by Michael Arnstein
Western States Endurance Run: Race Report
Running the Western States 100 mile race has been on my to-do list for quite a long time.
I knew it was a race and distance I didn’t want to mess around with until I had reached a lot of my running goals in shorter distances. After breaking my 2:30 marathon goal earlier this year I decided that there weren’t too many other running goals I wanted to go after, so I put my focus on doing these insane ultra distance races. I started to train with good focus for Western States shortly after the Boston Marathon in April. I took a leave of absence from my regular job just to put a huge amount of time into running and training for almost 3 months straight. On a weekly basis I ran a 50 mile long, I ran double workouts almost every day, most weeks I was running 180 miles, with my biggest week at 210 miles.
My buddies: Oz, Jamil and Me at the Start
Running upwards of 30 hours a week is a big commitment. You need to eat more, sleep more, and do less of just about everything else. I would like people to think that I suffered a lot during this intensive training, yet to be honest I really thrived on it. I have never felt so ‘strong’ and focused before. To put in regular 4-5 hours of running a day would seem like a prison sentence, or some kind of self torture. But I grew to love and enjoy the meditative effects of running so much. I ran slow in my training. I learned a lot about ultra running. I had many high’s and low’s during my 8 hour long runs and developed a greater depth and understanding in listening to my body and working through the challenges both mentally and physically. I learned more about nutrition, hydration and electrolyte issues during long runs and developed a very dependable system of keeping all systems in good shape. I wanted to learn more about the Western States course, so I flew to California for a 3 day training weekend where I ran the last 70 miles of the course. I got a much better feel for what conditions I would face during the race. After the training weekend I learned to tailor my training to more down hill running. There is over 21,000ft. of elevation loss in the 100 miles of this race and over 15,000ft of gain. So with all that downhill running I needed to learn how to run down hill more and develop very strong quad muscles. I put in many 50 mile training runs at Bear Mt. doing nothing but running up to the top of the mt. and down, over and over and over again for 8 hours at a time. I put in some good ultra races where I pushed myself harder than I was in my regular training. I ran a 50 mile trail race at Bear Mt. about 6 weeks before Western States. I ran a hilly 50km road race. I ran a 12 hour road ultra marathon to see what it was like to be on my feet moving for 12 hours non-stop. In the 12 hour race I felt like I took it easy and didn’t push myself too hard and I still covered 74 miles feeling really good the entire time. I felt very confident going into Western States. I was certain I could run 100 miles if I ran a smart conservative race. I had respect for the distance, I had experience, and I did the work – a lot of work! I had some minor aches and pains through these months of training, even one acute issue in my lower shin area that lasted only a few days and then mysteriously went away. I was well rested the week before the race and all things felt sound and secure. I organized 3 good friends to crew me during the race. Rich and Shaw drove down to California from Oregon and Washington. Mile Oliva who I did a lot of long training runs with in NY flew out with me for the race week. We had a military operation plan on race day. My crew were going to do their own ultra just going from check point to check point making sure I had my nutrition and aid. It was going to be a team effort! We arrived 4 days before the race to acclimate to the altitude and plan all the details. The Race: I was pretty anxious before the start. The night before I went to sleep at about 7pm but woke up at 1:15am and couldn’t go back to sleep. I felt a bit groggy, but was still ok. The 5am start time finally rolls around (I had been waiting for this moment for the last 3 months endlessly!) I went out extremely conservative. I literally walked the first 4 miles from the base of the first climb (6000ft) to the top of the mountain (8750ft) in 55 minutes. I ran over the snow fields very slowly and carefully. I knew I had little chance of running much faster than 17 hours in this race, and my average per/mile time only needed to be about 10 minutes per mile for the full 100 miles. By mile 25 my GPS watch showed my average per/mile time of 10:19, I was feeling absolutely fresh and fine. I was really excited about the race and enjoying the day. I had visions of getting to 80 miles and still feeling really good and running the last 20 miles quite fast. About 5 hours into the race (10am local time) it started to get hot and I was sweating more going up some of the longer steeper climbs. I was drinking a lot and eating dried dates. (I really like medjool dates, they had served me incredibly well all through my training the last few months. I never had any stomach problems and they kept me steady and feeling good for my super long runs. During my 12 hour race I ate almost nothing but dates.) Salt: My fruitarian diet has served me flawlessly in all my training and racing from the 5k distance up to the marathon. YET, I have run into problems continuously in ultra running if I don’t take supplemental salt. In every instance where I have gone on long runs over 4 hours when it is hot out, I must supplement with salt pills (scaps). If I don’t, I fall apart, end of story. This is not something unique to myself. The Western States race actually had a scientific study going on during the race where they monitored runners blood sodium levels. It is a very well known issue in ultra running that runners must keep sodium blood levels or they will shut down. Most runners in this sport believe that keeping sodium levels normal is more important than eating/calorie intake. When sodium levels drop too low disorientation sets in, muscles cramp up and shut down, people pass out and even die. 6 people have died in this race, most due to electrolyte issues (salt). I thought that I wouldn’t need to take supplemental salt pills if I could get my crew team