A tried-and-true trail runner tells what makes this classic race the “Superbowl of our sport”.
Written by: Bryon Powell
The Western States Endurance Run was my first 100-mile race. More notably, it was the original 100-mile footrace, the first of what are now more than one hundred 100-mile races run around the world each year. As such, it’s the grandaddy of 100 milers. It’s the Superbowl of our sport. Some of us have come to calling it Statesmas. Whatever you call it, it’s something special.
It all started a year after Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse came up lame during the 1973 Tevis Cup 100 mile endurance ride across California’s Sierra Nevada. A year later, Gordy returned to start the Tevis Cup – on foot – alongside 198 horses. When he arrived at the finish in Auburn 23 hours and 42 minutes later, he showed that a man could cover 100 miles over mountain trails in 24 hours. A new sport was born.
It took three years before the event that I love, the Western States Endurance Run, was founded, so that runners would no longer have to run with the horses. (Two runners attempted to repeat Gordy’s Tevis Cup feat in the interim, with Cowman A-Moo-Ha succeeding in 1976.)
As is often the case, the pioneer remains the leader. No other American 100 miler comes close in terms of either prestige or competition… and that’s without a dollar in prize money. The winner’s receive nothing more than a cougar trophy, a jacket, and a silver belt buckle. Owing to the race’s roots as an endurance ride, all finishers receive a belt buckle, with those completing the course in under 24 hours receiving a silver one.
So what makes this race so special that it’s been the premier event of its kind throughout its nearly 40 years existence? Rather than speculate, I’ll share what’s drawn me to the race’s start for all but one WS100 since 2004.
Western States has a more storied history than any other American ultramarathon. That history and the aura around it is what brought me out to the race for my 100 debut in 2004. Yes, the JFK 50 mile in Maryland is a few years older, but ever since ultramarathons really took off in the early 1980’s Western States has been the crown jewel. This history and the race’s age add an allure akin to that of the Boston Marathon. Even if neither is the biggest, fastest, or best paying, they are THE race to run at their respective distances.
There’s also the personal history of the race, a history that blends elites with the back-of-packers. With so many folks having run the race over so many years, it’s a common benchmark in the sport. If I meet a veteran ultrarunner from across the country, I know that if I talk about Western States, we’ll have something in common.
Having competed in a wide range of running specialties over the past 19 years, I can safely say that I’ve never been in a running community that’s more close knit that of ultrarunning. It’s almost a family and, if it were a family, Western States would be the family reunion. While fewer than 400 runners start each year, a few thousand more come to crew, pace, volunteer, and cheer at the race. I’m a quarter mile from the start line and it’s a perfect day outside. I’m writing this story in my hotel room, but if I were to sit outside on the Thursday evening before the race I’d surely be talking to another seldom-seen friend every five minutes. I know–it happened yesterday!
In ultrarunning, it’s said that there’s no such thing as an easy 100 miler. That may be true, but Western States is harder than many, even harder than some that would take longer to finish. You see, on Saturday I’ll have 60 miles of hiking up and running down the Sierra Nevada. After that, I’ll hit the American River and 40 miles of highly runnable trail, that is if my legs aren’t fried from quad-wrenching descents and two plus marathons I’ve already run.
Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk among elite ultrarunners as to what a championship 100-mile race would look like. With regard to Western States, the mountain runners say it’s too flat and the speedsters say it’s too mountainous. That probably means it’s just right.
Then there’s the weather. It’s never rained during Western States, so you think it’d be a dreamy day of trail running. Hardly. I’ll start out with 15 miles of running in snow left over in the high country after this year’s record-setting winter. After that, I’ll run in a series of canyons that will be as much as 15 degrees warmer than the already toasty highs found at the finish in Auburn.
Preparing for these highly variable conditions, needing to train myself to be a jack-of-all-trades, is the sort of challenge that gets me itching train for this race six months out. Then, come race day, I get to see if I can overcome all the course’s challenges. I look forward to taking on all of them in pursuit of my fourth silver buckle this weekend.
Bryon Powell is a runner and writer based in Park City, Utah. He publishes iRunFar.com and recently authored Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons.