Western States 100 (Part 2) - Snow, Bear Motivation, Moths and Ultra Legends
Updated: Nov 8
We arrived at Olympic Valley Monday evening and the jet lag was horrible. I hadn't run since Thursday so I went out to stretch my legs. The moment I broke into a run, I could immediately tell there wasn't as much oxygen here. I had to take deep breaths to feel I was meeting my oxygen needs despite my gentle jog along the flat path. The resort is at just over 6000 feet, and the highest point of the race is about 8700. With the exception of Duncan Canyon, it wouldn't go below 6000 until about mile 35. The slightest incline on the path sent my heart rate shooting up. Until then I had only been concerned about the snow slowing us down now the altitude was affecting me more than I had imagined. I returned to our accommodation to have a top-up sauna and contemplate what had just happened.
On Tuesday we went for a short walk and looked around the resort a little more. We were a bit stuck as to how to entertain ourselves. The tram up the mountain wasn't in service and we were conscious not to do anything too tiring. I did go for a run/walk up the escarpment for 2 km to see how much snow I would encounter. The answer was quite a bit and quite soon! I headed back for another sauna.
Wednesday went much better. It was the first time we didn't feel horrible from the time zone difference and my very gentle run along the river toward Tahoe City went so much better. It was beautiful. My breathing felt fairly normal and I decided the stress and fatigue of travelling had possibly exaggerated my perception of the altitude. That evening we had a long drive to Auburn for the International's BBQ. We got there early so we parked near No Hands Bridge. Along the trail we saw a lady running and when she passed us the second time she asked if we were here for the Western States 100 and the BBQ, we must have looked International. She told us she'd be done over 100 hundred mile races, many Ironmans and was going for her 7th (I think) Western States 100. She warned me to expect to feel sick at some point to get it over with quickly as I'd feel much better. I asked how you are sick quickly and she gave me a pitiful look of "Oh dear, how do you not know that?". Paul looked at me the same way. After a quick puking lesson it was time to leave. As we walked back to the car, I said to Paul "That was Pam Reed!". He had no idea we had bumped into Badwater and Ultra running royalty. Pam is going for a 'Pam Slam'. Western States 100, Badwater and Hardrock 100 all in the space of 3 weeks!
At the BBQ I met some of my fellow British competitors, my crew, and pacer. It was great to finally put faces to those tiny social media avatars. The race organisers were there, Gordy Ainsleigh (the first person to run the Western States 100 trail in under 24 hours), and of course Pam. Time flew by as we enthusiastically chatted about the race and agreed on crew arrangements. This raised my stress levels, I suddenly realised this was for real and that I had this circle of wonderful people backing me up 100%. I didn't want to let anyone down.
Thursday morning there was the HOKA organised run along the bike path. It was full of chatty excited runners. The event village had finally sprung into life and the banners, sponsors, racers and entourages were piling into the valley like a tidal wave. Although I recognised a few faces I felt a bit of fish out of water as I literally knew no one but was happy to cruise along with some company for a change. After breakfast, Paul and I headed for a nice walk along the river and discussed crew strategy. It was here I started crying, I was getting overwhelmed and didn't want Paul having a horrible time driving around for hours, being stressed and potentially missing me at Robinson Flat. I was completely losing it which was evident when I met with fellow Hardmoors runner, Eddy, later that afternoon. He had flown out to experience Western States 100 hoping one day to do it himself. He was helping the livestream team and would be shuttling back and forth at Foresthill videoing runners as they passed through. Poor Eddy had to listen to me stress-talking for an hour. Sorry, Eddy!
Friday was full on. After getting supplies in Truckee we went to registration, queuing in the scorching sun. Now registered and one bad profile photo later I was handed a Hoka Western States 100 duffle bag. I was instructed to walk along a row of tables whilst various race sponsors stuffed swag into my bag and fitted me for recovery slides. One lady likened it to trick or treat. I was then spat out at the end of the queue, blinking into the bright sunlight, all dazed and confused clutching my swag bag. Next up was the mandatory race brief. We all collected in the large central square of the village. For a race with 360 runners, it was totally packed. There was nothing said that we hadn't read before but some good info about snow coverage and the expected temperatures. When they started to announce the elites we decided to get out of the sun and go prepare everything for the race, leaving our evening free to wind down with pizza, pasta and a DVD.
Saturday - Race Day
The alarm went off and the all too familiar feeling of being nervous and knackered kicked in. I'd had my usual pre-race night of about 30 minutes of sleep. The race goes off at 5 am so we left it until 4.30 before heading to the start. We had been warned at the race brief to expect it to be cold for the first few hours so I had a windproof jacket and gloves on. It turned out it wasn't all that cold. To be honest I don't remember much of the start. I moved to the start arch with about 5 minutes to go and looked around me. I always have those "what am I doing?" thoughts and just want to get going so I can settle and find my rhythm. We all count done the final seconds and we're off with a hail of cheers and cries.
Almost straight away the route gets steep and you're hiking up to what is the highest point of the race. This is where I had conversations with some other competitors, about whether it was our first time or what our goals were. As you near the top the route starts to be lined by spectators, cheering, waving flags, bells and horns. As you crest out at the highest point in the race, you're funnelled into a single line flanked by well-wishers. It was epic. I've never felt so much emotion and joy emanating from supporters. I had to bite my lip to fight back the tears.
We quickly descend a little and enter the forest sections and the main snow banks. It was hard at first as runners were out of position, some were being careful, others bullish. It took a while to get used to the feeling underfoot. It wasn't ice but it wasn't snow you can sink into either. After a bit, I found gentle steps worked best and to not try to 'dig in'. I spotted others wearing trainers with metal studs but they weren't fairing any better. The snow was often on camber and as you came off the banks you either ski or jump off, or toboggan down on your bum. The thing I found most unsettling was the large snow holes that had formed around trees. Many were quite deep and you were often just one foot placement from dropping in. I ended up quite enjoying the snow, I settled and took it as it came, not stressing about time. My only niggling concern was how much this might prematurely bring on sore quads, especially when jumping off snow banks was the only option. First up is Lyon Ridge at about 10 miles in and the longest gap between aid. I filled bottles grabbed a snack and turned to look for the exit, only to see a yeti. I burst out laughing in surprise and skidded off down the trail.
The path now still had plenty of snow, but mostly patchy with the occasional longer sections. Red Star aid came fairly quickly now as there weren't any large climbs but the altitude was evident and any gentle inclines reduced me to a power hike to keep my heart rate down. After aid the snow was only fleeting. I thought we'd done it all now and found myself behind a bunch of runners quietly trotting along. I tried to settle in behind them but found the pace too slow and skirted around. It was good timing, there was mighty fine trail along a ridge ahead and it was nice to see it clearly without looking at the back of someone else. Then I came to a large snow bank which required my honed bum slide technique, then a fantastic descent to Duncan Canyon aid and further along to the water crossing. We had been warned earlier in the week that the creek was quite high (thigh level) which for someone who's 5ft was a bit disturbing to hear. They had put in a rope to help us cross and when I got there it wasn't all that high. I did have to find the right rocks to stand on, I tried a gap between some rocks and on testing its depths I realised it was chest deep. The water speed was not much at all. I've done far worse. Next up was a nice steep climb out the canyon towards Robinson Flat, my favourite.
You could feel the midday sun here, runners were starting to flag. Some last annoying patches of snow to negotiate and I entered aid (mile 30) where I could see Paul at last. The volunteers filled my bottles and rammed ice into my neck buff. I made my way to Paul, plonked myself in the chair and took my shoes off. Lots of grit had got into my shoes and with all the snow and water the lube on my feet was no longer there. Whilst I lubed my feet and changed socks, Paul finished mixing my fuel and stuffed food in my pack. I was about 45 minutes over 24 hours, which I thought was good however my hamstrings and glutes were not feeling great. I think this was caused by tensing on the snow to stay in control. Other than that I was pleased with how it was going. I changed my T-shirt, and kissed Paul goodbye, leaving him to clean up my mess. I think I spent about 10 minutes there but it was necessary.
