Saturday, 18 November 2017

Western States Endurance Run 2017

Very soon after completing my first marathon I became fascinated in ultra distance running and what the human body was capable of. This lead me to read every book and article I could find on the subject. After reading one particular book my mind was made up. I would one day take part in the Western States Endurance Run. Fast forward eight years and I'm stood on the start line. The clock reads 00:17:05, I turn to my crew member and friend Chris Benjamin and say "That clock has been ticking for eight years and now I'm finally ready to start". I stare up the mountainside and  I feel rather emotional, It has been one long journey, 55 ultra marathons, thousands of miles of training, qualifiers, entries, hours spent watching the draw, disappointment and elation all about to come to fruition now. Would it live up to the hype? Would I go sub 24? Would my feet hold up? Is it the greatest race on the planet? Would I even finish?? All these questions were about to be answered in the next 24 hours.

I trained double hard for this one post Arc of Attrition. I emptied my diary and decided to once again put my training in the hands of James Elson. He helped me through Spartathlon and although I could do this on my own I do enjoy the structure of having a coach I find it very motivating. Plus I was determined to leave no stone unturned, It really had to be this way, No excuses. Training went exactly to plan, long weekends in the lakes, days on the south downs, 50k races, fast marathons, hill reps, I even spent one evening a week doing single leg weighted bouncing lunges just to make sure my quads were conditioned. The only part of training that went awry was my physical job getting in the way of training in the last three weeks, what can you do, works work!.

I had changed my diet too, starting the day after the Arc in fact. I gave up refined sugar and almost all processed food. Such a simple concept but sugar is in everything! However I stuck to it and felt great with it. It's a real enjoyable way to eat, you get lean and gone are the sugar highs and lows. As you get older your body is like a vintage car, you need to put the premium petrol in and the decent oil or it'll run like bag of shit. I experimented with sugar free running too but that didn't work. It's ok to a point but I just kept crashing and burning. So I ditched that idea.

I spent a lot of time toying with kit. The Salomon 1 litre pack was going to be my pack of choice but I kept overheating whilst wearing it so I changed pretty late to 2 x UD handhelds and a waist pouch. With all the support at Western I certainly didn't need to carry more. I love my Hokas but they are pretty unstable. With such a mountainous prospect I decided I need to be nearer the ground. Inov-8 Trail Talons turned out to be the shoe of choice, they are spot on, I'd go as far to say they are the perfect shoe for me.

Lake  Tahoe
Lake Tahoe
Everything set it was time to fly. I arrived a few days early to try and acclimatize to the altitude. Lake Tahoe is at around 5000ft above sea level so that would be the perfect base for me. Tahoe City itself is gorgeous, it sits right on the lake which in turn is enormous. The lake is completely surrounded by mountains and there is only one outlet which measures about 20 metres across. You can stand on the shore and the views are breathtaking, a great place to gather pre race thoughts. Squaw valley resort is about six miles away and is approached through pine lined roads. It is a real rugged landscape and the expanse of it all hits you round every turn. The resort was the host of the 1960 Olympics and the torch still burns there. As you wander through the massive carpark to the start area you expect everyone to be involved in or at least know about the race. This isn't the case and in fact half the people milling around Squaw Valley have no clue. The startline is tucked right in the corner at the foot of the first climb.

