The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is without doubt one of the most important and prestigious races in the ultra trail running world. On the last weekend of June, 400 runners get the chance to run the Western States trail from Squaw Valley California through the high country and deep canyons of the Sierra Nevada to the Placer High track in Auburn. Besides the 100.2 miles distance (=161km), the altitude of the high country and the scorching heat of the canyons are the main difficulties to bringing home the coveted silver buckle for a sub 24 hours finish.
The information on Western States is split into 4 parts:
- Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Race Report
- Training for races in extreme heat (to follow)
- Pacing and crewing (to follow)
- The road to Squaw – everything you need to know (to follow)
To run 100 miles is to push yourself to that place where you waver between delusion and sanity. Stripped down to nothing, bearing your soul.
Exposed. Raw. Real.
….And yet the will to continue, to persevere, endures. Quitting is not an option. And at the pinnacle of human suffering, where mind, body, and spirit are broken, you find ease.
And it’s beautiful….
(Quote from Stephanie Howe)
From the Tevis Cup to the Western States Endurance Run
It takes a pioneer to push through boundaries that are thought to be unbreakable. In this case, it was a certain Gordy Ainsleigh, who decided in 1974 to race the Tevis Cup, a notorious horse race, on foot. Gordy did not just accomplish the unthinkable by covering the course under the 24 hour cut-off (the course was 89 miles long in fact and got extended to 100.2 miles only in 1986), but invented a whole new sport, if not a life style: Running 100 miles on foot. Although the course has gone through some alterations since Gordy’s initial effort, his historic feat still lives on in today’s races. One important detail that resembles this Western tradition is the belt buckle that every finisher gets awarded – a pure silver buckle for sub 24 hours finishers and a bronze buckle for those completing the distance in under 30 hours. Since the early days, the Western States buckles with the runner’s name engraved on the backside, are one of the most coveted honors in the world of endurance sports.
The Western States trail is 100.2 miles long (=161km) and covers a net downhill course with 18’090ft (=5’510m) of uphill and 22’970ft (=7’000m) of downhill running. After the start in Squaw Valley, the runners cross the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada high country to pass through the scorching hot canyons that stretch out through the American River Divide to finally reach the finish line in Auburn.
Every December, 400 lucky runners who qualify for the event gain entry to the race by either winning a slot in the Montrail Cup or through the lottery. The number of runners is capped due to the California Wilderness Act, which protects parts of the land the course goes through. With more than 2500 applicants every year, the mere luck of being one of the 400 chosen few and even more so of being a finisher of this ordeal is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most. But enough on the history, let’s get started…
The High Country
Typical for US ultras, the bib number is only handed out to the runner just minutes from the start. At 4:30 Saturday morning, I gather with my crew and fellow runners at the start where farewell wishes and fist bumps are exchanged. Close to 5 o’clock, I move closer to the starting line – nerves flare up – excitement kicks in – this long awaited and thoroughly trained for moment is finally here. Fear and delight are blurring. I feel like a kid that is glaring at an orange glowing stove and being told not to touch it – but I know I’ll do it anyways…
Boom – the guns goes off. Straight after the start, the runners go straight up to the Escarpment and over Emigrant Pass. The race follows the service road 700 meter up, already providing the runners the first speed hiking session only half a kilometer into the game. The gradient meanders between 10% and 20% making a run-hike strategy the most efficient way to cover the first 6km. I go out easy and settle comfortably into the girls lead group. Magdalena Boulet (who will turn out to be the 2015 female champion) is in the front and the 2014 female winner Steph Howe, together with the other lead girls, are following (to the curious reader: Steph’s back-side is indeed as pretty as her front 😉 ). On our way up, we can witness a spectacular sunrise. Warm rays kiss our skin and, together with the breathtaking view on the mountains, lift our spirits to the highest level – mountain trail running at its best. The last 100m of elevation are a bit more technical and I pass the girls scrambling up through this section. On top of Emigrant Pass we are greeted by cheering spectators before we descend into the endless wilderness of the High Country on the other side.
