Finishing the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run while living life and raising three kids
At around 6:30AM on June 20th (3 days before the race started) as I stumbled in the darkness trying to find my phone to turn off a forgotten alarm, my left pinky toe crashed into the steel leg of a desk chair in an unfamiliar motel room outside San Francisco.
“No, no, no, no, no!” I said over and over again as I assessed my toe which was perpendicular to the others.
This could not be happening.
I had been doing everything right; rolling my feet on a frozen water bottle nightly to keep the beginnings of some plantar fasciitis at bay, and similarly icing my right achilles to deal with some issues that arose early in my training from an overly aggressive week.
Normally I can pop a dislocated toe back in place or easily set a broken toe, but this one was different. I spent a few minutes trying to set this toe, believing that if it was back in place I could rest it until the race and at least give it a go. But as-is? I could barely walk.
After several attempts to set my toe that resulted in my swirling in and out of consciousness, I heeded my wife’s advice and went to the ER.
Twenty minutes later I hobbled into an ER near Fairfields, CA. Amazingly the waiting room was empty and I was the first patient of the shift. A quick x-ray revealed my toe was not broken as I had feared but dislocated — and badly at that. The attending physician explained that she would re-set it but I would need to keep off it for a few weeks. After a brief searing pain my toe was properly set. The pain was (mostly) gone and I could put weight on my foot again. A huge grin spread across my face as I said, “I can definitely run on THIS!”
The doctor looked blankly at me, shook her head, “You should absolutely not run a 100 mile race on that foot. But you seem with-it enough to making decisions for yourself.”
A few minutes later I walked confidently out of the ER with a mostly pain-free foot feeling like I had a new lease on life!
For the next 3 days I didn’t run a step. Beautiful as Squaw Valley is, I didn’t want to risk doing anything (else) stupid before the big dance so I spent the time relaxing with family and friends and going to the pre-race festivities.
Fast forward to June 23, 2018 @ 5:00AM. With a blast of a shotgun I was off on my biggest adventure yet. For most, running Western States, or “States,” is a bucket list goal. For me it was that AND my first hundred miler, which as it turned out was pretty special.
In the end, States was more than I could have asked for and went better than I could have hoped. What follows is not a typical race report detailing how the day unfolded. Rather it is a breakdown of how I, a 38 year old, married, father of 3 with a busy schedule could train for and enjoy running the Western States course. If I could do it, anyone can.
I’ve been running ultras since 2013. Before States I’d run seven 50Ks, two 50 milers, and one 100K. For most races I make up a training plan and do a terrible job of sticking to it. My mileage goals are always aspirational and life has a funny way of crumpling up my training plan and tossing it in the garbage can.
Historically, I’m not a terribly consistent trainer. For the last few years I’ve probably averaged about 20–25 miles a week. Sure, there’s some weeks of 30–35 miles a week and a few weeks of 40 miles throughout the year but there’s as many, if not more, weeks of 8 or 16 miles. I tend to come into races under trained and rely on my experience and a tendency to run at least mildly smart races.
For States I didn’t write up a training plan. I knew doing so would be a waste of time with having started a new, incredibly busy job in October, three little kids, and a wife who I love and value far beyond any running dreams or goals. I knew my key to success would be gradually building up my mileage and focusing on consistency over the long haul. I looked at the calendar and broke it down into month chunks and set average weekly mileage goals that looked roughly like this (actual averages in italics):
January: 30 miles a week (averaged ~28 miles a week)
February: 30 miles a week (averaged ~28 miles a week)
March: 30–40 miles a week (averaged ~32 miles a week)
April: 50–60 miles a week (averaged 47 miles a week)
May: 60–70 miles a week (averaged 40 miles a week)
June: taper (averaged 55 miles/week for first 2 weeks & 26 miles before States)
As you can see I didn’t have huge mileage building up to States but I did hit my two biggest goals for training: 1) establishing consistency over a series of months, and 2) getting in long, hard runs with lots of climbing and downhills most every weekend for April, May, and the first two weeks of June, including a monster 40 mile overnight run (a double Priest & 3 Ridges for you local runners) with 13,000 feet of climbing and descent. This run and my last long training run (30 miles on the Appalachian trail from The James River footbridge to the top of Apple Orchard mountain with approximately 15 miles of climbing followed by 15 miles of downhill) were cornerstones of my training as I ran each of these hard which served as to “season” my quads for the crushing downhills and monster climbs of Western States.
One thing I read and heard about often with 100 mile training is getting in back-to-back long runs. The belief is that by doing so you learn to run on tired legs. This was something I had hoped to do but with my daughter’s soccer games and my boys’ baseball games, back-to-back long days just didn’t fit into my schedule. In the end I don’t think I suffered for my lack of back-to-backs as I still had legs after Foresthill (mile 62) and ran quite well for the remaining 38 miles while passing 40 runners.
I really didn’t know what to expect coming into my first 100 miler on the biggest stage in ultrarunning. From talking with several runners who’ve run or paced Western States each of them cautioned me about going out with a time goal. Instead they encouraged me to have fun, run smart, and above all, finish. I took this advice to heart and I’m glad I did. Here are the key points from the race that stick out in my mind as contributing to my success:
1) Nutrition: I didn’t eat any gels. Nope, not even one. I typically have gels during a race but find 10–15 is about my max. On the advice of a training buddy (thanks Todd Thomas!), I did what works for me: PB&J. For the first 30 miles my primary fuel source was PB&Js followed by some cantaloupe and strawberries off the aid station tables and Tailwind in a handheld bottle. This worked well as I never had a bonk or felt I ran low on fuel.
In truth I think PB&J is an awesome choice. At roughly 480 calories for an average sandwich, if you eat half a sandwich every hour and supplement with other foods off the table or a sports drink like Tailwind you’re easily consuming over 300 calories an hour, which worked well for me. Additionally, my crew (my older brother, Patrick, for whom I’m eternally grateful that he jumped in to crew before I could even ask him to) had an ice cold bottle of Carnation Breakfast Essentials chocolate drink waiting for me at Robinson Flat & Michigan Bluff. These 8 oz. bottles have 250 calories and 10g of protein and you can drink them down in a few seconds. These were amazing. I only wish I had more at other aid stations.
My one nutrition mistake came at Foresthill. For weeks before the race I’d been telling my 5 year old daughter I wanted a chocolate milkshake and a kiss when I saw them during the race. As promised, when I arrived they had one. A BIG one. I chugged this down fairly quickly and it was amazing but in the end, it was too much. Had I had only 8–10 oz. I think I would have been fine, but my stomach went south for the next hour or two. Thankfully I never puked and due to the skill and wisdom of my pacer, Sophie Speidel, I pulled through my stomach ordeal and finish strong.
“If you can reach Foresthill without blowing up your quads, the rest of the race is super runnable.” Advice from anyone who has ever run States.
This is fantastic advice but for a 100 miler newbie, I had one question: how does one exactly run 62 miles without blowing up their quads? Good question. I don’t know the answer but for me this came down to two things: 1) keep my heart rate aerobic, and 2) don’t bomb the downhills in the canyons.
With this in mind, I started the race with my GPS watch on one screen — heart rate. I knew this was a long race and from reading several articles (primarily Joe Uhan’s fantastic piece from 2014, race reports, and talking to a bunch of folks that pushing too hard (going anaerobic: 162+bpm), too early was a primary reason runners blow up and commence a death march to the finish, or worse. I focused on keeping my heart rate in the aerobic zone (138–148) as much as possible. While my watch ended up dying before Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7), I did a good job of keeping my heart rate low — even in the high country up above 9,000 ft. I ran the entire race within myself, pushing hard but with the knowledge that it was a long race. I don’t think I went anaerobic until maybe the last mile of the race (from Robie Point) when I was pushing hard to finish under 25:15.
Additionally, I focused on running the downhills easy (thanks for this great advice Sophie!). While bombing downhill is exhilarating and fun, I knew it was a long race and that flying downhill was not a recipe for success for a 100 mile newbie. This strategy also helped meexcel on the uphill portions of the race — even on the last climb to Robie Point I had legs and power hiked like a madman. In the end, I think keeping my heart rate low and aerobic was a primary reason I reached Foresthill and still had legs to run.
3) Heat: Western States is a hot race, but the organizers do an amazing job of providing a ton of ice for runners — like 24,000 lbs. of ice for the whole event! I utilized the ice for the first 70 miles or so having my ice bandana refilled at every chance and kept myself soaking wet for almost the whole race. In addition to an ice bandana, I kept a handheld bottle just for spraying myself down with water that I either picked up at an aid station or filled in one of the numerous creeks or rivers you cross throughout the race. These two devices were instrumental to surviving the heat, and in truth, I never found the heat too bad despite the temps soaring into the 100s and the stifling heat of the canyons.
4) Feet: The morning of the race as I put on my socks I thought “I probably should do something with my feet.” But I’ve never really had any foot issues and had planned to change socks often (I had a fresh pair in every drop bag) and keep them lubed. This strategy kinda worked. As of the writing of this report I have lost four toe nails and have one more to lose. At Michigan Bluff a podiatrist spent some time on my feet dealing with some blisters. My foot issues (which didn’t really slow me down much but ended up eating up about 30 minutes of time at Devil’s Thumb & Michigan Bluff combined) were primarily related to maceration from having my feet wet all day. Once this occurs there’s not much you can do except dry your feet out and then not get them wet — which is near impossible at Western States.
Post-race I ran into an English woman in our motel parking lot who had run States with zero foot issues. She hasn’t had foot issues since employing the advice in a book — Fixing Your Feet. I’ve since picked up the book and found it to be incredibly helpful. We’ll see how my feet fare in future races.
5) Pacer: When I first got into the race I had no plans for a pacer. Not out of some sort of “lone wolf” mentality but because the only person I felt comfortable enough to ask to come out to CA and pace me, my brother-in-law from Alberta, with a newborn. I count myself lucky because I kind of stumbled into the best pacer I could have ever hoped for.
I met the illustrious Sophie Speidel by chance as she was renting our Airbnb cabin for a local 50K race in the mountains of Virginia we were both running in April. Through the course of conversation, I mentioned that I was running Western States as my first 100. Sophie, along with a few of the other guests, had previously run Western States and paced it a few times. She mentioned she was planning on being at Western States this year. Sophie was scheduled to pace another runner but thought that plan might fall through. I tucked that bit of info away and for the next month or two and secretly hoped she’d be available.
In late May I reached out and she was no longer slated to pace this other runner and graciously agreed to pace me to my first 100 mile finish.
From my conversations with other runners, I knew I would be in great hands with Sophie as a pacer. Here are several key areas where Sophie played an integral role in my success at Western States:
a. My stomach: As I mentioned above, my stomach went south shortly after Foresthill. I’d never had stomach issues before in a race, but Sophie guided me through them like a pro. She knew I needed to keep eating, something small, little bits, and sipping on water.
Sophie encouraged me to keep moving, focus on my form (I think this is a Jedi mind trick to keep your mind off discomfort) and to keep eating and drinking even though my stomach felt terrible.
b. Pace: While I was moving well there were times when I just wanted to walk — especially when my stomach felt terrible. Here she prodded and encouraged me to run not by suggesting it but by telling me, “you’re going to run this next hill” or by tapping into my competitive side by letting me know that she would be running the next hill. This was perfect. She knew what I needed and what I could do even if I didn’t.
c. “Let’s go hunting”: A few times during the darkness of the last 38 miles we’d see a headlamp up ahead and Sophie would quip, “Tim, let’s go hunting.” I typically call this game “pass them running as strong as you can and crush their soul.” Sophie’s encouragement to track down runners and pass them helped me to run better and smarter and was a large reason I passed 40 people during the last 38 miles.
d. Perspective: During the last 38 miles there were times when I couldn’t do simple calculations and needed someone to give me perspective and help me know where I was and how many more miles we had to run. Additionally, Sophie knew how and when to push me. For instance, coming to the No Hands Bridge aid station (mile 96.8) I went to the aid station table to grab some ginger ale. As I got there I heard Sophie bark, “NO STOPPING!” That made me jump and I quickly turned and followed orders.
In a race this long seconds add up to minutes and minutes add up to hours. Sophie knew this and helped me avoid wasting time in almost every aid station from Foresthill to the finish.
In the end, I can’t say enough about Sophie. She was a God-send and played a huge role in making my first 100 miler an amazing experience.
Throughout this whole ordeal and through all the training my wife was absolutely amazing. She encouraged me to get out and run on those few days I didn’t feel like it and she supported me at every turn and in every instance where I needed to get a run in whether it would take me 4, 5, or 12 hours. I could not have done the training or run this race without her unwavering support.
My brother, Patrick, is the only crew I’ve ever had. He took this role seriously and was a total rock star getting me everything I needed each time I saw him. Thanks, broseph.
Additionally, my soon-to-be-sister-in-law Marybeth provided great encouragement along the way and my kiddos, Ezra, Ewan, and Eva, were the highlight of my day. Getting to run a few 100 yards with them at Foresthill and on the track at Placer High was such an amazing experience that I will always cherish.
Thank you David Horton, Todd Thomas, John Andersen, Andy Jones-Wilkins, Kevin Correll, and Alexis Thomas. Your advice and input during training and the lead up to States helped tremendously.
While States was the reason for our trip to California, we decided to go big and make it a two week vacation, exploring Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, Auburn, Yosemite, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Monterey, Big Sur, and San Fransisco. After our flight home to the east coast, as we drove into our neighborhood, Eva quipped, “That was the best vacation ever!” I tend to agree.
What made this race special beyond the usual reasons was using this race as a fundraising effort for Freedom 4/24, an anti-trafficking organization focused on bringing freedom and justice to victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Together, with many of you, we raised $2,895. If you are interested in using your running to raise funds for a great cause I encourage you to contact Freedom 4/24 at email@example.com.
Finally, people often ask why anyone would run this far. The best answer I can give is to quote Bill Bowerman:
“We don’t run to win races but to test the limits of the human heart.”
We are capable of so much more than we think and than our comfort desires. Running allows me to push my comfort zone and seek the boundaries of what is possible. The further I go I find no boundaries, only limitless possibility.
States was a wonderfully brutal and beautiful experience and I’m already eyeing my next 100 miler.