to meet me at the check points with fresh celery juice. A head of celery has about 2 salt pills worth of sodium. The night before the race we juiced about 10 heads of celery and it tasted pretty good. I was excited about the prospect of having celery juice instead of having to take so many salt pills during the race. I was still going to carry my salt pills as back up of course. At 3 hours and 15 minutes into the race I started to feel the onset of low sodium in my blood. Having experienced Hyponatremia (low blood sodium) so many times I know well what it feels like. It’s not a low blood sugar feeling, it’s unique and I know it when it’s happening. I wanted to wait to see my crew at the first check point and have the celery juice, but decided that wasn’t worth the risk. So I took my first sodium pill and literally 5 minutes later I felt extremely good. At about 3 hours 40 minutes I saw my crew and chugged down about 4 cups of celery juice. I really liked it. It was super salty and went down well. I didn’t have any stomach issues from it and felt pretty confident that this was a fine alternative to my salt pills. About an hour later I saw my crew again. I chugged another 4-5 cups of celery juice and kept running smooth. I wasn’t taking the salt pills as usual because I felt pretty good and figured I was getting enough sodium from the celery juice. Most of the top runners take about 2 salt pills per hour if it’s hot and they are sweating a lot. I’ve heard of guys taking 1 pill every 15 minutes if it’s super hot out. It was hot! about 90 or more in the sun. The temps in canyons were reported at 95F, so I was sweating! Things start to go horribly wrong: About 6 hours into the race I meet up with my crew again and drink more celery juice. I’m about 32 miles into the race and feeling ok, but not fantastic as I would hope. My left hamstring was starting to get a bit tight and I was getting worried about it. I stopped a few times and stretched it out, but it still wasn’t getting loose. I thought maybe I should take more sodium pills after a medic at an aid station said my tight hamstring could be from low blood sodium, which is why most early muscle cramps happen. So just to be safe I took a few more salt pills and kept moving. During my 180-210mile training weeks I’ve experienced many aches and pains that come and go. I’ve had so many times where something feels tight or aches and then it just goes, so I keep moving and I’m pretty sure the hamstring will just loosen up eventually. At 35 miles my hamstring is tight, very tight where I can’t run without a significant limp. I can’t lengthen the muscle and take a normal stride without pretty severe pain/stiffness. I’ve never had any hamstring issues at all during my training, I couldn’t understand how or why this was happening so early in the race. I kept thinking that eventually the tightness would go away and I would start moving fast again. My pace drops from 8-10 minute mile to 12-15 minute mile, and I’m pretty uncomfortable running with such a staggered stride. It’s a long long race and I know that I can still do really well even if I have a 2-3 hour bad stretch. I keep thinking that the very slow pace will only translate to really fast running later on, so I keep on moving and trying to remain positive. 10 hours into the race and my hamstring is still very tight. At times very tight, with sheering pain. For almost 4 hours I’ve been limp running and compensating my stride in all other areas. I’m starting to get very demoralized and angry about the situation. I’m sweating a lot in the high heat and I am taking a lot of salt pills by the strong suggestion of the medics who attribute the early cramping to low blood sodium. Almost 13 hours into the race I am still limping along at a pathetic pace. Yet the rest of my body is strong and fine. My quads are not tired at all. If my hamstring would only release I could go into fast running immediately. I’m pretty furious at the situation. I don’t know what to do. My race performance and time is now being damaged beyond repair. I can’t make up the lost time at this point and do well in the standings. I’m very upset to say the least. I qualified as an elite entrant in this race. I was introduced at the race meeting in front of hundreds of people the day before. I was aiming for top 10 for sure. I was one of the guys who was supposed to be way up in the front hammering away mile after mile. The race director gave me all kinds of support and attention, I was one of the super strong guys in this race, yet now I was this pathetic mangled hunch back dragging my left leg across the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.
Big crowd at the pre-race meeting
All the elites getting introduced
I was introduced as one of the top elite guys the day before. Now I wasn’t sure if I would even finish!
I meet my crew at the 62 mile check point and tell them that I just want to finish the race. I tell them that the hamstring is looking like it’s not going to release for the entire race and I’m going to be moving very slow. It’s going to be a long long day and night. I’ve been dragging my left leg/shoe on the ground for almost 30 miles now. It took me 7 hours to go what normally would take me about 4 1/2 hours. I’m worried about causing injuries to other areas of my body that are compensating for the tight left hamstring. My right leg is easily putting in 30% more effort than my left. I’m worried about my left knee developing problems from the tight hamstring pulling on it for such a long time. My left foot/toes are smashed to pieces from kicking countless rocks as I drag my foot along the ground. My running shoes were brand new when I started the race, and now my left shoe heal literally had been scraped off, and I’m actually worried my heal is going to come through the bottom of the shoe soon. At the 62 mile mark you are allowed to have a pacer accompany you for the rest of the race. My crew try to keep me positive and push me to keep moving. So my buddy Shawn heads down the trail with me and he tries as hard as he can to keep me positive. He talks to me about everything under the sun (btw, it’s still hot as hell and the sun has burned a hole in my eyes at this point). We are moving at about 12-15 minute miles, which requires a sustained effort on my part as I limp run like some frankenstein runner.
