Kilian Jornet Wins 2011 Western States

Kilian Jornet and his pacer, Simon Mtuy, around mile 94

Kilian Jornet and his pacer, Simon Mtuy, around mile 94

Wrapping up a very busy weekend here trying to keep tabs on 3 races: Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, Ironman Coeur d’ Alene and RAAM (Race Across America) – all without my phone. Another very close finish at Western States this year, even with defending champion Geoff Roes dropping at mile 55. With so many fast runners at the top, there was a lot of hype and anticipation leading up to the race this year. Would Geoff continue his undefeated ultra streak and defend the top spot? Would Kilian break through and showcase his speed and endurance in the United States? Would Hal make a return to the top after some impressive times at other 2011 races? Or would Dave Mackey push the speed for all 100 miles and be the first to arrive in Auburn? And you can’t count out Nick Clark, 4th place last year and only steps behind Julian, or a handful of other very fast ultra runners that might make a sustained surge.

My plan was similar to last year and run part of backcountry again and get some shots of the lead runners in the high country but since Duncan Canyon was closed for traffic and the Robinson Flat aid station closed due to snow, I wasn’t able to cover any of the first 30 miles, except the start at Squaw. Star Blackford flew out to pace Western States runner Stephen Zeidner and stayed with us Friday night. But her flight was delayed and she didn’t even land in Sacramento until midnight with the race starting in 5 hours. We made it to Tahoe around 2:30 AM, took about an hour and half nap and then drove over to Squaw for the 5 AM start.

The lead pack heading up Squaw Valley at Mile 1

The lead pack heading up Squaw Valley at Mile 1

California had record levels of snow this year and even late in June, runners were warned that they would be running many of the first 15 miles on snow, twice as much snow the runners encountered in 2010. At 5 AM in the morning, the snow was more like hard ice and if you have ever tried running on ice at an incline (going up the side of 9,000′ mountain) on rubber soled running shoes, it can be a little treacherous. And although it slowed many down, the lead runners didn’t seem to be affected by the conditions.

After heading back for a little nap before driving on to Michigan Bluff, I realized I didn’t have my cell phone. Panicking, I triple checked the car, backpacks and the cabin but no luck. It must have fallen out of my pocket on the side of the mountain in Squaw. We drove back to Squaw and I retraced my steps. But no luck. Somewhere out there, my trusty little phone must be laying in the snow, its battery dwindling, waiting for me to find it.

Then it was the 1 hour and 45 minute drive from Squaw to Michigan Bluff, trying to catch the leaders. Michigan Bluff is mile 55 in the race and this year it was the first aid station where you could see the runners. Normally, there is crew access around mile 30, but this year crews had to wait 55 miles before seeing their runner for the first time. Kilian came through around 1:20 PM in 1st place, powering out of the canyons. This after losing 15 minutes in the snow after he and a few other top runners took a wrong turn. He arrived looking relatively fresh but had several runners just a few minutes behind him. Mike Wolfe, Nick Clark, Tim Olson, Hal Koerner and Dave Mackey all came running up behind Kilian, all within 5 to 15 minutes. After 20 minutes, there was no sign of defending champion Geoff Roes, and we would later learn he would drop at Michigan Bluff, eventually arriving 56 minutes after Kilian.

A little note here. If you read Geoff’s blog, Fumbling Towards Endurance, it sounds like he went into the race not having the hunger to repeat. Six days before the race he wrote,

“I imagine that I will eventually get to the point of not craving this kind of running anymore, or at least much less often than the once a month that I do now.

But then he went on to say he’s

focused and ready as anyone to scratch and claw to compete at my highest potential on that given day. I’m just not willing to compromise my enjoyment and nourishment from my running on the other 29 days of the month. I did that for a couple years in the past and there’s just no comparison in terms of the nourishment that I get out of it. Training with a specific focus and purpose of trying to be as fast as possible on a given day at some point in the future feels so shallow and silly to me when compared to simply going out and doing the run that feels the most logical, enjoyable, and appealing on each given day..” I’m not sure if he was mentally preparing himself for having a bad day. Believe me I can relate to reaching the point/age where you just want to run for the enjoyment

I can certainly relate to wanting just to go for a run to enjoy the run. I suspect we might all reach an age or point in our lives where priorities change and what you wanted last year is not the same thing as what you want this year. It’s probably a healthy evolution of wanting to experience new and different things. But at 23, Kilian still needs to feed that hunger.

