I trained for 11 weeks and ran 702 miles for one goal: to run my first west coast race and knock it out of the park. I had a training plan. I hit it hard, I didn’t let up. I was dedicated and disciplined. I had a race plan. And even with all that… I still had a bad race. Why? Because it happens and it happens to everyone. I had a feeling I might have a bad race a few weeks out but denied it until it happened. But I survived. I finished (DEATH BEFORE DNF!) and my place was respectable. And above all it was fun and hard and painful and an adventure and above all worth it.
As many reading this know, Western States is a historic race that takes place in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is the oldest 100 Miler in the world and pretty much the Super Bowl of Ultrarunning. Oh, and it’s really hard to get into. Due to permits only 425 applicants get in and over 3500 people applied last year. Applicants have to run a qualifying race which are 100k and longer. Oh, and there are only 79 of these qualifying races on the planet. In 2015 I ran the Laurel Highlands 70.5 for my qualifying race and had a whopping 3.6% chance of getting in via the lottery. So I had to find one for this year. I wanted to run Cayuga Trails 50 this year so Laurel Highlands was out. Looking down the list of 100k races I saw one in Oregon called Waldo. I’ve heard about it before and some amazing elite runners have won it and gone on to win or place well at big races like Western States. A very good friend, Matt, had moved to Portland about a year earlier and it looked like about 3 hours south of Portland. I thought I could turn this into a cool little trip. Rachel and I could fly out, stay at Matt’s house, explore Portland and maybe Bend or Eugene and run the race toward the end of the week. The plans fell together and with a 50/50 chance I got into Waldo via lottery as the race is limited to just 150 runners.
After Cayuga Trails 50, I took my usually week off and jumped back into Sage Canaday’s Advanced 50m-100k Plan that I used the last 6 weeks of to train for Cayuga. This time I had a solid 11 weeks to get into 100k shape. Training went incredibly well. It was a ton of running, 6 days a week with 1-2 quality workouts a week. And those workouts were tough. I felt like I was getting into incredible shape. On easy days and warm ups my tired legs could barely push me fast enough to get my heart rate up to Zone 2. I was getting a little tired and worn down, but no real signs of over-doing it. I spent a lot of time running the mountains above Hamburg, PA getting 20-26 mile long runs in with around 4,000-5,000ft of climb. My biggest week was 84 miles with 11,000′ of climb. I focused on what I thought Waldo would be: long big hills and long downhills. I would end long runs with three miles downhill at sub-7 pace, just smashing my quads. I reached out to Joe Uhan and he described Waldo as big nasty hills but with plenty of runnable +-3% hills to motor along on. I kept my training runs fairly runnable and always tried to finish strong.
But about 4-5 weeks out, I started to feel pain on the inside of my left calf. A similar pain crept in before I ran Steamtown Marathon in 2014. I kept at the training and started regular ice therapy. Maybe I should have backed off but I run through little niggles all the time. But at the same time, all the icing and standing in a trash can full of ice water wasn’t helping much. I’d get out of bed with incredible sore calves and limp down the stairs. My training runs would start with a hobble until about 1/4 mile in things would warm up and I could run fairly normally. The pain still changed my gait which lead to me truncating my left foot plant and coming down hard on my right foot. I ended up with a similar pain in my right calf and eventually sharp pain in my right hip. Once the hip pain hit… things went downhill. My gait was extremely altered and continuing to train really beat me up. But what choice did I have? I have to run this race! And if I’m going to run it… I want to run it as well as I can. So I either backed off and entered the race undertrained and possible still injured… or I keep training and enter the race well trained and most likely still injured. I kept training.
With Sage’s plans, the taper drops volume but not by much. And intensity stays pretty high. I felt good and SHARP going in Cayuga and wanted the same. I was kinda fooling myself, but sometimes you have to. I did start to run the lower end of of miles and reps. I also took an extra day off 2 weeks out and two days off the week of. But after two days off I went out for a shakeout run the day before the race and it did not feel good. Legs and ship still bothered me. I felt terrible. Not good. That week I didn’t get the greatest sleep every night and overall I felt pretty shitty going into the race.
I need to mention how great this state is. If you don’t want to read about my travel, skip this section. That’s why I label them! We saw and did so much before and after the race. We explored Portland, saw so many parts of different neighborhoods, ate great food and hit tourist spots like the Multnomah Falls, The Japanese Garden, The Rose Garden, Mt. Tabor and Voodoo Donuts. Outside of Portland we went to Cannon Beach and saw Haystack Rock (made famous by Goonies) as well as a visit to Bend, which is a REALLY great spot. We stopped at Smith Rock, ate some local Huckleberry Ice cream nearby and hit up Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. So much to do and see. So many different climates and natural settings. We left Bend where is was 93º, drove through dessert and it was 53º at Timberline Lodge and back to lush Fir Trees everywhere.
