Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Western States 2007: done!

[See more pictures from the 3 pre-race days and race days in my Western States album, credit to the whole family and crew. ]

I spent so many weeks thinking about it, three days in Squaw getting into the excitement through the clinics, briefings and the raising of the flag, then so many hours running without stopping, it's hard to keep the report short. But if I had to summarize the experience in one word, it'd be: DONE! In two words? Well done! And now, in many more details...


After the training camp, I continued with my speed work sessions, twice a week for the next two weeks, planning on tapering seriously the last two weeks before the race. I finished my last 3 repeat miles session with a 5:22 mile, feeling good except an acute pain in my right quads. That was Thursday. Didn't run on Friday, then went for a 25-mile hilly and hot run on Saturday, from the house to top of Black Mountain, but the pain was such that I had to walk from mile 15 to 21 then call Agnès for a pick-up. My first DNF in ny running and training career... Needless to say, I was very concerned the quads wouldn't hold on race day with all the downhills on the course. Anyway, the following weekend, after a complete week off, I went for a slow 9-mile run on Saturday and 18 on Sunday and it was almost OK. And another week off except for the hike to Escarpment for the raising of the flag 2 days before the race.

We (the whole family) drove up to Squaw on Wednesday. Was hard to leave work for three days, but so great to get up to the mountains, really an Alpine scenery, reminding us of the French Alps we are missing but will visit again in July.

Great clinic from Mo Livermore on Wednesday afternoon, specifically for the newbies/rookies. Thursday's raising of the flag ceremony was very moving, and the hike impressed me so much, I understood why so many talked about not starting too fast on race day. Greg (my 3rd boy, 10) had some difficulty keeping up with the pace after the first mile but finally made it to the summit on time for a basic picnic and the flag raising. Felt good to see so many known faces upthere (Sophia, Brian, Whit, Roger, Steve, Simon, James, Caren, ...). We were among the last to leave, missing the clinics on blisters. Just as we were leaving, Christina and family were reaching the pass.
The Friday medical check went smoothly and quickly. Got 126lbs on the scale, which I felt was quite low dressed and with shoes. 126/72 blood pressure and 65 pulse, good to go! The briefing in the afternoon was informative, although I was still unclear about the rumor of no Dardanelles/Cal-1 station after Foresthill, and had to check with Tim afterwards. And its was again impressive to see so many champions lined up on this major event.

After the briefing I finally met with Karine (Herry), our champion from France, and her husband, Bruno, and sponsors (Green Magma). I even served as interpreter for her interview, although Karine could very well manage with her English. Met with Rob (Evans) my pacer after dinner, and went to bed around 9pm, hoping to sleep until 3am, but got up before 2am.

The race

It's hard indeed to find the right pace for such a long stretch, between all the excitement, the 2,300 elevation gain in the first 4 miles, the cool temperature at the start, the darkness, the different level of fitness between the elite runners and the rest of the pack. I ran/jogged/walked with the elite gals, catching up with Karine by mile 2. Reached the first aid station with Whit. Then left the station with Brian (Robinson), whom I was used to train with on Saturdays, before he and Sophia moved to Monterey. Brian reminded me to keep a conservative pace has we climbed the steep rocks to reach the Escarpment pass. At the pass, Rob, Kate, and Mark (Gulligan) were already up, cheering us up and taking pictures. Next meeting point with them: about 60 miles down the road...

Brian's strategy was to run the first 1/3 of the course (Robinson Flat) conservatively, yet on a 21-hr pace, then picking up the pace in the second third if feeling OK, and push in the last. I was happy to keep up with Brian as we were hiking the uphills, with my much shorter legs. Among many other amazing ultra achievements, Brian has finished the Triple Crown in 2001, hiking 7,371 miles in 300 days. I feel I had better listen to him and follow his footsteps. Unfortunately for him, he had some gastric/transit problems, which made him stopped several times. As I was spending more time in the stations than him, we stayed together until Robinson Flat (mile 31).

I didn't know the first third of the course, and was scared with what I heard about Duncan Canyon from last year. This year was very different though: a cool breeze as we were running into the desolation of the burnt forest, and not a single tree across the trail. Surely made it much easier than 2006.

From Robinson Flat, I knew the remaining 70 miles, from the training camp and also from having been the Last Chance aid station captain for the past 3 years (and again this year!). I was feeling good and so happy the right quad was holding. But it's only after Dusty Corner and telling Sophia Brian should not be far behind, that I really picked the pace up. First there is some runnable downhills in the shade, then this wonderful views of the canyon, and all the excitement of getting to "my" aid station, managed by my running Club, the Stevens Creek Striders, with a record 46 volunteers this year! Getting at Last Chance by 1pm was the only goal I had set for the first part of the course, I was pleased to reach the station by 1 and 3 minutes!

The thrill of going through Last Chance was as high as I expected it, yet everybody wanted me out as quickly as possible. Ate one of Tom (Kaisersatt)'s grilled cheese sandwich as I left the station. Enjoy Dick (Wedge)'s car wash. And the personal service of my ILOG colleague, Michael, in French. Ask a couple of questions about my weight management to Mark (Williams), an ultra expert (I don't want to say veteran), the first to have completed the crazy Barkeley 100-mile in the 90s. Waived at all my other buddies as they rushed me out, "down and up to hell" as Devil Thumb is next on our roadmap. (Photo courtesy of Jay Hansell.)
Robin and Rob from our club had analyzed my training run as I was wearing Robin's Garmin during the training camp. Rob was amazed at my 26' between Last Chance down to the bridge. Well, on Saturday, it took me 24' as I had only one runner to pass. However, this weekend, I didn't run any of the uphill and 35-37 switchbacks up to the thumb. Yet a good time of 59' from LC to DT, 11:23 pace, even including the 9' stop at LC.

I was not really hungry upthere, but enjoyed a few strawberries. And some soup again (I know, taking them together is not a great proof of sense of taste...). Mark (Godale) didn't feel good and asked for a chair to rest. Mark is amazing on flat courses, World Champion, 100km Masters in 2005, and 24-hr American record holder with 162.4 miles. I had met him during the training camp, and asked him what he found so tough at Western States as he had ran it 3 times now. His reply: "everything is tough!" Yikes. To my surprise, he picked two popsicles, the only station to offer this treat. I passed on.

Made my first and only "number 2" stop for the day at the port-a-potty right after exiting the station (sorry for the detail but one of my friends asked if we ever go to the bathroom during the race, so I mentioned some runners, and not only guys, manage to pee while running...). So I can enjoy one of my favorite parts of the trail, getting to Deadwood cemetery. I actually like the way down into Deadwood canyon, there are quite a few runnable sections as long as you avoid the scary poison oak (had a bad experience at Miwok). Flew by to try to make up for the hard climb to Michigan Bluff. 2/3 down the canyon I was stunned to see Mark Lantz walking. Mark had a major issue with his right eye, unable to run the rocky trail with only one eye. Mark had great hope "to kick my butt" on this race as we compete in the Pacific Association Ultra Grand Prix. Mark said he still had hope a change of contact lenses in Michigan Bluff would fix the issue.

So, here we are, passed the mathematical half, the 50-mile mark. I was expecting 3.5 miles from the Eldorado Creek aid station to Michigan Bluff, the volunteers were happy to tell me it was "only" 2.8 miles actually. And runnable as they said... Well, as I was catching up with Whit near the top, I told him I couldn't believe how long 3 miles could feel in this section. Walked most of it, as opposed to during the training camp, and was thrilled to see the family waiting and cheering at Michigan Bluff. Although my weight was OK, the Medical Captain noticed from the salt on my shorts that I had sweat a lot and asked that I take a cup of soup and pretzels. I told him I felt my stomach was shuting down, but he was satisfied I had no problem drinking the cup and eating. Like at most of the previous stations, the camera crew was taking close shots, not sure how nice this will get on screen, if ever. Alex and Greg accompanied me through the crowd, while Max was video taping. There were people everywhere on the road, almost not noticing runners passing by, was a bit confusing. After a few hundred yards, I was back onto the silent trail for the last canyon, Volcano, before the much awaited 100K mark of Foresthill where we could pick our pacer.

Going down Volcano is tricky because it's slippery (sandy rocks and dust). I couldn't stop thinking of the advantage local runners had over us by knowing all the switchbacks. Like Whit who had left RF ahead of me. Volcano Canyon has a very noce creek though, which I enjoyed to cool down. I caught up with Whit again just as we hit Bath Road. Roger (Dellor) told me Rob was waiting for me at the corner upthere, so I jogged most of the uphill and passed 3 or 4 runners.
I found Agnès and Rob just before Foresthill school and picked my headlight as planned. We then took off with Rob, and Rob urged me to go quick through the station. Was only the beginning of his great push to save minutes off my (too) long stops at the stations (that has always been my weakness, but I keep thinking that's overall not that crazy to take some time to make sure you don't leave the station missing something for the next 4 to 8 miles). Again, Whit left before us but stopped to his car before California Street (the street we take to go down to the river).

16 miles down to the river, you imagine it's easy. Indeed, there are some good downhill portions, but some uphills to break the rhythm, and then a long, long flat section along the river. I hit the wall during the training camp in this section by adding Foresthill to Rucky Chucky to the planned Robinson Flat to Foresthill 31-mile run. My first experience was not good although I had a much better one on the second day, meeting James on the course, then Simon and others at the river. That day I ran 2h20', today I was happy quite happy with 3 hours. On the way down after Foresthill, we were flying with Rob for a couple of miles before I experienced my first low of the day, the stomach really hurting for a mile. Rob suggested I tried to throw-up, but it didn't work, yet I got some air out of my stomach which really helped. I was enjoying the daylight in this section, as Tim T advised. At some point I hesitated removing my sun glasses and, sure enough, I was not seeing enough in the shade, so tripped and experienced my first tumble. Not too serious though as we were not going fast.

Was great to see Dardanelles (Cal-1) open after all. We were welcomed by cheering volonteers, and a huge gorilla. And cooled off with water sprays, pretty cool!

I got dehydrated (really thirsty) before reaching Peachstone (Cal-2), having used some of my water to cool off my head. Another great advice of Rob, which he had learnt from Brian while pacing him last year at Tahoe Rim Trail 100: don't try to save your water in this case. Open your bottle and drink all of it. That worked! I was relieved to get more fresh water at Peachstone, and very thankful to the two volunteers there. It's such a remote station to setup. And such a relief to find it just after the steepest climb in this section.

We left for more down hill and this long stretch along the river. Still enjoying the daylight with great views of the river which feels almost still at some points. I thought we would hit another station (Ford's Bar) but we reached Rucky Chucky much sooner than expected then. The family and Kate were waiting for us. Bruno (Karine's husband) was actually very surprised to see me, having closed much of the gap with Karine. He told me Karine was still 4th, and asked me to give her some encouragements if I catched up with her.

The river crossing is really a highlight of the run. Two aid stations, Rucky Chucky near and far sides, these volunteers staying in the cold water along the cable for hours. Big rocks on the bottom of the river and water up to the hip this year, that is not too deep. After crossing, Rob was pressing me to continue, but I really insisted to change socks and shoes. Had my second and last drop bag here, and I wouldn't leave the far side without using it. Felt much more confortable in dry shoes (Brooks Cascadia, leaving my Brooks Trance which did great on the first 78 miles) walking/jogging the 2-mile fire-road up to Green Gate.

Sophia and Roger was there again to cheer us up, coming from Dusty Corner, Sophia to pace Brian. Filled the bottles and got some food before heading up the single track to Auburn Lake Trails. Switching on our headlights, finally, for the last 20 miles ahead. Rob had a much brighter light than me, so went ahead. I usually prefer to set the pace, but Rob was perfect in indicating me the rocks and roots to avoid tripping. At this point, Rob asked for all the French keywords to set the allure. Plus vite, moins vite, arrête, attends, allez, ca va, oui, non, ... the french lesson was entertaining. Helped overcome the monotony of this section in the dark. And we kept a strong pace which, finally led us to pass Kami (F4) and Caren (Olsen, 34) who eventually finished 4th woman, an outstanding performance for her first 100-mile.
We share some interesting milestones with Caren. We both got the Dick Collins award at the Fire Trails 50 miles, last October, our first 50-mile. We both won the Ohlone 50K last May, her setting a new course record, me missing it by 100 seconds. And that was the first 100-miler for both of us. We'll keep hearing from her and seeing her on podiums for sure!

