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Western States 100 Mile

By Chase Duarte

It has been almost three weeks since I finished my first 100 mile run. The first time I tried to run 100 miles I failed due to excruciating, unrelenting leg cramps. I dropped out of that race at 59 miles but suffered from 42 on. It was easy to put my thoughts in writing when I got home from Angeles Crest in 2003. Depression, anger, frustration and disappointment are good fuel for expressing a person’s views and reflections. After Western States I crossed the finish line I experienced relief, redemption and a sense of wonder as to how did I just do that and not collapse when it was over. I walked away with a smile on my face looking for the sun to rise and thinking, “I might just do this again.”
Up front, some quick details and observations, then I’ll discuss some things that I practiced and trained with since January that contributed to my successful finish. Western States was run on Saturday, June 24th starting at Squaw Valley, west of Lake Tahoe, and finished 100 miles later in Auburn, California. It was predicted to be one of the hottest days on record for this race. The course covers over 18,000 feet of ascent and more than 21,000 feet of descent. Generally this means you had better have your quads ready. The race starts at 5:00am at Olympic Village and climbs 2500 feet to an 8500 foot topout in the first 3 miles. The majority of the run is single track and forest service trails / roads. Between 45 and 62 miles there are three canyons that are descended into. The first two of these canyons are deep drops into lower elevations where the temps reached 100 degrees when I came through and climbed to 105 for later runners. At mile 62 we were allowed to pick up a pacer for the last 38 miles.
Our family drove up from Tucson on Thursday to Bridgeport, CA on Hwy 395. We then left for Tahoe City on Friday and checked into race headquarters. The plan here was to weigh in, blood pressure check and get banded with your vitals. I weighed 164 pounds and BP was 120/70 with a sitting pulse of 70 BPM. I met up with Bruce Gungle, my pacer, and we all had lunch and discussed the next day’s events. He mentioned that I looked like I needed to relax. I thought I was but my wife Trish was quick to agree. That night we had a pasta dinner at a local Italian restaurant. I set the alarm for 3am Saturday morning. I woke up and did the normal pre-race lube job, mole skinned my feet and taped my nipples. It’s a good thing I am addressing a bunch of trail runners with this or else we could have a good conversation about S & M. I ate a banana and drank a half of a bottle of Gatorade. After a 10 minute drive to the start I arrived with my Trish, and the kids Caleb and Clint and Ashley’s boyfriend Eugene. I then checked in to get my race number.
I lined up towards the back of the pack and looked up at the lights lighting our way to the top of the first immediate hill. The race started on time. I wore a Coolmax T-shirt and never felt cold. The temp at the start was around 60 and never felt cooler as we ascended to topout at Escarpment Ridge. At this point there was snow covering the majority of the trail for the next two miles and then for several more miles in patches and drifts. The snow was wet and melting and was quite slippery. I was enjoying myself skiing down some sections but annoyed by mosquitoes biting my neck and head. Many parts of the trail from miles 5 to 15 went up and through gullies which had turned into fast flowing creeks from the snowmelt runoff.
Through this early part of this race I was in the vicinity of James Bonnett, a 19 year old Phoenix area resident who ran Western last year under 20 hours. I also traded positions with a younger girl who seemed to be breathing quite heavily and sweating profusely. She dropped at the 16 mile aid station for no apparent reason other than a much longer day was ahead than she was prepared for. Up until Robinson Flat at mile 30 I noticed that there was quite a lot of downhill stretches. I had been maintaining a fairly even 11-12 minute per mile pace arriving at Robinson around 6 hours. I used a Hammer Electrolyte cap every hour on the hour with a primer before the start. I also carried three 20 ounce water bottles. Two were handhelds and one on a waist pack. After studying the course profile and aid station layout there was no reason to carry a Camelbak. Aid was usually anywhere from 4.5 to 6 miles apart. I had trained intensively with a 100 ounce Camelbak so I felt much lighter without it. I usually came into an aid station with two empty bottles and three empties when the stations were further apart or there was a lot of uphill in the previous section. My weight at 30 miles was 1.5 pounds down from check-in. It would never go lower than this. Later in the race my weight went up a half pound and then never lowered more than one pound. I urinated seven times in the first twelve hours of the race and three more times over the last twelve hours. I had never experienced this type of output during any of my training or past races.
