After a year’s hiatus, the big dance, the 2021 Western States 100, was back for its 100-mile journey on the historic Western States Trail in California.
For many runners, it was the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to line up with a deep and competitive field, and relative fitness levels were unknown. Some racers had made a point of trying to run a spring tune-up race, while others used the break from racing as an opportunity to focus on long training blocks with only Strava runs as indicators of their form. Based on the competitive and exciting racing by both the women and the men, neither form nor racing memory suffered from the pandemic.
The lack of snow in the high country set the course up for a fast run this year, but the heat played certain spoiler. What began as a mild day in the higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada turned into a broiler afternoon with the official high temperature on the course soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the end, it was the U.K.’s Beth Pascall (pre-race and post-race interviews) and Jim Walmsley (pre-race and post-race interviews) who weathered the elements better than everyone else, taking home respective victories.
In the women’s race, third-place Ragna Debats (pre-race and post-race interviews) set an incredible new masters course record by over half an hour, breaking Ann Trason’s record which had stood for 19 years.
But this year’s race was a story for the ages in so many more ways, so let’s dig in.
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2021 Western States 100 Women’s Race
With three women inside the top-10 overall, some of the fastest times ever run on the course despite high heat, and tight competition wire to wire, the top-10 women changed Western States 100 history—and women’s ultrarunning history—this weekend.
Numerous international women chose to make the trip to the States for States. Among them were Beth Pascall (pre-race and post-race interviews) from the U.K., who’d spent the past 10 weeks in the U.S. after running the Canyons 100k. Ragna Debats (pre-race and post-race interviews), who is from the Netherlands but who lives in Spain, was present, running her first Western States, as was Ruth Croft (pre-race and post-race interviews), all the way from New Zealand, lining up for her first attempt at 100 miles. On the domestic side, defending champion Clare Gallagher (pre-race interview), Brittany Peterson (pre-race interview), Addie Bracy, Camille Herron, and so many more women all hoped to have a good run. What ensued was tight racing from start to end with impressive performances all around.
The race started under clear skies, a setting moon, and a comfortable 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Fast out of the gate, France’s Audrey Tanguy was the first over the Escarpment, mile 3.5, followed a minute back by Herron. Gallagher, Pascall, and Bracy filled out the top five just two minutes back from Tanguy. All the women received enthusiastic encouragement from the resident Yeti of Olympic Valley who’d come out to spectate.
By Red Star Ridge at mile 15, Pascall had moved to the front. After finishing just off the podium in fourth in 2019, she was eager to move up in the final standings and wasted no time making her intentions known. Tanguy, Bracy, and Gallagher gave chase, all within 90 seconds, and a long string of women trailed just as closely behind.
By Robinson Flat at mile 30, we understood that Pascall meant business. Looking relaxed, she’d moved to just three minutes off of course-record pace. Bracy and Debats continued to chase, holding the gap to within five minutes. In the next eight miles, Pascall went from three minutes over record pace to nine minutes under it. She flew in and out of the Dusty Corners aid station at mile 38 in a minute.
Halfway through, many of the top women were looking comfortable. Pascall even claimed that it didn’t feel too hot. Still, the heat must have been affecting her as she slowly lost some time on course-record pace. Debats continued a steady march forward, keeping the gap at a manageable size. Katie Asmuth (post-race interview), now running in third, received the award for the happiest runner through midway, and the one with the sun hat with the most flair.
By mile 61, Pascall had worked herself into 10th overall, but the full group of top-10 women were running within about 45 minutes of each other. And at 10.5 hours in, there were 19 women in the overall top 40, a testament to the depth and talent in the field.
At mile 71, along the infamous Cal Street, the race was on. Pascall came through at 11:51, moving up to ninth overall with a fast transition. At just 14:15 back, Debats barely stopped at the aid station. Two minutes later, Asmuth ran through, only grabbing ice. Croft followed less than four minutes in arrears, and Peterson came through flying two minutes later. Tanguy left a mere four minutes after that. Count them! That’s six women within 27 minutes of each other almost three quarters of the way through a 100 miler. What, what?
In the next 14 miles, Croft made her move, coming through Auburn Lake Trails, mile 85, in second, just 18 minutes down on Pascall, but only a mere two minutes up on determined Dabats. A charging Peterson moved by Asmuth. With the top-six women still within 45 minutes of each other at mile 85, there was plenty of racing to be done in the final miles.
But no one could stop Pascall. Consistent from Olympic Valley to Auburn, she finished in 17:10:41, the second-fastest time in women’s history. She was also seventh overall, continually moving up through the field as the day wore on.
