This weekend was the annual Western States Endurance Run 100 mile trail race, billed as the first 100 mile foot race in North America. What started as a humble brag by Gordy Ainsleigh (his horse went lame for the Tevis Cup, and he decided he could run the 100 mile distance on foot in 24 hours) has grown into the icon of trail running in the United States. Every year the best of the best toe the line to compete for a chance at making history. The run takes participants from Olympic Valley outside Lake Tahoe to Auburn, CA. The iconic finish around the high school track has become synonymous with epic finales in the sport, and every year there are incredible stories told in those last few hundred meters as well as history being made by the best of the best in trail running.
That’s not to say that Western States isn’t without its detractors. There are some that feel the race has become too exclusive due to a complex lottery system to get in, and an over-emphasis on the elite athletes of the sport. Many fear that Western could become highly commercial (similar to UTMB in Europe) and further limit the accessibility of the common man to enter. Others critique the course itself, and its overall downhill profile, and long runnable sections. They claim that it’s not as difficult as other trail races, and perhaps shouldn’t be the premiere event of our sport in this country. But, I want to look past all of that for a moment and just focus on what WSER is to me, and many others in our sport, and what it reminded us of this weekend.
This year WSER provided live coverage on YouTube of the entire 30 hours of the event. This is the first time that it has ever been featured this way, with commentary, interviews, and on-site feeds of the different areas of the course. However, unlike other big running events, this stream lasted the entirety of the event, from the lead runners exiting the starting line, to the final finisher just 60 seconds before the 30 hour cutoff. Of course we were all excited about the podium finishers, but there was still a whole race to follow after the top 10 crossed the line.
In fact, some of the most inspiring moments of the day came in the closing seconds of the race. At 5 minutes to go runner Sean Mullett entered the track with a pronounced lean to his right. He was staggering and stumbling as he carefully made his way around. Before any of my non-running friends get alarmed, this isn’t an uncommon sight at the end of an ultra. Sometimes a person’s core muscles weaken unevenly throughout a race, and they end up leaning to one side as they approach the end. My friend Mike B. suffered through this a couple of years ago when he finished a 100 mile race in Colorado. The runners are fine, they just need to get to that finish line and get some rest.
As Mr. Mullett was moving slowly around the track the entire audience, both live and on YouTube, was screaming encouragement at him. Even the stream announcers were on their feet cheering him on. For 5 minutes he was the center of the world as everyone watched him struggle to eek out that last little bit of energy and get across the line. As he approached the line he stumbled and almost fell backwards before propelling him self forward for a finish. He was less than a second ahead of the final runner of the day who hobbled across right behind him. Yet, one more story of grit and determination in the final moments on the track at Auburn that has come to define this event.
Even before this incredible finish the live stream was filled with reports of runners crossing the line, one after another, earning their coveted buckle. Regular folks who trained hard to be there and put in the work required to make the 100 mile journey in less than 30 hours. My wife and I knew multiple people who were participating and they’re from all walks of life, not sponsored athletes, and they were all given their moment to shine to the world. The live stream gave everyone a chance to feel connected to the Western States experience in a new way, and that’s why I call it a love letter to our sport.
No matter the criticism or failings of the event, WSER does one very important thing. It shows trail runners at their best. It shows everyone that our sport isn’t just for elites, but that everyday people can do amazing things. For a few hours this weekend, everyone in the world could tune in and get inspired, and see first hand what the trail running world is all about. It showed community, and that’s the heart of this sport.
Sometimes it feels like our sport is getting bigger and bigger, and that perhaps it has lost its close-knit feeling. But, even in the growing world of sponsored athletes and bigger and bigger event coverage, the essence remained. Amazing people… not elites… not everyday folks… just people, doing something incredible, and doing it together as part of the family that is trail running.
Thank you for this weekend Western States. It’s been a long 2020, and this is just what we needed to remind us why we’re all out here.