How the West(ern) Was Won
[Editor’s Note: People don’t usually win the world’s most competitive races by happenstance, and that was certainly not Pam Smith’s case when she bested the rest of the women (and, let’s be honest, most of the men) at the Western States 100. In this article, Pam offers up all the details of how she put together her perfect race.]
Thanks to in-race live tracking (and iRunFar!), spectators had about 12 hours to get over the shock of me leading Western States, so I doubt there were too many gasps of surprise when I actually crossed the finish line first. Still, I can imagine onlookers whispering in amazement to each other in the bleachers:
“Can you believe she took nearly 29 hours to finish this run last year?”
“This is going to mess up the iRunFar prediction contest for sure. She was only ranked 14th!”
“Karl Meltzer didn’t even mention her!”
Beyond the hypothetical whispers, there was even the innuendo of an actual iRunFar comment:
“Will there be drug testing?”
Who could blame them; I am well aware that I was not a favorite to win. There’s a reason “Underdog” by Spoon was the first song on my iPod playlist before States! I was not the fastest, the most accomplished, or the most experienced. But I tried my best to be the smartest runner out there that day.
In my race report, I mentioned my Cinderella story must have had a little magic, and I suppose any 100-mile race without a low is indeed magical. But in reality, every detail and every decision was carefully considered, researched, and scrutinized and my race-day strategy was meticulously planned. There was certainly a method behind the magic! Here’s what worked for me.
This year my training volume was about 20% higher than in years past. Previously, I have not been able to handle this kind of volume, getting too worn down to sustain high-mileage weeks. But, since December, I put a lot of focus in gradually building up the mileage: three weeks build, one week recovery, until I got to the point where I could handle 90-plus mile weeks without completely tanking. Plus, I skipped all the major late April and May races so that I had a solid, seven-week block without any interruptions for taper and recovery. The peak was 287 miles in 20 consecutive days. The plan was for 300 miles in three weeks, but on the last Sunday with 13 miles to go, I felt so tired. I knew it was stupid to pursue arbitrary training-mileage goals and I took a three-and-a-half-hour nap instead. The next morning I had what may have been my best track workout ever and I felt totally pumped up. I think I was truly in tune with my body and pushed it right up to the limit without ever going over. There was a perfect balance of heavy effort and recovery.
In years past, I tried to do hills on my long runs and considered it good. This year, I did hills consistently three days a week. Mind you, the highest point in Salem is 950 feet! On Tuesdays, I had a loop I call “Ultimate Hills,” which is funny because there really is nothing “Ultimate” about 500-foot climbs, but it is about the most elevation you can get in Salem in 10 miles: 1500’ in three climbs, which I ran at a decent effort. Fridays I did hill repeats on Crestview Drive, a half-mile hill with about 10% grade. I did 10 x 2 minutes hard, repeats up the hill, repeats down the hill, hiking practice, and complete loops up and down. Basically, I ran up (and down!) that one hill WAY too many times! The few Friday mornings I wasn’t on that hill, you could find me on a treadmill doing hill repeats (5 x 1200 meters @ 10% incline and 6.0 mph is my favorite). And Saturdays, I could focus on hilly long runs in contrast to last year, when April’s 100k World Championships dictated that a lot of my spring long runs were on the roads.
In addition to all the hills, I did approximately one million squats in the last six months. Maybe more. ;) Mostly, just air squats, but also weighted back squats, kettlebell swings, and my personal fave: thrusters with a medium-sized child. (No, that’s not a perverted maneuver!) There were also lots of lunges and deadlifts to balance out the quad work. I was pretty good about getting to the gym twice a week for these exercises, often doing more than 100 air squats in a session.
Okay, don’t get any ideas that I have even a lick of flexibility. I am about as stretchy as a wooden board. But I have had pelvic and groin pain in the past and I now know it is due to poor hip mobility and very tight adductors. So even though I still snicker at the touchy feely side of yoga, I have been going once a week. It has helped me tremendously. My groin pain hasn’t bothered me at all this year and my stride is a lot smoother. In addition to yoga, I do the “lizard lunge” A LOT to increase hip range of motion.
