There's been the anonymous troll posting comments on this blog recently about Western States being "the race of my life" and how I'm crazy to be doing other "two-bit" races recently when Western States is only a couple months away. To that I say that my next race is always "the race of my life." No matter how low key and unestablished a race is, the next race I'm running is always where the majority of my focus is going to be. Right now Western States is the most important race to me, but only because it's my next race, and this has me getting more excited and focused on it than I have been all year.
The field this year looks to be even more solid than last year. The top four finishers from last year are all returning; Hal looks to be ready to be a serious factor again this year; Dave is a bit of a wild card at the 100 mile distance but I certainly know that he has the potential to win anything he lines up for; Ian Sharman showed at Rocky Raccoon that he can run with anyone in the world on a good day; Kaburaki and Bragg are both going to be back this year after a year off last year; and among rookies, both Mike Wolfe and Ryan Burch look to be in killer shape right now. Beyond these folks you have most of last year's top 15 returning plus a few other lesser known rookies who could make a little noise (Fanselow, Olmstead, and Loutitt to name a few). It's also worth mentioning that there are no fewer than 3 or 4 women who need to be talked about not just in terms of the women's race, but in terms of potential for very solid overall finishes (Greenwood, Ortiz, Semick - not sure if Kami is actually running - and Garneau to name a few). I think the women's field is so strong at the very top that if a few of them are having good days they could possibly push each other within reach of Ann Trason's "untouchable" course record. In all I think the competition for the top 15-20 places in the race will be significantly deeper than it was last year. Last year you had over a 2.5 hour gap between first and 10th place; a 3 hour gap between first and 15th place; and almost a four hour gap between first and 20th place. My guess is that all of these gaps will be significantly smaller this year. Last year there were about 35 runners who finished under 20 hours. With similar course conditions this year I wouldn't be surprised to see 50 finish under 20 hours. These are of course all hypothetical projections and it's been no secret that there is currently a ton of snow in the Sierras. Depending on what the weather does in the next 6 weeks we could easily end up with the largest amount of snowpack ever at Western States. That could throw a lot of these projections out of whack.
Anyway, back to my place in all of this. Last year I won Western States. This fact has potential to put a huge amount of pressure on me this year. So far I haven't felt too much of that pressure. I'm planning to do everything I can to have a good race, but I think a big part of this will be how relaxed and laid back I remain about the whole thing. In many ways I think my ability to do this has become one of my biggest strengths as a competitive runner. Now that Western States is creeping closer and it now is my next race, I imagine a bit of pressure (both self imposed and through other people's comments/expectations) will slowly creep in over the coming weeks. I think being back in Alaska will help with this. Up here it's really easy to just get out in the mountains and run each day, without having it feel contrived or specific to a purpose of preparing for one particular day that is still almost two months away. Certainly you can "train" in this way no matter where you live, but here in Juneau everything is kind of closed off in an idyllic little bubble, and it's pretty easy to escape the pressure, stress, and anxiety of competitive running (and of many things in life). This combined with the challenging terrain and the thriving running community makes Juneau the perfect place to prepare for a race like Western States. It's so easy here to focus on the next run rather than on a run that is still almost two months away.
As another way of avoiding putting too much focus on Western States I am pretty certain I am going to run the race with no pacer(s) and with minimal or no crew. I think there are benefits to having a pacer and a crew, but I also think that in many cases the extra stress of logistics and preparation that goes into planning all of this can be as much a detriment as it can be a benefit. Especially in a race like Western States where the aid stations or so well stocked and run, and where your crew can really only get to you at 4 or 5 points on the course anyway. I think it was very beneficial to have Dave out there pacing me last year, but that was last year, and that was my experience of that race. This year I want to experience Western States as more of a solo thing and I don't think this will necessarily have a negative effect on my performance potential. It will just be different. And certainly I have had plenty of experience racing long hard races without pacers. Of the eight 100 mile races I've run I've had a pacer with me for about 35 total miles.
At any rate Western States should be a really exciting event to be a part of again this year. It's been fun and exciting to start thinking about it a bit more in the past several days. But it's also really fun and exciting to be back here in Juneau where there are so many enticing places to run that I'm much more excited about where I'm going to run tomorrow than any runs I have planned in the future.