Dear Western States Runner

Joe Uhan writes a letter to runners of the Western States 100.

By on June 13, 2017 | Comments

Stay the CourseYour big day is nearly here. Since the December lottery, you’ve been working in earnest for this day. For some of you, this has been a labor of love lasting seven long, lottery-suffering years.

But for some of you, who (like myself, in my first run in 2011) were incentivized to enter the lottery before you were fully ready for it, the Western States preparation has been a whirlwind roller coaster: a crash course of all things ultra, of stuffing six pounds of mileage, workouts, long runs, and vertical into a five-pound bag.

Some of you aren’t quite prepared, while some of you, over-prepared. No matter. The fourth Saturday in June will dawn either way, and with a blast of a double barrel, you’ll be on your way from Squaw Valley to Auburn in California.

In the best possible way, using my knowledge and wisdom as a medical professional, scientist, coach, and Western States nut, I give to you the best possible advice I can on how to make your race day everything you hope it will be, in 12 simple-but-not-easy steps.

Step 0. Be Done.

It should go without saying, but training time is over. With less than two weeks until race day, it is nearly impossible to impact true physiological fitness gains in this time frame. This is not to say other preparations cannot help, but substantial additional running volumes, long runs, or workouts will provide little real benefit.

Conversely, at this point there are many things that can be done to adversely affect your preparation. Running too far, too fast, and too much may create excessive fatigue, exacerbate or create muscle and joint soreness or injury, and–along with nonexertional pre-race stresses–compromise the immune system and possibly facilitate illness.

Be done. Most runners have cut to at least 50% of peak volume (or less) in this penultimate week, and then they run even less the week of. Less is more. Have faith in your preparation to date. Take solace (or, depending on your perspective, mild trepidation) in the fact that covering 100 miles on foot has as much to do with what’s between your ears than what’s in your legs and lungs.

Training time is over, but there’s still plenty of other ancillary strategies to which you can devote time and energy, all to enhance your day. We’ll get back to those in a bit.

Step 1. Get Organized.

The Western States 100 is by no means a solitary affair; what makes it special for all is that it is a communal event shared not only with runners, but race organizers, volunteers, and your friends, family, crew, and pacers.

It’s a big party, and parties can get complicated. So get organized. Develop a clearly communicated plan for pre-race, race day, and post-race: where everyone will stay, the desired roles and tasks of your crew and pacers, and–as importantly (as we’ll discuss)–how you’ll celebrate after you get to Placer High.

Organize your own plan, too, of race-day gear, nutrition, hydration and cooling strategy, ancillary supplies, and at least a couple layers of problem-solving. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and have a plan to promote the former and shore up the latter (blisters, toenails, cramps, nausea). Then, communicate that plan to your supporters.
Most importantly, be sure your plan has everyone’s safety and well-being as the top priorites.

It’s a compelling argument as to who gets more stressed on race day, the runner or their spouses, parents, and children. As insurmountable as 100 miles may seem, assure your supporters (and in turn, yourself) that “A hundred miles isn’t that far” (Karl Meltzer) and “You’re better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can” (Ken Chlouber). Tell them not to stress out if they fail to have your fuel and water, or fail to make an aid station all together; that the 20-plus aid stations–and our immutable toughness–will keep you going, and that no pair of running socks, gel flavor, or handheld bottle is worth more than the health and safety of your family. When in doubt, less [water, calories, salt, gear, supplies and other junk] is more for you as the runner, and more rest, safety, comfort, and enjoyment for your crew is more!

Get organized, and do it now. Race week needs to be about relaxation and fun. Do that work this week to help make this a reality.

Step 2: Set multiple goals, the foundation being to simply finish the race. Then make a plan, but know when to throw it out.

Go into Western States with multiple goals. Having multiple, tiered goals provides a moving target toward achievement that is so important to keep you going when the going gets tough. Arbitrary time, place, and award goals may be a great starting point and provide a good target for both pacing and logistics. But what happens when those are in jeopardy? With nothing to fall back upon, purpose gets lost. Fatigue and pain often get amplified, and cloud judgment.

Running is hard. Western States is extremely hard, and for each and every runner there will come a time when part of your brain or body will want to stop. To quit, to clip the bracelet, turn in the number, hop into a car, or curl into a ball.

