Ahhhh! Memorial Day Weekend. The unofficial beginning of summer and the start of the final countdown to my favorite race, the Western States 100. This weekend, over 700 runners will converge on Auburn and Foresthill, California for the traditional, three-day, 70-mile Western States Training Camp. And, to celebrate the occasion, in this week’s column, I comment on six interesting (at least to me, as a long-time fan of the race) features of this year’s race.
Earlier this week, the Western States Board announced that, for the first time, runners at the race will be tested for performance-enhancing drugs upon completion of the run. While not every runner will be tested, all of the top finishers will be tested as well as randomly selected runners throughout the field. This bold step adds Western States to the growing list of trail races and ultramarathons conducting mandatory drug testing. While I, for one, wish this was not necessary, as our sport has evolved, it is clear that drugs have become part of the ultrarunning landscape and, as such, the organizers of such high-profile historic events like Western States are impelled to take such steps to maintain the integrity of the sport. Here’s hoping other races will continue to follow suit.
Snow in the High Country
Aside from heat, in a typical Western States year, there is no more common topic of discussion than snow in the high country. For the past few years, the snow levels have been minimal and even non-existent come race day. However, this year, it appears that regardless of how much warming there is between now and race day on June 24, there will be some snow to contend with between Squaw Valley at the start and Robinson Flat (mile 29.6). Just how much is anybody’s guess at this point. The race organizers are, of course, prepared for this and have mapped out two ‘snow routes’ that can be used in the event that the high-country aid stations are inaccessible. ‘Snow Route A’ makes a detour before Lyon Ridge at mile 11 and rejoins the regular course at mile 23 and ‘Snow Route B’ makes the same detour at mile 11 but does not rejoin the regular course until mile 34. In 2010, ‘Snow Route A’ was used and the times were compatible with the regular course. In 2011, ‘Snow Route B’ was used and the times were marginally faster as a result of completely bypassing Robinson Flat and running several more road miles than the regular course. Race administration states that they will “exhaust all options” before resorting to one of the two snow routes.
Course Changes and New Aid Stations
Over the past two years, the U.S. Forest Service has been constructing new trail in the area around the Duncan Canyon Aid Station and in this year’s race that new trail will be used for the first time. Here is the detail from the Western States website:
“The USFS added switchbacks between Red Star Ridge and Duncan Canyon aid stations which added .8 miles of single track trail. In order to make up that distance we are taking a more direct route up the climb out of Squaw (.2 miles shorter). And, after Robinson Flat we are taking Forest Rd N43 for 2.8 miles, going around Little Bald Mtn, before joining the existing trail before Millers Defeat aid station (.6 miles shorter).”
These changes in the first half of the course amount to no change in distance but some moderate change in trail surface and elevation gain, which could result in a slight alteration in running time.
Additionally, the race has relocated two aid stations which will support both volunteer access and crew parking but also make split calculation a bit more complex. First, the Brown’s Bar Aid Station has been moved down the trail 0.8 miles (from miles 89.9 to 90.7) and been re-named the Quarry Road Aid Station to allow volunteer vehicles to travel in and out of the aid station via the Quarry Road and re-supply more easily. The new location also is more spacious, allowing for more services for the runners, which can be valuable 90 miles into the race.
Second, the Highway 49 Aid Station, which was located along a very busy road, has been moved 0.8 miles up the trail (from 93.5 to 94.3), which will allow for a much more pleasant crew experience as they can park in the large Cool Fire Station Parking Lot and walk an easy half mile to the aid station. Additionally, the volunteers now get to enjoy working in the Cool Meadow, one of the most beautiful and tranquil places on the entire course, in my opinion.
The Wait List
This year, for the first time, Western States implemented a wait list in which 50 additional names were selected at the lottery in December and a list was compiled. At the time of this writing, 22 names have been pulled from the wait list and I predict several more will come in the next few weeks. This wait-list feature is allowing the race, for the first time, to control the exact number of starters they are permitted (369) while taking the guess work out of attrition and DNS runners. Clearly, the system is working and more than a few runners are happily making their way to Squaw Valley. The race will continue to pull runners from the wait list up until 1 p.m. on the day before the race, so those who are close to the top come that week may do well to find their way up to Squaw Valley just in case!
As a result of the severe winter weather that battered California earlier this year, many parts of the Western States Trail were in need of attention. Trees needed to be cut, debris removed, surfaces buttressed, and water damage improved. The intrepid Western States Trail Crew has been hard at work clearing and maintaining the trail and there is still more work to be done. When all is said and done, in order to get the trail ready for race day, literally thousands of work hours will have taken place.
Hip Ultrasound Medical Study
For decades, medical research has been a fundamental part of Western States. Beginning with the work of original race medical director Bob Lind and continuing through to today, Western States has provided a living laboratory on the human body and the impact of long-distance running on it. This year, I am thrilled to see that one of the studies will be a longitudinal look at the hip and, in particular, that tricky little bit of cartilage called the labrum. For those who volunteer for the study, they will have hip ultrasounds conducted prior to the race and will then receive follow-up communication from the researchers after six months, one year, and three years. As someone who has suffered from hip injuries over the years, I am particularly excited about this research study and look forward to seeing the results over time.
And there you have it, six interesting features going into this year’s event. As one of the most eagerly anticipated and closely watched ultramarathons in the world, the Western States 100 has long stood as a bellwether of our sport. This year, perhaps more than any other, the event is taking things to the next level and promises to provide food for thought for months and years to come.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What features about this year’s Western States are getting you excited for next month?
- For those of you with entries into this year’s race, what of these features are you most intrigued to experience?
- For those who will follow the competitive end of the race, do you see these features changing how the competition plays out?