100-miler basic training
While it was cool to run a fast 100-miler, I was very clear that my primary goal at Desert Solstice was to learn how to run a 100-miler. Many people might question how a track race would prepare one for a mountain trail 100-miler, but to me it was like the necessity of taking Algebra 1 before Advanced Calculus. You need to have the basics down cold in order to have a foundation on which to build. By stripping out elements like heat, altitude, hills, and long stretches without aid, I was able to focus on nutrition, hydration, electrolytes, and pacing–the true basics of ultrarunning. By the time the race was over, I felt like I knew exactly how I would handle these components at WS100. While a track 100 certainly is not for everyone, if you are having difficulty nailing a 100-miler, I’d suggest finding an “easy” one with lots of access to aid to make sure you have the basics fine tuned.
This year, I made pretty radical changes to my diet. After 17 years of eating vegetarian, I am now eating meat on a regular basis, albeit in fairly small quantities (usually 4 ounces per meal or about half a chicken breast). I made two attempts to go “Paleo;” both were miserable failures. Yes, I stopped craving sweets, but on an emotional level, I felt like I was missing out. Worse, I was so low on energy during my runs and would feel like I was “bonking” even on easy days. I am sure I could’ve forced myself to ride it out, but it was sucking the joy out of my life, and there is only so much I am willing to sacrifice.
Looking to get the metabolic benefits of Paleo, but without the extreme restriction, I found another method of eating mostly used by weightlifters and physique competitors called “Carb Back Loading.” Maybe that’s a bad term because if you Google it you will only find websites for one guy pushing his book. And, no, I didn’t buy the book! A better term might be “Night Carbs Only,” but that doesn’t sound as cool. No matter what you call it, I was lucky in that I had a friend–a fellow ultrarunner and former physique competitor–who had been doing this for a while and she had a trainer helping her and so I got lots of help formalizing my plan.
The general idea is that you only eat carbs at times when the body is most likely to utilize them for muscle repair and glycogen storage and not use it for fat. Essentially, this boils down to immediately after a workout and at night, when growth-hormone levels spike. My breakfast and lunch look very Paleo (eggs, meat, veggies, avocados), but my post workout recovery drink and my dinner are very un-Paleo and very high carb (rice, potatoes, polenta, quinoa). Similar to Paleo, I pretty much gave up dairy and beans. I mostly cut out wheat, but when I did eat it, it was always at dinner. By eating carbs at night, I was always well-fueled for my morning runs, but then I spent the rest of the day in a more carb-depleted state. A good analogy for me is the “train low, sleep high” dictum applied to altitude training. You train in the conditions that allow for maximum performance, but then you go about your daily activities under conditions that promote other adaptations to improve your running abilities.
Most of my carbs are “clean” carbs, but I still eat dessert about three times a week, usually on nights before a hard workout. And I do not mean the Meb Keflezighi “I splurge on a fun-sized Snickers” kind of dessert! I mean s’mores, Rice Krispie treats, and even a stop at the local crack house, er, I mean FroYo shop. I may no longer crave carbs, but there is still something very pleasurable about dessert! I treated alcohol the same way, though, I’d guess I only had about six drinks in three months’ time. I do have carb guidelines (100 grams on nights preceding easy runs and 200 g on nights preceding hard workouts), but I am not anal about measuring my food and I do NOT count calories.
Unlike the weightlifters, my goal was not to “get jacked” but to lean out and optimize performance. I don’t pretend to understand all the hormonal stuff, and there is almost no scientific evidence to support low-carb diets for athletes. Dr. Marty Hoffman and colleagues did some work at Western States last year which supports low-carb training as favorable, but this is all still in its infancy. The lack of evidence is frustrating to science-minded individuals. Really it boils down to anecdotal evidence and personal testimonials. However, I will tell you without a doubt in my mind, changing my diet made a difference. Whether this difference is actually due to a low-carb intake and nutrient timing or just some coincidental factor like decreased calories, increased protein, or increased food quality (less processed food, more veggies), I can’t say. But my crew could tell a difference, too. In 2010, they joked (very lovingly) that I was the “fattest girl in the top 10 at Western States.” This year my crew said, “Holy $hit! You’re ripped.”
