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March 25, 2008

Journey of 100 Miles

Admin note: In regards to the previous post, I’m going to place a sidebar link soon to keep attention focused on the meet-up event between now and the Big Sur Marathon at the end of April. In the meantime, go ahead and spread the word to anyone you think might be interested.

As for today’s post – it’s a long one, so let’s get straight to it …


Shortly after I was accepted in the Western States lottery last December, I received the following relatively innocuous e-mail from my editor: Let’s talk about you writing a training diary for the paper leading up to Western States.

My initial response was, yeah … right.

At first, I was quite reluctant to share this little quest of mine with the world at large, especially in the pages of our local newspaper. As much as I pondered that thought, I just couldn’t imagine how anyone would possibly care about it.

Newspapers are a lot different than blogs. People read the sports section to find out who made the Sweet Sixteen, to see how many strokes ahead of the field Tiger is, or to check the high school baseball standings. For the most part, they don’t care one bit about some idiot spending an obscene amount of time running around on local trails.

Remember – while all of this ultra talk seems normal within this little on-line endurance sports community – the other 99.9% of the population considers the events we describe absolutely crazy. And those are the people who read the local newspaper.

So I wasn’t exactly wild about the idea, but I can’t say that I really dug in my heels to resist. Then last month, my editor and I talked on the phone, and by the time we were finished, the training diary seemed like a fantastic idea (he’s a very encouraging guy). I can write as frequently as I feel like - probably every other week - on whatever topic or theme I’d like to discuss related to the race, with articles of whatever length feels comfortable (I know – I couldn’t believe it either).

Basically, he’s giving me a blank slate, with one exception: his only specific instructions were “Just don’t send me 1000 words on snot rockets.” I guess I can’t ask for a better situation than that.

And besides … it’s not like I wasn’t going to write down a ton of contemplations on this race over the next three months anyway. If my editor wants to transfer some of it to newsprint, I guess that’s OK by me.

However, I’m still caught up on the idea of making the articles somewhat interesting to everyday readers - the guy perusing game recaps over coffee and a doughnut, or the housewife flipping through the sports section on her way to the opinion pages. So that’s the challenge I’m putting out there for myself with this series – although I’m still not quite certain how to accomplish it.

For the time being, I’ve decided to simply start telling the story, and welcome anyone who would like to follow along with me. The first installment appears below.


Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 1 – Introduction

Each year, on the last weekend in June, the world’s toughest endurance runners gather in the former Olympic Village of Squaw Valley, California.

Over the next 24 hours, they race each other on foot over 100 miles of the historic Western States trail, through some of the most rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They climb more than 18,000 feet, and descend more than 23,000 feet while traversing deep canyons and high ridgelines on their way towards the finish line in Auburn. It is one of the most grueling physical and psychological challenges many of them will ever face.

And this year, I’ll be right there with them.

The Western States Endurance Run is the most prestigious race in the burgeoning sport of ultrarunning, which is defined as any footrace longer than the 26.2-mile marathon distance. Most ultramarathons are contested on trails instead of roads, and the most common distance is 50K (31 miles). However, the number of 100-mile races across the country has gradually increased over the past several years – and every one of these races owes its existence to the success of Western States.

If running 100 miles over unforgiving terrain through frequently ferocious weather conditions sounds crazy to you, rest assured that you’re not alone. In fact, the contest was originally designed not for people, but for horses.

Western States started out as a race called the Tevis Cup, which originated when a bunch of old-time California cowboys decided to compare the toughness of their horses to legendary steeds from the days of the Pony Express. Each horse and rider who covered the 100-mile trail in a single day and night were awarded a silver belt buckle to recognize their accomplishment.

For the first two decades of the Tevis Cup’s existence, the thought of anyone travelling the 100-mile trail on foot was inconceivable. Then in 1974, a 27-year-old cowboy by the name of Gordy Ainsleigh learned that his horse was suffering from foot problems and was too lame to attempt the ride.

Ainsleigh was a bit of a maverick – so instead of dropping out of the ride, he laced up his running shoes and lined up alongside nearly 200 horses to take on the trail singlehandedly. He not only finished the course, but did so faster than the 24-hour cutoff, thereby earning himself a silver buckle.

With Ainsleigh’s unfathomable effort, the 100-mile trail race was born. Today, there are no fewer than 60 such races across the United States. And while some races take place at higher altitudes, and others feature greater changes in elevation, Western States remains the crown jewel among this fanatical subset of endurance events.

Western States is unquestionably the biggest event of the year in the ultrarunning community. It’s like Augusta National (without the azaleas), Daytona (without the smell of motor fuel), and Wimbledon (without the strawberries and cream) all rolled into one. What’s more, it affords a select few “regular” runners - such as your author - to compete alongside the world’s best.

Regardless of their ability, all of the participants who meet in Squaw Valley each year realize that they are competing at the very pinnacle of the sport, following in the footsteps of legendary champions who have gone before, while sharing the course with modern-day heroes of ultrarunning. It’s an alluring combination of circumstances – to such a degree that the event struggles to manage the burden of its own popularity.

Each year, an increasing number of ultrarunners clamor to enter Western States – and each year, more and more are turned away. Because the race passes through protected wilderness areas, the US Forest Service limits the number of participants allowed on the trail on race weekend. And while rational folks would find it mind-boggling to hear that a 100-mile trail race actually has to turn people away, that’s exactly what happens with this event.

Consequently, Western States uses a lottery system to select applicants for the race. A portion of the slots are reserved, such as the top 10 male and female finishers from the previous year’s race, runners who have unsuccessfully applied for two straight years, and a handful of sponsored athletes who are given automatic entry. (Another automatic category called “pioneers” includes the now-legendary Gordy Ainsleigh, the man who started it all. Now in his sixties, he still lines up at the start line each year, and has finished the Western States course more than 20 times.)

In December, the lottery “winners” – seriously, that’s the word we use - are notified, and immediately spend the next six months preparing for the hardest day of running they will ever encounter. They do so with equal parts excitement and overwhelming fear, knowing the challenges that await them on race day.

A short list of potential dangers includes altitude sickness, treacherous snowpack in the high country, furnace-like temperatures in the lower canyons, waist deep river crossings, wildlife encounters (mountain lion and bear sightings are not uncommon), and ten or more hours of night running. That’s in addition to all of the medical complications that can derail a runner on race day, which contribute to a 30-40% annual dropout rate.

There’s no prize to speak of, as the race doesn’t award prize money. The highest honor one can earn is a silver belt buckle, awarded to any runner who completes the course in less than 24 hours, just as Gordy Ainsleigh did on the day he decided to race the horses. Otherwise, the only reward awaiting runners at the finish line is a firm handshake, a chair to finally rest upon, and the satisfaction of accomplishing a remarkable feat.

That’s not much inspiration to keep a guy running for 100 miles – so there must be something more that enables him (or her, as the case may be) to get through the most difficult stretches of the weekend. Something internal, something intangible … and something I hope to tap into over the next few months of training.

The what, when, and where of the Western States 100 are the easy parts. The why and how are harder questions to tackle. Between now and June, I’ll be looking for answers on the trails of Monterey County, during one long training run after another.

When I come across something noteworthy, I’ll be sure to let you know.


Rainmaker 3/25/08, 3:36 AM  

Great article! Looks like you might be on your way to converting some folks into ultramarathoners. On purpose or otherwise.

Curly Su 3/25/08, 6:37 AM  

yeah, awesome article. how could people NOT be interested??

Makita 3/25/08, 6:41 AM  

With the recent RW focused on ultras and now this... I want to do an ultra equally as much as I want to BQ. Thank you for the inspiration! :D

Love the historical aspect of WS - very cool! Be certain to get a photo w/ Gordy if he is there this year. :)

Sarah 3/25/08, 7:38 AM  

Nice article! It actually came up in my google alerts a few days ago. Looking forward to reading more!

Deene 3/25/08, 8:03 AM  

good start, soon you'll have a huge fan club of housewives!

Backofpack 3/25/08, 8:25 AM  

Nicely done Donald! I think it will be fun reading the journal. You'll probably draw people in, and the lottery size will be double next year!

rick 3/25/08, 12:37 PM  

Like the article Donald. The kind I would cut and paste on an email to my parents and relatives and maybe a couple of friends. Although these days, I try not to tell the new friends about the ultra-marathoning stuff.

Mt. Diablo is coming up soon!

olga 3/25/08, 3:13 PM  

Do you know I first read this article from a dude's blog who recently bashed ultra community? I think it's harlem runner, or harlem 26.2 - one of them. You should read him - and what he said about your article in particular in another post of his.
I think your assay is very well written, one that would spark an interest for general public. Although I have to admit, if I were normal and read it, I would consider you even crazier than I did before. Next time easy on a "quest" and "grueling" - it's not that bad after all:)

mindy 3/25/08, 5:45 PM  

This is fantastic. I'm hooked and can't wait to read on. I think it will appeal to non-runners as well - it's like people who love the Tour de France who have never cycled. It's going to be a great column!

Anne 3/25/08, 6:28 PM  

If this doesn't hook the golf nerds and Monday morning quarterbacks, I don't know what will. Well done, Donald. Your fanbase will grow because of this, I'm sure of it.

RunBubbaRun 3/25/08, 6:59 PM  

Nice article.. Learned a little bit of history I did not know about WS100..

Now I really would like to be chosen for the lottery now..

Look forward to reading more about your adventures towards raceday.

Bullet 3/26/08, 6:35 AM  

If he won't take the snot rocket story he doesn't deserve your time. VIVA La SNOT ROCKETS! (note: your article has helped me to launch my rockets cleanly now)

Annette 3/26/08, 11:20 AM  

Interesting! I had no idea that the Western States used to be a horse race - wow!

I like the idea of the training diary. Way to go, editor! Glad he was able to talk you into it. :)

Zach 3/26/08, 1:26 PM  

Great article! Looking forward to reading the next installment - I think a lot of non-runners will enjoy reading about it as well.

jen 3/26/08, 3:35 PM  

In addition to being a nice first installment of your diary, it is also a great introduction to ultrarunning in general and WS in particular. I love the story of Ansleigh's first race on foot- how cool. I think even "normal" people will defintely want to read more. :)

craig 3/27/08, 9:30 AM  

I'll look forward to your accounts of the jouney Donald.

Dori 3/27/08, 1:43 PM  

That was very interesting. How many women participate in this madness, er, event?

Smithposts 3/27/08, 6:48 PM  

Great reading, I look forward to the next installment! As I struggle to run my short mileage, I will dream lofty! Thanks!

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 3/27/08, 7:15 PM  

Distintly different from your blogging posts. I think you will do our subculture a great service with these articles (and without too much self-promoting hype..). You're definitely the man and writer to do it. Go Donald!

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