Friday, July 5, 2013

Western States 100

Oh shit, I just got into Western States!!!

The iconic Western States 100
In general I consider myself a lucky guy. That said, I've never won the lottery or anything – no Powerball, no MegaMillions, no Western States entry. Well, technically I've "won" jury duty several times, but I don't count that. So I was surprised – and overjoyed – when I got a phone call informing me that I'd won my running club's lottery and would receive our automatic entry into the 2013 Western States 100 as the club's designated runner. Woo hoo!

I've been a member of the Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose since 2004. And for the past 25 years our club has been hosting the Duncan Canyon aid station at mile 24 of the Western States. As a thank you from the race, our club gets one automatic entry per year into the race so that we can send a runner of our choice. Luckily, rather than just sending our fastest runner (i.e., not me) we hold a lottery among qualified members. And this year my name got pulled out of the hat... or the dirty sock, or the empty potato chip bowl, or whatever we use for such formal occasions.

Two days before the club's lottery I paced my former-coach (and current-friend) Caitlin Smith, at The North Face - Endurance Challenge Championship in the Marin Headlands. Caitlin soldiered on through a tough day to finish 4th in a crowded elite international women's field. Afterwards, she promised to "pay me back" if I managed to get into Western States. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing as I was pretty tough on her during the race, cracking the whip mercilessly.

I tried telling Caitlin that it really wasn't necessary for her to pace me; that she was far too fast to waste her talents pacing a slow mid-packer like me, and that my wife Amy would be more than happy to pace me (I paced my wife Amy at Western States last year). But Caitlin insisted, and so a compromise was drawn. Caitlin would pace me from Foresthill at mile 62 to the Rucky Chucky River crossing at mile 80, and then Amy would pace me for the last 20 miles from Green Gate to the track in Auburn.

I guess I should train, or something?

Last year in 2012 working with Caitlin I had a breakout year with my running, accomplishing all of my goals for the season – by midseason! I ran personal bests at virtually every distance from 100 miles down to the mile (well, technically the Beer Mile to be precise). I won the Ruth Anderson 50K in April and then pulled out a top-10 sub 24 hour finish at TRT (Tahoe Rim Trail) 100 in July! I was crushing it!

Heat & elevation training in the sauna at 7,500'
But at the end of the summer I was a little burnt out with running and decided to switch my focus to bicycle racing. I've always been an avid cyclist. I ride nearly every day. And I own a fleet of bikes including a nice collection of 1970's vintage racing bicycles, an expensive modern carbon-fiber race bike, and a couple of mountain bikes. But despite my passion for bicycles (and bicycling), I'd never done any actual bike racing.

So, I joined a newly formed bike racing team – Leopard/Sapporo out of San Jose – and started riding 150 miles a week. This didn't leave a lot of time for running. While I tried to run regularly, my weekly mileage fell to about 30 miles a week. I was having a lot of fun riding and was probably fitter than ever, but I knew that at some point I would need to start running if I wanted to do well at Western States. I double checked the rules, and sure enough it explicitly says that runners are prohibited from using bicycles or other mechanized transportation. Bummer.

Suddenly, towards the end of April, I realized that I only had about two months until Western States! Panic time! So I did what any panic-stricken fool with no common sense would do. I decided to quit cycling cold turkey and to instantly ramp my weekly running mileage up from 30 miles a week to 120 miles a week overnight. What’s that, clearly a recipe for disaster you say?

Yet somehow – and who knows why – my foolish gamble actually paid off! After a rough first week where I would randomly fall asleep at my desk at work, I began to feel stronger. Rather than breaking down, my body seemed to soak up the miles. At one point, in the middle of the month, I ran a 50 mile race in 90 degree heat, with no taper, finishing in 7th place. The next day I didn't even feel tired or sore during my workout. The next weekend I ran a tough, hilly 50K in similar heat, finishing 2nd overall, just minutes behind the winner. Hell, I guess I'm ready for Western States!?!

"No strategy" is also a strategy!

Many runners like to have a "strategy" of some kind going into a big race. They like to write down all kinds of fancy numbers on complicated spreadsheets using linear regression to predict when they will arrive at each checkpoint during the race. However, I wondered to myself if perhaps the best plan might be to have no plan at all! As the modern-day philosopher Mike Tyson once quipped, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth".