I knew that I was not going to last long in front of the girls, but I was in good hope to be able to hang onto some experienced feet. Zoom – and Steph Howe was gone. And in short staccato a couple of more runners. Fine, I have to run my own race then. If they descend faster than I do – good on them. The trail on this section is beautiful. Wildflowers and rocky serpentines let the runner descend into the woods, where the trail winds through the pines in a constant up and down. I’m running alone pretty quickly and I’m easing into the feeling that should sustain me over the day – solitude.
Well, although I can’t see anyone, I realize that I’m not alone – there is fresh bear poo all along the trail! I’m pretty excited. Some 17km into the race, I arrive at the first aid station Lyon Ridge. After a quick top up of my handheld bottles (I decided to race with two handhelds until 2/3 of the race and then change to a Salomon backpack) with water, I zoom off. In a constant up and down I move onward, sucking up the beautiful vistas but also the mounting heat. We are still cruising at 2200 meters above sea level along the ridge line. Pretty awesome. We pass Red Star Ridge (26km). Although I can feel the altitude, I’m doing okay and decide to hold back a little more. The trail passes through the first area where wildfire destroyed the woods in 2001 leaving the runners fully exposed to the sun. It gets hot. This part of the trail is very remote and, other than trees, dust and rocks, nothing is visible until the horizon. I can hear the rattling of rattlesnakes along the trail. But although I try to spot them, they remain invisible. As for the bears, my relationship to the rattlesnakes seems to be ambiguous – I would love to see them, but I’m equally happy not to. It is typical for the WS100 to not have much sight of the trail ahead. After another bend in the trail, the next aid station Duncan Canyon (38km) pops into view without prior notice. Again, I fill up on water and calories. I already went through 5 shots of gel by that time. That’s a lot, but okay. I’m pretty hot already and take some time to sponge myself down with ice water.
The decent into Duncan Canyon is flowy. At the low point of the canyon, I cross the first creek. Standing in nice cold water up to my knees is refreshing. After the creek, the trail ascends in medium gradient and I power hike up the canyon in wet shoes. Climbing up is getting really hot again. It’s only just past 10 o’clock, but the sun is already burning down in a most unforgiving way. I’m both getting low on blood sugar as well as hydration and I’m looking forward to see my crew (Nico and Joel) for the first time soon. After 5h51min racing, I finally run into the first big aid station, Robinson Flat, 48km into the game. It’s great to see my crew. Bottles get refilled with ice and water and I have my first Sponser Ultra Pro. I get cooled down with ice water sponges. To battle the heat, my crew places a bandana filled with ice around my neck and fills my cap with ice too. I leave the aid station on a neat 22h finish pace and run on.
The ice around my neck and in my hat is so cold that it hurts on the skin, but my body needs to be cooled off, so I keep the ice on. The climb after the aid station is good to let the calories settle. After crossing the top, the trail is fully exposed to the sun again. I start descending again, this time under 2000 meters for good. I get caught by the Nike pro Sally McRae and run with her. Unfortunately, this is a very bad match – I easily drop her on every ascent, just to see her fly by me on the next descent again. That’s annoying for both of us. Finally, in a long downhill section she moves on. I check in to Miller’s Defeat aid station at 55km to refill bottles, bandana and cap with ice. Here, the course widens to very dusty forest roads. I descend constantly. The gradient is low and speed therefore quite high. I start to feel my quadriceps. Again, cooling and refilling at Dusty Corners at 61km.
From the service roads the trail branches off to a beautiful single trail again. It’s hot. I’m running alone and I’m getting tired. Although the views are very nice, I hit the first rough patch. I try to conserve energy and get my mojo back because the canyons are lurking just around the corner. It’s a pity that I hit a low point here, because this part of the course is one of the nicest. I slow down and shuffle on into Last Chance aid station. 70 kilometers are down and I’ve been running for 8h30min already. I’m really hot and take my time to get cooled at the aid station and to replenish my calories. I take it easy since I don’t want to rush into the first canyon unprepared.
