Stephen Kersh ran his way back into next year’s Western States 100, finishing as seventh man for the second-consecutive time. In the following interview, Stephen talks about what his running history looks like, how he considered dropping out before even entering the canyons, how he turned his race around, what the dynamic between the speedy ultrarunners of Flagstaff actually looks like, and why you might be seeing him run shorter trail races in the future.
Be sure to read our results article for the full race story and for links to other post-race interviews.
Stephen Kersh Post-2021 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Stephen Kersh after a seventh-place finish at the 2021 Western States 100 for the second time in a row. How are you feeling?
Stephen Kersh: Pretty beat up,, but happy to have gotten it done.
iRunFar: How did the day evolve differently from 2019?
Kersh: Right, yeah. It was definitely a different day just due to the heat and everything, I knew that, I figured that guys were still going to take it out pretty fast over the high country with a lack of snow. I was still surprised at how quickly we were moving and the big pack of guys. So I was just kind of all day, foot off the gas until canyons really, and try to get some ground. Unfortunately I just wasn’t feeling good, pretty much the whole time there. We got to Last Chance and I asked a volunteer there, this would be a bad place to drop out right? He said yeah, this would probably be the worst. I was like, all right, well then just make it to Devil’s Thumb, see how you feel and then make it to Michigan Bluff, see your crew. But I told Eric Senseman at the bottom of Eldorado Creek, I’m dropping at Michigan Bluff.
iRunFar: Really. You thought you were done?
Kersh: Oh yeah, and then we got into the creek there and my spirits changed, I felt a lot better, had a really good climb out of Eldorado and just kind of focused on…
iRunFar: How long did you soak for? Did you just splash or did you actually get in?
Kersh: Yeah, yeah we had a 90-second maximum so we were in there for 90 seconds. But yeah, I was having issues with nutrition so I started eating a lot more real food and taking care of myself and yeah, I just kind of flipped a switch at about Michigan Bluff and started to feel really good.
iRunFar: Those soaks are sorely underrated.
Kersh: Especially on days like yesterday, you have to do that.
iRunFar: It’s worth that 90 seconds or even if it was a five-minute investment.
Kersh: I was so over time at that point. I was taking time at aid station, so I knew it was just about being competitive and not about racing for time.
iRunFar: And so you come through this really low point, you’re going to drop, is there any point after that where the light switch really goes on, flipped the other way and you’re like, I’m racing?
Kersh: Yeah, it definitely flipped the other way. Even at Michigan Bluff I was like, while I want to see my other crew at Foresthill so let’s at least get there. And then you’re at Foresthill. It’s hard to drop at Foresthill. With the crowds and I had so much support from friends and family and I was catching people, like I saw Jared [Hazen] and I was like, okay buddy I guess I’m in 10th place now, like I can’t drop. I was lucky enough to catch a couple more people the rest of the day and turned out well.
iRunFar: Were you able to enjoy any of the race?
Kersh: Yeah, there were times of enjoyment. I mean it was way more painful than 2019. But I did take some enjoyment I think in that experience and then being able to just kind of claw your way back was very enjoyable, very fulfilling.
iRunFar: Obviously your time was way slower, but can you have as much satisfaction or even more pride having a finish and still performing well?
Kersh: Yeah, I told my brother who paced me in the last 20. I was like, man. I’m so much more proud of this race than 2019. Because I just don’t ever remember feeling so bad in 2019. And just to have the fortitude to keep going on, yeah, I was proud of that.
iRunFar: Well, I really wanted to interview you today if you had a good day because you finish seventh last time, you had another good run, I’d love to know a little bit of your background. Your creative professional in Flag[staff, Arizona], right? What does your life look like down there?
Kersh: Yeah, a pretty good life in Flagstaff, I moved out to Flagstaff after my fifth year of running and I pursued road running and some marathoning for a bit. Then got in with the wrong group of guys, Tim Ferriss, Jim Walmsley, Cody Reed, Eric Senseman, Jared Hazen, and they convinced me to try my hand on the trails so I’ve been running trails since only about mid-2018.
iRunFar: You were a collegiate runner before that?
Kersh: Yeah I was, I ran at Portland and Georgetown.
iRunFar: What distances?
Kersh: 5k, 10k.
iRunFar: Long distance guy?
Kersh: Long distance, and then I qualified for the 2016 Olympic Marathon trials. So I was still trying for that.
iRunFar: And then you’re an Olympian right?
