Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Western States 2014 Race Report

This race was the culmination for me of years of dreams, failure, second chances, setbacks, obsession, drive, planning, and lots and lots of training. So I must apologize for this report's ridiculous verbosity. Honestly, you won't want to read it. It's more for my own benefit, to get the whole experience down. Feel free to skip to the end, maybe look at some of the pretty pictures. Most pics are by Matt Hagen if not otherwise attributed.

Western States (properly, the Western States Endurance Run, or WSER – but often just "Western", or "States", depending maybe on where you're from; I still haven't quite figured that out) is the granddaddy of all 100-mile races. Rich with history, tradition, and pageantry, it's the one 100 that everyone wants to do. Comparing to the world of marathons, it's like the Boston of ultramarathons. But unlike Boston, there are only 369 slots available. Therefore, it's become very difficult to get in to; for 2014 a typical qualified applicant had only a 6.5% chance in the lottery. I was incredibly fortunate to get in again, after running it two years ago and missing my goal. That goal, of course, was the coveted silver buckle, awarded for finishing in under 24 hours. The absolute cutoff is 30 hours, for which you receive a bronze buckle.

Anyone who is interested in running Western States someday (or crewing or pacing) would be well served by reading Joe Uhan's excellent articles on

Even more than those, my bible for this year's race was Pam Smith's detailed description of how she won in 2013:

But in a nutshell – Western States is a trail race, starting at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, and ending in Auburn, CA, on historic trails through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some relevant numbers are 18,090 feet of gain and 22,970 feet of descent, but those numbers obscure the actual challenge posed by how they are distributed, as well as by the often rocky, technical terrain, and the typically hot weather. One clear factor, though, is that all that descent inflicts a huge cumulative damage on your quads. There is some very runnable trail in the second half, for those that have legs left. But more often, runners are reduced to slowly poking their way down the gentle downhills in later miles, with nonfunctional quads.

Western States elevation profile. Read right (east) to left.

Prologue: Western States 2012

I was lucky enough to get into Western States via the lottery on my first try for 2012. I'd been so sure I wouldn't, I had totally forgotten when the day of the drawing arrived. I happened to be at a conference in the Virgin Islands at the time. When I got back to my room at the end of the day, it took me a minute to realize what all my Facebook friends were congratulating me for. Woohoo!!!

Based on running 20:42 at my first hundred, Javelina Jundred – which I ran almost on a whim, somewhat conservatively – and comparison of course difficulty, I thought I should be able to comfortably run sub-24 at Western States, for the silver buckle. (Javelina also served to qualify me for Western States, on the last day possible.)

But training was not perfect. Boston (two months before WSER) was a goal race; I was following a marathon training plan, with little to no WSER-specific training. I thought I'd have time to get in some hill training afterwards. But it was 90 degrees at Boston, so I decided to run it easy, and save it for Big Sur, two weeks later. I ran hard at Big Sur, did OK, but it's not a PR course. That left me two weeks fewer to train, and I never quite managed to get my mileage back where it needed to be. I did get in what I thought (ha) were sufficient hills, but as the race got closer, I had Achilles issues, and had to back off. In the end, in retrospect, my training was woefully inadequate, though I didn't realize how much so at the time.

The weather is always a huge factor at Western States; often it is brutally hot. As race day approached, it appeared we would have near-record-low temperatures, removing heat from the equation. Well, so much for all that sauna training! (There, at least, I'd been diligent.) In fact, it was far colder than anyone expected, with rain, sleet, hail, and big headwinds for the first 35 miles or so. A lot of people dropped early with hypothermia. Nobody was prepared for those conditions at Western States.

Coming into Duncan Canyon, 2012. Pic by Keith Blom.

