The names Lisa Henson and John Medinger go hand in hand with the Western States 100. In this interview, a part of the iRunFar Live at Western States show, Lisa and John talk about their many-decades history and current involvement with the race, how John was hooked on this race by spectating it in the early 1980s, and their all-time favorite Western States moment.
[Editor’s Note: We sincerely apologize for the technical difficulties in this video. We hope you enjoy the excellent interview despite the poor video quality.]
Lisa Henson and John Medinger Pre-2018 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar—Dylan Bowman: This is John Medinger and Lisa Henson with iRunFar Live. Obviously you guys have been around the sport for along time. John, you’re the president of the Board of Directors here of the Western States 100. You’ve been on the Board since 1991. What are the responsibilities of the president of Western States?
John Medinger: Oh, that’s a hard one. The Board itself does all the backstory stuff of the race. Obviously, Craig Thornley, the race director does all the logistics of the race itself, but the budgeting, the sponsors, and that kind of stuff, and policy stuff is what the board does. We have a great board. We have 15 people on it. It is a bit like herding cats sometimes, and that’s my job—chief cat herder.
iRunFar—Dylan Bowman: That’s an important job.
Medinger: I just try to keep everybody on track. I’m kind of a delegator. We have a lot of great people who don’t need a lot of supervision. I try to put the right people on the right tasks and then get out of their way and let them do their thing.
iRunFar—Dylan Bowman: You’ve been the president in the past. Are there certain term limits?
Medinger: It’s not written into the bylaws, but traditionally it’s been four or five years, and then you’re kind of worn out and somebody else comes in. I did it for five years quite awhile ago, like 10 to 15 years ago, then Tim Twietmeyer was president after me, and John Trent was after him. Now I’m sort of like Grover Cleveland, and I’m back after a hiatus.
iRunFar—Meghan Hicks: We want to ask you more questions about Western States, but I also want to ask the two of you to share your own ultrarunning story. Both of you have done at least 80 ultras over 30 years in one person’s example and maybe approaching 40 in the other?
Medinger: Yeah, I ran my first ultra in 1981, and you were probably still in diapers.
iRunFar—Hicks: True, I’d just been potty trained.
Medinger: It was a slow morphing for me from road running to trail running. Trail runs weren’t really a thing until the 1980s. The very early ultrarunning, a lot of it, was just longer road runs. Then some trail runs started coming in, Western States, of course, but you don’t just jump in and run 100 miles. I came up here for the first time to pace. It was a snow year in 1983. One of her other friends who was going to pace her a little bit, we were at Michigan Bluff, we’d heard she had dropped, and we didn’t know what to do. Someone said, “Hey, if you drive to the river crossing you can catch the leaders.” Back then you could go anywhere and do anything.
iRunFar—Bowman: Did you drive all the way down?
Medinger: We could drive all the way down, so we did. We just missed Jim King, but we saw second-place guy and said, we’ll just stay here until dark and go home. Then it got dark and people were coming down the hill with their flashlights because headlamps hadn’t been invented yet. That was pretty mesmerizing. Then the aid station, there were literally two people at the aid station, and they were getting busy. “Can we give you a hand?” Long story short, we left at five in the morning when the aid station closed. It was 1983 and I’ve been back every year since. This is my 36th-straight year of being here.
iRunFar—Hicks: Lisa, your ultra history is nothing to sneeze at.
Lisa Henson: Compared to John’s it is. When we were driving into the valley yesterday, I said, “Wow, I think this is my 16th year coming up here or 17th year.” He was like, “Oh, this is my 35th year.”
Medinger: You’re up to 84…
Henson: I’m up to 84 or 85 or something like that now… and counting. I’m getting toward 100.
Medinger: The most captivating moment I can recall was Gundhild Swanson’s finish.
iRunFar—Bowman: I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Medinger: I mean, 70 years old and finished the race with six seconds to spare before the cutoff. When she hit the track, I’m looking at my watch and, it’s like, She’s not going to make it. It’s 250 yards, and she’s got to run eight-minute pace to make it around. I’m doing the math in my head and, Oh, this is going to be brutal. She’s going to be 50 yards from the finish when the 30 hours rolls over. She was, God bless her, she was sprinting.
iRunFar—Bowman: She had Rob Krar cracking the whip.
Henson: She did, in flip flops sprinting with her.
Medinger: Rob Krar won the race that year and went down to Robie Point to spectate the next morning in flip flops. He’s running up the hill with her, and he’s screaming at her and looking at his watch.
iRunFar—Bowman: He’d won the race 16 hours earlier.
Medinger: She dug deep. I think maybe it was Karl Hoagland’s line—I’ll steal it—but you’ve got to love a sport where the last place finish by a 70-year-old woman is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened.
iRunFar—Bowman: Lisa, do you have any other stories you want to share?
Henson: Every year there’s something that’s so emotional, and I feel choked up just talking about Gundhild right now. But something most people don’t know is that we get to that booth so early in the afternoon on Saturday, and we stay up around the clock until 11:00 the next morning. We don’t sleep, and it’s broiling up there. It’s not the same as it is for the runners, but it’s our own little private ultra. So every year, there are so many tears in the booth… even John. We cry so much for the last runners. Last year when our friend, Wally [Hesseltine] (I’m going to get choked up talking about Wally) came onto the track and kept falling and couldn’t make it around in time, the amount we cried up there… we were sobbing. We were beating on the glass. Someone always says, “We are going to break the glass. Stop.” We’re thinking he can hear us. So, that was exciting, but it does seem like we do shed an awful lot of tears in the booth. When the last people to finish before the 24-hour mark and the last before 30… and Meghan is always out at Robie texting who comes through, and so we know if somebody is right on the bubble at the end, and we get all worked up. If she says that no one is coming, we are very relieved because we don’t want to see someone come on the track and not make it. It’s awful.
Medinger: It’s a long day, but it goes by so quickly. There’s a little bit of…
iRunFar—Bowman: It’s a long night, but…
Medinger: There’s a lot of stuff happening all the time. We know a lot of people and about people, and then we have their stories and stuff… it’s gotten really interesting in the last decade with more and more overseas runners.
iRunFar—Bowman: That’s actually something I want to talk about and kind of transition back to the Board and things like that. You guys have made some really impressive and productive changes with the rules recently like with the one-time bye, and I understand there’s going to be more announcements this week. You’ve been on the board since 1991. I think Jim Walmsley may not have even been born. The race has changed so much. How do the ideas come about, and how do you guys have that conversation and ultimately implement those rules?
Medinger: We are always looking at the sport with a broad-brush sense and how it’s changing and how we can make our event better. Things change. I don’t think anybody back in the day ever anticipated a 2% chance of getting into the race with one ticket in the lottery. It’s great to be popular, but it’s kind of a curse because it’s so hard for people to get in…
iRunFar—Bowman: Especially in the last 10 years, the sport has just grown so much. Having been on the Board for so long, have the last 10 years in grand context of your time on the board felt pretty hectic?
Medinger: It has. It’s a little bit like everything is accelerating. The growth of running overseas especially… Europe has gotten crazy. Asia is now coming on in a big way. There’s still opportunity for growth in Africa and South America, but we see that little bit. Things are starting to slow down in the States in terms of numbers. The growth is slowing like a classic s-curve. How you adjust to that… I mean, 20 years ago we used to reserve 25 spots for overseas runners in the race so we’d have an international field. This last year, we had 1,300 overseas runners apply through the lottery. It’s just really changed dramatically. You adjust as best you can.