Ahead of next weekend’s Western States 100, we rounded up three fast veteran women, defending champion Pam Smith, last year’s second place, Nikki Kimball, and last year’s fourth place, Meghan Arbogast, to talk about their preparations and thoughts on this year’s race. Between them are a combined 19 finishers buckles–lifetimes of WS 100 perspective and experience!
In these interviews, Pam talks about what it might take to win again, Nikki answers the question about whether she thinks it could be her who wins this year’s race, and Meghan talks about her favorite parts of Western States.
Be sure to read up on the rest of the women’s competition in our in-depth women’s preview.
iRunFar: You are the returning champ. What kind of badge of honor is that? How does it make you feel? Are there any burdens or pressures you feel being the fastest-returning lady?
Pam Smith: It’s an amazing badge of honor. Due to Ann Trason’s dominance for so many years, only 16 different women have ever won this race, and it is incredible to be on that list. Last year there was no outside pressure at all: I wasn’t on anyone’s pre-race list of favorites and I was completely out of the spotlight. And since it took me 29 hours to finish the year before, pretty much anything would be an improvement! This year I think people have more expectations of me and it is undeniable that there is an added layer of pressure when people expect you to do well.
iRunFar: Your two articles on iRunFar after your win last year, your race report first and secondly your ‘How the West(ern) Was Won’ became insta-classics for the way they showed your hyper-analysis of the race’s every little detail. You showed us that you nailed the race start to finish, almost flawless. Do you think you can improve upon what happened? Is it in you, physically, mentally?
Smith: Last year I was so focused and so dialed in on the race and everything went perfectly. But I do worry that things won’t go as smoothly this year and that I won’t enjoy the same ease of running that I did for the race last year. Physically, I think I am where I was last year or better, plus I know we held back a little at the end so there is room for improvement there. But I don’t think I have ever been so in the zone mentally for a race like I was last year and that is going to be really hard to reproduce.
iRunFar: The ‘Pam Smith Diet’ has become one of fascination for many ultrarunners. What’s the diet situ? Are you still practicing the low-carb, high-fat regime with some carb loading in the evenings? Has your diet evolved a little?
Smith: After things didn’t go well at Western States in 2012, I was ready to look critically at everything I was doing and try new things. That included my nutrition. Low-carb eating had some pretty successful proponents and I figured, What the heck, I’ll try it. Only I hated it! I know it works for some people but all my runs felt like I was bonking and I felt like I was too restricted with what I could eat. I was coming from a very carb-oholic way of eating and it was just too extreme for me.
I heard about carb back loading through some of my husband’s friends so I started reading what I could find (not a lot), and then Ronda Sundermeier coincidentally posted on Facebook about it. With input from Ronda, her trainer, and a few other sources, I started carb back loading. Like I said, I was really just ready to try something new, but I feel like it really fit me well. Before that I was just eating too many empty calories and not enough high-quality foods. Plus, I really don’t think I was eating enough protein.
I eat about 150 grams of carbs per day and my dinners are still very carb heavy, so I don’t think this is really low carb. I am pretty much eating the same as last year, but I am not as strict about things on a day-to-day basis and I allow myself to ‘cheat’ when life warrants it, like at a celebration or friend’s house. I’m flexible enough with it now that I don’t really consider it a nutrition plan; it’s just how I eat.
iRunFar: Take us into a bit of your training. A peak week maybe, mileage, vert, hours run, intervals, tune-up races, sauna training, practice literally gnawing apart a massive field of women like you did last year, psych training ;), whatever that week included.
Smith: An average week for me is about 80 miles with a track workout on Monday, tempo on Wednesday, and a long run Saturday. Training for Western States, I add a hill workout on Fridays. For peak weeks, I up the mileage to around 100 miles per week. My hometown of Salem, Oregon is at an elevation of 250 feet with nearby hills topping out at 950 feet, so we don’t really talk about vertical for our runs! I have one 10-mile loop in town with about 1,500 feet of gain that I do regularly and I do hill repeats on a half-mile road with 300 to 350 feet of gain.
Some days, my treadmill is my mountain! I try to get out to hillier trails (about a 30-minute drive) on the weekends, but that was a bit harder this year with both kids in sports. I am big on strength training. Last year in my iRunFar report I joked I did about one million squats. This year I actually kept track. It wasn’t quite a million, but since February 17 (the day I started training again after my DNF at Rocky Raccoon) I did over 10,000 strength repetitions (squats, lunges, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, mountain climbers, etceteras). I think that helps to make up for the lack of vert in my training.