I got through this stretch OK – sort of. I weathered the conditions, but I kept falling farther and farther behind the nominal 24-hour splits, and I wasn't exactly slacking. I was a little surprised and annoyed by this, but I held out some hope, figuring that those times (helpfully posted at every aid station) were based on actual performances, by runners who had gone out too fast and crashed. I was going to be smarter, and save it for after Foresthill, mile 62. But by Foresthill I was an hour and a half behind, too far. (Some of this was due to blister treatment.) My pacer, however, thought I was running well out of Foresthill, and told me he could still bring me in under 24. I was skeptical, but let him drive. We flew through the next few aid stations. Around 10 miles later I dared to ask how we were doing. OK, he said – if we hold this pace to the end. Uh – no. That was the fastest part of the course, and I had actually used up just about everything over those 10 miles. So, that was that. I could relax, and run it in easy for 25 hours or so, right? I was pretty bummed about missing the silver buckle, but at least the pain could end. Well, no. There was still the small matter of the remaining 30ish miles, on legs that were now totally done. I had spent too much. I also had no more motivation: 24 hours was gone; the 30-hour cutoff was not going to be an issue. Those were the longest, hardest 30 miles of my life. Finally, I crossed the line at 27:17. A bronze buckle it would be.

Lessons learned... first, I had massively underestimated this course. I needed much more, and more specific training. Second, I had to manage my nutrition better. I had way overhydrated, and (according to the post-race blood test) was borderline hyponatremic at the finish. I'd carried two handhelds most of the way, filled with Gu2O, and drunk a lot. But I had no way to quantify that, or the food I'd additionally eaten grazing at the aid stations. My pacer recommended the new book Waterlogged, by Timothy Noakes. I read it promptly after the race. Since then, I have been very disciplined about my hydration and fueling (more on this below).

I had unfinished business. I needed redemption. But realistically, it would probably take several years to get in again, and at 46, I wasn't getting any younger.

Surprise – In Again!

I loved the whole Western States experience so much, I had to find a way to go back for 2013. I wound up pacing Terry Sentinella. Just before the pre-race briefing, on a whim I bought 10 raffle tickets. The odds here are much lower than in the regular lottery, but hey, why not. And lo and behold, the very first number called was my first ticket. I was in again! Oh yeah!

The other way in to Western States

Uh Oh

Since late 2012, I'd had some issues with my left hamstrings. I'd thought they were mostly resolved, but – nope. After pacing 40 miles at Western States, I was kind of beat up. Then I did something stupid. Four days later, I ran a "quadzilla": four marathons in four days. I'd never done this before, but was pretty sure I could do it. In fact, my goal was to run a Boston-qualifying time (< 3:25) each day. And just maybe, win (lowest combined time). Well, winning was out, because two ringers showed up, Chuck Engle and Charlie Johnston. Chuck dropped during the second day, but Charlie stuck it out and ran sub-3 each day. Wow! I ran an easy 3:24 the first day. The second day was pretty painful at first, but not so bad overall, another 3:24. The third day... I was limping badly off the line, with extreme high hamstring pain with every step. I should have DNSed. But I thought that maybe it would settle down, as it had the previous day. Indeed, after a few miles the pain became manageable, and I ran another 3:24. The fourth day seemed to be headed the same way. Very, very painful start, bad limp, gradually resolving. Things were going great; I was thinking 3:20 or even 3:15 to wrap it up, no reason to save anything now. Then, around mile 10 or so, boom, it was back, worse than ever. I walked in the rest of that loop, thought about dropping at the half, should have. But having come that far, I wanted to complete the quadzilla, even it it meant walking the rest of the way (which was pretty painful in itself). I managed to gradually add a little running back towards the end, and finished with a big PW, 4:29, which was actually much faster than it had looked to be for a while.

Little did I then know what that would cost me. I'd torn my hamstring tendons. Tendons take forever to heal, due to poor blood supply. Once I had the diagnosis, it was lots of physical therapy for me. When it was not improving as quickly as I'd like, I opted for PRP (platelet-rich plasma) treatment. I don't know just how much the PRP helped, but gradually I healed, and could start running again. But I had lost several months.

You don't want your tendons to look like this.


After missing the mark so badly in 2012, when I got in for 2014, I had planned to go all-out on my training, get myself in shape for 20-21 hours, so the silver-buckle goal would be conservative. But I got such a late start due to the torn tendons, there was only so much I could do. My return to long distance was the Napa Valley Marathon, March 2nd. I ran it very easy, just to test the tendons over that kind of distance. I had some pain in the second half, but not too bad. Then, Pac Rim One-Day (as far as you can run in 24 hours). I called it good at 42 miles in 7 hours, again easy. Here I had the chance to pick Pam Smith's brain. (She was there running with her daughter, but now and then her daughter would take a break, and Pam would do a lap or two with me or other friends.) So far so good. Then, Umstead 100. What? Another 100, just like that? Well, I had registered back when I'd been more optimistic about my recovery time, thinking Umstead would be great training for Western States. And in fact, it's often used as just that. And Umstead might have gone OK... had I not pulled a glute min a couple weeks earlier, I think hauling a large suitcase. I had to drop down to the 50, and even that was a bad idea; I had to take two weeks completely off in early April for the glute to fully resolve, which should have been prime time to build towards peak mileage. Not good.

