An Obsessive’s Description of the Western States Course

AJWs Taproom[Editor’s Note: For the fifth and final installment of the Western States 100 series, we are publishing AJW’s Course Description. There are few, if any, runners in this year’s race who have as intimate, and perhaps as overzealous, knowledge of the Western States course as AJW. We hope you enjoy his over-the-top description and, for those of you who are running the race, we hope this helps you get through today.]

Over the past six months, I have coached seven runners in their quest to complete Western States. These seven runners have committed significant time and energy to their training and have diligently followed the program I laid out for them. Over the past few weeks, I have put together a course description so that they can prepare mentally for what is in store for them on June 29. What follows is that course description divided into four sections and following a Kerouac-esque stream of consciousness:

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat

Leaving Squaw Valley, you will get caught up in the moment and run up the fire road quickly for a quarter mile or so. Shortly thereafter (literally .4 miles into the race), you should settle into a strong powerhike. On the climb up to the Escarpment, there are a few runnable sections (maybe five), but they are brief. Concentrate on keeping a steady hiking rhythm up the climb to the chairlift that is at the base of the steep scramble up the actual Escarpment. Once you’ve crested this, it’s about a three-minute powerhike to the actual top of Squaw. Enjoy that section and be sure to turn around to check out the view. (I even did that in 2005 when I finished second.) After cresting Squaw, you get onto singletrack and, for more or less the next seven miles to Lyon Ridge, you roll along a ridgeline that requires you to run some and walk some. My strong advice here is to gently run the flats, aggressively run the downs, and hike the ups. One caveat to this is that, if you get caught behind a conga line that is going slower than you feel like you’d like to go, try to get around it. Also, keep a close eye out for the course markings through this section as there are places when the trail is braided and you can go slightly off course. Nothing major but it can be annoying.

After the Lyon Ridge Aid Station, the terrain becomes more predictable and it’s about half run/half walk to Red Star Ridge Aid Station (mile 17). From Red Star, you begin a grinding two-mile climb (mostly hiking) followed by a nice, rolling singletrack section that takes you gradually down to the Duncan Canyon Aid Station. This is a good section to open the legs on a bit as it’s the first of what will be many long, sustained downhills on the day. When you hit Duncan Canyon Aid, you’ll be at mile 23 and you’ll have a 2.5-mile descent to Duncan Creek. This is another good descent that is worth stretching out on, but this will also be the first place where you’ll get a good idea of what kind of heat the day has in store. Ever since the 2001 Star Fire, this has been exposed and hot.

After crossing Duncan Creek (it can be pretty deep and some years they have a rope), you begin the long, gradual four-mile climb up to Robinson Flat. To be honest, there is not much runnable here until the last mile or so and you’re better off giving away some time here that you can make up later. (I always get passed on this climb and then eventually pass the people back in the Canyons). The last mile into the Robinson Flat Aid Station is a bit more flat and it’s fun because people are out there and you get to see your crew.

Robinson Flat to Foresthill

Leaving the Robinson Flat Aid Station, the trail climbs about one mile through nice forest up the flank of Little Bald Mountain. At the top, you make a right turn at a key (and usually well-marked) intersection where you begin the long, steady descent to the Millers Defeat Aid Station (mile 34). The trail through here is a blend of singletrack and old fire road and, since this is the first section of the race that traverses the south side of the ridgeline, this is another place where you will get an indication of the heat on tap for the day.

From the Millers Defeat Aid Station, the trail ducks into a more forested singletrack trail that winds through forest before popping out onto a wider, dustier trail leading downhill into the Dusty Corners Aid Station (mile 38). Dusty Corners is a good place to fuel up and, if it’s hot, it’s worth taking an extra minute here to sponge off before heading out onto the Pucker Point Trail. This section is one of the newer parts of the course and is an absolutely beautiful section with views to Screw Auger Canyon to the right and long sight-lines down to Deadwood Canyon, your next objective. After a short uphill, which comes after a nice, steady downhill, the trail pops out onto a dirt road and descends another half mile into the Last Chance Aid Station (mile 43). This is the jumping-off point for the traverse of Deadwood Canyon. You will get weighed here and this is a good time to assess your condition. Also, be sure to top off all of your fluids as the four-mile stretch from here to Devils Thumb will likely take over an hour.

I divide the descent into Deadwood into two parts. First the descent is gradual on a rutty, old fire road, passing old mining equipment and dropping to Pacific Slab Mine. Then, after a left-hand turn onto narrow singletrack, the trail drops precipitously over the next mile to the Swinging Bridge at the bottom of the canyon. In general, the trail is in great shape through here and the descent is fun. However, take care to not overstride as it is still early and you want to keep your quads intact. After bouncing across the Swinging Bridge (literally), there is a short, quarter mile, flat part that ends at a spring coming off the canyon wall. This water is potable and I always top off my bottles here. Also, it’s worth a bit of extra time to dunk in the spring or at least soak your hat and/or shirt as the hot, 1,800 foot climb to Devils Thumb comes next. This notorious climb is just under two miles and consists of 36 switchbacks up the canyon wall. Just about all of it is a powerhike and I strongly suggest settling into a good hiking rhythm through here and just getting it done. About halfway up the climb, there is a particularly steep section that then levels off. You can usually hear the aid station from about a quarter mile away and that is good incentive to keep plodding away.

