My Western States Training and Strategy for 2011

Bryon Powell’s training and strategies for the 2011 Western States 100.

By on June 20, 2011 | Comments

Western States 100 logoOn Saturday, I’ll start my fourth Western States 100. For me, each one is very different, and not just in the details of how they played out. No, there have been big differences going into each of them as no training season is identical. Below, I’ll take a look at my previous years’ Western States training, my training this year, and my strategies for taking on this year’s race.

Past Western States Training
During each of my previous three runs (’04-’06), I was working full-time while going to law school. Still, my training varied greatly.

In ’04, I was writing my scholarly article to get onto law review, so my training was catch as catch can. Most weeks, I ran three to four times with the weekday runs often coming late at night. (We’re talking starting between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.)

By 2006, I was wrapping up law school, and both my course work and my familiarity with the process of that work made training much easier. I was able crank out seven straight weeks above 75 mpw and another two above 95 mpw shortly thereafter.

It’s worth contrasting 2004 and 2006 quantitatively for the 22 weeks prior to my WS taper each year. During that period in 2004, I averaged 41.1 miles per week on 72 runs before running 21:50 on the fire course in my 100 mile debut. (Yes, you CAN run a 100 miler on low mileage.) In 2006, I averaged 63.5 miles per week on 112 runs during the same period. Despite the awesome training, the brutal heat and newly reinstituted Duncan Canyon course crushed me. I ran 22:11.

Although I finished 21st and won the under 30 age group in both 2005 and 2006, I’m confident that my 2005 race was a better effort. That year I ran 19:30… despite being off course for 15-20 minutes. For that same 22 week training period in 2005, I ran an average of 54.9 miles per week on 106 runs.

In both 2005 and 2006, I had the pleasure and advantage of spending a month and a half living and running at 7,000′ in Park City, Utah prior to race day. This year, I have the advantage of 8 months of living at 7,200′, although a veeery long winter kept me off the trails until two months ago.

This Year’s Training
This year’s training story actually starts back in November 2009. You see, I already had a guaranteed spot in this year’s Western States 100, so I decided to get started training as soon as I got settled into my new life in California. Three overly enthusiastic 70 mile weeks on my new very hill home terrain and I had a bout of plantar fasciitis that greatly limited my training through April 2010.

Even once I was healthy, my training (and training grounds) remained uninspired. I was out of shape and had no goal on the near term horizon. I ran 40 miles per week (and it was on the dot) exactly once from April through August 2010. I never ran long. Not once.

… and then I covered UTMB. I may have only run once during my week in the Alps, but the mountain, the race, the people, they all inspired me. I came home and started training consistently once again. Aside from the week I ran my Western States qualifier at the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 mile, most of my weeks were still in the 25-40 mile range through the end of the year. However, I reestablished my running habit by getting out there nearly every day, even while packing up and making the move to Park City. Arriving in PC at the outset of November with a month left of snow-free trails gave my training another boost.

That solid, if slightly behind my preferred 100 mile training, continued until mid-January, when I decided to make a “final two week push” on Relentless Forward Progress. Eight weeks and a whooping 229 miles later (that’s 28.6 mpw, folks), I was done editing the book and returned to real training. Over the next 13 week “season” I ran 647.5 miles or 49.8 mpw. Not great compared to 2005 and 2006, but it felt like real running with the latter half of that being nearly all trail running. After all was said and done, during my comparable 22 week pre-taper period this year I averaged 41.2 mpw on 104 runs. That’s almost exactly the mileage I did in 2004, but on many more runs, meaning a much lower miles/run average. Indeed, I’ve only logged seven runs of 20 miles or longer this year as opposed to 10 in 2004.

I did get in one additional training week of 57 miles during what would normally be my taper. This past week, I’ve also spent some time working on hiking up and running down steep trails with the latter being to help build some last minute eccentric quad strength for WS’s 22,000′ of descent. In 2004, I had to walk down some of the final descents although I could still run the flats and inclines.

Oh, one last bit of training. I’ve now been to a dry sauna each of the past six days and will go once or twice more (Monday and maybe Tuesday). It’s been a long winter and a cool spring up here in Park City. Seventy and sunny still feels quite warm to me. Good thing I had a heat acclimation article to reference.

Below is a snapshot of this year’s training. (Figures are in miles.) You can also take a closer look on at my training on Garmin Connect.

Bryon Powell Western States 100 2011 training

My 2011 Western States 100 training. (Pink indicates a run of 20+ miles. Yellow indicates a double.)

More than any previous year, I modified my lifestyle ahead of WS and UTMB.

To start, I’ve had all of five adult beverages this year, partially in an attempt to reduce unnecessary calories, but mostly to prevent myself from being a dumbass. Definitely no runs lost or limited due to a hangover this year.