But from mid-April until race day, June 28, training went just about perfectly. Again, I ran Boston and Big Sur, but both as easy training runs. Then I built the mileage back to where it needed to be, 65, 70, 75, and finally three weeks just over 80 before tapering. Not a lot by elite standards, but a lot for me. May was my highest-mileage month ever. I got in TONS of hill work this time. Almost every run was on hilly trails. At least once a week I'd run to the top of Windy Hill, 1,500' straight up. Often I did repeats. It's the downhill you really have to train for; everybody's quads are shot by the end of Western States. I made a point to bomb the downhills as often as I could. I did the first day of the WSER training camp, covering the middle 32 miles of the course, with the big canyons. Again, I bombed the downhills (which is pretty exhilarating; those are technical trails). Three weeks out I raced a trail 50K with 5,800' of descent. No problem (and 10-minute improvement over last year, on a hot day, for third place overall). Nine days out I did my last real workout: three times up and down (fast) Windy Hill via the steepest route, 15 miles total. No pain. My quads were READY. There was a slight problem here, though; the third descent gave me heel blisters. That's not something you want to start the race with.

Again, I was diligent about my sauna training. Starting a few weeks out, I hit the sauna every other day, starting at half an hour and building up to 50 minutes, while drinking up to three liters of water (with electrolytes), to train gut absorption in the heat. When I had the sauna to myself I'd also jog in place for a few minutes.

In addition to the above, I did daily supplementary workouts: strength twice / week, stretching twice / week, core three times / week. Lots of squats, lunges, etc., plus additional exercises prescribed by my PT for the hamstrings. I'll be doing deadlifts for the rest of my life to keep those tendons healthy.

The other relevant training factor was weight. I'd gained a fair amount while unable to run. But I'd worked hard to burn it off, and managed to get just below 160, to my lowest weight since I think 1988. (I'm not sure how much of this was due to my half-assed attempt to emulate Pam's carb backloading diet strategy.) I was as light and fit as I'd ever been. Game on!

Race Week

It all starts here!

I arrived in Squaw Valley on Monday, five days before the race. I wanted a few days to help acclimate to the altitude, and also to attend the Medicine & Science in Ultra-Endurance Sports conference. There was a wealth of useful and interesting information presented. This is my favorite slide, the official recommendations on  hydration and salt intake for Western States:

Yes, it really is this simple.

Pam Smith continued to be a great friend and offer me advice right up to the race. When I expressed trepidation over how I'd felt ready last time, and blown it, she said

You can run <22 easily with average temps and <24 is not a problem on a hot day. You just have to be smart. I know you had a bad one, but so did I. Doesn't say anything about what you are capable of.

I took this to heart – and began to think, 22, hmm...

As race day approached, I began to worry more about my blisters, which it didn't appear would heal in time. Also I was concerned with my right Achilles / calf, which for the past month had been extremely tight, to the point of painful walking, when I got up every morning. So far it had not impacted my running, but I had expected it to resolve during my taper, and instead it seemed to be getting worse. So for the last few days all my free time was spent with my feet in a bucket: alternately warm water with Epsom salts, for the blisters, and ice water, for the Achilles / calf.

Pacer Matt and crew Scott arrived on Thursday, and it was starting to get real. All the pre-race events started Thursday; the traditional trip up the mountain to Emigrant Pass for flag-raising ceremony kicked it off. This year the morning was uncharacteristically cold, windy, and rainy, so we didn't quite make it to the top. But I never miss this chance to connect with the early history of the race, with some of the original organizers.

The start line, with crew Scott and pacer Matt

Then, on to the trail briefing, crew briefing, veteran's panel (Q & A with some of the best WSER runners ever), and more. (Striking takeaway from the veteran's panel: in contrast to the message pushed at the conference, that you really don't need any electrolyte supplementation, without exception the veterans all take lots of salt pills.) The whole experience creates a shared bond between the runners (and crew and pacers) that goes beyond just running a race together. We all become part of the Western States family here.

