Patience is ultrarunner Alex Nichols' great virtue. He runs a smart race, throwing his efficient aerobic punches on the long climbs at altitude, absorbing them when the course becomes flat and speedier runners have an advantage. This year's Western States 100 was no easy opponent. In his first attempt at the world's oldest 100-mile trail race, Nichols, 32, of Colorado Springs, the winner of the 2016 Run Rabbit Run 100, and the two-time defending Pikes Peak Marathon champion, found himself in new territory: suffering and being hunted down. And though he admits he didn't have his best race, Team Colorado's "Axel" held on to place second, covering the distance from Squaw Valley to Auburn in 16 hours, 48 minutes, 23 seconds. Here's the story in his words. (Photos by Team Colorado's Peter Maksimow)
There was some great racing over the last 50 miles. You were moving up and being chased down at the same time. How did all of that play out? Kind of at the middle of the race I started closing the gap on Ryan (Sandes, the eventual winner, 16:19:37.) He was in second at the time and I was in third. Form about 25 to 55 miles we had the biggest climbs and descents. And through there was more of what I’m used to. So I was moving pretty well, started to get excited hearing that I was closing the gap. But then after mile 55 you drop in altitude down to the American River and it got a lot hotter. And that was definitely a big surprise and I went from feeling really good to feeling really bad, and then realized I had 40 miles left to go. So I had to temper my effort and not completely blow up and not finish. That is where (Mark Hammond, who placed third) the guy behind me started closing that gap. It got to a point with 14 miles to go, I was leaving the aid station, maybe a minute outside of it, and I hear the cheers of the aid station workers behind me, and I knew somebody was there. So the next 14 miles it was just try not to get caught and give it everything I had.
You crossed the finish line in second place. What is going through your head? It’s exciting for sure. It’s kind of strange, currently. I feel like I can’t quite appreciate it. To me it was not the race I wanted and it was not the perfect race. So in some ways it’s exciting, and in some ways it was kind of disappointing, honestly.
Where did things go wrong? It was just how I felt for the last 40 miles. My whole game plan coming in was to make sure I got through the first half feeling good, because everyone talks about how much time you can gain in that last section. It’s not very hilly, it’s really runnable, so the whole game plan backfired and I became one of those people who suddenly was getting chased down. And I’m not used to being in that scenario.
So you had snow, mud and heat. Was there a plan for all of that? I was not prepared for just how bad it was in that higher section. Everyone talks about Western States being a runnable course, so that’s what I focused the training on. But that upper section was pretty serious mountain running with not much trail, and really technical trails when there were some, cause everything was washed out from all the melting snow. Just big divots and loose rock all over the pace. I wasn’t really expecting that.
It was tough the last 40 miles, but was there any point where you thought things were going OK? One of the last aid stations is at three miles to go. It’s called No Hands Bridge. At that point the guy behind me (Hammond) was only 30 second away. So the final three miles includes this pretty big uphill and then you get into the streets of Auburn. I ran with everything I had through that section to not get caught. I didn’t let up until I was 200 meters from finish, because I thought that Mark could be seconds behind me. My pacer Tim Tollefson, he’d look back and say, "there is no one back there. I can’t hear anything, don’t see a headlamp." But even with a half mile to go I was not going to let up and have him blow by me. So it wasn’t until the last little bit on the track that I was able to relax and celebrate.
Everybody was talking about Jim Walmsley going for the record, and he threw down for quite a while before dropping. How did you deal with the Walmsley factor? In a way it’s kind of nice, because he made his plan known. Everyone knew he was going out at course record pace. I felt that on a really good day, I’d have a chance at coming close to the course record (Timothy Olson, 14:46:44, 2012.) But he was talking about breaking 14 hours, which is 45 minutes faster than the course record. So I personally was not going to go with that. And if anyone else did, they were probably going to blow up. From a strategy perspective, it kind of made the race easier. He can do his own thing, cause if anyone goes with him, they’re probably going to blow up. So it just became a whole different race that I had to worry about.
