It’s been a week since I rounded the corner onto the track at Pacer High School in Auburn, California, and completed an ultra-running dream. I finished the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run! As I hold the much-coveted buckle in my hand, as I look at my name engraved on its back, I know I ran with my heart. And that made all the difference.
In order to fully explain my journey to Western States, I must take you back to June 2015, when I ran the Kettle Moraine 100, my Western States qualifying race. I ran Kettle with a few others and, at the time, didn’t really hold out hope of earning a spot in “the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race.” Putting my name into the lottery pool was more of a “why not?” The probability of me actually getting selected with a single ticket was 4.7 percent. No way I was getting in, so there was nothing to worry about.
As it turns out, I was the poor, unfortunate soul whose name did actually get picked. WOWZA! And to top it all, before I could wrap my head around the news, my phone and Facebook feed were being blown up by congratulatory notes from fellow runners who had been stalking the live results while I was busy separating my dirty laundry and handling the all-important Saturday chores.
It was pretty surreal to put it mildly! Anyway, what followed were six months of precise training, multiple freakouts and doubting my ability to finish.
Goal & Training
I’m not fast, and I don’t live in the mountains. So, Western States was uncharted territory for this flatlander. The best climb I can get over the course of a mile here in the good old St. Louis is just under 400 feet. By comparison, the Western States course caps at more than 18,000 feet of climbing and nearly 23,000 feet of descent. That’s big time, so I figured a conservative 27-hour to 28-hour finish would do me good.
As for training during the six months leading into Western States, I was forever chasing vertical. I nerded out on every possible climb and decent at Chubb Trail, Rockwoods Reservation and Greensfelder County Park, along with the straight ups and downs at Castlewood State Park.
Now in my third year as an ultra-runner, I’ve gotten away from pounding out miles and the long back-to-back runs that most traditional training plans call for. In fact, I haven’t followed a strict “training plan” since the end of 2014. So, for Western States I decided to stick with what I do best: in short, run trails.
I focused on running by feel, training on hills, mastering downhill technique, power hiking and consistently running long, slow distances. My average weekly mileage was 55 miles, with a minimum of 8,000 feet of gain; my peak weekly mileage was 70 miles at a little over 10,000 feet of gain. During each training run I’d shoot for a minimum of 100 feet of gain per mile.
One other thing that has helped me immensely is using other races as training runs leading into a goal race, so I picked Yakima Skyline 50K in March. It was a slap in the face, with 9,500 feet of ascent and 9,500 decent — but so worth the experience. In hindsight, running Yakima was the best decision I could’ve made, as it gave me a taste of what I was about to encounter and told me things I needed to work on leading into Western States.
My second training race was The Ice Age Trail 50 in May. Though not quite a “mountain race,” there’s a decent bit of up and down to temper those quad and hip muscles.
I’ll briefly touch on my crew and pacers before I dish out the dirt. I had Denzil pacing me for 20 miles from Green Gate to the finish. I like to call him my BFF, mostly because he hates the term. He and I have shared many miles together on the trails; not only has he been a constant presence for a few years, but we share similar philosophies on life and trail/ultra-running, and I wanted to share this epic adventure with him. Along with Denzil I gained Megan, his wife, who would be along crewing!
My second pacer was Julie, which occurred by chance — or perhaps destiny. I’d never run with Julie before, though I’d known her from her participation in the races I RD. We happened to be running Ice Age together in May when I jokingly mentioned not being able to find a second pacer for Western States. One thing led to another, and the following Monday I had myself a pacer from Forest Hill to Green Gate!
Yes, I was a little apprehensive about having never run with Julie before. To have her pace me with little to no knowledge of my running style or my highs and lows…well, we’ve all heard the horror stories. But I knew Julie was a strong runner and a solid advocate for trail/ultra-running, so the decision was made. Along with Julie I gained Romy, her wife, who would be along crewing!
Last but not least was Brad, who had never crewed for me in the past, is not a runner, has never seen me at my worst when running a 100 miles and, to top it all off, happens to be my husband. Recipe for disaster? Not quite!
Our pit crew came in from all different directions and met in Tahoe City. I had Brad, Julie and Romy with me on Friday, the night before the race, to review gear, drop bags, driving routes and what have you. Denzil and Megan were scheduled to come in late Friday/early Saturday, so I wouldn’t see them until Robinson Flat, about 30 miles into the race.
Start to Robinson Flat (29.7 Miles)
I was nervous, and the main culprit was the dreaded “what if I DNF?” Unable to answer the question, I found myself at the start line with Brad, Julie and Romy cheering me on. POW! The shotgun blast announced that the time had come, and we were off.
The first climb to the Escarpment and over Immigrant Pass is brutal — straight up several tiers of ski slopes is as best I can describe it. As I topped the first climb, I looked behind me only to realize that I was bringing up the rear. Only eight other runners were behind me. No big deal, I told myself, the race is long and patience is the key. As we dropped into the Sierra high country, I relaxed a bit while taking in the scenery. Hot-footing the downhills, I passed several runners within the first 10 miles. I was holding a steady pace as the sun rose. Temperatures were holding in the low 70s, and I rolled through Lyon Ridge and Red Star Ridge aid stations on the way to Duncan Canyon.
At Duncan Canyon, I stopped to fill up my water when the young kid at the aid station said to me, “Where’s your handler? You need to get out of here.” Handler? Huh? That’s when the woman helping me called out, “I’m here! Getting her bottles topped off.” Ah! It occurred to me that at each aid station I’d stopped at there was one person who would get me all I needed — and get me in and out of the aid station fast. That was my handler!
I left Duncan Canyon with some cold water dumped on my head and a quick sponge-down. The heat was on the rise. I was feeling pretty good with 24 miles down, but as the temperatures continued to climb over the next 5 miles, I started to feel sluggish. I wasn’t sure if this was a combination of altitude and heat, or something else?
By the time I got to Robinson Flat, it felt like I was in a sauna — and I knew the worst was still yet to come. I saw my crew for the first time since the start, which helped take my mind off the heat. A water refill, banana and Coke later, I turned to Denzil and said, “This feels like Yakima all over again, just hotter.” And I was off running.
Devil’s Thumb (47.8 Miles)
The next few miles were a blur. All I remember is stopping at every water crossing, no matter how big or small, and pouring water on my head. I continued to move forward, the sun bearing down, drinking purely to thirst. Things that ran through my head were “don’t over hydrate,” “keep yourself cool” and “drop pace to lower internally produced heat.” It was HOT, and I didn’t want to find myself in a situation that required fixing.
I ran steady until I hit Last Chance Aid Station. My handler here was a 70-plus-year-young lady who totally rocked. She filled my bottles while we chatted about where I was and I was being sprayed down with ice-cold water.
My Handler: Did you get something to eat?
Me: No, I’m feeling a bit blah.
My Handler: You should eat a potato or two. It will help with the acid in your stomach.
I reluctantly took two bites out of the potato that was handed to me. I remember giving this woman a hug and thanking her for all her help as I turned towards the trail again.
My Handler: Do you know what’s coming next?
Me: Nope, tell me.
My Handler: Couple of miles or rollers, then you’ll drop into the canyon and there’s a steep climb till Devil’s Thumb Aid Station.
Me: (completely involuntary) Ugh!
My Handler: You better finish. I’ll be tracking you 227!
The next 4 miles were a rude awakening. I remember running when out of nowhere I was suddenly spiraling down technical, single-track trail with a steep drop on one side. From behind me, I heard a runner approaching — fast. I stepped to the side to let him pass, and he turned to me and said “First time running Western States?”
“All hell is about to break loose, and you’re not going to like it.”
Before I could say anything, he was gone. “How bad could it be,” I asked to myself. My quads were screaming from the decent as I reached the bottom of the canyon. Along with a couple of other runners, I doused myself with water from the creek, then started to make the climb up Devil’s Thumb.
Let me try again to explain the climb. Imagine yourself being thrown down into a fiery pit and the only way out is to make an ascent that spirals, steep and relentless all the way to the top, which, by the way, you can’t see or even imagine reaching.
This is when I reminded myself not to rush and to take my time. And take my time I did — all 28 minutes of it to climb 1 mile to Devil’s Thumb Aid Station. I focused on my heart rate and stopped to regulate my breathing multiple times before I started to hike up again.
Finally, I found myself at the aid station, and I wasn’t sure what had hit me. A little disoriented, I made a B-line for a chair. Wow! I sat there collecting myself as more runners made their way to where I was. One female runner came up and sat to my right while two volunteers huddled over her. All I heard was this woman bawling uncontrollably and refusing to continue as the volunteers tried to calm her down.
That was my cue. I got myself up and took off running before my handler came back to check on me. A quote I’d heard earlier rang strong in my head, “You have to run with your heart if you want to finish Western States.”
Michigan Bluff (55.7 Miles) to Foresthill (62 Miles)
As I left El Dorado Creek Aid Station, the thing that pushed me forward was knowing I’d get to see my crew again soon. But first I had to run a section of trail infested with mosquitoes and gnats. Adding to the misery (challenge, I mean) was a nasty climb to get to Michigan Bluff — not as bad as Devil’s Lake, but you won’t be running up it, therefore becoming a dinner buffet. I was hiking as fast as I could while swatting at the bugs on my arms and legs, and I guess I was cussing at them, because the runner behind me called out, “I have bug spray in my pack.”
Say what?! I ran back to get the bug spray out from his pack, sprayed myself and him, placed the spray back in his pack and was soon hiking up the trail with a thank you and good luck.
As I pulled into Michigan Bluff, all I remember saying was “those stupid mosquitoes.” Next thing I know, I was being sprayed down with bug spray, getting hooked up with some soup and bread and checking in with my crew. It was three minutes past 8 p.m., which meant I could pick up my first pacer if I chose to do so.
I slapped on my headlamp, and with Julie by my side, started up again. We’d see my crew again at Forest Hill (62 Miles). I got an update from Julie on who was leading and where all the other elite runners were in the race. I ran every downhill with Julie close behind me. A couple of miles later, it was time to turn on the headlamp. I cruised through the last canyon before making the climb up Bath Road. We came to a fork in the road, and Julie and I went right, completely missing the course marker. Thankfully, a voice behind us called, “Ladies, you’re going the wrong way!”
Major mishap averted, we turned to get back on course and hiked up Bath Road while admiring the clear starlit night. As we hiked further along, I noticed writing on the road in the light of our headlamps. There were cheers, funny sayings and inspirational quotes written in chalk. The one that stuck with me was “Run With Your Heart,” a déjà vu moment for sure.
Rounding out on to the pavement as we made our way to Forest Hill, I was feeling a bit sluggish again. I had some soup and bread, refilled my water and gels and grabbed two portable chargers for my lamp instead of a portable charger and an extra battery — a mistake that would cost me before I’d get to see my crew again at Green Gate (78.9 Miles).
Rucky Chucky (78 Miles) to Green Gate (79.8Miles)
Between 60 and 80 miles into a 100-mile race is typically the worst period for me. I get sluggish, and slowing down is inevitable, as was the case here.
Somewhere around 70 miles, my headlamp began to flash, signaling a low battery. This is when I realized my mistake. I’d forgotten to grab the extra battery pack at Forest Hill and instead had grabbed two portable chargers. Panic set in. I turned to Julie, explaining what had happened. She calmly replied that she had a flashlight that would get us to Green Gate. Unsettled, I decided to run hard until my headlamp gave out, Julie following close behind me. Neither of us missed a beat as we powered through the next 3 miles. Then, my headlamp finally went dark.
How could I be so stupid? How could I have forgotten to grab my battery pack? I had two extra battery packs. Gah!
As fatigue and frustration set in, I was reduced to hiking and jogging here and there in the low glow of the flashlight. When you go from 575 lumens of light to 250 lumens which felt more like 10 lumens, running becomes more treacherous, especially in the thick of the night on a trail with loose rocks, roots and dirt.
I was so caught up getting mad at myself that I barely noticed our arrival at Rucky Chucky. Within seconds, we were put in life vests, given glow stick necklaces and told to hold on tight to the rope spanning the American River. Julie led the way as the volunteers guided us across. I can’t say for sure if it was a combination of fatigue and the shock of stepping into the cold water that came up to my ribs, but I was overcome with emotion. For the first time it became real. I was 78 miles in, crossing the iconic river at Rucky Chucky. I was freakin’ running Western States!
Everything else was a blur until we got to Green Gate.
Green Gate (79.8 Miles) to Robie Point (98.9 Miles)
I swapped the dead battery in my headlamp, changed out my wet shoes and socks, ate some food, refilled everything and swapped pacers before getting on with the final 20 miles, this time with Denzil leading the way.
