Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, July 7, 2014

2014 Western States 100

In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh decided that when his horse came up lame during the Tevis Cup 100-Miles-One-Day Trail Ride, he was going to try to complete the distance on foot. He recounts his effort in the DVD, "Unbreakable," which covers the 2010 Western States 100. Over each of the next few years, someone took a shot at completing the course on foot, alongside the horses. Two of them were successful. Then, in 1977, the first official Western States Endurance Run took place, with fourteen starters from four states. Only three finished, but along the way, one of the most famous races in the world was born. The race grew quickly in popularity, such that the lottery system was introduced in 1981. Now, with roughly 400 starters each year, it has become the standard by which other 100-milers are measured. Western States may not be the most scenic, nor the toughest, nor even the biggest, but it's the 100-miler to which almost every ultrarunner aspires.

Given all that and my preference for less-commercialized events, I went into Western States a bit cynical and not expecting the experience to match what I had at Bighorn in 2013. I honestly expected the event to have an inflated ego and be a bit full of itself, from its past success. I am happy to say that I was proven wrong and Western States deserves its place at the top. Though I still think Bighorn had better scenery, Western States felt like the Super Bowl of 100-milers (from back when the Super Bowl didn't have over-the-top halftime shows and commercials every five minutes.) It was the Boston Marathon of Ultras--rich in tradition and possessing a certain aura of "hallowed ground."

We flew out on Thursday and made the drive from Sacramento to Squaw Valley, roughly paralleling (in reverse) the course I'd be running on Saturday. When I say "we," it was just me and my wife, Leslie. Originally, our friends, Paul and Evelyn were coming, but a lawnmower accident forced us to change plans. To fill in for Paul and Evelyn, and help Leslie crew, another friend, Donna, came from Michigan and met us in Sacramento.

The Olympic Village
The Olympic Village is a neat area, apparently more popular in ski season than during the summer. We saw a few people that didn't seem to be there for the race, but mostly everyone we saw somehow connected to Western States. We arrived too late for some of the earliest events and lectures, a summary of which can be found here: and instead spent the rest of Thursday getting settled into the room and looking around the village. The Olympic Village, as befits a ski area, is surrounded on several sides by steep mountains. A number of trams and ski lifts take skiers and tourists from the village to the summits. The village features various stores and restaurants on the lowest level and condos above. Oddly, even with all the families here for the race, many places weren't open and several closed at 5:00 p.m. We ended up dining at "The Auld Dubliner." Based on what I saw of the restaurant, I think that it was the same place Hal Koerner ate before the 2010 "Unbreakable" race. Given that he was forced out by injury that year, I hoped choice of restaurants was the only thing we shared at Western States.

Pre-Race Mug Shot
Friday for me was mostly the pre-race medical check and packet pickup. Since I had volunteered for the GI Study, I met with the study team to answer some questions and give them a vial of my pre-race blood. I weighed in at 144.8, with my shoes on. I knew that I had come in lighter than I wanted and it was a concern for me since it could mean not having any reserves when I lost my appetite late in the race, but there was little I could do about it now. Packet pickup was a long buffet line where I received: 2 WS Visors, the race t-shirt, a WS "buff" thing (black,) a very nice Mountain Hardware running pack, an Ultrarunning Magazine cap, Injini toe socks, a sample bottle of Udo's oil, WS arm warmers, a can cozy, a copy of Ultrarunning Magazine, a copy of the official race program, and the usual local tourism information. It feels like I'm missing something, but you get the idea. They took my picture--prison lineup style, with me holding my number at chest level. This was the picture used on the web page that tracked our splits. From there, we went downstairs and answered a brief survey with such questions as what shoes we were using for the race, how many 100s we had completed, etc... I browsed the Western States store, but didn't want to get anything that said "finisher" until I had actually done so. They told me that they'd be at the finish line, also. I did pick up a "bandana" that was filled with some sort of absorbatant material that holds to water and stays cold. I didn't realize just how helpful this would be during the race as I wore it nearly the entire time, rewetting it at every creek, puddle, and aid station. 

