have some rest. I looked at Bob and immediately regretted saying anything to the medic. Bob managed to convince him that it was only a minor lean (actually it was pretty major) and I had been running well (running well for someone you could do a Pythagoras equation on)
We managed to get out of there. Next, Quarry Road aid station, 5-miles from here, I tried to run, but I just kept tripping over myself, it was time to let Bob know that I needed to preserve myself to secure the buckle. Bring on the pain, I used my arms to push on my right hip to try to prop myself up, so I could maintain cadence. It was working but it was hurting. I made Quarry road right on sunrise 10 miles 5 hours. For the next 9 miles I fumbled, stumbled and crumbled my way to Robbie Point. By this point I had to stop every 800 meters to straighten my back which involved, lying on my back and Bob pushed my quads to my chest, this gave me some small degree of relief. While in fairness at every aid station they were concerned as to my health, they understood a runner’s desire to finish this race and let me pass through.
Bob was great in this situation, I remember a photographer trying to take photos of my crippled running style, but Bob would get in the way of the photographer and have a chat to them and they lowered their camera. Without saying a word to him he knew this wasn’t me at my best and that I hated the state that I was in. I made it to Robbie Point, 1.5 miles to go. 2 hours to get the job done.
Hand on my heart I still wasn’t sure I was going to make it, I sat down on a camp chair getting iced down while people just looked at me like an animal in a zoo, I remember hearing “good job runner”, you are almost there, but more often than not, it was “good job pacer”. Make no mistake, Bob got me to finish line. I really wanted to impress him and even challenge him over the last 40 miles of the race but that wasn’t to be, instead he had nursed his runner to the finish line, I rounded the final bend of the famous orange track of Placer High and only then did I feel certain of the buckle, I hugged Bob who then let me have all the glory of the finish. I pulled my visor over my eyes as I crossed the line out of embarrassment of my posture. I honestly left it all out there, Part of me is forever left at Western States. The killing machine as it is sometimes nicked named had almost had me as a victim, but not today. AJW recited at the start of the race I pray not for Victory I pray for Courage. I honestly think it was more stupidity, but Bob made sure there was more courage in the finish than stupidity and for that I will forever be grateful.
Finish to the medic tent.
Straight to the medic tent because I was 100% spent, Ninja Nura by my side and Bob making sure I was attended to. Bob even managed to get the head of Monster Massages to look after me, within 30 minutes I was able to stand straight again! What a race, what a privilege, Western States 2018 # 0 in 28:35 (I’m still proud of that time)
Head Lamp: Aye ups
Visor: Buff visor
Bag: Salomon S lab 8
Nutrition: Shotz gels and electrolytes
Shorts: X bionic shorts tights under speedo shorts.
Top: Salomon light weight T-shirt for day time and the Nike “knitted “shirt for the evening.
Socks: Injinji Crew trail
Kicks: Nike Kiger 4
I would not swap anything from the above.
UTMB or Western States?
Both is the answer,
I think as an ultra-runner, if you have the means you should give both a crack, you won’t regret either of them.
I think Western States is harder (there, I said it) you can’t rock up to this event half arsed, you better bring your A game otherwise the run will find your weakness and rip you apart and you won’t finish. Even a 29:59:59 finish is commendable, you are not just making up numbers, you are running 70 % of the trail even to go sub 30.
3 Things I would do differently.
1. Train more on single track, I think the Manly to Spit would be good, Megalong rd to Cox river would be better.
2. Arrive in Auburn on Tuesday, and if you get a chance soak your legs in Lake Tahoe.
3. My usual carb load diet leading into the event was non-existent, take the time to go to the super-market and stock up on white fluffy food.
3 Things that worked
1. Downhill running smash your quads as much as you can during your training
2. Keeping cool on course. Ice Bandana, hat and sunnies, soak in the streams
3. Get a local as a pacer, as nice as it would be to have a friend run with you, a local’s knowledge is priceless, ask for Bob tell him you know me.