Bryon Powell’s 2013 Western States 100 Race Report
My go at the 2013 Western States 100 was bittersweet. In the end, I learned that I got myself into my best-ever 100-mile fitness just six months after being in my worst fitness in 20 years. I’ll take that. On the other hand, I exposed some significant weaknesses and, more important, DNFed at mile 80. Whatever the positives and however comfortable I am with the outcome, it’s still a failure. Failure sucks.
Rather than a blow-by-blow, I’ll take this chance to flesh out and share the self-assessment that I’ve compiled in my head over the past week. I hope that folks can learn from some of the positives… and help me patch some of weaknesses.
What Went Right
My Fitness – Holy moly. Six months ago, I couldn’t have imagined being as fit as I showed myself I was at Western States. I ran up the Escarpment at conversational pace with the dudes (and Rory) I write about on iRunFar. I felt that same way through the first 25 miles. In addition, I had plenty of legs for miles 40 through 70 and even ran up much of the Green Gate climb after too much time in the cot.
- My Heat Training – I don’t think I broke a sweat until the climb up Devil’s Thumb at Mile 46 and first felt hot on a few exposed sections heading down to El Dorado Creek. I didn’t feel hot again until a decent way down Cal Street. Officially, it was the second-hottest States ever, but I felt as if it were much cooler than the ridiculously hot 2006. Two weeks of focused heat training in the sauna was enough.
- Heat Management – In addition to nailing my heat prep, I actively kept myself cool almost all day. I focused on it even when I felt I didn’t need it. I was dousing myself not long after sunup and both my shirt and hat were nearly continuously wet all day. I filled my hat with ice every chance I got and it’d often last nearly to the next aid station or at least until I used my hat as a dipper at pools and stream crossings. I sat and soaked for a minute on the descent after Duncan Canyon and spent six minutes laying mouth-deep in El Dorado. I doused myself with cool water at nearly every spring and stream. I took advantage of cooling stations at aid stations. However, I let all this slip once I entered Cal St. I stopped asking for hat ice. I didn’t take the time to douse myself at stream crossings or aid stations. I didn’t take any dousing water in my second bottle. In other words, I deviated from the plan. Fail.
- Quad Training – Western States is a quad breaker. Always has been. At my first States I walked down to No Hands due to dead quads before running most of the Robie Point climb. Despite not focusing on “vert” this year I’d say my quads were at 98% at the river. The only two times I noticed my quads all day were about ¾ of the way down to El Dorado (I’m pretty sure I’d notice my quads out of the gate on that descent) and briefly walking downhill shortly after Cal 2. The quads were fine as soon as I started running again. I’m now confident I can flawlessly fast track downhill training. My recommendations: (1) Run half a dozen focused downhill sessions. We’re talking a continuous vertical K (or two) on steep-@ss terrain (think 3k’+ in just over 2 miles) on mild- to moderately-technical footing. In other words, blow up the quads hard, recover, repeat, and be confident; and (2) learn to run downhill smooth and fast. Too many folks don’t think at all about how they run downhill. Those that do, might think about form, but, in my mind, not about form – it’s all about the flow, folks… but there’s enough there for an entire article. In short, pick lines and run fast enough (but not fast enough) that you’re never noticeably breaking.
What Went Wrong
- Hydration Plan – My hydration “plan” was actually fine, but I diverted from it too abruptly on Cal St and that was an issue. More or less, I never drank more than one 26-ounce bottle between aid stations with a few small cups in most aid stations and that was enough to remain within 1.5 pounds of start weight at every weighin through mile 62. (Usually within a pound.) Starting at Cal 1 I don’t think I drank anything other than soda and not enough of that. I went from maybe a pound down at Foresthill to 4 pounds down at the river. My stomach turned by Cal 2 and I was puking five or six miles later. I should have taken on ice water and eased my (stomach’s) way through the end of Cal St.
- Heel Blisters – Any time I’ve ever run over 100k I’ve ended up with ridiculously painful blisters that originate under the callouses on the outside of my heels. Despite this fact, I’ve never seriously searched for a solution. They appeared again at Western States with the right blister becoming extremely painful. I did try to file down the callouses before the race, but started at 10 pm on Friday night… not a good plan. Right now I’m actively searching for solutions. Much more filing and some taping are on tap for my next go at a long race. I’ll also try to keep my feet drier after keeping them sopping wet most of States.
- Negative Grit – I’ve never identified with machismo or toughness. I’d rather be trained and race smart. (To each their own.) Still, as I told AJW on Little Bald Mountain, I think I’d gone into negative territory on the grit scale in the mile either side of Robinson Flat this year. Nothing was wrong, but I was tired of running and I collapsed mentally. I spent two or three minutes in a chair at Robinson, then sequentially spent a few minutes each sitting on a stump, a dirt pile, and a stone (with a woods break in there) in the mile after Robinson. It’s more or less the same place I cratered in 2006. If it wasn’t for AJW coming by when I was on the rock, I’d likely have walked my way to Dusty Corners for a drop. I plan on doing some reading on the mental side of running later this year and, sometime, work with a sports psychologist on this.
