preparing for western states

How CTS Coaches Prepare Athletes for the Unique Demands of Western States

 

By CTS Coaches Jim Rutberg,
with information from 10-time Western States Finisher
and CTS Ultrarunning Coach Andy Jones-Wilkins

Developing fitness is just one component of preparing athletes for the iconic Western States Endurance Run (WSER). Every ultramarathon has unique challenges, course features, weather concerns, and logistical complications. In addition to working with WSER Champions, first timers, and everyone in between, CTS Coaches have extensive experience with WSER as competitors, volunteers, crew, and pacers. As a result of the depth and breadth of their expertise regarding the race, here is how CTS Coaches are helping athletes make the best choices before and during WSER.

Recommendations For Final Two Weeks Before Western States

Two weeks before Western States, an athlete is as fit as they are going to be for race day. It’s time for a taper (described here) to reduce training load, recover from fatigue, and allow race-day form to emerge. Specifically related to Western States, but also applicable to any ultramarathon featuring hot weather, athletes should continue heat training during this period, right up until the final days before the race. Useful physiological adaptations from heat exposure occur quickly but also degrade quickly.

Beyond executing a training taper and continuing with heat training, CTS Coaches recommend that athletes take steps to minimize lifestyle stress, or at least avoid taking on new projects at home or work during this period. Similarly, we recommend athletes stick with established habits for sleep, diet, hydration, and daily activities. Keep doing the things that got you to this point; don’t change them just because the big event is approaching.

Recommendations For Final Days Before Western States Start

Traveling to WSER can be a long and stressful process for athletes, often made more complicated by coordinating travel with family, friends, and crew members. The two or three days before the start of WSER can make or break an athlete’s race based on how they engage with the hype and crowds in Olympic Valley. To help athletes make the best decisions for themselves, CTS Coaches recommend:

  • Create and stick to a personal schedule: There are some requirements, like picking up bib numbers and attending the pre-race meeting. But athletes should also schedule eating times and locations, the amount of time they want to spend exploring the expo, etc. Athletes who don’t manage their time and energy well in these final days start the race more tired than they should.
  • Maintain confidence in your pre-race decisions: Everybody in Olympic Valley has opinions on what they’ve done to prepare and what they plan to do on race day. It’s okay to listen to those opinions and have conversations about strategies and equipment choices, but CTS Coaches advise athletes not to change their individual plans right before the race.

 

Major Decisions Before Race Day

By the time athletes, support crews, and pacers arrive in Olympic Valley, race-day strategies and crew plans should already be in place. Some of the major pre-WSER decisions that CTS Coaches help athletes navigate include:

  • Who is going to the race start? Depending on the number of support crew members and whether an athlete has one crew or two, it may be wise for crew members to leave Olympic Valley before the racers leave the start line.
  • Where are support crews going to meet their runner? There are 20 aid stations on course, but support crews can only work with their runner at a limited number of locations. Devising a crew strategy includes forecasting an athlete’s pace and understanding the driving distances between aid stations, plus logistical challenges like shuttle busses or hikes from parking areas to aid stations. CTS Coaches will be supporting more than 20 CTS Athletes during the 2024 WSER, which necessitates a prolonged presence at multiple aid stations simultaneously.
  • Where will a runner first pick up a pacer, and where will pacers subsequently switch? There is no one-size-fits-all pacer strategy, but individual runners need to create a firm but flexible plan before the race. Runners can pick up a pacer at Forest Hill aid station (Mile 62), unless they reach Michigan Bluff (Mile 56) after 8 PM, at which point they can leave Michigan Bluff with a pacer. Runners can utilize multiple pacers, but only one can run with the competitor at a time (except for a few spots where supporters can accompany a runner, see pacer rules). And pacers can be changed at Foresthill aid station, Rucky Chucky river crossing (both sides), Green Gate aid station, Pointed Rocks aid station, and Robie Point.

preparing for western states - pre race meeting


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Recommendations For Managing the Course

The course for Western States is the same every year, so runners have developed a deep understanding of landmarks, anticipated changes in temperature, and various performance and pacing cues based on locations on course. The same is true for experienced competitors at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), Hardrock 100, Leadville 100, and other races that use defined courses year after year. The CTS Coaches’ full list of course-specific recommendations for WSER is too long for this article, but here are two examples:

  • “Don’t run the escarpment”: The first four miles of WSER climbs 2500 vertical feet up the escarpment to reach the high point of the race at 8900 feet above sea level. In the excitement of the race start, many runners go way too hard in these opening miles and pay a big price for it later in the race.
  • “Don’t let your ears deceive you”: There are two sections of the course where your ears can deceive you. Runners often misjudge how long it takes to get from the Cal 3 aid station to the Rucky Chucky river crossing because they can hear the river long before they reach the crossing. Similarly, there’s a climb up to the crossing of Highway 49 before another climb that leads to the aid station at Pointed Rocks. People misjudge the climb before the road crossing because they can hear traffic echoing through the nearby quarry.

western states runner


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Recommendations for Avoiding Common Race Day Mistakes

After months or years of preparation, all that’s left is for the athlete to execute on their race plan and have a great run at WSER! Of course, the duration, distance, weather, and exertion mean that no ultramarathon goes exactly as planned. Preparing athletes to deal with adversity is one of the most important components of coaching. Here are a couple of WSER-specific recommendations coaches give athletes for hopefully avoiding race-day mistakes:

  • Make sure you carry enough water in the first 30 miles: The aid stations are farther apart than later in the race, and the morning temperatures can rise quickly. It is easy to get behind on hydration if you carry too little water between aid stations.
  • Pay attention to foot issues early: There are footcare professionals at every aid station. Take advantage of their skill and expertise. Don’t be in a rush or think you’re wasting time getting your feet taken care of. It’s time well spent and can make the difference between finishing, failing to meet a time cut, or having to drop out from discomfort.

Obviously, this article only scratches the surface of the Western States-specific guidance CTS Coaches provide to CTS Athletes. For all athletes headed to Olympic Valley for your own WSER journeys, we hope there’s information here you’ve found helpful. #SeeYouAtStates

Comments 2

  1. As an older runner living in a relatively flat area, I would recommend your coaches incorporate much more leg strength work in the training program. At 63 years old, I was a Golden Hour finisher last year but my limiting factor was definitely my leg strength. My legs fatigued long before my aerobic system red lined. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Post
      Author

      I appreciate your feedback but respectfully disagree. For context, you worked with one of our coaches for two months (Jan – March 2023) before deciding to do your own thing, then went and ran a net downhill ultramarathon at the end of June where the known risk of blowing out your quads is very high. We’re very happy you finished Western States, but pacing, nutrition, and hydration strategies are contributing factors to the muscle fatigue athletes experience on race day, likely a combination of all three. Could more strength training have made your race day better? Maybe, maybe not. And that’s why working with individual athletes is so interesting! Every athlete is unique, so my colleagues and I will continue creating individual, long term plans that address each athlete’s specific strengths, weaknesses, goals, and training availability. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

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