The course description on the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run’s website has so many warnings it should come with a skull and crossbones.
“Since temperatures during the run can range from 20 degrees to above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, participants should be fully prepared for both extremes,” the website reads. “The remoteness of the trail can lead to disaster for anyone not experienced in the ‘backwoods.’ For your own well-being and survival, we recommend that you do not attempt a training run alone.”
Not exactly a warm invitation to one of the most grueling and oldest trail races in the U.S. Maybe that’s why San Luis Obispo’s Erik Dube, who will run in the race for the sixth time Saturday along with 387 others, knows he’s not also in the running for World’s Smartest Man.
“Like even sitting here, if I’m thinking 100 miles at one time, it sounds stupid,” Dube said slumped in a chair outside of Running Warehouse in SLO, the place he calls home during business hours.
But Dube, 41, will ignore his more intelligent instincts and attempt to run 100.2 miles in under 24 hours through the Sierra-Nevada mountain range when he takes on the race known as “the Boston of ultras.”
The ultramarathon, which started as a horse race before Gordy Ainsleigh got the bright idea to run the race alongside the horses, begins in Squaw Valley near the site of the 1960 Olympics and ends in Auburn. Along the way, the runners will scale 18,000 feet of rocky, rarely seen terrain and descend 23,000 feet before they reach the finish line.
In 2002, Dube stood at the starting line at 5 a.m. for the first time. He felt overwhelmed thinking about the 100-mile course in front of him, but once he got rolling, he felt good. Then, in the middle of mile 80, his body seized up like an engine without oil.
“I went out way too hard, I was undertrained,” said Dube who grew up running in the deserts of Twentynine Palms. “I ended up walking the last 20 miles and it was just a stagger the entire time.
“It took a long time but I finished.”
Since the disastrous first go-round, Dube finished his next five Western-100’s in under 24 hours (between 22:42:00 and 23:32:00), his goal again this year. Dube, who has lived in SLO for eight years, says he has ratcheted up his training in the past three months, sometimes running twice a day, logging anywhere from 60 to 100 miles per week in order to make the mark. It has been six years since he’s run the Western.
“I have two kids, I have a full-time job, because of time I’ve done 75 to 80 percent of my running in Johnson Ranch-Irish Hills right out here,” Dube says as he points to the land just two miles south of the store where he works as a shoe buyer.
With the training done, the father of two will now have to rely on years of experience and his six-person trail team that includes his twin brother Marc and wife/co-worker Tera, both Western-100 finishers, to get him through the course.
“There’s so many unknowns about what’s going to happen out there and that’s part of the fear that you have going in to a race like that,” said Tera, who has finished the race twice, including in 2014 when she finished in just under 28 hours.
Tera said digestion issues, altitude sickness and mental exhaustion are real concerns for her husband going into the race. And then there’s the heat.
“It looks like it going to be a hot year, which means temperatures on the course are gonna be chilly in the morning, maybe 50s, but during the heat of the day, when you’re in some pretty big canyons and you have some big climbs, it could be upwards of 100 to 105 degrees.”
The slightest misstep can also cause big problems. In 2006, when Tera was Erik’s pacer (each runner is given the option to use a “pacer”, someone to run beside them for a section of the race), she tripped and fell during the race.
“I actually broke a bone in my hand,” Tera said of the fall.
The danger and the distance are what makes the race intriguing to so many people, and also what makes brag-worthy material for the Dubes’ 4- and 9-year-old daughters.
“I think just recently our 9-year-old is understanding how far a hundred miles is,” Tera said. “As we drive the car, when we do 100 miles, ‘oh my god, you run this far? Wow.’ I think they think it’s pretty cool.”
Erik, who uses both incredible mental and physical strength to finish a race, says he will employ a tactic during the race that has worked well for him in the past: trick himself into running short races to each of the 20 aid stations.
“If you only break it up in to small sections then you’re thinking, ‘well, all I have to do is run for the next hour, maybe hour and a half,’ ” Erik said. “I don’t think I’m the fastest runner, I don’t think I’m that great on hills, I don’t think I’m that great of a downhill runner, but I’m a pretty consistent runner throughout the day and I’m pretty mentally tough when it gets late in the race.”
Even though Erik is getting later in the race of life, he shows no signs of slowing down. He can’t help it, he said, the challenge is like a drug.
“Everybody has their addiction and running is mine,” he said.
You can follow along with Dube’s progress during Saturday's race here.
To see more of the trail, check out this trailer for a movie from 2011 made about the race.