Sure, Tracy Garneau, Anita Ortiz, and Nikki Kimball have each won Western States and will be returning to the race this year. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a slew of other ladies who could take a top spot or be the first to cross the finish line at Placer High. We caught up with six top challengers – Meghan Arbogast, Kami Semick, Ellie Greenwood, Joelle Vaught, Pam Smith, and Aliza Lapierre – and share what they had to say below.
One notable contender who won’t be racing is Liza Howard who’s sidelined with a foot stress fracture. [Editor’s Note: She will, however, be at the race… and I’ll be fortunate to call her my crew!]
If you’re interested in hearing Garneau’s and Ortiz’s thoughts on the race, check out our companion article on them.
iRunFar: You’re looking very strong this year with a third place finish at the Way Too Cool 50k and a second at the Miwok 100k. What are your thoughts about your current fitness? How does it compare to last year at this time?
Meghan Arbogast: I have never been as fit for States as I am this year. I have a less stressful life now, and have focused very hard the last month and a half.
iRF: You hang with a crowd that is … rather focused on Western States and that does a significant amount of race-specific training. What sort of Western States-specific training have you done this year? Do you think that similar training helped you find success at previous Western States, such as your second place finish last year?
Arbogast: Yes, the crowd I hang with is Western-States-Centric, for sure. It is an absolute hoot to train with them. We take solace in the fact that between ourselves, we are okay being crazy and obsessed, and don’t have to justify to each other what we do.
I just returned from 3 weeks of solid training – 10 days on the WS course with Craig Thornley, AJW [Andy Jones Wilkins], [Dan] Olmstead, [Jeff] Riley, and a little bit with Braje and newcomer Joe Uhan. After Memorial Day, I headed to Yosemite, hoping for some heat and altitude. I got a couple of runs in there, but the rainy weather chased me out. I then headed to Utah and ran 42 miles in Zion with John Price, Pam Smith, and Rob Cain, followed by 24 miles in Bryce. I got lots of heat and altitude those days. From there, I drove to Flagstaff, staying with Chris Thornley and Katie Irwin – two of Craig’s key crew/pacer team mates. I stayed for 5 days, getting some hot runs in Sedona, and a great run with Ian Torrence in Flagstaff. By the end of the week I was able to run at 7,000 feet without collapsing. And now I am back in Oregon and it is pouring rain and 60 degrees. Yuck.
Having said all of that, I will have to sandbag just a bit – I mean, come on, I did just turn 50. I don’t know that I can run faster than the other women, but I think I can improve on my time from last year, conditions allowing.
iRF: You have four straight top 10 finishers at WS. Any advice to someone running it for the first time?
Arbogast: My advice to newbies is stay relaxed, especially early. Save the excitement for when you arrive at Foresthill. Take it easy on the downhills in the canyons if you haven’t had a chance to run them. They are REALLY long. Stay hydrated and salted early. Pay attention immediately to any small problems, like blisters. They aren’t going to get better the more you run on them. Be nice to your crew. They have a miserable long day ahead and only get to see you a few times – so make it worth their while. Amuse them. If you feel like quitting, talk to aid station volunteers first and let them help you problem solve. If your crew doesn’t know how to help you with a problem, then ask some volunteers. Don’t give up.
iRunFar: You’re nearly impossible to beat these days. In fact, since Chuckanut last spring you’ve won nine ultramarathons, include the 100k World Championships and, most recently, the Chuckanut 50k and American River 50 mile. That’s got to leave you feeling pretty confident in your training and race sharpness, right?
Ellie Greenwood: I am feeling confident that I have posted solid race results and, more importantly, finishing times which have shown improvement. Having run a few more competitive ultras in the last year I have gained confidence, and also experience.
iRF: Your only loss was a strong fourth place effort at Comrades earlier this month. How do you feel about that effort? Are you recovering well?
Greenwood: I am recovering really well and feeling good. As soon as I was over the finish line at Comrades, I knew I had to focus on Western immediately. I took it very easy in the week after the race and in the last week have been back running and feeling strong. The focus has definitely been on recovery rather than running and I think I have got the balance right. I felt far less beat up after Comrades than after the World 100km, possibly the fact that Comrades was an “Up” year made it more forgiving on the body.
iRF: As far as we can tell, you’ve never run a race with more than 9,000′ of climbing and Western States has double than and even more descent. However, you live in Banff in the Canadian Rockies. What have you do to prepare for the elevation change at Western States?
