“Alex is extremely humble and far from the loudest voice in the crowd or on social media, so it can be easy to miss him. But make no mistake about it, when he’s racing, Alex likes to compete and he really likes to win.” – Brandon Stanpanowich, accomplished ultrarunner and Alex Nichols’ Western States training partner.
Alex “Axel” Nichols is not one for the limelight, but doesn’t shy away from showing up ready to roll at the most competitive stages in trail running. A resident of Colorado Springs, Colorado, Nichols has been training these past several months for what is referred to as “The Big Dance” of ultra trail running, The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, to be held June 26 to 27, 2021.
The race is one of the most competitive and historic ultras in the world and this year will see some of the best runners in the sport competing, including Jim Walmsley, Hayden Hawks, Clare Gallagher, Camille Herron, and many more. While attention may fall on these spotlight athletes, there’s no doubt Nichols will manage to remain his usual “dark horse” self and show up quietly at the start ready to toe the line with the best of the best for a shot at the win.
Despite Nichols’ humble persona and relatively quiet social media presence, he is no stranger to winning trail races on the biggest stage. He’s had a long and versatile career, winning everything from short uphill races to long ultras. He was named the 2015 USATF Ultra-Trail Runner of the Year, is a 2-time winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon, winner of the Mont Blanc 80K, won his first 100 mile race, the Run Rabbit Run and led the U.S. men’s team to a silver medal at the 2015 Trail World Championship.
2017 Western States: A Learning Experience
Nichols has already run Western States once, where he placed second in 2017, despite the race not going exactly to plan. “I was hoping to really run and pick up the pace in the later sections of the race where it’s relatively flat, but I started to feel sick and couldn’t keep eating. It was pretty rough from there.” It also didn’t help that Nichols’ main source of nutrition was transformed from the intense California heat into a pile of mush. “I went into Western States with a similar nutrition plan to what I used for my first 100 mile race, Run Rabbit Run. I did well there eating fun-sized candy bars because these felt more like real food than chews and gels. I tried that at Western States and it was a disaster. Everything melted into a bag of chocolate mush. I tried to eat it at one point and just gave up.” Being drastically short on calories was not something Alex had anticipated.
We cover more of Nichols’ training for his first Western States in our “Western States 100 or Bust” video series, that highlights some of Nichols’ quirkier training methods including hot tub running during a Colorado May snowstorm and his heat training in a VW van while drinking hot tea. All in all, placing second in one of the country’s most competitive ultras, despite things not going to plan, is nothing short of incredible. Looking forward to Western States 2021, one thing is for certain; Nichols will need to find a new method to keep his candy bars cool!
[PRO TIP: For more about Alex’s 2017 Western States training, see our video playlist “Western States or Bust with Alex Nichols” below]
Western States Training: Pikes Peak Streak and Trial of Miles
Nichols’ training is looking better than ever. “Surprisingly I’ve had zero serious injuries since last June. I’ve unintentionally had a running streak going. I don’t think I’ve ever been injury free for this long in my entire running career.” He also recognizes that this is first time in his career where training has taken priority over racing, even if not intentionally, “Due to the pandemic, I’ve only run three races in the past year. These races all went well and I set a 50-mile personal record (PR) of 6 hours and 10 minutes that felt great. Overall, my training has been the best ever, even if I haven’t set specific goals along the way.”
In addition to Nichols’ recent running streak, there is another impressive streak that he plans to keep alive going into Western States and beyond: The Pikes Peak Streak. For the past 43 months (since October 2017), Nichols has made a monthly ascent of one of Colorado’s most iconic 14,000-foot peaks, Pikes Peak. Although it may not be the most specific type of training Nichols does for Western States, it’s something he believes will help prepare him on race day (and is also perhaps the type of crazy endurance challenge that few of his competitors could match).
“My Pikes Peak ascents have definitely helped my training for Western States. My April summit was particularly challenging and snowy. There were no tracks to follow and I was the only person to go up the mountain in a long while. Above the tree-line, there was so much snow that I had to use snowshoes on the route for the first time ever. Roughly halfway back down, I recall feeling so slow and I was bonking my brains out. I had the thought, ‘This is probably good training for how Western States is going to feel.’ Learning how to manage the feeling of struggling after hours of running is beneficial to have. It’s a feeling I expect will hit me during Western States.”
When I asked if he would still be able to complete his monthly ascent this June before Western States, he responded quickly with a confident, “Yes,” and added that he may add some miles along the way to make it a longer training day.
“When in doubt, do more.” This is the principle that has guided Nichols’ training for 100-mile races. “For my first 100-mile race, Run Rabbit Run, I adopted this mantra for my training: “When in doubt, do more.” This worked well for me there and that’s still the attitude I have going into any 100-mile race now. I’ll run as much as I can in training, do a few specific long runs, and remember that getting more time on my feet running is what’s most important.”
Due to his work schedule as interim head cross country coach at the local liberal arts college, Colorado College, Nichols trains mostly alone. The one exception is his close friend Brandon Stapanowich, who also lives by the motto “when in doubt, do more” and has completed many extreme endurance challenges including setting a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the 485-mile long Colorado Trail and ran many of the monthly Pikes Peak ascents with Nichols.