Kersh: And I did represent at Rio– no. But it was good to have a fast half marathon under my belt. And yeah, I do a lot of photography and directing of digital video, me and my partner have a little studio in Flagstaff that we work out of.
iRunFar: Nice. And it’s been pretty incredible, because you did your first ultra in mid-2018, you did your first 50 miler in 2019 and then finished seventh at Western States. Does it feel like a really fast progression to you?
Kersh: It doesn’t really, I mean looking at it, I look at my results and there aren’t too many there. And I look at some other guys, like man they raced like 35 times. So I’m still waiting, I thought yesterday was the closest to having a really bad experience because I’ve only really had positive experiences, but luckily it turned pretty positive.
iRunFar: Is that light racing schedule pretty intentional?
Kersh: I wouldn’t say so, a lot of it has to do with, I mean I feel like I’ve picked kind of bigger races, so I just want to be very prepared for them. And then last year, we didn’t get any racing so other than (JFK 50), which was fun.
iRunFar: Which was an incredible performance. 5:27?
Kersh: I don’t know, I guess I like performing on stage is like this more than local stuff.
iRunFar: So obviously you’ve come from the track and road background, you had a really good performance at JFK, you also, they call this a track meet, but there’s a heck of a lot of mountain stuff, have you come to really enjoy the trail and the mountain stuff as much is the fast, fast running or?
Kersh: Yeah, I mean the faster running suits my background a whole lot more, but I do just love spending time in the mountains. I haven’t had the opportunity to go to Silverton and camp for the summer and do all that kind of stuff.
Kersh: Yet, right. I am signed up for CCC, so I’ll need to be doing more of that. I do enjoy the mountains but I think what comes natural to me is like, Cal Street and stuff like that where you’re just flowing.
iRunFar: So, a Lake Sonoma would suit you?
Kersh: Lake Sonoma was great for me, that was my first 50, it went very well.
iRunFar: Right on, so you said you have CCC, gotta switch up the training a little bit for that?
Kersh: Definitely, yeah, I mean yesterday I was probably cursing myself for even attempting that and it’s only eight weeks away, but, yeah, we’ll switch it up, take some down weeks and hopefully using the stimulus to propel training and racing.
iRunFar: And it’s nicer going in this direction, building up the running and speed and then enjoying the mountains, hiking and running.
Kersh: Take in the views.
iRunFar: Hopefully a little bit more. If you have any… I know it’s just the morning after but thinking about coming back here?
Kersh: I mean you’d never want to say anything the morning after, but I kind of think I’d like to try some other stuff. I’ve had two wildly different experiences, both very positive but there’s a lot of races out there.
iRunFar: Are there any that just kind of tickle your fancy?
Kersh: Yeah, I’d love to do some of those quicker mountain races in Europe, Sierre-Zinal, Mont-Blanc Marathon, I think I could be very competitive at that kind of stuff. Because I think it is… I love Western States, but I don’t know if it really suits me that well.
iRunFar: At least not yet.
iRunFar: Use the speed while you have it.
Kersh: Exactly, so sometimes like, why are you doing this? I mean it’s awesome, but I think maybe doing some shorter stuff could be good for my long-term growth.
iRunFar: Yeah, I mean you can perform at that now, but it also keeps you fast as opposed to, I’m sure, was there slogging at any point yesterday?
Kersh: Man, always slogging in 100-mile race but I was like, I felt better on the back half than I did in 2019, I was running most of the course, which I was walking a lot in 2019. So yeah, there was some slogging, but I was pretty excited about it.
iRunFar: Right on. Obviously there’s a lot of fast guys in Flagstaff right now. What’s your dynamic with that group, because one could envision people just running each other in the ground like twice a day or whatever? How does it actually play out for you?
Kersh: I think maybe it used to be like that a bit more but man, we’re just honestly first and foremost were friends. Seeing Eric finish gave me so much happiness, more so even then me finishing just because I know that guys put into this race and to see him have a good result, still not up to what he is probably capable of but that was awesome. And I think first and foremost were just were friends and yeah we have to go to the canyon together and run and sometimes maybe we beat up on each other little bit but it’s always friendly ribbing you know?
iRunFar: To dig yourself in a deep hole.
Kersh: Right, I think we’ve all learned that rest days are good.
iRunFar: So that has happened in the past maybe a bit?
Kersh: Yes, it has happened, I can confirm that.
iRunFar: Well it’s great chatting with you and congratulations on another great run.
Kersh: Thanks, Bryon.
iRunFar: Thank you.