My invitation to run Western States came in late November, just as my enthusiasm for running was starting to waiver due to onset of the British winter and uncertainty of my goals for the coming season. Any self-respecting ultrarunner knows of Western States and the story of Gordy Ainsleigh who first completed the race on foot (rather than horseback) in 1974. As an avid fan of the sport I was no different. This legendary race stirred in me something that most famous ultras didn’t. The history, that elusive entry ticket, the prised belt buckles. It was enough to regain my ability to enjoy a modest dose of suffering each day at a time of year I have always struggled with. My excitement had little to do with how well I thought I could perform in the race. In their race preview iRunFar stated that I was more of a mountain runner, which was fair and I tended to agree with them. I ranked 16thin the group-think predictions, so I certainly wasn’t a favourite. I really didn’t know how well I could race on a relatively flat and runnable course, or how I would respond to the heat. Few people have a great race first time round, especially not Europeans. Given this, my main overriding goal was to make the top-10 in order to secure an entry for the following year. To make top-5, I’d need a near flawless day.
After several months of emails, negotiation and some rather anti-social runs of shifts, I was lucky enough to secure 3 weeks off work. It meant I could recce most of the course and get used to the heat and altitude. I didn’t want this time to be all about the race though. We set off from the UK with no real plans, no accommodation, just a tent, some climbing gear and of course a few pairs of trainers. We spent a week camping in various locations close to the Western States course; French Meadows, Robinson Flat, Ruck-a-Chucky, Sugar Pine, and did a fair bit of running. We then followed Matt’s agenda, seeking some of the best climbing in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests and wild camping where we could. I loved this place. We decided, top-10 or not, that we had to come back.
I barely slept for several days before the race. I did not consciously feel nervous, but clearly there was something whirring in the background making sleep elusive. This is becoming a recurring theme for me and is somewhat annoying, and perhaps concerning. Given this, at 5am on race day I was in a bit of a sleep deprived daze and continued to be for several hours until I had built my caffeine levels during the early stages of the race. The 4 mile climb up to Emigrant pass, Lyon Ridge and Red Star Ridge were all very relaxed. I chatted to other runners and gawped at the scenery. These early miles were one of the few sections I hadn’t covered in my recce runs. Despite massive snowmelt in the preceding few weeks there was still air fair bit of snow early on (estimated 5-10 miles in total). It wasn’t a major issue, but it wasn’t straightforward either. Clambering up & down patches of hard-packed snow and traversing snow covered slopes takes quite a lot of energy at a time in the race where energy conservation is key. With no visible trail underfoot, staying on course was more challenging than it could have been.
Climbing up to Robinson Flat I let myself be overtaken by about 6 women. I could have easily run with them, but they were running just a little bit harder than I wanted to at this stage in the race. It was quite disconcerting at the time but I just had to trust my strategy, which I think was the right decision. I changed my shoes and socks at Robinson Flat as a preventative measure, something I don’t usually do but I could feel some grit from the various creek crossings starting to accumulate. I was glad of it as 15 mile downhill that followed was surprisingly punishing on every part of my body. I was alarmed that my quads had started to feel a little tweaky already, so I tried to keep the steep descents into the canyons as relaxed as possible. Downhill conditioning was something I may have overlooked in training, focusing more on hitting elevation targets which, in this case, is not the same thing.
I met my first pacer, Nick, in Foresthill. I think I was in 7that this point. I had decided this was the point where I’d try to rise to the occasion and I probably did so a little too enthusiastically. So enthusiastically I ended up in a bit of a slump 16 miles later. Nevertheless, having run well on Cal Street, I came into Green Gate (mile 79.8) in 5th. With Camelia Mayfield on my heals for most of the next 20 miles, my competitive instinct was fully engaged. In my almost panicked attempt to but distance between myself and Camelia, I came across Kaytlyn Gerbin, and managed to pass her too. I was now running with my second pacer, Brodie. Having never run with a pacer before I liked the idea of having company, but was somewhat sceptical of actual benefit to my race. You would think that being in the final stretches of one of the most competitive ultra-races in the world, being chased hard by two talented girls, would be enough to push me to my absolute limit. The truth is I don’t think I could have held 4thposition if it wasn’t for Brodie running ahead of me with a slightly quicker stride, forcing that extra 1-2% out of me that I wasn’t aware I had.
I’m still struggling to generate intelligent thoughts about the race. Of course, I am ecstatic to have taken 4th place, but I really don’t know whether I paced it perfectly, or was a coward. It was an incredibly satisfying race on so many levels, yet I still have this lingering feeling that I could have done more. I ran a conservative first half, then upped my game towards the end. It’s a safe strategy, and great if the goal is simply to place as high as possible. But racing like this you risk leaving too much work for the final stages to actually win. I have never stood on the start line in a big mountain ultra thinking that I can win the race, which could be why I have found my groove in 4thplace for the last 3 Ultra Trail World Tour as have done. I have no regrets about Western States as I raced exactly how I had intended to, but with the growing competitiveness of such races, I can’t help wondering that a more daring approach is needed to make the podium.
Finally, massive thanks to my friends, family, pacers and sponsors (Salomon, Suunto, My Spring Energy, Petzl) who supported me through the preparation and during the race. I owe so much to this event, so thanks to Craig Thornley and his team for putting on such a wonderful race. It far exceeded my already high expectations. Thanks also to my coach Martin Cox. I have improved so much as an athlete under his guidance.