The Western States 100 starts next Saturday morning, and Max King, Michael Aish, Karl Meltzer, Yoshikazu Hara, and Jez Bragg could each do solid damage on the men’s field, but each in their own unique way. They are wildcards, but all for different reasons.
Only race day will tell, but until then we have these interviews to keep us wondering. Below, Max King talks about whether or not he’s going to race too hard to early, Mike Aish defends his aggressive racing style, Karl Meltzer provides context for his 10th place last year, Hara-san tells us about how he’s been prepping for WS 100’s unique conditions in Japan, and Jez recounts a bit of his history with this race.
Have a read of our in-depth men’s preview to see who else these five men will be racing.
If you like, you can jump down to a specific interview with:
iRunFar: Okay, you achieved a big goal, to get into Western States. You did so via an exquisite performance–a win and really, really fast course record at the Ice Age 50 Mile. This was after an iffy 50 mile at Lake Sonoma where you didn’t get your WS 100 ticket. What went through your mind when you finished Ice Age and realized you’d be running States? I read your race report, and you reported near-maximal effort the last several miles that left you whooped by the end. Was there room for instant positive emotions or did those come when the body calmed down? What were your first thoughts?
Max King: Not as much as you’d expect I suppose. I knew for 10 to 20 miles prior that I’d be in but I was thinking more about how I’d finally put together a good 50 miler. After several bad performances that feels really good. And I think I’d already prepared myself for running Western because I’d made that decision to do it before Lake Sonoma, so mentally I was already prepared to some extent.
If you look at the finish photo from Ice Age you’ll see some instant positive emotions. Yeah, I was pretty happy. It’s the best 50 I’ve ever run and I knew that with about five miles to go. It was a maximal effort and I don’t know that I’ve ever had the ability to put out that much effort over the last 10 miles of a 50, so I was completely spent. I had to curl into the fetal position on the grass until I started feeling better.
iRunFar: Ice Age was not that long ago, the second weekend of May. I guess you got a couple weeks of good training after recovering and before tapering again? What was your approach to that window of time, training-wise? Can you give a little insight into what that block of training looked like?
King: It wasn’t that long ago but getting in that 50 was a good confidence boost and also another good long run as well. Since then I was able to jump back in pretty quick with a 90-mile week right after and a back-to-back 20 milers that weekend. 135 miles the next week with the Western States training camp, down to 90 again for a rest, then 115 miles, and last week ended up around 110. I may have an unconventional Western build-up with some track work in there but I’ve been working on the long runs to galvanize the quads and long tempo efforts for efficiency. We’ll see what happens. I may be fried or I’ll be in decent shape to get through a 100.
iRunFar: One hundred miles, you really want to do this? You’ve shied away from the distance for several years, keeping your focus on 100k as your maximum distance and spending loads of time in shorter-distance racing. Where did the drive to run 100 miles and to do it at Western come from? When did you make that decision that it would become your goal? How’d that all come about? And, do you imagine there will be an impact to your shorter-distance racing that lasts more than short term?
King: No, absolutely not. I’m scared to death. It was funny because in previous years I’ve kind of had an itch to do one but it’s never worked out because June is always full of something, track champs, mountain champs, etceteras. The past six months I’ve had the least interest in doing one and wanting to get back to shorter distance but this is the year that June was open and so I decided this was the year to try for Western. Also funny that I’ve actually qualified for Western through the Montrail Ultra Cup several other years and declined the spot and the one year that I actually plan on doing it I have to chase a qualifier.
To the last question, no. I don’t believe running a 100 ever has to impact your shorter-distance speed long term. There’s no physiologic evidence or reason that it should and in my experience running ultras up to 100k it hasn’t affected my leg speed. That said, I’ve never run a 100 before. We’ll see. I’m getting old.
iRunFar: When people run their first 100 miler, they generally go in with one or two goals, to finish and/or to reach their maximum potential. The people who end up seeking their max potential realize that this is a risk, that doing so might result in a painful, slow finish after aggressive running early. What kind of strategy, mental and physical, are you taking into States? And, if things take a turn for the worse, what’s your game plan? Soldier on? Pull the plug and save it for another day?
