Friday, June 22, 2007

Western States training camp: gearing up! Or down?

[Like my blog guru, Scott Dunlap, taught me: blogs are better and more readable with pictures. Unlike Scott and Chiphing though, I'm not yet carrying a camera in races. This training run was the perfect occasion to take it easy and caputure some of the wonderful views on the course, along with runners. I borrowed Agn├Ęs' great and compact Canon and took more than 80 pictures the first day. Before losing it at the end of the day in my epic way back to the base camp. At the time I started writing this report during the weekend, no news, I'm still hoping to hear back from the nice folks who drove me back, if I drop the camera in their car. Fortunately, the camera was found and I got it back the following week, so enjoy the views in my album for day 1. And for the second and third days, Robin's story and albums, Robin our Striders Club webmaster.]

The training camp. I was expecting it to be the Western Sates fan retreat, a sort of ultra fest. It's not really like that. You meet with long time WSers', including the original (and original) Gordy Ainslegh, along with rookies like me. Some serious competitive runners along with passionate amateurs, who mostly enjoy being on the trails, sometimes struggling and concerned about cut-off times in ultras. But the format is quite open, so few attendees stay for the whole three days (runs, camping, breakfasts, dinners, clinics).

Friday - Getting there

The WS training camp is held every year during Memorial day weekend, Saturday through Monday. Unless you leave close by Auburn, the quite unknown "worldwide capital of endurance", that means bad traffic to get in on Friday evening. Thanks to my fellow Striders, in particular Penny, we arranged some nice carpooling plans. Andrew was my chauffeur. We stopped by Fresh Choice in Travis to allow me to stock-up. Lizzie, Penny and Andrew's elder daugther, was much more reasonable, she had no running plans over the week, more concerned with Spanish revisions before her finals next week.
We arrived at the lodge by 9:30, having left Cupertino at 3:30. Not "too" bad, everything is relative. The other Striders were alredy there: Ali and Robin (Mills), Peggy, Penny and the rest of the family, Winnie and Lee (Jebian), Christina, Steve. Was fun to have Claudia's house full of runners, great spirit. And much more comfortable than camping at the Foresthil school, my initial plan.

Saturday - Day 1

Claudia served her delicious breakfast at 6:30, so we could leave the lodge by 7:15 and sign up at the Foresthill school for the bus leaving at 8am. Direction: Robinson Flat, mile 31 on the course, at the very end of the Foresthill Road. Some patches of snow upthere, although almost none on the trail section we were starting off. I was going to run with Mark Culligan (who I met on my way to Boston, 1st at the Mount Diablo marathon two weeks later, and a great race at Miwok too). By the time he used the bathrooms, we were the very last to start, after saluting Greg (Soderlund) on our way out . Needless to say, that was a slow start as we were at the back of a long Congo line, and it was not easy to pass. A few runners started passing so Mark folowed. Passing too, I stopped by to chat with fellow runners: Chuck Wilson and Chris, the Jebians then, later, Chris and Charles. Was at Dusty Corner before knewing it, enjoyed the break and the lack of rush. I like this section which I know from running it when serving as Captain of the Last Chance aid station for the past three years. Took pictures of the amazing views on the way to Last Chance. No Striders today, the aid station site seemed so big and desert.

And now, down to the evil Devil Thumb, the first Canyon today, the second on the course after Duncan. The temperature was decent, likely lower than it will be on race day, later in June, and later in the day. And with 31 more miles in the legs... The way down is actually shady and the darkness, some rocks, roots and many dead leaves make the switchbacks slippery and hazardous. Better watch your steps. No view anyway. Stopped at the bridge for the usual picture of the sign: "Bridge limit: 5 runners or 3 horses"; must be pretty heavy runners!
And here we are for the 37 switchbacks up to Devil Thumb. Again, the heat wasn't as bad, and we had only ran 15 miles. So, like at Ohlone last week, I ran everytime I could breathe, power walked the rest. Passed a few others on the way up. And arrived at the top with Pete Korn, a local runner, in States this year after, like so many, a bad experience last year (Dusty Corner drop). We enjoyed ourselves at the 2nd aid station of the day. I was surprised to learn that there were only two runners ahead of us, that means I probably passed about 150 of them. Anyway, after passing Deadwood Cemetery, we kept flying in Eldorado Canyon on the way down to Eldorado Bridge. Switching the lead, and stopping at every creek to water our caps. I've never seen so much and dense poison oak, which I now fear after the bad experience on my elbow at Miwok. We'll see in a couple of days as good or bad I've been at avoiding the leaves and branches on each side of the narrow trail, and how Tecnu has worked in a preventive and cleansing manner.

