At 5 a.m. on the last Saturday in June, Paul Lind fires a shotgun into the air, signaling the start of the 43rd Western States Endurance Run. Paul’s father, Bob Lind, fired every previous shot that started Western States. From the moment the gun goes off, the energy is non-stop for 100.2 miles. From Squaw Valley to Auburn, there is a community that inspires greatness.
“There’s just such history here on this course and the chance to finally get to run it is pretty nerve wracking and amazing and terrible and wonderful all at the same time,” Andy Pearson said before the start of the race.
The official profile for the run measures it at 100.2 miles with 18,090 feet of elevation gain and 22,970 feet of descent. While some claim the net elevation loss makes the course easier, the long downhill stretches can feel like hammers to the quads for tired runners late in the race. And fatigue is only one of many aspects that can come into play when a race gets this long. Even elite runners like Sage Canaday can be brought down by digestive issues or injury on the rugged terrain.
Running 100 miles is hard no matter how you slice it, but doing it alone is barely possible. Every runner had support from thousands of volunteers, and their own support crew, who usually drive from aid station to aid station to be there for them along the course. Whether it was teammates, parents, spouses or massage therapists, runners are surrounded by people to keep them going – not just physically, but more importantly, mentally. David Laney, who finished 8th at Western States in 2015, had his parents out supporting him at the race.
“He wanted to run the Western States since he was a little boy. He saw a special on TV about it and he said, ‘I’m gonna do that some day.’” –Carl Laney, David’s dad.
David ran through the Robinson Flat aid station at mile 32 looking relaxed.
Dan Williams has finished Western States 21 times. “It sure didn’t look like this in 1984,” he said. “There weren’t all of the brands or advertisements. There wasn’t a lot of sponsorship interest in the race.” In the past 32 years, Western States has become a part of Dan’s life. And it’s become a part of his daughter’s life as well.
“When she was 11 years old - I had to get special permission from the race director - she paced me from Highway 49 to the finish (a 6.5-mile stretch). She was a good soccer player and I was running down there and I couldn’t keep up with her. She was like, ‘Switchback to the left Dad, switchback to the right. Watch for the roots, watch for the rocks.’ Then she did that again when she was 13. And the next time she paced me was around 15 miles from the river crossing to Highway 49. On the way home she says, ‘You know dad, I think I want to run a marathon.’ I was so excited, I thought, ‘Yes!’ And then the next year she did a 50k and then a 50-miler.”
In 2010 Dan and his daughter started Western States together. She didn’t finish that year, but was back at it in 2013.
“She finished States in 2013. And I paced her the last section that she’d paced me through when she was only 11-years-old,” Dan said.
Along the racecourse were dozens of belt buckles from the ’80s and even the first few editions in the late ’70s. Frank Bozanich – who was inducted into the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame in 2013 – ran his first Western States in 1979. “That was the first time we had over a hundred runners,” Frank said.
“When I ran it, you didn’t have water bottles, you didn’t have gels or nothing, you just ran. We ran from aid station to aid station. We’d drink out of streams some of the time,” Frank recounted all of the ways the race had changed since its early years. “We didn’t have watchers, we didn’t have pacers.”
At Robinson Flat Aid Station, 29.7 miles into the race, Jim Walmsley was ahead of the course record by nearly 30 minutes. He barreled through the aid station, barely stopping to grab food and water. “I was really worried [about how fast he was running], but when I saw him he was fresh as could be,” Jim’s crew told us.
Devon Yanko was one of the top women competing at Western States. It was Devon’s second Western States, but she had dropped out of the race the last time at mile 55.
Fellow Oiselle runner Lauren Fleshman reflected on the community at Western States and compared it to track racing.
“There’s a lot of good energy. You need your people and you need to know that there are people in your corner. You need to have their faces there to get you through tough times or nerves or whatever. I think with track, where you really need them is in the days leading up, where as in this, you really need them on race day. You actually just cannot do it without them.”
Even though Devon always had the potential for a podium finish, like most runners, her main goal was just to cross the finish line at Placer High School. “Michigan Bluff is where she dropped last time,” Lauren said, “and she really got emotional talking about how important it is for her to get past that point. And for us to not let her stop. She told us, ‘If I have to walk, I want to walk.’ She really wants to finish this race, even more than she wants to do well in this race.”
Jim Walmsley continued to run relentlessly, breaking the course record for every aid station he went through. At mile 62, he picked up his pacer James Bonnet who was going to accompany him for the final 38 miles to the finish. The two only ran together for seven miles before James had to drop off due to stomach issues, leaving Jim solo on the home stretch.
Jim’s heroic run took a tragic twist at mile 90 when he missed a turn. The course took a left onto a trail from a jeep road. The turn was marked, but after redlining for over 13 hours, Jim simply kept charging ahead. By the time he realized the mistake, he’d run two miles in the wrong direction and the course record and certain victory at his first Western States were out of reach.
