The Western States: Welcome to 100 Miles of Hell
The amazing thing about the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run is not that anyone would run it in the first place, but that anyone would go back to do it again after running it once. Welcome to 100 miles of hell, otherwise known as Western States.
Posted Tuesday, 24 June, 1997
The amazing thing about the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run is not that anyone would run it in the first place, but that anyone would go back to do it again after running it once. Welcome to 100 miles of hell, otherwise known as Western States. Just about everything that is difficult about running is all wrapped up one neat package through the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains: mountainous terrain, high altitude, cold temperatures and snow at the start, furnace-like heat and sun later in the canyons, occasional rattlesnake and cougar sightings, mind-numbing uphills and quad numbing downhills, hours of running in the darkness, all over an unfathomable distance. Oh I forgot. At mile 78, you have to pull yourself across the strong current, chest-high waters of the American River on a rope.
Now here's the part that's really incredible: there are so many people who want to get into the race they have had to institute lottery to determine the "lucky" 500 who get in.
Here's another amazing fact: it was horses that got this whole thing started. Really. The Tevis Cup is a 100 mile horse race that has been held since 1954 and follows the Western States course. The goal is for the horses to finish the event in less than 24 hours. In 1974 A fellow by the name of Gordy Ansleigh decided to find out if a human could accomplish the feat. He finished in 23 hours and 42 minutes. The rest, as they say, is history.
After several years, the race began to pick up steam. In 1984, the race for first place came down to the final 200 meters on the track at Auburn High School. Can you even imagine it? Jim Howard edged Jim King by less than a minute after more than 16 hours of running. King returned the next year and blew away the field in a course record time of 14:55. How motivated was this guy? In the late 80s, they determined that the course was short by six miles. They added that distance of course, over some nasty terrain. Just to make sure, the course is now one hundred point two miles. Hey after 100, what's another point two?
Western States has spawned many smaller 100 mile races around the country, about 15 in total. Some are even more difficult than Western States. The Leadville 100 is run at more than 10,000 feet altitude. The Hardrock in Colorado is so mountainous that the course record is over 30 hours. The normal 30 hour time limit is extended to 48 at Hardrock. I guess that makes Western States easyrock.
Every race needs a hero, and Western has one. Actually it's a heroine. Ann Trason is synonymous with the event now, having won the women's division every year since 1989. She has finished second overall twice and now it is almost a foregone conclusion she will be in the top five overall. Consider that as the de facto 100 mile championship, (much as Hawaii is the defacto Ironman triathlon championship) Western Sates draws the premier ultrarunners from all over the country. We are talking about sub 2:30 marathoners who train all year for this one event. Trason makes these guys look like amateurs, leaving them hours up the trail. It helps that she trains on the course regularly, but it helps more that she is the best female ultrarunner of all time.
Last year, just to make it exciting, she won the tough Comrades 55 mile ultra in South Africa just 12 days prior to Western States. Recovery? No problem, she finished third overall.
On the men's side, the 1990s have been dominated by two athletes, Tom Johnson and Tim Tweitmeyer. Johnson is a natural, clearly the USA's top ultrarunner. He won in 1990, 91, and 93, and holds the (100.2 mile) course record of 15:57. He has not won since '93 because he has not run in the race since then. Unlike Johnson, Tweitmeyer more of a working man's ultrarunner. He ran the race ten times before finally winning in 1992. He knows the course cold and allocates his energy reserves with exquisite precision over the full distance of the race. You will not see him among the leaders early on, but when day turns to night, he moves right through the field. He has won for three straight years, twice foiling Trason's attempt to win the race outright. No one begrudges Tweitmeyer this success however, as his congenial personality matches his trail running prowess. Every year it seems, dozens of contenders, all with more natural ability and leg speed than Tweitmeyer, appear at the starting line, ready to de-throne the champion. But at the finish 100 miles later, it's Tweitmeyer who gets there first.
Like in marathons, the elite are the exception to the rule. Most of the folks who finish are not exceptional natural athletes. They simply possess inordinate amounts of endurance and motivation. Desire is a paramount in a 100 mile run because let's face it: for the large majority of the race, you are probably not going to be feeling very good. Apart from the elite corps, ultrarunners for the most part are not out there logging huge amounts of weekly miles. Most do not have the physiology or the time for that. Instead they pick and choose their spots, usually logging very long runs on the weekend, or doing other "shorter" ultras as training runs.
So how do any of these people keep moving for 100 miles, throughout the day and night? There is a saying in ultrarunning that "It never always gets worse." Essentially this means that after a certain number of hours and miles, you are going to be feeling as bad as you can. Then the pain and discomfort will level off and sometimes you will even feel better for a while. This physiological certainty, along with many long training runs and tons of motivation, will usually do the trick.
Pacers are another huge aid to the runners. Each entrant is allowed a pacer after 62 miles, someone who will accompany the runner the final 38 miles to the finish line. Psychologically, this can be a huge help, just having someone alongside to share the effort. It's also a safety aid, as that final stretch is usually the most dangerous, with tired athletes running (and walking!) through the night.
What could be harder than running Western States? How about directing the event. Norm Klein is at the helm of this race, organizing thousands of volunteers. There is almost an endless list of things that can go wrong, with 500 tired runners spread out over 100 miles of desolate mountain terrain. Runners becoming disoriented, lost, or in need of emergency medical care are three of the biggest concerns. A sophisticated communications network helps with the first two, while several medical checks along the route help with the latter. Physicians monitor runners throughout the race. Lose more than seven percent of your body weight and you are on the sidelines until you are re-hydrated enough to continue. Lose seven percent of your body weight and you likely will not want to continue!
The first finisher usually arrives at the Auburn High School track at about 10:00 p.m., after the 5:00 a.m. start at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. For the next thirteen hours the finishers trickle in, all the way up until the course closes at 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning. Very few appear as if they could move another inch after the finish and many don't, choosing to simply collapse on the field next to the finish under the warm California sun. It's quite a sight.
Western States has developed a deep tradition. Much of it is in the awards, which are distributed at an elaborate ceremony the afternoon after the race is completed. Sculpted bronze cougars are presented to the male and female winners, but the most cherished prizes are silver belt buckles awarded to all finishers under 24 hours that read "100 miles - One day." All runners who finish between 24 and 30 hours receive a Western States plaque. If you think you have seen sore and tired runners after the Boston Marathon, you should check out the Western States runners trying to make their way up to the podium to accept their awards. After one hundred wonderful miles of hell, what else would you expect? Doesn't all of this sound like fun? Better get your lottery application in early.