Sunday, July 1, 2012

Western States: My First Buckle

My first 100 mile buckle; makes me feel like a real ultra runner.

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I chose the Western States Endurance Run as my debut 100 mile trail race. Many view WS100 as the de facto 100 mile national championship, and in recent years it has turned into an internationally competitive event, so I knew the field would be stacked. But I didn't expect to be a part of record-setting year that would see multiple course records blown away.

The many amazing performances at WS100 this year definitely overshadow my 11th place finish. It's quite tempting for me to be disappointed in how I ran, but I don't think that I should be. I think I ran a smart race. I ran conservatively to figure out the distance, to ensure that I did finish, and bring back a Western States buckle. I did not run aggressively and try to stick my nose in the race from the gun. Maybe that would have worked, or maybe not. Still, this report is a little difficult to write when so many others ran extraordinary races and I just ran well enough.

Me and my parents.  Dink would meet us later at Foresthill.

It was unseasonably cool as the race began in the pre-dawn darkness of Squaw Valley.  I had on arm warmers, a light jacket, and gloves. Very early in the first 4 mile climb, I settled in just off the lead pack full of favorites. I was worried that if I hooked onto their train, I would get sucked out too hard and redline early. Lizzie Hawker matched my pace for much of the climb, but eventually pulled away from me. I was so focused on running my own race that I forgot she was in front of me until I caught her around mile 45 just before starting the climb up Devil's Thumb!

The course profile.  18,000ft of climb and 23,000 ft of descent.

The wind was ferocious as we peaked out around 8,700ft. Then it began to sleet. The clouds were so low and thick that it was pointless to try and look down for a view of Lake Tahoe. I was too busy fighting the wind to keep my cap on my head to look for anything anyway. Ryan Burch, who trounced me at Quad Rock 50 just a few weeks ago, crested the climb in front of me and disappeared down the other side of the mountain. I searched for the trail markings to make sure I was on course, then pushed the pace to catch Burch just to have someone to run with. We kept the pace quite relaxed and let several folks pass us by without a fight.

After several miles of technical running, the trail transitioned to a flat jeep road and I decided to take advantage of my road strength and pick up the pace. But I just didn't feel like my normal self, and the road didn't stay flat for long. I struggled all morning long in the high country. I was forced to walk even the short climbs to keep my heart rate from spiking.  I'd get passed on the ups, then catch back up on the descents. I eventually hooked back up with Burch and used him to help even out my pacing.  I struggled with queasiness and lightheadedness until I left the high country.

Following Ryan Burch at Duncan Canyon.
(photo by Keith Blom)

It was freezing cold at Robinson Flat (mile 30) when I first saw my parents and pacer Dink Taylor.  The sleet had turned to rain which soaked my gloves. My hands were so cold they hurt worse than any other part of my body. Luckily I had a change of gloves in my bag. I ditched my S-LAB hydration pack because it wasn't hot enough to make it worth carrying the additional water. I headed out hopeful that the weather would soon clear as I dropped out of the high country and I'd be able to warm up.

Starting to warm up.  (Photo by Dusty Davis)

The miles that lead up to the canyons are one section that I should have been able to move forward, but my stomach was holding me back. In my entire running career, I have NEVER vomited as a result of running. I have also never been as close to vomiting as I was on the Pucker Point trail. I should have been flying on this section but I had to stop and walk a couple times to hang onto my lunch. I made it to Last Chance and weighed in a pound higher than my start weight even though I had been several pounds low at the first weigh station. I immediately popped 2 salt tabs and had some chicken soup thinking I needed more salt.  That seemed to help and a short time later I felt much better.

Oddly enough, my climb up Devil's Thumb was one of the best parts of my race. I finally was warmed up to comfortable, my stomach had settled, and my head cleared. I powered up to the top with renewed confidence. I probably should have saved a little more for the next climb up Michigan Bluff, but I still feel like I climbed fairly well on the second big climb. I continued feeling strong as I rolled into Foresthill at mile 62 and picked up Dink.

Coming through Michigan Bluff.  (Photo by

Climbing up to Foresthill.  (Photo by Dusty Davis)

My confidence was high and I was thinking I'd be able to catch some folks over the last 38 miles. Dink encouraged me to keep the pace in check and not get too excited leaving Foresthill. I thought I heeded his advice, but shortly after leaving Dardanelles' aid station, I hit an extended low point. I just couldn't go. I knew to expect the high and low points in a 100, but this wasn't going anywhere. I struggled until just before the river crossing at 78 miles. The boat crossing was uneventful and I wasn't even hot enough to feel like I needed to get my whole body wet in the river.

Just after picking up Dink at Foresthill.
(Photo by Ultra Runner Podcast)

I ran maybe 5% of the two mile climb to Green Gate. I wish I had run it slowly, but therein lies the problem. I just don't feel comfortable or efficient running uphill at 9-10 min per mile pace. Walking, however, gave me a chance to recover a bit and collect myself. Just as I was leaving the Green Gate aid station Dink lets me know that a female had just arrived. We weren't sure who it was at the time. That lit a small fire under my butt and got my head back in the game. I ran well for a while, but I was still struggling on the small climbs and felt like I needed to walk many of them.