Last year, I didn’t race all that much in the lead-up to Western States and I think that was beneficial so I did the same thing this year. My only ultra this spring was the Mad City 100k. But I did have a couple short race efforts for gauging fitness and getting a little boost in training. Like AJW, I participated in the Titus van Rijn One Hour track time trial in May and then last weekend I did the Beacon Rock 25k with 3,700 feet of gain for a last little bit of quad pounding. I do sauna ‘training’ during my taper, but it is all passive training. I don’t work out in the sauna–that way I can catch up on all the back issues of People Magazine. ;)
iRunFar: If you could give a one-word answer to your current frame of mind, what would you say?
I can’t predict how the day will go and it could even end up as another 29-hour affair, but I feel like I have done what I need to do to be prepared and I am ready to find out how it will all unfold.
iRunFar: And lastly, is a cotton shirt in your wardrobe again this year? What color can we look forward to?
Smith: As long as it is hot, I’ll be in cotton. La Sportiva is sending me some cotton shirts specifically for Western States. I kind of feel bad cutting up a brand-new shirt, but I’ll try to make it work since La Sportiva has been so supportive. The back-up plan is an old beat-up light-yellow t-shirt that I have been saving for this occasion. My neon-green cotton ice bandanna got lost at Robie Point last year, so I think I am going with hot pink this year. I definitely choose function over fashion!
iRunFar: Ahead of the Marathon des Sables about 2.5 months ago, you said you were planning to use that race to train your Western States weakness, the runnable stretches of trail. How did that work out for you? Do you feel like you were effective in training that weakness?
Nikki Kimball: MdS was great training for Western States. The course was generally quite runnable, and that should help me. However, I miscalculated the recovery time required following such an event. I did not add into my recovery equation the week of very little sleep involved in that race, and the travel surrounding it. Interestingly, I continue to re-learn lessons I should know by rote. Laurence Klein told me that she takes at least a week completely off, sleeping lots, and then slowly returns to running after MdS. Further, if I were coaching an athlete who had completed MdS, I would’ve advised him to follow Laurence’s advice.
I’m not always objective about my own training and started running again after one day. Then I returned to some great snow in Montana, and skied a lot during my first week home. So basically MdS provided me with great training, and then I sort of messed up my follow through. I wasn’t recovering well from hard workouts until very recently. Overall, though, MdS did help me to increase my comfort with running the flats, and provided I stick to my taper, it should serve me well.
iRunFar: After your win (post-race interview, race report) at the MdS in April, you also raced the Silver State 50 Mile between then and now. This must mean you recovered well enough from MdS. I recall from our pre-MdS interview that you were apprehensive about so much early-season mileage. Are you feeling good and recovered from those miles? Ready to roll?
Kimball: Yes, I am worried a bit about too much early-season running. But I’m also really loving to run, even more than normal for recent years, so any fatigue accompanying me to the start of States is born of my own impatience and desire to explore (be it on skis or on foot).
iRunFar: You are on the hunt for your ninth WS 100 finish. There must be parts of this course that you both love and hate by this point in your career. What stretches of trail are you looking forward to and what terrain do you wish there was a shuttle bus through?
Kimball: Yeah, I kind of know this course. I adore the canyons. And on snowy years I love most of the first 30 miles, as I feel like a kid alternately hiking up steep, slick hills and glissading descents and even flats.
The later flats and well-groomed net down from Robinson Flat to Last Chance really gets to me, though. A person with good leg speed can kill that section of the course. Not only is leg speed not my strength, but I just find that section mentally tiresome.
I know there is a lot of flatter stuff later in the race as well, but the race becomes really interesting at that point. Athletes begin to make moves, or crash trying. We get to see our crews more frequently. We either have or can anticipate having our pacers. I’m basically a very social runner at this point. The flat sections do not bother me later in the race when I have Prudence or another friend filling me in on his/her personal events of the preceding year.
iRunFar: You’re a three-time champ. The last time you won was 2007. But you were second last year and third the two years prior to that. Do you think you have another win in you? What would the 43-year-old Nikki have to do differently than the mid-30s Nikki in order to make that happen?
