On Saturday, June 27, Kevin fulfilled his dreaming of running Western States, the most prestigious 100-mile race in the country. He recounted his journey in a race report, which I bring you today. Take it away, Kevin!
“All I need is six weeks and the love of a good woman and I can go the distance.”
In March of 2015, a couple friends from my Wednesday night running group and I traveled to Portland to run in the Gorge 100k. The race was going to be an early-season test and kind of a “road game” adventure for us.
Gorge 100k turned out to be a great race. The course was beautiful and challenging and the post-race scene was awesome. One perk of the race was that one lucky finisher would be selected by Montrail to get a ticket to the “big dance” – the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
As it turned out, about a week after I got home, I received an email from Montrail announcing that I was that “last chance” entrant. I was numb for a moment, then a sublime warm came over me. I knew this was going to happen. I just totally knew it – and it was one of the reasons I had signed up for Gorge. I was going to the big dance, the Rose Bowl of ultrarunning, the Wimbledon of 100-milers. And I wasn’t going to be crewing or pacing, I would be running. I was in.
So, what now? Normally people have seven months to train since the lottery gets decided in December. Western States presents many unique challenges – hot temperatures, early and difficult climbs, elevation above 7000 feet and then 40 miles of runnable trail at the back of the course. All of these challenges need to be independently trained for and I only had 10 weeks.
My mind drifted to one of my favorite movies, “Rocky.” Its central point is that if a man has six weeks to train and the love of a good woman, he can go the distance against the heavyweight champ. Well, I had 10 weeks, and I’m married to Milly, the greatest woman – so I liked my chances.
I developed a race strategy with split times over the couple months of lead up to the race with my crew consisting of Milly, Tony Marshall, Bradley Fenner and my mom and dad, Mike and Treasa Skiles.
I also sought input from several veterans of the race I am lucky enough to run with: Jerome Lourme, Charles Savage, Ann Trason, Bob Bustic, Bob Bunnell, Erika Lindland and Karl Hoagland. I am very lucky for all of the years of wisdom these folks were willing to download to me. Huge thanks to all of you.
What we determined was that I’ve shown I can run late stages of 100s well IF I don’t make mistakes in the first half that thrash my legs/feet and get me in a calorie deficit. And WS100 has the most runnable last 25 miles of any race I’ve ever done.
So the plan was to go really easy – dawdling, as Gordy put it – in the high country, go relaxed effort until Michigan Bluff, and then, if things feel OK, try to effort a little harder from Michigan Bluff to the river and then hammer with whatever you have left from the river in.
Based on my training runs, this approach should result in a sub-24 hour finish and perhaps a 21-22 hour finish if everything goes fantastic. By no means is this a revolutionary approach to this race. In fact, it’s exactly what everyone advises, but fewer people have the discipline and good fortune to actually execute it on race day.
During the race, I often heard folks complaining about their splits in the early miles, and it’s obviously very hard to keep your pace under control when you are so excited to be running Western States. But discipline is just as important as any other skill when it comes to 100s.
I had several good training runs on the course in May, especially around Robinson Flat, and I gained confidence moving over the trails at a fairly relaxed effort that resulted in split times well ahead of what my goals were for race day – just the way you want it.
But, all of my training runs, except for one, were in cool conditions, including one thunderstorm! Race day would bring a much different climate to deal with …
The week before race day, both the high country (mile 0-30) and the canyon section (mile 30-60) of the race experienced some big time, triple-digit heat. While the heat did break the day before the race, that stale hot air was waiting for us in each of the canyons.
When race day did arrive, we all assembled at the start line. There was a jittery buzz of sparks coming off every runner preparing for the race: nervous laughter, well-wishes, jockeying that would bring to mind the start of a horse race occupied the two minutes before the 5am start. Standing at the base of the KT-22 chairlift and staring at a 3,000-foot climb will definitely get you focused on how real it’s all about to become.
