Kiwi Michael Pullar shares his Western States Endurance Run race report with us. A great result in Michael’s first 100mile race and a great read! Enjoy-
It’s almost 5 am here in Squaw Valley, California, and the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race, the Western States Endurance Run, is about to start. Against overwhelming odds I won a starters spot via lottery on the first attempt. This is my first 100 miler. I’m determined to make the most of the opportunity. I devoted everything to preparation and here I am in the best shape of my life.
Gordy Ainsley, race founder, finds a vantage point to share something inspirational. He is drowned out by the 10 second count down. The shot gun blasts and 379 runners are off up the ski field road towards Emigrant Pass (2450m), the course high point, then onwards ultimately to Auburn. Eighty runners will not finish.
I’m excited but anxious not to over-do it early. I have a two-part plan to prevent this. I’ll keep my heart rate below 155 bpm and I’ll stay behind Meghan Arbogast. Meghan is on a 7-year streak of top 10 women’s Western States finishes. I’ve been lucky enough to train with her and a bunch of other capable locals these last 3 weeks.
Within 5 minutes I’ve upped the allowable HR to the low 160s. It just seems comfortable in the moment. I’ll try not to let it stay this high for long. Half an hour in and I see Meghan ahead. I tuck in behind her. I run when she runs, hike when she hikes. Within 5 minutes I feel pathetic and a little like I’m stalking her. I want to run my race. I pull out and run beside her then I’m ahead a little.
We crest Emigrant Pass and drop on single track towards the ridgeline that the trail rolls along for many miles. There are about a dozen runners in my proximity. We bunch in single file then split into smaller groups then repeat and repeat. The early aid stations fly by – Lyon Ridge at mile 10, then Red Star Ridge at mile 16. It’s 8 am and the day is already starting to warm.
Duncan Canyon, mile 24, is the next aid station. I take a tumble on rocks along the way and leak blood from multiple contact points. I gather myself and I’m relieved to get back up and running before anyone catches up. I arrive and leave the aid station near the front of a large group. I’m in 59th place. I’m feeling okay but have been working steadily to this point.
We descend then begin the long climb to Robinson Flat, the first major aid station with crew access. I’m starting to feel nauseous. This has a de-powering effect. I’m reduced to hiking most of the ascent. Everyone in the group passes except for Meghan who hikes quite close behind. I’m consoled by this – if she’s not passing I must be racing smart. We crest the hill. Meghan yells at me to run, “It’s all downhill to aid station from here. We’ve got to turn this around”. Damn, I’m thinking, I feel like shit and I’m performing similarly. We’re only thirty miles into it.
We hit the Robinson Flat aid station, get weighed, and separate. There are lots of supporters lining a long runners’ shoot. I walk through looking for my crew, Dad and Jim Kepfer, a local runner who will be pacing me later in the day. I find them and do about half the things on my ‘must do’ list. I feel dazed. I’ve slipped to 71st place. I move out. Meghan’s ahead now doing her bit to turn it around. She is soon out of sight.
The trail climbs Little Bald Mountain then leaves the high country on what’s been described as the best 15 miles in trail ultra-running – a long descent to the bottom of Deadwood Canyon. I ease up, get the climb out of the way, then let gravity do the work. I switch from real food to gels. The nausea eases. I’m on my own mostly but reel in the occasional runner. I’m feeling stronger, like I too have turned it around.
I pass through several aid stations. They have evocative names: Miller’s Defeat, Dusty Corners, and Last Chance. They’re all rousing and extremely well run. “Your drop bag, sir”, one volunteer offers. Another chaperones me from there. He takes instructions for my empty water bottles and assigns someone to the task. “Sun screen? This way”. I apply with haste. “Please browse the buffet table. How about a sponge bath before you leave?” Within 90 seconds I’ve eaten, I’m wiping water out of my eyes, and I’m taking back my water bottles. I leave to rapturous applause. The ice in my bottles grinds noisily as I get back into my stride. It takes 1700 volunteers to make this race hum in the way it does.
I reach the lip of Deadwood Canyon and begin the descent. I’m charging now. It’s steep and sometimes technical. I feel great, almost euphoric. There is a river at the bottom of the canyon. Last August a wild fire destroyed the swinging bridge so this year we have to wade. A cable is slung taut across. It’s manned by 3 volunteers. One takes my vest. I immerse fully and cool to the core. It’s welcome relief from the heat and ideal preparation for the long hike out to Devils Thumb, the most sustained climb in the race. I passed one runner on the descent but when ascending he speeds by and quickly disappears. We repeat this exercise in both the El Dorado and Volcano Canyons that follow.
