Sunday, July 10, 2016

Western States 2016 Race Report

(It's all mine!)


Have you ever had a Perfect Day?

June 25th, 2016 was a perfect day for me.

Western States 2016 was, by all accounts, the most perfect run of my life. Everything went according to plan, I had no low spots, no bonks, no slow-downs, no nutrition problems, no self-doubt.  While I greatly exceeded my expectations, I have to caveat all of this and say that I can’t consider my performance a perfect “race”. Instead, it was just a “run”. But boy was it a great run.

From the moment I learned I made the lottery (with my single ticket!), I knew I was going to have to put together a solid training plan in order to show up to Squaw Valley ready to perform. I executed my plan well, and was improving beyond what I had anticipated. But I came down with a stress reaction in my femur in mid-April and was forced to spend weeks doing nothing or aqua jogging. The likely culprit … a drastic increase in treadmill time while I spent a week single-parenting my toddler, and topping it off with an entirely unnecessary sub-3:00 virtual Boston run-along on the treadmill. As a result, even when I built my mileage back up to my first ever 100-mile-week before the start of the race, I was unable to train with the intensity I had wanted – namely, I was unwilling to pound the downhills in my training or do any sustained 6-12 mile treadmill downhills for fear of screwing up weeks of carefully planned recovery.  Instead, I made sure I was building my endurance, sorting out my nutrition, and getting in some good heat training.

So, I was showing up in Squaw Valley fairly fresh and confident, but also a bit hesitant. As a result, I crafted a race plan that could be best described as cautious. I would take it easy in the high country and use my heart rate monitor to make sure I kept my effort in check and my quads feeling fresh; then I would try and survive the canyons as best I could; and finally I would hopefully have taken enough care of my legs to take advantage of the runnable miles after Foresthill.

I showed up in Squaw Valley on Thursday, partook in the pre-race festivities, hiked up to Watson’s Monument, rested, and tried to settle my nerves. I met up with my wife – my crew – on Friday after she flew into Reno. We soaked in the incredible views of our drive along Lake Tahoe from Reno back to Squaw Valley, had a nice lunch, went over my final race plan, and tried to rest as well as we could. I carefully managed my food intake on Friday and then hit the hay early. I tossed and turned a bit here and there, but remarkably managed to get a decent amount of sleep.

(Picturesque Squaw Valley, complete with some JJ Abrams lens flair)

I awoke around 4am, checked-in and picked up my bib, and got myself ready for the race. As I stood in front of the start line moments before the shotgun blast, I soaked in the moment … a mere 14 months after my first ultramarathon, and only 2 years after getting off the couch and starting to run again, I was about to make the pilgrimage to Auburn! This was really happening!

(Obligatory "kit pic")

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat



As AJW made the countdown, I lost myself in the moment and don’t even recall the shotgun going off. I heard “Three … Two … One …”, started my watch, and blended into a sea of runners.  As I made my way up to the Escarpment in the pre-dawn light, under the glow of the lit-up ski lifts, I reminded myself to stay calm and take it easy.  It wasn’t long before I found my pack of runners – I had no idea if I was in 30th place or 90th, but everyone around me was putting in an effort I felt comfortable with, and I saw a couple of F bibs so I knew I was in good company (part of my race plan was to run in the women’s front pack).  Between the Escarpment and Watson’s Monument, I must have glanced over my shoulder a dozen times to catch a glimpse of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe. The scene was a mere glimpse of the beauty I would encounter over the course of the day, and it was a perfect way to start the race. I was overcome with a sense of calm.

I crested the first climb and noted that I was 5 minutes ahead of schedule. I didn’t really care about keeping to a schedule this early in the race, but it served as a reminder that I should be taking it easy throughout the early miles and that there was no need to rush things.  As I hopped over rocks and rough terrain on my way to Lyon’s Ridge, I frequently checked my watch to make sure my heart rate wasn’t reacting poorly to the high altitude. My legs felt good, my effort felt smooth, and my heart rate was generally reading 150, well below my red flag of 160.  As the miles ticked by, I carefully maintained that heart rate. I also took care to hike most of the uphills, even if they were runnable. I cruised through Lyon’s ridge still a bit ahead of schedule, so again I reminded myself that the day was long and had only begun, and accordingly controlled my pace. The early miles were so easy that my mind frequently wandered and I honestly can only remember a select few things: 1.) the scenery was jaw-dropping, 2.) my heart rate was well in order and altitude wasn’t going to be an issue today, and 3.) I desperately wanted to run much faster.

