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3 Lessons From Foresthill At Mile 62 Of The Western States 100

Ultramarathons lay bare every element of the human experience, and an aid station in one of the most famous 100-mile races shows that.

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At noon on June 26, Foresthill was already packed. The sleepy town in the hills above Sacramento, California, looked like it was hosting a Grateful Dead concert with slightly fewer psychedelics, or maybe a spandex convention. Cars lined up as far as you can see, anticipation in the air, along with the musk that comes from heavy anticipation in 95℉ weather. It was nearly two hours before the first runner of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run would pass through the iconic spot, and it was packed.

Foresthill is famous in ultrarunning because of its history. Sitting smack dab at 100K into the race, it’s where dreams are made and hopes dashed. The brutal canyon heat before Foresthill puts aside any notion that athletes can save something for a faster finish. To Foresthill, maybe you can pace yourself wisely. After Foresthill, it’s about managing crises. 

Foresthill is famous in ultrarunning because of its history. Sitting smack dab at 100K into the race, it’s where dreams are made and hopes dashed. The brutal canyon heat before Foresthill puts aside any notion that athletes can save something for a faster finish. To Foresthill, maybe you can pace yourself wisely. After Foresthill, it’s about managing crises. 

Around 1:45 p.m., Jim Walmsley bounded through. I believe I saw him touch the ground, which—if confirmed—would be the first time he hasn’t been airborne since 2016. The crowd went bonkers as he leapt past, looking like he didn’t want to be late to the early bird special at the Auburn Denny’s.

As each successive racer came through, their faces and body language told stories of agony and ecstasy and sometimes being too far beyond fatigue to muster much emotion at all. Eventual women’s winner Beth Pascall was confidently flowing—the only thing that could stop her or Jim would have been a sufficiently large asteroid (at least 10 to 20% larger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs). Others were walking until they saw their crews, when they suddenly looked like they were auditioning to be the cover model of a running magazine. There were so many tears, some appreciating the immensity of the undertaking with hope, others appreciating the immensity of the undertaking with despair—all agreed upon the idea that it’s a big freaking undertaking. Just don’t cry too much, because those tears include precious electrolytes.

I cried too. What can I say, I am a sucker for human perseverance just like I am a sucker for early 2000 movies starring Ryan Gosling. In my coaching notebook, I scribbled down some lessons between athletes, so let’s make it an article to justify the trip as a business expense.

One: Great days are always earned, bad days are often unlucky 

There’s no way to fake a great day. Our fitness ceilings are built over months and years, and a breakthrough always comes from hundreds of hours of hard work. But bad days? The universal floors we all have? They are often terrible liars. We can manage the crap, but can’t prevent all the crap, and sometimes there happens to be a big crappy fan to spread it around.

That’s especially true on days with external conditions beyond our control. On Saturday, temperatures got up to 101℉. In that furnace, athletes were toeing the line between breakthrough and breakdown. And often, it was impossible to know whether the line was crossed until 100.2 miles after the start. When crap hits the fan, it can happen hard and fast.

On Saturday, temperatures got up to 101℉. In that furnace, athletes were toeing the line between breakthrough and breakdown. And often, it was impossible to know whether the line was crossed until 100.2 miles after the start. When crap hits the fan, it can happen hard and fast.

Clare Gallagher stepped up to the start line as a woman to beat, one of the fastest and toughest runners in the world, and the defending champion. She ran amazingly and put herself in position at Foresthill. But while we were waiting, I heard from her crew that way back at mile 33, a fall aggravated a knee contusion that she had struggled with earlier in the year. She didn’t mention it in the aid station, so I hoped it was nothing serious. She had a fire in her eyes that was full of blazing strength, and a depth of intent that defines all she does. Clare is a champion for a reason.

But in the next section, the injury and heat combined to make one of those good days impossible. Clare went on a 25-mile vision quest for a miraculous finish on a brutal day. I have no idea how she did it. She earned a breakthrough race, like many others on that start line, but sometimes there’s a fan blowing on high and more than enough crap to go around. 

After a bad day, what happens next? I think that’s the most important question in an athletic life. No matter what we do, crap will happen, over and over and over again. Maybe it’s a tough race, a failed workout, an injury, a broken furnace spewing fumes of despair at mile 70. Whatever it is, we’re then faced with a choice. Do we judge ourselves and question everything, or do we learn what needs to be learned and move forward with open curiosity?

Belief is thinking that you can continue to grow, even after you’re handed evidence to the contrary. It’s the ultimate test, going against the part of our brains that is prone to availability bias, impostor syndrome and pieceofshit-itis. Let the bad days dictate self-talk and decisions, and you’ll get caught up in stop-and-start cycles that leave you thinking your talent is so much lower than it is. Believe through the crap, you can see how deep the rabbit hole of your talent really goes.

Or, to put it another way, just wait for Clare’s next race. Watch out world.