I had a humorous brush with "celebrity" as I took my two drop bags (Ziploc bags with gels, waffles, etc...) to their respective locations. I was talking with a guy who was there to pace a friend as we walked down a side street. A white, compact pickup truck suddenly backed out into the road, not even looking. If we hadn't anticipated him, it would have been a near miss, but we stopped in time. As the front of the vehicle pulls out even with us, we look through the driver's window and who should be driving, but the person who started it all--Gordy Ainsleigh. We waved him on as he seemed to be anxious to get somewhere. But what a story I'd have had if I had just let him bump me!

While I did all this, Leslie and Donna took part in the Montrail Uphill 6K Challenge, which covered the first four miles of the course. It was for both runners and walkers, free, and they got lots of stuff for participating. Plus, it was a good way for them to see a bit of the course, and some great views from the top of the first hill.

Mandatory Pre-Race Briefing. It was hot in here!
Later that afternoon was the mandatory pre-race briefing. Much of the meeting was recognizing and acknowledging some of the organizers and volunteers. Then, the top ten male and female competitors were brought up front so everyone could see what they looked like from the front. A little advice on the course and conditions was shared and then we were sent on our way. As you can see from the picture, the room was packed and there seemed to be no air-conditioning. It was pretty hot and stuffy in there and I was certainly glad to get out.

Supper for me came early and was takeout spaghetti and garlic bread while Donna and Leslie explored the Village a bit more. One good thing about traveling west for a race is that it's easy to go to bed early, with your body clock three hours ahead of the west coast time. I should add that we stayed in the Squaw Valley Lodge. We had a room with a loft, since the original plan was to have more than three people coming. While the building looks rather plain from outside, our room was extremely nice and looked to have been recently remodeled, with granite countertops, new appliances, and tiled bathrooms.

The starting line...less than five minutes to go!
The atmosphere in the village on race morning was one of nervous excitement. We had another weigh-in and picked up our bibs and D-tag shoe chips (loops around shoelaces.) A light breakfast of muffins and coffee was offered. There may have been other items, but I didn't notice them. The starting line slowly filled as the clock counted down to zero. There weren't really any pre-race announcements, but then, with about a minute to go, Gordy Ainsleigh stood on a platform at the front and said a few words of inspiration, interrupted by the shouts of "20 seconds, Gordy," then "10 seconds, Gordy." It seemed these shouts not to antagonize him but to let him know the race was about to start. He quickly wrapped up his remarks with a few seconds to spare. The moment the clock hit zero, a gun was fired and we were off.

The race starts with a 2550' climb in the first four miles. I let adrenaline get the best of 
The first four miles are up...
me and ran more of this than wisdom would dictate. As you will see in my Race Stats, below, the first checkpoint where they recorded me was my highest place all day (at Bighorn, the first checkpoint was the lowest place we were in all day.) Some of this extra speed was because the temperatures were favorably low (in the low 40s) and I wanted to take advantage of the conditions while I could, knowing it would be a struggle when the heat set in later in the day. From the higher elevations, you could see Lake Tahoe in the distance, along with much of the Sierra Nevada range. I had my phone with me to take pictures and managed to grab a few, but would become less enthusiastic about stopping and pulling it out as the day wore on. Once I crested the highest point, shortly after the Escarpment, I stayed along a 6-7000' ridge until my first scheduled crew meeting at mile 29.7--Robinson Flat. The views along this stretch are nice and long-range, looking out over canyons far below. These views led to my one and only fall as I got caught watching the scenery instead of my footing and plowed headlong into the dusty trail. Aside from some scratches on my right forearm and a coating of dirt, though, I emerged mostly unscathed.

I arrived at Robinson Flat sixteen minutes ahead of my goal 24-hour pace. This was the first GI-study stop and weigh-in. According to their scale, my weight was already down five pounds. Some of this loss was sweat, I felt certain, but I obviously couldn't continue that rate of loss (1 lb / 6 miles) or I'd really be in trouble. As they requested, I recalled everything I had to eat and drink since the start. I then skimmed the aid station tables and went looking for my crew. I couldn't find them. I didn't really have plans to get anything from Leslie and Donna here, but not seeing them was troublesome. I began to wonder if something had happened. I waited for several minutes and decided it was best to go on. If they were late, I felt certain they could ask and learn that I had already left.

