Western States 100 (part 3) - Race Strategy, Kit, Crew
Updated: Oct 23
Strategy Is Everything
Western States 100 is not a race I'd recommend you turn up to under-prepared. Sure you need to put in the training but what about your race day plan? This is true of all ultra races, but for a once in lifetime race, you should get the finer details nailed down too.
No matter the race, I'm an athlete with a plan. I rarely race from the gun, only when the terrain dictates this. Get the strategy wrong and end up feeling burned out, with dead legs and the horrible realisation that there's still a long way to finish. It isn't efficient or fun. Do you know what's fun? Fun, is still being able to run in those later stages, making up places, with a bit left to push hard in the final few miles. To hold back early in a race takes a lot of bravery, not letting the chimp on your back take over the controls. This is usually my plan in long-distance races but especially in a 100-miler.
I always learn as much as I can about the terrain, temperatures, and elevation beforehand. Any race advice you'll hear for Western States 100 is not to overdo it in the high country, beware of the quad destroying hot canyons and that the race doesn't start until Foresthill. Basically, Western States 100 is a race of 3 parts. The best write-up I have found explaining the physical effects each part of the race has are starkly laid out in Joe Utah's 'Western States Killing Machine' article on iRunFar. He wonderfully describes the Killing Machine quietly ticking away, the cumulative metabolic drip drip effect, teamed with a blissfully unaware athlete riding on a Western States high. This is a must read.
Paul and I discussed the pros and cons of trying for my best time which would require taking risks or the safest possible plan that would give me my best chance of a sub 24-hour finish. He asked me if playing safe would leave me with regrets? It was a good question. I always pride myself on doing my best time in a race. However, I've never seen the course and I don't have much experience over 100KM. I'm also naturally risk-averse. So I opted for a silver buckle strategy rather than time. Not getting the sub 24-hour buckle would haunt me forever, not getting a quicker time wouldn't.
A word on the 24-hour aid station target times provided by the Western States 100 race organisation. I can't recall where I'd read this but I'd seen blogs suggesting that many sub 24-hour finishers do not get into Robinson Flat (mile 30) within the published target. It isn't unusual in ultras with cut-off times easing off later on but what was unusual in Western States was how tight the times were early on. I looked up past top 10 female finishers and sure enough, some of them had been over that target at Robinson Flat yet still finished sub 21 hours. I couldn't figure out beyond Robinson Flat how the 24-hour times tracked further down the course.
My low-risk plan was to complete the opening 30 miles slowly but surely. Not allowing my legs to get sore, keeping my heart rate low, and avoiding draining my reserves. As this year was on the normal route but with high levels of snow, I accepted that my time would be even slower and to not panic at Robinson Flat when I would inevitably be over the published 24-hour target. The change in terrain prior to Robinson Flat to after is stark. Smooth, wide, gentle downhill and very inviting. The temptation to crack on over this fast section after experiencing the earlier slower terrain is hard to resist but you have to. There's lots still to do including the 3 infamous canyons. Despite being in a forest the wide open track and good visibility invited speediness. I quietly coasted along, eating whilst enjoying the peacefulness, keeping my breathing very easy. The next few aid stations are quite close together, which is nice as you really feel like you're making good progress. I kept pulling out my tatty piece of paper to check 24-hour times. At Robinson Flat I was 55 minutes down (45 mins + 10 at the aid station). By Last Chance, before entering the first canyon, I was 40 mins down on 24 hours. Not great and I was a little disappointed but it was progress and there was lots of ground still to cover. If I'd put it into context that I'd made up 15 minutes in just 13 miles I would've been ecstatic.
The canyons are where Western States 100 hopes and dreams can quickly die if you're not careful. The downs are steep and quad destroying and the climbs in the heat are brutal. We were fortunate though this year as the temperatures were kind, about 32oC. The snow in the high country may have robbed us of valuable time but the lower temperatures handed it right back. The first canyon was fun, it didn't take long and I thoroughly enjoyed my hike out the other side, overtaking as I went. At Devil's Thumb, I was 28 minutes down. The second canyon, El Dorado, is by far the biggest canyon and the one that'll do the damage. Thankfully the climb out is not as far as the drop into it. Once out the other side at Michigan Bluff, I was a mere 15 minutes down. After the third canyon, the smallest one, I arrived at Foresthill just 5 minutes down.
After Foresthill, the race is really supposed to begin. The next downhill is smooth but steep. This is where my tendonitis erupted. If it wasn't for that I'm sure I would've been a lot faster but I couldn't move all that well. I could run, but boy was I in a lot of pain. Most of the running from here is lovely though. Mostly flat with little ups, and a few downs, just the needing to watch out for tripping hazards. Very runnable as long as those first 70 miles had been carefully metered out. I honestly believe that my slower approach saved me. If I had done too much at this point I don't think I could've sucked it up and continued running on my painful leg. By the finish, I was 20 minutes under 24 hours. I can only imagine what time I could've done if it wasn't for the injury.
Crewing and Drop Bags
Now this is where it can get complicated. You can certainly complete this race with no crew, it's a very long race for them too with a lot of driving early on. The race organisers allow drop bags at nearly half of the aid stations and they generously return your drop bags at the finish. This means that you can put all sorts in there, like spare shoes, safe in the knowledge they won't get binned. They do ask that if you have a crew, not abuse the drop bag system. I chose to use drop bags at 4 aid stations. Red Star Ridge (15.8 miles), Robinson Flat (30) in case my crew didn't get there in time, Last Chance (43.3) and Auburn Lake Trails (82.2). I only put food and electrolytes in them so my drop bags were tiny. Aid stations are well stocked but if you're celiac you'd want to use drop bags. There was very little which was gluten-free. The aid station volunteers are all over the drop bags and you'll barely have arrived in aid before they've dug it out ready for you.
Crewing is hard work. From the start to the first main aid station, your crew drive almost all the way to the finish and then turn back towards Tahoe on the more minor Foresthill roads to Robinson Flat. There is an earlier aid station (Duncan Canyon) that would normally allow crew however due to this year's snow this wasn't possible. If Duncan Canyon had allowed crew access a second crew team would be needed as logistically they can't get to some of the later aid stations in time. Typically most competitors don't send a crew there.
Robinson Flat - Crew Beware!
Paul left Tahoe at about 7 am. The drive is long and other than getting gas he didn't stop en route. The race organisers advise that it is a 2.5-hour drive. What this doesn't take into account are the delays in parking and waiting for the shuttle. Crew can't drive up to the aid station and instead, you park at 1 of 2 parking areas. The first is 1.5 miles out from Robinson Flat, and the second at 6 miles out. The first was full by the time Paul arrived and there was a very long queue for the shuttle bus. This was contrary to what the race organisers kept telling us, which was that the challenge at Robinson Flat was cars and not people, and requested 1 car per runner. Yes, cars were a big problem but there were too many people for the shuttle buses too. It appeared to Paul that some runners had very large groups following them to aid stations and that put a lot of pressure on the shuttles. To add to this, there's no data signal whilst waiting and it wasn't until climbing on the school bus that some finally got a signal just to discover they'd already missed their runner and got straight off again. I think a potential solution to this is to distribute tickets at registration for a runner to give to their crew, say 4 tickets per aid. UTMB do this (1 ticket) to prevent too many people inside the confined aid stations. Elite-level runners would need their crew to miss the race start and head straight to Robinson Flat.
By the time Paul arrived at Robinson Flat it was almost Noon. So 5 hours in all. I arrived very soon after. The place was ridiculously busy to the point that some crew were pushing and shoving for space close to the aid station tables. I know I was glad he was there but it was a lot for him to go through and I can see why some runners don't send a crew! Not seeing my crew until Michigan Bluff at mile 55.7 was not very appealing. But as Paul said, he would only have been hanging around all day with nothing to do, he may as well try to get to Robinson Flat.
Coming straight after the second canyon, I was glad to see my crew. A nice laid back looking aid station and more accessible as it's not far outside of Foresthill. Again this provides a shuttle service but now with runners more spread out across the field it wasn't pressured. If it's late, after 8 pm, runners are allowed to collect their pacer here.
This little town has supplies for your crew and they can grab some food to keep them going. This is the traditional aid station to meet your crew and collect your pacer. The street is lined top to bottom with crew and well-wishers. As I ran down the street vehicles passed by tooting horns, hollering and cheering. Quite strange when you've been alone on the trail for many hours.
It's a long time until the runner gets into Rucky Chucky after Foresthill and a good chance for your crew to rest. Once again there is a shuttle but this one was Paul's favourite. The unmade road down is very rutted, steep, twisty, and for many crews this will be in the dark. An old battered 4x4 safari vehicle from something like the 70s took them on their mystery journey to the river bank. It was very uncomfortable but apparently great fun. Rucky Chucky to my eyes looked like a nice spot to hang out. The air was cooled by the passing river, fairy lights and music. A lovely spot to watch the runners come through. Crews were kicked back on blankets awaiting their runners.
