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by Dave Milner | published 07.31.04

If you've ever found yourself cursing the hills while running the challenging 11.2-mile loop in Nashville's Percy Warner Park, consider running the loop eight times, with the hills dramatically increased in size, all in the same day. Oh, and you'll be starting out at an elevation of over 6,000 feet. Daytime temperatures will climb into the high 90s, and a third of the time you'll be running in pitch-black darkness.

The Western States Endurance Run is one of the oldest ultra-trail events in the world and certainly one of the most challenging. Last month, Nashville runner and triathlete Tom Holland completed it.

The 100-mile run—yes, 100—meanders along the Western States Trail, starting at Squaw Valley, Calif., and ending in Auburn, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. The trail ascends from the Squaw Valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4.5 miles. From the pass, following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn. Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory, accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters.

Even without looking at the course elevation profile, you know this is a real, don't-try-this-at-home-folks, trail race, and not a fun little off-road sojourn, because it has points on the course with names like Rucky Chucky, Devil's Thumb, Last Chance and No Hands Bridge. And there isn't a port-a-potty for miles; you crap in the woods, just like the bears.

Among the race souvenirs at this event is a T-shirt emblazoned with the event's logo. On the back, it reads, "Western States doesn't test your character. It reveals it." The slogan is apt.

The race begins at 5 a.m. on the last Saturday in June at the west end of Squaw Valley. Runners must reach the finish line before 11 a.m. the next day (30 hours later) to be eligible for an award. Obviously, the Western States 100 is not the kind of race that people enter on a whim. It requires a great deal of planning and a penchant for self-abuse. That's where Tom Holland comes in. A 33-year-old printing salesman, triathlete and ultra-trail runner from Nashville, he is a well-organized, detail-oriented masochist.

Training for a 100-mile run is very different from training for a marathon. Most well-prepared marathoners will complete at least 75 percent of the race distance in a training run, but running 75 miles in preparation for the Western States would, Holland says, be counterproductive, in part because he had limited training time.

"I did a lot of long runs on consecutive days, and would then rest for three or four days," he said. "I did a little research, and talked to a few friends, but essentially, I was just winging it."

His longest single training run, an eight-hour effort, came on the morning of the Country Music Marathon in late April. Those who ran that race know that the hills and humidity made it tough going, but consider Holland's journey.

He left his house near Radnor Lake at 4 a.m. and had hit Percy Warner Park's hilly trails by 4:15 a.m., where he ran for two hours. He then jumped in his car and drove to Centennial Park, where he ran another four to five miles before starting the storm-delayed Country Music Marathon, pacing a friend to a respectable 3:50 finish. He then ran the five miles back to his car, parked near the marathon start. By then, it had been a 52-mile morning for Tom. "You can't really prepare your body, physically, to run 100 miles," he says. "Mostly, you're preparing for the mental aspect of the race."

Some trail races lull participants into a false sense of security, allowing racers to cruise along gentle inclines in the early stages, only to sting them later. The WS 100 course is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It climbs 2,500 feet in the first five miles. "We started at the Squaw Valley Ski resort [home of the 1964 Winter Olympics] and basically ran up the ski run, then over the top. Once we got to the top, we could see for over 100 miles."

The three keys to a successful run at Western States are pacing, fuelling and hydration. In a 5K race, racers can hang on after having gone out too hard too early, for example. But in a race as long and as grueling as Western States, starting too fast almost always results in an early, painful and dejected exit from the race. Your body offers no forgiveness for mistakes.

Just as important as correct pacing is finding equilibrium between caloric expenditure and caloric consumption. On the run, Tom ate sticks of 'fruit leather' and Beef Jerky washed down with water. At aid stations, which numbered around 15, runners chose from a veritable smorgasbord of food, with not a low-carb item in sight. "The aid stations were unlike anything I had ever seen at a race before," Holland says. "They were like high-carb convenience stores."