A bonus river crossing that felt really good.
The next stretch is referred to as "The Canyons." When I first began researching the course and hearing about how many people were broken in the heat of the canyons, I had a mental image of Death Valley or some barren wasteland, but it's really not like that. I was approaching the warmer part of the day, but was not trekking across a desert. There are steep drops and climbs, often under the shade of trees, as you sort of make your way along the side of the American River canyon. The 30-square mile American Fire last year burned a significant portion of the course, which removed some of our shade. The fire also took out a bridge over the middle fork of the American River around mile 46. This actually benefited the runners as we got a bonus of an additional, waist-deep river crossing. The cold water was a blessing coming when it did for me, around 2:30 p.m. Several people, including myself, commented that they really didn't want to get out of the water since it felt so refreshing. But, the volunteers commented (jokingly, I think) that they had to start charging after one minute, So, not having any money, I climbed out onto the bank and started up to "Devil's Thumb."

I think "Devil's Middle Finger" is probably a better term for this climb that rises 1600' in 1.6 miles and has 38 switchbacks. I didn't know these details until a lady at the aid station on top told me, but it certainly seemed to go on forever and completely dried me of the drenching I had taken in the river. One slightly worrying thing started happening during this climb. My left ear "popped" (like you get in airplanes) and I couldn't hear through it, but each breath I took was resonating in that ear very loudly. It was pretty unnerving. A friend of mine actually lost hearing in one ear during a run and that was in the back of my mind as I did everything I could to get it back to normal. Somewhere near the top, it went away, but it would happen again off and on during the race. We were not at very high elevations at this point--maybe what I'd find in Blowing Rock or Boone.

We followed Devil's Thumb with another descent and then a long climb back up to Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7,) where I'd finally meet my crew for the first time. They said that they had just missed me at Robinson Flat by several minutes. Knowing that it was a relatively short gap between this crew spot and the one at Foresthill, I didn't linger long. I did have my second GI-study check-in and another mandatory weigh-in. My weight loss had tapered off and I was maybe down one more pound. I reached Michigan Bluff 19 minutes ahead of my 24-hour goal pace. I had gained only three minutes in the last 26 miles, but at least I hadn't lost any time.

The typical view from higher elevations.
The next stretch passed pretty quickly, because it was short, not because I felt great. It is only a 10K from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill, with one aid station between. It's still hilly, but I was looking forward to Foresthill because it marks a milestone on the course. It's there where many of the runners pick up pacers. Runners are roughly at the 100K point and are rewarded with a long, runnable downhill stretch that begins as you leave town. I reached Foresthill at 6:27 p.m., 18 minutes ahead of pace. Right as I came in, a volunteer took my bottle (as they had done at every prior aid station) but he also asked me if I wanted a pacer. I had not signed up for one and did not know there were any on "standby." I thought hard about it. Part of me wanted to go it alone for the personal challenge, but another part realized that I'd do better having someone with me, just as running Bighorn with Dennis at the end helped pull me along. So, I took them up on the pacer offer. While they registered the pacer to my number, I quickly hit the aid station table and then went for a shoe change, dropping my Brooks Cascadia 5s for my lightweight and grippier Salomon Sense Mantras. This took longer than it probably should have, but we had to get the D-ring chip off my old shoe and the only way to do it was to take all the laces off. We pinned the chip to the Salomon (which doesn't have traditional laces) and started off down the road, now with only five minutes of breathing room for my 24-hour goal. My pacer's name was Bill and he was originally scheduled to pace another runner, but that person dropped before reaching Foresthill. I warned Bill that it might be a slog as I was feeling the heat, but hoped that when the sun set, I'd feel better.

