It’s taken me a few weeks to digest everything that went on at the 2016 Western States. I will start by saying that it wasn’t the race performance I was hoping for, but it was certainly everything I knew it would be. I believed I could lay down a quicker time - lofty goals indeed for a race with such a reputation for destroying even the best. It’s my 5th hundred and arguably on paper, the easiest course. I didn’t underestimate the difficulties as 100 miles is never an easy proposition - it’s always a journey, with hiccups and bumps along the way. I’ve been here enough times to know that things rarely go to plan, and there will always be low points, along with some pretty incredible highs in any race of this distance. I trained for the heat, and I trained harder than ever. I put in some really good quality work in the early part of the year, that set me up for a great race. But I feel like the second half of Western States just got away from me. I have been trying to analyze what happened, and I think it simply boils down to a bit of bad luck, some overoptimism, and a few schoolboy errors! And one problem can snowball rapidly into others in a race like Western.
This race is a giant, and believe me it lives up to the hype - from the pre-race meetings and start line hoopla, to the atmosphere as one steps foot onto the track at Placer High. It is everything that you imagine it to be. It is a beautiful course, especially the first 30 miles through the Granite Chief Wilderness. It is stunning to be running easily along high ridges at first light, with vast vistas of lakes and distant snowy peaks. Of course you feel good in those early miles, and that adds to the whole depth and quality of experience.
I cruised easily to the top of the escarpment, the first and biggest climb, right where I wanted to be. I typically try to place myself with the lead women, and I found myself passing the early miles with Kaci and Devon who would ultimately finish first and third. We surprised ourselves somewhat when we caught Jim Walmsley near the top of the escarpment, but he was playing mind games with the main contenders, walking the flats, and running the climbs! Needless to say, we backed off and found our rhythm.
The early miles out to Duncan Canyon rolled by easily. I was fuelling well with Vitargo Race in my bottle. My legs felt great, and I was very relaxed. Fitzy and Ethan Veneklassen were at Duncan Canyon to top up my bottles and it was an in and out in 20 seconds. At Robinson Flat, Saira, her dad and the boys, were excited to see me.
The atmosphere here was incredible and I felt like a rockstar rolling in. We started heat management here as the day was warming up and high temps were forecast to be in the 100s later on. Ice in the hat, down the sleeves and around the neck - you’ve all seen the Rob Krar video right! I rolled on easily to Dusty Corners where Fitzy and Ethan topped me up again, and I was out of there quickly, enjoying the trail, and anticipating the difficulties ahead. I felt chilly with all the ice, but knew that this was a good thing. I chatted with Kyle Pietari who was cruising the downhills but seemed to be struggling through the climbs. We played yo yo for a few miles, then he was gone, running a fantastic second half to finish 8th. I purposely relaxed on the descents. With around 24,000 feet of downhill, this is not the place to be cranking out fast descents early on.
By Last Chance aid station at mile 43, things were warming up but I was in control. The effort was steady, I had no niggles, and I was eating and drinking lots. In the first 45 miles I stopped for quick bathroom breaks 4 times, so I was on top of the hydration, and it really didn’t feel super hot. I grabbed some gels for the next section, topped up my bottles and prepared for the canyons which is typically where things can turn sour for those who go out too fast. I was rolling out of the aid station when a volunteer offered to douse me with a cold sponge. It was bracing and I gasped with the cold, and then I instantly regretted the shower as my pristine dry shoes and socks got a good soaking. ‘Oh well” I thought, ‘I never get blisters’, and I knew I would be seeing the crew at Michigan Bluff(mile 55) with dry socks and shoes. This is where my great day out took a turn for the worse. Never say never, right.
