The Western States 100 champion returns to defend his title this weekend. Can he win it again in 2010?
Interview by: Duncan Larkin
There’s a video posted out on You Tube of last year’s Western States Endurance Run champion, Hal Koerner, sitting on a chair at the finish line shortly after he had just broken the tape. He’s laughing and smiling as the race director interviews him in front of the finish-line crowd. He definitely doesn’t look like someone who had just run 100 miles non-stop from dawn to dusk, climbing and descending a total of 41,000 feet on a treacherous course that was once thought fit only for a strong horse. Ultra running champions like Koerner make it look easy.
Every year, nearly 40 percent of Western States participants drop out of the race, which makes it one of the world’s toughest footraces. Race-day temperatures can climb into triple digits. The climbs are brutal. And after a few hours of running, so too are the descents. Koerner, 34, has won this race twice (2007 and 2009). He’s heading back to the race’s starting line in Squaw Valley, California this weekend to defend his title. But with a field chock full of the best the sport has to offer — with runners like 2010 Miwok 100K champion, Anton Krupicka, and Kilian Journet, the winner of the famed Tour du Mont Blanc — Koerner’s victory is anything but assured. Competitor.com caught up with Koerner while he was working at his running store, Rogue Valley Runners, in Ashland, Oregon.
Competitor.com: As the returning champion of the Western States 100, how are you feeling a few days before the race?
Hal Koerner: Well I’m excited to get back there to try and defend the title and see the spectacle that is Western States. The race has turned into this annual pilgrimage where everybody meets up. I get to run for a few hours hopefully with a lot of great competition and see how that unfolds, which will be great. I’ve had a little bit of a lingering foot problem. I rolled my ankle at a 50-miler in late April/early May. I’ve been trying to train hard through it. It’s still been a little bit stiff on me, but I have a feeling that by the time I get to Emigrant Pass and do that big climb in the first four miles, I’ll be warmed up. Hopefully the adrenaline will take over to help me forget about that. That’s the biggest thing going on, but yeah, I’m super excited.
Last year, everyone talked about how tough the field was and now this year, they say it’s going to be just as tough if not tougher with guys like Tony Krupicka, Geoff Roes, Killian Journet, Jez Bragg, and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki running with you. What’s your take on the field this year?
The last I heard, Jez Bragg wasn’t running and then the other day, I heard a rumor that Kaburaki wasn’t running. Even with that happening, even with those guys dropping off, it’s still going to be unbelievable. Last year, you had seven-time returning champ, Scott Jurek and Dave Mackey with an unbelievably fast time and then what happened was four rookies ended up placing in the top five, which was pretty amazing. I don’t see any reason why that can’t happen again. You’ve got a lot of people that can fly under the radar this year with people like Geoff Roes, Kilian, Tony [Krupicka], and myself being there. Some of those guys will slide in. They don’t have any expectations. I still think you will have a lot of guys going for it. And of course you’ll have the guys who are tried and true and have the experience and know how to handle the heat a little bit as well as where the course goes. My biggest thing is actually trying to find some photos of the course to see what it looks like now, because it’s so snowed in. I think people will have a really hard time finding their way and then there’s the slipping and sliding for the first 25 miles. That could set it up for a really interesting final 38 miles from Foresthill.
When you throw all the chaos with the conditions you mentioned into the mix, do you think that can be a bit of an equalizer in the race and could make it a much different race than last year?
Oh yeah, no doubt. I don’t think many guys have been training for that. If anything, most guys have been training for heat, putting in the miles as well. And all of a sudden, heat might not be such a big factor. Then there’s all that snow. I know most of us would prefer not to run on snow like that. It could be a big factor that could mix things up.
What kind of non-ultra marathoner are you?
A very inexperienced one, I’ll say that. I’ve run three marathons in my life. I ran the Seattle Marathon once. It was a couple weeks after a 100K. I ran it just because it was after Thanksgiving and so I figured I could burn off some calories. I was working for the Seattle Running Company at the time and they were sponsoring it. I thought, “Oh what a great event. I’ll just go run around Seattle in the morning.” And I ran really well up until mile 20, which I hit in 2:01. But at that point I just blew up. It’s that glaring reminder of the marathon “wall” — regardless of how many miles you train or run. I think I ended up running a 2:45 or something. I then ran the Redding Marathon, which is a rails-to-trails event. About a third of the marathon is on that; it’s really nice. It follows the Sacramento River. I ran like a 2:42 there. I went back there the next year and ran a 2:35. So that’s my fastest marathon — I ran a 2:35 once. Right after that, I got plantar fasciitis. My whole calf blew up, my foot blew up and I had one of my worst years of racing ever. That was in 2008. Luckily, there were fires at Western States that year and they didn’t have the race, because I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish. After that, I had given up running marathons. This year’s Western States will be my 100th ultra. And, so, I just have no desire to run marathons anymore.