While I can’t remember exactly when it started, a month or two ago I made a shift away from a very simple-carb-centric diet (mostly as pasta and bread) to fewer simple carbs and a great deal more fruit and veggies. I also added some nuts and other foods that are more satiating. They helped. This was less a general health move and more of a move to trim up more quickly. In times when I’m running higher mileage like in 2005 or 2006, I don’t worry about my diet as nearly all of my extra weight melts away with the miles. Given my extremely low mileage last year and my two month break in training late this winter, I knew that I wouldn’t increase my training mileage to the point that it’d do the hard work for me. This time, I would need exercise some self-discipline.  I’m not sure of my weight or body fat changes, but I feel lighter and more trim.

Ah, caffeine. Since I moved to Park City… and really before that, I’ve massively cut down on my caffeine consumption as I feel it’s linked to my heart arrhythmia. There were long stretches when I’d have just one caffeinated beverage over the course of a couple weeks. In the past two plus months, I’ve moved back to maybe having a full-strength cuppa joe when I hit my coffeeshop hangout. With much better sleep and lower stress after finishing the book, this low-key reintroduction of caffeine has had no ill effects. Still, a week ago I cut out caffeine so that it’ll have a greater effect on my system at Western States. I hope that doesn’t backfire!

Then there’s strength and flexibility. I have neither and rarely incorporate attempts to correct that into my life, hence my decision to include this subject under lifestyle rather than training. For the past two months (I think), I’ve been aiming to do three sets of 20 pushups a day. That’s not a ton and I rarely do them all, but I feel much stronger in my core and in general. Oh, and for the past three weeks I’ve been trying to remember to run with a handheld water bottle (never drinking from it) to prepare my arms and shoulders for the task. This spring, the lowest sections on both Achilles tendons have been routinely uncomfortable, especially when running. About two weeks ago, I restarted my rehab exercises and both are noticeably better, although the right one still causes me worry heading into Western States.

Western States Strategies
Here are some of my strategies for Western States this year. While some are generic, they’re all ones that I’ll be focused on this Saturday and Sunday.

Run Like It’s an Easy Training Run – I ran the 2009 Leadville 100 like this and was running like it was a training run through mile 75. That means never pushing the effort. Given my fitness, I’ll have my best possible race by maximizing the distance down the course I make it before running is only a token gesture. If I’m 70th at Foresthill and 50th at the finish,* it’ll have been a good day.

(* Note: Places are representative only.)

Eat Like Joey Chestnut – Ok, so I might not be eating 45 GUs while climbing the Escarpment, but I will be eating a GU on the half hour every half hour until I move that down to 25 or even 20 minute intervals. With one long run all of last year and few this year, I’ll guess that my fat burning capacity is down, which means I need even more carbohydrate fueling to keep the fires burning. I’ll likely drink sports drink for most of the race before switching flat Coke (jet fuel) for the final 10 or 15 miles.

Go Light – I’ve got no plans to go full-on minimalist, but I’ll take an even closer look at what I’m carrying than usual. Given that the race is providing GUs, my preferred energy gel, at the aid stations, I’ll carry much less food on course. I hope to fit everything I need to carry into one small waist pocket.

My big gamble is my plan to carry less water than any previous year. I’ve carried as many as three 26 ounce bottles (78 ounces) for long periods in each of my previous Western States. I’m not running with 4.7 pounds of water this year. Screw that. It’ll be rare that I’ll go more than 1:15 between aid stations until nightfall. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to absorb 30 ounces hour, including what I drink at aid stations, which will be as much as possible. In past years, I’d pour some of my carried water on me for cooling, so I’ll be better about doing this at aid stations and in water along the course. I plan on carrying two 26 ounce water bottles or even less.

Don’t Fight the Snow – I won’t fight the snow, because the snow will always win. I will go with the flow on the snow. I will observe and learn what strides and tactics are efficient and which are not. I’ll stick to the former and avoid the latter.

Don’t Fight Gravity – Even with some last minute training, I don’t have the amount of downhill training I’d like… or, at least, that I’d feel comfortable with. That means being extra smooth on descents whether that easing up on the pace or bombing down a steep descent. Whatever it takes.

Have Fun – A couple of friends have reminded me to have fun and they’re so right. Mental state plays so large a part of running such long distances. I can’t run on the razors edge for very long in such races, so levity, peace, and enjoyment are the mental approach I opt for… for the most part. In doing sauna sessions this past week, I find I can stay in the heat much more easily if I’m distracted (talking or reading) or in a good mental place than when I’m unhappy or annoyed. Surely, the same lesson applies to ultras. [Added 6/20 11 a.m.]

Call for Comments
That’s it for me. Feel free to ask questions about my training this year or for previous Western States. Also, comment away on my strategies for this year.

All things considered, I’m looking at this year’s Western States as my chance to think my way to success, as my training isn’t what’s going to do it.

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.