The Aid Station at Devils Thumb (mile 47) is one of the best on the course. Dennis Zilaff and his team have been doing this station for years and they have everything you need to recover from the heinous climb you’ve just completed. Take time here to eat, drink, and recover before beginning the descent into the next canyon, El Dorado. This descent is a bit more gradual than the downhill into Deadwood and also a lot longer. In fact, at just under five miles, it’s one of the longest downhills on the course and it will really test the quads. When you pass the Deadwood Cemetery, you’re are about a third of the way down the descent and the trail steepens over the last mile to the river. In addition, you can usually hear the rushing of the water about a half mile before the bottom and, of course, you can feel the canyon heat. There is an aid station at the bottom of the canyon (mile 52) just after you cross the bridge and this is usually the hottest point on the course. (They often have a thermometer out so you can see for yourself!) Cool off here and top off your bottles but do not stay long.

It will get cooler once you begin the ascent, get into some shade, and gain elevation. This climb up to the old mining town of Michigan Bluff starts out steep but gradually levels out toward the top. I suggest powerhiking most of the first half of the climb and then rolling into a few jogging parts as you near the top. The trail pops out of the singletrack onto a rutted dirt road about a half mile before the Aid Station (mile 55) and you can return to running here. The run into Michigan Bluff is triumphant! You are through two canyons, you can see your crew, and it feels like you are back in civilization. There is a great medical team here, so if you have any issues, deal with them here. Also, be sure, once again, to top off on calories and fluids as you have one more canyon to go, Volcano Canyon.

This last canyon has three distinct sections; 1) The dirt road out of town, 2) the singletrack through the canyon, and 3) the Bath Road climb on pavement. Take each of these sections as distinct entities and you’ll be fine. Toward the bottom of the canyon, once again, the trail steepens and then at the creek crossing, be sure to douse yourself and cool off a bit before the climb to Foresthill. At the bottom of Bath Road, the good folks at Auburn Running Company have an Aid Station (mile 60.6) and you can top off here. The paved climb up Bath Road is a good mix of walking and running before hitting Foresthill Road and the gradual downhill into the Foresthill Aid Station (mile 62).

Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky River Crossing

After the joyous run through Foresthill where you can see your crew, re-fuel, and pick up a pacer, you will begin the descent into the American River Canyon, the infamous California Street. This 16-mile section of the race is one of the most important and deceiving sections of the course. While it is, indeed, true that it is “all downhill,” it is the uphill sections along the way that make this the crux of the race.

Leaving Foresthill, you have a precipitous descent to the Cal 1 Aid Station. There are very few flat parts on this 2.9-mile stretch and only one short little climb. When you cross Dardanelles Creek (and see the Dardanelles Creek sign), you have between nine and 10 minutes to the Aid Station. Leaving Cal 1, you have a flat section of about .3 miles before beginning a short but steep and exposed climb. This is a good place to take a gel and powerhike. Cresting this hill, you have about 1.7 miles of relatively flat terrain before beginning “the rollers,” a series of 15 short climbs that will kick you in the teeth if you’re not ready for them. If you’re not too brain dead, you can count these rollers and when you get to the “red roller” (so named because the soil here is red), you have only one more before you hit the Elevator Shaft. The Elevator Shaft is a .3-mile steep descent on rugged trail that can drain the quads out of just about anyone. In 2005, I passed Vincent Delebarre here as he was walking backwards! Once you bottom out of the Shaft, you have less than five minutes of nice runnable terrain to the Cal 2 Aid Station.

You’ll want to take a minute at Cal 2 to re-fuel and get situated before beginning another switch-backing descent on nice, smooth singletrack. This descent abruptly ends about 1.5 miles out of the aid station at Six-Minute Hill, a grinding climb on a fire road that can be tough if you’re not ready for it. After cresting the hill, you have a nice, five-minute downhill to the Cal 3 Aid Station which has been vastly improved over the past few years. Leaving Cal 3, you have five miles to the River Crossing. Don’t be misled by the sound of the river to your left. You still have a ways to go and several steep but short ascents on the way to the crossing. The singletrack trail gives way to fire road about 1.5 miles before the river and you have one, last grinding climb after going around a gate before the nice descent into the Near Side Aid Station. Here you’ll get weighed, re-fuel, and hobble down to the River to ford across. Once on the other side, you’ll dunk in the restorative waters of the American River and begin the two-mile climb up to Green Gate.

