Post-Western Blues

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by guest contributor Lisa Henson. Lisa’s husband is the Western States 100 Board President, Tropical John Medinger. Lisa volunteers in many capacities at Western States each year, including all night and day in the finish-line press box.]

It has been more than a week since the finish of this year’s Western States race and I still feel a bit hungover. You might think this means that I ran the race but you would be wrong. Most of my time that day was spent in the press box at the finish line, closely following how the race was unfolding on Ultralive.net and iRunFar. And what a race it was.

Once again, I should clarify: By the time we got to the finish line at 6 p.m., it was not a race in the true definition of the word, but a one-man show the likes of which has never before been seen at Western States. Jim Walmsley was tearing up the course with focus and precision.

I think it is more than fair to say that as his race unfolded it was not lost on any of us that we were witnessing something that might be a once-in-a-lifetime performance. I felt like I was in exactly the right place at the right time, witness to a performance that would go down in sports history. My life has not exactly been full of these moments.

I wasn’t at the Ali-Frazier fight; I didn’t see Secretariat win the Triple Crown. I’ve never even been to a Super Bowl! But, as time went by on Saturday I became more and more certain that this would become one of those moments in life that would take my breath away and make me remember later exactly where I was, who I was with, and how I felt. It seemed a day that would transcend all other days and burn into my memory the feeling of love and deep admiration I have for this great sport of ultrarunning and all who participate in it. I was now watching something unfold that was the run of a lifetime. I was weak with the excitement of it all.

As Walmsley ticked off the miles, getting further and further ahead of the course record (at one point more than 30 minutes) I was giddy. Reports from out on the course confirmed that he was not slowing. Earlier in the day I had watched him run up Devil’s Thumb, feet barely touching the ground, and I felt something akin to rapture. My thoughts did stray to the fact that he seemed to be displaying a wild disregard for the distance but I just basked in the joy of the moment and admired his brashness.

Now here he was, more than 40 miles later, still flying like he actually had wings. At Brown’s Bar, mile 89.9, he was 17 minutes ahead of course-record pace and an hour ahead of second place. I was already counting the chickens for him. I was teary-eyed just thinking about the moment I would get to watch him fly across the finish line. And then he took a wrong turn. A lot of stuff happened after that but, to cut to the chase, he eventually crossed the finish line some four hours later.

The tears I shed for him in those hours are not inconsequential but it is all the tears I have shed since that have shown me the real truth. I cry for myself–that’s right, for me. I wanted to experience that record-crushing run first hand, in person. In less self-critical moments I think that I wanted it for all of us, which is not altogether untrue; I wanted greatness to wash over all of us that day compliments of Jim Walmsley.

I do not want to suggest that I experienced no joy on Sunday. I did: my friend Sarah Lavender Smith broke 24 hours after being on the time bubble for that fine time almost the entire way. Erika Lindland once again bucked the odds and worked her way into the top 10 after being much further back in the field early in the race. And Alison Sunshine Chavez knocked off an inspiring, just-under-the-wire performance just two years after having a double mastectomy.

And, of course, it’s always a thrill being at the Placer High track when the winners arrive. Andrew Miller clocked an impressive 15:39:36 at just 20 years of age, and had everyone buzzing about how much better he might still get. And one of my favorite people, Kaci Lickteig–the Pixie Ninja!–waltzed in with the  fourth-fastest women’s time ever, 17:57:59.

But the serious funk caused by Walmsley’s missed turn never totally dissipated. And then, at the very end, my good friend Wally Hesseltine’s just-over-the-time-limit 30:02 finish cemented the feeling.

In spite of all the good things that happened at the track two weekends ago–and there were many–I am still in a dark mood. I have had a couple of good meals since and many hours of catch-up sleep but there is still a sadness seeping in around the edges of everything I do. My seeming inability to get over someone else’s blown race is shocking to me especially in light of the fact that Walmsley’s post-race interview on iRunFar shows him to be way more than sanguine about the whole affair than I am! Maybe that’s because he feels that he has the power to make sports history whenever he chooses, while I have to rely on the vagaries of luck to put me in the right place at the right time. Even he recognized that something special was going on as he ran, as he said, “I had just never felt so invincible before. Everything was clicking. It was truly magical.” But of the two of us, maybe I am the only one experienced enough to know how rare it is to have everything work perfectly in a 100 miler.

All things considered, I just can’t shake the feeling that the stars aligned perfectly with his will and ability that particular day and offered up magic. I can only hope I am wrong about this. I will be right back in that finish-line press box next year hoping for what I didn’t get this year: a front-row seat at history being made.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What were you thinking and feeling as you followed Jim Walmsley’s attempt at Western States?
  • Did you experience similar highs and lows as Lisa over the course of his day?