There is a thermometer at the El Dorado Creek Aid Station. When I arrive it reads 33 degrees Celsius. I swim in the river then climb out to Michigan Bluff, mile 56, where I meet Dad again. He’s surprised to see me in better shape than when he saw me 5 hours and 25 miles earlier. My feet are hurting so I change into shoes with more cushioning. It proves a good move.
A road section leads out of Michigan Bluff. It’s lined with race fans. I try to concentrate on good form to do some justice to the yells of support: “You’re looking great”, ”So strong”, “You’re killing it”, over and over, whistles, cheering, applause. I’m loving this over-the-top American exuberance. Trail markers show the way towards Volcano Canyon. Solitude and silence return.
There is more fanfare up Bath Road on the approach into Foresthill. The energy in these small towns is palpable today. I’ve now run 100 km and I’ve clawed my way back to 58th place. I pick up Jim here. He will pace me to the finish and knows the trail very well. “How are you feeling”, he asks. “Tiring”, I mutter. “We’ll”, says Jim, “It’s a down hill run these next few miles. We’ll ease our way into it then take things from there”. I relax. I’m pleased to have him in my corner and to take a break from thinking for a while.
Before the race Jim and I ran this 16 mile section from Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky River in a casual 2 hours 40 minutes. Today it will take us 3 hours 13 minutes but I still feel like I’m moving okay. The only doubt arises when Jim pulls out his smart phone, surfs, and provides updates on how the race at the front of the field is unfolding. Is he a gifted multi-tasker or are we just moving really slow?
At the Peachstone Aid Station I’m offered chicken soup. It goes down fairly well. I take 2 full cups at most aid stations thereafter but turn down offers of grilled cheese sandwiches, milkshakes and many other delicacies. The state of my stomach is in slow decline but I never again feel nauseous like I did at Robinson Flat.
By Ford’s Bar, the last aid station before the River, there are ashen faced runners slumped in fold-out chairs. I offer some token encouragement then leave feeling a surge in motivation. I can still run. Things are going well.
We reach the River. It’s the last time I see Dad before he heads to the finish line. He asks how I am and appears satisfied with the response, “I’ll get there.” I switch bottles, pick up my head lamp, chug down soup, and finish with a few pieces of fruit. Jim is chided by his friend, Western States legend Tim Twietmeyer, for not getting me through the aid station quickly enough. It’s all good humoured. The River Crossing is a major race milestone. It’s at mile 78 and I’m now in 50th place. We enter the water. This feels momentous.
From the far bank we climb to the Green Gate Aid Station. I’m pleased to be able to run most of the way. Dusk is upon us. We turn on our head lamps. Jim is in front lighting the way. It’s reassuring having him there. I remain in the moment and focused on moving forward. There’s nothing else I have to do. My quads in particular are well past their best. I’m tired but motivated so mentally this is still not that hard.
We pass the occasional runner and then there is Meghan in front of us with Mark Laws, her pacer. She has aggravated an ankle injury. She is hobbling but still in good spirits. She’s in 8th place and retains this to the finish to win automatic entry into next year’s race. Jim and I move on into the darkness.
It’s approaching midnight as we reach Highway 49. They weigh me for the 9th time here. I dropped weight early in the race but then stabilised. Now inexplicably I’m a kilogram over my pre-race weight. The medic is concerned. “I’m fine”, I insist and walk away. There are 6 miles to go. I know I’m slowly breaking down but remain resolute. We climb to the meadow at Cool and jog through. It’s the last time I can move with any semblance of freedom. The descent to No Hands Bridge is slow and jarring on spent legs. I pass a final runner to move into 42nd place.
No Hands Bridge is all lit up. There’s music blearing and a large screen flashing. We don’t stop but cross the bridge then amble along the old railway line. We hear 2 bursts of shouting down at the bridge as other runners come through. I want to hold them out but there is nothing I can do. Both gain quickly and pass during the climb to Robie Point, the final aid station, on the Auburn fringe.
The final 1.3 mile section is on paved road. The feet sting with every step on this hard surface. It’s almost 1.30am but there are plenty of folk out cheering and partying. We eventually leave the road for the floodlit Placer High School Stadium. It’s 300 metres around the running track and then it’s all over. I finish 44th in 20 hours and 32 minutes, at the better end of the range I hoped I might achieve.
The finish line environment is something to savour. We linger for a couple of hours waiting for friends to come in. I feel both elated and depleted in way I haven’t previously experienced. It will all be in the recovery but that’s of no moment. Will I ever be fortune enough to run this race again?