The Lore of Western States: The Agony of 11th Place

[Author’s Note: Over the next two months, as a lead up to the Western States 100 in June, I will publish a three-part series on the Lore of Western States. Three pieces on some of the great traditions of this great race. April will be on M11, May on the Silver Buckle, and June on the Golden Hour. Hope you enjoy!]

AJWs TaproomOne of my favorite Western States 100 traditions is the long-standing rule that every man and woman who finishes in his or her gender’s Top 10 is granted an automatic entry into the race the next year. This great custom allows runners to bypass the lottery and, in more recent years, avoid the highly competitive Montrail Ultra Cup qualification races. In addition, and perhaps most notably, it rewards success at the actual event. Indeed, a Top 10 finish at Western States has always been worthy of recognition as one of the top Western States runners around.

According to Shannon Weil, one of the founding trustees of the race and former Race Director, the tradition emerged organically.

From the beginning, anyone who ran and finished in the Top Ten was given their placement number the following year if they chose to enter again. Most did. The process just rolled into what became protocol. For us, it was just the right thing to do to keep the field strong.

When we set up the lottery in 1983, the Top Ten were deemed worthy of returning. In other words, the Top Ten always held value for us from the beginning and were recognized as such from the get go.

A brief look at the history of the men’s Top 10 (for time and space reasons I limited my research to the men’s Top 10 and hope to do a future column on the women’s Top 10) yields some amazing stories in the battle for those coveted spots and, indeed, the names of many of those who had the unfortunate distinction of earning M11, is a literal who’s who of ultrarunning legends.

Let’s start with the multiple time 11th-place men. These are guys who were close to the coveted automatic entry on more than one occasion and I am sure they are names we will all recognize. First, there is long-time ultrarunner Ian Torrence who captured 11th place in 2000 and again in 2003. Fortunately for Ian, on a few other occasions he made it in to the Top 10 and this year, 2015, he will be back in the race hunting down another Top 10.

Then, there is Tim Twietmeyer. Tim, as everyone knows, is a 25-time silver buckler finisher and five-time winner. However, what many people don’t know is that he is a two-time M11 in back-to-back years, 2004 and 2005. And, what is even more remarkable, the guy who finished 10th in each of those years, just ahead of Tim, was the same guy both years, current Western States Race Director Craig Thornley! Alas, before you start crying tears for Tim, keep in mind that in addition to being a five-time winner, he is also a 15-time Top-Five finisher, a record that I believe could stand forever.

Looking back over the years, the notable men who have found themselves one step short of the Top Ten include 20-time AC100 finisher Jussi Hamalainen (1989), 17-time Western States finisher Scotty Mills (1996), one-time Western States champion Brian Purcell (1998), 20-time Western States finisher Jim Scott (1999), 10-time Western States and 10-time Wasatch finisher Dave Terry (2002), multiple 100-mile winner Rod Bien (2007), 10-time Western States finisher Erik Skaden (2010), and former multiple-time Top 10er Jez Bragg (2014).

In the midst of all this, however, there are three M11 stories that are perhaps most compelling. Those are the three years in which the gap between the 10th-place man and the 11th-place man were the smallest. Those years when the slightest misstep could be the difference between coming back or not. The years when 11th placers couldn’t help but think “what if.”

In 2001, Dean Karnazes, himself a 10-time Western States finisher and one of the best-known ultrarunners in the world, finished in 10th place. A mere 2:10 behind him was Oregonian John Robinson. John never again made it as close and must, to this day, live with what can only be imagined as eternal heartache.

Then, there was the 1997 race when Kevin Rumon cruised to a 10th place finish. Just 1:07 behind him was highly decorated runner and Vermont 100 champion Kevin Setnes. This, too, would be the closest Setnes would ever come to the Top 10.

Finally, there is the closest 10th/11th finish in Western States history in 2009. I remember this one quite well, as I was the 10th place finisher that day. Remarkably, given how long and hard this race is, Victor Ballesteros crossed the finish line just 23 seconds after I did. It was the most stressful running day of my life!

I can say through first-hand experience that there is nothing more stressful or exhilarating than the feeling of being on the top-10 “bubble” at Western States and for over 40 years, this quirky and brilliant tradition has led to some of the most vicious battles the race has ever seen. Looking ahead to this year, one can only wonder what will happen in that extraordinary zone between the 10th and 11th place runners. So close, yet so far…

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Sierra Nevada-Ballast Point Electric Ray India Pale LagerThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Sierra Nevada and Ballast Point. Their Electric Ray: India Pale Lager is one from the Beer Camp series that has been part of the collaboration movement Sierra Nevada has pioneered over the last couple summers. This beer, one the the cleanest tasting in this relatively new variety, hits the sweet spot between lager and ale and has really grown on me. Also, in honor of the new Sierra Nevada outpost opening in Brevard, North Carolina, it is only fitting that this spring beer is featured this week!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What’s your favorite battle for M10?
  • Any favorite tails about those who ended up just short of that goal?

