Last year I was asked by several first time Western States runners in Eugene what they needed to do to prepare for the race and that prompted me to write these thoughts down. If you’re running WS this year for the first time this might help you. If you’ve run it before but bombed then this might help you. If you’re AJW and have the race dialed then you probably won’t learn anything from me. Yeah, there is a lot of good information already available, but I’m asked this often. The next time somebody asks I can point them to this post. These topics are not neccessarily listed in order of importance. It is written from the perspective of somebody that lives in Eugene, OR (about 8 hours driving distance from the course) and wants to finish in the top ten but I think it is general enough to be useful to most runners.
In general, you need to be a good downhill runner at WS if you want to do well. There is so much more downhill than there is uphill. Many of the descents are several miles long. It is the eccentric contractions of the quads that make them sore but they are very trainable. It is possible to run WS fast and not destroy your quads. If your quads are not properly trained there can be significant necrosis, which can lead to all sorts of problems including an inability to run the downs at the end and acute renal failure. Running in the canyons on the course is the best way to get the quads trained but since we don’t live down there we have other places we simulate the canyons. Rooster Rock, Hardesty, Eagle’s Rest, etc are all great places to trash your quads in training. These need to be 3-5 mile long downs where you run hard. My experience is I need to trash my quads in training a couple of times before they are ready for the race. I also do minimal weight lifting on my legs and I telemark ski during the winter. My quads are much bigger now than they were when I was a road marathoner but I don’t think you need to hypertrophy in order to get quads that can handle the downs.
Normal race day high temp is 90 in Auburn but it is usually a little hotter in the canyons, especially Volcano Canyon, or at least it feels that way. Heat acclimation is a must. Not only does your body learn to hold onto electrolytes (in as little as 2 weeks) training in the heat gives you a clue as to how much fluid and electrolytes you’ll actually be consuming. And the stomach doesn’t work the same when it is 100 degrees and you’re running hard. Get in the heat before race day if you want to do well. The trail in the high country goes through some big burned out areas so there is a lot of direct sunlight. I do not use sunscreen, as I don’t want it to interfere with my sweating so I try to go into the race with skin that can tolerate a whole day out in the sun. The hottest races days are in the 105-110 range so it is good to be prepared for that.
It is sometimes difficult to find heat in June in Oregon. I often travel to the Grand Canyon or Idaho a couple of weeks before the race to seek the heat. I also have been known to use passive techniques such as driving in the car with the heater on, burning the pellet stove in the house, sitting in a sauna, or running with several layers of clothes on. Air conditioners are a no-no. You can gamble that it won’t be a hot year and do minimal or no heat training, but if you want to increase your chances of doing well then take the heat serious.
During the race the wetter you can stay the better. It is a dry heat so evaporative cooling works. Dousing in creeks and with your water bottles is a good idea. There are many sponges and other means to get wet at aid stations so take advantage of them. In my first two States I ran near Ann Trason until the canyons and she looked like a drowned rat, dumping her bottles on her head and clothing. It is easy to overheat by going uphill too hard. Walk if you are getting too hot. Also remember when you’re suffering at 4pm that it will get better when the sun goes down and it cools off. You can do some amazing running after the sun goes down.
I, and most of the top ten guys, use two handhelds as opposed to a hydration pack. I fill one with GU2O and one with water until my stomach says “Enough of the sweet stuff,” and then I’ll use coke or sprite instead of GU2O, or two waters. By having one with water at all times I can always douse. The other benefit is if/when the stomach says “Enough of the sweet stuff,” I’m not stuck between aid stations with only sweet fluids that I can’t consume. Again, you can hope your stomach won’t ever tire of GU2O or you can be defensive and be prepared when it happens. Remember that cold fluids are much easier to consume than warm ones when it is 90+ degrees. They have ice at most of the stations (except Cal 3) and I use it in my bottles (and my hat sometimes) during the hottest parts of the day.
The amount of fluid you have to consume during the race is staggering. 2 20-ounce bottles an hour for 18 hours is 5 ½ gallons. AJW can’t even drink that much beer in 18 hours. You gotta practice that rate in training for many hours. I carry two bottles all day at States until dark (usually Browns Bar at 90 miles) when I go to one so I can use the handheld light.