The next 13 miles to Last Chance were an utter joy. From here you run on wide easy tracks which gently descend. You can chill and relax your stride, I was hoping my hamstrings would ease off for being on a more natural stride, they didn't but never mind. I remained at an easy pace, no bombing off. There was a long way still to go and I was sticking to the plan that consistent running throughout the race would bring me back under 24 hours. Blowing up was not allowed. Two aid stations came and went and at Last Chance I was happy as anything, feeling great. It was soon after leaving aid that I passed fellow Brit, David. He was a bit of a giveaway with his Union Jack on display. He seemed content and we wished each other well, how very British. Now I began the descent into the first of the notorious 3 big canyons. I wasn't really sure what to expect of the canyons, on paper it's hard to visualise. I wasn't concerned by the climbs out, that's my superpower and I practice it. It's the descents. I don't mind some descending but not when they go on and on, and not nice on legs that have quite a few miles in them already. The first canyon was divine, nice down and cracking little climb back out. I pulled passed a few other competitors here. One reminded me to be careful of rattlesnakes as I stepped off the trail a little to get by. Oh yes, I'd completely forgotten about snakes. It was getting hot now so was grateful for water at Devil's Thumb and for ice to be shoved into my backpack. The volunteers laughed as I exclaimed my delight at the relief the ice provided. Heading off to the 2nd canyon I felt pretty damn good. I'd made up a small amount of my time deficit and all was well.
The next bit was again on a wide trail and gently descended. The path got a bit rooty and stony (but nothing bad) and I was getting bored. It went on for some time as it contoured the mountainside. I kept looking out for signs of the bottom of the canyon but we were still quite high up. Then followed a short flat section on a wide trail and the descending commenced again on a single track, now more steeply. I wished for the bottom and the sounds of the aid station but it felt like it would never come. When it did, it was a bit of a surprise. In those mere 5 miles from Devil's Thumb to El Dorado Creek I had changed from a happy smiley person to someone who was starting to struggle to eat and drink. I was peeved by the uninspiring and slightly fiddly section of trail I'd just done. It wasn't the trail's fault, it's just not for me. The constant descending, which was steep but not overly, was quite jarring. I asked for a Tums at aid and some more water. I headed off for the steep ascent out hoping this will perk me a bit. I did wonder if the climb out would be as long as the descent in but it turns out Michigan Bluff isn't at the same altitude as Devil's Thumb. I did feel a bit better by the top but my mind was fixated on how bad the 3rd canyon might be. On the upside once that canyon is done, I can get back to some proper running.
On entering Michigan Bluff, Paul grabbed me so I didn't miss them. The crews are spread out here, some before the aid tables and some after. I had a right face on and was grumpy. I moaned about that sodding canyon and the descent and Cheryl, who I hadn't spotted as I sat down, leaned over and advised me to "Calm down". The mosquitos had also tormented me in the canyon, screeching around my ears as I flapped them away. I got Paul to spritz me with repellant as Todd removed the gunk off my glasses. I asked to have some de-gassed Red Bull at the next aid as it had occurred to me that I hadn't had any caffeine in 14+ hours, which might be contributing to my low mood. I was now 15 minutes off 24-hour pace.
