Monday, 27 June 2011

The Big Dance - Western States 2011

Eagle Falls at Lake Tahoe (not visible from the course at all)

Snow route course change

The last few days have been crazy for so many reasons. Doing a quick brain dump, some big highlights were:

1. a ski village with virtually every ultra celeb you can think of (almost surreal to walk around)
2. grown men dressed as Slash (Greg Lanctot) and the devil (Scott Dunlap)
3. seeing Tahoe again in perfect summer weather with family and friends
4. being part of an insanely competitive race
5. having flat-feeling legs but still giving the race a 100% effort (it is WS, after all)
6. spending all day trying to earn my spot for 2012 then finally breaking into the top 10 at 96 miles
7. bears upsetting the leading ladies in the last few miles

I don't think there's ever been a stronger ultra field put together (maybe TNF's 50 mile Championship Final last December). The sport is clearly moving onwards and upwards and it's great when this means more exciting races for both the runners and anyone crewing/spectating/pacing etc.

The build up days were fairly relaxed but there was clearly a lot of pressure on several of the top runners to win. Then the race started before the dawn at 5am on Saturday and it wasn't quite as fast paced as last year (nerves?). The snow was deeper and covered more of the course than even last year so we were running the C course (a variation on last year's B snow course). Conditions were cooler than normal with a high of maybe 90 degrees F in the second half but the snow was still icy and treacherous higher up. I heard that three people broke a leg on the snow, so I hope there wasn't anything too serious.

I slid all around in the high country and was glad to get temporarily out of it around mile 13. It was undoubtedly beautiful but this was lost on me as I tried to avoid twisting an ankle or breaking my wrist (note to self: practice this more since it should be fun). Then the course had some seriously easy terrain on a fire road where it was perfect for cruising at a decent pace. Duncan Canyon aid station came along at 23.8 miles and Quicksilver Running Club gave everyone a boost, including Slash and other costumes. Almost a quarter of the way through and everyone looked great, but I heard snippets from other runners that the leaders had had some wrong turns. I think Geoff Roes and Kilian Journet went off on a 15 minute diversion in the snow and some of the other leaders then did the same with Mike Wolfe and Dave Mackey doing something similar too. I gather that this left several people pissed off at the not always perfect course markings.

I was around 20th and felt like things were going well without having to push too much but that first section has to feel really easy. Soon after I started to feel much less positive and even the relatively slow 100 mile pace was tough. My legs had no energy and it was similar to Comrades a month earlier where I held the right pace for about 20 miles then the legs showed the lack of strength due to too much racing.

From 30-40 miles I was struggling and was seriously considering dropping out. I was still keeping up a decent pace and gaining positions but my legs were fairly trashed before hitting the three canyons which didn't bode well. I had the chance to run with so many excellent athletes up to this point and enjoyed chatting but kept thinking that this was not going to be a good day. Then I saw Geoff Roes at an aid station and he was hitting a really bad patch at the same time as me. I thought he was dropping but then he was running behind me and we managed a few miles together, both feeling a little sorry for ourselves. It seems the overtraining (over racing, really) that got me at Comrades hadn't disappeared fully, but it's still just about possible to run well in that situation, just not at your best.

It's a real shame to see such a great runner on an off day but when we ran down into the Devil's Thumb Canyon I could tell that he was much worse off than me. I was just flat and fatigued, while he had sore thighs and was fighting a cold. I hiked up the other side with Geoff and Sean Pope but suspected Geoff's day was over given he was hiking slower than me (it was a hard climb but the sort of thing he'd usually be able to run). I later learned that he dropped at just over halfway, but it was a pleasure to get to meet him and nobody's immune from illness hitting before a big race. I can see why he still chose to start since who wants to miss this race?

By this point I'd decided to give it my best shot and get everything out of my legs that I could. This race is not worth a tactical DNF and I was definitely capable of finishing so mentally switched gear and prepared myself to grind out the second 50.

The snow meant that the first time anyone could see their crew was Michigan Bluff at 55.7 miles so I got a boost from seeing Amy and her parents. Paul Terranova would be at Foresthill at 62.0 miles to pace me again as he did at Rocky Raccoon so I had that to look forward to as well. Unfortunately I took a wrong turn and missed Volcano Canyon, running off the wrong way for 3/4 of a mile before I accepted that there wouldn't be any course markings suddenly appearing and I had to turn back. I lost about 12 minutes and mentally was knocked off my perch, but ran the last canyon hard to reach Foresthill feeling good and faster than last year in 15th.

Paul and I ran strongly down towards the river and this section wasn't nearly as hot as last year, making it much more comfortable. I felt like I was going fast but really it was the tired legs exaggerating things. Then I saw Hal Koerner sat at the side who had to drop with trashed thighs. That meant two big guns out but still plenty of talent left in the race. We gradually caught a few people and passed a Japanese guy who I initially thought was a woman from behind from the way he was dressed (if you were there you know who I mean, but I can hardly talk about odd running costumes) and a Korean guy who I'd heard has the Massanutten 100 record as well as a 3rd place at WS a few years ago. Both these guys let me pass and I thought were out of it but then zoomed past me minutes later.

We raced down to the river and Paul and I managed to get enough of a gap that they couldn't see us so we had a boat to ourselves at 78 miles to cross the American River. This was the second year in a row of the water being so high that boats were required but one day I'll get to cross it myself on foot.

From this point Paul and I were in 100% race mode since I was 11th and top 10 is the big aim which gets the guaranteed entry for the next year. I expected someone to drop after the river (last year I was gifted about four places there) but nobody in the top 10 did, so I had to chase them down if I wanted it. I did!

At the start of the day I wouldn't have been happy with the prospect of 10th but I still had a chance at a very respectable time which would be much faster than I ran in 2010 and sometimes you have to adjust your targets mid-race.

I had a slight issue with running out of water for a mile leading up to Green Gate at 79.9 miles but soon got over it and seeing my crew helped boost me along. By this point you expect your legs to feel sore but I hadn't deteriorated as much as I'd feared earlier so felt like I was hammering along at a crazy pace when it was really much slower than when I'd been cruising earlier. The aid stations didn't quite fly by but I kept up a solid effort and just focused on getting to the next one.

At Auburn Lake Trails Paul checked how far ahead 10th place was and it was an eight minute gap with exactly 15 miles left. By Highway 49 at 93.5 miles it was a three minute gap and I got a final boost from seeing Amy so headed off in hot pursuit. After spending the previous five or so hours just focusing on catching the top 10, I was going for bust and nothing short of catching him would be enough. I didn't know who it was but I hoped I could go past strongly, put on some distance then tackle the last few miles uphill in the dark.

I don't think I've ever gone that hard for so long in a race and it was completely exhausting. My breathing made me sound like I was giving birth and I was dancing a fine line between staying mentally alert and bonking by taking on regular gels.

There's something intensely satisfying about racing and pushing yourself as far as you can but it's not necessarily fun at the time, especially if you fail at your goal, whatever it may be. That's why I couldn't let the hard day's work go to waste.

I know it's possible to have much more fun while also running as hard as you can, especially on beautiful trails in canyons, but this time it was just a pain fest. I'm really feeling it today and have never been this bad after a race before.

However, the day turned into a big success for me when I overtook Dan Olmstead with a little over four miles to go, charging downhill in the approaching darkness as if it was a 10k. The hard work wasn't over and I was paranoid about being caught all the way to the finish where I hit the Placer High School track just as AJW was finishing in 9th (in a huge PR of 16:39). I virtually collapsed and was a basket case but 16:40 and 10th was enough to make it all worthwhile.

I was never really in the proper race for the top positions and that was hard to take early on in the race but once I decided to see what I could do on tired legs, it became every bit as exciting (and stressful) as running for the win. The men's race was extremely close with four men under 16 hours and 14 under 17 hours. It sounds like a classic and eventually finished off with Kilian being the worthy winner but hotly followed by a several guys on top form.

1. Kilian Journet (Salomon) 15:34
2. Mike Wolfe (The North Face) 15:38
3. Nick Clark (Pearl Izumi) 15:50
4. Jez Bragg (The North Face) 15:55
5. Tsoyushi Kaburaki (The North Face) 16:04 (50 minutes off his own 40+ masters' record)
6. Tim Olson (Pearl Izumi) 16:18
7. Graham Cooper (??) 16:34
8. Dave Mackey (Hoka One One) 16:36
9. Andy Jones-Wilkins (Patagonia) 16:39
10. Ian Sharman (The North Face) 16:40

Damn that wrong turn! Full results here.

The ladies' race was equally thrilling and we'd hear updates at the finish as they passed the last aid stations. It seems the lead changed a few times in the second half but Ellie Greenwood flew through to take the win in her first 100 miler and is only the second lady to break 18 hours (the other is Ann Trason and I keep telling Ellie she needs to take down some of Ann's records...I'm sure it's just a matter of time).

There was a bear (supposedly with cubs) in the last few miles which held the lead women up. It seems that Ellie stopped briefly, then a male runner came along and they chased the bear off. The next ladies (Kami Semick, then Nikki Kimball and Tracy Garneau) had a concertina effect as they each got stopped by the bear for several minutes. Then Kami narrowly beat Nikki in a sprint finish on the track. I'm sure other blogs will tell the story more accurately.

The top ladies were:

1. Ellie Greenwood (Montrail) 17:55
2. Kami Semick (The North Face) 18:17
3. Nikki Kimball (The North Face) 18:17
4. Tracy Garneau (The North Face) 18:22
5. Rory Bosio (The North Face) 18:37
6. Aliza Lapierre (Salomon) 18:45
7. Megan Arbogast (Sunsweet) 18:50 (3 hours off the 50+ masters' record)
8. Amy Sproston (Montrail) 19:36
9. Becky Wheeler (??) 19:46
10. Pam Smith (unsponsored, but not for long) 20:40

Great day for The North Face as well as for Brits with Nick C, Jez, Ellie and myself up there. And I'm 99% certain that the top five men will all be at UTMB in August, as will Geoff and plenty of other fast guys. I think the women will mainly be skipping it in favor of the 100k Road World Championships in September in the Netherlands.