Stapanowich writes about his experiences training with Nichols, “As far as training with him goes, when we run together, it is generally with a good effort but the focus is on catching up and talking about work and life and family. His interests are diverse and he loves to talk about running just as much as gardening, coaching, film and beer. At a moment’s notice though, Alex could drop me, though he mercifully chooses not to. So, while competition is a big reason why he races, it’s not the only reason he runs.”
Recovering From UTMB Disappointments and Finding His Next Big Competition
With Nichols’ training going better than ever and races happening again after the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, one might wonder: “Out of all the races to choose from, why run Western States?”. “My decision to run Western States this year came about because of a bad experience at the 2018 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).” Looking back at Nichols’ 2018 season, it was overall a great year, which made his experience at UTMB even more unexpected and disappointing.
Leading up to the 2018 UTMB, Nichols had placed second at the Vibram Hong Kong 100k, set a course record at the Collegiate Peaks 50 Mile and ran the supported Fastest-Known-Time (FKT) on one of Colorado’s hardest running routes, the Nolan’s 14. He felt fit and ready to take on the world’s largest and most competitive ultra-trail race, The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, held in Chamonix, France.
What he wasn’t prepared for was a traumatic fall upon taking off from the starting line that would lead to a DNF (Did Not Finish). Nichols writes about the experience in his article, “Learning From Disappointment,” excerpted here,
“The tape dropped and the mass of humanity mixed with carbon-fiber trekking poles lurched forward. As we all bolted, I tried to swing left to avoid the congestion of the first sharp turn to the right. Suddenly I was on the ground. Someone had swept my foot out from behind me and I found myself staring at cobblestones. Feet flashed through my vision as other runners jumped over my face. I instantly thought of the thousands of other feet ready to trample me if I didn’t find a way out of the chaos. I log-rolled to a retaining fence, got to my feet, and was back to running at full speed in a few seconds. My shorts were torn and I noticed blood along the left side of my leg, hip, and shoulder, but with adrenaline shooting through me I felt no pain. I pushed myself on the first climb. As the adrenaline faded, a pain in my hip became more obvious. Kilometers passed but the pain grew, my iliotibial band locked up, and my run became a slow walk. I accepted my DNF.”
The race took its toll on Nichols even more mentally than physically. “In the days that followed, I thought constantly about how this had happened and what could have been. I had traveled across the world and my race ended in the first few steps. The days turned into weeks of self-pity. My hip healed but I was not motivated to run more than a mile or two at a time.” Nichols managed to find meaning in his running again through continuing his monthly Pikes Peak ascents and shifting his mental focus to other challenges that kept him in a positive headspace.
Now, with the fall nearly three years behind him, Western States 2021 marks one of the most competitive races Nichol’s has entered since his UTMB disappointment. Nichols explains his decision to gear up for Western States this year, “I always try to get into the most competitive race I can. It comes with being a naturally competitive person I guess. Due to the travel, it can be difficult to race in Europe, especially if you’re not there for a long time in advance. So, instead of running UTMB again, I reevaluated what race I could run that’s still competitive. Western States made perfect sense.”
Final Preparations and Following Nichols’ 2021 Western States Journey
Looking forward to race day less than a week away, Nichols is taking what he’s learned from his experience in 2017 and hopes to have an even better performance. “I’m trying to learn from the mistakes I made last time and I know for sure I need to be ready for the last twenty to thirty-five percent of the course. Many runners focus on preparing for the Canyons section, which can be challenging because it’s steep and hot, but I think it might be even more important to focus on the later sections of the course. If you focus on feeling good in those sections, the course gets flatter and if you’re able to really run fast, you’ll make up a lot of time on other competitors.”
Stananowich shares his insights into how Nichols approaches competition and has managed to show up time and time again to run well on race day, “Whether we’re talking about the Pikes Peak Marathon, Black Canyon Ultras, Western States, or any other race he’s been in, what you’ll observe and glean from talking with him is that he has a high racing acumen. He knows how to train specifically and is in touch with precisely what his body can do. He knows when to back off his training due to a threatening injury and how to come back to consistently higher volume when the time is right. On race day, Alex exercises the same sound judgment and knows when to attack and when to not get caught up in the moves of others. More often than not, this awareness of “the long game” has led to a recipe for success as he tends to not be the one pushing the pace in the beginning. Rather, he merely maintains contact with the leaders and gradually works his way up to the front.”
With past Western States mistakes learned from, UTMB disappointments overcome and his training looking better than ever, Nichols is certainly one to watch at this year’s “Big Dance.” Stay tuned for our coverage of Nichols at the Western States 100 Mile race as we follow him on course and will be providing live Twitter updates from several aid stations. This year’s race is not one to miss and is sure to be an exciting reunion among some of the world’s best ultra-trail athletes. Happy ‘Statesmas’ and let’s go Axel!
For more Western States content, read my recent interview with several past Team USA members headed to Western States and look for our follow up with these athletes after the race.