Why is that? Is the pace of a marathon too much for that short of time compared to what you’re used to?
Not necessarily that so much. It’s just training on the roads. I don’t really like it and I think you have to do that to prepare for it. And then you also have to train really fast. You have to put in tempo miles and track workouts to get that leg speed up and for me, running is more about getting into the wilderness and pushing myself. I like long climbs and long descents. Hill climb events and mountain marathons in Colorado where I grew up were really the original motivators for me to start running. It wasn’t about the crowds. I’d rather go to a 50-person ultra than a 20,000-person marathon for sure. I don’t know, though. I’ve always waffled back and forth. I’ve always surrounded myself with ultra runners and trail runners, but if I surrounded myself with marathoners, I don’t know. I mean, I’d like to run in the 2:20s, but (I have) no delusions of grandeur doing anything faster than that, for sure.
In past interviews, you’ve talked about being in the lead and being scared. What’s it like to have , realistically, ten or more hours of running ahead of you and knowing that it’s your race to lose?
For the most part, mentally, you have to start breaking it down. I just really have to keep on my pace. It’s nice to have feedback from crew or pacers on the course, where they tell me I have like a five-minute or ten-minute lead. Otherwise, you are just running scared. I’ve done these long enough to know that once you’ve run 50 miles and have separation on people, no one is just going to all of a sudden catch you. It would take one hell of an effort for someone to catch you, let alone pass you and then start putting minutes on you. So it really comes down to whether or not I can keep my pace consistent and mentally keep hitting splits from aid station to aid station. I’ve run Western States before where I’ve gotten to areas where I’m just so beaten up and so tired and when I get to a rolling hill I tell myself that I’m going to speed hike it. There’s no more of that anymore. You are running every step. Even the tough climb from Rucky Chuck to Green Gate where you are going to go up almost a couple thousand feet around mile 80. The first couple times I did Western States, I told myself that I would never run that. And then finally, one year, I was like, “I just have to run that. I can’t let anyone make up that kind of time on me.” So there is that element of how nerve-wracking that whole thing is. You also play that game in your head where if someone does catch you, you say, “I’ll take it easy. I won’t panic. I’ll try to continue with my pace and won’t go with them.” I mean sure they will get some adrenaline, but that will be short-lived. So I just try to play that game. Unfortunately, you always find yourself questioning again and again what could happen. That somewhat helps, but I also try to say, “That’s far enough.” I just put on my headphones and just go. I try to tune that out a little bit and just run my race.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Right now I’m listening to John Butler Trio, Vampire Weekend, and Trampled by Turtles. Good stuff. It’s just like you got to have a lot of music in there when you are listening for seven hours.
What’s your take on minimalism now that it’s back in style?
Coming from someone who has a running store and looks at product, I think it’s pretty awesome that the industry can continue to innovate and go after something like that and push the envelope and question how is the best way to run and what are the best shoes to do that. Unfortunately, it’s just put out there in photos and small articles. For the most part, when people come in to see me, it’s like a cure-all — like the latest new blue gel cream — something you all of a sudden put on and feel better. And it’s not that. When I first started running, I wore really heavy trail shoes with shanks and plates for protection. Even when I ran in Colorado, that type of shoe was pretty good. But I also rolled my ankle a lot, so even for me in the last five-to-six years I’ve transferred to a minimalist shoe. I wear a racing flat for Western States. For me, that gets me lower to the ground and I don’t roll my ankle that much. And I’ve actually felt that I’ve started to incorporate a better stride. I feel like I’ve utilized better muscle groups. I feel stronger. My calves feel stronger. I feel like maybe I’m working my glutes a little bit more. So for me, getting into a minimalist shoe and almost going the lazy way and having the shoe do the work for me is kind of like by-proxy, because I really wore it to be close to the ground so that I wouldn’t roll my ankle and not have that high platform. It turned out to do a lot of great things for me. But you have to be careful. I’ve seen a lot of people get stress fractures and then people run in minimalist shoes and ramp up too quick and then you go back to square one with injuries that you originally started with. So there is a big push going on with minimalism. The shoe companies are marketing it. I think it’s a useful tool to help people be a little more successful in what they do, but they need to do it right.
What about the concept of minimalism in other areas? Like, for example, running with little water in training so that you can toughen the body to make due with less. What’s your take on minimalism when it comes to fluids and fueling?
I think there’s some validity in that. By all accounts, all we are doing is trying to harden the body. That is really what you are trying to do with running is getting it ready for the tests you are going to put it through. But there’s a fine line, where you also have to try and recover during your training runs. So it’s better to have fluids in you. It’s better to have carbohydrates in you. You are always preparing for the next day — to have the fuel so that you can go out and train hard again. Sometimes I feel that if you go too minimalist, you can get to that zone of depletion where, for the next few days, you just aren’t having a good run. For me, I have to replenish at some time. Whether it be on the run or afterwards, I really don’t see a difference. The other thing is that I train so that I’m ready. It’s hard. If you are just going to take in 20 ounces of water or more of water an hour in a race like Western States, where once you get into those canyons, it’s 90 to 100 degrees and you haven’t done that and then all of a sudden you are just dropping fluids, it’s not going sit with your stomach. Your stomach has got to be ready for that, the same way you wouldn’t just eat a hamburger at mile 80 either, unless you trained for it. For me, I know it’s unavoidable for some races; sure you could get by with virtually no water and push yourself to the end. And also, I like the idea of being a little freer when I run. That’s the beauty of running: just walking out the door from my store and getting on the trails without anything but a pair of shoes and shorts. But at the same time, you have to be prepared. For me, I don’t bring the kitchen sink, but at the same time, I’m always carrying GU and fluid and water for that reason specifically. I can’t do it otherwise. I feel I’m too big and fat and old. I weigh around 163 pounds right now. I like to be strong. I mean I head to the gym to lift weights. I do that to keep my arms strong to carry the fluid bottle, and for posture’s sake, too. I want to feel strong, where I can go down the hills and power through to the other side. There’re also some reserves. When you’re barreling though that many calories an hour and trying to make that long run, I just want to stay strong all around.
From reading your Wikipedia entry I thought you were 188 pounds.
Oh no. Someone might want to help me out with correcting that. [He laughs.]
So when you look at your weight, would you consider it a help or a hindrance?
I would say it’s almost more of a help. You don’t want to be fat, but at the same time I used to lift a lot of weights. And it’s hard to get rid of muscle mass. But still, I do think it does come in handy. I want to feel like I’m healthier when I’m training as opposed to when I’m not. I certainly know the advantages of being light. Even in this last month leading up to Western States, I’ve been trying to get my body to a level where it can perform better with a few extra pounds shed. At the same time, I don’t want to get sick. For carrying bottles and covering that much ground while tapping into reserves, maybe, to some degree, the weight might be helpful.
Where do you see yourself running-wise in the future? Do you want to qualify for a U.S. team?
That’s a good question. You know, I don’t. If they had a trail event, then, yes I would. I know they tried to work in a trail event. I went down to Sunmart [Texas] and tried to support that. Roger Soler tried to get that going, but it just doesn’t seem like it’s caught on as much. I don’t have too much of a passion to run on the roads, 100K or otherwise. I’m getting a little bit older. This is probably my last time at Western States for a little while. I’d like to go back to Leadville some day and follow up, because I finished second there twice. It would be nice to get that one. I’d like to go back to Wasatch [the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run in Utah] but I’m a little bit unprepared. I’d like to win some of the mountain races. Ideally, next year I’ll go to the Tour du Mont Blanc. Those are the big races on my schedule. Those are the events I enjoy and now they are really high profile, so I’d like to see those races grow and build on some other events, too.
How is your age  a factor in your racing?
I’ve got ten years of ultras under my belt. They don’t come easy any more. I think my experience is helping me even more now, doing the right thing when I’m out there. And a little bit of that is just performing well under pressure. You have to do that. Western States is not like any other 100-miler in that regard. There are all these people who can go out and run 100 miles now, but when you have to deal with the pressure and get put on the stage to race with the best guys who are not always at every other race, that makes things interesting.
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, has just been released.