I ran alone until mile 90 when Zach Bitter came blasting through Brown's Bar without stopping. I hadn't seen him since Devil's Thumb, but he was moving so fast, I didn't even attempt to respond. That took a little wind out of my sails, and then I struggled on the climb up to the Highway 49 aid station (93.5 miles). I had hoped a few of the top guys would drop or fade because of the brisk pace early, but only Mike Wolfe would come back to me. I passed him in this section as he was gutting out a finish. Contrary to what the webcast would lead you to believe, I arrived at Hwy 49 ahead of Tom Crawford and Ellie Greenwood. But neither were very far behind, and when I heard Ellie's name being announced, I grabbed my bottle and took off. This gave me the little shot of adrenaline that I needed to run the climb out of the aid station. It was now dark, so Dink and I pulled out our headlamps and I ran for my life.

I was totally surprised to see Zach Bitter again on the dark run into No Hands Bridge (96.8 mi). He had pushed too early and was now crashing hard. I passed with ease and got another little boost. At No Hands Bridge, I grabbed a quick cup of coke and ditched my water bottle. I was still looking over my shoulder, waiting on Ellie, and thinking about the To Be Chicked article she wrote for just a week ago.

That last 3.5 miles were arguably my best miles of the race. I knew the finish was getting close and felt I could push through the pain for just a few more minutes.  I was able to run most of the the climb up to Robie Point. As I approached the aid station, I could hear cheering and announcing over the loud speaker. I was told at No Hands that I was 7 minutes behind the next runner, so I didn't expect to be catching anyone, but it seemed as though I was. The trail dumped me out on the paced streets of Auburn, CA and I picked up the pace looking for the party at the very top of the Robie Point. They get my vote for best aid station, even though it wasn't a real aid station. They cheered the loudest and gave me my biggest boost of the day. I was in full stride for the first time in hours.

Soon I could see a headlamp less than a minute ahead of me. Dink says, "Well, you can relax and enjoy your run into the finish, or we can try to catch him." Do you really have to ask? I had to try. I didn't know what place I was in, but thought I might be in 11th and desperately wanted the 10th position to get the automatic entry for next year. Plus, I hadn't had a chance to break out my leg speed all day. Yassine Diboun still had 10 seconds or so on me as I entered the track, but he had no clue I was coming. I passed with less than 200m to go and crossed the line just 6 seconds ahead of him in 16:42:55. Only then did I find out that I had finished in 11th place.

Done.  (Photo by

Ellie would finish just a few minutes later, destroying the women's course record that was one of the most revered records in our sport. And the men's course record was broken nearly two hours before I crossed the finish line by Timothy Olson. Amazing work by both of them.

I won't lie. 11th place hurts. Just one place better would have secured my entry into Western States for next year. Now I have to earn it again -- certainly not a given. But when I objectively look past the fact this was the worst finish in my ultra career I can only conclude that I ran really well. 16:43 in my debut 100 miler at Western States? I don't think there are too many folks that can claim that. Everyone in front of me had run at least one 100 miler and has access to mountainous terrain to train on. Even so, I know it wasn't perfect. But I know where I was weak. I struggled with the altitude. I struggled with the climbs. I know I can do better. This is what keeps me coming back. It's not just the end goal, but the journey that I love. This never-ending quest to be the best I can possibly be is one of the many things that I have always loved about running. I'll be back, and I'll be stronger than before.

If your feet don't look this good the day after running a 100 miles,
maybe you should be wearing Swiftwick socks!

I finally got to see Lake Tahoe on the flight home.


  1. Amazing performance David. Each journey is a learning experience and I know that you will take many lessons and memories with you from CA. I cannot wait to see what is next for you and hope that you are recovering well.


  2. Great post David, and a very brave race that you should be so proud of. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with those of us that follow you from afar. Good luck in all your future races and be thankful that you have the ability to run as well as you do.

  3. What an awesome report, David. And a GREAT race run. Nothing to feel bad about. You rocked it!

  4. As you point out, 11th with a 16:42 at WS100 for your first 100 is definitely in the "I'll take it" category. It's in the OUTSTANDING category. Great run, David!

  5. Great race, David. I can't wait to see what else you have planned for the future. Best of luck.

  6. Geat job and report! It was interesting to see my brother-in-law (dusy davis) snapped a couple of the photos's you used. Small world.

  7. First Rookie! Awesome job! Speedy recovery!

  8. Awesome job. Thanks for the write up. Interested to hear what you ended up doing for shoes. If I recall correctly, you were concerned about having time to adapt to the low drop Sense before the race.

  9. Thanks all for you comments!

    Aliza, great race to you as well. I believe!

    Footfeathers, thanks for the kind words. And by the way, I really enjoyed your blog posts on pacing. Hilarious, but it makes it so much better now that I've run a 100 with a pacer.

    Jason, small world indeed. Glad there are people out there that let me borrow their photos. Hard to take pictures of yourself while running!

    Thanks Glen, nice to meet you out there!

    Dan, I've already started working on a follow-up blog post with more details on gear, nutrition, and recovery. I'll answer your question in that post. Hang tight!

  10. I was enjoying your post David and thank you for sharing it to us.

    David, there is one guy that run in ws100 2011. He finished 29 hours plus- I guess he is bringing camera for documentation. I like to run ws100 just for fun ... :)).

  11. David, you ran a great race even if it was a few minutes and places short of what you wanted. For a first 100 given your lack of mountain training, you ran excellent. Plus, it's fun to pass people the last bit rather than be like many of the other guys limping it in. I have no doubt you'll be able to qualify for WS again, or maybe decide to do some other 100's as well. Thoughtful report.

  12. I just read an article about you in last months trail runner magazine and decided to see if you had a race report for WS. Glad I checked! Awesome job out there!!!