How to Handle Western States | March 17, 2012
Most ultrarunners at some point in their running lives dream of adding a cougar encrusted belt buckle to their trophy shelf from the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Western States is after all the Boston Marathon of ultrarunning, the most tradition bound, most emblematic race in the sport. But about one third of the runners who start at Western States end up scratching and making the long trip home without their buckle. It is not an “easy” hundred. It comes at you like a coyote trickster, ready to trip you up and steal your bacon if you are not well prepared, and the thirty hour cutoff at Western is not especially generous. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, so here are some pointers about getting to the finish line at Placer High School in Auburn.
Your first obstacle to even get a chance at the race is going to be the lottery held in early December each year. In years past this was not such a big deal as the odds of your name being picked were about fifty-fifty and a “two time loser” rule guaranteed you a starting spot at least every three years as long as you kept applying. Nowadays the odds have dropped to about one in ten of being picked and there is no automatic entry in the third year if you are passed over two years running. The only concession to people not chosen is an extra name in the “hat” the following year if you keep applying. It makes sense then to put in your application each year so you can accumulate those extra slots in the lottery. The race is held in late June so you have plenty of time to prepare once you get the December lottery results. Also note that there are some alternative ways of getting into the race outside the lottery. The Western States website has the particulars.
Once you’re through the lottery give serious consideration to the Western States Training Camp held on Memorial Day weekend in Foresthill. You’ll spend three days running the actual course, camping, eating like a king, and rubbing elbows, even running, with several Western States luminaries. The training is awesome. On Day 1, you do a tough 50K from Robinson Flat to Foresthill that includes the deep canyons and the big climbs including the steep switchbacks up to Devil’s Thumb. Day 2 emulates the twenty miles from Foresthill to Green Gate, although you don’t actually cross the river at Rucky Chucky and climb to Green Gate, but go up the other side of the canyon to White Oak Flat. Then on Day 3, you run the final twenty miles of the course from Green Gate to the finish. Beating yourself up on the initial 50K the first day is key. The next two days you’re running on tired, sore legs, which is ideal training for the race itself. You’ll also experience the rocks and ruts that make up so much of the trail at Western and get a feel for what the rugged trail is going to do to your feet.
Your training for the race should be similar to any training effort for a hundred, that is, plenty of Long Slow Distance, back to back long runs, a warm up 50K or 50 mile race, night runs, and lots of dialing in your eating and drinking routine. But for Western States specifically, be sure to do some heat training and hill training. You are going to encounter heat in the canyons during a large part of the day on the Saturday of the race. In a mild year, the temps might not get above the high eighties, but just as likely, you will be running through temperatures over a hundred in a very dry, dusty, and exposed setting. You’ll be way ahead of the game if your body is already adapted to running in the heat. Plan on slowing down your pace when you get into the afternoon hours. Slather on lots of sunblock and keep it refreshed, especially if you keep wiping or rinsing it off. Drink steadily. Dehydration is a major factor at Western. Take every opportunity to cool off in the rivers and streams or use the bucket and sponge supplied at the aid stations to douse your head and neck. Put ice under your hat or fill up an ice bandanna before leaving the aid stations.
Another absolutely sure challenge at Western States will be the hills, especially the long downhills, so you should do as much training as possible on hilly terrain. If you live in a flat area, you’ll need to improvise by running the steps in a stadium or finding a bridge that you can climb up and over repeatedly. You do not want to be at Western having trained only on flat surfaces. Blown quads due to the pounding from the long downhills at the race is a very common complaint so the more hard downhill running you can do in training, the better. You will also want to practice your strong uphill walking stride before you get to the race. There are some big climbs at Western. Dispatching them efficiently with a strong walking pace will save you lots of time in the end.
Be prepared for a full scale assault on your mental reserves at Western. This will be a test of your patience and determination. Many runners simply feel crushed at Robinson Flat, finding it hard to believe what a struggle it was to get just 30 miles into the race. A friend of mine once said that the hardest fifty mile course he ever ran was the first fifty miles at Western States and he had completed a lot of tough fifty milers. The big climbs at Devil’s Thumb and up to Michigan Bluff in the heat discourage a lot of runners who eventually arrive at Foresthill feeling worse than they ever have in their ultrarunning lives and throw in the towel. But beyond Foresthill at 62 miles is where your ability to ignore how you feel and your determination to continue are rewarded. The night descends, cooling things off, and the course becomes more forgiving. As long as you keep moving, you can stay ahead of thirty mile pace and guarantee yourself a finish. Concentrate on maintaining your eating and drinking routine so that you don’t face some kind of major collapse in your energy level. Also take the time to tend to your blisters, which are a common problem at Western due to the heat, dust and uneven trails.
Western States is a big deal. There is the elaborate process to get into the race, the hoopla in Squaw Valley before the race, and of course the incredible sensation of starting that climb up to Emigrant Pass in the cool and dark surrounded by four hundred jumpy, eager ultrarunners. It is easy to go out too fast or to believe you are going to run under twenty-four hours when you’ve never completed a hundred miles that fast in your life. Instead of killing yourself and jeopardizing your finish, try and relax. Spend the day enjoying your great adventure. Monitor what you need to be doing along the way to keep yourself well hydrated and energized. Get into the night. Run a smart race and when the light comes up, you will be padding around that track at Placer High and someone will be handing you a belt buckle.