Alex Nichols returns to Western States 100 after a four-year break. In the following interview, Alex talks about why he’s back at the race, how his training has gone this year, whether he can improve upon his second-place performance from 2017, and how his once-a-month streak of summiting Pikes Peak has paid surprising dividends.
Alex Nichols Pre-2021 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Alex Nichols before the 2021 Western States 100. Hello, Alex.
Alex Nichols: Hey, Bryon. Good to see you.
iRunFar: Likewise. It’s been a little while since you’ve been out here.
Nichols: Yeah. Yeah, four years now.
iRunFar: Yeah. What brings you back?
Nichols: Just the scenery, really. [laughs]
Nichols: Yeah, I felt like it was time to give this another go. And last year would have been time, but this year works as well.
iRunFar: So you’ve only been two years out, really. Two years not participating in 2018 and 2019 and then you would have run in 2020.
iRunFar: But it has been four years.
iRunFar: How have you changed as a runner in those four years?
Nichols: [laughs] Um, man, I don’t know. I feel like at least for this year I’ve come into this race with a lot more focus on the long term, instead of just like, jump from race to race making things work. So yeah, maybe it’s more of a focus on like long term growth.
iRunFar: Not just the incremental performance but yeah.
iRunFar: Was it intentional then that you didn’t have any races this year leading up to Western States?
Nichols: Um, no, not quite. I mean, I ran a few races, like local races last year. And then I was hoping to run, maybe a more low-key local race in May, but just my work schedule kind of got in the way and I had to travel to some stuff so.
iRunFar: So it was on the calendar but not important to really force it.
Nichols: Yeah, exactly.
iRunFar: I mean, so you normally would have some sort of,
Nichols: Yeah, but honestly, they’re just kind of like training runs so I just did the training runs.
iRunFar: The training runs, like what were those longest training runs, what do they look like?
Nichols: You know, just stuff between like 30 and 40 miles, stuff like that.
iRunFar: Up on Pikes Peak at all or were you?
Nichols: Yeah, yeah. Well, obviously. [laughs] Obviously some Pikes Peak mixed in there. Yeah, this is this month was my 43rd month of summiting Pikes Peak and back.
iRunFar: In a row.
Nichols: Every month, at least once. Yeah.
iRunFar: That’s a lot of months of going up Pikes Peak.
Nichols: Yeah. Yeah, it just kind of added up over time.
iRunFar: Do you have a favorite month now to go up Pikes Peak?
Nichols: Well, when I make it through the winter I get really appreciative of the summer. [laughs]
Nichols: Yeah, we had a lot of late Spring snow and there were some not favorite months also.
iRunFar: Some postholing and trudging.
iRunFar: Or both.
iRunFar: So, so how did your training go for this year? For this Western States?
Nichols: Really well. Yeah, just kind of had it in the back of my mind for like the last year. And, you know, nothing crazy but just like, week after week of consistent training. Yeah.
iRunFar: And you were able to control it. You know, like there’s a favorable aspect of that having that long planning horizon but one can also be July of last year and say hey, or I mean you got in in January of last year.
iRunFar: So like, you literally, once things got canceled in March kind of,
iRunFar: You could have been training for 16 or 17 months for…
Nichols: Yeah and it wasn’t, I guess that’s what I mean, like back in my mind it wasn’t specific training. Say like, last November I wasn’t like, okay I need to do this workout and this workout to get ready for Western States. More like, that’s out there, I should think about it, and keep running.
iRunFar: Do you think it could have been easy like during the pandemic, you could just not go to the Dead Horse [50 Mile] or whatever the smaller ultras you did.
iRunFar: Just tool around home, but you kept building that base.
iRunFar: Any setbacks along the way?
Nichols: No, not really. Yeah, it’s crazy. [laughs] We’re not to race day yet.
iRunFar: No, no. And not through race day yet.
iRunFar: But you’re feeling good, you’re feeling strong.
Nichols: Yeah, yeah. I think, I mean the Pikes Peak thing at first was just like to do it but now I’m realizing there’s like some actual training benefits that being able to, to do a six-hour effort at least once a month every month, it holds you accountable.
iRunFar: And you never lose that, whether it’s physical ability or confidence to say, “Hey, I can go out for a six-hour run.”
