Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Western States 100 Race Report

Incredible to be crossing that finish line. Overwhelming.

I wrote a pretty detailed post on what went right for me at WS100. I may touch on some of those topics here, but I will leave out any real detail to save on space. And, I am going to do things a bit different and separate the race into logical parts instead of aid-by-aid as there were twenty-one of them.

One of the great parts about running Western States is that there is no shortage of information on-line: race reports, opinions, articles, blogs, etc.. You can literally drive yourself mad with information. I took all of it in, but tried to keep my mind open to how things would unfold on race day. While I am at it, I could say this over and over again, so I'll just say once that the race is absolutely phenomenally well done. The aid stations are unrivaled in any ultra that I've done -- lively, helpful, well-stocked, and uplifting. It was incredible to have them so frequently late in the race just to allow you to break the race into manageable chunks. Execute for an hour and there would be another aid station where you could recharge.


We arrived in Squaw on Thursday afternoon and went to the crew meeting right away. Of course, we took the required "under the start line" picture that every runner takes. Pretty exciting stuff. It felt quite warm -- in the high 80's at 6000 feet. It wasn't super concerning to me because I knew Saturday and Sunday were the best weather days in the forecast. Later that evening my buddy Steve arrived and we hung out in our shared cabin and shared lots of pre-race banter. This is always one of the most memorable parts of a race like this, just hanging out with friends and family. It was quite remarkable how everyone pitched in to cook, clean and just keep the show moving! Everyone wanted to rest and soak up the experience, but things needed to get done. Having a few moms on the support crews always helps in that regard (as well as other areas).

With my crew/pacers on Thursday.

Friday is a bit more business as the runners must check-in and attend a required race meeting in the afternoon. Like everything at WS100, the runner check-in was smooth and well organized. They move you along from station to station -- pictures, weigh-in, gear bag -- like a machine. And the gear is amazing, hundreds of dollars in swag: arm warmers, Mountain Hardware bag, race shirt, buff, two hats, and more. Incredible.

While Friday was more about business, we still managed to find some time to goof around and watch our pacers run the Montrail Vertical 6K Challenge, a free race open the day before WS100. There was a slight course re-route this year, but they still had fun.

Chuck and Mike all smiles before heading uphill!

After the hustle of the morning and afternoon, we went back to our cabin and just relaxed. Everyone wanted to watch USA against China in the Women's World Cup as we relaxed and prepared for a hectic Saturday morning. Once the race started, the crews had to check out and then race us to Duncan Canyon (mile 23). It is deep in the canyons and a three hour long drive for them. I hadn't slept well on Thursday night so I took a Tylenol PM to help me fall asleep. That was a great move because I got without a doubt the best night of sleep pre-100 that I've ever had. I even woke to use the restroom at 2 am and immediately went back to sleep, no restless thoughts at all.

High Country (Start to Dusty Corners)

Steve and I both had the idea to start easy, so we nestled ourselves back a bit at the start line. The shotgun went off and we ran about 100 yards before settling into a hike up the resort road. It didn't take long for me to realize that Steve wasn't going to hang with me. I began grinding on some of the flatter parts of the climb to keep from averaging 20 min miles up the road and he quickly let me go. The dirt road was pretty as you climbed up away from the valley floor. They turn on the resort lights so you don't need a headlamp and the sun comes up quickly, allowing you to see the beautiful terrain.  Before long you climb the Escarpment, which is a steep, single-track hill right before the summit. And then we began heading downhill toward Lyon Ridge.

Climbing the Escarpment

After talking with a couple of friends that ran the race previously, I was prepared for this section, but the trail back here wasn't easy. It was typical high alpine trail: rocky, full of wild flowers, over grown with vegetation and had a few marshy sections from remaining run-off. This isn't the kind of trail you could bomb, particularly with a conga line of runners all around you. It really would have taken a runner that was obviously below your speed to even want to pass, which I only did a few times. This situation remained until the final stretch into Lyon Ridge, which turned to runnable double track. Along this final stretch to aid, I met my first on-course veteran that told me just to be patient. He had made his way up from 200+ places back and nearly Silver Buckled a few years back. His theory was to "own the night". That was good advice for me as I came through Lyon Ridge in 182nd place, though I didn't know that for many hours to come.

