The Western States start line is one of the most famous in ultra-running. It is the start of a 100 mile adventure along the Western States Trail through the Sierra Nevada to Auburn. And I was fortunate to be one of 384 or so who would be attempting to complete that journey. Getting to the start line for me was far harder than getting to the finish line. It required persistence - 6 consecutive years of running a 100 mile qualifier - and a bit of luck as my cumulative odds were still only 31% of getting in after 6 years.
It was a fairly low key starting line as these things go. It is a relatively small field and as I was walking to the start, Camille Heron was next to me - you don't get to line up next to world record holder every day. It was pretty cold at 430am and I had just my race clothes on me so went inside the gondola station by the start until just before the gun. There were lots of other folks who had the same idea but also quite a few folks outside filming and getting excited
I was doing the race without crew and my bag had very kindly been taken to my finish line hotel by Mrs. Bennett so I had gone to bed the night before with only things that I would have on race day. This made race morning extremely easy as I just needed to put on the clothes I had lined up and eat my cookie that I had bought for the shop washed down with a cup of coffee. I left the hotel drinking a can of Dr Pepper and got a "breakfast of champions" greeting from a passerby - I wasn't going to be a champion today but it is one of my favourite non-coke soft drinks.
There was a good pre-start send off - I can't remember any of it but it wasn't too drawn out and there was a hard stop of 5am for the shotgun and we were off. Lots of stuff about being nice to each other and remember to thank the volunteers.
Start to Lyon Ridge (10.4 miles)
I had recced the first climb on Thursday and I had no fears about it - other than going too quickly. It was a reasonably steep service road which had quarry trucks travelling up and down it so not exactly technical. I had started mid-pack and gone backwards but I was happy enough with pace. As Ken F says, if you wouldn't run it after 50 miles, you shouldn't be running it after 3 miles so I walked it with a few jogs every so often to keep loose.
When you watch the videos on YouTube, the leaders are all running up the first bit and they cover the 3.5 miles in about 40 minutes despite it being a 2,500ft climb. I made it up to the timing point in just over an hour. This was the biggest climb of the race and also the highest point so a pretty good start. Par for 24 hours was a few minutes quicker than that but no point burning myself up on the first climb.
There were loads of people who had hiked up to the top and it was a pretty good atmosphere and the sun had just emerged - it was shortly after 6am now. Fortunately we were heading down the other side of the valley so back into the shadow of the mountain. The crowds were behind now and it was a lovely section of single track into the forest.
I went over the top in about 307th place and definitely towards the back of the back. There was a long line of runners and very difficult to overtake so I just took my place in the line. Without all the folks in the way, I would have pushed on a bit but on the other hand it wasn't a bad thing having my pace forced to be slower. There was chat in the race briefing about fallen trees, streams run through, and mud on this section but it was pretty benign compared with British winter conditions.
I picked up quite a few places on the section to Lyon Ridge - mainly folks disappearing to the woods briefly or stopping to sort things with their packs. The trail wasn't great and I think this is a rarely used section with pretty much all maintenance being done by volunteers from WSER. Very little chance to overtake without help from those being overtaken and in any case making a pass would just mean being stuck behind the next runner. I was aware I was still well over 7,000ft up in the sky so still worth managing the effort.
If you are a bit keener on getting a fast time, it is probably worth trying to push a little bit on the first climb as 10 minutes made a difference of 200 spots and a very different speed through the single track. This was the case for a warm year but it might well be very different in a snow year. 54 minutes was 150th spot and 64 minutes back in 340th.
I had hoped to be at Lyon Ridge in less than 2h30 but was there in 2h47. Not much in the grand scheme of things but it slightly disconcerting to be there just outside the recommend pace for 30 hours. However it is a 30 hours race and better to be 15 minutes too slow than too fast. First aid station was here and it was very busy. I was a bit disorganised getting my stuff together and eventually got refuelled and bottles topped up. I had some melon and coke before getting on my way. The massive sponges of water were appreciated greatly - it wasn't that hot yet but the sun had come out of the shadow of the first pass.
