The Lore of Western States: The Agony of 11th Place

[Author’s Note: Over the next two months, as a lead up to the Western States 100 in June, I will publish a three-part series on the Lore of Western States. Three pieces on some of the great traditions of this great race. April will be on M11, May on the Silver Buckle, and June on the Golden Hour. Hope you enjoy!]

AJWs TaproomOne of my favorite Western States 100 traditions is the long-standing rule that every man and woman who finishes in his or her gender’s Top 10 is granted an automatic entry into the race the next year. This great custom allows runners to bypass the lottery and, in more recent years, avoid the highly competitive Montrail Ultra Cup qualification races. In addition, and perhaps most notably, it rewards success at the actual event. Indeed, a Top 10 finish at Western States has always been worthy of recognition as one of the top Western States runners around.

According to Shannon Weil, one of the founding trustees of the race and former Race Director, the tradition emerged organically.

From the beginning, anyone who ran and finished in the Top Ten was given their placement number the following year if they chose to enter again. Most did. The process just rolled into what became protocol. For us, it was just the right thing to do to keep the field strong.

When we set up the lottery in 1983, the Top Ten were deemed worthy of returning. In other words, the Top Ten always held value for us from the beginning and were recognized as such from the get go.

A brief look at the history of the men’s Top 10 (for time and space reasons I limited my research to the men’s Top 10 and hope to do a future column on the women’s Top 10) yields some amazing stories in the battle for those coveted spots and, indeed, the names of many of those who had the unfortunate distinction of earning M11, is a literal who’s who of ultrarunning legends.

Let’s start with the multiple time 11th-place men. These are guys who were close to the coveted automatic entry on more than one occasion and I am sure they are names we will all recognize. First, there is long-time ultrarunner Ian Torrence who captured 11th place in 2000 and again in 2003. Fortunately for Ian, on a few other occasions he made it in to the Top 10 and this year, 2015, he will be back in the race hunting down another Top 10.

Then, there is Tim Twietmeyer. Tim, as everyone knows, is a 25-time silver buckler finisher and five-time winner. However, what many people don’t know is that he is a two-time M11 in back-to-back years, 2004 and 2005. And, what is even more remarkable, the guy who finished 10th in each of those years, just ahead of Tim, was the same guy both years, current Western States Race Director Craig Thornley! Alas, before you start crying tears for Tim, keep in mind that in addition to being a five-time winner, he is also a 15-time Top-Five finisher, a record that I believe could stand forever.

Looking back over the years, the notable men who have found themselves one step short of the Top Ten include 20-time AC100 finisher Jussi Hamalainen (1989), 17-time Western States finisher Scotty Mills (1996), one-time Western States champion Brian Purcell (1998), 20-time Western States finisher Jim Scott (1999), 10-time Western States and 10-time Wasatch finisher Dave Terry (2002), multiple 100-mile winner Rod Bien (2007), 10-time Western States finisher Erik Skaden (2010), and former multiple-time Top 10er Jez Bragg (2014).

In the midst of all this, however, there are three M11 stories that are perhaps most compelling. Those are the three years in which the gap between the 10th-place man and the 11th-place man were the smallest. Those years when the slightest misstep could be the difference between coming back or not. The years when 11th placers couldn’t help but think “what if.”

In 2001, Dean Karnazes, himself a 10-time Western States finisher and one of the best-known ultrarunners in the world, finished in 10th place. A mere 2:10 behind him was Oregonian John Robinson. John never again made it as close and must, to this day, live with what can only be imagined as eternal heartache.

Then, there was the 1997 race when Kevin Rumon cruised to a 10th place finish. Just 1:07 behind him was highly decorated runner and Vermont 100 champion Kevin Setnes. This, too, would be the closest Setnes would ever come to the Top 10.

Finally, there is the closest 10th/11th finish in Western States history in 2009. I remember this one quite well, as I was the 10th place finisher that day. Remarkably, given how long and hard this race is, Victor Ballesteros crossed the finish line just 23 seconds after I did. It was the most stressful running day of my life!

I can say through first-hand experience that there is nothing more stressful or exhilarating than the feeling of being on the top-10 “bubble” at Western States and for over 40 years, this quirky and brilliant tradition has led to some of the most vicious battles the race has ever seen. Looking ahead to this year, one can only wonder what will happen in that extraordinary zone between the 10th and 11th place runners. So close, yet so far…

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Sierra Nevada-Ballast Point Electric Ray India Pale LagerThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Sierra Nevada and Ballast Point. Their Electric Ray: India Pale Lager is one from the Beer Camp series that has been part of the collaboration movement Sierra Nevada has pioneered over the last couple summers. This beer, one the the cleanest tasting in this relatively new variety, hits the sweet spot between lager and ale and has really grown on me. Also, in honor of the new Sierra Nevada outpost opening in Brevard, North Carolina, it is only fitting that this spring beer is featured this week!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What’s your favorite battle for M10?
  • Any favorite tails about those who ended up just short of that goal?