Of course, this annoyed my wife Amy who, for some odd reason, wanted to have at least a rough idea of when I might arrive at the aid station where she would be pacing me from. So, she took it on herself to devise a pace chart and splits for me. While she wouldn't admit it, I think she basically just copied down the splits run last year by Jenny Capel and Jen Pfeifer – two elite women ultra runners who usually beat me.

During my (abbreviated but intense) training and preparation for Western States I solicited advice and scoured the Internet for any advice I could find on running the course. I read race reports, blogs, and articles from guys like Joe Uhan, Andy Jones-Wilkins, and Craig Thornley.

I learned that Western States rarely favors the bold, and that it is far better to go out easy and save your legs until after the hot canyons as the last 38 miles provide good running if you’ve still got your legs underneath you. I also learned that it is apparently better to go into the race with thick, leathery, sun-scorched skin than to wear sunblock which can interfere with the body’s natural sweating and cooling process.

During a short Facebook conversation with Ian Torrence where I asked what last-minute training I could do just three weeks before the race, he gave me some good tips but basically just implored me not to do anything dumb like going for a 12 hour run in a sweat suit wearing a gas mask and weight vest (damn, how did he know what I was thinking?).

The day before the race Gary Wang advised me to take care of my feet, as the combination of record heat and wet conditions (it rained for three days right before the race) would likely cause many people to DNF due to blisters. Having previously DNF'd from one race due to blisters and having finished another with bloody skinless feet, I heeded his advice and threw a couple of extra pairs of socks into my drop bags.

Goofing around with buddy Greg Lanctot
And finally, just minutes before checking into my hotel room and going to sleep for the evening I had a short talk with professional triathlete Joe Sanders (who is the boyfriend of the elite runner Bree Lambert) who advised me to try and eat as much solid food as possible in the early part of the race before the temperatures got hot and shut down everyone's stomach. Getting some food in the belly and calories in the bank would pay off later in the heat of the day when even choking down an energy gel would prove difficult.

It was all great advice, and all of it ended up helping me tremendously on race day! However, perhaps the best advice I received was on television from Rocky Balboa two nights before the race. I had just spent an hour in the sauna (at 150 degree heat) at 7,500 feet elevation on a mountain top resort at Lake Tahoe. It might have been the extreme heat, or the high elevation, or the pair of beers I quickly pounded immediately after stepping out of the sauna, or those cookies I bought from that hippie in Truckee... but I swear that the movie stopped and Rocky turned and spoke directly to me:

"John, let me tell you something you already know. Western States 100 ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. Those canyons are a mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, they will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let 'em. It's not about how hard you can run. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!"

Now I had some great advice and some stellar motivation, but I still didn't have a race "strategy". Everyone who knows me – and knows how foolish and impetuous I can be – implored me not to go out too hard on the opening 4 mile climb. Intuitively I knew this was good advice. But... I also knew that, 1) I am a great uphill runner, 2) morning would be the coolest time of the day and best time to do some good running, and 3) I didn't want to go out too slow and get stuck in a "Conga line" of hikers. Hmmm, what to do?

Off and running (err, hiking at a moderate pace)

At 5:00 am sharp the shotgun blast sounded and the lead runners flew up the ski slope. The top guys quickly ripped open a huge lead on the rest of the field. I settled into about a steady pace nestled among a group of talented runners including Andy Jones-Wilkins, Simon Mtuy, Eduardo Vasquez, Amy Sproston, and Emily Harrison as we made our way up the mountain. I chatted a bit, trying to make sure that I was running and hiking at a conversational pace and not pushing too hard.

Heads down on the opening climb

At the top of the escarpment I saw my buddy Paul Fick who was volunteering with the safety patrol (Paul had paced me at Tahoe Rim Trail in 2010). I gave him a quick pat on the back and then bombed down the steep, rocky backside of the mountain into the tree line. For the next 12 miles I just cruised along behind AJW through Lyon Ridge and Red Star Ridge. I managed to pass Simon and a couple of other runners on the next section to Duncan Canyon despite slowing down enough to pee a few times (I just pee’d in my pants without bothering to stop).

Top of the first climb
At mile 24 I ran into the Duncan Canyon aid station which is hosted by my running club, Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose. This year’s theme was “Western hoedown” and everyone was dressed in denim and flannel. I almost didn’t recognize my buddy Jeremy Johnson who looked a bit like Bo from the Duke’s of Hazard. It was also great seeing so many familiar faces cheering me on including Kristina Irvin, Jim MaGill, Doug Bailey, and company! Thanks everyone!

Although it was only 9:20 am and the temperature wasn’t yet anywhere near the 106+ degree high we would encounter in the afternoon, I’d already started filling my hat and vest pockets up with ice to try and keep my core temperature down. I felt great as I cruised the next downhill section down into Duncan Creek where I came across AJW frolicking in the river. I’m not sure, but I think I spotted him playing with a rubber ducky bath toy out of the corner of my eye. I plopped down in the river and spent a few seconds cooling myself off.

AJW mentioned that he was going to hike the climb up to Robinson Flat. I figured I would hike most of it too, but the initial ascent seemed pretty runnable so I started jogging. It never really got too steep so I actually ended up running the whole thing. I ended up passing 5 or 6 runners through this stretch including Cassie Scallon (women’s winner of Lake Sonoma) who I chatted with briefly. However at one point I had to stop to re-tie a shoelace and saw a blur as 2:30 women’s marathoner Emily Harrison went flying by up the mountain!

Here’s a funny and embarrassing story.

Towards the top of the climb up to Robinson I caught up with Western States legend Erik Skaden, with whom I ran for the next few hours until we got separated after Devil’s Thumb. I didn’t immediately recognize Erik, whom I had of course heard of, but never met. Erik hadn’t yet introduced himself and we were just running along and chatting. Not realizing that I was running with an elite bad-ass who had twice finished 2nd at Western States (and twice won Tahoe Rim Trail 100) I proceeded to offer him all kinds of unsolicited advice on everything from pacing to race strategy. Ugh!

Luckily Erik is a gracious dude and refrained from punching me in the face. Erik and I made great time from Robinson Flat down through Miller’s Defeat, Dusty Corners, and Last Chance. We managed to reel in a couple of elite women including Denise Bourassa who had gone out hard but were already slowing a bit. However we were never able to shake AJW who would roll into each aid station behind us just as we were leaving.

100 degrees in the shade

The hottest measured temperature during the day was 106 degrees at the Rucky Chucky River crossing at mile 78. However, I am pretty sure that if someone had carried a thermometer down into the canyons at Devil’s Thumb or El Dorado Creek it would have topped 110 or 115 degrees! I did my best to stay cool in the canyons including taking a bath with AJW in a little pool of mountain river runoff. Again, I took off early while AJW stayed behind a while longer (I think he had just finished shampooing and was applying hair conditioner).

Look ma, no hands!

I descended well and climbed steadily in the canyons catching up with a few other runners including Paulo Medina (from Peru) and Henrick Westerlin (from Denmark, living in India). However, I had to stop and adjust the shoe insert liners in my Montrail FluidFlex shoes which had become wet were starting to scrunch up under my toes. AJW and Erik both passed me there, and it would be the last I would see of either as they both continued to catch people, finishing 17th and 21st respectively.

As I emerged from the last of the canyons into Michigan Bluff I received the world’s hardest high-five from an enthusiastic Karl Hoagland – owner of UltraRunning magazine. Luckily my hand didn’t fall off and only suffered mild bruising. And then moments later, after exiting Michigan Bluff and turning up on to the Volcano Canyon fireroad I received a “you’re running strong, great form” from a woman who looked suspiciously like fourteen (14) time Western States champion Ann Trason. I took my sunglasses off and did a double take. Yep, Ann Trason just threw me a compliment. Whoa! I debated turning around to ask for an autograph, but was worried that any sudden movements might cause my inner quads to cramp.

I was still feeling great, but starting to get a bit worried as I knew that I would be picking up my first pacer, Caitlin Smith, at Foresthill School in 7 miles. So rather than running Volcano Canyon and Bath Road hard, I took it easy and did a combination jog / hike to save my energy. I also stuffed down as many energy gels as possible to make sure I would have some fuel in the tank.