We passed the two runners on the way down, and I headed up to Michigan Bluff, running quite a few sections of the uphill. Was glad to see the fun folks managing the Michigan Bluff station, quite some ambiance in the neighborhood! Ate, although not the lemon cake, and drank a couple of glasses of Coke before continuing on Foresthill. Before leaving, I shared my plan to go down to the river this afternoon, which a runner from the Patagonia team advised against. The trail from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill is new and great, very runnable. Called Volcano Trail. Passed 3 runners from the Mont Diablo Team who were getting soaked in cool water in a creek pool, and 4 with the Auburn Running Company top, who wer not part of the training camp run but also planned to go down to the river. Finished the standard 50K run in 6 hours.

At Foresthill, I found my Camel Back which I had left under Christina's car in the morning. Got some water at the school then saw Pete coming in the parking lot. Pete was also interested in extending the run to 50 miles, as he hadn't run that long yet this year. So here we are, for additional 18 miles, without aid station, at 3pm. A few GUs, too much water and not enough electrolyte, some fatigue, and a way "down" with a few steep up-hills in it, I hitted the wall before Rocky Chucky. Pete waited for me and we walked several portions. As time was passing, I was actually quite concerned about the lack of plan to get to the school for dinner and the clinics. Reaching Rocky Chucky, we saw a runner and his car, so, with no hesitation, I asked of he'd give me a ride. He was waiting for two other runners who kept going at Foresthill. Pete decided to do the last 3 miles, up to the parking lot.

Ty and Don drove me back to the school around 8pm, although it was not their way. The clinics were already on, the dinner buffet over, but the people working the kitchen prepared my a plate. Tim was on stage, with three other WS finishers, for a Q&A session moderated by Greg. Here are some of the topics dicussed (I arrived late, so the list is short):

  1. Carry a spare flash light at night

  2. Eat in the first part of the race, you may not be so keen afterwards

  3. Barely stop at Hwy49, keep moving. Not a great place for a crew.

  4. You don't want to spend too much time in Foresthill neither to take advantage of day light

  5. And my favorite, from Tim: if you get sick, get sick! (Meaning, don't spend 2 or 3 hours trying to figure out what's going on)

Anyway, as they concluded, these are a few tips, there are more than thousand others. Meaning that you need to find them on your own, on the course, this is part of the Western States experience. Like the pioneers of the gold rush have endured on this legendary trail...

Sunday - Day 2 - Foresthill to White Oak Flat

Shorter (18+ miles) and same section than yesterday afternoon from Foresthill (California Street) down to Rucky Chucky. After a good night rest, fresh legs, and no camera (lost last night), it took me 2h20 to get down to the river (15.4 miles). Beautiful morning, nice people allowing me to pass as I took off at 8:30 as instructed, but most of the runners actually started 15 to 30' ahead of time.

The highlight of the run is the 40' I spent in the river (legs) at Rucky Chucky. I ran several miles with James on the way down. James has been the youngest runner at WS two years ago, also know for the son-father running of Western States the past two years. James' father will not run this year, and James is not the youngest anymore, replaced by Benjamin Muradyan (19 years old). James is also one of the 9 ultra runners sponsored by North Face (see Jame's bio , with long hair on the picture, so not really up to date! ;-).

Anyway, James convinced me to go down the rive, instead of hanging out for an hour to wait the bus at White Oak Flat. We met several fast runners and the group kept growing as we were enjoying the fresh water. Quite low level indeed (not a snow year), should be easy to cross on race day. Simon did a funny ritual dance before getting completely immersed in the water (sorry, no camera, no picture!). Brrr...

