2011 Western States 100 Report

Bryon Powell’s race report for his run at the 2011 Western States 100.

By on August 19, 2011 | Comments

For me, one of the only things harder than running 100 miles, is writing about such a journey. While the uninitiated would be reasonable to think that there must be great stretches of boredom during 20 hours of racing, by the finish I’m always amazed at how much happens during those miles. The thought of either recounting those events in their entirety or, perhaps more difficult, paring those events down to a manageable size is overwhelming. Hence, I’m writing this report nearly two months after running Western States. Hopefully, time and my leaky memory will leave you with a much more succinct race report than usual.

So there was a little pre-race drama, all of which was entirely my doing. In short, I wasn’t sure that I was well enough prepared or mentally invested enough to run a respectable performance at Western States. Once I decided I was in, Liza Howard, who had planned to run States but was sidelined with a stress fracture, kindly volunteered her crew, Brian and Chris, and herself to be my crew and pacers. My parents were heading out for a California vacation based on my initial Western States plans, so they were up for some crewing as well. As I had hoped would happen, I became increasing excited about and invested in running Western States as race day approached.

The Icing First – Miles 0 to 20

Bryon Powell Escarpment 2011 Western States

Me climbing the Escarpment. (Photo courtesy of Drymax)

For the second straight year, it was a “snow year” for Western States. This forced a reroute from mile 9 to mile 35, but, more important, that snow was a big factor in the early going. More correctly, the snow turned to ice was a big deal.

Once we hit the ice two or three miles into the race, traction was at a premium. I’ve never seen more folks slide here and there. This occurrence was no doubt amplified by the trend of wearing road racing or minimal trail shoes. The day before the race I made a crucial decision, I’d wear La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0s for the first 20 miles before changing into the Montrail Bajada. Best. Decision. Ever. I seriously felt like I was cheating out there wearing the heavily lugged Crosslite 2.0s. Many fast folks had sped off in front of me over the first three miles of climbing, but I caught many with ease on the ice. I could take nearly any line I wanted across the ice and only slipped twice – once stepping over a downed tree and once falling through a small snow bridge. Neither fall was the shoe’s fault.

I did run a bit of a harder effort over these first icy miles than I had intended. The pace had nothing to do with trying to be ahead of the speedsters; rather, I was having an absolute blast. I’m sure that I’ve never run faster from the top of the Escarpment to mile 9, where the snow course diverged from the traditional course, or had more fun on that section than I did this year.

In addition to the fun of the glassine playground, the disparate paces of many runners let me see many more friends then I otherwise would. Then, somewhere before mile 10, I started running with Joelle Vaught, Tracey Garneau, and Nikki Kimball. Aside from the enjoyment of running and chatting with these ladies, I’ll admit this wasn’t a bad spot for an “embedded journalist” to be in. Still, I’ll honor “what’s said on the trail, stays on the trail” with the exception of noting that these ladies chatted up a storm and seemed to be having a great time. While all three ladies are fierce competitors, friendship and camaraderie ruled in the early going.

Eventually the ice turned to soft, slushy snow and a steady stream of studs and studettes surged by me. I hung with the trio of ladies as the snow cleared into dirt road. Leaving an aid station, I dropped a gel… and all three ladies dropped me. Eventually, I worked my way back up to Nikki and we cruised into the mile 20 aid station together. It’s there that I changed my running socks (my Max Pro Drymax didn’t fit into my Crosslites) and shoes. Sure, it took me two minutes, but I made up so much more time than that and, more important, saved a ton of energy.

My only mistake in the first 20 miles was not picking up a handful of gels at the first aid station as had been my plan. I remembered 30 seconds or a minute out of the aid station, but decided to budget my two gels rather than turn back. Once I got access to more gels, I made up for my missed “eat every 30 minutes” gels by taking a GU every 20 minutes for a couple hours.