I was with the three other runners from my Wednesday night group: Jerome Lourme, Erika Lindland and Karl Hoagland. We got our gear together, gave a few high-fives and the shotgun blast went off – sending us on our way into the Granite Chief wilderness, with the track of PlacerHigh School waiting 100 miles west of us.
The hike up the escarpment (Squaw Base up Mountain Run to the top of Emigrant chair for my skier friends) is a fairly steady power hike and it took a little over an hour. I treated it as a warm up and didn’t push at all. I crested very near Erika and Jerome and also made some new friends on the way up.
The rolling downhill wilderness between the top of Squaw and Lyon Ridge (mile 10.5) were just easy effort – talking to friends, making jokes, not exerting. From Lyon Ridge to Red Star, I could see my friend Erika starting to push up hills harder than I wanted.
My first governing rule of the race was to not get sucked into someone else’s pace, so I took a pee break at an incredibly scenic spot looking across the valley and let Erika put enough gap on me that I wouldn’t be encouraged to try to catch up.
Pulling into Red Star I grabbed some solid food from my drop bag and a belt that could hold more gels and a second bottle. This became very important as I started getting a lot thirstier than I normally do.
I think the combination of the poor air quality from the recent Markleeville Fire, the altitude and the early morning heat was making my body crave more water than normal. The second bottle did the trick and it was a good last-second decision to have a drop bag at Red Star.
The trail here is a mix of rollers, sustained ups and technical downs between Red Star and Duncan Canyon. I was getting passed by a few people, but I continued to run easy, trying to keep my effort low.
I got to run with a few folks I had met during race week, such as Jay Hinckle from Redding (awesome dude!) whom I would see many hours later on the course.
Leaving the Duncan Canyon aid station I got to run a few more miles with my friend Jerome. As we descended into the canyon, the heat became a real issue.
I used every creek crossing to completely soak my bandana, shoulders, legs and head. Surprised by how hot it was getting so early, I had to abandon real food and just start eating gels. The tradeoff of time in creek versus time on trail started earlier than expected. The climb up to Robinson was brutal.
The combination of heat and altitude made the uphill hikes really slow considering how early it was.
I had floated up this trail during a training run and was shocked at how hard it was on race day due to the extra miles on my legs and the 95+ degree temps. Legendary WS runner Andy Jones-Wilkins says he gets passed on this section every year, and I had the same experience – I just tried to stay patient and not get “pulled” into someone else’s pace.
Arriving at Robinson Flat was awesome. My whole family was there – Milly, kids, parents and also half of Tamalpa (it seemed). I lingered for a few minutes getting iced down, recharged and getting my last glimpse at “civilization” before I would re-emerged at Michigan Bluff many hours later.
I left the aid station knowing that once I got over Little Bald Mountain, I’d steadily descend for the rest of the race and that within an hour and a half I’d be back in “normal altitude breathing.” That was something to look forward to indeed as the high country had put its stamp on me!
The long, 13-plus-mile descent from Little Bald Mountain to Last Chance was a joy. I felt better and better as I went, and the miles just clicked off. As I got to Miller’s Defeat (mile 38), I felt fresh and ready to let the legs uncoil a little.
Turning onto the Pucker Point trail, I passed a guy and started hammering out probably the fastest couple miles of my whole race. I love this trail and the scenery, and I just decided to enjoy this segment as a singular part of the longer race – just hammer it for all it is worth. The plants start changing from high to low country here, and the evidence of the fire scarring is beautiful.
That attitude abruptly ended when I passed a guy and heard “Kevin.” It was my friend Karl. He was walking and potentially injured and I got bummed for him.
I tried to give him some positive vibes and just kept moving as there was nothing I could do to help. Fortunately, he recovered and had a great sub 24-hour race.
At Last Chance (mile 43), I moved through quickly and started feeling really strong and confident. Bonnie from our Wednesday night group was there to sponge cold water on me and make jokes about the day spa she was running. Thanks, Bonnie!
I was entering the canyons and everything seemed to be going really well. Legs and feet holding up great, nutrition and water dialed in, one of my favorite sections of the trail ahead – what could go wrong?
The descent into Deadwood Canyon was brutally hot. Lots of exposed running and stagnant air. By the time I got to swinging bridge and began the ascent up Devil’s Thumb, all optimism had been burned away. Apollo Creed was the champ, I was just a club fighter getting my head beaten in.
As I continued up the Thumb, I tried to keep purpose in my hike but continued to have stalled, swaying steps at the steeper sections. I was with a few other runners and we tackled the trail like trucks on a freeway – slowly moving in convoy, taking turns leading.
As I neared the top and entered the aid station, I saw Inga and Ben, and I could see from their reactions that I must have looked like shit. I told myself that “everyone looks like shit at the Thumb,” don’t make too much of it.
Charles Savage talked with me and told me about all the front runners who were already in cots, starting to drop out, looking like typical “hot year carnage.” He walked out of the aid station with me and I could feel the recovery and strength renewing with every few yards. It was obvious to me that cooling off at every aid station, even if it took a few extra minutes, was going to be critical over the next several hours. I can do this!
One of my favorite sections of the course is the trail from Devil’s Thumb to Michigan Bluff. Passing by the Deadwood Cemetery, the old mines, crossing El Dorado Creek and then hiking up the fairly mellow and shaded Michigan Bluff climb is a rich cut through California Gold Rush history and full of scenic beauty.
Half way down into El Dorado Canyon, veteran WS runner Matt Keys rolled up on me and advised a swim in the creek at the bottom of the canyon. I took his advice and he showed me how to swim while the aid station workers filled our bottles – totally excellent! Matt – I owe you, beers at Auburn Brew Co. anytime!
That swim renewed my legs, knocked the joint inflammation down and made the climb up to Michigan Bluff really easy. As I crested Michigan Bluff, I saw my friend, training partner and ace-pacer Tony Marshall grinning and offering up encouragement.
I rolled into the aid station, not hurrying, but enjoying my first contact with civilization in six hours. Tons of folks I knew were there, including my wife, Milly, and my other pacer Bradley. I got some Coke, a little solid food and set off to hammer Gorman Road. For the first time in 20 miles, I started cranking some turnover as I descended Gorman out of Michigan Bluff. This is what I had been waiting for.
I ran most of the uphill, turned left onto the single track and hammered the downhill. Volcano Canyon wasn’t very hot and I was able to hike pretty hard up to Bath Road where my dad, Mike Skiles, and Bradley were waiting (WITH A COLD COKE!) to usher me into Foresthill – the happiest place in WSER land …
Milly got me through Foresthill pretty quickly. I changed out my gear getting ready for night running, no longer focused so intensely on heat management. She was running a super tight ship on the crew front and it really helped to keep everything efficient and make sure nothing was forgotten.
My kids Olivia, 8, Chloe, 7 and Jack, 3, joined me on a fun trot down Main Street and then Bradley, beginning his pacer shift, and I began the long descent down to the river via Cal Street.
I was really lucky that both of my pacers had completed the race before. Bradley had great insights into how hard to run at various points along Cal Street, which hills to hike and which to run. He also was consistently keeping the positivity flowing.
We discussed the Anna Karenina principle of ultra running. All successful ultras are the same: nutrition, effort, equipment and pacing, all proceeding like clockwork. Every unsuccessful ultra is a unique disaster in its own right – one or more issues rears its head and grabs control of your day. So far, my WS was joyful and smooth – like a perfect happy family. Tolstoy would be yawning, no Russian novel drama here.
Bradley encouraged me to enjoy how easy we were running, how we’d be passing people the whole way in and how he hadn’t ever been this deep in the race without turning on his head lamp.
We finally did turn those head lamps on right before six-minute hill (which took eight minutes for the record), just before Cal 3. I was happy with how things were going and knew that sub- 24 was probably in the bag and that I could start shooting for a faster time.
I rolled up on Rucky Chucky at 10:30 pm. Milly, my dad and Tony were there to meet me, had my re-supplied pack and a yummy sandwich. Tony and Bradley swapped pacing duties.
The aid station at the river is really cool. It’s run by Tamalpa and the lights and glow sticks there are a nice touch.
The water felt great as I crossed, my quads needed the cold comfort and although my feet were starting to feel the effects of all the miles in damp socks, it was nothing like the trench foot at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc last year, so I told them to stop barking.
We hiked/ran up the hill to Green Gate and I felt really solid – ready for the last 20. It was round 11, I’d gone this far against the champ, taken his best shot, been knocked down, landed a few punches – I was still moving; did I have enough left?
Tony got behind me pacing and immediately sized up the situation. “You’re posture is great, you’re running strong, we just need to keep you moving and eating.”
As we ran to Auburn Lakes Trail, we were passing people every few minutes and hiking the ups hard. I was feeling good but starting to get some of the “out of body” experiences where I’m floating above my self that tend to happen to me during night sections late in the race.
The only solution I’ve ever found for this is absurd amounts of caffeine. So caffeinated gels and Coke were the menu to the finish.
During this time, I acquired this cool super power where I could pick out voices on the trail ahead up to a mile that Tony couldn’t hear at all. Pretty awesome! My senses get really heightened during these all-day wilderness trail runs, especially at night.
At Auburn Lake Trails, we passed Jay and Matt who I had spent some time with earlier in the race. They both continued to have great sub 24-hour races. I was happy to see them moving well and I knew it was a good sign that I was still passing strong people late in the race.
The running between ALT and Browns Bar is so runnable – Tony and I crushed it, exactly how we wanted to. The descent to Quarry Road completely sucked, but it was over soon. I thought of my brother’s running coach Kevin McCarey who completed a 20:20 Western States finish in 1990. I remember him telling me he cursed this section profusely and had to get down on his hands and knees and crawl it.
I think I ran more of Quarry Road during the race than I did on my training run – awesome! The American River was bathed in moonlight and was nice to listen too. As we started hiking up to Highway 49, we came upon a collection of folks and it became a cool group effort.
Tony and I kept encouraging everyone to run, hike hard, keep moving etc. We could hear the road before we knew it. Highway 49 (mile 93)! I was sniffing the barn with “Rocky” theme music playing in my head.
I looked at myself going through the Highway 49 aid station on the USLTV feed before I wrote this report and it’s funny. In my mind, I remember myself at Highway 49 feeling really focused and aggressive, looking to close out this run. Ha Ha!!
The live feed shows a totally different picture – I’m aimless, kind of listlessly walking around the aid station before Tony grabs me and shoves me on the trail. After a short uphill, we started running the Cool Meadow, which is full of stars, the moon, clear air and signals the final stage of the race.
We passed several more people on the way down to No Hands Bridge. Because we were really trucking, Tony decided I needed a new goal; to break my time from San Diego 100 last year and get under 22:52. So with that in mind … giddyup!
We didn’t stop at No Hands aid station and ran across the beautifully lit bridge, hearing the crashing American River below us. I reflected on the fact that 20 hours ago I had run through the trickling headwaters of this mighty river across streams and springs coming right out of the mountain 98 miles east in the flower-covered country of the Granite Chief Wilderness.
Tony and I ran the fire road up to Robie as it transitioned to trail and Mark Tanaka shot passed us – Whaaat?! Dude was running like eight-minute miles.
I recognized the nice new bridge on the final transition before the asphalt road up to Robie and it was like the moment Rocky gets off the mat the final time in round 14. “Apollo can’t believe it. These two look like they’ve been in a war.” I was staggering but still moving forward and smelling the barn. Bradley was waiting to escort us up to Robie and I got a good solid hike going knowing the end was near.
