Friday, July 01, 2011

Western States 100 Race Report - 2011

A race of 100 miles contains as many variable factors as it does miles. There’s your training – mileage, quality, nutrition. There are the race day conditions – snow, heat, course markings, stream crossings, mud. On race day, you have elements like the pace you set, efficiency through aid stations, nutrition, your crew, your pacer, navigating in the dark, and potential for nausea, blisters, or injury. You might have the perfect race, and then get stalled by a grouchy bear in the last mile. You just never know.

And that is the beauty of the distance.

You stand on the start line completely prepared, hundreds of training miles on your legs, feeling strong. But a little question mark hangs over each and every head on that start line. Anything can happen.

It’s that element of the unknown that lures me back to this distance. In my first two 100 mile races, it was utterly apparent to me that I did not have a clue what I was doing. 100 miles was a complete mystery to me. It’s unlike any other race I’ve ever run.

My first Western States then, was the object of endless amounts of rumination. I’d been waiting a long time for this one.

5:00 A.M. at Squaw Valley couldn’t come soon enough. In contrast to other races, I didn’t bother trying to quell my nerves. Being nervous sort of seemed like part of the fun, and with Jamie to share the excitement, it was. This was the big day we’d been training for. Why deny any of the experience?

Excited to be starting at last!

I’ve never seen so many people at the start of an ultra. Well, it’s Western States, after all, and it was more or less as I’d imagined: excited runners, a noisy crowd, a countdown from ten, shotgun blast, and 400 pairs of feet began their journey to Auburn. Pretty awesome.

I hadn’t gotten too worked up about the fact that we’d be running through a lot of snow. It was a situation over which I had no control. And as it turned out, it wasn’t so bad. We hit the snow a couple of miles up the hill, and ran on it for about 12 miles. The cool temperatures kept things firm, and we easily stayed on top.

The snow-running did take a lot of focus, and about an hour into the race I had to remind myself to stop running so I could eat something. I was determined not to make early mistakes that would cost me greatly later in the race.

Unfortunately, mistakes cannot always be avoided. Shortly before the Talbot aid station, when we were almost out of the snow, I twisted my ankle.

I knew it wasn’t good, but I couldn’t yet tell how bad it would be. I limped along until I could ice it in the next creek, popped two Tylenol, and just kept running. What else was there to do?

Once we left the snow behind, a sense of relaxation set it, and the dirt roads were certainly easier on my ankle. It felt good to run with my normal stride.

The Poppy Trail

French Meadows Reservoir

The climb to Duncan

At the Duncan aid station runners were welcomed by a wild 80’s party. Somehow the vibrant energy translated into me stuffing my face with more food than I’ve ever eaten at an aid station. I saw friends Clare and Scott, who told me I looked awesome. If you’re ever wondering, that is always the correct thing to say to a runner!

Most of the reroute was pleasant running. The temperatures were still cool, the birds were singing, and the legs felt good. I’d love to come back to this race and run the normal course one day, but I have no complaints about the reroute. I was simply having too much fun to worry about what I might be missing.

Climbing Mosquito Ridge (photo by John Medinger)

It seemed that everyone I ran with was either from the Midwest (Minnesota, Kansas) or back East (New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia), and we were all first-timers at the race.

“All the veterans must be up ahead of us,” I remarked to Arliegh from Minnesota.

“Either that, or they’re all behind us because they know better than to go out too fast,” he replied.

“Ooh. Good point.” I laughed though. I felt comfortable with the pace and was pretty sure I hadn’t gone out too fast.

When I hit the Pucker Point trail, I was finally in familiar territory. It was also at this point that I found myself suddenly alone for the first time during the race. It made me a bit nervous at first. Where had everyone gone? I knew these trails though, so when I finally relaxed about my solitude, I found my pace quickening a bit. My legs knew what was coming up and they were as excited about getting there as I was.

Flowers on the Pucker Point trail

View from Pucker Point

Leaving Last Chance, I was actually stoked to be entering the canyons. Jamie and I trained here nearly every weekend both last spring and this. They’re not easy, but I love the canyons.

Deadwood and El Dorado canyons are both comprised of steep descents, a river crossing via a bridge, and a steep climb. I played leapfrog through here with Matt Keyes who was kicking my butt on the descents, but coming back to me on every climb.

