Sunday, July 8, 2012

Western States Follow-up

I could have written a novel covering my experience at Western States this year, but I try to limit myself realizing that all of my readers have very full lives of their own and don't have the time to read an extremely long race report.  I think I hit the main points, but for those who are really interested and intimately involved in the sport, I wanted to share a few more details.  If you missed my initial race report, you might want to check it out first here.

First of all, I want to say thanks to everyone who made Western States happen. There are far too many folks to name individually, but I'd like to say a special thank you to the RDs, board members and all of the many volunteers.  I have never seen the kind of passion and dedication that the people involved in Western States have for their race, and it makes it truly a special event.  Greg Soderlund has done a fantastic job the past 12 years carrying on the tradition, and I know the new run director, Craig Thornley, will only build upon that in the coming years.  And last, but not least, thanks to my parents for crewing me, Dink Taylor for pacing, and my wife, who couldn't be there, but has to put up with me through all of the not fun parts of living the ultra running lifestyle.

Sub-17 hr finishers (plus Tiernan who was sub-16.)

OK, now let's talk about recovery.  I'm quite pleased with how my legs are coming around.  The day after the race, I could barely run at all. Most people complain about their quads, but I couldn't pinpoint anything in particular.  Everything from my hips to my knees was locked down; my quads, IT bands, hamstrings all were useless.  My calves, however, seemed relatively unaffected.  I was so locked down that I seriously considered breaking my 6 year daily running streak.  But after walking around awards and such on Sunday, I felt loose enough to go walk/jog 3 miles in 45 minutes.  Being my first 100 miler, my expectations for recovery were tempered.  I expected the legs to hurt for a few days, and I expected them to be quite tight for a while. The first 3 days or so were pretty rough.  I just shuffled along under calf power and tried not to bend at the knees.  But two weeks out now and I am almost back to 100%.

Next up, WS100 nutrition.  I didn't spend a whole lot of time on my nutrition strategy in my race report, but pre-race I listed it as a critical component to a successful race.  I struggled with my nutrition at Quad Rock and feel it really hampered my performance in that race, so I was determined to improve on that front at WS100. My plan was to use GU Brew (the electrolyte beverage), GU Roctane drink (high calorie mix), GU gels, and then supplement with whatever looked good on the aid station tables.  I just recently started using the GU Roctane drink mix, but considering my difficulty in getting gels down lately, I figured a high-calorie drink would be a good way to get the energy I need.  I actually did pretty well getting down one gel per hour (a fraction of what some of my competitors consume, but good for me).  I used the Roctane drink when I could, but I could only refill when I saw my crew.  GU Brew was available at the aid stations, and it tasted the best of all my options, so I ended up drinking that most of the day. The only problem with that was that GU Brew has to be mixed very carefully to fully dissolve, and it is next to impossible for the aid stations to get the mix right in the large coolers, especially in the miserable weather conditions early in the race.  As a result, I never really knew how strong or weak my GU Brew was going to be, so I had to guess and supplement with Coke and salt.  

It's hard to say exactly how successful my nutrition plan turned out. After similar experiences racing above 6,000ft altitude at Quad Rock and WS100, I am now certain that the altitude bothers me, especially from the waist up.  My stomach gets queasy and I tend to feel lightheaded. That makes me not want to eat.  While I didn't feel very good in the high country, I was able to eat fairly consistently and then continue that the rest of the race.  I probably could have used a few more calories and maybe that would have smoothed out some of my low points, but it's hard to say.  A lot of folks eat more real food early in the race, but I already know that things like peanut butter and bananas don't sit well in my stomach, so I stuck mainly to gels, Coke and orange slices.  One new discovery of the race was chicken noodle soup or chicken broth of some sort.  Great stuff! But it's slow.  It takes time to get from the aid station volunteers and then time to drink, especially if it's too hot.  I was spending a lot more time at the aid stations than most of the runners around me, so I know that's one thing I'll work to improve next time, but it might be worth slowing down for some soup occasionally.

Gear.  Let's start with my shoes.  If you've been keeping up the last few months, you'll know that I was excited about the new light weight Salomon Sense and hoping I'd be able to run in them at States.  It wasn't to be though, because the low profile 4mm heel-to-toe drop was just too hard on my calves at the Memorial Training runs.  I didn't have enough time to adjust and feel comfortable in them.  I received my first pair of the XT S-Lab 5 just 3 weeks before WS100, but I knew I had a winner when I slipped them on.  They *look* heavy, but at 11.1oz they really are middle of the road.  I value comfort above all else, especially if I'm going to be running 100 miles in them.  I don't have the stack height for this shoe, but I expect it's very close to the version 4 XT which measured 9mm.  That's much more in my comfort zone, and the calves thanked me for that post-race.  They don't have as much grip as the Speedcross, but they had plenty for the WS100 course.  The shoe also has just a touch of medial support, which I actually kind of like.  If I have one complaint it's that the toe box is a bit snug, but it doesn't bother me once I start running.  The XT 5 should be available sometime this month, but you can get a great deal on the version 4 from RunningWarehouse.  It even looks like they still have a bunch of sizes in stock.  I'd scoop up a pair of those if you want to give them a try.  

The XT 5 paired nicely with a set of Swiftwick Performance 12 compression socks.  The long socks helped keep me warm in the high country and the compression was great late in the race.  All I know is my calves weren't sore at all after the race.  Although my feet stayed wet the entire day, I never changed shoes or socks.  I had a few small blisters, but that was a result of skin-on-skin friction and not sock-on-skin rubbing.  I might think about changing my shoes and socks after the river crossing if I get to run this one again.  I think I could have kept my feet dry all the way to the finish if I had done that.

I was super excited to be able to run with the new Suunto Ambit GPS and altimeter watch at Western States. Although it has an option to extended the battery life to 50 hours by compromising on the GPS accuracy, I chose to go with the most accurate setting and see when the battery ran out.  I was very impressed that the watch lasted longer than the 15 hours quoted in the specs.  It gave up on the GPS track around 15:30, but kept timing until 16:16.  For comparison, my Garmin 405 didn't make it 6 hours at Quad Rock ... granted it's a couple years old now.  Theoretically, the Ambit should be much more accurate than the Garmin 405, but it was running 4 miles short of the official course mileage when I crossed the river.  I'll reserve final judgment on its accuracy when I've had more time to test it out with a clear head (aka while not racing).

Photo by Keith Blom.

I mentioned in my race report that I started with my S-LAB 5 hydration pack, but I ditched it at Robinson Flat. I love that pack, but when you're racing up front and have as many aid stations at your disposal as we did at WS100, it's just not necessary.  If I was spending 3+ hours unsupported on the trail, that pack would be on my back without a doubt.  I love my Salomon hat as well.  I'm really picky about the way my running hats fit, but this one is is great.

If you have the time, you should check out Yassine Diboun's race report [link fixed].  He's the guy I chased down on the track.  Here are a few pics from his report to whet your appetite.

I haven't seen a great picture of myself at Emigrant Pass, but this shot of Yassine
is awesome and really captures the  extreme conditions we faced in the high country.
The catch.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Western States: My First Buckle

My first 100 mile buckle; makes me feel like a real ultra runner.

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I chose the Western States Endurance Run as my debut 100 mile trail race. Many view WS100 as the de facto 100 mile national championship, and in recent years it has turned into an internationally competitive event, so I knew the field would be stacked. But I didn't expect to be a part of record-setting year that would see multiple course records blown away.

The many amazing performances at WS100 this year definitely overshadow my 11th place finish. It's quite tempting for me to be disappointed in how I ran, but I don't think that I should be. I think I ran a smart race. I ran conservatively to figure out the distance, to ensure that I did finish, and bring back a Western States buckle. I did not run aggressively and try to stick my nose in the race from the gun. Maybe that would have worked, or maybe not. Still, this report is a little difficult to write when so many others ran extraordinary races and I just ran well enough.