The River to the Finish

One of the oft-spoken truisms about the Western States course is that the last 20 miles contain the most runnable terrain. And, the most oft-spoken advice is to save your legs so that you can actually run some of this runnable terrain. Therefore, if you’ve done a decent job of preserving your legs and some energy, this is a great place to run. After the two-mile powerhike up from the River to the Green Gate Aid Station, you begin a five-mile section to the Auburn Lakes Trails (ALT) Aid Station at mile 85. This is an excellent trail with a few bumps along the way and two relatively sustained climbs. Each time you cross a creek (you’ll cross two en route to ALT), you know you have a short, grinding climb ahead. Once you pass a small memorial on your left (created in memory of a woman who was attacked and killed by a mountain lion here back in 1994 on a training run), you have about one mile to go to ALT.

Auburn Lakes Trails is a large Aid Station with medical support, drop bags, and some hot food. If you’re feeling a little down here, this is not a bad place to spend a few minutes regrouping with soup, perhaps some solid food, and fluids. The crew here are experienced and very friendly and it helps to be in a good mood before leaving on the 4.5-mile section to Brown’s Bar. The trail to Brown’s Bar is, quite literally, all runnable. If you were out here on a 20-mile training run, you would easily run the whole thing. But, alas, you are not. Therefore, on this section, it is important to stay focused and run as much of the trail as you can. While the little rollers may seem like mountains after 85 miles, you can and should run them.

Rolling into Brown’s Bar (mile 89.5), now staffed by the good folks from Rogue Valley Runners, you should feel tired but satisfied. From here, you’ve got just over 10 miles left. Leaving Brown’s Bar you have a .7-mile descent on somewhat technical trail with several annoying creek crossings. This is particularly bothersome as it comes on the heels of running four nice, flat, buffed-out trail miles. But, it doesn’t last long and the descent bottoms out on the Quarry Road, a nice fire road that parallels the American River for 1.5 miles or so before jumping back onto singletrack before the 1.5-mile climb up to the Highway 49 crossing (mile 93.5). At Highway 49, you can begin smelling the barn. After completing a one-mile climb up to the Cool Meadow (one of my favorite points of the course), you begin a gradual, 2.7-mile descent to the famous No Hands Bridge (mile 96.5). When you get to a point where you can see and hear the traffic going to and from Cool on Highway 49, you’ll know you have about a mile left and when the trail opens up into a large meadow looking down on the confluence of the American River, you have about five minutes to the Bridge. Stay focused and run these downhills as assertively as you can.

After No Hands Bridge, you begin what is at first a gradual climb up to Robie Point. After a mile or so of gentle climbing, the grade steepens and crosses two creeks. When the singletrack pops out onto a fire road, you have less than a quarter mile to the top. You’ll hear and see the folks up at Robie Point and when you go around the gate and onto the paved roads of Auburn, you’ll know you have 1.3 miles left to the finish. The first .3 miles is a grinding climb up the road which crests at a house that usually has a party going on and has a sign saying “mile 99.” From here, you wind downhill on city streets before crossing the White Bridge and making a left downhill to Placer High School. You’ll see the light towers from the track so you’ll know you’re close. Enter the track and enjoy the most amazing 250-meter jog you’ve ever had.

#seeyouinauburn

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes, obviously, from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California. Their Torpedo Extra IPA is a smooth-drinking IPA sold in 16-ounce cans that is surprisingly sessionable. In fact, with the exception of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it is my favorite go-to beer.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Western States obsessives unite, since AJW couldn’t possibly have missed anything, which pitch, which trail, which bridge, which tree is your favorite part of the course?
  • For folks who have run the WS100, do you have memories of key events that took place on particular sections of trail, someone who passed you or who you passed, where you vomited profusely and then resurrect-ed yourself, where you felt that certain kind of euphoria that only comes about when you’re running something like 100 miles?

There are 13 comments

  1. JAH

    I've been not too eager to step up to the 100 mile distance. But reading all this great coverage of WS100 is sucking me in. Darn you!

  2. JAH

    Also, with Torpedo coming in at 7.2% ABV, I start to wonder what you mean by "sessionable." That would be a pretty messy session for me.

  3. Jamie

    May be the second best course description I've read. Matt Carpenter's Pikes Peak Marathon description has to take the win.

  4. phil Jeremy

    Did WTC 50 last year and ran through ALT thinking I was running WS… wonderful feeling on that day but tomorrow, after 85 miles, I can't imagine what its gonna be like for you guys. As they say in France 'Bon Courage'.

  5. Karen

    You mention it taking 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there to get through certain points. Is that based on your pace?

    Thank you for all the details and best to you this weekend!

  6. Ken

    Don't overlook the good folks at Sierra Trailblazers Running Club from Grass Valley! We've been hosting the Michigan Bluff Aid Station for years.

  7. dancedar

    Always great to re-read this every year. AJW is a much a part of States lore as any root, switchback, or bridge as far as I'm concerned!

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