Monday, June 27, 2011
Western States 100 - 2011 Race Report
This year’s Western States 100 was incredible! In the weeks and days leading up to the race much attention was paid to the snow conditions, the course changes and the impending battle for the 2011 title. In addition, the Master’s field was stacked and the temperatures were forecast to be benign and possibly even downright pleasant. In short, the stage was set for an epic race.
Off the gun I was struck by the somewhat relaxed pace that the guys up front were setting. Possibly because the front of the pack was completely packed with experienced runners and the field of potential winners was so broad, everyone felt the need to get the lay of the land before making any moves. And so it went up to the top of the Escarpment.
Over the top I settled into a relaxed pace and got ready for the snow. It felt like I was in about 20th place and bobbed and weaved through the snow with a pack made up of Glen Redpath, Sim Jae Duk, Tsuyoshi Kaburagi, and Dan Olmstead. We also all blew past Graham Cooper who, I must say, looked like he was running on snow for the first time in his life!
We made it out of the snow in about 2:10 and rolled onto the road to the Poppy Aid Station. As it had last year, this section proved to be smooth and fast and in about 35 minutes we were at Poppy just short of 20 miles in. The singletrack section along the reservoir went by quickly and we opened up into the slashed out trail up the Duncan Canyon Aid Station. Here I caught up to Dave James and Ian Sharman blew past me. We hit the aid right around 3:30. Out of Duncan, our sparse group consisted of Ian, Glen, Dan, Sim, Tsuyoshi, and I.
We rolled on through the new sections of trail for a few miles and then things opened up onto the pavement of Mosquito Ridge Road. Here, Tsuyoshi and Sim moved ahead, Dave dropped a bit behind, and Dan, Glen and I continued our game of uphill/downhill tag. We got into Mosquito Ridge at about 4:42 and headed out on the four-mile loop that the organizers put in to make up the miles missed by not going through Robinson Flat.
It took about 30 minutes from here to get back up onto the original course and then we took the nice smooth road down to Miller’s Defeat (Mile 35ish). The race for the "second 5" was beginning to take shape.
The section from Miller’s Defeat to the Swinging Bridge has always been one of my favorites. Mainly due to the fact that it is generally all downhill and quite smooth, it has often been a place where I can pass a few of the early frontrunners and to get an idea of how I might figure in the final standings. But, on this day, I also had a few surprises.
First, as I was leaving Dusty Corners at Mile 38 I saw Geoff Roes emerging from the aid station after spending a bit time collecting himself. I had no idea, up until then, that he was struggling. It kind of reminded me of 2007 when, in the exact same place, I saw Brian Morrison pulling out of the race. Shortly after that, about two miles before Last Chance, we came upon Ian Sharman who I had thought was ahead by at least 10 minutes but, as it turned out, was also having a bit of a bad patch. So, along with Shaun Pope (22-year old Ice Age 50 winner), Geoff, Ian and I rolled into Last Chance at 6:40. The pace was clearly fast and this was going to be a very interesting day.
I ended up getting out of Last Chance first as I noticed Tsuyoshi leaving the aid station and thought I might be able to get a bit of ground on the descent into Deadwood. It turned out I didn’t have much more in my downhill legs than he did in his as he got to the bottom about a minute before me. It was the last I would see of him all day.
It was awesome to see Scott Dunlap dressed up in his devil costume down on the Swinging Bridge and after a quick dunk in the spring at the bottom I was off on the climb. I ended up getting through Deadwood Canyon in just under an hour which has always been a bit of a benchmark for me. Sim caught me at the aid station and we headed into El Dorado together. I got over the bridge before him but he quickly pulled ahead and got into Michigan Bluff about a minute in front of me. It was a few minutes before 2pm. Then, while I was checking in with my crew, Graham Cooper came blasting past me. Apparently, he had recovered from his lame running through the snow and was ready to give chase. I left Michigan Bluff with both Sim and Graham ahead of me. I also got my first report about the entire field and learned that I was sitting in 12th place. Given the experience and strength ahead I knew top-10 was going to be a stretch. It was time to put my head down and just go.
I was able to get past Sim on the descent to Volcano but I never saw Graham again. Scott Wolfe, my pacer, and Logan, my 11-year old son, met me at the bottom of Bath Road and we made quick work of that climb. Getting into Foresthill shortly before 3pm I did some quick math and thought about getting down to the River by 5:30 and through Green Gate before 6. 16:45 was on the table but I would have to summon the ghosts of 2005 in order to do it.
After Foresthill I left the solid foods behind and began my typical gel every half-an-hour routine combined with chicken broth and S! Caps. Beginning the descent to the River my stomach was feeling great, my quads were holding together, and my feet were intact. We caught and passed Mike Foote on the first downhill and cleared Cal 1 at 3:30. Then, halfway down the “Elevator Shaft” about five minutes before Cal 2, we came up on Hal Koerner and his pacer Erik Skaggs on the side of the trail. We learned later that Hal’s quads were trashed and that the 2-time WS champion would call it a day at Cal 2. Just like that I was in 9th place. The “hunter” quickly became the “hunted”.
After Cal 2, Scott paced me to my best Cal 2-to-the-River split in eight years and I jumped onto the boat ready to make quick work of the climb to Green Gate. I got up there by 5:55pm, had a quick shot of chicken broth, and left with Jeff Hutson, my second pacer.
My one-hour split to ALT was only average and my mind began to wander to those who were behind me as well as those who were ahead of me. We learned that Graham and Dave Mackey (who I had not seen all day) were 5-7 minutes ahead and that Dan and Ian were closing behind me. When I hit Brown’s Bar at Mile 90, a mere 12 minutes separated places 7-11. Clearly, the battle for M10 had taken shape.
When I got to Highway 49 at 8:25pm Dave was just leaving the aid station, then, when I was leaving, Dan ran in with Ian only a minute or so behind him. Knowing that Ian and Dan had serious leg speed and had proven to be "closers" I told Scott that we would need to run sub-70 to the finish if I was going to keep the top-10 streak alive. He said, "We'll run a 68!"
We passed Dave at the top of the climb and tried to get a gap on the descent. But Dave is a very tough, strong and determined runner and he was not going to give up that #8 spot without a fight. About a mile up from No Hands Bridge (which I crossed, for the first time in 8 tries, in the last waning minutes of daylight), Dave passed me and pulled quickly away. With no uphill pep left in my legs my attention, once again, was re-redirected behind me. I had heard the cheers from No Hands and guessed that #10 was within 90 seconds so it was not surprising that when we hit the pavement at Robie Point and looked back down on the trail a light was bobbing up about a minute behind. For the third consecutive year, I was under top-10 stress with a mile to go.
We hit the raging one mile-to-go party and fell into a steady, painful run. It was probably 8:50 pace but felt more like 5:50. My son Logan, who had run out to join us in this final victory jog, was pressed into duty as a sentry as we told him to keep his head on a swivel and keep an eye out for Ian’s/Dan’s light until we were over the white bridge.
By the time we hit the track I felt like I could relax a little. My youngest son Tully came out to join us for the final 250 and I smiled all the way around the track. As I crossed the line and began to wallow in the post-race euphoria I couldn’t help but think about how far I have come since my first top-10 back in 2004. As a runner, as a friend, as a husband, as a father and, indeed, as a person, this race has shaped me, changed me, and taught me how to be a better human being. For me, that has been the greatest gift of the Western States 100.
And, I must admit, I am already looking forward to Race #9 in 2012 and, especially, Race #10 in 2013. There is no doubt that next year the top-10 streak will once again be tested but I actually think I like the challenge.
In fact, I know I do!