After a second and somewhat predictable failure in the Western States lottery I was having a hard time getting motivated with 2015. I really wanted to do some more 100’s this year following my two flukes at the distance in 2014. For some reason none of the US races were really getting me excited so I turned my attention to the UK.
The Lakeland 100…sold out, The South Downs 100…sold out, The West Highland Way…missed the lottery, The North Downs 100 (didn’t have major appeal but I was getting desperate)…sold out! Jeez, it seems I should start planning my 2036 season already. Us Brits seem to be quite forward thinking!
Turning further afield I decided I might as well throw my name in for the big kahuna. And so with some excitement I woke up super early on Jan 15th to the news that my knees were never going to be the same again after Aug 28th: Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc aka UTMB was on the calendar. And just like that, the stoke factor was re-ignited.
There was, however, a joker up my sleeve. Conveniently nestled next to Silke’s work trip to California was a little race around the Malibu hillside. One Sean O’Brien 100K. A distance I had never raced. A place I had never run. A shot at a Western States spot. Heck yeah.
And so this weekend, Mr Wonka (Western States Race Director Craig Thornley) handed me the proverbial golden ticket with those magic words as I crossed the finish line:
“Do you want to run Western States?”
After 100 kilometers, 14,000ft of gain, two trashed quads and absolutely no beer whatsoever, I signed myself up for the big dance. As they say: I’ll see you in Squaw.
And like that, 2015 just got real.
After finally securing a beer (well, a Corona, but I was desperate) I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with 3rd place, Jorge Pacheco, who also earned himself a spot at Western (2nd place, Seth Swanson’s spot rolls down as he is already entered following his 2nd place at WS last year). I think when I grow up I’d like to be like this guy. CRUSHING IT at 47 years old!!! Seriously, that is more than impressive and very inspiring. I guess that means I can’t start complaining until I’m at least 50.
Anyway, rewind to the actual race. That little thing I had to do to get the Western spot. Well, no surprises here but it was pretty darn hard. My watch said about 14,000ft of climbing which was pretty stout for a run along the beach! Turns out Malibu has some pretty big hills next to the beach.
Nickademus Hollon provided some rabbit duties at the starting line, leading the field along the first few miles including one refreshing river crossing early on. We chatted briefly about his plans for heading to the UK to run all 3 of the classic rounds: The Bob Graham, The Paddy Buckley and The Ramsay Round. Incredibly jealous is an understatement. Some day!
After Nickademus peeled off I found myself leading the first climb of the day along with a Japanese runner who was over here on his international debut. If you know anything about Japanese running then you can imagine my thoughts at finding out that news. I must have been in reasonable shape or he was fostering good international relations as we seemed to run pretty well together over the first 12 miles or so. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I turned my head to see a sleek figure in a blue North Face singlet cruising up effortlessly behind us on the second climb. I hadn’t been able to find an entrants list on UltraSignUp so wasn’t too sure who was in the race and certainly didn’t expect to see Seth Swanson there. The heat was definitely on. The three of us finished up the second climb and cruised into the mile 23 aid station after a rather long quad thrashing descent from the high point to the low point of the course.
Seth peeled out of the aid first after a very swift stop and I decided to tag along for the company. We left the Japanese runner at the aid and just like that it was the two of us for the next several miles. I had been feeling a little tired after the last climb and certainly after the steep descent. I had run to this point with a spare Simple Hydration water bottle tucked into my shorts with a tester of a new product by CarboPro called Hydra C5. This really seemed to kick me back into life and the next two climbs were dispatched without much fuss. Towards the top of Zuma Ridge I put a little gap on Seth and was soon out of sight.
Cruising along the rolling hills of the Back Bone Trail, I really got into a rhythm and was propelled forward by the steady stream of runners from other races that were spread out along the trails. Soon enough I arrived at the aid station marking the separation of 100K course from the 50 miler.
Sadistically the 100K sent us on a 6 mile downhill, ending tantalizingly close to the finish line, only to send us right back up to the aid station before continuing back along the 50 miler course. Ouch. After the neverending quad thrashing downhill into that 50 mile turnaround spot I glanced at my watch for the first time and was surprised to see 6 hours and 44 minutes. 15 minutes ahead of what I thought might be a sensible time to arrive there! I turned around, eager to find out the lay of the land with the chasing pack. Not surprisingly, 9 minutes after leaving the aid Seth Swanson passed by looking in pretty decent shape. I knew I had to attack the next 6 miles of climbing. I did mostly that but for the first time of the day I did find myself taking a few short walking breaks. Maybe 200 meters in total. Nothing devastating but it did put a few extra doubts in my head that Seth would come cruising by. Nothing like running scared to motivate you!
The climb didn’t turn into as much of a slog as I had imagined when I was running down it and soon enough I was running the short downhill back into the aid station. Just as I was about to arrive there I came across Silke who was just headed out! I stopped briefly to see how she was doing. Not bad as it turns out, 3rd place! That gave me a bit of extra motivation to throw myself down the last descent of the day. I managed to keep an honest pace going but it sure wasn’t pretty. Slapping my feet down the steep, gravely fire road I finally came upon the stream crossing from earlier in the day. For a few short seconds of bliss I plunged my way across it, wishing I could just sit down and finish right there. There was one last short climb left and I used some of the other racers in the 50K/Marathon distances to motivate me to attack it. Soon enough I topped out, took one last look behind me to confirm I had some breathing room and tried to take in the final mile or so to the finish.
Crossing the line was, as always, an absolute luxury. After 8 hours and 41 minutes, the simple act of not moving was all the reward I wanted. Until that is, Mr Thornley uttered those magic words. Oh yes, I thought, I get to do this all again, and some, on the big stage in Squaw. The day after my 36th birthday no less! After some moaning, hobbling around, bean soup and something that passed as a beer, I got to watch Silke finish up in 3rd place which was pretty much the perfect finish to avoid a tricky dilema of choosing between Western (which she ran last year, also via a Montrail Ultra Cup spot) and Big Horn 100 which she is already entered for the week before! It seems neither of us are going to be doing much pacing at each others races but we’ll still get to crew!
I’ve found that the more I race, the less stuff I seem to need. I kept things pretty simple for this race, opting for my usual two Simple Hydration bottles. I could have probably just about gotten away with one but I was glad for the extra security with two. I stuffed some gels into my shorts but, as usual, never used them. I used some CarboPro Hydra C5 and regular CarboPro whenever I could get it at the aid stations and found both to be excellent. I’ll definitely be using this going forward. I supplemented with a good dose of potatoes, bananas and the always refreshing orange slices. I did the whole race in a new pair of La Sportiva Bushidos which I had just picked up the previous week. I love those shoes. Both Silke and I shared some drop bags but ended up not really needing anything from them. I think I spent less than 8 minutes or so at aid stations total which I felt was about right. Going into the race, I had though that a 9 hour finish would be best case scenario and would probably give me a good shot at winning so I’m really pleased with the 8:41. That’s about 8:25 min/mile for the race which does seem slightly outrageous for 100K with 14,000ft of gain but then again the human body continues to surprise me. I am putting it down to the beer. Cheers.
Given the race was an Montrail Ultra Cup event with a shot at a Western spot, there was a decent bit of excitement around it. Here are a few interviews following the race. My days of operating below the radar are looking numbered! Luckily I am back in Colorado now where everyone is more awesome than you.
Post-race interview with UltraSportsLive TV:
Silke’s post-race interview:
[This blog post first appeared on Feb 12th on Ryan’s blog: http://www.dirtproof.co.uk/2015/02/sean-obrien-100km.html]