From Last Chance there is a dramatic and steep plunge into Deadwood Canyon. The drop is around 2000ft. It is steep and loose in places. The grade is such that it’s hard to open up and run down, especially with 40+ miles in the legs. I knew as soon as I set off down the switchbacks that my feet were in trouble. I felt hot spots develop almost immediately in both heels, and within a half a mile I had searing pain in both heels. The grade was such that it was hard to get the weight forward onto my toes, so every foot strike became an agonizing sheer on the skin of my heels. It was a relief to cross over the creek and begin climbing the Devil’s Thumb as the climb provided some respite for my tender heels. It is a tough old climb, the hardest on the course I’d say, but I felt like I was climbing well. The legs felt good. All systems go. Through Devil’s aid station and then it’s down, down, down again - this time around 2600 ft into El Dorado canyon. The descent is less severe but the heel pain returned as soon as I turned downhill. I was passed by Amy Sproston on this descent on her way to a second place finish, as I tried to gingerly tip toe down through the turns. At the bottom of El Dorado I dipped my hat in the creek for a refreshing shower, this time taking care to keep my shoes dry, but unfortunately the damage was done. Damp socks, blistered heels and hot spots on the forefeet. During the steep canyon descents I was miserable. My feet were killing me, and I kicked myself for allowing blisters to form. It seemed that the discomfort was all encompassing. Negative thoughts crept in for a while, but I remembered a blog post I had read somewhere - I don’t recall where - where I’d read that the pain from blistering usually abates. I had a word in my head for the entire middle third of the race - “Persistence”. I have been through difficult times in races, and things do always get better. “Be persistent” I told myself “it will improve.”
The climb out of El Dorado is steep and temperatures were pushing into the high 90s. I managed to run/hike a lot of this, feeling strong on the ups, and in no time at all I recognized the final short road into Michigan Bluff at mile 55.
Up until Last Chance I was running off 18h 30m splits, and I’m pleased to say that I was nailing the splits spot on. My feet significantly slowed me down in the canyons however, and by Michigan Bluff I was well off target. I decided I was not going to look at the watch again, I’d just do what I could do and get through. My main goal is always to finish, and at States I really wanted that Silver buckle. At Michigan Bluff the whole crew was waiting. I took a seat and Saira did a fantastic job in drying my feet and applying KT tape over the blistered areas, one of which had already burst. I switched into dry Salomon Propulse, with fresh socks. The boys got me ice and I ate a few chips and refilled the Vitargo. Ethan and Fitzy jogged up the road with me, then it was off to Foresthill. It’s only a short distance, not much over an hour. I was optimistic as the feet felt much better with Saira’s tape job and the dry footwear, and my split to Foresthill was good at around 1 hour 12 mins. As I popped onto the pavement after Volcano canyon, I was please to see Albert waiting for me. Crewing is allowed anywhere in Foresthill, so he topped up my bottles and we jogged together the few kilometres up the hill to the Aid Station proper. Foresthill is 62 miles in and I ran most of the climb on the pavement. We cruised into the Foresthill aid station at a good clip. I was bored by Bert’s enthusiasm and encouragement. He filled me in on the race unfolding up front, and my aches and pains seemed to ebb away. The feet were feeling better, my legs were great and the energy seemed fine.
Foresthill was a spectacle to behold. Words really cannot describe how it feels to get here. It’s a party atmosphere and it really gives you a boost just when you need it. Saira tended to my feet again as Fitzy readied himself for pacing duties. After a few minutes we were off up the road to Cal street. Fitzy had a temperature of 99F on his watch, so the forecast was spot on. Despite the heat I felt like I had done a great job at staying cool. Ice in the hat and sleeves and around the neck is really effective, and the aid station volunteers were pros at topping up the ice. What I now realize, however, is thatbetween Last Chance and Foresthill, in that almost 20 mile section, I pretty much ate nothing. A rookie mistake, no doubt.
It’s hard to recollect events exactly now, but I believe that I became so mentally distracted by the blistering feet, the wet shoes and socks and the heat management that I omitted to think about calories. In that 4 hours 20 mins between Last Chance and Foresthill, I’d estimate I consumed about 200 calories, which is clearly not enough. In the first half of the race I pee’d 4 times, the second half, once. I just stopped eating and drinking! Obviously the heat plays a part, and can blunt the appetite, but I honestly believe I just became so engrossed in the painful feet situation, that I forgot to take care of the small detail of fueling! It seems so obvious to me now. By Foresthill I think I was probably pretty dehydrated and running low on glycogen. With dehydration it becomes difficult to absorb calories from the gut due to decreased blood flow. The lack of calories also suppresses the brain, and thinking back now, I was definitely in a bit of a fog.
