For those lucky runners donning that white race bib at the Western States 100, course-specific training runs are a critical aspect of training. The race itself organizes a few during the year, one in February with the main event being a three-day extravaganza on Memorial Day weekend that covers the final 70 miles of the course.
For reasons physical and mental, course experience can be crucial to making the most of the day. As such, I’ve taken the entirety of the Western States course and outlined some favorite, most useful, and legendary training runs.
A Primer on Course-Specific Training
Before outlining those runs, it’s important to outline some key points that will help runners make sure they get the most from these training experiences.
It should go without saying that, besides seeing the course, these race-specific training runs should be used to develop key skills, including:
- Uphill Hiking: Nearly every runner in the field, including the winner, will at some point walk (or powerhike). Those in the mid-back looking for sub-24-hour or sub-30-hour finish should, on paper, be hiking nearly every uphill, especially in the first two thirds of the race. It should go without saying that practicing efficient hiking should be a key part of these runs.
- Downhill Running: The same goes for descending. There is a subtle difference between assertive, efficient descending and high-volume downhill ‘quad-seasoning’ pounding. All runners–from frontrunners to bronze hopefuls–should endeavor to utilize this ‘free speed’ as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Flat-Run Efficiency: Course runs allow runners to practice the key skill outlined in our general preparation article: how to re-establish a flat, efficient running stride after the steep downs and ups.
- Nutrition and gear: Lastly, practicing with race-day nutrition and gear is an important specific skill worth honing.
Specificity and Pacing
To get the most out of these runs, it is so crucial to run actual goal race pace on each segment. Because of the nature of racing a 100 miler, this could be higher effort on the early (high country) sections, yet seemingly ‘too easy’ on the latter half.
That said, our bodies (namely our brains) are wired for specificity and tend to gravitate toward experience. Running generally too fast (especially without a focused strategy in mind) can have two potentially deleterious effects. First, running each course run medium-hard will accumulate a significant amount of fatigue. For most people, undisciplined ‘running’ of each course segment is akin to a marathon-effort tempo run. Running medium-hard for three or more consecutive runs during, say, the Memorial Day weekend, may create more fatigue than intended, prolong recovery, or leave a runner burned out for race day. (Indeed, having worked as an aid-station medical volunteer the past four years, there has been a neat correlation between those runners who blasted their training runs with those staggering into the aid stations at which I worked.)
Secondly, running medium-hard for these course runs also gets the body too comfortable running at paces unsustainable on race day. This is a top-down phenomenon: it was said that a year ago, Jim Walmsley (who, based on his Strava accounting, blasted each and every course-specific run in his 2017 lead-up) told bystanders that he “can’t seem to slow down” despite struggling with the heat and impaired digestion. Just like a high-school runner who can run a 65-second opening lap of a mile race, if he or she can’t finish in under five minutes, they are far better off to learn to run 70-to-74-second laps sustainably.
Determining your goal paces isn’t as simple as doing minutes per mile for your finishing goal. That said, there are two options to help determine course-specific split goals. First, runners can look at the listing of yearly race splits on the race website. Find the runners who finished at your desired goal time and see how they ran key segments (the start to Robinson Flat, the canyons, Cal Street) and use that as a guide. Another great option are these “Diamond Charts” devised by Ed Willson (an Oregon ultrarunner, “Silver Buckler,” and now race director of the Elijah Bristow 24-Hour Run). These put in graph form what each finisher ran for each aid-station segment, in a selection of years.
Know your desired splits and, once on the course, stick to them, or as close as you can.
Recommendations and Disclaimers
Lastly, it’s important for every trail run, but namely these runs in remote and potentially grueling conditions, that you be prepared. Being fit and marginally informed isn’t enough to avoid or solve problems such as getting lost or injured. We recommend you consult and/or pack the following equipment, including:
- Official maps for the Tahoe National Forest, El Dorado National Forest, and Auburn State Recreation Area
- Safety gear, namely the ‘backpacker’s 10 essentials’
Lastly, always tell a friend or relative where you are running, when you leave, and when you intend to finish (and make contact afterward).