But, in a showing of the determination that defines Western States, Jim pushed on to finish his first 100-mile race. He might not have set the course record this time around, but his amazing performance and refusal to quit promise a bright future.
The flyby from the race shows the lead Jim put into the field in the first 90 miles, and the detour that took that lead away.
Kaci Lickteig, nicknamed “Pixie Ninja,” lead the women’s race from the gun and finished with a commanding margin. For the Nebraska native who claimed her heat training was that the air conditioning in her apartment had been broken for months and that the only hills she regularly ran were of the 200-foot variety, winning Western States was a dream come true.
John Medinger has been involved with Western States since 1983 and has been announcing at the finish line for most of that time. Announcing for a race with at least a 15 hour gap between the winner and the cutoff time is no easy task.
“I’ll be here until dawn,” John said as the sun was just beginning to set. “And then I usually take a break for an hour or two, and then I come back.”
He had his own views on how the race has changed over time: “There are a lot more younger runners than there used to be. It used to be you didn’t start running ultras until you’d kind worn out running marathons and then you were maybe in your late 30s or 40s. And now we’ve got guys like Jim Walmsley who have never run a road marathon. They’re just trail guys.” For this reason as well as the increase notoriety of ultrarunning, John felt the quality of the competition was higher than ever.
15 hours, 39 minutes, 36 seconds and 100.2 miles after Paul Lind fired his father’s shotgun in Squaw, Andrew Miller crossed the finish line at the Placer High School track in Auburn. At 20-years-old, Andrew was the youngest winner of Western States ever, but he raced like a veteran. With nearly perfect pacing, he steadily progressed from 10th place to 1st.
Age was clearly a non-issue for Andrew. “In regards to being too young, I haven’t ever really heard that,” he said in a post race interview. “I’m from Corvallis and we have an incredibly supportive running community there.”
The most support he got came from even closer to home. “My mom ran ultras, so initially my brother and I would join her just biking along on her runs in the forest and stuff,” Andrew said.
“And eventually one day I wanted to try and run with mom.”
“I just kept running more and more with mom and then one day she said, ‘Hey, you should sign up for the McKenzie River 50k.’ And I did, and that’s how it happened.”
Although David Laney paced his race perfectly and had an amazing finish at Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc last year, his experience at Western States went downhill fast. He was experiencing digestive issues and nausea that kept him from eating. “The problem was, you can run 30 miles sick, but you can’t run 100 miles sick,” David said.
“I was able to keep down maybe four jellybeans all day.”
Despite an inability to intake calories, David pushed on and amazingly finished the race in 20 hours and 6 minutes. Weighing himself after the race, he estimated that he had lost at least 15 pounds. “If you think about it, a stick of butter is like 800 calories. So, basically 80 miles of just burning fat, that’s like 10 sticks of butter that just left my body, somehow.”
David was still positive despite not having the race he would have hoped for. “My goal was to be competitive,” he said. “But your inherent goal when you’re running long trail races is not competition. It’s, can I do something that’s really painful, really hard, something that I don’t know if I can do.”
On her second attempt of the race, Devon Yanko got on the podium: 3rd place with a time of 19 hours and 10 minutes. But like most of the runners, her proudest achievement was simply having finished the race.
“After Robinson Flat my legs started to cramp really bad,” Devon recalled. “And it’s pretty hard to get that back.” But she wouldn’t let the race beat her again. “When things started going badly, I was like ‘NO! This race is not getting the best of me!’ Once I got past Michigan Bluff [where she had dropped out last time] that was so major in my head. Like, I know I can run those last 38 miles.”
Runners who approach the cutoff time will watch the sun rise twice during their 100-mile run. The first time shortly after the race starts, the second hours before the clock hits 30:00:00.
As a sponsor of the race, Strava was able to give away one entry to a qualified runner. This would allow them to bypass the lottery, which usually takes years to get drawn from. We held a contest and decided to award our slot to mother, cancer survivor and unflagging fountain of positivity, Alison ‘Sunshine’ Chavez. But as the clock counted down, it was unclear whether Alison would be able to finish her Western States debut. Then, less than 10 minutes before the 30-hour cutoff time, she made her way onto the Placer High School track and John Medinger called out her name.
“I’m in shock. I don’t believe it. I wasn’t doing that well on the climbs because I was pretty tired,” Alison said after the race. “There were a few times I had a mantra in my head, like, not finishing is not an option. There were times when I was like, ‘What if I don’t finish?’ But I knew I had to! I had friends from high school come that drove far, some I hadn’t seen in over 10 years, that came just to say hi.”
Being at the finish line, it’s not hard to understand why people come from all over the country – from all over the world – to watch, support or run the Western States 100. It’s an inspiring feat of endurance, not just of the human body, but of the human spirit.
“Dream big,” Alison said, “because you never know. Three years ago I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs, I was going through so much chemo. And I just ran 100 miles.”
Check out the Western States race page to see all of the Strava athletes who finished the race.