With Fitzy now along for the next 30 miles, I perked up, but the food just wouldn’t go down well. I developed a nauseating cramp in my side, and every jolt when I picked up the pace was uncomfortable. I felt like I would vomit, but I reassured Mike it would pass, so we dug deep and did our best to keep moving. Not much else to do. If my belly had been good, we would have really flown down this section. Cruisy trails, nothing steep or technical, and my legs felt great, but the belly was a problem.
Cal1, and Cal2 passed in a blur. I remember the course was beautiful as we contoured the American River in a long slow gradual descent. We were in shade through a lot of this section, and I cannot imagine how the heat would be along here if in direct sun light. As it was, the sun glimmered through the trees, and as I think back, this section was a real highlight for me. Mike enthused about the beauty and we wished we had a camera. We were moving slowly, but we were moving. Relentless forward progress is what gets you to the finish. Hundreds are hard, but who would want an easy challenge, right? It’s why we do them. My belly ached. Periodic belches helped, but it wouldn’t abate. My feet were feeling a lot better, but now the gut problems took centre stage and seemed hard to shake.
We hiked the steep and difficult “6 minute hill” to Cal3 aid, and Fitzy chatted with the Aid Station captain who’s family have been crewing here for over 20 years. I started to look forward to the famous Rucky Chucky river crossing where we would see our crew again, and we chatted with Dominic Grossman who was pacing a buddy along here; he entertained us with some of his dance moves, with his iPhone knocking out tunes in speaker mode! His runner didn’t say much, and seemed to be hurting. Fellow Alberta Salomon runner Alissa St Laurent, paced by Gary Poliquin caught us just before Rucky Chucky, on her way to a fifth place finish. They were obviously moving well, and Alissa put down a stellar performance on the day. Gary handed me something to help with the cramping belly pain, and I have no idea to this day what it was, but it didn’t seem to make much difference! Apparently it had worked a charm for Alissa. I simply swallowed the pill and crossed my fingers. Water and dilute Vitargo were going down OK, but all I could handle at the aid stations was Coke, water melon and a few chips. I think I carried 5 gels with me for over 40 miles without eating a single one!
At Rucky Chucky we met the crew. It is a beautiful spot and I was glad to be here in daylight. Saira, her dad and the boys were enjoying the river crossing spectacle! I was looking forward to cooling off and I had fresh shoes and socks on the far side in a drop bag. That was a killer move! Looking at the splits now, Mike and I had actually made good time along Cal street. My 18h 30m split would have put us here at 18:45, and my 19 hour split had us here at 19:25. We arrived at 20:00 so we weren’t too far off pace. The river crossing was refreshing, but harder than I expected. Huge slippery rocks, difficult ground underneath, and surprisingly chilly. We made good time across where we were pleased to see Ethan who had hiked down from Green Gate. I changed shoes, Ethan taped up my feet, and I donned a shirt. We hiked up to Green Gate, listening to Ethan’s tall tales. We were passed by multiple spectators heading down to the river. I think Ethan knew every one of them! Ultra legend Dr David Horton high fived me on the climb which was cool, and ex women’s champion Stephanie Howe was at the top cheering. Ethen left us at Green Gate, and what then ensued was a few hours of hike/walk, run fast, belly ache, belch, run fast, walk! We were passed a few times and we passed a few folks. There was a lot of back and forth.
Around mile 85 I felt particularly good and I recall cranking along at what felt like 4 mins/km. I remarked to Fitzy that the human body is capable of remarkable feats, right before I slowed to a walk then vomited up a lot of coke at Brown’s Bar aid! I sat for quite a while at Brown’s Bar. By now, at mile 90, I knew that I was going to finish, but the gut pain was really pretty defeating. I switched to ginger ale and that seemed to settle the belly somewhat. The volunteer who was with me at Brown’s Bar was incredible. He stood by as I wretched and emptied my stomach into the bushes. He talked to me sympathetically and talked about the fact that sooner or later the shit hits the fan during an ultra. He was right, and he knew what I was going through. I don’t know his name, but I remember his words were very reassuring at the time.