R.I.P. Pearl Izumi Running:
On the 18th Matt, Rachel and I were traveling around checking out waterfalls and my friend and fellow Pearl Izumi fan Tim messaged me about how PI just announced that they were going to end their running division to concentrate on their key market, cycling. Apparently running was only 11% of PI’s sales. I’m not an expert at business but is someone approached most companies with a plan to add 11% to their sales, I think they would take it. But I guess they felt that employees with split duties could grow their cycling brand more if they didn’t have to deal with running. It’s a shame. I joined their ambassador team this year and on top of a free pair of shoes, the discount was great. There is no other shoe I’ve ever tries (and I’ve tried many) that comes even close to Pearl Izumi, both road and trail. I trained and raced both my sub-3 marathons in the Road N1 and have gone through many pairs of Trail N2s, all three versions. They fit great, the upper is like no other, they transition great not matter how your foot plants, they’re durable (lasting over 500 miles without any peeled tread or holes) and they drain like no other shoe. I recently hosed off a few running shoes and the PIs were hard to fill with water they drained do well while my Hokas filled up and held water long enough i think I saw a tadpole swimming around in them. Bottom line: this sucks. The best running shoe company on earth is no longer and I have to find a new shoe (after I bought another pair for down the road!). Hopefully, someday they bring them back.
Matt and I drove to the race the day before and set up our tent in a patch of woods along the parking lot. The start and finish is located at the Willamette Ski Pass Lodge. The lodge and it’s bathrooms were open to us overnight and they had bagels and coffee starting at 2am. Gotta love that. You get to sleep for free and enjoy running water as well. Very ideal. We made friends with our neighbors David and Amanda and headed over to the pre-race meeting and dinner together. The RDs including the legendary Meghan Arbogast spoke. A lot of attention was given to supplementary salt pills. Basically NOT to use it and evidence from that year’s Western States was used. Interestingly, the aid stations would be serving a Clif Electrolyte drink. I’m not sure what the difference is between supplementary salt in the form of pills or drink mix. Either way… I use Salt Stick pills and was going to use them in the race. The weather in the region is typically fairly cool and dry, but some pretty warm and humid weather was predicted for the race. A forecast was sent out a few days before and on race day it was 15º-20º hotter than normal.
It was obvious a start in the low 50s and a high in the low 70s wasn’t going to happen. I did plenty of heat training, so I wasn’t too worried. I thought maybe the other runners from that region would have a hard time with the heat and it might give me an edge.
After I pigged out on pasta and bread, we went back to the tent and laid down around 9:30pm. A week before the race, forecasts predicted a low of under 50º overnight and since that changed quite a bit it was actually pretty hot in the tent. We opened the windows and I kept hearing trucks buzzing by on the nearby road and sometimes pulling over and the airbrakes sounded like they were 30 feet away. We got settled in our sleeping bags and Matt let out a yelp and it sounded like he slapped the tent wall. I thought maybe a large insect landed on him. Nope. His sleeping pad exploded. A hole blew in it. All week he kept complaining that my eating habits were making him gain weight. At this point I started to believe him. Once his backup pad was set up, he snored on and off. Trucks noises. Bad night’s sleep. Great. I didn’t get great sleep the preceding found nights and not the night before. What are you going to do….
I always come up with some sort of goal based on research of other runners from previous years. It was a little hard to tell because most people who run Waldo are from the west coast. So they’re running races I have no clue about against probably very good competition in probably great weather. So a guy with a similar Ultrasignup Score to me might be MUCH better than I am. Either way, I needed a goal to help give Matt an idea of when I might hit the crew points as well as pacing my hydration and nutrition. I came up with a goal of 10:30-11:00, and top 10. With this goal, I might be hitting many of the aid stations an hour to 1.3 hours apart.
The race has a 16-hour cutoff and starts at 5am. However, they allow early starters at 3am, which gives them 18 hours. The course is 62.5 miles of nearly all single track and has around 11,000ft of ascent and descent. There are 3 major climbs of more than 2000′ each and 2 minor climbs of more than 1000′ each. The high point is 7818′ at the top of Maiden Peak. The low point is at Gold Lake, about 4900′. I myself have never climbed more than maybe 1300′ in one shot, nor have I ever run at more than maybe 1800ft of elevation. The 3 major climbs and the thinner air were all new territory for me.
