Friday, 26 July 2019

Western States 100 2019 - Race Report

Western States 100 2019 - Race Report

Build up

Well where do I start? Its been a while since my last post and I'm already matching last years post count of one!

A good place to start is maybe way back in 2015? I'd heard of Western States through the book Born to Run and the legendary film Unbreakable (best running film ever?) and as I was trying to run 100 miles I'd obviously heard of the race that started it all.

Originally a 100 mile mountain horse race in America this changed ultra running forever in 1974 when one competitor had to run the whole course in sub 24hrs because his horse was lame. The event is now recognised arguably as the most prestigious 100 mile event in the world.

I'd had my first attempt at the distance in 2013 but it wasn't till finally finishing Thames Path 100 and stating "never again" was told this was a qualifier for the draw for WS100 and of course I had to enter.

I completed the online entry and waited till December for the live draw. with 5000+ people entering a race with less than 400 places it wasn't a surprise when my name wasn't picked... Oh well best look at what qualifying races I could do next year! South Downs Way 100 followed but the same draw result in 2016, North Downs Way 100 in 2017 same again and Lakeland 100 in 2018.....

We had a tradition by now in its 4th year that the family would visit the local Christmas displays and on the way back listen to the draw live via the web... This year was no different. I was driving so wasn't taking in the stuff in the background but when Katie said I was in I told her to quit joking.

But sure enough I checked the draw results and I was in the race! Later that evening I started to get messages from various people that had heard the news including Tim Lambert who I first met at SDW 100 and who had also got in after waiting even longer then me.

Another guy who got in was Tremanye Cowdry who'd run it a couple of years before and as fortune would have it got in again. Tremanye would prove to be a massive help and I'd like to say a special thanks to him who as well as my family probably had to listen to countless questions.


Pre-draw result I'd previously decided to focus one last time in 2019 on a fast road marathon and had already started to try increase my base speed with previously non-existent weekly speed sessions. Well I wasn't going to miss States once I knew I was in so fast marathon training also incorporated 50 mile ultra marathons as well as usual Tempo runs, not really ideal.

Well Manchester marathon came and went and I did manage 3:27 which was a PB but I knew months ago that I wasn't going to be fully focused on the tarmac but I was pleased with the result anyway. What it did remind me was that road racing isn't really for me as I much preferred the trails.

As well as upping the miles now I was trying to run in the hills as often as possible and also as the race would hit 100 deg F I was now in weeks of heat training in daily saunas (20 mins never seemed so long). But towards the end generally the training had probably gone as well as it ever had in the build up to a 100 miler and decided rest was critical so I had a 3 week gradual taper over my usual 2.

Time to fly

June was soon upon us and soon I was packing kit, then unpacking and repacking about a dozen times as I couldn't decide on exactly what to use so I took everything! We by now had a small group of about 8 Brits that were also doing the event and most of us met up at the airport the Tuesday before the start as we flew to San Fransisco.

What I haven't mentioned were events over the last weekend before the race. Me and Mrs B had a rare night out in London but she was take really ill with what was later diagnosed as a stomach bug and was sick for days. Well you guessed it, the night before my flight I started feeling sick. Not that bad and I crossed everything it wouldn't be as bad as Kelly as she really suffered.

I boarded the plane and I didn't feel like eating or drinking anything even though I had bought loads of food. After 11 hours we landed and I'd somehow managed to hold it together for the whole flight but as we stood in line at immigration I started to get waves of serious nausea. I told Tremayne I needed to go to the toilet asap and that was the last I remember as everything went black.

I came too on the floor surrounded by strangers and the first thing I thought was if I get seen by officials they're not going to let me in the country! Everyone asked if I was ok and I jumped up and said I was fine even though I really wasn't. I couldn't tell anyone in my group the real reason I was in bad shape as I didn't want to jinx anyone so blamed it on the heat and after 2 hrs we cleared customs to my relief.

See you in Squaw

We had one night in San Francisco and the next day we travelled to Squaw Valley about 3 hours away. We drove straight to a BBQ near-by which hosted all the international runners and it was here I met my pacer Julie for the first time. Julie was a local who knew the course well and had helped at the event for years. She was helping again on race day at Devils Thumb but would meet me later to pace me hopefully to the finish. Also at the BBQ were a few race legends including the man that started it all Gordy Ainsleigh by running the route with his horse.

We eventually got to the hotel and everyone was keen to have a few beers and some food but I still couldn't eat much. I was feeling pretty sick but it wasn't getting any worst and I knew it only really lasted 3 days as Kelly had improved then so I hoped I'd be feeling better before the start. I really hoped no one else started to get it though even though there was nothing I could have done.