I felt like crap! I was on a mental low as Denzil and I powered through a couple of miles, catching up and recounting the rest of the race. Denzil was so chipper that I was getting a bit irritated. I just needed a few miles to get back on the high.
Having run with me before, Denzil caught on to my mental state and immediately decided to run behind me instead of running ahead of me. I was in and out of the run for the next 10 miles, with Denzil picking up on my highs and helping me power through, then edging me forward during my lows and enticing me to run the downhills.
It was daylight again, and I was starting to feel a little better. With Denzil still behind me, we fast approached the Highway 49 Aid Station (93.5 Miles).
Denzil: Look, a downhill all the way to the aid station.
Denzil: C’mon lets run this. You love downhills. Besides, how many runners do you think they see at this aid station at this hour actually running?
Just like that, Denzil was ahead of me and we were running as fast as we could down that hill. I grabbed a pancake, and we kept moving forward somewhere between a run and a hike as I tried to focus all my energy on pushing through the last few miles.
Denzil: Let’s see, what flavor of gel I should have next? Oooh, salted caramel!
Denzil: C’mon this is the best part of running ultras, trying out all the different foods and flavors.
I was laughing. I’ve never met a runner that savors his gels like Denzil.
We came out of the trail onto No Hands Bridge Aid Station (96.8 miles). I grabbed some Coke and we were on our way, with lots of cheering from the volunteers. As Denzil and I ran over the bridge, I was once again overcome by emotions as the realization that I was going to finish completely washed over me. I was crying.
But it was starting to get hot again. I could feel the sun on my head and shoulders. I poured some water on my head, and we to pushed forward to the final aid station at Robie Point (98.9 miles). This is where we picked up Julie again, as the plan was for her and Denzil both to run me to the finish line at Placer High School. We chatted excitedly about the race, the wins and where I was in the running.
Robie Point (98.9miles) to Placer High School (100.2 Miles)
This was probably the most dreamlike stretch of the race for me. We ran through a neighborhood with tons of people, some sitting, others standing in the middle of the road, excitedly cheering on the runners. The scene before my eyes was completely overwhelming, and not just because of what I was seeing. To hear complete strangers call out your name and your bib number, rooting for you to bring it home…. There was no stopping the water works.
What if I DNF? That was a day-old question as I ran with Denzil and Julie all the way to the finish and stopped the clock at 28:35:57.
There are many 100-mile races, but there is only one Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. I finished thanks to the solid and unconditional support of my crew and pacers, without whom running this race would not have held much meaning. It was a journey that I will cherish forever!
As I reflect on my run and finish time, I find myself wanting to go back, armed with experience and confident that I can run it better. In my desire to get my rear to the finish, I ran a conservative race. That much I know. The technicality of the course is every bit as relentless as advertised. Add heat and altitude to the mix, and you have a sure shot at a DNF. But the Grand Slam is calling my name, be it 2017 or 2018 or thereafter. Let the lottery stalking begin!
A heartfelt thank you to the unwavering support of my crew, Brad Kovach, Romy Bolton and Megan Jennings, and thanks also to Denzil Jennings and Julie Moffitt for selflessly pacing me. And thank you to my sponsors, Hammer Nutrition and INKnBURN. None of this is possible without all of you.
Garmin Fenix 3, Pearl Izumi EM N2 V2 Shoes, Injinji Trail 2.0 Midweight Micro Toe Socks, Petzl NAO Headlamp, Oakley Crunch and Burn Training Shorts, Hammer Nutrition Women’s Running Singlet, Hammer Buff, Oakley Radarlock Path Prizm Sunglasses, Orange Mud – HydraQuiver Vest Pack 2 Hydration Vest, INKnBURN Calavera Singlet, Hammer Nutrition Purist Water Bottles and Mission Enduracool Microfiber Towel.
Here’s a breakdown of the fuel and supplements I used before, during and after the race:
Hammer Nutrition Race Day Boost
Hammer Heed and Perpetuem mixed equal parts in one 25-ounce bottle; Hammer Gels (Tropical and Espresso flavors); banana and orange slices at aid stations
Every three hours, I took Hammer Endurance Amino, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurolytes and a Ginger Root Pill.
After the first 50 miles, I was fueling on a cup of soup with two slices of white bread at every aid station, supplementing with a gel or two as needed. I also dropped the intake of the above-listed supplements.
Hammer Recoverite and Tissue Rejuvenator
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.