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A Fast New World

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Men usher in new era at Western States 100

 

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Tony Krupicka and Geoff Roes warming up in the early miles of the highly anticipated 2010 Western States 100-miler. Photo by Lus Ecobar.

Over the years, some have taken to calling the Western States Endurance Run 100-mile race the “Western States Track Meet.” If the race deserves such a name, then this year’s men’s race played out like the best scripted of 1500-meter finals. The two-time defending champ toes the line. He and three championship rookies set out on a blistering pace. Two rookies pull away locked in a stride-for-stride battle. The third rookie unyieldingly stays within striking distance … but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Last year, Anita Ortiz was the first woman across the line at Western States in her race debut. Unfortunately, she would not have the chance to defend her title after breaking a bone in her foot in February. In her absence, there would be a wide-open race between previous Western States champions, other race veterans and a crop of talented newcomers.

The 2010 Western States 100 was guaranteed to be different before it even started. A late spring in the Sierra Nevada had left a significant snow pack on the course’s early miles. Lack of access to several aid stations forced race officials to reroute miles nine through 24 of the course. Pre-race speculation was that the new course would be fast. It was.

The Men
Four men’s favorites set out into the 5 a.m. darkness from Squaw Valley, California, in pleasantly cool conditions for late June. There was two-time defending champ Hal Koerner of Ashland, Oregon, back again fresh from a 40-minute PR at the Miwok 100K in May. Anton Krupicka, winner of this year’s Miwok 100K and two-time Leadville 100 champion, of Boulder, Colorado, toed the line following his best 100-mile training season to date. Alaskan Geoff Roes entered Western States having won all six of the 100-milers he’d run. At only 22 years old, Kilian Jornet of Spain’s Catalonia region was no 100-mile rookie with two wins at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc to his credit. However, he, Krupicka and Roes were all running Western States for the first time.

All four favorites immediately went to the front of the race. They crested the initial four-mile, 2500-foot climb ahead of the field and within a few seconds of one another. The other side of the crest held miles of snow. The footing was dicey and the trail not apparent. Krupicka, Roes and Jornet opened a lead on Koerner and worked together to spot course markings. All three made it without incident to the easier going of the “snow route,” which was actually snow free. The good footing paired with a descent allowed Koerner and five other runners to join the lead group. They filled the air with chatter as Jornet and Josh Brimhall of Henderson, Nevada, pushed the pace at well under seven minutes per mile.

By mile 19, Zach Miller of Bozeman, Montana, Leigh Schmitt of Conway, Massachusetts, Jornet, Brimhall and Koerner had separated themselves as a lead group. However, two miles of rough trail into the Duncan Canyon aid station at mile 24 shook things up a bit. Jornet, Krupicka and Roes forged ahead and entered the aid station ahead of the other contenders.

Koerner made a brief attempt to rejoin the small lead pack, but could not hang on during the 1500-foot climb into the Robinson Flat aid station at mile 30. As he approached the aid station, he struggled with his footing on the snow. He seemed to fight for every step, whereas the three who preceded him moved over the snowpack with ease. Koerner would drop at mile 80 due to an ankle injury.

 

 

 

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Krupicka and the Spaniard Kilian Jornet (#35) duking it out in the midday heat. Photo by Lus Ecobar.

Breaking Away
Jornet, Krupicka and Roes carried on together. Jornet vanished ahead of the others on the descent into Deadwater Canyon. Roes and Krupicka stuck together until after crossing the footbridge at the bottom of the canyon. Roes’ energy lulled as they hit the steep climb to the Devil’s Thumb aid station at mile 48, and Krupicka quickly pulled away. Jornet entered the aid station with a small lead, but Krupicka made a quicker transition through the aid station to take the lead. This scenario would be repeated at both the Michigan Bluff (mile 56) and Foresthill (mile 62) aid stations. These changes in position were illusory. “Before each aid station, [Jornet] would sprint ahead, because he was spending more time in aid stations,” explains Krupicka. “We were literally running stride for stride while we were on the trail.”

It’s often said, “The race starts at Foresthill.” If that’s the case, then this year it appeared to be a two-man race. Roes, still in third, had fallen 12 minutes behind the leaders and, in his own words, “stopped thinking about Tony and Kilian, and focused on regrouping.” When he picked up his pacer, Dave Mackey, at Foresthill, he told Mackey, “You’re going to have to be really patient with me right now. I think I can turn it around, but I need some more time.”

Midway through the 16-mile stretch of trail known as California Street that leads down to the American River crossing, the Catalan again gave back a minute lead while drinking water at the Peachstone aid station. He and Krupicka ran together down to the river crossing at mile 78. When they boarded the boats to cross the river, they were 15 minutes ahead of third-place Roes. After running up to the Green Gate at mile 80 in sync, Krupicka noticed Jornet lingering in shade of the aid station. It would be the final time would see Jornet.

Krupicka powered on knowing that he was building a lead on Jornet and, based on listening for river crossing cheers while at Green Gate, about 15 minutes on third place, who he correctly believed to be Roes. If Krupicka could just hold on, he would win the race and likely set a course record.

Just eight miles later, Roes and Mackey blew by Krupicka and into the lead. “If there had been 20 or 25 miles left in the race I would have come up and chatted with [Krupicka] and run with him for a while, but it was far enough toward the finish,” says Roes. “I was running to win and knew the best thing to do was to make a really decisive pass and I did. … I felt bad.”