I use S-caps, which have 341 mg of sodium. There are all kinds of electrolyte pills such as e-caps and nuun but S-caps have a lot of sodium, they are cheap and they work. I do not follow any kind of schedule during the race and I try to monitor my body and take them as I think I need to not when my watch thinks I need to. I try to use minimal S-caps in training so my body learns to hold onto salts and so I can learn what it feels like when I get low. Telltale signs for me are a sloshy stomach, a drop in weight, and little twinges in my calves. During the race, it is also beneficial for problem solving if you know that you’ve been on the minimal side as symptoms of hyponatremia and hypernatremia are similar. You can watch at aid stations like Michigan Bluff when people come in all puffy and retaining fluids. They often have no idea if they’ve had too much or too little sodium. It is much easier to make up a sodium deficit than it is to get rid of a surplus.
Unless you run 16 hours you will be running in the dark. Most of the guys I know now use a combination of headlamp and handheld. I do not attempt to change batteries during the race. I carry a backup handheld light in my small waistpack. I swap out my primary handheld at highway 49 regardless of how much I’ve used the first one. I generally pick my lights up at Green Gate from my crew so I don’t have to use a drop bag at ALT. Rumor has it that Hal didn’t even bring lights to the race in 2007 as he was expecting to finish in the 16 hour range. That takes huge balls.
There are two different lines of thinking here. The older school of thinking, to which I subscribe, is that you need to eat “normal” food during the day. The reasoning is that the pH in your stomach becomes too acidic if you only consume carbohydrates. Something about the digestion of fats and proteins that raises the pH. I eat Pork and Beans and Turkey Cheese Avocado sandwiches. Find something “normal” that you like to eat and practice with it on your long runs.
The newer line of thinking, to which fewer people successfully subscribe, is consuming nothing but gels. I don’t know how this works. I also don’t know how you don’t get completely disgusted with them and continue to eat them late in the race.
We’re running 100 miles. That’s kinda hard to get your head around when you’ve never done it and even after you’ve done several of them. In my first few hundreds I learned that if I felt miserable at 50 miles it might not be any different 30 miles later. How can that be? I don’t know if the brain just finally gives in, but if you commit to going 100 miles when you start the race, then, dammit, that is how far you’re going. If the distance is overwhelming then perhaps just think about the fact that you get to do something you love (run) all day with people catering to your every need.
This may be the most important skill you can bring to the table in any 100 miler. How do people like Twietmeyer and Trason perform so well year after year while hot shots like Ricklefs and Crowther, who are very talented runners, drop out with seemingly minor problems? Is it that Twiet and Trason don’t have problems? No, they have the ability and willingness to solve problems during the race. One year Ricklefs was running and was having issues with his toenails. Trason was with him at Michigan Bluff and she told him to have the doctors rip the nails off and give him some Novocain – in that order! That may not be completely accurate but the gist of it is that Ann was looking for solutions and Chad was not. Dave Terry is another one with great ability to solve problems. One year I passed him at the Bath Rd aid station. He was there for some time before I got there and Laurie got to watch him try to help another guy (William Emerson) who was also dehydrated, hot, and had puked since Michigan Bluff. Dave was sitting there in the chair and told Emerson: Volume, Electrolytes, and Calories as that was the order of importance of each of those. He sat there in the cool shade with ice and water on his body with his feet up to get his blood pressure up. Then he added fluid and electrolytes. The last thing he did was take calories. I ran right past him and Laurie thought he was done. A few hours later on the steep downs past Cal 2 Dave comes flying by me going about twice the speed I was. He finished a little ways in front of me that year. It was amazing. Many runners would have dropped out. Be prepared to think and to look for solutions.
Some people seem to be more prone to foot issues than others. I have a terrible time with blisters. There are two lines of thinking with feet: dry or wet. You could try powders and such to keep your feet dry or you can try lubes like Vaseline to keep your feet wet. I’ve tried both methods and neither worked for me. So I tape every toe and the balls of my feet pre-race. It is a pain in the butt, but it allows me to go through the race without getting too many blisters. While blisters don’t cause many DNFs they can really take a toll on you mentally if each step is painful. There is a good book called Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhof, which you should get. You can see what happens to my feet if I don’t tape on my sidebar.
