Here’s the skinny on one of the oldest ultramarathons in the world.
In short, the Western States 100 is to ultrarunning what the Boston Marathon is to marathons and distance races at Hayward Field are to track and field: it attracts premier fields and is steeped in a rich and colorful history.
The 100-mile race begins in Squaw Valley, a ski area near the shores of Lake Tahoe, California, and finishes in Auburn. While the run is in its 38th year, the event dates back to a one-day horse race, called the Tevis Cup. It was started in 1955 to show that horses could still cover that distance in 24 hours. In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh joined the horses to see if he could complete the course on foot, doing so in 23:42.
Others tried in subsequent years, some succeeding, and by 1977 there were 14 starters from four states who participated in the first official Western States Endurance Run. The next year the participation grew to 63, including the first female finisher, and the run gained independence from the horse race and was held in June with 21 aid stations, volunteers, and medical checks. Since 1979, when 143 runners started the race, the WS100 has always reached its capacity, drawing athletes from all over the U.S. and around the world. It has, however, been cancelled due to forest fires.
The course is challenging not only because of the 100-miles of rugged terrain (which includes 18,000 feet of gain and almost 23,000 in descent with the high altitude of the Sierra Nevadas), but because of the extremes in temperatures. The start, set for 5 AM tomorrow, can be downright cold, especially as it ascends the slopes of Squaw Valley into the snow. This year, due to an incredible amount of late spring snowstorms, the course has had to be altered and that will affect the access runners’ support teams have, limiting it to the second half of the race only.
At that point is when the race changes from a high-country trail race in the snow to a high-speed slug-fest in the heat, as the route dips its way into steamy valleys that steep in temperatures in excess of 100°F, with the only relief coming from river crossings or nightfall.
And if the route isn’t hard enough, the competition this is even tougher. Along with the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc (UTMB), WS100 boasts the toughest ultra field in the world. On the next page, we take a look at some of the top runners to watch at this year’s WS100.