Western States 2009 or Bust!

Guest Post by Alan Abbs

The White Trash Diaries, Vol 2

Alan Abbs in Granite Chief

Alan Abbs in Granite Chief (akabill photo)

My Western States 2009 race report begins back in time — all the way back in December 2007. I make it through the selection process and get in, and I’m determined to get down toward that 20-hour mark, having done 3 straight sub 22-hour races, including the toasty 2006 edition. I ramped up the training, racing through Woodside 50K, Cool, Oak Mountain (AL), Mt Diablo 50M, Miwok and a super hot Auburn 50K in June, getting PRs in every event and winning Auburn. As the race approached, I went through splits of various people from the last several years, as well as my own, and wrote myself down for a 20:20 — a little stronger in the beginning, normal splits in the canyons and don’t crap out after Foresthill. Who knows, if conditions are good, maybe faster.

Two weeks before the 2008 race day check in, a Friday, I’m driving back from a meeting in my job as, ironically enough, an Air Pollution Control Officer, and I see smoke — lots of it. It’s the Humboldt Fire, burning east of Chico in the foothills. And so begins what I refer to as the wasted summer of 2008. Daily, the winds shift from north to south and back, blanketing Red Bluff in smoke. By day, I issue Health Advisories (stay indoors, no physical exertion, run your air conditioning, etc), and in the afternoon I forsake my own advice and I run.

Eight days later and 7 days before the race, things are clearing slightly. It looks like it might rain, and we head up to the Shasta Dam area for a last run of 15 miles. Normally, a Californian wouldn’t run in the rain in June, but I’m motivated. We get there just after the lightning and rain storm, but there are plumes of smoke everywhere in the forests outside of town and only a few helicopters. By the end of the run, we could see at least 20 spot fires in the surrounding hills. Sunday’s bad, Monday’s worse and it’s back to issuing Health Advisories, answering questions from the public (Yes, you really should cancel your baseball games) and looking at air quality data from monitoring stations near the course. By Wednesday morning I was making calls to my air pollution counterpart in Auburn (a Tevis Cup rider and WS pacer himself) to find out how bad it was and the status of the race. When the race was cancelled, I knew it was absolutely the right call. The only sporting events I had to advise cancelling were kid’s ball games, and I can’t imagine the pressure of having to recommend pulling the plug on Western States. And now I had 12 more months to nail that 20:20.

But my body felt awful, I was tired all the time, and my hamstrings were aching, and in short order I DNF at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and the 12 hours of Cool. I went to a new GP (my old one just retired), only to learn that “when you get older (38?), your body just can’t do things like that anymore!” (Note to self: introduce GP to Rob Cain). I backed off on running, saw a therapist and got some stretches to do. I spent the winter alternatively feeling better and worse, but mostly worse. Spring 2009 and my mileage is down, I’m still achy, times for all my races are significantly slower and I’m cranky because I can’t keep up with people. Work is stressful because California’s going down the toilet, and 100 miles is really looking like a long way for me to get up to. I DNF at Quicksilver, drag myself through Silver States, and at the last race before Western States (GraniteMan at Lake Applegate), I make a pact with myself: I was going to cross the finish line at Western States, I was going to run smarter than I have before, not pay attention to the hammies and at the finish I was going to relax for all of July!

So with that, I began the rituals that come to define Western States for me. I took the week before off from work, and vowed not to check voice mails or e-mails, or otherwise be stressed due to work (partially successful). The weather looks like it might be mild on race day, but I get my head shaved anyway. I drink PlumSmart (for digestive health!). Thursday morning we hike up to Emigrant Pass with fellow Sunsweeties, crew and assorted friends. The slow and methodical packing and repacking of waist packs is followed by the Thursday afternoon medical study testing and the Friday morning run to the highway and back. There’s check-in and socializing, pre-race meeting (Royce Zumwalt deservedly gets the “Little Cougar” award!), toenail painting (this year the color is Plum Power), lots of hydration, Friday night team dinner with one large-sized Sierra Nevada, and foot and nipple taping.

Friday afternoon, I finally drag out my splits I had written the year before and decide that 20:20 isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, I don’t know what’s likely to happen. I compromise and write up some splits for a 21:00 just for fun. It’s looking like it might be hot after all, we didn’t get any chance to do any 100 degree heat training this year in the valley, and that’s another question mark. I decide to eat lots of solid food early, S-caps every thirty minutes and Sportlegs caps every three hours hoping it’ll keep the hammies fresh.

The race starts and I vow to stick to the plan — my own pace and no one else’s. I see a former teammate from the old adventure racing days, Dan Barger, and we say hi but otherwise he’s gone. I see LB and Bili briefly lead the race when the leaders take a wrong turn. The climb is a good chance to stretch out the hammies, and at the top I think about letting it rip on the downhill but I stick to the plan: Slow and steady. I chat with Rob Cain through Granite Chief. Around Red Star Ridge, I catch up to LB, Bili and Troy Howard, run with them for a bit and let them go on a short steep section. I’m just running my own race. It starts getting a bit toasty, and as I get ready to come into Robinson Flat I come upon Jenn and Sean, looking a bit rough around the edges. After Robinson Flat, I see Nikki Kimball working through some issues. At Deep Canyon, I catch up to lc at the aid station and we give each other a sponge bath (calm down ladies!), and then run together to the swinging bridge whereupon he leaves me en route to a sub 20 hour finish.