- iRunFar – I need to accept that I can’t run another all-in coverage race while I’m still heading iRunFar… at least not until circumstances change significantly. I was working at 2 am Friday morning, interviewing folks (and processing and publishing those interviews) Friday afternoon, and still working until 10 on Friday night. I must accept that I’m too committed to what iRunFar provides to step away from it sufficiently to be fully vested in my own run.
Forgot About Mile 20-40 Blues – While there were a few negative mental issues early, I also forgot that I inevitably have a long low patch somewhere between miles 20 and 40. I think it’s happened in every 100 I’ve run and I’ve faced it in shorter races, as well. I doubt I’ll ever have a way to eliminate the problem, but (1) I might be able to push my way through it if I remember it’s coming and (2) I could try to find a mental crutch, whether it’s teaming up with another runner, some music, or something else.
- Laying in a Cot – Frack! I should never have moved from a chair to a cot at Rucky Chucky Near Side. It was my death knell. I did it again at Green Gate. Double frack! In both instances, I was far too lucid and energetic to hit a cot. I can’t say I’ll never use a cot again, but only if I can’t possibly move forward and a few hours of shuteye might save my race. There are no quick cot visits. I won’t beware the chair, but will remember not the cot!
- (Not) Keeping It Simple – It’s indicative of some of my failures that I failed to give my iPod Shuffle to my crew during a pre-race meeting on Friday afternoon. I’d unrealistically hoped that I’d customize the content with more positive music before the race and have someone pass the Shuffle off to my crew at an aid station. Predictably, that transfer didn’t happen and I missed out on music when I could have used a boost. I should have just handed it off as it was on Friday… I could have used the skip-song option when a negative song cropped up.
- Possible Misdiagnosis of Nausea – I’ve previously vomited in a 100 and have always felt markedly better within 15 minutes. Around mile 76 or 77 I was actually hoping for a “stomach reset” in vomititous form. A handful of bittersweet American River blackberries took care of initiating the expulsion. At Near Side, I took on two cups of Sprite and one of broth in quick fashion… and vomited again. After that, I continuously felt nauseous for many hours… or so I thought. In retrospect, my esophagus may have been badly irritated from the couple bouts of vomiting. The “nausea” I experienced running up to Green Gate might simply have been discomfort. The next time I don’t feel well after vomiting (especially multiple times) in an ultra, I’ll try harder to fight through what I perceive as nausea until its effects (either time puking or resultant dehydration) force me from the race. (Realistically, I suppose there’d be some upper bound to the number of times I’d puke and push on, but it’s more than two.)
What I Know I Can Improve
- My Ability to Run at a Quicker Pace – My “effort” was well within my fitness through the High Country, but the pace to that point was likely too much for my running muscles, particularly as my gait’s become much more neutral over the past year. I train slow. That’s partly to do with the elevation at which I live (7,200’), my home terrain (rarely flat), and my preference (I like cruising at an easy pace). I don’t regret mostly training slow as I rebuilt my fitness this year, but next build up I’ll mix in a few more up-tempo long runs. In the end, for a 100, I’d still rather have my fitness outpace my speed than the other way around.
- Leg Strength – I sure do hate running with extra stuff, mostly because that means extra weight. Unfortunately, in the High Country, I learned that I had difficulty running with two 26-ounce water bottles due to the weight. Even though I’d planned on carrying as much as 78 ounces of water at points during the race, I ended up not wanting to carry more than one 26-ounce bottle and a little bit of water in a second bottle. I’m ok with not wanting to carry more fluids in this race (all that worked out), but I’d like a bit more of a buffer in the leg strength category. I’d actually intended to log all my June training with at least one, if not two bottles… but couldn’t get myself to suck it up. I will next time.
Countless thanks to my partner in life and iRunFar, Meghan Hicks. Without her support I wouldn’t have had the fitness nor would I have been able to step away from race coverage on race day. Thanks to Dean and Hillary for graciously giving me your raffle spot in the race, driving up from LA to crew me, and for the friendship we’ve built – I look forward to seeing one of your round the Placer High Track next June! Thanks for Mom and Dad for crewing me all five of my goes at Western States. Thanks to the Mauri P, Patrick M, Ellie G, Marc L, Nick T, and the others who aided with iRunFar’s on-course coverage, as well as to the iRunFar Live Coverage moderators – from what I’ve heard, all of you created iRunFar’s best race coverage yet. Thanks, too, to AJW for keeping me in the game on Little Bald, Ashley Nordell for switching me back running on the way to Last Chance, and to Topher Gaylord for the repeated encouragement on Cal Street. Finally, a huge thanks to everyone who made the 2013 Western States Endurance Run possible… with a special thanks to first year RD Craig Thornley – let the motivation to improve come from inside rather than the detractors.
With the knowledge that I’ve got strong 100-mile fitness and the reality that I can’t train over the next three months due to race-coverage season, I’m eager to give the 100-mile distance another shot in quick order. As such, I’ll be toeing the line at Spooner Summit in less than two weeks to take on the Tahoe Rim 100. I’m thankful that my weaknesses from Western States aren’t training based. I’ve recovered well and I’m physically ready to run. That gives me a very short window to eliminate or at least minimize as many of my other weaknesses as I can. Time to find some 60-grit and get to work on my mind and feet!