About Me

My photo
Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Western States Endurance Run (100.2miles/ 18,000feet up, 23,000feet down)

Squaw Valley in California, just before 5am on a chilly feeling Saturday morning in late June. 400 competitors, including many of the world's best ultra distance trail runners, are preparing to tackle what is still widely acknowledged to be the world's biggest and best 100miler. I've been up since 2.30am although there was no need for an alarm this morning, the adrenaline has kept me awake most of the night. I've been thinking about, and looking forward to, Western States 2009 ever since the race was cancelled due to forest fires in 2008. It's been an unusually long wait for a race, but for the first time in a long while I can honestly say i'm as close as possible to being 100% fit and free from niggles and bugs.

My feelings are mixed. The usual pre-race tensions are stronger than usual; I know there is going to be an intense charge up the 2,500ft mountain immediately in front of us, I know many of the guys I want to compete with will go out hard, I know it's going to be considerably hotter than anything I've experienced before, I know there's a load of intense downhilling in the course to batter my quads and above all else I know there is 100 miles of rocky and technical trail in negotiate. If that's not enough to get the pulse going, I don't know what will. Intense, nerve-wracking and exciting - but I wouldn't swap my place for anything.

Mark (Hartell) kindly drives me up to Squaw from my hideout in Truckee a few miles up the road. I'm not particularly talkative, the enormity of the task ahead almost has me stunned. Squaw Valley resort is a hive of activity reminding me why it has been a good idea to stay clear over the last few days. Most of the registration formalities were complete yesterday, I just need to pick up my race number - 113 – lucky for me. The starting line is the who's who of ultra running, loads of guys upfront near me shake hands and wish each other well. I'm not recognised, in fact all the pre-race talk has not included me because the race traditionally favours the local US runners. Online polls and discussions suggest i'm considered outside of the top 10 equation - but i'm happy with that - it motivates me and provides a clean platform to show what I can do.

The countdown from 20 seconds increases my pulse with every count until such time the hooter goes and we’re straight into the climbing trail heading up to Emigrant Pass. The front 40 or so guys - including me - head up the wrong track within the first few hundred yards although the mistake is quickly corrected with an en-mass backtrack and charge through the rest of the field to the front again. Ego’s are probably a bit dented but soon repaired.
I enjoy the climb up the mountain. I run the majority, just breaking into a walk for the odd steep section. There are a few guys I recognise who I say hello to, but the majority probably think i'm an over-enthusiastic back of the pack runner. I reach the top of Emigrant Pass in about 50minutes, a reasonably quick time, but I feel strong and comfortable after my first proper taper of the year. I glance back at the top to enjoy a beautiful glowing sunrise across Lake Tahoe which is a special sight and very fitting for the start of the special race we’re running. Over the top of the Pass and we enter the Granite Chief Wilderness area. We’re into the wild, remote and beautiful high country terrain that will take us through to the canyons. To start with it's a nice gently descending section of trail to Lyon Ridge (9.5miles), the first full aid station. There are plenty of guys motoring along this first section but I just concentrate on keeping steady, not working too hard, conserving precious energy and keeping cool.

Along Lyon Ridge the trail starts to get a bit more rugged and the undulations start popping up. Whilst the climbs at this stage are relatively small and better graded than we’re used to in the UK, the air is thin from the altitude and it doesn’t take a great deal to make me breathless despite my reasonable period of acclimatisation. The ridge provides me with some impressive far reaching views on both sides, being exposed and less wooded than the rest of the course. I feel great though; calm and comfortable - it's energy conservation time, there shouldn't be too much effort.

At Red Star aid station (16miles) I grab my first drop bag, stash the contents in my waist pack to take out, stuff a load of ice under my cap, fill my bottles with ice and water and i’m quickly on the move again. This is the important routine I will repeat 20 odd times over the course of the day, on my own because I have no dedicated crew to help. I’m happy with my first pit-stop – quick and efficient. Soon after Red Star starts a period of iffy insides which lasts around 60 miles. My stomach is not overjoyed with the amount of liquid i’m asking it to absorb, but hey it’s not surprising given it is about 1.5litres per hour, plus calories.
Soon out of Duncan Canyon aid station I have my first navigational jitters. Yes, I know, the course is well marked and i've run most of it over the last couple of weeks, but the markers are absent for a while and I feel like i'm doubling back on myself. I am, but it is the right way, and having spotted a couple of fellow runners in the distance I march merrily on, relieved about being on course and excited about the opportunities to overtake. On the climb out of the relatively mellow Duncan Canyon, my strength from plenty of UK hill climbing coupled with my long stride length immediately gives me an advantage and I overtake a number of folk, including the leading two ladies who have been battling it out hammer and tong from the start. Big respect and very ballsy. As it transpires one of them, Anita Ortiz, maintains the pace all the way through and wins by a clear margin. Awesome.
I soon land in Robinson Flat (29.7miles) where the atmosphere is electric. It’s obvious when i’m on the approach because photographers line the trail. All the crews are at Robinson awaiting the arrival of their runners and their encouragement puts a renewed spring in my step. I'm now in 12th place, and with a quick pit stop I overtake another on leaving the aid station - now 11th and still on the move.

