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May 26, 2009

Western States Training Camp Report

As strange as it may sound, on some level I was a bit reluctant to visit the Western States course before race day.

Part of what pulls me through long trail races are the series of continual “Oh, wow!” moments as I’m traveling down a new path, taking in all the sights like a wide-eyed toddler going around Disneyland for the first time. I was afraid that some of that race-day luster might fade if I was revisiting places and reliving experiences that I had already been through before.

On a related note … have I mentioned that I’m an idiot?

Of COURSE it was a good idea for me to go to Western States camp – and the more I thought about it, the less sense my little “faded luster” theory made. After all, if you are lucky enough to see the pyramids twice, or visit the Sistine Chapel twice, they would be equally wonderful and impressive both times, right? I figure that the same can be said of the Western States trail – because it’s probably as beautiful and inspiring a creation as you’ll ever see. Throw in the fact that it’s a perfect opportunity to get familiar with the challenges that await you on race day, and it was kind of a no-brainer that I needed to be there.

However, I’m not going to post too many trail photos here or do a standard course review, because I’m filing most of what I gathered away for a race report in 5 weeks. What I will share, though, are some of the more prominent thoughts I brought home after spending 32 miles on the course last weekend.

Western States trail sign

1) These people are crazy

You know the old expression, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”? Well, at Western States camp, that can be modified to read “In the land of a 3-day, 70-mile trail run, the man who only runs one day is a sissy.”

I only planned on doing Saturday’s run, which featured the most mileage and covered the signature climbs of the course, and then returning home to balance out the rest of the weekend being a Dad and getting some chores done. It worked out just fine for me, but I found I was in a very small minority of single-day runners.

Just about everyone was staying for back-to-back long runs on at least two days – and by the end of Saturday's run, I got tired of saying “No, I’m just here for the day.” As challenging as the run was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was taking the easy way out. I wonder what obsessive-compulsive people did before ultrarunning was invented?

2) These people are fun

Without a doubt, my favorite memory of the run will be the impromptu beach parties that took place at the bottom of Deadwood and El Dorado canyons. Temperatures weren’t even that severe – probably about 80 degrees, which is quite mild by WS standards – but refreshing our legs in the cool water proved to be the perfect prelude to the killer climbs that awaited on the other sides of the rivers. The atmosphere at these crossings was a blast, with everybody marveling at how good the water felt, how glad we were that we stopped, and how fortunate we were to be enjoying this day.

Scott Dunlap kneeling by the river

Some of us grabbed a little more enjoyment than others:

Chilling in the water: photo courtesy of Scott Dunlap

Is there a Western States duathlon? Because I felt like could have swam laps in that water all afternoon. Unfortunately, there were still about 10 miles of trail that we needed to knock out, so I eventually dragged myself out of the river.

3) These people are awesome

Given that this was a training run, there was absolutely no pressure on anybody to post a certain time, maintain a given speed, or keep up with anybody else. Consequently, there were some extremely good runners interspersed throughout the course with the rest of us, and people got to spend more time than usual socializing on the trail. Western States veterans shared information about the course, and the newbies kept peppering them with questions.

Lots of time for picture taking: photo courtesy of Sunshine Girl

Throughout the day, I probably had extended conversations with about 20 different people – trust me, this is a HUGE number for a guy who typically keeps his head down and mouth shut in the midst of a 50K. Bloggers and non-bloggers, familiar faces and strangers, runners and volunteers – everybody was fair game for a little bit of socializing.

Best of all, this was clearly a group of people who shared a common passion for the Western States trail, which underscored the camaraderie we enjoyed throughout the day. The next time we’re here, most of us will be worried about course conditions, pace times, and various physical ailments – so it was nice to see that this group of crazy obsessive-compulsives also knows how to get along with each other so well.

4) This is really happening!

The thought that struck me most frequently during my day on the Western States trail was, Hey - I’m actually here! The point was reinforced a bit stronger almost every time I saw a sign.

