By Brad Fauber
Emily Harrison has had tremendous success in races of various styles and lengths for the better part of the last two years, and she is once again geared up to compete in one of the world's longest and most grueling races in competitive running.
Harrison, a former Warren County High School and University of Virginia standout runner who now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, is participating in today's Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in California. It's her second time competing in the race, which is run along the historical Western States Trail.
"I'm definitely looking to improve on last year's finish and am going to try to finish more near the top [of the field] this time around," Harrison said in a phone interview Friday afternoon.
Harrison was the seventh woman and the 26th runner overall to cross the finish line at last year's race, as she finished the 100.2-mile trek in 20 hours, 28 minutes and 40 seconds in her 100-mile race debut.
Harrison hopes that the initial experience last June will help her confidence level this season when she's out on the trail.
"Last year I came out very conservative, which was good," she said, "but looking back I probably could've come out a little bit harder."
The Western States 100, the world's oldest 100-mile trail race, begins in Squaw Valley, California, weaves its way for 100.2 miles over mountainous terrain, through canyons and over the American River before ending in Auburn, California.
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.
"Definitely the later stages of the race, I know there are some sections of the race that may be more difficult for me," said Harrison, who struggled with some of the downhill portions last summer.
In preparation for today's race -- scheduled for a 5 a.m. start time -- Harrison stepped away from speed training and has focused exclusively on trail running since winning the Lake Sonoma 50-mile race in Healdsburg, California on April 12.
Harrison said the Lake Sonoma 50 -- also a trail race -- provided her a good opportunity to work on her downhill running, and she was able to get reacquainted with the Western States Trail during a four-day practice session held during the Memorial Day weekend.
"That was a successful weekend for me, so it helped my confidence a little bit," she said.
Harrison also figures to get an added boost from the presence of trainer Ian Torrence, who will serve as one of Harrison's crew members today along with her parents. Torrence, an accomplished runner in his own right, has several years of experience both racing and serving as a pacer at the Western States 100.
Torrence's experience has allowed the two to tailor Harrison's training program specifically for the challenges she'll face on the trail today, Harrison said.
"He's going to be crewing and pacing me again this weekend. It's just nice when he's familiar with the course," Harrison said of Torrence, who paced her for the final 38 miles of last year's race. "... When things get rough he can tell me how to get through that."
On Friday night, 399 total competitors were listed as entrants on the Western States 100 website, including the race's founder and ultramarathon pioneer, 67-year-old Gordy Ansleigh of Meadow Vista, California.
Five of the six women who placed in front of Harrison in last year's race -- including 2013's top female finisher Pam Smith (18:37.21 last year) of Salem, Oregon -- are competing in the event again this year.
"Some of the top women are back from last year, and there are some new women coming in this year, as well. As always, it's going to be good competition," Harrison said.
The weather for this year's race seems appears like it will be more favorable for the runners than last year, as temperatures are expected to top out around 90 degrees in the Western States Trail area. Last year the temperature reached a scalding 102 degrees.
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD