A Few Words on The Western States 100

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Finally, you will undoubtedly have a moment between Cal 2 and Auburn Lakes Trails when you feel like you need a Quad Transplant. I got news for you, everyone feels this way. The downhill pounding you put your legs through at Western States grinds the muscles in your quads into sausage. Don’t let it bother you. Yes, one can experience excruciating muscle damage at Western States, but if you have damage that bad, you’ll most certainly know it will feel like Ray Lewis is thrusting two ice picks into your quads with each foot plant. Assuming the pain you’re experiencing is less severe than that, just slow down, stay hydrated, and shuffle on. —An excerpt of a letter from ultrarunner Andy Jones-Wilkins to competitors in the 2012 Western States 100

Some of the best ultrarunners in the world will line up in Squaw Valley, California, tomorrow morning for the start of the Western States 100. If they finish, they will climb more than 17,000 feet, descend more than 22,000 feet, and have at least some moments on relatively flat ground as they run, walk, or crawl in the summer heat over the course of 100.2 miles to Auburn, California. This all started as a horse race, but in 1974 a guy named Gordy Ainsleigh decided to see if he could run with the animals. Below is an excerpt of his account.

As I jogged onto the wooden suspension bridge that crosses the beautiful North Middle Fork of the American River, I saw a group of riders downstream struggling desperately with a grey horse that had collapsed and was lying limply in the water. I backtracked and went down the steep trail to the water to help them drag the horse into the shallows where it wouldn't drown. My body was failing me, my legs were going into spasms and giving out. But we got the horse as far into the shallows as we could. I staggered and clawed my way back up to the bridge-crossing and started up the long, slow, humid, and steepest climb into Devil's Thumb. As I climbed, I continued to dwell on what I had just seen. That horse was obviously dying and would never leave the canyon alive. 

I later found out that, even with the rescue efforts of a gutsy veterinarian who ran in on foot, the grey horse died early the next morning in the bottom of the canyon.

My mind kept dwelling on the grey horse as I climbed, and my brain was so sluggish that I was halfway up the canyon before I suddenly realized what the implications of that horse dying meant for my prospects of survival. In spite of the hellish heat of the day, I felt a chill go through my heart and guts. If the horses were dying out here today, then the much less genetically appropriate human was definitely at risk of dying. Up to that point, the question had always been whether I would make it or not, but I had never thought—and nobody had ever mentioned—that I might die out there on the trail from trying.

Ainsleigh finished in 23 hours and 42 minutes. Three years later, 14 men showed up to race the trail on foot. Ainsleigh didn't stop running the race, and has finished the ultra 22 times. His fastest time was 20:55 in 1984. After that, organizers upped the total mileage on the trail from 90 to 100.2 miles. Still, he ran, and watched as men took more and more time off his original record. Geoff Roes set the current record of 15:07:04 in 2010.

For this year's race, has previews of the men's and women's fields, interviews with the contenders, and live blogging of the event. Though Killian Jornet dropped out earlier this week after the death of his climbing partner on Mont Blanc, the men's field is still stacked. At this point, 419 runners from 34 countries have signed up for the race, with six people still looking for pacers. Which brings me to the last amazing stat about the Western States 100; this year more than 1,500 volunteers will help to put it on.

—Joe Spring

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