Me and Richard Gambino at the mile 62 checkpoint
I’m calculating over and over how long it is going to take me to finish the race at this pace. My race day goal goes from trying to break 17 hours to trying to finish in under 24 hours. The day is getting painfully long for me. At 16 hours I’ve had enough of the pathetic limp run/shuffle. For 10 hours straight I’ve been moving in this very uncomfortable form. It was wearing me down mentally, and my right leg was starting to tire after so much time and effort compensating for my left leg. The sun goes down, I’m still moving, it’s dark. The rocks were harder to see. My flashlight wasn’t so great and more kicking and cracking of toes was underway. I was starting to wonder if I would finish the race at this point. I knew that as time went by I would probably slow even more. My hamstring was starting to get worse and of course it never loosened up. At 17 hours we meet up with my other 2 crew guys. I’m at the 78 mile mark and 17 hours on the clock. 11 hours of this time I’ve been moving with a big tight hamstring. I’ve had enough and I start to think it’s it’s time to pull the plug and drop out. I can’t run/shuffle at this point, and my right leg and quads are now getting tired. I was pretty impressed with my right leg and quads for holding up for so long. It was a good experience to see that had my left hamstring been ok, I would have been moving very well for at least 17 hours. At 17 hours fatigue started to set in in other areas of my body. I was glad to learn that from my training before this race that 17 hours was a point were other parts of my body started to get tired. Good info to know for the future I thought! My buddy/crew man Mike Oliva refuses to let me consider pulling out of the race and pushes me down the trail to the next aid station about 6.5 miles away. It’s dark, we’re in the woods, I’m moving really slow, my gps watch battery dies at 18 hours. Things start to get really bad. My hamstring is frozen, I can’t stretch it at all. I’m in a very bad mood. I’m now doing math in my head and trying to figure out if I can still make the 30 hour cut off at the finish line. I can’t wrap my head around moving like this for another 13 hours. It’s just so hard to deal with mentally when you are moving so slow. It’s midnight, I’m still moving nonstop for 19 hours, 13 of those hours in this pathetic state with a bomb that went off in my left hamstring. How did this happen? I literally had run 30 miles almost every single day in training. NEVER did I have a hamstring problem, in fact I never had a muscle cramp ever in the months of mega training weeks. I had done so many 50 mile training runs where I felt really good, I even did a 12 hour training run and never did anything like this happen with any major muscle group. At 30 miles into this race, when I was going at such a conservative pace, being so careful, and then to have some serious issue come up was something I couldn’t deal with. I could run 30 miles in training like nothing, it was an easy run for me. How the hell was I having this problem. It’s like I was out for a sunday drive and some truck just crashes into me, just wild bad luck? Or was it my idiot decison to try something new in my nutrition plan and not take my salt pills like I did in training. At this point I’m putting my very unfortunate race failure on not taking salt pills on a regular basis as planned. The celery water was not enough and/or didn’t work like the scap pills that I had taken all through my training. Me and my pacer Mike Oliva get to the 85 mile mark at 20 hours and 20 minutes. It took us over 3 hours to cover 6 miles. We do the math: With 15 miles to go and moving at the current pace it would take me over 9 hours to get to the finish line. It was highly unlikely I was going to make the cut off. Plus the last 10 miles of the race had some more technical trail and climbs. My left foot was smashed like someone had taken a hammer to my toes from kicking all the rocks in the dark. It was a bad moment in my life. I don’t like to think that I gave up. Yet I almost can’t see it any other way if I’m honest with myself. Sure I wouldn’t finish the race in the 30 hour cut off. But I’m the kind of person who would cross the finish line even if it took me 35 hours, even if the race officials dismantled the finish area, packed up and turned off the lights. Normally I’m the kind of person where ‘giving up’ is never an option. I got a lot of supportive comments from people on the trail that recognized me and knew about my super fast running times at other ultra races that I’ve done. A lot of people told me that I earned their respect for not dropping out, they said most other fast elite guys would pack up and go home a long time ago. But I was a broken man at 1:30 in the morning, moving for more than 20 hours nonstop and 14 hours in some wounded state was just too much at this point. I was experiencing disorientation at times and couldn’t tell if was walking up hill or downhill. I had enough. I tried hard. But I failed. I really did. It’s my burden to live with. I’m still sorting my feelings out, maybe I’ll feel better about the experience in the future. But right now this is a big BIG disappointment after putting in every possible effort and commitment to reach a goal. A big Congrats to Jeoff Roes. Just before the start of the race I told him I had ‘ESP’ that he was gonna win the race. I could sense this guy had fantastic power. I was really sure he was going to crush it. This guy is extremely extremely powerful. His body is STRONG.
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