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Western States 100 - is there any race like it in the world?

by Editor
Thursday 17th July 2014

Race report: The North Face athlete Jez Bragg reports from the 2014 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run

The anxiety before the start of a prestigious race like Western States is significant. If I’m honest, I felt it even more than usual this year, most likely because of the mixed success I’ve had since the Te Araroa Expedition. It hasn’t been so much fatigue from all the running in New Zealand, but my health in general, for several reasons I won’t bore you with now. Whilst I was confident of being through the worst of it in the build up to Western States, there were question marks spinning round my head that needed to be addressed through a strong performance. That was number one priority.

Western States is one of those races that has a habit of consuming you; occupying your mind for hours on end, certainly during training runs, but most of the day and night too. You have to build the desire to finish, and compete if you so wish, so it’s an important process to go through, albeit the mind does need managing. There are thoughts that cross your mind even momentarily which can make your heart race in a flash. One hundred miles is a long way to run regardless of complicating factors such as the depth of competition, nature of the terrain, heat and some altitude. It wouldn’t be too hard to talk yourself out of it before you’ve even begun. Yeah right. I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

It’s a few days before the race and I’m hanging out in Squaw Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, trying to get acclimatized as best as possible before the impending race start. The iconic Western States start gantry has yet to be erected at the foot of the climb up to Emigrant Pass, but the race setup is about to come to life. I’m standing at the exact place where I will be on Saturday morning, with 100 miles of Western States dirt stretched out before me, along with all challenges that will come with it. I’ve been here before, on three occasions. Occasionally I wonder why I keep signing up, but as soon as the starting rifle goes “bang!”, I know I will be in my element and those thoughts will quickly subside. At that point I will enter a world where I’m far more comfortable; sharing a magical stretch of trail with some like minded adventurers – and the best in the business. We will race through the pine clad Sierra Nevada mountains from Squaw Valley to Auburn, chasing the daylight and the clock, all the while battling it out, but at the same time showing genuine affection for one another. There will be a great sense of mutual respect, but no holds barred in the racing for ultimate prestige. Whilst the hand crafted belt buckle finisher’s award is impressive and thoroughly sought after, it’s certainly not why I’m here. My objectives are: (i) to run strongly for 100miles; (ii) to enjoy it; and (iii) to beat as many people as I can in getting to the finish line. Simple really.

The Western States 100 has become somewhat of a pilgrimage for both race veterans and newcomers alike; those who are lucky enough to have had their name drawn in the annual lottery. Part of the high demand may be down to the seduction of trying to get into something you’re statistically very unlikely to. Numbers are limited to 400 on a long term rolling average and I heard 7% being quoted as the sort of chance you might have of winning a start place if your name’s in the hat for the first time. There are many better reasons than that for the high demand, not least because Western States is the best showcase of ultra trail running as a sport, and with volunteers outnumbering runners by around 1000, you will quickly sense why.  Through the capped entry numbers it also retains an intimacy and sense of warmth and friendliness that can easily get lost in our quickly growing sport. It’s the oldest one hundred mile trail race in the world and if you don’t know the history behind it, it’s well worth reading the story (HERE).

Assembling at the start © Jez Bragg. As the rifle sounds, the runners are off towards Auburn © Glenn Tachiyama

Photos: Assembling at the start © Jez Bragg. As the rifle sounds, the runners are off towards Auburn © Glenn Tachiyama

My race morning began in a very civilised fashion given the 5am start time. Staying just a few hundred metres from the start, I pottered across to race headquarters at the Squaw Valley ski centre cutting it fairly fine, and feeling remarkably alert after a good night’s sleep, and with my body clock barely reset after a last minute journey across from the UK.

Race day formalities are thankfully minimal having pre-registered the day before so it‘s just my race number and timing chip to collect along with a further compulsory weigh in before being ready to roll. There is a unique and infectious excitement that fills the air at Western States both before, during and after the race.  If you’re there to experience it, it’s likely you’ll be back again, just ask my support man Tim Lambert from Bath. He came out to experience the race when I last ran two years ago, and he was out again this year. I obviously didn’t put him off with my fairly disastrous race that year. Tim knows the race better than most, including me, and would do anything for a Western States place one year. I was fortunate to once again have his services.

‘Whoops’ and ‘yelps’ of excitement fill the air and it’s still 15 minutes to the start. People are revved up and excited beyond belief. The start gantry clock is counting down to 5am for the traditional mass start and with 30 seconds to go race founder Gordy Ainsleigh is at the microphone with some final words of inspiration. His words blend into a countdown from 10, the rifle sounds, and we’re suddenly climbing straight up to Escarpment; nearly 3,000ft of climbing to be negotiated over the first 4 miles – now that’s the way to start a race.

I was anxious about the climb, because the last time I ran Western States in 2012, the signs of a depleted and sick body were evident even in the first mile or two, and that turned out to be a really tough day at the office, although I somehow managed to grind out a finish. This time it was all good, I could tell straight away that my legs were ready to rumble. The climb is a nicely graded vehicle track so largely runnable, but the lead group I tucked in behind were being sensible and walking the steeper parts. Still dark at the start, the light was improving quickly until the pass itself, which always proves to be one of the most memorable views in ultra running. With the sun now just coming up over the mountains, the view behind us is towards Lake Tahoe and the main bulk of the Sierra Nevada mountains. To the front is wilderness; pine clad canyons and ridges which define the route all the way through to Auburn.