King: Primary goal: get it done in 24 hours for that belt buckle. That said, I hate to say exactly how it’s going to go because it will never end up that way and any answer I give that is benign is at best just cliche and at worst, really lame. So, here’s my lame answer: I plan on running my own race with the plan of getting through it and how I feel halfway or three quarters of the way through the race will probably determine if I’m competing for that top 10 or finishing under 24.
Here’s what I really think will happen: I’ll go out and it will feel good because we’re running soooo slow. I’ll pick it up and run too fast and probably lead into Michigan Bluff or Foresthill. At that point the heat, canyons, pressure, and 62 miles will get to me, I’ll blow up spectacularly and I’ll walk it in to finish in 23:59. Sound about right for my first time?
iRunFar: The starting-line cast is basically the who’s who of trail ultrarunning right now. Who are you stoked about spending some time with? Who is someone you’ve yet to meet but who you are interested in racing? Given the thick men’s field, are you envisioning yourself spending a bunch of time with other runners or trying to run your own race from the get go?
King: If it’s like any other race it will be pretty much like a run through the woods alone. Some of us are chatty and pass a few words back and forth but for the most part we run in focused silence during a race. It’s not like an easy long run with friends even though the pace would suggest otherwise. I’ve not run a 100 yet so maybe it’s different than other shorter races and if so I think I’d welcome some conversation. I’m betting I’ll get to spend some time with a few people off and on but it’s tough to count any of it as real quality time. The day will decide who has the entertaining or interesting stories to tell I think.
iRunFar: Finally, in a 100 miler, crews and pacers round out your team. Who will be your support at States?
King: I have a great team. It’s small but knowledgeable. It will be Tonya Littlehales and her husband Geof. Tonya has run the Bear 100 and lots of other ultras and Geof has crewed for her during those. Tonya is great at giving you a swift kick in the rear if you’re doddling at an aid station too long. My dad will be out there helping with them as well and Tim Dennis, our Swiftwick rep, will be around as my B crew.
iRunFar: You’re known for racing off the front. You seem to do it in every race of every distance you’ve sampled in the ultra world so far. Where does this racing instinct come from? Back in your track days somewhere, were you an instinctual rabbit? Somewhere else?
Mike Aish: I don’t really think it’s fair to say I always race off the front. Yes I’ve always been at the front of the race, but I never lead. Now if having me there causes the lead pack to race a little faster than normal that’s another story. It’s been a hard transition from track racing for sure, and in the first few races, it just wasn’t comfortable for me to run at what I now know as a ‘normal, sustainable’ 100-mile pace. This has been something that I’ve worked very hard to get better at.
Even if you look back at Leadville this past year, I ran back in the pack for just about two hours and it was only because I ran through the aid station so well that I found myself in the front, and I just kept going. People think that pace was what hurt me in Leadville (post-race interview after he finished third), but at that point I hadn’t worked much on my nutrition and I didn’t really eat anything more than a few slices of oranges from mile 13 to mile 70, which is where the wheels came off. Fact is, I just ran out of gas.
I’ve learned a lot since then (and I have a lot more to learn) and I don’t really like being lumped in the same pile as those guys that don’t respect the field or the distance. I always have a plan for getting myself to the finish line in the best place possible from the information that I’ve put together. Some days it works out, and some days it doesn’t but that’s why I love this game…
iRunFar: The men’s field at States this year is a little silly in its depth. In my opinion, there are 30 guys who could go top 15. Some will surprise us, some will fall as carnage. Recent history–the last few years since WS 100 has grown so much in its depth of field–has proven that the rabbit is usually unsuccessful. How do you rectify your personal rabbiting history with the recent history of WS 100 success? What will be your racing strategy?
Aish: Don’t worry, I have no intention of leading or being near the front in the first 50 miles. After talking with some close friends and trail runners that are experienced with the WS course, I feel I have a good plan of attack going in. The number-one goal is to make the finish line.
iRunFar: WS 100 is a race with so much history, more than most ultras out there, more than any other 100 miler. What kind of feelings does participating in a race like this conjure up, in your first participation? Also, being a Kiwi by origin, though you live in the U.S., are there any other feelings conjured up by being a quasi-international racing in one of the U.S.’s most revered ultras?
Aish: I’ve been lucky to be able to run in some amazing races over the years, and WS 100 will definitely go right up there on the list. I started in the sport because of the people and the races. I know that if I have a solid race at WS 100 and a solid race at Leadville this year, I can walk away and be happy that I got to see and race with the best in two of the greatest races in the sport.
iRunFar: Most of the front of the men’s and women’s packs run States in part to experience the competition, being a part of the race that everyone wants to be a part of. Who do you really want to race? Who would you love to chat with in the early miles? Who has some mystery that you’d like to learn more about?
Aish: It’s a race, and like always, I want to try and beat as many people to the finish line as I can. In regards to the early miles, it still blows me away that you can be in a ‘race’ and still be taking the time to talk about how the family is doing and what you were up to last week. It’s a very unique (and great) part of the sport. There are a lot of interesting people that will take the start line, and plenty that I would love to spend a few miles having a laugh with–but I’m not out there to get any autographs.
Yes, I do have some deep ultrarunner questions:
- Why does Kilian race in ladies’ hot pants?
- What is Sage’s fascination with kale?
- Why is Geoff Roes such a Debbie Downer?
- Is it really that much cheaper for Anton to use duct tape on his feet instead of normal socks?
- And one more question, why does Vargo always refer to himself in the third person?
iRunFar: You’ve run a couple 100 milers now, a pair of Leadvilles. Both were pretty challenging for you, if I remember correctly. What have been some of the biggest 100-mile lessons you’ve learned so far? Where do you hope for the greatest personal improvement at States this year?
Aish: The list is way too long to share the lessons I’ve learned. I think that as long as I keep learning and moving forward, I’m doing okay. One of my small personal goals for WS 100 is to be able to run all the runnable parts of the course and still be in a somewhat running kind of motion over those last few miles of the race. If I can do that I’ll be happy.
iRunFar: Are you willing to put your goals out there? Time or place goals? Or how about bold predictions about how the men’s race is going to go down?
iRunFar: Karl, oh Karl. You’re the enigma everyone would like to emulate in some way. Last year, your first Western States, you just plain stumbled in and ran yourself into 10th place. You said so yourself. You were something close to 20th early on and just kept climbing your way up to the point you gained one of the coveted ‘M’ bib numbers. Can you give us at least a little bit of a peek into how you did that? There had to be at least a little intention in there? :)
Karl Meltzer: Not sure why people want to emulate me… Last year with hardly any training in my legs all spring, I went into Western without any goals or expectations. I just ran it as I know how to do it. 100 milers don’t seem that long for me anymore, they just seem like another 10k, another weekend race. I moved all the way up to seventh place before I became some carnage. I didn’t expect to move forward on my strength, I did expect to pick off some others as they backed up, though. Knowing that I did not have a lot of solid training under my belt, it’s silly to think I’d be able to compete with the fast field. So I ran nice and comfortable and waited to see if some would come back. They came back, and once I started to move into 12th, 11th, I knew I had a chance to get closer to the top 10. It was risky, though, as I knew the last 20 would probably hurt. And it did hurt. Once I was in the position to finish top 10, the brain takes over. I try to explain this to many folks, how the brain does all the work later in a 100. And it’s not about the speedwork anyone did in May, or about the long runs on Memorial Day weekend, it’s about desire to keep jogging. I kept jogging.
iRunFar: Your plate for summer 2014 is huge, and diverse. Race WS 100, one of the most competitive 100 milers out there. Direct Speedgoat 50k, one of the most competitive 50ks in the world now. Go for the Appalachian Trail speed record, for a second time. How does one’s preparation for such a summer come together? I know you’re casual about your training/preparations, but can you let us in on any of your secrets? What you’ve been doing in the mountains around your home?
Meltzer: The key to proper preparation for these three big ‘things’ is starting early. The Speedgoat race, although is a big endeavor, is a well-oiled machine now. All my basics were done a long time ago, knowing I’d have a lot on my plate in June. Shirts, permits, all legal stuff has long been done. I have a great volunteer coordinator, again, done in April. All volunteers are set in stone now. Only the last two weeks leading to the race is when the monkey work takes time.
