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The 2021 Western States Endurance Run marked a long-awaited return to racing with high stakes and high drama. Defending champions Clare Gallagher and Jim Walmsley both toed the line, followed by historically deep fields of runners who’ve used the pandemic as an opportunity to fine-tune their fitness.
While both fields were deep, the women’s race shaped up to be historic, with 10 women placing in the top 21, and three in the top ten. Beth Pascall’s second-fastest finish on one of the hottest days on the course (only seven days in race history had been as hot as this year) is impressive, and definitely a factor in pulling so many strong women to fast finishes.
Going into the race, heat was the factor that many were focused on. Before the race, WSER organizers announced they were providing 32,000 pounds of ice for aid stations, which works out to about five pounds of ice per runner per aid station. In addition to the usual sponge-showers and ice shirts, many racers were stuffing ice into every available space; including vests, sports bras, arm sleeves, hats and buffs to stave off the California heat. Temps eventually rose to around 101 degrees (not nearly the potentially predicted 108), which certainly affected many racers.
A hyper-competitive women’s race was led from the get-go by Beth Pascall, a pediatrician from the UK who was returning to best her 4th-place finish in 2019. In the end, for the first time in history, three of the top 10 and nine of the top 20 finishers were women. During the pandemic, Pascall set the FKT on the Bob Graham Round, and won the Canyons 100K and trained in Flagstaff to prepare for WSER. She led from the top of the Escarpment (the three-mile climb from Olympic Valley up a ski hill that starts the race) to the finish, just ahead of record-pace until the midday heat kicked up.
“This year has been challenging for everybody for obvious reasons and I put so much into this to build up to this race,” Pascall said. “I felt like doubted myself and if it was the right thing to do, and I’m just so happy that it all came together.”
Joking at the finish line, Pascall said, “I have to be careful about what I say, about how some of these men paced themselves,” ribbing at the aggressive pace set by the front of the men’s pack.
Though there was plenty of drama in the women’s field as competitors swapped positions well into the late stages of the race, the heat-induced carnage was offset by what appeared to be smart pacing by many of the top women. Pascall’s finish was the second-fastest women’s time in WSER history in 17:10:41, and the highest female placement in the race since 2002.
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In her debut 100, New Zealand’s Ruth Croft (who outright won the Tarawera 100K in her home country this spring) ran a consistent and smart race, gradually moving up through the ranks all day. Croft was on the latter half of the top 10 at 50K, moved into 5th place around the 55-mile mark, and into the second after mile 78, ultimately finishing 9th overall.
Spain’s Ragna Debats snagged third, and the master’s category win to get on the women’s podium and finish top-10 overall. Debats also worked her way up through the top 10 all day steadily, through eventually lost ground to Croft’s late-race charge. The U.S.’s Brittany Peterson (who finished second, just behind defending Clare Gallagher in 2019) finished fourth after an up-and-down race, and Katie Asmuth ran in the top 10 all day to eventually finish fifth. Audrey Tanguy, Emily Hawgood, Camelia Mayfield, Keely Henninger and Kaci Lickteig rounded out the top 10. Defending champion Clare Gallagher fell back after the 100K mark to finish 17th, at one point telling irunfar, “It’s going to be a long walk to the finish.” Other notable finishes include Magda Boulet (15th) and Camille Heron (26th).
Around 14 hours into the race, 20 of the top 40 runners were women, showing the incredible depth of the field.
Many spectators were less curious about whether or not Jim Walmsley would win WSER in 2021 than if the heat would prevent him from breaking his course record for the third consecutive year. For much of the race, he ran just ahead of record pace before slowing down in the last 20 miles to finish in 14:46, well behind his 2019 14:09 finish, but with a decisive lead of well over an hour on the second-place man.
Many were watching the elite men’s field to see if the usual suspects like Walmsley, Hayden Hawks and Jared Hazen would replay their oft leaned-on race strategy of setting a blistering pace from the get go—and just trying to survive on the back half. This battle of speed and ego was waylaid by the hot temperatures, eventually forcing Hazen to drop at the 100K mark.
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Walmsley started the day pushing the pace with Hawks, both known for their ability to set an aggressive pace early on in races, and win—if they can hold it. Hawks slowed in the back half of the race for an eventual 8th-place finish for his 100-mile debut.
Portland’s Tyler Green ran smart, moving his way up through the ranks consistently all day to best his 14th-place finish from 2019. Green began picking men off after 100K, managing the temperatures with an ice vest and sharing some miles with Nike teammate Drew Holmen before gaining steam in the last 15 miles of the race to finish second. For his part, Holmen also ran a smart race and spent the back half of the race picking off men who couldn’t match the aggressive efforts set earlier in the day.
“I think some guys flew really close to the sun,” said Holmen at the finish. Holmen’s patience paid off in his 100-mile debut after scoring a Golden Ticket by winning Bandera 100K in 2020. Holmen moved up through the ranks after the 100K mark, passing men who had been several positions in front of him early on. In his final lap around the Placer High School Track, cramping made his gait stuttered and painful, “I really gave all I had,” he said.
Cody Lind, the grandson of WSER’s first medical director, finished fourth (the same position as his partner, Brittany Peterson, for the women) after battling to the front from the lower part of the top-10 spots. Tim Tollefson yo-yo’ed throughout the day, alternately surging through the ranks, and struggling in the heat. At the Rucky Chucky river crossing, rather than using the rope to walk across the waist-deep water, Tollefson laid on his back, fully submerged, and pulled himself across to cool off.
“He kept dying, and coming back, and catching me, and dying, and coming back, and catching me,” said 6th-place finisher Kyle Pietari, joking with Tollefson in his finish-line interview. “It’s not normal,” he said, laughing. Stephen Kersh, Hayden Hawks, Kyle Curtain and Alex Nichols rounded out the top-10 men, with other notable finishes by Patrick Reagan (11th) and Eric Senseman (13th).
Some other favorites, including Matt Daniels and Addie Bracy, DNF’d due to the persistent heat, making way for newcomers to make plays for the podium. 2021’s Western States Endurance Run showed what many had suspected—that many athletes had used the pandemic to really focus on training to make huge gains.