Photos by Matt Trappe.
Toeing the line of the legendary Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run is not an easy feat. Obtaining one of the 381 starter positions is an ultramarathon in and of itself. Finding and successfully completing one of the qualifying races in the allotted time is just the first step. Being selected in a lottery of thousands is the next. Getting to the start line healthy, without nagging injuries from the thousands of miles of training and racing is yet another. But a few months ago, Strava held a contest to award one lucky athlete with a prize many runners could only dream of: a coveted starting position at the historic Western States 100.
Alison Chavez has an incredible, inspiring and unique story. Of the hundreds that entered Strava’s contest, she was the athlete chosen to start Western States 100 on June 25th, 2016. She’s a seasoned competitor, having completed over 150 endurance events over the last decade, and a dedicated athlete juggling a tough training schedule over the years with multiple visits to the mountains each week while balancing a more-than-full-time position as an attorney. But on July 8th, 2013, two weeks before her first attempt at the 100 mile distance at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, Alison’s life took a significant detour.
“I was winding things down at work on a Friday night when I felt a stinging sensation near my armpit on my left breast. I thought it might be a bug bite – probably from a recent trail run – and I poked around a bit and felt a lump. I called a few friends, and they all tried to calm me down and tell me that it had to be a cyst. You can’t feel cancer, they assured me. Still, I was worried, and made an appointment with a doctor. A few weeks (and tests) later, I was diagnosed with stage 2/3 invasive ductal carcinoma, a common, but aggressive, form of breast cancer.”
A testament to Alison’s incredible drive, she started the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 two weeks after her diagnosis. “I was starting chemo three days after the race, so I was in a bit of a state of shock, but I toed the line anyway.” She managed to crank through 68 tough mountain miles before succumbing to exhaustion.
I think that what happened (besides the cancer stress and pain in my chest) is that I just didn’t know how low or tired one can get in a 100-mile race.
Alison didn’t let this or her cancer deter her from her goal of completing a tough mountain 100.
“Over the next two years, I endured seven major surgeries and twenty rounds of chemotherapy. My team of doctors believe that because I went into treatment as a runner with a high level of endurance and tolerance for pain, I was able to get through it all much easier than the average patient. During treatment, I continued to work and train (when I could) and I even raced a few times (from 5k’s to 18-mile trail races) – in an effort to maintain some level of normalcy in my life and not feel like a sick cancer patient (even though I was). My last major surgery was in July of 2015, and five months later I ran my first 100-mile race on a looped flat course. It took me 36 hours (which is a long time for a flat race), but I did it!
“With that confidence under my belt – surviving my illness and surviving my first 100-mile run – I went back to the mountains and started training to race an approved Western States qualifying run once again. Months later, I finished my first 100k mountain race (Cuyamaca 100k) in the Santa Ana Mountains and earned my first Western States 2016 lottery ticket.”
With her incredible comeback after years of cancer treatment and a Western States 100 qualifying race complete, Alison was able to accept Strava’s offer to join the ranks of the chosen few in Squaw Valley on June 25th, 2016. With her experience and drive, Alison was right back to training with a laser focus on The Big Dance.
“I spent a lot of time in the heat and the hills, so I really just continued working on that – heat, hills, climbing and descending, but I put a little bit more structure into my training. I tried to keep in line with the 80/20 method (80 easy HR miles, 20 hard – tempo, hills, speedwork, etc.). I tried to work on speed and turnover 1-2 times a week, mainly on the dreadmill, but I work long hours, so I can’t run outside every single day. I spent a LOT of time on Mt. Wilson – just going up and down, usually before work. I love being above the clouds before work, even though it makes for a very long day! I peaked once in February, then got injured, then peaked again in May (running over 300 miles that month), and then I kicked off my taper last week with Ironman 70.3 Hawaii (it’s only a 13 mile run – so that’s “tapering”, right?).”
If you look at Alison’s activities, you’ll see that she’s not playing around. Endless hours of training on top of her full-time career posed a major challenge.
“I constantly feel guilty for not spending more time with my family and friends. I wish that I could spend more time with the people that were so supportive of me when I was sick (they know who they are). But after training in the morning for 2-3 hours and then commuting to work, working 10+ hours, then going to yoga, and then commuting home – well, there goes the whole day – or at least 19-ish hours of it.
I know that I need to sleep more and maintain a better sense of balance … I’m working on it.
Alison has been able to build a solid training block going into Western States. She was even able to attend the notoriously fun and challenging, “Western States 100 Training Weekend,“ a back-to-back-to-back 30/20/20 mile weekend that comes weeks before the race (Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3).
“The runs were so incredibly well-organized, and the sponsors and volunteers were all amazing – the whole weekend was a definite highlight of my training thus far. I didn’t have a chance to meet Craig Thornley in person (he was always very busy, of course), but I did get to have lunch with Gordy after the river “swimming” that we did, and that was awesome!
“The last run of WS Training Camp weekend was amazing. Our legs were tired and it was hot, but I decided that for Day 3 (as opposed to Days 1 and 2, where I took about 100 pictures of the course), I would put my phone away and stop taking pictures – and just see if I could keep up with the mid-pack – and I did! This was a confidence booster as well … a little one. I’m still a bit terrified, but I suppose that we all are!”
After scouting the course during the camp, Alison was able to design her simple yet sound race-day game-plan.
“I plan to start out easy and stay that way through Michigan Bluff. If I have anything extra in my step there, I will try to kick it up a notch a bit to Foresthill … and then I will try to just continue to race smart the rest of the way – run the flats and downs, hike the ups, be in and out of aid stations within a decent amount of time, do NOT sit down, stay awake, and make it to sunrise – make it through that witching hour, within cut-offs. If I can do that, then I think I will be hearing that announcer call my name before 11am [the final cutoff]. It’s so hard to predict, so I haven’t given much thought to it – I can only do what I can do at that time, with a good attitude, and try to race smart, and see what happens. Something always goes right, then goes wrong, then goes right, then goes wrong again – it’s not a predictable journey. But then neither is life, right?”
Alison Chavez has inspired countless others and proven that anything is possible despite any setback life throws at you. As she heads for the starting line in Squaw Valley and focuses on the 100 mile journey, surely her sights are set on earning the coveted Western States 100 buckle after rounding the track at Placer High School in Auburn.
I can’t believe that I was chosen to toe the line with all of these amazing athletes and people – plus many of my best friends. I still can’t believe that I am going up as the athlete and not as part of someone’s crew. I am running States – pinch me now!