Learning the Course: Western States 100

Normally the week before a race I don't have too much stuff to blog about. But I'm a week out from Western States100 (WS100) and the situation is quite different. Basically, everything is new! I arrived in the Sacramento area last week Wednesday in hopes of learning as much as possible about the course and acclimating a bit to the dry heat and elevation. I am thrilled about my experience so far! I have been able to get on almost all of the first 55 miles of the WS 100 course. This was important to me as the first 55 miles are the most technical, and you really need to see them in order to be prepared for the race (map).

A bit about the course: The first 29 miles to Robinson's Flat are arguably the most difficult. A mixture of rocky, single-track trail, an ascent to 7,200 feet, and some windy descents leave runners debating on how to attack. Give too much, and you might suffer your way through the faster parts of the course on the back 38 miles. But give too little and you could put yourself too far from a goal. From Robinson's Flat to Michigan Bluff (miles 29-55), the course is characterized by a stretch of very runnable descents, followed by some scorching canyons that can wreck your quads if you are not careful.

This course has all the makings for a classic battle of strategies. If heat becomes a factor, strategy becomes even more important as runners decide how much they want to risk in the blazing inferno that is the canyons. With this year's reopening of the official course, a challenging segment that was previously replaced by very runnable gravel road, will be back in play. I'd say don't expect quite as fast times as the previous two years.

Thursday through Saturday marked a pretty intense block of preparation for me. I didn't follow what would be considered a typical taper for WS100. I have never been on the course before, so I thought finding out firsthand what twists, turns, and challenges were ahead would be more valuable than just resting. I plan to run the WS100 a number of times in my life, and want to get as educated as possible about the course.

I was extremely fortunate in that I was able to spend much of my time thus far with Peter Defty and Bruce Labelle. Peter, of Vespa Power Products, has great insight into the inner workings of the WS 100-mile stretch, great insight into fueling processes I strongly believe in, and knowledge of form efficiency on downhill and uphill running. Over the past three days, with Peter's advice, I have worked a lot on balanced running for efficiency on both descending and ascending trails. The idea is that more efficient running leads to less energy expenditure. I would like to say Bruce has probably forgotten more about the course than I can ever hope to know, but it would be false, because I don't think he has forgotten anything he ever learned about the course. He is competing this year for his 1,000 mile, 10-day award (meaning 10 finishes, all under 24 hours). This includes a stretch from '82 through '84 where he finished 3rd, 7th, and 2nd, respectively. His insight about the course has helped my mental preparation exponentially. With the knowledge of Peter and Bruce, I capped off a three-day stretch that included Robinson's Flat to Michigan Bluff (miles 29-55, with a small 2-3 mile detour in there), Escarpment to Red Star (miles 3.5 to 15, plus a 7-mile detour through part of the snow course due to my navigational deficiencies, and lack of daylight), and Red Star to Robinson's Flat (miles 15-29).

This may seem like a lot for the weekend before a big race, but like I mentioned earlier, the experience is well worth it, and I trust with a few easy days I will benefit from the work. Also, I tried to plan ahead a bit earlier in the week by backing off my training (Sunday through Wednesday comprised 40 easy, flat miles). I ended the week with 108 miles, which is a fairly typical amount for me leading into an ultra. The next six days before the race will be pretty relaxed as far as running goes. I will work more on efficient running techniques and try to see a bit more of the course. If you are interested in following the race on Saturday, I have posted two links that will take you to the video feed, as well as email/text splits.