Matt with The Queen, Meghan Arbogast. Bonus Tom Green and Craig Thornley photobomb!

Friday morning, and it's going to be a busy day. It's time for the official weigh in, jump through a lot of hoops, and more hoops for me, because I signed up for all of the associated medical research projects. So I had a couple of different ECGs. These confirmed what I had learned last year: my heart is great, except for a left-axis deviation, which is perfectly normal for ultrarunners (or really anyone) my age. Then, on to my one-day carb load. Yes, I really cram in all those carbs in one day. The protocol starts with a short but intense workout – I was concerned about upsetting the Achilles. But it was fine.

For months I'd been meticulously analyzing what I had done wrong last time, comparing my splits to those of others. Lots of charts and graphs. And I'd come to the conclusion that the nominal 24-hour splits were actually pretty reasonable; they looked aggressive, but matched well what successful runners actually did, even the very experienced successful runners. This would make my pacing job easy. Just check the posted 24-hour split at every aid station, and see where I was.

In conjunction with my pacing schedule, I was still putting the finishing touches on my crew and drop-bag plan, up to the last minute. (I don't recommend this.) The drop bags had to be left on Friday morning, so I was scrambling. The one thing that made this slightly tricky for me was my fueling strategy. Since reading Waterlogged, I've adopted Noakes' recommended fueling and hydration plan: consume 60 g of carbs with 600 ml of water per hour (or to thirst). This translates to about half a gel and 1/6th of a 20 oz. bottle every 10 minutes. I carry gels in 6-gel flasks, so a flask lasts exactly two hours, a bottle one hour. Neat, and I always know where I should be in my fueling by comparing the clock and the level in my current flask. It keeps me totally honest and calibrated in my calories. Usually I go with straight vanilla Hammer gel, low sodium, but recently I've been adding in one Hüma gel per flask. Hammer gel is all maltodextrin, but the Hüma adds some fructose, which is absorbed in the gut by an independent pathway. The problem with fueling completely from gel flasks, though, is making sure I have them when I need them. It was a complicated puzzle working out which drop bags and crew access points to place them at optimally. Matt made fun of me for my ridiculously detailed crew plan. Of course, it would all go out the window on race day, as things never go exactly as predicted.

72 gels, ready to go

Heading into the weekend, it was looking as if we were in for pretty typical Western States weather. High of 89 in Auburn on Saturday. It would be much hotter for much of the race, especially in the canyons. But last year it hit 102 in Auburn, and there was a lot of carnage on the course. And of course, two years ago we had the freak winter storm.

'Twas the night before Western, and my blisters still had me worried. So Matt did a bang-up job taping them up. I'd never run any significant distance with taped feet, so I hoped it would hold.

I slept reasonably well, given the incredible excitement and anticipation. I was awake and fresh promptly when my 2:30 alarm went off. Some final foot prep, and on with my midweight Injinjis and shoes: after some indecision, I'd settled on my trusty Saucony Fastwitch 4s. These are road flats. Kind of crazy for a technical trail race, but I had faith in them, and I am a total pansy about shoe weight. They fit me like a glove, and are pretty cushioned for such lightweight shoes. These have been discontinued for a few years, but I stocked up, and have been finding more on eBay. This is my 20th pair!

Next it's over to the final weigh-in and bib handout. Also, because I'd signed up for all the research stuff, I again had more hoops to jump through. GI pre-interview, blood draw, and I swallowed a pill which would record my core temperature and transmit it to receivers at various points in the race. Also I donned a portable ECG recorder.

For Science!

As the start approached, I bore in mind what a friend from RunningAhead had told me.

This race burns in so many people. Remember that when you are out there. This is the king of trail races. Do whatever you can to bring home the silver buckle.

The Race!

Race morning was cool and pleasant. I toed the line in longsleeve, fleece hat, and single-bottle belt, and we were off with Dr. Bob Lind's shotgun blast at 5:00 am sharp. The race starts with a 2,500' climb in the first 3.5 miles. This is mostly walking for all but the leaders. There were a few short runnable stretches, but otherwise I power hiked it. At the first aid station, I had my first time check. Nominal 24-hour pace here is 55 minutes. In 2012 I was eight minutes over. I was very curious what it would be this year... it didn't seem to me that I'd run any more. This would set the tone for the day. Time? 52 minutes. Yes!!!

