100 Miles, One Day, On Foot: Western States 100 Is This Weekend!

By kncitom on June 21, 2018
photo by Tom Mailey

It’s the oldest and one of the most prestigious endurance events in the world, and it’s happening in our backyard this weekend: the Western States 100 Endurance Race is this Saturday and Sunday, with over 400 runners starting in Squaw Valley at 5am and following one simple trail that twists, turns, climbs and plunges through the Sierra down to to a finish line at Placer High School. As if that isn’t enough, this weekend temperatures are expected to soar.

But, run they will, following pretty much one simple rule: finish in under 30 hours, get a belt buckle. Longer than 30? Sorry. Better luck next year. It is a pretty cool looking buckle, though.

Elite competitors finish this event in 15 or 16 hours–the record, set by Tim Olson in 2006, is 14:46:44 (the women’s record, set by Ellie Greenwood, also in 2012, is 16:47:19)–but the ones that impress me are the folks who are out on the trail all day…and then all night, sometimes almost literally clawing their way to the finish line.

I’ve posted about the Western States before, because I am utterly fascinated by it: the physical preparation that goes into running it is one thing (typical training runs can last 9 or 10 hours and can start years in advance), but the mental fortitude of these runners is unbelievable, especially those “slower” folks–most of whom are just regular people like you and me with jobs, families and other things in their lives… yet they’re still able to carve out time to attempt what is simply one of the most challenging events anyone could ever undertake.

view from Western States Trail/Robinson Flat

I have been lucky enough to be a volunteer at various aid stations along the course. This year, I’ll be at Robinson Flat, which is mile 30 and one of the first aid stations the runners come to after leaving Squaw.

Western States Ultra runner arriving at Robinson Flat aid station, 2015

Every aid station has a cut-off time; any runner not making it to the aid station by then is disqualified, because they likely won’t be able to make up enough time at that point to finish under 30 hours. I was at Robinson Flat in 2015 when, with literally about :30 to spare, an older lady came shuffling through. Though her steps were short and labored, she was cheerful, smiling and waving as she made it just in time. After some refreshments and a (very) quick breather, she was off again, down the trail and into the woods.

A few days later I heard the rest of her story. First of all, she was 70.

Let that sink in.


And according to the story, she reached every single aid station (there are 23) with less than a minute to spare. As she approached the final bit of the trail at Robie Point just outside of Auburn, at around mile 98, it was questionable whether or not she was going to make it in under 30 hours. That shouldn’t even matter at this point; a 70 year woman had just run 90+ miles…who cares how long it takes for her to finish?

But, she wanted that buckle.

Word got back to the winner of that year’s race…who’d finished hours hours before her. When he heard about her effort, and her plight, he didn’t hesitate: dude went out and met her at mile 99, and ran in with her to the finish line.

If you look at the finisher’s list from 2015, there she is: Gunhild Swanson from Spokane Valley, with a time of 29:29:54. She made it with :06 to spare! If that doesn’t show you the power of the human spirit, nothing will.

So, here’s what I tell people who maybe want to check this thing out: go to the stadium at Placer High school in Sunday morning, before 11. In those last hours of the WSER, you see the real people, the teeth-gritters, I call ’em, the regular folks who aren’t elite, aren’t sponsored, and maybe aren’t even necessarily gifted athletically. They’re gonna come in scraped up, wiped out and dirty as hell but to me, they’re beautiful, because they show all of us what is possible if we just put our minds to it.

They got their buckle, too. And it is a pretty cool buckle.

Wanna know more? Watch this 5 minute video




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