The Western States Killing Machine, Part Two: The Marble In The Groove
[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about racing the Western States 100. Part One is about the race’s challenges, while Part Two here is about conquering those challenges.]
Imagine a long casino-like buffet: so long, in fact, that its length–and the entirety of its offerings–is obscured and not fully visible.
Upon entering, you’re hungry; starving, really. Around you are scores of equally ravenous people. Elbows and hips flying, you fight with these other hungry people for serving spoons and piles of food. You scoop greens, pasta, vegetables, fruit salads, and even lumps of slimy Jell-O onto your plate.
The crowd consumes while they go, mouths and stomachs filling quickly–some with greater satisfaction than others, but all with tremendous relief. The pressure of yours and their hunger and the surge of the crowd subside.
They move along, and are elated to find that their options are improving: leafy greens give way to rich, creamy soups (one named ‘Witches Brew’) and salty, savory starches. The crowd, elated with these new, more substantial offerings piles them aboard.
Everyone shuffles along, getting fuller and increasingly uncomfortable. Some hearty eaters begin to push and shove in their discomfort. Others just want to sit and let their burgeoning meal digest. Regardless of motivation, the crowd continues to consume, more out of obligation of what they have overzealously piled onto their plates.
The buffet—rivers of bisques and heavy gravies running over butter-laden biscuits—continues and so does the eating. A few steps later, everyone sees it: the main course. Thick cuts of prime rib, dripping in juices; steaming roasts of pork; racks of crusty, tender ribs; generous fillets of salmon and tuna; and enormous lobster tails garnished to perfection with lemon and parsley. The crowd stands there, mouths agape, stomachs rotund and crammed full. Because of their earliest indulgences, they will not be able to enjoy the best part of the buffet.
The crowd divides, pushed aside by a force behind them. Emerging from the blurry-eyed mob is a small handful of individuals: Tim Twietmeyer, Ann Trason, Bruce LaBelle, Nikki Kimball, Andy Jones-Wilkins, and others. With their plates decorated by dainty portions of greens and starch, they move to the front of the line, unyielding and silent. They dive in, carving up the offerings and, really, the crowd, too.
The beauty and the torture of the Western States 100 is the truth behind the allegory: that great riches await runners in the final 20 miles of this race… if only they have the patience, integrity, and desire to accept it once they get there. The great suspense of the final 20: Who has the legs? Who has the appetite left over to lie to waste this lush, buttery singletrack?
Twietmeyer knows this better than anyone:
“That’s what makes the course fascinating. The early part is challenging and has a variety of conditions but the last third of the course is very runnable [while] most courses just continue to be hard or the same throughout. It’s [those] that can survive [as] the body blows over the first 100k that get to have fun on Cal Street while everyone else rues the fact that they’re on a great trail just slogging along in the dark. At Western States, you need to hold back some, but not too much, such that you can stay in one piece and then let it rip over the last six or seven hours from Foresthill to the finish.”
Why Twietmeyer knows this better than anyone:
- He ran the race 25 times with astonishing results: five wins, 10 top-five finishes, 15 top 10s… and 25 silver buckles.
- It took him 10 races to win his first.
He had to take his lumps including a near-DNF in his first run to learn about the race and himself. And what Twietmeyer–and every veteran silver buckle-er, serial top-10 finisher, and multi-time champion I spoke with–learned was that running with the course, not against it, was the secret. Pushing only when there was trail for the taking, but otherwise going with the flow.
What exactly does that mean? What does it take to even perceive what the course is willing to give? And just as important, what you are able to give?
Speaking to these veteran runners, three central themes emerged:
- patience, and
These three ingredients are critical to not only survival, but also to something much greater: creating a transcendent experience.
It is the precise point where ability equals demand. When the greatest challenges are equaled by our greatest focus, skill, determination, and heart. And when demand and execution compound and multiply, something special happens: greatness just flows, as former Western States champion Doug Latimer put it, “Like a marble in a groove.”
The runners I spoke with are the embodiment of the physical and mental skills, abilities, and wherewithal it takes to be Western States champions. However, what follows is not a manual of how to finish first at a singular race. It’s instead a coalescence of how to become your own champion of whatever race you choose, to maximize the abilities and passions you bring to race day, and to create the unforgettable, transcendent experience that invariably comes when epic challenge is met with epic performance.
That doesn’t take epic fitness, foot speed, or any sort of physical fortune. What it does take is a level of preparation and headspace to maximize our own abilities, and thereby minimize undue suffering. To silence the Killing Machine and allow each of us to shine.
Silencing the Killing Machine, Step 1: Prepare to Problem Solve
To achieve a flow state is to develop and maintain momentum. And the only way to do so in such a uniquely challenging event such as Western States is to avoid any situation that may interrupt momentum. Problems. At Western States there are many, several of which begin hours and even days and weeks, pre-race.
The key to generating and maintaining momentum is not to simply avoid problems, but to anticipate them and to quickly and effectively solve them. That takes preparation. And for the Western States veterans I spoke with, preparation goes beyond simple fitness, leg strength, or the right gear.
In a recent podcast with Trail Runner Nation, nine-time finisher and seven-time top-10 finisher Andy Jones-Wilkins talked about how he prepares for Western States. Central to his preparation is mental imagery. Not about how fast he intends to run each section on race day, but on how he intends to manage the course: how he will negotiate challenges and how he might address various problems that may arise along the way.
In an interview with iRunFar, he elaborated on that strategy:
“For me the key to course management at Western States is to stay calm and focused on the task at hand. Managing the intangibles is most important in this regard as is doing whatever you can, in training and in preparing your crews/pacers, to eliminate all variables. On race day, my family and I have a simple rule: no surprises.”
Anticipating any and all race-day challenges is central not only to execution on race day but in physical and mental preparation beforehand. Ten-time silver buckle-er Bruce LaBelle notes that he “looks at a race [like Western States], then I look at where I am now, and I fill in the blanks of what I need to do to prepare”. LaBelle, among the other veterans I spoke to, anticipated periods of deep fatigue, malaise, brain bonks, and even nausea on the course. And he trained for it. Key workouts in his pre-race build-ups included beginning at Robinson Flat, mile 30, then running close to as hard as he could to Dusty Corners at mile 38, without food or drink. “From there I would be in full bonk, then I’d just try to run race pace to Michigan Bluff [at mile 55].” This was LaBelle’s way of both physically and mentally anticipating–and preparing for–what he might encounter on race day. The brilliance in LaBelle’s method lies in the fact that a brisk eight-mile tempo sans fuel was less chronically taxing than, say, a run of much longer length that it would take to produce the same malaise.
Having a focused, pre-race plan that encompasses both physical and mental preparation is critical to overcoming issues and obstacles at Western States. Anticipating problems–and how to calmly and effectively deal with them–is central to making sound, level-headed decisions when they inevitably arise on race day and to avoid activating the Killing Machine.
Silencing the Killing Machine, Step 2: “The Mental Taper”
Once the pieces are in place: fitness, gear, travel, and logistics, it is time to rest. Not only the body, but also the mind. Ann Trason calls this “The Mental Taper.” In her discussion with Andy Jones-Wilkins and Trail Runner Nation, Trason discusses the importance of turning off the brain in order to conserve what she calls “the finite energy of the mind.”
Elaborating further, Trason talks about what the days preceding the race looked like to her. Her actions divided between passive distractions and active giving toward others. A pre-race tradition, according to Trason, included preparing brunch on Friday morning between check-in and the race meeting. “I would bring my own waffle iron, and go buy real baking powder and flour… and make my crew waffles.” All the ingredients from scratch and artfully combined, the same methodical execution she would wield on the trail the next day. Trason found it important, those days pre-race, to “emphasize my crew, because it was their time.” Implicit in that statement is the fact that race day was her time. Outside of that, Trason would, over the days and weeks preceding race week, compile a heavy volume of books, films, and games to pass the time and distract her mind from the race and, quite simply, “put it somewhere else.”
Trason, who admitted that “my life was Western States” over her decade-and-a-half period of domination, made another admission, “I would talk about what race I was going to run after Western States.” While this may seem blasphemous on the eve of the biggest day of the year, that statement served a purpose. In some small way, it reinforced the notion that, even for the legend, life goes on after Western States. Perspective matters to an anxious mind.