Lyon Ridge to Robinson Flat (30.3 miles)
I made good progress on the section to Red Star Ridge - I was chipping away at a decent pace and overtook a lot of folks. It was gently undulating and much wider so suited my style enabling me to ease past those who had set off too quickly. This was probably the nicest section of the race for me. It was starting to warm up but still a pleasant temperature and the views were stunning. Have a play on streetview as I didn't take any photos unfortunately. Classic California mountain views with pine trees and wide ranging views as funnily enough you are running along a ridge.
I caught up with Christian here and the field was starting to spread out so the aid station was fairly quiet. I had covered the section in 1h20 to make it here just over 4 hours for less than 16 miles so behind 24 hour pace in absolute terms and adjusted for pace. But I was now a solid 5 minutes up on the 30 hours pace. Still very early days and I had kept my effort under control so I was very happy to be making a solid dent in the distance.
It was quite a stretch to Duncan Canyon - the longest between two - and I was definitely in need of some refreshment. It was starting to warm up despite being only 11am and DC aid station certainly didn't disappoint. There was a great selection of food and massive buckets of ice plus an excellent range of canned beverages. It was also the first aid station with crew access. I didn't have crew but it was still nice to loads of supporters even though they weren't there for me.
I set off down to Duncan Canyon itself with possibly a bit too much ice. I had stuffed ice down between my elbow and wrist which started to really hurt before long. The Canary Trails Events buff was working much better. It was a nice temperature for all of about 3 miles until I got down to the canyon itself - the ice had melted by then and I was bone dry again. I had been told to make the most of the creeks and had a good soak here. Not quite a full swim as I had my phone and passport in my backpack but helped to cool things down again. The moment was captured for posterity in possibly one of the worst race photos ever.
It was a solid chunk of climbing up to Robinson Flat and it was getting seriously hot. Oh and I was working my way up to 7,000ft for the aid station. I had a good chat with Steve who lived in Texas and worked in oil and gas on the way up plus I finally tracked down Dick from Crickhowell. My parents had noticed him on the start list and had asked about him but I hadn't met him before until now.
I ran out of water going up to Robinsons Flat and was massively struggling but pushed on as I figured I would only get more dehydrated if I hung around. This was a key milestone for me as I had split the race into 3 parts and this was the end of the high country and the start of the middle third. There was a massive aid station where with loads of people and a party atmosphere. It was 12:30 now and the sun was pretty hot but being up at 7,000ft probably helped take the edge off.
The thing I found quite strange was that at no point in the race did I really feel sweaty. It was clearly high temperatures but low humidity so any sweat or water evaporated quickly - certainly faster than I was sweating.
I had my first drop bag here. Amusingly I ended up putting more into my drop bag than I took out. Jill and Simon had very kindly taken my bag to the finish line hotel so I had spent the previous night with just me race kit. My only luxuries I had kept behind was a toothbrush and deodorant which both were put back in my drop bag as I would need them when I finished.
I had considered changing shoes here and packed some in my drop bag but decided to stick with the ones I was wearing. I had worn them round Lakeland 100 without issues so figured it was best not to fix what wasn't broken. The first 70 miles probably justified lighter trail shoes but I was fine with slightly chunkier one.
I was pretty happy with progress to here. I very much hoped for a time beginning with a 6 but it was 7h30 unfortunately. Still a slim chance of a sub 24 but I would need to have a great race. Par was 8h10 and the cut off was 9h10 so I was looking very good for a buckle. The pacing was going the right way having hit the first aid station outside the 30h pace but was 40 minutes up now so I was pretty relaxed.
I was one of a small minority of runners without crew or pacers and as a result had different travel plans to most. The standard way for the Brits was a direct flight into San Fran and then a hire car from there - it about a 3.5 hour drive from there. I hate driving so flew into Reno via Phoenix and back home from Sacramento via Dallas.
The drive from Reno is about 50 miles and I had originally planned to get a taxi/Uber from the airport but as I was grabbing my bag from the carousel, I heard someone was "good luck with your race" and figured it was someone doing Western States. I had a chat with him and it confirmed he was indeed one of the 384. I figured he might want to share a taxi but he had a hire car and I so offered gas money for a lift
Dane was attempting the Grand Slam ( The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning is a set of four of the five most prestigious and oldest 100-mile races contested in the United States, comprising the Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run in Virginia, the Western States 100 in California, the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run in Vermont, the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado, and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah. A small number of people manage to complete four in one calendar year. ) I had done the UK Centurion version of the Grand Slam so we had plenty to talk about on the journey. He very kindly dropped me at my hotel and wouldn't accept any gas money so I said I would shout him beers in Auburn.
