How to finish Western States on just 17 miles a week training
“Personal trainers and coaches hate him! This 45-year-old man ran a sub-22-hours Western States on just 17 miles a week training using one simple trick! Click here to learn his secret!”
Sorry fuckers, there’s no secret. You can chug proprietary blends of pickle juice and apple cider vinegar. You can wear neon compression socks and breath-rite strips. You can run in sandals… or clown shoes with carbon-fiber springs hidden in them. You can attach electrodes to legs and shock yourself while watching Ginger Runner Live wearing your Altitude Mask. You can do all that shit. But it’s not going to do shit.
But here’s what you can do. You can bust your fucking ass. You can make every workout count… no matter how pressed you are for time. You can sprint up hills like a fucking psychopath. And then you can sprint down them even more psychotically.
You can do push ups, sit ups, planks, and box jumps… in a sauna… on top of a ski resort at 8,000 feet elevation. And after you get out of the sauna, you can hop on your bike and do hill sprints until you puke. And then you can get back in the fucking sauna.
World-renown ultra-runner, Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, is famous for his catchphrase, “100 miles is not that far.” And I think we all agree… the guy is completely full of shit. One hundred miles is that far. It’s hella far. I can’t even drive that far without stopping to pee (yes, I have the bladder of a three-year old).
And so, it was with some trepidation that I stood at the bottom of the ski slope at Squaw at the start of the 2018 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, looking up at the giant snow-capped mountain before me, hoping that my 17 miles a week training would be enough to see me through to the finish line in Auburn.
I’d intended to train for Western States. Really. It was on the top of my list of things to do – right along with picking up my dry cleaning and getting my car smog tested. But life gets in the way. Injuries, work trips, afternoon snuggles with my cat Lily. Suddenly Western States was just weeks away. And so I had to go all “plan B” on it.
My wife Amy joked that I’d probably put in the least training of anyone in Western States this year. I only ran 9 times in the entire month of May, for a total of 84 miles. Not 84 miles a week. Just 84 miles for the month. And nearly half of those miles came during a single run, a 100K race that I dropped out of at mile 37. So not necessarily the most promising build up.
Anyone following my training on Strava probably raised your eyebrows at my short runs ranging from 1.6 to 3.4 miles long with titles like, “Easing back into yogging”. But if you drilled into the details of those runs, you noticed something interesting: they were essentially all intervals workouts with bouts of really hard running… including 35 Strava CRs (course records).
Now granted, some of those Strava CRs are bullshit – obscure segments that I created myself. Like the off-trail, poison-oak covered, tick-infested scramble up the spine of Mt. Umunhum that only four nut-jobs have ever completed. Or the masochistic 10X repeat up the Winfield Cell Tower Hill that only a deeply troubled soul would even attempt.
But mixed in with cherry-picked bullshit are a few stout Strava records that I’m legitimately proud of… and that I had to bust my ass to obtain. The “rocky staircase climb” up Buena Vista trail in Quicksilver has been run hard by some fast dudes including local-legend Mike Helm, wunderkind Thomas Braun, and Italian ultra-running legend Riccardo Tortini. Yet, I am the only nutjob to ever average sub 9-minute pace up that ascent.
But enough about how awesome I am. (Don’t worry, we’ll probably circle back to that again at some point).
How Do U Want It?
Standing in the predawn darkness at the starting line of Western States, close friend (and race bandit) 2Pac and I remind each other of our race plan: don’t do anything stupid. “If you feel you may be about to do something stupid, ask yourself this question,” Tupac suggests, “Is this a dumb-shit decision that I’m going to regret later? If yes… don’t do it.”
“No problem,” I think, “How hard can it be to not do anything stupid?” As it turns out… pretty fucking hard! You see, I have this thing where I have a problem letting anyone pass me. Especially if the person has a bit of a beer belly, or chunky legs. Or if they’re noticeably pregnant. Or old enough to be collecting social security. Or wearing basketball shorts?
“Fuck, I just got passed by a chick wearing basketball shorts!” I gasp. “You must unlearn what you have learned,” 2Pac chides, in his best Yoda impersonation. “But Pac, I’m wearing technologically-advanced, aerodynamic Ruhn Co compression shorts made from patent-pending space-age fabrics (I assume the same material that the space shuttle is coated with), and I just got passed by someone wearing Chris Webber’s old basketball shorts.”
“Don’t do anything stupid!” I silently chant to myself. “Don’t do anything stupid, fucker!” 2Pac loudly chimes in. And so, I take my foot off the accelerator and watch as the woman in two-sizes-too-big basketball shorts sails effortless up the mountain, floating up towards the horizon like a hot air balloon.
