written by Meagan Brown on 15 November 2022
The Western States Endurance Run is the original 100-Mile ultramarathon. The race was born in 1974, when Gordy Ainsleigh joined the horses of the Western States Trail Ride to see if he could complete the course on foot, running in place of his lame horse. The run now follows that Tevis Cup ride, departing from Olympic Valley in California, climbing over the mountains and down through the canyons of the Sierra Nevada, all the way to Auburn.
With a permit for only 369 runners to take part each year, with spots allocated from a lottery of tickets, this mythical race is almost a once-in-a-lifetime run for the lucky few whose names are drawn...
I have had trouble knowing where to begin with writing my 2022 Western States experience. It has been quite overwhelming, which seems fitting, as that is how I feel the race itself is.
I had never been too interested in running 100 miles and knew it would have to be something pretty special if I was going to do so but being drawn in the lottery for Western States was definitely very special so I knew was going to do it!
In the lead up to the race there is nothing particularly noteworthy to share about my training; I simply did the work and took runs a little bit easier so I could run a little bit more than I normal do. Nothing glamorous or outrageous. The majority of runs were solo, chipping away in D’Aguilar National Park. Emotionally and mentally I tried to stay quite neutral so I didn’t feel exhausted about the race before even lining up for it. I felt like I could have spiralled into a rabbit hole if I let myself... I mean, Western States!
This year there was an Aussie onslaught at Western States. Among quite a few others, I would be joined by two other local Queensland legends – Michael Duggan and Troy Lethlean. It was very calming to see Mike and Troy’s familiar faces. Simply knowing they were going to be out on course as well felt reassuring. The biggest advantage though was having my husband Sam, and our good friends Jemma Purandare and Chris Hill forming the Team Brown crew.
Team Brown Crew: Meagan, Sam, Jem and Hilly
As it was my first 100-miler, my goals were to stand on the start line happy and healthy. Followed by a goal to finish. I know better than to make assumptions, yet in total contrast to this I had assumed a sub 24hour time would be realistic. I did not know how important that goal to simply finish was going to become during my race.
With 100-miles being such an inconceivable distance, I broke down the race into three distinct sections: The High Country, The Canyons, and Foresthill to the finish.
“I did not know how important that goal to simply finish was going to become during my race.”
Starting in Olympic Valley through to Robinson Flat (49kms) makes up The High Country. The race begins with a 750m climb in the first 7.5 kilometres up to the highest point on course: Emigrant Pass at 2,670metres. A nice way to get the heart pumping! The trail is mostly a wide access dirt road with only a short section at the end single track, where the iconic photos of sunrise are taken. Yes, I certainly did turn around to take in the view! It felt surreal seeing the rows of photographers at Emigrant Pass all wanting to snap the perfect pic.
Weather is such a keen topic at Western States so it makes sense to mention it. All the videos I had watched showed runners mainly starting in singlets. This Queenslander actually found the start quite fresh, so I opted to wear gloves, a buff and arm warmers. I also opted to not start with a head torch – the sun wasn’t far away from our 5am start and with the wide dirt road it wasn’t really needed. We had a "low snow" year and I only stood on one little mound of snow. We also had a bit of rain the day before which meant there was lots of water about and a few muddy spots.
The High Country was easily the most beautiful part of the day; great views, wild flowers, and ridges. I was actually surprised at how rocky and technical this section was. There were more groomed, flowing sections but definitely not as much as I expected.
If you have two crews, they can split up and one can crew you at Duncan Canyon (38km) in this first section. However, the road to get to Duncan Canyon is slow going, and if you have only one crew, the first place you'll get to see them is at Robinson Flat (49kms). Fortunately, Western States is known for its support, and the longest you go between aid stations is around 15km.The first time I would see Team Brown was at Robinson Flat.
The aid station at Robinson Flat is perched on a climb, and hiking in was incredibly surreal. Spotting Jem jumping and waving made me very happy. We had a big hug and she took me to where the rest of the crew were set up. It was a treat to see another local runner Phil Fowler here as well and he snapped some photos that will be memories forever. I ditched my gloves, arm warmers and Buff, picking up an ice bandana and spray of sunscreen in their place. Feeling strong, happy and positive, I headed off into the infamous Canyons.