At Robie Point (mile 99), we saw Pam Smith above us on the hill – holy smokes she won the women’s race in 2013. It dawned on me how good of a race I was having. Here we go, one mile to go. Milly and my dad met us at the top of the hill. Alright, almost done – get to the white bridge, wow that felt good, and then downhill to enter the track.
Pam Smith was a 100 yards ahead of me, so I had to chill and keep a respective distance. I ran around the track and it was the BEST FINISH OF ANY RACE I’VE EVER DONE. Going back to every race finish line I’ve crossed since the age of 8, nothing compares. Not even close.
Overwhelmed and super-stoked, I crossed the finish line at 22:47 and was joined by Milly, my dad, Tony and Bradley as I hear the booming voice of Tropical John (fellow MIT grad) bring up our favorite T-shirt: “I’m an MIT grad, Let’s just assume I’m right,” which basically sums up my personal philosophy. Milly gave me a big hug and kiss. I felt like Rocky, (I probably smelled like Rocky).
Erika, my friend and training partner, who had an incredible race finishing F9, came over to high-five me. She was floating on a cloud. I’m so proud of her and what she accomplished. No one trains harder and smarter than Erika and she runs so tough and strategically – her race is a great accomplishment.
I grabbed race director Craig Thornley, who was dutifully manning the finish line, and hugged him, telling him this was the most fun I’d ever had at a race and that I loved every second of it. I am so appreciate of the many people it takes to put on this race. There is something like 5,000 volunteers, pacers and crew that make us 380+/- runners feel well taken care of. Huge thank you!
I am always surprised and delighted by how other people’s crew, pacers of dropped runners and other associated folks who just happen to recognize me become my “best friend for 30 seconds” as I go through an aid station or along the course.
To the board and the staff of Western States and all the sponsors who support the race year after year – well done again!! Montrail – I really appreciate being let in this highly competitive race. It so totally great that your reserve some of the spots you get for mid-pack runners like me, thank you so much.
To all my fellow runners, it was so enjoyable to share the trail with you on this awesome Western States race. Most of all to my crew – my family and friends who took care of me all day, paced me and made sure I had everything I needed – thank you. Yo, Milly! We did it!
So there it is: A solid race, methodical run with a ton of joy along the way and no major low moments. I am not the heavyweight champ (that would be Krar), but I did go the distance …
Afterward, I lay on the grass of the infield track soaking it all in. I didn’t talk much, just nursed my beer and reflected on the day I just had.
My friend Ann likes to say a 100-miler is like living a lifetime in a day. I can certainly relate to that. My body felt very broken down, but I felt incredibly calm, satisfied and serene. I imagine that is what an old man feels like at the end of a well-lived life. My friend Karl came in and we congratulated him. He had his whole family with him which was really cool.
About this time, reality started creeping back into my dream state. I felt sick and started throwing up – all that sugar was fine when I was running, but as soon as my heart rate went down my body revolted. I shuffled to the car with the help of my wife and dad and got a few hours of sleep back at the hotel.
When we all woke up Sunday morning, my first thought was that some folks were still out there running, trying to beat the 30-hour cutoff. I felt a need to go to the track and witness their triumphant finishes.
When we went back to the track we saw runners who had run all day, all night and then part of another day heroically rounding the track. Without question these racers completed a much harder journey than those of us who finish under 24 hours.
As the clock ticked closer to 30 hours, the most astonishing finish of all happened, 70-year-old Gunhild Swanson entered the stadium with around a minute to complete the last 200 yards of her 100-mile journey.
The entire stadium roared to life encouraging her to keep moving forward to get under the cutoff. Several other finishers and race winner Rob Krar joined her and urged her to keep going. She crossed the finish line with six seconds to go. Six seconds. Unbelievable.
Gunhild’s finish has become a Web sensation and is the story of the 2015 Western States Endurance Run. There couldn’t be a better example of what this sport is all about. She REALLY went the distance.