The next few legs are the link sections between the high country and the canyons (the proper ones). They are long, well groomed, gently descending and fast sections of trail that really let me get me into my stride. I am below 6,000ft now so the breathing is getting easier. I run a good pace, but again the focus is on not putting in too much unneccessary effort. The aid stations at Miller's Defeat, Dusty Corners and Last Chance are probably the best of the lot; first class service. The volunteers are fabulous and really help to keep things quick. I recon I spend a minute-and-a-half in each. It sounds like a reasonable amount of time but i'm as efficient as I can be and i'm confident what i'm doing is well worth the time investment. The food of choice is now salty boiled spuds. They go down a treat. I'm also knocking back the ensure-plus meal replacement shakes like tequila slammers on a night out - at 350 calories a go they provide perfect nutrition. Deadwood Canyon soon arrives and immediately after the 'Warning - Precipitous Trail' sign I hit the heat and i'm grateful for the extra handheld bottle I picked up at Last Chance, using the lovely iced water to keep my vest wet and to cool down my quads. It works a treat in addition to my 'iced head'. I don't see anyone else all the way to Devil's Thumb which makes me wonder how hard the guys in front are pushing. I haven't exactly been slouching around myself.......

I eventually overtake someone on the final few switchbacks leading up to the aid station. I introduce myself, it turns out to be Eric Grossman, a name i've certainly seen banded around. Then I get a bit of banter from some spectators at the top of the climb which brings a smile to my face. 'How do you like the California weather Jez? It's nice and warm huh?'. 'Where the hell is the wind and rain?' I reply. It turns out to be Western States legend (and President), Tim Twietmeyer and John Travers.

At Devil's Thumb aid station I come across the race's first big name casualty. It's Jurek, who is surrounded by folk obviously questioning him about his withdrawal. I feel for him. He's the one everyone expects to deliver but in ultra running there is simply no hiding place with injuries and the like. It wasn't going to be his day and it must have really hurt. I crack on, pretty shocked by the sight of him out of the race.
Eldorado Canyon - with the longer descent and ascent of the two canyons - proves to be hotter than Deadwood, but again I enjoy the cruise down along the switchbacks, across the bridge and into the riverside aid station (52.9miles). Boy these guys have drawn the short straw I think to myself. As ever, the enthusiasm of the helpers is unrelenting, the spirit of this great race seems to rub off on everyone. I power hike out the other side, starting to now think about meeting my pacer, Scott St John, at Bath Road. Again, my uphill speed seems to give me the upper hand on other competitors as I manage to pick off another couple of guys. I have now lost track of my position but I figure it's around 7th.

At Michigan Bluff (55.7miles) I unexpectedly see fellow Brit, Mark Hartell, who has been a great mentor to me in the build up to the race. Mark has done everything he can to get me as well prepared for the race as possible which is already having a significant positive influence on my performance. Mark has my drop bag to hand, so helping another quick transition. 'You look great Jez, you're moving through the field, keep up the good work'. God I wish a feel great I think to myself, but I see another guy who must have arrived into the aid station before me so i'm keen to get moving again. No time for feeling sorry for oneself, get refuelled and get going.

Beyond Michigan the trail turns to fire road. With it's white-ish surfacing and lack of shade, the Western States slow cooker cranks up another notch. There's no getting away from it though so deal with it or drop I tell myself - and I ain’t dropping!

