Sunday, July 8, 2012

Western States 100 Training Runs

“I like having stories to tell.”
That’s what Mary, my massage therapist, said should be the first line of my book. Now, book, I don’t know. But I will do her the honor of starting this blog post with it, since it’s quite appropriate.

While I do like experiencing adventures, some of them are so profound, so soul-filling, that I don’t know where to begin to tell the story— so I just don’t. This was the case with the 3-day Western States 100 Training Runs, which I attended over Memorial Day weekend this year. It was so amazing to experience 70+ miles of the course, to be around so many dedicated runners, many of whom were training for the race this year. To soak in the history. To meet the volunteers, the current and future Race Directors, statesmen of the sport of ultrarunning. To see so many people selflessly giving of themselves so that I, and many others, might have such a wonderful, life-enhancing experience. On every single run since then, I have thought about writing a blog post about it, and in fact have written these first paragraphs over and over in my head. It’s never too late to start, right? So here I begin, more than a month later, to tell the story…

You may or may not know that at last year’s Western States, I paced Melanie, from Scotland, in her first 100-miler. I was with her for 38 miles, from Foresthill to the finish. Pacing was a very challenging and gratifying job. Everything you do is for that other person. I would do it again in a heartbeat, and will many times in the future, I am sure. This year, though I really wanted to be at the race, I felt that because of the physically and mentally challenging winter and early spring that I had, I would not make a good pacer. My training was ramping up and now going pretty well, so I decided I wanted to do the training runs instead. This time would be for myself, to see all the miles in the daylight that Melanie and I ran through in the dark last year. But the trip itself was very daunting. This would be my longest solo road trip ever. I am not a fan of driving long distances. I would stay 5 nights alone in a hotel, eat breakfast and dinner alone every day. Recover alone. But for 3 days I was in heaven, running the Western States 100 course. Another bit of a very big dream come true. I wanted to be there bad. I was going to make it happen and make the most out of it.

A change in routine.
I generally eat a pretty simple pre-race/run breakfast of bagel and turkey or a couple eggs and toast. But this was going to be 3 back-to-back long days of running. I knew I’d need more fuel than that. It might not have been wise, but I’ve never had and gastrointestinal issues or nausea during a run. My stomach is pretty iron-clad. So I took a calculated risk, and ate a hearty breakfast daily consisting of 2 eggs, greasy hashbrowns, 2 strips of bacon, and 2 slices of toast. Every morning, as early as 4:30 am, I sat alone at Denny’s, meditatively listening to M83’s “Outro” (which is featured in the movie Unbreakble: The Western States 100), eyes closed, head bowed, hands folded as if in prayer, soaking in even this experience. The 4-minute song contains just 4 power-packed sentences:
“I’m the king of my own land.
Facing tempests of dust, I’ll fight until the end.
Creatures of my dreams raise up and dance with me.
Now and forever, I’m your king!”

Day 1: 32 miles. Robinson Flat to Foresthill.
We were bussed from Foresthill to Robinson Flat (mile 30 of the race), a drive taking about an hour. As the bus climbed the winding, narrow road, many people, including myself, were shocked to see new snow in the trees. I was wearing only my lightest shorts, a tank top, lightweight arm warmers, and light gloves. I usually run hot, but this got me scared that maybe all the people wearing multiple long-sleeve layers had it right. Turns out, once moving, I was fine. Until later.

Getting started at Robinson Flat. Do I look cold?
The first climb out of Robinson Flat was a light dusting of new snow over remaining old snow. At the top of the climb, we were enveloped in fog. The trail switchbacked down through a burn area. Fun, rocky running. Soon we were to the section with lots of mining claims and old mining equipment. I was in heaven, ’cause I love that kind of stuff anyway.

Runners in the fog coming off the climb out of Robinson Flat. I wished I could have seen the view.

“Driving” some old mining equipment alongside the trail

I was running easy and having so much fun. This truly was an adventure! Next came the canyons: Deadwood, El Dorado, and Volcano. I kept waiting for it to get hard. On the climb up to Devil's Thumb from the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, the answer came to me: It doesn’t have to be hard. Not today. On race day, runners would be at mile 47 compared to my mile 17. And today it was cool and drizzly. I’m sure those people wanting to get some good heat training in were disappointed (it can be over 100 degrees in the canyons on race day), but I for one was loving the temperature. Until the climb out of El Dorado Canyon to Michigan Bluff. That’s when it began hailing, then pouring rain. The hail did not feel good on my bare shoulders. It almost hurt. I hoped it wouldn’t get any bigger. I passed a number of miserable people on the climb up to Michigan Bluff. We were all drenched, but I wasn’t miserable.

The aid station volunteer who dressed me in my rain poncho.
Note hail stones on blue jeep and rain coming off the canopy.

I had a plan for Michigan Bluff: get my Emergency Rain Poncho on, fill my water, and get the hell out of there as quick as I could. A few people who arrived at the aid station right behind me dropped from the run at that point. One young couple was getting into someone’s car to warm up. I wondered if they would even continue. I was wet and cold, and about to get a little scared. I left Michigan Bluff with no one visible in front of me or behind me. I followed the street through Michigan Bluff until it turned to jeep road, then trail. All the while I was looking for the yellow Montrail ribbons that marked our course. But had I been paying close enough attention? I saw some plain yellow markers. I got a little scared. My thoughts flashed back to earlier in the day when I had heard some girls say that the previous year they had gotten off-course by inadvertently following some plain yellow ribbons instead of ones marked with “Montrail.” Had I gotten off course? Don’t panic. Keep going, Laura. Pay attention. After a while, Thank God! I saw a Montrail ribbon. What relief! I was also warming up a bit. Though it was still raining, it’s amazing how a thin, dollar-store poncho can help keep you warm. I keep one in my pack for all my long “mountain” runs, yet this is the first time I’ve ever had to use it.

The last canyon, Volcano Canyon, was not as deep. As soon as I hit the paved road coming back into Foresthill, I was very excited and started running again, even though it was some decent uphill. A car drove slowly by, and someone yelled out the window to me. I had no idea who it was or what they said (I was wearing my iPod, having fun, and totally rockin’ out), but I smiled, waved, and kept running. Later I found out it was Assistant RD Craig Thornley and Andy Jones-Wilkins driving out to see if anyone wanted a ride back. They said I looked happy. I genuinely was. And I didn’t need no damn ride.

Day 1 elevation profile. Looks benign, but this is 7,000 feet gain and 10,400 feet loss!

Day 2: 19 miles. Foresthill to Rucky-Chucky (+ up to White Oak Flat to shuttle)
I arrived at Foresthill Elementary School a bit early. Some people were starting ahead of the official start. Someone said that yeah, if you knew where you were going, you could start early. So I did, giving myself a 20 minute head start. I knew I’d be hopping out of the way for a lot of faster people soon, but I didn’t mind. Because of my strategy, the day was filled with hugs and high-fives. I was ecstatic to be here, to be experiencing so much of course in the daylight that I had only seen at night. It was magical.

Before long the front-runners came through. Scott Wolfe gave me a hug as he ran by. Soon I heard someone say my name and I got hugs from Amy Sproston, Meghan Arbogast and Denise Bourasssa as they passed by. One thing about ultrarunning that really touches me is that front-of-the-pack runners take the time to love on us back-of-the packers. I asked if any men would like to give me a hug, which resulted in a couple more hugs.