As far as training went, if anyone other than the Grand Slam guru is curious, here is an overview of my running preparation for this event. I was sent to Fort Eustis, Virginia in the Hampton Roads area from Early January to mid-March for Army Warrant Officer training. Other than sitting in a classroom 40 hours a week and drinking beer and reading books over the weekend I decided it was a good time get started on my preparation. I did some internet research and found a few runs / races that were connected to the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHRTC). I made some new acquaintances and also met a few runners who were also entered at Western. I did a wet, muddy, hilly, tree filled, rooted and rocky 50K early January in 5 hours finishing 1st of 28 runners. Later that month I met up with 100 runners associated with Gary Knipling and the VHRTC and we spent the better part of a day running around George Mason Neck State Park looking for bald eagles. I saw six eagles over 26.3 miles and 6 hours. There actually were 5 of us that did the full distance. The .1 over the marathon distance was someone’s idea of running past the finish to the next mailbox and back to ensure we ran an ultra. Don’t ask me, I just played along.
In early February I had the privilege of entering and running David Horton’s Holiday Lake 50K+++. The 3 plusses make it 34 miles which consists of two loops, the second loop run in reverse. It rained overnight and was still raining at the start. This turned to snow about 3 miles into the race. I had shorts, singlet and gloves on but left my stocking cap in the car. At about mile 10 of the first loop I ran through a stream and had soaking wet feet and legs. I seriously considered stopping at the turnaround because parts of my body were feeling extremely cold and numb. I entered the aid station at the turnaround / finish and realized that you had better be dying before you drop out of one of Horton’s races or else you will be known as a wimp for the rest of your life. I donned my stocking cap from the trunk of my car and turned around finishing in 4:45 and 14th place.
The first weekend in March I was invited to do an informal annual trek on the Appalachian Trail called the Catawba Run-around 35 miles. This is a loop run entirely on the AT. The trick to this is that the trail starts on the AT and runs above and then through the Catawba Valley then returns on the other side of the valley on an old portion of the AT that was used in the ‘70s during a private land dispute. Leave it to an ultrarunner to run an A to A route on an A to B trail. Maybe he was a Hasher. Anyway, I hooked up with an old friend, Sean Andrish, and his friend Courtney Campbell. Sean has become the local ultra champion of the area since moving from Tucson and Courtney has had tons of success in this sport. The three of us stuck together telling jokes and swearing about the lack of trail on the old AT section. We spent eight and a half hours out there that day but were witness to some awesome landmarks such as McAfee’s Knob, Tinker Cliffs and Dragon’s Tooth.
I was a little concerned for the following weekend at Crown King 50K when I returned home because normally I wouldn’t put this much time on my legs a week out from a race. I put it out of my head; this is training for a 100 miler, shut up! The start of CK was a light and easy pace with Ian Torrance back for the race and Paul Bonnett up front also. After four miles of small talk I let them go as my legs felt tired and weak. This turned out to be my slowest CK ever in 5:55 as even Jerry Riddick passed me at the 27 mile aid station. I still think the back to back weekend efforts were extremely valuable for the mental benefits if nothing else.
The next two runs were TTR events, Mica Mountain Marathon and Mt. Bigelow 50K. The heat had started to increase in early April and I felt it on both of these runs. I used electrolyte management but may not have carried enough water. I finished Mica around 5:30 with a bad feeling at the end which led to a vomit session on the side of the road on my way home. I think Bigelow was around 6:45 and I had the pleasure of puking by the side of the road with a quarter mile to go before the parking lot finish. Hey, this is good abdominal muscle training, right? Both of these runs were great preparation for Bob Redwanc’s Zane Grey 50 Mile at the end of April. Bob’s race is awesome. It’s hard to find a race that provides that much for the runners for the entry fee paid. Sunmart 50 Mile in Huntsville, Texas used to do a pretty good job. Zane is almost mandatory for anyone wanting to run a 100 that coming summer. I used 10 hours and 43 minutes to manage electrolytes, hydration, traverse non-stop undulating hills with rocks, burnt trees and long exposed sections of hot trails. As we all know, burnt trees are on every trail in the Southwestern U.S. now so it is a good idea to learn how to recognize them in place of black bears standing on their hind legs or the Triangalopes that I have caught fleeting glimpses of between Cowhead Saddle and Grass Shack in the Rincons.
