Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Western States 2011

I knew I was overthinking things when I decided two days before the race that I would run in a pair of Pearl shoes that I rarely, if ever, use. I thought they would offer the best traction for the heavy snow through the early part of the course and considered that a worthwhile risk to take. For some unknown reason I had become obsessed with the snow and had seemingly forgotten that I had logged hundreds of miles through the snow in my preferred, yet lightly lugged, 100-mile shoe.

I knew I was being ridiculous, yet I couldn't let it go. By Thursday, I had narrowed possible shoe choices to eight different models and prototype iterations (yes I brought eight pairs of shoes with me to California). Finally, on Friday I recovered my senses and made the call to wear the Fuel XCs, the same shoe I use for all my longer distance races. With that decision made, there was very little else left to think about or that I really wanted to think about with regards to the journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn the next day. I mean it always transpires the same way. You fret about the most ridiculous minutiae and then on race day the gun goes off and you are instantly reminded of how simple our sport is.

It's just running, dude!

Before I knew it, we were lined up and ready to go: 3-2-1-boom. Nothing to do now but run, eat and drink for the next 16 hours.

From the off, it was Geoff, Kilian, myself and Adam Lint in a small lead pack on the opening climb to High Camp. Looking back on the switchbacks, there were plenty of guys lined up behind in wait. The mood seemed light. Geoff, Kilian and I enjoyed a bit of banter as we zigged and zagged our way up and into the snow, with the Spaniard even fielding a brief phone call from France after a phone was thrust into his hand by his manager.

Kilian, Adam, me and Geoff in the early going up the ski hill.

Killian fielding a phone call from his shoe guy, 'Fred,' in France

Photos: Scott Sandow

Within the first five minutes of snow running it was quite apparent that the snow section was actually going to be quite fun. It had been cool enough overnight that there was a good crusty top to the surface that was providing ample traction, despite the overall icy nature of the snow. Versus last year, I think the running through the high country was probably a little better, as there was very little run-off to deal with and things were generally firmer. That said, there was way more snow. In addition, some of the side hills were incredibly treacherous and, dare I say, a little concerning from a safety perspective. So maybe 5 minutes slower overall.

After one of my four or five spills on the snow, maybe half way to dry land, Geoff and Kilian got ahead of Adam and I, forging an out-of-sight gap. Not long thereafter, Dave Mackey joined us and we worked together sighting the tough-to-pick-out light yellow flagging. It wasn't long until we realized that we were no longer following tracks, leading to the obvious conclusion that Geoff and Kilian had lost the flagging somewhere. Meanwhile Dave was building a bit of a gap on Adam and me. He too was out of sight before long.

After losing the flagging ourselves for a couple of minutes, a group of guys including Geoff and Kilian caught back up to us as we made our way onto the jeep track down to French Meadows Reservoir. Last year, this had been totally clear, but we still had to negotiate an extra two or three miles of snow before we were finally clear of it and could get into a proper running rhythm.

Dave was out of sight ahead, and it was me and Kilian leading the charge in second and third on the fast campground road section down to the Poppy trailhead. The pace felt a lot more reasonable than last year, and I'm guessing we were moving 10-15 seconds slower per mile. Through these miles, I had a good chance to catch up with Kilian and discuss races (among other things). One nugget I will share is that both Hardrock and Pikes Peak are on his near-term radar, as are the names Kyle Skaggs and Matt Carpenter, in addition to the times of 23:23, 15:42 and 2:01. Enough said on that front.

So we bop around the reservoir on the gently rolling Poppy Trail, before climbing up the distinctly cleaner exposed cut through the Red Star burn area to the Duncan aid station at 24 miles (under noticeably cooler conditions than last year). Kilian, as he would much of the day, followed a step behind me the whole way. Coming into the aid, I was feeling a bit out of sorts. My right glute was burning worse than it had in months, my stomach was feeling a little off and then all of a sudden as I stopped to refuel both my legs start cramping - calves, hamstrings, glutes, left, right, everything. Just a big old wobble.

Coming up towards the Duncan aid.

To say this was a little concerning would be an understatement. This was a potential race killer and we weren't even beyond training-run distance. I immediately reassessed my pit stop and grabbed a handful of S-Caps, downing probably five while also gobbling a gel and a bunch of fruit. The extra time in the aid station allowed the chase pack to catch up, and as we headed out on the re-route section new to this year's course, it was myself, Kilian, Geoff, Hal, Timmy Olson and Mike Wolfe running as a pack. Apparently Dave had made an extra turn somewhere between Talbot and Duncan, so we were running as the lead pack.