Below are the three categories into which I’ve divided the runs:
- Bronze: These are basic, foundational routes that are the shortest and generally the easiest ways to explore the Western States course. While the runs themselves may not be easy, they are the gentlest way to experience key aspects of the course for the beginner racer looking to gain course experience.
- Silver: These intermediate runs will challenge the more experienced and fitter Western States entrants looking for that sub-24-hour silver buckle (or faster) finish. In addition to covering the full course, these longer and more difficult runs will better simulate some of the event’s specific challenges.
- Cougar: This category, aptly named after the winner’s trophy, represents some of the most grueling but specific training runs possible on the course. They are intended runners hoping to win or place top 10.
Note: All distances and vertical are approximate. Consult a map and/or a local guide or runner for more detailed information.
Section 1: Start Line to Robinson Flat ( Mile 30.3)
- Route: Squaw Valley start line (mile 0.0) to Granite Chief Wilderness boundary (mile 6.0) and return
- Distance and vertical: 10 miles (7 if taking gondola down), 3,000 feet up and down (1,000 feet descent if taking gondola down)
- Notes: This is a nice, easy day for those getting to Squaw Valley at least a week early. Even if the snowpack is still significant, runners can (carefully) make their way from the start, up to the top of Emigrant Gap (8,750 feet altitude), and then over the ridge and down into the Granite Chief Wilderness. This point is roughly the intersection of the Western States course with the Pacific Crest Trail. A full out-and-back would be a moderate long run that can be cut mercifully short by taking the Squaw Valley Aerial Tram back down to the start. Not only will that save three-plus miles and 2,000 feet of downhill pounding, but the descending tram ride is free!
- Why: Experiencing that opening climb before race day allows a runner to fully grasp the literal (and metaphorical) enormity of the task ahead. Poor race-day execution usually begins by pushing this opening climb too intensely. Running (really, hiking) this opening section before race day, especially if using a heart-rate monitor, will give runners a good idea of what sort of pace and effort is feasible and sustainable.
Silver Option 1
- Route: Squaw Valley start line (mile 0.0) to Lyon Ridge (mile 10.3) and return
- Distance and vertical: 20 miles (15 if taking gondola up and down), 4,000 feet up and down (2,000 feet up and down if taking gondola both directions)
- Notes: This longer route will take runners through the Granite Chief Wilderness and the new lands recently obtained by the American River Conservancy to Lyon Ridge.
- Why: On paper, this segment–especially from Emigrant Gap (mile 5) to Lyon Ridge–looks to be a gentle downhill. But veteran bucklers know this section is anything but gentle. Marked by rugged, technical ups and downs, the segment from Emigrant Gap to Lyon Ridge can really beat up a runner, especially those who have pushed too hard in that opening summit. Experiencing the undulating technicality of this section after an hour-plus climb will reveal the true gravity of the high country.
Silver Option 2
- Route: Robinson Flat (mile 30.3) to Duncan Canyon (mile 24.4) and back
- Distance and vertical: 12 miles, 1,800 feet up and down
- Notes: From Robinson Flat Campground, proceed east, which begins as a gradual downhill (past “Little Robinson Valley”) before pitching steeply, with several switchbacks, to the Little Duncan Creek (a small, three-stepper), through an old burn area, down to Duncan Creek.
- Why: This short out-and-back segment is a great way to experience what some runners feel is the toughest canyon of the entire course. To lay tread on this section and practice the grueling and often already-warm ascent from Duncan Creek to Robinson Flat is a great feather in the cap of an aspiring Silver Buckler.
- Route: Squaw Valley start line (mile 0.0) to Robinson Flat (mile 30.3)
- Distance and vertical: 30.3 miles, 7,000 feet up and 6,000 feet down
- Notes: This is an obvious shuttle route and a big undertaking. Runners will need to drive from Auburn (or the Foresthill Divide Road exit, off I-80), all the way to Robinson Flat (a good hour drive) to drop a car, then beg, borrow or steal a ride all the way to the start at Squaw Valley.
- Why: Rarely does a Western States rookie see the first 30 miles before race day. In particular, elite runners and their competitive aspirations commonly get surprised and subsequently obliterated by this grueling section. Indeed, this high-country section, which averages about 7,000 feet altitude and has some scree-filled, dusty, technical terrain, is the most difficult segment of the entire course.
