Over the weekend, Jim Walmsley and Clare Gallagher took advantage of unusually cool conditions to win the men and women’s races in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Walmsley improved his own course record from last year by more than 20 minutes, finishing in 14:09:28. Meanwhile, Gallagher completed the trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California in 17:23:25—the second-fastest time ever in the women’s race—after fending off a late challenge from Brittany Peterson. The two women and their pacers were actually running in a small pack with less than ten miles to go before Gallagher put in a crucial surge after the Pointed Rocks aid station at mile 94. (Astonishingly, this effort garnered her a Strava CR for the climb after Robie Point, which comes roughly 98 miles into the race.) In the end, Peterson came in second by eleven minutes—a photo finish by ultrarunning standards. It was Gallagher’s first Western States win, and a fight right up to the end.
“When Brittany caught up to me, I didn’t think about the 94 miles I’d just run. All I thought about was that this had just turned into a six-mile race,” Gallagher says. “I redlined harder than I’ve ever redlined in my entire life for six miles.”
As if her push to the finish line weren’t remarkable enough in and of itself, Gallagher had also just returned from a two-week trip to Alaska. In early June, Gallagher, who is as dedicated to her environmental activism as she is about running ludicrous distances over gnarly terrain, got a call from world-renowned climber Tommy Caldwell. Was she interested in coming on a Patagonia-sponsored expedition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)? It was too good an opportunity to pass up. As a consequence, Gallagher’s Western States taper included her first foray into alpinism—an ascent of Mount Hubley in the Brooks Range.
“Two weeks out from the biggest race of the year and I’m short-roped into Tommy Caldwell and completely mind-blown at these mountains,” Gallagher says. “Then we pack-rafted for a couple days down some class II and III rapids. And then I was home for 20 hours and then I went to Western States.”
On Instagram, Gallagher credited her unorthodox race preparation as putting her in a state of “Arctic Zen.” It seems to have worked.
“With ultra training, we are never one hundred percent sure what preparation leads to what outcome,” says David Roche, Gallagher’s good friend and coach. “With that in mind, going to the Arctic and being in unfamiliar places, eating unfamiliar food, and being on her feet a lot was probably pretty good prep for her even though she wasn’t running.”
Lest anyone be tempted to throw in a last-minute swashbuckling adventure before their next race, Roche also stressed that Gallagher was “fitter than she’d even been” when she went on her Alaska trip. Apologies for invoking running’s most overused metaphor, but the hay was very much already in the barn.
Nevertheless, the psychological aspects of “Arctic Zen” probably shouldn’t be underestimated. Gallagher’s Alaska trip also included attending a climate conference in Fort Yukon, in which members of the native Gwich’in tribes vehemently made the case against opening up ANWR for drilling. While conservationists have been fending off extractive industry efforts to drill in the Refuge for decades, the current administration is fighting hard to make it happen. For Gallagher, being part of this larger battle was useful insomuch as it made competing in Western States seem low stakes by comparison.
“It put everything into perspective,” she says. “To be in a place that was so wild and so at risk right now. There could be seismic testing as early as September in this completely wild place. There’s going to be a vote in the House in July to prevent that leasing. So, in my mind, I was like: This race? It’ll be what it is. I’m kind of just thinking about the Arctic right now.”
That said, the novelty of being in a completely wild place wasn’t entirely without its practical benefits. While Gallagher may be the last person anyone would accuse of being a sheltered urbanite, she said that the Alaska experience took her understanding of “wilderness” to another level. After spending days carrying around a 60-pound pack in a place where there were no trails to speak of, even the famously treacherous Western States course felt almost tame by comparison.
“The whole taper just shifted my entire perspective on moving outside and what it means to move on and off trails,” Gallagher says. “I always thought that, since I’d been to a few mountains, I knew what ‘wild’ felt like—but that was totally blown out of the water in the Refuge. How can you not feel positive about things when you get to run on buttery singletrack?”
In other words, there seem to have been both mental and physical perks to Gallagher’s unique tapering strategy. I asked Roche if there was something about the unpredictable nature of ultrarunning that made an Arctic taper more feasible than in more traditional (read: shorter) races.
“If you’re training for a road marathon, you are essentially training for mile 25—and you will be trained for it, if you’re ready,” Roche says. “But in ultrarunning, no one—aside from maybe Jim Walmsley—is trained for mile 75. There’s no way to simulate mile 75 of a race, even if you’re running 200 miles a week. So the big key is getting to the start line in a place where you are emotionally and physically ready for the contours of the day—the ups and downs. And, for Clare, going to the Arctic was the best way to do that.”