Monday, August 2, 2010

Western States Thoughts

I've really sat on this post for a bit of time now. After all, it's been a month since I ran in the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. In the time since I ran the race, I've had quite a bit of people congratulate me on my success out in California. Especially while running in this years Vermont 100, pre-race, post-race, in aid stations, out on the course... I received a lot of "Hey SJ, Congrats on Western States." I've really put some thought into how I feel about receiving these congratulations as well as how I feel about the Western States Experience as a whole. People have asked for my opinion, and they've had bits and pieces of it, but now it's time to just let it all flow out. The good, the bad and the ugly of my Western States 100 experience.  You wanted it, you've got it.

I waited 4 years to get into the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Waiting is not as easy as it sounds. This means that for the last 4 years, I've qualified for the race and placed my name in the entry lottery, was a two time lottery loser, ended up in the "Fire Year" debacle, and then got in on a provisional lottery for two time losers. Once I got into the race, I ended up having to shell out $350 to enter.

Other race entry fees during the Grand Slam (total entry revenue):
Vermont 100: $200 ($60,000)
   Leadville 100: $250 ($225,000)
Wasatch 100: $175 ($42,000)

So let's try to figure this out. 417 runners lined up at the starting line of the Western States 100, each paying $350 to get there. This amounts to $145,950. This does NOT include the fee paid by other runners who had made it into the race and did not show up on race day. So after having run in this race, I have to wonder where the hell $145,000 went! Consider for a moment that this race crosses very few roads so there is virtually no traffic detail necessary via police departments. They have an army of volunteers, the aid stations are much like the aid stations at other races. So where does this money go? Of course I understand the costs of Belt Buckles, insurance, permits, etc... but I find it hard to believe, as a former race director myself, that all of this costs over $50,000 never mind $140,000!


There is something about races out West that is seriously disconnected from the races in the East. Compared to the races in the East, people just don't seem to want to talk out West. It feels like that "road runner" mentality you get at a road marathon. That feeling that "this is serious" and it's an actual race against each other. But further more, after a few discussions on the course with fellow runners from back East we determined that unless you were in Team Diablo or part of The Auburn Running Company, you were a nobody at this race... and treated like a nobody. This trend continued to rear it's ugly head especially so at the finish line area.

There are some pro's and con's of the aid stations during this race. First of all, unless you have TWO crew's, there is no way in hell that you'll see your crew at all of the aid stations. I saw my crew a total of 4 times at Western States. 

Number of Handler Stations at the Other Grand Slam Races
Vermont 100: 10
Leadville 100: 12
Wastach 100: 9

While I understand that the wilderness the Western States course runs through plays a major role in this aspect, it causes some negative effects on when your crew is actually there. First and foremost, the Aid Station Captains are both "over the top" with their iron fist over the aid station and at times even rude to the runners. Crews are contained within yellow roped off areas and are not allowed to provide services for runners outside of these areas. My crew wasn't even allowed to fill my bottles for me. Though I will say that the races Medical staff was VERY friendly, knowledgeable and professional. They know their stuff and they are more than willing to help you get to the finish line, more so then any other race I've ever done. Red shirts are everywhere, when you run into an aid station a red shirted volunteer approaches you to get you whatever you need... this is where the bottle filling is accomplished however... most times I haven't seen my crew yet to get my bottles. This confusion adds up to a LOT of wasted time and inconvenience to the runners. Red shirts seemed to be good enough to grab you snacks at the stations. Pacers had tables of their own at some stations... (ie. Runners and Pacer tables were separate). Overall... I found the aid stations to be overly cluttered with people, excess volunteers, confusion and too much dictating going on. This made aid stations the most stressful place on the course to be.

The course was amazing from start to finish. From alpine meadows to Sequoia and Redwood forests. I felt like I was in a new ecosystem around every corner. I've never seen to many butterflies and lizards in my life. The dust, dirt and ash made for quite a kaleidoscope of color on my legs and shoes. There was rarely a rock or root to be found compared to what I am used to. The climbs were challenging as were the downhills. There was cold, heat, snow, dry, rivers, lakes, amazingly huge pine cones.. the place is an amazing area to run through. There was a lot more running on flat sections then advertised or anticipated but over all, the course itself was well worth the trip.

Race Entry: $350
Airfare (one way) for self and 1 crew member: $685
One Night Stay in Hotel: $80
Fuel for crew vehicle: $80
Food for Crew and Runner: $100
Total: $1295
This was the total cost of my trip to Western States. Thankfully it was a part of my honeymoon. At the end of the race, I flew to Vegas for a week.. and then flew home from Vegas. However, if I were to have flown from Sacramento back home, the race would have cost me an extra $600-700. I also lucked out thanks to the help of Bret Sarnquist, who flew up from Flagstaff, AZ to help out. He picked Sarah and I up in Sacramento, drove us to his parents place up near Donner Pass, which allowed us to save some money on added lodging costs. He drove up from the airport in his Sister VW Camper Van, which saved us money on needing to rent a vehicle for crewing. Thanks to Bret we likely saved an additional $500. Bottom line, Western States can easily cost a runner $2000 +. I'm certain that I ran the race on the bare minimum for a runner coming out of town.

At the end of the race, Bryon Powell of asked me if I felt the race lived up to it's Hype. At the time I told him I "wasn't sure... a lot of money to come here. I can see where some of it goes.." I think back to reading Dean Karnazes' Book "Ultramarathon Man" and his description of the race from beginning to end. I think about all of the online bickering, and blogging, magazine articles, podcasts and everything else that is enough to make you drown in a sea of repetitive information... and I realize in the end that no.. Western States doesn't live up to the hype.
I think that in terms of bang for your buck... Vermont 100, Massanutten, Grand Teton... all of these races are above and beyond what Western States provides the runner. I think Western States is priced as high as it is due to supply and demand. It's an expensive race to travel to. There is a ton of frustration with aid stations and crew access and it's VERY cliquey. Given it's history I can see it being one of those races you run once, just to say that you've been there and you crossed the finish line. I understand it being a part of the Grand Slam of Ultra-running. I can attest to you here that in the future I will only try my luck at getting into Western States again providing that my plan is to run the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. I'd love to return to try my luck at winning that Sub-24 Hour buckle with only having this race to concentrate on... but I'm not sure it's worth the couple thousand dollar price tag. It's been said many times before and I'll say it again... there are plenty of quality, top notch races in this country that are worth running, are more accommodating and offer more bang for your buck then the classic Western States. I'll be reserving my money for those.

Happy Trails