Greenwood: I live with mountains in my backyard, although admittedly it has been challenging with a snowy and long winter this year. Hills are incorporated into pretty much all my running by matter of default.
iRF: You’ve had a ton of success through 100k with one solid showing at your only longer race, last year’s 125k Canadian Death Race. What are your biggest concerns moving up to the 100 mile distance for the first time? How will you approach competing over this longer distance?
Greenwood: Of course this is 35km longer than my previous longest race, but I feel confident I have trained for the distance. The 125km Canadian Death race gave me a taster for longer ultras and I left feeling mentally ready to tackle a 100 miler as well as having the confidence that I have raced almost that distance before and had a solid race. I realise that pacing and nutrition are everything in the longer events and I am happy how I have prepared for this. The long training is in the bag, and now I can only do my final preparations and see what happens on race day!
iRunFar: Earlier this month you placed third at the Comrades Marathon and some observers have said you could have won had the race been just a few miles longer. How do you feel about your performance there?
Kami Semick: I feel good about it. I started out a little sluggish, which reinforced my mantra to be conservative in the first half so I could run the second half hard. At about halfway I felt solid and was able to run the second half well. I didn’t have information on how close I was to first and second place, so I was surprised when I crossed the finish line to learn the gap was so small. I felt good, maybe too good in the last 10k. It’s always a challenge to know how hard to push in the first part of an ultra and not blow up in the second. I’m constantly refining that judgement process.
iRF: Between your run at Comrades and your smoking second place at American River, which was the fourth fastest time even by a woman not named Ann Trason, how do you feel you are running right now?
Semick: I feel good. I’m just rolling into shape now. Prior to AR, I only had about 10 weeks of training under my belt, so I knew I was likely to not have the speed endurance to run a solid second half of that race. But now I feel like my fitness has evolved. Training for Comrades (road uphill) and Western (trail downhill) are complete opposites, but I have worked to stay in touch with downhill trail during my Comrades buildup. We’ll see how well that worked.
iRF: Last July, you ran a 16:42 at the Vermont 100 in what was likely your best ever 100 mile effort. What lessons from that day’s success will you bring to Western States this year?
Semick: I think last year the weather at Vermont was one of the hottest, most humid days for that race. I had no prior heat exposure and suffered appropriately. This year for Western I have been taking time in the sauna.
iRF: You’ve been a regular at the most competitive ultras for a while now. How does the women’s field at this year’s Western States compare to others you’ve raced against?
Semick: Looks like a great line up. I’m excited to be a part of the race this year.
iRunFar: You’ve won all four ultras you’ve run this season, including the Way Too Cool 50k for third time and, recently, on back-to-back weekends at the Silver State 50 mile and Pocatello 50 mile. How are you feeling about your running going into States?
Joelle Vaught: I’m very happy with my racing so far this year, I’ve really enjoyed all four of the ultras I have done and was happy to do well in the Pocatello 50 after running the Silver State 50 the previous weekend. I was hoping that would be good training for WS.
We’ve had a very cool spring so I haven’t done any heat training – I’m hoping for cool weather on race day! I think I’m running well right now, but I haven’t done anything longer than about 54 miles so who knows once I get past that!
iRF: You made your 100 mile debut at Western States last year, placing seventh. You moved up steadily through mile 60 before having a rougher final 40. What did you learn from that experience?
Vaught: I felt great for the first 60-70 miles of the race. I enjoy the mountains and didn’t feel like I started too fast, but started to have a hard time eating anything after mile 70. I am going to have to figure out how to fuel myself better, maybe take in more calories early on while my stomach can still handle it and hopefully that will keep me stronger later in the race.
iRF: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s race?
Vaught: Western States is just a great experience and it is exciting to be a part of it. The course is beautiful and the people are amazing so I’m looking forward to experiencing all of that again.
iRunFar: You’ve been running well for years, but have busted out in the past year or so with a win last month at the Miwok 100k and second place finishes at last year’s American River 50 mile and JFK 50 mile as well as this year’s Bandera 100k and the Mad City 100k. To what do you attribute your recent success?
Pam Smith: The sad truth is that I was clueless when I started running ultras and I am a slow learner! I used a marathon plan – unmodified- to train for my first 50k in 2008. I bought a handheld just two days before the race and stuck 3 GU’s in the pocket for fuel! The following year I NEVER did a training run longer than 20 miles, including training for my first 100. I thought it was a big deal to do two 20 milers in one week (not even back-to-back!). It wasn’t till I met more people in the sport and started running regularly with a trail group out of Corvallis that I could wrap my head around the idea of doing 30-40 mile runs just for training! Doing those kind of long runs consistently for the last year has helped a lot. Last fall, I also started doing a hard day on the track once a week as well as adding some strength training in the gym.