I set off knowing Forest Hill was not far and I'd see my crew again. Cheryl's words marinaded amongst other thoughts. Despite my funky mood, there was plenty to be positive about. I had made up time, caffeine will help and no more canyons after Forest Hill. And of course, I'd get Alex my pacer. Some company would be really nice. I also hoped to see Eddy having a ball fulfilling his live-streaming role. My concerns about the next canyon were unfounded. It was, to be frank, tiny. I got about a third down when I heard rustling in the bushes. For a second I thought a runner was having a toilet break although with poison ivy and snakes that didn't seem like a good idea. I heard the rustling again and abruptly realised this was no runner, it must be huge. As soon as 'bear' entered my brain I saw this large brown ball of fur moving towards me. As soon as I clocked for it, it clocked me and we both froze staring at each other. All that separated us was one bush. I panicked, spun around, and legged it back up the trail to find the next runner I'd only passed minutes before to help scare the bear off. Me and my +1 made lots of noise and soon as we could hear the rustling move away from us I took off down the trail only to find switchbacks that might lead back into the path of the bear. I legged it! Mercifully the canyon bottom came quickly and I started the climb, feeling refreshed and pumped from my bear encounter. I caught up with the next runner and asked if he'd seen the bear. He shrugged and said, "Oh the bears are so chilled out around here". Well, that was news to me!
Now out of the canyon, the climbing continued on a metalled road. Some crew met their runners here to escort them into Forest Hill. I continued running/walking this steep road. Nearing the top I spotted sweet peas growing wild on the roadside. I picked a few excited to enjoy their perfume, only to be disappointed to find they had no fragrance at all. I put my little bouquet in my bottle pocket and continued along the main road into Forest Hill, moving slowly but still running. At aid, I met Paul again and he moved me over to their little crew area. I was now 5 minutes behind 24 hours. Paul asked me about the one solitary flower in my pocket. I handed it to him, the rest must have bounced out. Here I would've liked to have had another sock change but gambled that I'd be ok, at least for now. A sock change and re-lube would take too long. I was handed a bottle of Red Bull and Alex and I set off down the road. As we peeled off the main street we found Eddy and the three of us continued down the next track as Eddy pretended he was live streaming and interviewed me. We laughed and chatted until Eddy needed to return to Forest Hill. I continued on with renewed enthusiasm.
My crew would next be at Rucky Chucky and Alex and I had the three Cal aid stations before this. We would need our head torches from Cal-1. It was around this time I delivered the delightful news to Alex that I had a problem. My right shin was getting sore and downhill running was quite painful. The poor guy had barely set off and I had a big problem almost straight away. We debated talking to a medic at aid but I dismissed this as it would use up valuable time and I knew there wasn't much they could do. I sensed it was tendonitis.
At Cal-2 we were about 9 minutes under 24 hour pace. Not bad but my pace was slowing as my leg got more and more painful. Alex was doing a great job of calculating timings at each aid station and answering all my questions about his studies, running and life in general and promising to look out for poison ivy. I decided somewhere between Cal-2 and Rucky Chucky to add compression over my injury. It was a double whammy of pain. Every time my foot landed, the shock would hurt the tissues; every time I lifted my foot and dorsi flexed, it would also hurt. I wondered if some compression might help. Fortunately I always carry a mini kit of useful things in my pack, like plasters, lube, safety pins and a self-adhesive bandage. My beloved bandage and I have travelled the world together for about 10 years and I was now finally going to deploy it. I strapped a few inches of my leg tightly and tore the excess bandage off. We continued on. The landing vibration now wasn't quite so bad. I had no idea though if my tight bandage could end up making things worse but I had to try something, I couldn't sustain this otherwise.
As we moved along the trail I was finding visibility quite tough. Runners ahead were kicking up dust. I was breathing through my nose anyway such was my pace but my light kept bouncing back off the dust particles. It was really hard to see anything at times. Depth perception was also impaired as the light-coloured dirt on the trail was washed out by my head torch. All of a sudden I saw something fly straight towards my head and brushed lightly through my hair. I yelped "Was that a bat?" That's all I could comprehend it could be, its wing span was massive. Alex laughed and said it was a moth.
