Volunteering and Spectating the Western Sates 100 Mile Endurance Run
By Nick Whitbread
We will post videos to follow that accompany the story. None from the aid station as I was hard at work 📷:)
So last Saturday I had the gift of being able to spectate and then volunteer at an aid station at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in California. It was an amazing weekend and after being awake for 27 hours I almost felt like I had run the race. It really cemented for Me what an amazing sport trail running is and why I continue to be a part of it. Whether you are training for your first 5K or your first 100 Miler, your a volunteer or simply a spectator, trail running is a sport that offers entry points at every level and also celebrates success at any level.
I woke at 4am ( alright I snoozed my alarm once) packed up camp and headed for Squaw Valley ski hill in California, the start for Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. I arrived about 15 minutes before 5am, the start time of the race. By then the parking lot was oddly full for that time of morning and there was a sea of people walking with purpose towards the start area. Looking around some of the sea was runners heading towards the race of their lives. Some of the sea was family and crew of those runners, who looked just as excited as the runners themselves to be at the start of the Western States 100. There were some folks who were from media outlets there to cover the event and others who are just fans of running or the race who just wanted to see the start go down.
At the start I watched people like Francois Dhane, Jeff Browning, Jim Walmsly and a slew of other runners preparing themselves for what they were about to take on. These people who I had watched in elegantly crafted short films on Youtube while I ate my breakfast for years were now standing right in front of me. There was a shared excitement between all who were present.
As the ten second countdown to the race start began we all cemented our viewing positions (and likely got out our phones) to record this amazing moment. When the shotgun sounded (the traditional way to start the race) the cheers began and we all waited and watched as the sea of runners began to flow by. Elites at the front taking off with purpose and those towards the back smiling and making jokes about almost being at the finish. As the runners disappeared up the escarpment the crowd began to dwindle. The crews were heading back to bed or to the first aid station where they would meet their runner.
I have never spectated a 100 Mile race before. knowing that whatever you are doing once the race starts people are out there moving towards the finish creates, from that moment a constant excited tension. I headed to a nearby park to carry out my morning yoga and meditation ritual which I have to say was rushed due to the excitement of getting back to the race.
I had decided to spectate from Foresthill 62 Miles into the race. From watching films on youtube or the twitter feed I knew it was an aid station that ran through a town and that there would be plenty of viewing opportunities. Also I knew it wouldn’t be too hard to get to and that I could quickly leave there to make the start time of 8:30pm for my aid station shift at Cal 3.
When I arrived the place was already a buzz even though we wouldn’t see the elites for at least 4-5 hours. I found a parking spot and noticed that Eric Shranz from Ultra Runner Podcast had a small tent set up. When I decided I wanted to run my first ultra I didn’t know anyone who had or even how to begin. I typed “Ultramarathon” into the seach bar on amazon and two books came up “Eat and Run” by Scott Jurek and “Finding Ultra” by Rich Roll. I proceeded to buy both books and my journey began. Along the way I also found “The Ultrarunner Podcast”, which has interviews with ultra runners and people from the sport. With these resources I began to piece together what I should be doing. I have found the podcast to be great resource even now.
I definitely wanted to at least say hello to Eric and thank him for everything I had gotten from his podcast. I can be shy with this sort of thing but knowing I would regret it if I didn’t, I went over and said hello. Eric was super nice and after we chatted for a while he invited me to sit down in one of his empty folding chairs. I was pretty excited and thats where I ended up sitting for the rest of the day until I left for my aid station shift.
Eric knows everyone in running so as we sat and chatted people would stop and say hi, several mistaking me for Byron Powel the creator of “IRUNFAR” a website dedicated to reporting and covering ultra running. Byron also wrote the book “Relentless Forward Motion” which was the manual that I ended up using for my first ultra training plan. I still use a version of it today.
Others joined us under the tent as the sun began its attempt to cook us. We had some great conversations about some Western Sates cliches. The talk every year seems to be about the fact that “it’s the deepest field ever” and that “its so hot, the heat’s going to play a factor”. Once in a while we would break from our conversation and someone would check their phone or computer to see how far away the first runner would be, who it was, how far behind the next runner was and based on that we’d discuss who we thought was going to do what. All the while the runners were out there from the head of the race to the tail, running.
Before the first runner arrived I headed to the washroom, past the waiting crews. Pacers for the elites were getting prepared to do the best for their runners. It was pretty amazing to see all the custom made shirts for the middle of the pack runners. Everyone was proud they had a horse in the race. I knew that Ryan Sandes (last years winner) was pacing Francois Dhaine and sure enough there he was as I walked by. I decided not to say hi as I am sure he’d been getting that sort of thing all day. It turned out that I would run into him in the washroom and in the least awkward way possible that you can start a conversation with a total stranger in the washroom I asked him if he was ready to go and how it felt to be pacing rather than running the race. He responded, was very very polite and just as handsome as all the women think he is.
Back at the tent after a 5 hour wait we knew Jim (Walmsley) the leader was close and as we began to hear the cheers we got to our feet and looked up the road. There was Jim surrounded by a running entourage as he seemingly jogged through the aid station as if he was out for a Saturday morning run. All the while he was 15 minutes ahead of the course record pace and 25-30 minutes ahead of his next competitor.
During the next few hours the elites all ran by including Courtney Dauwalter the women’s leader at the time and the ultimate winner of the race. In an age of sex sells, the objectification of women, the glass ceiling and winning is everything Courtney is an antidote. Preferring to literally run in basketball shorts and a baggy t-shirt, She is always out to have fun. Courtney won the Moab 240 (Miles) last year outright beating the closest competitor by four hours. Running the last 12 miles blind due to a mixture of the desert dust and dehydration. This is one tough human being. It appeared her sponsor Salomon had made her a custom outfit to her specifications. She was smiling and enjoying the experience.
As the sun rose to the highest point in the sky, strategies began to survive the heat. The sun was chasing us from one side of the tent to the other, every 20 minutes os so we’d shuffle our chairs back into the shade. Eric had bought over a hundred small hand pump misting fans which he was incredibly enamored with. He would fill them with water and hand them out to folks with instructions on how they worked. He also had a cooler full of popsicles and cold drinks which he made available to anyone who wanted them.
We began throwing around a sponge ball soaked in water, one as entertainment and two to try and cool us down. The Western states is know as a hot race. We weren’t down in the canyons where reportedly the heat is the worst but it was still relentlessly hot. Billy Yang a film maker who has made many films on the subject of ultra running stopped at the tent to refuel. Remarking that he hadn’t been looking after himself as he charged around recording the race for his upcoming film. It was great to meet someone who's work I consumed and admired on a regular basis.
When it came time for me to head to my aid station shift the amazing thing was that we had probably only seen 50 or so of the top runners come through so far. There were still almost 300 out in the heat working.
Cal 3, the aid station I was volunteering at, was a remote aid station and the bottom of a canyon. It required a 2.4 hike almost exclusively downhill on a steep service road to reach. We were the relief shift working from 8:30pm till 5am. We met at the trailhead and hiked down together. Exchanging running stories and getting to know each other.
We arrived at the tiny aid station located immediately at the bottom of the steep service road and the beginning of a single track section. We arrived as the sun was starting to disappear behind the now high mountains. We received our volunteer shirts and were given instructions on our positions. We also learned that Jim Walmsley had won the race overall and beat the old course record by 15 minutes. It may have been a few minutes more if he hadn’t had to stop on the trail and wait for a bear that refused to move. Only at Western states.
I was working with a gentleman named Scott. He had gotten busy with life and family and had let go of his running and was trying to get back into it. He hoped that volunteering at Western States would prove to be that motivation. Together our job was to alert the aid station that runners were coming ( with our cow bells of course). We were positioned 30 yards or so up the steep service road. We would greet the runners ask them what they needed and then take their bottles or bladders and, working with other volunteers, get them filled and back to the runners. We let the runners know what we had at the aid station and where to find it. After we had finished with each runner we would jog back up the service road and wait for the next runners to arrive.
As the sun disappeared completely and the glow sticks lighting the way to the aid station became the only visible thing on the trail, the runners started to come in with more regularity. Some in great spirits just plodding along slowly, others looking in terrible shape just hoping to make it to the next aid station. I did my beast to give them 100% of my attention and did whatever I could to help them. leaving each runner with a slap on the shoulder and a “go get em”. On the Western States bibs are the runners number, names, the country where they are from and the suburb. As the night went on we kept track of all the different countries that had come through so far. I even got to help a few Australians who only live about half an hour from where I grew up.
