Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Western States Experience starring Jeremy Alsop

The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Race is the world's oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race. Needless to say, it's also an incredibly challenging event. Not only is the race conducted almost entirely on rough trails, but it also traverses an 8,700-foot mountain pass, up and down deep canyons, and has been conducted in extremes of both heat and cold. In June, in the California Sierras, it can be below freezing, above 100 degrees, snowing, raining, windy, or blazing with sun -- or even all of the above, on the same day!

Typically, however, runners are most concerned about the heat. After crossing the highest point in the race 4 miles in, the course descends into ever-deeper canyons, each one potentially hotter than the next.

For this year's race, my running buddy Jeremy Alsop was lucky enough to be one of the 383 runners who made it to the start line (most are selected by random drawing with a less than one-in-ten chance of being selected). As soon as I heard he was chosen, I offered to help out in any way I could. Together with his wife Julie and our fellow DARTer Chad Randolph, we'd be Jeremy's crew and pace team.

Runners first hope to simply finish the grueling event before the 30-hour time limit, but the best runners aim to complete it in under 24 hours, winning the coveted silver buckle with its "100 miles • 1 day" inscription. Jeremy made no secret that his goal was to finish sub-24, and we promised to do everything we could to help him do that. In a typical year, about a third of the entrants manage to finish in under 24 hours -- but a third don't finish at all. This year, with the possibility of record-breaking high temperatures, earning a buckle seemed even less likely.

Undaunted, we showed up at the race start in Squaw Valley to see Jeremy off at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday June 29. With any luck, we'd watch him finish the race in Auburn, California just a bit earlier on Sunday morning. Here's a photo of the whole crew (taken a couple days before):

From left to right: Me, Chad, Jeremy, Julie

After chatting nervously inside the lodge, we headed over to the start line. In the darkness, I still managed to capture a fairly decent video of the start:

After the start, it would be over 6 hours before we saw Jeremy again. He later told us that the trail for these first 30 miles was much more technically challenging than he had anticipated. Trail runners from the east coast like to think that the trails out west are less technical, and that is often the case, but Jeremy said that the trails on this section were as challenging as most of the trails he had encountered closer to home. His first mishap involved a creek crossing where one of his shoes slipped off into the mud. He spent some time digging through the creekbed to find his lost shoe!

Meanwhile we waited and waited at the Robinson Flats aid station for him to show up. Since he was looking to break 24 hours, we kept a close eye on this page, which gave the 24-hour paces for each aid station. We also tried as best as we could to follow the online results web site. Unfortunately, none of us had internet at Robinson Flats, so for the most part we were in the dark. We were hoping he'd show up by 11:20 a.m., so we were pleasantly surprised to (finally) see Jeremy at 11:06! Here's how he looked as he stopped for a much-needed drink:

The heat wasn't yet sweltering, but there was no doubt this was going to be a warm day. The skies were perfectly clear, so when you stepped out of the shade, you felt a noticeable increase in temperature. Jeremy was eating and drinking well, consuming a bunch of water and about half of a smoothie Julie had bought for him. Before we knew it, he was off again:

One of the race's least-technical creek crossings!

Our next opportunity to see Jeremy was 26 miles (and estimated 6 hours) away: Michigan Bluff. At this point, we'd have a much better sense of how Jeremy was doing; he'd be over halfway finished with the race, and he'd have completed the race's three toughest climbs. There was little to do but drive the 45 minutes or so to the aid station and wait, so that's what we did. Michigan Bluff is a small community, with 10 or 15 homes on a paved road. There weren't many places to sit down, but we managed to find a shady spot on a dirt side road directly across from the aid station. Now the heat was really starting to get stifling, and it was a real battle to stay in the shade. This shot will give you some sense of what the scene was like for the race crews:

Note that no one is sitting in the sun!

We knew that no matter how hot it was for us, it was much hotter for the runners out on the trail, particularly during the exposed sections. Someone said it was 95 degrees at Michigan Bluff. The high at the finish line in Auburn was 102, making it the second-hottest Western States ever. But since the sun would be setting before Jeremy finished, we also knew that this current section would be the hottest section of the race for Jeremy -- so if he made it to Michigan Bluff all right, it would get better from here on out.

Jeremy arrived at Michigan Bluff at 5:09 pm, 11 minutes ahead of the pace he needed to finish in 24 hours. There was just one major climb left, and then I'd be joining him for the first paced leg of the race. He was still eating and drinking well, and told us it wasn't as hot as he had expected. He had prepared well!

After we sent him off again, we knew we didn't have much time to get to the next aid station, Bath Road, less than a five-mile run from here. In addition, I'd need to eat whatever I could manage before starting my pacing effort, get changed into running gear, fill up my hydration pack, and make all the other preparations for running 18 miles on trails in the dark.

Bath Road to Foresthill (Mile 60.6 to 62) was a unique opportunity for crews to run along with their runners, provided they were willing to walk from Foresthill down Bath Road to the aid station. We parked at Foresthill and Julie immediately headed down Bath Road while Chad and I prepared for Jeremy's arrival. Ten minutes later I was ready to go and started jogging backwards up the road, meeting up with Jeremy and Julie about a mile out of the Bath Road aid station. He was still looking very good, and was looking forward to the downhill sections ahead. There wouldn't be any major climbs for the next 15 miles or so, so this would be an opportunity for him to really pick up the pace if he had anything left.