I ran most of the 3 miles up to the parking lot, a nice push to get to the BBQ before getting back to the bus. Met more cool runners while waiting for Peggy and Greg: Kelly (an amazing Lupus fighter, check her blog out), Florence (speaking French!), and some of their friends. And Charles and Chris who where heading back to the Bay after this run. Some work on blog (Graham's interview) in the afternoon, at the lodge, before getting back to Foresthill for dinner and the clinics.

That night the first part was about the WS history, by WS "pionneer" Shannon Weil, Vice President of the WS Trail Foundation. With many slides and pictures, Shannon shared her passion for the event and the trail, enthusiasm she inherited from Wendell Robie, an energetic horse rider who devoted his life to the Western States trail, and founded the Tevis Cup. Amazing stories from the first runner, Gordy Ainsleigh, who has run every of the 36 editions with his special Bib #0, without any any assistance (aid stations) the first years, yet, under 24 hours! Was great to see Gordy on the trails and at the camp, still training after all these years.

The second part was also very picturesque: Simon told us about the wonders of his country (Tanzania), region, his farm and his guide business. Simon takes small groups up to Kilimanjaro, in tours from 6 to 14 days. Have a look to Simon's website.

Enough for sweet dreams that night.

Before driving back to the lodge, chatted with two other celebrities. Marie Bartoletti, from Arizona, whom Mark Gallinger will pace. Marie is known for her appearance on the Weathies box! ;-) This evening was less fun, when Greg (Soderlund), the WS Race Director, pierced her two black toe nails with a paper clip. :-/ No picture...

Also met Mark Godale, who has run Western States 4 times, yet haven't done as well on this tough trail as his other amazing accomplishments, including a 100km world championship. Yet another data point that Western States is really a tough challenge, when someone like Mark is running in 21-23 hours. I asked Mark what he found hard in Western States and he replied: "everything!" There is definitely not much flat terrain from the finish to the end. To tune up his already great form, Mark was going to stay 2 more weeks to train on the course.

Day 3 - Monday, Memorial Day - Green Gate to Finish (Auburn, Placer High School)

I knew this section for having ran it in February (first WS training run). Of course the temperature was much higher today. The school buses left Placer high school at 8:30 which was quite late for the ones having to drive back, or even fly back home. We started the run around 9:15. My bottles were half empty, next time I'll take another one just for the bus ride. I wanted to go down to the river, but, without much fluid and the first aid station at mile 14, decided to turn back and join the others on the regular trail.

Everbody says that the easy part of Western States, because there is no more canyon, and you are off the heat on race day. Well, it's not flat and I very much wonder what I'll have left after crossing the river and 22 miles to go, at the end of a long day. We'll see...
The first station was really far. Fortunately, there was some water around mile 7 or 8, much appreciated. Met Simon, James and Caren, the Ohlone female winner (see my Ohlone race report).

Kami (Semik, F4 bib this year) and friend caught up with me at the No Hands Bridge aid station and also noted that the first aid station was too far, especially with the rising temperatures. We were glad to find ice and fluid before the last 3 miles up to Auburn. Finished with the awaited lap on the track. Mark Gallinger and Godale were first at the stadium and we gather around the chili served at the final aid station, welcomed by Tim T.

Robin and Ali proposed to drive me back to the Bay, as they were here to drop Steve who will wait for Christina (all Striders). We stopped by Jerry Hill's house in Sun City, a life-time Strider, a WS finisher in 1988 and captain of the Last Chance aid station for many years.

Conclusion

Well, it's really a challenging course and it was key to spend more time training on it. I ran 16 miles on Tuesday to make it 104 miles in 4 days. Like 4 marathons, plus the hills... Yet, I really wonder how it is possible to run all these miles in one day! Maybe the 2 weeks of tapering before the event is the secret, we'll see. Or the spirit of the pionneers when we'll be on the trail on D Day. Looking forward to meeting all the runners, crews, pacers and volunteers at Squaw, then all the way to... Auburn, the worldwide capital of endurance! "All trails lead to Auburn" says the website. As long as my legs and mind can make it!

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