Nichols: Yeah, yeah, “run”.
iRunFar: [laughs] Six-hour effort, yes.
Nichols: Yeah, no it’s good to always know that I can do that.
iRunFar: Because, I mean, sometimes it’s hard coming back, when you don’t have that a couple months or even to be able to run something like not have those long runs. It can be, “Can I do it?”
iRunFar: Sometimes the answer’s in your head at least, is no.
Nichols: Yeah, no, it’s definitely a confidence thing, too.
iRunFar: Like what did your peak training look like say in May?
Nichols: I would say I probably did a lot of like 15-hour weeks. I’m not, I generally can’t hold like huge volume for a long time, but I would say between like I guess going back to mileage, like 90-mile weeks for the last, like, five months or something. And then working up to like, much bigger weeks at beginning of June.
iRunFar: Yeah, I sort of a peak, like a pulse like?
Nichols: Yeah, yeah.
iRunFar: But not keeping yourself in that, what is the danger zone for you.
Nichols: Yeah, yeah. I’ve just noticed in the past when I’ve tried to like build really consistently to those like big weeks, I just can’t stay there if it happens.
iRunFar: But you can be cruising along at a decent volume and then give two weeks of…
Nichols: Yeah, exactly.
iRunFar: And what do those two peak weeks look like?
Nichols: I mean the biggest was like 22 hours. And yeah like 140-mile weeks.
iRunFar: Probably some good vert in there, too.
Nichols: Yeah, yeah, that was one of the Pikes Peak weeks. And I feel great.
iRunFar: Perfect. And you feel fresh and rested coming in.
Nichols: Yeah, yeah. I’ve actually tapered more than usual. With those quick build ups that I used to do. I typically just do a 10-day taper. It was like pretty significant. This week, or this time I went for more about, like, two weeks. So, a little bit more.
iRunFar: Are you getting antsy then?
Nichols: A little bit. Yeah, yeah, there’s always that thought, like, oh, I’m getting out of shape but.
iRunFar: You’re not.
iRunFar: Is there any part of you or something in the back your mind to sort of have a redemption from a couple goes at UTMB that didn’t go so well? Since you’ve run the 2017 Western States?
Nichols: Yeah, I mean, I think at least this year I’m going to approach it with a decent amount of fear, for the fact that it’s still a hundred-mile race. So, you know, looking back, like, thinking of UTMB is like, race from the gun like, but obviously bad things happen, or can happen, and it’s still just a really long way so I really just want to make sure I can put a good effort into the entire thing.
iRunFar: Yeah, not blow up too much in the first 20, 30, 40 miles.
Nichols: Yeah, and just going through it in my head like it’s a hundred miles. It’s really far.
iRunFar: And wouldn’t it be fun to be able to go as it were at mile 70 or 80?
Nichols: Right, yeah, that would hopefully lead to that sort of situation where I can push later on.
iRunFar: Yeah. Knowing yourself now and having seen yourself back in 2017, do you think you can match that sort of performance or even improve upon it?
Nichols: Yeah, I definitely think so. Just made a lot of mistakes back then. I didn’t know the course at all. I’d never been here. Well I guess I was here for the Broken Arrow Skyrace, but that’s just like, yeah. So knowing the course is going to be huge. Being prepared for the weather, because 2017 was another hot year. Yeah, I just think there’s a lot of ways that I can improve and honestly, like my time in 2017 was pretty slow to get second. So hopefully I can be quite a bit faster now.
iRunFar: 2019 was also an outlier on the fast side but ten guys under 16 hours so yeah. That doesn’t happen most of the time. Is there anything you’re particularly excited about this week, weekend, race day?
Nichols: I mean I’m trying to remind myself that there’s so many people that enter this lottery and don’t get in that I just really want to appreciate the fact that I’m able to do this race. I got in with a golden ticket. Just a huge level of privilege, and I want to try to honor that on the course as much as I can.
iRunFar: Nice. Well, good luck and honor that.
Nichols: Thank you.
iRunFar: Take care, Alex.
Nichols: Thank you.