My Own Confusion – Western States Version

Bryon Powell contemplates whether or not to run the 2011 Western States 100.

By on May 20, 2011 | Comments

“I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion” – Jack Kerouac

Western States 100 logoTo Western States or not to Western States, that is the question? I’ve already faced that question three times for the 2011 race and, having said “maybe” each time, I will face the question once more. I thought I’d share with you where I’ve been with the decision, where it stands now (con and pro), and how I see decision’s roll in the near future. I hope the following will give you an insight into why I run as well as spark some lively discussion. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

The Big Question (The First Three Times)

I’m in the first class of four-time Western States lottery losers. Every year since I last ran States in 2006, I’ve applied and been denied. However, after the race was canceled due to fire in 2008, the large number of applicants to the 2009 race who fell into the now abolished two-time loser automatic entry category were spread out with automatic entries in the 2009, 2010, or 2011 race. I was drawn for 2011 race. This meant that from early December 2008 until now I knew I’d have a spot in this year’s Western States 100… sort of. You see, there are many hoops one needs to jump through before running Western States and I’ve balked at each one so far. These include running a qualifying race, paying the entry fee, and fulfilling the mandatory volunteer (sic) requirement.

The first time I faced the question of whether or not to run this year’s race popped up late last summer when I realized I didn’t have a qualifying race. (You need to have run a 50 mile or 100k in a specified time or, for a 100 miler, within the race’s time limit. See qualifying rules.) For some reason, I thought I had the race within the qualifying period but, as it turns out, my finish from the 2009 Leadville 100 was outside that period. Oops! I needed a qualifier fast. (The deadline was in October ’10, I think.) Normally, it would be no big deal for me to run a 50 miler in 11 hours; however, I battled plantar fasciitis from late November 2009 until May 2010 and never really got up to speed training-wise once I was healthy. In fact, I’d done only 10 runs of over 10 and a half miles in 9+ months with my longest runs a pair of 17.5 milers. I was concerned that I’d hurt myself on so little training (I was also only running 25-40 miles per week), but decided to try and keep the WS100 option open by running the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 with the caveat that I could drop out if I risked injury. Long story short, I faked my way through 50 miles and earned a qualifier.

In November, I again faced the run it or not decision when I had to pay my entry fee. By then, I was healthy and motivated to train… for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, which I covered for iRunFar last August. The scene at UTMB got me fired up and there was no way that I wasn’t running it in 2011.

Now, did I want to run both WS and UTMB in the same year? I’d run two 100s in a summer twice before -WS and Wasatch in ‘05 and WS and Leadville in ’06. In each of those instances my focus was on the first 100, but, in 2011, I wanted my focus to be on the first race – UTMB, not the first race – WS. Complicating the double is the fact that the two races are so different. Western States is a running race and, for me, UTMB will be a walking race. I had nearly decided not to sign up for States when I phoned someone who’d done the WS/UTMB double a few times. His suggestion – run WS, but treat it as a UTMB training run. I said what the heck and threw down a boatload of money for the entry fee.

Fast forward six months to this past week. I sat in my office with a blank WS volunteer form. I needed 8 hours of trail work or race volunteering by Sunday. Over the previous few weeks, I’d more or less decided not to run Western States this year for many of the reasons I’ll outline below. In the end, I woke up last Friday morning, packed up my trail work tools, called the head of the Mountain Trails Foundation, Park City’s awesome trail stewards, to get approval to go clear trail, and then I set off for beautiful, worthwhile day of trail work. Now that I’ve sent in the volunteer form, I’ve got 36 days to decide whether or not I’ll toe the line early on the morning of June 25th.

Why I Might Not Run

As mentioned earlier, over the past few months I’d gone from being indecisive to fairly certain that I wouldn’t run the race. Why wouldn’t I run it? Let me explain.