After the nausea settled, Mike and I were on the go again. I don’t recall any of the next section. I don’t recall climbing to Highway 49, but soon I was resting in a chair, with my 16 year old son George ready to pace me to the finish. Mike’s job was done, and he did a stellar job. I didn’t talk a lot to Mike in those 30 or so miles, but I appreciated his presence every step of the way. I recall a 2 hour stretch when I was pacing Devin Featherstone at HURT and we didn’t say a single word! Fitzy got a bit of the silent treatment from me on this one, but simply having a good buddy there for you if you need to troubleshoot, and to find the trail, is immensely reassuring.
At Hwy 49 I downed some broth and ginger ale, then George and I were off. I warned him I maybe wouldn’t talk much, but hetook it all in his stride, and I started to feel better. We ran most of this leg, hiking quickly up the climbs. We were across No Hands Bridge in what seemed like no time, and then we were on the final grunt up to Robie Point. I was passed by a couple of runners on this section, and we passed a couple. George ran well a few steps behind me and his encouraging words were a real boost. This is the second hundred miler on which he’s paced me to the finish - the first being Cascade Crest. If you ever get the chance to be paced in by your son or daughter, I highly recommend it! Being able to share a big finish like this with your family is very special. I get a lump in my throat when I think about it.
At Robie point aid we checked in and out in a flash, and at the top of the street Saira, Carl and Albert were waiting. I’ve watched so many videos of the final mile of Western, I had a strange sense of deja vu. As the track at Placer High came into view, I had goosebumps and was overcome with a huge sense of achievement. Stepping onto the track was a surreal experience. It was like going from night to day on the floodlit track. I savoured every step as I tried to pick up the pace around the track. It somehow felt like I was throwing down a fast lap, though my video of the finish tells a different story! Stiff legs, no bounce, the ultra shuffle, but a huge grin on my face. Western States in the bag.
What a race. I’ve never finished a hundred and immediately thought, I want to do that again, but as I hugged my crew and family who had made the day so memorable, that’s what I was thinking. Bob Shebest in his blog said he now understands that all roads seem to lead back to Western States. I know that he means, though it’s difficult to articulate. This day wasn’t my best. I had ‘issues’. I vomited, I blistered, and I walked, quite a bit. It slipped away from me in the latter stages, and my lofty goals were just that - way too lofty; but despite this, I’ve got that big silver buckle - the most coveted prize in ultra running some would say. I’ve worn it most days, and will continue to wear it.
I’m back training and running strong again. No injury concerns, no regrets; but man, I hope my name comes out of that hat again next December.
Thanks, as always to Saira, George, & Albert for the unwavering support. These crazy antics would just not be possible without the three of you, and you really have become a top notch veteran race crew. Thanks to Carl - I wanted you to experience a hundred miler in person - I think was the one to see! To Fitzy for traveling all that way to witness my 30 miles of suffering - cheers man, I appreciate it hugely - hopefully I can repay the favor one day? To Ethan - for getting to those more obscure crew locations - it was immensely reassuring to have you guys out there for me!
In the race I wore Salomon S Lab Sense shorts and vest; shoes - Salomon S Lab Sense Ultra SG and Propulse; socks - Compressport. Hat - Ciele (custom mod by Saira with ice pocket!). Bottles - Nathan handheld 20oz x 2. Nutrition - Vitargo S2 Race. Watch - Suunto Ambit3 Peak.
There is a lot of downhill running. There are significant climbs but they are not huge.
It’s almost all runnable, aside from a few steeps in the canyons.
Need to work the steady state efforts more. Longer SS efforts = More specificity of training
Heat training really works - my regime of passive sauna training 3 x weekly was effective.
I need to toughen my feet. Foot goo? Prophylactic taping? Fixing Your Feet website a great resource.
I need to practice nutrition in the heat. Hard to do.
I didn’t cramp at all - additional salt is not needed.
I want a second go at this - hopefully won't take another 6 years to get in!!