Western States 100: The World’s Oldest 100 Mile Trail Race

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Believe it or not, the Western States 100 ultra marathon was actually based on a horse race. Yes, a horse, like giddyap. It all started back in the mid 50’s with the creation of the Tevis Cup. The Tevis Cup was a horse race originated in California beginning at the post office in Tahoe City stretching through 100 miles of trail eventually leading to Auburn City. Back then, proving a horse could still travel a distance of 100 miles by hoof within 24 hours was impressive- well, that was until 1974 where Tevis Cup veteran Gordy Ainsleigh chose to prove that a human being could also travel 100 miles within 24 hours. His unrealistic ambitions at the time were abruptly transformed into an amazing accomplishment finishing with a time of 23:42:00. Now that’s what I call a “100 Mile-One Day” race. From there the Western States 100 was founded, as it became the first ever 100-mile trail race in the world.

Course

What makes the Western States 100 different from any other ultra marathon? Well, besides its apparent historical background, it may also be the most prestigous ultra marathon of its kind. Each year the race consistently attracts the best ultra marathon runners throughout the country to toe the starting line and compete for a top spot. Next, add in the 100 miles of grueling trails, 18,000 feet of extreme elevation gain, 23,000 feet of quad crushing descents, technical tracks through the canyons, and a freezing cold river crossing and the Western States 100 experience becomes one difficult foot race to conquer. And if that’s not enough, runners can expect wildly unpredictable weather patterns as well. On the day of the race temperatures can range from anywhere between 20°F to 110°F! In these conditions, preparation could never be more important. If your fortunate enough to make it to the finish line, a sub 30 hour will get you the respectable bronze buckle while the sub 24 hour gives you the famous buckle in silver.

Entry

Gaining entry into the Western States 100 can be quite the challenge of its own. First, it’s required to finish one of the qualifying races. After completion, one can register for the race.  However, this doesn’t provide an automatic entry. To become one of the 369 competitors on race day your name must be selected from the lottery. Last year there was a record high of 3,510 applicants. That’s roughly a 1 in 10 chance of reaching the starting line. Yes, they certainly aren’t the best odds but surely reasonable for one of the most historic ultra marathons in the world. But try not to be discouraged, here’s the good news: if a registered runner is not chosen then their name is added to the lottery for the following year, that is, if they complete another qualifying race. Next, after the selection process is complete, 50 names are chosen for a spot on the “General Wait List”. From this list, anytime a runner drops out before race day, a runner on the wait list will be added to the race day roster. In addition, there are several other rare chances of gaining entry. For example, being in the top 10 from the prior year or winning a gold ticket race, but for the average ultra runner, the lottery is the only real shot at entry.

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Competition

Competition is stiff! You can literally expect to share the course with some of the most elite ultra runners in the country. In the historic year of 2012, the course record was smashed by both the male and female 1st place finishers. Tim Olson set the coarse male record with a time of 14:46:44 while the female record was broken by Ellie Greenwood with a time of 16:47:19. Both times were a shot heard round the ultra world and still remain in good standing today.

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Controversy

This year, on June 24th, marking its 44th year, the Western States 100 will be drug testing. Each test will be administered immediately upon crossing the finish line. Although anyone is subject to be tested, they will focus on the elite men and women finisher field in addition to runners who finish at the top of their age group. Surprisingly, testing for athletes who are “doping” is a new concept in ultra running because of its previous low-key presence within the sporting world. However, with the rise of athletic sponsorships and financial opportunities also brings along the rise of the temptation to cheat. Drug testing will reassure an even playing field.

Final Thoughts

They say some horses will test you, some horses will teach you, and some horses will bring out the best in you. Well, they sure brought out the best of Gordy Ainsleigh. And because of that decision to hop off his saddle and take the trails by foot, thousands of runners since have brought out the best within themselves. Reaching the finish line of the Western States 100 takes persistence. It takes persistence to train, persistence to finish a qualify race, persistence to make it through the lottery, and persistence to complete the race. You need persistence to get it done. The intense may call it focus, the passionate may call it dedication, and the naysayers may call it obsession, however, whatever name we give it, persistence will keep you moving through the process and possibly a chance to experience the race of a lifetime, a race we call the Western States 100.

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