The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, whats the big deal? Why does everyone want to run this race? People keep asking me this question and I often asked myself about the hype that surrounds this race. Its just another 100 mile race, isn’t it? after doing 10 other 100 mile races since I did this one in 2007, I have to say, its not.
The Western States (WS100) is not just another race! It’s the oldest organized trail 100 mile race in our country and boasts over 18,000 ft of climbing and 22,970 ft of descending. The spirit of its history and nostalgia along with the positive energy and organization put forth by the race directors and volunteers is unrivaled. During the entire race, the aid station volunteers and spectators make you feel like a rock star, an elite athlete even if your name is not Geoff Roes, or Tracy Garneau.
During the months of December, January & February I was unable to run or do any cardio work without severe pain in my foot from a mountain biking injury I received earlier in the year (another story). I geared my training towards strength training that included foam rolling, mobility work, core & stability movements, kettlebells and training ropes. I had to pretty much put WS100 on the back burner and let time go by with the focus being on healing. Initially when I gained entrance in to the WS, I was over joyed with excitement, I have been experiencing a pretty mean streak of luck within the last couple of years when It came to ultra running lotteries and this race holds special meaning to most ultra runners. But my foot was taking its time to heal and I knew there was probably no way for me to be in good enough shape to accomplish my original goal let alone the mighty goal of sub 24 hours.
By March I started completing solid weeks of training by cycling and some running, I still wasn’t sure if I was going to run the WS100. Our final decision was made at the end of May that we would go to WS and I would embrace it as a long training adventure on tired legs. Joe and I planned my schedule for April, May and June to be big blocks of training which would leave me without a solid taper. A month leading into the race I had my last 3 week training block which included 2 x 40+ mile runs and a 50 mile training run that was ran exactly 2 weeks before the WS100. During this time I felt great and I was gaining the much needed confidence of knowing I could finish Western States. The desire, passion and fitness was there, now all I needed was to get to the finish line.
5 days before the 2011 Western States 100 we were told the race was being run on a modified course due to the insane amount of snow fall the area received over the winter. This meant the runners would have to navigate over 13 miles of snow without aid stations and we would not be able to see our crews until mile 55 at Michigan Bluff or the Foresthill Aid Station at mile 62. I was concerned as it seemed everyone was with traversing many miles on snow being unable to use traction devices such as yaktraxs or micro-spikes. Drop bags were essential and I was okay with this even though I generally don’t use drop bags. My plan was to have a drop bag at mile 20, the Poppy aid station and mile 32, Mosquito ridge, with both containing extra socks, shoes, clothing essentials, coconut water, Perpetuem, other nutrition necessities and then I would meet Joe at the Foresthill AS, mile 62 for a major tune-up, if necessary.
Nervous energy and excitement filled the chilly early morning air. We stood talking and for me shivering but I knew my shivering would soon come to an end as we started our charge up the 2500 ft climb that stood before us to escarpment aid station. I decided to walk the first 3 miles briskly to activate my muscles so they would be ready to run when I got to the top. We followed a pretty steep dirt road that switched back to the top of the escarpment, if I was going to the top and coming back down I could probably run it but this was the start of a 100 mile race & I needed to be conservative. As I looked to the right the sunrise took my breathe away, then as I looked behind me I saw a swarm of runners making their way up and as I looked ahead, I saw the leaders running, deep introspection was already beginning. What a day we are about to have!
We made it to the top where the snow began, the photographers and spectators seemed to line the whole section up until this point, its as if they were sending us off into the unknown. My first foot placement on the snow was a very familiar feeling, my feet knew exactly how to run and where to run. I usually train through the winter months but this year I didn’t get to take one step on the snow other than during my snowshoe wedding in the ADK. However, all of my snow running skills quickly came back. I know it sounds silly but really its helpful if you know where to step and not to step.
For instance, the temps were freezing at the top so I knew not to step in an old foot step because it would definitely be icy, it’s better to create a new step or to step over it. This was not like running on a flat path covered in snow this was running on an uncambered surface of a mountain side with the potential of a steep fall on both sides. Runners were falling all over the place, some were even wearing minimalist road shoes and having a tough time, crazy stuff! You had to be very careful but not too careful, running with too much fear would definitely cause you to end up on your rear sliding down the mountain or causing danger to the runners trying to get around you. It was very much like technical trail running, short strides with fast feet made all the difference. I loved it even though at times I thought of how tired my legs were going to be when they finally hit the dirt.