Whether or not Trason ever experienced the heavy consequence of pre-race anxiety remains unknown (though she would struggle mightily in her two initial stabs at Western States). Wherever this strategy was born, it is rooted in science: pre-race anxiety–often fueled by continuous dwelling on the event–creates two measurable effects on the body:
- neurological fatigue, which Trason seemed to palpate implicitly; and
- physical fatigue through the stress hormone cortisol which erodes precious muscle glycogen stores that must be filled to the brim, and it wears down tissues that we demand to be at utmost integrity.
Indeed, Trason also seemed to know that her ability to be present during the race hinged in part on her being present pre-race. She avoided dwelling on something in the future over which–until that time came–she had no control.
As Luis Gonzales, author of Deep Survival and an expert on survival psychology, says, “Be here, now”. Always.
Silencing the Killing Machine, Step 3: Turning Inward
Race day arrives: the precise moment when anxiety, excitement, and fanfare are at their greatest. The majesty of the event, the electrifying atmosphere of the start, and the excitement of a year (or a lifetime) of anticipation and preparation combines and can ignite a powder keg of energy powerful enough to rocket a runner to the top of the Sierra Nevada.
When race day finally comes, the most challenging period may be the time period between waking and sunrise: keeping pre-race anxiety below the boiling point from the time bib numbers are handed out, to when the shotgun fires, to the point at which runners summit Emigrant Pass. Each of the Western States veterans I interviewed implored a nearly identical message: run within yourself. It’s as if each one of them had at some point been involved in the same multi-car pileup. Or they continue to witness it at the same points and with the same outcomes year after year.
Excitement, adrenaline, and mob mentality can easily drive a runner into an unsustainable pace and energy system. And just like that, the anaerobic fuse has been lit. Once atop the Escarpment, overly aggressive runners tend to stay aggressive as they’re now bunched in groups winding their way through the rough, rocky Granite Chief Wilderness. Like the rushing creek waters of early-summer snow melt, runners get easily caught in the flow of a fast-moving group. Rather than resting from the one- or two-hour climb, they’re now stuck in a red-line gear. Click, whirr… the Killing Machine quietly kicks into action. This is the precise time to turn inward.
Matt Keyes knows something about smart, sustainable racing, and of early-race imprudence. The 40-year-old Auburn, California resident has seven consecutive finishes that included an impressive six-consecutive personal-best streak. All of his buckles would be silver had it not been for the first year when he struggled with rigid expectations and the wrath of the Killing Machine that kicked into action on the opening climb.
When asked about his string of consecutive personal bests on the world’s biggest ultra stage, Keyes talks first about that rookie campaign, at the brutally hot 2006 race, and the lessons he learned that day:
“My first year, 2006, I wore a heart-rate monitor, but ignored what it was telling me. I averaged over 160 beats per minute from the start to Robinson Flat while I pushed hard to get over the top before the singletrack got crowded, get some ground covered before it got hot, not be behind people who I thought I should outrun, and follow splits that made perfect sense on paper.
“My quads were dead before I even reached the first canyon. I struggled to finish but well off my goal and it was the most painful day of my life.”
Clearly, that experience–grand suffering on the second-hottest day in race history–shaped his preparation and execution ever since. Keyes has stayed within himself and listens keenly to his body early in the race, namely by using his heart-rate monitor:
“Every Western States I’ve run since then has been a reaction to that day. I still wear a heart-rate monitor, and I pay attention to it more than to the people around me or the splits I’d like to run. I know that it’s a long day and the course gets more runnable as the day goes on. I use the heart-rate monitor as an objective indicator of my effort in the early hours to hold me back. In the meat of the race I’ll glance at the monitor to make sure I’m keeping things in check on the climbs but after 30-plus miles I’m able to run by feel and just check the number on the watch to confirm. After mile 75 or so when things get wobbly, I use the monitor to show me when I’m being lazy about running or fueling or both.”
For Keyes, it has been a successful formula. Over the course of the ensuing half-dozen races, he has progressively trimmed nearly five hours off that initial finish, and is poised to break 20 hours this year. He embodies the modern-day Twietmeyer: ascending the ranks from a struggling buckle-er to one of race’s toughest, most dependable competitors.
Runners hoping to survive Western States must turn inward, looking for and minding feedback from the body: heart rate, breathing, leg feel, stomach, and–most importantly–the brain. At few points in that opening climb or the first 30 miles to the Robinson Flat Aid Station should the effort feel difficult or even like ‘work.’
