RDRC Interview with Stella Tsui and PS Sim
The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WSER) is the world’s oldest 100-mile (160.9 kilometres) trail race, starting in Olympic Valley, California, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and ending further west in Auburn, California. Competitors climb more than 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) and descend nearly 23,000 feet (7,010 meters), dealing with high altitude (over 2,600 meters) at the start, and blazing temperatures during the second half of the course. Reuben Cheang was the first Singaporean to finish Western States, in 2019, and within 26 minutes of each other, on the morning of 26th June, Stella Tsui and Sim Phei Sunn (PS) became the second and third finishers from Singapore, and the first women. In this year’s race, there were 305 finishers from 383 starters, and 78 runners finished within the Western States’ “Golden Hour”, the last 60 minutes before the cut-off, earning bronze belt buckles for their sub-30-hour finishes. The Golden Hour finishers included both Stella, in 29:25:27, and PS, in 29:51:02. After their return to Singapore, Stella and PS answered a few of our questions about the race.
RDRC: How did you both get started in ultrarunning?
PS: I started running ultras in 2007 with local Singapore events such as the MR Ultra and the first Sundown Marathon, and I was hooked from the start. I realised that while I was not a fast runner, I could last quite a long time. Ultra-running – especially 100K+ trail ultras – has a different vibe and buzz from the shorter road distances. It is less about counting every second against one another, and much more communal, with many shared experiences with fellow participants. And I’m lazy, lah! I don’t like to pant and heave, so long slow ultras are perfect for me!
Stella: I like running, I run regularly, and as my mileage increased, I tried to look for new challenges. I did my first road race in 2014, then tried a trail run, and realised that I prefer running on trails to the road. Mountains are tall, races are tough, and that makes me keep trying, and gives me more joy if I complete a greater challenge. Ultrarunning for me is not about speed, but overcoming obstacles and leaving negative thoughts behind. At the same time, nature teaches us to be humble; sometimes ultrarunning is just about surviving.
RDRC: What is your typical training week when you're preparing for an ultra, and before WSER did you feel that you were well prepared?
Stella: I don’t have a coach to help me to plan my ultra-race training. I just train based on experience, and for WSER, maybe my training wasn’t so effective, and maybe I can improve in the future. Starting from three months before races, I usually run about five times a week, including trail running one or two times on the weekends, plus home workouts. In my peak week, three weeks before my race, I usually run about same distance as the race I’m preparing for, and after that is tapering.
PS: I train with Andy Dubois of Mile 27. WSER has more downhill than up, and because downhill running is a weakness for me, we focused a fair bit on getting my legs used to running downslopes. A typical training week for me has five running days, comprising track intervals to increase my threshold, easy recovery runs, two sets of hill intervals, and long easy hills. The 30-hour cutoff was definitely a challenge, and we started preparing once we knew that I had a high chance of getting through the waitlist. It would not be an easy race, but I went knowing that I had prepared well.
Stella, during an early climb.
RDRC: What was your nutrition strategy, and were you able to stick to it? Were there any other bits of gear you were very happy to have had with you, or wished you had brought with you?
Stella: I have a very weak stomach that has been historically very sensitive to artificially flavoured drinks during long distance races. I prefer real food for sure, and my plan was try to drink water and eat other food in the aid stations, plus carry some gels if I needed more energy for climbing. I was worried about my stomach before the race; I really hoped not to throw up. All I consumed in that 30 hours were: 2 Mag-On energy gels, two energy bars, a cup of soymilk, 2 cups of organic coconut water, salt tablets, 2 packs of Nature’s Path instant oatmeal, a lots of fruit in the aid stations, a few pieces of potato, half a pancake, and around 3 cans of coke, 2 cans of ginger ale and water. Obviously this is really a bad example of a nutrition plan in a 100-miler, these are nowhere near enough calories for 100 miles. True, I didn’t throw up, but I didn’t have energy to go fast.
PS: I generally rely on real/solid food during ultras and do not have a fixed or calculated nutrition plan. Thankfully I did not have any GI issues during this race, and was able to take the food at the aid stations, e.g. fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, rice-and-broth. I typically suck on hard candies to keep my sugar level up.
RDRC: WSER competitors can run with a pacer after the Foresthill aid station (mile 62), or if it's dark (8:00 p.m.) at Michigan Bluff (mile 56), they can be joined by a pacer from that point. Did you have a pacer/pacers? And if yes, was it a friend? Or a volunteer provided for overseas athletes by the organizers? And how did things go with your pacer?
PS: I managed to link up with my pacer, Mansour, via the WSER runner-pacer portal. He is a local runner, a volunteer at one of the aid stations, and had also completed WSER before. As a result, he was super-familiar with the route and terrain. We had a couple of phone calls before the race during which he talked me through the route and told me what to look out for, then during the race, he roped in his friends (Steve and Youa) to help with my pacing and crewing, and everyone was very experienced in every aspect of race support. I’m super-grateful for their help and company, and for getting me across the finish line.
