A Weekend At The 2015 Western States 100

AJWs TaproomMy formal Western States duties began on Thursday evening with the Veterans’ Panel but I have to admit that the opportunity to sneak in a run with Bryon Powell on Wednesday and Scott Wolfe on Thursday proved to be too much to refuse. So, while those were not quite part of the job, they sure were fun as both runs were accompanied by numerous encounters on the trail with old Western States friends. After this I couldn’t help but be primed and ready for what turned out to be an excellent panel with Pam Smith, Nikki Kimball, Matt Keyes, and Ian Torrence.

Friday was dominated by the usual pre-race running around and I have to admit I really savored the stress-free feeling I enjoyed after being on the other side for over a decade. Race day dawned and I was expected to cue up the pre-race song list. Alas, a technical glitch meant that no music would be played nor would there be a microphone for last-minute countdowns. Not to worry, Race Director Craig Thornley just sent me up the ladder to yell out the countdown and the runners were off. (Here’s video of the race start.) In our post-race debrief we agreed that the lack of music was a good thing as the energy and electricity of the starting line environment is enough. We’ll start in silence from now on!

Watching the runners depart Squaw did make me a little sad but I was soon brought back to earth as I had to sit in on the annual ritual of counting the non-starters (those who were registered for the race, given race bib numbers, and then did not actually start). This is actually a really important part of the race as it not only allows the sweeps and HAM radio operators to monitor the runners, but it also provides the United States Forest Service with the official count of individuals passing through the Granite Chief Wilderness. When the count was concluded it became official, 371 starters!

At once, I jumped into my car and raced down to the Auburn Overlook. Some may know this place as the finish line for the American River 50 Mile, but on Western States race weekend it is the command center for the entire event, known affectionately as Net Control. There, in a small room with a dozen computers, three HAM radio operators, and a person designated RD2 (‘Race Director 2,’ that is, a person who can make critical decisions regarding the race without consulting Craig Thornley), all information is processed in and then distributed out. I worked a five-hour shift in Net Control and I must say it gave me an understanding of the race and its infrastructure that I would have never understood as a runner.

A bit after noon, I headed over to the finish line as that was where my next assignment was. Bob Dickinson, AKA Mr. D, presides over that special place and he and his crew were already hard at work by the time I arrived. The finish-line organizational details are immense. From tents and gates, to banners and coolers, to food service and technology, setting the stage for the finish of Western States is a monumental task. Finally, after I begged and pleaded with him for an hour, Mr. D let me go for an hour break so I could get in a run. After a 45-minute trot on the Quarry Road, it was back to the Finish Line.

As the time approaches for the first finisher (I love how the longtime Western States volunteers call that person the first finisher rather than the winner), the energy builds in the stadium. Slowly the frontrunners’ crews arrive as do the loyal citizens of Auburn who simply love the event. By 7:30 p.m., the place was packed and the energy was palpable.

Rob Krar crossed the line at 7:48 and shortly thereafter I had my next assignment which was to interview him. (Watch the finishes of Rob and the other top-three men. Also, this is Rob’s finish line interview.) Then, in relatively short order the top-five male runners came in all under 16 hours. Following that, surprisingly, there was a bit of a lull as only two more runners came in over the next hour. This must be a weird year, I said to myself, kind of like 2009 when the spread from first to 10th was almost three hours.

Then, in rapid succession (at least for this year) the eighth- and ninth-place runners came in over 17 hours, leaving only M10 out on the course. I checked my phone and instinctively just ran up the course. Paul Terranova was sitting in 10th and on his way in. I met up with him and his crew about a mile from the finish and ran in with him. This year was truly a master-class effort by Paul and one he should be very proud of. We know where he’ll be next June!

After that top-10 excitement, I have to admit I was wiped out so I grabbed my sleeping bag and took a nap on a cot. It lasted about five minutes until Craig woke me up with a taste of my own medicine, “Sleeping at the Western States finish line, who does that?” With that, I was up. Magdalena Boulet came in shortly after my wake-up call and after interviewing her I had the pleasure of greeting two of the great female runners of this Western States era, Kaci Lickteig and Stephanie Howe as they finished excellent races. (Watch Magda, Kaci, and Stephanie’s finishes. Also, this is Magda’s finish-line interview.)

Over the next hour or so, there was a steady buzz around the finish line as there was drama unfolding in the women’s race. Several runners were jockeying for positions eight through 12 and we all knew what was at stake. While some were charging, others were dropping back. When I heard my good friend and soon-to-be fellow 10-day buckler Nikki Kimball had cleared No Hands Bridge, I once again bolted for the gate and met up with Nikki and her crew at Mile 99. I greeted her, we held hands, and she let out a big burp. “Dave Terry would be proud of that!” I said. We cruised through the streets of Auburn and Nikki finished her 10th Western States, appropriately, in 10th place. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.

Next came the inevitable drama of the 24-hour finishers followed by my two-hour graveyard shift in the announcer’s booth. Sharing time up there with Lisa Henson and Gary Wang was filled with laughter and joy and it was made even more special by the fact that I got to announce a wedding proposal in real time as a guy proposed to his now fiancé right after finishing. (There would be another proposal later in the morning which would set a record for wedding proposals at the Western States finish line at two.) What a thrill that was!

Then, there was the Golden Hour! Between 26 and 29 hours, a steady stream of runners rolled into Auburn but you could feel the electricity build around the track as the clock struck 29. We knew that 71-year-old Gary Knipling had missed the cutoff at Auburn Lake Trails but since he has a raffle spot for the 2016 race, nobody felt too bad about that. Then, still out there were 22-year-old Katie Trent, daughter of Western States Board President John Trent, who quite literally grew up on the Western States course, and 70-year-old Gunhild Swanson who was attempting to become the first ever 70-year-old woman to finish Western States. Both women had run steady all day. Needless to say, the intense human drama that unfolded at 29:56:56 when Katie crossed the line and then at 29:59:54 when Gunhild crossed the line was almost too much to handle. (Watch a video of Gunhild’s finish and iRunFar’s interview with her.) Even now, five days later, I can’t quite believe what I saw.

So, all this is to say, one year into my 10-year stint as a Western States volunteer, I am hooked. As much as I loved running the race for the past decade, I truly think I may love volunteering even more. Of course, like running, it takes patience, commitment, and focus. And, at the end of the day, the wonder of the Western States 100 transcends just about anything in our daily lives. Just ask Rob, Magda, Katie, and Gunhild.

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

Knee Deep Brewing CompanyThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Knee Deep Brewing Company in Auburn, California. Yes, they have some heavy ABV beers that would bring most of us to our knees but I happen to like their nicely balanced, thoughtfully hopped Aviation IPA. It has a hint of fruit combined with flowery hoppiness.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Did you attend Western States to race, pace, crew, cheer, or be present in some other capacity? Tell us about your experience.
  • Did you ‘watch’ Western States unfold via iRunFar’s live coverage? What were your thoughts on the stories of the weekend?

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