So far so good...

After that, it was up and over Emigrant Pass, then onto long, descending single track along a ridge. This stretch was annoyingly crowded for me last time. Lots of people going slowly, and not much room to pass. I guess being just that much ahead made all the difference. I think I passed one person, and was not passed, en route to the next aid station, Lyon Ridge, at mile 10.5. Time check: still three minutes ahead. OK. I was doing my best not to work hard, saving it for Foresthill, but I still really wanted to be beating those 24-hour splits. Ideally, I'd build up a cushion, and come in around 22 or 23 hours (after all, Pam said I should be sub-22 easy!), but I'd have to see what the day brought.

Starting to warm up a bit. Pic by Facchino Photography.

Into Red Star Ridge, mile 16, five minutes early. Here I had a long transition, because I switched all my gear, preparing for the heat of the day: cotton t-shirt, AK vest (two bottles), Way2Cool reflective/wicking arm sleeves, bandana, hat with rear flap, extra handheld bottle for dousing. What, you say, a cotton shirt?! That was Pam's brilliant discovery. The air is dry; cotton holds a lot of water, and keeps you cool if you keep it wet.

Ready for heat. Bring it on! Pic by Facchino Photography.

Next stop, Duncan Canyon aid station, mile 23.8. Three minutes under. Chalk that up to the gear change. The Western States aid stations and volunteers are second to none. You are ridiculously pampered, accompanied by your own personal attendant from entry to exit, to make sure you have everything you need. There are several times as many volunteers as runners. Most aid stations I just wanted water, ice, a sponge down, and a little cup of Coke (caffeine and a bit more fructose). Here, they warned us it was about to get hot and exposed. OK, time to get this cooling-suit show on the road. Ice in both vest bottles, to keep my chest cool, ice in the bandana, ice in the hat, ice down the back of the vest, fill the spare handheld, good dousing with sponges, cotton shirt being appropriately absorbent. I was COOL.

From here we descended into Duncan Canyon proper. Somewhere in here I felt a little rock or something in my shoe. Last time, a small rock in my shoe early turned into a big, painful heel blister, because I didn't address it immediately. I'd learned my lesson. You take care of foot issues NOW. So here I pulled over promptly, took off my shoe, and cleaned it out. But my right leg didn't like these strange non-running motions... one of the adductors was actually beginning to cramp! Scary, so early in the race. I'd had some issues off and on with this muscle, going back over a year. When I started up again I had to walk it off, annoying, as this was very runnable trail. I'd been gradually calibrating my idea of what the canonical 24-hour runner would be doing on any given stretch, based on my decisions and time checks. And the answer was that, at least at this point in the race, the 24-hour runner runs everything that's runnable, flats and downhills, as well as the easy uphills. So I was losing time.

This was my first real down point. But I knew there would be plenty of those, and I just had to roll with it. 100 miles is long enough for quite a few changes. As we went through the bottom of the canyon, I was remembering all the rocks I'd kicked here last time. I kicked a few this time as well, but not nearly as many. Still, it always hurts, especially in lightweight racing flats. Crossing the stream at the bottom, I refilled my dousing bottle. The cotton shirt held water well, but elsewhere I was drying off; the extra bottle helped quite a bit (thanks, Pam!).

The long climb up to Robinson Flat was something I'd been anticipating, and it was indeed a slog, and exposed and hot. Made worse by the fire damage. (After the enormous damage caused by the 2013 American Fire, we were lucky to have a race at all. The community really stepped up in getting the trails usable.) I thought I must be losing time here, but when I finally came into Robinson Flat I was six minutes under. Here was my first weight check: 158, down almost 4% from 164 at the start. Whoa. No real cause for alarm yet, but more than I'd been expecting. Then, while I was refilling bottles etc., I answered lots of questions for the GI study. I'd eaten 18 gels, no solid food, no salt pills. No bad GI issues, though I had come close to having to make an off-trail pit stop.

Here I met my crew, Scott, for the first time, and pacer Matt with him. More ice, swap gel flasks, how did I feel? Tired. More tired than I should be 30 miles in. And then I was off. But it was a slow transition. And immediately I was walking again, lots of uphill, walking more of it than I would have liked. But I had to keep it easy, and save it for later. Coming over Little Bald Mountain, it was now a long, long downhill over the next several miles, heading into the first big canyon.