Welcome to the canyons!

Flowers in the canyons.

Aid at the bottom of El Dorado Canyon

Paul met me at Michigan Bluff, and it I couldn’t believe it had already been 56 miles. It really hadn’t seemed like a long day without crew. It also hadn’t gotten very hot. The predicted high of 86 in Auburn felt like maybe 80 in the canyons. My non-heat-trained body was ecstatic about this. I still wore my ice bandanna and put a cup of ice in the front of my sports bra at every aid station, but I wasn’t feeling the heat at all.

Super excited to run into my friend Kim from Truckee working the aid station at MB. (photo by Jim Frink)

After Volcano Canyon, which hardly counts as a canyon in comparison to the other two, I hit the Bath Road aid station and picked up my pacer, Donald. Hooray! Now I had company! We did the run-walk up Bath Rd. to Foresthill and traded notes on our day so far.

At Foresthill my weight was 135 – 3 pounds up from my start weight, and exactly what it would be at every station all day and night. Paul and Donald gave me the walking aid station treatment as I headed down the road. I felt no need to stop for anything. They kept me focused on moving forward and being efficient.

My rock-star crew keeps me moving through Foresthill. (photo by Jack Meyer) 

My stomach felt great, and it took food well all day. I already had a solid cushion on 24-hour pace (according to the signs at the aid stations which told runners 24 and 30 hour pace times), and heading downhill towards the river, I began to think about what it would take to run sub-23. Although I’m sure my pace was modest, I felt great and it seemed like my legs flew. I knew the territory between miles 60 and 100 held the possibility of that dark, scary pain that has accompanied my previous 100 milers, but I could just feel that things weren’t going to turn out that way this time. I just felt too good.

Heading out of Foresthill towards the river.

My official race photographer. (He took all the uncredited photos in the 2nd half of this report.)

Running along the river at dusk with a good friend is one of my best memories from the race. It’s such a beautiful time of day and such pleasant running. We didn’t see too many other runners, and it was easy to forget it wasn’t just another training run on the Cal Loop. As the canyon grasped at the last shred of daylight, the frogs, crickets and birds all joined in a chorus of “goodnight.”

Dusk along the river - Awesome!

Rucky Chucky - I'm stoked about everything right now!

For the second year in a row (last year I was a pacer) we crossed the middle fork on rafts. That was such an efficient operation – it couldn’t have gone smoother. Still, whenever it is that I come back to run the regular route through the high country, I’d like the opportunity to do the traditional river ford as well. I bet that water feels great on the legs!

I did my first, and only, shoe/sock change at Green Gate because I’d finally noticed some dirt from the stream crossings rubbing the ball of my foot. The injinjis had held up well all day, but clean socks and a dry pair of Mindbenders felt like a dream. I also noticed I was under 23 hour pace already, and vaguely wondered if I had enough miles left in the race to push for sub-22. I couldn’t even believe I was contemplating such a thing, but it didn’t seem unreasonable. I was dizzy with glee.

ALT aid station arrived in a flash. I’d planned to drink a 5-Hour Energy shot there. Suddenly it didn’t seem totally necessary, being so early in the night, but I was determined not to fall asleep on the trail like I had last year at TRT.

“5 hour energy?” Donald laughed at me. “I think you only need a 3 hour energy. We’re almost there!”

“Well, yeah.” I chugged the shot. “This will have to do though. What mile are we at, anyway?”


“What?” I shrieked. In reality, I had known this, but I hadn’t been thinking ’15 miles left.’ It sounded like nothing. “We better start running!” I admonished. I’m pretty sure Donald was still laughing at me.

Between ALT and Browns I experienced a bit of a roller coaster. I knew this section of trail well, and knew I should get some fast miles out of it. At first I felt great, passing two women, and feeling faster with each successive pass. I was on fire! Nothing could stop me!

Then, just like that, I felt like crap.

It was that familiar, late-in-a-100-miler, blech feeling. I knew Browns Bar was supposed to be a wild aid station with music and lights and partying volunteers, so I let the idea of it lure me two more miles until I could finally hear the music.

The lights and music pulled me into Browns Bar at last!

Upon arrival, I ate a bit and took a few moments to enjoy myself. Being there was exactly the mental boost I needed. Someone was filming, and I sang at least three off-key verses of American Pie for the camera. I don’t know what that video was for, but I sincerely hope it got burned. Or at least that I will never have to endure watching it.

"Would you like a slice of American Pie with that GU?"

I did run off into the night feeling much improved, doing my best to recall more verses to the song, and giving Donald my best version of it. I’m sure it was lovely.

Unfortunately my general sense of feeling stronger coincided with what was to be my big challenge for the remainder of the race. A muscle in my right quad that had been irritated all day finally flared up and screamed NO MORE! I tend to think it was related to the ankle twist at mile 14 since it was in the same leg and I’ve never had any issues in that area before. Regardless, I was brought to a screaming, painful halt on even the slightest of downhills. The descent from Browns was not fun.

Quarry road presented some runnable trail for me, and as I was trying to explain the pain to Donald, he was voicing his opinion that I should aim for sub-22. I didn’t want to tell him that I’d already been thinking about that goal since Green Gate, and that I had also subsequently taken it off the table with the advent of this quad pain. He encouraged me to stay positive, and not to give up on going for it, which is exactly what a good pacer should do. Because you know what? It’s 100 miles. And you just never know.

Unfortunately, I continued my painful shuffle for the last ten miles. It wasn’t so much the fact of seeing a faster time slip away that bothered me; it was the inability to “go for it.” I was having so much fun actually being able to push for evolving goal times late in a 100. I wanted to keep doing it! Feeling great everywhere but that one muscle was frustrating, and dealing with that frustration was the hardest part of those final miles.

Tearing through the streets of Auburn with my partner in crime. (photo by Jack Meyer)

It wasn’t until we left Robie and began to run through the streets of Auburn that I finally forgot about the frustration and remembered to enjoy every single second. This was it – a moment I’d been visualizing for nearly a year. The race had gone almost better that I could have hoped for, and I had every reason to be thrilled and proud. Donald kept reminding me of this, and for that I am quite thankful.

That final lap around the track went by in a flash. Those are the moments you want to last forever.

No caption required. (photo by Jack Meyer)

Right at this moment, life couldn't be better.

My awesome finish line support crew!

There was one more thing to be done before my race was truly over: see Jamie finish. I didn’t have long to wait, as she was right behind me with a sub-23 finish of her own.

Of all the people to whom I owe thanks for this day (and there are many), Jamie stands at the top of the list. After sharing so many miles on this very trail, we have become more than just training partners. She has become a very dear friend. I couldn’t have asked for anything more than to finish our races together, 13th and 14th women, and to receive our silver buckles together the following day.

It’s hard to believe Western States is over. It’s a race I’ve been looking forward to not just all season, but for years – what feels like my whole life. I’m so lucky to have had the support of so many people in completing this, and couldn’t be happier about how my race turned out. It’s a honor to participate in such a prestigious and historic event with so many talented runners and with so much dedicated support. Huge thanks to everyone who was involved in this race, and also to all the friends, family and even people I barely know who sent me good luck and congratulatory wishes. Your support speaks volumes about this community, and it means a great deal to me.

I don’t have any other races on the calendar at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll find some. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to a summer of running adventures through the mountains!


  1. Again, I am FLOORED by your performance and DAZZLED by your report. A most excellent job, Gretch!

  2. Russ - You are too kind! (But don't stop.)

    Chris - A man of few words. But a very good word. I like it. :)

  3. THAT was worth the wait. Awesome.

  4. I followed your live updates all day and kept wondering, kept wondering, what was going on on your race. I can see you take deep pride in this finish, and you should! So many congratulations to you, Gretchen! Recover happy.

  5. Gretch!!! You are AMAZING!!!! It was awesome to read about your experience, but soooooo fantastic to think about you racing this race!! You're truly inspiring : ) .

  6. That was a fantastic race report! The race goes by so quickly, but it is so much fun to read about it later. I owe you a HUGE thank you for being the best training partner and friend. I am really looking forward to all of our future adventures that await!

  7. Turi - Cool. Thanks for waiting! :)

    Meghan - Aww, thanks! I am recovering happy.

    Daph - So glad you could read the report!!

    Jamie - It really does go by fast. Thank you so much for sharing the whole experience. We have many future adventures!

  8. Congratulations!! Amazing running and inspiring!! A really good race report!

  9. Congrats again. Great pics. Great run. Great report. Ok u carried a camera? Wow. U r a studette. Karyn H

  10. Just loved the race report and pictures. Congratulations!!

  11. I think your report just about matched your race effort - very impressive, but not unexpectedly so. This was rally fun to read, especially the stuff that happened before I saw you - kind of like reading the prequel to a story that you already know and love.

    Thanks again for letting me tag along on your big adventure. I know how much this race meant to you, and it was an honor to be able to share a part of it. When it comes to ultrarunning, you have an ideal combination of talent and perspective, and the results you've been seeing lately are very well-deserved.

    Congrats, chica. See you in a couple of weeks!

  12. I absolutely loved reading this report. I have been so looking forward to it and even though I already knew the outcome, I was still completely giddy reading it and felt as though I was right there with you! You are *such* an inspiration, Gretchen. It's an awesome, awesome thing to see someone you know has worked their butt off for something and actually far exceed their own expectations. I feel so proud to know you! What an accomplishment! That photo of you smiling wide towards the top (that Medinger took) should be the cover of an Ultrarunning magazine can you *not* smile looking at that photo?!?!

    Amazing, just downright amazing!

  13. Mark - Thanks so much!

    Karyn - Congrats to you, too! Awesome race - you should be proud. I find carrying a camera to be a nice distraction. Usually I see plenty of other runners snapping photos, but oddly I didn't see one this time!

    Chad - Thanks, and thanks so much for reading!

    Donald - Well, you're very kind. Usually I enjoy the challenge of trying to convey in words something that means a great deal to me, It's one thing I love about writing. This one was tough to pull together though. I'm not sure why. Anyway, thanks for being there for me. I had so much fun at this race, and am glad you could be there.

    Paige- Aww, thank you so much. :) Definitely a big day. And I am going to guess that photo won't make the cover (whew!) but I do like it because it really conveys how much fun I was having all day.

  14. Absolutely Fantastic. And such a great report. Again, congratulations.

  15. You're proof that attitude makes all the difference. It also sounds like Donald proved an awesome pacer (which is no surprise at all). Great job, Gretchen.

  16. Hooray, Gretchen! You absolutely had the day you deserved. Lovely race and lovely report. (Love the image of all the runners at the start of the race with question marks over their heads.) It seems like this 22 and a half hour stretch will stay with you for a long time!

    How are your ankle and quad?

  17. Hank - Thanks so much, on both counts.

    Anne - Thanks you, and yes, Donald was fabulous. Agreed - no surprise there.

    Pam - Hopefully it stays with me a long time. Forever, maybe? :) the ankle is pretty good. (That one always gives me problems.) The quad I thought was fully healed, but a short bike ride yesterday has it sore this morning, so ... baby steps, I guess. I think it will be fine.

  18. I'm one of the folks that barely knows you. But its so easy to get to know you through your blog. And its even easier to root for you and cheer for you as you aim for some of the dreams we share. Congratulations on the amazing finish! And I look forward to reading about your next adventure! And I'll be sure to run into you again at one of these ultras some day soon.

  19. Just…awesome! The John Medinger picture is EXACTLY what pops into my head when I think the words “Gretchen” and “Running.” You are an inspiration for many reasons, but your sheer joy in the act of running is probably the one that has made the biggest impression on me. Your words for Jamie and Donald also really warmed my heart. It seems like you and Jamie each ran your own race yet finished practically together. There’s something really beautiful about that. Thanks for sharing your amazing year with us!

  20. Congratulations on the finish, and thanks for an enjoyable race recap. The photos along with the story made for great reading. It helped someone who has never run that far get a flavor for 100 mile racing and the ups and downs of such a long day.

  21. AWESOME! Your writing is as impressive as your running. You looked so happy at Peachstone there was no doubt you were going to finish. Keep up the good work inspiring your readers!

  22. John - Thanks for rooting and cheering!And I definitely hope to see you at the next race.

    Stacy - Your sentiments really mean a lot to me. Thank you! And I am in complete agreement about the beauty of Jamie and I running our own races but practically finishing together. By the way, I thanked you in my head many times during the race for all your help with gear. It all worked perfectly!

    Greg - Thanks so much, and thanks for the feedback!

    Rudy - Super great to see you out on the course, along with a couple other readers. That was so fun for me! Thanks for being out there to help the runners. The huge volunteer force at this race is so wonderful!