The next day I went for a walk around the beautiful resort of Tahoe City. Despite the name its a small town right on the lake surrounded by huge ski resort mountains. Was I taking some picture of the lake and guy passed me and said if I wanted to take a cool picture I should take on of the bear. Bear? There must be a statue of a bear close by but oh no about 20m away was a baby bear walking around and I was looking for mama bear but luckily she wasn't around!

Later we drove to the start and the place was amazing. It was built to hold the 1960 Winter Olympics and it was super impressive. I couldn't believe I was actually here in the place I'd only seen in movies and I was part of it. We had a briefing from the race RD and we took a really slow walk from the start for the first 4 miles of the race straight up a ski run. What was a little strange was that in places the ski run was till in use as high snow fall still refused to melt and race day would be

I'll be honest with the week I'd had I wasn't looking forward to this climb as I was nervous how I would feel with almost no fuel in the build up but me and Tremayne took it really easy stopping every now and then to take in the views and we were soon approaching the top and wow it was worth it. We were buzzing. Im not sure if it was elation or altitude but we were jumping up and down like kids. I noticed one of the few at the top was ladies elite runner Camile Herron. She was also bouncing up and down as I took a selfie of both of us, an amazing experience.

The rest of the day was spent walking around the resort again bothering ultra running royalty for more photos. Eventually we drove back to the hotel and started one final kit pack ready for registration and check in the next day. Then it was Friday the day before the start and I was feeling a lot better. I still had little appetite but I wasn't feeling as sick now and no one else in the group looked like they were going down with anything more importantly.

We again drove to the start and we were first in line to register for the race. This was a series of stands that start with your race photo being taken by Luis Escobar the famous race photographer and big part of the Born to Run story. I shook his hand and he seemed like a genuinely really nice guy who was loving it. Best bit about the stands? The swag! I came out with loads of Western States branded goodies, now all I had to do was finish the event so I could use them!

Next our drop bags were handed in. I'd opted for 3 race bags and a finish bag. Two of the race bags were only Tailwind fuel and a larger bag for 62 miles with new shoes, socks and headtorch etc. I'd decided to carry a tiny emergency torch in my race vest just in case as well as my main headlamp despite States having no formal kit list and this turned out to be a decent decision.

Well that was it we were ready. The body had sorted itself out and the kit was packed. We had one last meal that night and it was early to bed for a 2:30am alarm call. I slept pretty well and got myself dressed and ready for the drive to the start and we got there just before 4am with the race due to start at 5am. We were all huddled in one small room and people were trying to have one last coffee before the adventure ahead. I was a little nervous but really just wanted to get started. I said good luck to all the GB runners one last time and took myself off to a corner ready for the start.

3,2,1.... BANG

With minutes to go the starter gave a speech about the journey and don't forget to turn around and look around every now and again especially at the top of the first long climb, then countdown and a shotgun start and we were off. People started running but I was determined to start super slow and not run one step on the first climb. I felt ok but the walk seemed a lot harder than it had a couple of days ago and I looked at my watch as I was doing something I'd never done in an event before and that was run to heart rate. I'd been told that the most critical thing was to not head out too fast but save something for the "easier" 2nd half of the race.

I looked around still nowhere near the top and I was a little worried that there didn't seem a lot more people left behind me. I wanted to take it easy but I was concerned I was too slow. One of our group Sharon tapped me on the shoulder and told me I really was taking it easy! This set off more alarm bells and I pushed on a little and eventually reached the top of Escarpment the first climb finished. I've never been so relieved. Now I had visions of a nice 30 mile easy downhill recovery but I was in for a shock.

The High Country

Just before I started running I remembered what the starter said and I stopped in my tracks turned around and looked at the view and wow it was amazing we were above the clouds looking down on the lake with the sun rising. I quickly turned around and started to run at a reasonable pace on the single track as I passed a dude blowing a huge alpine horn. I started feeling better but soon the clear trail turn into 6ft high banks of snow and ice that had to be climbed up and then slid off.

This seemed to drag on for miles but eventually the snow eased as we approached the first aid station Lyon Ridge that was really tiny I remember. I was feeling shattered too early and didn't know why but tried some Cliff Shot blocks that were on offer but they just didn't sit right on my stomach and decided to stick to Tailwind and gels only not risking solids. We were now in high country and even though I was in a dark place I forced myself to look up at the absolutely epic views of the Sierra Nevada's.

I realised I'd forgotten to check my progress by looking for the cut off signs at the last stop and as I was still using HR which was through the roof in zone 4 I kept backing off to try and get it lower. Eventually I managed to stabilise myself and tried to enjoy the rolling trails more with what seemed endless switchbacks either up or down. All I can remember at this point was where was it all downhill after the first climb? Nearly 16 miles of tough running and we get to Red Star Ridge aid station and the amazing helpers filled my bottles while I try to compose myself for the next section running from one stop to the next was all I could handle.