The Western Sates is truly a once in a lifetime race. Some people will be in the lottery for ten years before being selected to run. With that challenge comes a determination to finish that I hadn’t seen. At one point Scott remarked that a runner had arrived down in the aid station and didn’t have a headlamp. It was pitch black by this point and it’s highly unusual that the race officials would let a runner leave the prior aid station in the dark without a headlamp. I had brought two headlamps in case someone else at the aid station needed one. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I was hesitant to offer the runner My headlamp knowing I would probably never get it back. I put myself in their position and imagined if I was running Western States and my finishing of the race relied upon someone giving me a headlamp. I know how much it would mean to me so I headed down to the aid station to help the runner out. He had his head down and was having his legs sponged with cold water, he was telling another volunteer he was suffering. When he looked up it was Dean Karnazes. Dean is a North Face sponsored athlete who really put ultra running on the map. He was probably the first person who was able to make a living from the sport and has since accomplished so many amazing feats in running, too many to list here. The most notable would probably be when he ran 50 Marathons, in 50 states, in 50 days. I asked Dean how he got here without a headlamp and he just said he was having a really rough day. He hesitantly took the headlamp and asked me if I would be at the finish so he could return it. I put it on his head and told him I would be at the finish and if i got it back great, if not Happy Birthday. He said thank you and I went back to my position. I was glad that I had decided to go and help.
Our last runner came through at around 3am. She was in rough shape and concerned about a potential blister forming on her foot. I gently removed her shoe an inspected her foot. No blister but a crack beginning under her foot. She already had some tape on her foot she thought might be the issue so I cut that away and cut a new patch for the crack, put her sock back on and laced her up ready to go. She was very grateful and continued on.
There were hundreds of runners who came through our aid station. Some required more attention, some less. Having been able to be part of their race in a small way was very fulfilling. It’s so seldom in life that we really get to help someone in a dire situation or help someone in an incredibly raw state, where they are really laying it all out there for everyone to see. It really is a gift to be able to help and share in their journey. It makes the fact that you have been awake for 20 hours plus much easier to just sluff off.
It took us two hours to take down the aid station and pack the two vehicles that would transport it up our of the canyon. It was at this point in an effort to save wasting food and stay awake that I ate more pre cut half Cliff bars than i’m prepared to admit. There were a few extra spots in the vehicles to save having to hike out of the canyon. I stayed to help pack so was lucky enough to get a ride. We had do drive down to the bottom of the canyon to turn the vehicles around. One of the other volunteers had a fractured heel and as we caught up with him and his partner I volunteered to jump out so he didn't have to hike up. I decided as I hadn’t run that day that i would race the vehicles out of the canyon. They were much faster obviously but had to slow down in some of the rougher sections and also had to unlock and re-lock two gates. I felt surprisingly good considering my lack of sleep and managed to keep a pretty good pace split between running hard and power hiking. I went back and fourth with the vehicles, swallowing a hefty amount of dry dust cloud every time they passed me. I passed them at the final gate and barely managed to beat them to the trailhead. Some of the other volunteers congratulated me, I think others thought I was crazy. After being awake that long it felt strangely good.
Volunteer duties done, I headed to the finish line at the Placer High School track. I found a parking spot and then walked around the track saying hi to those I had met the day before and deciding my action plan. I had been awake for 27 hours, I was sweaty and now dirty from the run. I decided to have a shower in the parking lot and then try to get a few hours sleep so that I could watch the golden hour. The golden hour is hour 29 to 30 of the race. Runners have 30 hours to complete the course and receive their belt buckle. These runners probably receive more support than the elites.
After I awoke for day two of Western States I put on fresh clothes and headed for the track. As runners enter the track an announcer on a PA announces who they are, their ultra resume and if this is their first time completing Western States. Its a pretty special thing to witness. Usually the runner will have all of their pacers, their kids, family run the final lap with them. To see the look on the runners face knowing they are going to make it, is incredibly moving. I watched a 73 year old man become the oldest male ever to finish Western States. I watched many a runner who could no longer stand up straight struggle their way over the line. As the clock counts down the cheers get louder. The announcer lets the crowd know who is on the road outside that leads to the track and how long they have to get there. When they emerge onto the track everyone goes crazy, driving them towards the line before the fateful 30 hour cut off. As the finish line clock clicks over to 30:01 the official race is over. Winners have been crowned, dreams have been realized or dashed. The Western States 100 mile Endurance Run is truly something to witness. I’m so grateful for the experience of witnessing it and even more grateful to be able to play a small part.
Runners will continue to arrive at the track after the 30 hour cut off. They will receive just as much support, even though they will not receive an official finish time. They will complete the 100 mile run, and buckle or no buckle, that is reward enough.