I got up just before 4, got geared up, ate my Clif Oatmeal and some almond butter and hit the lodge for coffee, half a bagel, and the pre-race bathroom stop. We lined up just before the start and off we went, headlamps showing the way. The race starts with an 1160ft climb in 2 miles. What is a big hill in PA is the intro to this race and the smallest significant hill of the course. About 1/4 mile into itI I noticed my wrist-based heart rate monitor wasn’t on. I tried to pause and unpause and eventually restarted the watch, which fixed it. We all kept power hiking the hill and the leaders weren’t very far ahead. Smart guys. It’s a long day. But there were guys running pass me on 15% inclines. Have at it. One thing unique to this area and other west coast races in arid climates… THE DUST. All these runners trudging up the hill and those trying to run were creating a lot of dust in the air. I couldn’t tell if my breathing was impaired from the thin air of the dust I could see flying into my face, illuminated by my headlamp. I saw a couple guys with bandanas over their mouth and nose. SMART!
After the top of the first hill was about 5 miles of gradual downhill. I was moving ok but I couldn’t really flow down the hills naturally as my legs and hip were worrying me. Afraid of the pounding and unable to have my natural stride, I felt like I was braking a bit too much. Some places were traded back and forth and a guy from Alaska named Eran was right in front of me. We hit some flat spots and he seemed to slow so I passed him. He told me that he was thankful that I was on his heels because his headlamp was fading. We hit the first AS and I gave Matt my headlamp. Between AS1 and AS2 Eran took off and ran a hell of a race.
AS1 was the start of a 2317′ climb to Fuji Mtn. over 6 miles. Sometimes steep, sometimes not. Lots of alternating between hiking and running and even some rolling hills on the way up. I felt easy and steady going up this… but I may have been running it a bit too hard. I’m really not sure. Another runner complimented how good I was uphill. I am not a strong uphill runner. Maybe that was a sign that I should have laid off, but it felt pretty easy. The 5k before the summit had some traffic coming back down due to that section being an out and back. I didn’t know what place I was in and it was confusing due to both race leaders and early starters making their way down. I also swear I saw a guy near the summit walking a beach cruiser looking bicycle. It makes zero sense but I swear I saw it at 7100′ up. The view from Fuji was unreal. Never have I reached at lookout during a race and saw anything like it. You can see the snow capped three Sisters mountains with Waldo lake in between. Just amazing as you can see in the photo I did not take:
From the summit of Fuji Mtn. you go back down the way you came up for about 5k. Again, some tricky traffic as it’s pretty narrow and rocky near the top. Trying to find good footing at a decent speed without catching a toe is tricky while dodging people coming the other way. Another runner was on my heels and he commented that hearing me cheer on the oncoming runners allowed him to concentrate on the narrow, rocky trail instead of oncoming traffic. First I’m another runner’s headlamp and now I’m another runner’s alert system. That’s how it is though. Lots of leaning on and getting leaned on by strangers in ultras. As we descended Fuji I felt the pain in my injured legs and hips and again couldn’t just flow down the trail. I don’t brake a lot on downhills in training runs and I was doing a lot of braking. Not good. After repeating the 5k section there was a section of relentless rollers. Just up and down and up and down, over and over. Like a roller coaster for kids. My already submissive legs were getting beaten. Two guys would pass me over this section and only one would stay ahead of me to the finish. Lots of lonely running after this section.
Once at the bottom the trail slowly climbs 1500′ over 8 miles where you get over one hump, level out and descend a bit then back up another bigger hump. Runnable at some points, too steep at others. This is the first of two climbs on The Twins, which is a dual peak volcano. I was feeling ok though this section but definitely thought to myself, “wow…for as slow as I’m running I feel low energy.” Was it the lack of sleep all week? Was it energy lost braking on descents? Was it the altitude? Was it all three and more? Who knows. But I started to feel like it might be a long day if I’m feeling this tired while running this easy, this early in the race.
During the Pre-race meeting, they talked about course marking and how on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) they had some marker sabotage in the past. In an effort to NOT annoy locals and thru-hikers they used minimal markers and used signage and human monitors to help at important turns. When they said minimal they meant MINIMAL. I ran over 2 miles without seeing a single marker. Granted, this is the PCT in the mountains. Not a local urban park. Not a recreational destination. THE MOUNTAINS. So there really isn’t anywhere to go. It’s singletrack for days with nothing but giant Firs all around you. But I’ve missed turns and gotten lost enough times in other races that I get scared. I was already feeling low and didn’t want to end my day walking back to an AS to drop. At mile 22 I had enough. I saw no one around. I let out a yell and heard nothing back. I thought there was a runner not too far in front of me. So I turned back. about a half mile back I came upon a conga line of 3-4 guys. They assured me I was on the right trail. I turned around and gapped them again only so see a marker maybe 200m past where I turned around in the first place. UGH! Could have been much worse but it came at a bad time.
