Friday, June 29, 2007

Lon Freeman's Western States 100 Experience

Lon Freeman (interviewed here) was kind enough to let me post his write-up of his Western States experience below. As he said in his e-mail, "I would like to share my experiences in hopes that others can learn from them...that's the great thing about this sport - we're all in this together". Thanks, Lon!

(Lon rounds the corner at Michigan Bluff, photo courtesy of Terry Rice)

Friends -

It was an awesome day for most of the day. Justine (girlfriend), Dave (crew chief), Terry (pacer), Mark (pacer), and Granger (Terry's friend) did a terrific job crewing and pacing and despite the really LONG day, it was a lot of fun. The course was perfect, there was no snow, and the weather hasn't been that cool in quite a few years on Western States day.

Before I go any further, I should say that I'm healthy and did not have to drop due to injury. If you want the punch line, at the end of this email are the main things that contributed to the drop. But, first a blow by blow of the race from my perspective.

5am – The start is very cool since it is barely daylight and 400 people charge up a ski slope out of Squaw Valley . We climb from 6200 ft to 8700 ft in the first 3.5 miles, which is an "interesting" way to start the day. My fears of getting boxed in were quickly dismissed when about 20 people separated from the large group about 100 yards up the first fire road. By the top of the climb, there were 5 of us who were out front by about 50 yards.

From here, we started a long rocky descent to the first aid station. The eventual winner, Hal, took off, never to be seen again. This guy is tall and has some serious downhill skills. Next were the guy from Korea , a guy from Switzerland , and me. After going through Lyon Ridge at M10.5, I knew we were all running a little fast for that early. Korean Dude took off and Swiss Dude stayed about 100 yards ahead of me.

Swiss Dude and I left the next aid station together and I basically got about 5 yards behind him and enjoyed his pace. We came into Duncan Canyon at M23.8. I got to see Justine and Dave for the first time (and got to change into my cropped shirt to keep cool) and that was a great mental boost since it had been over 3.5 hrs, and we were all wondering/hoping they wouldn't have car trouble.

(Lon at Robinson Flat, complete with gladiator top; photo courtesy of Terry Rice)

Once again, Swiss Dude and I left close to each other and I was surprised when we ran up to Korean Dude. The three of us stayed within 25 yards of each other for the next hour to Robinson Flat. This was incredibly fun for me because I very rarely run with other folks on training runs, and since none of knew the other's native language, we didn't have to get out of breath talking about where we were from or how we were doing.

Robinson Flat is the first major at M29.7. Terry, Granger, and Mark were waiting for me at this station, and since Swiss Dude and Korean Dude did not have a crew here, they took a few extra minutes getting aid while I was able to grab fresh bottles and go. I felt really comfortable at the point because I was within 3 minutes of my projected time for this aid station and I had run the next 70 miles in two separate training runs earlier in June. I mean, I was basically in the home stretch at this point!

By the time I reached Justine and Dave a little over an hour later at Dusty Corner's, I was starting to have some cautionary thoughts. My quads were beginning to act up and say "Hold on, are you sure we agreed to do this?" I attributed the bad thoughts to altitude and counted on feeling better once I got down below 5,000 ft. After Dusty Corner's at M38, the course starts into a series of three difficult canyons. I was feeling quite good for the next hour because much of the trail was in the shade and slightly downhill. On the way into the bottom of the first canyon, it's kind of like running down steps with gravel on them…for a little over a mile.

Devil's Thumb is a 25% grade climb for close to 2 miles to get out of the canyon. It is gorgeous, but it is also very hot, and there were at least 10 photographers at various stages of the climb. It's when you're starting to overheat from the climb and trying to stay cool and you start thinking, "Great, I'm SO glad this is all being documented, I look just terrific right now". At the top of the climb, I took a good three minutes trying to cool off, pouring ice water over my head.

(Lon cools off in the river crossing;
photo courtesy of Luis Escobar - be sure to see all of his amazing WS photos here)

I also started drinking Pepsi (the caffeinated drink offered by the aid stations this year). The caffeine gave me a good boost, but it was really early to start using it at only 7hrs 40 minutes into the day. The next 8 miles involve a 5 mile descent as if you're running down an overpass with switchbacks and steep edges, for 5 miles. The 3 mile climb out of El Dorado Canyon is shaded and very difficult, but easier than Devil's Thumb, and thankfully had fewer photographers!

Coming into Michigan Bluff at M55.7 was great. Having been at this aid station 3 different times on race day as a crew member for other runners, I had always wanted to be running into the aid station to meet my crew. And, to be in second at that point in the day was icing on the cake.

(photo courtesy of Tom Riley, from the great photo journey he kept of his brother, Jeff, getting M9 this year)

I felt surprisingly good coming out of the canyon and getting to see everyone after 3 hours of being out of contact with them gave me a sense of "okay, we're moving into the afternoon now, but, we're still feeling good and the worst of the climbs are over".

Between Michigan Bluff and Foresthill, something that has NEVER happened to me during a trail run, let alone a race…I was moving along enjoying some shade and saw a folded $10 bill on the trail. What? I stopped and got it, why not. Not 50 yards later, there was a folded $5 bill. Huh? I got that one, too. We later joked that Hal, the lead runner, had dropped these and was tipping aid station volunteers as he went along.