Me and my parents.  Dink would meet us later at Foresthill.

It was unseasonably cool as the race began in the pre-dawn darkness of Squaw Valley.  I had on arm warmers, a light jacket, and gloves. Very early in the first 4 mile climb, I settled in just off the lead pack full of favorites. I was worried that if I hooked onto their train, I would get sucked out too hard and redline early. Lizzie Hawker matched my pace for much of the climb, but eventually pulled away from me. I was so focused on running my own race that I forgot she was in front of me until I caught her around mile 45 just before starting the climb up Devil's Thumb!

The course profile.  18,000ft of climb and 23,000 ft of descent.

The wind was ferocious as we peaked out around 8,700ft. Then it began to sleet. The clouds were so low and thick that it was pointless to try and look down for a view of Lake Tahoe. I was too busy fighting the wind to keep my cap on my head to look for anything anyway. Ryan Burch, who trounced me at Quad Rock 50 just a few weeks ago, crested the climb in front of me and disappeared down the other side of the mountain. I searched for the trail markings to make sure I was on course, then pushed the pace to catch Burch just to have someone to run with. We kept the pace quite relaxed and let several folks pass us by without a fight.

After several miles of technical running, the trail transitioned to a flat jeep road and I decided to take advantage of my road strength and pick up the pace. But I just didn't feel like my normal self, and the road didn't stay flat for long. I struggled all morning long in the high country. I was forced to walk even the short climbs to keep my heart rate from spiking.  I'd get passed on the ups, then catch back up on the descents. I eventually hooked back up with Burch and used him to help even out my pacing.  I struggled with queasiness and lightheadedness until I left the high country.

Following Ryan Burch at Duncan Canyon.
(photo by Keith Blom)

It was freezing cold at Robinson Flat (mile 30) when I first saw my parents and pacer Dink Taylor.  The sleet had turned to rain which soaked my gloves. My hands were so cold they hurt worse than any other part of my body. Luckily I had a change of gloves in my bag. I ditched my S-LAB hydration pack because it wasn't hot enough to make it worth carrying the additional water. I headed out hopeful that the weather would soon clear as I dropped out of the high country and I'd be able to warm up.

Starting to warm up.  (Photo by Dusty Davis)

The miles that lead up to the canyons are one section that I should have been able to move forward, but my stomach was holding me back. In my entire running career, I have NEVER vomited as a result of running. I have also never been as close to vomiting as I was on the Pucker Point trail. I should have been flying on this section but I had to stop and walk a couple times to hang onto my lunch. I made it to Last Chance and weighed in a pound higher than my start weight even though I had been several pounds low at the first weigh station. I immediately popped 2 salt tabs and had some chicken soup thinking I needed more salt.  That seemed to help and a short time later I felt much better.

Oddly enough, my climb up Devil's Thumb was one of the best parts of my race. I finally was warmed up to comfortable, my stomach had settled, and my head cleared. I powered up to the top with renewed confidence. I probably should have saved a little more for the next climb up Michigan Bluff, but I still feel like I climbed fairly well on the second big climb. I continued feeling strong as I rolled into Foresthill at mile 62 and picked up Dink.

Coming through Michigan Bluff.  (Photo by

Climbing up to Foresthill.  (Photo by Dusty Davis)

My confidence was high and I was thinking I'd be able to catch some folks over the last 38 miles. Dink encouraged me to keep the pace in check and not get too excited leaving Foresthill. I thought I heeded his advice, but shortly after leaving Dardanelles' aid station, I hit an extended low point. I just couldn't go. I knew to expect the high and low points in a 100, but this wasn't going anywhere. I struggled until just before the river crossing at 78 miles. The boat crossing was uneventful and I wasn't even hot enough to feel like I needed to get my whole body wet in the river.

