Yes, Western States is Worth The Hype

Racing in last year's Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run changed my life and made me fall even deeper in love with running.

Photo: Austin Meyer

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Last year, I trained for and raced (most of?) the Western States Endurance Run (WSER). The process of getting ready for that race changed my life, and it made me fall even more in love with the sport. Even though I DNF’d at mile 80 (a profound thank you to the resident near Green Gate who so generously gave me a ride in his Subaru so I didn’t have to hobble-cry my way out of the aid station), training for and participating in WSER made me level up as both a human and an athlete, and it brought me closer to the trail community than ever. Here’s why I’m all-in on the Western States Stoke Train. 

Yeah, It’s a Scene.

I first came to States as a young reporter, covering the race for this publication. Honestly, I approached it with a bit of a shrug and an eye-roll, because, well, isn’t it so overdone? Isn’t Western States a bit played out, and over-hyped?

When I first arrived into Olympic Valley, I felt a tectonic shift. This place was different. Everyone seemed to be jogging everywhere. Galloping from one shakeout run to another, doing strides between panels and film screenings and gear giveaways and happy hours and quasi-recreational VKs. It was a scene, in the best way possible. 

In the days prior to the race, Olympic Valley is the Disney World of endurance sports, where the princesses and princes walk among us. Is that Ruth Croft, drinking a cappuccino, in broad daylight, as if she isn’t one of the greatest athletes of all time? And just like good princes and princesses, they’ll even take a beaming selfie with their loyal subjects while we try to soak up their speed through osmosis. 

RELATED: Nine Training Takeaways from Adam Peterman, World Champion and Western States 100 Winner

What’s not to love about a race directed by someone who proudly, and professionally goes by Lord Balls across all social media platforms, and whose origin story (brilliantly reported by Sarah Lavender Smith, which should get a Pulitzer for Excellence In Twitter Handle Investigation) reveals that the course humbles even its RD. 

It’s a scene the way CBGB was a scene, the way City Lights was a scene. Sometimes these special places capture something vital about the culture they reflect back. And while you can’t see Patti Smith live or hear a Kerouac book reading, you can still see the best athletes of our time gallop up the Escarpment at sunrise, and that’s pretty dang special. 

Change of States

There may no longer be gold in the hills around Auburn, but giving yourself over to their magic is its own kind of alchemy. Qualifying, then getting picked in the lottery (or racing one’s way in by earning a Golden Ticket) is a process, and one that can take athletes years, and upwards of 160 lottery tickets to achieve. 

I got lucky and received a sponsor spot after running a qualifying race. The six months of training leading up to Western States were the most transformative of my athletic career. While the workouts and long runs were a step above what I’d been doing previously, the biggest change was in my own head and heart. I started behaving and carrying myself like someone who could, in fact, run Western States. 

I finally gave myself permission to take my training seriously, and to dream recklessly. I set better boundaries with work, because the canyons put the fear of God in my quads, and a few unanswered emails no longer seemed that scary compared to the prolonged descents’ carnivorous instincts. I heat trained, befriending the cedar planks of the gym’s sauna until 200 degrees felt like home. I strength-trained until I needed to replace the step-up box that had seen me through the pandemic. I ate with a gusto that can only be called “Ben and Jerry’s Radical Self Belief Swirl.” And at night, I dreamed about running the smooth trails around Cool, California. 

RELATED: Western States Endurance Run Announces 2024’s Golden Ticket Races and a Beast Coast Entry

I was a different person before I ever reached the start line because I had finally given myself permission to level up so that I could meet States on her own terms, and when she demanded excellence, I let myself chase it. 

Embracing the States hype means embracing hype for myself, and for my own potential. Being hyped for States meant believing that I was fully capable of having a good day—a great day, even—and embracing that hype now means that a good, or even great day, still lies ahead. 

100 Friends, One Day

A belt buckle would be nice, but I wouldn’t trade the relationships I built along the way for anything (though if someone wanted to forge me a “100 Friends, One Day” buckle, I’d wear the heck out of that). 

Through Training Camp and race day, I solidified lasting friendships across the cohort of other runners that remain vibrant connections through DM’s and happy hours months later. When you’re doing the thing you’ve always wanted to do, and you’re stepping out of your comfort zone to do it, and you’ve rearranged your life in ways big and small to make it happen, and you look to your left, and to your right—chances are that the folks standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you are pretty good candidates for friends. 

Running Western States reset my expectations for what support looks like. On the last weekend in June, on a sunny, one-hundred-mile stretch of trail from Olympic Valley to Auburn, support looks like dozens of strangers dedicating their weekend to helping your sunburnt carcass traverse a historic trail for no real reason other than some innate, pack-animal instinct to support each other in doing hard things. I had strangers assist me in shoving ice into my arm sleeves, sports bra, and shorts. I leapfrogged with other runners, trading war-stories and salt tabs. When my day ended at Green Gate, a disgruntled aid station volunteer told me he didn’t survive cancer (twice!) and the Korean War to “watch me quit now,” and that decision would haunt me every day. It wasn’t a decision at that point, but he also wasn’t wrong. 

RELATED: Canyons Endurance Runs Is the Gateway to Western States, UTMB Finals in Chamonix

They say it’s hard to make friends as an adult, but it’s actually shockingly easy if you can complete hours of training each week, finish a qualifying race, spend between one and 10 years getting into one of the planet’s most competitive ultra-endurance events, and fly back and forth across the country a couple of times to cement said friendships on the course, and train for and compete in said race. It’s just that easy!

Saying yes to the hype means saying yes to the relationships and connections that emerge from excitement, and the friendships that are forged by doing really hard things together in the woods for no other reason than to maybe get a large cougar paperweight, a second-degree sunburn, and some flat Coke. The poison oak binds us to each other emotionally, while we are literally bound to our beds by the oozing rashes.

Stoke Show

Western States is the best of what this sport has to offer because you haven’t experienced support like a daisy chain of equestrian fans (the Rucky Chucky aid station is manned each year by Tevis Cup riders) standing in frigid waters for hours just to help you hobble across the American River. Where even the heat in the canyons can’t match the spark given off by the fans who line Bath Road into Foresthill. 

So yeah, it’s a lot of hype. But in a world that’s increasingly cynical, I think there’s a lot to be said for letting ourselves get truly, genuinely, over-the-top STOKED for something that really excites us. Hot takes proclaiming that something is overrated (guilty!) drive clicks and downloads, but surrendering to stoke can build authentic community.  It’s easy to get jaded as more money, and conflicts, and attention pour into our sport, but there are still pockets of untarnished enthusiasm that are worth celebrating, too. Whether you’re running, spectating, crewing, volunteering, or glued to a livestream or Twitter feed, it feels good to let yourself get pulled into Western States’ extraordinary orbit. 

All of this adds up to an overwhelmingly glowing review from someone who spent a not insignificant amount of time crying into a bowl of tater tots and veggie broth, letting down a veteran. A resounding five-star review, even though I didn’t finish in 2022. If Western States earns this much stoke at 80 percent, just imagine what those last 20 miles hold. 

That thought is going to motivate so many long runs, so many early bedtimes, so many richer friendships. Long live the hype.

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada