Friday, June 2, 2017

Western States Tourist: The 2017 Western States training camp report

Executive summary

This is a long report, because I ran a long way -- 63 miles in 3 days. Western States training camp is an awesome way to see the course in a low-pressure, fun, manageable way, and I loved everything about it. Get a cold beer and settle in for a long rambling story. (But don't worry, there are pictures!)
Living the dream!

Training for training

The Western States training camp sounded too good to be true: 70 miles on the Western States 100 course over the three days of Memorial Day weekend, with aid stations and shuttles, for $140? Anyone could sign up, whether running the race or not? It sounded like a relaxed, fun way to see a renowned course that I might never see as a runner. Friends had done it in past years and loved it. I cleared my schedule for the last weekend of May, and when registration opened in December, I signed up. 

Although the weekend only covers part of the 100 mile Western States course, I knew the mileage I'd run would be big for me. With guidance from my awesome coach David, I've steadily built mileage over the last 9 months or so, almost injury-free. But even so, my greatest weekly mileage to date was 51 miles. This spring, if you asked me what I was training for, I told you, "I'm training for Western States training camp."

After a good run at Chippewa Moraine 50k and a week's recovery, we planned a week of big miles capped off with back-to-back 20-milers, followed by a short taper. I also sauna trained, for up to 30 min twice a week. Things went off the rails midway through the big week with a calf pull after long hill repeats, evolving into a weird peroneus brevis/flexor digitorum problem that pretty much kept me off the roads and trails for a week. But by the Tuesday before Memorial Day weekend things seemed better and I managed a series of cautious but increasingly confident weekday runs before leaving for Sacramento Friday morning. I hadn't done all the training I wanted, but I was feeling healthy, hopeful, and eager to get on the trails. My goal: "See as much of the course as possible without messing anything up."

Day 1: Robinson Flat to Foresthill

Not a normal year

I reached Auburn Friday afternoon with two bags full of running gear and recovery tools, and filled the motel fridge with four days' supply of good food. An early bedtime and an early wake-up later, and I was on my way to Foresthill, the base of operations for the first two days. 

The morning was clear and sunny as I drove up the wide, climbing Foresthill Road. Temperatures were forecast to begin in the low 40 and climb to near 80; the following days would be warmer, but dry and crisp. It was easy to spot the start area at Foresthill Elementary School; hundreds of trail runners were sorting gear at their cars or making their way along the road to the school. 

The vibe was different from a race: a little more relaxed, though still focused. I saw my Minnesota friends Holly and Scott there (Holly is running Western States this year), as well as Janet and Mike (Janet's running it too). Maria and Doug had come as well. I checked in, ate a banana, visited a little. 
Janet and I at the start!
15 minutes before the shuttle buses were to leave, race director Craig Thornley began his briefing. "This is not a normal year," he started. "Which is good!" The extraordinarily wet winter had left snow at the higher elevations on the course. The road was covered with snow beginning 4 miles below the usual start at Robinson Flat (6800' elevation). We'd start the day by running those 4 miles up to Robinson Flat, then take a shortcut around a damaged section of trail just after it. In total, it would add about 2.5 miles to the days run, bringing it to 34 or so, the first 7-8 miles of which would be snowy. 

After a few more instructions about logistics and some Western States trivia, we boarded four school buses and began the winding, climbing drive up to our starting point.
Out where the buses don't run

Snowfields and sunshine

After a 45 minute drive past fire-scarred pine forests and steadily up and up, the buses came to a halt just before a long stretch of snow covered the road. We piled out and, after a bit of leg-stretching and picture-taking, began following the pink flags as they marked the way up the road. 
On our way at last!
We climbed steadily, partly on packed or softening snow, partly on bare road, occasionally climbing over or detouring around a downed pine. A few speedy runners passed me, but most of the group was content to hike the uphill road, running the occasional downhill section. I chatted with Janet, her friends Hallie and Desi, Brian who was training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, and others. The air was still cool, but the sun was strong and I was soon comfortable in a tank top and shorts. 

