First Western States 100 Sub-24: Race Report

I ran my first Western States and first 100 in 2007 finishing in a little over 27 hours. WS2010 was my second 100 and my second Western States, and my goal was to break 24 hours. To ascend 18,000 feet and descend 23,000 feet across 100.2 miles of treacherous mountain trails during the heat of the day and chill of the night in sub-24, I knew I would have to train hard, much harder than for 2007.

I ran 16 ultras in the twelve months leading to WS2010 and used every race not only to train my body but also to fine tune my stride, hydration, nutrition, electrolytes and feet. My buddies would laugh at all my experimentation. On one race I would have different socks on each foot to test which one was better. On the next race, I would have the better socks on both feet but would have a single sock on one foot and double socks on the other. The following run would have me with double socks on both feet but with Vaseline on one foot and Bodyglide on the other. And so on until 16 ultras later I pretty much had resolved all foot issues other than an unrelenting plantar fasciitis from all the running.

As part of my training, I also ran Miwok 100 a couple of months before Western States. Miwok is a beautiful yet grueling 100 kilometer race well known as a two-times the finishing-time barometer for Western States. My Miwok time put me at an over 24-hour Western States finish, but then I again I didn’t taper for Miwok or for any other race prior to Western States. They were all training runs.

Add to my 16 ultras pacing friends at their 100 mile races, the Western States Memorial Day Runs where two buddies and I continued to Rucky Chucky after arriving to Foresthill from the start around Dusty Corners (for a total of 45 miles), countless number of other 25+ mile runs, 5 to 6 hours a week of weight training, moving to Squaw Valley 45 days prior to the race to sleep at altitude and train in the canyons during the day, two weeks of baking in a sauna for one to two hours a day, a 3-week, high-intensity, low-mileage taper, and the support of a phenomenal crew, wife, son, and 1600 volunteers, and I felt well prepared for my 2010 Western States goal despite being a very average runner.

My wife Trish was at Squaw with me
and takes this picture a few seconds
after the start.

Adrenaline carries the runners up the 2,500 climb from Squaw Valley in what seems to be a blink of an eye.  However, the hour or so that it takes most of us to crest this mountain provides ample time to catch up with old friends and make new ones. I was honored to hike and chat for a good portion of the climb with my buddy Dan Brenden, running with a broken big toe and attempting to accomplish this year the unthinkable record of seven Grand Slams in a row. I also ran for a bit with my much too proper friend and first time WS runner Franz Dill, until he stepped 20 feet to the side of the trail and worked his way behind a tree just to pee. I caught the usual glimpse of by buddy Eric Vaughan, hiking much stronger than me about 300 yards ahead. I was inspired by Amy Palmiero-Winters, running on a prosthetic leg, and was glad we could exchange a few nice words.  But the blink of the eye was soon over, and we had climbed for about 4 miles cresting at about 9,000 feet with the sunrise.

I then proceeded to run/slide over the next 6-10 miles of snow and slush. Here is a good video of that section:

I was just a few minutes ahead of these runners
and using a similar technique.
Video by Michael Cook from seetherace

My hydration pack failed during this section of the course. I would suck as hard as I could on the nipple but no water would come out. At 9,000 feet of altitude, sucking the air from a hose in no way helps running. Sliding on the snow with frozen feet and by now permanently sunken cheeks from all the unsuccessful sucking, I removed my pack and held it on one hand while I tested all of its components with the other. Scores of runners asked if they could help, one even offering duct tape.  I love the camaraderie of ultras and how we use and help each other to run toward our own goals.  After a few very frustrating miles, I discovered that the culprit was the nipple itself. With great pleasure, I tore it off with my teeth and proceeded to drink directly from the hose without intermediaries, kinking and unkinking it to start and stop the water flow as necessary.

Arriving Duncan Canyon - Mile 25
My First Crew-Supported Aid Station
Photograph by Glenn Tachiyama

I knew I was approaching the Duncan Canyon aid station when the trail got rougher. My buddy Eric and 20 other volunteers had been clearing the poppy trail the prior weekend in anticipation of a snow route year and told me that they had run out of time towards the end. While still runable, exposed roots and rocks on the last mile kept my eyes on the ground and away from the beautiful French Meadows Reservoir.