On the fitness side, I’m not where I’ve been on five weeks prior to my previous three Western States (04-06). I say I’m not fit and people call me out on it. Yes, I certainly have some fitness, but I’m not race fit nor anything close to it. Here are some facts:

  • I’ve not run more than 186 miles in any month since November of 2009.
  • I ran over 18 miles once from December 2009 through January 2011 and that was in my qualifying race.
  • I’ve run 18 or more miles seven times this year, with the four longest runs being 20, 26, 32, and 33 miles.
  • From September of last year through mid-January of this year, the thought of UTMB had me in a solid, but not voluminous training routine. Then, in mid-January, I decided to make a final two week push on the book… two months later, I got back to training. Without that break, I’d be MUCH more confident about running Western States well, but, as it is, I ran a mere 114 miles in February whereas I had 65 mile weeks in my past two pre-WS Februaries.
  • Here are my monthly mileage totals for 2011. They speak for themselves. January – 166.5, February – 114, March – 167, April – 186.5, May (through the 18th) – 115.
  • As a comparison, in April 2006, I ran 376 miles. Not huge mileage for some, but still more than double this year’s April… which was my biggest month in a year and a half!

I should add that my downhill legs are NOT where they need to be. In a normal year, I’d be pounding down Park City’s mountains to toughen my quads at this point. That’s a no go with all the snow still found at low elevations.

Motivation… or Lack Thereof
One reason I can’t make too many numeric comparisons between this year’s training and my previous WS training is that I haven’t entered my training in my Excel log since January 16th… just as I starting making the final push with the book. I have all my Garmin data stored, but it never made it into my official log. This is extraordinary and, therefore, telling.

During my first 12 years of running, I only sporadically kept a log. Then, in January 2004, I started training for my first 100 miler, Western States, and started the log to track my progress. I’ve kept the log going ever since then. Occasionally, there have been short stretches when I wouldn’t record mileage in my Excel log, but this is many times longer than any previous lapse. It’s indicative of where my mind has been.

This lapse, and its significance, is echoed by the fact that I started a Western States training “series” last spring and never got past the first entry in the series.

As The Big Question section illustrates, I’ve never been fully committed to running WS this year. I see this as a huge issue. You see, I’ve been totally committed to six of my seven 100 mile attempts. That one non-committal led to my only 100 mile DNF. There are bound to be points in a 100 miler that are unpleasant at which point I, personally, need to look back over six months and see all I’ve invested in the race. That keeps me going through the rough parts… or, even better, prevents any thoughts of dropping out. After six or more months of focused work, I’m finishing a race come hell or high water. In face, out of my six 100 mile finishes, I can only think of three times I wanted to quit – for a mile or so during a prolonged bad spell early in Wasatch ’05, later that same race as I headed up from Brighton to Catherine’s Pass at mile, and from miles 25-32 (or so) in the combined snow and brutal heat of Western States ’06. That’s not bad during 600 miles of racing!

Race Results
Even with perfect training, I’d have no chance of a top 10 finish at Western States this year. The competition is way out of my league. I’m ok with that. That said, with good training I’d still lay it all out there and see what I could do. Another sub-20 hour States would have been nice. Regardless of time or place, I know when I’ve performed well.

Any thoughts of a kickass performance this year would be delusional. So, what am I left with? I’ve got no doubt that I could cover 100 miles five weeks from now. However,  I’ve run States three times. While finishing is always my primary goal at a 100, that alone isn’t enough to get my juices flowing. When I threw down my money in November, my plan was to be in great shape and be able to cruise through as a sub-24 training run. Now, I’m not sure that I could run sub-24 hours even on a perfect day. I’m not particularly fixated on a silver buckle (you can only wear one, right?), but given my experience, proficiency, and past results, I can’t see simply going out there to plow through a 25 or 26 hour 100 miler.

This is a window into my motivation.  Please, don’t take offense at it… we all have varying abilities. I go out there to see what I, personally, am capable of. Running 6 or 7 hours slower than my fastest WS (19:30), even if things went well, would not show me what I’m capable of… it would just show me that I’m not fit.