At Rucky Chucky, we remained about 9 minutes up. I met Paul and the crew again and envied everyone hanging out here by the river. It was a cool place to be for the evening. I changed my T-shirt again and discarded my hat and neck buff. Paul asked if I wanted to change shoes or socks. Socks would've been nice but not enough time for that. I re-did my bandage to cover a slightly wider area and Alex and I headed to the river bank. The place was lit up and several large inflatable dinghies were waiting. It was very welcoming. We were firmly wrapped in enormous life jackets, both of us gaining a sizeable paunch making it hard to step in and out of the boats. The soft coolness of the boat surface, the lights twinkling off the surface and the sound of the paddles swishing through the water was very soothing. I could've closed my eyes and stayed there forever, sadly our crossing was very brief.
We marched up the hill to Green Gate and pushed on for Auburn Lake. I wasn't quick but I didn't feel I was slow either. We pulled into the aid station and Alex calmly told me we were all good and were now 7 minutes up. I was livid. No way we lost time, was I really doing that badly? I was trying so hard. My strategy worked on the assumption that the 24-hour timings for later cut-offs were more generous as competitors usually slow significantly in the final miles. Does this mean I'm too slow? Alex thought it was fine. Earlier he'd said that timings in the last few aid stations were definitely very generous, he was quite chilled about it. There was no way I could risk it, I didn't know how well I could keep moving. For hours now I had been experiencing something similar to surfing aid station cut-offs. I know this wasn't the same but I had been sucking up the stress and pain to make 24 hours work, in my mind it had become a cut-off. Ok, so I'd lost 2 minutes (as it happens looking back on my splits I was 11 minutes up) so I pushed on. Pleasingly the next section was incredibly runnable and smooth, my legs found comfort in a longer stride and I whizzed off. Alex and I were quite quiet along here, with me occasionally asking how far to aid and apologising for the sudden pace increase. I could hear Alex breathing more heavily and I hoped I wasn't trashing his first ultra-distance experience but I needn't have worried. We flew passed many others and as we crossed a stream near the next aid station I stubbed my big toe really badly. I flailed and just about caught myself from face-planting. I let out an expletive and immediately apologised to Alex for my potty mouth. It was totally necessary, it really hurt.
We arrived at Quarry Road and Alex calculated we'd just done 10-minute miles and I eagerly looked at him for our next time check. The math was easy, 25 minutes up. I sighed in relief, satisfied with our contingency. Later I found out Scott Jurek was at this aid, I was so focused I just didn't see him. So we trotted off to Pointed Rocks for our final crew meet-up, relaxed and satisfied that we had this. Initially a wide dirt road we took an unobvious path off to a horrible rocky trail, which was slow going and impossible to run on at this stage. It wasn't far though to the road crossing where volunteers were ready to stop traffic for us. Unsurprisingly at 2.30 am, there weren't any. The trail continued up the hill and the trail was very rutted and damaged from heavy rain. We then found ourselves in a lovely flat meadow with the aid station just moments away. This was the first time in the race I had been in a large open area. It was refreshing and different, a really nice place.
At 3 am we entered aid and saw the crew again. We just went straight through, I felt a bit guilty about that as they'd walked out there to see us. I should've got more water but didn't, as I decided to top up at No Hands Bridge and enjoy the atmosphere there too. This next section I hadn't looked forward to. This was the reason I needed so much contingency. It was a steep downhill for a couple of miles which my injury would not tolerate at all. The pain had steadily gotten worse and walking down was my only option. We slowly wound along the trail with plenty of runners and their pacers passing us. I kept looking out for the bridge lights but couldn't see them. When we did reach the bridge Alex and I were disappointed that it wasn't how we'd seen it in YouTube videos. No lights, no aid. I was now out of water and asked two volunteers that were taking numbers there. Thankfully they had some they could spare me. Alex was pushing to get going, he could smell the barn. I could barely shuffle along here and was glad when the path started to head up. I'd seen this on Wednesday's walk, it was comfortingly familiar. As we climbed up a lone runner came bombing passed us, he clearly had one hand already on his silver buckle. Alex and I were impressed.
