Race: Western States Endurance 100 Mile Run
Location: Squaw Valley, CA
Results – 23:07:13, 52nd overall and 40th male
3 Bests – what aspects of the race did you like the most
- Runnable trails: I don’t know if trails get much better than these – aside from the 5 miles following the peak at the escarpment this year which were probably the worst trails I have been on. I admit I was skeptical when I was told every part of this course is runnable, but I can 100% confirm this. Almost everything was an easy grade, well-groomed single-track or fire road.
- Race atmosphere: I don’t think it gets much better than this, perhaps some of the big European races bring the hype, but Western has set a new standard for race-day excitement. I worked for months towards this one goal and it continued to build all way up to when I vomited all over the road just before Green Gate aid station…I still got in a few laughs along the trails after that though, they just tasted like stomach acid and coca-cola.
- Race volunteers: These volunteers knew their stuff. I love my crew and they do an amazing job, but had they not been there, the race volunteers would have done things pretty damn well. Everything from ice down my pants to a sponge bath from Hal, my day would have gone much differently without the amazing people working these aid stations.
Not so much – aspects of the race that didn’t do it for you
The 8 miles following the escarpment were much tougher than I expected. I do well on the snow and consider myself to be a pretty athletic individual, and while I was smiling and enjoying the obstacles, it made for a pretty big energy drain early in the race. It wasn’t like we had to hoof over a little snow pile, many of these snow drifts over the trail were marked with reroutes that climbed 20-30ft up the mountain face then went right back down to the trail on the other side. Oh, and yeah there was that little bog-thing that people keep talking about. I split from my group about ½ mile before this and didn’t have the warning of some poor soul sinking into knee-deep muck ahead of me…I was the muck monster haha. I went about 3 steps in this stuff before scampering up the mountain face and running through downed pines and brush along the slope. I was in a pretty hot mood for a mile or so after this and thankfully, we hit some runnable trail sections before the next aid station.
Weird factor – what’s the weirdest thing about this race
Western States is like going to senior prom with the hottest girl in school and everyone is looking at you with a big envious grin on their face. It doesn’t have many “weird” qualities other than its just such a coveted experience and feels so precious that you don’t want to mess it up. I didn’t truly feel this pressure until my stomach started doing weird things around mile 53 before seeing Matt at Michigan Bluff. To continue to analogy, I felt like I was about to vomit all over my hot date. However, I righted the ship and felt pretty decent all the way to Cal street. It was a weird feeling that I might not get this experience again or have another shot at it. Perhaps the weirdest part of Western States was seeing Mike Wardian butt ass naked at mile 73 as he dropped brown nuggets off the side of the trail with his pants around his ankles.
Highlights of your race – what did you do well and enjoy about your race in particular
I felt like I did a lot of things right in the first half of the race. I made sure to keep myself cool right from the start, everywhere there was snow I picked up handfuls to line my bandana and dumped it down my shirt from about mile 2.5. I kept up the snow shower until we left the last snowdrift in the dust around mile 14. From there I utilized the ice at the aid stations in a similar manner and adapted my vest into a mobile ice pack. I had been worried about the vest adding 5-8 degrees through the canyons, but using this strategy, I think it helped keep my core temperature low during the hottest sections of the day. I passed 10-15 people in the canyons and most of them were not doing well. I still felt pretty fresh until I felt my left calf tighten up and I dumped 3 salt tablets into my stomach which sent it churning. I kept up the heat protocol all the way to Foresthill where I think the atmosphere really dismantled my focus.
I also did well managing my effort and came into Foresthill with strong legs ready for running. I was hitting a good pace – around 8:30s – on the pristine downhills and maintaining many miles around 10 minutes where there were gentle uphills. I don’t think I overexerted myself in the canyons on the climbs and was still moving very well through this section. The hills I ran in Shawnee State park on my 40mi and then 25mi training runs were much, much steeper than anything I encountered in this race. I remember laughing to myself going up to Devils Thumb because the grade seemed like child’s play for my legs which had dominated those 500ft climbs repeatedly in Shawnee. Even when my stomach felt like I had gone 10 rounds on the Tilt-a-whirl, I still climbed well uphill because there was little to no sloshing and my legs were still able to crush it. Up to the Pointed Rocks aid station when I was digging myself out of the worst place I had been in a race, I passed about 8 people on the climb. I just couldn’t deal with the slosh-effect when I tried to put in a jogging gait on the downhills. It was incredibly frustrating.