The perception of strain–which early on must override adrenaline, excitement, and joy to be perceived–is a strong signal that the effort is too high and physiological load too great. Moreover, this sends negative messages to the Central Governor (“Danger! Unsustainable!”), which can set into action any number of run stoppers including brain bonk, nausea, and cramping.
Acknowledge your competitors, but as compadres of the trail. As they pass you in those early high-country miles, smile, and wish them well. Run within yourself, and believe that you will see them again.
Silencing the Killing Machine, Step 4: Presence and Perspective
In that same Trail Runner National podcast, Ann Trason talked about her mental approach to Western States: “A hundred miles is a life in a day.” First impressions of this philosophy often lead people to smile and nod, believing this to be a metaphor for the struggles of the race in comparison to life: inevitable ups and downs, survival, and triumph.
But it was far more literal than that for Trason, “I acted like the race is my life, and every mile is how old I am. On the opening climb, I’m just a little kid out there. I’m only a few years old, and I tell myself, ‘I’m just learning to walk!’”
Excitement grows as she moves along the high country, but less than you’d think. Trason jokes, “On Red Star Ridge [miles 16 to 24], I tell myself, ‘I better take care of myself so I don’t have a mid-life crisis!’” Here she alludes to wanting to avoid major problems in the meat of the race.
Once in the Canyons, she continues her conservative approach, explaining that, “I really want to enjoy my retirement years” in the California Street section from miles 62 to 78.
After the river crossing, ‘old age,’ things are always tough. “I would hear people say, ‘Ann’s looking really bad!’ But I always looked bad! I would tell them at Trails [Aid Station, mile 85], ‘What do you expect, I’m 85!’”
She would inevitably struggle–as all runners do in the late stages of a 100 miler, but the perspective of her ‘age’ helped her stay positive. “I would be sure to pat myself on the back”, she said, as she motored along those final miles, fueled by the relentless stubbornness befitting her age, to her 100th-birthday party at Placer High School.
Built into this mental game is inherent presence–How should I feel now?–with a dash of anticipation–How do I need to feel later?–as well as the combination of patience–knowing that one has to run sustainably in order to “live to be a hundred”–and perspective–of how one should feel at each stage of the race: fresh but awkward early, strong but cautious in the middle, and aggressive-but-forgiving at the end.
It was this strategy–of “living her life” with presence and perspective–that earned Trason 14 consecutive finishes, and double the number of cougar trophies of anyone else in race history.
Silencing the Killing Machine, Step 5: DON’T. PANIC.
Dictionary.com’s definition of panic is, “a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior, and that often spreads quickly through a group of persons.” Panic is an all-too-common reaction to issues and situations at Western States. It comes from the combination of extreme demands–of running 100 miles in the mountains–with extreme consequence–physical and mental suffering, and a fear of compromising a rare and cherished opportunity. But an essential component of panic is the implication that the individual (or group) lacks the ability to effectively deal with the situation at hand.
Problems, self-doubt in abilities, and catastrophic implications create irrational behaviors that invariably worsen the situation by creating more problems, further overwhelming perceived ability and compromising performance. A true downward spiral.
Avoiding panic first and foremost comes from pre-race preparation: preventing and planning for problems to mitigate their number and severity. But even more important than preparation is minimizing the catastrophic negativity that invariably fuels the panic response. Veteran runners anticipate problems. But above that, they have a firm belief that they have the ability to overcome anything that might come their way. They recognize that 100 miles is long enough that no single problem–if acted upon appropriately–is enough to derail their race.
Ann Trason knows this delicate balance better than anyone. Few people know that she failed to finish her first two Western States attempts in 1987 and ‘88. Among the lessons learned in those first two races, she points out emphatically is, “You cannot panic!”
In a recent phone conversation, she talked about those early races, the mistakes that led to those DNFs, and the elements critical to successful finishes. Trason describes learning these lessons early at Western States, when, in her second attempt, she ran into Auburn Lake Trails Aid Station (at mile 85.5) in acute malaise. “I’d been puking for over 20 miles, and that had never happened to me before.” She rolled into the aid station in distress, both physically and emotionally. She approached the medical captain. “He asked how I was doing, and I told him I’d been puking for 20 miles. He cut my wrist band.”
