For ultrarunners, the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run is the ultimate test of endurance. One could argue that covering the 100.2-miles along this prestigious course is, in fact, one of the most challenging races any athlete could compete in. And yet each year, a select group of die-hard ultra runners voluntarily navigate the grueling terrain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California on a portion of the Western States Trail.
The 2015 Western States Endurance Run (WSER) is the first race with a limited number of qualifying races—trail 100ks and 100-milers—but despite taking out previously qualifying 50-milers, 2,566 applicants applied. From the pool, only 400 runners are selected in a lottery drawing. This year, five participants from Georgia are taking on the challenge on June 27 to 28: David Carder, Rebecca Burns, Jason Green, Michael Sherzer, and Brooke McClanahan.
With elevation totals of 18,000 feet, terrain through the sprawling and remote High Chief Wilderness, frigid crossings through the American River, and valley-to-mountain passes, how can those living in Georgia train for this ultramarathon feat? This year’s Georgia participants share their training trails, trials, and tips for success.
Only three miles of the WSER trail is pavement, while the rest serves as a reminder of the state’s rugged landscape. For participants in the Western States, much of the territory is only accessible by foot, horse, or helicopter.
“You can adequately prepare for the western terrain in the Southeast,” Carder says. “We have plenty of gnarly technical trails in North Georgia with some challenging elevation change (climbing and descending) that will do the job in terms of training.”
Georgia’s elevation tops out at a comparatively modest 4,000 feet (and that’s on the mountain summits), but to mimic the trail conditions, these five ultrarunners seek out portions of the Appalachian Trail and its connectors, like the gruesome Springer Mountain Approach Trail, Benton-MacKaye Trail, Duncan Ridge Trail, and Pinhoti Trail for their training.
The Springer Mountain Approach Trail rises and falls 1,000 feet in elevation during its 8.5 mile route to the official start of the Appalachian Trail. From there, you can begin a fast descent on the AT, and from here you can also link with the 50-mile Benton MacKaye Trail, which winds down Springer Mountain before departing and crossing back and forth over Chester Creek.
The Duncan Ridge Trail intersects the Appalachian Trail and Benton MacKaye Trail at Three Forks. Ultrarunners frequent the section from Coosa Mountain to Hwy 60, which includes the "Dragon Spine.”
“ Duncan Ridge sticks out like a vertebrae on the spine of a sleeping dragon,” Green says. “The trail that rides its back has been called Georgia’s most difficult footpath and its rugged reputation is well earned: steep climbs and kamikaze descents are the norm.”
Close to town, Kennesaw Mountain’s summit trails offer technical rocky climbs and descents. Take the “Red Mountain Loop” from Burnt Hickory Road to ascend Pigeon Hill, Little Kennesaw, and Big Kennesaw Mountain. You’ll climb through boulder fields, where footing is key, as jagged rocks protrude from the ground.
In late June, the heat in the California canyons poses one of the biggest challenges, causing participants to experience dehydration, sodium loss, stomach issues, chafing, sunburn, and a general sapping of energy.
“The heat can really suck the life out of you in a race, so heat training is crucial,” Carder says.
With Georgia’s location in the South, June temperatures can average 83 to 87 degrees. Training during the heat of the day on full-sun trails gives the participants a dose of steaming temperatures.
Stone Mountain’s summit trail, while only 1-mile, is a fully exposed trail on granite rock. You top out at the peak at 1,648 feet, and repeats on the course will give a 0.2 mile 200-foot elevation gain that rivals the steep climbs in WSER.
Western State organizers warn that “adequate mental and physical preparation are of utmost importance to each runner, for the high mountains and deep canyons, although beautiful, are relentless in their challenge and unforgiving to the ill-prepared.”
If you’re planning on running an endurance race with the merits of WSER, opt to join a group. Many ultrarunners in Atlanta are members of the Yeti Trail Runners , a quirky group of fun-loving (and slightly crazy) endurance runners that log insane miles and finish by throwing back craft beers. Green, founder of the group, has brought many of the group members along as he trained for WSER. He says the group fosters a sense of family.
“You can always find a training partner to run those long miles with you, and they may end alongside you acting as support on race day,” he says.
When Yeti members aren’t competing in their own race, you’ll find them supporting their fellow runners: pacing, ensuring that the runners take in proper nutrition, and acting as support when the miles get long. “When you are down, pacers can help you turn it around,” Green says.
Training for 100-milers and remaining injury-free can sometimes be a miracle. When you’re just coming back from an injury, it’s important to select trails that aren’t as technical. Avoid rocky and rooted terrain, but still log elevation gains. Another Georgia participant, Brooke McClanahan came back from a stress-fracture injury that had her out of commission for 12 weeks until late April.
“Since Boston, I’ve trained on trails that are less technical but still give me the elevation and challenge I need to prep for WSER,” McClanahan says. “I started back on the Dauset Trails because they aren’t too technical.”
Dauset Trails are shared with mountain bikers so you have to keep alert, but you’ll get a good amount of clay and dirt terrain on singletrack trails. The advanced loop, marked with black arrows, is 17.2 miles around.
Once she recovered, McLanahan trained on the Coosa Backcountry Trail, which leaves out of Vogel State Park. The 12.5 mile trail offers strenuous climbs, especially on the ascent to Wolf Pen Gap Road and on the moderate ascent to Ben’s Knob.