This past weekend, for the third year in a row, I spent part of the day of Western States atop Observation Peak, high in the mountains around Juneau, Alaska. Observation Peak is the highest point within a few-hours run from downtown Juneau, and is thus one of the few spots in the mountains here where you can get reliable phone service.
In June of 2012 I can recall sitting on top of the peak with a few close friends, amazed at the reality that it was 20 or 30 degrees warmer where we were in Alaska than it was in Auburn that day. As I finished up my 12-hour outing that day I checked my phone to discover that just a few minutes earlier Tim Olson had just shattered my short-lived course record.
A year later I was atop Observation Peak once again, this time with a dozen or more friends, many of whom were in Juneau to attend my wedding the next day. As we tracked the race this time I remember thinking there was no way that Rob Krar would possibly continue to move up through the field as the race got into the late stages. That’s just not what generally happens as people get past the midway point in their first 100 miler. Joe Grant, who was with me that day, seemed convinced that Rob would continue to move up in the field and maybe even win the race. I expected Rob to ‘blow up’ and be lucky to finish. When I got down to town a few hours later I was impressed to see how wrong I had been proven by Mr. Krar. He came up short of winning, but ran what I consider to be one of the best debut 100 milers in the history of the sport.
This past weekend I was on top of Observation Peak in the middle of a three-night fastpack with a half dozen past participants of my Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp. We had been dancing through the clouds, rain, and wind for 24 hours, but once again I found myself on top of this 5,000-foot peak, loading the race updates on my phone. No matter how far I am away from Western States in geographic proximity, I doubt I will be away from it in my psyche for several years to come. I don’t follow races week in and week out as closely as I once did when I was taking part in a race every three to five weeks, but I do still find myself pretty drawn to certain events. Western States is without question one of these events that I remain drawn to.
The thing that stands out to me more than anything from this year’s race is just how predictable the race seemed to play out. Going into the race I would have given Rob Krar at least a 60% chance of winning the race. I thought it was without question his race to go out and take charge of, and that is what he did. This certainly doesn’t make his performance any less impressive. In some ways it is even more impressive to get the job done when everyone is expecting you to. Rob is in my mind the top North American runner in the sport right now (and one of the top few in the world), and I look forward to seeing what he does in the next year or two. I think he can run with anyone in the world on any given day, and I suspect he will prove this more and more if he continues to race more of the top-level races.
Certainly Seth Swanson was a huge surprise in second place, and I look forward to seeing more of what he brings to the sport in the months and years to follow. The rest of the top 10 played out very much the way I would have predicted. I knew that Max King would be a huge factor in how the race played out; that’s simply the case in every race he takes part in, but I also was not at all surprised to see him fade sometime after the 100k mark. It’s perfectly normal and expected for people to slow in relation to others once they go beyond the furthest they ever have run. I have no idea if Max will give more 100 milers a shot, but if he does he will certainly be a favorite to win any race he’s in now that he has this experience behind him.
The women’s side of things was certainly a bit more wide open going into the race, but like the men’s side, played out in a fairly predictable way. Certainly it was very impressive and a bit of a surprise to see Stephanie Howe win Western States in her first hundred, but she has shown that she has incredible potential at any distance, and she would have been my likely pick to win going into the race.
How can I talk above about how hard it is to run effectively beyond the furthest you have ever run, and then say that I am not that surprised that Stephanie won Western States in her 100-mile debut? This speaks to her obvious potential and ability, but also to the reality that the women’s field, although very wide open, deep, and intriguing this year, did not contain anyone by the name of Ellie Greenwood, Anna Frost, Lizzy Hawker, or Emelie Forsberg, the four women who have, in my mind, when healthy, separated themselves as the four top female trail ultrarunners in the world. Not to take anything away from Stephanie’s performance, which was probably one of the top (if not the top) 100-mile debut ever on the women’s side, but had any of these four been in the race on Saturday things would have almost certainly been very different throughout the day.
Another thing that stood out to me on the men’s side was the lack of depth at the very top of the field. Western States has been the premiere 100 miler for decades now, and it certainly continues to be a hugely popular, hugely competitive, and very intriguing race, but it’s hard not to take note of the reality that Hardrock, which is coming up in a couple weeks, has a much larger list of potential winners than what Western States did this past weekend. This certainly isn’t meant to take anything away from what Rob Krar did, and part of this reality is simply that he is so good at racing ultras that any race he is in is going to have a very small field of runners who could potentially win the race (because they would have to beat him to do so), but it was certainly noteworthy going into the race to have such a clear favorite, as this just hasn’t been the case for at least five or six years at Western States. If Rob were racing Hardrock or UTMB this year, he would, in my mind, have a much lower chance of winning the race than he did this past weekend. This may simply be a one-year anomaly, but it’s hard not to wonder if last year will ultimately be the last year in which Western States will be the most competitive race in the sport?
I see more and more people coming into the sport who want to travel through much more rugged, more steep, and more challenging terrain than what Western States offers. It’s hard not to wonder if this trend will eventually lead to a race with more challenging terrain replacing Western States as the race that more top runners choose to run year in and year out. This said, Western States is an incredibly well run, historic, and satisfying event that might just surprise me and continue to remain the premiere event at the 100-mile distance. I never thought it would remain so as long as it has, so it might just prove me wrong and remain so for many years to come. I look forward to seeing where this all goes, but I also look forward to seeing how things shake out in Silverton in a couple weeks, and in Chamonix in a couple months.
Western States is most certainly a top-notch event in this ever-changing sport, and it’s been really fun to be a small part of the history of this race. Will I ever run it again? Who knows. I’m still in a place with my health/recovery where I’m not sure when I’ll race anything seriously again. I’ve just been super happy to be able to get out in the mountains on long runs and keep myself nourished, happy, and moving forward to a place of health and contentedness. I cherish my experiences at Western States, as well as other races I’ve taken part in, but for me, my personal storyline these past couple years has been much more about being out on top a magical place like Observation Peak, than it has been about being a part of the racing scene and culture of ultrarunning. The two could not be more different from each other, but I feel so lucky to have such an intimate relationship with both of them. Perhaps one of these years I’ll be back in Squaw Valley on the day of Western States, but for now I am as happy as could be to have spent the past three years of race day on top of a lonely, majestic, and beautiful mountain peak in Alaska. I’m just glad I get phone service up there so I can ‘see’ all the excitement that is unfolding down in California.
- Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What do you think of Geoff’s reflections of this past weekend’s Western States 100?
- Do you agree or disagree that Rob Krar was an expected winner while Stephanie Howe was a surprise?
- What do you think of Geoff’s thought about the very front of the field–the list of potential winners (which I think Geoff is describing separately from the list of top runners)–being less deep than in years past?
- Geoff followed along with the race from atop Observation Peak. Where were you and how did you follow the race?