Happy Ending ...Western States 100 mile Endurance Run 2013
by Gregg Holst
Western States is the one of the premier ultra running events in the world and is the certainly the most historic. It was the first 100-mile running race and the Western States Trail itself is steeped in history. In 1974, Tevis Cup veteran, Gordy Ainsleigh joined the horses of the Western States Trail Ride to see if he could complete the course on foot. Gordy arrived in Auburn 24 hours later proving that a runner could match the accomplishment of the horses and run the rugged 100 miles in one day. This was the birth of ultra-running.
Beginning in Squaw Valley, the trail climbs from the ski village to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. After that you follow the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850’s. All together you climb 18,000 feet and descend 22,000 feet before arriving in
Getting in to the race is an achievement in itself. First you have to qualify but even harder is getting through a lottery to gain entry in the race. There were over 3000 entrants in the lottery to get 300 coveted spots. I was fortunate to have 3 tickets in the lottery (you get an extra ticket for every year you failed in the lottery). Even with the extra ticket I was really lucky to get in the race. I’ve always felt it was important to take the race seriously and be as well prepared as possible. Anything less would disrespectful to all the runners who couldn’t get in.
I ran this race in 2010. I was in really well trained and excited about the race. 2010 was a “snow year”. The high country was still buried in feet of snow and part of the course had to be re-routed because the aid stations were not accessible. I got sick early in the race (mile 30) and was never able to recover. Forty miserable miles later I missed a time cutoff at Mile 70. I can’t really explain how disappointing it was to not finish. I’m slow but I’ve finished a lot of races. However, I’ve learned no matter how well prepared you are no 100 miler is a sure thing. Anything can happen.
When runners get together they’re always talking about races. With ultra runners the conversation always turns to Western States. So for about 1000 times since 2010 I’ve had to say “I ran in 2010 but didn’t finish”, “I ran in 2010 but I didn’t finish”, “I ran in 2010 but I didn’t finish”…
I wanted redemption in the worst way.
I was fortunate this time to have access to a coach to help me prepare. Andy Jones Wilkins (AJW) is one of the top ultra runners in the sport. He’s now finished WS nine times with about seven top ten finishes. He finished second in 2005 with a time of 17:07. WS is his specialty. It’s his focus race every year and there aren’t many people who had more success than him at this race. He graciously offered to help me and six other runners train right to ensure we made it to the WS finish line. We started training right after the lottery in mid December. I have to admit I was a little taken back when the schedule for the first few weeks, “the base building period” called for over 60 miles a week. It was like having Tiger Woods as a golf coach and having him tell you to use a 5 iron for a 300-yard shot. I jumped in though and tried to stay as close as I could to the schedule throughout the program. Overall I probably ran 80 -90% of the scheduled mileage. My peak weeks were over 80 miles per week. As slow as I am that was a major time commitment!
AJW really helped me get ready for the WS course, which features several multiple mile descents. The usual hill training needed for a mountain 100 miler was modified to focus on the running the down hills hard. A major cause of failure at WS is “dead quads” from all the downhill sections. I also added a few races, four 50k’s and a 50 miler, between February and April to my training schedule. Lastly I participated in a WS training camp on Memorial Day weekend that involved running the last 70 miles of the course over 3 days. This was extremely helpful in terms of doing a tough 3 days of running and getting to know the course.
Race headquarters and check in is in Squaw Valley, CA. It’s a really cool place with a village with shops and restaurants. Race check in and the pre race meeting were on Friday. It was fun catching up with people I had met at other races and it was also very cool meeting some of the best ultra-runners in the world as they checked in or were wandering around the village.
All the talk was about the weather. They were predicting over 100 degrees in Auburn, which meant that the temperature in the low elevations, the canyons, could reach 110 or more. Everybody was talking about how it would be an “epic” year and how much “carnage” there would be on the trail. One thing about ultra runners is that tougher it is the happier they are.
At the pre -race meeting they of course talked about the heat and how to cope with it. They recommended dousing yourself at every aid station and also at the various streams on the course. The main advice was to take it slow and throw out your time expectations. In fact they said plan on adding 3 or 4 hours to your planned time. This was good advice for most people but I don’t usually have 3 or 4 hours to spare on the cutoff in an hundred miler. I was worried but I knew I was as prepared as I could be. Based on AJW’s advice I had been training in winter clothes, even as the weather back home got warmer. Also I hit the sauna a few times a week over the last month before the race.
For months we planned that my friend, Harris would pace me. I was looking forward to having him with me because I love running with him. I knew Harris would be the perfect guy to have around when things got tough during the night. No matter what happened we would have some laughs. Unfortunately he had a really serious drinking accident the weekend before the race and had to have hand surgery. He felt terrible about backing out and leaving me in a pinch (hand joke). I was really disappointed he wasn’t going to be available. It was too late to find another pacer ahead of time so my only hope was that I would be able to pick somebody up at Foresthill (mile 62) on Saturday night.
