Harrison shines at Western States 100-Miler

By Brad Fauber

Emily Harrison has just about done it all when it comes to competitive running.

Harrison, a former Warren County High School and University of Virginia standout who has become an elite marathon runner over the last several years, decided not too long ago to test her mettle in ultramarathon running, and she instantly found success in the JFK 50 Mile with a second-place finish last November.

Just seven months after that initial taste of the ultramarathon experience, Harrison decided again to try something new, and on June 29 she found herself competing in one of the most grueling events available to competitive runners — the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Just like that first experience in the JFK 50, Harrison found immediate success, finishing seventh among all female competitors and 26th overall with a time 20 hours, 28 minutes and 40 seconds.

“Ultimately, I think it worked out pretty well for my first time out there,” Harrison said in a phone interview Monday. “I’m surprised in some ways because it was unknown. I think just getting across the finish line and running steady all day was good. It was one of those things where finishing would be good enough for me.”

The Western States 100, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, begins in Squaw Valley, Calif., and follows the historical Western States Trail, twisting and turning its way for 100.2 miles over mountainous terrain, through canyons and over the American River before ending in Auburn, Calif.

The race begins with an unforgiving ascent from the floor of Squaw Valley to Emigrant Pass, a climb of 2,550 feet over the first 4½ miles of the race, and there are plenty of locations along the trail that require runners to make similar agonizing climbs throughout the 100-mile trek.

But it was the downhill running that caused Harrison the most problems, as her legs began to tire barely halfway through the race.

“There is a lot of downhill running, which can be good but it can beat you up as well,” Harrison said. “My quads held me back. I’m not a strong downhill runner in the first place … my quads started bothering me pretty early.”

It didn’t help that the temperature — a scalding 102 degrees throughout much of the day — was the second highest ever recorded at the event, but Harrison said the heat didn’t bother her as much as she expected it to.

The heat certainly got to quite a few competitors, as just 277 runners finished out of the 383 starters for a 72.3-percent finish rate, the lowest rate at the race in four years.

“One of the things I was pleased about was that I handled the heat really well,” Harrison said. “I’m not sure why that was for that day. I wasn’t great with my hydration that day, but I guess I did enough to keep myself out of trouble.”

Harrison, who moved her training base back to Flagstaff, Ariz., earlier this year, said the Western States 100 was made easier by the training runs she took on different sections of the trail leading up the event. Harrison said she was able to cover the final 70 miles of the course during her various training runs.

It also helped that Harrison’s coach, Ian Torrence, paced her for the final 38 miles of the race, providing Harrison with an experienced running partner who could keep a watchful eye on her health throughout the final stretch of the race.

Torrence, an experienced ultramarathoner who has raced and served as a pacer at the Western States 100 multiple times, also proved to be an invaluable source of information about the event leading up the race, and his familiarity with the event helped the pair develop an organized running strategy.

“It was important with the conditions and the competition that Emily just run within herself,” Torrence said in a phone interview. “She ran a very evenly-paced race, which is what we wanted to do.”

The training that was required of Harrison in order to successfully complete the 100-mile race was something that is still relatively new to the 27-year-old runner. Harrison said training to run an ultramarathon is very different from preparing for a marathon, and she said that the mental approach to the race differs in that you have to “prepare yourself to think it’s not going to be perfect all day.”

Torrence said he tailored Harrison’s workouts to focus less on speed training and more on the frequency of her long workouts.

“The big difference for her and the one that she didn’t like was that we increased the volume. For the 100 mile I was asking her every other weekend to add a long run immediately after her long run,” Torrence said. “It’s supposed to simulate the struggle of that late stretch in the 100 miler.”

Harrison still isn’t quite finished with trying new things in the competitive racing world, and she said she and Torrence plan on competing together in the TransRockies Run — a point-to-point trail race that covers 120 miles over six days — held in Colorado in mid-August.

Harrison’s performance in the Western States 100 on June 29 also qualified her for next year’s event, and Harrison said she has every intention of returning to Squaw Valley next year.

“I’m signed up so I have a spot next year. When the time comes, I anticipate hitting that register button online,” Harrison said.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com