WS 2011 was something very special to be part of and I'm very glad I didn't opt to drop. Friends from the UK also came over to run and most finished. In particular, James Elson kicked off his Grand Slam (WS 100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100 in the same year) with a 28:25. Not as fast as he'd hoped originally but after being completely injured from Rocky Raccoon in February he's barely put together a couple of days of running and told me last week that he can't really run downhill. I have no idea how he forced himself through the course but I'm seriously impressed. Two whole weeks of recovery then he'll be on the Vermont starting line.

Time for a rest and a couple of weeks completely off.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Pacifica 9.3k Sharpener Before WS100

Last proper run before WS yesterday, apart from a few light jogs. I was planning on running the half marathon at the PCTR Pacifica race, which I'd done back in January too, but opted instead for the shortest race of the day (9.3km) and to use it as a slightly harder effort but short enough to not cause much damage to the legs.

Perfect, sunny weather started us off and it just got warmer and brighter as the day progressed, which should have made the 50k runners struggle a little. But all I wanted was a confidence boost that my legs would be ok and that I can climb and descend well enough to run WS well a week later. +/-1,200ft in two hills with a quarter of a mile on the flat in between them, means it's a good speed test so I was happy to lead from start to finish and win by over three minutes in 39:47.

After the disappointment of Comrades this year I needed this and it's a good sign, especially how easy the downhills felt...WS is a downhill course after all. There's only so much a short race can tell you about ultra form but the important thing was to feel that the overtraining was over. It probably is, so now there's just the really easy part of the taper left and a load more sauna sessions.

It looks like most of the men at WS will be showing up fit and ready so anything could happen on the day and I'd say there's probably around eight guys who could plausibly win, but if I was putting money on it then I'd say the winner will be one of Kilian Journet, Geoff Roes or Nick Clark. One thing's for certain, that whoever wins will have to hold off very hot competition and probably do the best run of their life. I also think the top 10 will be much less spread out than last year.

The women's field is very strong too and there's several women who are dominant in the shorter ultras versus some 100 mile specialists. I won't make a prediction, although I think I could call the lead pack at Foresthill (62 miles). But that's not important unless they keep it up for another 38 miles.

irunfar has a great prediction contest for the race as well as interviews with a lot of the male (US and foreign) and female (interview 1 and 2) contenders.

Also, on race day the runners can be followed on the live webcast site here. Twitter will undoubtedly have a million updates too, with the tag #WS100 (I assume).

Other random ultra stuff:

It's certainly ultra season now with the San Diego 100 last weekend (nice work, everyone, especially fellow PCTR team-mate, Larissa Polischuck, with her first 100 mile finish). There's a lot of other races too, but today is the start of the longest one out there - the LANY race covering 3,200 miles coast to coast from LA to NYC. One of my friends from London, James Adams, is running this and the stages average 45 miles per day through to late August. He will be blogging about it in painfully graphic detail here (if you know him, you know what I mean). Good luck, mate!


All my major races this year are dedicated to helping the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, which includes Western States. They support children who have been orphaned or made vulnerable by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa.

Given the extremely high rates of infection in South Africa and around parts of the Comrades course plus the many orphans resulting from this, I thought it'd be a great idea to help out. Therefore I've set up a justgiving site for UK residents who wish to donate at: as well as a donation website for anyone wanting to donate in dollars at: Both these links also have more information about the work the charity does. Any donation is extremely welcome. Thanks.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Dirty Half Marathon Back in Bend

First mile was on the road allowing everyone to spread out.

Just back from a great trip to Bend where Amy and I used to live. Oregon is such a perfect place for trail running and the Dirty Half is now in its tenth year and is a top-class race which I did last year too. Great long weekend seeing friends and favorite restaurants (so many of both).

It was a new course and was also the USATF National Trail Half Marathon Championship for the second time, meaning lots of fast runners. At some point I'll race this one but it was more sensible to use it as a WS training run and sit back and enjoy the ride. I layered up with as many jackets and warm tops as possible to get a reasonable fat suit look and hoped it'd be a hot day on top of that.

It was sunny and warm, providing near perfect running conditions but maybe a little hot towards the end for fast running. So I started at the back of the first wave and was comfortable for the first five miles but then started to feel the heat. The course had some steep sections and I doubted whether the winners would break 1:15 by much. Only one person did, local Max King, who had won the race multiple times before. A great recap of the whole race is on Scott Dunlap's blog here. All results here.

I was nowhere near the sharp end of the race but kept up an even pace to finish in 1:44. The heat got to me and plenty of volunteers and supporters seemed concerned that I was wearing too much, but everything that makes the heat feel easier in less than two weeks is worth it. Combining this with torturous sauna sessions is hard but worthwhile and the big showdown at Squaw Valley looks like being pretty special.