With six past Western States 100 men’s champs on this year’s entrants list, there’s a lot of history… and perspective toeing the line. Timothy Olson discusses how he’s going to deal with the massive bullseye on his back as the defending champion. Hal Koerner reveals that he’s going to be racing at the front from the gun. Mike Morton talks about how his past experiences at the WS100 are informing this year’s.
[For more on the top men in this year’s Western States, check out our full men’s preview, as well as interviews with Dylan Bowman, Cameron Clayton, and Karl Meltzer as well as Nick Clark, Dave Mackey, and Ian Sharman.]
iRunFar: You’re the returning champion and course-record holder. On a sickly stacked entrants’ list, it’s still impossible to beat that credential. All eyes are going to be on you this year. No doubt, you’ll have to employ some serious mental tenacity to shed the external pressure and live within yourself for 100 miles. How will you do this? Have you been practicing?
Olson: I’m not racing against time or competition, yes the competition pushes me, but I’m racing against and within myself. I’ll be trying to give my best effort. I look forward to taking myself to that spot again. In every race I do, in my mind, I always feel like the underdog; the course, the mountain is so strong, my goal is to have immense respect for the mountain, give everything I have, and pass through as peacefully as possible with the hope that, by the end, maybe just a little bit, the mountain has respect for me and lets me through.
There will probably be a little more anxiety before the race this year and I can’t deny the bullseye on my back, but I can only think it gives my mind something to overcome, meditate on, and embrace, the fact that people are after me. I welcome it and look forward to us all pushing each other to new heights, discovering what is possible along the way.
In all my 100-milers, I thrive off inspiration. This year is no different than last; the mountains and nature continually inspire, friends and family cheering from all over the world, volunteers at the aid stations helping and encouraging along the way, my crew (family) and pacers doing everything in their power to help and push me to victory, and of course my loving and supportive wife with my 10-month old son by her side. With this cast, I have unending inspiration and this year I hope my son can see me run my heart out and I get a big hug at the finish.
iRunFar: From an outside perspective, your 2013 has had some ups and downs, but mostly ups. A win at Bandera 50k, second at Ray Miller 50 Mile, second at Tarawera, out of contention and with an injury issue at Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, and fourth at Transvulcania. This doesn’t seem too different from your lead-up to last year’s race where you also had one down, Ice Age 50 Mile, amongst a bunch of ups. How would you analyze what you’re bringing to the race this year as compared to last year and the year prior? What kind of Timothy will we see?
Olson: Every year and even every moment, I’m evolving, hopefully into a better self. Some days I feel strong and some days weak mentally, emotionally, and physically. I enjoy the highs with the lows and my aim is to bring out the best possible version of myself everyday and especially race day. This year will be a test. It’s not easy balancing being a husband, father, and ultrarunner, but anything worth earning takes focus, strength, and determination. Come June 29, all I know is that I’ll give it my all and I’m as ready as I can be right now.
Training-wise, I feel this year, like last year, is a slow, strength-and-speed-building lead-up to my preferred distance, the 100 miler at Western States. I feel healthy and ready in every area to let rip and am as excited as everyone else to see how I defend the title. It wont be easy, but that’s how I like it.
iRunFar: You’ve become well known for that animalian, primal place that you went in the final 20 miles of last year’s race, where you dug deep and ran just with your heart, ignoring what had to be some intense fatigue and distress signals from your body. Do you think and hope there’s a chance we’ll see this version of you again?
Olson: Yes! It’s the place I look forward to most in 100 milers, where the body is humbled and destroyed but you persevere, moving forward, only concentrating on the next step, leading with your heart, and giving every last drop. My head is in a good spot right now; I feel confident in my training and am hungry for a hard and hopefully strong effort.
I’ve pushed it some in races thus far, but still saving a little something extra for Western States. Racing season doesn’t really start till June for me this year with the 100 milers, I’ve been fueling the fire and come race day I’ll let the lion out of the cage. It’s one of my favorite parts of training and racing, going deep, becoming vulnerable, reaching my human limitations, and then transcending, going to a more primal state of being focused on what my body needs and letting intuition and my spirit take over.
iRunFar: You’re a two-time winner of the WS100 and you’ve run the race a bunch more times. You probably know this course’s ins and outs like your home trails, or nearly so. What parts of the course play to your physical and mental strengths?