Somewhere around mile 38? Pic by Glenn Tachiyama.

On the way to the next aid station, a guy passed me – I asked if he knew the next split distance, which I'd forgotten to note. He wasn't tracking distance, but 24-hour split times; he told me the next goal split time. Wait... that couldn't be right, we still had a ways to go, I was sure, and I would wind up losing at least 10 minutes. I couldn't have been that slow??? Then the urge came again, and I had to dive behind a bush and take care of business. Load lightened, finally into Miller's Defeat, mile 34.4, I was seven minutes behind 24-hour pace, ouch. I had indeed lost 13 minutes! Slow transition at Robinson, too much walking, and the pit stop. Still, it was a little hard to believe, and disconcerting.

Cooling off at Last Chance. Pic by Allen Lucas.

I held steady for the next few aid stations. The day was heating up, but I wasn't really getting hot, thanks to all the ice, dousing, and clothing. At Last Chance (mile 43.3), the thermometer read 106! About to head into Deadwood Canyon, I sat down to change socks, sure I'd left a pair in my drop bag. Nope. My socks were really gritty, but I'd just have to wait.

Pic by Allen Lucas.

Now the fun part. This descent is pretty steep, over a couple of miles, and is somewhat technical, rocky, with lots of switchbacks. This is where, if you haven't trashed your quads already, you really start to do so. Also, it's all too easy here to trip and take a really nasty header. As mentioned, I kick a lot of rocks. But I never fall. There has to be a first time, though, so I am always very careful in situations like this. I managed to get all the way down to the river only kicking one rock. And hopefully with the right balance of speed and quad preservation.

At the bottom, the landmark Swinging Bridge was out, burned in the fire, so we crossed the river holding on to a cable. This was beneficial to everybody; it's the perfect chance to soak yourself and get cool for the upcoming monster climb. Across the river is the steepest major ascent of the race, up to Devil's Thumb: about 1,600' over a mile and a half, 36 switchbacks. Knowing this is helpful; I counted them off. My power hike has improved lately, thanks to advice from my PTs; I've learned to use my glutes more. I passed several people on the way up, feeling pretty decent. (One guy was commenting, shocked, that his Garmin had him at a 45:00 pace.) Often this ascent is a furnace. This year it was hot, but not nearly as bad as last year. In my ice suit, and soaked cotton, I was fine. At Devil's Thumb, I was still six minutes behind. Oh well; it was still early. At least I wasn't hemorrhaging time. Here I met my friend (and speedy ultrarunner, who didn't get in this year) Joe Uhan, working medical. Later he would also be a pacer, after performing some race-saving PT for one of the lead women.

Then, after a bit more uphill, it was down, down, down into the second big canyon, El Dorado. This descent is longer and deeper than Deadwood, but not quite as steep or (for the most part) technical. Still, it takes energy and concentration to run it well, and if you have not done tons of quad training, you will really be hurting here. I passed a lot of people. At the bottom, it's a long climb up to Michigan Bluff, mile 55.7.

Into Michigan Bluff, three minutes over. Here I saw Scott and Matt again. Another weight check (I held steady at 157-159 throughout the day), another GI interview, more ice, swap some gear, talk to Scott and Matt. Michigan Bluff is a cool old mining town, a nice place for the crews to hang out and watch the leaders come through, good burgers. It’s also all too easy to just walk the short distance through town talking to your crew. Another slow transition. By the time I was on the way out, I realized I’d forgotten to douse with water. And I was heading into the hottest, most exposed canyon! Oops.