Heading up out of Squaw Valley
The start line arch
Lots of snow near the top
The Escarpment takes you to over 8000ft so it was a good introduction to the mountain to take the organised hike to the top. The hike is leisurely and its nice to chat to a few other competitors however it was quite alarming to reach the snow so soon. Some of the climb is steep and getting a footing was tough we were certainly going to have our work cut out on race day. The view from the top was worthy of the hike and with the help of a local we were able to visually plot the next 30 mile.
The day before the start was registration, it was great to see everything set up and ready to go. The start area is a relatively small courtyard with the gantry in the corner. Registration was in an upstairs room in the building behind. After a ten minute queue the process began. All very regimented as we were shepherded from table to table unable to proceed without having fulfilled your task at the current table. Cards with your name and number on, wristbands, photos, questions, freebies all before being ushered straight out the exit. No faff. In and out. The most important thing I walked out with was the sacred wristband, loose it and no race. We all headed over to the briefing room next for the race talk. Same old stuff about course conditions etc. One stand out point was a story about Gordy. The WSER committee had somehow managed to miss count the waitlist entrants and had told one runner he had a place. He flew in from Vermont only to be told they had miss counted and there was no place. That guy happened to be John Fegyveresi from Barkley fame. Now John was in tears at the prospect of having to go home. Then up steps Gordy and says he's had rough week and feels he won't get too far so he will stand back and let John take his place. All to massive cheers. You couldn't make this shit up. Hmm well maybe you could? The cynic in me has my reservations about this story but it sure makes a great headline. To finish the brief they got all the elites up the front, UTMB winners, Laverado winners, WS winners. The thing that struck me is how young they all looked especially Jim Walmsley, a mere slip of a lad. Really made me feel old!
Gordy the legend
Me and David
I slept well that night and after my 2:30am alarm call we were soon heading for the start. We were promised breakfast which turned out to be coffee and muffins. I couldn't face a muffin at 4am so I settled for a Cliff Bar, I had to eat something. I collected my number and was ready. Unlike UK races where people mill on the start line for ages the WS start line was empty with 20 mins to go. I stood at the start line and just soaked it up. I chatted with Peter Wright and David Harvey two fellow Brits. We wished each other luck as the clock ticked away. Finally everyone surged forward as the final few seconds disappeared, the gun exploded and we were off. My plan for the first mountain was mainly to fast hike and keep up with some of the leading ladies that way I wouldn't drop too far back and get caught on the single track further along. I really needed to get to Robinson Flat in 6 hours 30 to stay on my 24 hour plan.

I ran across the line and within 300mtrs I was walking, the sloped tracks are fairly steep but runnable, just not today. Not a wise move for all but the elite. As we rose up the twisting tracks the first shards of light could be seen in the distant clear sky. I kept stopping to look and take it all in, the higher we rose the more entrancing the view became. There was a cloud inversion in the valley below. I was in heaven and wasted several minutes stopping to look. Its not everyday you get these views, I made the most of them. After a couple of miles of long smooth switchbacks we hit snow. Very lumpy and still relatively steep we trudged ever upwards. About a mile from the top of the escarpment is a very steep section of trail, real hands on knees stuff as I was already blowing hard from the thinning air. Sixty five minutes had passed by the time I reached the top of the escarpment. Four miles in 8750ft up, incidentally that is higher than any point on the UTMB course. I took one last look at the valley behind and then the wilderness ahead before pressing forward to the cheers of the crowd spectating from the top.

Half way up the first climb
Early in the race
The trail descended slightly as we ran all the time trying to find my groove. Before long we hit a patch of snow, little did I realize this would be the norm for the next six miles. We seemed to be maintaining altitude and the going was tough, real technical stuff. The snow patches were pretty constant in frequency but they could go up, down, level or indeed 45 degree cambers. It was so awkward to keep a footing, runners were sliding off the snow banks then having to climb back to the marked path. There were fallers everywhere. The down sections of snow had to be slid down either ski style or my preferred method of crouching with one leg forward and sliding down. In between the snow patches there was no defined trail, we were running on branches and pine needles following the markers set by Tim Twietmeyer on a route he had deemed to be best. It was rough and more like an assault course than a trail run on these early miles. Gradually we left the snow behind but the snow melt had turned the trail into mushy mud, over the ankle mushy mud. This was far more British and I took quite a few places as I bowled through it headlong. I ran into Lyon Ridge aid station and
Concentrating soon after my fall
demolished a can of coke, it was a relief to have a break, although we'd only been going for ten miles it felt like a whole lot more. The run high on the ridge was now drying out but extremely technical, my brain was doing overtime as my eyes flicked from rock to rock. It was so hard to concentrate, the views were amazing and my mind kept wandering as I tried to take it all in. I was running at what seemed a respectable speed keeping my place in the long line of competitors. We weren't toe to heel but if you stopped plenty would barrel past. Then disaster struck, I caught my toe on a boulder and before I could even out stretch my arms I smashed into the surrounding rocks. My elbow, knee and hip took the biggest hit. I lay on the floor contorted in pain, a group of four runners came hammering through one yelling a cursory "ok?" before disappearing around the corner. Who could blame them? They were not jeopardising their WS dreams for a downed runner in the wilderness. As I composed myself the pain seared through my body, I stood to take stock of the situation, I was in so much pain as I tried to move forward, my knee felt alien and extremely unstable. I hopped forward, it was mile twelve this is a possible race ender. My hops turned into a limp, too much had passed to get me this far, years of effort. I made a decision right there to overcome it. The pain was only in my head, I could still move, I kept telling myself to reposition the pain else where in my brain. It may sound like horse shite but it's something that I felt I did. I jogged into Red Star AS and took a glance at my elbow it was scuffed up and there was a fair bit of blood on my arm sleeve but adrenaline was firmly kicking in. I figured the sleeve would help contain things and keep it clean. Time to crack on.

Duncan canyon
The views were stunning high on the ridge but since the fall all my concentration was going on foot placement. We were still at fairly high altitude and would remain so until Robinson Flat, I think we averaged 7500ft through this section. I was breathing heavy due to the exertion but the thin air just wasn't feeding my muscles, it felt incredibly draining. Things were starting to hot up as I descended into Duncan Canyon, my knee and elbow were still zinging with pain but I was holding it together however my speed was suffering as I knew another fall wouldn't be good. I reached the creek and there was a rope strung across, the water was thigh deep and extremely cold. The numbing feeling on my legs was heaven. I got my balance in the middle and dunked my head under before wading through. What a relief, a real system reset. The climb out the other side of Duncan was long and sustained and an ideal opportunity to rest. The altitude had zapped my muscles, my body was screaming for energy. The GU and Cliff gels were maintaining my 200 cal an hour but I was tired surprisingly so for such an early stage in the race. I could hear the buzz of Robinson Flat AS up ahead and ran hard to it. I so wanted to show my crew I was solid. Seven hours had passed for the first 30 mile, I was 30 minutes down on my absolute slowest predicted time so in my eyes I was a good hour down. It was good to see my crew, Jim and Chris. Jim is a real old school runner, he doesn't enter races he just puts his shorts and trainers on and runs. He knows the trail like the back of his hand, every mile of it. Chris has run Badwater, Spartathlon and a whole host of other 100 milers, he is a real experienced guy. I couldn't have asked for a better team to back me up. I picked up my drop bag and changed my shoes and socks. The waterproof socks I had worn for the first 30 had done their job and kept my feet from getting macerated. I drank more coke, restocked on gels and told the guys I would be another 7 hours to Foresthill at 62 mile.

