The lottery for the 2015 running of the Western States 100 Mile, the granddaddy of this country’s 100-mile trail runs, will be held this month (12/6), but as most entrants in the lottery know, the chances of getting selected if you have just one ticket in the drawing is less than one in 10. Whether you beat these long odds or not, though, you should take a serious look at the Western States Memorial Weekend Training Runs that are held every year in late May, along with a single training run in February.
Getting a starting slot for Western States has no bearing on gaining admission to the training runs. All you have to do is sign up (early, before it fills), pay up and show up at the training runs to get your chance to tour 70 miles of the actual Western States Trail (details can be found at ultrasignup.com or the Western States website). There is no qualifying, no lottery, no nothing, except a chance to see the most famous course in the country and endure one of the best ultra training efforts you’re ever likely to face. You can also sign up for just one or two of the Memorial Day weekend runs if you’re not ready for the whole enchilada.
The Memorial Day weekend runs follow a three-day format. Day one (Saturday) is essentially a 50k run from as close to Robinson Flat as the snow and mud conditions allow to Foresthill, or from about mile 30 to mile 62 of the race. You experience the rugged footing and twisting trails of the course, but most importantly, you pass through the deep canyons and tackle two signature big climbs of the race up to Devil’s Thumb and to the former mining town of Michigan Bluff. By the time you’ve transited Volcano Canyon to reach Foresthill, you will have put your legs through a complete ultra race grind, which sets you up for the next day very nicely.
You’re probably aware that doing back-to-back runs is an invaluable training tool for ultras. Day two (Sunday) of the training runs offers that opportunity. Sore, beat up, cranky and possibly limping, you will now proceed from Foresthill onto the California Street section of the course as far as the Rucky Chucky River crossing, where you’ll finish up a big climb to Driver’s Flat. This segment is 20 miles, much of it quad-pounding, technical downhill. Your legs will loosen up, but the experience of pushing yourself even when your legs feel stale and fatigued is precisely the training that will serve you well in any 100 you choose to run.
Day three (Monday) is another 20-mile stretch from near Green Gate, a spot up the climb from the river crossing, to the finish on the Placer High School track in Auburn. You’ll cross the well-known No Hands Bridge. The trails and jeep roads of this segment are much more accommodating than what you saw on the first two days, but a third day on tired legs is where the training is the bomb. Persevering through yet another major workout will also test your mental toughness, a trait you will need in spades on race day.
Each day’s run is well supported. There are aid stations supplied with standard ultra type fare. Experienced ultrarunners with excellent knowledge of the course work the aid stations. The trail is well marked and easy to follow. Runners are tracked along the course and sweeps provide a final check that everyone has made it in safely just like in a regular race. The logistics of getting all the runners bused to and from the start and finish each day goes off like clockwork. There is also food at the end points of each day’s segment so you’ll have a chance to immediately carbo-load and kick around the day’s events with the other runners.
On Sunday, there is usually some kind of evening program held in Auburn. For example, two years ago event organizers screened the 1983 Western States video, Desperate Dreams, followed by a discussion with Jim Howard and Jim King, early champions of the race. The moderator for the discussion was five-time winner Tim Twietmeyer. Plans for the coming year’s Sunday program are still in the works. Runners provide for their own camping or hotel accommodations in the Auburn area. The Western States website offers some suggestions for where to stay. Go to the “Runners” tab and then select “Training Runs.”
The atmosphere at the training runs is super friendly and generally relaxed. A lot of the luminaries of the ultrarunning world come out and they mix in with everyone else on the trails without fanfare. If it’s warm, the river crossings turn into big parties with lots of runners lounging in the water to cool off. Veterans of the training runs like to mix up the starting and finishing locations to get in extra miles, so you might see last year’s top runners zooming by in the opposite direction or passing you from behind. One of my fondest memories is Ann Trason making a disparaging remark about my running shorts.
As prep for running Western States, the training runs simply can’t be beat. As general training for any upcoming ultra, 100 miles or not, they’re invaluable, but at the same time, you can forget your training goals altogether if you’d like. Go there just to enjoy the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains, run trails with a whole lot of like-minded people and savor the hotdogs at Driver’s Flat.