A Nikki for My Thoughts – Miles 20 to 46

Nikki Kimball Bryon Powell 2011 Western States 100

Nikki Kimball and I climbing up to the Duncan Canyon aid station. (Photo by Glenn Tachiyama)

Nikki left the mile 20 aid station before me, but I caught up to her quickly on the singletrack. We’d run together until mile 46. During that time we chatted endlessly and occasionally burst into song. I had an absolute blast. Nikki definitely pushed the effort more than I would have in the first half of a 100. At times it was hard to keep up without feeling I was going WAY deep into the well. Given how the race turned out for me, I have to thank Nikki for teaching me that I can push a bit in the first half of a 100 and still run strong at the end. I also have to thank Nikki for helping the better part of 40 miles go by without any mental effort. I think she and I both ended up having excellent races and I think our time together was a part of that.

Hitcher’s Thumb – Miles 46 to 49
I always look forward to Devil’s Thumb. I’m a relatively strong walker and enjoy the break from running. This year, I was looking forward to that walk break even more than usual given the highly runnable early miles and higher percentage of running thanks to Nikki.

Well, I’m now slightly more ambivalent about good ol’ Devil’s Thumb. I didn’t have a smooth run down to Swinging Bridge and that carried over as the climb started. Nikki along with Rory Bosio and Aliza Lapierre slowly pulled away on the climb. I’m sure that losing Nikki’s company deflated my sails some, but things quickly went downhill as I went up. By the time I neared the top, I was completely deflated. I was thinking about how many hours I had left to finish (a whole lot) and how slow I could walk it in (very slowly).

When I got to the aid station, I went against all my own advice and took a chair for three minutes. I took in some fluids, had a bite or two of popsicle, and collected myself. I got up and started walking out of the aid station… and even walked downhill for a quarter mile or so before starting to jog slowly.

The Road to the Start – Miles 49-62
Gradually, my jog turned into a slow run and then a solid descent into El Dorado Canyon. By the aid station, I was feeling my oats. I joked a bit with the aid station staff and was off on the climb up to Michigan Bluff. It went MUCH better than the Devil’s Thumb climb and I ran more of it than I remember doing in the past.

As always, I tried to get a rise from the Michigan Bluff aid station. It was great having my parents crew me there, but I had no time to hang out. I shot out of the aid station and sped along the dirt roads to Foresthill. I was having fun again. I was passing folks. It wasn’t all that hot. It couldn’t get much better than that.

After a quick stop at the Bath Road aid station, I let a crew member know my needs for Foresthill… and that I didn’t want a pacer yet, even though one was lined up. When I’m running ok and it’s daylight, I prefer to run without a pacer.

I rolled into Foresthill feeling good. Time for the race to start.

Cal Street – The Road to Rookie Mistakes – Miles 62-80
By Foresthill, I knew I was having a solid race and I didn’t want to screw that up. I’d fall back on my conservative running tendencies and take it easy through California Street from Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River.

I stuck with this plan and ran smooth and conservative all the way to Fords Bar at mile 73. I was still eating and drinking on schedule and feeling fine. However, I didn’t feel well coming out of Fords Bar. If I remember correctly, I even walked 50 or a 100 meters of the slight downhill in hopes of bringing my uneasy stomach together.

I also had little energy in this stretch. Once I was down by the river Rory came flying by (I’d passed her back after Michigan Bluff) and I ended up mixing in some walking. Even the fact that I’d just passed a few big time runners couldn’t perk me up. I sucked it up and ran on. Things improved a bit as I neared the crossing.

I really enjoyed the crossing even if it was in a boat this year. I repeatedly dunked my running hat and dumped it over my head. Once I hit the far side, I exited on the dock … before lowering myself in the river for a minute of wonderful soaking in the cool water. Even though the day’s temperatures were pleasantly moderate for Western States, I couldn’t pass up a cool dip.

Then I F’ed up… At the far side aid station, I took two S-Caps! as I’d been doing most of the day. The problem was that I was actually feeling pretty good and pushed the walk/run up to Green Gate. Hmmm… pushing a climb generally means less drinking… and I’d just taken two S-Caps with very little fluid. You can see where this is going. As I continued to climb, I stopped chatting. I noticed I didn’t feel very well. Then, I felt bad. Really bad.

Just before I entered the aid station, I headed to the side of the trail and puked a couple times. I got up and went to where my crew was set up at the far side of the aid station and took a chair. I drank a little, puked again, drank some more, wiped my face, and prepped for night running. Again, I waved off my pacer who was waiting for me. Yes, I’d just puked, but I was in a good place mentally and wanted to stay in my own head. After 10 minutes or so, I walked out of the aid station.

The Surge – Miles 80-89
Soon thereafter, I started jogging downhill… and then I did the math once more. I was 80 miles into Western States in 15 hours. If I made a final push, could I cover the final 20 miles in four hours and break 19 hours? There was only one way to find out. I cleared my mind, put my head down, picked up my turnover, and went for it.

Even with the puking spell, my 1:44 from the far side of the river to Auburn Lakes Trails was my fastest split in four runnings of Western States. (My three previous ranged within 1:53-1:56… although I did get lost for 15-20 minutes here in 2005 and would have run faster.)

I kept moving out of ALT and probably for another 4 miles or so. I hadn’t looked at the times on my split card all day and I wasn’t about to at this point. However, I’d been running for almost an hour since ALT and I still couldn’t hear Browns Bar… and anyone who’s run Western States knows that you hear BB well before you’re there. I kept waiting to hear it, but the music wouldn’t come. I was coming up on 2 hours since those Green Gate calculations and I knew I was no more than 9 miles down the trail. The math didn’t add up. I gave in.

Capitulation and Catapults – Miles 89-100
My hip flexors were really tired from so much running late in the race. Despite not otherwise feeling bad, I gave up mentally. I just stopped and walked for a couple hundred yards of runnable terrain and over the next mile or two mixed in much more walking that I had been doing over the previous 9 miles. It’s hard knowing that this defeat was almost entirely mental.

2011 Western States 100 heart rate

My heart rate data from the 2011 Western States 100. Sequentially, the three big HR crashes are Devil’s Thumb (tired), Green Gate (puked), and approaching Browns Bar (gave up).

In the Brown’s Bar aid station, I took a chair for the third and final time. Again, it worked. Heading into a much longer race at The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc next week, I’d glad to remember this lesson. While I never want to aimlessly sit in a chair at an aid station, a three minute break to gather myself, like the ones I took at Browns Bar and Devil’s Thumb, can pay great dividends.

Not long after leaving Browns Bar, I again got on my horse. Screw it. I still had 1 hour and 59 minutes to cover the remaining 10.3 miles to the finish line. I was gonna lay it out.

Oh, thank goodness I wasn’t looking at my split chart. Trying to break 19 hours at that point was a fools errand, but a determined fool I was. You see, the following 3.6 miles to the Highway 49 aid station is S-L-O-W. It turned out I’d never broken an hour on the section in three attempts. This year? 56 minutes. That was good enough a 4 minute PR. (Keep that number in mind.) I worked hard through some low patches, thanks in part to the company of Bill Huggins and his pacer Justin Angle, and took advantage of the highs. On a broader scale, the fastest I’d run from Browns Bar to the finish was a great final stretch of 2:21 in 2005.

At Highway 49, I finally let a pacer come with me. I was still in great mental place and would have likely gone on alone, but I felt like an ass for having pacers (there were two on standby) and not using them. In the end, having a pacer helped in an unexpected way.

Still, arriving at Hwy 49 in 17:57 confirmed that I had not the slightest chance in hell of breaking 19 hours. Oh well, I still had a chance to set a personal best for 100 miles. The new target? 19:30:09 – my Western State time from 2005.

For the 3.3 miles to No Hands Bridge, I mostly did my own thing. The descent was so much shorter than I remembered… and the traverse was just as brutally long as I’d hoped to forget. The latter is quite disheartening.

