Saturday, July 7, 2018

2018 Western States 100 Race Report

Results - 19:00:59 - 21st place 
     Strava Data 

Getting Into The Race 

The wait is over.

Waiting is a hard game to play. When I have an idea, or want to do something, I obsess over it and get it done. There are a lot of things in life that you can do that with. Dream of something, work hard, obtain the skill, and go for it. The Western States 100 is not that simple.

The Western States 100 made me wait, and in a strange way it was hard to do that. As a young fast 22 year-old, just off a collegiate running career, I anxiously wanted to showcase my newfound love for ultra running at Western States. It’s the granddaddy of ultrarunning. It’s the Superbowl. At that time in my career running was top priority and I was training with a lot of miles and felt confident I could run competitively at any race.

Seven years went by before gaining entry via the lottery into Western States. 7 years of following the December lottery to see if my name would be pulled. I also attempted to “run my way in” with a Golden Ticket race on 5 occasions and came within one spot twice and 92 seconds on one of those occasions. Western States became elusive. Of course, I knew I’d eventually get into the race as long as I continued running qualifying races each year, but the wait sort of became a burden and a weight on my shoulders after a while. It’s that something you want so bad but you can’t get.

The one good thing about having to wait 7 years was that I had the opportunity to run many other amazing 100 milers in that course of time. I went on to win the Mohican 100 in 2015 and 2016. I ran the Grindstone 100, Cascade Crest 100, and Bighorn 100. All of those races tested me and gave me invaluable experience that may have given me better preparation for Western States. In that timespan I also got married, graduated from grad school, had two children, and became a race director for a handful of trail/ultra races. I am no longer that just-out-of-college speedster able to train at crazy high mileage. However, when I got selected for Western States I counted my blessings and knew that I was an older, more experienced, and patient runner. I didn’t want to waste my opportunity at Western States, so I focused on what I could control, and for me that meant training smart, studying and determining a race plan, and running my own race on race day.

Training and Preparing 
Training for Western States entails a few specific details. For every 100 mile race I do I tailor my training to the specific needs for that particular race. For Western States I think the key components are heat, patience, downhills, and runnability. The canyons often reach over 100 degrees so I did some runs in the heat of the day with a lot of layers on. I was also able to access a sauna with temperatures between 150-190 degrees for a prolonged period of time. I learned the sauna wipes you out for about 24 hours, but I was staying in for 25-40 minutes at a time.

Actual running training for me went really well from December through mid-March. I slowly increase my mileage from 45 miles a week in early December to 80-100 miles per week in February and March. I was also averaging over 10,000 feet of elevation gain for those weeks with at least one hard speed workout each week.

I’m slowly learning what my body can handle at this point in my career. With now 12 years of hard training and racing I can no longer handle the prolonged period of times at higher mileage. In mid-March, after a 106 mile week and 17,000 feet of elevation gain I started experiencing severe pain in my left knee. This ended up being a bad flare-up of “runner's knee” or patellofemoral syndrome. Thanks to Dr. Robert Wayner for checking me out and helping solve the issue with diagnosis and strength exercises. I had developed an imbalance where my hips and glutes were weak and tight forcing my left knee to absorb too much of the impact while running, especially on downhills, which I had been doing a lot of at that time.

At that point I was basically halfway through a 29 week training stint for Western States. I knew my first 15 weeks were stellar, but then the focus became completely on getting to the starting line healthy. So for fives weeks I toned down the elevation, keeping my runs flatter, taking 2-3 days off per week, and seeing Jill Brown for targeted massages and Kevin Swank for some Graston Technique massage. Along with the strength exercises, the massages were super vital to regaining health. After about five weeks of lower volume and massage, and after a bit of apprehension, I felt almost 100% again.

This left me with nine weeks of training and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to head to Colorado on June 1st to do some running in Breckenridge and Leadville. I was eager to get into the high mountains. Even though I don’t think getting into high altitude is vital for Western States, I took the approach with a difference mindset. For me it was the mental refreshment that I would get from doing a couple weeks of high altitude mountain running. I slept at 11,000 feet, summited three Colorado 14ers in this time period, and was above 12,000 feet for most of my runs. This felt good, and feeling good mentally made this training worth it.

The Race
As we stood on the line waiting for the shotgun to be fired I closed my eyes and quickly ran through the emotions of what running Western States meant. It was the most prestigious ultra marathon in America, one that I had patiently waited to get in for over 7 years, and now I was getting an opportunity to make the run from Squaw Valley to Auburn. It was time to run.

The early miles seemed relaxed. The near four mile climb up The Escarpment was mostly spent walking. I settled into a good powerhike groove gauging my effort and waiting for one of the most beautiful and iconic views in ultras at the crest. Knowing that the race “starts at mile 62” after we leave the Foresthill aid station I wanted to ride that fine line of conserving energy in the early miles but still putting myself in good position to have a good placement in the race. I had a detailed pace chart that I thought would put me in that position. In the high country I mostly focused on settling into my own rhythm but also keeping track of who was around me. There are so many veterans who are smart and always run a good race at Western States. In the early miles I bounced back and forth and ran some miles with Jesse Haynes, Kyle Pietari, Bob Shebest, and eventual women’s third place finisher Lucy Bartholomew.

Coming into the Dusty Corners aid stations at mile 38 I was within one minute of my target time of 6:11:00. At this point I was feeling great and was sitting somewhere around 17th place. In my eyes, and plan, being somewhere in this position was a great method for moving up late in the race, picking up carnage from the suffering that happens in the front of the race. I stayed steady through the Last Chance aid station at mile 43 but then came the first of three canyons. I knew that the next 19 miles were going to be critical in how I fared for the rest of the day. The three canyons feature the hottest sections of the course with steep descents and ascents in and out of each canyon. People have completely crashed in the canyons, and other people might make it through the canyons well only to crash just after them due to pushing to hard in them. So there is this balance that the great Western States runners of the past master.

For me the canyons were a mixture of good downhills and bad uphills. I seemed to run well descending into the canyons only to making very bad progress, barely even walking, up the steep hills. There were many times I was passed going up Devil’s Thumb by runners simply powerhiling twice as fast as I was hiking. I thought my powerhiking had been improving the last few years but at Western States it was a huge limiting factor the second half of the race.

This trend continued into Michigan Bluff at mile 55. By this time the heat was in full force, and along with my slow uphill hiking and running I was starting to slip behind my target pace. I had hoped to be at Michigan Bluff in around 9:15:00 but ended up there in 9:48:00, now in 23rd place. The heat was a big factor for most people. I felt like I handled it well, and the overall trend with the finishers rate and times is that most runners handled the heat well, even though it was the 9th hottest day in race history. At almost every aid station I had iced stuffed in my arm sleeves, hat, bandana, and in both handheld water bottles. I think my rough stretch through the canyons was mainly due to my inability to get up the hills efficiently.

Foresthill aid station at mile 62 is the central hub for the race. There are the most spectators, crew members, and volunteers here than any other location and the energy can be felt!. Many people say this is where the race starts, because the rest of the race is runnable if you have the legs and there is almost always a lot of carnage to be had. This is also where you can pick up a pacer for the first time and I was happy to have Pete Buckley there with me for the next 18 miles. Pete just recently graduated from Athens High School and he will be running collegiately at Haverford College. He is stoked about trail and ultra running and is about as knowledgeable as any 18 year old out there about the sport and all the nuances within it. Leaving Foresthill I was in 20th place, and I was hoping that I could move well through Cal Street and into the river.

Running down Cal Street I was feeling pretty good. I wasn’t moving particularly fast but my legs felt relatively good at this point in a 100 mile race; having Pete with me was a nice energy boost. The uphills were still a struggle. While I was able to run at a decent clip on the flat and downhill sections, I was a mess going uphill. It was like every gain I made on the downs and flats I gave it all back and more on the uphills. This was frustrating, and looking back I can’t really put my finger on what this feeling was. Was I just feeding into self-doubt or self-pity when I approached any uphill during the race, was I simply not trained well enough for uphills, or were my uphill legs just not feeling it on this particular day? Whatever the case was it cost me a lot of time at Western States and the chance to pick people off at this stage.