In May, because I ran in Denver, I was already 500 miles east, so Cheryl came home, and I went east to recon the entire AT for crewing. It took a month in my car, camping, training on the AT… and throwing in a little 100-mile win at the MMT 100. :-) My focus this year is the AT. So I spent the cash, the time, and the effort on goal #1. In order for the AT to come together right, my body obviously has to survive, but my crew must be dialed in to scumbag for seven weeks. I needed a van, so bought a van, scored randomly right when I got home from the recon on June 3. Bam, I have a vehicle, and it’s being tricked out. My goal is to have it wired before WS 100, so I can deal with the Speedgoat race and not worry about AT prep. Most of the AT prep will be done completely in two weeks, then I just run WS 100, and come home, recover and hike around, and put on Speedgoat. Then drive east and go for it.
As far as training for WS 100, again, focus is the AT, so no speedwork, no heat training. Heat training is kind of funny. People think running in the heat or sitting in a sauna is good. I think it’s bad. Why run in tougher conditions when training is less effective? You can’t train the body to run in 100-degree temperatures. The best way to train for heat is to simply make sure you stay wet and cooler. Pour some water over your damn body. I’ll focus on that again at WS 100. Last year I was not even hot the whole race because I focused on staying cool. It obviously worked. I will run it, and see where I end up. If I have any sort of potential injury issues, something that might affect the AT, I’m bailing because simply finishing my 64th 100 really does not matter and I don’t want to jeopardize the AT. My training around my mountains basically consists of hiking and jogging around for three hours a day, and hopefully not getting injured. I know I’ll be rested.
iRunFar: Prediction, your place at the top of Squaw? At Robinson Flat? At Foresthill? At mile 90? At the finish?
Meltzer: It’s not a race to the top of Squaw, or Robinson, or Foresthill. I’ll likely be in the top 30 at Squaw, top 20 at Robinson. My plan does not change from what I did last year. I run the same way every race. My own race, then see where I end up. I can probably run quite a bit faster than 18:50 like last year. That was slow for me, I just got lucky finishing top 10. I could probably run about 16:30 on a decent day. Maybe faster if I were in great shape. Right now, I’m okay, but not super fit. I have had a few things that have slowed me down. However, MMT gave me some solid confidence because I did not even pull the trigger on running MMT until the Thursday before it. I had two weeks on the AT, my head was in a good place, and I was well rested. The experience took over after that. And MMT is a very tech-y course, so it plays into my strength. I did not expect to win it, but hey, 11-minute miles is not that fast and 100 miles is not that far. No 100 milers are about running fast, not even WS 100.
iRunFar: You’ve always seemed a bit standoff-ish to the whole WS 100 shenanigans. You’ve called it a ‘track meet,’ making references to it not being steep or tough enough for you perhaps. But yet you’re back for your second go at it. Do you have unfinished business out there? Why are you racing the 2014 States? What’s your draw?
Meltzer: Western States is tough, no doubt about it, and as I get older, I don’t necessarily think the tougher the course, the better it is for me. I’ll never win Hardrock again because I’m not a great climber. I’m slower now–not too slow–but not at the level of some others in that regard. Being my second year at WS 100, I get another shot at a fun course. I may never get in again, so I have to run it. Hardrock was always my baby, but having done it 11 times and finishing seven times, my draw is not as strong as it once was for that one. Western is new territory, and it’s fun. I don’t have unfinished business out there. If I come in sixth and run 16:15, what does that mean? It means I came in sixth. If I can break the AT record, that means a hell of a lot more for me, and puts a big fat stamp on a FKT that is huge, much bigger than the Colorado Trail, the John Muir Trail, any of those that only take a few days. Forty-six days on a trail is massive and a huge undertaking, and is something I want to accomplish before I’m dead. I’ll be at the WS 100 to have fun, nothing else, but when the final 30 miles come into play and I’m feeling good, of course I’ll run to do my best. It’s all about the last 30, not the race to the top of Squaw.
iRunFar: AJW is running his 10th and final WS 100. You’re pretty spectacular at choosing odds on performances. What are AJW’s chances of a top 10? Of running sub-17 hours? And speaking of surprises, who in the men’s field do you expect to surprise us with their performance? Why do you think so?
Meltzer: AJW, like me, knows how to run 100s, it’s why he does so well. He knows many of the guys in front will blow, so he bides his time and waits, just like I do. I am just a little faster overall, naturally, is all. Last year I believe he was 14th? I suspect he’ll finish around the same. He does have a chance at top 10, and it seems as though his training has gone better than mine. I have done about 100 miles since MMT. :-)
iRunFar: The last time we saw you was during the 2014 UTMF in April, where you dropped after more than halfway. What required you to drop out? Have you fully recovered and been able to return to training?