The way to Brown's bar seemed long, unable to remember it in the dark from my previous two training runs. Thankfully my new Garmin 305 kept adding the 1/10ths of mile, showing our progress. I triped and felt down a second time, but no damage. Between ALT and BB, I mentioned to Rob that we "just" had one half-marathon to go, seemed to me quite an attainable and encouraging milestone then. Brown's bar aid station is amazing. You can hear the loud music from almost a mile away, and smell the pizzas from half a mile. And the Christmas lights and decorations seemed so irreal in the context. Gave a taste of getting back to the civilization. Not for too long though as the trail, out of the station, is steep down, rocky and slippery. Was the turn for Rob for an acrobatic tripping, well recovered.
After Brown's Bar, on the fire road along the river, I put my second layer on, the one I grabbed at Rucky Chucky. Greg (Soderlund, Race Director) had warned us on Friday that temperatures could cool off quite a lot especially this year, and especially in the ALT area where he spoke about temperature in the 40s. The two training runs I did on this section, we took the fire road along the river up to Highway 49. But this time, we had to use a rocky and steep trail on the side, not so easy in the dark. On the way we passed Simon who seemed to have some trouble. At the award ceremony he told me his Achilles tendon bothered him and he was not having a good day, despite his great hope to benefit from the great weather to do a good time this year (his 6th or 7th Western States).

Got welcomed to the Hwy49 station by someone (I thought to be Jasper Halekas, hallucination...) who told us that we were on a 20h+ pace. I couldn't believe Rob when he talked about 21 hours at Foresthill. I was just blewing up the stats with a strong finish and it was feeling good. I didn't know the next 3.5 miles going to No Hands Bridge as the trail was under restoration back in February and I had missed it at the Memorial Day weekend training camp. The way up to the meadow was OK, we jogged it and it was fun to see the Christmas decorations upthere which, like Brown's Bar, seemed so irreal and out of context. But the next 2 miles seemed like eternity. My quads were still ok, but I wasn't seeing the rocks well and it was very dusty so I had to put back my scarf to avoid breathing the dust of Rob's foot steps.

We finally reached No Hands Bridge (see the above picture, courtesy of Gary Gade, aid station captain, where you can see how I felt about the just ending section...). The bridge was all lighted up, quite another thrill. Rob made sure I didn't miss the huge screen displaying a movie on... WS runners. I just could see a few images and we were off for the last uphill to Robbie Point. We couldn't see any light following us but, in the last switch backs before the road, heard some voices. I thought it was Simon, but it must have been Jonathan (Olsen, F7) who reached the stadium just after me.

We passed another runner as we ran the last uphills on the road, and it was so comforting to see Agnès at Robbie Point who ran the last mile with us, through a desert and quiet Auburn. I like road running so we kept a good pace and seemed like a final sprint when we hit the track, a surface I enjoy very much too. The announcer made a nice intro, even pronouncing Jean the right (i.e. French) way, and mentioning my 2005 Boston podium. In the last turn, Bruno handed me the French flag Agnès brought from home, and that Karine had used 12' before me for her 3rd place finish. 20 hours, 24 minutes and 47 seconds, yeah!! A last thrill from getting the medal from Tim (Twietmeyer), hugging and thanking Rob for such a great pacing, and seeing Agnès, Max and Alex in the finish line area. I had no idea at all about any ranking for me throughout the course, so I was suprised I had made it into the top 20 (18th overall, 15th male, 4th in my age group). For more stats and timing about my run you can look at the great WSER webcast.

The medical check out was much lighter than I expected (weight and blood pressure). Went for a finish line picture, then a massage which was great except that I got a stupid cold as they made me walk barefoot in the humid grass and rinsed my legs with cold water. Was frustrating after feeling so great and not having any cramp for the whole way. Agnès drove the boys back to the hotel in the meantime, then picked me up. Went to bed at 3:30 after a hot bath and slept until 8:30 when Agnès told me Peggy (from our Club) was scheduled to arrive at 9:15, so it was just time to go again.

