After a challenging first experience with the 2018 Western States 100, Canada’s Ailsa MacDonald brought a whole new strategy to the 2022 edition. In this interview, our first with Ailsa, she talks about how she got into trail ultraruning, what she learned at the 2018 race that helped her succeed this year, and how the race played out from her perspective.
For more on how the race played out, read our 2022 Western States 100 results article.
Ailsa MacDonald Post-2022 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Ailsa MacDonald, it’s the day after the 2022 Western States 100. You took second place.
Ailsa MacDonald: I did, yes, surprisingly.
iRunFar: Surprisingly? Why do you say that?
MacDonald: My goal really for yesterday was just to execute a smarter race than I did in 2018 and I know this is a very highly competitive field. Kind of hoped for a top 10 but to come in, make my way up to second place was … pretty, pretty amazing.
iRunFar: Well, I’d love to compare your previous run and this one as well as talking about yesterday but since this is iRunFar’s first interview with you, I’d also love to know a little bit about you. What do you do outside of running and how did you come to running 100-mile distances on trails and in mountains?
MacDonald: It was definitely a slow transition. I’ve always been very athletic throughout my entire youth. I was originally a triathlete.
iRunFar: I thought you were.
MacDonald: Dabbled in short distance triathlon then I took more of a running approach for several years and kind of focused on the marathon and then from there it went. I got back into triathlon and did some half Ironmans and that progressed to the Ironman and that’s kind of where I discovered my talents for endurance events. So from there, I started to dabble in the trail running and then the distances just kept getting longer and longer and I found that the longer I went, the better I was doing. So here I am.
iRunFar: You are at 100 miles.
MacDonald: 100 miles, yep.
iRunFar: So, you made running Western States your goal, was it four years ago now?
MacDonald: Yeah, 2018.
iRunFar: And you came here, you finished, but it was a challenge?
MacDonald: It was a challenge. I was coming off a really big breakthrough race at Black Canyon 100k that year, that’s where I got my Golden Ticket. And I might’ve come in a little bit overconfident and not knowing the challenges of this course. I definitely didn’t pace myself right. I think I was second to the top of the Escarpment that year.
iRunFar: I love it. Just let her rip.
MacDonald: Yeah, not a smart move. Obviously fell apart really bad after that and suffered to the finish line but I finished and I was proud of my finish. I know my husband and my crew were like, “We think you can do it better, we’d really love for you to come back and try it again.” So that’s what brought me here the second time.
iRunFar: Was it the impetus of your family and not your, sort of own internal driving?
MacDonald: Totally. Yeah.
iRunFar: I love that.
MacDonald: I mean I was really proud of my finish in 2018 because it was a hard fight to the finish. Probably my hardest fight yet. But there was no quit in me that day. I just kept moving forward at a very, very slow pace and eventually made it. But yeah, they thought, “Yeah you can probably do a better time on this course.”
iRunFar: Here we are again.
MacDonald: Here we are again.
iRunFar: How did you sort of strategize, lay out how you hoped yesterday would go given that you had the experience? Was it just a matter of starting out a lot more conservatively or was there other more strategic all things?
MacDonald: Definitely starting out conservatively, was my main goal. But not to get caught up in the competition either. Everybody was quite hot in this race. And I’ve known ever since my 2018 experience at Western States, I’ve always, like it was a lesson, valuable lesson learned for me and I have always taken a conservative strategy ever since then. And it’s always paid off. So I knew that if I just hold back and not worry about anybody else’s race, just worry about my own, that I would end up doing okay.
iRunFar: So, in terms of how the race played out yesterday, can you talk about, let’s maybe break the race up into thirds. How did the high country go? The climb up to the Escarpment, you weren’t in first.
MacDonald: [laughs] I was actually quite proud of the fact I wasn’t in first at the Escarpment. No, it was good. It was a way more enjoyable experience than it was in 2018 because I actually got to take in some of the scenery, when you’re not suffering it’s so much more enjoyable. Not that I wasn’t suffering, I definitely was, but not to the extent I was in 2018.
iRunFar: In a different way, a tolerable way.