At Red Star Ridge I picked up a small drop bag of 2 gels and a Tailwind pouch. The volunteers were amazing and had the contents of my bag waiting for me when I rolled in. They helped me mix my drinks and refill my bottles, and just like that I was off! I rolled through the following miles, into Duncan Canyon and on my way up to Robinson Flat. I drifted around a small group of runners that included a few men aiming for roughly a 20hour finish – my A Goal – and a handful of top females. I rarely ran alongside anyone else, often finding that my climbing pace was quicker than those around me, but my flat and downhill pace was more conservative, owing to the fact that my race plan was to baby those quads like nobody’s business.

I came into Robinson Flat after traversing Duncan Canyon. I remember thinking to myself, that was a “canyon”?! Piece of cake!  As I made my way through the aid station I had a slight moment of panic because I couldn’t find my wife.  Eventually I found her about 100 yards after the aid station in a mass of humanity. I looked at my watch and saw that I had arrived right on schedule for my planned sub-20 finish … 5:30 (10:30am) on the dot. I handed my wife my empty bottles and she gave me my refills: a bottle of Tailwind and a 500 calorie slurry of First Endurance Liquid Shot and powder. I also filled up my shorts with a few more gels and donned my homemade ice bandana. And with that, I was off!

(Ice bandana worked wonders ... complete with hand-stitched ice pouch)


Robinson Flat to Last Chance



As I departed Robinson Flat, I tallied up my water and calories – about 4oz per miles and 250 calories per hour. My nutrition was right on schedule! Not long after Robinson Flat, I began the transition into steady downhill miles. My run through Miller’s Defeat and Dusty Corners felt great – my stride felt smooth and perfectly constrained, my heart rate was low, my energy levels were terrific.  All that said, I felt like I was getting overtaken by runners left and right.  At one point, I jumped off into the woods for my only hole digging of the day (a great improvement over my 7+ stops in my first 100 miler last Fall … thanks a lot, Imodium!). Next thing I knew three women and a man flew by me … and I mean flew by me. Was I really going that slow? From Robinson to Dusty Corners I averaged roughly 10:30 miles, perhaps a bit slower than I should have been running. That said, those miles felt like an easy family hike, not a daunting race. I just knew that being so easy on my legs was going to pay dividends. It was going to be a great day, I could just feel it!

I picked my pace up quite a bit heading into Last Chance ... those miles from 38 to 43 were very runnable. When I got to Last Chance, I grabbed some spare Huma gels and a Tailwind pouch from my drop bag, and downed a tasty cup of pears, my only substantial “real food” of the day. After working with the volunteers to load up my arm cooler sleeves with ice and to restock my ice bandana, I was off into the canyons.  I took a quick look at my watch in the aid station and saw 7:45 (12:45pm). I felt like I had barely broken a sweat and I was still on PERFECT PACE! The warm-up had ended and the real work for the day was just beginning!


Last Chance to Foresthill



After Last Chance, I carefully descended into Deadwood Canyon. As I made my way towards the bottom I again made sure to baby the hell out of my quads. As would be a theme over the next 4 hours, I frequently mumbled to myself: aren’t these canyons supposed to be hard?! I had never stepped a foot on the Western States trail before so I was pleasantly surprised to see a plethora of foliage and shade in the canyons. When I hear “canyons”, I usually think of exposed, dry, hot desert canyons. These canyons were a piece of cake in comparison to the ovens I was expecting to find myself in.  Over the course of the canyons I never once felt the effects of the heat, despite the temperatures undoubtedly climbing up into the high 90s and perhaps even the low 100s.

