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Many eyes will be on Jim Walmsley during the Western States Endurance Run on June 24, as he guns for the course record he fell short of last year.
But the truly exciting race will unfold among the women.
While Walmsley will at least attempt to dominate the men’s race early on, all bets are off on the women’s side. Past champions, first-order speedsters, experienced top-10 finishers and up-and-comers eager for a breakout performance will face off on the 100-mile course.
It’s a field that one Western States hopeful—Clare Gallagher, the 2016 Leadville Trail 100 winner—calls “outrageous” and “ridiculous.”
Here’s a quick look at this year’s big names—and the less-known challengers waiting in the wings.
The Heavy Hitters
Last year’s winner, Kaci Lickteig, 30, will attempt to defend her title. The Omaha-based runner has the experience on the course—three total finishes, including second place in 2015—and had a fine spring season, most notably tying for second at the competitive Lake Sonoma 50.
She’ll be challenged by former Western States champions Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and Stephanie Howe Violett. Lewy-Boulet, 43, tied with Lickteig at the Lake Sonoma 50 and won Western in 2015 but dropped out of the 2016 race early with a stomach bug.
Howe Violett, 33, won Western in 2014 and came in third in 2015. A long struggle with injury consumed large parts of her 2015 and 2016 seasons, but she returned to win outright the Bandera 100K—the U.S. Trail 100K Championship—in January.
Another runer to watch is YiOu Wang. Since 2014, Wang, 32, has cleaned up at 50Ks and 50-milers. The two-time Lake Sonoma winner could also run near the front, though her 100-mile experience is limited to her 13th-place finish at Western States last year.
Camille Herron, 35, an international ultrarunning champion on roads who jumped into trail racing just last year, will make her 100-mile debut at Western. She certainly has the speed to contend for a top spot. Whether she’ll be rested enough after her big win at the 56-mile Comrades Marathon on June 6 remains to be seen.
If any of the favorites has a bad day, plenty of hungry contenders will be ready to pick up the pieces.
“The one thing we absolutely know to expect at Western States is at least one (and usually two) surprises in the top five,” says Ethan Veneklasen, a co-host of UltraRunnerPodcast.
Amy Sproston, 43, finished second last year in her fourth top-10 showing at Western.
Others returning from the 2016 top 10 are fourth-place Amanda Basham, 26; fifth-place Alissa St Laurent, 31; sixth-place Meghan Arbogast, 55, going for her 10th (!) top-10 finish; and eighth-place Maggie Guterl, 35.
Emily Harrison, 31, placed seventh in 2013, and is a past winner of the Lake Sonoma 50, JFK 50 and Sean O’Brien 100K.
Sarah Keyes, 32, took top honors at last year’s U.S. Skyrunner Ultra series—partly on the strength of her win at the rugged Broken Arrow 54K, held in Squaw Valley, California, where Western States also starts.
Meanwhile, two young Coloradoans are hoping to build on recent success. Gallagher, 25, won the Leadville 100 last year by running the second-fastest time in that race’s history. And Cat Bradley, 23, comes off her course-record win at the Rio Del Lago 100-miler in November.
Finally, Jacqueline Merritt, 29, could be something of a wild card. The Atlanta-based runner has raced minimally in the high-profile Pacific and Mountain West scenes, but has a string of top finishes east of the Mississippi—including a course-record win at the 2016 Pinhoti 100, second place at the 2017 Georgia Death Race and first overall at last month’s Ice Age Trail 50K.