Robinsons to Michigan Bluff (55.7 miles)
I had been warned not to race too hard on the 13 miles or so to Last Chance. I had run walked this bit with 3 aid stations and 13 or so miles in about 2h50. Sub 24 pace would have been about 2h40 and Sub 30 was 3h10 so I felt like I was just about holding on - especially as I felt I was managing the effort nicely.
There were some crappy dirt tracks with generally considerate drivers but one bell end with a cobra kai sticker. I guess pretty much everyone was with the race so was happy to give us room. It ducked in and out of the trees so was fairly pleasant and either flat or gently sloping down.
After Last Chance, it felt like a roller coaster was about to start. I knew there was a massive legendary canyon coming up but just waiting for it to start. The lead up to it was pretty cool as the trail contoured along the valley but it looked a hell of a long way down to the river and a long way back up.
Eventually the hairpins started and I paired up with Steve again - it took me ages to realise it was him as I he had changed top. This was a pretty brutal descent and being a pair helped massively as it kept us both honest and pushing on. I felt like this must be making up decent chunks on both the cut off and 24 hour pace. The drop of 1,500ft in 1.5 miles was pretty tough going but there was the reward of the creek underneath the iconic Swinging Bridge and took less than 20 minutes.
There is a little beach and I went waist deep into the water. I had taken off my pack and took a minute or two and cooled down before the climb up Devil's thumb. The canyon was very deep so the sun had moved behind the hill even though it was only late afternoon. I suspect the climb is very different for those who hit it under the midday sun rather than at 4pm. And so the famous Devils Thumb began...
Hiking poles are banned on the Western States and I definitely could have used them here. The climb up the other side was also 1,500ft in 1.5 miles but was significantly more than 20 minutes. In fact the 2 miles up to the aid station were like 1 hour and 20 minutes. Climbing is not my specialty - particularly steep long climbs.
Getting to the aid station was a key milestone - almost halfway and one of the two big canyons out the way. Unfortunately I reached the 47 mile point in 12 hours which confirmed it wasn't going to be a sub 24 day - but it almost meant I had 18 hours for 53 miles which is below 3mph required. There were quite a lot of folks in sat in chairs chilling out - I figured I might as well do the same for a bit to recover and set up for the push to Forest Hill and the dark.
The aid station crew were pretty adept at getting people out of the aid station - "you don't get a buckle sitting in the chair" - "the buckle is that way" etc. However I hadn't sat down for more than a minute or so which was at Robinson's Flat where I sorted my drop bag stuff so figured I could spare 3 or 4 minutes. The aid stations were very well stocked but I noticed something different at this one - a bottle of insect repellent. I asked if I could have some and a quick spray which definitely helped on the next canyon. I was covered almost head to toe but had some exposed spots around the knees and neck.
I was off now towards the second big canyon - El Dorado. The next aid station was 5 miles away and about 2,500ft lower. This would be the last of any altitute issues as we were half the height of Emigrant pass and would be down to below 2,000ft at the bottom of the next Canyon. I took it fairly easy on this section in comparison to coming down Deadwood Valley - I figured trashing my quads for a gain of a few minutes and potentially risking my race wasn't worth it. Maybe if I was here an hour or two earlier... but I wasn't.
El Dorado canyon was less steep than Deadwood and also had the added bonus of an aid station at the bottom. It was a fairly bijou one but it is impressive that there was anything down here as it would need to have been carried here on foot or horseback. Final proper big climb of the race was going to take me up to Michigan Bluff which was less than 3 miles away. I can also confirm it is nothing like an overpass in Florida.
I had in my mind the Michigan Bluff was the key aid station to get to. The main challenges of the race would be done by then - the high altitude would be done, and the last of the 1,500ft+ climbs out of the way, and the worst of the heat should be done too. At 55.7 miles, it was also well over halfway distance and probably just over halfway by time too.
