I ran down to the river’s edge and a volunteer quickly buckled the life vest on and I plunged into the river without a second to spare. Hand over hand as I grasped the rope and quickly pulled myself across laying on my side, body fully submerged to get my core temperature down. The volunteers stationed in the river on the rope line reminding the whole way “hand over hand.”
With temps hitting over a 100 in the American River Canyon and 78 miles on my legs, the cold river felt like heaven at the Rucky Chucky crossing. I was now in 7th and had not been able to shake Scotland’s Paul Giblin since I passed him just after Cal Street. Still only a minute back, I could see him and his pacer lurking. I had made a pact with myself on the way to the river, I hadn’t been passed since mile 25 and no one was passing me to the finish.
Crossing the finish line with my 3 kids. Photo by Matt Trappe.
A Special Connection
Western States is a unique race for me personally. It was my first 100 in 2002. It was my induction into the tight-knit community of ultrarunning. At that time in 2002, I had casually been dabbling in ultras. I’d run three 50Ks, a 50 miler and a 100K in the 15 months leading up to my first 100. I saw myself “playing around” in ultra trail races, something to mark off a life bucket list. Also an avid mountain biker and climber, I dabbled in running to stay leaner for climbing and exercise the dog before stumbling into the sport in 2001. I didn’t identify myself as a runner until States in ’02, it was the pivotal experience that made me identify myself as an runner and more specifically — an ultrarunner.
In 2002 I ran just under 24 hours — 23 hours and 38 minutes to earn my first 100 mile belt buckle. My wife was 9 months pregnant. My oldest son, Benjamin, was a mere 3 weeks from coming into the world when I stepped on the Placer High School track in Auburn.
Since that day, 14 years ago, I’ve dreamed of coming back and running Western States again. As I progressed as an ultra runner, I kept ticking off 100 mile finishes. After winning a few 100s, I started trying to get back into States. By the late 2000s, it was so popular it was nearly impossible to get in. I tried racing in several times, entering on special consideration, the lottery — all to no avail. Finally sponsorship exchanged hands this year and Altra offered me a coveted spot. After such a long wait, I was determined not to waste the opportunity. I wanted to see what I could do on the first and oldest 100 mile trail race. One that always boasts a deep field of fast dudes.
When I got into Western States (I was already in Hardrock 100), my wife sat our kids down and asked would they rather go to Western States or Hardrock? My oldest immediately said “Western States!” Since the family has been to Hardrock recently (2014), he wanted to see the famous Western States firsthand. He’s seen me follow this race online every year, talk about it, express my deep desire to get into it. But, I almost didn’t make it to the start line.
The Final Month of Training Stupidity
I almost blew it. After the Memorial Day training runs, two days after that big training weekend, I stupidly did a hard strength training workout and ran a tempo run and my right calf cramped. By the time I got back home from my run, I was limping. Immediately I went into triage mode and called my ART buddy Mark DeJohn and got ART work on it. I schedule multiple massage sessions with my friend, Austin Baillie. It was still not good. I tried to run. Limped back from an easy 7-miler.
As my wife will attest, a dark cloud descended upon the Browning household. It was getting better but I still could only run 20-30 minutes on it before it would get sore again. I jumped on the bike. I road everyday for 80-100 minutes, then ran 20 minutes easy on it right afterward. 10-11 minute pace. It started to heal. By all self-diagnosis, I had a level 1 strain, a micro tear. That meant tapering early and no last block of downhill running and tempo work to get ready for the quad-thrashing downhills and leg speed needed at Western States to stay up front. I was definitely nervous.
By 10 days out I could run an hour with no pain in the calf. I was doing essential oil and castor oil heat packs while I worked on my computer. I slept in it too. Epsom salt soaks. More massage. Another ART session. I finished my heat training doing power hike workouts on the treadmill and spinning my head off on my road and mountain bike.
Hindsight is 20/20. I beat myself up mentally for being so stupid. I knew better. How could I not take a strategic easy week after the training runs weekend. This was my 24th hundred. I did something I would never coach someone to do. How could I be so dumb. I prayed. I rolled on my foam roller. I did yoga. I prayed some more. I was pulling out all the stops. Everything in my bag of ultra and life experiences I could muster. I had to make it to the start line. This might be my only shot. I sure wasn’t getting any younger.
The Saturday before, I went for a 10 mile evening run in the mountains, complete with 30-40 downed trees to navigate. Jumping, scrambling and running one of my favorite loops near Tumalo Falls. As I descended the final 4 miles to the trailhead, everything felt normal again. I had not been mentally prepared to race until that moment, 7 days before. That was the workout I needed to let my mind relax. I knew that I’d had a mondo spring of training volume and 16 years of ultras, 23 hundreds. I would have to rely on my vast body and mind experience to pull from come race day. I was ready. I tapered and relaxed.
Come race morning, I did my normal routine and showed up in the pre-dawn light to nestle myself into the 2nd row of runners at the start line next to Jesse Haynes and Chris Denucci. We talked about running smart. Chris said he’d learned from the previous year’s race that 100s aren’t the same as 100Ks. You have to race them differently. I agreed, gave him a shoulder pat and said “patience.” The gun went off.
We made our way up the first climb to Escarpment and over Immigrant Pass. I was surprised that two of the top speedsters and virgin 100 milers, Jim Walmsley and Sage Canaday, were not hammering off the front. They were hiking some, running, sticking in the pack. I was impressed with their start strategy.
I topped the first climb and dropped off into the Sierra high country relaxed and enjoying the scenery. Chris Mocko went by me, then Jim Walmsley flew by running sub-7 pace. Paul Terranova and Bob Shebest passed me. They all quickly left me to the early morning quiet of the Granite Chief Wilderness. I stuck to my relaxed pace and let the early miles roll by. Mocko and I ran some of the early miles together, leapfrogging. We rolled through Lyon Ridge aid and soon Red Star.
I realized at this point, I’d forgotten my Vespa concentrates in the hotel room. I’d taken the pre-race Vespa, but spaced throwing the concentrates in my Strider Pro pockets. Dang. I noticed I needed a few more carb calories without it than when I take Vespa every 2 hours while sipping on Gu Roctane. I tried not to stress, they were in my drop bag at Robinson Flat.
As we approached Duncan Canyon, I gapped Mocko and caught up to Peter Fain as we arrived the Duncan Canyon aid and I left ahead of him in 17th. This would be the last place anyone passed me.
Grabbing some quick calories at Duncan Canyon aid station. Photo by Miriam Simon Cater
The heat was starting to rise as I approached Robinson Flat at mile 30. I cruised through, ditched my arm warmers, got an ice bandana and bottle swap from my crew, Erik Schulte. I took a Vespa and 20 minutes later, I felt on again — focused and level energy while I sipped on Roctane.
I caught a few more runners on my way to Dusty Corner and Last Chance.
I was cruising the descent and reeled in Paul Terranova and Stephen Wassather before the Devil’s Thumb climb. We arrived at the spring at the start of the climb and I dunked my hat and kept moving, while they lingered behind. I felt good on the climbs with my hiking legs Hardrock-ready and soon couldn’t see those guys. I hiked hard and ran some of the few runnable sections up the 36 switchbacks of Devil’s Thumb. I spotted Denucci just ahead of me on the last grunt climb up to the aid station. I left the aid station right behind Chris and soon passed him on the descent into Eldorado Creek. I came into Michigan Bluff in 11th place feeling solid.
While I was grabbing resupply of Roctane and S Caps, AJW gave me a pep talk. I was feeling good, I was in and out quick with Erik’s help and running the gravel road. I soon passed Spain’s Tòfol Castanyer and dropped into Volcano Canyon in 10th. On the climb up to Bath Road, I caught Bob Shebest and ran most of the road to Foresthill with everyone telling me Sharman was less than 2 minutes in front of me. Erik had run down with liquid calories and water and I drank and doused myself with water as I ran into Foresthill with him.
Running up Bath Road. Photo by Chris Blagg
As I came into Foresthill, my family was ready to crew me. I ran through, checked in and out and found them just past the aid station, ready. Annie gave me an ice bandana and my youngest, Abraham, handed me my bottles (just like we’d practiced). I threw some ice in my hat and left Foresthill in 7th, passing Sharman in the aid station. My buddy Scott Wolfe asked me as I was heading out… “You goin’ huntin’?” To which I replied. “Yeah I am!” I felt solid, good spirits and ready to race.
Cooling off with an ice bandana from my daughter at Foresthill. Photo by Benjamin Browning.
As I descended Cal Street, I could see Paul Giblin and his pacer just ahead of me. I relaxed and soon reeled them in about a mile out of Foresthill. The remainder of the way to the river — the next 15 miles — Paul was just behind me, less than a minute. I could see him on the dirt road section into Rucky Chucky river crossing as I arrived. I quickly topped off with ice and water and ran down the stone steps to the river. After the attentive volunteer buckled my life vest, I plunged in, cooling myself as I moved across, laying in the water. After a quick head dunk, I hiked up the dirt road to Green Gate to meet crew. Hiking and running, trying to pull away from Giblin.
Crossing the American River at mile 78. Photo by Altra Footwear.
