After winning last year’s Run Rabbit Run 100 in his 100-mile debut, Alex Nichols ran another strong 100 miler to take second in his Western States 100 debut. In the following interview, Alex talks about how he turned his ankle multiple times in the high country, what exactly was difficult about running in the race’s high country this year, what he liked most about the race, and how this result compares to his best results from the past. (You can also watch him finish here.)
For more on what happened during the race, check out our 2017 Western States results article.
Alex Nichols Post-2017 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Alex Nichols after his second-place finish at the 2017 Western States 100. How are you, Alex?
Alex Nichols: Doing alright.
iRunFar: That was a pretty good run you had out there yesterday.
Nichols: Yeah, it was what I was hoping for.
iRunFar: Was it?
Nichols: Yeah, pretty much.
iRunFar: Now that the race is over, what was your goal going in?
Nichols: Time-wise, I was expecting a lot faster. I think the course up top—we had a lot of snow, we had a lot of mud, and that slowed things down a lot initially. Time was out the window. I was just really focused on making the top-three, and like I said last time, just finishing. That was a serious goal because there were times in the race I wasn’t sure I was going to finish.
iRunFar: Really? Tell me about those. Those are the interesting parts. You can run fast. We know that. Where does Alex Nichols suffer?
Nichols: In those really rough muddy and rocky sections, I ended up rolling my left ankle four times, which I hadn’t done recently or anything. So one of the times, it was bad. I screamed out, and, then, I was sitting on the trail. Chris DeNucci went flying by me. I went, Well, my race is over and this is 15 miles in. This is terrible. Then, I just kind of did the hobble for awhile and tried to get some feeling back. Then in an hour or so, I started to get more movement going into it, but it was super easily tweaked.
iRunFar: It was really loose after that?
Nichols: Yeah, so I had to take the downhills really slowly just tip-toe through the rocks.
iRunFar: While you were taking it slowly, were you able to back your effort off or was it even harder?
Nichols: Yeah, and it might have helped because I didn’t run mile 20-40, I definitely backed off. My ankle was killing me. Once I got to 60 or so, I was like, Okay, I think I can finish. But then it started getting really hot. Maybe I can’t finish.
iRunFar: How was the Cal Street from Foresthill down to the river?
Nichols: I did not do well. Cal Street was really rough on me.
iRunFar: It’s interesting because during that section, you moved into second. You were not all that far behind Ryan [Sandes] in the grand scheme of things. You come into Rucky Chucky 17 or 15 minutes back. It was definitely not like you were looking forward.
Nichols: Yeah, it was… up on top, I ran the last two canyons too hard. I bridged a pretty big gap to Ryan, and I was thinking I could catch him. Then Cal Street happened and he put more time on me. I realized, I still have a long way to go. I’d better just control things and make sure I can hold where I am.
iRunFar: Why did you decide to push it? Or did it just kind of happen?
Nichols: It just kind of happened. I felt good on the uphills, because they were a little more shaded. It’s just too early to take advantage of feeling good at mile 55.
iRunFar: You can’t smoke them if you’ve got them at that point.
Nichols: No. It would have been beneficial to know the course better, but it’s a learning experience.
iRunFar: As a body of work, you are probably pretty happy with your performance out there?
Nichols: Yeah, it’s great.
iRunFar: This isn’t the sort of race that I think is quintessentially you. There are a lot of faster, flatter sections. It’s really hot. I see you as a mountain runner. Do you think you’d come back to this one?
Nichols: The big question—I don’t know. Thinking back on it, I really liked the canyons, because that’s really more of my thing. I wish there was more of that in the course. I wish I could come back and run that first section on a typical Western year. Everyone was saying that that was not Western States. That was something else entirely.
iRunFar: Having run in snow years before, sometimes it’s really firm. You can slip and stuff, but the surface was hard. Was it sloppy up there? Was it slippery?
Nichols: The snow I actually thought was okay. It was the stuff in between.
iRunFar: The interface of the snow melting on the rocks and mud?
Nichols: Yeah, so much water. There was no trail really to follow even when you’re off the snow, because it had been wiped out—just really tough trail conditions.
iRunFar: People don’t consider Western States a “technical” race, but in those conditions… for sure.
Nichols: Oh, yeah, it was pretty technical.
iRunFar: Do you think that part might not have been fun but maybe helped you as a runner?
Nichols: It could have, I think, if I was in that mindset, but at the time, it just ticked me off. This is not what I came here for.
iRunFar: Especially to start.
Nichols: Yeah, that, rolling my ankle, that was just a really tough…
iRunFar: How did you do with the heat?
Nichols: The heat was actually alright.
iRunFar: No big stomach problems?
Nichols: No, I did end up throwing up at mile 80, but that was just a mistake of trying to eat too much too quick.
iRunFar: Just a quick rejection in the aid station?
Nichols: Yeah, I just went down the wrong pipe with some gel, and, then, it all came out.
iRunFar: Did you feel a little bit better after that at all?
Nichols: Initially, yeah, but it was immediately after an aid station, so then I went a solid 40-50 minutes with just nothing, no liquids. That’s kind of when I got in the hole in which Mark [Hammond] kind of bridged the gap from that hole.
iRunFar: Were you getting updates from anybody what was going on behind?
Nichols: Yeah, at first, we didn’t think he was that close until 14 miles to go. Then, we had just left the aid station, and I was thinking at this point I had 10 minutes behind me. Then, we hear cheering for someone coming into the aid station. “Oh, my gosh, this is terrible.” It was like Black Canyon all over again.
iRunFar: Did you know it was Mark at that point?
Nichols: Someone had told me it was “Martin.” I was like, “I don’t know who that is.” No, we had no idea.
iRunFar: He knew who you were because he had finished second to you at Run Rabbit Run last year. Was there any part of the race aspect that you really enjoyed?
Nichols: Yeah, I did like the canyons. That was cool. There are so many aid stations. That was incredible. I’ve never been at a race where there’s that many aid stations. Especially when you’re having a bad day, just to know the next one is five miles or less, I enjoyed that.
iRunFar: At the finish in your typically understated humor, you said, “I’ve done some things,” in response to some questions. How do you think this ranks amongst your ultrarunning?
Nichols: It’s hard to say because in my mind it was not my best race. It just wasn’t one of those days where things clicked. It was a struggle the whole time. To compare it to the Mont Blanc 80k that I won a couple years ago, that was one of those races where it felt great, and I ran really fast. But in the grand scheme of things, people know about this race. So, it’s hard.
iRunFar: Does having that Mont Blanc 80k experience and having some success at 100 milers, have you eager to keep going at the 100 miles to maybe have that one day where it feels like magic?
Nichols: Yeah, that would be nice. Had that been yesterday, I would have run it a lot faster. That’s always the thing with running—you always come back for more because you want to do better.
iRunFar: What’s the next thing on your calendar? What do you have coming up in the next couple months?
Nichols: I signed up for [the] Run Rabbit Run  again. I get to rematch against Mark one more time. In between then and now, I didn’t want to sign up for too much or anything right now just in case something went wrong with yesterday.
iRunFar: Overall you came out of this feeling alright?
Nichols: I actually feel decent. It’s good.
iRunFar: The hat training worked out?
Nichols: I got a lot of compliments on my hat. I will say, I looked pretty good.
iRunFar: I don’t know. It does hide your hair.
Nichols: I know. Tim was a little bitter we couldn’t show off our hair together.
iRunFar: Tim, we’ll get him working on it. Congratulations, Alex.
Nichols: Someday. Thanks.