Foresthill at M62 is by far the biggest aid station because you can easily drive right up to it. Dave and Granger had fresh bottles and socks waiting for me and Justine, Terry, and Mark got to run with me for about a mile going into the aid station. It was so much fun being able to hear about their day so far and getting all these thoughts out of my head that had been piling up. It was like "Oh, I haven't seen you guys for so long, I have so much to tell you". I dunked my head in our water cooler and Justine, Terry, and Mark ran with us for another half mile until Terry and I left the main road.

Terry would pace me down to the River. And, the next 16 miles are essentially the make or break point in the race. They're primarily down hill and if your quads are sore, it hurts. But, if you can hold things together and get to the River crossing without too much damage, then things are looking good.

It was at this point that I started to hear my quads talking even louder. This was not a good sign. There are three aid stations on the descent, and the first one is run by a running club from Davis , CA (where I went to grad school) and there were a couple of familiar triathletes from the Davis Mad Cows Triathlon team working the aid station. It was a great surprise to see people I knew. I dunked my head in their sponge bucket and we headed out.

I felt like I was starting to overheat, so we slowed down quite a bit and at this point, I realized that my strategy of a liquid diet for the entire day was beginning to have, how should I put this, "ramifications". My stomach was slowly shutting down and nothing tasted good. Two runners went by and at the next aid station, we spent a good 5 minutes drinking more Pepsi and cooling off.

(Lon tackles the downhill, photo courtesy of Tom Riley)

There is a steep 2 mile downhill stretch next and it's easier to run it hard than to gingerly step through it to avoid hurting the quads. Terry and I ran down very fast, but by the bottom of it, my quads were at Defcon 1 and I was beginning to question this "fun day" on the trails.

We made it to the river, after being passed by 2 more runners. I was slowly settling into a shuffle at this point and I was really looking forward to the River crossing which is a highlight of the race. The water felt great and I was really dreaming about doing a sprint triathlon right then, instead of going another 22 miles through the remaining canyons. On the climb up to Green Gate, the last bit of life oozed out of my quads. I took in about 24 oz of Mountain Dew on the 25 minute walk up the hill, but by the top, deep down, I knew things were bad.

However, in the spirit of this race, things get bad, and they usually get better, so it's best to ride out the bad patches. Mark took over pacing duties and told some great stories. Despite his best efforts to keep me cool and keep me moving, I was falling more and more behind on my calories and my stomach was almost locked up. I wasn't bloated, just not open for business. It was 5.4 miles to the next station and about midway, I started to feel really light headed.

(Lon up close, photo courtesy of Luis Escobar)

Again, Mark was great telling me to keep moving and this would pass and we could re-evaluate everything and take some time at ALT. But, with about a mile to go, the last fumes were burned and I was starting to have visions of passing out and Mark having to carry me to ALT and that's just not fun at all.

So, back to my three goals, 1. Stay Healthy, 2. Have Fun, and 3. a top ten finish. With my place goal now out of reach and with the fun factor completely gone, I wasn't messing around with the stay healthy goal. It was a very easy decision to be totally done. The medics checked my blood pressure, pulse, and blood sugar and said basically, "Oh, you're fine, you just need to eat" OH, REALLY?!?

Fortunately, there was a massage therapist here that set up his table and worked on my quads for about 20 minutes while I got my blood sugar up and then we got a ride up to Cool where Justine, Dave, Terry, and Granger were waiting to head back to the finish line.

Overall, I'm not disappointed at all. I knew there was a significant chance this would happen given my very deep and strong effort output at Mi-Wok seven weeks ago. Basically, two major things came into play.

I race only with liquid nutrition whether it's fluid replacement drink, energy gels, or liquid meal replacement. But, in a 100 mile run at the intensity of Saturday's pace, some solid food would have been a good idea. At some point in the day, my system was full of liquid and stopped processing everything as efficiently. I had to slow down my intake, but kept my output at the same level. This put me at even greater risk of running out of gas….more a question of "when" instead of "if".

Training all spring, tapering, and peaking specifically for Mi-Wok (which was only a 62 mile race), and then racing as fast as I did there took a huge toll on my system. It was rather foolish to think I could hold up to that standard of running over 100 miles only 7 weeks later. However, running that fast at Mi-Wok was the only way to get into Western States, so there was not much choice. This put a substantial risk on running out of gas at WS.

So, the good news is that we all had a great time and I have no regrets about the way I raced or dropping at ALT. I learned much more by racing the way I like to than by holding back to the point of being overly conservative and not competitive. And, it only took about 12 hours to start the "…hmm, next year, I think we could do blah blah blah differently". That's a good sign.



  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Lon. I saw you coming through at Forest Hill while I was waiting for my runner and you looked good.

    Hey, at least you got $15 towards next year's entry fee :)

    Take care,

  2. Lon did an amazing job at Miwok with his course record; no surprise he wasn't at his peak just 7 weeks later. Still, I applaud his courage to know when to quit. Greg Crowther got all kinds of crap in the comments on his RW entry about not quitting - people just have to see that it's not a bad outcome to drop if you are going to do your body harm. Lon will be back, no doubt.