A mile or so after passing Krupicka, Roes dropped Mackey, who was having stomach problems. The loss of Mackey, who had paced him for 30 miles and helped lift Roes out of a long low point from mile 45 to mile 70, took some wind out of Roes’ sails. Krupicka had been “demoralized for a minute or two” when Roes passed him, but then he “mentally changed gears and started running hard after [Roes].” By mile 91, he saw Roes just 200 yards ahead. Two miles later, Roes’ lead was down to 50 yards after a stiff climb. That’s when Roes saw Krupicka behind him.

Seeing Krupicka reenergized Roes. But Krupicka’s quads were shot. That was a game-ending combination as the two approached a two-mile, 1000-foot descent back to the American River at the No Hands Bridge (mile 97) aid station. Roes did “whatever he could to ignore the pain in his legs” and let loose on the descent. He “didn’t want the race to come down to a race up from No Hands Bridge.” In less than four miles, Roes built his lead to over five minutes.

Roes won in 15:07:04, nearly half an hour under Scott Jurek’s previous record of 15:36:27 set in 2004. Although he finished second, Krupicka also smashed Jurek’s old course record by running 15:13:53. Jornet, 16:04:50, barely edged out a late-charging Nick Clark, 16:05:56, to hold on to third. Clark’s fourth-place time would have been good enough to win all but four editions of the Western States 100 since 1986, when the last set of major course changes were made, and was 24 minutes faster than the best non-winning time during the same span, which Dave Mackey ran in 2004.

The Revolution

These performances represent the culminating event in a paradigm shift in men’s trail ultrarunning in America. Old records are no longer broken—they’re shattered. Matt Carpenter may have ushered in this new age when, in 2005, he broke the Leadville 100 record by 93 minutes. In 2008, Kyle Skaggs took two hours and 44 minutes off the Hardrock 100 record that Scott Jurek had set a year earlier. Just last autumn, Roes demolished Skaggs’ Wasatch 100 record by more than an hour. We may never know if this shift is due to an infusion of more talented runners as the sport grows, a rethinking of what’s possible or something else entirely; however, race volunteers had best continue setting up aid stations well ahead of predicted leader arrival times!

 

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Krupicka crosses the finish line in course-record time, but behind the on-fire Alaskan Roes. Photo Lus Ecobar.

The Women
The lead position of the women’s race saw little of the drama found in the men’s race. Joelle Vaught of Boise, Idaho, led the first four-mile climb, but soon after the course turned downhill Tracy Garneau of Vernon, British Columbia, took over.

By the Last Chance aid station (mile 44) just before heading into the canyons section, Garneau had opened a six-minute lead on Vaught. Twenty-five minutes behind Garneau, three-time Western States champ Nikki Kimball of Bozeman, Montana, and Devon Crosby-Helms of San Francisco, California, another pre-race favorite, were the next women to come through Last Chance. Crosby-Helms would be pulled from the race for dehydration at mile 55.

Garneau, who was running Western States for the first time, continued to run strong in the second half as 100-mile rookie Vaught fell off the pace. Drawing on her three previous finishes at Western States, Meghan Arbogast of Corvallis, Oregon, worked her way up from fifth place at mile 50 into second when she passed Rory Bosio of Soda Springs, California, between miles 80 and 85.

The biggest turmoil of the women’s race was primarily virtual. The thousands of folks at home and on the course who were receiving race updates from the race’s webcast were informed that Garneau dropped out at the Green Gate aid station. While the Canadian did have a rough spell, her reported drop was a mistake.

Garneau regrouped and held off a late surge by Arbogast to win in 19:01:55. After the race, Garneau reflected, “Getting that silver [sub-24-hour] belt buckle was most important to me. I didn’t let myself know I had [the win] until I stepped into the stadium.”

Arbogast ran 19:15:58, her best time at Western States by an hour and 35 minutes and her highest placing. Kimball ran 19:23:09 for third place. It was her fifth time finishing in the top four. Fourth was 25-year-old Bosio, who was the only woman in the top 10 under the age of 30.

With no disrespect intended, the women’s race did not provide the same game-changing feel of the men’s race. There’s a reason: a one-woman revolution that occurred the better part of two decades ago. Her name? Ann Trason. She still holds Western States women’s record as well as seven of the 10 fastest times since 1986. She also holds the course record for the most competitive ultras that have survived from the 1990s, including the Leadville 100, Miwok 100K and American River 50-miler, to name a few.

One woman who did break new ground was Amy Palmiero-Winters (see Faces, June 2010, Issue 66). She became the first amputee to finish Western States when she crossed the line in 27:43:10. Palmiero-Winters, however, was not the only amputee in the race. Amy Dodson, another left-leg amputee, was mistakenly pulled from the race by officials at the Miller’s Defeat aid station (mile 34) under the pretext that she was behind the pace required for an official 30-hour finish. Race director Greg Soderlund later acknowledged that Dodson should not have been pulled from the race, as there was not an official cutoff time at Miller’s Defeat.

The Field

The course alterations and relatively mild conditions in the upper 80s led to unprecedented success throughout the field. Of 426 starters, a record 328 racers finished within the 30-hour cutoff. In addition, a record 123 silver belt buckles were also awarded in recognition of runners who finished in less than 24 hours.

Bryon Powell is an ultrarunner, coach and editor of iRunFar.com. He looks forward to celebrating “Statesmas” the last weekend of every June. This article originally appeared in our October 2010 issue.

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