Grit, determination (and lots of soda) fuel Brett Sherfy to Western States finish

Brett Sherfy finished Western States in 27 hours, 7 minutes and 54 seconds.

Blacksburg’s Brett Sherfy achieved a running goal seven years in the making when he finished the 2021 Western States 100-mile Trail Run in California last month.

To get there, the 33-year-old Christiansburg High School math teacher’s grit helped him overcome scorching temperatures, a stomach that refused to keep down solid foods the last 38 miles (“I survived on soda”), and a one-year pandemic postponement.

The race didn’t go exactly as he envisioned — of course, ultras never do — but the end was perfect.

He crossed the finish line on the track at Placer High School in Auburn, California — 27 hours, 7 minutes and 54 seconds after starting it the day before at Olympic Valley ski resort — running with his wife Michelle, who had paced him the last six miles.

“That was awesome because she has supported me so much over the past seven years to make sure I was able to run a qualifier to put my name in the hat for Western States and it was cool for her to get to see some of the course, including No Hands Bridge at mile 97 and Robie Point at 98.9 miles, and then running onto the track with me.”

Brett’s Ultrasignup profile chronicles an impressive list of ultra accomplishments. In recent years, he completed: the Pinhoti 100 Miler; the Umstead 100 Miler (seven times!); Hellgate 100K; the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler; the Eastern Divide 50K; the Terrapin Mountain 50K; and the Mill Stone 50K.

But Western States had remained an unchecked box on his bucket list.

Western States bills itself as the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race — think of it as the ultrarunning version of the Boston Marathon. Just making it to the starting line is a huge accomplishment and a bit of luck. Runners must complete a qualifying 100-mile race each year just to become eligible for the race’s annual lottery. 

In 2019, in his sixth year of trying, Brett finally got lucky with Western States. Out of more than 6,000 applicants, he was one of about 350 runners picked to toe the line in 2020. (The number of tickets for each runner in the lottery is based on how many times they have entered so his odds increased each year.)

Then COVID came and the 2020 race was cancelled. He had to wait one more year to use that winning lottery ticket to make it to “States.”

Finally, on June 26, 2021, he toed the line in Olympic Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, lined up not too far behind ultra running pros that included Jim Walmsley, Jared Hazen, Beth Pascall and Clare Gallagher. 

A quiet moment before the start.

He was excited and a little nervous. “Having applied for so many years and having run so many qualifiers it felt like there was so much riding on the race and getting to the finish,” he said.

The rugged course (following trails used by gold and silver miners of the 1850s) climbs more than 18,000 feet and descends more than 22,900 feet, testing runners in so many ways.

Brett’s No. 1 goal: Enjoy the experience.

“That was my highest priority goal going into race day and I tried to remind myself of that throughout the race.”

His race plan: Start conservative. Stay “relaxed” for the first 60 miles. 

“Having gone out and run the Western States training weekend over Memorial Day, I had seen the last 70 miles of the course and knew that after Forest Hill (mile 62) the course was very runnable IF I had the legs to run,” he said.

To combat the record-breaking 100+ degree temperatures sweeping the West Coast that weekend, he purchased an “iced” hat with a drawstring on the top that could be loaded with ice at each aid station. “That was a lifesaver. I also wore arm sleeves which the aid station volunteers would shove ice down,” he said.

Brett takes a break at mile 30.

Race organizers had purchased 320,000 pounds of ice for 320 runners. With 20 aid stations it worked out to be five pounds of ice per runner, per aid station.

Brett’s nutrition plan: Rely primarily on the new Gu liquid energy gels (provided at aid aid stations), along with traditional Gu gels and Gu Rocktane electrolyte drink mix. He figured he could also supplement, as needed, with solid foods provided at the aid stations.

“That’s not how it played out but that was the plan,” he said.

Brett realized by mile 30 that reaching his 24-hour time goal probably wasn’t going to happen.

“I quickly switched to a 29:59:59 mindset (the race cutoff) where getting to the finish was the priority regardless of what it took or how slow it felt.” 

He made it — with nearly three hours to spare before the race’s cutoff — checking off a big box on his race bucket list. Keep reading to get to know Brett and learn more about his day at Western States below.

Brett Sherfy basics

Hometown:: Sterling (Northern Virginia)

What brought you to the NRV? Virginia Tech for undergraduate (engineering) then Virginia Tech again for graduate school (math education) … then again because we couldn’t figure out why we kept leaving such an awesome place to live.

Age: 33

Family: Wife (Michelle Sherfy) and daughter (Lydia, age 2)

Occupation: Math teacher, Christiansburg High School

When/how did you start running? Ran XC and track in high school because friends were doing it. I was hooked for the friendships and tolerated the running. Started running again seriously in 2011 when Strava launched their run platform (before then it was only cycling) and they had a challenge to see if you could run 100 miles in a month (which I thought would be a stretch goal) and now it’s a day … and a few hours. How perspective changes!

What motivates you? Friends doing and accomplishing awesome things. Mental health. Wanting to be active for Lydia when she gets bigger and wanting to be able to participate in whatever challenge she throws my way.

When you are not running (or working) you are probably …? Spending time with Lydia and Michelle. Or baking or cooking.

Any running superstitions or rituals? Not really anymore. I keep all of my old bibs in a shoebox.

Favorite gear? Patagonia Strider Pro shorts. Brooks Ghosts running shoes. Nike VT hat.

Favorite pre-run fuel? Domino’s. It’s a must two nights out from a 100 miler and the leftovers are usually lunch the day before.