My energy kept dropping and I came into Charlton Lake AS at mile 32 feeling pretty crummy. Charlton in a beautiful mountain top lake sitting at 5720′. Matt was there waiting and apparently went for a swim in the lake. He said the water was so clear he could see his shadow on the bottom. Before he swam he asked if it was ok and an older woman told him she didn’t care if he swam naked. He thought that was funny and had a blast hanging out at the AS until I got there. I was happy to see Matt and finally get to the AS. I told Matt I was feeling low and he said later that I looked pretty bad. Eat, drink, grab supplies and carry on. That’s all you can do. A volunteer said the next section was runnable but exposed in the hot sun.
For the next 5 miles, I actually felt pretty good. The sun and heat didn’t bother me and I snapped out of my funk a bit. I was moving pretty well. There’s a gradual descent with a could uphills mixed in. Energy wise there were long lows with brief highs. This is just how these races go sometimes. I ran alone for a long time, only running past early starters from time to time.
When the pain in my right hip hit, it was sharp, on every stride and made my leg involuntarily give out for a moment. Any long hike or even just sitting down to get a rock out of my shoe would give it a rest and enabled me to run pain-free for a bit until it came back. Gotta keep moving though.
At one point the trail was slightly diverted due to a bees nest. Not long after I ran past a swarm of bees so loud it sounded like an old window AC unit running. Scared the crap of me. I passed a smaller swarm later.
I was only carrying a single 20oz bottle and ran out of water a few times. The 7.5 mile stretch after AS6 was rough. Miles of slow moving and not water, so no food either as I don’t like to take gels without at least a few sips to wash them down. That stretch went up the bigger climb on the Twins with about 2000′ in 6 miles then partially back down the other side. Near the top I ran through a narrow, dusty path of small firs, possible regrown after logging. The sun was hot, I was thirsty and my bottle was empty. Back into the AS that was 4 and is now 7 and I somehow went in and out without drinking a little extra. I could have also asked Matt at some point for a 2nd bottle. But when I’m low on electrolytes… my brain doesn’t work very well. This is where pacers are great to ask questions and force solutions.
I kept looking back in amazement that no one was catching me. I never hiked so much in a race since the last 10 of Laurel Highlands. I found myself internally saying, “fuckit!” and walking baby hills and mild inclines. I felt like I was moving so slowly and surely a giant conga line would catch me, each pass like a dagger to my pride. But it just never happened. But somewhere between miles 45 and 49 I finally saw someone gaining on me. It was Mark Lantz of Sacramento. I learned he is quite an Ultrarunning legend with 15 years and over 80 races under his Western State silver-buckled belt. He once finished Western States in 17:19! Mark also finished Waldo a little faster or a little slower than my goal time, so it put things in perspective a bit. Mark said he was undertrained, needed to finish for a Western States qualifier and was having a rough day. he said he drank 3 bottles over the 7.5 mile section where I had one. If there’s one thing about me… I don’t need a ton of water. But I sure wish I had a ton over that section.
I kept looking at my watch and thinking, “OK, maybe we can salvage an 11 hour finish. 11:30 at the most. We can rip the last 7 miles which Joe Uhan told me were downhill and runnable”. Yea right. Not that Joe was lying, he wasn’t. It’s just that to finish that strong, I would need decent energy and good wheels. And my wheels were bent and my tire pressure was low. Descents were painful and awkward. I just needed to survive and hopefully not walk it in.
Mark and I came into the Maiden Peak AS at mile 49.9 which is, drum roll… at the bottom of Maiden Peak. There were two guys sitting down at the aid station that I hadn’t seen since the out-and-back on Fuji Mountain (it’s a long day kids, anything can happen). Matt told me he doubted the one guy would finish as he was in pretty bad shape. This mountain is just NASTY. It climbs around 2400′ in 3 miles. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The first half-mile to mile isn’t too bad, which makes the last 2 miles terrible. It is steep and relentless and steep. I mean it’s steep. It took about an hour and 8 minutes to get from the bottom to the top. I’ve never taken that long to climb a hill in my life. Not even close. I’ve also never stopped part way up a climb to take a break… and I can still say that… but I sure as hell considered it. As planned, Matt hiked the hill with me and Mark was right behind Matt. Chatting with Matt and hearing his weird stories about hippy camping trips and bear confrontations helped keep my mind off each grueling step. Near the top, there was false summit after false summit. It felt like a bad dream where instead of falling you’re constantly hiking. Every time It looked like the trees stopped getting higher, the trail bent up another 25-35% incline. The words, “are you fucking kidding me?” and “this is ridiculous” came out a few times. Mark trailed us a bit near the top as I think he was dealing with a blister. Once at the top, we were greeted by 5 or so race staff members including Meghan Arbogast who snapped the photos of Matt and I at the summit. She asked what it was like running there compared to back in PA. I told her we have more rocks and roots and some steep hills, but nothing like what I just did. Nothing nearly as tall and relentless. Mark joined me and we left Matt at the top.