After cheering Peggy for her last 0.2 mile (28:40 finish), I had to take care of some aid station-related business, and hanged up for several hours before the award ceremony. Had brunch with Agnès, Sophia, Brian, Whit, then chatted with Graham, Andy (both very satisfid with their races, and for good reasons!), Mark (Godale) who had to take a nap at Rucky Chucky and finished in 25 hrs, a few of the Aussies, and Cowman (bib 00) who dropped at Michigan Bluff but has really nothing to prove.

Inspirational to see Gordy finishing his 24th WS in 29:30, all smiling. Then the oldest finisher (70 years), 2.5 minutes before the 30-hr cut-off. And moving to see the first of the three runners finishing just over 30 hours (finisher medal but no buckle). When 1 minute and 2 seconds make a big deal even after 30 hours and 100.2 miles...

The award ceremony sarted at 12:30 and recognized three member of my running club as Friends of the Western States Trail:
  • Jerry Hill who has been the Last Chance captain for many years in the 80s and 90s, and still volunteers at many places every year

  • Bob and Marsha who have taken over for almost a decade, co-captaining with me these last 4 years
And recognized all the finishers starting with the top 10 males and females, and then going through the long distribution of the silver and bronze buckles.

Sophia and Brian:Overall I couldn't dream of a better day. I've ran just over 100 races so far, yet never done a negative split like this weekend. Something which really surprised me is that I didn't get any cramp. Probably because of the obligation to maintain weight and electrolyte in balance along the race. And I'd like to conclude by sharing my amazement at Gordy (Ainslegh), who not only ran this course 34 years ago, under 24 hours and without any assistance, but has run WS 24 times over 34 years, and again finished under 30 hours this year (29:30) at the age of 60. I'm even more impressed now that I know the entire course and ran it in one day. That's "pure endurance," Gordy!
Will be back for more "farther and faster" experiences!

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 Agnès' 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.


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!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

A word with Graham Cooper, before Western States

I caught up with Graham shortly after we finished the Ohlone 50K. We ran together from mile 9 to 13. I then told him that, if he'd wait for me at the finish, I'd like to interview him for UltraFondus, a francophone ultra running magazine. Eventually, I didn't have to wait too long for Graham at the finish, he was just 3 minutes behind! Oh well, it was only a short 50K for him, not to mention the Davis Double Century he had run yesterday (200-mile bike race)...

[Below are my own pictures. You can find more pictures of Graham at Western States last year in his photo album.]

So, Graham, the big question: after winning Western States last year, ready for this year, for a double?

I don't know about a double, but I am in decent shape. I felt good last week at Quick Silver 50 miles, beating the course record by a couple minutes. I went for a 200-mile hilly bike ride yesterday, and today at Ohlone I improved my time from last year by six minutes. So I'm feeling pretty good.

Last year, you took a 5-month break between jobs and focused so much on training for Western States. How did your new job impact your training this year?

This year I mostly trained early in the morning, before going to work. The family has been very sympathetic and understanding. Hilary and I have a 5-year old boy and 6-yr girl. I'm the CFO of a biotech company in San Diego, flying down there from Oakland for 4 days a week (Monday-Thursday). While there, I can focus on work and training. Some days while in San Diego, I can get in double days, adding an evening training session, such as biking or rowing. I miss my family, but not having to get home for dinner has its benefits.

Typical training week?

I only run 60 miles a week.

"Only" 60 miles? Isn't Tim Twitmeyer running even less while training?

I'm not sure about Tim, I think he was running more the years he won Western States. I'm just not one of those guys who can go out and run 100+ miles a week. But again, I cross train quite a lot too. I actually don't keep a log, I don't plan any workouts. I run and train for the fun of it, and I do whatever I feel like doing on any given day.

How did you get into running?

I have been running since age 9. I ran the San Francisco marathon at 13 (in 3:24). My dad was running marathons and got me involved. I got to Berkeley for College and stopped running. In 2002 a friend wanted to run the San Francisco marathon and asked me to train with him. So I got back into shape and even ran Skyline 50K that year. I was 32. And then I found that I was doing better than runners with 100K or 100-mile race tshirts. So I figured out I may try longer distances. I ran the Helen Klein 50-mile in 2004 and qualified for Western States. Got picked in the lottery the following year, 2005, the first time I applied.