Croft finished a strong second in the women’s field and ninth overall with a time of 17:33:48. Debats would hold on to finish third with a time of 17:41:13, putting three women into the top-10 overall. At 42 years of age, Debats’s incredible finish time marks a new women’s masters record, breaking the previous record of of 18:16:26, set by Ann Trason in 2002.
This trio was followed by Peterson and Asmuth rounding out the top-five women. For the balance of the women’s top 10, sixth place was ultimately Tanguy, her first Western States finish. This year, seventh place belongs to Emily Hawgood, the Zimbabwean who lives in the U.S., and who has a charmer of a story. Hawgood ran three Golden Ticket races to gain Western States entry this year, achieving it on that third try. In eighth was Camelia Mayfield, who follows up on her fifth-place finish in 2019 with another smartly run race in this gnarly year. Keely Henninger gains the F9 bib in her debut 100 miler, and 10th place belongs to none other than Kaci Lickteig (pre-race interview), whose finish marks her seventh at this event.
Together these 10 women finished within the top-21 overall. Let’s just pause a moment to let that significance soak in.
And to bring this full circle, Gallagher and Herron crossed the line outside of the top 10, in 17th and and 26th respectively, having what had to have been individual vision quests of sorts. And Bracy threw in the towel at mile 62.
2021 Western States 100 Women’s Results
- Beth Pascall (Salomon) – 17:10:42 (pre-race and post-race interviews)
- Ruth Croft (adidas) – 17:33:48 (pre-race and post-race interviews)
- Ragna Debats (Merrell) – 17:41:13 (pre-race and post-race interviews)
- Brittany Peterson (Nike) – 18:07:42 (pre-race interview)
- Katie Asmuth (Saucony) – 18:23:24 (post-race interview)
- Audrey Tanguy (Hoka One One) – 18:37:45
- Emily Hawgood (adidas) – 19:13:55
- Camelia Mayfield (Brooks) – 19:17:20
- Keely Henninger (Nike) – 19:42:37
- Kaci Lickteig (Hoka One One) – 19:47:56 (pre-race interview)
2021 Western States 100 Men’s Race
It would have taken a lot to convince most everyone to bet against Jim Walmsley (pre-race and post-race interviews) this year. And yet some of us still somehow did, because Walmsley took an unconventional path to 2021 success. But we all should have known better.
With many of the international men choosing not to make the trip over the various ponds, it was going to be a showdown of domestic talent. Listening to Walmsley talk before the race, it was clear he was in a good place mentally and physically. An IT band injury in the spring may have cut down on his training volume, but in the end, it may have ended up being a blessing in disguise. He went into the race with the experience of two previous well-executed States performances, and he surely drew on that knowledge to put together a smart and measured race from start to finish.
Hayden Hawks (pre-race interview), on the other hand, was making just his second attempt at the 100-mile distance. But after setting a course record at the JFK 50 Mile last fall and a solid block of training leading up to Western States, he was out to race and win. Jared Hazen (pre-race interview) was hoping that fourth time would be the charm for Western. After a third and a second in previous years, he hoped that a training block that started in February would deliver wining results.
It didn’t take Walmsley long to make it the 3.5 miles up to the Escarpment. He was accompanied by Hawks and followed closely by Hazen. This order was entirely unsurprising given that all three men had the confidence to try to win the race.
Early on at Red Star Ridge at mile 15, Hawks and Walmsley were already running three minutes under record pace, the lack of snow clearly saving them time. Hazen followed in third two minutes back with other race favorites Tim Tollefson (pre-race interview), Matt Daniels (pre-race interview), and Mark Hammond close on his heels. Just under an hour later at Duncan Canyon, Walmsley and Hawks had pushed the pace another four minutes under record pace, both running smooth at 24 miles in.
By Robinson Flat at mile 30, Walmsley’s pace had become too much for Hawks. He passed through five minutes under course record pace and 45 seconds in front of Hawks. By this time, Tollefson, running toward his childhood home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, had moved into third, just over 12 minutes back, looking very relaxed. Thirty seconds later, Hazen came through, unfortunately already looking decidedly rough.
Sometime before mile 38, Walmsley had donned a bucket hat and continued to cruise at six minutes under record pace, slowly pulling away from the rest of the field. Hawks held the gap to just six minutes while Hazen and Tollefson joined forces nearly 17 minutes back. The likes of Alex Nichols (pre-race interview), Drew Holmen (post-race interview), and Max King stayed close, just another seven minutes back.