Just after picking up Dink at Foresthill.
(Photo by Ultra Runner Podcast)

I ran maybe 5% of the two mile climb to Green Gate. I wish I had run it slowly, but therein lies the problem. I just don't feel comfortable or efficient running uphill at 9-10 min per mile pace. Walking, however, gave me a chance to recover a bit and collect myself. Just as I was leaving the Green Gate aid station Dink lets me know that a female had just arrived. We weren't sure who it was at the time. That lit a small fire under my butt and got my head back in the game. I ran well for a while, but I was still struggling on the small climbs and felt like I needed to walk many of them.

I ran alone until mile 90 when Zach Bitter came blasting through Brown's Bar without stopping. I hadn't seen him since Devil's Thumb, but he was moving so fast, I didn't even attempt to respond. That took a little wind out of my sails, and then I struggled on the climb up to the Highway 49 aid station (93.5 miles). I had hoped a few of the top guys would drop or fade because of the brisk pace early, but only Mike Wolfe would come back to me. I passed him in this section as he was gutting out a finish. Contrary to what the webcast would lead you to believe, I arrived at Hwy 49 ahead of Tom Crawford and Ellie Greenwood. But neither were very far behind, and when I heard Ellie's name being announced, I grabbed my bottle and took off. This gave me the little shot of adrenaline that I needed to run the climb out of the aid station. It was now dark, so Dink and I pulled out our headlamps and I ran for my life.

I was totally surprised to see Zach Bitter again on the dark run into No Hands Bridge (96.8 mi). He had pushed too early and was now crashing hard. I passed with ease and got another little boost. At No Hands Bridge, I grabbed a quick cup of coke and ditched my water bottle. I was still looking over my shoulder, waiting on Ellie, and thinking about the To Be Chicked article she wrote for just a week ago.

That last 3.5 miles were arguably my best miles of the race. I knew the finish was getting close and felt I could push through the pain for just a few more minutes.  I was able to run most of the the climb up to Robie Point. As I approached the aid station, I could hear cheering and announcing over the loud speaker. I was told at No Hands that I was 7 minutes behind the next runner, so I didn't expect to be catching anyone, but it seemed as though I was. The trail dumped me out on the paced streets of Auburn, CA and I picked up the pace looking for the party at the very top of the Robie Point. They get my vote for best aid station, even though it wasn't a real aid station. They cheered the loudest and gave me my biggest boost of the day. I was in full stride for the first time in hours.

Soon I could see a headlamp less than a minute ahead of me. Dink says, "Well, you can relax and enjoy your run into the finish, or we can try to catch him." Do you really have to ask? I had to try. I didn't know what place I was in, but thought I might be in 11th and desperately wanted the 10th position to get the automatic entry for next year. Plus, I hadn't had a chance to break out my leg speed all day. Yassine Diboun still had 10 seconds or so on me as I entered the track, but he had no clue I was coming. I passed with less than 200m to go and crossed the line just 6 seconds ahead of him in 16:42:55. Only then did I find out that I had finished in 11th place.

Done.  (Photo by

Ellie would finish just a few minutes later, destroying the women's course record that was one of the most revered records in our sport. And the men's course record was broken nearly two hours before I crossed the finish line by Timothy Olson. Amazing work by both of them.

I won't lie. 11th place hurts. Just one place better would have secured my entry into Western States for next year. Now I have to earn it again -- certainly not a given. But when I objectively look past the fact this was the worst finish in my ultra career I can only conclude that I ran really well. 16:43 in my debut 100 miler at Western States? I don't think there are too many folks that can claim that. Everyone in front of me had run at least one 100 miler and has access to mountainous terrain to train on. Even so, I know it wasn't perfect. But I know where I was weak. I struggled with the altitude. I struggled with the climbs. I know I can do better. This is what keeps me coming back. It's not just the end goal, but the journey that I love. This never-ending quest to be the best I can possibly be is one of the many things that I have always loved about running. I'll be back, and I'll be stronger than before.

If your feet don't look this good the day after running a 100 miles,
maybe you should be wearing Swiftwick socks!

I finally got to see Lake Tahoe on the flight home.