How did your first Western States go?

I really enjoyed it and took it easy at the start. I was 104th at the Lyon Ridge aid station. Then down to 43rd by Foresthill (mile 62, or 100K), and kept passing runners to finish 18th overall. Got lucky again with the 2006 lottery. So, in January, I left Deutsche Bank and spent 5 months training.

Were you planning to win last year?

No. I knew I was in a good shape, but I didn't want to feel and have to handle the pressure. As a matter of fact, Brian (Morisson) was 6 minute ahead of me by No Hands Bridge (mile 96.5). Technically he finished 12 minutes before me so I think he pushed harder than he needed to. I think some of the pressure came from the fact Scott (Jurek, 7 consecutive wins at WS from 1999 to 2005) was there.

Brian Morisson at the famous "Dick (Wedge)'s car wash", at Last Chance (June 24, 2006)

Anyway, upon finishing, I was resting and my pacer Suzie Lister whispered that something happened. She heard Brian collapsed on the Auburn track, right before the finish, and got support from Scott and his pacer to pass the line. But we had to wait until the WS Board of Directors meet to decide if Brian was getting disqualified or not. And a few of the Directors were actually on the course, either running or volunteering, so we had to wait until 11am on Sunday morning before knowing the final result.

Graham at the Last Chance aid station, mile 43, in 2006

And for this year, who are your contenders? I exchanged emails with Brian, he is quite upbeat.

Yes, Brian came last year to win, but it's a lot of pressure. Very different from just running your best. There is also Andy Jones-Wilkins who came second to Scott (Jurek) in 2005. Sim Jae-Duk from Korea. And then Lon Freeman, who just smashed the course record Carl Andersen had set at Miwok 100K 8 years ago (see Scott Dunlap's interview). Erik Skaden is also running well, and he finished 2nd last year. The field is quite open this year. As for me, I'd just like to finish in the top 10.

Eric Skaden at Last Chance (June 24, 2006)

Who is crewing and pacing you? We read that crews and pacers should be prepared for their runner being mean to them during a race.
How does that play for you?

My wife, Hilary, is crewing. She is joined by two friends, Chris and Cindy Hook. They didn't know anything about ultra, didn't do any themselves, but they have learnt very fast and do a terrific job.

My pacer from Foresthill to the river is Dan Williams. Dan holds 18 silver buckles, the third highest number after Tim's 25 record and Gordy 21. Dan is 58 and he has so much experience and knowledge on this course. I think he'll be a great pacer. I'm also going to have my father there to pace me in the last seven miles.

And, no, I'm not mean to them, I'm actually pretty easy going. You really have to take it easy during a run, not get upset if something doesn't turn out as planned, and not get into the blaming game. But my crew is very organized, very efficient. They don't make many mistakes.

A word on your running equiment? You ran in Brooks today, are they sponsoring you? You always have the same logo on your shirt, what is it?

Yes, I run in Brooks Adrenaline shoes, road shoes. More cushioning and they come in narrow width which I like. But I'm not sponsored. I don't want the pressure which comes with it.

The logo? That's the Olympic Club, a sporting club in San Francisco, actually the oldest in the US, established in 1860. The logo is called "Winged O".

What are your long term plans in ultra?

As long as I remain in the top 10 and get an automatic entry, I'd like to run Western States.

In addition I'd like to do an Ultraman, a double Ironman. I've done a few Ironmans. I'm not a good swimmer, but a decent biker and a decent runner.

We crossed alpine-style meadows today, any plan and interest in running ultras in the French or Swiss Alps? The Ultra Trail of Mont Blanc?

Good question! I actually ran the Chamonix marathon a few years ago and really love Chamonix. So yes, I'd very much like to go back and run over there again.

I may see you there, some of my friends are asking me to setup a trip there in 2008, as Agnès and I know the area very well.

Thank you, Graham, you definitely are in a top shape this season again. I'm amazed at your athletic achievements, yet how cool you are with regard to your training and while racing. Seems like it's all about numbers at work, but not in your training program.
All the best for Western States. I'll see you at the start, and at the training camp next week!

PS: wondering why so many pictures from Last Chance? My running club has been manning the station for 25 years (26th this year), and I've been the captain for the last 4 years.