I was probably in 25th ish place over the pass, just about where I wanted to be for the start of the high country section through to Robinson Flat, where I would meet Tim for the first time. The trail hovers around 7,500ft along this section, the mild altitude challenging your breathing, but being dangerously countered by early race enthusiasm and freshness. The lead group remained in sight for the first 15 miles or so as we negotiated Lyon Ridge (10.5 miles) and Red Star Ridge (16 miles) aid stations but that wasn’t an important consideration. My aim was to remain in control and maintain a sustainable pace, particularly with the canyons being imminent. The early ridge sections through to Duncan Canyon already felt warm and the trail dustier than I remembered from previous years, perhaps because there was no snow left in the high country at all, in contrast to the norm. The dust literally gets everywhere, so running in a line as we did for the first 20 or so miles, it pays to not be at the back. The ridges are a little rocky and barren, particularly where forest fires have taken hold in recent years, with a sparse covering of trees but amazing views to the south and west over seemingly endless back country.  There’s a gentle breeze to be enjoyed as the temperatures start to build; make the most of it because it won’t be present in the canyons ahead.

From Duncan Canyon (23.8 miles) and beyond I was starting to feel settled in to the race, and mentally more at ease as the crowding from over-enthusiastic runners starts to die down. I very much prefer to run in my own space, and was starting to sense that it was time to commence my march up the field. I arrived at Robinson Flat (29.7 miles) a little down on my target time, but generally in good spirits in 21st place, aside from the need for a sock change due to a build up of water and grit.

Jez at Robinson Flat aid station. Llots cruisy fast trails © Glenn Tachiyama

Photos: Jez at Robinson Flat aid station © Stephen Ingalls. Llots cruisy fast trails © Glenn Tachiyama

Beyond Robinson and the gentle Little Bald Mountain rise is the start of a long downhill section leading into three further canyons. By long I mean a solid 13 miles, which is enough to trash even the most finely tuned up set of quads. Throughout these sections I traded places with Jesse Haynes and Vajin Armstong, and I wondered how long these mini battles would last. I certainly wasn’t hanging around on any section, and was running sections quicker than I had done before, so I envisaged a brutal pace up front which surely must bring casualties at some point?

Deadwood Canyon was the first and felt fine; I even managed to claim a couple of places on the way up to hit 16th by Devil’s Thumb, but Eldorado Canyon felt much tougher. The final drag up to Michigan Bluff felt particularly hot and draining, despite being thorough with attempts to keep cool. I packed my cap full of ice at every checkpoint after Duncan Canyon, and later the back of my hydration pack too. The aid stations had seemingly endless supplies of ice which was a real saviour, but it would melt within just a few miles and clothes were dry to a crisp within a few more. The heat is a dry one which makes it more bearable, but effective management of core temperature all the way is essential.

I hit a low spot at Michigan Bluff (55.7 miles); parched and lacking energy, but certainly buoyed by making it through the worst of the canyons. I planned how I could reverse that feeling with three aid stations coming up in quick succession over the next six miles. I was in and out of the Michigan aid station in a minute or so, refuelling on coke, strawberries, water melon and gels. As always, I expressed my gratitude to the aid station volunteers and in this instance also acknowledged the quality of the Californian strawberries. I would never normally gorge on fruit during a race, but in the heat it appeals more than anything else.

I remained conscious of how easy it is to lose momentum over the second half of the race as fatigue builds. The last 20 miles have felt relatively poor on all three occasions before, so I was determined for that to be corrected, but smart running was oh-so-key. On the fire road out of Michigan Bluff before the last small canyon, Volcano, I heard footsteps on the trail behind. I turned, half expecting to see a runner, but instead spotted a bear trotting across the trail. I didn’t pause to notice whether it had seen me, I’m sure it had more important things on it’s mind at the time, but I figured it was wise to keep moving. Nevertheless it was a special moment, and one that certainly put me on heightened alert.

Bath Road (60.6 miles) is the prelude to Forest Hill (62.0 miles), the place where you hit tarmac for the first time in the race, with a gradual climb to the start of relative civilisation as the route takes us through the town. I grabbed a can of coke to have on the trot up the hill, claiming another place in the process. At Forest Hill the crowds are always amazing, and it’s the only place where the remote route really is stacked with supporters. It’s hard not to get a boost from the noise, encouragement and repeated (half convincing) claims that I was ‘looking good’. I weighed in and replenished my hat and pack with ice before seeing Tim for some fuel. That came in the form of rice pudding, coke and a can of red bull. I felt energetic (sugar rush) and ready for Cal Street, a fast section of cruisy singletrack that links Forest Hill to the iconic Rucky Chucky river crossing. It was at that point my GPS was turned on, the aim being to closely monitor my pace and maintain that all important momentum to the finish.