Scott cools his heels in Michigan Bluff

Volcano Canyon is like adding insult to injury. Somewhat steep and technical, rocky; most likely your quads are really complaining here, if they're still working at all, and your toes are in pain. At least it's not as deep as the previous two canyons. Fortunately it wasn't too bad for me this time; I had really done my downhill homework. It's a long hike out, up to Bath Road. After leaving the trail, the road keeps going up. Here pacer, friends, and crew are allowed to accompany you for the short trip into Foresthill. I met Scott here, walking down. I'd forgotten to check the time at Bath Road – coming into Foresthill was a big transition, on to the "fast" part of the course. How was I doing? Scott said the 24-hour time at Foresthill was 6:40 pm. No!!! That would put me more than 10 minutes over. I thought I'd done well in the canyon. So I was pretty dismayed coming in. But Liz and Matt were waiting for me, which was a boost. I hadn't seen Liz since leaving for Squaw Valley. Another weight check, kind of a slow transition. Finally I could get out of my ice suit. No more cotton shirt, two-bottle vest, handheld, sleeves. I felt so unencumbered with just a singlet and one-bottle belt. And the best part? A volunteer told me no, the 24-hour time here is 7:00! So I was nine minutes under. Yes!!! Matt and I headed down Cal Street.

From here I figured it was just a matter of running well and not pushing it, to see how far under 24 I could come in. I'd read a race report from last year by a woman who was seven minutes behind at Foresthill, and ran 22:56 (this is a great report – but even longer than this one, believe it or not!). The trail here is a nice, gradual descent, pretty smooth and fast. I was chatting away with Matt, really psyched to be where I was in the race. Then we came into Dardanelles (Cal-1)... 9 minutes over?! That couldn't be right. I double checked with the aid-station chief. Yep. ??? On the way to Peachstone (Cal-2) Matt figured it out. The Foresthill time was actually 6:45, not 6:40, not 7:00. So I was six minutes over there, and lost three more minutes, presumably with the slow transition. A few minutes one way or the other here should be no big deal, especially given the approximation of the 24-hour splits, but for me at this point, this was a huge emotional roller coaster. Ahead is good, elation, celebration; I'll get farther ahead. Behind is bad, despair, depression; I'll get farther behind! I didn't know what I'd do if I missed the silver buckle again, after putting everything into this race.

I could see the rest of the race laid out ahead of me. It was going to be a long, grinding effort, possibly pushing the splits right up to the finish. Dramatic, perhaps, but very stressful and taxing. So I was eager to start picking off time. I still felt good. And BAM, at Cal-2, I was right on pace, caught up to the target split! We turned on our headlamps and kept on trucking. Then I realized... this measurement I was making, comparing my splits to "ideal" 24-hour splits, was very noisy, because those estimated splits are rounded to the nearest five minutes. Some rounded up, some down, which superimposed a ton of noise onto the difference "signal" I was observing. Oh well, so be it.

Crossing the river. One of these years I will get here in daylight.
Pic by Facchino Photography.

But the gain held. I was getting pretty tired, of course, and (as expected) even the gradual downhills were beginning to really hurt, but slowly but surely, we built up a cushion on the 24-hour splits. At the Rucky Chucky river crossing, mile 78, Scott and Liz were waiting for me, more gear swapping. Across the river... brr!... and into the last segment of the race. The game I'd been playing all day was to try to run easy but honest to the next aid station, and check my split against the 24-hour time. When my cushion/deficit improved, that was my reward. I earned those two minutes! But Matt didn't see it that way. He was always telling me no, you don't have 12 minutes, I'm only going to give you five. No!!!! It became the source of some disagreement. As did the overall view of how we were doing... Matt would do some math and say, we're good, we just need to average 14-minute miles, or something. But no, I said, you just can't think that way here. Every segment is different, some have tons of uphill, and the nominal 24-hour splits are the only useful indicator. It's all about beating the split at the next aid station. Our differences in what kinds of things we focus on as we race became very clear. I'm very analytical and split-tracking oriented (as you might have gathered!). Matt, not so much. Time and again he would point out something I was completely filtering out – the sounds of frogs, crickets. Things that should have been part of the experience, that I was sacrificing in the interest of maximizing my chance at that silver buckle. It's a little ironic that my tendency is to miss the race for the sake of the race.

At Auburn Lake Trails, mile 85, we were 17 minutes under (by MY accounting!). Finally I began to breathe easy. I just had to not crash and burn, and that silver buckle was mine. Into Brown's Bar, mile 89.9, and (two-time WSER winner) Hal Koerner was manning the aid station. With that much cushion, we stopped for a quick photo op. (I'd first encountered Hal at my first 100, Javelina, where he set a course record. I had the distinction of being the last runner not to be lapped by him.)

Brown's Bar is the party aid station. You can't help but celebrate, heading into the home stretch.

