Freaks of Nature
The Western States 100
Illustration by John Stricker
100 miles in 24 hours.
That’s the slogan of the Western States 100, an annual 100.2 mile run happening this year on June 25 and 26 through the most rugged reaches of El Dorado and Placer Counties. Four hundred runners follow the Western States Trail, a mostly single-track (i.e., barely wide enough for a badger) race from Squaw Valley to Auburn that bounces up, down and through a cumulative 41,000 feet of Sierra Nevada ridges and canyons. It starts at 5 a.m. and the best cross the finish line at Placer High’s stadium around 9 p.m. that night. Over the next 15 hours the rest of the pack will stumble in. Or stagger. Or crawl. The reward? A handsome belt-buckle for finishers under 30 hours and complimentary medical exams, though there really should be a psychiatrist, too.
Greg Soderland has been race director for 13 years and calls the Western States a “poor man’s Everest”– meaning that while it doesn’t cost much more than a good pair of shoes, it will still brutally test physical and mental limits like few other earthly challenges can. In fact, he says fewer people have finished the WS than have summited Everest. “It’s one of the last things people can do that involves a healthy risk of failure. Forty percent don’t finish.” Hmm. Forty percent of my home improvement attempts end in failure. Maybe I should make an annual event out of trying to re-tile my bathroom.
Compelled by the same morbid curiosity that makes me drive slowly when I pass accidents and watch Jersey Shore, I have attended the WS as a spectator. Two years ago in Foresthill, I watched the front-runners emerge from the woods for their first taste of civilization in 60 miles. It was the heat of the day, and yet the leader ran by like he was late for a plane. Then, for 10 minutes there was a whole lot of standing around by the throngs of fans, which easily numbered in the dozens. Then, the second and third place runners came through, to polite applause. I was getting a hot dog and missed them both. Another 10 minutes and the fourth runner appeared, plodding wearily, jaw hanging down, shoulders drooped. This was more what I imagined. He stopped briefly for new shoes from his support team, which they pulled out of a cooler of ice. And off he shuffled. As I took a bite of my hot dog I thought to myself, watch out for buzzards, pal.
That night I was in the Placer High stadium for the finish and sure enough, ahead of them all was Mr. Hold-That-Plane. He barreled through a final lap and then, amazingly, didn’t collapse in a heap at the finish line. Instead, he calmly walked over to his daughter and, beaming, lifted her above his head. Show off.
Shortly after, the next runner entered the stadium. To my utter shock, it was fourth place guy and he was smoking. Well, not literally – that would be impressive. But crossing the finish line, he looked nothing like the guy I’d seen earlier in the day. Talk about digging down deep; this guy must’ve struck oil and refined it into rocket fuel. Maybe it was the icy shoes.
It sounds geeky, but I am fascinated and yes, inspired by what the human body and spirit are capable of and the Western States is simply one of the world’s best examples of that. But this year I’m going to skip Saturday night. Those runners, as inspiring as they are, are freaks.
They’re the best of the best. I want to see the real teeth-gritters, the more “ordinary” folks who finish more on will than power. Soderland agrees. “Come between 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday. That’s when you’ll see the real drama.”
Then maybe I’ll go home all fired up and, what the hell, take another stab at that bathroom re-tile.