“Western States is known for its net downhill course, [yet] there is still roughly 4,000m of climbing in the first 100km and 1,500m in the last 60km”
Robinson Flat (49kms) to Foresthill (100kms). It was another long section until I would see my crew at Michigan Bluff (90km), but there were frequent aid stations along the way.
The Canyons are most well-known for the heat. Our year the temperature was set to reach 37 degrees Celsius. The heat however is incredibly dry and felt so different to what a humid Queensland 37 would be like. I was not bothered by the heat in the Canyons, but I did have a good heat management plan. There was around 37kgs of ice per runner available. At aid stations I would douse myself in water and put ice in my bandana and sports bra. I actually got to a point where I was starting to feel a bit chilly because I was so wet and would decline the offer of more ice. The volunteers would follow up with a very surprised, “oh where do you come from?” and not a single one had heard of Brisbane. In hindsight, I would be more cautious with having water poured over me as I believe it contributed my impending experience of mashed potato feet for the first time.
Devil’s Thumb (76kms) receives my vote as the most challenging climb on the course. Here I was starting to think that for a runnable race, there certainly wasn’t much running going on. While Western States is known for its net downhill course, there is still roughly 4,000m of climbing in the first 100km and 1,500m in the last 60km.
The climb from El Dorado (85kms) to Michigan Bluff (89km) was dry and exposed and it was a bit of relief coming in to Michigan Bluff aid station and seeing my crew this time. We had a great rhythm going and it was such a boost seeing their faces. From here it was only 10km until we met again at Foresthill and I would leave with my first pacer. I still felt strong, happy and positive, although perhaps not as shiny as I did earlier.
Foresthill (100kms) was a real spin out. The street was lined with people, tents, cars and they announced runners as they came through. Phil captured a beautiful video of Jem and I fan-girling about where we were. It was, however, at this point my feet had started to niggle. Not having previously experienced any foot problems, I didn’t think too much of it. We sat down in a patch of shade, whacked some tape on my feet, and picked up Hilly – pacer number one. In hindsight, I should have dried my feet, changed my shoes and completed a more thought out foot care routine. Hindsight, of course, is a beautiful thing.
Starting to run with Hilly pacing me was very uplifting, although I didn’t have the capacity for much conversation. He would chat and I would listen. I would say things here and there, but it felt like all of my energy was focused on moving forward. I felt a bit guilty for not being able to offer more.
We did find something that perked me up, though – tater tots! Coming to Cal Street 2 (114kms) I saw a sign that said “Gator Tots”. I was so confused and asked the aid station crew what it was – tater tots! I took as many as my hands could carry as they told me I was running in 17th place and going well. I hadn’t wanted to know what place I was in and my crew were under strict instruction not to tell me! I was at a point though where I really didn’t care. The strong, happy and positive energy had started dissipating and all I wanted to do was finish.
Cal Street 3 (117kms) was one of the best check points of the day. It is hard to pick one though because they are all seriously so great. Here they had music pumping and fairy lights up. It was right on dusk and the atmosphere was fabulous. I could have easily stayed and could envisage others fighting the same battle later. However, Hilly got me some of my new favourite food – tator tots – and kept me moving onwards.
The saying goes that "the race starts at the river", but it was the next section that broke me. That god damn iconic Rucky Chucky River crossing. My feet were right on the edge of being too much and I was exhausted. Climbing down to the river there was a moment where I thgouth I had lost Hilly. I yelled out “Hilly!” and he popped up right next to me. I was definitely unraveling. Hilly took my hand and walked me down to the river crossing and promised he’d stay right behind me.
I always imagined I would be crossing the river in the daylight. But it was dark, freezing cold, and the river bed as full of huge boulders. The water stung every part of my body and I got wet from the neck down. Luckily, my headlamp was on my head and I wsn't carrying a phone because I am not sure what I would have done with it. I was trying to precariously step across the boulders with my feet in agony. I later learned that it is better to drag yourself across with the rope, rather than try to walk. Yep, makes sense now. Hilly chatted to the volunteers who were standing in the water doing three-hour shifts. Some were in wetsuits, some weren’t. It was icy cold so I am not sure how they survived three hours in there. I crossed at a snails pace.
After Rucky Chucky there is a nice big 5km climb up to Green Gate. My feet had finally spat the dummy and I was reduced to hiking from here. I knew Sam would be pacing me from Green Gate and I held on to that for motivation.
At Green Gate (135kms), everyone rallied around. If I was alone, I definitely would not have gone on from here. Sam and Jem were attempting to salvage my feet and told me not to look. Of course, I looked, only to see what Jem so succinctly described as mash potatoes. That wet, white, crinkly skin, which is so paper thin it just tears. My poor feet were wholly made of it! I had a pair of cushioned road shoes to wear from here, but the damage was already done. Even though my feet were gone, I tried really hard to keep my attitude positive. I could control my attitude so I would. Sam comments back to this regularly and I’m grateful he noticed because it took a lot of effort.
“He is the reason why I am here, an ultra-runner. Wait a minute, he is the reason I am here!” – I went from awe to anger pretty quickly!”
The first time I heard about ultra marathons and a vegan lifestyle was reading Scott Jurek’s book ‘Eat and Run’. I have always been a big fan of his and at the Quarry Road checkpoint (I think Quarry Rd…it was all a blur) who do we see? Scott Jurek. To put my state of mind in context, I had thought I’d seen a goldfish and peacock on the trails, I had also started a conversation with a tree thinking it was Sam. To say I was in a vulnerable place is an understatement. At the checkpoint I was standing there sipping on my vegetable broth with my bread, when this tall man with luscious hair comes over and started to explain to me the directions from the checkpoint: “Okay so from the checkpoint there’s a turn you have to take, don’t miss it now make sure you keep an eye out for the signs, can you hear me? There’s a turn you have to take.” I could not speak as it quietly dawned on me that Scott Jurek was giving me directions. Sam came over, who had been having a conversation with Hal Koerner and some old-time legends about being right on the cusp of sub 24, and confidently said “I got it mate” leading me away. As we left my thought process was “Scott Jurek just gave me directions. He is the reason why I am here, an ultra-runner. Wait a minute, he is the reason I am here!” – I went from awe to anger pretty quickly!
“the last 15km’s took me 5 hours”
It was incredibly slow going the last section with Sam. He was so patient as the last 15km’s took me 5 hours. It takes effort to go that slowly. He did tell me we could still push for sub 24 and I did rally for a little. It was too much though and I accepted my goal was to finish. The other Australians started passing me and all were incredible. Sharing words of encouragement, hugs and cheers. There was a lady at No Hands Bridge dressed in fluro cheering for everyone and made me start sobbing when she hugged me saying “You’re doing it!”
The climb to Robie Point was the last of the day and no small climb. I picked flowers and dawdled my way up to meet with Jem and Hilly so we could cross the finish together. Seeing them waiting for me made me well up and I had tears the whole way to the finish line as Jem passed on messages of support. To be honest it wasn’t tears of happiness, rather tears of relief that it would be finished soon. The boys were asking if I’d run the track and at that moment, I thought I physically wouldn’t be able to. Beautiful Jem comforted me by saying I’d done enough and didn’t have to run if I didn’t want to. What do you know though? My feet hit the track and I started to run. Run might be too generous of a word, but I was moving faster.
I crossed the line with Team Brown beside me 25 hours 59 minutes later. Going from a top 20 finish, to sub-24-hours, to just finishing the damn thing. I was happy it was over and felt such relief. They say time heals all wounds and not enough time has passed yet for me to say I enjoyed it. I did enjoy parts and overall it is an incredible event. It has an amazing atmosphere, has a real family feel and does provide a once in a lifetime experience. I am just not sure 100 miles is a distance I am interested in again though.
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