A Personal Reflection On The 2017 Western States 100

Aloha, TJThe Western States 100 is my favorite weekend of the year. It’s homecoming, it’s wildly exciting and emotionally draining. It goes on for a long, long time, yet is over in a flash.

As titular head of an organization that includes 1,500-plus of the best volunteers on the planet, I’m a little bit in awe of the level of sophistication of the finely tuned machinery that makes the race happen. And I’m even more awestruck by the energy and love that these people have for the event. It is truly amazing and special in a way that’s beyond my ability to describe.

This year was hard. The huge snow pack and the intense heat wave of the past 10 days caused a last-minute snow melt that left the high country a mess. The heat was a major problem for most runners; it was hot very early on and stayed that way. This combination was very difficult. It is a year that will be talked about with respect for a very long time.

The day was emotionally rough for me. Too many of my friends struggled or dropped. Watching it all unfold was like a slow-motion train wreck. Bad news was being heaped upon bad news. I was beginning to question why I even do this.

I was rooting for Jim Walmsley to crush it. I’ve gotten to know him and I really like him. A more cautious runner might have looked at the conditions and backed off. I know I would have. Not Jim. He swung for the fences in the same way that Steve Prefontaine did. I admire him for going for it.

It didn’t work out for Walmsley, and that’s the painful beauty of our sport. There’s no such thing as a sure thing, especially on a hot day at Western States. Ann Trason DNFed twice–and then won 14 times in a row. Scott Jurek won seven times in a row–and DNFed the next time he ran.

Walmsley has been criticized in some quarters for his aggressive pacing. There have been comments suggesting he is “arrogant” or “disrespectful of the distance.” I’m here to suggest that those who are critical haven’t been paying close attention. In the past 18 months, he has won Bandera 100k in 7:46:37, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile in 6:00:52, JFK 50 Mile in 5:21:28, Tarawera Ultramarathon in 7:23:32, and Gorge Waterfalls 100k in 8:20:28–big course records all. Perhaps more significantly, he ran the first 90 miles of Western States in 12:57 last year before the famous missed turn. Based on this evidence, running at course-record pace was entirely appropriate for him. Like everyone else in the race, he wanted to test his tenacity and endurance and run the best he is capable of.

(Parenthetically, I will add that perhaps the one mistake Walmsley made was being candid and honest about his goals in his pre-race interviews. If you ever wonder why so many athletes are guarded and mealy-mouthed in interviews, it’s because of reactions like he received. Don’t be too surprised if next time around all you get is, “I’m going to do the best I can. I hope that it’s good enough.”)

I really like YiOu Wang too. She is on the cusp of having a breakthrough 100-mile race and I was rooting for her to have it here. And it was all going so very well for her–until it wasn’t. That’s Western States for you. One minute you’re cruising, leading the race through Foresthill, an hour later you’re a crumpled mess somewhere on Cal Street. YiOu is tough and smart, and she’ll survive. But in the moment, it’s painful, and hard to watch.

I have several friends–Gunhild Swanson, Susan Bush, Wally Hesseltine, Laura Bello–who are back-of-the-packers and had hoped to stay steady, keep ahead of the cutoffs, and eke out a finish in the last hour. The conditions were severe and they never really had a chance.

A few of my friends ran solid, steady, tough races and have to be thrilled. Jeff ‘Bronco Billy’ Browning was 16th at Foresthill and plowed through the pack, finishing fourth. Chris DeNucci, who has hardly raced in a year while he finished his medical residency, ran great. Magda Boulet was charging hard at the end and earned second place. Meghan (Arbogast) Laws once again cracked the top 10, at age 56. My pal Karl Hoagland broke 24 hours for the ninth-straight time. And, Chloë Romero, who has done such yeoman duty on trail maintenance, nailed her first finish.

But far too many more suffered, many of them badly. Stephanie Howe Violett, Kaci Lickteig, Gary Wang, Wim Van Dam, Craig Thornley, and Scotty Mills were all hours behind their expectations and visibly, painfully struggling. I’m super proud of them for slugging it out, but also know how much it hurt. There is always some suffering at Western States, but this year there seemed to be an inordinate amount. Seeing so many of your pals suffering is hard, really hard.

And then, in the final thrilling minute, first Lance Gilbert and then Karen Bonnet-Natraj made it all worthwhile. This! Just this. This is why I do it.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Was it hard for you to watch–in person for those of you who were there or virtually if you were at home–some of the hardships of this year’s Western States?
  • Does there come a time when a sport that is essentially done for fun becomes too hard or painful?
  • Where amongst the struggling did you observe beauty this weekend, moments that make the difficulty worthwhile?

John Medinger

is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.