There are 8 comments

  1. Scott

    Great column this week, AJW! Cool stats and thoughts from the guy who knows Western States history better than just about anyone, and also a great beer–loved the BCAA collection from last summer and hoping they brew another IPL this summer (and Maillard's Odyssey, too!). Really looking forward to the May/June columns. As for your "stressful" finish in '09, I remember reading your report from that race and feeling worn out just sitting on the couch–way to gut it out!

  2. sharmanian

    Having run in 11th for a long portion of one year and only just scraping in 10th I was definitely very stressed by it, but getting 10th meant the world to me (since it meant I got another try). I'd compare coming 11th at WS to coming 2nd – so close to something so much bigger.

  3. @v_sportdesign

    Awww… honestly M11 wasn't that bad. Apparently, now, it's an odd badge of honor. In hindsight though, I should have listened to my pacer Mark Gilligan and turned my headlamp off going up Robbie.

  4. jmjscott

    Andy, I remember 1999 WS well! It was the first time my brother Dave Scott (10-time finisher, 8-time top ten) and I had ever run any part of the race together. For the first 16 miles it was like having a pacer with Dave right behind me. He had told me early on his plan to run behind me and wanted to take it a bit easier in the high country. At Red Star Ridge he took off. Dave was going for his 10th finish and looked to be destined to once again be in the top ten. At the River Crossing, I got word that Dave was right in front of me and had just crossed the River. I caught him part way up the hill and could tell by his posture walking, he was not doing well. We exchanged a few words as I passed him and his pacer who were moving slowly up the hill. I felt no excitement passing Dave and moving up in the place ranking. I was feeling his disappointment. I had to refocus and concentrate back on the race. By ALT I was in 14th place and moving up in place position. Pushing the pace into Hwy 49 Crossing, I was in 11th place. 10th place had gone through 40 minutes ahead of me. Not deterred, I blew through the aid station. I just needed to pass one more runner. I was looking for lights around every turn in the trail. I get to No Hands Bridge and no lights. I charge all the way up to Robie Point and still no lights. I knew trying to overcome a 40 minute lead by the next runner in front of me at 49 Crossing would be difficult, but I had to try. There is a big difference between 1st and 2nd as well as 10th and 11th place. I ran hard all the way to the finish. 11th place. I raced hard all day and pushed hard to the finish line. On this day, 10 men were able to execute and run the WS100 mile race faster.

  5. @SageCanaday

    I'm still relatively new to this whole WS100 entry process (so please forgive me if this is a silly question), but how come there are some pretty fast runners who get "sponsorship slot" entries while others wishing for an entry slot have to earn a Montrail Cup auto entry by placing top 2 in a loaded race like Lake Sonoma or Bandera etc? Likewise the sponsorship auto entries seem to diminish the hardwork (and racing guts) of those that also finished top 10 from the year before and had actually earned an auto entry for the next year?

  6. ajoneswilkins

    Sage, Good questions. Craig Thornley may have a better answer than me on this one but from what I know according to the Western States media guide is that certain sponsorship classes are granted spots in the race. The "Presenting Sponsor", from my understanding, is granted more than one spot (not exactly sure how many but that is how, for example, Topher Gaylord and Byron Pittam gained entry last year) and then the sponsors one level below them get one spot each (for example Michael Wardian gained entry as an injinji sponsored athlete). From my understanding, every sponsor uses their own discretion in determining their runners and they are not always runners that would be classified as "elite." Finally, there is a sponsorship class below the CLIF, injinji, etc level…that DO NOT have spots in the race as part of their packages. I do not know the cost of these spots but I can assure you that Western States sponsorship is a very competitive process and that a board committee is devoted exclusively to the process and procedure of negotiating sponsorships. All that being said, you are right that the highly competitive MUC races are a really tough way to gain entry. And, in my humble but VERY biased opinion is that top-10 is THE elite way to gain entry. A quick scan of 30 years of top-10ers at WS bears that out. Again, thanks for the questions. And, to be clear, I have no official connection to WS so my comment above is just what I know from being acquainted with many members of the Western States board and the RD. Those board members and the RD may have a better answer to your question than I. But, one thing I know for sure is that the sponsorship committee and the RD are committed to a transparent process that is clear, fair, and consistent.

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