29 Jun 11 by James Elson

Western States 100 2011

In the race manual it gives 'Trashed Quads' as one of the main reasons for not finishing Western States 100. I had never really had trashed quads before but let me tell you it hurts bad. I recommend doing some running before doing WS and particularly, doing long downhills to get your legs used to being battered by descending.... sadly I hadn't run downhill since early February. I guess this was really an experiment in whether I could finish a tough 100 on just cross training and some mental stones.

I spent the Friday morning before race day going through runner registration involving signing the usual liability waivers, picking up a medical card, having a photo and short video clip taken for the webcast and then picking up the free race swag (Mountain Hardwear Pack, calf and arm sleeves, 2 race t shirts, fleece etc - all in all $$$s of free stuff). Then followed the medical check where they took our blood pressure, pulse and weight. The weight thing is good but annoying, they check us regularly throughout the race and if our weight differed by more than 3% up or down of registration weight, we may be asked to wait at an aid station to drink/ eat/ pee until our weight normalised before we can go on. If our weights differ from that at registration by 7% or more we would be pulled from the course on medical grounds (either dehydration or hyponatraemia).

I was one of the few people there without designated crew or pacers but I didn't mind, given that there were 24 aid stations over the 100 miles plus 10 places you could leave drop bags. Unfortunately I realised I had forgotten the gels GU had sent me for the race, plus my headlamps and cap so I went outside and found the GU rep who I kind of begged to help me out by giving me replacement gels (thank you GU rep) and then bought the other stuff. I spent the rest of the day chilling out with Ian Sharman, discussing his race strategy for at the least, breaking the top 10 again and then later with David Snipes (Sniper) a friend of mine from VA going for the Last Great Race this year (Old Dominion, Western States, Vermont, Angeles Crest, Leadville and Wasatch Front all in one summer).

I got up the following morning at 3am, drove the car back up to Squaw Valley and climbed out into the freezing morning air. When I got back to the check in it was packed with runners and their crews mostly eating and forcing that second morning movement pre race. At  0455, I lined up with 400 other runners and watched the clock click down the last few minutes to 5am and race start.

Obviously I had no idea how things were going to go. My one goal was to cross the finish line in Auburn. To have presumed I was capable of achieving anything more than that on a stress fracture and a total of 11 running miles in the preceeding 6 weeks would have been naive to say the least. Whilst I am by no means an elite runner I do usually make the top 10% of the field at most races so I made sure I forced myself to wait back of the bulk of the field at the start and to try to stay there as much as possible to make sure i didn't get swept up in racing anybody.

The first 4.5 miles of WS climbs from the base of Squaw Valley and winds up gravel paths under the ski lifts all the way to the escarpment and over the top of the mountain. There is no downhill or flat in this section, just a slope which varies in pitch from runnable to a steep hike. When the gun went I could see the front runners streaming away up the path, I ran maybe 300 - 400 yards and then settled in to a power walk up the hill. The first 3 miles went by quickly as the sun started to come up and from there we turned left to go directly up the ski slope which was still covered in thick snow.

It was here that I first realised how bad my road shoes were going to be at gripping on snow with an icy crust on top. I slid around a lot but made it up and over the top of the climb in around an hour. The views across Lake Tahoe behind were incredible as everyone told me they would be.

(language warning in almost all videos....)

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Once over the summit, we hit a smooth downhill trail which led us straight into a forest where the snow was at its thickest. The going for the next 9 miles through that stuff varied between runnable snow and sliding on hands and arse down steep icy slopes ie. between 0.5 and 7 miles per hour. I went over hard over a dozen times and by the time we had descended far enough to get out of the snow, my arms were killing me from arresting so many falls.

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I went through Talbot aid at Mile 13 in 3 hours exactly, had a couple of gels and refilled my water before making quick work of the next 7 mile section down to Poppy at mile 20, hitting that in 4 hours dead. By this time my quads were already sore. Anybody who has run Western States before will know that if your quads are sore by mile 20 you are in serious trouble, because you have about 20000 feet of downhill to contend with after that point. I knew I was in pain because I had done no running, I was asking my legs to do work that they were just not used to. The fact that I knew this would happen coming in to the race made me better equipped just to block it out and get on with it.