Having several goals–including a goal of simply finishing–is vital. Without that fundamental goal, it is too easy to give up, even when there may still be hope. Indeed, having tiered goals helps keep you in the game, relentless forward progress, and actually keeps the door open for miraculous comebacks that often result in achieving that A-goal.

Lastly, when considering goal setting or whether or not to quit, consider two things: one, should you continue, how much physical danger might you be subject to? Acute injury that may result in exacerbated recovery, or permanent disability, should be heavily considered. Two, if you do decide to quit, are you prepared to possibly wait another five to 10 years to get another chance?
Having a plan, therefore, is important, but knowing when to let it go is crucial. Execute the plan, but know when it no longer meets your needs, and summarily discard it and start over.

Step 3. The Little Things.

If the volume, workouts, long runs, and vertical sessions are the ‘big rocks’ of an optimal race preparation, these next couple weeks can be about those pebbles and sprinkles of sand that fill the vessel. Rather than working hard, focus on the details:

Stay mobile. Running less can indirectly result in mobility loss, because for most of us, easy running provides functional mobility to muscles and joints. Cutting down (or out) the hour-long easy run may be restful, but may cause you to stiffen.

Focus on mobility strategies that generate mobility with little effort. Self-assessment of, then restoring, key running-specific motions is a great starting point. Other activities such as foam rolling, relaxing yoga practices (some of which may be combined with pre-race heat training), and even short and light sessions of pool running are great options to promote mobility while preserving energy.

Find your stride. Reductions in volume and intensity can also result in decreased stride efficiency, as both long and fast runs facilitate good running mechanics. Be a bit more mindful about your stride mechanics. Ask yourself, Is this a stride that will help preserve my body for 100 miles?” And while that stride must feel sustainable, peak efficiency should look more like a sprinter than a shuffler.

Hone your efficient stride in the few miles preceding race day. One great way is with the inclusion of short build-up sprints, or strides. These are anywhere from eight to 20 seconds in length on the flat or uphill that emphasize this sprinter-like efficiency. Strides help maintain speed and strength with minimal physiological cost, and are a great reminder of how to run fast (and, on the same token, far).

In a similar fashion, continue to do small bouts of vertical training. Rather than cutting back entirely, run a few doses of race-pace uphills (in the 500- to 800-foot range, more if you’ve been accustomed to heavy vertical), including one final session on the Monday or Tuesday of race week. But rather than pound downhill, focus on quick-footed, efficient descending. “Dance,” rather than plod. This will act as both an efficiency reminder, and maintain the vital quad seasoning you’ve performed for Western States’s famous canyons.

Shore up the core. Take a bit of the extra time and energy from pre-race tapering and devote it to core stability. A few minutes a day can go a long way to shore up areas such as your feet and knees, glutes and abs, and even arms–all areas that can multiply efficiency, and help prevent any mid-race aches and pains. Be careful trying anything new or too aggressive. If it feels more than a light burn, or leaves you very sore for more than a day, cut it back or cut it out.

Step 4. Relax.

The benefits of the pre-race taper may have more to do with resting the nervous system than any other. The nervous system runs the whole show when we run, both the acute exercise physiology and the post-run restoration. You’ve worked this system hard the past three to six months, and so going into the race with a full battery is of paramount importance. This includes anything that taxes the nervous system, including other life stresses, pre-race preparations and general excitement and anxiety around race day.

Thus, even though your training volume may plummet, be sure to relax to the max in the weeks and days before the race. Get organized, execute the little things, and then sit back with a good (non-running) book and chill out.

Western States legend Ann Trason calls this “the mental taper”, which for her includes “putting somewhere else” her attention and thus preserving mental energy.

Step 5. “Drink it up or spit it out:” dealing with the pre-race hype.

The atmosphere surrounding Western States pre-race is like few others. It’s not just runners and their crew, but spectators, media, and endurance junkies from around the world descend into Squaw Valley for race week, and race organizers put on some outstanding educational (if not entertaining) pre-race events.

If you start to get dizzy, it may not be the altitude.

There are generally two types of athletes (or people, in general): extroverts generate tremendous energy from this atmosphere, and from socializing with the scores of other runners, crew, and ultrarunning dignitaries. For introverts, the opposite is true: it drains them.

If you’re not sure which is you, it won’t take long to find out. If you like the atmosphere, take it in, but beware of the hidden costs of the pre-race social. Avoid anything that may take you too far astray from your routine, keep you on your feet (or in the heat) too long, or pickle your system with too many social beverages. If you’re a competitive introvert like me, support your fellow runners, give folks your best wishes, and then get out of there. Retreat to quietude, and once again pick up that (non-running) book where you left off.

