This may be a bit long and a bit gushy. Just warning you. Because this weekend, a total dream came true. We finally got to watch Western States. I’ve been fascinated by what is arguably the best known 100-mile race for several years but haven’t made it up to Squaw so far to watch it, so this was a real thrill. It came at the right time too, it made me put down my computer and the misery of social media after Brexit and head to the mountains, which lifted my heart like nothing else.
Our original plan was to rent a camper van for this trip but it proved so ridiculously expensive that we admitted defeat and booked a hotel in Squaw and a cabin in Auburn. We booked about 6 weeks beforehand and Auburn was pretty much fully booked. Airbnb – booked. Campsites – books. Hotels and motels – booked. So our cabin was about 10 miles away in Pilot Hill, which wasn’t ideal but that’s our fault! If you go to spectate, book accommodation well in advance.
There were two factors that affected our spectating. One was the Husband. Ironman is 5 weeks away and so he had to train this weekend. His original plan was to cycle between Squaw and Auburn, but that proved problematic so I mapped him a 68 mile route with enough elevation gain and loss that he’d get a solid workout. The second was the Dude. If I was a young, childless hottie, I would have done what Paulette did and volunteer at the race,working an aid station.I would have loved to have done that. I don’t know if her blog post is up yet, but check it out here if so. Or I would have done what Jess did last year and actually paced a runner. But I’m not a young, childless hottie so my WS spectating also included a lot of planned fun for our 6 year old!
We drove up on Friday morning and stopped in my favourite Californian town, Truckee, for pizza at Big Pie Pizza. Apparently my Euro-angst can be cured by carbs! Then we went on to Squaw to go and see the finish line. There were some people milling around – some runners, pacers, crew, filming people…I was pretty thrilled to be there, I have to admit. Just seeing the start line brought me out in goosebumps.
We spent the afternoon at our hotel, which was much swankier than hotels we usually stay in, so that was an utter delight.
The alarm went off at 4am and by 4.15 we were driving towards Squaw. I had MASSIVE parenting guilt as the Dude blearily trudged through the car-park to watch total strangers start a race. The starting area buzzed with energy, I was so flipping excited to be there. It was cold though. My weather app had told me that it would be 16 deg C at 4am (which given the heat of the day, was plausible) but no, it was 9C and I didn’t have the right clothes. If you go to spectate, be aware that the start-line will be cold. Wear TNF or Patagonia, not a hoodie from Target.
I checked with a volunteer where spectators (as opposed to runners or crew) should go and she told me there was space inside with coffee and pastries. ‘Even for us spectators?’ I asked and she nodded. So we edged our way into the packed, warm room where runners were hanging out. Gunhild Swanson (the 70-year old who squeaked in last year at 29.59.54) was hanging out, all smiles. My eyes were on stalks.
Eventually we all went outside for the start. I saw Lauren Fleshman hanging out with Devon Yanko but it was way too early to fangirl! So we trudged slightly up the slope for the start – the crowds lined the trail like Tour de France spectators, the clock counted down and they were off. The leaders shot off up the pretty steep slope at a ridiculously fast pace. We cheered and cowbelled and screamed encouragement. The mid-packers ran at a more sensible pace and the back of the packers saved their energy and hiked. We cheered them all, then went back to our hotel room, piled back into bed and slept until 8am.
After an awesome breakfast at Smokey’s Kitchen in Tahoe, we drove south towards Auburn. We dropped the Husband at Yuba Gap for his long bike-ride in the heat and the Dude and I drove to Auburn to give the Dude some well-deserved fun, in the form of swimming in the American River. The water was perfect and we had an awesome hour or so swimming and splashing.
It’s actually quite hard to spectate WS if you’re not crewing – the trails are (obviously) in some fairly inaccessible spots so our next viewing was at Foresthill at Mile 62. The course leader was expected through any time from 2pm so we got there about 2.05pm only to find out that the lead guy, Jim Walmsley, had already come through. Apparently he was absolutely flying and was a good 30 minutes ahead of course record. We settled down in some shade (it was brutally hot) and watched the top guys come through. Initially they were very spread out, then they started to come in quicker succession. Sage Canaday was in second, looking good (in every way), Andrew Miller in third and Salomon’s Philip Reiter paced a rough-looking Tofol Castagner in 6th.
My favourite was Jesse Haynes. Ladies, you’re welcome.
I was really there to see the women though – I was super-excited about the women’s race. Last year’s winner, Madga Boulet, had dropped at M16 so my favourite, Kaci Lickteig, was in the lead. I think this girl is awesome, mainly because she’s absolutely tiny and looks about 12! Eventually she came running through with her pacer. We cowbelled and screamed like crazy people. I shouted for her to ‘go and win it for the short girls’. She looked a bit bemused.
Shortly afterwards, we had to go and pick up Ironballz from his bike-ride so I missed the other women. Ideally we would have stayed there until the 24-hour people started coming through, about 7pm, but we had plans.
Our plans were a reunion with the wonderful Bean, who we haven’t seen for two years, which is too long, and finally meeting her husband D. We ate at the excellent Little Belgium Deli and Beer Bar and then sloped off to Placer High School track to watch the winners come in.
We got there early, assuming Walmsley would beat the record, only to find some drama had gone down. Firstly he’d been pulled downriver by the current during the river crossing and had lost some time but then he’d missed a turn and gone off course by 2 miles, before being found ‘like a stray dog’ as he later put it and having to get back to the trail. There was some confusion about where he actually was. So when the lead male finally ran into the stadium and the crowd went wild, we were kind of amazed to see it wasn’t Walmsley but rather Andrew Miller who determinedly ran round the track and won the world’s biggest 100-mile ultra at the age of 20.
The evening was now perfect and warm, so we stayed to watch more of the lead men come in, including second-place Didrik Hermansen who was so obviously delighted by his race that I had to blink back tears.
My goal had been to stay until Kaci came in and won it for the short girls. But it became obvious she wouldn’t come in until gone 10.30 and my patient, long-suffering little co-spectator was pretty much done so very sadly we had to slope off to our airbnb just outside Auburn. As we drove through the dark, No-Hands Bridge was lit up, it looked like an ultra-running fairytale.
We had a lazy Sunday morning – relaxing, getting breakfast and treating our little man to a few more hours swimming in the river, which we all flipping adored. It was scorching this weekend, so the cold water was perfect. And then we headed back to Placer High to see the prize presentation. A big marquee was set out on the grass and people were all sat underneath. It was VERY low-key and chilled.We’ve never been to a big-deal ultra before and we were really taken aback at how low-key it was. Everywhere, you could see top ultra stars hanging round, chatting. I spotted Lauren Fleshman again, and Sage Canaday, whose race had gone downhill after we’d seen him.
I spotted Jesse Haynes with clothes on (yep, still dishy) and then, as we stood under the marquee in a patch of shade, Kaci Lickteig came and chatted to some people next to us and then sat down next to Ironballz and started checking her phone. The Husband stood there, frozen, as I made frantic faces at him. The Dude was all big eyes. The lack of pretentiousness in her and all the other runners was just incredible.
Eventually the ceremony started, the winners got their big trophies and then the top 10 women came up. I snuck some pictures and then we felt that the Dude had been patient enough all weekend so we sloped off home back to the Bay Area.
I have to say, it was a pretty amazing weekend. I am so incredibly glad we went to see this phenomenal event. I was so very humbled and inspired by the runners, both elite and non-elite at my first Big Deal Ultra. I am of the opinion that, if you run, if you love running, then you are a Runner. But I have to say I felt like a running fraud this weekend, surrounded by people who can run a hundred miles. I know I’m NOT a fraud, I’m just saying that I was very humbled by the courage of these people. I was especially struck by how many middle-aged women ran WS – ladies in their 50s and 60s were running, or crewing, or pacing. They kind of blew me away.
I was also struck by the friendliness of the ultra community. People were chatty, friendly and open, even though we were just there to watch and we clearly weren’t ultra-runners. The way that the stars (some of them are super-stars in this running niche) were just chilling out on the grass with the rest of us, it totally threw me for a loop.
I would love to be part of this ultra-running community. I cannot imagine running a hundred miles but I could imagine running 50k? I mentioned this to the Husband who promptly banned me from doing so, on account of my heart. I know he’s right, but I was a bit sad. So instead I shall just start running some more trail races, braiding my hair like all the cool ultra girls and soaking up the inspiration from Instagram.
Western States, you were wonderful. Thank you for an amazing weekend.