It was well over 35° for the past couple of hours, but now we really descend into the furnace. The trail falls gradually at first and gets steeper and steeper. It’s not very technical. I run down this 600m drop. My legs hurt. The temperature is over 40° now. I’m pretty beaten up. The heat and the constant descending make the going rough. I can hear the American River somewhere below and keep going. At the bottom, we cross the river over the famous swinging bridge and climb up to Devil’s Thumb. It’s a 500m uphill grunt stretched over 2 miles up the Devil’s Thumb. I’m so happy to use my climbing legs again and with that to have a change in load on my legs. The joy lasts only a few short moments. Nausea and fatigue set in. It is scorching hot. I try to power-hike as fast as possible. Although it hurts, I want to be out of this sizzling hot canyon as quick as possible. After almost 10 hours of running I reach Devil’s Thumb aid station (77km) on the crest of the canyon. I get a drop bag and try to fill up on calories. I feel nauseated and it’s hard to get anything in. Although the volunteers do a great job with cooling the runners down with ice water, I feel the heat taking its heavy toll. I’m dreaming about diving into cold water, but it’s going to be awhile until I can cool off…
Leaving Devil’s Thumb, the trail send the runners down another 700 meters straight to El Dorado Creek. I don’t have much memory of this stretch – only heat and more heat. And trashed quads. I’m now in the heart of the Western States Endurance Run, which in essence means tolerating scorching heat and endless downhills. I reach El Dorado Creek aid station (85k) at the bottom of the canyon after 11h running. As it is boiling hot, I fill up my bottle and ice up my bandana and hat so as to quickly move one. On the uphill I pass some other runners, most of them looking awful. I’m looking forward to seeing my crew on top, so I press up towards Michigan Bluff aid station at km 89. I keep falling back in my time schedule and I realize that the 24 hours finish is going to be a tight ride. On my arrival, Nico and Joel take care of me and try to cool me down. I try to not lose time. I hear that many runners had a very rough time reaching Michigan Bluff, even having some of the top contenders drop. What the heat and the distance is doing to the runners is indeed no pretty sight.
Replenished and iced down, my crew maneuvers me back on the course. Volcano canyon is next and marks the last of the 4 canyons of the WS100 course. The downhill is more stretched out and less steep than before. But the heat is still there. I move on and descend down Volcano Canyon as well as I can. At the creek that marks the low point of Volcano canyon, I find a runner vomiting. He has obviously taken a delirious fall and looks very beaten up. I ask how he is – “I’ve been vomiting and peeing blood for quite a while” he says “but help is already on its way – move on”. I try to get a dip in the creek, but my legs are so stiff that I only manage to dunk my hat into the water. Pity. After checking back, I leave the other runner behind and take good notice of his fate. It’s a very fine line to succeed in a 100 miler in extreme heat – push too hard and you’re toasted quicker than you can think – take it too easy and you’ll miss your goal. The Western States 100 Miler is a big dance on a fine line…
I speed-hike up the canyon and meet my friend and pacer Joel again. Crew is allowed all along the 2km on Bath Road to the Foresthill aid station at km 100. I’m very happy to see my guys again. Joel and I slog on to the aid station where Nico is already waiting. Time to replenish and switch gear. I change shoes. This sounds easier than it is. Joel tries his best to get new socks on my sorry feet while I try to fend off cramps in different parts of my leg. I try to eat – with meager success. I also switch from handhelds to my Salomon pack. Time to move on. Slowly I can settle back into a jog. Joel is now pacing me for the next 25km. Good to have a friend by my side.