Kilian Jornet coming into Michigan Bluff

Kilian Jornet coming into Michigan Bluff

From Michigan Bluff, the top runners can cover the distance to Foresthill (mile 62), in about 1 hour. Kilian came through again in 1st but with Jez Bragg right on his heels. Nick, Hal and Mike were only minutes behind. With 8 runners coming into Foresthill all within 15 minutes of each other meant that at mile 62, we had a good race to the finish.

Mike Wolfe coming into Foresthill (mile 62) with his game face

Mike Wolfe coming into Foresthill (mile 62) with his game face

We left Star at Foresthill awaiting the start of her pacing duties later in the day. We drove back to Auburn so Dylan could take a little nap and I unsuccesfully tried to catch the leaders at Rucky Chucky. Nicole, Dylan and I then drove over to Cool and a little before 8 PM, Kilian came running through the Cool meadows with his pacer, Simon Mtuy, and a Salomon camera guy running in front recording the run. The sun was just starting to set and everything was quiet and the 3 of them pushed through the fields on towards No Hands Bridge. Kilian looked behind him a few times for the sight of another runner.

Kilian Jornet heading passing through the Cool meadows

Kilian Jornet heading passing through the Cool meadows

This section of the course opens up so you can see for a couple hundred yards, unlike most of the other course where it is single track snaking through the mountains. But there was no sight of anyone for a few hundred yards.

It’s only a few miles down to No Hands Bridge and Kilian came through still in 1st but Mike Wolfe was only a couple of minutes behind. While Kilian seemed to stop for a few seconds at No Hands Bridge aid station, Mike Wolfe didn’t stop for a second and had no pacer. He raced across the bridge and knew Kilian was just up ahead.

Mike Wolfe crossing No Hands Bridge, trying to run down Kilian Jornet

Mike Wolfe crossing No Hands Bridge, trying to run down Kilian Jornet

In just over 20 minutes, Kilian emerged from the last climb up Robie in 1st place. (A couple hours later, the lead women would run into a bear climbing out of the canyon to Robie Point.) I captured his last mile on video and even at mile 99, we wasn’t even breathing that hard, was running close to a 7 minute pace and looked fresher than many of us after running a marathon. He crossed the finish in 15 hours and 34 minutes, gave Geoff Roes a high-five just before entering the stadium and told me he wasn’t sure if he was going to be back next year.

A big congrats to the runners, pacers and volunteers out there on the course. Well done to Carrie Hyatt who finished and can now sport that WS 100 belt buckle around town. Also, well done out there in the Ironman world to buddies: Bob Shebest, Kevin Buchholz and Layne Scoggins. Looks like Bob’s time of 9 hours and 43 minutes may have earned him another trip to Kona!


3 thoughts on “Kilian Jornet Wins 2011 Western States

  1. What an exciting race! Like most people I was disappointed to hear that Geoff dropped; but it was obvious by then that he wasn’t feeling good. Killian certainly is a worthy champion. It must have been quite a thrill to be there!

  2. After seeing the video two things stood out to me, One, the way Killian kept looking back to see uf anyone was coming. The second was the sight of Killian and Geoff high fiving, Way cool!

  3. Tony – It was very exciting as the race felt tight all day. You are right about Kilian constantly looking behind. He was concerned those last miles. Even running through the fields at Cool, a number of times he kept looking back. Nobody said a word at that point as they tried to listen for the sounds of cheering back down the trail, any sound that meant 2nd place was coming through the aid station. Seeing Geoff on the corner was very cool. As always, thanks for your comments!

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