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Thursday, July 5, 2012

First Hundo at Western States 100!

Despite not cracking the top 10, this was one of the coolest running experiences I have ever had! The whole of the trip, I believe, has made me a stronger, more efficient runner. I left for California 10 days before the race in hopes of gaining some experience on the Western States 100 (WS100) course. I spoke about my training up to the race in my previous blog, but to sum it up I was able to get on 70 miles' worth of the course before race day. On race day I felt I had a bit more experience, and a better grasp of how to efficiently descend and ascend the mountainous canyons through a balanced approach, than I did when I left Wisconsin.

Using what I learned proved to be difficult at times. Old habits die hard. I would estimate on race day I was able to effectively use a balanced running approach on much of the ascents, but struggled to efficiently descend at least half of the time. I believe this hurt me in the latter portions of the race because running inefficiently down the mountains beats your quads up more heavily. The important thing for me was that I came away from this experience with the knowledge of how to run more balanced and attack descents efficiently. Now I can practice the approach and hopefully improve my downhill running.

I planned to start conservatively, mainly because this was my first hundred and I believed I was more susceptible to wrecking my quads earlier than some of the more experienced and talented mountain runners. During the first 3.5 miles of steep climbing, I focused only maintaining a comfortable heart rate. I believe I was in around 20th place when I reached the top. It was a strange year for WS100, as it rained for about the first 40 miles, and the high country saw 30 mph gusts of wind. A race that is notorious for its scorching temperatures in the canyons was replaced by a frigid and soggy first half, and a pleasantly warm and sunny second half. Those who handled the cold, wind, and rain at the start well ran some impressive times!

Once atop the wilderness area I began to eke my way further up the field. I pulled into Lions (mile 10.5) in around 14-15th place. My plan from here was to run conservatively by continuing to listen to my heart rate through the canyon sections of the course. I lucked out with some good company from David Riddle and Jon Olsen leading up to, and into, the canyons. I was a bit more aggressive in the descents leading down to the two canyons after Robinson's Flat (mile 30). In the canyons my approach was to run slowly unless I felt my heart rate start to climb too high, in which case I would power hike. This worked well, except I broke form a bit on the canyon leading into Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) where I ran the majority of it. I think this took a little too much out of me, because I spent the majority of Michigan Bluff to Forest Hill (mile 62) trying to pull it together and feel comfortable.

When I was about a mile from Forest Hill I began to feel really good. I was able to run into the aid station at a pretty good clip and pick up my pacer Gary Gellin for the remainder of the race. Gary did a great job motivating me. Had he not been with me, I would have added at least 10-15 minutes to my time. We went through the next section, Cal Loop to Rucky Chucky (miles 62-78) at a steady clip of under 10-minute miles. It was in this section that I took my third, and hardest fall (other two were relatively gentle). I got cut up pretty good on my knees and right elbow, but was able to get up and keep moving without losing much time. It was in this section where I began to notice my form suffering on the descents. Gary would run behind me and encourage me to stay aware when he noticed my form begin to slip.

After the river crossing at Rucky Chucky we plotted along at a good pace, but decided to hike the steeper climbs in order to conserve energy for the flat and downhill sections. When I got to mile 80 I decided to break the remainder of the course into four 5 mile sections. I thought this would be a good way to stay positive and not think too far ahead. At mile 85 my pace began to suffer despite Gary's best efforts to keep me moving. We were close to other runners, so Gary was frequent in his encouragement to maintain pace. At mile 88, I took in some caffeine. With the sun going down and the race nearing its end I didn't have to worry about dehydration from too much caffeine use. In about five minutes my energy levels spiked, and I entered what was probably my most aggressive section of the course. From mile 88-95 Gary and I were able to pull into 12th place, with the 11th place runner not too far ahead. It was an interesting situation because we thought, at the time, we were in 11th and were closing on the 10th place runner. This certainly increased how aggressive we were during this section. I may have bit off a little too much, too soon, as when we got to mile 95 mile my quads began to really become non-responsive on the descents. I slowed significantly, slipping into 15th place. I actually looked forward to the climb from miles 97-99 because my muscles desperately needed a change from the tired descents. When we reached the top of Robie Point we had only one mile of pavement and track until the finish line.

