One Dirty Magazine

4 Lessons from the Western States 100

This year was a doozy, and there are lots of things we can learn.

David Roche July 1st, 2019

4 Lessons from the Western States 100 Clare Gallagher celebrates her Western States 100 victory after a gutsy, five-minute, neck-and-neck sprint finish with Brittany Patterson. Photo by Solmaz Chandler

 

One of the weirdest emotional states involves crying tears of joy. You know that thing you do when dogs die, or you watch Presidential debates? That thing, but while smiling and laughing. Somehow, this emotional short-circuit survived evolution, ready to be deployed when you are so happy that your eyes must shout it out with precipitation.

At the finish line of the 2019 Western States 100 Miler, I saw dozens of people cry those illogical tears of joy. Or at least I thought I saw that. It was sometimes tough to tell while sweating so profusely out of my eyeballs.

There is something about big events that starts the waterworks, whether it’s weddings or graduations or running races. My guess is that it’s the reflection element, thinking about all it took to get there. The event itself is a culmination of thousands of hours of little tests, leading to a big celebration of the journey. So when half the racers and most of the crowd was crying at the finish line of Western States, it was joy mixed with some, “Think about all it took to get here!” and “HOW IS THIS EVEN HUMANLY POSSIBLE?!”

At the finish line of the 2019 Western States 100 Miler, I saw dozens of people cry those illogical tears of joy. Or at least I thought I saw that. It was sometimes tough to tell while sweating so profusely out of my eyeballs.

They say that 100 miles is life in a day, and, like life, there could be a million lessons from Western States. But I am still moderately emotionally hungover (and a bit actually hungover), so let’s look at four. 

 

Wildly different training approaches can work for different athletes (or even for the same athlete at different points)

When analyzing training, it’s easy to draw a straight line from preparation to outcomes. Jim Walmsley set a huge course record, one of the most stunning runs in human history? His training was ideal in every respect. Clare Gallagher runs the second-fastest time ever? She is clearly a Terminator sent from the future to annihilate trail races.

In reality, it’s much more complicated. Clare’s training is a great example. In the buildup, she ran more than 70 miles in a week four times, averaging just over 60. From June 13 to June 21, she was in the Arctic to advocate for the environment and didn’t run at all (a vote is taking place in the House of Representative in July to protect the Arctic Refuge, see her Instagram post and call your reps now). 

Is that the perfect training? While it clearly worked for Clare, she probably could have excelled with a bunch of approaches. I don’t think next year’s race favorites should all go booking Arctic work trips during their tapers. But if you have to miss training, you probably don’t have to worry so much about it.

The rest of the field followed a similar pattern. Based on a quick Strava survey, it appears that there is little correlation between miles, vert and ultimate race outcomes, at least near the front of the race. Training really matters in a general way, but the specifics are probably not the most important thing in the world. 

What does it take? Consistency, hard work, harder recovery. Beyond that, it’s probably highly variable for different athletes and even the same athlete at different times. Give yourself grace if your training is imperfect. You might just find out that what seems imperfect is exactly where you want to be.

 

Low points are often OK, it’s just about understanding the cause and cure

When I saw Matt Daniels at the mile 62 Foresthill Aid Station, I was a bit worried. He looked like he had seen a friendly ghost. So he was in good spirits, but still … it’s a ghost, and ghosts are scary.

His crew chief Joshua Stevens described what happened next. Around mile 70, Matt had to adjust his shoes, moving to the side of the trail. He was passed by Tom Evans, moving him back into 4th. And he started cramping. This is a story as old as the race itself. It would be a battle to finish, let alone to finish in the top-10.

Only it didn’t play out that way. Matt survived to the river crossing at mile 78, bounced back and proceeded to demolish the last 22 miles in epic fashion. He was 4th place in his first 100-miler, a monumental breakthrough. What let him do that?

Before the race, Matt said that he was going to anticipate the low points, look forward to them and work through them. Running is such a good metaphor because what is life but persevering through down moments? Sometimes the only way around it is through it, so Matt just marched through the crap.

Even with that perspective, it would have only worked if Matt understood the cause of the low point. For him, it was glycogen depletion mixed with just being battered by the distance. He knew with some fuel and patience, he could come back. Lots of running low points work that way, like those caused by glycogen depletion, mental fatigue and minor GI distress.

Other variables are closer to impossible to come back from, like muscle breakdown from eccentric muscle contractions, injuries and severe GI distress. It’s all about understanding the cause of the low point and patiently, mindfully working through it. For Matt, that involved eating lots of food and rafting across the river to the homestretch. For other top athletes, their low points were not the type they could come back from safely. And that’s OK too–it wouldn’t be life in a day without sometimes having moments that are just hard, that no amount of willpower will make better. 

 

The best day and the worst day are often separated by a slim margin of luck and randomness

That story about Matt underscores a bigger point. Results are often determined by outcomes outside of our control. We can do everything right and still have everything turn out all wrong.

What if Matt’s feet were just a bit more shredded by being wet for 15 hours? What if he took one wrong step and twisted an ankle? What if his stomach didn’t like that one gel taken at exactly the wrong moment?

It’s easy for the brain to think it has more control than it does. Running, like life, is often more like riding a bucking bronco. Prepare as much as you can, hold on for dear life and hope for the best. Staying on the bull is awesome, but sometimes you get thrown off, and it’s not like that’s a choice. Just because you fall down doesn’t mean it’s bad preparation or a failure. It’s just bad luck and a bit of randomness. You can celebrate those learning experiences equally alongside the triumphs knowing you gave it what you had. 

 

Setbacks make stories

In the 2017 edition of Western States, Clare was running in 3rd place and moving fast. It was an amazing day, full of joy and love and strength. But disaster struck. A knee injury popped up, she lost the ability to even walk a few steps and she had to drop out at the mile-95 aid station.

In 2019, Clare moved into first at mile 78 after the legend Courtney Dauwalter had to withdraw with an injury. This was it! The big moment! Clare had an 11-minute lead, and she felt good. She was motoring with a smile. I overheard a finish-line conversation saying that it would be a 20-mile victory lap.

Holy crap! This is insane! Five miles to go in one of the biggest races of the year, and it would be a sprint to the finish. The crowd gasped and clapped and screamed.

Only superstar Brittany Peterson had other plans. She ran one of the gutsiest, strongest segments of all time to close in. At mile 85, the gap was eight minutes. At 91, three minutes. Over the loudspeakers at the finish, they made the announcement. “UPDATE FROM THE COURSE: At mile 94.7, Clare Gallagher and Brittany Peterson are running together.”

Holy crap! This is insane! Five miles to go in one of the biggest races of the year, and it would be a sprint to the finish. The crowd gasped and clapped and screamed.

Think about what must have been going through Clare’s head. At the aid station where her 2017 race ended, her 2019 race just began. Oh, my god. It’s practically a Greek tragedy.

Clare said that she thought about 2017. She thought about how much she loved and respected Brittany. She thought about the whole journey to get to that point. And according to her post-race interview, she proceeded to put her head down and black out with focused effort for those last five miles.

She went primal, accessing reserves of strength that she had never seen before. On Strava, she set records on the climbs. On the track to finish, she touched sub-5 minute-mile pace. She broke the tape and screamed to the crowd how much she loved them. When Brittany finished, they shared the biggest hug of admiration and love. 2017 made 2019 possible. 

A few minutes later, I saw Clare, whose lips had turned purple from the effort. She put her arms out wide as she exclaimed:

“WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!”

“I don’t know,” I yelled back. I’m not sure anyone does.

But it sure does make a good story.

 

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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