Running 100 mile races is becoming increasingly popular among trail runners and many of them are selling out early. Several of the larger, more well-known races have gone to a lottery system to gain entry into them. The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race is one of those lottery races, and was the very first 100 mile race. It began back in 1955 as a trail race for horses. In 1975, the legendary Gordy Ainsleigh joined the horses of the Western States Trail Ride to see if he could complete the course on foot. Twenty-three hours and forty-two minutes later Gordy arrived in Auburn, California, proving that a runner could indeed traverse the rugged 100 miles in one day.
Many ultra runners have long obsessed over a coveted spot in the Western States race, myself included. Before being allowed to enter your name into the lottery process, Western States requires potential participants to complete a qualifying race. Each consecutive year that you enter the lottery, you get double the number of tickets, but if you fail to qualify and enter in one year, you are forced to start from the beginning again the next time you enter. There are also a few slots open for the faster elite runners to race their way into Western States by winning one of a few events offering “golden tickets” to its top two male and female finishers. With less than 300 names being drawn each year from several thousand applicants, the middle-of-the-pack runner like myself faces very slim odds of being chosen.
THE CROWN JEWELS
So what is this obsession all about? Why do we hold such a passion for this race? With an ever growing number of 100 mile races to run, what is the appeal of Western States?
Western States is considered to be one of the toughest 100 mile races, with an elevation gain of more than 18,000 feet. Runners get to experience some of the most majestic and beautiful high country trails, a memorable crossing of the ice-cold American River, and the historic trails that led gold-seeking prospectors and homesteading pilgrims alike to the welcoming arms of Auburn. It remains one of the undisputed crown jewels of human endurance events.
Another part of the allure of Western States is the idea of stepping up to the starting line with many of the top athletes in the sport. These athletes have inspired us. We’ve listened to them on podcasts and read about them in articles. Just the thought of toeing the same starting line as us, if only for a short glimpse of them at the start causes our hearts to race. This course has seen some of the sport’s most stirring and legendary competitions. It continues to spur the spirit of runners of all abilities, from all walks of life. The starting line of Western States represents racing legends of the past as well as the future, all sharing the same trails that lie ahead.
These are just a few things that compel the average runner like myself to run a qualifying race so we can throw our names into the lottery, hoping beyond hope that we will be one of the lucky ones whose name is drawn. 2015 was my first year in the lottery when I qualified after completing the Georgia Death Race 68 miler in under 21 hours. When my single ticket entry didn’t get me a spot, I hired a coach, signed up for and finished the Pinhoti 100, giving me a second ticket for my entry in the 2016 lottery. I want the chance to experience a small piece of this famous race that has captured my heart and soul. Dreams do come true, and this is the dream that inspires me, the average ultra runner, as I wait to see if this will be my year to step up to the starting line of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.
Published January 2017