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I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more coverage of the Western States 100 Miler! I am OBSESSED with this race. They say that both men and women average 10+ sexual thoughts a day, and I double that in daily Western States thoughts all year long. At least.
In the fall, I’m planning athletes’ seasons around qualifying. In the winter, I’m coaching at Golden Ticket races. All spring, my eyelid flutters with stress thinking about balancing the big training athletes need to excel with injury risk. And on race day, I watch as 364 days of meticulous planning gets hurled into a freaking buzzsaw.
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The Western States 100 starts with a few jabs in the high country for the first 30 miles, before throwing haymaker after haymaker in the hot and steep canyons for the next 30 miles, finishing it off with roundhouse kicks all the way to the finish.
It throws every athlete into the fire. Those that emerge can conquer the world.
This article is adapted from a pre-race email that my co-coach Megan and I send to athletes, refined with new data every year. To me, the coolest thing about Western States isn’t the history or the location, it’s the competition. Each year, some of the best athletes in the world line up to test themselves, chasing ghosts that haunt each portion of trail.
That competition pressure-cooker means that small margins matter. Whereas ultras are usually characterized by big error bars, Western States is almost like a national championship track race, where every fraction of a percent can make the ultimate difference. These tips are designed to help athletes chase every small fraction, and all after the training hay is in the barn.
Ultra are chaos, and Western States 100 is more chaotic than most. But as the character Littlefinger said in Game of Thrones, “Chaos is a ladder.” Let’s climb this motherf’er all the way to the top of the podium.
And just to be clear, “podium” is metaphorical. I just want to encourage the mindset of chasing your peak performance potential, at Western States or anything else in life. Megan and I broke down this year’s race on our podcast (listen here), where we go into much greater detail. You are loved and you are enough, always, independent of where you finish in any running race.
HERE. WE. GO!
Tip One: Races can be lost on the Escarpment climb in the first few miles
The race starts with a few miles up the Escarpment, a fire-road climb that would be fun if it weren’t followed by 97 miles of hell. There’s a huge problem on that first climb. Athletes are ready, rested, and nervous, so perceived exertion may not overlap with actual physiological demands. They end up approaching lactate threshold, thinking they are out for a leisurely stroll. And they ignite the fuse on a ticking time bomb that may not go off for another 60 miles.
When an athlete approaches threshold on early climbs, their body increases glycogen burn rate to account for the higher output. That’s fine in moderation, since you can replenish those stores as long as effort drops later. The problem is that accidentally going too hard early on increases the burn rate later (for most athletes) even when effort subsequently drops. An athlete that pushes too much might not pay the piper until late in the race, when the heat combines with the brutally steep trails to make it impossible to overcome the energy balance offset.
You can’t win the race on the Escarpment, since 5 to 10 minutes mean very little over 100 miles. But every year, several athletes lose it there, often without realizing it.
In 2021, Tyler Green hiked and ran a relatively slow time on the Escarpment compared to the other elite men, before finishing so strong that he would have won if it weren’t for the human hurricane that is Jim Walmsley. Take your time, settle in, and make sure you turn around at the top to see the sunrise. Early-race uphills might feel easy, but they can be silent killers.
Tip Two: The high country trails are much more difficult than you might think.
Every time I run on some of the trails included in the first 30 miles of Western States, I think: “Who the heck says this is easy terrain?” Yeah, it’s not Europe, where the trail designers seem to be unable to draw anything but straight lines up mountains and every runner and their mom wants to poke you in the eye with a sharp pole. But it’s still hard, and athletes that think they’re facing a track meet are often gobsmacked by some of the early mountain running.
A 2012 study in the Wilderness Environmental Medicine journal completed at Western States found that muscle damage at the end of the race had no correlation with finishing time, age, gender, or running experience. But I’d be fascinated to see what would happen if we could do the same tests on athletes at mile 30, before everyone is wrecked, preventing us from seeing much variation. I bet that the athletes that can manage the damage in the high country are much more equipped to succeed later.
In 2017, Cat Bradley went from 15th early in the race all the way to the win. So it’s definitely possible to move up later, particularly on a hot or snowy year. Think quick feet, patience, and fueling early on. Because you’re about to dive down into the fire.
Tip Three: Limit braking on the downhills. Practice relaxation.
At the mile 30 Robinson Flat Aid Station, you’re around 7000 feet elevation. At mile 52, you’re below 2000 feet. And that section of trail includes A TON of climbing too! Downhills may seem like they’re easier, but in a 100 miler like Western States, the races are usually decided by how athletes manage the muscle damage that comes from eccentric muscle contractions on these steep descents.
A 2020 review article in Sports Medicine analyzed the soft tissue damage that comes from these types of downhills, in addition to peripheral fatigue from overstretched fibers that may also overload electrical signaling, plus central fatigue from the nervous system. That review indicated that form may play a role in how these decrements in performance unfold, though it’s uncertain. Focus on quick, light strides, relaxing as much as possible and avoiding excessive braking forces.
This course chews everyone up. Those that approach the downs properly can get spat back up and excel. Those that don’t get eaten alive and shat out by mile 60.
Tip Four: You can hike your way into the top 10.
A coach and athlete I admire a ton is Ian Sharman. One of the coolest accomplishments in the sport is his streak of 9 consecutive top-10 finishes, which crossed eras of the sport, in all different conditions, with all different builds. A unifying factor in those excellent races is his ability to combine strong hiking and flat/downhill running.
The Canyons 100k is run on many of the same trails, and top finishers at that race may only hike for a few minutes. But the 100-mile distance is different. Some of those same athletes will hike for hours over the course of the race. Even small differences in hiking efficiency add up.
If I am known for anything as a coach, I think it might be encouraging uphill running as much as possible. I still say that to athletes looking to podium. Scared money don’t make money, and you’re probably not going to hike to the top spot. But almost everyone will hike more than they might in training, and embracing it as an opportunity can change finish times by massive margins.
Tip Five: The Canyons are always hot, even when it’s not.
Many of us had Easy Bake Ovens as children. Well, Western States has its own version for adults. The Canyons are a Hard Bake Oven.
With heat reflecting off the trails, it feels like a convection broiler even in relatively mild years. An average 88-degree F day at the finish line in Auburn might feel like over 100 F in the Canyons. And a hot year in Auburn translates to the surface of the sun at mile 50.
That’s nothing to fear, though. With just a bit of heat acclimation, most athletes can expect something like 3 to 10 beats per minute increases in their heart rates, depending on their background and the temperature. Fine, we can manage that with controlled effort. But go a bit too hard, and that can skyrocket to 10 to 30 beats per minute, and it may require 30 minutes cooling off in an aid station to have a chance at finishing.
Every athlete should be prepared with an ice bandana. And while it varies on the person, Megan and I recommend white arm sleeves for more ice, plus something to apply ice to their chests and back (a pack and/or sports bra). The new hotness in ultra physiology is the formal ice vest, a hyper-chilled device that can be used at crew points to drop core temperature rapidly, and that may be worth an investment too.
But all the heat preparation and management cannot account for poor pacing, which is where the next point comes in.
Tip Six: Core temperature is connected to internal strain, so focus effort and strategy around avoiding overheating.
I’d love a study that measured core temperature at the Michigan Bluff Aid Station at mile 56, comparing that to the athlete’s individual baseline. I imagine that there’s a threshold that impacts metabolic processes so much that even if an athlete feels relatively good, they are due for a reckoning later.
As the body overheats, heart rate goes up and metabolic efficiency plummets. The hard part is that pushing to win a big race like Western States raises body temperature a ton, so what are you supposed to do? This conundrum presents a massive opportunity–while you should be aware of the heat, don’t be afraid of the heat. If you tune into your body signals to avoid pushing excessively hard, stay wet when possible, and cool off more at aid stations, you can be like a piece of yeasted-up dough in that hard-bake oven. RISING UP!
Tip Seven: 10 minutes in the first 50 miles is 100 minutes in the last 50 miles.
Look, it’s time we addressed the elephant in the room. As much as I like to say “results don’t matter” and “you are a perfect unicorn always,” there is more at stake at Western States for some athletes. Every year, athletes earn professional contracts at this race. There is media coverage that brings opportunities to create adjacent businesses. To be direct: there is money. It’s not a ton, but it’s something. The same goes for attention, which has its own currency. And all that combines to create a pressing awareness of… pressure? Being watched? Uncomfortable self-consciousness?
Whatever it is, seeing lots of athletes go through this over the years, I think it peaks with the live race coverage. IRunFar usually covers the top-10 athletes throughout the race, and I think that actually affects how the race unfolds. It’s like the physics principle of the observer effect, when the act of observation disturbs the system being measured. Athletes push just a bit more than they might otherwise, especially at first when the brain has enough glucose to be aware of external narratives. Meanwhile, later on, it turns into survival mode.
So be confident in yourself, whatever that means for you. For some athletes, that means going out faster. The cream rises to the top, and sometimes you gotta be the cream. For others, though, it means running their own race and knowing that if they execute, they will light the field on fire later.
I am always shocked that even after all these years, I play the same game in coaching that I am advising athletes against here. Standing at Foresthill, I fret over whether a lead shrank from 8 minutes to 5 minutes. 20 miles later, the gaps shift to double or triple that. By the finish, we’re working on a logarithmic scale.
Run with swag. Whether that means you go out faster or slower is unimportant, as long as you stay in the moment and do your own thing.
Tip Eight: Don’t think about entering into a racing mindset until Foresthill. If you can run to the river, you’ll excel.
After the brutal Canyons, athletes come to an oasis: the Foresthill Aid Station at mile 62. Thousands of people lined up over a mile of road, some crew and many fans. It’s a party, with enough ice to satisfy a polar bear erotically. That’s when the race begins.
Up to that point, the course has been hard. The high country is at altitude, and it’s tricky at times. The Canyons are hot and steep. But the next 18 miles down to the river drop down 2000 feet on more gradual, runnable terrain, followed by some buttery California single-track all the way to the finish. Every year, races are won and lost on this section of trail. The problem is that we sometimes miss it due to an optical illusion.
When Beth Pascall or Jim Walmsley come into Foresthill with a big lead and extend it later, it’s easy to think: “They won it by going out fast.” In reality, though, they won it by going out at the right pace for their physiology, so that they could really race later. I would bet the house and the dog that if athletes like them had gone out a bit easier, they’d end up winning by similar amounts (that might also apply to going out a bit harder, but that’ll have more risk).
The goal is not to run hard after Foresthill. The goal is to still be excited and ready to run. If you can keep the internal fire stoked, with the physiological context to sustain the flames, that’s when dreams come true.
Tip Nine: Your quads may feel fatigued earlier than you expect. That’s OK.
Almost every athlete we have coached to top finishes talks about having tired quads relatively early in the race. I think it’s almost impossible not to. The altitude plus the descents plus the heat are plain hard! That 2012 study found that the average creatine kinase levels (a proxy for muscle breakdown) in finishers at the 2010 edition of the race was 32,956 units per liter, when 198 is the top end of the reference range. While that breakdown is underway, the quads might feel a bit toasted. But you can still excel.
That’s the coolest part of ultra physiology. When the biomarkers indicate that fatigue should take over, that’s when training and psychology take over. There are unique pathways involving the interplay of the nervous system with fatigue that give athletes reserves of strength that can seem limitless, on the good days. Call it fatigue resistance or something else if you’d like, as studies are finding out more all the time. Whatever the explanation, ultra physiology is the good shit.
Trust that the tiredness is part of the process, and that surfing those waves can lead to magical places. You might just come back from the depths of physiological despair to a top finish. Magic, right? That’s why ultras are so freaking fun to coach–what feels like magic is actually some wild science that we are just beginning to understand.
Tip Ten: The uphills slow down for everyone. Aim to run the flats and downhills all the way to the finish.
In road marathons, the best pacing strategy is usually a slight negative split. At Western States, the splits are so positive that they could be a recurring character on Ted Lasso. It’s about managing the fade, and making up time when you can.
So the uphills will get slow, due to the muscular fatigue and breakdown, mixed with the metabolic demands of ultramarathons. Some athletes may still be able to run pretty darn fast–every year there are stories of pacers getting dropped by the leaders. But that is an illusion, for the most part. Those athletes are still slowing down, just less than others.
But one thing that is almost ubiquitous among top finishers is that they continue putting one foot in front of the other with running form on downhills and many flats whenever possible. The pace may feel slow, but the difference between a 5 mile per hour slow jog and a 4 mile per hour fast hike really adds up. Now do the math on 7 miles per hour versus 3.5 miles per hour, and you’re starting to see why gaps go from minutes to hours later in the race.
The Most Important Thing
Now that we’re approaching the end of the article, a disclaimer: this is mostly subjective opinion. Western States can be won a million different ways, and this is just one coaching approach that sometimes succeeds, and sometimes doesn’t. But no matter what strategy you take, at Western States or any other event, there is something that is indispensable:
No, sorry. I meant:
In truly hard events, whether that’s a 100-miler or starting a business or working through tough times in a relationship, there are certain constraints that are undeniable. You can’t jump to the moon, you won’t win Western States off 10 miles per week or with a VO2 max of 25. But most of us are usually playing somewhere in between the impossible and the inevitable. It might happen, it might not. We control some things, we don’t control most.
What happens there?
You put yourself out there, you get vulnerable, and you give yourself a chance. BELIEVE is the slight tailwind that nudges you in the direction of your dreams. It’s not going to get you there on its own. But the inverse of belief is self-doubt that can create a 300 mile per hour headwind. It’s a cruelty of life that thinking you can do something increases your odds by a few percent, whereas thinking you can’t decreases your odds infinitely.
So BELIEVE. Do that with all you have. Nudge yourself to greatness!
Nudges don’t create miracles all on their own. But sometimes, over 100 miles of chaos, it can seem like they do.
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 you can find more of their work (AND PLAY) on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.