The section Joel is pacing me is known as Cal Street and follows along the divide in a constant up and down. It’s 6 o’clock and the sun clearly loses its brutal power. It’s still warm but much better than deep in the canyons. We are not talking much but Joel is providing great moral support and reminds of eating and drinking. I work on my gels, but eating gets a little tough. At km 106 we pass through Dardanelles (Cal 1) and move on to Peachstone (Cal 2) at 114 km. The night starts to creep in and we gear up with headlamps. With the night settling, the heat of the day starts to fade. What a relief! The Cal street section is run on pretty uneventful single track and we pluck away the miles. I have no time to lose since my margin on the 24h finish has melted away in the heat of the day already. Joel keeps an eye on the pacing schedule – it’s evident, I have to keep on pushing hard. After Ford’s Bar (Cal 3) at km 118, the long sought after river crossing slowly but surely becomes a tangible goal. I was motivating myself through all the canyons with this reward of diving into the cold waters of the American River.
And here we are – I reach the Rucky Chucky river crossing (125km) after 17.5 long hours of trail running at 22.25 at night. Nico is already waiting and takes over pacing duties from Joel, who did an excellent job with bringing me to the river with just a little cushion on the 24h pace now. I take another Sponser Ultra Pro and move down to the river banks where Nico and I get strapped into our lifevests. The American River is lowered on race day to a waist deep level and the runners have to wade the 20 meters to the other side along a cable. The cold water is very refreshing – how long I’ve been waiting for this. With wobbly legs I cross over.
The Home Stretch
On the other side I change shoes and hike up to Green Gate (128km) together with Nico. I’m glad to have another friend by my side as we move along. It’s rough to settle back into running. My wheels came off a long time ago and getting on is tough. I manage to settle into running pace and Nico is counting down the kilometers to the next aid station. At the 137km mark we reach Auburn Lake Trails aid station. There are only two things I can fuel on now – Coke and electrolyte drink. After downing a can of coke, we move on up and down through the woods to Brown’s Bar aid station at 145km, where we are greeted by Hal Korner himself – pretty awesome. Foodwise, I follow the protocol – one can of Coke and an electrolyte refill. And off we go again. Nico is doing a great job of pushing me gently and reminding me of drinking. We slowly start to build more cushion on the 24h barrier. I suffer, but manage to move on. My right quad is completely out of order and the downhills hurt like hell. We grunt up to the Highway 49 aid station at 150km and manage to run out a cushion of 21 minutes by now. At this point we start to relax, as the 24 hours finish is now becoming evident. We cruise over the meadows and reach down a rather painful descent to No Hands Bridge at 156km. The aid station has more in common with a dance party than with a 100 mile race. I suck up the positive vibes and move on. We hike up rather easy on the other side to reach the last aid station Robie Point at 159km. I don’t want to risk cramping and shift back a gear. I go through this last aid station and finally reach the pavement of Auburn.
On top of the hill Joel is waiting for us already – hurray. I actually want to run the last kilometer to the finish but my legs have completely shut down. So I only start running just before I enter the stadium to finish off the last 400m victory lap on the Auburn track. Running hurts, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Together with Joel and Nico, I run down the last bend of the track. The home stretch is mine – emptiness starts to fill with meaning and a deep satisfaction and joy sets in. I stretch my hands up into the sky and cross the line at 23h 47min and 45secs. 100.2 miles or 161 kilometers of joy, pain, love, grit and determination culminate in this very moment. I’m at ease. I’m thankful. I’m feeling alive!
As it is with 100 miles trail races, there are a myriad of things to overcome. At Western States 100 it’s the heat and the constant running – and it’s the magical 24 hour barrier. It was new to me to race against time. I secretly hoped to go well under the 24h mark and, with that, not to worry about the exact timing at all. It came different (as usual). I underestimated the stress of having this virtual cut-off sitting at my back for 10 hours and more. To be pushing hard for a long time just to gain 5min on the 24h pace and to lose it again because of a toilet break (or whatever) was very draining. That I eventually snuck in under the 24 hours was as much a mental effort as it was physical. And I’m really happy that everything worked out.
The Western States 100 Miles is, with its history, course and race experience, definitely one of the best events I’ve ever done. My special thanks also goes to my crew, Joel and Nico, who spent the day, the night and the next day to make reaching my dream possible. Thank you! But it’s not just about my run and my goal, it’s about the trail and the community too. I experienced friendship, comradery, victory, defeat, hope and joy. That’s why I love this sport.