May 26, 2008

Western States Training Camp -- May 2008

Saturday morning, May 24, 2008. At first I thought it was just a dream. But the sound grew louder and louder until it hit me like a cold slap of reality as I lay in bed. Raindrops. They first hit their mark above my head one at a time. Then they came with greater frequency. Finally, to a wet, roaring crescendo.

Participating in the "official" Western States training runs is recommended for first time WS runners. You get to experience the trail, understand the challenge in front of you and, weather permitting, taste the heat you’ll encounter race day. Apparently the weather permitting section wasn’t in the cards for us this weekend.

Waiting for our bus

Saturday’s run started with an hour long bus ride along Mosquito Ridge to a drop off point 5 miles from the actual WS trail. From there we ran along a very wet dirt and gravel road lined with pockets of snow. As the runners tread upon soggy trail, the grey skies wept with cold rain and sleet. My Asics Trail GT 2130’s were soaked to my skin in the first 10 minutes, but held on firmly around my feet.

Greetings along the trail

Our first contact with the "official" WS trail was Dusty Corners, an aid station 38 miles into the 100 mile course. From there we dropped into a meandering single track trail under a shadow of dense pine. The rain continued to fall in the dark forest when we reached Last Chance, mile 43.3 of the course and the starting point of the wicked "canyon" section. Under typical race day sun, temperatures of this section push well past 100 degrees. After Last Chance we continued into a 2.5 mile, 2’200 foot decent to Deadwood Canyon followed by the most difficult section of the race, a 1'800 foot climb to Devils Thumb.

Rob and I stopping for water

The Ultra Encounter. As I stood on the side of the trail taking yet another blog picture, I heard my pacer Rob McNair yell to a runner passing. "Hey Tweet, its Rob McNair". I glanced up and saw it was Tim Twietmeyer, 25 time finisher and 5 time winner of Western States 100. The two trail veterans exchanged a few words as I fumbled with my camera. Then, just like that, "Tweet" was off. Rob and I continued down the steep lower section of the canyon.

Just like that....Tweet (white jacket) running down trail

When we came upon the small footbridge at the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, Tweet and his friends were waiting for another runner. Rob grabbed my camera and asked Tweet if he would take a photo with me. Of course as I stood there watching Rob (wearing wet gloves) attempt to take a photo of me with one of the greatest ultra runners of all time, I realized the running gods would have to be in complete alignment. And just as Rob pushed the button, and the blackberry slipped from his soggy hands, it occurred to me that this moment was deemed by the gods to be captured only in my mind, and not to be recorded in the trivial annals of my blog. Then Tweet asked if this was my first WS run, and I said it was. He pointed out the river below us was a good place to douse yourself during the race, before climbing the 1’800 foot Devils Thumb in 100+ degree heat.

Rob and I pushed on, up the relentless Devils Thumb switchbacks, talking with several others as we power walked up and into the dripping clouds. Once we crested this brutal incline and started running again I slipped on some loose mud and ended up nearly head over heals and on my butt. Unhurt, but with an orange like slime dripping from my butt cheek all the way down my leg, I wondered if others wouldn't see this as some other kind of accident. As we came into the aid station I turned to see Twietmeyer running up behind us. Observing the grime dripping from my hip, Tweet asked if had taken a spill. "Yea I took a dive", I said, to which he replied "Rookie!" I had to point out amidst the laughter from the other runners that if I could choose anyone to call me a rookie, it would be Tweet.

"Rookie" running down the trail

When we finally finished the run, we’d run down to El Dorado Creek, up to Michigan Bluff then back to Bath Road and Forest Hill. We’d covered 27.1 miles and we were soaked to the bone. After finding a pitcher of beer in Auburn, we drove back to the home of Earl Towner and his wife Jennifer Mitchell, who graciously put us up for the weekend. That night, Earl, a 10th place finisher of Western States, shared many tactics with me about how I should run the course on race day. Key among them was to start slow! Jennifer, a local poet who has written many poems about Western States and experiences in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, made us all a great home cooked meal. After some good conversation I climbed into bed by 8:30 and was fast asleep.

Sunday morning, May 25th. This next day brought better weather and more ultra encounters. We started from Forest Hill and ran along the side of the Middle Fork of the American River. The trail progressed all the way to Rucky Chucky, where runners normally cross the river and head toward Auburn. This 16 mile section of the trail is beautiful and ideal for running. It’s mostly downhill single track, with a few short uphill sections. Many runners flew down this section, which may or may not be possible on race day with 62 miles under your belt.

Running single track from Forest Hill

Once we reached Rucky Chucky many of us walked down to the river and soaked our feet. It was a nice break before the last three miles up hill we had to do to get back to the buses. On this day there was again no shortage of runners with impressive resumes. Included in the group was Jenn Shelton, (14:57:18 at Rocky Raccoon 100 miler), ultra god Jorge Pacheco, Ashley Nordell, Luis Escobar among many others. For me, this day was a very fun, yet humbling experience.

Walking down to the river

Cooling the feet

Ashley, Luis and Jenn

Overall this Western States training trip was well worth it. Not the ideal race simulation weather I was hoping for, but nonetheless vital experience for this "Rookie". I owe a special thanks to Rob McNair for introducing me to so many other runners and to Earl Towner and his wife Jennifer Mitchell for putting up with Rob and I over the weekend. Thanks guys and we will see you all again in June!

Earl, Jennifer and Me

Jorge, family and friends at the Airport


Greg said...

Great writing, got a real feel for what you are facing. WOW! Someday when I grow up (as a runner and all other things, haha) I hope to do Western. Rock it!

Tim Looney said...

Hey Will - nice report from the training camp. The lessons you learned over the weekend will be quite valuable on race day. I ran my first 100 miler last June at WS. It is quite the experience. Best of luck to you.


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