The short section between here and Duncan Canyon at mile 23 was stunning, all single track winding through trees around the edge of a lake and crossing small streams. From Duncan Canyon followed a long downhill descent on trail and then road, before a steep climb in the now building heat back up to Mosquito Ridge at Mile 31. This was the first time in the day I felt like I'd gone too hard. People had started to pass me on the down hills where I was already in pain but on the ascents I made all that time back and more with pretty strong climbing legs. At Mosquito Ridge I caught up with Sniper and we ran the 4 mile loop at the top together, grabbing snow from the trail to dump under my hat which helped cool me back down from overheating temporarily. I let Sniper go once we went through Millers Defeat at 35 and the next 3 miles were on what should have been a lovely winding, easily runnable descent. Unfortunately I was getting overtaken again by everyone I'd just cruised past because my quads felt like they were being jarred out of my legs. If I'd know what was to come I would have started to panic, luckily I was blissfully unaware.

The next section of WS, the canyons, should be reasonably straight forward but cause many to come unstuck. Over the next 20ish miles (38 - 56) you descend deep down into a canyon and climb back up the other side, repeat 3 times. It is this section that most runners do in the heat of the day and there is no air down there. Luckily we only had 90 ish degree temps rather than the usual 110 to 120. The first canyon drops steeply from Last Chance at mile 43 all the way down to a creek at the bottom before climbing back up the fabled Devils Thumb at mile 47. If you had gone on a nice trail run and your legs weren't trashed already, the descent would be one of the most enjoyable running experiences imaginable with lots of sweeping switchbacks. My quads were so battered however that I was forced to walk most of the descent and every step was causing more and more pain. At the bottom, I spent some time stretching my legs out and had already lost a lot of the flex and bend. The climb up Devils Thumb is intense. 1500 feet in a mile or so with 36 switchbacks. It is the kind of climb where you look up above you and the runners ahead look like they are perched on a cliff directly above you. When I got to the top at mile 43 I felt totally spaced out and my weight was down 4 lbs which was right on the limit. I had again passed everyone that had cruised past me on the descent but I'd overdone it and let my HR climb too high for too long. I forced some food down at this point and just kept moving so as not to let my legs seize up. Into the next canyon was a repeat performance, although less steep the descent was again horrific and the climb back out to Michigan Bluff at mile 55.7 was long and hard too.

I realised I had a chance of making Forest Hill at Mile 62 before dark and wanted to do so to give myself a boost psycologically. Apart from my quads everything else was pretty ok, no chaffing, blisters bad but manageable and i'd been eating and drinking well. I head out of the aid there and went on my way with two of the medic sweepers that are out running sections of the course throughout the day. I got chatting to those guys and one of them really kindly offered to go ahead the last mile into Forest Hill and find me a pacer. I made good time on this section and got to Forest Hill at mile 62 before it got dark in 15:22. Slow by any normal standards but good going for me all things considered.

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Everyone tells you pre race to 'save some running in your legs for after Forest Hill - it gets much easier'. Well that's all well and good but if your quads are shot to pieces there is nothing you can do to recover them. I tried everything, snatching sticks out of the bushes to push down my legs and try and run the lactic acid out, stretching. Nothing worked.

At Forest Hill I picked up my pacer, Jeff which the medic had kindly sorted out for me (i offered him a free spot in the TP100 for helping me out). Jeff was amazing. He had been waiting for a friend to come through Forest Hill from where he would pace him to the finish. Unfortunately his friend had dropped earlier in the race and that was to my benefit. Jeff just got it straight away. I told him my expectations at that point were just to finish and not kill myself doing it given that Vermont was three weeks away. Was it possible to go sub 24 still? Probably, but to find out might put me so far into the red that it could take months to get back out again like Badwater last year. I said 25 - 26 hours seemed reasonable and that I just wanted my shin to hold up and he agreed. Jeff lives for these trails. God knows how many hours he has spent on the Western States trail over the years but he knew every nook and cranny. He had also paced somebody last year from the same point. To have someone in a race when it's getting dark and you've been on your feet for 16 hours already, telling you exactly how long the next climb is or how far to the next runnable section is invaluable. Not only that but his help at the aid stations was out of this world. As we approached I would let him know what i needed ie. how much powder to put in to the water bladder, what i needed from the bag, food etc etc and he just did it allowing me to either stretch, puke or just stand at the food table eating everything I could.

I say puke because over the next 10 - 15 miles I started to get pretty nauseous. We ran down the Cal Street trail until it got dark and made ok time through the aid station at 65, then on to Peachstone at mile 70. At this point though I tried to put a cup of coke, a quesadilla and 2 ibuprofen in my mouth at the same time, starting chewing and blew everything all over the side of the aid station. It came hard and fast and I missed Jeff by inches. What followed was a total evacuation of everything I had in my system. Retching really hard made me pull my stomach muscles but once it was all out I felt tons better. We proceeded on through the dark trails and got to the river crossing at mile 78 around 1am.

