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.