Just a few weeks after “The Big Dance” of American ultra-trail running competitions — The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run — we catch up with top-ten finisher Alex Nichols who reflects on his race experience. Nichols, an accomplished trail runner sponsored by Scott Running, placed second at this event in 2017 and went into the 2021 event feeling even stronger.
In the following interview, Nichols shares his thoughts on how his race went, how he managed his low points, how this year’s event compared to his 2017 performance and what he will take going forward from this experience.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] First off, congratulations on your tenth-place finish. How do you feel about your race now that you’ve had time to reflect?
[ALEX NICHOLS] I definitely wish I could have executed my plan better and finished with a faster time, but right now I mainly just feel grateful. Once my race went south, I was able to open my eyes in a new way and really appreciate the race and all of the support I received out there. It’s really an incredible team effort of the race staff, volunteers, friends, and crew just to get each- person across the line in Auburn. I feel very lucky that I got to be on the receiving end of so much support.
[TAYTE] I know you’re a competitive person with expectations to place highly at even the most competitive trail races in the world. Did you ever feel like a win was in your sights on the day? Is your tenth place finish satisfying or did you hope for more?
[ALEX] When I was about halfway through the canyons, I caught both Jared Hazen and Tim Tollefson and moved into third. They were going through bad patches while I was still feeling pretty good. I was kind of surprised by my position at that point, and that Hayden Hawks wasn’t too far in front of me. At that moment I felt like a top two finish was totally possible.
Just as I started to get excited about that idea, my body shut down and I knew I needed to readjust my expectations. A few miles after Foresthill (mile 62 – Google Streetview above), I had no concern for my finish position, just to finish in under 24 hours. I honestly had no idea that I was in the top ten until Kyle Curtin passed me and told me I was in tenth. At that point, my pacer Elliot and I agreed that we should pick up the pace a bit to hold on to the tenth-place spot.
[TAYTE] I thought you ran an extremely smart race. When I saw you at Michigan Bluff, Mile 55, you looked strong and the heat didn’t seem to be affecting you. You seemed to be speeding up as many of your other competitors in the top ten were slowing down. How did you feel during this section of the race? Was it your strategy to speed up in the second half of the race?
[ALEX] My strategy had been to make sure I could still run fast in the last twenty miles when the course flattens out. Those are some of the easiest miles on the entire course, and I wanted to take advantage of them. Ultimately I couldn’t do that because my initial splits were just way too fast. At Michigan Bluff (video below) I was still holding on and feeling pretty good, but then those faster splits really caught up to me in the next ten miles. It was amazing how quickly everything went from good to very bad.
[TAYTE] Did your pre-race nutrition/hydration strategy pan out as expected? Looking back now, is there anything you’d like to have done differently?
[ALEX] I think my strategy for nutrition and hydration was pretty solid this year, actually much better than 2017. The only thing I underestimated was my fluid intake. I found myself wanting more fluids at my crew spots than I had originally planned on needing, probably because it was a very warm day with temperatures over 100 degrees.
[TAYTE] Let’s talk about your low-points. I know you had some unexpected rough patches in the second half of the race. This was the opposite from last time you raced Western States in 2017 when you described feeling relatively good in the second half of the race. Take us through your low points this year and how you managed them. What would you do differently?
[ALEX] I hit a huge low point after Foresthill. I was walking the downhills and stopping to sit on the side of the trail. I ran out of water and had to slow down because I was getting dizzy, but that just meant going even slower and being out of water for longer. It was a cycle that had me walking more and more slowly while getting more and more dehydrated. It was essentially the end of my competitive race.
When I finally walked into the Rucky Chucky aid station I knew that my race was over, but I had made a pact with myself to get a silver buckle. With the help of my crew, I was able to get a lot of fluids down and make it back onto the course. I really think the only way I could have avoided slowing down and getting dehydrated as I did would have been to run the first part of the race easier. That way I could have been running faster between aid stations later in the race and would have spent less time stumbling around in the sun without any water left in my pack.
[TAYTE] What were some of the highlights of your race?
[ALEX] I had a blast running through the high country with Drew Holmen and Max King. We stayed together for close to 30 miles. In hindsight, we might have run some of those sections too quickly, but I think we were all grooving on the trail together. Those miles felt less like racing and more like doing a long run with friends. It was so great to hear that Drew had held on and finished third.
[TAYTE] How does this race compare to your 2017 race at Western States? Was one race harder than the other?
[ALEX] I would actually say that 2017 was a harder race for me. I had to really push myself for the last 30 miles to stay in second place that year. After my race blew up this year, I didn’t push myself in the same way. It was still a struggle to make it to the finish but I wasn’t running scared like I was in 2017.
[PRO TIP: Check Tayte’s post-race interviews with several Team USA athletes after the 2021 Western States 100 Mile.]
[TAYTE] Do you feel that you were able to remedy some of the mistakes we discussed you experienced in 2017?
[ALEX] I think this year my mistakes were different than 2017 and actually much worse. I made tactical decisions that were not a part of my race strategy. There were just a lot of major mistakes that led to the race it was.
[TAYTE] Take us through how your crew and pacers helped you throughout the race. What did it mean to you to have them there?
[ALEX] I had my wife Maddy take care of the normal crew spots and a group of Colorado College runners take some of the harder-to-reach crew aid stations. It was incredibly helpful to have them there. It meant that I could carry less with me between crew stations. It’s also a huge mental boost to know that I get to see a familiar face in just a few miles. Each time I got to those crew aid stations it was like picking up a bunch of positive energy. Even when I was doubting myself, my crew was so encouraging. I had no option but to keep going with them around.
[TAYTE] What is one thing you learned from this race that will help you going forward into your next competition?
[ALEX] I think I relearned just how easy a 100-mile race should feel at the start. This is my first 100-mile finish since 2017, and I ran it kind of like a rookie. Next time I race 100 miles I can look back on this experience to understand what not to do.
[TAYTE] How are you recovering from Western States? What’s next on your race calendar?
[ALEX] My legs are feeling good these days but my immune system was pretty suppressed from the race and I ended up catching a pretty bad cold. It’s now almost two weeks after the race and I just did my first little run. I’m looking forward to getting back into more races once I get over this cold.
[TAYTE] A top 10 finish earns you a spot into Western States 2022. Do you have your sights set on this race again?
[ALEX] It’s probably too soon to tell if I will race it again in 2022. There are positives and negatives to it, so it might take me a while to decide.