Yoshikazu Hara: I dropped at Nishifuji (123k) due to heavy nausea from gastrointestinal distress. My body had been shut down way earlier, but my pride as leading Japanese runner of the day held me to racing further. I was running lower mileage for training in winter than last year. Without injury, I resumed my training for Western a week after Mount Fuji.
iRunFar: Tsuyoshi Kaburaki has set the bar high for Japanese performances at WS 100. He finished second in 16:52 in 2009 and fifth in 16:07 in 2011. Has Kaburaki-san been giving you advice on how to take your strengths and weaknesses to States for a good performance? Given that you’re training in Japan for a race in California, what else are you doing to gain the knowledge and preparations you need to have success? How are you preparing to deal with the altitude of the first half of the race and the extreme heat in the race’s second half?
Hara: I did not ask Kaburaki-san, second in 2009 Western States, for advice, because I am not a very experienced trail runner like him! My major resource for WS 100 is Koichi Iwasa’s race reports of 2012 and 2013. (Japan’s Koichi Iwasa of DogsorCaravan earned a silver buckle in the 2013 run.)
To acclimate for altitude, I stayed at the base of Mount Ontake for eight days recently. I hope staying at 5,580 feet and running up to 10,000 feet will work on me. Heat? I live in the Kansai region [of Japan] and run in heat every summer. That is enough for scorching canyons.
iRunFar: Western States is a net downhill race and at a mostly runnable grade on runnable terrain. You’re known for your leg speed on roads and non-technical trails. How do you plan to use your strengths to your advantage without blowing out your quadriceps on all that downhill? There must be a very fine balance you are seeking?
Hara: Yes, I heard Western States is runnable, and I am good at runnable ultras even though I am not that optimistic to say it is in the bag. I am looking forward to examining the course myself in the week before the big day.
iRunFar: Koichi-san of DogsOrCaravan has indicated that WS 100 might be your 2014 goal race. Is this the case? Are you making this your focus? What are you doing with your training in order to treat this as a goal race? Can you walk us through maybe the biggest month of training before you started to taper?
Hara: Western States is absolutely my goal race in the first half of this year. Maybe I will run UTMB again but my focus in the later half goes to the 24-hour run at Soochow [International Ultramarathon, Taiwan]. As for a training regimen for a mountain ultra, I am not as organized as others. Last year’s UTMF is the only 100 miler I finished so far!
iRunFar: Will this be your first time to California? This is certainly your first time racing WS 100, the grandaddy of 100-mile ultramarathons. What do you think about experiencing this important part of ultrarunning history? Do you have any vacation planned while you are here? What are you looking forward to experiencing about the U.S. in general or American ultrarunning culture specifically?
Hara: This is going to be my first trip to California ever, and the first race in U.S. since I ran the Honolulu Marathon in 2008. That said, I am just a novice in ultra and trail running in U.S. I am not familiar with history and culture there but this must be a good chance for me to learn the nature in the week before the race. I am a painfully shy guy, but please say hello to me if you see me during the race. Thanks!
[Editor’s Note: Thank you to Koichi Iwasa of DogsOrCaravan for his translation assistance in this interview.]
iRunFar: You’re a three-time WS 100 finisher. A third in 16:54 in 2009, a fourth in 15:55 in 2011, and a 15th in 17:29 in 2012. The 15:55 is super stout, a time that a bunch of guys would die for. A podium spot is something many are hungry for, too. You’ve achieved the ‘career achievements’ of many guys in ultrarunning at States already, yet you are back. Why? What has you coming back?
Jez Bragg: I’m a big fan of Western States as a race; it has a great balance of prestige, history, competition, and a solid yet runnable course whilst still maintaining a nice scale and feel to it all. Ever since I made my first trip to California for the race in 2008, the year of the forest-fire cancellation, I’ve been hooked. In reality, part of the appeal also comes from the fact it’s a course that suits me well as a runner, and I’ve had some success at it. It goes without saying that I would like to do better still and that’s why I’m back–I feel like I’ve still got more to give at States, and I’m still not 100% content with what I’ve achieved.
Incidentally, when I ran the 17:29 two years ago, my body wasn’t in health at all, but it was one of those grind-it-out runs which makes you a better runner for when everything does click. And claiming a third silver buckle wasn’t too shabby either. But I was gutted to not have been able to make better use of those amazing cold-weather conditions!
iRunFar: A little birdy told me that you are absolutely hammering your training, that you’re hungry for bettering your previous best position, third place, doing whatever it takes to get there. What’s it going to take to get yourself where you want to be?
Bragg: I’ve had a good spell building up to States this year, but by no means perfect. When is it ever, though? I’ve tried to mix up my long trail runs with some shorter stuff–a couple of marathons and some local road races. Not all has gone to plan, and I’ve had niggles setting me back, but the trend since Christmas has been pretty good mileage. Training-wise I would say if anything I’m slightly under-done rather than over, but that’s definitely the right side of the line to be able to stay strong for those latter miles.
It’s certainly going to take a heck of a lot to get me where I want to be, beating placings and times from previous years, but there’s no reason why it can’t be done. Older and wiser and all that. I feel like I’ve been in touching distance before, but not been able to deliver toward the end. That’s where the change needs to be–the run in from the river. If I can get a decent march on from the river home, it will make all the difference. Ha, so easy to say, and isn’t everyone thinking the same thing!
iRunFar: You’ve been fighting in the recent year to year and a half with a major health issue as well as recovery from your massive Te Araroa Trail FKT outing. Can you tell us where you are exactly, heath-wise? Are you back to where you were before all this started affecting your training and racing?
Bragg: I have a long-term bowel disease (ulcerative colitis) which has caused me real problems over the last couple of years, including long-term anaemia. Thankfully I’ve turned a massive corner with it all in the last two months, starting a new type of medication which it has responded to well. It’s not something I’ve talked about a great deal in the past because it’s just one of those things and I just need to get on and deal with it, but I guess I do want to put the explanation out there for the difficult time I’ve had. Bizarrely, it was the illness that inspired me to get fit and run long to start with around 12 years ago, so I certainly don’t look at it as a constraint even though, in reality, it makes life difficult at times.
Anyway, looking forward, I’m in far better place now, and hopefully that will be reflected in my race this year. As to whether I’m back to where I want to be, I equaled my marathon PR this year and I’ve been running well at the shorter distances. I haven’t really tested myself at the longer stuff, but we’ll soon see how it all translates.
iRunFar: When I think of Jez Bragg, the word ‘perseverance’ comes to mind. You’re the guy who started the 2010 UTMB, the one that was canceled 20 miles in due to weather and restarted as a 100k the following morning, who almost didn’t start the second race, but who did and then actually was stubborn enough to take the lead later in the race and win (post-race interview). Where do you think that level of stubbornness and stick-to-it-ness comes from? Somewhere in your childhood or earlier sports endeavors? Just innate in your personality?
Bragg: Yeah, I don’t easily give up, that’s for sure. It’s got to be a good attribute for ultrarunning, right? I guess it’s in my blood as a family trait, perhaps a mixture of characteristics from both my parents and grandparents, as well as my upbringing. I certainly believe my ultrarunning strength came from playing a lot of rugby union and track running in my teenage years. It was all mixed in with a lot of time spent outdoors riding my bike, climbing trees, all that stuff which makes you strong right through. For sure it’s brought me a lot of consistency and some solid results, but above all I just love running these races around the world, seeing amazing places, and meeting super-cool people. When you dedicate so much to it, you need to throw everything at it when the moment arrives, and not give up without a fight if it’s not quite going to plan.
iRunFar: You’re participating in the Ultra-Trail World Tour this year, and WS 100 will be your second race. You started with a 10th at Vibram Hong Kong 100k, a bit of a tough day out for you if memory serves me. What kind of UTWT goals do you have and what other races will we see you at in 2014?
Bragg: That was my goal at the start of the year, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to put together a full set of races. I had planned to run Transgranaria in March but unfortunately I had to pull out due to illness, but I am down for UTMB once again. If WS 100 and UTMB go well then I may be tempted to run Diagonale des Fous in October, but that’s a big race in itself, so the focus has to be on getting the summer nailed first.