Favorite post-run recovery/reward meal? I try to maintain a healthy relationship with food and so there aren’t “reward” meals. Everything is okay in moderation. I have a sweet tooth so I’m always looking for dessert. A Chipotle burrito is my go to meal after a long hard training run or big race.

Fact many people don’t know about you? I biked from Seattle, WA to Washington D.C. in 2009 to raise awareness and funds for people with disabilities. I want to do it again, unsupported.

Running goals in the next few years? I’ve finished the Umstead 100 seven times. I’m going for the 10-time finish, 1,000 mile belt buckle. I’ll put my name in for Western States again. UTMB would be awesome but the logistics of getting to (and into) that race makes it less realistic (it’s in the middle of the school year). I’ve mentioned doing a Virginia Slam that would include Old Dominion-Grindstone and then two of the other Virginia 100s (Cloudsplitter/Devil Dog/Yeti) to make a slam but that seems a little silly. Stay happy and healthy with running and not be afraid to dabble in other disciplines like gravel biking and the Roanoke Half-Ironman triathlon. 

Digging in on Western States

Moments before the race start at 5 a.m.

How did you plan to combat the heat?

The Western States training run weekend was great for getting a taste of what the heat would feel like out on the course. It included a 99-degree day on Monday, the last day of the training weekend. I tried to schedule most of my runs after the training weekend in the peak of the afternoon heat and on routes where there wasn’t a lot of shade to simulate race day conditions. I think I could have done more for heat training. I just watched a video where Jim Walmsley (Westen States winner for the past three years) drives one hour to and from his three-hour training run without air conditioning in the car with the windows up, and I have heard of people driving around with heat on in the car to train for Western States heat. That being said, I think my heat mitigation was great and every time I left an aid station I felt cool enough but could’ve done more specific heat training.

Did the race play out as you envisioned?

It did not … but that’s ultrarunning. I had time goals for a 24-hour finish and those were out the door pretty quickly. I should’ve positioned myself a little closer to the front of the field at the start line and up the first climb. I crested the escarpment (the three-mile climb from Olympic Valley up a ski hill that starts the race) at 1:00 hour and came into the first aid station right around 2:30 (should’ve been 2:10). I was hoping to be at Robinson Flat (mile 30) by 6:30 but arrived in 6:47. … I think this is one of the biggest things I learned from the race is that I should’ve pushed more earlier. I played it really conservative and it never really gave “running it” a go because eventually the heat took its toll and it felt like conserving energy early seemed silly. 

What and how often did you eat?  

It was an extremely challenging day nutrition wise. My plan was to use the on course new Gu liquid energy gels and the traditional Gu gels in addition to Gu Rocktane electrolyte drink mix as my nutrition for the day. My stomach was fine heading into Last Chance aid station (mile 43) but I was hungry and wanted something solid but nothing seemed appetizing. I stopped at Last Chance to eat some soup and try to get something more substantial into my stomach knowing I had the hottest and hardest section of the course coming up with the climbs up Devil’s Thumb and to Michigan Bluff. The soup helped but I was still really hungry and wanted something like a veggie burger or pizza or perogies but none of the aid stations had those options. I was really disappointed to arrive at Michigan Bluff (mile 55) hungry and wanting something solid that wasn’t crackers/chips/pretzels and didn’t find anything. The volunteers offered me some of their own food but I didn’t feel comfortable taking their food they were going to eat later. I arrived at Forest Hill (mile 62) hungry and tried to eat a quesadilla but couldn’t get it down. I ate some broth but it only stayed with me for a few minutes before my body said no. I survived on soda for the remaining 38 miles, alternating between Mountain Dew and Coke. 

What were the toughest stretches and how did you cope?

The infamous canyons (a canyon is simply going from ridgeline down to valley bottom and back to ridgeline except instead of a valley bottom there is a river) sections between miles 43-55 are best pictured by taking a hair dryer and blowing hot air in your face. The temperatures in the canyons are easily above 100 degrees and they radiate heat from absorbing the sun all day. I swam in the river at both crossings along this stretch and it was so refreshing. I was dry by the time I reached the top of each climb just a couple miles later.

In addition to the canyons section, the night hours from 1 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. were really challenging. I always get sleepy and have trouble staying awake. I took a five minute nap at 2 a.m. at mile 80 (right after the river crossing) and had an aid station volunteer set their timer to make sure I woke up. The section after my nap I felt like I was falling asleep walking and dozed off over and over and it took forever. 

What were your favorite moments?  

The stoke level was high going up the Escarpment right at the start of the race. And the first 30 miles are really incredible because you’re up high above 6000’ in the “high country.” It’s also the most remote portion of the course and it really feels ‘out there.’ 

The sun coming up on Sunday morning and knowing that I had run the section of the course before and had run it really strong on the hot training run day was a huge boost because I knew I could make it to the finish within the cutoff. Michelle met me at Pointed Rocks (Mile 94) and ran the last 6 miles in with me.  

How was it running with some of the best ultra runners in the world?  

It was neat to see a bunch of the runners we always see on YouTube but I didn’t bother any of them because most of them were there to race. I did think periodically throughout the day about Jim Walmsley  (the race winner in 14:46:01) being where I was only 12 hours earlier and how mind blowing his time was.

Advice for the next NRV runner who gets the opportunity to run States?
Anyone who has the ability (you don’t have to be in the race to go) should do the training weekend. You see the last 70 miles of the course. Get to meet awesome people and experience the course without the pressure of a race. It was such a good experience … and possibly more fun.

Related content: Take if from Brett: You’re awesome! (And you are ready for his Gateway challenge)

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