The Mystique of the Western States Course

[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!

There are 6 comments

  1. sheffieldnick

    I've written a pacing/splits calculator for the WS100. Feedback very welcome!

    Estimate your finishing time and see the average pace/splits that other runners have used for each part of the course. Altitude profile of the course, with total height gain/loss stats. Time-of-day for crew to estimate when to expect you at a checkpoint.

    Also available as a smartphone App, for using without a mobile signal:

    1. KenZ

      That is totally cool. You, um, planning on doing that for any other races….? That would be a sweet "option" to click on per race as a link over at…

    2. Olga

      I very like that it's possible to select the parts of the course on profile and see gain/loss for this part. Awesome job, thanks!

    3. AJW

      Sheffieldnick, this is really great! However, the "Mosquito Ridge" Aid Station you list here was used only once, in 2011, due to heavy snow in the High Country. The traditional course goes through Robinson Flat at approx Mile 30 so I am not sure where you got the 2012 "Mosquito Ridge" splits from. Other than that this is very cool. AJW

      1. sheffieldnick

        I got the Mosquito Ridge aid station from the 2012 Excel file on the WS100 splits results page, which I guess is a mistake? I've now updated it to list Robinson Flat at 29.7 miles intead.

        Thanks for letting me know

    4. Ian Torrence

      Yes, very cool & fun tool! However, does the altitude slide you have at the bottom come up short? The horizontal (distance) axis ends at ~88 miles or ~141 km's, well short of 100 miles or 161 km? This makes all the relevant climbs, descents, and landmarks come up a bit skewed distance-wise when we highlight those sections. This could be an issue with my browser (Mac, Safari) or just me? Thanks for sharing!


      Ian Torrence

      1. MS

        Awesome tool! Something doesn't look quite right … for instance … times to Foresthill seem way to fast … I know it was a cool year last year but if you dial to 24 hour pace on your calculator you should be there by 4:15pm …. The WSER website would get you there around 6:45pm based on historical … Check this out …

        The 30hr pace is similar … Maybe I'm not using your calculator correctly

        1. sheffieldnick

          MS – have a look at the 'Shows times as' option:

          It defaults to 'Race time', which is time since the start of the race. 13:46:30 hrs to Foresthill for a 24 hour finish.

          If you set it to 'Clock time' instead (time of day) it shows 18:46 to Foresthill, which is the 6:45pm you're expecting?

      2. sheffieldnick

        Yes, I think the GPS trace I used isn't quite right, so the distance is coming up short :( If someone could point me towards a GPS trace of the normal course – in KML, KMZ, GPX, TCX or whatever format, then I'll update the calculator. Thanks!

  2. Carson

    Is it really true that Bryon hasn't had a beer in 7 months? If it had been that long for me, I'd have a couple of Leinienkugels summer shandys waiting for me at the finish!

  3. Jeremy

    All I ever heard was that Western States course was not that good. I was expecting a downhill, smoothed out track meet. I was there in April and I am blown away by the quality and purity of the line. Any mountain runner who thinks this course lacks anything, needs to see it first. Absolutely beautiful. Can't wait!

    Yes, the "Rocks" must be served extra cold. Anything above 32 deg F allows the skunk piss aroma to overwhelm the subtle industrial runoff notes. That's why when I go back to where I grew up…I go with Iron City! Brewed from pure 3 Rivers goodness…aged in leech pit of fly ash, bituminous coal and chrome molybdenum…Iron City satisfies. Seriously, my Old Man worked waste water in a steel mill in western PA. I don't drink that swill.

  4. Jesse

    Wrigley hallowed ground? They have never seen a championship team there, ever. Although it's gone, (and as much as I dislike the Yankees) Yankee stadium would have been a better example. Or still standing Fenway.

  5. J Wasatch

    I commend Bryon for forsaking beer on his long ramp up to Western States. I'll be running it with him and haven't had a drink in 2013. I got on the wagon for a month before Hardrock last summer and it sure didn't hurt my performance. Anybody out there that is looking for something to do to get to the next level or even a slight bounce might consider getting off the sauce for a while before race day. And it sure doesn't hurt if you're trying to slim down before toeing the line. That being said, I can't wait to throw a few back and make up for lost time after Western…

  6. Greg

    There is a definite connection between place and identity. Every person has his/her own specific "hallowed ground". Mine isn't anything on the Western States course (hey, I'm 0 for 3 in the lottery!), but I can completely understand AJW's connection with the course. I wish that contentment and connection for everyone.

  7. sheffieldnick

    KenZ – yes, I'd love to build these for other races. Any interested Race Directors – please get in touch! I'll need a results file that includes the splits at each aid station.

  8. Matt P

    Thanks for another great installment. Well, here at last is the "ode" you promised a few weeks back. There's all the poetry of America embedded just in that list of names–"Duncan Canyon, Dusty Corners, Deadwood, Last Chance, Devils Thumb, El Dorado, Michigan Bluff, Volcano Canyon, and the Rucky Chucky River Crossing."

    I wonder, though, if the connection to place isn't just a little bit different for our sport?

    Not to diminish those other sacred spaces, but doesn't running an ultra on the trails, suffering through a course, bind us to the terrain and landscape in a way that a spectator at, say, Wimbledon, will never quite know? Or not know in quite the same way.

    A trail race, particularly an ultra, is also a journey, an epic, an adventure–hackneyed metaphors, maybe, but deeply embedded in our collective memory & experiences sorely lacking in the modern world.

  9. Patrick L

    Sorry, Jesse, but AJW is on the mark with Wrigley Field. Fenway Park may have been a slightly better reference, but the Red Sox hadn't seen a championship squad for 85 years before they won the World Series in 2004. Although Wrigley may be becoming more known as the world's largest singles bar than for its ivy, the reference works.

    Great article, AJW!

  10. sheffieldnick

    Ian – the altitude graph should be correct now. Thanks!

    (if you have it saved on your phone, you may need to delete the app and download it again to fetch the fixed version)

  11. BenB

    Great application! First, I must say I think it's fine the way it is… some great additions I would find helpful (but have no idea how difficult it is to do) would be:

    – % grade next to ft/mile

    – markers on the altitude profile that reference the checkpoints

    – highlighting the altitude profile also highlights the table in the same area

    – a zoom feature on the altitude profile that would allow more precise highlighting

    – elevation data included in the table (ascent & descent)

    It appears the altitude profile and table work independently of each other, so I'm sure this requires more work, but it'd be cool to see!

    1. sheffieldnick

      Thanks for those great suggestions BenB, I'll certainly look at those for a future upgrade.

      If you want to 'zoom' the altitude profile, one option is just making the web browser window wider, and the graph will expand to fill it.

  12. sheffieldnick

    BenB – I've now added % grade next to ft/mile and markers on the altitude profile that reference the checkpoints.


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