What Doesn’t Motivate Me
I am not and will likely never be A Tough Guy. I’m actually a wuss (and a WUS). I train my butt off in hopes of fending off fatigue and pain ever longer on race day. I’d rather be indestructible than the guy who can hold his feet in the coals. I say this to suggest that I see no benefit to entering a race merely to suffer. That’s some folks’ thing, but it sure as heck ain’t mine!

Opportunity Cost (Part I)
One of my biggest factors against me running WS is that I’m still psyched about UTMB and it remains my focus race. No matter what I do, I can’t be in good shape for Western States. Considering the past year and a half, I’m certain I don’t have enough time to be in absolutely top form by late August. However, I do think I can be respectably fit three months hence… if I focus on it.

Running Western States would generally mean taking a three-week taper before the race and counting on at least a two-week recovery afterward. That taper and recovery combined with another three-week taper for UTMB chew up 8 of the 14 weeks between now and UTMB! Skipping States would nearly double my effective UTMB training time from 6 to 11 weeks.

Yes, I realize that there would be many benefits to running WS (see below), but there’s also the risk that I end up hurt or exhausted for more than two weeks after WS. After previous 100s, I’ve been substantively training again as soon as inside of two weeks, but I’ve also been wiped out weeks or months later… and I can’t be sure which it’d be this time.

Know Thyself (Part I)
While my original plan had been to run WS as a training run, that was with the assumption that I’d be in solid shape where I could easily run 22 or 23 hours. Now, I honestly think I’d have to have a darn near perfect day to run sub-24. I’d have to lay it out there… and that’s the thing. I probably would lay it out there to try and break 24. It’s silly, yes. It wouldn’t be a silver buckle on my mind… it would be a 10 days, 1000 miles buckle on my mind as well as the thought of coming within the same league as my prior finishes. That effort would only increase the risk that I’d need substantially longer than two weeks to recover.

Opportunity Cost (Part II)
If I don’t race, I can cover the race live. Not only is that important for me in my roll in the ultrarunning community,  but I’m also a huge fan of the sport and this year’s Western States is sure to be one heck of a race!

Admittedly, I struggled … and failed at thinking of myself as a runner first, running-focused journalist second much more often than not over the past two years. I’m getting better, but I’ve missed a many a run to work. Witness: I ran once in six days will covering UTMB last year and I’ll miss running today writing this post. Screwed up? You betcha!

Know Thyself (Part II)
I also know that even if I choose to race WS, I’ll put journalism first. Undoubtedly, I’d work late into the night the week of the race putting together last minute analysis or editing yet another pre-race video. It’s who I’ve learned I am.

Why I Might Run

This section is much shorter… only because the first point in favor of running Western States is so weighty and yet needs so little explanation.

It’s Western Frickin’ States
That point is, it’s Western frickin’ States! It’s the big dance. The Boston of ultras. The granddaddy of 100 milers. The site of my first and most frequently run 100 miler to date and, therefore, the setting for so many wonderful memories. My uncertainty in no way undermines my love and respect for this race. That uncertainty is almost entirely due to me questioning the readiness of my own mind and body

Always Take the Lump Sum
Simply reinforcing the fact that I’ve got the opportunity to run Western States is the fact that it’s so hard to get in the race via the lottery. I know as I lost it four straight times! Who knows when I’ll get another chance. Even if I enter every year from here forward, it’s conceivable that I won’t get another chance to run this hallowed (and sentimental) race until 2016 or 2017.

Train as Train Can
Then there’s the fact that I’ve only run 100 miler (and, also, only one run longer than 50 miles) since Leadville in 2006. That didn’t hurt me when I ran Leadville in 2009, but (1) I had many a long, long day the summer of ’09 and (2) I’ve run only a handful of runs over 3 hours in the past year and a half. Running WS would be a great trial run during which I could reacquaint myself with and reinforce my fueling, hydration, gear, pace, and problem mitigation strategies before UTMB. In addition, I’d surely reexperience the lows of a 100 and be prepared for their reappearance in the Alps.

Oh yeah, and running 100 miles has to have some training benefit for running 100 miles right? At least I’d get some walking training in the Canyons.

The Next Five Weeks

Over the next five weeks, the various pros and cons of running this year’s Western States 100 will weigh heavily upon my mind. However, the pending decision will have significant intermediate effects. Here are a few.

First, the pendency of running States has me training in earnest. There’s no time like the present to get started, right? No, I’m not running megamiles, but I have ratcheted up my miles faster than I would have otherwise. The very recent melting out of the low elevation trails here in Park City is independently propelling this ramp up. I’m loving it. I’m not going nuts, but if I feel like running 8 or 9 miles three days in a row, I’ll go for it even if my recent base wouldn’t suggest I should do so.

Not only am I now running more consistently, it’s also a heck of a lot easier to motivate for long runs. To wit, I’m eager to run two ultras in the next week and a half.

On Saturday, I make my paved ultra debut with a 41-mile race here in Park City, Utah. It’s actually a relay race (five people on a team each run two of ten race segments), but the RD invited me to run the whole thing. I have no interested in pushing the effort, so I figure it will be a good, supported long run… the key emphasis on run. I strongly believe that most non-elite ultra training doesn’t involve enough continuous running. Sure. I preach about specificity of training for walking up and running down mountains when appropriate, but I don’t think there’s better training for running late in a 100 miler than a long continuous run.

Next weekend, I plan to run a 50+ mile race to be named in later. Again, I’m not looking to compete, but rather to get in another long day on my feet. I would never generically suggest that a runner put such long runs together on back-to-back weekends, but (1), even under trained, I’ve got decades of base training, (2) I won’t push the effort in either event, and (3), given that these are training runs, I will drop out if I risk prolonged injury and I not start the second race if my energy hasn’t returned.

Second, the possibility of Western States has me motivated to trim up. I’m by no means overweight. However, I am 5 to 10 pounds over racing weight. Over the past week, I’ve modified my diet in hopes of losing 5 or so of those pounds. My increased mileage will help with this, but so, too, will moderating my portion sizes and ramping up fruit and veggie consumption while slashing simple carbs and paring down my intake of certain fatty foods. That’s not to say I’m cutting fats in general. I’ve actually been eating more nuts and avocado to help sate my appetite. So far, I’m feeling great and, while I’ve just gotten my scale working again, I perceive that I am, in fact, trimming up.

The great thing about both of these first two points is that they help me prepare for UTMB whether or not I run Western States. They’re win-win moves.

One concession I’ll make to UTMB if I run Western will be to minimize my taper. For starters, it will hard for me to put myself in a significantly overtrained position in the next three or four weeks.  Yes, I’ve got the two long runs and an overall increase in mileage, but I am watching my overall fatigue levels and am still taking easy days and days off. Normally, I’d take a three-week taper for a 100 miler. Not this time. I wouldn’t plan on more than a few days tops.


I remain incredibly uncertain as to whether I’ll be running up out of Squaw Valley in five weeks. I’m sure I’ll keep mulling over the pros and cons. I’ll be eagerly listening to what all of you have to say. However, in the end, it’ll likely come down to how I answer one simple question – Do I, deep, down in my gut, WANT to run Western States this year? I need to be completely honest with myself in answering that question.

Eight days ago, I was convinced that I didn’t fully want to run the race. My eleventh hour decision to fulfill my volunteer requirement showed me I was uncertain of that analysis. I’ve yet to pick a point of no return. However, this absolutely cannot be a start line decision.

If I’m to run the race, I need to go all in and build up momentum. I’ll need about two weeks to scramble to make last minute plans for a pacer (Yes, I’m afraid to run trails alone in the dark. I dropped my pacer at States in ’05 and I ran scared for 15 miles.), a crew (if I want it) or drop bags in lieu of a crew, and many other things. Fortunately, I love these details and they’ll help focus my desire into a singularity – an unquestionable determination that I will run from Squaw Valley to Auburn in less than 30 hours under my own power.

If I’m not to run the race, I’ll be your faithful reporter from the Sierra Nevada the final weekend in June.

Ps. Yes, I think too much.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.