After a brief road stint we were routed onto a section of doubletrack jeep road down towards Duncan Creek. Coming back up we made a right at a T intersection where we were supposed to have made a left. In our defense, there was flagging hanging from a tree branch to the right and nothing to the left, so not a total bone-headed wrong turn. By the time we hit the paved Mosquito Ridge road at the top it was apparent that we were off course, and so we turned around, retraced our steps back down to the T and realized that the flagging had originally been extended across the intersection to prevent such a turn, but had been pulled down somehow (probably an animal) such that it hung from a branch as if to indicate a right turn.

Annoying, but not devastating. Yes we were 15 minutes off course, but at least we were all in the same boat.

Heading up the correct route to Mosquito Ridge, the group broke up a bit with Mike, myself, Kilian and Timmy overtaking Dave (who was now back on course after his wrong turn that seemingly cost him a similar amount of time) near the top, and somewhat surprisingly dropping Hal and Geoff. Hal would be slow on the climbs all morning but would catch back up on the downs; Geoff I wouldn't see again until the finish.

The aid station volunteers informed us that four guys had been through before us. And so we began the process of reeling them back into the fold. By Millers Defeat, we (Mike, Hal, Kilian and me) had picked up my buddies Scott Jaime and Ryan Burch, leaving just Mike Foote and Jez Bragg to catch. Our pack of four split a bit heading down to Dusty Corners, but regrouped by the time we got to Last Chance. Readying for the drop into Deadwood Canyon and the climb back up to Devils Thumb, we had just Jez left to catch.

Somewhere between Mosquito Ridge and Last Chance.

We dropped into the canyon as a group of four and then proceeded to separate as the climb began. Mike and Kilian took off running hard immediately, while Hal and I seemed happy to let them go. I ran maybe half of the climb, but was in no hurry to kill myself getting up the steeper pitches. Near the top, Jez finally came back into view and things started to feel well with the world again.

The cramping had largely subsided, my belly was happy and I had finally made up for the wrong turn by taking back the final position that we had given up on the re-route. With that said, there was still plenty of work to be done and all manner of things that could still go wrong, not to mention that there was a need to reel back in a Spaniard and a Montanan. Oh, and a Brit and an Oregonian too, because Jez and Hal were more efficient through the aid than me.

I ran solo on the flat to rolling stuff leading to the drop into El Dorado Canyon, but soon caught Jez on the 2,000'+ descent. Not far out from the creek, I heard a series of cheers which I timed at 1-3 minutes, so I knew I was still in touch with the front of the race. At the creek aid station, Hal was still lingering and I was able to nudge out before him, deciding early that I was going to run the whole climb to see if I couldn't get a little separation on Hal and close the gap to Mike and Kilian.

By the top of the climb I had lost Hal and reeled in Mike, moving into second in the process. When I caught Mike, he was in run/hike mode on some pretty mellow stuff, so I assumed he was dealing with some issues. The Michigan Bluff aid transition (55) wasn't the smoothest, so I actually left in fourth with Jez and Mike getting out before me.

Up to this point, through the worst of the canyons, the heat had really been a non issue. Yes, it was hot, but we weren't dealing with an inferno. My cramping was now well behind me as I set out in pursuit of Mike on the road to Volcano Canyon. After some flagging confusion (ie, there was none) which caused Mike and me to backtrack for a couple of minutes before turning around again after bumping into Hal who told us we were in fact on course, I put a gap on both Mike and Hal. I assumed at that point that those two were out of the hunt for podium places and it was just me, Kilian, Jez and whoever else was running well behind (Timmy Olson, in particular was on my mind).

Love the vintage look - so Western. Coming into Foresthill at the 100k mark. Photo: Clynton

Foresthill (62) was smooth. I got the update that Jez and Kilian were running together about five minutes ahead of me. I picked up Nick Pedatella, my first pacer on the day and got down to the business of covering the crux miles between Foresthill and the Middle Fork of the American River (78). Still feeling strong, I was confident that I would be reeling Jez and Kilian in long before the river as I had been running the downs stronger than them all day.

Nick got me on a strict 25-30 minute gel regimen and we boogied on down. By Cal 1, we had halved the gap. Just as we were coming into Cal 2, having run the rollers well, we caught up to Jez, passing before the aid, where we also saw Kilian. Kilian and his pacer Rickey Gates (running with a mini video camera on a stick) got out first, but I was soon on them.

Rather than slot in behind, I decided to see if I could build a gap, as I was sure that Kilian would be working the climbs harder than me. I put the jets on a bit and forged into the lead. As expected, Kilian did not let me go. On what AJW calls the six-minute hill (a grunter before Cal 3), Kilian was still right behind. I had no intention whatsoever of running this one, so had to just sit back and watch Kilian take off at a very impressive clip. Nonetheless, I was back on Kilian by Cal 3 and we essentially ran together to the river, picking up Hoka CEO Nico Mermoud (out run spectating) along the way.