At the bottom of Deadwood Canyon I crossed the bridge and stopped to douse myself with water in the spring 100 yards after the creek crossing. It was the only time along the course that deliberately stopped outside of an aid station to douse myself with water. Then began the fabled climb up to Devil’s Thumb. I was already in high spirits having realized that these “canyons” were just run of the mill valleys … and things only got better.  As I made my way up the steep 1.7mile climb I found runnable stretches of trail at nearly every single switchback.  I had read a race report / words-of-wisdom article from AJW and recalled that in his heyday of never-ending Top 10s he routinely climbed Devil’s Thumb in 33-35 minutes. I had a suspicion I could hit that mark. About halfway up the climb I came upon a man and two female contenders. I quickly jogged past them as they hiked up the switchbacks and was elated to hear them lightheartedly cheering me on.  As I labored, I reminded myself of a 26 mile run I had done 3 weeks prior, running up and down the 1700’, 1.6mile trail along Robertson Mountain in Shenandoah National Park … that run had felt like a piece of cake, and this one would too! Towards the top of the climb I started to feel a bit taxed, but I knew I was nearly there and that I’d have a long descent into El Dorado Canyon to recuperate.

I finally reached the aid station and tried to get in and out as quickly as possible. I was in high spirits. I had made the dreaded climb in 34 minutes and it had felt easy. Sadly, this aid station visit felt like the most discombobulated of the day and kicked off a small funk. The volunteers, as much as I appreciated their presence, took a heck of a long time to top off my bottles and get more ice into my bandana. I felt like I was ushered one way, then another, then another, without ever getting anything accomplished. At one point I had to rush over to a table to find a place to fill and fold my ice bandana myself because a volunteer couldn’t get the hang of it. Then, one volunteer practically blocked my advancement through the aid station, asking questions and telling me I looked pale. I continually tried to let him know that I was feeling great, that I was nailing my hydration, and that my nutrition was nearly perfect for the day. Still, I was somewhat forcibly moved along to the food table and repeatedly told to get some food. Unwilling to keep arguing with them, I grabbed a handful of grapes, mumbled a thank you, and finally escaped.

After that escapade, I continued to the crest of the climb just past the aid station, when, all of a sudden, everything went to shit!  Well, not really, but I felt a slight twinge in my right quad.  I kept running for a few strides and it happened again.  Great! I took all of this time to baby these damn quads and they’re already acting up! At the top of the climb I found a stump to hold onto and squatted down to stretch out my quads.  I spent a good two minutes working on them. A couple of the runners I devoured on the climb passed me and asked if I was okay – the tone of their voice seeming to imply more head shaking than concern … that idiot tore ass up Devil’s Thumb and now look at him, tsk tsk! After the stretch I was overcome with a sense of doubt. But as I made my way into El Dorado Canyon, my legs began to feel better.

As had been the theme thus far in the race, I took it easy on the 5 mile descent down El Dorado Canyon, perhaps a bit too easy. The downhill pounding massaged the tightness out of my quads, which was quite the relief. I got to the bottom of the canyon and began my trek up to Michigan Bluff to see my wife for the second time.  The climb to Michigan Bluff was more taxing than Devil’s Thumb. It’s not as steep and there are plenty of runnable sections, but you’re a bit farther into the race and the length of the climb is longer.  That said, I still didn’t think it was that big of a deal. And the heat … where the heck was this heat everyone was talking about?!

When I reached Michigan Bluff I looked at my watch and, again, I had nailed my sub-20 arrival time. My wife handed me new bottles and we made sure I had enough gels, then I gave her a kiss, told her I was feeling great, and that I would see her again in just over an hour.  I quickly stretched my quads to be safe and then I worked my way through Volcano Canyon, thinking about a 67 minute split from Michigan to Foresthill that I read Pam Smith was able to hit when she won in 2013. I don’t remember much of Volcano. I had no problems, it didn’t feel difficult, it was just smooth and comfortable running.  At Bath Road I saw a handful of people waiting for their runners so they could escort them up to Foresthill. It was the first time that I felt a bit out of place in the race … all alone.  Though I felt I could have jogged up the entirety of the Bath Road climb to Foresthill, I made sure to mix in some quick walking spurts to keep my effort in check. Despite that, I still passed a couple runners and their crew in this short section.

