It's all about earning your buckle at the Western States 100.

Here’s the skinny on one of the oldest ultramarathons in the world.

In short, the Western States 100 is to ultrarunning what the Boston Marathon is to marathons and distance races at Hayward Field are to track and field: it attracts premier fields and is steeped in a rich and colorful history.

The 100-mile race begins in Squaw Valley, a ski area near the shores of Lake Tahoe, California, and finishes in Auburn. While the run is in its 38th year, the event dates back to a one-day horse race, called the Tevis Cup. It was started in 1955 to show that horses could still cover that distance in 24 hours. In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh joined the horses to see if he could complete the course on foot, doing so in 23:42.

Others tried in subsequent years, some succeeding, and by 1977 there were 14 starters from four states who participated in the first official Western States Endurance Run. The next year the participation grew to 63, including the first female finisher, and the run gained independence from the horse race and was held in June with 21 aid stations, volunteers, and medical checks. Since 1979, when 143 runners started the race, the WS100 has always reached its capacity, drawing athletes from all over the U.S. and around the world. It has, however, been cancelled due to forest fires.

The course is challenging not only because of the 100-miles of rugged terrain (which includes 18,000 feet of gain and almost 23,000 in descent with the high altitude of the Sierra Nevadas), but because of the extremes in temperatures.  The start, set for 5 AM tomorrow, can be downright cold, especially as it ascends the slopes of Squaw Valley into the snow.  This year, due to an incredible amount of late spring snowstorms, the course has had to be altered and that will affect the access runners’ support teams have, limiting it to the second half of the race only.

At that point is when the race changes from a high-country trail race in the snow to a high-speed slug-fest in the heat, as the route dips its way into steamy valleys that steep in temperatures in excess of 100°F, with the only relief coming from river crossings or nightfall.

And if the route isn’t hard enough, the competition this is even tougher.  Along with the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc (UTMB), WS100 boasts the toughest ultra field in the world. On the next page, we take a look at some of the top runners to watch at this year’s WS100. 

Geoff Roes (seen here leading Anton Krupicka in last year's race) is the course-record holder and the man to beat at this year's race. Photo: Luis Escobar/runnersworld.com

Race Previews

This year’s race has an outstanding women’s field and one that is much deeper and unpredictable than the men’s as far as potential winners are concerned.  Maybe that is because there are so many past winners among those who’ll be lining up  tomorrow morning, including last year’s winner, Tracy Garneau, of British Columbia; 2009 winner, Anita Ortiz, of Colorado; and Nikki Kimball, of Montana. Garneau hasn’t raced much since last year’s victory, Ortiz is coming off of knee surgery and a brush with anemia, and Kimball hasn’t shown her dominance on the WS100 course for years.

Given that, the odds makers of the sport have largely ignored the past winners and are focusing on Ellie Greenwood of Alberta, Canada and Kami Semick, of Oregon.  Ellie will be running her first 100-miler but the spry Scot who lives in Banff has been on a ferocious streak of late, winning the 2010 100k World Championships after crushing the Canadian Death Race and other trail ultras last year.  She also won the American River 50 and Chuckanut 50K earlier this year, where she set a course record and dominated.  That said, it was Semick who was the speedier of the two in last month’s Comrades Marathon in South Africa, where Semick was third and Greenwood fourth in the 89K road race.

Will runners who train on snowy terrain have an advantage this year?  If that’s the case, Greenwood may have an edge but, then again, so would Ortiz and Kimball.  Also, runners like Helen Cospolich of Colorado, Joelle Vaught from Idaho, and Aliza Lapierre from Vermont may fare well too.  It promises to be an exciting race and with other strong women in the mix like Meghan Arbogast, Amy Sportson, Monicha Ochs, Rory Bosio, Caren Spore, Sandi Nypaver or Becky Wheeler, it is somewhat wide open and will be very exciting.

While the women’s field is more of an up-for-grabs affair, the men’s race is likely to come down to a two-man show between last year’s winner and course record holder, Goeff Roes of Alaska, and Kilian Jornet of Catalonia, who ended up third last year.  Unfortunately, Anton Krupicka is injured and will not be racing tomorrow.

The “snow course” will be a bonus for both Roes and Jornet.  Roes trains a lot on snow, both in his native Alaska and in Nederland, Colorado, where he spends most of the year. Jornet is a world champion ski mountaineer and grew up skiing to school. At last year’s WS100, Jornet was sharing the lead with Krupicka for the vast majority of the race but the heat and dehydration really took its toll late and he dropped back. Jornet learned a lot from that experience and vows to stay hydrated. He says he will be taking an altered approach from last year’s strategy when he takes to the starting line tomorrow.

And that is not to say that the remainder of the men’s field isn’t impressive. It includes Nick Clark from Colorado, last year’s fourth-place finisher.  Two-time WS100 champion Hal Koerner from Oregon will also be a contender on a course he knows very well.  Dave Mackey from California is looking super fit and it would be no surprise to see this stalwart runner come across the finish line ahead of the pack.  Another serious competitor in tomorrow’s race is Ian Sharman, here from California and less-directly, the UK, after his record-breaking 100-mile performance at Rocky Raccoon in Texas. With all these stars gathered in one place, one thing is for sure: tomorrow’s show will be exciting regardless of who crosses the finish line first.