Over the past few weeks, I had the privilege of attending two 100-mile races in the American West. First, as a participant, I ran the rain-soaked Bighorn Trail Run 100 Mile in Wyoming. Then, a week later, I attended the baking-hot Western States 100 in California as a volunteer and spectator. Both races, due to challenging conditions, had lower-than-average finishing rates which bucked the trend of the increasingly higher finishing rates we’ve seen over the past few years.
At Bighorn the finishing rate was a record-low 47%. For the first time in race history, more than half of the starters failed to finish. Of those DNFs, the majority were recorded at the Jaws aid station less than halfway through the race at mile 48. Due to steady rain, cold temperatures, and slick mud, most of the runners who quit cited those brutal conditions as their reason. Interestingly, of those runners who managed to venture back out into the quagmire after Jaws, over 80% went on to finish.
Observing the scene in Jaws for the 20 minutes I was in there, the droppers fell into two general categories. In the first category were those runners who, for whatever reason, were unprepared for the conditions and arrived in Jaws cold, wet, and suffering. The cases of hypothermia at this aid station were significantly higher than in past years and in most situations these runners simply could not warm up sufficiently to continue. In the second category were those runners who simply gave up immediately upon their arrival at Jaws. As I sat there, I saw at least 10 runners stumble into the tent, walk over to the table, rip their bib numbers off, and drop out. In these cases it appeared to me that these runners’ minds were made up long before they arrived.
In reflecting on the day, I found it interesting to think about the difference between the ‘physical’ drops and the ‘mental’ drops. Certainly, for those runners whose health and well-being were in danger, quitting seemed to be the only safe option. However, for those who gave up less than halfway through the race due to their lack of will to continue, I wonder how they feel about that decision now, two weeks later.
At Western States this past weekend, the conditions were dynamic and disparately challenging. Due to snow, mud, and debris over the first 25 miles of the course, times through that section were quite a bit slower than usual and the wear and tear that section dished out was substantial. At Red Star Ridge aid station (mile 16), 17 runners missed the 10 a.m. cutoff which became a harbinger for the rest of the day. I had the opportunity to spend several hours at Devil’s Thumb (mile 47) and the heat really took its toll there. Accomplished and experienced runners like Stephanie Violett and Thomas Lorblanchet took significant time to re-group here and both went on to finish. Others, however, like Brian Rusiecki, succumbed to the conditions and dropped here. In Brian’s case in particular, an unusual allergic reaction combined with the oppressive heat and above-average humidity impacted his breathing, which slowed him to a crawl coming out of Deadwood Canyon.
Further down the course, at the Rucky Chucky river crossing (mile 78), the carnage began to pile up. I spent about eight hours down there and saw runners dealing with all kinds of challenges. When Jim Walmsley arrived, it was clear that he was finished. Physically and emotionally spent, Jim dropped almost immediately and then spent a good amount of time talking with people and cheering on other runners. Oddly, when Chris Mocko arrived an hour or so later, his pacer announced to everyone there that Chris was dropping. He even signaled to the crew waiting on the other side of the river with a throat-slash gesture, apparently indicating that they were done. Chris, however, had other ideas and after re-grouping for an hour or so got back up, crossed the river, and made his way to Auburn for a sub-24-hour finish. Kaci Lickteig, the defending women’s champion, arrived a few minutes after Mocko and announced that she was dropping. Her crew was not accepting that, however, and as darkness fell and runner Stephanie Case came in to drag Kaci out of the chair, she too, ventured across the river and made it home to Auburn in just over 24 hours.
As the night wore on and the runners trickled in, I became increasingly impressed with their fortitude and resilience. Former top-10 women Maggie Guterl and Emily Harrison walked in and walked out determined to gut it out. Multiple-time finishers Gary Wang, Craig Thornley, and Scott Mills also soldiered through the night and eventually made their ways to Auburn. Indeed, as the hours passed, it appeared as though the attitude of just getting it done became more and more pervasive. Observing the above-average number of runners who rolled in during the Golden Hour, that magical period in the last hour before the final 30-hour cutoff, it became clear to me that folks who were physically decimated had successfully allowed their minds to take over to get them to the finish. Ultimately, the 67% finisher’s rate was the lowest since 2009 and every one of those finishers truly earned their buckles.
There are myriad factors that impact a runner’s decision to forge on or stop. Having now observed two races in which over 200 people who, when they started, clearly intended to finish and ultimately did not, I can’t help but wonder what could have been done, to them or for them, to get them to that finish. It is often said of Western States that there are 369 stories out there and this year those stories were wide ranging and profound. And, from my point of view, it is my sincere hope that for those who failed to finish at Bighorn and Western States, for whatever reason, that they’ve taken away lessons and experiences–physical, emotional, and psychological–that will get them to the finish the next time.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Scotty Mills’s hometown of San Diego, California. Green Flash Brewing Company makes a wonderfully fruity session IPA called Soul Style IPA. One of my runners from the area brought me a six-pack to Western States and it was delicious. I highly recommended it as a great, post-run summer treat.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you dropped from a race recently? If so, what was the reason, physical, mental, or maybe both? Are you content with your DNF now?
- How about those of you who faced and made it through Bighorn or Western States’s adverse conditions? What was it like for you and why did you decide to continue on?
- What have you learned by dropping from and/or muddling through an imperfect day of racing?