Saturday, July 2, 2011

Western States: race report

Wow! What a race. After all these months of training and fretting, the big day finally arrived at Squaw Valley and I took my place at 5.00 am with all the other runners, looking forward to a long day of running some beautiful trails. I tried not to think too much about the distance because 100 miles (160km) is a very long way and I figured I would just let the day unfold as best as possible. My pre-race nerves had actually kicked in the day before during registration so I ended up feeling super calm on race morning and felt even better once I'd hooked up with friends Angela and Leslie. Leslie was pacing Angela from Foresthill so after our good luck hugs, we said goodbye to Leslie and Angela and myself pushed our way as close to the front as possible before the countdown had us on our way.

My only goal for this race was to finish under 30 hours and to try to enjoy it as much as possible. I wasn't hung up on exactly when I was going to get over the finishing line so didn't have any split times or anything like that. I did however run with a list of the aid stations and their cut off times as there was always that small niggling doubt of whether I could keep ahead of these.

It was just getting light as we started pushing our way uphill and I was amazed at how many people were out to support us. I even saw some sponsored athletes cheering us on. Once I reached the snow, I found that my legs were feeling pretty nimble and I ended up overtaking loads of people who seemed quite shy of this hard white stuff under our feet. That's one good thing about having lived in Canada for so long - I've gotten very used to being on snow!

Some of the course was a little slick, especially on the snow slopes and I wiped out a couple of times so pulled myself back a little as it's no good getting hurt so early on in this type of race. The scenery was stunning and as the course opened up, I forced myself to take it in as much as possible. It felt like it was going to be a good day. There was a warm breeze and the skies were clear.

I figured that the key to success for this distance, especially in the heat of the canyons, would be to keep myself hydrated and fueled as much as possible. My weight on race morning was 127 and by the time I got to the first aid station, I was down to 124 so this was a good cue to start drinking more and to add some electrolytes. My weight all day only fluctuated by a couple of pounds and when I got on the scale at the finishing line, I was 126.

I think most of my day was occupied with monitoring my food and drink, always looking at my watch and taking a gel or some solid food at regular intervals. I tend to start these long races eating sweet food and I was extremely happy to see chocolate chip cookies at the first few aid stations so I grabbed some of those to munch on inbetween my gels or blok shots. I was impressed that the aid stations had plain gels so I didn't have to gag on all the strong flavours that are usually on offer.

Later on in the day, I switched to saltier foods ... things like Ritz crackers, chips, boiled potatoes etc. I must be honest and say that I love eating during these races and usually have a really good appetite. Western States was no different; I had a solid stomach all the way through which I was very happy with as I passed at least 4 people throwing up on the course and I can't imagine how crappy that must feel, plus how difficult it must be to try and refuel your body after that. I also used Carbo Pro which is a non-tasting powder that you add to your water/nuun and this is a good way of sneaking in some extra calories.

I'd opted to make Michigan Bluff my main aid station and this is where I was picking up my headlamps and also getting changed into dry clothing for the night time section. It was still daylight when I got there but I thought it would allow me to skip through the larger aid station of Foresthill as quickly as possible as I imagined that it would be a gonk show there what with people picking up their pacers and lots of spectators etc. I never had any intention of running with a pacer as I really wanted to do this race by myself and, even though I knew it would be a little more challenging running solo, I also knew that I'd get a kick out of doing it this way. It was quite funny to have people pass me at night telling me how ballsy they thought I was. I'd never dream of running at night by myself at home, but it doesn't bother me in a race. I actually like it. But maybe I'm too tired at that point to really care!

It always surprises me how quickly time passes during these races. I remember looking at my watch at some point and realizing that I'd already been going to 15 hours straight and yet I felt reasonably fresh. I'm sure I was moving fairly slowly but it all felt good. Until the blisters on the bottom of both feet appeared. I can't tell you how painful that is. It felt like I was trying to run on hot coals and the bad news was that I still had 30 miles to go. I was quite relieved when they finally burst as they now just felt like someone was cutting into my feet each time I placed them down. However, there comes a time when you have to suck it up and just get 'er done. I think this part of our British genes - stiff upper lip and all that!!

In some ways, the last 30 miles felt a little easier as the aid stations seemed to string together nicely and I managed to get myself a steady pace - not fast, but at least moving forward. I hadn't seen Angela since the race started and I assumed that she was still ahead of me so I tried to pick up my pace a bit in the hope of maybe catching her up (I found out later that she was actually behind me and was suffering from knee problems - hardly surprising considering the amount of downhill elevation involved). I was also wondering how my friend Ellie was doing as I'd been hoping that she'd come in as first female (she's super speedy!) The one aid station wasn't sure but once I got to Highway 49, they were able to confirm that yes, Ellie Greenwood was first female! I can't tell you how elated I felt. Somehow it put a spring in my step and I was off, ready to knock off the final few miles to the finishing line.

There's a section between Highway 49 and No Hands Bridge which is the prettiest section of the race - lucky for me, I was running across this during daybreak and it was amazing. It's an area which is open and flat, with beautiful long soft grass and gorgeous soft billowing trees - it's like something out of a poster.

I managed to make my way down to No Hands Bridge without too much pain. My feet were in a stable state of painful numbness and my quads were still screaming, but were losing their voice. I was starting to realize that I was going to make it afterall! I was surprised at how early it was in the morning and didn't feel in a massive rush to get finished because I had nothing at the finishing line and they didn't start serving breakfast until later in the morning so it seemed pointless breaking my butt to finish, just to sit around waiting. So I kept to as good a pace I could maintain without stressing over the hour.

And finally I got to the very last aid station and pavement. Who would have thought that a paved road would look so good?!! It was surprising to see so many people out on this warm morning and how fantastic they were at cheering us on. I managed to overtake quite a few folks on the last stretch and then ran onto the track of the high school for the final push to the finishing line. I can't tell you how excited I was. I was laughing, pumping my arms, clapping my hands, giggling ..... what an amazing journey! I crossed the finishing line in 26:11 hours. I was so proud of myself for keeping myself strong, looking after hydration/nutrition and remaining happy throughout.

A ton of work goes into these events. In some ways, us racers have it easy. The course is marked, there are aid stations set up in remote areas, all of them have ice to put in with your fluid, the volunteers are amazing - they go out of their way to treat you like an Olympian and thousands of hours of trail work and paperwork is done well before race day. My job was to show up, run as best as I could and to enjoy it as much as I could. And that I did. Thank you Western States for making this such a special event.