Western States 100 (Part 1) - 7 Lotteries in the Making
Updated: Oct 23
My interest in running the trails near Tahoe came about when we did a road trip to Yosemite, Tahoe and Sacramento in 2010. I'd never heard of ultras back then and all I did at the time was run trails and the odd road race. But I knew as we drove through the mountains that I wanted to run here, someday, somehow. Roll forward a few years, I'd completed some ultras and had quickly become aware of Western States 100 and the excitement around it. It was on Tahoe trails, it was stunning, it was everything I wanted, and so the quest began. The Western States 100 then sat at the very top of my bucket list for a very long time.
Every Autumn I would plan my Western States 100 qualifier for the following year, and everything else had to slot in around it. There was no compromise. If I didn't complete a qualifier I couldn't enter the Western States 100 lottery. Miss a lottery year and your ticket count was unceremoniously wiped back to zero*. For every year you didn't succeed in the lottery, your tickets doubled improving your odds for next time. A cruel hard process with (at the time) few qualifiers in the UK, so I mostly looked to Europe. It's not that there weren't any in the UK but they were 100 miles, usually fully booked straight away and on terrain that didn't inspire me. If I was to run a long ultra I needed to enjoy it and not be a chore. I mostly picked 100kms as there was less to go wrong. In all I completed CCC (part of UTMB) four times, Sean OBrien 100km, Mozart 100km (part of UTMB), Hardwolds 80 (Hardmoors), and Lakeland 100. It's not surprising a race place is so coveted, scarcity does that, as does the drop-dead gorgeous trails.
Then in December 2022, I got my place. For the previous 6 lotteries, I had eagerly watched the live webcast to see if I was one of the lucky ones to be drawn from the tombola, quietly cursing those that got in with just 1 ticket. Every year calculating my odds of success, only to watch my odds barely improve due to ever-increasing volumes of entrants. This time I couldn't be bothered watching it. A 7th lottery/64 tickets still only gave me odds of less than 50%. I fully expected to go to 8 lotteries. So instead I went out for a long run and I only realised I had a place really late that evening as I had completely forgotten about it. For the rest of December I barely functioned as a human being, I could think of nothing else. My head just exploded with excitement and thoughts about logistics, cost, pacers, crew, and training.
Other than training and getting the cattery booked, I opted to do little other planning until nearer the race and not get bogged down. For example, flights were not refundable, what if I got injured or the race was cancelled? There was a big question mark on whether the trail route would be open, large sections were closed due to fire damage in 2022 and then water damage from high rainfalls. I did want to get a pacer in place early on though. I've never had one before and wasn't sure how much I wanted one. However, I wanted to have the full Western States experience and that included having a pacer. The race website had a link for finding a pacer which didn't work (turns out they don't open this up until about May) so I scoured Facebook for unofficial Western States groups to garner useful knowledge and contacts, but turned up nothing. Then quite randomly, a lady sent me a message saying she'd seen my name on the entrant's list and that she used to live near me. Her husband was also doing Western States this year. I asked how they were getting support for the race and she pointed me to Cheryl, an Auburn local who has completed Western States 100 twice in the 80s and is a silver buckle holder. Again randomly this lady had contacted them to see if they needed any help. From there the wheels were set in motion and the next thing I knew I was hooked up with Cheryl, who then found Todd to help us with crewing and Alex to pace. And just like that I suddenly had a support team in place and it was only March.
After my dnf at Spine Challenger it took a while to begin training for the Western States 100 properly, recovery seemed to take a really long time. I knew I could build on my winter training of long slow days carrying a heavy pack and gym strength training but there wasn't long now. I did two excursions to the Lakes using hostels to keep the cost down and several day trips to the Dales, specifically Kettlewell to get in long descents and steep climbs. It was on my first Lakes trip that I knew something had to be wrong. For a while I could honestly say I wasn't myself, that is in a running capacity. I felt old, slow and that running took more effort than it used to. Being in my mid-forties, perimenopause was most probably in full swing. I had seen perimenopause signs for a while but in the previous 6 months it had starkly become more noticeable and my GP had no interest in my symptoms. But setting off on a 30-mile trip around the Grizedale Marathon route I suddenly realised that I shouldn't be feeling really pants on the opening few miles. Years ago I had anaemia, low serum folate and Vitamin D, what if this was happening again? I didn't feel like I did last time, then I felt truly awful, but there were similarities. As soon as I got home, I ordered a private blood test. I went for a wide-spectrum athlete test which included hormones. A week later I found out I had the same three deficiencies and surprisingly just as bad as before and that my hormone levels indicated perimenopause. With 12 weeks or so to the race there was just about enough time to reverse some of these numbers although hormones would have to wait. I knew from when it happened previously what a big difference it would make to my running. I was chuffed to bits I had an explanation for how I felt and continued my training and race plans with renewed optimism.
Within weeks I was doing so much better and completing hard runs with more ease. In April I did 4 repeats of Buckden Pike. This was to get in some descending practice and start conditioning the legs. I felt comfortable climbing up, gently jogging with minimal walking. The 4th ascent felt as good as the 1st. I also did some half marathon distance trail races to fire up the lactate and also because I really enjoy them. A good test to see where my fitness lies and how much I'd improved since I'd raced pre-blood test earlier in the year. In February, I did 10 Reservoirs near Saddleworth and felt awful, and in March the Five Trigs went quite well but again before treatment had started. The next races though showed a marked improvement. In May I finished 3rd at the Ultra Trail Snowdonia Eryri 25km (part of UTMB). I choose this race over the 50km distance as it was more runnable and applicable to the Western States 100. I was thrilled by my result, it showed great progress. I also did Kettlewell Half later in May. I shaved 7 minutes off my previous time, despite getting really nauseous on the first descent and slowing for a bit to settle my stomach. At the beginning of June, there was the Grasmere Gallop Marathon. Here I was 3rd female and 5th overall. I was especially pleased I didn't go 100% knowing Western States was a mere 3 weeks away. I can honestly say training couldn't have gone any better. I didn't do any ultras leading up to Western States but then you don't need to do that. An ultra eats into valuable training time due to tapering and then recovery which ultimately leads to a loss of fitness. I only had 4 months after I'd fully recovered from Challenger to prepare. A surprise to many will be that I only did two 30-mile runs, and not back to back. This is something I don't believe is beneficial and a recipe for high fatigue and potential injury. The 2nd 30-mile run was about 7 hours and on hard slow terrain, the next day I followed it up with a faster 15. I did quite a few 18-22 miles runs getting in 5-6000ft of vert each time and one 26 miler (Grasmere). Volume and a strong aerobic base came from consistent daily runs. My goal was not to get knackered or injured, I rested when my body told me I needed it. This was especially important as I was doing my best to heat acclimate at the same time which adds a lot of physical stress. I didn't have access to a sauna so did a hot bath protocol. I learned to hate those baths but I do believe they helped. I had started them the week before Eryri 25 and I honestly didn't notice the temps at that race where many said it was too hot.
As soon as Grasmere was done I cracked on with the remaining Western States 100 logistics. Flights were a nightmare. The prices were easily 3 times that before Covid and fewer airports to choose from. We knew this wasn't going to be much of a holiday. It would be about getting over jet lag and resting prior to the race and I'd probably not be able to do much post-race before we headed home. The focus was on the Western States 100 and nothing more. No gambling with getting tired or injured from sightseeing, hiking or biking, or risking getting a cold. It had taken 9 years from planning my first qualifier to getting to the race, it would've been a nightmare if something had jeopardized it in the final few days.
* Since 2020, you are no longer required to enter consecutive lotteries to maintain your ticket count.