There are 20 comments

  1. Mackey

    Thank you for the thoughts TJ! I was lucky enough to see every runner come through DT halfway, and the range of their experiences was astounding to say the least. From Jim and Yiou storming through, looking smooth and determined, only to drop; to Cat Bradley and Jeff running smart and passing up to top finishes; to those who looked like death warmed over like Steph Howe and Wardian, only to keep soldiering on to just over 24 hours. The faces of Gary Wang and Gunhild and Craig made impressions for their 100 mile wisdom. And one runner who literally passed out and fell off the trail below DT, only to make it to DT and go on to finish! There were tears too, for those who missed the cutoff. What a race!

  2. Brett

    I think you’re misinterpreting people’s criticisms of Jim. I don’t know of anybody who thought he couldn’t run well under the course record. Nobody thought he was arrogant about the distance or the record. They thought he was arrogant about himself. You can indeed set and discuss lofty goals without having to talk about how much better you are than everyone else and that nobody can lay a candle to you. Now that 19 people laid a candle to him last year and many hundreds did this year, maybe he’ll realize that tons of people can out run him. No need to go there, just do yo thang!

    1. Brock

      Tons of people can out run him? Ryan Sandes deserved to win because he did just that, but he certainly did not out run Jim.

      1. Brett

        Hundreds of people got to the finish faster than Jim did. Yes, they out ran him. You don’t get to say, “I was much faster, I only lost because I had a stomach problem” or my knee hurt, or I got dehydrated. He advertised on his pre-race video that when people go to dark places, he would emerge victorious. Well he went to a dark place and couldn’t get out of it, but many other people did. Anybody who thinks finishers don’t outrun all the DNFs is fooling themselves. The results say so too.

        1. Brock

          Let’s say Usain Bolt has announced that he is going for a new WR. And let’s say that Usain Bolt got an injury at at 60m and do a DNF. And let’s say there was a terrible head wind as well. Then I guess you would be the first to: 1. Declare that Usain Bolt was out run be every runner in the heat that finished. 2. Criticize him for even attempting something that he promised to do under those conditions. Also, 1. He didn’t lose, he did a DNF. 2. Out last, YES. Out run, NO. 3. His crew didn’t want him to continue. Dude, that is way beyond a dark place.

          1. Ken Michal

            Injury is part of the game, even more so over long distances! Things like foot care, heat management, hydration, nutrition and the mental game are huge factors over 100 miles! Pacing is super important! In Jim’s case, his pacing and hydration strategy (that obviously works well for him at short ultras) didn’t hold up for longer distance! It’s not too surprising he left a trail of puke all over Cal St (Definitely not judging! I puked at Cal when I ran WSER too! ;) Once, I left a 13 mile puke trail and blacked out at a different 100… really hard earned finish there! Definitely a great learning process! Yes, you CAN dig out of that hole!!)! It was still fun to watch his early miles and hope that he had a blazing fast 100 in him! While his run was fast early on, he certainly was outran by 66% of the starters who ran much smarter races! Above anything else, WSER is an A to B race and failing to reach B equals outrun by the folks that did! They should be stoked and proud to say that on that day at least, they definitely outraced him!! I admire Jim for going for it, but that doesn’t mean he started in a different event than the rest of the field!

            Addressing point three: Obviously, Jim was in a deep hole by Rucky Near! Yes, it was dark! Beyond? No. Dark is also part of the game! It would have sucked incredibly but he absolutely could have dug himself back out and slogged it in if he had set his mind to it! Heck, Kaci Lickteig was in a similar hole at the same place on the course… Definitely admire her for sticking it out and getting it done and my money says that down the road, this finish will make Kaci an even stronger, smarter and more incredible runner! I have no doubt that if his crew was Ann Trason, Jim would be wearing this years WSER buckle right now! ;)

            All Day!
            ~Ken

            1. Brock

              I disagree. When you run like that under those conditions, and blow up, you’re done. Sure, most outraced him, but they did definitely not outrun him. It’s not the same.

          2. Ken Michal

            Not sure why, but I’m not given the option to reply to your last comment, Brock so responding here instead…

            “Brock July 1, 2017 at 3:47 pm
            I disagree. When you run like that under those conditions, and blow up, you’re done. Sure, most outraced him, but they did definitely not outrun him. It’s not the same.”

            A huge point of my post is that you CAN dig yourself out after blowing up! It’s incredibly difficult but it is possible!! This is what Ann learned from her first WSER attempts and how she killed it at subsequent events (well, and also learning not to beat the snot out of herself when she didn’t need to ;) )! I know it’s hard to believe and if she hadn’t pushed me to believe I could do it personally, I probably wouldn’t believe it either! It really is a mental game more than anything else!!

            In the end, it was all up to Jim! I saw him at the river while waiting for my runner (I was crewing) and still believe he could have finished if he hadn’t decided he couldn’t! Instead, he made the choice to call it and focus on faster recovery and future events this season (a wise choice if he’s gunning for UTMB)! He looked beat up but I’ve seen much worse looking make it in from further out on zero calories! Bruce LaBelle’s finish last year is a great example! If memory serves (perhaps Bruce can chime in), he was puking all the way from Duncan and didn’t eat anything at all from Foresthill! Can you imagine?! Heck, Ellie Greenwood was puking at Robinson the first year she ran/won too! She put herself back together and passed a large chunk of the field after Green Gate! Just because Jim isn’t there yet (give him time!), doesn’t mean it can’t be done!

            We’re probably going to have to agree to disagree on “outrun”, Brock! :) Just in case, here’s another way to look at it: I love to run hard and start with the elites… at Lake Sonoma awhile back, I started at the front and sprinted the first quarter mile! I was faster at the start than the eventual winner (and finished behind most of the field! Coincidence? ;) )! Did I outrun the winner? Please say yes! I really want to be able to add Zach Miller to the list of elites I’ve “beat” over the years!! :) Does my poor pacing at the front equal outrunning folks who finish first? Do the early miles count or the end result? Sure, Jim ran fast at WSER but in the end, he didn’t outrun anyone who paced themselves to a successful 100 mile finish! Jim ran faster than a lot of folks initially but failed to make it to the track in less than 30 hours! Like my “outrunning” Zach in the first quarter mile of LS50, Jim’s “outrunning” to Foresthill is just as meaningless! Of course, he has the opportunity to learn some incredible lessons at the least!! Along with this, a hard 100k is much easier to execute than a smart 100 miler! It’s no secret that Jim ran a hard 100k and blew up! Without doubt, he killed it for 100k but results (and stomach acids all over Cat St) proved that his execution wasn’t sufficient for 100 miles! There is no conceivable way that he wasn’t outrun by most of the field on this one… It’s WSER 100 mile not 100k!

            Really hope Jim comes back next year and races FROM Foresthill instead of racing TO!! I bet it will be pretty freaking amazing!

            All Day!
            ~Ken

  3. Nelson

    Nobody in their right mind would question Walmsley’s speed, fitness, or talent. And I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do that (except some dudes at Letsrun, but what do you expect…).,

    What people are questioning is his race strategy, which backfired tremendously, and the way he openly dismisses his rivals and boasts of his own skills. He may be the sweetest dude in the world if you get to know him, but those interviews are available to anyone. And I imagine that when he decided to put himself out there and claim he was going to obliterate records and being head and shoulders above the rest, he was aware he opened himself to criticism if things didn’t go his way (and even if they did).

    I don’t understand the ultrarunning community sometimes. If you have a hot marathon and a talented runners says he intends to go sub-2h, starts the race all out and runs close to sub-2h pace for 15 miles and then implodes and dnf, nobody would say how brave or admirable that was. Just misguided (probably in more colorful words).

    And he imploded badly. According to Tommy Rivers (not a bastard from Game of Thrones), who was going to pace Jim after crossing the American River, things got so bad for Walmsley that, after he had drunk and eaten everything he was carrying, and puked it out right away, having to walk back to aid stations to get more, which he ate and drunk and puked out again, Tim Frericks was so concerned for Jim’s health that he decided to go get more food and water for Jim (who I guess wasn’t able to go himself anymore), which would get Jim disqualified (muling). He did, and I guess Jim dropped because he’d be disqualified anyway. Apparently before this Jim wanted to carry on with the race, but his crew were so concerned for his health that they convinced him otherwise. (All this has been described by Rivers in an interview with a Spanish podcast; if you understand Spanish, you can listen to it here: http://www.territoriotrail.es/la-intrahistoria-la-western-states-100-jim-walmsley-entrevista-tommy-rivers-pacer-walmsley-los-momentos-esperando-jim-fueron-una-gran-desesperacion/).

    That’s the degree to which Jim Walmsley pushed his body to stubbornly chase a record that wasn’t there for the taking. Tofol Castanyer said that after the first km Walmsley had already put a couple of minutes on those chasing him. When he saw him next (many hours later) he found Jim lying on the ground, puking. Tofol offered help but Jim said his people had already gone to the aid station (so I imagine this was right before he dropped).

    Tommy Rivers said Jim wasn’t able to keep food in until the next day, and that doctors were debating to put him in an iv drip, although finally decided not to (which Rivers consideres a mistake).

    Unless he suffered some unrelated ailment we don’t know about, I don’t know how you could argue against the fact that he didn’t respect the conditions of the race and paid for his mistake. I don’t doubt he has the potential to break Olson’s record, nor do I think he’s the only one, but he didn’t race smart and he didn’t race brave. He was reckless. Which I must say surprised me after he’d clearly said in his iRunfar interview that the win was the priority and he wouldn’t risk that if the day was too hot to push for the record or even sub-14h.