I suspect that most folks who do Western States for the first time have a similar experience: at first, the race is just a crazy event in some kind of parallel universe. Then you start learning about the race, and hearing about places like Michigan Bluff and Foresthill and No Hands Bridge, and they begin to take on some vague meaning. When you’re entered in the race, you start studying maps, and the names of different sections of the course become increasingly important landmarks: Last Chance. Dusty Corners. Deadwood. Devil’s Thumb. El Dorado. You burn them into your brain, even though you have no idea what they look like up close.

Notice the shoes?

However, it’s one thing to memorize these places on a map, and an entirely different feeling to actually see those names on signs everywhere you look. For me, this weekend was when the idea finally started sinking in: This is where it takes place – and now I’m here. This thing is really happening. And if that doesn’t make your heart race a little bit faster … I guess there’s not much else I can say.

So let’s mark the countdown timer at T-minus five weeks until I get to return to this beautiful area, to share a life-shaping experience with some of the best (as well as craziest) people in the world. I suspect that between now and then, it might be hard for me to concentrate on anything else.

See you soon!


Backofpack 5/26/09, 5:26 PM  

Cool Donald! I know Eric really enjoyed the camp the year he went. Can't wait to read the real thing!

Billy Burger 5/26/09, 5:30 PM  

Can't wait to see the rest of this prestigious course.

Best of luck in 5 weeks. And yes, we expect a lot more photos. Get that buckle!

Jo Lynn 5/26/09, 5:34 PM  

I always say I want to go check out a course before I run the organized event but NEVER do. I always go in blind. LOL And you're right about the "surprise around every corner" feeling. However, I think with WS, I would HAVE to do the training runs. Ha! That's funny! Like I would ever do WS.
Thanks for sharing your experience. ;)

Rick Gaston 5/26/09, 5:56 PM  

You know what, I'm the same way. I prefer to see the course on race day. Hahaha, yeah I would have felt like a sissy too had I only done one day. I've actually never done any of these WS training runs, even when the year I did States. I'm big on the socializing aspect and your report makes me want to do these training runs next year, States or no States. I remember so little from the time I ran it that I need to familiarize myself with the course again. You are on your way!

Gretchen 5/26/09, 6:12 PM  

Yes, wise move to run the canyons before race day.

Now that I see everyone's posts about the weekend, it does make me a bit jealous that I wasn't actually running that day. Then I remember that I drive down there to run all winter and by this time of year I have the best running in the world (except maybe for Sunshine Girl's) right out my back door. Oh yeah.

But, of course, it's the whole "these people are crazy/fun/awesome!" that is the best part. I am in full agreement there.

Glad you had such a great day, good seeing you, and good luck with the rest of your training!

Pete 5/26/09, 9:58 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pete 5/26/09, 10:00 PM  

Cool stuff. Best of luck with your training over the coming five weeks!

Jean Pommier 5/26/09, 11:22 PM  

Very nice write-up, thanks for sharing your perspective. Like Gretchen, I wish I was there, but managed other priorities over the weekend (doing my own "crazy" camp in the Bay Area).

See you on D-Day and take care in the meantime,

Farther Faster

Alisa 5/27/09, 10:23 AM  

Beautiful! Can't wait to see the rest of the course. Looks awesome and gruling.

Catherine 5/27/09, 10:02 PM  

I have to agree about the socializing. I also am usually a head down, don't talk to anyone on race day but I found myself talking to everyone and sometimes for a long time. It was a truly enjoyable experience and you describe the mystique of the trail and event so well. Good luck in 5 weeks. I'll be thinking of you from the Leadville training camp.

triguyjt 5/28/09, 3:19 PM  

Buckle !! Buckle!! Buckle!!!

I am like you..I don't like to get too crazy about a course before I race (my speed of course)it...

this bit me in the butt in the first ultra, as I went the wrong way on one loop for about 200 confusing yards... but alls good in the neighborhood!!

Rainmaker 6/7/09, 5:11 PM  

That's awesome, and it looks so much more relaxing that what I would envision a tri-camp would probably look like. You get to just run, just need the bare essentials. None of all the extra junk that comes along with tri's.

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