I slept pretty well the night before the race. I was wired and ready to go when the 5am start came around. The moments before a hundred miler are so electric. Its like that nervous energy at the start line of a marathon times a thousand. It’s great to finally get going after so many months of preparation. It’s also really scary to think about the challenge ahead and the inevitable suffering you’re going to face.
The race has several distinct phases, the High Country, the Canyons, Foresthill to the river and the River to the finish.
The High Country
The race starts with a 4-mile climb from the village at Squaw Valley up to the top of ski slope. You gain about 4,000 ft. of elevation in this part so it’s a pretty tough climb. The reward at the top is gorgeous views of the sunrise and Lake Tahoe. Once you get to the top you get on some really nice single-track trail. After 15 or miles or so you hit some exposed sections that were burned out by a fire a few years ago. Finally you have a couple miles down to Duncan Creek. This section gave us a taste of the heat we would face later. It was even noon yet but already the heat was stifling. I got through the High Country section and arrived at Robinson Flat (mile 30) in good shape and on track for the pace I had planned. That’s a great aid station because it’s the first station accessible to crews so there’s a lot of support there.
I ran a little bit with Gordy Ainsleigh who was the first guy to ever run the course. It was a horse race (The Tevis Cup) and the usual story is that Gordy came for the race and his horse went lame so he decided to run. I took this opportunity to ask Gordy if he really did the run without any preparation. He told me “that story you’ve heard is bunk, my horse went lame in 1973 and I ran in 1974”. It was still a remarkable achievement to dare to try a run like that when no one had ever done it before.
This was the section of the course that concerned me the most for several reasons. This is the hottest section of the course also the toughest section in terms of terrain. The basic pattern was a multi mile steep descent on technical trail followed by a multi mile climb back out of the canyon. My feet were starting to hurt so I had them “fixed” at the Dusty Corners aid station. I usually don’t have foot problems so I was a bit concerned to have problems so early on. After Dusty Corners you traverse the Deadwood canyon. After a long, gnarly descent to the bottom I doused myself in a spring before tackling the notorious Devil’s Thumb climb. This is a really steep section for the first half of the climb which than gets even steeper around half way up. There are 36 switchbacks in all.
This section of the course really beat me up in 2010 but this year I did OK. I maintained constant progress despite the climbing and the overwhelming heat.
After Devil’s Thumb there’s an aid station where I had my other foot “fixed”. My feet were always wet because at every aid station they would douse you in cold water to try to get your core temperature down. All the water helped with the heat but it was tough on the feet. I had blisters on both feet now and I still had over 50 miles to go.
After Deadwood canyon is El Dorado canyon. I don’t remember much about this section. I just have a hazy memory of heat, blazing sun, climbing and dust. This turned out to be the second hottest Western States on record. It will go down in history as one of the ‘epic’ years.
Finally I got to Michigan Bluff. It’s a great aid station because it’s accessible to crews and you’re in a more civilized area. It’s a major milestone because two of the canyons are behind you. It was also starting to get dark and there was a breeze so it was some relief from the heat. Up until that point I was doing great with hydration and fuel. I was going through a 2 liter camelback of electrolyte drink every 7 or 8 miles and I was tolerating food well. My weight was where it was supposed to be, a few percent lighter than the start.
Michigan Bluff is only 7 miles from Foresthill which where I would try to get a pacer and start the easier sections of the course. I was looking forward to Foresthill so much I forgot I had one more canyon, Volcano Canyon, to conquer.
After the Michigan Bluff aid station there was a road and than a nasty downhill single track trail. My feet were killing me at this point so the descent was tough and I still didn’t realize I was headed into another canyon. After a few miles the temperature was about 20 degrees hotter than the top and I started the long climb back. I was so hot again and I had to rest a few times climbing out of the canyon. A bunch of people passed me on this section.
I finally made it to Foresthill. There was a medical check there and I weighed 8 pounds more than I did at Michigan Bluff. The medical people didn’t realize I had gained that much weight so fast because they were comparing to my start weight, not the weight from 7 miles earlier. I figured the scale was off and prepared (more blister lancing) for the next section.
I was fortunate to pick up a pacer, here. Sean was from San Francisco and he had run the Memorial Day training even though he wasn’t in the race. He knew the course from that weekend. Sean was a great guy with a good sense of humor. My son, Eric was responsible for getting a pacer for me at Foresthill. Sean mentioned that Eric had told him he was supposed to be looking for a “hot chick” to pace me. Some sort of weird miscommunication I guess. Fortunately Eric had found Sean to pace me.
Foresthill to the River
This is a 16-mile descent to the American River. Even though it is predominately downhill there are some rolling parts and a few climbs. A 16-mile downhill section is pretty tough on the legs after you’ve covered 62 miles but I was looking forward to this section and the relief from the heat that nighttime would bring.