Unlike Day 1, today was sunny and warm, but thankfully not super-hot. Whether it was the warmer weather, because I had just run 32 miles the day before, or knowing that I had plenty of time since I started early, I was considerably slower today. Arriving at the aid station at Cal2 (Peachstone), Assistant RD Craig Thornley was there and filled up my water. Andy Jones-Wilkins was there too, barking aid station offerings (I couldn’t help but smile) and giving encouragement to runners: “Miles of buffed-out sweet downhill single-track await!” I had hoped to pick up the pace on this section, but it was just rocky and “downhill” enough that I wasn’t comfortable picking up the pace much (we are so spoiled by our smooth, runnable trails in Central Oregon). One passing fellow said that he liked my stride, that it looked efficient, something between a walk and a jog. Yeah, that’s my “wog.” While I can’t say I appreciate or even like it, perhaps I should. Perhaps it is what keeps me injury-free and moving over long distances, albeit slowly. I don’t need to be fast to do what I’m going to do. I need patience.

The trail above the American River

Day 2 was filled with nice shady forest running, long gentle downhill, steep rocky downhill, and open areas across ridges with views of the river. The trail flirted back and forth above the river. The water was so tempting along this stretch of hot, dusty, sunny trail, yet was not accessible until Rucky Chucky. It was a few miles before Rucky Chucky that I met “Mama Lisa” as she introduced herself to me. Mama Lisa was sitting on a rock along the trail due to cramping. An accomplished ultra runner and Team In Training coach with several Western States and other 100-mile finishes, she said the radiation treatment she was going through was really messing with her. We walked together for a while, then began jogging. Mama Lisa was moving good. She said it was because I was pulling her along. It was an honor to pull you along, Mama Lisa, an honor indeed. She dropped from the run at Rucky-Chucky. As I left Rucky-Chucky, I looked at my watch. Had I started 20 minutes later with the official start, I would have barely made the cut-off time at this aid station. This was when I began to get worried about Day 3.

Me and Mama Lisa at Rucky-Chucky

I donned my iPod and began rocking out for the 3-mile climb up a sunny, hot, dirt road to White Oak Flat. Snakes stretched across the road, drunk on sunshine. I was happily hiking, rocking out, singing, clapping. Hiking uphill with music gets me in a focused groove. I call it a “party in my head,” which is better than the alternative. There were lots of hurting people on this climb though, who were barely moving. I continued happily hiking strong, singing to them as I passed. I hoped they could pull some energy from me. Then, with a mile left, we were funneled back on to a trail. I had figured we’d be hiking up the road until we got to the place where we’d catch the shuttle back to Foresthill. I was wrong. This is where my mind quit on me and was the only mile the entire weekend that I was just ready to be done.

The trail was almost flat, for maybe 50 yards, then pitched up again. Though I really wanted to run, I was too tired to run the ups and just wanted to get to the end. I did, and hotdogs awaited! Boy did they taste good. I didn’t even need a bun, just a dog in the hand. My body only wanted the fat and protein. It was here I got to meet WS100 Race Director, Greg Soderlund. What a kind, gentle soul. We talked about poison oak, he warning me that if I thought there was a lot of it today, just wait until tomorrow. He introduced me to one of his medical people who has an anti-poison oak method he swears by. On the way back to my hotel, I stopped by Worton’s store in Foresthill to pick up white vinegar and Tecnu and used both back at the hotel room.

Day 2 elevation profile: 3,600 feet gain and 4,650 loss. 
The evening of Day 2 was a special panel discussion/dinner with four multiple-time Western States finishers (an understatement!) and hosted by Andy Jones-Wilkins. I was fortunate enough to sit in front and take notes. Afterward, I got to officially meet and talk with some greats of ultrarunning, givers all of them. It makes me want to give more of myself. There was a lot of experience and wisdom in the room that night, and I was soaking up as much as I could. You can get the same information by watching this 70-minute video of the evening’s presentation. Although I enjoyed myself, I was becoming increasingly concerned about running even slower on day 3 and possibly not making the cut-offs at the 2 aid stations.