Another picture from up high. I can't remember where.
From Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky River crossing, it is mostly downhill. As best I recall, it was largely wooded trail and very runnable. Bill and I got to know each other a bit through here and I told him that while I wanted to break 24-hours, my real goal was to finish. It was too expensive an endeavor to DNF in pursuit of sub-24. I don't think he believed me. We put him in front, pulling me, as I normally tend to do better chasing than being pushed. Two aid stations and a bit over seven miles later, we had increased the margin to 26 minutes. The next aid station (mile 73) saw us breaking out the headlamps. There were stretches around this point where my stomach began to feel slightly bloated and uncomfortable when I ran. I found that during these periods, I could fast walk a 13-14 minute mile without discomfort, even uphill, so that became our fallback. By the time we reached the Rucky Chucky River crossing at mile 78, I was 42 minutes ahead of pace. Leslie and Donna were here at this station and it was also the last on-course GI-study check. I gave Leslie my Nathan pack and switched to a belt pouch. I didn't need anything I'd been carrying in the pack and it had been rubbing a spot on my neck for quite some time. Unlike the earlier river crossing, this one was frigid, and dipped to roughly mid-chest on me. My lower body almost went completely numb as I made my way across. Volunteers in wet suits stood on the opposite side of the cable to hold it steady and grab us should we slip. Glow sticks on the bottom of the river lit the way for our footing. Once on the far side, my legs felt like lead as I checked in with the GI-study folk. Just before leaving, I was approached by one of the doctors who seemed uncertain about my condition, perhaps noting the weight loss. While I knew I might not be able to run it in, I was confident that, at worst, I was fine to walk to the finish. I didn't feel great, but I must have looked worse. My weight was down about seven pounds or five percent. I think at seven percent, they consider pulling you. Thankfully, he let me go on, but Leslie later told me about one girl who came through who got pulled.

According to Bill, we lost a bit of time at this aid station, but we still had a 30+ minute buffer. We walked all the way up to Green Gate aid station at 79.8, hoping to calm my stomach. It didn't really work, but after a while, I realized I'd have to run at least some to stay on pace. So, I did a shuffle run wherever the trail was smooth enough, since it kept me from bouncing too much--the main irritant of my stomach issues. You'll have to forgive the lack of trail description in this area, but with it being dark, it all looked roughly the same. I'll note that with the extremely dry conditions, having a runner in front of you created dust clouds that rendered headlamps fairly ineffective.

Between fast walking and shuffle running, I maintained my margin. At the Brown's Bar aid station, mile 89.9, amidst all the bustle, someone who looked slightly familiar spoke to me in support (you know, the "good job" type comment.) A bit foggy headed, I acknowledged the support and headed on. Since all the aid station volunteers had been supportive during the race, I really didn't think much about it. It wasn't until slightly down the trail that I realized who that familiar face was, or at least I thought I did. It was Hal Koerner, from "Unbreakable," and the 2007 and 2009 WS 100 winner. Bill later confirmed this for me via e-mail. Bill also mentioned that the Brown's Bar aid station used to have a very party-like atmosphere but, for whatever reason, it was toned down this year. Honestly, a subdued aid station is perfect for me as anything more intense than what it already was would be sensory overload in my addled state. I've noted that I lose my appetite later in races and that nothing appeals to me. I found myself going after fruit late in Western States and not having any issues with it, other than it probably wasn't enough calories. Strawberries, oranges, and bananas worked best. Out of desperation, I had some cantaloupe at one station but I've never liked it, it wasn't good, and I was still tasting it an hour later. I'll also add that I was drinking a cup or two of Coke and Mountain Dew at every aid station. It was just sugar, but I didn't care, as long as I could tolerate it and it kept me going.

The Highway 49 aid station (mile 93.5) is the last spot Leslie and Donna were to originally meet me, but since I had Bill with me, I told them at Rucky Chucky to go on to the finish and try to get some sleep. We somehow managed to pad our time even more through this section, increasing it to 46 minutes, to the point where Bill started talking about breaking 23 hours. I felt that this was a bit of a stretch because I knew there was a decent uphill left near the end. Still, the pace charts we were going off of took hills into account. It wasn't strictly based on a 4.167 mph pace, but on the past splits for runners who ran right at 24 hours. I filed sub-23 away as "great if it happens, but fine if it doesn't."

So, here I was with 6.5 miles to go and just over 2.5 hours to get there. By now, despite not wanting to jinx myself by saying it out loud, I knew that I would finish and that I should be reach my goal. I actually felt pretty good, minor stomach issues aside. Now it was simply a matter of execution--ticking off each mile safely. There was quite a bit of downhill leading out from the Highway 49 aid station, but it was a little technical. It was the type I would have no trouble with early in the race and/or in daytime, but one wrong step at this point could change a certain silver buckle (sub-24) into a bronze (sub-30.) Indeed, just a couple hours earlier, we saw a guy ahead of us take a nasty spill and twist his knee pretty badly. Not wanting that for myself, I took  extra care to lift my feet as I made my way across the rocks and roots down to "No Hand's Bridge," a massive bridge that crosses the American River at mile 96.8. The entrance to this aid station was lined with Christmas tree lights and the station featured a giant screen on which they were playing some sort of WS 100 documentary. I didn't linger long enough to see what it was--it could have even been footage from earlier in the day. I didn't care. I had to get on to the finish.