After Zane I began to taper my distance a little. It may have been early but I wanted to focus on heat training by running an hour to an hour and a half 3-4 times a week at noon time in mid-May to mid-June. The temps varied from the low to high 90s. May 15th, Paul and Joyce Vyriotes with dogs, Pete and Tonja Chagaris, and my wife Trish did an alternate Wrightson Massacre. I ascended twice on Old Baldy for 21 miles. The last long run I did was a double Bear Canyon on June 5th starting at 5:30 am and finishing at 12:45 pm. This was real good heat training. My first loop was 2:52 and then a 15 minute stop for refills and clothing change. The second loop I reversed the normal direction and felt the sun in my face immediately on the way up the road. Thank God for brackish, standing, green water at the bottom of the creek on the backside. I wet my head in that thing for 5 minutes and finished the second loop at 102 degrees in 4:10 with a lot of walking.
Back to the 100. I had studied the course profile but unless it is taped to your arm you tend to not remember what is ahead. Everyone warns you about the three hot canyons after Robinson (29.8). Well, these canyons don’t really show up until after mile 45. I was able to see my family at Robinson and exchange my Coolmax shirt for an old cotton T-shirt from the Mogollon Brewing Company in Flagstaff. The slogan on the back is one of my favorites, “Ale’s What Cures You.” Better than that would be, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” but I digress. Bruce suggested the cotton T-shirt in the heat as a way to stay cooler through moisture contact with the skin rather than the wicking, drying effect of Coolmax or Lycoprene. My experience on this day proved this to be absolutely correct. I doused my head and shoulders at every aid station and the shirt pretty much stayed wet and kept me cool. I also employed the use of those desert bandana things that go around your neck after soaking in water. The pellets inside expand and chemically react to produce a cooler temperature. It didn’t stay cold but it stayed moist which helped immensely.
The fifteen miles between 30 and 45 were essentially a quad busting series of long downhills broken up by three aid stations. After 45 though, there were two long descents and brutal ascents out of hot, blistery canyons before coming into Michigan Bluff at 55 miles. Coming up the hill before 45 was my mental make or break point. In my last 100 mile attempt I experienced the onset of leg cramps at 42 miles. Here around 43 I felt a twinge in my left thigh. I looked at my watch and found I had 15 minutes before my next electrolyte so I popped another one on the spot. I washed it down with a vanilla GU gel packet. This was my first GU all day. I had been ingesting handfuls of fresh strawberries, cantaloupe and honeydew melon, and potatoes dipped in salt previous to this. Within three minutes the cramp was gone and I had renewed energy to top out the hill and drop into Michigan Bluff in 12 and a half hours. Michigan Bluff is a nice shady aid station with hundreds of people waiting for their runners and cheering everyone else. I was able to see my family and pacer, Bruce, six and a half hours after Robinson Flat. Bruce was here just to get a preview of how I was doing and prep himself to meet me at 62. I was really quite tired here. I never sat down the entire race but I did bend over a couple of times and rested my elbows on my knees. I don’t think I would call it pain, but it is some kind of exhaustion that when you see familiar faces that are sympathetic to your psychosis causes your throat to tighten and eyes to well up with water. I’m not sure what these symptoms represent but I thought I had better get going and get that last canyon over with and see how far I could get before dark.
Nothing eventful happened between 55 and 62 that I can remember. I came to an aid station near a trailhead and a paved uphill. The guy at the aid station said Foresthill was 1.5 miles away so I got the hell out of there in order to not waste any time. I walked up this paved hill, topped out near the highway and ran downhill to 62. I felt better here than I did at 55. I changed into a Coolmax singlet for the night ahead and picked up my headlamp and flashlight. A few clouds had assembled which masked the approaching sunset. Bruce joined in the fun and we jogged down the road a few hundred more meters and turned back onto the trail.