I saw my wife and son hiking to the aid station; all three of us fortuitously arriving at the same time.  This was not their official crewing aid station, but throughout the race from Squaw to Auburn, they would find their way to all aid stations nonetheless to help and support me.  I'm a lucky guy.

I swapped my hydration pack for more dependable water bottles at mile 25, my first crew-supported, aid station. My crew had just arrived there 5-10 minutes before I did, and they were not expecting me for at least another 30 minutes. As a result, they didn’t have everything quite ready for me. I had to fish for my own bottles and food bag as they remained somewhat paralyzed just looking at me tear through their supply bags.  Their next aid-station would be much more efficient.

Video at Duncan Canyon Aid Station - Mile 25

I left Duncan Canyon aid station annoyed and in a hurry and pushed it hard down and up this first canyon reaching a snow-covered mile 30 with a 30-minute time buffer against my 24-hour goal.  My wife had sent a text message to my second crew at Robinson Flat telling them to expect me way early. Prepared for my arrival, I easily swapped bottles with my second crew, drank an extra bottle of Gatorade there, gave them some love, and left quickly to hike most of the next slippery, snow-covered mile.

I had arrived to Robinson flat less than a minute behind my buddy Eric and said hello to him as I made my way from the aid station to my crew stand which was just a few yards further than his. But surrounded like a rock star by his family entourage tendering to his every need, Eric didn’t hear me. I left Robinson Flat before him, expecting that he would catch up with me and that we would run together at least a portion of the 45-mile section we had covered during the Memorial Day Training Runs.

With the snow behind me, I ran hard down and up the next 3 canyons for 31 additional miles during the hottest part of the day. I don't think the canyons reached quite 100F, but it was hot. At every stream crossing, I would dunk my hat and as much of my body as possible to cool off.  At every aid station in the canyons, I would spend a few seconds at their sponge "car wash" and soak at least my head, neck and shoulders with cold water.

Lots of streams to cross and cool off.

Unbeknownst to me, along this time span, my embarrassed Duncan Canyon Crew was struggling desperately to fix the hydration pack and drive fast enough on corkscrew and serpentine roads to reach Dusty Corners, an aid station in the middle of the canyons. With great effort, they got to the aid station on time and hiked all the supplies to a perfect spot. They spread everything out neatly so I could stop and select whatever I needed... new shoes, blister repair kit, first aid kit, water, Gatorade, GU's, towel, TP, etc. They even sent my nephew up the hill to spot me so he could alert the rest; everyone desirous of seeing me and helping me for a few moments. My nephew spots me and alerts the crew. I spot my new hydration pack being held by my brother-in-law and lock my eyesight on it. As everyone gathered to help, like an expert thief, I took the hydration pack from his hands without ever stopping for a second, leaving my crew unfulfilled and agape.

Arriving to Dusty Corners - Mile 38

Video at Dusty Corners Aid Station - Mile 38

Similarly, I would fly down at lactate threshold the steep switchbacks in the canyons passing many running gingerly, afraid of the scree and constant presence of a precipice just to the side of the trail. Most of these runners would then pass me on the uphills. I was running harder than my sustainable ability and consequently I was among runners well above my league.

I think I only passed one runner going up Devil's Thumb, and as I passed him he asked me how long was the climb. "About 45 minutes at this pace," I replied and asked,  "you haven't trained here before?"  "Oh, no," he said, "this is my first trail race."  That's the beauty of running ultras; there is always someone more nuts than you.  I would see this formidable, Portuguese runner again as he passed me back on the hill from Robie Point.

My best sponge bath ever would have to be that at the bottom of El Dorado Canyon.  Just past the bridge, the volunteers had lined up for the runners 5-gallon buckets of cold water freshly hoisted from the river. I spent a few minutes there dousing myself with the most refreshing water ever. After thanking them profusely, I pushed it hard up the canyon arriving totally dry to Michigan Bluff 45 minutes later.

Awaiting at Michigan Bluff was the treat of my thirteen-year-old son who would run with me the short, paved-road section in this runner-friendly town that I had visited so many times during training. I don’t know what prompted me to have both a cup of Coke and a cup of ginger ale at this aid station, but I paid for it with a bloated stomach all the way to the top of Bath Road. My son had two bottles of Gatorade for me as planned, so this deviation from my plan was totally unnecessary.

Eric’s wife and daughter also greeted me upon my arrival to Michigan Bluff and told me that Eric was about 45 minutes behind me. “He still within 24 hours,” I said and asked, “What about Franz?” “He is a little further behind,” they said. We had all trained so hard for a sub-24 hour finish. I wanted all three of us running together.

In any event, Joseph had promised me a poem if I finished in less than 24 hours and to encourage me as we ran together said, “Dad, I’ve already started writing it!” This lifted my spirits and propelled me to Foresthill.

Arriving Michigan Bluff - Mile 55
About an Hour ahead of Schedule
My son Joseph took care of me at this Aid Station
and ran with me to entrance of trail.

I had managed to build a little over one hour buffer by the time I reached the top of Bath Road. My brother-in-law paced me from there to Foresthill at mile 62, where I sat for the first time and rested a few minutes while all my crew took great care of me.

Arriving Foresthill - Mile 62

Video at  Foresthill - Mile 62

My wife shood me out of Foresthill at 6:00 pm on the dot, leaving me with exactly a one hour buffer to the goal.  I picked up Joe, my pacer, at this point and we increased our buffer by a few minutes over the next 16 miles to Rucky Chucky, the largest river crossing of the race.  Aside from the Heed in my hydration pack, I was not able to take any calories during this three and a half hour pounding to the river. Towards the end of this section I could definitely feel that I was running on fumes.

To put things in perspective, at 8 pm, 15 hours into the race, I was somewhere around mile 73, five miles short of the river crossing.  Geoff Roes was about to arrive victorious to Auburn in a new course record.  Eighty runners were ahead of me and over three hundred behind me.

I got a cup of soup from my dear friends at the aid station just before the river crossing.  I volunteered at this aid station in 2009 and had been looking forward to seeing everyone again from a different perspective.  But my head was not so clear when I got there, so I only managed to mutter a few words.  I promise to be more coherent next year when I am there again as a volunteer.

Because of the late snow melt this year, the water was too high so runners were ferried across on rafts.

A one minute ride to the other side of Rucky Chucky.
Photograph by Facchino Photography

We crossed the river about 1/2 hour after sunset and by now my internal systems had shut down. Either from dehydration, exhaustion, electrolyte imbalance, lack of calories, or all of the above, I was definitely in bad shape. The picture at the aid station just across the river (mile 78 - Rucky Chucky Far Side) tells the story. Quite a difference from the fleeting thief in the middle of the canyons, I pleaded to rest for awhile, but the aid-station volunteers and my crew correctly forced me to continue after 5 to 10 minutes on the chair.

Rucky Chucky Far Side - Mile 78
Totally Out of Gas!

I walked slowly up the hill with my nephew to mile 80 (Green Gate), taking frequent and small sips from a bottle with propel. By the time I reached the top of the hill, I had recovered just enough to resume running.  I left Green Gate without a flashlight, so I struggled with my footing with only my headlamp. My pacer would light the way and point to the treacherous areas as he superbly led me to mile 90 maintaining my one hour of buffer.

By mile 90, I knew that the sub-24 hour goal was in the bag as I almost had enough time to walk it in. My pacer wanted to bring me in at 22 something, but I decided that the extra bragging points were not worth trashing my body any further and instead decided to enjoy the last 10 miles (as much as you can enjoy it after 90 miles on your feet). Without any push back this time from my pacer or aid-station volunteers, I had a beer at that aid station and from there on walked a lot, talked a lot, and let most of the dozen runners with whom I had traded places throughout the race pass me for good without concern.