By mile 50, Walmsley had put eight minutes into the course record. Maybe it was the bucket hat, but the only word to describe his appearance was relaxed. It was a full 26 minutes later before second place Hawks rolled through, still seemingly running within himself. Nichols led Tollefson through, both looking strong. Hazen continued to suffer, dropping back to fifth.
By the time the leaders rolled through Foresthill at mile 62, it was 93 Fahrenheit in the shade, 97 in the sun, and time for the heat-management strategies to come into play. “It’s not the heat, it’s the hills,” said Hawks. And after that, he’d lose 10 minutes to Walmsley in the following five miles. He was now 48 minutes back and had Nichols to contend with who was slowly closing the gap.
That ever-infamous Cal Street, stretching between Foresthill at mile 62 and the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78, is where the day started to catch up to Walmsley—but only a little bit. At the Cal 2 aid station, he’d given back his advantage on the course record. From there on out, he moved faster than everyone else behind him, but slower than a 2019 Walmsley.
By Green Gate at mile 80, Walmsley was now five minutes over course-record pace. But Hawks came through a full 77 minutes back. A surging Holmen was just 11 minutes behind and didn’t even stop. This was his first attempt at 100 miles, and he’d clearly done his homework on pacing and patience. Tyler Green (post-race interview) was also close behind. With a 14th-place finish at Western States in 2019, Green was on a mission to do better.
By the time Walmsley made it to Robie Point, just a mile to go, and with the course record now well off the table, he stopped for a Coke and walked the climb. He would continue to cruise the final mile in his bucket hat to win his third Western States in a row with a time of 14:46:01, still an incredible time for an excessively hot day.
Behind him, the race for the podium stayed intense. Somewhere between Green Gate and Pointed Rocks at mile 94, Hawks disappeared from the front of the race, leaving Green in second place with Holmen chasing just six minutes back. Cody Lind followed in fourth and just 17 minutes back.
At the end, Green would hold off Holmen with a time of 16:11:00 to take second, a massive jump up from his 2019 finish. Holmen completed the podium with a time of 16:23. Both had started off conservatively and had it pay off in the end.
Lind would finish fourth in 16:49:40, an impressive run for his first 100 miler and first attempt at Western States. He clearly had insider’s knowledge as the son of two-time Western States finisher Paul Lind and the grandson of the event’s original medical director Dr. Bob Lind. (Read more on the Lind family legacy at the race.)
Tollefson rounded out the top-five men with a time of 16:55:49. He’d put off running Western until he felt ready to do the race justice, and clearly, he was ready. The fact that he’d grown up in the area and run the last miles of the course hundreds of times certainly paid off in the race’s most difficult miles.
In the back half of the men’s top 10, we had sixth-place Kyle Pietari, who executed yet another well-played top-10 performance, Stephen Kersh (post-race interview) who finished seventh for the second time in a row after curiously bouncing around most of the top-10 positions over the course of the day, and Hawks who ultimately crossed the line in eighth place after experiencing physical struggles and a long stay at the mile 94 aid station to regroup.
Among the day’s breakout runs was ninth place Kyle Curtin, who moved up into the top 10 late. And Nichols rounded out the top 10 in what looked like a difficult finish after an even more difficult day.
To clear the air for those wondering, Daniels DNFed at mile 55. Hazen and Jeff Browning left the race at mile 62. And Hammond and King tapped out at mile 80.
2021 Western States 100 Men’s Results
- Jim Walmsley (Hoka One One) – 14:46:01 (pre-race and post-race interviews)
- Tyler Green (Nike) – 16:11:02 (post-race interview)
- Drew Holmen (Nike) – 16:23:09 (post-race interview)
- Cody Lind (Scott) – 16:49:40
- Tim Tollefson (Hoka One One) – 16:55:49 (pre-race interview)
- Kyle Pietari (Altra) – 17:00:34
- Stephen Kersh (adidas) – 17:29:24 (post-race interview)
- Hayden Hawks (Hoka One One) – 17:48:47 (pre-race interview)
- Kyle Curtin (Altra) – 18:18:31
- Alex Nichols (Scott) – 18:33:14 (pre-race interview)
Thank you to our coverage team who ran, hiked, and drove all over the Western States course, including Alex Potter, Sam Spinrad, Thomas Carr, Chris Bogon, Devon Yanko, Makiko Yamashita, Paige Brokaw, Ashley French, Theo Wirth, Steven Waldon, Martin Nash, Alison Nash, Julie Sachs, Dani Hochfellner, and Kirk Edgerton. And another round of thanks to Ellie Greenwood, Marissa Harris, and Olivia Rissland who provided invaluable office support from afar. This article was co-created with Eszter Horanyi.