Day 3: 22 miles. 1.5 miles above Green Gate to Placer High School, Auburn.
My brain tends to work things out during sleep. In response to my concern about being too slow and not making cut-offs, I awoke thinking, “Oh no, I will not sabotage myself today. Just because I’ve never done this before doesn’t mean I can’t now.” A song was also stuck in my head: Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Out”:
“It’s always darkest before the dawn…
And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back,
So shake him off…”

This song was my mantra all day. I sang it over and over in my mind. It gave me a rhythm to run to, and a positive message. The devil would not cause me to fail today. Only 22 miles stood between me and my goal, and I was gonna do my damnedest to succeed.

The pre-race meeting was at the finish in Auburn. Mr. Soderlund warned us, in a nutshell: The bus ride out to the start is long, and when you get off, you’re gonna wanna pee. Don’t. The people who live out there have guns and they don’t want to be bothered. So wait until you cross the marker we’ve laid across the trail to pee. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s interesting how you can be all stiff and hobbled in the morning, yet once you start running, you loosen up and your body responds. This was especially true for me on Day 3. I felt the best that I had all weekend, and I had a plan for success today: I was gonna work the downhill and flats early on. I was gonna keep a steady pace but not push myself too hard. I was going to put as much time between me and the cut-offs as possible the first miles. My plan worked. I felt great and clicked off mile after mile. Each mile, I actually exclaimed out loud, “yes!” as I put 4, 5, even 6 minutes between me and the cut-off every single mile for the first 14 miles. I love this section of the course. It’s shaded forest trail, followed by rolling hills through grasses along a ridge and weaves in and out of small creek drainages. It was a warm day, and I made use of many of the creeks to wet my neckerchief, wash my face, and wet my hair and visor to help me stay cool.

The first of two aid stations was at 14 miles. That’s a long way when you’re rocking an average 13-15 minute/mile pace! We were, however, told about a trail-side water spigot at 7 miles that was safe to drink from. When I got to the spigot, I reached back and poked my hydration pack. It felt like I had plenty of water left. But I thought, “Don’t be stupid and pass up water, Laura. You never know what could happen. It’ll only take a minute to refill.” So I did. And boy was I glad I did. The next 7 miles to the aid station were sunny and much warmer and I was staying on top of my hydration and ran as many of the hills as I could. I had filled my 70-oz bladder full at the spigot, and by the time the next 7 miles were gone, so was my water. I had drank 70 ounces in 7 miles! I also checked my watch. I was WAY ahead of the cut-off time! My plan had worked! I had enough time that I could walk the final 8 miles if I needed to, so I took it easier for the next few miles until No Hands Bridge at mile 19.

I love this area between Hwy 49 and No Hands!

On No Hands Bridge. The aid station for the training run was on the west side. Boy was I happy here!
After No Hands, I picked it up again. By this time I was really excited. I knew I had this. And I knew this climb. I was here last year pacing, and I was here the day before the training runs to do a little shake-out after the long drive to Auburn. Today I hiked strong up the climb, singing, passing people. Once I hit the pavement though, I started slowly running again. I was almost there. Just a little more up, then the little white bridge and downhill to the finish. I put on the Eminem feat. Bruno Mars song “Lighters” for the last mile. I sang along at the top of my lungs:
“This one’s for you and for me, living out our dreams
We’re all right where we should be…”

I was right where I should be. I crossed the little white bridge, turned left, ran flowing and free down the road to the finish. There were three ladies cheering. That was the end. No spectators milling about. No finish line festivities. No one to excitedly share my accomplishment with. I momentarily was a little let down. I know this is “just” a training run. Training run my ass. For me this was so much more: something special, a life-changing event, the next step in a very big dream come true. And I did it! One day I will earn a silver “100 Miles, One Day” belt buckle at Western States. One of the sweet ladies at the end cut off my wristband, the method of keeping track of the runners each day. I told the ladies that if I died right then and there I would die happy and fulfilled. It was the honest truth. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve got more work to do and dreams to fulfill.

Day 3 elevation profile: 3,600 feet gain, 4,400 loss


  1. Love it Laura! Congratulations! Almost (emphasize almost) makes me want to think about a 100 miler some day...not yet though!

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