The stretch immediately after No Hand's Bridge is runnable but I was still walking. It soon gets steeper and the climb up to the last aid station is roughly a 300'/mile incline. But, it's a smooth road, so if you have the legs, it's "easy" to run. I just walked it as fast as I could and finally made it to Robie Point. All I did here was check-in with my number. My bottle was plenty full and I really didn't need any food for the last 1.3 miles.

The homestretch is all pavement, through residential areas. There were no crowds at this pre-dawn hour, but I imagine the streets were lined earlier in the day to cheer the front-runners as they finished. Bill guided me along, but had he not been there, all I had to do was follow the red painted shoeprints on the road that said "WS100." Soon, I could see the stadium lights and knew it was almost over. I was actually jogging a bit now and made my way onto the track. I had asked Bill to loop the track with me, but he wouldn't hear of it, calling it "my time." He took off directly to the finish and Leslie and Donna joined me for the last .2 miles. The announcer read off information from our runner profile as I rounded the far turns. Strange as it sounds, one of my biggest worries all day would be that someone would pass me on the track while I ran with Leslie. Fortunately, it didn't happen.

It was almost more a feeling of relief than overwhelming joy when I crossed the line. The clock read 23:18, so I lost a little of our margin toward the end. Some of that was probably backing off when I knew sub-23 was out of reach and didn't want to push and irritate my stomach further. I always seem to have post-race GI issues (the reason I was happy to participate in the GI study) so it was safer to just finish than to push hard to gain a few minutes.

My medallion, bib, and trusty yellow shirt.
I laughed slightly to myself as they gave me a medallion--I honestly was not expecting that. I knew the buckles were not given out until the 12:30 p.m. awards ceremony. Maybe the medallion was so they'd have something to give runners as they finished. It was actually a rather nice one: metal, full color, with the profile of the course on the back. I made my way over to the medical tent for my final GI study debriefing and so WS could collect a post-race vial of blood. You can see my blood test results below.

I sat on the bleachers for a while, watching the other sub-24s come across the finish line. As I began to chill, I soon had to go back and sit in the car. Leslie went to the Western States Store, which was set up along the track and got me a finisher's jacket. I really don't need another jacket, but I have a birthday coming up and she wanted to get something from the race.

The Silver Buckle -- Came with a polishing cloth!
Eager to get to the second part of our trip -- a visit to Yosemite, we left around 6:00 a.m.  I hated to leave before the awards or even the 8:00 a.m. breakfast, but we had a four hour drive ahead of us, and unlike other races, I had no other friends here to watch for. Since I didn't stay for the awards ceremony, I have to get my buckle mailed to me, so that photo was a late addition to this write-up.

I was so happy to have Western States exceed my expectations. As I noted earlier, I was a bit skeptical that it might suffer from its own success and have lost touch with caring about the regular runners. I need not have worried. Everyone I came into contact with was awesome. Every aid station bent over backwards to help us, the RD, Craig Thornley answered e-mails pre-and-post-race very quickly and thoroughly, the course was well marked, I really can't come up with anything to complain about.

I think, had I not participated in the GI study, I'd have had a shot at sub-23. And I'm sure had I done a better job of staying fueled (always an issue for me) I might have shaved more time off, but in the end, I was where I wanted to be. Like all races, I could have done better, but I very easily could have done much worse.

It's funny that by finishing I requalified for next year. I don't know that I will register again. I could do so, hoping to go with a friend, but what if I get in and the friend doesn't? I don't feel the need to go again alone. It is nice to know that I have the points needed for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which some friends have mentioned in passing. Beyond UTMB, I don't really aspire to any other 100-milers. They take their toll and the missed night of sleep is almost worse than the beating from the race itself.

Though, it does seem like I said the same thing after Bighorn.