15 miles went pretty quickly we were already heading into Talbot aid station mile 18.5 right before this we had to forge a roaring river that for me was pretty deep but short in length. I told the guys around me aggressively, “hey your going to have to give me some space, its up to my waist, be careful not to push me in”! Holy crap! The water was cold it took me a couple of minutes for me to gain my composure and start running again. I chanted to myself, "no blisters, no blisters". I continued on to Talbot, topped off my hydration pack, grabbed some gu’s and headed out feeling good, my hydration and nutrition were right on track. The next section was unbelievable, we skirted around a turquoise lake on single track covered in soft pine needles.
I met up with a fellow runner from LA we were going the same pace so decided to chat and stick together for a while. He had music, my head phones were waiting for me at the Mosquito Ridge AS mile 31. I told myself I wasn’t going to put mine on until mile 50 but listening to him talk about his play list was breaking me down. We ran along admiring the beauty and talking about other races we have done, the miles were ticking by and soon we were at the next aid. I quickly left this aid station and it was at this time I started to think maybe I can do this in 24 hours, man wouldn’t it be nice to get that silver buckle! From this point on the buckle took over my brain. The Western States 100 offers a silver belt buckle to those who finish in 24 hours or under or a Bronze belt buckle for those who finish in 30 hours. Just completing the race is an awesome accomplishment but to do it in 24 hours would be fantastic especially on a course with over 18,000 feet of climbing.
Mosquito ridge aid station mile 31
Every aid station had a small sign that stated the time you had to be at this aid station if you were on track for a 24 or 30 hour finish. I approached the aid station, yelled out my number, “133!” the volunteers were so awesome, they would find your drop bag and aid you through the station to make sure you had everything. This is where I dropped my hydration pack and went with 2 water bottles. I placed one in my Nathan 028 race vest and the other I carried. I Had some Perpetuem, coconut water, grabbed my headphones, looked at the time of day which looked like I was 13 minutes behind than 24 hour pace. I Headed out, turned my tunes on and everything was great! But I know from experience 100 miles is a long way and things can change rapidly, doom could be lurking around any corner.
From this point on we would be on the original course so I knew the canyons were coming along with the heat. The next section had 2 miles or so of road that I knew I could run even though some of it was uphill but again in fear of blowing up I slowed my pace and focused on my goal of 24. I ran through Millers Defeat and Dusty Corners AS, now on my way to Last Chance AS mile 43.8. My mind kept thinking about getting to Foresthill without trashing your quads. I left Last Chance heading to Devils thumb, this climb is tough, especially after blazing down 2 miles of endless, I mean what seems to be endless down hill which you think is easy but its not! You finally get to the bottom, cross a bridge, cool your self off in the stream if you choose and start heading back up. Oh boy, this is tough, one foot at a time, one switch back at a time... I would get to the corners, take 10 seconds, then push on.
I was behind on calories and my legs behaved in that manner, like dead weights, I struggled to get one foot in front of the other with 1 mile to go till the AS. My spirits were still positive but my legs were headed in the opposite direction quick. Some other runners were really hurting, puking, legs buckling etc.. I was moving slow, it felt like 1 mph. During my 10 second breaks I would take a moment to look around at the view and remind myself of how lucky we all were that we were healthy enough to traverse this beautiful mountain range by foot. I would really get worked up, teary eyed by the magnitude of what we were all doing, whether you were doing it in 15 hours or 30, its a pretty unique feat.
I made it to the top feeling pretty good even though the way up I was entertaining myself by shouting expletives. Devils thumb aid station is always an evil one, the wonderful volunteers like to offer you ice pops and a chair, it takes a lot of strength to say no thank you and carry on.
Michigan bluff- huff huff
Sometimes this climb seems harder than the devils but not this time, its not as steep but its long and very hot! The driving force behind this climb for me is that I will be more than half way done with the race and almost to Foresthill mile 62 where I get to see Joe for the first time. I was weighed and headed out eating watermelon which was very interesting because on a normal day I hate it. However, I love certain fruits that are cold during a race, especially when its heating up. Leaving Michigan Bluff AS I recognized a fellow New Jersey resident Tim who was there to support one of his teammates Dan from the Animal Camp. He asked me if I had a pacer and I said nope and he said he would see if he could find one at Foresthill, I said okay.
I headed down the road running feeling strong but again aware of my 24 hour goal. I was still 10 minutes or so behind the 24 hour goal pace. This portion is a mix of dirt road which is up hill then crests into a nice single track down hill section that leads you to a shorter climb up to bath road. Still in good spirits I manage to pass a couple people during this section, made it to bath road and guess who was there, Joe! yay! I didn’t stop at the aid station just kept walking strong and talking to Joe about my day. He walk/ran with me uphill for 1.5 miles until we reached Forresthill road.
I was on such a high when I reached the Forest hill aid station my legs were feeling better. Spectators lined the road cheering on runners, the energy of everyone was awesome! I came into the aid station area asking for a pacer, I really thought I should have one especially since the silver buckle was still an option if I pushed hard. I kept moving through the aid station looking for where Joe was set up. At first I couldn’t find Joe or the car so I kept moving then Joe yelled out that he was finding a pacer, then a man came behind me and said I’ll pace ya my name is Myles and I said sweet.
Joe joined us and pointed us in the direction of the car. We proceeded to introduce ourselves and quickly talked about my goal of 24. Myles was an old time local Western States runner he knew every inch of the course and has completed it 4 times. Its pretty interesting meeting a stranger at mile 62 of a 100 mile race but I felt we would work well together, my spirits were high. I left Foresthill heading into the night with a complete stranger, yet he wasn’t. He was very aware of what I have been through and what it took to get to the finish line & some times its not pretty. A short while after we started running he told me he just finish the Bighorn 100 over the previous weekend in the back of my mind I thought wow I hope he will be able to keep up.
My pace was pretty strong going into the AS at mile 65.7, there was little talking done other than me shouting over the music pumping in my ears about how beautiful our surroundings were. I tried to think about other things besides the time ticking by on my watch. Headed to mile 70, at this point my mind becomes fixated on getting to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. I know I need to get here before 11:00pm, this way I could have 6 hours to climb up to Green Gate mile 80 and make it to the finish.
Mile 70.7 Peachstone AS. Oh gosh! For those of you who think it’s flat or mostly downhill to Rucky you are mistaken. There are a couple of steep switch back climbs on from Foresthill to Rucky Chucky and every time I hit one my pace would slow and I knew the feat of continuing to press for sub 24 hours was not going to be easy. The automated guy on my shuffle informed me of some terrible news, that my battery was low. I knew I had to conserve my rockin playlist until mile 85 to get me through the rest of the race. I asked Myles to tell me a story but all of his stories seemed to be about the race and I wanted a complete distraction. I listened with an open mind, laughed and then carried on by this point we turned on our lights and I noticed Myles falling behind me, some times I would stop to be sure he was okay but then told myself I can’t worry about it to much and carried on.
Many other runners were shooting for the same goal, I would hear loud shouting words of encouragement, come on, looking good, keep it going, keep your eye on the shiny silver buckle. Kinda pissed me off because the pressure was getting to me. Myles caught back up and ran with me all the way to Rucky Chucky 78, I looked down at my watch 10:52. I tried to get to the other side as quickly as I could. I walked down the stone steps, placed a life vest on, yes a life vest, shared a ride with fellow runners who were going the same pace and we enjoyed a little boat ride across the American River, very cool! Joe should be waiting for me on the other side to walk with me up to green gate. Far side Rucky Chucky the clock read 11:00pm, 6 hours to run 22 miles after already running 78. Can I do it?
Rucky Chucky far side the plan was for me to change my shoes and socks but there was no time for this. The raft stopped, I got out and kept right on moving through the aid station. I knew Joe or Myles would catch up. I charged up looking back for them, soon they would join me. I ate and drank my way up the hill talking and laughing, yes I still haven’t hit any emotional or any terrible physical lows. I got to Green Gate mile 80, had some chicken soup which is a complete addiction of mine during a 100 miler, said ciao to Joe and headed out feeling pretty good.
20 miles to go!