MacDonald: A totally different way. I was able to just take in the scenery and, you know in 2018 when I was falling apart and I was coming into the aid stations it was really overwhelming. So you never really got to absorb the energy, you are more kind of like, “Just let me go.” And it was such a game changer yesterday. Just coming into those aid stations and all the volunteers were so helpful and they’re just looking after your needs, I was just like really appreciative of them. I realized what an incredible race this is, and the community that it takes to put it on. It was just a way better experience in whole.
iRunFar: I listened to somebody say yesterday about how this race in particular, I mean all ultramarathons just seem to have like good aid stations but this one in particular. Yeah, there is a physical benefit obviously, but this race offers a psychological benefit with its aid stations being so robust.
MacDonald: Oh it does. I was looking forward to them.
iRunFar: People out in the woods! [laughs]
MacDonald: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. They were a real spirit lifter. Just the energy and the encouragement you got going through those aid stations was just a huge boost.
iRunFar: Was there a point yesterday during the race where you did allow yourself to start thinking about the competition and your position, and thinking about who’s in front or back, or were you inside your own head in your own game?
MacDonald: I try to stay in my own game. When I made my way into third place I got pretty excited because that meant a ticket to UTMB, which is what I’m striving for. Coming into this race I was like, “Top three at Western States is a pretty ambitious goal. I just don’t think that’s a realistic goal for me at my age and with the competition.” So, when I made my way to third, I was like, “Wow, if I can hold on to this, this is going to be like a dream come true.” So, I just kept trucking along at my comfortable pace and then I ended up catching up to second place and that was just, “Holy cow, this is a surreal position to be in.”
iRunFar: It was third place after the river, is that when you went into third or, exactly where did that, do you remember?
MacDonald: I can’t remember if it was before the river or after.
iRunFar: In that vicinity, like 20 miles to go?
MacDonald: I think so, yeah.
iRunFar: And then was it around mile 85 that you moved into second place?
MacDonald: I believe so, somewhere around there.
iRunFar: Did you have reports on where first place was? Or the gaps to people behind you?
MacDonald: One person said to me along the course that there was a 22-minute lead between myself and first place. I never actually like to know. My husband makes it…
iRunFar: Okay, you’re like la, la, la, la, la?
MacDonald: Yeah. I find that if I do know then maybe I’ll get a little more competitive and I’ll push the pace too much and then blow up. So my husband always makes a point of never telling me where I am in the pack. And that’s kind of our agreement.
iRunFar: I love it.
MacDonald: Unless it comes down to the wire.
iRunFar: Then he’s instructed, that if it’s very close, tell you to run for it?
MacDonald: Yeah, and there’s like, and if it’s like the end of the race then I’ll pick up the pace. When you have 20 miles left to go, that’s a lot of race. I said to my husband yesterday, part of my strategy was I was going to warm up for 90 miles and then race the last 10.
iRunFar: Did that happen?
MacDonald: Yep. I think so. I think I moved pretty good in the last 10 miles considering it was a 100-mile race. I was really happy with the way I felt and the way I was able to kind of just keep moving at the pace I was moving at.
iRunFar: Honestly, you looked like you are finishing, I don’t know, like a Sunday long run when you crossed the finish line. Did it feel like that?
MacDonald: No. Not at all.
iRunFar: You looked so light-footed.
MacDonald: No. I wanted to sprint around the track, I always like to finish fast. Sometimes you just want to get it over with but there’s a lot of energy on the track too, so you just kind of want to soak it all in. At the same time, I just want to be done so I can take my shoes off. [laughs] So that’s a big driver too.
iRunFar: You have run at the UTMB festival, I think you have run the CCC before, is that right?
iRunFar: Now you have the ticket to UTMB. Is that where we are going to see you next year?
MacDonald: Yeah, definitely I’m going to do the UTMB. I actually DNFed at UTMB this past year.
iRunFar: You did? Okay.
MacDonald: Yeah. So I want to go back and get redemption there, that’s my plan.
iRunFar: You also have this thing called the F2 bib after this race. Is that meaning anything to you on this Sunday morning?
MacDonald: No. Not with UTMB on the plate for next year. Because I think that was part of the reason why I ended up DNFing last year was I tried to do two 100 milers back-to-back, that’s tough.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your second-place finish.
MacDonald: Thank you.
iRunFar: It will be really fun to see what you do at UTMB next year.
MacDonald: Thank you.
iRunFar: Well done.