The Mystique of the Western States Course

A look at the mystique of the Western States 100 course.

By Andy Jones-Wilkins on June 7, 2013 | 28 comments

[Author’s Note: This is the second column in a five-part series on the Western States 100 leading up to the race on June 29th.]

AJWs TaproomEvery sport has its Citadel. Its one iconic venue that defines the experience for fans and athletes alike. Certainly, there is often debate over each respective sport’s truly hallowed ground but the history, tradition and mystique of such places is unassailable. And, experiencing those places firsthand can be, at once, a spiritual and life-changing experience.

Wrigley Field, The Rose Bowl, Churchill Downs, Wimbledon, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club at Saint Andrews. The names alone conjure up images of greatness. Images of outstanding athletes doing extraordinary things. Images of places that transcend the moment and serve to memorialize the events that transpire there. Dig deeper and the ivy covered wall, the shiny green grass, the twin spires, Centre Court, and the Swilken Burn add to the mystique and the aura that surround these sacred arenas.

Certainly, in running, we have such special places; Boston and Wellesley, the Newton Hills, Heartbreak Hill and Boylston Street. Comrades and 45th Cutting, Arthur’s Seat and Polly Shortt, and the Dipsea with Hogsback, Cardiac, and the Steps. But, from my view, an admittedly biased view, there is no venue more special, more sacred, more iconic, than the Western States Trail. Home, for the last 40 years, of the Western States 100.

Cut through the mountains between Squaw Valley, California and Auburn, California the Western States Trail traverses four distinct regions; the high alpine country between the Granite Chief Wilderness and Little Bald Mountain, the Canyon Country between Robinson Flat and Foresthill, the long gradual descent from the mid-altitudes of the Foresthill Divide to the River Crossing at the American River, and the gently rolling countryside traversing the Auburn State Recreation Area between Cool, California and the Finish Line in Auburn.

Along the way to Auburn runners pass through such wonderfully named places as Duncan Canyon, Dusty Corners, Deadwood, Last Chance, Devils Thumb, El Dorado, Michigan Bluff, Volcano Canyon, and the Rucky Chucky River Crossing. Michigan Bluff, as an example, is a small town that is a relic of a bygone era. Coming 55 miles into the race and at the end of the second canyon crossing, it is a special place for runners to meet crews but also a place where spectators and townspeople can mingle and get a glimpse into the race. As a result, for one day a year, the small forgotten village of Michigan bursts into its Gold Rush Days glory for the race with an environment that is festive, intense, and opportunistic.

Twenty-five miles later, deep in the bottom of the American River Gorge, the runners forge the American River at the Rucky Chucky River Crossing. This is a place that in ways quite different from Michigan Bluff, that also bursts with excitement on Race Day as a sleepy little picnic area along the banks of a river becomes a major Gut Checkpoint for runners and crews with over 100 volunteers manning Aid Stations on each side of the river as well as the “cable guys” manning the crossing itself. This particular place, coming at such a critical time in the race (Mile 78) is one runners rarely, if ever, forget.

Running Western States is certainly a daunting challenge. One that is at once intimidating and inspiring. Yet, it is also a run through history, tradition, and a place in which one can’t help but feel as though you are part of something larger than yourself. It is a run through an era in the life of our country that inspired our frontier spirit and cemented the notion of America as the Land of Opportunity. A run through a place that is remote, wild, and deeply embedded in the American psyche. And, along the way, it’s also been a place that has been the crucible of extraordinary athletic achievement for four decades.

From my perspective, I cannot think of a place that is as steeped in history, athleticism, and mystique than the Western States Trail. Taking the best of all that the relentless pursuit of athletic excellence represents, this place, and all the people who have been here before and who have made it what it is today, have created one of the truly iconic venues in American sport.

Bottoms up!

Ps. Next Week: The 10-Day Buckle

AJW’s Bryon’s Beer of the Week

Rolling RockThis week I am pleased to introduce a Guest Beer of the Week from Mr. iRunFarar himself, Bryon Powell. Even though he hasn’t had a beer in seven months, I know he knows a thing or two about beer and I’ve promised to have a couple of these chilling for him at Placer High School later this month. So, here’s Bryon’s Beer of the Week!

One of the very first lessons I learned from my father (a four-time WS100 crew person for me) was the mystique of Rolling Rock. I’m not talking about the facts its got a painted bottle, is a “beer” made in part from corn, or that grown adults drink 7-ounce Rolling Rock “ponies.” No, the mystique I learned of was the mysterious “33” found on every bottle of Rolling Rock. Is it the number of a lucky horse that a founder or brewmaster bet upon? Is it a refer to the 33 words in the guarantee on each bottle? Is it the year in which Prohibition ended or, given the company’s long-time location in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the year in which the nearby Pittsburgh Steelers were founded. Heck, there are likely to be a full 33 credible explanations for why the 33 is on each bottle of Rock. Whatever your favorite explanation, a basket of rocks is best enjoyed extra cold on a hot and humid afternoon.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
Please share your examples of the mystique of the Western States course or any other trail or ultramarathon course, for that matter!
Andy Jones-Wilkins

finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.