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Western States: Worth the Wait

55

Most people would shy away from hugging a sweaty runner with a gel-stained shirt, glossed-over eyes and a damaged stride, but Diana Fitzpatrick dove right in. The finish line embrace captured the essence of my experience at the Western States Endurance Run. The look in the eyes of the Western States board president, so similar to what I had seen all day and night on the faces of the volunteers, race organizers and crews, was that of pure happiness for myself and the other runners who were lucky enough to participate in the race. She wasn’t there to simply go through the motions of congratulating runners as they finished, just as the volunteers weren’t there to routinely fill bottles and serve up calories. They were all there because they cared about the participants.

A decade ago, I knew nothing about Western States. In 2015, I stumbled upon the race by happenstance after stopping at a taphouse after work. On my walk home, I saw a sign outside the local running store that a hometown runner, Ryan Kaiser, was giving a talk about his 11th-place finish in a 100-mile ultramarathon in California. Urged on by the pint or two I’d just had, I poked my head in to hear what he had to say and see what kind of person would be crazy enough to run 100 miles.

That year, I ran my first qualifier. Eight years later, on a cold December morning, surrounded by friends and family, I watched in disbelief as Western States board member Lamont King called out my name on the lottery live stream. The wait was over. Just six months later, I would be at the starting line to witness first-hand what makes this race so special.

During the eight years of waiting for my name to be called, I never fully understood what the race was all about. I knew it had a long and rich history and was the most competitive 100-miler in the United States, annually attracting the best endurance athletes from around the world, but my knowledge of that history, and the community that continues to make it possible, was admittedly very limited.

My first lesson occurred during the Memorial Day training camp weekend this past May, where I signed up to run the last 70 miles of the course over three days. Within the first mile on the first day, I received advice from a runner about how to cool off in the canyons. It was the first of many encounters with past finishers and volunteers offering tips, words of encouragement and congratulations for getting into the race.

As the race got closer, I dove deeper into the course and the race’s history. I listened to podcasts, read articles and soaked up as much knowledge as I could about the trail, the people and the land I’d be running on, and I started to understand the hype. It wasn’t until I arrived in Olympic Valley, California, and felt the energy first-hand, that I truly realized what I was about to experience.

The energy at Western States never stops, and it will carry you from the start at Palisades Tahoe to the finish in Auburn. From the scream tunnel atop the escarpment to the excitement of passing through the major aid stations at Robinson Flat, Michigan Bluff, Forest Hill and Rucky Chucky, where fans, crews and volunteers shout out the name on your bib as you run by, the energy is a driving force.

The term “once-in-a-lifetime experience” is often used. But for the people lucky enough to run the Western States Endurance Run, due to the difficulty of getting in through the lottery, it’s likely that the race is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Fortunately, the volunteers and race organizers recognize this and do everything possible to help you make it to the finish line. I like to leave every race with at least one new friend and I left Western States with at least a dozen.

Having my friends and family waiting for me at Robie Point (mile 99), and getting to run on the Placer High track and cross the finish line with my son, are memories I will never forget. And I’d like to thank everyone who helped me get there.

After receiving my buckle, I left the ceremony to meet my wife and son and head home. At the exit of the tent stood Western States race director, Craig Thornley. Despite being exhausted from lack of sleep and the stress of managing the logistics of one of the premier trail races in the world, complete with navigating a local wildfire that threatened to alter or cancel the race as runners were on course, he took the time to acknowledge each finisher as they wrapped up their journey. As I shook his hand, Thornley looked up and with a smile as big as mine, congratulated me on my race. He had the same look in his eyes that Fitzpatrick had at the finish line.