Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Western States 100 mile trail race preview

Yes, this is Will and yes I am blogging. Thanks to some kind reminders from my wife that I need to record something for posterity sake.

I just wanted to give a preview to the loyal 10 followers of our family blog (thanks siblings) concerning my upcoming race. Then if I'm alive afterwards, with some prodding from Jenni, I'll produce a post race recap of the event.

There is tons of race info on this post. So that you don't get bored just read the headlines and if something interest you then you can read the details.

Follow Me on Race Day
I'll be running in the Western States 100 mile trail race from Squaw Valley, CA (Lake Tahoe) to Auburn, CA (Sacramento suburb) on Saturday June 25th. The race starts at 5am PDT and ends at 11am PDT the next day. You can follow/track me online throughout the race by going to this website: http://ws100.com/home.html and clicking on a link that will be posted on the top of the homepage. That link will probably lead you here: http://www.ultralive.net/ws100/webcast.php
My bib number is: 367. Although this direct link will probably be active and get you right to me on race day: http://www.ultralive.net/ws100/367 (right now they have my finishes mixed up with another runner named "Bill" Thomas. He's been rocking this course since I was 4 years old and has completed the course 11 times and is back this year for his 12th time. Hopefully, this will be corrected by race day, so people don't think I actually had a sub-24 hour run at the ripe age of 4) If you are not going to be at home in front of your computer that day. There is an app for your mobile smartphone here: http://m.ultralive.net/webcast.php Other places to get race day coverage (mostly for the lead runners) will be at:

History of the Western States 100 mile Endurance Run
Basically it was a 100 mile horse race that started in 1955 to prove that a horse could still cover 100 miles in a day (24 hours). In 1974 a man by the name of Gordy Ainsleigh decided to try do it on foot as his horse had been injured the year before. He did it and finished just under 24 hours. Thus began a new sport. The 1st official year of the race, 16 people started, 3 people finished, 1 in under 24 hours and 2 in under 30 hours. This set the standard that those that finished in under 24 hours receive a silver belt buckle. Those that finish in under 30 hours receive a bronze belt buckle. 30 hours is the official time limit. By the way almost 40 years later, Gordy still continues to run the race each year. There are now more than ninety 100 mile trail races in North America each year.
More detailed info:
Gordy in 1974

The Lottery & Qualifying
Because of the unique distinction of this race, and the US Forest Service restriction of mandating only 369 racers each year, it is very popular race. So popular that they have used a lottery system for the past 30 years to determine who gets to run. Also just to register for the lottery you have to have met certain requirements: finish a certain 100 mile race within the past year or a certain 50 mile race within in 11 hours, or 100 kilometer race in 14 hours.

The lottery

The Course
The course has made small changes over the years, but remains mostly the same. It starts in the heart of the Sierra mountain range just off the shore of Lake Tahoe and the Squaw Valley Ski Resort. It follows the Western States Trail which was the most common route across the Sierras during the time of the Gold Rush of 1849. The trail works it way over the Sierra Divide and up and down multiple canyons until it unleashes you in the foothills where you follow the American river back into civilization.

Course Statistics
Length: 100.2 miles
Starting elevation: 6,229 ft
High point: 8,713 ft
Low point: 543 ft
Finish elevation: 1,292 ft
Cumulative elevation to climb: 18,090 ft
Cumulative elevation to descend: 22,970 ft
Contrast to elevation of Mt. Everest: 29,029 ft
Average High temperature at finish: 95 degrees
(can get into the 100's in the canyons)
Aid stations along the course to replenish supplies: 25

Runner Statistics
Starting Runners: 369 (capped by Forest Service using a 5 year average. This year close to 400 will compete)
% of runners to finish within 30 hour cutoff: 50%-75% (50%-60% rate during high snow and/or high temp years)
Number of sub 24 hour finishers: 88 (10 year average)
Median finishing time of starters: 28hrs 15min (10 year average)
Countries representing this year: 26
States representing this year: 42

My Journey to the Western States 100 mile race
I ran my 1st ultra (longer than a marathon) trail race in the fall of 2007. It was around this time that I had learned about these crazy 100 mile trail races that traveled up and over mountains. I was hooked, although I wouldn't run another ultra for over a year. I quickly learned that the Western States race was the original 100 mile trail race and was considered the equivalent of the Boston Marathon. It was also likened unto the Super Bowl for ultra races.

I was so excited to watch the 2008 Western States race (via the computer webcast) has I had read everything about it over the past year. Unfortunately, the race was cancelled (the 1st and only time in almost 40 years) very last minute due to some forest fires along the course. Skip ahead a year and I finally got to watch the 2009 Western States race (via the computer webcast). It an was awesome experience and I decided I wanted to run it some day.

A month later I attempted my first 50 mile ultra (White River USA Track & Field 50 mile trail championship) that could potentially qualify me to enter the lottery for the 2010 Western States. Being new to the distance, I missed my qualifying time by about 30 minutes and thus couldn't enter the lottery.

Even though I couldn't enter the lottery for the Western States race in 2010, my thirst to complete a 100 mile trail race increased and I set my sights on another popular 100 mile race: The 2010 Cascade Crest 100 mile race. No sooner than I started training for this race, we found out we would be expecting baby #2 (Taylor) the same weekend as the race. That plan got quickly scratched and I found myself a new 100 mile race I could do in April 2010: The Lumberjack 100 mile race. Video from the race.