Getting down the gels was becoming difficult, but if I stopped eating, I could well crash before the finish. I still needed that fuel. So I forced them down, ever more slowly. Finally, on the way to Highway 49, mile 93.5, I gagged and dry heaved after forcing down a half gel, and that was it. I couldn't swallow any more. Maybe it would be enough. At the aid station (hi Scott and Liz!) I tried real food, a quarter grilled-cheese sandwich. Delicious, but it sat like a lump in my mouth, and I was well down the trail by the time it was all swallowed.

Now I was well and truly smelling the barn. There was only one tough part left – and then a steep 900-foot climb into Auburn. No, that wasn't the tough part. It was the long descent to No Hands Bridge. That's fast (but rocky) trail if you're fresh. But this was 95 miles in. Every downhill step hurt. I'd known it was coming, and I worked through it, making pretty good time, passing more people.

Across No Hands, and finally, we began the climb towards the finish. At Robie Point, mile 98.9, Liz and Scott were waiting for me. Matt ran on ahead, letting Liz run the last mile with me. Coming through Auburn in the dark was a novel experience! But we just followed the painted footprints to the stadium. There, we ran around the track hand in hand, and I crossed the line in 23:33:48. I had done it!

Done! Pic by Facchino Photography.


I felt pretty good after finishing – until I got into the post-race medical research stuff. More blood drawn, more GI interviews, another ECG, which took a while. Contorting myself on the table so the electrodes could be attached, my left quad started cramping badly, then after I could finally stretch it, kept spasming for quite a while.

Yes, I ate 60 gels...

We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was.
Better, stronger, faster.

Finally, I could relax in a comfy chair; by then I was shivering uncontrollably. Liz was not too thrilled at my state. Eventually I dragged myself up and we all headed to the car, and to the hotel for a nap. The worst part was, with all the medical stuff going on, I completely spaced getting my official finisher photo! Phooey. Well, here's the one from 2012.

2012 finisher pic, by Joe McCladdie.

I wanted to be back to the finish line before 11:00, to see the last finishers come in. Liz and Scott kept napping, and Matt accompanied me. As is often the case, the end this time was dramatic. The last finisher, with two and a half minutes to spare, was Tom Green. Tom was the first person to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (the four most prestigious 100s, in the same year, separated by a few weeks), back in 1986. Tom is 63 now, and is attempting another Grand Slam this year. One race down! This was also Tom's 10th Western States finish, earning him the special 1000-mile buckle.

Pacer Matt, chilling at the awards ceremony

After a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, sausage, and hash browns, finally it was time for the awards ceremony. All the finishers are called up by name and time to receive their buckles, in order from fastest to slowest.

And, here it is – the coveted silver buckle, that I put so much of my life into earning, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Receiving my buckle, with Tim Twietmeyer and Donn Zea

With Liz


The trip home was uneventful, and over the next few days I expected a fair amount of DOMS, foot pain, etc. Amazingly, nothing hurt. At all. Not even any blisters. This is in stark contrast to what my post-race blood work might suggest (a CPK level of 24,661 indicates significant muscle damage; normal range is 50-200).

It's hard to believe it's all over.

Thanks again so much to Scott for crewing, to Matt for pacing, to Betsy for sparing him, and most especially to Liz, for putting up with all this nonsense for so many months.

And thanks for reading!

Oh – bonus, totally gratuitous kitten pic. This is our brand new kitty, that we took home the day after Western States. She hasn't told us her name yet. (Does the Western States cougar have a name?)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Bob, congratulations on achieving your goal of the coveted silver buckle! This write-up is outstanding! As you said, the write-up is largely for you and you will be very grateful for it all over the years.I have read a number of accounts of the western states race and this one is very useful and accurate. I learned quite a good as well about hydration and electrolytes. Thank you for taking the time to put this together! Congratulations on an outstanding race!

  3. Bob, Congratulations on running such a scientific 100 mile endurance run. Your planning of this race really paid off for you in earning the silver buckle. Enjoyed your race report and felt that I was there as well. You are an awesome runner. Thank you for sharing this. Andrew

  4. Great read. It was like I was there! Actually I finished 8 minutes behind you so I was right there with you. Congrats on a great race. There was no greater feeling than cresting Robie Point knowing it was just a cruise to the finish for a silver buckle. I told my pacer I wanted to slow down and soak in the moment.