Cal Street

I came into the Foresthill aid station at mile 62 at exactly 5:15 pm, just as “planned” in the splits that Amy handed me the night before. I was feeling great and excited to see my Amy, Caitlin, my Mom and John Paul. After a quick weigh in and medical check (everything was fine and I had only lost a pound or two) I said a quick “hi, bye” to Amy, my mom and JP and then headed down the road with Caitlin, trying to finish my popsicle while running.

Getting a hug from my crew
Caitlin set a steady pace and we made great time down the winding single-track trail on Cal 1. We talked for a bit with Caitlin filling me in on what was going on with the leaders at the front of the race. Caitlin pushed me pretty hard, even getting me to run all but the steepest of the hills.

Oddly we didn’t see any other runners for quite a while. However, once we got out on to Cal 2 parallel to the river we started to finally see some other runners ahead. We reeled in several people during this section including elite superstars Jacob Rydman and Hal Koerner (two-time Western States champion), both of whom had been reduced to walking by this point. It’s always awkward passing fellow runners in such a fashion. Nonetheless, it did give me a little mental boost knowing that I had run a smart race and was still moving well!

Rucky Chucky River Crossing in 106 degree heat
I had quite a bit of “chaffage” going on my groin and thigh area (at one point blood was streaming down the inside of my thighs) and the pain of entering the water sent me into shock for a moment. However, once the pain subsided, Caitlin and I crossed the river – which was shoulder-deep in some places – carefully but quickly.

I told Caitlin that I was planning to just power hike the two mile climb from the River to Green Gate. After all, almost nobody except the race winners run this section. Yet somehow the climb didn’t seem that bad and Caitlin and I ended up running almost the entire thing, passing several more runners before meeting Amy at Green Gate.

I arrived at Green Gate about 10 minutes faster than predicted (thanks Caitlin), and I was a bit worried that Amy might not have arrived yet. So I was relieved when we spotted her, all set and ready to run. Amy later confessed (after the race of course) that she had gotten lost on the way and only arrived just 10 minutes before I rolled in! We thanked Caitlin again for doing such an awesome job, and then Amy and I headed out back into the woods with our headlamps on, ready for the impending darkness of the setting sun.

The Last Push

Amy and I immediately started arguing and bickering with each other (as married couples do) before finally settling into a nice pace with Amy leading the way. We covered the 5 miles to Auburn Lakes Trail (ALT) rather quickly.

While I was impressed and blown away by the all the super helpful-amazing-wonderful volunteers at all the aid stations all day long, I must admit I was still holding a bit of grudge against the smug cocky kid who worked the medical scales at ALT last year. He unfairly gave many of the runners a hard time last year about their weight including my wife Amy, who he threatened to pull due to basic math miscalculations on his part (read this year’s women’s champion Pam Smith’s account last year of how he also unfairly pulled her for several hours last year).

I stepped on the scales and saw, with great relief, that my weight was fine. As I stepped off and headed out the guy behind the scales (I'm not 100% sure if it was the same guy from last year or not) tried to catch me offguard with a trick question, “Your weight is Ok, but how are you feeling?”. A lot of smart-ass retorts went through my head including, “I’m feeling like kicking your ass.” But instead I played it cool and quipped, “I’m feeling fucking awesome. How are you feeling?”.

Safely out of ALT, I jogged a bit to eat another popsicle before starting the long climb up towards Brown’s Bar. Another runner and his pacer came flying out of the aid station and asked if they could kindly pass us. Amy and I stepped aside and let them through while I finished my frozen treat. Sixty seconds later we re-passed them as Amy cranked up the pace. I was a bit worried that we were running too fast with 15 miles still to go, but I wasn’t hurting or anything so I figured what the heck. We continued moving well all the way to Brown’s Bar at mile 90.

This is what I came for!
Coming down the steep single-track from Brown’s Bar we came across Emily Harrison and her pacer Ian Torrence standing at the intersection of several trails. It was quite dark, and I thought maybe they were lost or confused as to which way to run. We chatted briefly and Ian assured me that everyone was fine (I still have no idea what they were standing in the middle of the trail discussing, though I can only guess that perhaps Emily was having a rough spot).