This was the first point in hours where there were people outside of the race bubble. It has been almost entirely racers and race volunteers since Dusty Corners with no crew allowed and it was pretty remote so very few spectators. There were a few people watching and cheering which was nice - it was the closest thing to a town on the route so far but would barely be classed a village. It did however have an excellent aid station. I had the usual cola and ice but added in a cup of vegetable broth to mix things up.
Michigan Bluff to the River
I headed off with an aim to get to Forest Hill without a head torch but it was a bit of a long shot. It was 630pm and cooling down a bit, with initially some easy gravel roads to run on but it was about 10km/6 miles to get done before darkness. I ended up running with a guy who was keeping an eye his runner. He was in street clothes carrying a big bottle of water and his runner had nearly dropped at Michigan Bluff after an extended stop there so he was checking in case he turned back.
For future editions, the Last Chance to Michigan Bluff section is likely to very different to when I ran it as the Mosquito fire burned approximately 120 square miles including about 12 miles of the Western States Trail. There are quite a few sections which have been burned over the years and it recovers eventually but this is significant burn with 78 structures destroyed but fortunately no deaths or serious injuries. My day job used to include modelling California wildfires so I was well aware this was a very high risk area and quite a few historic burn scars were noticeable.
You are allowed pacers if you get to here after 8pm but I well in advance of that so I having an official pacer would not have been allowed but we just happened to be a couple of folks running on the trail at the same time. We chatted for a while - he had been to Royal Ascot the week before - and there was a bit of good chat. When we got to the bottom of Volcano Canyon, he dropped me as his runner must have had a decent revival as I had been running relatively well and the other runner was nowhere to be seen.
The climb up towards Forest Hill wasn't too bad - certainly not serious switchbacks - and it wouldn't be too long until the big aid station where pacers were allowed for everyone. I had about 2 miles to go on my GPX so was counting things down as the light was reducing. It looked like the sun would win but it would be a close thing.
I caught up with a guy and said something like 4km to go the aid station and his response was "I know". It felt a bit chippy but then he started laughing and showed me his number. They all have the runner's name and where they from - this was Dave Hope from Forest Hill which was where the next station was. What were the odds?
We ran together towards the aid station and picked up his pacer along the way. She gave updates on all the front runners - the top 5 men had already finished and we had 38 miles to go. Sadly Camille's hopes of finishing in daylight weren't happening as she was outside the top 5 and still had a quite a few miles to go. She also gave a bunch of updates on mid pack local folks who I didn't know but was strangely quite entertaining. She also had a pair of headtorches - one for her and one for Dave so I didn't bother getting mine out.
It was pretty handy as I could just follow their feet into Forest Hill - it was pretty dark but all either road or smooth gravel so easy enough. Before long, the bright lights of Forest Hill school and the major aid station were here. Time to pick up the big head torch plus a few bits and bobs for the night section. Also a change of top as the current one absolutely stank.
Pretty much everyone picked up a pacer here but I hadn't got one organised. I had half-heartedly tried through the pacer portal but was arriving solo. I had heard of people picking one up along the way into Forest Hill as some people turn up to pace but didn't see anyone on the way in.
As I came into the aid station I saw the unmistakable figure of Gordy Ainsley. I passed on a greeting from Tim Lambert and had a quick chat - he asked if I needed anything and I asked if he could get me a pacer. He said he would see what he could do...
I sat down and did my admin and a volunteer came over and told me all the freelance pacers were taken and I was there too late. I wasn't too bothered as I'm pretty comfortable running through the night on my own. I set off down the road and it was a lot trickier to navigate in the dark and in town. I had put a GPX on my watch but it is harder to work out which alleyway/footpath is the WSER trail. A couple of other runners came past so followed them and was back in the woods and on track.
The next section was a bit of a low point - I had hoped to get some company for the next section but was ok on my own. Most races - even with pacers - tend to have some element of grouping up overnight where this was almost entirely people running in pairs. It hadn't really felt like a race to me but some of the pacers seemed quite competitive and would try to push their runner on when I started to catch up. It cracked me up as I was in something like 200th place not exactly at the sharp end.
I had been recommended to save the legs until after Forest Hill as the running is much easier - it was very much easier now it was cooler, no altitude and generally undulating rather than big climbs. However I couldn't really be bothered to push it so just kept chipping along with a bit of run-walk. The field was fairly spread out so didn't really see many folks on this stretch.