    There’s no need to beat on a dead horse. I hope Jim recovers well, both physically and emotionally, and learns from this experience whatever he can learn from it. And that when he lands in the UTMB, he approaches that race with more humility and respect for the course and for his competitors, most of whom have tremendous talent as well and way more experience.

    1. Brock

      It’s up to Jim and his crew how they want to race. And how can you say he didn’t race brave? Anyone else that didn’t race brave at WS100 or was it only Jim?

      1. Brett

        Well lets put it this way – Jim’s past splits at WS100 and his training and previous races all showed he had a chance to put out a big new course record.

        But not in the conditions the course was in this year. In arguably the most competitive field the race has ever seen the winner was 90 minutes slower than the course record. The women were even further behind that on their side.

        In semi-‘normal’ race conditions, Jim could have done it. But the course wasn’t offering that up this year. If he would have run 14 hours this year, and based on the results, it would have been the equivalent of breaking the old course record by about 2 hours. That’s asking too much.

  4. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Thank you TJ — great column, showcasing your heart and experience. My heart went out to many runners with dreams dashed including Wally, Dan Burke, YiOu. I found myself cheering most for Magda toward the end. As to the last question Meghan posed above, “Where amongst the struggling did you observe beauty this weekend, moments that make the difficulty worthwhile?”–most obviously and definitely in Stephanie Case coming to the river and reigniting a spark in Kaci. Stephanie has an irrepressibly positive personality, and her comeback from a near-fatal accident around new year’s is a great backstory. The way Kaci rallied from the verge of DNF’ing and ran a fast last mile, realizing the joy and satisfaction of merely finishing after such a struggle, will go down as a golden moment in WS history.

  5. Ken Michal

    I don’t think it’s fair to discredit Jim by saying he was stupid for laying it all out there and going for it! I really don’t see this as a case of “disrespecting the distance” as much as him learning what he can and can’t do over 100 miles! Really, it’s more “not understanding the distance”! As Tropical John pointed out, Ann Trason DNF’ed her first two attempts at WSER! She’s also the first person to point this fact out and is more proud of those first two attempts than her 14 wins!! This is because she learned the most from those two races and obviously learned enough to come back and nail it time and time again!! If Jim wants to learn from this, I have no doubt he can come back and master the 100 mile distance and do some amazing things over time! Personally, I can’t wait to see what the next couple years have in store!

    It was definitely tough seeing so many back/mid pack friends beat by the conditions this year! I would have loved to have seen the cutoffs extended in the high country sections a bit so folks wouldn’t have to beat themselves too hard too soon! I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard it’s been done before… I also heard that it was a record amount of missed cutoffs at Duncan this year! Woah!

    The heartbreak of watching so many fallen friends really made celebrating the friends that finished much more joyful in contrast!! Hitting the track was an incredible achievement this year!

    It’s never a certainty over long distances and the risk of failure is a huge part of why the reward is so awesome!! Definitely love this goofball sport!!

    All Day!
    ~Ken

  6. Adam

    I would agree with Brett on his debate with Brock if you’re talking about Sandes and the other frontrunners. But not sure I’m willing to credit every single finisher with beating every DNF. Racing, whether 800 meters or 100 miles, is about taking risks so as to get the fastest overall finish. Those who took those risks and came through the finish at the front can claim to have beaten someone who took even more aggressive risks and fell apart. Those who played the most conservative possible strategy to “just finish” probably don’t get to make the same claim. I certainly don’t feel like hobbyjogging my way through 10ish hour 50 milers was equivalent to beating either the faster folks who blew up and DNF’d, or the people far behind me who couldn’t care less about their time. I outran the people in my vicinity whom I beat, and was outrun by the people in my vicinity who beat me. One could make a subtle distinction between “outracing” (tactical) and “outrunning” (pure speed), as Brett seems to be doing, and I think it’s worth considering, but that’s another point.

    1. Brock

      I admit I’m stretching it a bit. Outrun actually have a quite broad definition. Sandes and the other frontrunners had a better race than Jim, end of story. And yeah, I don’t think it’s wrong to say the frontrunners outran him. BUT, I would rather say that Jim tried to “outrun” (pure speed) absolutely everybody (which didn´t work), not the other way around (as Brett does). I can agree with Brett that everybody that finished “outraced”, “outsmarted”, “outlasted” or something like that, but personally I wouldn’t feel any better if any pros did DNF.

  7. Adam

    yeah, i agree. i guess if you’re pushing someone all day and they DNF because they’re trying to keep up with you, you pretty clearly outran them. jim may have been way ahead of the other elites, but his fear of them, and respect for their abilities, no doubt influenced his risky strategy. if someone is hours ahead of you, and there’s no doubt that they could have outrun you and not DNF’d even at a much slower place, there’s not much sense of victory in their DNF. so what i’m saying is…i agree with you both. good discussion.

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