After completing that race, I was now qualified to enter the lottery for the 2011 Western States 100 mile race. The lottery was held in December 2010. When I saw how many other people had qualified and entered the lottery, it brought my chances of getting picked in the lottery to about 1 in 10. I easily got Jenni's permission to enter the lottery as I comforted that I wouldn't get selected, but that maybe in a few years I would (each continual year you qualify and enter, but don't get picked your odds of getting picked are greater the following year as long as you continue to qualify and enter). I figured in 5-7 years I would have a good chance at being picked in the lottery and it would be a fun vacation and hopefully, I'd be in good enough shape by then to complete the course.

Lottery day arrived and I watched the lottery live via a webcast. They had picked about 3/4 of the runners when the webcast quite working and I was booted out. I just assumed I wouldn't get picked because of my odds, but later that day I pulled up the results and found my name on the list. I about had a heart attack.

Then reality instantly set in. I would be toeing the start line at the 2011 Western States. Dreams 5+ years off instantly were put into action. I actually hadn't ran a race for 9 months (since my last 100 mile race). I hadn't even really ran much in that 9 months as I had picked up road biking commuting as my daily workout.

I had 6 months to get myself in good enough shape to complete the grueling task of covering those difficult 100 miles within 30 hours. That became my ultimate goal: to make it to the starting line injury free and in good enough shape to finish within the allotted time, something only 50-75% of the runners accomplish. I didn't want to be that guy that didn't finish because he was under trained and/or injured and ended up taking someone else's spot that could finish the course, but just didn't get picked in the lottery.

I immediately signed up for a bunch of shorter ultra races throughout the winter & spring that would help me build up to the 100 distance. Of course things never go as planned and I did encounter multiple setbacks and injuries in my training. I am glad to say that I'm pretty sure I have my injuries under control and was able to squeak in just enough training to help ease my nerves a bit.

It will be close and I will be pushing my limits for the entire 30 hours, but I'm confident I can pull it off, if everything goes as planned. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and we'll just have to see what race day delivers.

The Western States Course this Year
Mother nature has thrown a curve ball at the course this year. You just never know what you are going to get on this course. That is one of the challenges that makes this course so unique. One year you are dodging forest fires, the next year you are running up and over mountains still packed with snow and fording swollen rivers, one year the heat in the canyons will reach 107 degrees, then next year you might be wearing a windbreaker.

The Sierras have seen a huge amount of snow this year and it has been snowing late in the season and often. They got over a foot of new snow on Memorial day weekend. It hasn't stopped. In fact the ski resort that the race starts at has mentioned they will be open for skiing 4th of July weekend. That's how much snow is still up in the mountains.

Current snow levels (pink) compared to high, last, average, low seasons

No, the race won't be cancelled or postponed, and we still will be starting at the ski resort and heading up and over the Sierras, still tagging the highest point of the course just shy of 9,000 feet, but they will eventually route us onto an alternate snow course for the first 25 or 35 miles of the race to try to get us to a lower elevation sooner. They have warned us that still on this "snow route" we will be running over snow for the first 20-35 miles.

In the 38 years of the race they have only had to use a snow route 4 times. Last year happened to be one of those years and they have warned us that there is still twice as much snow on the course right now as there was at this time last year. That just goes to show you how adventurous the 1st third of the course is going to be.

Twice out of the 4 years they have had to use a snow route, they have increased the finishing cut-off time to 32 hours from 30 hours, as they say the snow travel adds at least that much time onto your race because it is so difficult to run through. We have been prepped that that will NOT be the case this year and we are still required to finish in 30 hours. Gulp!

Also 79 miles into the race the course crosses the American river. The river is dammed up stream and they usually slow the volume of the river, so it is only waist deep then they string a cable across the river to hold onto as you wade across the river. Because of the late snow melt the river will be running at full force and they will be ferrying us across the river in rafts.

Right now the forecast is for sunny average temperatures of low 90's on race day. The cooler the temperature, the more people complete the course, the hotter the temperature the lower the finishing rate. We'll hope for cool weather, but if it turns out to be a hot one, it will be a real challenge this year sloshing through 30+ miles of snow, only to get baked in triple digit heat in the canyons.

Wish me luck!

Western States Videos
Here are a collection of some footage from the race.

Here is a fun teaser for this year's race:

Here is a trailer for a new documentary coming out this fall about last year's race and the men's leaders. It was quite an epic year with the top 3 guys pushing each other which ended up in a new course record by over half an hour:

This documentary is a bit outdated as it is over 10 years old, but it gives you a more detailed look into the race. It is almost an hour long so you need some time on your hands to watch it:

Here is another documentary from the same era. I think I enjoyed this one a bit more. Again it is just over an hour long so you need to have some time if you want to watch it:


James and Elizabeth said...

WOW. I'm speechless. I don't know if I should be excited to overwhelmed. It sure looks like an adventure to say the least. I'm excited to watch you come race day. Enjoy your vacation and we'll be praying for your safety. (no injuries)

Dan Thomas said...

Will, I watched all the video's and you are to be commended for even trying to run it!

Sandy said...

Thanks for such a good blog, lots of history and information.
I'm with James and Elizabeth ~ excited and overwhelmed. I have no doubt that you'll finish well and be pleased with your efforts. I'm so excited for you!!! It's like watching a dream come true for you. See you there!!!! ~ A dream come true for me:)

Carolyn said...

We'll be thinking about you....and feeling your pain as well! Good luck....you can do it!

Jenni said...

I am so proud of you and am excited to be there cheering you on! Team Thomas loves you!!