I finally popped out into Foresthill and made my way down the side of the road into town. There I again greeted my wife, swapped out my bottles, stocked up on gels, and got stuffed full of ice. My watch read 11:45 (4:45pm) … a 69 minute split … good enough! I had made it 62 miles and again had nailed my sub-20 split to the minute. Fantastic!  What was even better was the fact that it felt like I had only run 20 miles, and an easy 20 miles at that.  My legs were feeling good and I didn’t think I’d be needing to stretch them again, my hydration and nutrition were spot on, and I was feeling in the zone. As I gathered myself to leave Foresthill I told my wife that I was feeling amazing and to throw out my timetable. I was going to aim to finish before midnight and get in sub-19, a full hour ahead of planned and a true “100 Miles One Day”.

My run was just getting started!

(Cheesing it up at Foresthill)


Foresthill to Green Gate



I told myself to try and take it easy to the river, and then let loose after Green Gate. So I started my way down to Cal 1 at a comfortable pace. I quickly realized that everything I’d heard about Western States was true … make it to Foresthill and you’ll be rewarded with runnable trails.  When I rolled into Cal 1, I had just passed up Devon Yanko, who was looking strong. I filled up my bottles and restocked my ice bandana as I watched Devon jump ahead of me onto the trails.  Seeing how well she looked got me wondering what my place was, so I asked a volunteer as I was heading out and was surprised to find that I was in 34th place, with 4 women ahead of me. That lit a fire in me because I knew that I’d be finishing strong and had a shot at Top 25 – an achievement I had considered when crafting my race goals, but never harped on because it seemed so otherworldly. I picked up the pace and forged through the 15 rollers – I tried counting them but could never figure out what exactly constituted a “roller”. At one point I got to a steep descent and about halfway through it realized I had happened upon The Elevator Shaft. I’d heard about how daunting it could be, but I hopped my way down the steep descent with ease. This is my kind of playground! By the time I rolled through Cal 2 I had picked off another runner and my legs were really starting to feel good.

By Cal 3, my stride had really opened up. As I made my way along the river road towards the River Crossing, I was pretty sure I was dipping below 9:00 miles. And I was picking off runners left and right.  The 5 mile stretch before the River Crossing was probably my best running of the day. I was working hard, but not too hard, my legs were cooperating, and I had steamrolled over something like a half dozen runners … so many that I lost count. At this point in the race I had crafted a short-term goal to catch Devon as quickly as possible. I knew she was a tremendous athlete and currently a Top 3 female, so catching her was a way for me to keep my pace up to meet my new sub-19 goal.  I’ll be honest, I was a bit confused when I got to the River Crossing without passing her … she was clearly feeling good along Cal Street!

When I got into the American River, my legs immediately felt refreshed. I made quick order of the crossing, thanked the volunteers along the way, and then continued my onslaught up to Green Gate to see my wife once again. It was a solid climb with a mixture of running and hiking – I’d typically run for about a minute and then hike for 15-30 seconds on the steeper sections. After the race I took a peek at Aid Station splits and saw that from the River Crossing to Green Gate I was faster than all but maybe 4 runners on the day. I obviously didn’t know that at the time, but I had a feeling that my climbing was as strong as ever. It was something I had worked hard on over the past 6 months, knowing how much of a weak point it was in my Grindstone 100 performance the previous Fall. Devils Thumb, and now Green Gate, were an affirmation of all the hard work I’d put into my training.

Upon reaching Green Gate, my wife helped me swap out bottles and exclaimed “You got here 30 minutes early!” My sub-20 race plan had me losing some steam in the later sections of the race, but that clearly wasn’t the way things were working out. I had just gained nearly 2 minutes per mile on my planned race pace from Foresthill to Green Gate, and I wasn’t done yet!  My wife told me that Devon had just flown by and that she was looking good.  I know! I’ve been trying to chase her down for the past 15 miles!

I continued the climb up past Green Gate and ran into David Horton, whose brief words of encouragement meant a lot to me. After all, his difficult Hellgate 100K and Promise Land 50K races that I ran in the past 6 months were a big part of my training. I also ran into Sophie Speidel, who was there waiting to help out Bethany Patterson. She snapped a quick photo of me, and sent me off down the trail with even more encouragement. And with that, I was ready to drive it home and snag my new sub-19 race goal.