Vid: Real Endurance

As the excellent video above shows, Kilian (and his entourage) got into a boat a few seconds before me (with Nick and Nico). Mike and Jez were just boarding on the other side of the river as I was getting out (although I had no idea at this point that Mike was in the mix).

I knew I wouldn't be seeing Kilian on the run up to Green Gate, so after hiking the early grunt out of the river, I ran easy up to the aid station with Nick and Jake (who would take over pacing from Nick). When I say 'easy,' by the way, I am referring to pace as I was a little disconcerted at the lack of pop in my legs. Sitting down in that boat, even if for just a minute, seemed to have really put the funk in my legs. Through the second mile of the climb, I was able to pick things up a bit, but I think that was just because the grade mellowed out.

Hoofin' up to Green Gate. Photo: Meagan Hicks at iRunFar.

At Green Gate, I was a reported two minutes behind Kilian. I figured I still had a shot at winning, but for some obscure reason I couldn't drum up the adrenaline rush that I normally get with situations like this. I mean c'mon: biggest race of the season, two minutes behind an emerging legend, playing for all the marbles, and all I could think about was how bad my shredded feet were hurting. I toyed with the idea of popping some Tylenol, but stuck to my principles on that matter and decided to endure without.

On the buffed out rolling singletrack to ALT (85), I was able to find a decent groove. Jake gave me some intermediate splits at between 8:30 and 8:45 pace, with some slower, hillier miles thrown in there too. I felt decent about the pace, which was about as good as I could muster, but had a feeling that it just wasn't going to get the job done. At this point, I was thinking that my best chance of victory would come from a Kilian implosion. Remembering back to last year, I knew that wasn't out of the question.

And then my wheels came off.

Mike, like a Phoenix from the fire came cruising into ALT just as I was on my way out. I couldn't believe it. Jake and I had heard voices across the canyon but it was impossible to tell if they were coming from nearby or a long way on the other side. Not long after ALT, Mike came cruising by at a pace that I just couldn't latch on to. It's not that I had completely imploded by this point, but I was most definitely on the edge.

At Brown's Bar (90) I was still (technically) in the hunt. Mike was still there and we were told that Kilian was three minutes ahead of us. However, I just couldn't find that spot in my head that I found last year where I was able to shut everything out of my mind and grind through immense pain in pursuit of a white lycra-clad Spaniard.

The smile hides the pain as we pull into Highway 49. Photo: Meagan Hicks at iRunFar.

I was dreading the rocky climb up to Highway 49. My feet were jabbing with pain and every angled foot plant was just excruciating. I was stumbling around like a drunk man, just trying to get to the finish without doing too much more damage. I felt guilty for my weakness. I wanted to give Jake - a young, talented and highly enthusiastic ultrarunner - a finish to remember, but I just couldn't find that killer gear.

And that was my race. Fortunately, I was able to hold on for third, just five minutes ahead of Jez.

Photo: Meagan Hicks at iRunFar.

Irunfar interview here if you want a verbal blow by blow on the race.

Jake's take for a pacer's read on the last 20 miles.

I'm probably running out of chances, but maybe one day I'll find a way to beat this extraordinary talent. Photo: Auburn Journal

Nothing more needs to be said about Kilian that hasn't already been said. He is a very gifted runner with a competitive drive that is quite remarkable to watch. Mike Wolfe, who I had never run against before, really impressed me with his finish. Quite clearly he ran a great race, working through some adversity along the way. His finish from Foresthill was hugely impressive - to say the very least.

I'm not quite sure why, but I wasn't particularly concerned about Jez as a factor in the race in the days leading up. He absolutely proved me wrong out there. I figured he was done once we caught back up to him on Devil's Thumb, but he was out there all day running a calculated and very well-paced race. The guy was steady all day long. Much respect.

But far and away (on the men's side), I am most impressed with The JW. His passion for this race is unsurpassed, and his drive to maintain a position among the top-10 finishers is an inspiration to watch. I was fortunate enough to hang out with Andy for a couple of days pre-race and I watched him spend hours devising a pacing plan that he thought would be good enough for a top-10 finish. I thought his 16:45 goal was aggressive, to say the least, but as I tell anyone who asks, aggressive goals are the only types of goals I think are worth setting when it comes to ultrarunning. Not only did Andy get his top-10 spot (against a field of guys who on paper should have destroyed him), but he was well under his goal. Anyone looking for inspiration should look no further.

As for me, well I'm sitting here nursing a pair of very sore feet, but feeling a certain hunger that I don't feel was fully fed last weekend. Expect to see me at the start line in Silverton next weekend.


  1. Nick, I've told you in person, but incredible run this past weekend. While I didn't see it in person, having been out on the course I can't imagine running nearly 4 hours faster. Amazing performance and, separately, great racing. Looking forward to watching you run through the San Juans in a couple days.

