Jackie Merritt took seventh place at the 2017 Western States 100, representing the top finish by a runner from the USA’s East Coast. In our first interview with her, Jackie talks about what she thought of the race’s competition and conditions, why she thought the race played to some of her strengths, how her racing strategy is to not watch the clock early and run by feel later, and what she might do with the F7 bib for the 2018 edition of the race that her finish this year grants her.
For more on what happened during the race, check out our 2017 Western States results article.
Jackie Merritt Post-2017 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and we’re here in Auburn, California. It’s the day after the 2017 Western States 100. We’re with the Beast Coast’s Jackie Merritt who finished seventh yesterday. Hey, congratulations! What a break-out run you’ve had!
Jackie Merritt: Yeah, thank you. I never thought I’d get an iRunFar interview, so this is special.
iRunFar: I actually felt pretty certain you were going to finish int he top 10 yesterday. Your performances on the East Coast over the years and especially your performances in the last half a year or so have just been at the top of the bar over there on the East Coast. Did you have confidence coming over here?
Merritt: You guys saw the field. It was totally stacked. There was probably a list of 20 women who had a real shot at getting in the top 10. I knew I had to run a really careful and smart race if I wanted to have a chance to get in there. I knew there was going to be mistakes. I knew with the temperatures and the snow up in the high country there was going to be some carnage out there, so I just tried to be really patient.
iRunFar: In most of the races you run, you’re at the front of the women and sometimes the men, too. Was it difficult being patient and letting a lot of the women go in the early miles?
Merritt: Yeah, I haven’t run a race this competitive before out west—it’s Western States. I knew Maggie Guterl and Bethany Patterson’s standings last year at Robinson Flat, they were in 20-some-odd place. I knew this was going to be totally fine if I’m back here and the race hasn’t started yet. I was actually totally fine with it, but I think it’s because I told myself that this was where I was going to be. I made some major adjustments to my time goals with all the elements out there today.
iRunFar: We have 40-some-odd years of timing history of this race, but times were just off from mile three yesterday. Was it hard to put away the numbers on your watch and just start racing by feel?
Merritt: When I got to mile 16 up in the high country, I felt like I wasn’t running super, super easy, but I felt like I was running right at the effort I wanted to be, and I was a half an hour off of my conservative time goal just because all the flats in the high country in the first section were just either totally covered in this icy, slushy snow that was at a camber, so you’re just sliding, and you couldn’t really run or run very well at all. Then you’d be falling through sections that were punched out underneath. There was ankle-sucking grimy muck. I had to stop in creeks and do a complete shoe rinse.
iRunFar: There’s two minutes there.
Merritt: Exactly. I was like, I’m just throwing away this pacing chart altogether and just go with it today. It was kind of hard in the middle because there was a good nine or 10 hours where I didn’t see another woman. I was running in 16th place forever. My crew kept telling me, “Oh, there’s carnage up there. Everyone is dying.” I felt pretty good, and I was taking the extra time at all the aid stations which I normally don’t do to load my pack with ice and my bandana with ice and doing everything I could to keep my core temperature low. I really think that paid off for me because I never really felt like it was unbearably hot because I was doing all those things. It was really tough not seeing another woman for that long until I got to Foresthill and took off down the hill. I started picking people off really fast.
iRunFar: I was going to say, when the women started coming back to you, they were coming back to you in droves. You picked off…
Merritt: Yeah, they were all kind of bunched together between Foresthill and the river on Cal Street.
iRunFar: When did you become aware that you were for certain in the top 10?
Merritt: I’d been getting mixed reports all day. Somewhere in the middle I was told I was in 16th and the 11th after I hadn’t passed anyone. Then I was told I was in 13th. I had no idea. One of the aid stations told me I was in 13th, and then I passed YiOu Wang, and then I passed Meghan Laws, and then I passed Stephanie [Violett] and then I passed Kaci [Lickteig]. I was like, Alright, I’m definitely in top 10. I’m definitely in at least 10th place right now. Then I knew I was in top 10, and then I got down to the river, and I passed three or four more women, and AJW told me I was in eighth. He was down there. I was fairly certain he had it right at the river.
iRunFar: As close as AJW gets with details… he’s more of a big picture kind of guy, right? At that point, did it turn into a race of, I’m chasing women in front of me, or were you looking and thinking about the women behind you trying to maintain a position in the top 10?
Merritt: I was flying down to the river, and I was grinding up that climb to Green Gate. I was moving. I knew in my heart that any women weren’t catching me, and I had a feeling that no women running faster than me were behind me at that point, but I was definitely trying to catch the women in front of me. I was chasing down Kaytlyn Gerbin for an hour-and-a-half. I could see her. I could see her. Then I finally passed her down this hill, and she just sprinted off into the night. I just couldn’t catch her again. Then I caught Clare Gallagher. After that, I was kind of reeling other women in like Nicole Kalogeropoulus and the fifth-place woman [Fiona Hayvice], but I just couldn’t quite close the gap. I think Nicole had me by six-and-a-half minutes on the track.
iRunFar: We had people at three places between mile 94 and the finish, and it was actually incredibly excruciating because the dynamic of the women at your part of the race was just so back and forth. Was it excruciating to be a part of, too?
Merritt: It was exciting for me because I was picking people off. With the exception of Kaytlyn, I was passing people with confidence. It was definitely fun for me because I knew I’d saved a few more gears for the end, and they just didn’t have it. It was exciting. It just gives you kind of a lift when you feel like you’re doing that well at that point in the race. Usually by mile 80 or 90, you can tell if the wheels are going to come off, and I knew I could sustain.
iRunFar: The wheels were staying on.
Merritt: Yeah, they were staying on. I was gutting this thing out, and no one was passing me back. It was exciting. It was a good race. I liked it.
iRunFar: The awards ceremony is about to start. You’re about to collect your beloved silver buckle. You are also about to collect your beloved F7 official position. My last question for you, earning F7, does this mean it’s the beginning of a relationship with a race like this?
Merritt: I haven’t gotten to think about it.
iRunFar: “Don’t ask me today.” Just for the viewers at home, I just want you to know that AJW is leaping around in the background right now.
Merritt: Yeah, let’s not ask AJW.
iRunFar: AJW wants Jackie to race Western States again.
Merritt: Yeah, no, I’d really love to come back here because I think with a little more knowledge of the course and seeing the course in different conditions would be a totally different experience. Yeah, I’d like to come back someday. Not sure about next year or not—we’ll see.
iRunFar: It is the day after States, so we’ve got to give the woman a little bit of time to think. Congratulations to you on your F7 performance at the 2017 Western States 100. Yeah, Beast Coast!
Merritt: Thank you so much.