Western States Memorial Weekend Training Runs

Aloha, TJThe Western States Memorial Weekend Training Runs were organized sometime in the mid 1980s–I have talked to several veterans and no one seems to recall the exact details. (Perhaps someone with specific knowledge will respond to this article and fill us all in. I first ran in 1989, and the runs were well established by then.)

In a way the lack of specific dates is a perfect complement to the informality of the runs. The low-key fun of the weekend makes it my favorite running weekend of the year–I have missed it only four times in the past 26 years. There is no stress, no performance anxiety, nobody’s in a big hurry, and you are encouraged to check your testosterone at the door. Over the past few years I have frequently devised an alternative route that progresses uphill against the grain of the organized run. I get to say ‘hey’ to everyone in the run, typically about 300 folks, and also the several dozen more who have organized their own transportation and started at different times.

It has become a bit of a tradition on Saturday for a lot of the faster runners (and any number of mid-pack folks) to go from Robinson Flat to the Rucky Chucky River Crossing, a pretty studly 48-mile training run. There was any number of elite runners out there on Saturday–I spied Emily Harrison, Ian Torrence, Keira Henninger, Jesse Haynes, Paul Terranova, Dominic Grossman, Max King, Meghan Arbogast, Stephanie Howe, Denise Bourassa, Joe Uhan, Jake Rydman, Adam Condit–among others. But, it’s not a race. Virtually all of them stopped to say hello.

1 - Jesse Haynes selfie 2

Jesse Haynes (foreground) takes a selfie, with (left to right) Paul Terranova, Tropical John, and Keira Henninger. Photo: Jesse Haynes

The organized run on Saturday starts at Robinson Flat and finishes at Foresthill, a pretty robust 32 miles, complete with the two toughest climbs on the course, Devil’s Thumb and Michigan Bluff. But even back-of-the-packers have little trouble making the very generous cutoffs. The trail is well marked and the three aid stations provide just enough support to get the job done.

This year’s Saturday runners were the first to tour the area that was burned last summer in Deadwood Canyon. The rebuilt Pacific Slab Bridge, about a mile before the bottom of the canyon, was especially impressive. Ace volunteer Bill Rose built this bridge at his house, disassembled it, and transported it to the top of Deadwood Canyon. More than 50 folks schlepped the pieces almost a mile down the steep canyon where it was reassembled almost flawlessly in a single long day.

2 - Bill Rose

Bill Rose, hard at work. Photo: Craig Thornley

3- Pacific Slab Bridge

The rebuilt Pacific Slab Bridge. Photo: Elke Reimer-Truscott

The famed Swinging Bridge was burned and has not yet been replaced. Instead runners were treated to a dip in the creek, aided by a cable strung across. The California drought has made this possible–owing to the low water levels, the deepest spot was a little more than waist deep.

4- Deadwood Creek

Crossing Deadwood Creek. Photo: Craig Thornley

Volunteers have spent hundreds of hours in the canyon and patched things up pretty remarkably; there were several stretches where the fire’s devastation has been substantially ameliorated. But there were also a few spots where the damage is smack in your face, most notably the top of the steep climb up to Devil’s Thumb.

5- top of Devils Thumb

Burnt forest at the top of Devil’s Thumb. Photo: Ana Braga-Levaggi

Sunday’s run was from Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky River Crossing and then up a jeep road to Driver’s Flat, a total of 19 miles. Things were so well in hand that Race Director Craig Thornley joined in the fun and ran with everyone else. Of course at this weekend of fun, Craig is only nominally in charge of things–Western States captains Cheri Alvarez, Bill Hambrick, Mike Sailing, and Lon Monroe–along with Thornley’s wife Laurie–were spotted doing the heavy lifting.

Sunday runners were treated to legendary aid at the Peachstone (Cal 2) aid station. Among the volunteers were Tim Twietmeyer and Ann Trason–who can count 39 silver buckles and 19 first-place cougar statues between them.

6 - Peachstone volunteers

Aid station volunteers Ann Trason and Tim Twietmeyer (far right). Photo: Joe Uhan

The third run on Monday travels the last 20 miles of the race from Green Gate to Placer High School. Fortunately, this is mostly pretty gentle terrain allowing those with sore quads to pace themselves and enjoy the mostly shaded trail.