Green Gate to Auburn

The next miles really did fly by for me.  I just ran, and took everything as it came to me. The daylight was waning, but I was pretty sure I could make it to ALT before turning on my headlamp. I flew by a couple of runners on my way to ALT and while I didn’t notice at the time, one of them was David Laney. I’m pretty sure that if I had processed that I was passing David Laney, my body would have gone into shock, seized up, and I would’ve collapsed right then and there on the trails.  Seriously, how often do you get to say, “Yeah, I passed the top American finisher at UTMB, no big deal!”? Anyways, I finally rolled into ALT with barely a ray of light left in the sky. I filled up one bottle of water, then wasted entirely too much time situating my headlamp.  Only 15 nighttime miles to go!

I continued making good time as I approached Brown’s Bar. I kept crunching numbers in my head, trying to convince myself that I’d be making it in before midnight. At the same time, I hesitated to push the pace much harder even though I felt I had a lot left to give. I was so fixated now on breaking 19:00 that it didn’t matter to me if it was 18:30 or 18:59. I mean, I wasn’t making Top 10, so I just had to prove to myself that 6 months of hard work had paid off … anything under 19:00 was going to be proof enough. Not pushing the pace continued to be my insurance policy, even this late in the race. At one point I came upon a female runner. It was Devon! I finally caught her! It took me 25 solid miles of running to do so, but I finally did it.  I wanted to let her know how much motivation she gave me over the last few hours of running, but all I could muster was "Keep it up! See you at the finish!"

At one point I could hear a bunch of chatter ahead of me, and I knew I was coming up on Brown’s Bar. I shook my bottles and decided that stopping for a top-off would be pointless, so I pushed on through the aid station without breaking stride.  As I ran through, I surveyed the station and it felt like a war zone. I didn’t have time to differentiate runners from pacers, but it felt like there were a lot of people sitting down or standing there like zombies. That’s when it hit me, I’m owning this race right now!

The carnage of Brown’s Bar gave me even more motivation, and I ratcheted up the effort level a bit.  My quads had felt stiff and achy for a few hours by now, but there were no cramps or spasms, so I kept pushing. I made the climb up to HWY 49 in short order and was greeted by my wife for the final time before Auburn. I had moved up enough in the standings that she was one of only a handful of crew waiting for runners, a far cry from the middle-of-the-pack chaos back at Robinson Flat … I felt like we had the whole aid station to ourselves.  She gave me one last bottle of Tailwind and I opted to keep a second bottle of water so I wouldn’t have to fill up again before the finish. I gave her a kiss, thanked her, and told her I’d see her again in just over an hour.

For the next few miles, I focused on crunching numbers again … 90 minutes, 6.7 miles, just keep up the pace and you’ve got this! I felt great coming down to No Hands Bridge and was overcome by the eerie traverse through the light fog. I was in such a groove that I don’t even remember calling out my bib number or checking in and out. I just ran through and started mentally preparing for the final climb up Robie Point.

I passed through the Meadow and wondered how beautiful it might look in the last moments of daylight ... of course, that’d imply I’d be competing for Top 10 … maybe someday … soon?  I skirted along the trail and occasionally glimpsed a headlamp climbing a hill up ahead. I guess that’s Robie Point! The light was easily 10 minutes ahead of me, so there’d be no way I’d catch them. And I had put in enough effort over the last 30 miles that I was confident no one would be running past me. So I eased off the pace and began to reflect on the day of running. Thinking of all the miles I’d traversed up to that point distracted me from the sometimes steep climb up to Robie. When I hopped off the trail and onto the road at the aid station, I just kept running. But I was soon brought to a hike-jog, not knowing that the aid station was nowhere near the top! So I labored on, running as much as I felt appropriate, all the way up the road. The entire time the only thought in my mind was why am I still climbing?!

When I reached the top, I worked my way down the dark neighborhood road. I couldn’t see any reflective streamers or anything of the sort, so I followed the painted footsteps on the ground, which were sometimes obscured by a car parked over them. I came upon an intersection and saw no signs, no streamers, nothing at all … except for some painted arrows pointing left. I stopped, looked around, couldn’t see the stadium lights, and let out a frustrated What the fuck! 99 miles of successfully navigating trails and I’m stopped dead in my tracks in a darkened neighborhood?! After about 30 seconds of wondering what the hell to do, a car drove up and told me to keep heading down the road. My pace had now slowed considerably, and there was no chance of a desired sprint to the track since my eyes were cautiously surveying the road for any sign of course markings. In the daylight I’m sure it was totally obvious where to go, but in the dead of night, after over 18 hours of running, with no one around, it was rather frustrating.