If you study the course profile you understand that the next 16 miles are essentially downhill. I know I have not mentioned the uphill parts of this course very much even though there is 18,000 feet of it. It’s just that the downs seem to be so relentless and punishing that is what you remember. I began to feel my big toenails in the front of my shoes. Without looking I knew these would be gone next week. Bruce counseled me on the possibility of breaking 24 hours and getting a silver buckle. I had mulled this 24 hour thing over in my head the last several months and determined that a brass buckle is just a different color than a silver buckle and without killing myself on my first finish I could always come back another year and maybe end up with both. But there we were, approaching 78 miles and still on 24 hours pace.
At the 78 mile American River Rucky Chuck crossing the runners are ferried across in an inflatable raft due to the water being too high to walk across with the aid of the cables. The ferry was rather short, a couple of minutes, and we were helped out on the other side. An old buddy of mine, Frank Bozanich, helped me out onto the shore. It was uplifting to see an old friend, especially Frank who is a master of these types of events. The next couple of miles ascended a rather steep hill up to the Green Gate aid station mile 82. My family was here as well as Eugene, my step-daughter Ashley’s 19 year old boyfriend, who was an invaluable crew member at these late hours. I don’t remember the time but it must have been past midnight. I purchased a small box of caffeine tablets for the race. I never used them in training. Bruce suggested not starting now. I had lain off caffeine products the last three weeks so I could get more benefit from them during the race. Here at 82 I opted for a cup of coffee instead. I wasn’t sleepy yet; I just thought I better take some precaution. Trish took advantage of the tablets.
Leaving 82, it was here that I noticed that stopping at aid stations was causing my legs to stiffen terribly. It would take a half a mile to get my legs out of shuffle mode. I could then run for one to two or even stretches of three miles at a time as long as the grade was below 3%. Bruce was behind me reminding me to run when it was runnable. I would feel tired and start to walk enjoying the night air and knowing that if I walked the rest of the way I would finish under the 30 hour cutoff. I had begun to use expletives when I stopped to walk and again when I started running again. I also started sighing occasionally and I hate that. I found a way to deal with these signs of weakness in training. When I would be on the backside of a 90 minute loop in 100 degree heat and started sighing or coughing I would tell myself “You ain’t done anything and you haven’t proven shit.” So I used this mantra to make myself suck it up and keep going. Forward momentum must be maintained at all times. I believe you have to mentally trick your body to do this or common sense may take over and any reflection of what is actually happening to you will cause you to weigh the advantages of quitting. I had fallen off the 24 hour pace and Bruce said if I just picked it up a little I might come close. Pick it up a little? My mentality had gone far beyond caring about 24 hours. I was afraid if I notched up my effort I would break down and endanger my completion.
Around 86 miles Bruce asked me if I knew any jokes. I thought for about 2 seconds and my head started to hurt so I said “No.” But I did know some funny songs that I only sing at the Hash. I don’t sing anywhere else except at the Hash because nobody else knows how to sing. We sound pretty good after a couple of beers. So I started to sing a couple of these off color songs. Bruce knew a couple songs himself and we traded back and forth for about two miles. Amazingly, the next aid station at 89 was a Hasher aid station. I tried to keep moving here to prevent my legs from locking up so I decided to start walking down the trail ahead of Bruce but I went the wrong way. Here is a good place to mention something not to do. I had been given an awesome headlamp at Zane Grey back in April as a gift. I already had a headlamp but this new one was three times better. I tried it on to fit the straps and turned on the different levels of brightness. I never actually used it on a training run. During the race I noticed that the projection of the light was too far ahead of me to be of any real use so I relied on my handheld LED but kept the headlamp on my head. Bruce asked if it adjusted but it was dark and I couldn’t get it to move because I never tried it before so I thought “I guess that light ain’t so great.” A week later I was sitting around home and picked up the headlamp fiddling with it. I was able to angle the lamp up and down so it shined right in front of my feet. Rule number 1: Never do anything in a race that you haven’t done in training.