Mark warned that the next section called “Leap of Faith” was a nasty, rocky, steep downhill that was downright dangerous. It was pretty sketchy for a half mile then got a little more runnable. It was two miles of beating on already destroyed quads. At the beginning of our descent, we were both shocked to see the two guys we left at the Maiden Peak AS as well as the 2nd place female and her pacer. WOW! How the hell did they get up than mountain so fast and where did she come from? I can’t imagine the guys who were bonked enough to sit at that AS at the bottom of such a tough mountain and climb it at all let alone that quickly. Mark and I were now running a bit scared. Our time and place didn’t mean much… but we still had SOME pride left. We were now in the top-11 and holding onto that would be nice. Nothing sucks more than getting passed in the last 10% of a race.
Mark and I pretty much ran together, audibly “ooooing” and “owwwwing” on descents. As we were running a little scared we pushed (relatively) good down to the last AS. But it still felt like forever and I ran out of water for what felt like the 100th time. With 7.5 miles to go I spent a little extra time at the AS trying to make sure I didn’t bonk this late in the race. Mark asked if I was ready and he left without me. Maybe a mile or two later I caught back up to Mark and he lead as we jogged and hiked it in together. It was an amazing feeling seeing that finish line. To sprint it out for a stupid place would have been disrespectful and insulting to each other and totally unnecessary. We both had shit races, needed to survive and helped each other do just that. Right before the finish I came up along side him, gave him a fist bump thanking him for the miles he shared with me and we tied for 10th place in 12:38.
Mark and I both found the nearest empty chair and collapsed. I was just ruined. Very tough day. I was honestly lucky that everyone seemed to have a bad day or I would have probably come in over 20th place. The winner finished 2nd last year and his time this year was over an hour slower. We were all out there struggling and only 66% of the starters finished.
I can’t point to one thing that made this a bad day. I mean, going in… I had some injuries. It’s a little crazy to think that something that hurts when I walk my dog will be fine for 62 miles up and down mountains. But you have to be a little crazy to do this shit. You have to ignore some things to get through it. But I can say lack of sleep, the elevation, the injuries, bouts of mild dehydration, running a course for the first time, etc. Either way, it was my worst race of the year. And it was the first time running this course. I always lob off huge chunks of time my second running of a course, but will I ever get to run this again?
I definitely underestimated this course. It’s hard to get an even remotely accurate vision of a course from across the country and looking at a few race reports and elevation profiles. There were more rocks than I predicted, steeper ascents and descents and the single track was often lumpy and pocked.
There’s a weird level of insecurity with the “Beast Coast” runners when it comes to their perception of west coast running. We see 20 mile runs with 5500′ of gain at 8:50 pace and we convince ourselves that it must be a smooth, soft, buffed out trail for them to run that fast. Well, guess what, that’s not the case. The guys turning in those times are just that fucking good. I’ve raced west coast runners at east coast races and they often clean up. They have rocks and steep ascents as well as mountains literally 3-4 times taller than our’s PLUS altitude. I’m not saying runners from the east can’t contend with the west. Of course they can. But to say west runners couldn’t handle PA trails is ridiculous. It’s starting to sound like Tupac vs Biggie out there. Get over it. Better yet, go run a race out there and then tell me how easy it is. I will say though, with this year’s Waldo as an exception… they do have better weather. And fewer bugs.
Overall it was a beautiful yet tough course. Mark told me it’s like a shrunken Western States (which kinda scares the shit out of me after having a rough Waldo). Mark also said the climb to Maiden Peak might be the hardest in any race he had ever ran (not sure if it’s the climb, the point in the race, etc). So that’s a little reassuring. I may return someday as the trip and the race itself was a blast. It’s very well run, well marked (if you have faith in the trail’s lack of options) and the amenities at the start/finish can’t be beat.
Oh, and I also find it neat that I’ve ran and raced on both of America’s most historic and famous trails, The Appalachian trail that I run on almost weekly and now the Pacific Crest Trail!