Step 6. Keep perspective by looking beyond Placer High.

This is another nugget from Ann Trason. Pre-race, she would “talk about what race I was going to run after Western States.” This isn’t game playing, or boastful conquest. It’s perspective. Having a goal–nay, a view of life–beyond race day, beyond something that, for some of you, has been all-consuming since the first Saturday in December, is vitally important to how the race unfolds. It keeps that day in perspective: it’s a day in a life, a race in a life, and nothing more than an opportunity to do something special.

In looking beyond Western States, you plan for life after. In doing so–admitting that no matter what happens, life will go on–strips away the life-or-death, do-or-die pressure to perform. Less panic, more perspective, better performance.

Step 7. Find Ease.

Finally, finally, it’s time to race. The shotgun blasts and off you go. Western States poses some unique logistical and psychological challenges, so it is crucial to “find ease.” I first heard this term in yoga practice, but it has stuck since I read it in the pages of Hal Koerner’s excellent Field Guide to Ultrarunning.

Finding ease can mean a lot of things. As you climb up the gravel roads (and, as a new addition this year, the ridiculously steep pitch of ‘trail’ before the railroad-car bridge), it is all too easy to shuffle-run, or even powerhike, too intensely. First, ask yourself, Does this truly feel easy? Easy is not the absence of hard; rather it must feel sustainable. Once you get up and over Emigrant Pass and into the Granite Chief Wilderness, you might feel yourself get caught up in a ‘train’ of people, ahead and behind, that is going uncomfortably fast. It is way too early to be uncomfortable. Simply step aside and let them go.

On the flip side, finding ease also means finding your most comfortable stride, which might mean speeding up. Many runners each year will train at a certain pace all year long, then once race day arrives, they will run a prohibitively slow pace, out of fear of running too quickly. However, this foreign pace—and a shuffling, inefficient stride–can be just as damaging as running too hard.

Once on the runnable high-country singletrack, find your effortless running stride: lean forward, open up your hips, and try to find maximum comfort, and whatever speed that may be. And in doing so, if you speed up and need to pass, politely ask.

Finding ease also has a mental component. If you’re a social runner, find a few folks with whom you can run and chat. Ask about their day, start a conversation, but keep it positive. Generate gratitude and positivity and, if you’re a veteran, share any insights and perspectives that you may have. Staying positive and being a helper are crucial traits of a survivor: you’ll run stronger, and the miles will fly by.

If you crave the solitude, don’t be afraid to find it. Many of us thrive on the solitude of wilderness, and those opening miles of the Sierra high country are amazing country to experience with only your own breath and footsteps. If you find yourself in a chatty pack and wish to get some space, simply step off, or otherwise take a few seconds to occupy yourself (hydrate, “lose hydration,” grab a snack, adjust a shoe) and let the train go by. With a small field like Western States, even a midpacker can find some alone space. (In the 2012 event, I ran without seeing another competitor for 48 miles, and I loved every step).

Step 8. Hone your stride, early and often.

This concept often goes overlooked. Stride efficiency is vitally important in any run, but establishing it early at Western States can save time up front, and volumes of time and misery later on.

There are two unconscious protective tendencies to defend against: running upright and shuffling. Leaning forward may feel scary, but it is crucial to avoid over-stride stress. Running too upright, or deficient in forward lean, is the number-one cause of over-striding–or landing with (and part of) your foot too far in front of your body. Over-striding can cause joint stiffness, kill quads, contribute to cramping, and create blister and toenail stress.

The same goes with shuffle striding. Lifting the knee high in the air can challenge balance, but is crucial to avoid those same over-stride stressors. It also is clutch for stretching out quads and hamstrings, both of which get strained when in the low gears of uphill shuffling or powerhiking.

Establish stride efficiency early, and then know how to find it later on.

Step 9. Be consistent.

As the race rolls along, you are finding ease, staying efficient, and executing your plan. Consistency is king. Physiologically, consistency provides a steady stream of nutrition and hydration in, and effort and pacing out. All the body systems are in working equilibrium with minimal perturbation. Consistent execution steadies the system and soothes the brain, and in doing so, the miles will fly by, like the marble in the groove.

Step 10. Compartmentalize.