Her day was over in large part due to her inability to perceive and appropriately react to her nausea, “I didn’t know that [vomiting during ultramarathons] was normal, or what I could do about it.” Nausea and vomiting would continue to be issues for Trason, but the combination of mitigation–minimizing the conditions creating malaise–and problem solving–slowing down, then gradually taking in fluid, calories, and electrolytes–formed a successful game plan to address the issue. Most importantly, the realization that her nausea was not catastrophic to her race was the most important adaptation as it allowed her to maintain rational thinking and calm, focused execution.
At the recent Memorial Weekend Training Runs, Trason worked at the Michigan Bluff Aid Station, 26 miles into the 32-mile training run that covered the major canyon section of the course. She noted, “There were people panicking during the training run. ‘I forgot my fuel at the last aid station,’” she recalled one runner saying. And, with a tough-love tone that only the matron of the race could wield, she replied, “Well, you better train for that!”
Panic more often than not creates an overreaction: running too fast, too soon; eating and drinking too much; taking too much salt; and losing one’s cool over minute details like fuel, shoes, pace, and weather. The 100-mile distance is no place for rash, aggressive decisions, and the earlier they happen, the worse the result.
However, just as dangerous is underreaction, of ignoring problems early on. Problems will almost always present themselves as minor issues early on, which allows for time to act appropriately before they become major threats. Being present in the moment–with your body, the course, and the conditions at hand–will help keep one aware of issues, and early action will keep them small and manageable.
Trason’s first Western States was cut short in 1987 when a knee injury which had dogged her in the weeks preceding the race flared out of control in the prolonged descent to the first canyon bottom, forcing her to drop out at the top of Devil’s Thumb. She was running upwards of 160 miles per week that spring “because that’s what everyone else was doing,” While that knee injury would rear itself over the years, Trason would learn from that experience how to deal with minor issues before they became race stoppers.
To solve problems requires you first see them, and then to believe you have the ability to overcome them. While practice hones this skill, preparation, level headedness, and faith will take a runner far on race day: past panic, prevailing over problems, and propelling toward Placer High.
Silencing the Killing Machine, Step 6: The Will to Finish Trumps All
A common thread shared amongst the runners who contributed to this piece was a dose of heavy suffering in their first race. That experience shaped how they approached the race for the rest of their careers.
Tim Twietmeyer struggled mightily in his first year. He recalls,
“I almost dropped in ‘82. I lost 11 pounds from start to White Oak Flat [mile 75 in the pre-California Street version of the course]. I rested there for almost 90 minutes and then continued. Later I was sitting on a rock on the way to [Auburn Lake Trails Aid Station] hoping a motorcycle trail guy would come by and give me a ride. (They had those kind of patrols back then.) Thankfully they never found me and I continued to ALT where I got sick one last time and then felt better and ran on to the finish. What a mess that was but it worked out. That was as close as I ever got to dropping at Western States.”
That experience–and the impact it had on future Western States attempts–was echoed by Matt Keyes, Andy Jones-Wilkins (who called his 2001 rookie year “a practice race” and claimed to take two years off after his first race to “learn how to run 100 miles”), and even Ann Trason. Indeed, after two consecutive DNFs, Trason looked back on those experiences and, as she put it, “all of my preparation was centered around the goal of finishing, above all else.”
The notion of committing to finish may seem redundant, but it is a central component and the foundation of a successful run at Western States. When finishing is the primary goal, every aspect of race-day execution will be centered around it.
A resounding will to finish has a three-fold effect. First, aggressive running and poor course management will (in theory) be minimized, because the mind–fully committed to going the distance–will always have the long view in mind.
Secondly, it mitigates an all-or-nothing mentality that can develop from rigid goal setting. Runners dead set on a sub-24-hour performance, a top 10, or even a win will frequently sacrifice everything for a shot at that goal. Often, this results in overly aggressive running far before any of those goals can be decided. When problems arise–as they invariably do–they often strike a crushing blow to the fragile psyche which sees those goals evaporating. Now, with that performance goal in jeopardy, the runner must decide if the race is still worth running. As defeatist as this sounds, this plays on the mind of scores of runners each year. But if the runner is fundamentally committed to finishing, they will press on, despite the prospects of what is ultimately their secondary goal.