We reached Robie Point and completed the short climb up the road. Some well-wishers and residents were hanging out along the road, one group was cooking food, all having a great time. The road levelled out and Alex encouraged me to run along as there was nothing hard left now. We chatted as we slowly ran and turned the corner to the school sports stadium. I had asked Paul to wait by the gate and join us as we ran around the track. This was his race as much as it was mine. He's been through a lot getting me to and from qualifying races, crewing, and putting up with my injuries and low points. If it wasn't for him also wanting me to succeed at getting into the Western States 100 I'm not sure I would've. We ran around the track and cross the finish line together as someone from the live-streaming team filmed us. It was only later I found out that the live stream commentators thought for a moment I was Chinese.
The medal was hung around my neck and I was presented with my finisher's shirt. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was a Hawaiian shirt and very cool. Paul and Todd escorted me to a chair and wrapped me in a blanket. I pulled off my shoes and called Alex over to see my bashed big toe. The rest of my feet were in really good nick. After a costume change and some food we headed off to Todd's parents who had kindly offered us a post-race shower and bed. That bed was divine, and other than my usual post-race twitching I slept really well but it was soon time to leave for the race presentation back at the school.
We squeezed ourselves into the marquee and looked around at those seated around us. It resembled a field hospital with cuts and bruises, bandages, and crutches. The presentation was brilliant. The story of the winners was recounted as were some individual stories. Those that missed out by mere minutes, and one runner carrying the number of an entrant who sadly was no longer with us. The atmosphere was incredible and each finisher was individually announced and presented with their own buckle. We were all winners.
Dylon Bowman presented me with my buckle. I did my best to disguise my limp but failed miserably. The buckle is beautifully crafted, they also engrave your name on the back. Unbelievable that this is done for all of the 328 finishers, incredible.
I spent the next few days recovering as best I could before starting the long journey home on Wednesday. My leg swelled a fair bit and was very tender. We didn't get to do much but we were both so tired it didn't matter. It wasn't all lounging around. I did some ultra legend spotting at breakfast where I saw Dakota Jones and joined two other British runners, Paul and David, for a meal with their friends and family on Monday night. A bonus was that Gordy Ainsleigh was there. A great way to end my Western States 100 journey. He was such a humble and lovely guy to talk to. Paul and I wondered what he makes of it all. That one act he did in 1974 led to all this. We decided not to ask him though, he probably gets asked that all the time.
I have been asked quite a few times if I would return to get a better time. To be honest I'm quite philosophical about it. Shaving a bit of time off doesn't seem to matter to me on this occasion. Normally if I don't meet my time expectations I'm keen to return but not here. I loved my experience at this race, the scenery, the people, my bear and having to fight to achieve my dream of a silver buckle. Given the number of years it will probably take to get another place I'll be too old to worry about improving my time anyway. Then there is the cost to go and there are a lot of other races out there I'd like to do so I'll set new goals and see what happens. I may enter the Western States 100 lottery anyway if I have a qualifier. At least the lottery rules have changed and you are no longer required to enter consecutive draws to maintain your ticket count.
I'd like to thank all those that helped me get to Western States and who helped me on race day. Obviously Paul, without him there is no way this ever would've happened. Cheryl for her advice, her excitement (for her the Western States 100 is better than Christmas!) and for hooking me up with Todd and Alex. Todd's expert knowledge of the aid stations, helping me get through aid as quickly as possible and looking after me at the finish line. It was wonderful to witness his love for this race. And of course, Alex, whose patient and calm approach was a huge benefit. It may sound trivial but knowing the trail really well is extremely important for me. As I couldn't recce the route, Alex did a terrific job of remembering the trail and letting me know what to expect for upcoming sections. This really settled me and gave me the confidence to keep digging in. It was also his first ultra distance, what a way to do it too! Thank you to you all Xxx