From Lyon Ridge to Duncan Canyon, the course reminded me a lot of sections of the San Juan Solstice 50, without the altitude. It was beautiful alpine running through forested areas and along some ridges with beautiful views. While it was net downhill, there were plenty of uphill sections to keep you guessing and constantly evaluating your work rate. This was the one section where I had lots of questions about my slow start, knowing I was nearing 15 mins behind pace already. These debates in my head would last for a few hours, but I never made panic decisions. I arrived at Duncan Canyon (mile 23) ready to see crew so I could pick up my hot weather gear -- it was heating up big time. The aid station felt hurried even though I was very precise in telling them what I wanted. My sister seemed a little concerned so I assured them that I had been eating and things were going well. As an aside, I think all the WS100 aid stations felt a bit hurried because there are so many people talking to you -- crew, pacer, volunteers. You have to make a lot of decisions and process lots of thoughts!

Cruising on the high alpine ridges on my way to Duncan Canyon

Switching to my desert strategy with a cool buff and hat at Duncan Canyon.
Giving precise demands to my crew!

Eating an Epic Bar, solid food was good to me all day

One other general observation before I move on, the WS100 course is dusty! You were literally eating dust from runners as they ran by you. You can see it all over my shirt and legs in the above photo from just running -- I was not yet wet nor had I fallen.

After leaving Duncan Canyon, there is a bit more technical downhill as you head toward canyon bottom. One of the other race veterans (he was running for his 10th buckle) I ran into on the course said he thought the climb to Robinson Flat was worse than the canyon climbs. Now having done them all, he may be right. It was longer, more technical and in the direct sunshine. It was the only climb of the day that I would remotely say I struggled on. And, now that I have had time to reflect and hear others' thoughts, it seems this was indeed a critical point in the race. Many of the runners suffered as it was hotter than normal this early in the day. It seems this climb effectively ended the race for a good portion of the field. Nonetheless, I made it to the top in good shape and was rewarded with a hopping aid station where I got cooled down.

There is a small bit of climbing after Robinson before you embark on the downhill half marathon to Last Chance aid station. Honestly, it never felt that downhill and there were plenty of rolling hills to compensate. Halfway through the marathon I arrived at Dusty Corners (mile 38 and appropriately named!) to see my crew again. I asked and they said Steve was struggling but they were having a hard time telling for sure because the on course tracking seemed goofy for him. I once again refueled and got cooled off before continuing onto the canyons. This time, a helpful volunteer filled my buff with ice and formed a bit of a pouch to hold it. Wow did that slowly melting ice feel great on the back of my neck!! I tried to make the most of this visit because it would be over four hours before I saw my crew again, including the two big famous canyon climbs. Somewhere along this stretch I noted from my watch that we had climbed nearly 7,000 feet in the first 30 miles of the course, or just a few hundred feet less than the Dirty 30 I had run early this year. Clearly, the high country is a tough 30+ miles of ultra running.

The Canyons (Dusty Corners to Foresthill)

Leaving Dusty Corners, I remained with a couple of guys that I would see a lot more over the next 14 hours. One finished slightly behind me and one slightly in front. One of them, Chris, had some experience on the course; I never quite figured out if he had done the the event before or just the training runs. I began asking him questions about our pace and if 24 hours was reasonable, to which he replied that he had us on 23 hour pace. He said we would be able to make up time on Cal Street and the traditional pacing for 24 hours was bunk. He seemed so confident that I took some mental energy from it and I began using him as a pacer. If he walked, I'd walk. My crew had given me an iPod at Dusty Corners and I felt strong and ready to push it, but I knew it was too early. That is one mistake I've made several times in past. On our way to Last Chance, we ran past Pucker Point, which was one of the more beautiful sections of trail I've seen. I even stopped a moment to admire the view.

At Last Chance (mile 43) aid station, I had four people cooling me off at one time! It is amazing the work they do. They once again filled my buff with ice too. A kind volunteer gave me a brief run down of what was to come and I shook his hand before leaving the aid station. I hurried out of the stations just so I could to keep following Chris. I was kind of zoned out and chatter was minimal, but it was a good way to continue feeling confident with my effort level. After a few miles he announced "here comes the fun", and we proceeded to drop straight down into the canyon. It was very hot and the downhill was relentless and reasonably technical. It really sucked the energy out of me and my mind got a little down. My downhill "skills" were on full display and I could hear people catching up to me as the temperature got higher and higher in the full sun exposure. The descent went on for a long time and I was braking the whole way. We finally got to the bottom and I followed another runner into the American River to cool off before crossing the Swinging Bridge and heading up the canyon wall. The river was plenty deep and I got wet up to my waist before bending over and dunking my head. I didn't lay down because I kept my pack on the whole time.

My attitude changed immediately when going uphill, mostly because I could tell I was climbing better than everyone. The canyon climbs are not as bad as advertised, in my opinion, since they are on the shaded side of the canyon. I easily caught everyone that passed me on the way down, and a few more that were really struggling and starting to fall apart in the heat. When I got to Devil's Thumb aid station at the top, I was instantly picked up gain by a rockus aid station. I did make a smart choice to take off my shoes and empty rock as well as tighten the lace job, the latter I'd wanted to do for 20 miles now. After another cold water rinse, I was off to Eldorado Creek.

The descent was once again a real bugger. This time I even walked sections just to stop braking all the time. At the bottom, I decided not to get wet in the river because there was an aid station and I let them drench me in water instead. My momentum was starting to build with each aid station and I could feel it. The rhythm and pattern to my day were going perfect. And, the heat and the canyon climbs (starting at Robinson) just weren't bothering me as much as the field. Heat training? I still didn't know any placements, but I knew that I was moving up just by being consistent and leaving aid stations ahead of other runners. My mental energy was continuing to grow. I once again pushed hard up the climb. The second half is even a bit runnable, so I ran sections of it!

Emerging from the climb and into the Michigan Bluff was one of the highlights of the day. Again, a very energetic aid station full of people cheering me on. It was good to see my crew after such a long time and completing both the big canyons climbs. I could have stood there all day and soaked up the energy from that crowd, very cool...

Arriving at Michigan Bluff and looking for my crew.

Getting the full service cool down at Michigan Bluff
Chuck and my sister were noticeably excited to see me and it almost seemed they weren't expecting me so soon. It turns out they barely made it there in time and they could also sense my momentum building with each aid station. They had been in text contact with our friend Jon and learned that I was moving up in the race quickly (now 91st). Between the excitement of my crew and all the crowd support, I got a real emotional high and was amped to get moving into the third of the three in the "canyons" portion of the course, Volcano Canyon. Volcano is the smallest of the three and I managed to move through it without much issue, other than the steep parts of the descent again. My right knee was starting to really bug me from all the downhill.

At the top of Volcano Canyon, Chuck was waiting to greet me at Bath Road (mile 60). He was smiling at the sight of my progress and we gave the Bath Road climb a pretty good power hike heading into Foresthill. I acknowledged to Chuck that I knew 24 hours was in play and that I wanted to push for it. However, as we had previously discussed in meetings, we had to be careful to not lose our heads, pounding down Cal Street at record pace. Just as importantly, we had to keep with the rhythm and pattern that we'd had all day -- staying cool, nutrition -- everything had to continue. The first order of business was making another wise decision and taking 10 mins at Foresthill to change socks, add a knee brace to my aching right knee, tape my blistered left foot, and rub some "magic stuff" on my sore quads. This aid station is the largest in the race and another big pick me up as huge crowds of people cheered me on.

Rolling into Foresthill with Chuck

Cal St (Foresthill to the river)

It was great to have a pacer and run some cruiser hills on benign trail as we caught up on the day's events. Chuck was texting from behind me like mad and keeping me up to date on the race results, Steve's status (dropped from the race), and what my sister was doing. We were able to clip along at an 11 or 12 min pace as we made up time on the course and tried to make the daylight last. Cal-1 was a quick stop as we refueled and continued heading down. Somewhere along here I remarked to Chuck just how incredible this course is and how much I enjoyed it. Gorgeous trail. Scenes from "the movie" resonated: Kilian and Anton pounding down the steeper-than-you-think downhill as Geoff Roes regrouped behind them.