Two: Give your body a chance

When Sarah Keyes came through the aid station in 17th, she immediately pointed to her feet, said something inaudible and took off her shoes. Given the context clues of what I saw next, I’m guessing her words were, “These things hurt so badly.”

Her heels were blistered in a way that looked moderately scary to my untrained eye. Her feet distressingly resembled prunes. When her crew took off her socks, she reflexively recoiled in discomfort.

Her heels were blistered in a way that looked moderately scary to my untrained eye. Her feet distressingly resembled prunes. When her crew took off her socks, she reflexively recoiled in discomfort.

It wasn’t the day Sarah had envisioned—as a world-class athlete with speed and strength, plus brilliance to match, a good day could have ended on the podium. While few people can say their good days are that good, we all share the same potential on bad days. DNF.

But not Sarah. There’s no shame in the DNF game, but she wasn’t ready to make that decision yet. Her crew got to work, treating her like a high performance Formula One car. Dry, powder, new shoes. Slowly stand up. Start walking. Start jogging. Then a few minutes later, she was running fast and moving up through the field.

How she moved up to 12th place by the finish is something I will always wonder. It was grit, sure. I don’t think you earn entry into Western States without lots of grit. But seeing her get up and keep moving, I felt like it went beyond that. Sarah was expressing a deep curiosity—in what she could do, in what the human body could do. She found out she was capable of something that would have seemed impossible to most onlookers at Foresthill. She was open to the possibility that things might turn around, and they did. Her splits later in the race were blisteringly fast.

Sarah was expressing a deep curiosity—in what she could do, in what the human body could do. She found out she was capable of something that would have seemed impossible to most onlookers at Foresthill. She was open to the possibility that things might turn around, and they did. Her splits later in the race were blisteringly fast.

Give yourself a chance without judgment. Who knows how far curiosity can take you.

Three: When you step toward the abyss, don’t do it alone

In the iRunFar pre-race prediction contest, the group-think projections had Drew Holmen finishing 17th and Katie Asmuth finishing 16th. That may have seemed reasonable, if you were making your picks in 2018 and didn’t know how numbers worked. But Drew knew the truth. Katie knew too. Their good days were ready to be unthinkably, pants-crappingly good. Their floors were the same as everyone’s, but those ceilings were on the moon.

However, knowing that in theory is a small part of the battle, especially in Western States on a hot year. You still have to do it. And that requires reaching deep into the suitcase of courage and seeing what comes out.

Drew got to Foresthill in 5th place. His crew mentioned quad cramping. Every step past 100k would be the farthest run he’d ever done. Talk about running into an abyss of uncertainty.

Katie got to Foresthill in 4th place. She was in great spirits, a bright shining light of joy. But Katie is like that in the DMV. The next section was going to require everything. “Give me your heart and soul and the contents of your stomach,” Western States says, “and maybe if you’re lucky I’ll give you a belt buckle you’ll never wear.”

What happened next is what makes Foresthill so special. Drew started running in the Bay Area after playing ultimate frisbee in college (now that needs to be its own article). The San Francisco Running Company group runs were where he first started to realize his own potential. I personally remember this athlete I had never seen before ripping my quads off and eating them with some fava beans and a nice chianti (metaphorically). His crew station was full of those friends, and others too, from Boulder and Minnesota, from his start in the sport when 14 miles was his longest run to his incredible present, when he is racing a 100-miler. As he faced the rest of the course, two of his best friends were running beside him, pacers that would trade off duties for the next 38 miles. Their silhouettes sped down the road. Way off in the distance, backlit by the brutal sun, their arms went up.

High five! Let’s do this.

Katie got into ultrarunning with just one long-term goal: “not to be a visitor to the sport.” She had started after her own experience at an aid station of the Angeles Crest 100-Miler, seeing the community in action. And at Foresthill, that big general goal had a specific asterisk: she didn’t want to be a visitor to the Western States 100 either. The top-10 all would get invites to next year’s race. 

This is it. Let’s do this.

If I were Katie, I would have been nervous. It’s so scary to be vulnerable when you think about it, especially with all of the followers of the sport seeming to watch every move on the live stream. But that’s not how Katie responded. As she skipped down the road, her smile was reflecting back enough light to be seen from space (the best cooling practice). Her brother was there, her husband, her kids, plus thousands of people that would probably become her biggest fans. She was going to leave it all out there. 

As Katie skipped down the road, her smile was reflecting back enough light to be seen from space (the best cooling practice). Her brother was there, her husband, her kids, plus thousands of people that would probably become her biggest fans. She was going to leave it all out there. 

Visitor to the sport? Sharing her joy with everyone along the road, high fives going left and right, you could see her putting 20% down on a 30-year ultrarunning mortgage. She and her new fans were taking up residence. 

Drew finished 3rd. Katie finished 5th. But that’s almost beside the point. Yeah, they rocked it. They just as easily could have had hard days, not getting past Foresthill or even not getting to the start line. Either way, they’d be awesome and they’d be loved. 

And that awe-inspiring love, that curiosity, that belief—that is what the Western States aid stations are all about.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.