Kimball: I have to admit that I totally love and hate WS 100! It is a fantastic event, but I really am looking forward to being a spectator after next year (if all goes decently). In over 15 years of ultra racing, Western States is the only race that gets me worked up. Pre-race nerves are not something I am used to, and they bring out aspects of my personality I don’t really like. I’ve run it a few times at the top of my form, and it’s tough to return to such a well-publicized event knowing that my training and shorter-distance race times are much slower than they used to be. That said, last year I experienced none of my normal pre-WS 100 funk. I was just then recovering from some pretty serious health problems, and I was so happy to be able to run that I didn’t think about results, or feel pressure or stress of any kind. Mentally I was back to my WS 100 self of the mid-2000s. I hope that I have learned from that relaxed mental state and that I can replicate it this year.
And yes a win is absolutely possible. I’m not the fastest woman entered anymore, but I know the course and I like to run in heat. (Or my body seems to deal well with it.) I now have to be much more patient, and have perfect fueling and pacing in order to win, whereas I could make mistakes in the past and recover to land in a top place in Auburn. One hundred miles, particularly in adverse running conditions, is far enough to ensure that unpredictable things will happen. There are plenty of candidates in both the men’s and the women’s fields who can win this event. The only sure thing is that WS 100 will, as always, be interesting.
iRunFar: You are looking to finish your eighth WS 100 this year. You ran 19:30 for fourth last year, and your best finish was 18:50 and seventh in 2011. Are you looking for 10 finishes? Is there a personal goal you’re on the continued hunt for? Is there something less tangible you seek about this race?
Meghan Arbogast: I still want to have a more perfect race. I want to run under 18:30. Living here makes it seem more possible as I have been able to cover so much of the course multiple times. Less tangible, I love that every time I run this race, there are a multitude of stories and experiences. It is more about the place and the people at the time and what unfolds.
iRunFar: Many who run W S100 says the race is a perpetual mystery. That you can come to know it but you can never become a master of it. Would you agree with them? Which parts of the race are the biggest unknowns to you? Which parts do you feel most comfortable with?
Arbogast: Kind of what I said above, it is about satisfying curiosity every time. This isn’t a course to master as much as a course to come to an agreement with. The biggest unknown is where am I going to feel the wheels come off, and how badly they do come off. I feel most comfortable with the downhills, as that is my strength and I have the most confidence there.
iRunFar: You’re in a totally different place this year than previous years here at States. Since last year, you moved to the west side of the Sierra Nevada and you basically live on the WS 100 course. You train on it or trails like it every day. You have been training in warm weather for months and months. You’re training less on the roads due to trail accessibility than you did when you lived in Oregon. Are we going to see a different Meghan this year that’s reflective of this?
Arbogast: I think so. Race day will reveal whether or not that is true, but regardless, my love and knowledge for the course has only grown.
iRunFar: You’re 53 years old. I don’t mean to harp on age, but I think our previous conversations have led me to believe that your age is a focus for you, too. You’re breaking all kinds of age barriers for both women and men, teaching us that age really isn’t a boundary; it’s the health of our bodies that is. You hold the women’s 50 to 59 age-group course record at 18:50. There was talk the year you set that record as you were legitimately threatening Doug Latimer’s men’s 50 to 59 age-group record, as well. Are you still trying to work on his record?
Arbogast: I am still after the Latimer record, and also, the Craig Thornley record. :) 18:25, I think. I’m not avidly chasing it as much as honing my skills on each section and feeling stronger in every way. In theory, it can just happen by staying within myself.
iRunFar: It’s a unique women’s field this year. I believe we’re down to six women returning from last year’s top 10, along with a thick influx of new blood chosen through the Montrail Ultra Cup or via the lottery. What you’ve got are the Meghan Arbogasts and the Nikki Kimballs on the experience side of things, paired with the Pam Smith of the super analytical side, and matched with the WS 100 newbies (or close to it). You’ve also got some of the familiar faces of previous years missing, Rory Bosio to another race that weekend and Aliza Lapierre to injury recovery, as examples. Got a feel for what the women’s dynamic is going to be like? Who do you think might be an early leader? And who would be your best guess for the women’s podium?
Arbogast: Great questions. I think we can see great stuff from Emily Harrison, given her speed and experience. Stephanie Howe is fast, but it is her first 100 and I know she will want to be smart and finish. I think the six of us returning are likely to be top 10 again, but placement-wise is always a mystery. I don’t like polls and predictions much.