After a quick stop at the car, we headed to the Foresthill aid station, where Jeremy checked in at 6:41 pm, still 4 minutes ahead of 24-hour pace. With only 38 "easy" miles to go and temperatures already starting to drop, a 24-hour finish was looking like a serious possibility. Jeremy was complaining of some stomach upset, but at this point that was something we expected. He had been eating well all day, and I felt like as long as he could continue to eat a little bit, he'd be fine for the rest of the race.

As we ran out of the aid station, Jeremy seemed to be moving quite well. We ran on a paved road for about a half mile, then headed onto a long downhill section. The trail wasn't too difficult and we were running much faster than I expected at this point. Chad and I had figured out that Jeremy needed to average about a 15-minute-per-mile pace from here to the finish to beat 24 hours. My watch beeped, indicating we'd finished Mile 2 of my leg (roughly Mile 63 overall) in just 9:08. We were flying!

Several more fast downhill miles ensued, and we passed runner after runner. Jeremy had been in 92nd place at Foresthill, and by the time we arrived at the Peachstone aid station (Mile 70.7) he was in 79th place, 17 minutes ahead of 24-hour pace. However, he was also feeling a little woozy, and I suggested he just sit down for a minute or two. He did, reluctantly, and it seemed to help a lot. He got back up and headed out on the trail feeling revived, and continuing to keep up the fast pace. Even with the breaks, we were averaging under 13 minutes a mile, much faster than we needed!

Jeremy was also moving well on the uphill sections

The trail continued to descend, and we continued to pass runners, until we were nearly at the river level. But we knew we wouldn't be crossing the river for another several miles, so we wondered what would be next. Rounding a corner, we soon found out -- an extremely steep uphill on a doubletrack road (much steeper than the photo above!). Again, we powered up the hill, which was too steep to run, but Jeremy's hiking pace was difficult for me to keep up with. Even on this section he was doing better than the 15-minute pace he needed.

Despite the darkness, this section of the trail seemed quite warm. We attributed it to the humidity from the river. Jeremy said he was more uncomfortable on this section than he had been at any point during the day, and I agreed that the humid conditions were tough to run in. Finally we crested the hill and headed back along flat-to-downhill trails towards the river crossing at Mile 77.

We checked in to the Rucky Chucky station at 10:01 p.m., and Jeremy was now in 68th place. Then we headed toward the river, which we were told was waist-high. A cable stretched across the river, and volunteers stood in wetsuits next to the cable at 10- to 15-foot intervals. They told us where the rocks were, where to be careful, and where the water got deeper. The water was cool, perhaps 50 degrees, and felt fantastic on our cold legs. As we climbed out of the water on the other side, Chad and Julie were surprised to see us so early. Jeremy was now 39 minutes ahead of 24-hour pace!

Lots of runners were changing into dry shoes and socks here, but Jeremy strode straight up the hill towards the Green Gate aid station, 1.8 miles and 650 vertical feet away. By the time he arrived at Green Gate, he was in 59th place and 46 minutes ahead of 24-hour pace. Now it was time for Chad to take over as pacer, and for that I was grateful, because I was spent!

Unfortunately, there was still another 2 miles of climbing for me to make it to the parking area -- Chad and Jeremy got to head off in a different, less uphill direction.

Arriving at the car, I finally got the chance to change into dry shoes and socks, and Julie and I drove to the town of Cool, where we would catch the shuttle to the final aid station. But first, I scarfed down a pint of macaroni salad. I swear it was the best-tasting macaroni salad I had ever eaten!

The aid station at Highway 49 was exceptionally well-provisioned, and even had hot water, cocoa mix, and instant coffee for the crews! I slurped down three cups of a coffee-cocoa mixture that helped keep me warm as the evening grew cold.

Before we knew it, Chad and Jeremy arrived at the aid station, at Mile 93.5, at 2:04 a.m. Jeremy had nearly 3 hours to run just 6.7 miles. Now Julie took over the pacing duties and Chad and I headed for the finish!

Chad told me that Jeremy had continued to run well on his section of the course, staying even with several runners, then eventually getting frustrated and turning on the burners to pass them for good.

The high school stadium in Auburn was a wonderful return to civilization. They even had brick-oven pizza, so I bought myself one and gobbled it up. It was fantastic to watch the jubilant runners complete their journeys to the finish. Jeremy and Julie ran into the stadium at 3:44 a.m. and cruised around the track to finish at 3:45, in a time of 22:45:41. Here's a video of them at the finish!

Jeremy had stayed strong to the very end, even running up the difficult 700-vertical-foot climb from No Hands Bridge to the town of Auburn. He finished in 56th place, one of just 95 silver buckle winners. Just 25 percent of the runners this year earned a silver buckle, compared to 38 percent last year. If he had run this same time in last year's race, that would have only been good for 98th place, which gives you some sense of how difficult the conditions this year really were!

Below is a map of the entire route so you can see the terrain Jeremy covered. Awesome accomplishment!

Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run - Jeremy Alsop

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