|The iconic Western States 100|
I've been a member of the Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose
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'|
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|
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:
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|
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!
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.
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.
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|
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 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!|
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!|
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 :)|