The guy just keeps talking. It’s 98 in the shade and everyone is hot, nervous, wondering in some part of their minds about this whole thing, that is, why am I here, who is this guy, what the hell was I thinking, will this ever end I have stuff to do, and like that. And yet, no one leaves. The restless shuffling and coughing that is the background noise to most every pre-race race director introduction is almost entirely absent. There is, instead, a respectful morphing into awed silence as the entrance lottery winners who have survived their training, trail work, and travel here, become as if parishioners, intensely aware that this is a sacred tribal ceremony of a sort not often, if ever, found outside their churches and, for that matter, anywhere else in their normal lives. Of course, it is normal for this place on the last weekend in June. This is the day before the 2013 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.
Created by the legendary and still living and running Gordon Ainsleigh on a something much deeper than a whim, States is the embodiment of the most ancient of human endeavors, the journey from here to there, an imperative to head “over yonder” to see what there is to see. At the heart of one of those remarkable two-word sentences that one can find in the Bible, “Abraham went.” this, in response to God’s command that he seek out the Land of Milk and Honey, is the fundamental quality of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. WSER happens once a year at the end of June, a 100 miles along the Western States Trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California. For those who yearn for their place through the lottery of admittance, indeed for everyone who shows up at the start line, it will be a journey of the body and soul in a rare and remarkable landscape that evokes Bernd Heinrich’s understanding of human endurance over distance as an event driven in “our minds fueled by passion… great journeys, as if propelled by dreams,” that likens the ultrarunner to an “endurance predator on a symbolic communal hunt.” You will be hard pressed to find an argument with that in this crowd.
There is more. Every year since 1986, when Tom Green ran Western States and followed that by running The Vermont 100, the Leadville Trail 100, and the Wasatch Front 100, all by mid-September, 400 miles in approximately 10 weeks, there have been a band of dreamers who have taken the opportunity provided by their entry into States and turned it into a journey to the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, an event arguably the runner’s equivalent of the Tour de France without the wine, cheese, EPO, and the overheated rhetoric. There are 32 of them this year, a diverse group of three professional, that is, sponsored, runners in search of the over all record of 74:54:16 for the Slam set by 33-year-old Neal Gorman in 2010. There is a six-time Slammer looking for number seven, and two-time Slammer looking for number three and 25 others; cabinet makers, housewives, accountants, dietitians, inventors, quality control experts, coaches, IT managers, you know, every-day folks who find their connection to themselves and their world when they lace up their runners and head out for some long mileage.
Their families and friends are involved. Totally. They are crew and drivers, handlers, coaches, pacers and as much a part of the journey as the runner. Along the way they will, all of them, meet strangers who will be come lifelong friends, people who in a moment of generosity in 100-degree heat filled their sweat-soaked bandannas with ice and told them that they were “doin’ fine,” handed them salt tablets and water and told them that “the hard part was almost over,” sat them down, filled them with calories, and talked away their fears while suggesting that the next hill was runnable and to please, for god’s sake, be careful and get home safe.
In the wee hours before sunrise, the fog lays heavy in the valley. The heat of the day is a promise in the orange-and-red-streaked morning sky over the mountains. The run begins with fanfare, but for these few it is only, as if 100 miles can ever be only, the first step. In the words of that oldest of clichés, the one about a journey beginning with the first step, the Grand Slammers are on their way. Some will not complete this stage. For the others it will be a victory mixed with the need to keep everything in perspective because there is another one, an altogether different one but one that is still 100 miles, coming up in three weeks. For those who did not make the full journey, whose dreams ended here in the heat and distance, there is this to remember. The journey IS the first step and they will be forever changed as a result of having set out. For the others, there is more to do and they will will be forever changed by their efforts, their dreams, the people they meet along the way, foremost among them will be their own true selves.