But we had an issue! This time at the aid station I did look at the timing signs and it wasn't good news. They gives you sub 24, sub 30 and cut-off times so you can check your progress and I was 10 minutes slower than sub 30hrs pace (the cut-off for the whole event). That meant unless I got quicker Id be out. This was totally alien to me, I didn't understand how this was possible? I knew I was suffering and slow but I was sure I was making progress in the pack? With this in mind I started to try and push the pace a little more but now the snow was beginning to melt and I could sense the big issue approaching.... The heat. Nothing boiling right now but it was almost like every step forward was one closer to the fire.

More epic rolling trails through the woods and actually I started to feel better as I got myself onto a train of runners at a similar pace and coasted for a while and Duncan Canyon aid station 10 miles later was soon upon us, at least I was settling into the race and I could do some serious running? This was the first large aid station as the others were so remote and there was a party going on. Loads of people filling bottles or putting ice in bandannas for runners. Again I didn't want to stop too long and tried to follow my new found friends out of the stop but had to slow as again the body wasn't having it. I soon lost sight of the train and I was on my own again. The words on the helpers at the last stop echoed... "2 miles down then 4 miles up". 6 to the next stop, how hard could that be? Well the word Canyon should have set off alarm bells if my head could take anymore as we dropped 2 miles off a cliff then climbed 4 miles up the other side. It was so hot that any running water on the course like the streams at the bottom of these drops meant a stop and a soaking.

The up just never seemed to end and it was the first time I think I noticed people passing me as we hiked. I looked at my fingers as they felt strange and was shocked to see them twice the size from the heat but also the altitude and this was something I had totally not prepared for. I was almost at a standstill and it took everything to place one foot in front of the other, again my heart rate was 170+ and either this climb had to finish or I'd be finished. Could this be the end of 4 years of work in less than 30 miles? Eventually I could hear the faint cheers that could only mean the next stop and I stumbled into it as a helper who was trying to fill my bottles was saying something but it seemed muffled as I stumbled around. "FOCUS, FOCUS, look me in the eyes man". Then something clicked again and I was back in the game. I had a drop bag with Tailwind that I grabbed and they told me the next section was all downhill. I hoped this was what I needed and I walked on.

I honestly nearly stopped at the last aid station but like Gordy the races creator said I could still take one more step so would keep doing that till I either finished or was told to stop. Then it happened, the slight climb out of the aid station on a dirt track started to drop and it felt like being on an airport travellator as we shuffled along everyone around me seemed in the same boat (trains, boats... plane hopefully anyone?) We had 10 miles till the start of the real canyons and heat and now there were aid stations every 5 or so miles so this was a welcome change. As we dropped altitude I noticed I was feeling better and better and the pace was getting quicker and HR dropping so I felt in a good place. Again I managed to run with some others and without saying anything we would help each other along the trails taking it in turns to lead and push like a bike race. I knew what was to come though below us.

The Canyons

I was somehow on my own again as I got to another set of downhill switchbacks and for the first time tried to run them quick as possible to get some time back as I was slowly getting out of the red. These turns were mega steep and seemed to last forever and I nearly reached the bottom before finally getting caught. At the bottom was the famous swinging bridge and a natural pool where you can recover for a few seconds. I was boiling but the climb down to the pool looked huge so I started the long hike up the Devil's Thumb and the 50 mile point where my pacer Julie was working. This was one of the biggest climbs on the event and although only a mile it had something like 25 switchbacks and was a 1000ft of up. This I heard was a nightmare and I'd been told stories of people laying on the floor of the aid station like a war zone! Hiking up I had to give everything but strangely it wasn't that bad. One thing I'd practised a lot in training was hills and hiking and now it was paying off as I stuck to a pace and even passed people who had ground to a halt halfway up. It was brutal.

When I did get to the top that was the first time cramp hit me. Everything locked up crawled into the help area on my knees. I saw Julie as everything cramped and couldn't even hold my water bottle to my mouth as my arms locked too. She dragged me to the table of food and drink and I was given a cup of pickle juice to down and told it would help. I've nothing against pickles but let's just say I take them out of burgers! Again I didn't want to stay long as I managed to get moving, I grabbed a famous ice lolly and jogged on. Due to the change in terrain I was now about an hour ahead of the 30hr timings and I wasn't a million miles from Michigan Bluff and Foresthill where the course is more rolling than big hills? More ups and downs followed and again I started to feel better but exactly like last time I had to drop into a huge canyon then climb 2 miles and 1800ft out. At the top was a huge motivator Michigan Bluff aid station though.

As I ran into the stop I passed the friend of one of our Brit team runners who I'd seen earlier and a pacer who was waiting for Tim Lambert, it was so good seeing people I knew. Even though every helper and aid station was amazing, this was special. There was music, decor and absolutely loads of people as this was a major crew point and everyone cheered you on. I filled bottles again and this time no ice in the hat or bandanna as the evening was coming in and I was into my next race now against the darkness. Although still light as I hiked the never ending road out, I still had a few miles to cover till I got to pick up my pacer and more importantly my main headtorch. The trails leading to the steady climb into the town of Foresthill weren't to bad but went on forever and with a mile to go I had to dig out the tiny backup light I had luckily as I jogged along the road into the aid station as it was pitch black.