Stunning single track in the high country. The climb out of El Dorado Canyon to Michigan Bluff © Stephanie Deveau

Photos: Stunning single track in the high country. The climb out of El Dorado Canyon to Michigan Bluff © Stephanie Deveau

Through Dardanelles (65.7 miles), Peachstone (70.7 miles), Ford’s Bar (73.0 miles) and on to the river I was moving well. I claimed another few places, reaching the river on a really positive note now into the top ten, and with a charge on. This year due to modest river levels we were able to wade the iconic Rucky Chucky river crossing (78.0miles) following the guide rope instead of rafts. The river was a hive of activity with tens of helpers in the river manning the rope and watching my every move, along with volunteers at the aid stations either side and plenty of photographers too. It’s hard not to feel like royalty, and what an honour to have so much support and attention. Is there any race like it in the world….? It was a welcome opportunity to cool off with full immersion and a long soak before the final hot slog to Auburn.

Tim met me on the far bank, and we ran the section up the hill to Green Gate (79.8miles) together. It was pre-arranged and before the race I had joked about how I planned to drop him on this section. Unfortunately I didn’t quite manage it, but his company was a real boost and he did have me half convinced I was still moving well. I ran every step of the way to the top which was a good indicator based on previous efforts.

So now just a 20 mile run in to Auburn. Easy, right? It was a section I had mentally focused on a great deal before the race. In moments of weariness and fatigue at the end of a long race it is easy to lose focus and drive, but I was determined to finish the job, and this year that never let up. Regardless of the discomfort, I would run it in at a solid pace, aiming to track down more runners to overtake.

In entering this crucial final section of the race I was in 10th place, and just inside the top 10 which carries so much prestige at Western States. The GPS watch helped a great deal with the pacing, and I was confident the pace was too much for others behind to catch me, and surely there must be people falling foul of the pace up front who I could overtake? It was therefore deeply demoralising to see Jesse Haynes come steaming into Auburn Lake Trails (85.2miles) aid station behind me, just as I was departing.  Duking it out at this stage of a race is never ideal and when Jesse eventually caught me at the next aid station, Brown’s Bar (89.9miles), I simply couldn’t respond. Jesse timed his move into the top 10 perfectly, coming past me at a break-neck pace, and with no sign of any weakness. What a beast that guy is.

I spent the last 10 miles, through Highway 49 (93.5miles) and No Hands Bridge (96.8 miles) reflecting on another memorable run along the Western States trail, and enjoying my final hour or two of sunny Californian running. Ultra running is about the journey both physically and metaphorically, and there are few races in the world that can offer a better journey than Squaw Valley to Auburn in one day. Boy had it felt like a journey. Although it is not much more than semantics, I was determined to finish the race without a head torch, before it got really dark. In reality, that stubbornness probably didn’t help my pace towards the end. It was getting very dark and a ‘wildlife’ encounter could have been tricky to deal with.

On reaching the Auburn pavements and then the last 300metres around the famous Placer High School track, I had already got my head around a result which, on the face of it, was not as good as I had initially hoped for. However there were too many positives to take away for me to be anything but content with the run. I ran a strong race all the way and finished the full course in my quickest time to date, 16hrs 45mins, despite it only achieving 11th place. Most importantly my body had responded well to the challenge and I had felt healthy throughout, something I haven’t achieved since Te Araroa.

The moment of crossing the Western States finish line to be presented with my finisher’s medal by Race Director, Craig Thornley, felt like an honour as it always does. All I want is to be taking part and competing in these monumental races against the best guys in the world. I enjoyed it; I was smiling at the end and could enjoy celebrating my 4th silver buckle at Western States. Old iRunFar friends Meghan and Bryon were also there to have a joke with at the end – this being the five year anniversary since we met in Yosemite on the year Western States was cancelled due to forest fires.

Jez Bragg crossing the Western States finish line © iRunFar

Photo: Crossing the Western States finish line © iRunFar

I also have to say a massive thanks to Tim who was once again a truly dependable guy to have in support, so I am deeply grateful for all his input and commitment.

Another promising sign is that now a couple of weeks on from the finish of the race, I already feel well recovered and in training again for UTMB, now just a few weeks away. Maybe a healthy Western States and quick recovery will translate into a solid run at UTMB - we shall see – but I’m just pleased to be back out there competing.

Find out more about Jez Bragg: www.thenorthface.co.uk/blog/eu/en/jez-bragg
Twitter: @jezbragg
Blog: jezbragg.blogspot.co.uk

Find out more about the Western States Endurance Run: www.wser.org

Men's results

1 Rob Krar Flagstaff AZ 14:53:22
2 Seth Swanson Missoula MT 15:19:39
3 Dylan Bowman Mill Valley CA 15:36:41
4 Max King Bend OR 15:44:45
5 Ryan Sandes Cape Town South Africa 15:46:59


Women's results

1 Stephanie Howe Bend OR 18:01:42
2 Larisa Dannis Strafford NH 18:29:18
3 Nathalie Mauclair Champagne France 18:43:57
4 Pam Smith Salem OR 19:10:42
5 Nikki Kimball Bozeman M 19:51:31


Click here for full results


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