As is often the case, the weather this year was close to perfect. All three days were sunny and warm–probably not as hot as it will be on race day, but just enough warmth to give everyone a taste of what’s to come.

Here are a few tips for those who are thinking of attending the training camp in future years. The closest airport is Sacramento, about 45 minutes from Auburn by car. Most folks stay in Auburn–there are a number of modestly priced hotels there (Holiday Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn, etc.). The center of activity is Foresthill, about 25 minutes drive from Auburn but lodging options there are very limited.

Sign up early! Like everything else ultra in Northern California, these runs fill up early. There is a modest fee ($35 per run), which includes bus transportation, aid stations, and post-run food. No, you do not have to be an entrant in Western States to run. Everyone is welcome. If you are one of the many people who are dreaming of running Western States at some point in the future, here is your opportunity to preview the last 70 miles of the course (or as much as you can handle) over three days. Further details are available at the training runs website.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Were you one of the hundreds participating in last weekend’s training runs? If so, did you see Tropical John out there?
  • And, for those of you who experienced the Western States Trail or the training runs for the first time, what did you think? Are your quads still store?
John Medinger

is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.

There are 3 comments

  1. StephanieHowe01

    I did participate and saw Tropical John out there :) What a great weekend! The runs were so well organized and it was great to preview the course in bite sized pieces. Thanks to all the volunteers!!!

  2. markymoro

    I was there and felt a bit like a stowaway (I was registered!) on the big kids bus given that my ultra-running goal for this year is not the WSER itself, but to merely qualify for the lottery. I was surrounded – or rather, passed – by much stronger and more experienced runners all day, each day. Thankfully, everyone from the first-time WSER racers to the racing legends like Ann Trason were incredibly supportive and welcoming….I still can't believe Ann Trason put ice in my water bottle!…..A wonderful event and a blast of a weekend.

  3. TropicalJohn

    Charles Savage, long-time Western States Board member (and 20-time finisher) says that the first three-day Memorial weekend training camp was organized by Norm Klein in 1986. There were occasional one-day training clinics before that, going back to 1980.

  4. Sarahc001

    Last weekend was just. So. Much. Fun. Though I originally hail from the SF Bay Area, I started running "back east" two years ago and had never seen the WS trail.

    The trail itself is strikingly beautiful, a contrast to the softer beauty provided by my home trails in MD. From the vista after the first short climb from the Robinson Flat campground to the views down to the American River (we're really going all the way down there?) to the river crossing itself, to running through oak woodland, chaparral, stands of eucalyptus (I had forgotten the wonderful smell!) there was literally a surprise at every turn. Though it was sad to see the devastation left by last year's fire- hearing about it and seeing it in person are quite different- it was somewhat heartening to see that things are starting to grow back, even though they will never be the same in my lifetime.

    Just as awesome as the trail itself were the people I met on the trail over the weekend- runners who had finished WS any number of times, pacers, folks from the Bay Area up to train for other 100s this summer, race volunteers- all willing to share their wisdom and all universally passionate about the trail. Sunday's "legends of ultrarunning" aid station with Ann Trason and Tim Twietmeyer was a fantastic surprise. The fact that they were spending their Sunday working an aid station at a training run was just so inspiring and representative of the type of people who make ultrarunning special, who are out there for the love of it, offering advice and support to those of us starting out. "Make sure to eat and drink enough before you go back out there," Ann told me. "It's hot, and you're going to be exposed going down to the river."

    I'm also not running the race this year- rather, I'm running my very first 100 this August, both as a qualifier for next year's lottery and to get a taste for the 100 mile distance. I came out to see what I intended to sign myself up for ahead of time, and yes, I was finally able to run for the first time today without lingering pain in my quads. ;) However nothing could have prepared me for the joy of running (and alternately hiking) the Western States trail, or for the amazing people I was able to meet and talk to over the course of the weekend. Thanks to everyone for the warm welcome, the great support, and the really (really!) well marked trail. I almost forgot that one, but whoever marked the trail did a fantastic job!

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