At mile 94.2 a crew visit here was nice to have. I needed nothing from them but knowing I'd see them was enough to push up that climb. The crew park at Cool Fire Station and have a 3/4 mile schlep to the aid station on the hill. It's basically in a meadow and again looked like a great spot. I've been told that for crews waiting at dawn, it was a pretty magical place to hang out.
Kit and Fuel
Kit was something I struggled with. It's not that I didn't know what to take and use, it was the unusual feeling of not having any mandatory kit to worry about. I'm so used to having to take a 10-12l race vest, waterproofs, gloves and hats, bivvy bag, warm layers, emergency food, first aid kit etc. It just felt so wrong not having all that gear. I'm used to checking I have my mandatory kit packed dozens of times.
Injinji socks (+spare for impromptu sock change - not used)
Shock Absorber Run Bra
Scott RC TR4 Race Vest- with homemade chamois pouch (see next section)
Neck buff - with homemade chamois pocket (see next section)
Merrell MTL Long Sky 2 trainers
Mobile phone in waterproof case
Prescription glasses with transitions lenses
Coros Vertix watch
Kinesio Tape on chafe areas
Elastoplast Tape on pinky toes, Gurney Goo on rest of feet
First Aid Kit (plasters, self-adhesive bandage, Gurney Goo lube, safety pins, dressings, toilet paper, antiseptic wipes, indigestion tablets, antihistamines, paracetamol)
Black Diamond Storm 500-R Head Torch (I carried from the start in case I forgot to collect it from the crew later at Foresthill)
Patagonia Houdini Air Windproof jacket and gloves - wore at the start but soon put in race vest and transferred to the crew at Robinson Flat
2x T-shirts (Salomon and Columbia) - used
1x The North Face Shorts - not used
1x Shock Absorber Run Bra - not used
2x Injinji socks - 1x used
Salomon S/Lab Speed Bob Sun Hat (with ice compartment) - not used
2x spare Petzl head torches - not used
Inov-8 TerraUltra 260's trainers - not used
First aid and foot care kit - used
Spare food and powders - used
Warm clothes, slides and blanket for the finish area - used
OTE Supercarbs - 320 kcal per 500ml bottle
OTE Hydro tabs - 36 kcal per 500ml bottle
Veloforte Classic Bar - 260 kcal
Maurten Solid Bar - 225 kcal
+ aid station snacks
Chamois Pouch and Neck Buff
The pouch was a simple pocket shape with a small hole cut out at the top. I then inserted the water bladder clip in the race pack in the hole to hold this pouch in place, stopping it from sinking to the bottom of the pack. The race pack is small, and as planned, pushed the ice-filled pouch firmly into my back.
The thought of tying that tightly around my neck to prevent bounce made me feel quite anxious. I instead created a neck buff version. In the picture below the buff is turned inside out to show the addition of a chamois pocket. There is also a row of velcro on the buff so I could adjust the tightness of the buff as it is rather large on my little neck. My chamois buff creation wasn't a pretty solution and confused aid station volunteers but it worked great.
The chamois has a much higher density than just the buff fabric and slows the melting of the ice. Without this, the ice wouldn't last long at all so any way you can delay this is a real bonus. For me, the ice last over 2 hours. At the race registration trade stands, I saw a Hoka (I think) neck covering with an ice pocket but I may have imagined that. I'm sure solutions will make it to market by the big trail running brands at some point, a bit like the Salomon Bob ice hat.
Mostly I'm satisfied with my overall strategy. Firstly, I wish I had tested mixing the OTE Hydro Tabs with the Supercarbs. It occurred to me in the canyons that I was only taking on board the Hydro Tabs (electrolytes). Due to the heat and getting a bit dehydrated just before the second canyon, I was guzzling a lot of that which meant I wasn't drinking the liquid carbs or eating food. I considered mixing the Hydro Tabs and the Supercarbs but was worried trying something new like that could be my undoing. I had no idea if the two flavours mixed together would be palatable and I couldn't afford to waste a Supercarb drink. Secondly, I didn't take on much caffeine, and not at all until Foresthill. I should've found some small bottles, put degassed Red Bull in them and included them in my drop bags. Enough to chug but without overdoing it and making myself sick. The bottle could be tossed before leaving the aid station. This would've given me a little zip and perhaps helped my mood in the second canyon. It's also a nice change on the palate. Nothing massive but both of these things could be useful in other races, especially if it's hot.
Missed parts 1 and 2 of my Western States 100 journey? Part 1 - Western States 100 7 Lotteries In The Making