Section 2: Robinson Flat (Mile 30.3) to Michigan Bluff (Mile 55.7)
- Route: Robinson Flat (mile 30.3) to Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7)
- Distance and vertical: 25.4 miles, 4,200 feet up and 7,200 feet down
- Notes: This is a point-to-point run from Robinson Flat to the old mining town of Michigan Bluff, about five miles (and a 10-minute drive) off Foresthill Divide Road. As per below, runners will need to drop a car in Michigan Bluff, and then shuttle up to Robinson Flat. The new course leaves the campground, running up road N43 for a couple miles before rejoining the classic course to Miller’s Defeat. It is a mostly gentle and easy-running downhill from about a mile past Robinson all the way to Last Chance (mile 43.3), before dropping precipitously into Deadwood Canyon, and thus beginning the race’s “Canyons” section to Michigan Bluff.
- Why: This upper-canyons section is a runner’s first chance to experience two of the big three canyons–Deadwood and El Dorado–with some mileage on the legs. It’s also one of the easiest segments on the course, making for a good recovery run, especially if run at race pace or slower. Compared to its big brother, Robinson Flat to Foresthill, it provides a moderate, downhill-rich run with a relatively modest amount of hard climbing.
- Route: Robinson Flat (mile 30.3) to Foresthill (mile 62.0)
- Distance and vertical: 31.7 miles, 5,600 feet up and 8,800 feet down
- Notes: This is the first of three official Western States Memorial Weekend Training Runs. For those attending those runs, you will board a bus at the old elementary school in Foresthill (site of the race-day aid station) and be dropped off at Robinson Flat. For those doing this solo, you will need to shuttle from the school to the campground, about a half-hour drive.
- Why: The route is the same as the preceding run, with an important addition: continuing to Foresthill. Volcano Canyon, which sits between the two towns, is often the forgotten third canyon of the middle course. It may be forgettable, but it is not easy: it adds nearly 1,500 feet of descent and climb in mostly exposed, dusty, and baking conditions. That said, this gravel-and-doubletrack road section is painfully runnable. For prospective Silver Bucklers, skillful negotiation of the canyons and then resurrecting an efficient running stride is the key to a sub-24-hour finish. For the leaders, this is a key make-or-break segment that often sorts out the contenders from pretenders.
Cougar Option 1
- Route: Robinson Flat (mile 30.3) to Duncan Creek (mile 27.4) back to Robinson Flat and on to Foresthill (mile 62.0)
- Distance and vertical: 37.5 miles, 6,900 feet up and 10,100 feet down
- Notes: Same as the preceding two routes, except it adds on a warm-up run from Robinson Flat in reverse on the course down to Duncan Creek. Once returning to Robinson Flat, runners simulate this aid-station stop with a brief rest before resuming the route at goal race pace to Foresthill.
- Why: This six-mile, 1,300-foot add-on will provide the experience of the Duncan Canyon ascent and simulate one of the most difficult parts of the race: running out of Robinson Flat. Re-establishing an efficient running rhythm after several hours of grueling high-country traversing is a key skill set for frontrunners. Moreover, adding some leg beatdown on the front end of this crucial section is a terrific way to practice that.
Cougar Option 2
- Route: Robinson Flat (mile 30.3) to Foresthill (mile 62.0), aka the “Bruce LaBelle-Ringer Tempo”
- Distance and vertical: 31.7 miles, 5,600 feet up and 8,800 feet down
- Notes: This route is the same as the above-mentioned Robinson Flat to Foresthill, but with an added high-intensity tempo run effort from Robinson Flat to Dusty Corners (38.0) or Last Chance (43.3). At the end of the tempo effort, runners should then try to run goal race pace through the canyons to Foresthill.
- Why: Bruce LaBelle is one of the early pioneers of U.S. West Coast ultrarunning, and among the early wave of elite Western States runners. From 1981 to 1986, LaBelle amassed five of his eventual 11 (and counting) finishes, including four top 10s, his fastest in under 16 hours. Among his favorite race-simulation workouts involves starting this route with a high-intensity tempo effort–marathon pace or faster–on the otherwise downhill or flat-and-runnable eight-mile segment from Robinson Flat to Dusty Corners, or even the full 13 miles to Last Chance. This hard running simulates the fatigue of the high country (without all the mileage) and the immense challenge of negotiating the canyons section on heavy legs.
Section 3: Michigan Bluff (Mile 55.7) to Rucky Chucky (Mile 78.0)
- Route: Foresthill (mile 62.0) to Rucky Chucky river crossing (mile 78.0), aka “Cal Street” (plus the climb out via Driver’s Flat Road)
- Distance and vertical: 16.0 miles, 2,500 feet up and 5,000 feet down (plus an additional 1,500 feet up to Driver’s Flat)
- Notes: This is day two of the official Western States Memorial Weekend Training Runs. Runners begin at the old elementary school at Foresthill and proceed along the course, through town, and onto the California Street section of the course, which ends at the Rucky Chucky river crossing. However, runners must then run or hike the approximate three-mile climb from the river to Driver’s Flat parking lot up at the Foresthill Divide Road, to reach the bus shuttle back to Foresthill. If running this on your own, you’ll need to drop a car at Driver’s Flat or Foresthill. Or if you’re lucky (and the Rucky Chucky campground, at river’s edge, is open), you may be able to drive to the aid station to save the extra mileage.
- Why: This segment, while relatively benign compared to the high country and canyons, is a noteworthy segment where runners can employ pacers for the first time. It’s also where the competition–and the conditions–really heat up. On paper, this section may look like an easy downhill, but Cal Street has a surprisingly painful number of sawtooth ups and downs before reaching Rucky Chucky. A vital skillset to hone on Cal Street is the ability to hike short uphills, then expediently resume running on the mostly smooth, non-technical flats and downs. This is the point in the race where many runners may wish to keep walking, yet running those flats and gentle downs is critical for making cutoffs or keeping Silver Buckle pace.
- Route: Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) to Rucky Chucky (mile 78) (plus the climb out via Driver’s Flat Road)
- Distance and vertical: 22.3 miles, 4,000 feet up and 7,400 feet down
- Notes: This route adds a warm-up from Michigan Bluff (55.7) to Foresthill, before proceeding onto Cal Street. Again, it requires a more laborious shuttle or drop-off into Michigan Bluff and a pick-up at Rucky Chucky or Driver’s Flat.
- Why: Practicing the transition from the canyons to Foresthill is a crucial skill for Silver Bucklers and more competitive racers. Moreover, the stop-off at Foresthill, by far the largest and most civilized aid station in the race, tends to enact a great deal of inertia on runners. Running from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill, then pressing onward to the river, is a key race-day simulation to get into–and quickly out of–Foresthill and onward to Auburn.
Section 4: Rucky Chucky (Mile 78.0) to Finish Line (Mile 100.2)
Bronze Option 1
- Route: Highway 49 (mile 93.7) to Placer High School finish line (mile 100.2)
- Distance and vertical: 6.4 miles, 1,000 feet up and down
- Notes: This final 6.4-mile route is a relatively easy route that can be run in the week or so preceding race day. It involves a modest shuttle from Auburn, down southbound California Highway 49, and nearly to the village of Cool. Runners can either begin the run near the Cool fire station and proceed to the Pointed Rocks aid station (less than a mile away) or be dropped off at the trail crossing along Highway 49 (site of the old Highway 49 aid station, which was retired in 2017 in favor of the Pointed Rocks location). From there, runners cover the course down to No Hands Bridge, up to Robie Point, and onward to Placer High School.
- Why: Knowing the closing section of the course is crucial mental training. As the late Dr. Bob Lind once said, “If you can get to Highway 49, you’re going to finish, one way or another!” Thus, experiencing this section of smooth, runnable trail will help you keep running at a time where it may be immensely difficult, yet crucial to finishing under cutoffs.
Bronze Option 2
- Route: Green Gate (mile 79.8) to Placer High School (mile 100.2)
- Distance and vertical: 20.5 miles, 4,000 feet up and 4,500 feet down
- Notes: This is the last of the three official Western States Memorial Weekend Training Runs. Runners board a bus at Placer High School and are transported to Green Gate, out past the village of Cool, along Highway 193, and off Sliger Mine Road. From there, runners traverse the high ridgeline course above the American River, back to Cool, and eventually to the finish in Auburn. While rolling, this section is by far the least technical and most runnable of the entire course.