Reaching the Rucky Chucky American River crossing was like a beacon of hope. Pete and I had had some good stretches of running, but I only managed to pass one runner along the 16 mile Cal Street stretch. The good thing was that I wasn’t losing ground, but I wasn’t gaining much ground either. With the tough conditions I thought more people would be struggling or dropping out this late in the race, like past years. All the runners in front of me were simply gritting it out and staying strong. I was staying consistent and getting across the river, with 22 miles to go was a great feeling. I knew if I continued to stay consistent and continue doing what I had been doing I’d not lose anymore ground and if nothing else gain a little.

After picking up Nick Voss at Green Gate aid station at mile 80 I continued the same trend of running the downs and flats pretty decently only to slowly walk up any hill. There were actually some good stretches where I was running everything. I don’t know how fast I was running the ups at this point but it felt good to at least run entire mile stretches at a time. I think I came to the conclusion that walking and running up hills basically felt the same so I might as well run them. I was able to see part of the women’s race unfold in this stretch as Kaytlyn Gerbin and her pacer came flying by me shortly after Auburn Lakes Trail aid station (mile 85). Her pace was very impressive and I tried to keep her in my sights for as long as possible, which helped me get into a rhythm. Ultimately she finished second place female and 20 minutes ahead of me!

I picked up Pete as a pacer again at Pointed Rocks aid station, mile 94.3, and the end was near. I was still in 20th place at this point and I felt pretty decent. It was weird how snappy my legs felt almost all day when I would arrive into aid stations and first leave aid stations. Even here at mile 95 I felt pretty agile, but again, any uphill and my energy was zapped. One highlight in the last five miles was as Pete and I was within earshot of the No Hands Bridge aid station (mile 96.8) I rounded a corner and saw the flash of a mountain lion darting up the hill to the left of the trail. I stopped dead in my tracks and told Pete, who was a little behind me, that I saw a mountain lion no more than 25 yards ahead. After talking it over for probably 20 seconds I decided we should just move on because I knew the aid station was literally a minute later. It’s sort of eerie knowing that this mountain lion was probably just hanging out on the hill above No Hands Bridge observing what was going on at the aid station. At any rate it added to the wildlife sightings for me during the day as I had seen a rattlesnake slither across the trail three feet in front of me somewhere after Duncan Canyon. Pete also claims he “heard” and “saw” a rattlesnake as we were running down Cal Street. He literally jumped off of the trail; it was amusing hearing him freak out at any noise in the bushes.

After leaving the iconic No Hands Bridge I just had the climb up to Robie Point before the last mile on city streets into the Placer High School track for the finish. At this point I didn’t care about catching more runners, or who was behind me. I just started to reflect on the entire day, and how special it was to finally be able to run that last stretch of the Western States Trail. As I approached Robie Point with one mile to go I looked behind me and Lucy was not too far back. As Pete and I got past Robie Point I decided to stop for a minute or so to let Lucy and her pacer catch up to me. After telling her good job for hanging tough, I told her I wanted to let her pass us so she could enjoy her third place finish on the track by herself. I didn’t want to get in the way of her finish by being on the track at the same time. So I held back a little while to let her and her crew gain some ground on me before I made my entrance onto the track.

Entering the track was a surreal moment. Since I had been running in the dark for a couple of hours I broke into the light of the track, symbolizing the end of the journey. Just 300 meters to go. Seven years of waiting, and now I was able to finish the most iconic ultramarathon in the world. In the end I finished 21st place overall, 18th male, and in a time 19:00:59. The wait was over.