Third, and most importantly, a commitment to finish keeps the door open for greatness to happen, a miracle. The 100-mile distance invariably has innumerable peaks and valleys. Unless a runner persists, he or she will never know how their day will turn out.
In 2005, Jones-Wilkins did not have a goal of winning Western States, or even taking second. But the latter, he did. How he did so was in large part due to persistently running his own race and executing his plan. He was in sixth place when he reached the river crossing at mile 78. But once there, he found out that four other runners had dropped and he was now in second. The exact circumstances of those four runners is unknown, but had Jones-Wilkins rigidly fought early on for second place, he may have very well wound up on a cot beside those four. Instead, his prevailing goal was to finish, run sustainably, and run his race. His reward for that discipline was a textbook hard-charging close over the final 20 and a second place behind seven-time winner Scott Jurek.
Geoff Roes was nearly 20 minutes behind at Foresthill in 2010. Jim Howard was a half hour back at Michigan Bluff in 1983. Both were struggling. Both became champions. The will to finish is central to running your best. That overwhelming goal serves as a commitment to sustainable running, to avoiding the early wrath of the Killing Machine, and leaves the door open for epic resurrections and race-day miracles.
Silencing the Killing Machine, Step 7: “Like a Marble in the Groove”
Central to the success–survival, performance, and enjoyment–for Western States veterans is momentum. It is as simple as the continual placing of one foot in front of the other. But it’s much more than that. For the most successful runners, it is when ability meets demand and successful execution accumulates into an upward vortex of momentum.
It is flow.
It is a special, elusive state. An intricate dance between runner and the course that is created from and results in a totality of immersion, focus, and joy that transcends pain, fear, and negativity. All of a runner’s abilities and emotions are aligned with the complexity and challenges of the course to create the maximum performance: a transcendent experience.
Few people are able to fully articulate what it means to be in flow. When asked, each who has been privileged to experience it knows how it feels: the absolute presence in the moment with total absence of self-consciousness. A temporal distortion, where time and miles lose meaning.
While they can’t always describe it, they know how to get there: through preparation, presence, and–above all–momentum. The upward vortex of flow requires a constant feed of momentum to fuel it. On the other hand, flow can never be forced. Even amongst maximal determination, flow is effortless.
Says Andy Jones-Wilkins:
“I honestly believe that success is all about momentum. As I run from the start to Robinson and then down the 13-mile descent to the Swinging Bridge I truly feel, as the great Doug Latimer said, ‘like a marble in a groove.’ Then, after toughing through the remaining climbs the momentum really builds on the descent to the river. The way I get through the stretch between Cal 1 and Cal 2 [on California Street] with the 15 rollers is to keep momentum moving forward. The rest, after the river, is usually taken care of by the seemingly gravitational pull emanating from No Hands Bridge.”
His ultimate flow experience occurred in 2005 when he found himself at the river crossing at mile 78 in second place, a mere 24 minutes behind race leader Scott Jurek. Jones-Wilkins, in his Trail Runner Nation podcast, remembered those moments:
“…It was such a flurry of activity. I got to this moment after the river crossing, where it just felt like the race was just happening to me. With each passing aid station, I would look at my watch and say, ‘Oh my God! I could break 17:30, 17:20…’ It was surreal in that not only did time go very quickly, but it felt like a transcendent experience… I’ll never forget the way it felt…”
Ann Trason echoes that sentiment, noting that on race day, time flies. Or stands still. She says, “I’m so in the moment that time has no meaning.” She added, “I was always surprised, [100 miles] seemed like it happened in 17 seconds…”
Silencing the Killing Machine, then, is not about the avoidance of suffering, or merely surviving the immense physical and mental challenge. Ultimately, the challenge of Western States–and the majesty of 100 miles in a day–is just how to best create that elusive, transcendent flow experience. “The gravitational pull.” “Like a marble in a groove.”
That is the gift of Western States, or of any ultramarathon. It’s out there for the taking, for each of us.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you found flow before, in the way that is described here, where time became meaningless and momentum propelled your forward?
- Alternately, have you been ‘killed’ by a ‘killing machine?’ If so and if you can look objectively at your experience, which of the above-described steps were you missing?
- Can you think of other recent examples in our sport where a top athlete found flow for a transcendent racing experience?