Koerner: Yeah, I have a pretty intimate knowledge of the course now; this will be my tenth start. Going for finish number six, so you know that completion percentage falls right in line for these epic jaunts. I certainly have some favorite places on the trail that mimic my Ashland training grounds that I will try to take advantage of on race day. I enjoy running the ridges in the high country, staying under control, and focusing on my pace and breathing considering the amount of adrenaline and testosterone in the air. This year should be no different.
Ideally, I would wait until after Robinson to hammer to the river (Swinging Bridge, specifically). It’s a good ways but it’s gradual and downhill, some of my strengths on this course. I enjoy running into Michigan Bluff; it fills me with a little enthusiasm so I can skip over to Foresthill easily. It will be a major grind going down Cal Street this year with runners dropping in minutes apart, so I hope my heat training holds up and I have some fresh legs from a light season of racing. If I am crossing Highway 49 in the light, I can cruise the last few miles with the best of them.
iRunFar: Last year we saw you win the Hardrock 100 in slick fashion, kind of doing your own thing from start to finish and taking the lead when others faltered. Will you do the same thing this year at the WS100 even if there’s some fierce early racing happening? Or, will you attack or respond to attacks among the leaders when they happen?
Koerner: Hardrock was special and the time commitment for the win is so daunting that it sets itself up a little different than Western States. I imagine I’ll come out swinging; I don’t see any other way to race the WS100. With the long downhills and fast competitors, I don’t think it would be wise to assume you can make up time on this course anymore. I also think this is a race of attrition. The pace, heat, miles, and mental workload will dictate who stays in it and I think I have all those things. So yes, upfront attacking will be the strategy.
iRunFar: What is your plan for a shirt or lack thereof? I mean, we’re dying to know! Will you sport The North Face singlet early and then shed it when it heats up? Have your sponsors asked you to keep the dang thing on all day? What say you?
Koerner: Well, I’ve cut my days in the gym dramatically since May but that doesn’t mean I’m not, well, cut. You’ll have to see for yourself, hahaha. The North Face singlet will be hard to miss out there, but there might come a moment when it comes in handy in some other fashion. I try not to disappoint.
iRunFar: In the 90’s, you were a 100-mile master. You won Western States in 1997 in 15:40, which stood as a course record for a long time. After taking time away from ultras to focus on your career, you’re now back with a vengeance. When you think about the WS100 and your history with the race and the course, what kinds of memories come to mind?
Morton: My memories of the 90’s are vivid! Especially the ‘97 race. Back then, I had speed (and youth) on my side! The whole trip was amazing that year; Eric Clifton and I stayed at Michigan Bluff and his wife Noni drove us all over and crewed us as we trained on the course. Western States is a special race for many reasons to all ultrarunners; it is very special to me and I get to introduce my family to it this year!
iRunFar: According to your blog, you’ve been honing your diet in the recent year or so, and you now do a very low-carb regimen. What does this actually mean for WS100 fueling? What will you be eating and drinking during the race?
Morton: The low-carb diet is working great for me. Really, the diet is more about eating high fat and being in ketosis. That does away with spikes in energy and reduces the volume of food that has to be physically eaten. Less in means less out and that equals efficiency during races. I will eat whatever looks appetizing during the race, including carbs. That is another benefit; I use carbs like a high-octane fuel during races. I’ll drink what is provided as well but avoid consuming huge amounts of sugar drinks to keep the stomach happy. My crew (wife Julie, daughter Bailey, and Eric and Noni) will have some of my favorite stuff so, when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I can cheer up looking forward to something.
iRunFar: You’re a masters runner now, and I suspect that there will be some stout masters racing at this year’s race. Last year, Dave Mackey reset the masters course record by running 15:53:56 and finishing fourth overall. Do you have your eye on that record, perchance?
Morton: Of course the masters record is on my mind! Dave’s time is fast! Last year’s weather was perfect and it allowed for a ton of records to be set. I never get wrapped up with the competition; everyone has to run their own race. Last year at the 24-hour World Championships, that was my plan. I didn’t concern myself with all the great ultrarunners from all over the world. I focused on what I could control, my race. The game plan for me will be based on the weather and running smart on the course. WS100 has a unique course that allows you to fly during some sections, but it also has some terrain that will eat you alive if you push it at those points!
The bottom line is I’m coming out to California with my awesome family for a vacation and I am one of the lucky 400-ish runners who have a bib for the race! I’m going to enjoy every minute of the race, even when it hurts!