The Back Half

The helpers shouted my race number and right there was Julie waiting for me. I said I needed my drop bag but she already had it and she introduced me to her friend that was also helping another runner. We ran through to a group of others that Julie knew and I was told to take a seat as they looked after me like an racing pit crew. I changed my shoes and socks, put on my main light took some salt tablets as I was still getting cramps (need to use these now even in UK) and off we went as I shouted thanks to these people Id never met before but looked after me like family. Soon we were on the Cal Street section and 16 miles down to the Rucky Chucky river crossing. I can't remember too much about this section apart from I again tried to get some time in the bank as I was still running ok and was determined not to automatically get into a death march through the night like I always tend to do. But I felt good. mentally I was on the "easy" part of the course and taken it as steady as I dared in the front part to save the legs for now.

In fact the main thing I remember about this part of the race was the wind. I'd like to say the wind off the river but no, lets just say the days building up to this and the toll of the hours so far resulted in a far amount of "internal combustion". I kept apologising as I played my own special tune along the trail in front of a lady I'd only just met but she told me to stop saying sorry bless her (the things pacers have to put up with!) Anyway back to the race. By now as we approached the river I noticed the quads which had given up with 40 miles to go at Lakeland last year were starting to fade fast. I was still managing to jog but the pain was building. As we got the the river and the boats that would carry us across I had to be helped down the bank as the legs were so sore. Out the other side we hike the climb to Green Gate at 80 miles and it looked like I now had over 2 hrs in the bank again on 30hr cut and with 20 "easy" miles left talk occasionally turned to "when" not "if" we finished.

The problem now was the quads as usual. I'd had sore quads before and this was nothing new but I wasn't ready to walk still so again did what I could and latched onto other runners and did everything I could to keep up through pain as 20 miles of slow walk could be hours and I could easily lose the advantage I worked so hard to get and I was determined not to scrape the finish. Again the aid stations seemed closer together and after a couple more we were greeted at dawn at an aid station at just over 90 miles run by Hal Koerner multiple time winner of the race. Truly humbling to speak to him, imagine Paula Radcliffe sponging you down mid race! With less than 10 miles left and over 2.5hrs inside the cut now I knew without disaster I was going to finish and the legs pretty much gave up. I'm not sure if it was the legs or the mind but running really wasn't happening now and I was starting to feel a little tired for the first time despite my new found friends cola and mountain dew sorting me out.

We walked past the infamous "Stop Jim" path junction where Jim Walmsley failed to take a turn and lost the race (never seen so much tape) and we hiked up to Highway 49 and Pointed Rock aid station where I was all smiles. I was told it was all down hill to the famous No Hands Bridge then one last climb to the finish. Only issue being I couldn't walk downhills let alone run. As I shuffled sideways crab-like I was now getting passed regularly and the close downhill aid station seemed to take ages to appear but when it did wow! It was just like all the films. Lots of helpers, music, flags... Amazing but a slight shame I didn't get to see the light show in the dark but dreams of sub 24hrs went after the first stop. We hiked the huge climb to the last aid station Robie Point with a mile to go and jogged the streets to the track which again seemed to take ages to get to.


And that was it... There was the track and the finish line and I could already hear the announcer calling my name and we sprinted the line to get sub 28hrs. My first goal was to finish, the next finish comfortably and the dream was sub 24. Well as I said I knew with a couple of hours gone the dream wasn't happening but that didn't matter... A buckle is a buckle, silver or bronze and I'd left everything on the course and more! This was the dream!

The list of people I'd like to thank is endless... Firstly my family for supporting me on this crazy adventure and then to Julie my awesome pacer and friend. I wouldn't have finished without you and you held me together when things got dark in all meanings of the word and all the Brits in or supporting the event. Again the everyone was amazing. So is that the end of the story? Box ticked move on? I'm not sure, I'm now in the draw if I enter for next year and who knows?

See you in Squaw?


  1. What a great read Ian, I guess you are "Ultra Running Royalty" now ��

  2. Nice report. Congratulations.

  3. Great story, very real, I experienced your race, thanks for sharing your wonderful experience.

  4. Fantastic read Ian. I could have kept turning the pages! We all know (if you’ve done endurance events) there is suffering of every kind. But when it is put into words ... we have lived your race and loved your journey. Thanks for sharing . Sharon S.

  5. Good read, well done again 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  6. Incredible account of an amazing race! So happy to be part of your adventure! All my friends that got to help you at foresthill were thrilled to take part. Congrats again!