  2. Amazing race, Nick! Tony and I figured you'd be sweating blood to catch Kilian..you'll get another shot at the end of August :) Look forward to seeing you next week.

  3. Great job running an amazing race. Incredible to think that you improved so much on last years race as well. Loved the report, and so many nuggets to chew on after a couple of more reads.

  4. Great run man!
    "It's just running, dude!"
    And you're doing it very well. Congrats on the podium finish!

  5. So impressed man. I wasn't sure that you could top last year even though you'd proved your fitness already, simply because I was so amazed with how you smashed the final 20 last year. But, damn man, what a day you had. I was tied to the screen to see where you would come through the aid and I was stoked for you to podium and shave a chunk of time off last year's race. Well done, a solid rest is deserved! Something like 10 days until you punish the BIG one!

  6. Sub 16 and the podium, well done! I got word in the Black Hills that you were battling for the lead (gotta love today's technology) and it gave me a lift. I know you wanted even better, but that is what makes you the animal you are. Rest, recharge, and hopefully savor this one a little bit before all the focus goes to the San Juans. Congrats!

  7. Congrats again on a great run! Although, you forgot to mention our 14:45 drive time that easily beat your time on the course ;)

    Hope the recovery is going well...best of luck at Hardrock

  8. Nice work, Nick. Really impressive. Seems a long time ago you fell in the river at Bighorn...

  9. So your sore feet prevented you from writing this recap sooner? We've kinda been waiting...

    Congrats on a great race.

  10. Nick - You are tougher than anyone I've ever been privileged to run with. So thankful I was able to be that "fly on the wall" for the last 22 miles. Congrats again, you ran a hell of a race. Just posted my pacer report, hope you enjoy it.

  11. Awesome race Nick. We all enjoyed watching and cheering and raising a toast to Mr. Clark, back home in the Fort. You are our hero. We'll see you on Thursday on Towers- no excuses about having sore feet or having a big race in the San Juans coming up will be accepted.

  12. Sub 2:01, Kilian can do it. I wonder if a guy twice his age would show up and try to defend it.

    I wonder also if he would make the go on a Sunday and try for the 3:15 RT.

  13. Another huge race and an awesome performance. And your summer is just getting started.

  14. Nick,

    You are a true model of consistency. Incredible effort. Put those feet up and enjoy a brief recovery. See you among the big hills of Southwestern, CO.

  15. Great and inspirational job Nick. It was truly a pleasure to meet you and talk with you on the days leading up to the race, and post race. I greatly appreciate your friendly nature and look forward to seeing you on the trails again one day.

  16. Great job out there!

    You looked really horrible at Michigan Bluff. I couldn't even bring myself to make fun of you, it really looked like you weren't gonna make it another ten miles.

    Looking forward to tracking you at Hardrock!

  17. Tough to beat a 20 something guy who has his shit togather.
    Great race Nick, you're. The dogs bollocks!

  18. Heck of a run, Nick! Congrats!

  19. We were cheering for you, man. Just 2 more years and you'll get the win at this rate- nah, sooner. I loved your determination, esp in your pre-race interview (goal: to win). Good luck in the San Juans.

  20. Hey Bro,
    Amazing race out there, fun to enjoy some miles with you.
    I look forward to learning more from Bad Ass's like you.
    Rest up and Hardrock will be epic.

  21. Balls man. Seriously. Glad that I stalked you on the internet and shared a hotel room with you before you went all big timey and stuff.

    And I am most glad that the hunger is still unfed.

  22. Nick - great job. Can't wait to see how you do the rest of the summer. Chris (the guy from Boulder you spoke with before going to NYC 3 weeks ago)

  23. Should we invite Kilian to the VBM this December? I think you could take him on that course. I know Celeste could.

  24. Congratulations on an excellent race Nick. It was neat being on the same trail knowing you were in the middle of an exciting competition.

    Great work and well written.

  25. Congratulations Nick!!! You are an inspiration to all of us!

  26. Awesome to follow you all day on the net... was really cheering for you! Great start to the summer...

  27. Really enjoyed the write-up (and your two interviews with Bryon). You're so consistent and such a gamer, you really animate every race you run. It's really enjoyable to see your success. I couldn't agree more about AJW blowing all reasonable expectations out of the water. Amazing.

  28. Awesome race! See you in Silverton!

  29. Damn impressive. Congrats on such an amazing performance. Will be pacing down in Hardrock so I'll be cheering you on in Ouray.

  30. Well done om making the top 3 Nick, truly inspiring stuff. Killian seems to have a great future ahead of him. Loved the video footage will have to seek out some more when I return from my hols. Put your feet up & have a good rest.

    Daz Mills

  31. Way to pull through. You looked a little worked at foresthill! Be interesting to see how the rest of your summer pans out.

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