It felt so good to be on concrete after being on the trails for so long. With no runner close enough to catch, and no runner close enough to run us down, Gary and I steadily moved towards the finish. We entered the track and I crossed the finish line in a time of 16 hrs., 53 min., 25 sec. It was great to be able to talk to the other runners and spectators about the race. I was especially excited to see Timothy Olsen, who we had heard was way ahead of course record pace. He was able to win with a time of 14 hrs., 46 min., breaking Geoff Roes' previous record of 15 hrs., 07 min. This also sealed the Montreal Cup Trophy Series win for him, which was a goal of his going into the race.

What did I learn on the WS100 trail? What I took away the most from WS100 was my weaknesses in descending. I was okay on the less technical descents but suffered on the descents that featured really technical and rocky terrain (as made evident by the huge scabs I have on my left knee and right elbow). It was impressive to see how the better technical runners attacked the downhill portions. It is definitely an aspect of training I will try to improve upon as best I can given the terrain available in Wisconsin.

A huge thanks to Peter Defty of Vespa Power Products for making this whole trip happen. Also, a huge thanks to Gary Gellin for pacing me in what I hope to be the first of many 100-mile ultras. I could not have asked for a better pacer. Keep your eyes peeled for Gary this August as he will be attempting to break the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Tahoe Rim.

Products Used


Race Photos

Escarpment in the early morning fog


Exiting Robinons's Flat


Forest Hill Aid Station

Leaving Forest Hill Aid Station (joined by pacer Gary Gellin)

River crossing after the Rucky Chucky Aid Station (mile 78)

River Crossing


Wrapping up the day on the Auburn Track!

Post race picture while talking to iRunFar's Bryon Powell

13 comments:

  1. Congrats Zach on your first hundred...and on having such a fantastic time at Western. You are a huge inspiration!!!! Look forward to seeing you on some trails this year in WI.

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  2. Great job and especially given it's your first 100!

    Historical/Geographical point (because I assume you're going to run WS again): From Foresthill - the river is called "Cal" loop rather than "Cow". The reason is that when you turn off of the main street in Foresthill, you turn onto "California" Street before getting to the trail. Trust me, there is NO END to the local bits of knowledge and geography :) It seems that every little hill and landmark has it's own special name and history.

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    1. Thanks Alex! Haha, thanks for catching that for me! I fixed it in the blog. That makes more sense. I'm surprised nobody called me on that while out west. They probably thought I was saying Cal and attributed it to my Wisconsin accent :)

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  3. This was the first I realized they did the boat crossing this year. Later that day, it was by rope.

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    1. Yeah, from what I gather it is a timing thing. After a certain time of day they start the rope instead of the boat. I think it has to do with water level.

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  4. Great first 100, Zach! The times were all unbelievable this year because of the weather - you got in in the right year.

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  5. Congrats Zach on your first100 mile run at Western States. I enjoyed meeting you and
    Your family at ice age race. I am glad you made it to Western States it is an experience hard to put into words. I enjoyed your blog. It must have been very difficult to enter such a competitive race for your first 100 on terrain you can not train for in Wisconsin. Congrats! Wish we would have crossed paths at WS.

    Deb Loomis (Tim Olson's mother in law from Wi)

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    1. Hi Deb! Thanks! I can speak for my family that they really enjoyed meeting and watching Ice Age with you. It was an awesome experience at WS100 to say the least. I can only imagine how Tim is feeling after such an incredible race and Montrail Cup Series win.

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  6. Well done Zach. I love that a fellow Wisconsin runner can tear up that course. I'm excited for what you can accomplish after Stout in ultra-running!

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