“Johnny, I’ve got a something for you,” my buddy Vitor Rodrigues excitedly yells, waving a beer in my face as I crest the escarpment at the top of the climb. Instinctively my hand reached out to grab the can. Hmm, chugging a beer at 9,000 feet altitude just a few miles into the race probably qualifies as “something stupid.” And so sadly, I abstain.
Picture Me Rollin’
Everyone has a favorite aid station at Western States. Some people look forward to Michigan Bluff, where you can grab a popsicle after surviving the grueling climb out of the canyons. Others anticipate being able to see their families and crew at the spectator-friendly Foresthill school. For some it’s the ice-cold river crossing at Rucky Chucky, or the dance-club atmosphere of Brown’s Bar.
For others it’s No-Hands-Bridge, with its promise of glory awaiting just four miles up the road at the finish line. Heck, I’m sure some people even enjoy the remote, low-frills aid stations along Cal Street, which 2Pac refers to as, “the shit-hole aid stations”. Just kidding Dardanelles, Peachstone, and Ford’s Bar – we love you guys too – even if you don’t have port-o-potties… or Hennessey.
My favorite aid station is, of course, Duncan Canyon at mile 24. And I don’t just say that because my running club (Quicksilver Running Club of San Jose) hosts it, and because I received my club’s automatic entry to Western States this year. I mean, even if I wasn’t contractually obligated to say Duncan Canyon is the best aid station, I would still rank it right up there – in the top fifteen or twenty for sure.
It’s always a party at Duncan Canyon. While aid-station captain Kristina Irvin quietly keeps things running smoothly behind the scenes, self-proclaimed “Loudest Man in Ultra Running” Greg Lanctot cranks up the atmosphere (and the amps) to 11 with his own eclectic – and sometimes indecipherable – antics. “Hey bro, do you dance?” he once famously yelled as he stepped in front of a dazed runner who just wanted to get his hydration bladder refilled.
In past years, Duncan Canyon has historically played up the Western/Rockabilly theme – with cowboy boots, hats, and buckles. This year however, we switched things up a bit with a Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame theme. As I run into the aid station, I legit laugh out loud as I weave past Prince-of-Darkness Ozzy Osbourne, Young-Skinny-Asian-Cowboy Elvis, and Non-Descript Aging Glam Rocker (who could be either Axl Rose or Bret Michaels… or just some random homeless dude from Truckee).
Acting a bit like a rockstar myself, I proceed to have a small meltdown when my crew hands me my new bottles which aren’t perfectly in line with my expectations (which I had never actually bothered to communicate to anyone). “Water? Lukewarm water! What the fuck am I supposed to do with warm water – cook some fucking Ramen noodles? Where’s my mother-fucking Grape Gu Roctane John Paul!” I scream at my ten-year-old son.
After much fuss, I eventually manage to sort thing out. I fill two large 24-ounce bottles with sports drink and put them in the front of my vest. I also grab a third bottle (handheld 21-ounce insulated bottle) and fill it with ice water for spraying on my head to combat the heat in the canyons. Finally, I have the aid station volunteers fill the large mesh pocket in the back of my pack with as much ice as possible. “Don’t skimp with the ice,” 2Pac shouts, “it’s so hot out here my gold chain is melting.”
After making a scene and berating my friends and family, I recompose myself and calmly trot out of the aid station. 2Pac flips everyone off on the way out, upset that we had to spend longer than planned in the aid station. With around 20 aid stations at Western States, if you spend even just 3 minutes in each aid station, you’ve suddenly added over an hour to your finishing time!
2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted
Who is Peter Rabover? I don’t actually know him that well, and I’m not even sure how we originally met. But for some reason, he keeps showing up at all my races and telling everyone that he’s my crew. “John, I’ve got your fresh bottles” he yells, holding up two bottles, as I run past with my already full bottles at Robinson Flat aid station.
“How about a foot massage?” he offers, making an enticing hand gesture. “I’m good. Thanks though…. Big Guy” I spit out, trying to remember his name.
All I really know about Peter is that he is apparently wanted by the law in Placer County resulting from a used-mattress-negotiation gone terribly wrong a few years back. Words were said. Mattresses were untied from car roofs and left on front lawns. It was a messy affair. It made all the papers.