They sent me an e-mail late Sunday with the results of my post-race bloodwork. It only measured the following four levels:

Measurement           Level                Normal
Sodium                138 mmol/L           135-145
BUN                       49 mg/dL               5-25
Creatinine           1.88 mg/dL            0.5 - 1.0
CPK                   36827 IU/L               50 - 200

The last number really scared me, but they did include a description of each reading and how to interpret it. All of the abnormal values can be attributed to extreme activity and so long as I was urinating normally, they would self-correct in a few days. I think the S-Caps helped maintain the sodium level within the normal range.

376 Starters / 296 Finishers -- 78.7% Finish Rate
129 Sub-24 Hour Silver Buckle Winners
Highest Finish Line Temperature = 89 degrees
1700+ Volunteers


 Aid Station                  Mile           Elev.       24-Hour Pace          Place
 Escarpment                  3.50           8322                
 Lyon Ridge                 10.50           6998                +9                     70
 Red Star Ridge            16.00           7134              +14                     79
 Duncan Canyon           23.80           6116              +15                     81
 Robinson Flat              29.70           6730              +16                     92
 Miller's Defeat             34.40           6024               +8                     91
 Dusty Corners              38.00           5132              +10                     90
 Last Chance                 43.30          4623              +17                    93
 Devil's Thumb              47.80           4051              +17                     91
 El Dorado Creek           52.90          1884               +17                     98
 Michigan Bluff              55.70          3463              +19                    101
 Bath Road                    60.60          3079
 Foresthill                     62.00          3300              +18                     99
 Dardanelles (Cal-1)      65.70           2260
 Peachstone (Cal-2)       70.70          1680              +26                     95
 Ford's Bar (Cal-3)          73.00          1191
 Rucky Chucky Near       78.00            887              +42                     94*
 Rucky Chucky Far         78.10            887
 Green Gate                   79.80         1553              +38                     94
 Auburn Lake Trails        85.20          1513             +40                     100
 Brown's Bar                   89.90          1321             +38                     102
 Highway 49                   93.50          1325             +46                     100
 No Hands Bridge            96.80           590              +49                     101
 Robie Point                   98.90          1169             +40                      98
 Placer High School        100.20         1315             +42                     102
* Somewhere around 75 is where my stomach started bothering me and I had to start fast-walking a lot of the sections I should have run.



I’d like to thank the following people for helping prepare me for and survive Western States. Some people could go on additional lists and I may have forgotten some people. I will update this list as time passes and my memory returns.
Regular Running Buddies -- helped me accumulate the training miles
  • Paul Wardzinski
  • Robert Vasile
  • Ray Burris
  • Darlene Cockman
  • Dennis Norris II
  • (Bill Johncock should be here, but we just aren’t running together enough—need to change that.)
Motivators and Supporters
  • Derek Cernak
  • Lee Starnes
  • Bill Johncock
  • Evelyn Wardzinski
  • Jeanene Burris
  • Phyllis Neriah Tsang
  • Alisha Little
  • Jake Edmiston
  • Caleb Steedly
  • Martin Thorne
Ran my first 100 with me, helping me prepare for how long and rough it can be.
  • Dennis Norris II
Designers of terrifying, long, and hard courses and running routes
  • Adam Hill – Pitchell
  • Brandon Thrower – Various Mountain Runs and the new TRU course
  • Sean Blanton – Georgia Death Race
  • David Lee – For hosting Freedom Park Ultras one last time. Not a hard course, but a chance to stay on my feet for 24 hours...well, 23 hours this time.
  • Ray Burris – Valdese – Linville run, with the terrifying part being running into traffic with little to no shoulder in places.
  • (Derek misses out here by the “long” criteria.)
Coaxed me into a frigid, rainy run up and down Hanging Rock State Park on her birthday though there seems to be no need to train for rain at Western States
  • Phyllis Neriah Tsang
  • Leslie Rostan
  • Donna Thackwray
  • (Paul & Evelyn Wardzinski get credit for wanting to crew, but a lawnmower mishap forced a change of plans.)
  • Bill Cotton
Post-Race Breakfast
  • Denis's Country Kitchen - In Lodi, CA. The best omelet I have ever eaten.
Ever-Patient Spouse
  • Leslie Rostan

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