As alluded to above, I now drink a recovery drink after every run, even easy days. Until a sponsor makes an offer, I don’t think there is anything special about any one brand. ;) Most days, I use one scoop of Costco protein powder (whey) with one scoop of a sports drink (Gatorade, Heed, etc.) because it is way cheaper than buying a brand name recovery mix.
Against popular wisdom, I very purposely did NOT train with the stuff I planned to use on race day. My biggest fueling issue is loss of food palatability (no longer wanting to eat). I didn’t want to be sick of these items going into the race and I didn’t want to have any negative associations with these items.
I brought a lot of my own food to Squaw and ate my last two meals in my hotel room. My pre-race dinner was white rice, two Costco sausages, and an avocado. My pre-race breakfast was two packages of instant oatmeal, a banana, an Ensure, and 20 ounces of water 90 minutes pre-race, and nothing else until after the race started.
I had a lot of success with Perpetuem and soda at Desert Solstice and knew I would incorporate that into my race day fuel plan. Because of the heat, I decided on all liquid calories because I thought they’d be easier on the stomach. Also, I really wanted to focus on staying hydrated and I only wanted to have to “force” myself to take in one thing. I ended up using a combination of Perpetuem, GU Brew Recovery, Ensure (in my drop bags), and soda (at aid stations). I aimed for 250 calories/hour which was essentially equivalent to one bottle of either drink mix, taken 7 ounces every 20 minutes. I took my only gel 15 minutes into the race because I wanted to start with glucose levels completely topped off. I chose drink mixes containing protein to curb muscle breakdown and to provide a substrate for liver gluconeogenesis. (Think of it as time-release glucose after eating.)
I used a mix of Perpetuem and GU brew 1) for flavor variety, and 2) for the difference in sugar types. Perpetuem has maltodextrin as its only sugar; GU Brew has a majority of its carbs as fructose. Maltodextrin is passively absorbed by the Sodium-Glucose co-transporter in the stomach. This doesn’t require energy, but it has a limiting rate which cannot be exceeded no matter how much is in your stomach. Fructose uses a different transporter (GLUT5) in the stomach, so by using a combination of maltodextrin and fructose, you can effectively increase the amount of carbohydrate you can absorb.
On the second hottest day Western States has seen in its 40 year history, I took no salt pills. Yep, none. That is not to say that I wasn’t taking electrolytes. However, I got my electrolytes entirely through the fluids I was drinking. Dr. Tim Noakes says you don’t need to take in any salt during endurance exercise, and from a homeostasis standpoint, I suspect he is right: most of the time your body is probably capable of maintaining normal electrolyte levels without supplementation. However, even Noakes admits that electrolyte supplementation may aid performance.
The most obvious performance benefit for me is assisting in stomach absorption and avoiding “sloshy stomach.” One of the reasons for using GU Brew and Perpetuem is that they both have right about 200 milligrams of sodium/20 ounces. Ensure has 190 mg in 6 oz. I wanted to keep a steady, mid-range intake to keep my stomach happy and I wanted to start salt intake right from the beginning so as to never get behind or to get to a point where I felt I wasn’t absorbing fluids well.
Soda has a fairly high sodium load as well, but note the light-colored sodas have about 50% more sodium than Coke or Pepsi (60-65 mg/12 oz vs 45 mg in Coke and 30 mg in Pepsi). Sunkist orange soda has about the most sodium of any soda at 70 mg/12 oz. I know soda tastes good to me when running, especially late in ultras, so I stuck with Sunkist and some light sodas like Sprite and Mountain Dew. Late in the race, ice-cold water tasted really good to me, so I balanced that by drinking a small cup of broth at two of the later aid stations. I did throw up once (probably from drinking an Ensure too fast) but otherwise, I never felt overly bloated or sloshy.
There is plenty of research to show physical adaptations occur with repeated heat exposure: increased plasma volume, increased cardiac output, increased sweat rate, and decreased sweat sodium concentrations to name a few. These adaptations appear to be maximal after nine to 10 exposures, but these exposures can be up to three days apart. I buy a one-month pass to a local gym and start about three weeks out, aiming for about 12 sauna sessions of increasing length, though I don’t think I have ever made it past about 45 minutes.
One could either do passive (just sit there) or active (exercise in heat) training. Most studies comparing active to passive training show that the active training is better; however, this doesn’t take into account all the exercise a typical ultrarunner does outside of the sauna. I desperately cling to one article that shows that exercising in heat was better than either just exercising in cool temps OR passively sitting in a sauna. However, the chart shows there is essentially no synergistic effect to exercising in the heat over doing both passive heat training AND exercising in cool temps, meaning if you exercise a lot outside the sauna you don’t have to do it inside the sauna to get the benefits of heat training. That way I can read my People magazine without any guilt. It’s the only time of year I know anything about celebrities! I think passive heat training is taxing enough as it is!
I used the Ultimate Direction AK vest which holds bottles on the chest, for a hands-free option that still allowed visual clues as to how much I was drinking (something I know that I need). But the pack also had cooling benefits. First, it didn’t trap heat like a bladder pack. Second, I pre-froze all of my water bottles, so carrying my hydration was in itself cooling. And lastly, I used the back pocket for ice.
Know your cooling points
Cooling the parts of your body where major blood flow is closest to the surface is an effective way to reduce core temperature. I put ice in my hat, wore a bandana to cool my neck, and had the frozen bottles on my chest. At water holes and sponge stations, I tried to get my arms in up to my elbows. I had short sleeves to keep my armpits wet (and to keep the sun off of my shoulders). I even wore crew length socks to keep my ankles wet (and to keep the Lindsay Lohan anklet from chafing!). I was prepared to put ice in my socks, but it never came to that. But I did put ice down my pants. I am thinking about getting a bumper sticker that says “I froze my hoo-haw at Western States!” :)
Cotton is rotten… or is it?
Cotton absorbs more water, it doesn’t wick moisture, and it is more likely to stick to the body, such that any moisture stays in contact with the skin. These are all bad things if you are traveling through the mountains and temperatures drop quickly. But these are all benefits in hot weather! I ran in a cut-up cotton t-shirt from my mom’s Goodwill pile and I think that was one of the best decisions I made. Okay, not from a fashion standpoint (more “Thrift Store” than Macklemore!), but from a heat management standpoint.
I think this is pretty obvious, but I saw so many people on course who put a marginal effort into this. Things like people taking a single sponge over the head at aid stations or just dipping their hats in a stream and then moving on. I got soaking wet at every opportunity. I got my arms into the sponge buckets and then doused myself till I was dripping. At streams I was like a pig in slop, getting in as much as I could even in dirty water. And I carried an extra bottle to douse and I refilled this at stream crossings. And then my “awesome” cotton t-shirt held on to more of that water.
I was kindly provided with a case of Acli-Mate at the beginning of the year. I don’t think the drink has any magic powers, but I think people underestimate how dehydrating high altitude can be. Acli-Mate has a good mix of vitamins and electrolytes, but mostly I was looking to be well hydrated and well balanced with electrolytes. In the two days preceding the race, I drank eighteen 20-ounce bottles, plus more water at meals.
Poking around on the Internet and talking to other runners, it seems like at least half of the front runners (who live low) are using altitude tents. These tents use a hypoxic-air generator which absorbs some of the oxygen from room air and replaces it with nitrogen, reducing the concentration of oxygen in the tent. Unlike true altitude, there is normal air pressure (normobaric). Reducing a person’s blood-oxygen concentration to less than 90% stimulates physiologic adaptations such as increased ventilation, increased lung-capillary permeability, increased plasma volume, increased concentrations of enzymes that aid in oxygen delivery to tissue, and finally, increased red blood cell mass.
Studies have shown that altitude tents are not as effective as the real thing, most likely because at actual high elevations there is decreased air pressure. The decreased pressure contributes to some of the symptoms of altitude sickness, and the most severe forms of altitude sickness, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) require hypobaric conditions. The good news is that an altitude tent won’t give you the same degree of altitude sickness as regular altitude, but it also won’t protect against it. However, some of the benefits of high-altitude acclimation can be achieved with an altitude tent. Still, if possible, nothing beats actual time in the mountains, but that is not an option for me with work and kids.
So, is using an altitude tent “cheating?” This comes up in every discussion of altitude tents. When they first appeared, WADA did, in fact, state that altitude tents should be banned and even released a statement that they “violated the spirit of sport.” However, in 2006 after three WADA commissions recommended not banning the tents, WADA released a statement that altitude tents would remain legal. To me, an altitude tent is no different than a sauna or running hills on a treadmill: a simulated environmental condition used to optimize performance when faced with similar real conditions, and they offer no advantage greater than training in those actual conditions. I understand not everyone agrees with that view, but at least from a regulatory standpoint, no, altitude tents are not cheating.
If you are interested in a tent, there are basically three US companies selling them: Hypoxico, Colorado Altitude Training, and Higher Peaks. All three companies use the same hypoxic-air generator, so the main differences are the tent and price. I went with Colorado Altitude Training because they had a bigger tent (so theoretically I could put a treadmill or a bike trainer in it and work out, though, like working out in the sauna, I am not really interested in that) but mostly because they offered me a better “deal.” Altitude tents seem to be priced like new cars, in that the price on the sticker is not what they expect you to pay, so do call around and do a little “wheeling and dealing.” I slept in my tent every night I was home starting the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but I didn’t ever “hang out” in the tent. Sleeping in a bubble is fine by me, but living my life in one is not!
Hopefully, it goes without saying that I don’t condone performance enhancing drugs. However, there are many legal drugs that may assist you in your race particularly if you have known medical conditions. For me, it is asthma and I have had some degree of asthma affecting my race at Western States the last three years. This year, I finally accepted that my asthma is a problem for me and I need to treat it more aggressively. That meant steroid inhalers and an oral anti-inflammatory drug (Singulair). And guess what? No asthma! Make sure ancillary physical issues aren’t affecting your race. For example, if you know you are a puker, consider a prescription anti-nausea medication. (I had Zofran in my medical kit, but did not need it). You can check the status of your medications here.
As a minor point, I got a new contact prescription so I had the best trail vision possible.
For being a fairly anal-retentive person, I have never been much for planning my races. I always had a “go run and see what happens” attitude. I couldn’t have even told you the correct order of the aid stations. (Really I only can now because all the confusing ones are in alphabetical order: Lion’s Ridge and Red Star Ridge, Dardanelles and Peachstone, and Duncan Canyon and Dusty Corners. But still, I do know them and vaguely how long each section between them is). I looked at pace charts and even MADE pace charts. I had written crew directions and an individual note card for them at each aid station. Mac helped me to get all the crew gear really organized. (Okay, he pretty much did it all, but it was organized and labeled.) It helped me and my crew know exactly what we wanted to do at each meeting.
The Little Things
Never underestimate the little things, as they can be very important. I got a new headlamp (Petzl NAO), which is much brighter than anything I had ever used in the past. I restitched my bra and used scissors to cut my shirt exactly how I wanted it. Next time, I will definitely be customizing my race vest to hopefully minimize bruising. I used sunscreen and a new coat of Vaseline every time I saw my crew. I used a Garmin (910XT) to track distances and I had it beep at me every 20 minutes to remind me to drink.
I don’t know what to say about this one, because I am still uncertain how to achieve that state where you absolutely believe in yourself, but for some reason I believed that I could win going into this one. Whether you call it confidence, self-delusion, or arrogance, I think the mental state is important. Even Mac knew I was in the right state of mind ahead of time. My mom, the concerned parent, pulled him aside before the race and asked, “Isn’t this heat going to be awful for Pam to run in?” My mom told me after the race that Mac answered, “No, she is going to do great. I have never seen her like this. She is totally in the zone.” This principle applies no matter what your goal is, whether that means a particular finishing time or just finishing at all. You have to believe your goals are achievable.
While there are many things you can do that have little effect on your run, I think if they put you in a better mental state, they are worth doing, be it pre-race rituals, lucky charms (or garments), a special song, prayer, or whatever else gets you in the right state of mind to race.
A 100-mile race is more than just a competition of foot speed. It is a complex strategy game and the importance of a good race plan is multiplied when conditions are extreme. I think the biggest disappointment for me last year was not that it took so much longer than expected to finish, but that I really felt that I failed in my organization and strategic planning. This year, I aimed to rectify that by picking apart everything and executing every component of a 100-mile race better. I am going to go out on a limb and say it paid off!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Did you learn anything new here that you’ll apply to your own training or race preparations?
- Have you ever gone “all in” to the same extent that Pam did for Western States 100? If so, for what race and in what ways?