I also kept to my nutrition plan until Foresthill. I was comfortable from the 40 mi training run with the 45 min interval I set for myself with alternating chews and waffles. When I had that initial nausea in Michigan Bluff, I still felt in control and knew if I got down some coke and a ginger chew that I would start to feel better. In retrospect, I also should have focused more heavily on my core temperature here and perhaps could have prevented the future purge at Green Gate; however, for 50 miles I was taking in at least 300 cal per hour between the chews/waffles and tailwind. This banked nutrition definitely helped when I couldn’t get anything else down later in the race.
Lessons for others – share your pro-tips on the race to help the next runner
Always take in a good number of calories for breakfast, especially at this race which has the long initial climb that your body can ease into and digest. The escarpment is lighted and the sun hits the escarpment by 5:25a. Also, this may have been due to high temperatures of this year, but wearing a t-shirt with arm sleeves was more than enough and perhaps too much this year. I had my arm sleeves pulled down before hitting the top of the escarpment.
The key to this race is thermoregulation. The sauna training works wonders on your body’s ability to manage the heat and gives you great relationships with the old guys sitting on towels at the YMCA. I followed a pretty long course of heat training with about 3 sessions per week. Research I have read shows you can heat adapt in about 5-7 days with daily sauna sessions which may be beneficial to implement the week prior to the race. That being said, I felt great about my heat training and probably would recommend a longer period as research also shows that to gain the full benefits, you need more than the short-term acclimation period above. Plus, why limit your access to steamy stories with John Sr. and Dr. Conway in a public, suffocating hot box?
Lessons you learned that will help you next time around
The only training preparation I would have changed was find a way to train better for the long, easy grade downhills. Maybe it is just impossible to simulate in the Midwest, but this is the only aspect of training that I think I should have hit a bit harder. It is difficult to simulate a 10 mile downhill when the biggest hill you have is 600ft in ¾ a mile and it is 2 and ½ hours away from where you live. I don’t think I could have done enough downhill running before this event.
Also, I still haven’t hammered down the nutrition. My stomach always caves around mile 60 and I pay for it later in races. Biggest lesson I can suggest is to find a way to simulate 15+ hours of running on your race fuel. I did 7 hours and apparently it still did not translate.
At all the aid stations, eat food while your crew is going to town with the cooling processes. Whether this is a handful of goldfish or fresh fruit, get calories in while you’re standing and your HR is dropping. No sitting allowed and never leave an aid station without cooling off.
Most important course specific knowledge to know about the race
Easy up the escarpment is the way to do it. I paced myself with my friend Jay and we stayed right on the heels of Meghan Abergast who took things at a perfect hike/jog the entire way. I admit I wanted to just cruise up that thing and then bomb down the other side, but I think hammering your legs at mile 3 can only hurt you with the 4-6 minutes you’ll bank by running faster up the hill. I saw many people ahead of me that had no business being there fitness wise. If its not in your race plan to be top 10, take this easy and soak in the sunrise.
From Red Star Ridge to Last Chance, you can run the entire time. I didn’t encounter anything too steep either uphill or downhill that would have been too strenuous – obviously I would recommend walking up to Robinson Flat, but even this uphill is not steep and would be runnable for a strong runner. When I return, I am going to push for a bit faster pace in this section before hitting the canyons. The downhills here are like power-up boosters that give you a 100% return on your stride with no energy drain.
I felt like I managed the canyons very well. Some insight I would share is that the downhill from Last Chance is a bit steeper but it is in the shade around midday when I was running. There is a pretty big spring just after the swinging bridge that offers a great break from the heat. I would recommend soaking yourself, full-body, then get moving. The hike up to Devil’s Thumb is steep and was in the sun the entire way. I took it easy but never stopped. I saw many people having a very difficult time on this section, many of whom I passed as they sat down to rest going up the incline – again, all switchbacks with a moderate grade. From Devil’s Thumb down to El Dorado Creek, I felt a little warm. The downhill here is all switchbacks, some a bit longer, but they felt like they took forever. This is the section that made me wish for better preparation for the downhills. Many of these longer switches were also in the sun all the way to the bottom. At Devil’s Thumb, do not rush out of the aid station – get cooled off with ice, soak yourself here because there is no accessible “spa” in El Dorado like there is on the previous canyon. I wish I would have put a 3rd bottle in my drop-bag at Devil’s Thumb because this is also the only section that I ran out of fluids between aid stations. The climb from El Dorado Creek to Michigan Bluff felt longer than the one to Devil’s Thumb; however, this climb was well shaded. Finally, at Michigan Bluff aid station, I would recommend a solid refueling session. Go through a checklist here and do some damage control from the canyons and the heat of the day. Even if you don’t feel hot, you are hot and core temperature control should be priority number one before headed back out into the midday sun.
Foresthill is an incredible aid station. I think I let the atmosphere get the better of me here and lost my dedication to thermoregulation at this point in the race as I focused more on how well I was going to run the next section while picking up my pacer. Before this aid station, I always went through the aid stations first, grabbed some fruit or goldfish, refilled my bottles and got sponged down before seeing my crew who bolstered up the attention to detail. Here, my crew was before the aid station and I didn’t want to soak the new shoes and socks I just put on with the sponge baths…dumb de dumb dumb. Always get sponged down and always get a ton of ice in your bandana and bottles. In retrospect, I should have gone through the cooling gauntlet, grabbed some edibles and met my crew after a thorough artic version of the Flash Dance shower scene. I was too anxious to get running with Matt here and should have taken my time, 5 more minutes here could have saved me hours later.
Aesthetics – is it a pretty course
Gorgeous area especially the first 20 miles along the ridges which overlook the vast California wilderness. I vividly remember the sunset as I ran along the American River with Matt. The prettiest sight is still the Pacer High School track in all its glory.
Difficulty – is it a tough course
I found this course to be very difficult. The elements definitely contributed, but with how well-trained I was, this was still not easy. The times I entered particular sections of the course also made it challenging. The midday sun was stifling through the canyons which paired 105+ heat with some of the biggest climbs on the course. Perhaps it was the condition I was in, but the climb up to the Pointed Rocks aid station was also particularly difficult, and there is nothing like a solid 600ft climb at mile 98. Yes, this was a tough course.
Organized and well run – did it feel like a well-oiled machine or were they flying by the seat of their pants?
Western States has their shit down. I believe I previously referenced KY jelly wrestling for how well-oiled a race can be, but this was a 100 miler and every volunteer in the place could have participated in the jelly contest. Yes, I’d say WSER was well-oiled and ready for a massage by the end of the day.
Competition – is there a strong field?
Of the 390+ runners, 250 enter in the lottery while the remaining 140+ are awarded entry for various reasons with the most common being past performance. 24 spots are awarded to 1st and 2nd place finishers at competitive Golden Ticket races, 20 spots go to the previous year’s Top Ten. All of these runners are elite athletes with potential for a podium spot. Additionally, no one shows up to WSER without know their stuff. This is a lottery race that some people wait 6 or 7 years to enter and they have to run a qualifying event every year to enter the lottery. All-in-all, the field is made up of mostly experienced ultrarunners and elite athletes. Yeah, this is the real deal and it brings world class talent.
Logistics – Does it require a special handshake, registration a year in advance, hotels all booked? Give us the low down on the nuts and bolts of making the race happen.
Getting into Western States is perhaps the most well-known process for a race entry anywhere because people have to go through it so many times to actually get their shot. Run the qualifier and submit your lottery spot the first-ish week of November, prepare for disappointment in December with the drawing, repeat process between 3-8 times until God smiles on you for a brief moment and your name falls out of the lottery tumbler.
Something I would recommend is that if you’re in the lottery with a decent chance of getting into the race – around 4 consecutive years gives you a good shot – I would book a hotel room at the Squaw Valley lodge BEFORE the drawing and cancel if your name isn’t pulled. If you are one of the poor peasants with less than 4 consecutive years, your main preparation should be finding your next year’s qualifier; however, if some magic happens and your name is drawn, before you jump for joy, go ahead and book Thursday/Friday nights in Squaw Valley because things fill quickly.
Another method for entry is to get on the waitlist, fly to Squaw Valley on race day and then guilt founder Gordy Ainsleigh into coughing up his Founder bib because he feels sorry for you.
Literally the best aid stations I have every encountered. I stated this above, but every time I entered an aid station, I had one volunteer immediately asking me what I needed and taking my bottles. This point person then directed others while filling said bottles with ice and water like a hydration boss. Every station had ice and sponge baths, and several even equipped them with good looking ladies who mercilessly dumped frigid water all over my body. At one point while I was running with Matt, I entered an aid station and subsequently had 2 volunteers, both the most beautiful young ladies I have ever seen (remember this is mile 75ish) massaging my calves while a rather large gentlemen continuously poured ice water down my back and I sipped on a cold coca-cola. Yeah, sign me up to run 100 miles any day with this kind of attention! Oh, and then as pull into Brown’s Bar aid station, I am greeted by a volunteer who guides me over to the sponge baths and when I look up, I see Hal’s big smiling face just staring at me with a sponge in his hand. Yeah, I had a very similar moment to Matt U. as I was totally struck by Hal Koerner giving me a sponge bath. Freaking awesome!
Weather and typical race conditions –
Weather is usually very temperate, no high temperatures or scorching hot canyons to worry about here. I probably wouldn’t bother including any sort of temperature control in your race plan and bring 2, maybe 3 rain jackets because it rains a lot here and you don’t want to catch a cold out there…please disregard all of that. This race was hot all day and without training for the heat, I would have been a toasty marshmallow watching all the runners pass me as I DNF’d walking up from El Dorado aid station. My race day had 60s along the escarpment, 100+ in the canyons and never dropped below 70 even at 3am in Auburn. I don’t believe it rains here ever on race day unless you wield magical rain powers in which case don’t bring a rain jacket, just enjoy the live saving shower from heaven.
Gear – did you need anything special or is there anything you’d recommend for the next guy?
I used a vest for the first 60 miles with two water bottles. I already mentioned that I would stash an extra bottle at the Devil’s Thumb aid station so you can take in more fluids along this HOT section of trail. In retrospect, the vest worked well except the hard bottles sit right on the edge of my ribs and bruised me up pretty good with the pounding. I will be switching to soft bottles for my next 100 mile and might give handhelds a try in my training.
I used handhelds the final 38 miles and I think they made for pretty good decorations, especially for the final 20 miles. Had I known they were solely for aesthetic purposes coming out of Green Gate, I may have opted for a cute arm sleeve or maybe a nice set of ankle sweat bands that would have better color coordinated with my outfit…in case you aren’t catching on here, I didn’t eat or drink much the final 20 miles.
I wore a t-shirt the entire way and felt very comfortable with the heat in that. Perhaps something lighter would have been beneficial with a bit faster pace, but for how I was running that day, the t-shirt did a great job holding some water from the sponge baths, carting ice away from the aid stations and showed off my abs when I flexed pretty hard around spectators. I think I could get better definition from a crop top, but well see if I make the jump.
I had one shoe change at Foresthill and in retrospect, I don’t think I really needed to do this. My feet were pretty much getting wet all day from creek crossings or volunteer sponge baths and when I went for the dry socks and shoes I just shot myself in the foot by denying my icing ritual. However, I don’t usually get blisters and run well in wet shoes, which some people are not big fans of doing. Know you and pick one or two spots where a shoe change might be beneficial.
Spectators – is this a friendly course for your friends
Other than volunteers and my crew, I honestly didn’t notice anyone other than the field of runners. I saw my crew 4 times in the first 62 miles, but this is because I had 2 crews thanks to team Urbanski and my Dad who each drove to the different locations that would have been perhaps impossible with just one vehicle. Following Foresthill, you can catch the crews a little more often, but still about every 15ish miles.
The only award that matters is the silver buckle that has sat in my lap while I wrote this whole race report. But yeah, they recognize the top 10 every year (male/female) and they get to return the following year. There are also age group winners.
The Overall Score – how many stars do you give this race and do you recommend that others run it
10/10, if you don’t want to run this race, you probably like road 5ks and should just stick to those like the serf that you are.