- Why: Knowledge of this section–namely in the daylight–may be the most crucial of the entire race. With 20 miles to go, it is painfully close yet so far away. Moreover, nearly every runner covers most (if not all) of this section in the pitch dark. Experiencing this section and, like Cal Street, learning which sections can be hiked and which (substantial) sections must be run is vital intelligence.
- Route: Robie Point (mile 98.9) to Rucky Chucky (mile 78) via the Lower Quarry Road and American Canyon Trail to Rucky Chucky, then back via the course to Robie Point, aka the “Cool Special”
- Distance and vertical: 35 miles, 6,000 feet up and down
- Notes: This is a loop course that starts and finishes at Robie Point, on the edge of the city of Auburn. Parking at the point, runners proceed backward on the course to No Hands Bridge. From there, they stay low, crossing Highway 49 to get onto the “Lower Quarry Trail,” a retired quarry mine road that runs low along the river for several miles. This is part of the Way to Cool 50k route, in which you run low along the road for five-plus miles before climbing up the canyon wall to the proper Western States Trail. From there, you’ll continue backward on the course another two to three miles to Green Gate, before tiptoeing down that gravel road to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. This “Cool Special” outbound is about 14 miles and has only about 2,500 feet of descending. From there, runners proceed westbound on the proper course back to Auburn.
- Why: This was the opening run of current Western State race director and nine-time finisher Craig Thornley’s spring training camp week. While dauntingly long, this route (especially if run in cool morning temperatures) allows runners to ease into a grueling week of training with a relatively subdued outbound trip to Rucky Chucky, followed by a race-pace effort back to Auburn. Best of all, it simulates a fatigued climb from the river up to Green Gate and beyond.
Cougar Option 1
- Route: Robie Point (mile 98.9) to Rucky Chucky (mile 78) and return
- Distance and vertical: 42 miles, 8,000 feet up and down
- Notes: This is a strict out-and-back on the course, from Robie Point to Rucky Chucky and back.
- Why: I first ran this route, solo, at the onset of my own version of the Thornley training camp, back in 2012. Not knowing any better, I thought that this was the true Cool Special. However, it is quite a bit farther and hillier (seven-plus miles, and 2,000-plus feet of vertical). After a bewildering experience on these final 20 minutes (which included the surreality of not knowing if I was running uphill or downhill along Quarry Road) during my first run in 2011, I was determined to change that. Running this route in both directions was my way of learning this section inside and out.
Cougar Option 1
- Route: Robie Point (mile 98.9) to Rucky Chucky (mile 78) and return plus the “Howard Hustle”
- Distance and vertical: 42 miles, 8,000 feet up and down
- Notes: This is the same out-and-back as above, with an all-out finish from the Highway 49 crossing.
- Why: This run is an homage to Jim Howard, who used this section in his epic come-from-behind win against defending champion Jim King in the 1983 Western States. Howard, a soft-spoken but lightning-fast runner, overcame a 30-minute deficit at Michigan Bluff and used a still-standing record 56-minute split from the old Highway 49 aid station (mile 93.7) to Placer High. He needed every second of it, as he didn’t pass King until the white bridge less than a half-mile from the track. On the women’s side, Ellie Greenwood ran 67 minutes back in 2011, a mark that is deceptively impressive for two reasons: one, it was run in the dark (even parts of Howard’s record was run in some daylight), and two, she lost at least a minute or two having to stop for a bear on the trail! Practicing a hard finish from the highway is the key strategy for contending runners. Seldom is it good enough to jog these final miles. Winning or at least solidifying a top-10 finish requires a relentless final push.
As a final note on course-specific training. There’s great power to creating positive memories on the trail prior to race day. Training runs such as these, be it with the large organized runs, with your own group of friends, or in solitude, are a tremendously useful way to set the tone for a joyful, exciting, and ultimately successful race-day run!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- For those who have raced Western States, did you train on the course beforehand? If so, what training runs did you do and how do you think they prepped you for race day?
- For non-Western States runners, do you seek you runs which help you specifically train for your big races? Do you go to the course and train on it? Do you mimic the course on routes at home? Something else?