Hydration is arguably more important, though. Without water, runners literally just grind to a halt. "Hydration is something that the race officials closely monitor," Holland says. All runners wear a wristband printed with the runner's weight (just like with a prize fight, there is a weigh-in the night before the race), resting pulse and blood pressure. That way, if a runner gets into trouble, medics can determine if something is seriously wrong, physiologically. And body weight is monitored throughout the race to ensure runners don't lose too much water. Another of the souvenir shirts available for Western States offers the following slogan: "I lost 14 pounds in one day. Ask me how." It too is apt.

Holland's goal going into the event was to finish in under 24 hours. Up until Devil's Thumb, a tough summit 47.8 miles into the race, he seemed to be well ahead of goal pace, having reached that point in 10 hours, 13 minutes.

But what he didn't take into account was how much slower the going would be at night. "Looking back," he says, "I should have been three to four hours ahead at that point." Next time—if there is a next time—he'll know better.

Three hours and nine minutes before Tom arrived at Devil's Thumb, eventual race winner Scott Jurek, the Lance Armstrong of this sport, had passed through.

After reaching that point, the trail descends 2,500 feet into El Dorado Canyon, through the bottom of which a creek meanders peacefully. After crossing the creek, runners must then climb to the other side of the canyon, a 1,693 feet ascent in just 2.8 miles to Michigan Bluff, notorious as an exit point for exhausted racers.

"Getting up and out of that canyon was the most physically demanding thing I have ever done," Holland says. Beyond the challenge of the hill, he had a stomachache, blisters on his feet (one open and one developing), and quadriceps that were "on fire."

By the time Holland reached Michigan Bluff, at around 6 p.m., the "entire nature of the race had changed. It had gotten exponentially harder. I had lost a lot of feeling in the front of my left foot," he explains, "and I knew I was going to lose a toenail or two." His new goal was simply to finish—respectably. For Tom, that meant getting to the line well before the 30-hour cutoff.

Two-thirds of the way through the race, there was a 1.8-mile segment that took him more than two hours to cover. But this section required negotiating a waist-high river—in the dark. For race winner Scott Jurek, the water may well have been a refreshing respite from the 90-degree air temperature.

"Yeah, for Jurek, it probably felt great, delightfully refreshing," Holland says. "He would have arrived there in the early evening. He's over 6 feet, and it probably didn't even reach his waist."

Not so for Tom. "I got there at 1 a.m. It was pitch-black, and the air temperature had dipped into the 50s."

By 2 a.m, Tom had just emerged from a freezing-cold river in the dark, and still had another 40-plus miles to run. Once across the river, which is about 300 meters wide, Holland got to change into fresh shoes, socks and clothes at a "drop zone." New shoes, new attitude. But the hardest part of the race, mentally, was still ahead.

"At one point, I was falling asleep while running down the trail," he says.

But Tom knew if he could just make it until sunrise, he'd be fine. "The sunrise has a way of tricking your body into believing you have slept.... It's an incredible feeling."

At 85 miles, though, Holland strained his Achilles' tendon, and he became frustrated for the first time. "At that point," he says, "I was ready to be done. I was just telling myself, 'I just gotta get there.' "

Many runners try to look good for the cameras as they finish. Not Tom. "I was worried about permanently damaging my Achilles'," he says. So he walked the last 250 meters around the Placerville High School track with his wife, Leah.

Twenty-seven hours, 37 minutes and 37 seconds after starting,Tom Holland, arm in arm with Leah, crossed the finish line.

Holland, who has ran nine marathons and completed three Ironman triathlons, says Western States is "without a doubt" the hardest race he's ever done.

But asked one month afterward—after his toenails have begun to grow back—whether he would consider running this event again, Holland is resolute that he'd run it again. "Like any other race, after recovering, you say to yourself, 'I can do that better next time,' but not for at least a few years."

Author DAVE MILNER was not in the least bit inspired to tackle an ultra after writing this article and, like most runners, believes that 26 miles 385 yards is a more than adequate distance with wish to punish himself.

This article originally appeared in Nashville Scene on July 29, 2004

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