By the time we approached Cal 2 (mile 70), we needed headlamps. I wasn't disappointed to have gone nearly 16 hours and 70 miles without a headlamp so far. Night running was a theme in my training and I was ready to put it to the test. As a limited aid station, they didn't have any cold water, so I had to cool off with cups of water and ice before moving. Each time we'd get going again it took a few minutes of will power to run. Then the pain would ease and momentum carried me. I finally understood Ken Chlouber's famous quote: "the toughest distance to manage is the 5 inches between your ears". I could run. If I could get my mind to push my body, the pain would subside and I could run. It felt good to finally be pushing through that barrier on my third attempt.

By the time we reached Cal 3 (mile 73), my tolerance for the downhill was disappearing. My left foot was getting more and more sore as was my right knee. I was still moving quite well, but each successive mile was more and more painful. While I was slowly chipping away a few minutes at a time from the 25 minute gap (on 24 hour pace) I'd created hours earlier, I just couldn't seem to catch the number. Arriving at the river (mile 78), I was having my first really bad low of the day and took my only gel of the entire run. I was sick of downhill running and felt a bit overheated. And, after being the hunter all day, I was starting to get passed by some runners I'd seen earlier in the day. I really wanted to get to the river badly. Honestly, I wanted to go uphill.

My sister was waiting for us at the near side of the river and I got a full reload, even eating more solid food and preparing for another long stretch. I also put my iPod back in to zone out for a bit. The river is a big mental boost because you know you are in the home stretch. It is another iconic part of the race and didn't disappoint. The entire rope across the river had a volunteer every few feet and they dropped glow sticks in the water so you could see the rocks and avoid tripping. The water was a bit more than waist deep at the highest point, but I still laid down on the other side to get totally soaked and cool off. The entire process eats up a bit of time, but it was a much needed boost of mental energy and I wish I had stayed in the water 30 seconds longer.

Crossing the river at night demands attention!

My expert pacer, Chuck, with his phone in hand and ready to text

The Finish (River to Auburn)

Once on the other side, we grabbed our drop bag of warm, dry clothes (that we didn't need) and then started up the climb to Green Gate. Before long, I started running the climb, happy to be going uphill for a change. Each successive aid station got harder, but they kept ticking off every hour or so. We'd arrive, cool off, grab some quick snacks and keep moving. It was well after midnight and I was still getting soaked every chance I got. I was running the entire time, though I wasn't generating much power and was plodding along at basically a 15 min pace with stoppage (aid stations, urinating, etc...). However, 24 hour pace assumes a huge decline in performance after the river. I finally began making up time on 24 hour pace -- in huge chunks now. We arrived into Auburn Lakes Trail (mile 85) 20 minutes up on pace. The doctor approached me and said "how are you feeling?". I quickly replied "well, I've run 85 miles. Everything hurts". The entire aid station let out a quick chuckle. Then he continued quizzing me about my urine. "I am going frequently and it is clear", I informed him. I don't think he was overly concerned about me honestly. There was just no one else to check-in on and he was doing his job.

My last aid station with Chuck was Brown's Bar and we were now 25 mins up on 24 hour pace. The pain in my right knee and left foot was becoming unbearable and my motivation to run was waning quickly. Running downhill was near impossible (but I kept trying) and every rock I stepped on sent shooting pain into my left foot and usually resulted in some cursing. I tripped on a few "cow holes" and twisted my left ankle. Things were really unraveling and I was starting to feel a bit negative after being mostly positive the entire day. But, I still managed a good uphill gait and kept from dropping too many spots in the race by passing people back on climbs. And, since we weren't death marching, the miles were passing by reasonably quickly!

Hwy 49 in the dark -- the climactic aid station in "Unbreakable" where we learn Anton had been passed.

I think Chuck sensed (or maybe I said it out loud?) that I was hoping to walk it in with my sister. On our way to reaching Hwy 49, I knew that 24 hours was in the bag. He pleaded with me not to just quit and keep pushing on for a better time. One of my requests of my crew and pace team was to keep pushing me through the entire day. But, I didn't care anymore. My goals was accomplished as long as I kept moving. Little did I know that my sister was being given pacing advice NOT to let me walk it in.

