Pacing at Western States

What better way to train on the final 38 miles of the Western States than to pace a runner from Foresthill to Auburn. So that’s what I did during this year’s (2006) race. First, let me share with you some logistics that may be valuable to you if you plan on doing the same (or even if you are running WS for the first time).

I lodged right at the Olympic Village in Squaw Valley, where the race starts. There are a number of hotels throughout the village and is as convenient as it can possibly be as far as accessibility on race day. I stayed at the Squaw Valley Lodge (1-800-549-6742), not particularly elegant, but I could see the start line from my window.

The Wednesday and Thursday before the race, there are a number of talks on health, nutrition, hydration, etc. Be sure to arrive early, so you don’t miss these. Weight-ins begin on Friday morning and the pre-race talks occur on Friday afternoon, around the lawn area. Take a folding chair with you to the pre-race talks; it will significantly improve your comfort. There are a number of restaurants at the Village, but you can also find others (including pasta) at either side of the I-80 exit towards Squaw Valley.

The race starts at 5:00 am on the last Saturday of June. Even if you’ll just be pacing, don’t miss the start. Get there before 4:30 am, and you’ll enjoy the runners’ last minute preparations before the clock counts down to zero.

The first aid station where you can see your runner is at Robinson Flat, about 30 miles from the start. Unless it’s a must for you to be there, I would pass on it. The parking area is just too crowded, you need to be shuttled, and then you still need to hike a mile to the aid station. All the aid stations are sufficiently well stocked and the runner should be fine without a crew at Robinson Flat.

For runners, two large bottles (26 oz each) from Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat should be sufficient, but from Robinson Flat (mile 30) to Michigan Bluff (mile 55 or so) you should carry a third bottle. A good idea is to take all three with you from Squaw Valley, but fill only two through Robinson Flat (or put an extra bottle in your drop bag for Robinson Flat). Start filling the third one from Robinson Flat to Foresthill and drop it again at Foresthill.

I-80 West takes you from Squaw Valley towards Auburn. Colefax, a Western looking town, is on its way there and it’s a good place to stop for a bite.

Make reservations early for a hotel in Auburn. Most of the hotels are at the two or three exits along I-80 for Auburn, California. I stayed at the Comfort Inn, which is at exit 121 (Foresthill, Auburn Ravine Road) and is on the same road that takes you to Foresthill. The hotel has a computer in the lobby, which you can use to track your runner through the course.

Instead of going to Robinson Flat to see or crew for your runner, head to Michigan Bluff. Take exit 121 from I-80, it’s the road to Foresthill. After you pass Foresthill, you’ll eventually come to Michigan Bluff Road on the right. Take this twisting road to the parking area (along the road). From there, you will be shuttled in a school bus about ½ a mile down to Michigan Bluff. No need to bring food for you; hamburgers, hot dogs, water and more are available for purchase there. But bring a chair and an umbrella; it gets very, very hot. If you arrive there around 1:00 pm or so, the parking area will not be as crowded, and you’ll catch the front-runners. It’s fun to see the lead runners come through Michigan Bluff – even after 55 miles, these amazing athletes look in fairly good shape.

Once you’ve crewed your runner at Michigan Bluff, get on the shuttle to the parking area and drive to Foresthill. You will have passed the school on the right on your way to Michigan Bluff, so you’ll know where it is. Depending on your runner’s speed, it will take them between 1 to 2 hours from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill. Foresthill is at mile 62, and that’s where most pacers meet their runners.

If you are pacing, a nice thing to do is to walk towards Bath Road (you’ll see it on the left from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill) and make your way down to where the road meets the trail. You can start pacing from there and your runner will appreciate the company during that 1 mile paved climb. You’ll then enter the Foresthill station together. As a pacer, you have full access to all the aid stations.

From Foresthill you’ll run along a slightly-downhill, paved road for about a mile or so until you come to California Street on the left. White arrows along the road will then lead you to the trail. If your runner is on a sub-24 hour pace, you’ll run this next section during the daylight. Otherwise, you’ll run it at dusk or night. I highly recommend a white-light headlamp and a green-light hand flashlight. The combination of both lights will significantly improve your vision. You should also carry a spare flashlight just in case.

There are plenty of aid stations during the 16 miles from Foresthill to the river crossing at Rocky Chucky. Two 26 oz bottles should be plenty. This section is mostly downhill, so be prepared for the long and steep decline, along with a good share of hills, to crush your quads.

Depending on the river’s water level, you’ll either cross it at Rocky Chucky by boat or simply aided by a rope. There are aid stations at either side of the river, so if you can start crossing as soon as you get there, you may wish to do so and use the aid station on the other side of the river (called the far side).

A steep 1.7-mile climb gets you from “the far side” to yet another aid station at Green Gate. We skipped it, as we still had plenty of fluid from the prior aid station and the next one was less than four miles ahead. Unless the runner has no sympathy for his/her crew, I don’t see a need to have a crew at this aid stations. It’s just too difficult to get there.

Once you get to Green Gate (mile 80), you’re about 20 miles from the finish. It’s a matter of helping your runner through the night. All the aid stations are well stocked and they are never more than 5 miles apart. Many of the glow sticks that mark the path will be faint by now, so keep a good eye for them – don’t get your runner lost!

There is a great aid station at mile 85, with neon signs and music right in the middle of the forest! I met the doctor and nurse that lead the medical team for this station back at Foresthill. Testament to their hands-on knowledge, they’ve both buckled this race before and one of them is even a double-bucker (which means completing both Western States and the horse Tevis Race which is run on the same course and was the precursor to WS).

The crew can meet the runner one last time at the Highway 49 crossing, 6.7 miles from the finish line. From there, you’ll cross a beautiful prairie and on to No Hands Bridge. You’ll catch a break for a mile or so after No Hands Bridge, but thereafter you’ll be climbing in one shape or form all the way almost to the end. Robbie Point is at the end of the trail, just before mile 99. There is a small aid station there – but unless you’re really in need of something don’t bother wasting time with just a little over one mile to go. The final climb is about a mile, but this late in the race it will feel much longer.

The last quarter of a mile or so is downhill on to the track at Placer High School. Once you reach the track, no passing is allowed. A ¾ loop around the track, as the runner’s name and bio is announced takes you to the finish line. Pace your runner all the way, but towards the end, begin to fade behind him/her and all the way to the right, so that all the glory and attentions is directed to the runner.

It’s an awesome experience to run through the night in the Sierra Nevada. Besides doing a good deed for a fellow runner, you’ll learn immensely from the experience, which you will put to good use during your own race. It’s also a great opportunity to test all your equipment, pace, and hydration techniques.

Among the things I learned:

1. Less is more. Keep it simple. The more stuff you carry or have, the more complicated things get. I have contact lenses and didn’t even bother taking sunglasses (I did take an extra pair of contacts, just in case, though)

2. The race can be run without a crew, but a crew at Michigan Bluff will probably help – particularly if they have plenty of cold water and ice to cool the runner down. Pour enough cold water all over the runner to give them a mini cold shower. Put a couple of bags with ice under the runner’s armpits as well. It will lower his/her body temperature quickly.

3. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover territory by power-walking. Instead of walking, power walk! I plan to power-walk all the hills.

4. The scale is your friend not your foe. According to the race directors, no one has ever been pulled from the race for losing too much weight. The scale tells you if you are drinking too much or too little. Make it your friend and it will get you through the race in better shape.

5. Take 2-3 Succeed tablets per hour along with water. If you are taking an electrolyte drink you’ll need fewer tablets, but aim at taking about 1000 mg of Sodium (each Succeed tablet has about 350mg of Sodium) from whatever source or combination thereof for every liter of water (that’s my ratio at 150 pounds, if you weigh more or less you can adjust accordingly). Don’t confuse 1000 mg of Sodium Chloride (i.e. salt) with 1000 mg of Sodium. Taking Sodium in Sodium Chloride form is fine, but make sure that the amount of Sodium equals 1000mg (i.e. don’t count the weight of the Chloride). You’ll need approximately 1000 mg of Sodium per liter of water.

6. Prepare a couple of #2 bio-break bags. In a small ziplock, put a couple of baby wipes. Put that ziplock inside another ziplock of the same size, which also has tissues (not toilet paper, but tissues, paper towels, or napkins). When nature calls (and believe me it will), you can step off the trail, do your business, and you’ll be able to leave with your bottom as clean as a baby’s. Please bury the evidence!

7. You’ll drink about 30% of your body weight during the entire run. Since your body is about 60% water, this means that you will replace half of the liquids in your body during the 100 mile run. If you just take water, you’ll die! You need to put in approximately what you take out (in form of sweat, urine, etc). And the number one electrolyte that you need is Sodium, without it, you die! Succeed will also replace Potassium and if you take a Tums every four or five hours, not only will it make your stomach feel good, but it will also give you the calcium that you need during the run.

8. Aim at taking 200 calories per hour. More than this you will not be able to absorb. A couple of G2O’s per hour will do. Don’t take carbs at a higher or lower ratio than an 8 to 10% mg of carb to milliliter of water combination. Your body absorbs carbs best at this ratio.

9. A 100 mile run doesn’t mean that you have to run all 100 miles. Run the flats and downhills. Powerwalk the uphills. But when you power-walk, do just that, power-walk not walk. It’s amazing how many runners we passed “walking” while we were power-walking.

10. Don’t try to beat the heat. Your best running will happen during the early morning, at dusk, and at night. Take it easy in the canyons, where the temperature will easily surpass 100.

That’s it for now. I owe a couple of posts on my experiences at Scott Jurek’s running camp and on the Hydration formulas I learned from Dr. Lind while there. I’ll catch up one of these days.

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