I walked out of Robinson and up the wide dusty road eating a handful of melon. It was really hot now and we were easily in the 90 degree range. I had my hat adapted by my mum pre-race she stitched elasticated pockets to each side of my cap and I would fill these with ice. The ice would then slowly melt and trickle cold water over me. Lovely. I had opted for total skin coverage using my arm sleeves all day. Also the hours spent in the sauna acclimatizing before the race helped loads. All in all I was dealing with the heat really well. As the road reached a crest and I finished eating I started running again for what turned out to be a very runnable bit of trail. Millers Defeat AS soon appeared and I was advised to do as much running as I could in the next 10 mile because after that I'd have 12 mile of hell! I stuffed my hat full of ice, took the advice and ran on. The next section was undulating through thick forest and very runnable, I really enjoyed this part of the run and was leap frogging with several other runners. It worked very well to keep each other going. The trail is extremely dusty almost sandy in places very apt as I passed through Dusty corners AS. I was shuffling a bit which isn't ideal on these rough trails. With that I stubbed my toe square on a rather large rock. The pain shot through me like electricity. Fuck!!! That hurt. I knew straight away by the searing pain that I'd either ripped a nail off or broke a toe. Either way not a lot I could do about it. I carried on to Last Chance AS and had a system check, I was dog tired but still eating, my elbow had stopped bleeding and my knee was sore but if I kept it square to my foot running was perfectly manageable. Oh and my toe was just a stubbed toe.
The sort of view you can expect
The descent into Deadwood Canyon was steep and lengthy, I dropped about 2000ft to the base, the temperature at the bottom was off the scale. I was feeling ok though, yes it was hot but it wasn't bothering me too much. My legs were really tight and I couldn't face the climb down to the creek but Jim had told me that a bit further up the other side there was a cold stream. He was dead right and I dunked my hat and arm sleeves, it was ice cold and so refreshing. I knew the climb ahead was to be the hardest of the day and definitely the hottest. The sun was beating on our side of the mountain, estimates on the day were around 110 in that canyon. The climb out of the canyon was the most physically demanding part of the course, it just went on and on, steep switchback after steep switchback each one sapping more energy. I was being passed easily on this climb and climbing is one of my strengths. I was tired and regularly stopping with hands on knees to catch my breath. The climb eventually ended and I walked straight into Devils Thumb AS. I was wobbly, there was runners crashed out everywhere. I thought it best to get my shit together and keep moving forward even if it was a walk. There is a short flattish section after the aid station to start running again before another massive 2500ft descent down to Eldorado Creek. I shuffled down the descent conscious that my water was ebbing away fast. I had two 500ml bottles that had been plenty so far but they were not going to last me up the other side of the canyon. Luckily enough there is a aid station right on the creek and I was able to restock and have a sponge down before undertaking the next climb to Michigan bluff. As I climbed the up the other side I worked out I was over halfway, 50 miles in 11 and a half hours. I had a further 2 and a half hours to meet my 14 hour target for Foresthill. The near 2000ft climb to Michigan Bluff was certainly easier than the last with long shallow switchbacks and much more shade. The AS come as a welcome sight knowing the worst of the course was done. The trail from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill was rugged and pretty slow going and I was tired from all the course had thrown at me, I didn't feel much like a runner at this point. My thoughts started to wander to the 24 hour target. I was calculating what needed to be done in the last 38 mile to go sub 24. The first thoughts of doubt entered my mind. I was physically in ok shape, my nutrition had remained pretty good, my feet were good and mathematically it was on. There was one glaring problem though, I was shattered! I felt bereft of the ability to run. It took a lot out of me just to get to Foresthill. I hiked up the hill with another runner who had met his pacer. The pacer was explaining how he had been in this exact position twice before and both times had failed to go sub 24. Great! As I turned the corner my pacers were walking towards me and conversation soon turned to the 24 hour target. Jim had done all the maths and was explaining not to worry but I was worried.


Foresthill with Jim
Foresthill was buzzing and it was buzzing with people. Thousands I'd say. I'd arrived in about 14 hours 10 and took a further 20 mins to change socks and eat. Food was becoming a real struggle to get down and I felt quite nauseous. I ate some yoghurt and a few swigs of tailwind but struggled with anything else. I even ran back into the AS just to make sure there wasn't anything that I'd find appetizing, there wasn't. I walked with Jim out of town, he was keen to get running and rightly so, It had been a long day for the guys. On paper the next section is extremely runnable and I was trying my best. My legs however had other ideas, the intention was there but I was just unable to get my legs turning over properly. It was like running in slow motion, a very peculiar sensation. I felt like I was running but Jim was walking and I could tell he was getting frustrated with me. He kept asking why I couldn't run, I didn't have the answers.
OMG I'm tired!
We arrived at Fords Bar AS and I could feel a massive blister on my toe. I had to get it sorted, Jim protested but it was no good, it needed sorting. It was stinging like murder, I peeled my sock off to find the side of my big toe missing its skin. The blister had burst and the skin had peeled back. The AS captain wrapped my toe in tape and we were good to go. Darkness had firmly set in and the trail was featureless, soft and dusty under foot, undulating and overhanging vegetation. Waves of runners were passing me now all of them chasing the silver buckle. Bucklemania was in full flow, some would make it some wouldn't. I wasn't, in fact I was dropping further back on my 24hour dream. I felt awful for Jim, everything he'd done for me and I couldn't muster a run. We hiked down to Rucky Chucky river crossing where we was due to change pacers. Jim ran ahead to brief Chris, I can only imagine it wasn't a positive conversation.

We were helped into our life jackets and given a glow in the dark neck band. I was pretty shaky and had to be helped into the boat. The oarsman soon had us across and I was helped out the other side. We took our time at the farside AS. I changed my shoes and socks, got loaded with gels and after some soup we hiked up the long ascent away from the river. It was about 2 miles straight up and into another AS. We pressed on and Chris asked if I wanted to run, I explained I was running! This was rubbish, I was rubbish. Chris had flown all the way in from Kansas for this and I couldn't perform. I was doing the motions but was just not moving at any pace.