“See you at the next aid station John,” Peter yells as I run off. “OK, I guess?” I shrug. “That’s my runner, John Burton,” Peter explains to the uninterested spectator next to him. “He likes Grape Gu Roctane, slightly diluted, with lots of ice in his bottles…”.
Impressed, I spin around and shout, “You just got yourself a job!” And so, I make a mental note to let my son John Paul know that his half-assed water-bottle refilling services will no longer be required.
Leaving Robinson Flat, 2Pac and I fall into a quiet rhythm. The hours fly by as we discuss everything from the socio-political influence of rap music on white suburban soccer moms, to who would win a fight between a robotic shark and a bionic panda bear. “What if the robot-shark was drunk, and the bionic Panda was high as fuck?” 2Pac asks. “Shit, that’s deep,” I sigh.
I’m still pondering the various possible outcomes of the hypothetically shark-panda cage fight when fellow Bay Area runner Franz Dill pulls up alongside me. “Sup white bread, you better check yourself before you wreck yourself…” 2Pac shouts. “Shhh,” I whisper, stuffing 2Pac out of sight down the front of my shorts.
Franz and I exchange pleasantries and jog along, chatting about white people stuff… like whether Mayonnaise or Creamy Dijon Mustard goes better on breakfast croissants. Finally, however, 2Pac can’t take it any longer and pokes his head out of my shorts infuriated. “Come on BJB, let’s bust a cap in this motherfucker’s ass.”
I turn and assure Franz that there won’t be any cap busting. “Not until mile 82 anyway. But if we see your punk ass at Green Gate, it’s on n****,” 2Pac shouts, making a vaguely-threatening gesture with his plastic fingers. Franz runs off head, looking equally concerned and perplexed.
After several hours alone with 2Pac in the 100-degree canyons, I’m happy to finally see everyone at Foresthill. As my son John Paul and my wife Amy hand me two new bottles, I nervously take a sip, hoping it’s not something bizarre like lukewarm pickle juice. But they nailed it this time – ice-cold Grape Gu Roctane.
“Ok guys, fill me in on what’s been going on all day!” I excitedly ask my pacer Loren Lewis and my newly-hired crew chief Peter as we trot down Cal Street. “Well, the investment fund that I manage doing well; we’re looking at 19.6% a year net after fees for 3 years with 25.6% gross…” Peter begins.
“And several people recognized me as ‘Toby’s Dad’ from the tattoo of my cat on my leg,” Loren interrupts excitedly.
“No fuckers, I mean what’s going on with the race? Who’s leading up front?” I ask. Silence. More silence. “Fuck. You’re both fired!” I sigh exasperatedly.
For the next nine hours Loren and I jog along in relative silence, punctuated only by an occasional cat anecdote. “Did I tell you about the time Toby…” Loren begins before I interrupt him. “Yes, you literally just told me that story two miles ago.” More silence.
After an awkward initial few miles where Loren bounds off head of me, sprinting out of sight while I slog behind mumbling profanities, Loren and I eventually come up with a system that works. Basically, it involves me trudging along slowly in front, cursing under my breath every time I kick a rock, while Loren jogs behind amusing himself.
“I spy with my little eye something green,” Loren chirps. “Let me guess… Is it more fucking poison oak?” I grumble, referring to the large branch of poison oak that just wacked me across the face.
“Yep, how’d you guess?” Loren beams. “I guess the good news is that Western States didn’t raise entry fees this year,” he begins. “The bad news is that they saved that money by not doing any trail maintenance on this 18-mile-long section of poison oak.”
“I can’t wait to get to the river!” I shout.
“You want to try and wash the poison oak off?” Loren asks.
“No, I just have to pee really bad but don’t want to stop. So, you might want to make sure you cross the river upstream from me!” I say, half-jokingly.
As we exit the river – me with a much lighter bladder than when I entered – I briefly pause to grab my headlamp from the one-and-only drop bag that I bothered to pack for the race (because as 2Pac rightly points out, “Mo’ drop bags equal mo’ problems”).
Suddenly we see Peter sprinting down into the aid station, out of breath and drenched in sweat. “You doing hill repeats or something?” I inquire?
“No… I just slammed a beer!” Peter exclaims. 2Pac nods, apparently satisfied with the explanation, while Loren and I look at each other confused. Together, we all start making our way up the two-mile long climb from the river to Green Gate, with Peter eagerly filling us in what’s been going on.
“So, Sears is closing another twenty stores in a further sign of mounting problems…” Peter begins.
“Motherfucker! What’s going on with the race? Has Walmsley finished yet? Did he break the course record?” I scream.
“Oh yeah, he finished half an hour ago.” Peter says, checking his phone. “According to social media, he’s on his second margarita, and is enjoying some chips and guac.”
And so, I put my head down and resign myself to the painful reality that I’ve still got another six hours of yogging ahead of me before I can enjoy any Tex-Mex.
I Ain’t Mad At Cha
Due to the heat, my stomach has been running on auxiliary power all day, only able to process liquid calories. And so, aside from a handful of Honey Stinger gels, I’ve been fueling myself exclusively with Mountain Dew and gummy bears. Exhausted, overheated, and perhaps slightly delirious from the sugar, I begin to drift toward the dark side.
“Loren, are we still on pace for sub-24?” I ask, no longer able to do even basic mathematical operations in my head.
“Yeah man, we may even crack 22 hours if you keep this up. You’re moving steady. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You got this!” Loren assures me.
But I’m already in a dark place. Negative thoughts are creeping into my head. The weeds of despair are wrapping themselves around my ankles, trying to pull me into the forest of misery. (Never mind, that’s just poison oak.) If I don’t do something soon, my race could be over. And so, I draw on the one thing that I know can pull me out of this funk and reinvigorate me.
“Do it for Duke Hong! Do it for Spot (the stuffed children’s toy that Duke talks to as if it is a real person… like a weirdo)” I tell myself. “Duke and Spot will probably never get into Western States. Do it for them.”
“Yeah, do it for the duke!” 2Pac shouts encouragingly.
“It’s just ‘Duke’. Not ‘the duke’” I correct 2Pac. “He’s not royalty. It’s not like he’s not marrying Prince Harry or something.”
For weeks leading up to Western States, Quicksilver teammate Duke Hong has been sending me daily messages asking if I’m planning to drop out of Western States so that he can have my spot. “John, looks like you had a rough run yesterday. You fell off the pace a bit there in the last mile. You should probably just drop out of States!” he advises.
“Fuck you Duke! You know Spot isn’t real, right. He’s a children’s toy. A doll, technically.” I would often find myself typing before 2Pac would talk me down.
“Fuck it. Let’s do it for the duke!” I shout. “Shit, I’m with you. I ain’t mad at cha. Got nothing but love for ya. Do your thing boy.”
As Loren and I trudge up the last climb from No-Hands-Bridge toward Robie Point, the lights on the top of the hill start getting bigger and brighter. We’re getting closer. Suddenly I see two figures running toward us. “Hey, I recognize that goofy stride and exaggerated cross-body arm swing,” I exclaim as my son John Paul (who has inherited my ungainly stride mechanics) and my wife Amy greet us at the top of the climb.
Together, we all shuffle down through the neighborhood toward the finish line at the high school track. Several other runners (and their crews) are already on the track and it’s a bit of a clusterfuck. I don’t want to be the jackass dude who outsprints a woman in the finishing chute, but I don’t want to get caught by the guy coming up fast behind me either. Somehow things work out and nobody has to risk pulling a hamstring trying to sprint.
Amy, Loren, Peter, and 2Pac all peel off to the side as John Paul and I weave our way through the traffic on the track, trying to give ourselves a little space to experience the moment. I look up at the clock and see 21:53. Loren was right. Sub-22! Hell yeah.
As John Paul and I cross the finish line together, I realize that it is the first time he has ever seen me finish a hundred-mile race. Hopefully it is a moment he will be able to look back on and fondly recall someday. I know I will.
As I lay on the infield next to the finish line, I close my eyes and try to pretend I don’t stink worse than a dead skunk baking in the sun on the side of the highway. My feet are throbbing with pain and I can’t wait to take my shoes off and throw them away.
“Who wants a beer?” 2Pac asks? “I’ve got Mickey’s. I’ve got St. Ides. I’ve got Colt 45!”
But I’m already asleep, dreaming of vanilla bubble baths and terry-cloth slippers. “Thug life,” I mumble softly. “Thug life…”.
~ The end.
There are many other stories besides my own from this year’s race. Some of them inspiring. Some of them heartbreaking. One in particular has been weighing heavily on my mind. My Australian friend, Martin (Marty) Hack was hospitalized this year immediately after he finished Western States. His liver and kidneys had both shut down and he needed to be put on dialysis. His blood work revealed life-threateningly high levels of CPK (over 300,000), potassium, and creatine. His doctors told him that he was literally only seconds away from death. Thankfully Marty is one tough bastard and he pulled through after spending over a week in the hospital. Way to get that buckle… but please don’t do that again 🙂