During this section I focused on getting to Highway 49 AS at mile 93.5 with enough time to complete the 8 miles to the finish. I quickly moved through Auburn AS mile 85.2 & Browns Bar AS mile 89.5.. Man these were the longest miles and my Calorie intake was on the low side, but food is not looking good. In and out of each aid station. My mind solely focused on getting to Highway 49. During this time I’m losing hope & motivation, “who cares”, I would tell myself, “so I’ll make it in 24:10 or maybe I’ll just walk it in from here and enjoy just being in the woods to the finish”. Getting to Highway 49 challenged every part of me. Myles disappeared, I don’t know where? From Green gate (mile 80) on was kind of a blank. I’m starting to think I will not be able to make it. On ward to Highway 49 mile 93.5, Uhhh! This section pissed me off, at first it turned into a nice rolling slightly rocky dirt road that turned into another climb that seemed to take years off my life. No music, just me headed towards mile 93.5 and maybe Joe will be there to uplift my spirits, if I ever get there. I would shine my light ahead to see if there was any reprieve, nope, I said screw it, I looked down at my watch by the time I get to Highway 49 I will have 1 hour & :20 minutes to go with what I thought was 8 miles left. There is no way, I can barely do that on this terrain during the day when feeling fresh.
Finally pulled in to Highway 49 mile 93.5. Yes, Joe was there, he quickly gave me some nutrition and I looked at him with sadden eyes, with a whiny voice and I said, “I’m not going to make it”. I’m so disappointed, like a child who lost her best friend. He walked me out of the aid station for a mile trying to lift my spirits and of course it was uphill. We talked, he got me to the top and said come lets run, I said okay but it would really suck If I made it to the line in 24:02. He said you can do it, its only 7 miles from Highway 49 and I said what?? I thought it was 8+... shoot maybe I can... He left and I kept going. I remembered this section from 2007 and I knew it was pretty easy running to No Hands AS at mile 96.8. I ran along, stumbling in sections. I remembered I was conserving my battery life on my iPod, I checked to see if it was working, YES, perfect! I ran along, I saw the lights shining from the No Hands AS.
I pulled in, shouted out my number, grabbed a gu and one of the Volunteers said hey 133 some ones here for you and I looked back, it was Myles he got a ride some how to No Hands and met me to try to lead me in. How awesome, just what I needed. I quickly thanked him as we walked/ran. I was too tired to ask how he got there, I was just happy he was. I drank some coke and got moving the best I could, he ran with me for about a mile until I felt myself pull away. I turned my head to check to see how far back he was I, noticed runners barreling towards me at a pace that was as if they just started. It was Sandi Nypaver and her pacer running strong, I latched on to the back and manage to keep their pace for about 1/2 mile but my legs were done. I slowed back down to a jog, made it to the base of the switch backs leading up to our final check point at Robie point, mile 98.9. I tried to walk as fast as I could, I told myself If I don’t make it I have to know I gave it all I could! I walked through Robie Point, announced my number and kept moving.
From this point on we were on pavement. My eyes searched for the painted orange feet on the road that would lead me to the finish. I heard screams from the aid station, go Elizabeth! You can do it! They must of just realized what I was trying to accomplish. Of course there was a short uphill, I did everything I could to run but I just couldn’t. I looked down at my watch in fear of what it would tell me, it read 4:52 am, 8 minutes to go 1.3 miles, shit and a host of other words came out of my mouth. Two spectators were walking up saying come on push but I am suffering, I said "I wish I could" and then I screamed a bit to muster up any ounce of energy I had left and then thoughts came to me about a run 2 weeks ago when I led a charge downhill at a 5:50 pace at the end of a 50 mile training run with my teammates, I some how found another gear! I want this I shouted! Come on! Pain flooded my body as I sprinted with all my might. I turned the last corner that would lead me to the famous track, I shouted to people “where is the entrance”? My feet hit the track and my mind fled to my old high school track days, the crowd was screaming, Joe was yelling! I took off, coming into the final straight away, Andy Jones Wilkins and others yelled throw down your bottle, etc. GO Elizabeth, GO!!! I made it, 23:59:44. I was in complete shock! I made it and guess what, I never had to change my shoes, socks, skirt, shirt or hand-helds, thank god because I would not have made it, there was not a second to spare.
I’m inspired more than ever to continue to train hard & maybe one day soon I will be in the top 10 of a race of this magnitude, after all this where all the top runners in the world toe the line. I am very happy to have the silver buckle and to have been the 20th women to cross the line, especially after being sidelined due to an early season injury. I leave this race knowing I had a wonderful time out there and gave 100%. I am truly in awe of the front runners and their ability. Thank you to Joe, Myles, Mountain Peak Fitness/Campmor Trail running team, race directors and all the volunteers who truly make this race a historic adventure. A big thanks goes out to our sponsors Campmor.com, NathanSports, Saucony and Darn Tough Socks, thanks for the support!