There were three really cool night time aid stations of Cal-1, Cal-2, and Cal-3. The trail was probably really cool to run during the daytime but was a bit meh at night. Pace was reasonable - well above 3mph so keeping pace with cutoffs but not exactly blistering. This was a section of just getting it done interspersed with a few chats with aid station volunteers and working out what to eat. I think the best aid station was Quesadillas which were excellent and possibly an excellent grilled cheese sandwich at some point.
This section was also somewhat overshadowed by having Rucky Chucky River Crossing coming up - one of the highlights of the course but also a bit scary. The years with lots of snow tend to have boat crossing due to the higher melt rate feed the river so given that this year was almost no snow, it would be a crossing on foot. The lack of snow made for faster going but would be offset by a slower river crossing.
I was pretty excited about the river and there were loads of people watching including the British crew - they were not far behind me. Lots of action at this point of the course - no chance to waiver about onwards progress or ponder too much. Other folks were chilling out on camping chairs with their crew but I wanted to get on with it.
I got to the river and they put a glow stick around my neck - I had been slightly worried about doing a Jim Walmsley and heading off down the river so at least they would be able to see me float away. I slowly eased into the water but got stuck behind a very slow moving pacer - the runner had moved much quicker across the river and was almost out but the pacer was moving very slowly across the river so I had to wait. This could be an excellent strategy but I doubt that was the case
It was kind of nice having the legs cooled down - a bit like an ice bath - but the shorts area was much less fun. There was a decent gap between the rocks you needed to step on so it wasn't that easy to cross in fairness to the slow moving pacer. It was also fairly slippery. The volunteers were reminding me to keep my backpack above water if I had electricals in it - I was much more concerned about my passport not getting a soaking though!
I had a mild panic in the water as there seemed to be loads of bugs biting my legs. I asked the lady holding the rope what they were and it was a bunch of seeds which had got stuck to my long socks. Panic over and just getting across the river to worry about.
River to the Buckle
The river is the lowest point of the course so obviously it was a climb up from there. Less than 2 miles to the next aid station but all uphill. A steady 7-8% gradient and a gravel road so not too bad but just a bit of a drag - 2 miles in about 45 minutes or so. On the upside though, there were some stunning beautiful stars to look at every so often to take the mind off the grind.
For the Elites the race is said to start at Rucky Chucky but for me it was getting towards the end as I had less than 20 miles to go and almost 8 hours to do it in. Just a couple of mid-sized climbs and it was fairly cool so no real objective challenges apart from cumulative tiredness to worry about. A few more miles through the forest to get to Auburn Lake Trails.
I caught up with a pacer and runner on this section. The pacer was talking a lot and the runner was silent. I figured I would chat to the pacer a bit who seemed happy to have someone to talk to/at. We talked about various races and then I mentioned I done a 253 miles race through Wales at which point the runners pipes up in an unmistakable Welsh accent. It was Dick Jones who I ran with back on the way to Robinson's Flat.
The pacer asked if we knew each other and we hadn't met before race day. When I had first met Dick back at mile 30, I had asked if he knew my aunty but didn't. However his mind has clicked into gear and my Aunty Gillian and Uncle David where better known to him as Gill and Dave - his neighbours. Wales is often a very small world and likewise ultra running.
They were steaming along and I hung onto the back of them until Auburn Lake Trails. My headtorch had gone to low battery mode but I managed to hang on until the aid station where I had my spare - or rather third headtorch. I always carry at least two with me for night sections. I also took the unusual step of having a cup of tea. I quite like hot drinks during ultras - even if it is quite hot - but that isn't really a thing in California. I had a lovely cup of breakfast tea and dawn was starting to break so I cracked on leaving Dick and pacer behind as they were taking a longer stop.
The next section was one my favourites - I suspect if I was chasing a silver buckle and hit it in dark it would be pretty dull but it was lovely trails with a gradual downhill towards the penultimate aid station of Quarry Road. It was getting warm but not quite hot yet and there was the famous blue skies above.
There was a bit of surprise here. There were about 4 or 5 volunteers and one of them looked just like Scott Jurek - turns out it was the 7 time champion who had turned out to help. It was pretty cool to be able to chat to an absolute legend. I had read Eat and Run cover to cover on the flight over so it was all fresh for me.