One hundred miles isn’t that far… when you break it down into workable sections. The uniqueness of Western States is in part found in it succinct parts: the high country, the canyons, and the river.

The most successful and most joyful Western States runners compartmentalize the race. They focus on one segment at a time. Take it in, give it your best focus, and then celebrate the completion of each one. Completing the high country is a major feat and should be celebrated as you float into Robinson Flat. With celebration flows momentum.

Then, when the race gets toughest, take it another aid station at a time, another mile, another step.

Step 11. When in doubt, slow down. “Solve your problems,” but don’t stop unless you absolutely must.

Most problems experienced at Western States have their roots in or are amplified by effort intensity. Bonking, cramping, nausea and dead quads are all strongly impacted by pacing. If you run into one of these problems, slow down. Hike an uphill, or even walk a flat. Cutting intensity dampens the physiological–and neurological–responses, and will eventually bring those ailing systems back online. Water, calories, and salt can mitigate–but will seldom solve–problems brought on by running too hard. Chill out, feel better, and then recalibrate.

But keep going! The margin can be razor thin between a silver buckle or bronze, or being below or beyond a cutoff. But the vast majority of time lost during Western States occurs at the aid stations, not on the trail.

Maintain momentum at all costs. Limit aid-station time to a bare minimum. Meet your needs, lift your spirits, but by God, keep moving! Momentum is everything. When fatigue mounts, it is both mentally and physically taxing to reestablish your stride, so limit the rest breaks as much as possible. At the 2016 Superior Fall Trail Race 100 Mile, I set a personal record for going 22 hours and 45 minutes without sitting down. I stopped (and, admittedly spent a fair amount of time with hands on thighs), but I knew that if I sat, inertia would envelop me like quicksand. Keep moving to keep moving!
Sitting should be reserved for only a handful of situations: a planned midway sit (as was Race Director Craig Thornley’s mid-race tradition at Western States, even in his top-10 years) is okay, only if limited to a finite time frame. Similarly, the saying goes in Thornley’s old Oregon training group, “Solve your problems!” Use stopping and sitting for important orthopedic or gear problem-solving, such as foot, sock and shoe issues, or significant orthopedic ailments. Additionally, any extreme malaise, which includes unremitting vomiting and/or impaired consciousness, should be dealt with in an aid-station medical area.

But if you’re not in danger, you gotta’ keep moving. With 21 alluring aid stations along the course, an extra minute or three per stop adds an outrageous 20 to 60 minutes to your finishing time, changing your buckle color, or costing you one, entirely. Keep moving!

Step 12. Be persistent and courageous.

Once you’ve made it this far, it’s time to finish what you started. Fatigue is a brain-generated sensation created to protect you from harm. Well, too late for that. One-hundred-mile races cause harm and, so long as you’re still conscious, on two feet, and aren’t seeing red (in or out), you’ll likely survive the inflicted damage.

The key to overcoming fatigue is persistence and courage. Fatigue will mount heavily in the hot canyon mid-section and progress along the latter half of the course. Fatigue manifests itself in pain, as well as the brain’s decreased nervous system activation of muscle firing.

You must will it to go on. As the race and fatigue progresses, remain consistent. Let up as little as possible. Hone your stride, and–especially over those frustratingly runnable closing sections along the river–use stride efficiency to power you into Auburn. Feet, knees, hips, and arms, recruit them all by name over those final miles, and you just might find some spare, relatively fresh muscles, to take over the labor.

But no matter how well you execute, and how efficient the stride, it’s going to hurt. Be courageous. Relish in your own awesomeness. After all, you’re about to finish a 100 miler. Keep running!

Step 12.1. Savor it.

As you roll up and over Robie Point and into Auburn, soak it in. Celebrate with the Mile 99 Party, high-five random (or not-so-random) strangers along the city streets, and perk up your stride for that final lap under the lights… or in the bright sun of Sunday morning. This could be a good time to hone that sprinter stride, too, in case you need it!

However you do it, you’re going to finish it, and it’s going to be memorable. Drink it in. Savor the experience, and know that you’re now part of a special family! Congratulations, you are a Western States finisher!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • For those of you who are entering your final weeks of Western States 100 preparations or those of another 100 miler, which among these steps are most helpful and relevant for you?
  • Do you have other steps to add, that you’ve found help hone your needs and focus ahead of a goal race?
Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Auburn, California. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100k Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100k, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at