Sometimes running your best is about not running at all, or at least knowing when not to run yet having the faith in the running you have already done in the months leading up to a big race. This could not have been more true for me before this weekend’s Western States 100 miler. I had raced a hard 89km downhill effort on roads just 20 days prior (Comrades), yet for any ultra runner a 20-day taper into a race seems unfathomably long. I am used to running most days and had already tapered for 6 days leading into Comrades, which would mean that other than Comrades it would be near a 4-week taper for Western States. This could, and at times did, have led me into a mental panic – 4 weeks is not a taper – it’s just not training at all, it’s being downright lazy! But I knew that if I wanted to be competitive for Western States, which I certainly did, then it would be all about recovery and rest. So I exercised all the patience I had in between Comrades and Western States and other than one (stupid) 4hr run, I didn’t run a step. I did plenty of powerhiking on steep climbs to get my exercise fix and keep me from feeling stale, but, otherwise, it was all about patience, waiting out for the Big Dance, waiting out to line up against a stellar ladies field, and waiting out to try run the best effort I could from Squaw to Auburn on June 23rd.
The weather on race morning was cool, but, of course, it was California so I logically assumed that once up the steep climb of the Escarpment the worst of it would be over and temperatures would rise. Lizzy (Hawker) shot up the Escarpment well in the lead in the women’s field and Rory Bosio and Joelle Vaught also powered ahead of me. Patience, Ellie, patience. This is a 100-mile race, you’re not going to win it in the first three miles, and given the steep climb – you could lose it in the first three miles. Push hard, yet hold back a little, keep connected to the lead, yet run your own race. Sure, I had no intention of being 35 minutes back of the lead by Foresthill (60 miles) like I was in 2011, but I needed to have the faith and patience of the well worn philosophy that Western States really begins at Foresthill, play the waiting game and run smart.
At Duncan Canyon my crew shoved Coke, chips and other supplies onto me. It was fun to be running in the high country and the downright miserable and rainy weather made this seem like a real mountain course, clouds swirling and the rocks somewhat slippery underfoot, it bore no resemblance to the snow route in the sunshine of the year prior. I was in second at this point and my crew told me I was 15 minutes back of the lead, but they didn’t encourage me to push hard just yet – they, too, knew this would be a strategic game of patience, having faith that Lizzy might slow and that I would maintain or hopefully even pick up my pace as the race progressed.
At each aid station I was gaining on Lizzy – 10 minutes back, then 7 minutes, then 2. Inching up and closing in, and having been patient for so long I was almost unsure if I really wanted to take the lead when I did. I saw Lizzy ahead, her typical strong posture and solid form, she looked steady and yet I crept slowly up on her just after Devils Thumb and before descending into the next canyon. Now, I was in the lead and knew that the waiting game, the patience, was over. Now, I had to race, to push the effort, to see if the patience of both my taper and early race miles would pay off. I would glance back up the switch backs and see Lizzy still close as we descended to the bottom of the canyon, I pressed a little harder – wanting to make a split, it was not my ideal choice to have taken the lead in the canyons, but given I had certainly wanted to increase the gap before I began my powerhike up and out to Michigan Bluff. I’m a reasonable powerhiker, but lacked confidence that mountain-goat Lizzy wouldn’t catch me. However, I tried to not think about the runners behind me and, instead, used the red shirt of Zach (Bitter) up ahead as a virtual tow-rope to pull me up to the buzzing crowds and my crew at Michigan Bluff.
Having vomited at the feet of my crew at Michigan Bluff in 2011, I was encouraged that I was feeling so good in comparison now. Sure, my quads were beginning to hurt a little, but at 90km in this was to be expected and there was no point overanalyzing if this was left over from Comrades or not – I had one set of legs and, however they felt, they were the ones I had to get me the remaining 70km to the track at Placer High. Soon, this would be made a lot easier when I picked up my first pacer at 60 miles/Foresthill. The race was now split into two remaining chunks – 28km with Ryne to Green Gate, 32km from Green Gate to the finish with Mike. Just chat, if I could, or otherwise slip into a happy even pace with the company of a buddy.
Shortly after Foresthill I fell into a little lull, a little falter in my confidence. Sure, I was in the lead, sure I had passed Lizzy, but there was still almost 40 miles to go and had I gone out too hard? Would Rory (Bosio) or Aliza (Lapierre) or any one of the other ladies catch me? Could I maintain my pace? Could I make it to Auburn in first place? I plowed on and Ryne encouraged me and kept reminding me to fuel even when I didn’t want to, he chatted about the men’s race, told me about when I would see my crew up ahead, it was the perfect balance of racing yet also just clicking away the miles totally relaxed like we were on a training run.
On crossing Rucky Chucky, for the first time in hours I looked at my Garmin for the time. I’d been using my Garmin for mileage, but for literally hours, I had not looked at the time. My focus for this race was my position, my splits and final finishing time were a bonus to the possible win. So at Rucky Chucky I saw I was 40 minutes ahead of my 2011 time, a race where I had finished 18 minutes slower than the course record. Okay, I guess the course record might be on, but still – we had 22 miles to so to go, that was not going to be my focus, there was still time for it to all go horribly wrong, for the walls to come crashing in. Call me a pessimist, but it’s this attitude of ‘it ain’t over til the finish line’ that keeps me pushing every inch of the way. Even when Meghan of iRunFar yelled out if I knew how far ahead of CR I was, I rather abruptly said I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want that pressure, all I wanted to do was to run as fast as I could and win, without the worry of possibly making the CR (or not) by one or two minutes – that would simply add to the stress, I needed to stay relaxed and focused. I needed to just run.
Ryne handed me over to Mike at Green Gate and after a quick shoe and sock change we were back on the trail. My confidence was now back – 22 miles to go, I can do that, I can get to the finish, and from reports from further down the trail my lead was looking good that I would not get caught, I could relax somewhat, which would, in a weird way, only made me run stronger and with more confidence. By now Mike and I were literally counting the kilometers off one by one, counting the beeps of our Garmins, they were tiny little mouthfuls of the course that we were nibbling away at and soon we would be done. It was great to fall into pace with a few guys and their pacers, yes I wanted to beat them but in the meantime it was great to have a little group, a shared fellowship of pain as we progressed closer and closer to Auburn. It was still daylight on sections of the trail that I had run through in darkness in 2011 – now I didn’t need to look at my Garmin to know I must surely be on for the CR, the daylight was a sure sign that I was well up on last year’s time.
As we climbed up from the American River and began to hear to noise and see the little lights of Robie Point shining through the trees, I finally began to believe I was going to win this thing. I wasn’t going to be a one-hit-wonder, I could now really call myself a 100-mile runner, I was going to pull off my second Western States win! And then I looked down at my watch and my eyes practically popped out at the numbers on the screen in the light of my headlamp. 16h34!!! 16h34!!! Are you kidding me?! I had been totally clueless that I was anywhere near that fast and I now understood why Mike had kept saying he was trying not to get too excited – this was a CR for sure! Ran and Ken from crew joined me, and soon Ryne and Kristin too, and I threw my headlamp to Ken as I entered the famed track at Placer High and let out a holler. 16h47! 16h47! There was going to be no patience now as I sprinted around the final 300m of track – I was far too impatient to get this run done and let the celebrations begin.