I finally glimpsed the White Bridge and the glow of the stadium lights. I picked up my pace as I approached the track. In front of me was a group of joggers that got in my way as I was coming onto the track. My legs were feeling good and I wanted to push it to the finish, so I jumped past them as I hit the track and resumed my faster pace. As I did so, I flew past a cameraman, not fully processing what was happening until I was clear of him. I looked over and saw Jim Walmsley. What the hell is going on?! Wait, is he just now finishing? What happened? Nevermind, keep pushing to the finish. In the commotion, my ears tuned in to John Medinger on the loudspeaker describing Walmsley’s woes before interrupting himself with “…and now on the track, Chris Roberts.” I pushed on, a bit overwhelmed by my surroundings. As I crossed the finish, careening towards a slew of cameras, I noted the time of 18:45:07 and mustered a single, definitive thought: I’ve got to run this again! Western States may not have been quite as difficult as I had hoped for and expected, but it was an absolutely beautiful course with incredible volunteers and an unrivaled race atmosphere.

(A little dusty, but not too bad!)

Post-Race



In the two weeks since Western States, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the day. And more reflecting inevitably means more writing, so this blog is way longer than I had wanted it to be. Oh well!

Western States was an incredible experience. I'm still not quite sure how exactly I've gone from a lazy bum to 19th overall and 18th male at Western States in the span of 2 years. Crazy! I had a great performance. I ran the race smartly and efficiently. Of the top 30 or so runners, I believe that myself and Kyle Pietari (8th Overall) were the only ones to improve our pace from Foresthill through to Auburn. That’s quite an achievement to hang my hat on.

But, despite crushing my A Goal, I know I left a lot on the table early in the race. It’s not unreasonable to think that had I been more comfortable with a race strategy of pushing the pace a bit, I could have finished closer to 18-flat. Each race is another learning experience, and this was just my second 100-miler. I now have confidence going into the second half of 2016 that if I keep up my training I may very well have a shot at a Golden Ticket for 2017 and a chance to crack the Top 10 (especially if it’s an absurdly hot day!). It’s a massive longshot, but then again, thinking I could finish the 2016 Western States in the Top 20 was an absolute moonshot.

I’m excited to keep training, to keep pushing myself, to keep discovering what I’m capable of, and to keep having fun out on the trails.  Now, onto Eastern States in August!

I’ve got to thank my wife for supporting me through my training and for her willingness to hang out in the middle of nowhere for hours on end just waiting to see me for 2 minutes at a time. Then again, I think our trip to Napa and San Francisco after the race was a pretty good Thank You in and of itself! And Thanks to my in-laws for looking after my little kiddo while her daddy was off gallivanting around some California trails. And a huge Thanks to Craig Thornley, the race management, and the hundreds of volunteers who made this amazing race possible!

(Random swag and purchases)

Gear:

  • Altra Superior 2.0s -- my go-to race shoes. A couple times a month I wear non-Altra running shoes just to remind myself of how lucky we all are to have Altra in our lives!
  • Injinji trail socks -- Injinji + running = blister-free
  • Patagonia Strider Pro shorts -- When a 10L rucksack and a pair of running shorts have a baby
  • Boco trucker hat from Grindstone 100 -- my new favorite running hat
  • Goodr sunglasses -- I used to hate running with sunglasses, but these are amazing ... and stylin'
  • Homemade ice bandana -- worked like a charm
  • Random buff -- for when the ice bandana was overkill
  • Columbia arm coolers -- felt amazing all day long stuffed with ice or just wet down
Nutrition:
  • About 16 Huma gels -- omm nom nom
  • 1800 calories of First Endurance Liquid Shot and EFS powder -- my "slurries"
  • 1400 calories of Tailwind
  • 1 cup of diced pears
  • 1 handful of grapes
  • 2 insects


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