At Robinson Flat, the snow was deep...
Bathrooms were open, though!
...and we veered off the road across it, following a trail detour that eventually brought us out to a forest service road. Here, we began a steady gentle downhill and snowbanks alternated with running streams of meltwater on the gravel road. It was easy to jump over the little streams and keep feet dry. I knew the day held a LOT of downhill running and the next day did too, so I ran as lightly and smoothly as I could, focusing on running economy rather than speed.

After the first 3-4 miles past Robinson Flat, the snow ended and we followed a sharp (but well marked) turn onto the official Western States course. Occasional brown trail markers joined the pink flags to show the way. I had a talk with Mike from Alabama, who had run Western States ten years ago, and with a few other people. The woods smelled piney and dusty. The sun continued to warm up. It felt great to be out in such a different, beautiful place.
Passed a few of these signs!
The training run had fully stocked aid stations, but fewer than during the race. The first was about 11 miles into the run, at Dusty Corners. I got there in about 3 hours and took my time, filling up my pack (the 2L bladder was getting pretty low), putting on more sunblock, emptying trash, thanking the volunteers -- many of whom will be back in a few weeks for Western States.

Descent and climb through the canyons

Not long after the first aid station, we began descending into the first of the famous "canyons" -- down to Deadwood Creek. It was steeply switchbacked singletrack that went down, down, down. I had caught up to Mike and I ran this section with him. We had a good time moving down through the shady green trails, pausing to marvel at the noisy little streams and the giant tree trunks that crossed the trail.
Me and a big tree. I'm such a tourist.
"You know what the first rule of running is?" he said.
"What's that?" I asked.
"What goes down what goes up."
It struck me as a bit pessimistic, especially on a point-to-point run.
"You know what my first rule is?" I replied. "Run the mile you're in." (After all, it's hard to run anything else!)

At the bottom of the canyon, the swinging bridge crosses the creek. It's cool and noisy and beautiful and would be a great place to stop and spend an hour.
The view downstream
I didn't stop, though, but immediately started the steepest climb of the run, the 2-mile switchbacked climb out to Devil's Thumb. Here, I left Mike behind and found a slow, steady rhythm. The first two-thirds of the 40 minute ascent were in the shade and I enjoyed listening to the fading sound of the river and in gauging my progress upward by how far down I could look. I passed a few runners, and a few passed me, but mostly I had the trail to myself.

The last section climbed out of the valley and found an area of direct sunlight. It was hot, but very beautiful.
Up up up!
When I finally reached the top, in a little grove of pine trees, I let out a whoop. I'd done one of the two big climbs and felt pretty good! I was jubilant as I ran into Devil's Thumb aid station shortly afterwards, now 20 or so miles into the day. They had watermelon! And ice! And one of the volunteers dipped into his personal stash of sunblock! Happiness, joy, and only 8 miles to Michigan Bluff.

Down to Eldorado Creek was much less steep, and a peaceful solitary run. I met a couple backpackers on their way up who shared their trail mix -- delicious after eating mostly gels! This time, when I reached the creek at the bottom, I stopped, took off my shoes, and put my feet in the ice-cold water for a few minutes. Wow! That felt really good.
The view from the bridge. I joined them. Definitely the right call!
 The climb up to Michigan Bluff was longer, but nowhere near as steep as up Devil's Thumb. I once again found my pace and went steadily up, eating and drinking as I had been all day.

The Michigan Bluff aid station had the vibe of a block party, with as many visiting neighbors as volunteers. Every runner was greeted with a hearty "Welcome to Michigan Bluff!" I joked around with a few of the great volunteers there as I again filled my pack and hat with ice water and my mouth with watermelon and salty potatoes. Many of them had run Western States themselves a time or three, and most volunteered at the aid station year after year. What a great organization!

"Need anything?" a helpful volunteer asked.
"Ice in my pack, please.... that's enough, thanks!"
"More ice anywhere else?"
"Aw, I bet you say that to all the runners," I told him.
"Yeah, but it isn't working!"
"Maybe you should try a different pick-up line."

I couldn't stay any longer; it was time to go on. "Only 10k more!" they told me, and I headed off, now in the midafternoon sun. Down the road, up the road, and suddenly I was descending steeply on singletrack again. Another canyon? Sure enough, I was on the way down to Volcano Creek.
No bridge here, just a few ropes to hang onto while fording the knee-deep water. "WOOOO I LOVE THIS SPORT!" I yelled as the cold water shocked my feet and legs. "We get to play in the water! And eat snacks! How awesome is this?!"

Refreshed and energized, the steep climb back out of the canyon felt easy and do-able. Once I hit the road, I knew I was close to Foresthill... though the climb up Bath Road was longer than I expected. But at last, I was on the road, I was running... and then I was back where I'd started that morning, after nine and a half hours and 34 miles of running. Grinning, still, from ear to ear.

Interlude: The most joy

I drove back to Auburn, walked a little creakily up to my motel room, and texted my coach:
(beer + no bottle opener = sad)
Then, the important question of the evening. Being David, he gave the right answer: 

Wow, I thought. The most joy? Well, I'd had an amazing time running. I wasn't tired of running yet. I wanted to see the course, and heck, the next day was "only" 18 miles. If all felt good in the morning, I wanted to run.

Day 2: Foresthill to Rucky Chucky

I awoke feeling a little stiff but overall pretty good. Running sounded like a great idea, and today's itinerary promised to take us on the "Cal Street section" of the course, all the way down to the American River crossing, which seemed like it was going to be pretty great. I headed off to Foresthill again.

The crowd was smaller today, though still with a few hundred runners. After a pre-run briefing that covered bus logistics (today we'd run from Foresthill and buses would return us afterwards), Western States trivia questions, and a warning not to swim in the American River, which was very high right now, we started off down Foresthill Road.

We turned onto Cal Street and soon we were on double- and singletrack trail again, descending gently, then steeply, through shady wooded groves and across little lively streams. About a mile into the run, as different paces were still shaking out on the trail, a voice behind me said, "Excuse me," and a shirtless runner flew past me, moving with inhuman speed and grace down the steep slope. I -- and everyone else on the course -- had just enjoyed a Jim Walmsley fly-by.

I'd been a bit concerned about the downhill running I would do today, after yesterday's descents into canyons, but even though the course ended 3000 feet below Foresthill, I felt my quads loosen up as I ran, and it all seemed okay. The morning air was cool, though the sunlight held a promise that things would heat up, and I enjoyed the wildflowers, the madrona trees, and even an impromptu lesson from another runner on how to identify poison oak. I ran a bit with Mike-from-Alabama again, and talked a bit with other runners, but also enjoyed long stretched of peaceful solitary running. Before I knew it, I was at the first aid station of the morning (Cal-2), and we were almost halfway through the day's running.

As the trail continued to descend, we came within earshot and then sight of the beautiful, green American River at last.
Views like this for most of the day!
Along this stretch, I meet up with Mona and Julie, who proved to be amazing company for the rest of the day.
Mona (left) and Julie (right), photo credit Mona Gutierrez
They were hilariously entertaining, accomplished runners and struck a great balance between moving efficiently down the trail and stopping to enjoy every shady scenic overlook and cold stream along the way. They shared my philosophy that it wasn't a race, so as long as we were ahead of the sweeps (and we were, by an hour), why not have fun along the way?

At last the trail stopped descending. We'd reached the river! Trails that had been dusty and occasionally rocky now became sandy. The shade gave way to bright unbroken sunlight and the air was warm.
Sandy riverbank trails
When we got to a creek crossing not far from Rucky Chucky, Mona and I were at last ready to join Julie, who'd been plunging into streams all along the way. The water was everything I'd hoped for -- an ice cold shock to my legs and core.
So good! Photo credit: Julie Melendez
We reached Rucky Chucky a little under five hours after starting. The Western States course crosses the river here; most years it's fordable but this year it'll be on rafts because the river is high. For the training run, after stopping at another well-stocked and friendly aid station (I heard Stephanie Howe was volunteering at it, but I didn't recognize her) and loading up on ice in my hat, bandana, and pack, we climbed the 2-mile, steep, dusty, exposed dirt road to the Driver's Flat staging area, where the shuttle buses would pick us up. In the meantime, the organizers had a pretty excellent finish-line oasis set up: a grill with burgers and hot dogs, massages from Monsters of Massage (AWESOME!), music, and a shady place to sit and tell stories. It was a great way to end another incredible day of running. 

Day 3: Finish line out-and-back

What would bring me the most joy? I asked myself Sunday night. After 52 miles of running in two days, I still felt pretty good. Certainly my downhill muscles were stiff, but nothing felt injured. I'd been eating, sleeping, and recovering like it was my job. I was definitely up for some more running. On the other hand, the run on tap for the training weekend was Green Gate to the finish, 20+ miles, and I didn't feel like I needed that much running. I also wanted to run earlier in the day than the scheduled run (which didn't start till nearly 9:30), to avoid the worse of the heat. I decided I'd start at the finish line, and run out-and-back, probably for a total of 8-12 miles, depending on how things felt.

The Western States finish is at the Placer High School track in Auburn. I arrived Monday morning just as the training run organizers were opening for business. I said hello to a few friends, did a little stretching, and headed out through town, looking for pink flags as I went.

After a small amount of random-walking, I found my way to Robie Point and the trail, and went downhill towards No Hands Bridge. 
First view of the river!
As I descended, I enjoyed the coolness of the morning and saying hello to passing runners. The trail passes a beautiful little waterfall... 
Good place to cool off!
... and soon comes to No Hands Bridge, with insane views off both sides. 
Upstream; the line at the top is Foresthill Bridge
I was having lots of fun so I kept going, starting the climb up from No Hands Bridge toward Cool. It's a long, steady stretch of mostly doubletrack trail and there were plenty of runners and walker out enjoying the morning. I decided I'd turn around after an hour and a half -- I didn't have anything to prove and wanted to keep my mileage more sane today.

At the 90 minute mark I still felt good, but going back seemed like a fine plan too. I turned and started descending back to the river. I took my first and only fall of the weekend along here, bloodying my shoulder, elbow, knees, and hands, to the horror of passing runners and hikers. But it seemed pretty minor and I washed up in a creek, then more thoroughly at the No Hands aid station.  
My view on the way back
The climb from the bridge back up to Robie Point was steep but I knew I was near the end, and the day was still cool. It was fun to come up the road and see the mile 99 sign: 
... and to see red footprints painted on the road, leading back to the stadium. I crested the hill and jogged gently down to the stadium as my Strava told me I'd gone 11 miles, a little sad to be done running, but overpoweringly happy to have had such an incredible weekend.

Final thoughts

I don't know whether I'll ever run Western States. Heck, I'm not sure I'll ever run at 100 miler. But I'm still riding the high from this weekend and I don't know when I'll come down from it. Being a "tourist" on the course was, for me, truly living the dream.

When I fell on Monday, I told concerned runners not to worry, I now had the Western States 100 in my blood. I was joking, but I do feel like this weekend unlocked something new in me. The knowledge that I can exceed my own expectations and my own previous limits. The confidence that I can train for things that are hard and show up ready to take them on. The elation of living in a body that can become something new through patient, transformative work. And the embrace of an accepting, encouraging community.

I wonder what else I can do?
Ready for great things!