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The Western States 100 and Hardrock 100: A Metaphorical Comparison

AJW compares and contrasts two of North America’s iconic 100-mile races.

By on July 5, 2024 | Comments

AJW's TaproomThis weekend is the midpoint between the two most popular ultramarathons in North America. With the Western States 100 taking place last weekend and Hardrock 100 taking place next weekend, this is the time of year when all ultrarunners look to California and Colorado.

I’ve been privileged to run both of these iconic events, and in recent years, I have traveled to Auburn, California, and Silverton, Colorado, each year to spectate and volunteer. I’ve had the opportunity to observe and experience what makes these events so different from each other and yet, on some level, very much the same.

Anne-Lise Rousset - 2023 Hardrock 100 - Kissing the rock

Kissing the rock at the end of the Hardrock 100 is one of the more iconic scenes in the ultrarunning world. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Vibes

I like to compare the vibes of Hardrock and Western States to rock concerts.

Hardrock is that concert that takes place in a modest venue with a few thousand seats, think the Beacon Theatre in New York City. Think of the last concert you attended that brought you close to the artist and allowed you to interact socially with other concertgoers. That’s Hardrock.

Western States, on the other hand, is the massive stadium show, think Kenny Chesney at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts. These concerts take on a festival atmosphere and bring thousands of people out long before the concert is scheduled to start. Loud, chaotic, and celebratory, Western States shares the vibe with these large stadium shows.

2019 Western States 17

Full stadium seating around the track of Western States 100 adds to the stadium-concert vibe of the event. Photo: Michael Lebowitz

Track Versus Cross Country

In my previous professional life as a high school principal I attended more than my fair share of track and cross-country meets. Over the years I made some observations that remind me of the difference between Western States and Hardrock.

Track meets are slick and fancy. Track athletes wear crisp kits and sleek shoes. Western States is track.

Cross-country meets are loose and in the woods. Cross-country runners are a ragtag group with unkempt hair and oversized kits. They know how to run they just do it a little differently. Hardrock is cross country.

Pace

Hardrock weekend moves at a pace akin to a small town. Sure, the runners up front need to move fast, and those at the back may feel the pressure of meeting the cutoffs, but by and large, the race moves at a laid-back pace. Runners spend time regrouping at aid stations, volunteers linger to chat and share stories, and race officials and veterans of the event make everyone feel welcome and embraced by the community.

The pace at Western States is more like New York City during rush hour. Intensely competitive at the front of the pack and challenging with tight cutoffs at the back, there is little time for dilly-dallying for anyone. It’s an intense, fast-moving pace, the rewards of which are a shiny belt buckle and big city memories to last a lifetime.

Community

Both events celebrate and embrace community. In fact, they both endeavor to nurture a sense of community in the many activities surrounding their events. Additionally, the phrases “Western States family” and “Hardrock family” are part of the language around each race.

As you might expect, Hardrock is a close-knit family — the kind where many still live in the same area, get together often, and share many common characteristics. The Western States family is a massive extended family that is spread around the world, getting together only occasionally and with disparate goals, attitudes, and temperaments. Both families share common connections but do so in very different ways.

2018 Hardrock 100 trail work

A volunteer trail work crew before Hardrock 100. Both events have trail work events to give back to the local area. Photo courtesy of iRunFar/Bryon Powell.

Regardless of their differences in vibes, type of race, pace, and community, both Western States and Hardrock have earned their places on the top step of North American ultrarunning culture. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their unique characteristics, these two events have been able to stand the test of time, doing so in their own unique ways and on their own independent terms. As a result, they continue to be the two of the most sought-after events in American trail running and ultrarunning.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

SKA_Brewing_LogoThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Ska Brewing in Durango, Colorado. Pink Vapor Stew is a sour ale brewed with beets, carrots, ginger, and apples, producing a rich, earthy flavor that tickles the palate. At 5.0% ABV, Pink Vapor stew is accessible, crisp, and one of the finest sour ales I have had.

Call for Comments

  • Have you had the chance to experience either of these iconic races as a participant or volunteer? What was your experience like?
  • Do you prefer the slower pace of an event like Hardrock or the frenetic energy of Western States?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.