Much of the next few hours rolled into one. Steady plodding on dusty trails with just enough roots and rocks to keep us on our toes. We both kept tripping over and over again. It became quite comical. Chris kept running way ahead and disappear into the distance then wait for me to catch up. We had a few proper runs but the damage was done. I eyes were spinning with tiredness, the caffeine in the gels wasn't quite cutting it. These are supposed to be the easy miles of the WS course but they are far from flat with hills a plenty. In the distance I could make out the flashing lights of a police car and I figured we were coming up to Highway 49. Daylight was breaking and the 24 hour mark drew ever closer. The police stopped a solitary car as I was given priority over it. We crossed the road and ran through the grassy meadow leading us all the way to Pointed Rocks AS. I entered at exactly 5am and 24 hours had elapsed, I still had 6 miles to go. I felt pretty flat and was busy making excuses to myself in my mind. I had a drop bag here which contained my GB flag but I told the AS staff I didn't need the bag. Chris took a look and saw the flag, he insisted I take it with me. Whatever the finish time I'd earned the right to carry the flag over the line. I jogged down the final descent into the canyon and onto the famous No Hands Bridge. I stood there for a minute and drank a coke, just savouring where I was and the superb runners that had passed this very point. Chris was urging me on though, 3 miles to go. We climbed the final ascent to Robie Point which is a real arse kicker just to finish you off.

Finishing straight
It's done
I left the trail for the final time and joined the tarmac. Jim was there to meet us and we all wandered onwards towards the stadium. I would usually feel an urge to race anyone to the finish line but I was done in and couldn't handle a sprint finish so I timed my final run so that the track would be clear. I entered the track with my flag round my shoulders, it was a very surreal moment. A moment I'd dreamt about for a long time. I jogged round the track as the announcer read my pre written running resume. I thought I would cry, I have at other finishes but I just felt relief, relief it was done. I crossed the line in 25:50 with the GB flag held aloft. My Western States adventure was over. I stood on the line while Tim Tweitmeyer hung the medal round my neck, the guys run over to congratulate me. I just wanted to lie down. I felt faint post race and within minutes my knee started swelling. I went to the medical tent and crashed out but was kicked out pretty soon for not being ill enough. I popped to Jims for a shower before returning for the awards ceremony. My knee had swollen solid and I had to start my walk to the front several minutes before my name was called otherwise I would have been late. I took my buckle, shook everyone's hand and left the awards tent.
Placer High school
Physically I ended up coming out quite well. Although I ended up in the emergency room just to check I was ok to fly home. My leg was swollen massively and I needed to check for DVT. I got the all clear.  On arriving home I got checked out by my physio and it looks like I crushed my collateral ligament, so loads of swelling but no real damage.

Jim and Chris
Stop swelling!
Mentally I needed to work things through. I needed there to be no excuses. Other wise there would be the dreaded 'what if' demons. Make sure every aspect was covered then what will be will be and I believe I did that. The race was certainly harder than I expected and the early miles and altitude chewed me up and spat me out. I struggled a bit with the terrain too, I may be a trail runner but this was mountain trail running. Everyone tells you its a runners race which it is but you have to be very skilled with rough rocky terrain. At the end of the day I prepared and trained as hard as I could but it was not my day to go sub 24, I did everything possible and came up short. I can't be disappointed with that.

Would I do it again? Now there's the million dollar question. For so long I've dreamed of this race, I assumed it would be the holy grail of trail running. In many ways it is, just not my holy grail. I hyped it so much in my mind that it could only ever fall short of my expectations. Yes I enjoyed it and yes It is a running spectacle but its not in my mind the greatest race on the planet. It has the greatest history, the most hype, is incredibly beautiful in places and is bloody hard to get into but that doesn't bring greatness. People will forever chase a place in the Western States Endurance Run and rightly so, it's an experience not to be missed. Part of me wants to walk away from it but me being me will keep putting entries in and I'll make a decision if I'm ever lucky enough to be drawn again.
The buckle






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