There is a section about doing something great with their lives and finishing Western States - whether in 14 hours or 29:59 - counts as doing that. I said that I was very pleased to be able to have that chance. Turns out Hal Koerner was also on the aid station who won WSER in 2007 and 2009. He has less distinctive hair though. The maths to finish now was 4.5 hours and 9.5 miles - hence my happiness to have a chat with Scott and get a souvenir selfie.
It was starting to get quite warm now as it was 630am - still really early but it was going to get very hot on the Sunday. There were a couple of hills which look tiny on the course profile but when you are on the ground with 90 miles in the legs, a 900ft climb (1.5 Box Hills) isn't trivial. About an hour of uphill trudging to the last real aid station of Pointed Rocks - I always thought it was called painted rocks but pointed makes more sense.
There was the famous crossing of Highway 49 where I had State Troopers stopping traffic for me. It was quite a strange experience as I was going pretty slowly and seeing cars having to stop for me. I did get a bit of a hustle on so I looked vaguely like a proper runner but then resumed walking on the other side.
The last aid station was amazing with a full array of breakfast items with pancakes, blueberries, bacon, and lots of other things. I just stuck with gels and coke plus a couple of other things as I didn't want to take my chances so close to the finish. There were loads of people here and it was quite an atmosphere. I just wanted to get to the finish though.
I had amended my goals here to finish ahead of golden hour. About a quarter of the finishers are in the last hour but I wanted to avoid the drama and actually watch it rather than being part of it. This gave me just over 2 hours for about 6 miles. Plenty of time to spare for a comfortable finish.
I could see one last canyon to cross - one more view of the American River and a last climb of the race. It was the famous No-Hands Bridge. I would say that I have ticked pretty much all the Western States boxes but going over here in broad daylight is a bit meh in comparison to the glory of a night time crossing with the fairy lights and massive party. Now just for the last drag up to the finish.
The last climb was very much a pain in the arse to be honest. It has got really quite hot despite being only about 9am and it was pretty steep - a straight up climb with no switchbacks. The other slightly annoying thing was that the locals were out for their morning exercise. After over 24 hours of having a deserted trail with everyone going the same way, it was tough to deal with folks coming the other way. Runners are really annoying when they come towards you and try to take the line you are going for. I just stuck with my lines regardless and they moved as I was going so slowly.
I didn't really count the Robie Point (like wardrobe rather than Robbie) as an aid station when I looked at it on the map but it was set up with a full array of things despite only being about a mile from the finish. I got a final spray down with water and made the victory lap into Auburn. It was an incredible atmosphere with almost every house having people outside cheering you in.
A lady asked where my crew and pacer were and if they were going to run in with me. I pointed out that I had neither and had "done it on my own". Here response was "well done you badass" - I believe this an American complement. This however was fairly far from the truth as whilst I had no pacer or crew, I wouldn't have got much past Lyon Ridge - or even to the start line - without the help of the hundreds of amazing volunteers. There are typically about 15 runners who finish without pacer or crew each year out of the 400 or so starters.
I regret not having a pacer for a couple of reasons. The night section was a lot less social than other races as runners were generally paired up and already had someone to talk to so weren't going to talk to a random guy. More importantly though, having a pacer gives someone a chance to take part in the race - could be a local who runs the trails every day and gets a chance to see them on race day. I would recommend giving the pacer portal a go as some of the Brits did that. Likewise if you know people who did it last year, see if you can get in touch with the pacer they used.
I had thought it was going to be downhill from here but it was pretty flat and I'm sure was uphill in places. I had a reasonable amount left in my legs but not enough to run in it for the last mile. I then got close enough to see the famous Placer High school (like French place rather than finishing place). I kept pushing and then taking a walking break until I finally saw that it was the end.
I had one of the live stream guys join me and I was absolutely flying when I got to the track. No doubt I could have finished much quicker than I did but this was a run rather than a race against the clock. Something to be measured by how much I enjoyed it rather than places or times. I was shifting and flew past a lady on the last bend who had a massive crew of folks and I steamed across in the middle lane with arms in the air - text book finish. 28:26:43 with 90 minutes to spare. Nowhere near a silver buckle but ready to watch the folks of golden hour.