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My brief gig as a Runner’s World correspondent

June 20, 2007

Here’s the first of two essays that I’m writing for RunnersWorld.com.

A HALF-FULL OUTLOOK ON THE WESTERN STATES ENDURANCE RUN

Have you ever completed a half marathon in a fast time and wondered,”Gee, I wonder how I’d do in a FULL marathon?”

That’s kind of how I’m feeling right now — except that my “half marathons” have been 50 miles to 100 kilometers long, and my “full marathon” will be the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run this Saturday.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Western States is a trail race over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California. Due in part to its rich history, it is arguably the most prestigious ultramarathon in the United States. Its origins date back to 1974, when Gordy Ainsleigh decided to participate in a 100-mile horse race, the Western States Trail Ride, without the benefit of a horse. Eventually a separate event was established for runners, and since then it has grown to the point where it attracts more than 1,000 applications annually, from which about 400 lucky participants are selected. Moreover, some people are so fond of the race that they come back year after year — people like Scott Jurek, who has seven victories in seven attempts (1999-2005); Ann Trason, who garnered FOURTEEN titles between 1989 and 2003; and Tim Twietmeyer, whose 25 sub-24-hour finishes between 1981 and 2006 included five wins.

This year’s edition of the race will feature many Western States veterans, but I am not one of them. In fact, this will be my first 100-miler ever — my first race beyond 100 kilometers. Given my inexperience, one might think it prudent to approach the race with modest and flexible expectations. Indeed, that’s the advice Twietmeyer offered to first-timers in an interview last year with blogger Scott Dunlap. “Leave your watch at home,” he said.

Well, sorry, Tim; that’s just not how I operate. In fact, that’s almost the exact opposite of how I operate. As a research scientist with a road and track background, I crave the quantitative feedback that split times provide. Also, the numbers give me something to think about in between aid stations.

For better or worse, my race plan reflects this obsession with times. For example, my overall goal is to finish in under 16 hours and 42 minutes. Why 16:42? For one thing, that’s exactly 10-minutes-per-mile pace, since the exact race distance is 100.2 miles. For another, 16:42 is often fast enough to win.

If you think that a goal of sub-16:42 is absurdly specific, hold on — I’m just getting started. To determine just how one goes about running a 16:42, I scanned past results for finishes in the 16:32-16:52 range. Then I compiled and averaged the splits that led to each of those finishes, creating a split time profile that was a hybrid of Chuck Jones and Jim Pellon in 1986 (1st and 2nd that year), Tom Johnson in 1990 (1st), Brian Purcell in 1991 (2nd), Twietmeyer in 1994 (1st), and Jurek in 2001 (1st). After correcting for differences between the current course and previous versions (with the help of 2005 runner-up Andy Jones-Wilkins), I arrived at an extremely detailed, rather optimistic race plan.

The race starts at 5:00 AM. I intend to depart Red Star Ridge (mile 16.0) at 7:37 AM, Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) at 9:54 AM, Last Chance (mile 43.3) at 11:40 AM, Devil’s Thumb (mile 47.8) at 12:35 PM, Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) at 2:01 PM, Foresthill School (mile 62.0) at 3:01 PM, Peachstone/Cal-2 (mile 70.7) at 4:30 PM, the American River Crossing (mile 78.1) at 5:35 PM, Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2) at 6:58 PM, and Highway 49 (mile 93.5) at 8:26 PM. I should reach the finish line at 9:41 PM. This is all typed out on a piece of paper that I’ll carry with me during the race.

Perhaps the main utility of my itinerary is that it will provide everyone with a hearty laugh when my actual splits are compared to my projected ones. For all of my number-crunching, even I can see the folly in trying to schedule every minute of a 100-mile trail race. Still, I’d rather have a plan that I can modify or abandon as necessary than go without a plan altogether.

In addition to my exhaustive perusal of old race results, I’ve tried to squeeze in some actual training now and then. Since recovering from the Miwok 100K (at which I placed 2nd to fellow Western States contender Lon Freeman) on May 5th, I’ve done a couple of 40- to 50-mile runs on hilly trails in order to simulate the race as closely as possible.

Of course, there’s only so much confidence one can gain from training runs that are less than half the race distance. I feel good about my credentials for shorter, flatter events — I’ve run a 2:22 marathon and a 6:59 road 100K, which are beyond the reach of most other entrants — and yet they say little about my ability to survive a 100-mile trail run with 18,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and 23,000 feet of descent.

Like an accomplished half-marathoner about to tackle his first full marathon, I’m confident that I’m in shape to run with the leaders, yet fearful that the extra distance might prove to be more than I can handle.

Either way, it’s gonna be a long day.

Meanwhile, there’s still plenty of time to enter my Western States prediction contest. Plenty of reasonable votes have been cast so far, but where are the Eric Grossman and Hal Koerner supporters?

8 comments

  1. Great article! Again, good luck at Western States!!!!


  2. Greg,Great story! Thanks for sharing your thoughts heading into this weekend's Western States. Just something for you to tuck into the back of your mind for Saturday — I believe Dave Mackey in 2004 had the fastest debut ever at WS with a 16:30. That might push you below the magical 10-minute per mile barrier, but it's something for you to think about. Best of luck on Saturday, and keep up the great writing. Your blog is excellent!


  3. Greg,Great article on RW. You've unabashedly put yourself and your plan out there. It's honest, insightful, and real. Thanks for sharing!Meghan


  4. Great story on RW, Doog. As always, just the right balance of self-confidence and self-effacement, with some nice insights (into both running, and yourself) thrown in.


  5. ….From reading your RW accounts:Greg, if i can throw my 2 cents in… rather than the folly schedulling every mile spilt I see more of the true scientist's soul of lending his body – and mind in this particular RW "blog-riment" (allow me to coin the term) – to Science. Science of Running mixed with the Science of Writing. If half the people, like you, who gather significant data on the planet could also effectively "communicate" and interpret that data (like you), we, meaning the planet, would have a whole lot of useful information to better the quality of life. I suppose this a likely and realistic bottom line in the end. We have made progress with third party testing (animal and/or human) but the real test is when you test yourself. Concrete bread and butter trial and error… The value of the stakes (your health, your accuracy, your pride, your will) makes the experiment, now blog-riment ,so much more reliable even if not applicable to the general population. Truth probably is somewhere in between, i.e. both methods are important and one should not prevail on the other. Have a great long day…. and just to throw a cute one in there, I am writiing this on the longest day of the year… may it bring you some Scientific Luck 🙂


  6. Greg-Found your blog via the RW article. Great article – even better blog. Good luck at the WS 100!


  7. Best of luck tomorrow, Greg. Run smart (like you usually do), and you should be in range of your goals. Looks like you picked a great year for your debut weather-wise, although the field is stacked with many great runners!Looking forward to the post-race report already…SD


  8. Greg, sorry you had to drop:(But predictions…nobody bet on Hal!!!



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