Francois D’haene was hiking down to the river about halfway up. He informed me Sage was less than a minute in front of me. He called back over his shoulder “Allez! Allez! You maybe move up 2 more positions!” As I ran the remainder up to Green Gate, Sage was still there but quickly took off with his pacer. I swapped out bottles with Erik, got my calorie resupply of Grape Roctane and a few GUs, and chugged some extra water before taking off. I felt like I was moving well through the rolling single track on my way to Auburn Lakes aid. Within a mile or so, I reeled in Sage and his pacer on a climb. I told him to hang in there, he looked pretty worked. I heard he was throwing up. Bummer.
Almost to Auburn Lakes aid I caught sight of Altra teammate Thomas Lorblanchet and his pacer. At this point, my body didn’t want anymore caffeine and I only had caffeinated Roctane in my pockets. Luckily, I had an emergency only drop bag at Auburn Lakes and quickly grabbed a few Grape Roctane powder packets and left ahead of Thomas.
I pushed on and off to Brown’s Bar to open up a gap on Thomas. As you approach Brown’s Bar aid station, you know you’re close because they are blasting music and you hear it way before you see it. I was looking forward to Brown’s Bar because a bunch of running friends from Ashland, Oregon volunteer there. As I ran up, I was greeted by Siskuyou Outback 50/50 Co-RD Rob Cain. I told him I just passed Lorblanchet and needed to get moving. He informed me that Walmsley got off course and that I might be in 3rd. I grabbed my bottles and hightailed it out of there before Thomas showed up. I pushed a solid pace to Highway 49. I wanted to finish the last 10K without having to race and wanted to make sure I had secured 3rd before No Hands Bridge.
I grabbed my lights from Erik at Highway 49 crossing and took off running and hiking the climb out of the aid station. I was listening for the cow bells to alert the arrival of another runner behind me, but I never heard anything. That meant I’d gapped him pretty well since the previous aid station at Brown’s Bar.
I kept pushing to No Hands Bridge and as I arrived No Hands, I started to relax and enjoy the slow climb up to Robie Point. About 1/3 of the way up I flipped on my headlamp. When I hit the street at Robie Point, I ran through the throng of people — a full street party raging, complete with lights in the trees and drinking and revelry. As I gave high five’s, a few guys start running with me, beers in hand. Soon, Dave Carder jumped out of the crowd and ran up the street in his flip flops and a full growler in hand. He told me “Good job!” I was stoked to see him. We exchanged a few words and he peeled off.
As I left the crowd, I met up with my crewman Erik who’d jogged out to run it in with me. I gave him a well-deserved pat on the back and a heartfelt “thanks, couldn’t have done it without ya, bro!” We enjoyed the run through town and soon could see the lights of the track.
Pumped about a podium finish. Photo by Miriam Simon Carter.
As I entered the stadium, my teenage son, Benjamin, was waiting for me and jumped in beside me to run it in. I slowed down, savoring it. I slapped as many kids and spectator hands as possible as I rounded the corner. As I hit the final straight, my other two kids jumped out of the crowd to run in with me too. Wow. 14 years ago, I rounded the track for my first 100 mile finish with my first child on the way. The start of a new family. And now, I had 3 kids and 24 100-milers under my belt. Life sure does twist and turn. 3rd place. M3 was just icing on the cake.
I was greeted by RD Craig Thornley as I stepped across the finish. He’s been a mentor and someone I learned from when I first got into the sport 16 years ago. I’m so psyched to have the opportunity to race here again. I can’t wait for next year. Giddyup.
Now, time to get my head on straight for Hardrock 100.
Huge thanks to my wife, Jennifer, and my 3 kiddos who never quit believing in me — even at my age. Big props to crew master Erik Schulte for getting me in and out quick in key spots. Thanks to my sponsors Patagonia, Altra Footwear, Ultraspire, Gu, Rudy Project, Black Diamond, and Barlean’s. Thanks to Dave Carder and Michelle Crews for opening up their home over Memorial Day so I could train on the course and for the awesome sausage and eggs after midnight when I was done and looking for food. You guys rock. Big shout out to my body work guys, Mark DeJohn for his stellar ART work and Austin Baillie for working the kinks out with massage. Last but not least, thanks to the Big Man Upstairs for keeping my path safe and straight. Giddyup.
Patagonia Duck Bill Cap
Patagonia Capilene Team Sleeveless Shirt
Patagonia Strider Pro 5” Shorts
Altra Lone Peak 2.5 Shoes (with Altra Gaitors)
Injinji Wool Toe Socks
Ultraspire Isomeric Race Handhelds
Rudy Project Zyon Glasses
Nutrition: Gu Roctane and gels (especially the new Cucumber Mint), Vespa Concentrates and Organic Banana Chips and Plantain Chips.