Finally, I hit Bath Road (60.6miles), roughly 15minutes behind my target arrival time of 3pm (10hrs). Pretty good pacing, or just luck? Well I like to keep things simple and that means no detailed pacing chart. The only targets I have set myself are Robinson Flat in 5 hours (achieved perfectly) and Bath Road in another 5 hours (close). My pacer Scott is there with his wife Desi and three girls. And so begins what becomes a fantastic team effort to get me to the finish line with all needs catered for and with next to zero planning (I hadn’t envisaged Desi would be on hand to help out). I eat on the climb up Bath Road with Scott alongside, simply walking the moderate road climb to ensure the food goes down. There’s a guy ahead – Kevin Sullivan I think – who has just overtaken me in the aid station, but there is no point chasing right now. On reaching the main Forest Hill road we’re ready to get running again and we set a quick pace down to the Forest Hill aid station (62 miles). The idea of eating on Bath Road is to move through the busy Forest Hill quickly, just stopping for the mandatory weigh in. The strategy works well and I re-take Kevin who is with his crew.
The next section of the course is known as the Cal Street loop, the link section between Forest Hill and the famous Rucky Chucky river crossing (78 miles). It’s the only section of the course I haven’t managed to run during my time in the US, something I am not massively comfortable with as I always like to know the trail so I can plan how to run it. For front runners, which I now am (up to 5th I think), this section of trail is notoriously hot - we’re not disappointed. There are a number of unshaded sections of the trail and they are just like walls of heat. But there is plenty of flat and downhill running to do which is only thing i’m thinking about. We blast down Cal Street, through the three aid stations and down to the sandy riverside trail which runs into the crossing itself. My main focus along this section is getting down to the river quickly and efficiently. Kevin Sullivan appears right on our tail by the final few miles of Cal Street and eventually pulls past and motors on into the distance. Being overtaken so convincingly – as he did – was a big knock to my confidence, particularly at a time when i’m starting to suffer in the heat and i’ve been pushing a good pace - or so I think.
The river crossing is one of the famous aspects of the race and something i’ve been particularly looking forward to. It turns out to be great fun. It’s a low water year so we’re wading across using a stretched guide rope instead of the back-up rafts. Again, the number of helpers is almost overwhelming – there are dozens actually standing in the river holding the rope, and directing the runners across. This is yet another example of the point that the volunteers truly will do everything in their power to give the runners the best possible support.

Despite being cooled down by the full river drenching i’m feeling dreadful at the Rucky Chucky far side aid station. I feel cooked and the south facing canyon side we’re about to contour along is only going to get hotter. I’m certainly going to feel overcooked very shortly. At this point I also leave Scott to sort out his blisters which are bad from big days out on the Western States trail in the build up to the race whilst he performed his important trail marking duties. I have a brief sit down, knock back an ensure meal replacement shake, drink several cups of coke and part company with the chair (‘beware of the chair’ – very appropriate) to begin the long, lonely hike up the hill. My spirits then take a further turn for the worse when Japanese runner, Kaburaki, comes trotting past on the climb. Losing speed and losing places is not where I want to be at the 80mile stage. Yes, on the positive side i’m 80% done, but the remaining 20% still involves 20miles; no mean feat.

So at Green Gate (79.8miles), the aid station at the top of the hill, I appreciate the urgent need to get myself together as i’m simply not prepared to let all the hard work put in thus far go to waste. Desi offers me a sock and footwear change which I gratefully accept. I’ve been putting it off since Robinson but my feet have throbbed for miles and my shoes are full of debris so it may be just the thing to get me going again. I’m a bit stunned about the speed in which my race has started to go bad although I endeavour to put on a brave face and have a joke with some of the aid station volunteers. I set off from Green Gate with the final, but crucial, 20 mile section of the course ahead of me. It’s make or break time, there’s no doubt about that.

Running is still painful and the heat from the slowly setting sun is worse than ever now it is firing directly at the trail, albeit at a more obtuse angle. My arms are all covered in rash from the heat, my head throbs and feels fried and every step is a painful effort. My mind is however still working because i’m thinking carefully about things I can do to get myself going again. Top of the list is to keep eating and drinking, something I focus on over the next couple of miles. I decide to get a sugar rush going so take a gel every mile or so. By the time I reach Auburn Lake Trails aid station (85.2miles) it seems to be slowly paying dividends because i’m feeling marginally better and i’m also only a few minutes behind the 5th placed runner, whose identity I don’t know. The sun is also nearly down behind the far ridge of the canyon - so is nearly done for the day, phew - providing another great boost to morale. I feel stronger with each step I take towards Brown’s Bar, soon catching and overtaking the guy ahead. In doing so I try to look as strong as possible so hopefully he doesn’t think he can come with me. It means getting through the Brown’s Bar aid station (89.9miles) quickly but that’s no bad thing given the slight chaos of the place. The music is pumping, there are fairy lights flashing, the guys are having a fews beers and are dressed up in drag – quite surreal – am I hallucinating?!