The next aid station was the Hwy 49 crossing at 93 miles. This was a landmark for me because this was the furthest I had ever run. I ran 92 miles around a quarter mile track back in 2000 but I slept 5 hours during the 24 hour period. We didn’t stop long here. About a half mile before the station Bruce had twisted his ankle and it was becoming sore. It has got to be tough to be a pacer. You volunteer to walk, shuffle and run a little over a distance of 38 miles in the dark for 8 to 10 hours. No thanks. Bruce was right behind me because I had slowed down and he did not have a good view of the trail then stumbled on a rock. After this Bruce stayed ahead of me and I never could catch up.
We finally reached the last aid station around 96 miles called No-Hands Bridge. I remember looking at my watch and it said something like 23:32. At this point 24 hours was out of the question. I knew we had a mile and half of runnable terrain out of the aid but then we would have to climb up switchbacks to Robie Point 99 miles and then be on the road to Placer High School track. I took no aid here. I did not want to stop and stiffen. I still wasn’t sure I wouldn’t lock up and fall over and not get up. I had my wits about me and was not sleepy; I just didn’t know what unpredictable thing could happen to my body. Also, I definitely wanted to break 25 hours if I wasn’t getting 24. We ran across the bridge and then continued running to the switchbacks. It started to get light out.
We worked the hell out of those switchbacks passing rocks like they were standing still. We turned onto the road and my spirit lifted. How far away is that track? The road had a couple rises in it and I think it was longer than advertised. When it went downhill it seemed like a long way. I met my family at the top of the hill and we all ran down to the track. Bruce and I went onto the track and ran down the backstretch. As we rounded the corner I did pick up my pace to some semblance of a sprint. Bruce peeled off before the banner and I got across in 24 hours and 35 minutes.
Except for my legs being hammered and tired and hurting, the rest of me felt pretty good. I sat in a chair and had my BP checked, 130/80 and weighed in at 163.5, half a pound light. Many of my in-laws were at the finish. Some had been there since midnight to watch the event. We stayed around about half an hour and then went to our headquarters at Motel 6 in Auburn where I laid on the bed with my shoes and clothes on and slept for 2 hours and forgot to shower off with cold water and Tecnu to wash off the poison oak. We went back to the high school to get my finisher’s buckle. Hundreds of people were sitting under a canvas tent waiting for the awards ceremony and eating breakfast. The sun was way up and the temperature felt like 100 degrees. I decided to get my buckle early and we made our way to the Yuba River for our cabin in the woods vacation.
Let me end this diatribe with a couple of comments that I found significant afterwards. 399 runners started this race, 210 finished. Many of the drops were before mile 55. I lost four toe nails, both big toe nails and two smaller ones. I never formed blisters. I did have some chafing in my groin area. Three days later I developed dime sized spots of poison oak on three places on my arms. Tuesday after the race I hiked 8 miles with my son and still had a lot of quad soreness. My mentality is changed. In no way was this thing easy. I put my mind and body into a goal and sacrificed time with my family and other important things in everyday life I could have accomplished. The race was hard but the training proved to be absolutely tiring. I did well in the early months but into the 4th and 5th months I began to be tired all the time. Maybe it was the heat training and not recovering fully between runs. I did no long runs three weeks out to heal anything that might need recovery. This is where I actually felt more pain than usual. I developed some kind of low back pain which felt like a kidney problem. I stretched continuously and drank pure cranberry juice. In the end it all went away due probably to the normal things that happen during a taper. I knew if I finished this race I would run another 100 miler. For sure I would go back to Angeles Crest next year. Wrong or right I determined that once I recovered from this effort I would still have the fitness I had to complete this thing to begin with so why waste the opportunity to run another one soon. Unless I get deployed to Afghanistan, Trish and I will go to the North Shore of Minnesota September 8th and I will run the Superior 100 and she will run the marathon. The entire run is on the Superior Hiking Trail during the fall color season. Awesome!!!
Good luck to any of you that have your sights set on running 100 miles. Hopefully this story of my experience provides you with helpful tips that will make you successful.