The American River is usually crossed on foot at this point but it was almost in flood this year with all the meltwater. At Rucky Chucky - Mile 78, Jeff and I donned life jackets and climbed into a raft for a quick journey across to the other side. It would have been spectacular had I not been freezing cold and in pain but despite that it was still an experience I'll never forget.

When we got to the other side I changed socks for the first time and found all the skin had come away from the bottom of my feet. There was a foot guy there but I just placed the socks over the flaps of skin and pressed down into my shoes to get it to all stay put. We began the 2 mile climb up to Green Gate at mile 80 and the going was slow but steady. The next 10 miles or so we tried to keep a pace of between 3 and 4 mph over all terrain, the trail just winding through the woods was great and again any other time would have been incredible running but with quads this sore it was hard to enjoy that much. The light started to come up just as we hit Browns Bar at Mile 90 which was an experience....

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Once through Browns Bar we had roughly 3 x 3.5 mile sections to go and plenty of time in the bag. I had gone a little quiet but Jeff knew it was just the pain in my legs causing that. He kept pushing me to eat salt and drink a little as my hands were pretty swollen and my weight still up 3 or 4 pounds at the previous weigh in. We got down to Highway 49 crossing and went straight on through the aid station. They don't tell you that this last 10 miles is almost all straight up or straight down but it is. Nothing severe but pretty rough going actually. It was getting to the point where I was having real trouble negotiating the descents now at any speed. I felt pretty sick with the pain and didn't want to puke again so just gutted it out as best I could but we were really crawling along. From mile 93.5 we made the climb up and then the steep descent down to No Hands Bridge at 96.5. This should have been really enjoyable again but it was a death march. This being the last downhill however, I started to lighten up a little. Across No Hands, we then made the climb up to Robie Pt at mile 98.9 out of the trail and the heat and on to the last mile to the track at Auburn. Tim Twietmeyer came past at this point the other way down the trail and said well done which was flattering considering he's run WS 25 times, all in under 24 hours.

The last mile to the track was a gentle stroll. I couldn't have cared less about the overall time at that point, I had 2 hours to do a mile so we just ambled in with Jeff trying to get me to 'loosen up my quads' to run round the track at the end. When we got there the reception was fantastic, people cheering all the way round the 300 yards. Sniper, who'd finished a couple of hours before, got up and jogged the last 200 with us across the finish line as John Medinger the announcer read out my name. It felt good to cross the line, total time 28:25.

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I was elated that I'd got it done. Mentally it was my strongest ever performance. Not once did I even come close to contemplating taking extended time at an aid station, let alone sleeping/ stopping or just dropping out. Ordinarily I would be disappointed with a crappy death march to the finish but to have expected anything else would have been insane. As a result I did what I could and I was lucky enough to be allowed to make a 100 mile journey last weekend. And what's more my shin lasted the distance. Western States lived up to everything it is pertained to be. Yes the organisation is fantastic albeit a little fanatical but mostly it is the trail itself that holds this race up there at the top. It is simply an awesome track.

As soon as I crossed the line a medic took my pulse and told me it was 121 so high. I had just covered 100 miles and run the last 300 yard section in to the finish. No shit my pulse was high. Then I made my way over and got a sports massage. Two people clamping me to the table basically pushed as much crap out of my quads as possible and it was excruciating. I lasted about 10 minutes under their care and it was deeply painful but ultimately beneficial. Sniper, John his pacer and I took a long drive back to Truckee after and grabbed some lunch but we were all falling asleep at the table having been up for 38+ hours so hit the sack shortly after.

I have to say thanks to Lisa Smith-batchen who coached me through the worst period in my running career. In short, Lisa got me through this race by training almost entirely on a stationary bike, stepper and strider. Not too many people could have got me to a place where i could even start on that basis, let alone finish with time to spare. Joe and Mike at the EIS who were able to finally diagnose my bone issues and set me on the straight and narrow deserve the reward of this finish also. Jeff Egolf, I am deeply indebted to you my friend you are one hell of a pacer.

So what's next? Well that was race 1 of the 4 in the Grand Slam. Vermont is next in just 3 weeks time (16th July) which is not a lot of time to recover. Of 32 who stared the slam at Western States, 8 DNF'd there so we are down to 24 already. On the way home my feet swelled up to horrendous proportions and my blisters and quads are going to take time to heal but with the right preparation and lots of rest I should yet be ok for Vermont. The only blocker will be if my shin shows any residual damage when the swelling in my legs goes down. I have made no secret of the fact that in order of priority, Western States and then Leadville came top for me so if Vermont will force me from Leadville I won't start there. It's one day and one race at a time this summer. Who knows what could happen, I got through that one ok!