  3. Haha, I loved this: "since none of us knew the other's native language, we didn't have to get out of breath talking about where we were from or how we were doing."

  4. Thanks for posting Scott, great stuff.

    Yeah Lon was my pre-race favorite, and I followed along throughout the day via the read his own open/honest account of the day is definitely insightful and much appreciated.

    I'm sure he will find great success with the race in years to come, no doubt.

    Will G.

  5. Nice write up! I think I've learned more from everyone's WS Race Reports on better fueling, training, and nutrition than any of the books I've read on improving endurance.

    Hey Scott, any chance that you'll talk to Hal Koerner? I'm still suprised that there was no mention of him anywhere before the race started as a potential winner.

  6. Thanks, Lon and Scott, for sharing. I agree with Jon that from this year's reports I learned a big deal of many things potentially working and non-working in a 100 that I could dial into. I find it interesting that both Lon and Greg G. put hard effort at MiWok as a big "stopper" for their WS performance. Wasn't Jurek racing MiWok every year before WS? I heard he didn't "give it all" at 100k, but still, he won and placed every time, right? There is also Karl who races a 100 every month...what is interesting is that many can only be "hot" a couple of times a year, and many "race their selves in shape". But then again, there was a talk on the list about what could be achieved if those "racers" didn't race so often...I am just curious.
    Also interesting statement about neccessety of addidng solid food to liquid calories. Something to think about.
    Thanks again, guys, great run and great interview.

  7. Lon will be back and have some great 100's. My take, and I don't claim to be nearly as fast as Lon, is that even if you have tons of experience in other arenas, 100's are a learning process. I have found that most people of solid endurance backgrounds can really race hard for 50 miles or so. In a 100K, at 50 miles, you can smell the barn and muster up another 12 miles without too much problems. In a 100, you have another 50 miles which is a major mental hurdle. I call it the "100 mile" shock. Most people get it in their first 100. Most likely, you are going to suffer in that last 40 miles or so, and its not fun. It sounds like Lon really wanted the win or a top finish and just finishing wouldn't have been worth it. He probably made the correct decision. Similarly, my quads were completely trashed by the end of the race. I saw my projected 18 hour finish slip away as I just had no downhill legs left. I ended up puttering in for a 19:20 finish. I did do severe damage and had a CPK reading of 90,000 (highest recorded in race) and spent much of the next two days in hospitals being VERY close to kideny dialysis. So, in my opinion, Lon did the right thing and pulled when things got ugly. I think next year he'll be ready for the mental second fifty and will do really well. Obviously, just my opinion.
    Rod Bien

  8. I am really curious to what Jurek and Trason did between Miwok wins and WS 100. I think the 7 or so weeks would be enough to fully recover from the trauma done to the quad muscle cells(some would say that kind of race is in fact needed training)7 weeks out from the race.

    My theory is that both Greg Crowther and Lon did long training runs between Miwok and WS 100 that prevented full recovery of their quad muscles. Then race day both battled hard but were undone.

    Did Jurek and Trason run anything hilly & beyond 30 miles between Miwok and states? If so how many...just one? two? Or does it have more to do with Lon and Greg being newer to the 100 mile distance? Does quad invincibility take years to develope?

  9. Scott, thanks so much for posting this, and Lon, thanks for sharing!

    After Lon's win at Miwok, like Will, I was also following him on the webcast and was sorry to see when he dropped.

    It was really nice to read the whole story and hear what happened. Plenty of things for everyone to learn (or be reminded of) for running 100. A good reminder too that even the best sometimes DNF, and that's as much a part of the sport as anything else for most people.

    Thanks again!

  10. Scott, thanks for the incredible postings... I check your blog daily and truly enjoy reading up on the world of running. I am a somewhat newbie runner (just really getting back into after having a baby!) and currently have a running/informational blog for a retail licensee of New Balance, Thank you again! I hope to hear a comment soon!

  11. I think the 'quad invincibility' you mention, Greg, does have a lot to do with experience and running style in addition to recovery time. I think it takes awhile to develop it - and some people may never develop it given their 'constant breaking' downhill style that Greg talks about on his blog.

    And I agree with you, Rod, that hundred milers are a different animal from 50s or 100 Kms. Lon ran so well in his first one at AC to finish 4th in 20:30-something, so he obviously can do it - but you're right that it's a long way to 'hang on' and finish when you start having problems. Wow - glad that you're doing ok. I had a voicemail message from Rob regarding you, but didn't know the outcome. Take good care of yourself!

    Thanks, as always, Scott, for the great blog!


  12. Thanks for sharing, Lon. So many lessons to learn in each ultra, no matter the experience. And very specific ones as you push the envelope to this level. I had bet on you on Greg's blog, I'll do it again next year if you can manage to get in! And not injured again in the meantime. Train safely...

    Jean, Farther Faster

  13. Not only 15 bucks, but some kick-ass photos looking very lithe and athletic. How do I get Luis Escobar to photograph me looking so? (I usually look like a skinny dork...)


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