Late Night at the Western States 100 Highway 49 Crossing

AJW reflects on volunteering at the 2023 Western States 100.

By on June 30, 2023 | Comments

AJW's TaproomA month before this year’s Western States 100, Bill Hambrick, the race’s veteran assistant race director, came to me with an idea.

“AJW, would you be willing to join the Highway 49 crossing volunteer team in the middle of the night to energize the runners and push them toward their silver buckles?”

“That sounds great Bill!”

And so it was, in the wee early morning hours last Sunday morning, that I found myself amongst a small, joyful band of volunteers at the 93.5-mile point of the Western States 100.

For years, the Highway 49 crossing was the location of an aid station. Coming after the long climb up from Quarry Road and before the final pitch up to the Cool Meadow, Highway 49 was a welcome refuge. However, a few years ago the race organizers smartly decided to move the aid station a mile further up the trail to Pointed Rocks, a location that was safer for both runners and crews and would eliminate the need for crew shuttles and extensive traffic control.

Nonetheless, the runners still would need to cross the very busy Highway 49, which is difficult at any time but can be especially challenging with 93.5 miles on your legs. So, even though the aid station was eliminated the race organizers decided to stage a small group of volunteers at the road crossing as well as a California Highway Patrol officer complete with flashing lights, flagging, warning signs, and more.

2023 Highway 49 crossing volunteer team 1

Some of the 2023 Highway 49 crossing volunteer team (l-to-r): Nicole England, Christina Sousa, Kristina Reiswig, AJW, Zach Denico, Kevin Haugen, and Jody Braninburg. California Highway Patrol officer Pat is not pictured. Photo courtesy of Nicole England.

The location of the Highway 49 crossing is not exactly a garden spot on the course. Set in the midst of a working quarry and surrounded by chain-link fences and barbed wire, the Highway 49 crossing is about as welcoming to the runners as a maximum-security prison. And that is where the joyful band of volunteers comes in.

Spearheaded by Nicole England, and supported this year by Kristina Reiswig, Christina Sousa, Jody Braninburg, Kevin Haugen, and Zach Denico, this intrepid group of volunteers stood in the dark all night long cheering runners on as they emerged from the darkness and made their way through the fencing and across the busy highway.

As one might expect in the course of a late-night gathering like this one, over time some of our group took on nicknames, “Baby Runner” and “Christina with a Ch,” for example, as well as some established patterns, like where Jody greeted every runner who came down the hill with a, “Work those quads!” Even police officer Pat got into the act as he held the stop sign in the middle of the highway and encouraged runners on to the finish.

When my shift ended, I couldn’t help but think how incredible this was. Is there another event in the world in which this could happen? Is there another place where eight people could gather together in the middle of the night along a busy highway with no reward other than the distant satisfaction of cheering on a runner toward the finish of a lifetime? And yet that is the spirit of Western States.

2023 Highway 49 crossing volunteer team 2

More of the 2023 Highway 49 crossing volunteer team (l-to-r): Nicole, Jesse, Olivia and Tucker England. Photo courtesy of Nicole England.

Western States brings out the best in all of us. Western States is not just a celebration of humanity but an opportunity for people to gather in ways that are both ordinary and extraordinary. The ordinary gathering of which I was a part last Sunday early morning made my day a little better and, I have to believe, gave those weary runners just a little push toward that finish line. To me, that makes it all worthwhile. I can’t wait to get back out there next year.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Morgan Territory BrewingThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Morgan Territory Brewing in Tracy, California. No Regerts Tropical Pale Ale — that’s how they spell it! — is an easy-drinking, slightly fruity American Pale Ale that is lightly hopped and super crisp.

An outstanding summer beer, No Regerts is a perfect, easy sipping beer for a hot summer night.

Call for Comments

  • If you were at in person, or you followed online, last weekend’s Western States 100, what human stories caught your interest?
  • Who did you find yourself cheering for a little harder?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.