I arrived at No Hands in 18:39. I had 51 minutes to cover the final 3.4 miles to set a personal best. Fortunately, I love the stretch to Robie Point. No matter what the conditions, I feel like running everything but the steep, technical singletrack near the top. This year was no exception and I had an unexpected boost from having a pacer. For some reason, I wanted to show off. I’m not sure where it came from but I wanted to show him I could run up the climbs. Hey, at that point in a 100, I’ll take whatever motivation I can find.

Once I hit Robie Point in 19:09, I knew I had the PR in the bag. As a result, I walked more of the first climb out of Robie Point than I had planned. Once I hit the flat road in Auburn, I still gave what I had and finished it off with a “sprint” around the track. At least I felt fast.

The Finish and Beyond
Done! 19:24:14. A time I, honestly, could not have imagined running this year. After a lost 2010 and 40 miles per week in the half year leading up to Western States, this felt like a miracle race. I guess there’s great value in experience and a level head.

Bryon Powell finish 2011 Western States 100

A happy me finishing the 2011 Western States 100. (Photo by Glenn Tachiyama)

At the finish, Sean Meissner said, “You should only run 100s.” I’m not quite ready to give up shorter races or to run more than a couple 100s in a year, but I now feel confident in the 100 mile distance. In addition, the combination of a 6 minute PR performance (remember that 4 minute PR from Browns Bar to Highway 49!) off ridiculously little training has me incredibly excited about the future. In days gone by, I’d dreamt of finishing in the top 10 at Western States. While the reality of a new ultrarunning era where 14 guys go sub-17 this year at States has me crossing that goal off the list, I think I CAN shoot for a sub-18 on an “easy” course or well under 19 hours on the traditional course.

With UTMB but a week away, my heavy training is done for the year. I’ll come back from Europe and have fun through the rest of the year. I may mess with some speedwork (it’s been at least 5 years since I did any sort of intense training, be it track work, tempo, or hills), but other than that training will just be for fun. I even hope to mix in some cycling (road and, if I can find a bike, mountain) and, once it snows *gasp*, some nordic skiing. All that said, I hope my “down time” has some decent volume to it… cause I’m looking to take my game up another level in 2012. I’ve got no concrete goals for next year, but I hope I can come close to being in the shape I was in during the spring and summer of 2006.

Western States Gear – Lightening the Load
I’ve never come close to carrying as little in a 100 miler (outside of the muling half of Leadville) as I did at Western States this year.

My clothing was simple: a GoLite Wildwood Shortsleeve (GoLite, please send me another!) early and a Mountain Hardwear Way2Cool Singlet late, Brooks Infiniti running shorts, and an iRunFar Headsweats cap.

On my feet early were the La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0 (for traction on ice and snow) with Drymax Hot Weather socks (for their thinness). From mile 20 on, I wore the Montrail Bajada with Drymax Maximum Protection socks.

For the first 60 miles I wore the 1 ounce Terra Nova Ultra 1 water bottle pack before switching to an old Nathan single bottle pack. I carried one handeld in some combination of pocketed Nathan and Ultimate Direction sleeves. Maxing out at 40 ounces of fluids is a big departure from my three prior Western States where I topped out at 78 ounces every race and never had a capacity under 52 ounces.

At night, I wore a Petzl Tikka XP2. I skipped carrying a flashlight for the first time in a 100.

Other than that, I carried no more than four gels (Thanks, Western States for using GU Energy Gels!), a 1 ounce plastic vial with up to 15 S-Caps, and two loperamide.

I loved the simplicity of the set up. I wouldn’t recommend that a first time 100 miler carry so little, but it was refreshing. Carrying less weight, especially less fluid, certainly felt good and likely helped my performance.

Bryon Powell 2011 Western States 100

Damn that was a good race! (Photo by Glenn Tachiyama)

Call for Comments
Well, three thousands words is better than ten thousand words (see my 2009 Leadville report: Part 1 and Part 2), right? Perhaps you’ve learned all you would ever want to know about my race, but, if you haven’t, feel free to ask away!

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.