Thoughts On the Race
Now that the dust has settled from Western States I’ve had time to reflect on the race. My goal was to finish top 10; after waiting seven years to gain entry via the lottery the prospect of finishing top 10 and having a guaranteed entry into next year's race was a great goal to have. I’m disappointed that I didn’t come closer to that goal. However, I can’t be entirely disappointed with my overall performance. Finishing as 21st overall and 18th male isn’t something that I should be upset about. My day was overall consistent and smooth. I stayed in 16th-23rd place the entire day. With the exception of the bad uphill running and hiking I felt energized and strong even in the late miles, and I never had that “dark” low moment that can sometimes come in a 100 mile race. The positive is that I know I can improve and I am as motivated as ever to get back to Western States and fix what I did poorly and improve on what I did well.

The slow powerhiking is what I took away as my biggest weakness during the race. There were many instances when I was being passed without being able to keep up by people hiking and when I was hiking as fast as other runners I felt like I was expending much more energy than them. I think training for hiking needs to be a priority at Western States. In training I mostly run, so in a race where I need to hike it is foreign to me. I think training for powerhiking, potentially while with a weight vest or something, would greatly improve the muscles and movement of this motion.

I also look back and think about nutrition during the race. Overall I think I did a good job on staying fueled, but would approach it differently next time. My plan was to get a full serving of GU Roctane Energy Mix every hour and I did that, plus a little more. This was 250 calories per hour, something I have found works for me from past ultras. I also took 2-4 GU Roctane Electrolyte Capsules every hour, but I didn’t start this until about mile 45. The only thing I’d change with nutrition is to eat more and to eat more early. There were a couple of occasions I grabbed Clif Shot Bloks from the aid station table and take an entire sleeve in a short period of time and I always felt more energy and less leg cramping. I started trying to do this as often as possible late in the race and it seemed to help. If I would have started to do this earlier in the race, say getting 350-400 calories per hour, I think I would have felt better nutritionally.

The heat was definitely a factor but I feel like I handled it about as well as I could have. With some pre race heat sessions and in-race tactics I never felt that overwhelming heat fatigue that I have felt before.

Overall, my biggest takeaway is that I want to go back to Western States and I’m eager to improve. I loved the experience and the atmosphere of the build up in the day prior and along the course on race day. After running the entire course I feel like I am suited well for this type of course. With the knowledge of seeing the entire course I think I can do a lot better and I hope that chance comes before another seven years from now!

Thanks and Shoutouts!
One of the coolest things about Western States is the community around the event. The aid stations and network of people there to help all the runners unsurpasses any ultra I have ran. People ask why other races can’t be as popular as Western States and the community within the race, built by history, is the reason. It was really special being a part of that and now being able to consider myself a part of the Western States community.

The support and love I received from my own running community in and around Athens, Ohio was amazing. From the personal text messages to the well-wishes on social media, I felt every bit of it! For me personally, I think this is the biggest difference in my own running from seven years ago - it’s the friends and community of runners that is part of my life in Southeastern Ohio. I use that positive energy when I race and I very much appreciate all of it. To know there are hundreds of people back home rooting for you means a lot, and to be able to share this experience with them is something I want to do. THANK YOU!

What goes hand in hand with the growth of the running community in SE Ohio is SEOTR Events and Ohio Valley Running Company. The races that SEOTR puts on has given SE Ohio races that attract people from all over the region and has created a community of runners connected to those race. Ohio Valley Running Company opening in 2016 gave the area that staple brand that tied the entire running community together in form of a physical store location and OVRC has done a lot of work to grow that community. To have the support of OVRC through sponsorship not only provides me with the needed shoes, gear, and equipment to train and race, but also garners support from all the people connected with OVRC and the community. OVRC also provided all my family and friends who crewed on race day with “Team Owen” shirts! So, thanks you OVRC and the support you’ve provided throughout the past several years.

Lastly, I couldn’t have had the consistent day I had without an outstanding crew. I had a whole host of people along the course crewing and pacing. My wife Bobbi and the kids, my sister Becca, my parents, as well as friends Nick and Pete were all there at every crew point to keep me cooled off with ice, quickly refill my bottles, and send me off onto the course. Pete paced for around 24 miles and Nick paced for about 15 miles. Having this many people also allowed me to have crew at both crewing routes, which added the advantage of getting personalized aid at three additional locations compared to just having one crew. Thank you everyone, it was a lot of fun sharing the day with you.