We arrived at Hwy 49 and had a somewhat awkward exchange as my sister took her place as pacer and Chuck took over crew duty. This required a bit of precision that we didn't quite nail, namely forgetting a Garmin! My watch was now in emergency mode, so I only had time of day on it. Fortunately, I had memorized certain facts, like the fact that you could walk every step from Hwy 49 and make 24 hours if you were there by 3:00 AM. It was 2:45 AM -- how convenient?!!! My sister's first pacing job as an inexperienced trail runner and she has to bring me home in the dark at Western States. One thing kept going through my mind... "I'm walking baby!!!".  Wrong.

No sooner did they finish exchanging duties and my sister looked at me and said "ready?", then turned around and start running down the trail. Son of a.... Her first trail running experience and my sister is challenging me?!! I had to keep up, so I started "running" as best I could. Each step was excruciating but I had to do it. I wanted to do it. She ran in front (Chuck had been running in back) and kept pushing me to run. I wish I could say things changed from my pattern with Chuck, but I kept tender-footing the downhill and getting passed. Then we'd pass by the same folks going up. On and on it went. Leaving No Hands Bridge, I stopped fighting. I no longer wanted to walk it in. I wanted the best time I could possibly get. Fortunately, the remaining portion of the race is almost entirely uphill and I ran nearly every dang step of it. I swear if I had a heart rate monitor on I would have been in zone four. We pushed by several runners on the push up to Robie Point where we found Chuck waiting for us.

The first portion of the stretch into Placer High School continues to be uphill and I settled into a power hike. Then it turned downhill and we ran all the way in. Arriving at the track, there was a large crowd going around the track with a couple of runners. They were soaking it all in and walking in like it was a parade. I sped up and passed them so that I could go through the finish line alone. Not much celebration or fan fare, just a quick raise of my hands and hug from Craig Thornley. I finished in 23:30, 78th place after starting the day in 182nd. No doubt I am proud of the patient, smart race that I ran that day. 2013 is known as an extremely hot year, but fewer runners finished this year (253) than in 2013 (277).

Even though it was an amazing race, still relieved to have it done.

Andrew Wellman - 379
Posted by Western States Endurance Run on Sunday, June 28, 2015

We were all exhausted and had an early afternoon flight later that day. Within 10 minutes, we left the track and went to our hotel room to organize our now chaotic gear and get some sleep. The adventure that was six months in the making was now over...

I cannot fully explain -- and maybe have not totally processed -- just how amazing this journey was. The way the lottery system is setup, a non-sponsored, middle-of-the-pack runner can really only expect to run Western States one time in their life. It can take 5-8 years to get through the lottery. That puts a ton of pressure on someone to make it count. I was fortunate that it came in a point in my ultra running career where I was seasoned enough (as was my crew and pace team) to make it count. My margin for sub-24 was always a small one, but I managed to take advantage of it and have an incredible journey. As of this moment, I don't even have a reasonable idea what's next for me. I was all in on this journey. There will be more running and more races, but the specifics are all up in the air. I'll just soak this one in for now.

My reward for a hard day's work


  1. Truly an amazing journey! You certainly made that one count. Proud of you and your crew for making the absolute most out of that opportunity. Great report, thanks for sharing so much information about your day. I really enjoyed following along. Well done, AJ!

  2. Great report AJ and congrats on running a great race! It's been fun following along with your training and seeing it payoff on gameday. I'm crossing my fingers that I have the good fortune and opportunity to run WS one day myself. I'm going to have to beat the odds.... positive thinking! :)

    1. Thanks, Mike! And right back at you. You had a tremendous race at Big Horn. I tried to follow you, Wyatt, and Neeraj but their live tracking isn't very good. If you still enjoy 100s, definitely keep getting in WS lottery. I cannot speak highly enough about the event. The first 35 miles are pretty rugged, but it rewards a patient runner with a runnable last 30 miles. Great course, aid stations, gear, all of it!!!

  3. Hey, nice job. I spent a few minutes with you on the climb in Squaw. Awesome report. You articulated the many thoughts I've had since the race. Well done on a great effort in sub 24.