“All I ever asked is one hundred”
Western States is the heart of ultrarunning in the United States, if not the world. And no matter how many times you’ve done it, the excitement before the race is palpable. I certainly felt it when I ran it in June — and it was my 50th ultra race.
My ultra journey started many years ago, back in high school. I actually remember the moment quite vividly: our high school cross country team used to take trips to the running store to get our gear as a group. This was back in 1984, and I remember seeing a black and white version of UltraRunning Magazine, with a photo of two feet after having completed the Western States 100. I saw that photo and thought it was unbelievable; the dedication and grit it symbolized opened a new world for me. An ultra was something that was way beyond what I had done as a runner-up to that point — a new challenge that balanced speed and distance.
So, yes: a picture of gnarly feet got me interested in ultras.
Today I’ve done six Western States races and 53 ultramarathons. Last summer I did the Grand Slam Ultra Series for the first time. There are over 150 100-mile races across the United States. The four original 100-mile races are Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch — and those four happen to be in a 12-week span. The Grand Slam consists of completing them.
Successfully completing the Grand Slam isn’t just about running, though. The recovery between each of these races is brutal. For two days after a 100-miler, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, and you can’t walk (but I’m on a plane and at work the next day). But in order to do the Grand Slam you need to get your body moving again, and the long training runs start again the following weekend in advance of the next race. So it really is a grueling regimen to get prepared and keep your body healthy for 12 solid weeks.
This year, I’ve prepared by running four weekend 5-hour runs and four prep races ranging from 50 to 100 kilometers. To me, that’s a solid base. Of course, altitude is always a wild card, especially at Western States, Leadville, and Wasatch.
There are some things you just can’t prepare for.
The first year I did Western States was in 1995. That year was dubbed the ‘fire and ice’ year. Here’s why: the first 22 miles were all on frozen snow, contrasted with a high of 118 degrees in another portion of the race (the canyons). So you really have to be ready for adverse conditions: very little of these races are run on a paved street in perfect 60-degree weather. And much of it is run at night.
Of course, some things have come a long way since 1995. The shoe technology, for example, is much better. The shoes I wear now have more ridges for better grip in snow as crampons and other traction devices are not allowed in the race.
Regardless of the preparation and gear, though, things will always get rough in a 100-mile race. What I constantly remind myself of during these races, is the amount of dedication that goes into training. When you get into Western States, Vermont, Leadville, or Wasatch, you think about it every day for nine months. And when you’re at the starting line and the gun goes off, you get an incredible rush of adrenaline, endorphins, and phenethylamines (a natural chemical released during sex). There’s a point where you’ve put so much into something — given up so much time and energy into training — that you can’t just give up.
When I did the Grand Slam last year, there were some moments where I had to just stop and sleep for a few hours and could barely walk and had written off the race. But that desire to not give up kicked in, and I just kept going and eventually finished. You just don’t want to give up all that work.
My combined time for the four races this year was 96 hours and 38 minutes — 13 hours faster than last year. But the time gained does not come close to telling the full story of what I gained in wisdom and personal growth and friendships.
And, for me, that’s what ultras are all about.