It’s All Tribal: The 2013 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning

2013 Western States 100 Mandatory Briefing

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.

2013 Western States 100 Mandatory Briefing - more

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.

2013 Western States 100 Mandatory Briefing - still going

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.

2013 Grand Slammer of Ultramarathon starters

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.

2013 Grand Slammer of Ultramarathon supporters

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.

Start 2013 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning

Michael Lebowitz

is a writer, a photographer, and a runner in Eugene, Oregon. His grown children who have taught him damn near everything that works for him in his life.

He writes and takes pictures because it’s his way of telling stories. He runs because it reminds him that he’s here. He has no idea where the writing comes from. Nor the images. But he starts with what he knows and he imagines the rest. Sometimes it starts as fact, sometimes fiction but it is always true.

There are 20 comments

  1. John Ward

    I love the way that you paint such a vivid picture and also your ending of the post:

    "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"

    We never know until we dry and one of my favorite quotes is:

    " It's never too late to be what you might have been – George Eliot" So never give up on your dream

    John

  2. Jason C

    My first thought upon seeing this article was, "new contributing writer?" I looked back to see you've submitted 3 articles in the past year or so. This site would be a much better place if you didn't make us wait so long between posts.

  3. phil Jeremy

    Oh to be sitting in that company. I try to explain to people about the romance of ultrarunning and always fail miserably … next time I'll just give them this article.

  4. Melissa

    I love the idea of meeting and being changed your own true (best?) self along the way – that's one of the things running does for me. Thanks for putting it so well.

  5. Greg

    Great article!

    One small correction: Vermont was not initially part of the Grand Slam. Old Dominion (the second oldest 100 in the country) was originally part of the Grand Slam before Vermont replaced it. Western States used to be the second race in the Slam.

    1. Greg

      Note: When Vermont began in 1989, it became an alternate to Old Dominion as one of the four 100-milers. Also, the Old Dominion cutoff was 30 hours in 1986, 1987 and 1988. It was lowered to 24 hours in 1989 and 1990 and has been 28 hours in 1991 and later. In 2002, the Old Dominion Memorial was allowed to substitute for the original Old Dominion, which took a one-year "sabbatical". Starting in 2003, the Old Dominion (and the Old Dominion Memorial) is no longer allowed to be one of the four 100s. In 2008, Western States was cancelled (due to fires) and the Arkansas Traveler became the fourth race. (From: http://www.run100s.com/gs.htm)

      Maybe Old Dominion's cutoff was considered too tough and so runners could have the option to choose Vermont in its stead? Or maybe logistics? Or that with Old Dominion being before Western States, there was too much of a gap between it and Leadville and Vermont plugged that hole? I really have no idea.

      It is curious that Old Dominion was no longer allowed to be part of the Grand Slam after it missed a year, but Western States missed a year too and was still part of it.

  6. Kristin Z

    Outstanding. As always. You take photos that tell stories. You paint pictures with your words. Can't wait to see and read the book!

  7. Alberto

    Fantastic!

    Thank you very much mr. Lebowitz.

    Some of the text and descriptions brought tears to my eyes; long distance running can be liberating for the human soul, imo.

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