Food choices? I didn’t have too much solid food. I think I had one piece of melon, some candy. But generally I just drank a lot. I was really surprised how much liquid I was putting down. I had the capacity to carry a liter and a half with me at all times. I’d come to an aid station, I’d get half liter of coke and half liter of water, or sprite or something. I was drinking a lot of soda later on in the race because it was calories plus liquid. But I would go through that within 10 minutes of leaving the aid station and it still wasn’t enough. I was shocked at how much I was trying to drink and needed to drink, because I was getting thirsty. At Western States there are tons of aid stations, I think like 30 on the entire course. And at every single one of them I was drinking as much as I could. That was a new experience.
Maybe you didn’t feel good that day. Maybe that was the reason you were drinking so much? That’s possible. There were very few moments in that race where I felt like I was really in the groove and felt a spring in my step. It’s a long time to feel bad.
Did you have to jam a lot of training into a short period of time? Basically, in March and April, I didn’t do any running. I was injured. Once May came around I was really close to pulling the plug and just not racing. But around May 1, my injury (foot irritation) settled down enough that I was able to get 40 miles the first week coming from zero. I just decided that if could get a little bit of training I could at least go there for the experience, even if it wouldn’t be the best race.
Two 100 mile starts with dazzling results. What is it about the 100-mile distance? I don’t know. I think it definitely suits the way that I race, which is to try to be patient. I think I’m pretty good at being able to keep running even when I feel bad and my legs really hurt. Even in the shorter races like Pikes Peak, that’s what the downhill is all about. You make it back to Barr Camp and you feel like your legs are shot, but you have to keep running fast anyway. So I’ve had a lot of experience running with that kind of fatigue and pain in my legs. I think that’s why I can keep chugging along for 40 miles even when they hurt so badly at 60.
So Maddy (Schmid, his wife) and Nora (Duane) and Peter (Maksimow) were the crew. It was a fun time. It was Peter and Nora’s first time crewing. Maddy is kind of the crew leader. I think they were all sort of surprised how crewing takes a lot out of you. It’s a long day. Getting to the next aid station and setting up. Fortunately, everything went pretty much as planned with our time frames and stuff. But it is stressful for sure.
Looking ahead, how do you choose your next big adventure? What’s in your heart? I did really like Run Rabbit Run (he won in 2016.) I thought the course was beautiful. That race had a really good feel to it. So I’d like to go back there. I want to try to fit in Pikes Peak somehow, cause it is sort of the race that got me started. It might just be the ascent, rather than the marathon. Looking forward, I like to try new things. I was thinking on the way back of possibly doing Comrades Marathon (90K in South Africa) next spring. Maybe something like UTMB. And who knows? Maybe start adding my name to Hardrock 100. Increase my odds and maybe get in in three years or something.
And it wasn’t that long ago that the Pikes Peak Marathon was a long race for you. I’d still like to mix in some shorter races, I don’t want to just be exclusively doing 100 mile races. It’s fun, though.
Ultra world. What do you lke about it? It’s definitely its own world. And you kind of get caught up in that. You see that at Western States, a lot, just how people are so excited about it. You do get a lot of cool new opportunities, to see new places and be a part of these historical races. It’s fun.
Trail running seems like the new cool “western” thing. Cowboys are becomng more scarce, but now we have trail runners. Yeah, definitely, just roaming around the mountains. There is a big difference between Western States and the races I’ve done in Europe. It’s a little more commercialized in Europe. So there is good and bad sides to that. But I was really impressed with Western States, how the crowd and fan support actually did match what I’ve seen in Europe. That’s the first time I’ve ever experienced that in the U.S. I’m still surprised. We came into the high school track stadium, and there is a pretty good-sized seating section, and it was filled. And there were people on the other side, and people on the infield. You don’t always get that with trail running. That was really, really cool, to see that many people who cared enough to come out and watch a bunch of trail runners hobble to the finish line.
How do we get trail running races to that level in the U.S., in terms of fan support and popularity? Maybe we’re on our way and I’m impatient. Yeah, I think it’s happening, definitely. You can see the rise of publicity, and with personalities like Jim (Walmsley,) that helps, certainly. I think it has come a long way, where you had to go to Spain to have a mountain marathon with a lot of fans, and now it’s happing here.