My nephew Daniel helping me at
Highway 49 crossing

Video at Highway 49 Aid Station

My crew was happy to see me relaxed at Highway 49 and, getting no push back from them either, I enjoyed a cup of potato soup at this aid station, much as I did in 2007.  I wish I could remember the name of the volunteer who served me this cup of soup, but all I remember now is that she was the same volunteer who also gave it to me in 2007.  Thank you! Volunteers are certainly the life of Western States.

After a short walk/run to the next aid station, I enjoyed talking to the volunteers at No Hands Bridge, savored their watermelon, and pondered about this epic run as I admired their famous lighting decorations on the bridge -- a rewarding treat that reveals itself only to those arriving under the cover of night. Hal Koener had set up camp at the bridge to welcome runners, and I was honored to have a relaxed chat with the defending champ. I was sorry to learn that he had dropped at Green Gate -- all champions have bad days but, despite this and much as Scott did during his reign, Hal was there to welcome his fellow runners and offer some final words of encouragement.

Video at No Hands Bridge - Mile 97

I milked every minute of my long 75 minutes from No Hands Bridge to the finish, a section that I had rehearsed time and time again on tired legs to cover in 40 minutes if necessary to make my sub-24 goal. As I was half way up the hill from Robie Point (mile 99), I heard the commotion of another runner arriving to the Robie Point aid station and someone saying, “Eric.” My heart jumped at the thought of crossing the Western States finish line together with my buddy Eric, as we had done at two fifty milers earlier in the year --Leona Divide 50 and Lake Sonoma 50. I stopped immediately and began yelling, “Vaughan, Eric Vaughan, is that you?” “Eric Vaughan, are you there.” “Eric, Eric…” But after a minute of waking up those in the neighborhood not already watching the race at 4:00 am, I desisted. Eric was too far away to answer. He was at mile 85 then, connected to an IV bag after having been pulled from the race by the medics due to twelve pounds of dehydration.

With procrastination and all, my pacer and I arrived to the stadium 45 minutes ahead of the goal. The speakers at the stadium announced the dedication of my race to my thirteen-year-old son as he and I crossed the finish line together in 23:18.

My pacer Joe Reis and my son Joseph
crossing the finish line with me.
Photograph by Facchino Photography

My relatively faster pace this year than 2007's 27-hour finish made this run that much more difficult for me. Doubts, exhaustion, pain, wet or frozen feet, heat claustrophobia, and despair were my constant companions along the course. But so were my crew, my pacer, my training, my goal, my wife, my son, and all of you following me online. Ultimately, the better companions carried the day. I thank all of you infinitely for your support and God and my late father and late sister for the safe passage to Auburn.

I did the entire race on one pair of "minimalist", 7oz shoes (New Balance MT100) and didn't even have one blister at the end. My feet were still swollen three days after the race, but ice baths and Motrin resolved that.

My buddy Franz had a tough first half but ran a very strong second half and crossed the finish line in a little over 25 hours.  He would later tell me about his experience passing our mutual friend Eric around mile 80: "It was hard seeing Eric lying on a cot at Green Gate. And the worst was seeing his wife's face; that's when I knew he was really bad. It was difficult for me to leave him that night." With the consummate spirit of an ultra-runner, Eric did get out of that cot and practically crawled for an additional 5 hours to cover 5 more miles before being pulled from the race by the medics.

Dan Brenden, Grand Slam Extraordinaire, crossed the finish line with his broken big toe in under 25 hours and had already completed another 100 mile ultra in 20 hours before I had even finished writing this report.

Amy Palmiero-Winters completed the course in under 28 hours on a prosthetic leg.

Will I do Western States again?  I really don't know. 2010 was a bittersweet finish for me. Perhaps if I am crazy enough to think I can get it done in under 21 hours, have enough time to train, and can recruit my wife, son and rest of the crew again.  But first I have to crew for my buddies Eric and Franz and see them cross that finish line sub-24.


  1. Gracias por mantenernos informados. Estuve pendiente desde lejos en cada momento pensando como les estaba saliendo todo. Nuevamente, felicidades por alcanzar la meta.

  2. If you decide to do it again and will have us crew again, count us in, we are there!! :D xo Lori