Smith: Actually, no. January through April I did almost all of my long runs on flat roads in preparation for Mad City, as making the US 100k Team was a high priority for me this year. With only three weekends between Mad City and Miwok (and one of those weekends on call at work), I only had time to get out for one trail run before Miwok. I tend to be an okay uphill runner and fortunately for me, Miwok has a lot of non-technical dirt road downhill, so I think my road speed was an asset for that race. I have done several long trail runs (with hills) since Miwok, though.
iRF: You were 10th at last year’s Western States, your debut at the race. Your splits suggest that you started out conservatively and moved up through the day. Will you employ the same race strategy this year?
Smith: Absolutely. I have always been a “come from behind runner” even in 5k’s and 10k’s. At the American River 50 mile last year I was 14th F through the first AS, at the JFK 50 mile 9th, at the Bandera 100k 4th, and Miwok 4th. I just don’t get out fast!
iRunFar: You’re not very well known nationally, but you’ve been in the top two of all 15 ultramarathon results we can find for you, including 11 wins. You also hold course records at such long running races as the Bull Run Run 50 mile, Stone Cat 50 mile, and Finger Lakes 50 mile. What’s been your secret to so much success… and how have you managed keep it quiet?
Aliza Lapierre: To be honest I don’t think I have a secret to my “success”. I think that I am a methodical person and this transfers directly into my training and also my racing. Running is something I do for myself and at the end of the day I need to remember that it is an outlet that brings me happiness. If I cannot keep things light, then I believe I have made a mistake in my training or in my racing. For me winning and setting new course records is like a surprise gift, it is nice, but isn’t something I expect.
I think I have managed to keep my success quiet because I would deem myself a wallflower during my day-to-day interactions. Ironically though, running is a time when I am most comfortable with myself and others so I tend to talk a lot to those around me. I also know that I put a lot of internal pressure on myself, so flying under the radar has been a blessing so I can just focusing on doing what I enjoy, which is running.
iRF: You made your 100 mile debut last July at the Vermont 100 where you placed second to Kami Semick in 17:20, which is one of the fastest times ever run at Vermont. Despite your success, what lessons did you learn from that first 100?
Lapierre: I went into Vermont 100 with the main objective of finishing. Knowing that I had Transrockies in August and taking into account that I do not recover that quickly, I wanted to be sure to run comfortably. Deep inside, I really wanted to race Kami, who ventured to Vermont to challenge the course record, but I knew that I shouldn’t change my race plans because she was toeing the line.
In the weeks leading up to the race I made the mistake of drinking from a stream and got giardia and despite antibiotics it wasn’t out of my system by race day. It was very frustrating not being able to keep fluids or food in my system so I had to accept what my body could give me under those circumstances. All and all, it taught me how to better manage highs and lows. I also gained some valuable experience in how much patience the distance requires.
iRF: You’d never raced out west until tackling (and winning) the Leona Divide 50 mile in April. Did anything surprise you? Did you learn any lessons you’ll apply to Western States?
Lapierre: Leona Divide was a great experience because it gave me exposure to some West Coast running. I was most surprised by the new creatures/animals that I was encountering and was taken back by the views. In New England, we are blessed with our dense forests, so running so exposed at Leona taught me the importance of staying on top of hydration, which is obviously extremely important at Western States.
iRF: With your Western States debut looming, what had you most excited? Most worried?
Lapierre: I am really excited to have the opportunity to travel to Western States with family and friends and I am also eager to meet more members of the Salomon family. For me, having support with me and knowing that the rest of my family and training partners at home are sending me positive vibes helps me along the journey. I am also excited to have the opportunity to be on course with athletes that I admire such as Kilian Jornet and Meghan Arbogast.
Two years ago, I turned down a Montrail Ultra Cup slot for Western States because I didn’t feel I was ready to handle the Western States experience, so “looming” is a great choice of words. A race of this magnitude is a huge undertaking for me not only due to the distance and terrain, but also because of the hoopla that accompanies it. I find myself nervous about the social scene, but know that once the races starts and I settle in my instincts will take over.
Call for Comments
Which of these ladies do you think pose the great threat for top 3? For the win? Who else would take those positions?