Perhaps the fun vibes have rubbed off on me because i’m now back to life, body temperature somewhere close to normal. Let’s go, time to charge! I run down to the river with real purpose – putting in some quick miles – and then run 80% of the stiff climb up to the Highway 49 aid station (93.5miles) where Scott and Desi are waiting. I’m a little bit surprised I don’t manage to catch other guys during my flurry of speed on that leg, but Scott reassures me they are only a matter of minutes ahead and confirms i’m in 5th place. It’s last light now so I ditch my cap, grab my head torch and load up on gels. There is a short climb up to the meadows from Highway 49 but this my favourite section of the course so I intend to have some fun. The meadows at the top, which remind me of a savannah setting from Africa with golden grass and just a few trees, are bathed in a rich yellowy glow from the setting sun. It’s a beautiful scene which seems to recharge me further. Then a very fast descent of around 3 miles on smooth and firm trails to get me down to No Hands Bridge. At every change of direction i’m on the look out for the head torches of runners ahead. There are way-finding glow sticks hanging from branches along the trail which I regularly mistake as runners. I’ve been running this leg seriously quickly – it feels like sub 6 minute miles – so i’m starting to panic that i’m running out of trail to do what I need to with only 4 miles to go.

As I hit No Hands Bridge aid station (96.8miles) there is still no sign of the two remaining runners who I need to track down to hit the podium. The positive news from Scott is that they are only a couple of minutes ahead and he is ready to re-join me for the final charge. I only hang around long enough for one bottle to be refilled. We fly across the bridge and hit the contouring path alongside the river with our eye’s scouting for head torches in the distance. It’s not long before we come across Kevin Sullivan which gives me 4th place. It’s a great boost but my focus is on a podium spot which is a target Scott and myself set on departing Forest Hill over 35 miles ago. On hitting the short but stiff climb from the river to Robie Point (the edge of Auburn) there is still no sign of Jasper Helekas in 3rd. Scott reminds me of the twists and turns of the trail coming up which helps me to focus on running every inch that is possible (most of it). As we come out on the vehicle track on the final approach to Robie Point aid station (98.9miles) we see finally Jasper ahead. From a turning flash of the headtorch we assume he’s seen us, we’re about 100 yards behind. At Robie Point neither of us stop. I’m closing him down, but we’re now within spitting distance of the stadium, i’m running out of steam and Jasper could easily have a finishing burst in him too. Scott and myself are running shoulder-to-shoulder, almost racing each other up the tarmac road and we come past Jasper. We need to run the whole hill though to gain a clean break before the big downhill to the finish, and it’s a stiff climb to be running after 99miles of running. Jasper asks who I am. I’m so breathless i’m struggling to speak but I tell him. He comes with us for a short period but he’s out of steam and tells me ‘good job’ as we move past him in a great show of sportsmanship.

We reach the top of the hill having made a clean break and now Scott and I start enjoying the moment. It’s been one hell of an effort to get to this position so i’m starting to get emotional. We fly the downhill to the stadium and I hit the final 300metre stretch in the most buoyant mood i’ve ever finished a race. I’m not usually one to show emotion but this is the culmination of a huge amount of time and effort – not just during this race – but over the last 6 months or so having come back from a poor year in 2008. Scott pulls away on the final approach to the line so the moment is all mine. I cross the line to celebrate my Western States 100 finish in a time of 16hours 54mins, 3rd place.

A week on from the race and i’m still beaming ear-to-ear about the whole Western States experience and the big performance I managed to put in. I will write a separate post about my thoughts on ‘what makes Western States great’, but needless to say it convincingly lives up to it’s reputation.

With the biggest thanks to the following people:

Scott St John and family – for pacing and supporting me so enthusiastically throughout the weekend

Mark Hartell & Lynn Schankliess – for sharing race knowledge and experience, helping with course recces, support during the race and helping to put GB on the podium!

Paul Charteris – for great company in the build up to the race and sharing your wealth of race knowledge (sorry your race didn’t quite go to plan Paul, I hope you’ll be back).