But I’m just plugging along, taking my time and even going easy on the downhills — though I wanted to really let it loose! I walk every step up to Devil’s Thumb, look at my watch and my time is 4 minutes faster than my “best case scenario.” At Devil’s Thumb I look for a work acquaintance, “Bobbi,” because she promised to have an orange popsicle set out for me in 2008. She’s not there, so I settle for the less appealing banana. Bili and Brian Morrison are there, and Bili’s taking a brief rest, but I scoot on. I take it easy down to El Dorado Canyon and walk every step up to the top of the hill before Michigan Bluff. Hammies aren’t in pain, my quads are feeling great and every step I’m feeling good is one step closer to a relaxing July. I lose a bit of time by checking in to Michigan Bluff because it’s getting a bit on the hot side, but I’m right on my weight at the scales. I eat some beanie weenies, a mandarin orange cup, swap my waist pack (thanks OD, Brian, et al!) and it’s down to Volcano Canyon. I come up Bath Road and my pacer Carson Teasley is waiting at the top. I get into Foresthill only 14 minutes behind my best case time.

Somewhere on Cal Street is always where things hit me. In 2005, I was just leaving town when my pacer said, “So is this the longest you’ve ever run?” Most of the time, though, it’s between Cal 1 and Cal 2, where you’re supposed to be heading down to the river but it seems like you never actually do any downhills. My Cal St splits are usually in the 3:30 range. With Carson, I got it down to about 3:06ish this year. I get passed quickly by Monkeyboy on the way down (he was resting at Foresthill apparently), then as I get to the river he’s lying down again. Like a light switch, he’s on or off. I notice a blister forming on my big toe, and to my relief, it pops itself before I have to take off my shoe and do it with a safety pin. At Green Gate I do a shoe change and go to road shoes and slather Vaseline over everything.

I’m making great time on GG to ALT. I think in the past, it’s been an 80 minute section for me, but I come in at under 70 minutes, losing a bit of time on that 21:00, but I’m happy for what I’m doing. The hammies are still feeling decent. I dash out of ALT, but probably didn’t eat as much as I should. I get halfway to Brown’s Bar and I’m feeling a bonk coming on, so I pull out one of those little bottles of energy shot and chase it with a Gaviscom and 2 S caps, thinking it’ll get me into the aid station at least where I can fuel up. I get into Brown’s Bar and I just can’t stay there — the lights, the music, the people in drag telling me to “look at the Barbie doll, she’s cheering for you!” It was sensory overload. I take two cups of potato soup and split, but it’s going to come back at me soon I can tell. I tell Carson I need to walk a bit to settle my stomach. We get down to the road and I stop and bend over to throw up. That doesn’t work, so I get down on my hands and knees and it all comes out. Being on a slight incline, it all trickled back down on me.That was the low point of the race for me. I’ve got three sets of lights running right by me as I wallow on my hands and knees in my puke.

From then on, it was just a matter of getting to the finish on no food or water, because every sip brought on dry heaves. At Highway 49, I stop to take care of a blister on my heel, and OD tells me to get a move on because Gayman’s going to catch me, and maybe Bili too. The aid station guy wants to clean my feet and dress my blisters, after I’ve smeared Vaseline over everything, and I tell him no. OD and Brian confirm that I’m a pretty stubborn guy and OD yells “White Trash Power, Baby!” as I head out on the final 6 miles. I see Tapeworm and tell him to follow me, but he’s done for the day. I don’t remember too much of the last section, other than I was passed by Monkeyboy before No Hands, Gayman on the way up to Robie Pt and Bili right before the final descent to the stadium. I was just happy that I kept myself together, good enough for a 21:41, 32nd place and a July of rest. Thanks to OD, Brian and all of Gayman’s crew that crewed me through — to Carson for the pacing, and to everyone (including FK) who put up with me at my gloomiest. I’m midway through July, haven’t run a step, I bought a fixed-gear cyclocross bike for some cross training, have gotten a lot of work done around the house and even signed up for my next 100 (Javelina). I’m even thinking about running next week instead of August.

Final thoughts: You can’t do a race like this without learning something for next time. In short- 1) Sportlegs caps work!; 2) stick to your S cap plan, mine being every 30 minutes; 3) don’t let other runners dictate your race strategy; 4) solid food early — I only had 1 gel the entire day; 5) get better at throwing up to minimize time loss; 6) if I can go sub 22 the way I felt, I know I have a 20 hour time in me!


  1. WT, what the heck are Sportlegs caps? Never heard of them.

    It does sound like you need to practice puking. On your hands and knees and then you let it dribble back onto you? Pathetic.

    Very considerate of you to let all the Oregonians pass you at the end. What a team captain!

    Good job getting the job done.

  2. Part of being a team captain is helping all your teammates feel better about themselves. And knowing that aside from M1 and F6, the Oregonians were getting shut out of the top ten, it was the least I could do as a host Californian. We must keep the peace…

    I saw Monkeyboy taking Sportlegs before Peterson Ridge, so I figured I’d give it a try. Not being too smart, I can’t vouch for the science, but you can read the background at http://www.sportlegs.com. Essentially a lactic acid buffer. It seemed to keep the pain down in the hammies, especially considering I did the race on no painkillers.

    Next big run up there, maybe we can do some vomit training.


  3. Congrats on a great run in tough conditions, Alan. I filled your bottles at El Dorado and said that you looked better than most of the runners in front of you, but I don’t think you believed me. It was no lie. You even looked fresher than F2 at that point in the race (but don’t tell her that).

    Next year, I’ll see you at El Dorado before 2 o’clock.

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