I was feeling bad after leaving the Foresthill station. I finally had to stop and started throwing up. The mystery of the eight pounds was solved. I often vomit during 100 milers. It’s usually a relief to clear out whatever’s not moving through your digestion system but than the trick is trying to get to the point where you can eat and drink again. Otherwise you’re in for a slow motion crash as you bonk and get dehydrated. I struggled for most of the rest of the way to the river. I threw up a few more times and I was struggling keeping food or liquids down. Finally at Cal 2 (mile 71) I started drinking coke and pretty much didn’t drink or eat or drink anything else successfully for the rest of the race. They thought I was crazy at Cal 2 when I asked them to fill my camelback with coke and ice.
I lost a lot of time on this section. I had no energy and I was falling asleep on my feet. At one point I sat down on the trail (apparently in Poison oak) for a 10-minute nap. I was relieved to finally make it to Rucky Chucky, the crossing point for the American River. I met my crew, Patricia and Eric at the aid station before the river crossing. Eric was at the ready.
I was really looking forward to the river crossing. Wading across the American River in waist deep water in the middle of the night holding onto a rope is an experience I’ll never forget. They had glow-sticks in the water so you could see some of the jagged rocks. The cold water was refreshing generally but it was really painful on my battered feet. Importantly crossing the river signaled the completion of a major section of the course and the start of the final leg.
River to the Finish
The last 20 miles of the course are the most runnable. For the most part there’s a lot of gentle downhill and smooth trail. If this were your first 20 miles it would be easy and fast. After 80 miles however, it’s a different story.
I lost so much time on the last section I was worried about cut-offs. I arrived at Rucky Chucky right on a 30-hour pace and a full hour ahead of the station cut-off.
After crossing the river there’s a 2 mile hike up to the Green Gate station. Then there’s a nice 5-mile section to Auburn Lakes Trail. I felt like I ran that section pretty well but I arrived at Green Gate only 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off. Somehow I had lost a half hour on a section I thought I ran well. I would have liked to get some more help for my feet and some food but I didn’t have time so we got through the station as fast as possible.
The next section was another very runnable 5-mile section. I ran as much as I could at that point. Except for my feet I was feeling good. I had good energy and my legs were OK. I knew I was on the bubble with the cut-offs but I was determined to finish. I knew a bunch of my friends would be monitoring my progress through text updates and the race website. Knowing this gave me the strength to keep going. My nickname is “the Beast” and believe me I get the joke (it’s like the 300 lb. biker named Tiny). But I embraced it and told myself I was the ‘friggin’ Beast” and the Beast is a finisher. The Beast gets it done.
I made it to Highway 49 about 40 minutes ahead of time so I was happy my efforts had paid off in making up time. I was 7 miles from the finish and was starting to feel confident. At this point you’re in Cool, CA and this section has a climb but than you’re in Cool Meadow. This was really a nice spot, an open meadow with the narrow trail winding through it. There were some day hikers there which so it felt like we were back to civilization which meant Auburn was close.
The last real aid station is No Hands Bridge. You go through the aid station and than cross a high bridge over the American River. At this point there were three miles left, a two mile climb on trail and than about a mile through town. I knew I had enough time to finish even if I had to walk it in so this was a fun section. After getting through the climb I finally stepped off the trail onto the shady streets of Auburn. One rolling mile was left to the finish!
The last mile was sweet. I usually like the last few miles of an hundred better than the actual finish. I always feel terrible at the finish probably because the body stops suppressing the pain and fatigue and all the abuse you’ve just put your body through comes home to roost. But I also think I’m always a little disappointed the run is over. The last mile through Auburn did not disappoint. There were people on both sides of the streets cheering and screaming which was very cool. Some of them knew my name. I actually choked up (a little) running though those Auburn streets.
The race ends at Placer High School. You enter the football stadium and take a half lap around the tack (my one track workout this year paid off!). I took my lap around the track and that was the sweetest quarter mile I ‘ve ever run.
Happy Ending !
The finish line area was great. AJW described it as the happiest place on earth and I would agree. It was great to take the shoes off and relax on the field. Twenty minutes after I finished a runner entered the stadium about a minute over the cut-off. He had made through the last aid station on time but somehow couldn’t negotiate the last 3 miles in time. He wouldn’t count as a finisher because he was a few minutes past the cut-off. He got a standing ovation (from a bunch of people who didn’t feel like standing up) as he made his way around the track. It was really cool. I hope he can come back someday to finish. I learned that success is that much sweeter after failure.
Thanks to everybody to helped me accomplish my goal. I appreciate everybody who ran a few extra miles with me over the past 6 months when I was trying to get some miles in. Thanks Patricia and Eric for crewing. It meant a lot to see you at the aid stations. Thanks AJW for your help. It made all the difference in the world. I was prepared. Thanks to everybody else who wished me well and thought about me sometime during those 30 hours I was on the trail. I felt you pulling for me.