The dreaded high CPK at the finish which can lead to acute renal failure. Not something any of us want to experience. Many good runners have had a very high CPK and got to spend some time in the hospital on IVs. To get a high CPK, which is a marker enzyme that indicates how much dead muscle you have in your blood, you need two things to occur. The first is you need to have killed muscles during the race. This is usually from the quads and occurs because you haven’t trained them or you ran harder than you were trained. The second thing is that you haven’t consumed enough fluid to flush the myoglobin through your kidneys. A lot of damage can happen at the very end of the race so be careful not too push too hard on the downs if your quads are trashed. You also need to be mindful of peeing during the race. If you haven’t peed for many hours and your weight is the same you might need to back off on the electrolytes so that your body will let go of some fluids and let you pee. You could also try diuretics like coke or pepsi to try to pee. It’s not always about pushing as hard as you can – you also need to take care of your body so you can run another day.
After the race, you would be wise to not go to sleep until you have consumed enough fluids to pee. Beer works great for that. If your pee is dark like coke then see the medical folks. And if they do offer blood draws for CPK – give one.
I should probably let my wife or brother write this section as they are great crew leaders. Suffice to say get a crew leader who will be in charge of your crew. This person can assign jobs and make sure nothing gets left in the car and that you get everything you need in a timely manner at each aid station. Crewing States is tough. They will drive many more miles than you will run. They will have dealt with traffic, parking, and shuttling issues. They will get hot, tired, thirsty, and hungry. They need to take care of themselves too. But get people that are capable of being selfless for the whole weekend.
I make sure I tell my crew exactly what my expectations are of myself and them. I know late in races I sometimes have a tendency to let up mentally and say things like “I just want a buckle, “I just wanna break 20 hours,” or other such nonsense so I tell my crew ahead of time to not listen to any of that kind of stuff from me. I want them to expect me to finish and encourage me to still compete no matter where I am in the field. When I ran Angeles Crest for the second time I had puked at 70 miles and basically staggered into the 75-mile aid station completely done. I was well off the pace I expected to run and was going backwards. If anybody on my crew had suggested that I drop and save myself for another 100, I would have dropped immediately. None of them suggested that, let alone thought of that. After sitting for a good 20 minutes they got me out of the chair and after about an hour of walking I started running again and actually competed and finished strong in 10th place.
The original purpose of pacers was for the safety of the runners. If something happens to you out there in the dark it is good to have somebody around to help you. Not just for you, but for the race, your crew, and anybody else that may care about you. That is still a valid reason to have one, but it is also a competitive disadvantage at WS if you don’t have one. The pacer can be your brain when you’re a little compromised mentally at the end. Tell your pacer exactly what you want to get at an upcoming aid station. It can be overwhelming when you arrive at say Brown’s Bar and it is loud and everybody is asking you if you want this or that. Very easy to forget that you wanted Vaseline or a cup of soup or S-caps, etc. Pacers can run in front or behind and I often change that depending on how I’m running or feeling. If you can find somebody that has your same competitiveness it would be helpful. They may see you in some really dark places they never have so prepare them for that. Some guys use a single pacer for the 38 miles. I prefer two pacers with a switch on the climb to Green Gate. You can also switch at highway 49 but I don’t suggest that as it is too close to the finish and when they switch the pacer number you’ll be left to fend for yourself. I’m usually smelling the barn at that point and want to get through that aid station as quickly as possible.
Long Long Runs
I have learned that it is important for me to get in at least three long long runs. These are in the 50-60 mile range and take more than 10 hours. Back to back runs of 30 and 25 don’t work as well for me. Sure you run on tired legs the second day, but you start over with your stomach. When you go on these, practice everything you will on race day. Use the same bottles, clothing, food, fluid, pre-race meal, etc. Walk like you will in the race and hopefully you have problems that you’ll have to figure out how to solve.