As we ran up the long, long, long fire road towards the Highway 49 crossing I looked back and saw that Emily was also running strong and just hanging a couple hundred meters back. I joked to Amy that if we were going to try and drop Emily we’d better do it now because there was no way that I was going to win a sprint against a high-school state champion and NCAA All-American.

Amy and I hit the Highway 49 crossing and started to get excited. The finish line was only 6 miles away! Unfortunately I got a bit too excited and made my first real mistake / miscalculation of the day. I didn’t take in any calories at the aid station! Somehow in my head I was thinking that with only 10K to go I already had it in the bag. But what I forgot was that 10K through the mountains at night on rugged trails takes a lot longer than 10K on a flat bike path.

Amy led the way up the climb and then down the descent into No Hands Bridge which was lit up like a Christmas tree at night. It really was an amazing sight! As we refilled my bottles and headed out we noticed Brett Rivers (co-owner of San Francisco Running Company) standing around. He was pacing his buddy Jorge Maravilla (the other co-owner) who finished 8th overall last year, but who was apparently struggling a bit this year and was in the bathroom taking care of business.

Amy and ran across the bridge and then began the long two mile climb up to Robie Point. The early part of the climb was only a slight uphill grade, which I would normally run with ease. But suddenly the cumulative heat of the day (it was still 82 degrees out even at night) and the lack of calories were catching up to me. I didn’t have the energy or will to run any longer; so we walked.

Crewing is hard work too!
Emily and Ian came running by and offered some encouragement. Ian even grabbed my arm and pulled me for a second urging me to run. And I did. For about 5 seconds. And then it was back to hiking. We slowly made our way up to the paved street at the top of Robie Point. It was just after 1:00 am and a few people were still out in front of their houses cheering us on.

I had been feeling nauseous for a while but figured I could keep it together and hold it down. However, right as we got near the top of Robie Drive, I had to stop and empty the contents of my stomach (which thankfully wasn’t much) onto the street. Puking in public; Awww, reminds me of college at Michigan!

After the quick purge I felt rejuvenated and ran the last uphill section. I could see and hear the lights and loud voices of Jorge and his crew just 100 yards behind us. I was dreading a sprint finish on the track. Luckily I was able to run the last downhill ½ mile pretty strong and hit the track alone, with a minute lead over Jorge.

I ran out on to the track to a cheering crowd. Tropical John Medinger, sitting high up in the press box above the field began announcing, “Now on the track, number 119, Big Johnny Burton from San Jose, California. John lists his occupation as 'exotic male dancer'. John says his greatest athletic accomplishment was his second-place finish at the 2012 Silicon Valley Beer Mile Championships with a time of 6:39 that included drinking 4 beers. John is being paced by his wife Amy Burton who finished the race last year…”

And then I staggered across the finish line in 20:37:33. I was grinning like a kid, exhausted but elated! As I lay in the infield, unable to move, I asked Amy to walk over to the results board to see how I had done. She signaled back that I had finished 22nd man and 29th overall out of nearly 400 starters. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not! If so, I never wanted to wake up! What a race.

100.2 miles really isn't that far :)


Jeremy said...

Congrats! What an inspiring run. You are killing it man!

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hey, thanks man! And we're expecting big things from you at TRT!

amy said...

Great report! You were dressed very similarly to Adrian, a guy I ended up running back and forth with for close to 60 miles, and I couldn't figure out why your accent had changed and why you were suddenly not as friendly (he warmed up to me eventually, and the initial "you again!" comment probably confused him) until it finally dawned on me that you were not one and the same. Nice meeting you on the climb! Great race!

Big Johnny Burton said...

LOL, that's too funny Amy. Though not as embarrassing as me accidentally lecturing Erik Skaden on pacing and strategy. Oh man, I'm such a dork.

Congrats on your great race and podium finish at States! You crushed it in that heat.

Unknown said...

Great report, John, and fantastic race! You killed it. Congratulations, and enjoy that silver buckle.

lilyanna said...

Caitlin is my Endurables coach and had mentioned she had a great experience pacing you for Western States. I really enjoyed this blog post on WS. What an adventure! Also, that is an amazing finish time! Congratulations.

Adrian {Happy girl} said...

Wow, great report John!! What an amazing race, and run very well too.