Stella: WSER was my first time racing with a pacer. My pacer was an experienced ultrarunner who had completed WSER, and volunteered for many years, he was actually the person who marked the last 20 miles of the course this year. I found him through the WSER website, we only met once before the race, but he was very friendly and made me feel like running with an old friend I knew for a long time. I was lucky to have him guiding the way and complete the last 40 miles together.
RDRC: Can you talk us through the race, in the context of meeting your interim pacing targets, and in terms of how the reality of the race differed from the plan you had at the start?
Stella: Western States was my first race after the pandemic, following two-and-a-half years without racing. I forgot, really, how to really prepare for a race. I was just focused on bring my fitness level back, but didn’t think about the race course and I had no idea how hot 40°C really is. There is one thing I didn’t do well and wish I could have done better – run in the heat. The hot and dry weather on this course was far worse than I imagined, and it was the hottest day on which I’ve ever run; running under the hot sun for more than 10 hours was suffocating to me. In fact, in the afternoon I couldn’t run and just walked.
As I said before, I was worried about my stomach, and during WSER I had minor heat exhaustion, but luckily didn’t throw up.
Also, I tried to save some energy to run at night, but what punched me down during the race wasn’t just the hot sun; the cold after the river crossing at 3 a.m. was something I didn’t expect at all. I was trembling after the river crossing, my hands and feet were cold and I struggled for more than an hour. I walked very slowly up to the next hilltop checkpoint, drank something hot, then continued my race. I didn’t think much about this race detail, and I didn’t put any extra layers or a towel in my drop bag after crossing the American River.
Hundred-mile trail races are long and can throw a lot of unpredictable things at you. I needed to be resilient. When I crossed the finish line after 29 hours and 25 mins to earn that beautiful belt buckle, I hadn’t managed to run fast, but the experience was wonderful.
PS: I had planned for a 29-hour finish, with a buffer for delays and aid stations, etc., but that went up in smoke when I was already 30 minutes “late” to the first aid station. By the 3rd or 4th aid station, I was even behind schedule for a 30-hour finish. Throughout the first 100K, my timing was hovering 20-30 minutes beyond the 30-hour cutoff time, but after that I gradually clawed back time, and eventually I finished nine minutes before the cutoff.
RDRC: Were there any points at which you were struggling, and had to take time out? Or points at which you worried you might not be able to finish?
PS: All the time? 😉 There was no time to stop to rest. I pretty much ran through all the aid stations with just a quick water refuel and grabbed some munchies. The segment just before Robinson Flat (50K) was a struggle when the heat hit me really hard in the exposed canyon. I was low on electrolytes and water, and felt very sluggish. I managed to load up and cool down with the help of my crew, and could get moving after that. I was chasing the clock non-stop right up to the final minutes. There was the nagging worry that I might not finish, but I also did not have time to entertain that thought! I was just focused on moving along as best as I could.
RDRC: At what point, if at all, did you think to yourself, "I got this!"?
PS: Oh gosh, not until literally the last section, 2 kilometres away from the finish line at Placer High School! Right up to that point, I was still doing mental calculations in my head. Until then I thought I had more distance to complete, and was very relieved to find out that I was in the home stretch.
Stella: After Robie Point, less than 5 kilometres to the finish line, I was moving very slowly under the hot sun, and as I passed 29 hours I was thinking, “Well, Golden Hour finisher is not that bad, I will enjoy more cheering when I cross the line!”
It's (not) downhill all the way! 😂😂😂
RDRC: Having finished Western States in under 30 hours, would you do anything differently if you ran it again?
Stella: If I get to do this race again, I will be focusing a lot more on heat training.
PS: Hahaha, I’m not sure I would try it again, but I will cherish the experience of having been a part of this classic 100-miler.
RDRC: How did you feel after you crossed the finish line? And what about during the next 24 or 48 hours? Any recovery issues?
PS: I was immensely relieved because I finished with just 9 minutes to spare. Very soon after, the crowds started cheering for the last runners. It was very close, and I am glad to be a finisher. Being the first pair of female finishers from Singapore with Stella was a nice bonus.
Surprisingly, I was quite okay after the race despite all the downhill running. I had to pack up and drive to the airport the next day to catch my long flight back to Singapore. Wearing my compression tights on the flight helped with my leg fatigue and recovery.
Stella: No, I wasn’t feeling too bad. I recovered fast because I ran slow.
RDRC: So, having knocked off Western States, what events are near the top of your bucket list right now? Anything big planned for later this year or 2023?
Stella: My bucket list includes Hardrock 100 and Rinjani 100, but I don't need to run those races any time soon. I have no race plan for 2023 yet, but I would like to hike or explore some Southeast Asia mountains later this year.
PS: I’m headed to Chamonix for UTMB (171 kilometres) in August. This will be my second time. I finished UTMB in 2016, but I really love the race atmosphere, so I’m going back again.