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The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is always exciting, but 2017 proved to be especially dramatic. Thick snow sent runners sliding down hillsides, mud bogs stole shoes and 100-degree heat added high drama to this historic race. Here are six unforgettable moments.
Defending female champ, Kaci Lickteig, digs out of the pain cave
“Last year it was all rainbows and butterflies the whole time,” says Lickteig, 30, of Omaha, Nebraska, about her 2016 win in 17 hours 57 minutes. “This year I gutted it out and did something I never thought was possible.”
When Lickteig toed the line she felt fit, optimistic and honored to be running alongside such talent. Her mood kept up despite huge snow piles and calf-high, sticky-mud bogs. Then, around mile 50, Lickteig’s breathing became shallow and her heart rate grew rapid. The rough trail conditions and 100-degree heat had taken a toll.
“I was hyperventilating,” she says. “I knew I just had to get to where my pacer and crew were.” She barely made it. Lickteig was listing to the side and couldn’t run at all. She walked the six miles to her crew.
She and her pacer pushed on until she injured her knee and began hyperventilating again. She couldn’t run but wanted to make it to the river so they walked eight miles and when she arrived, she sat down and decided to end it.
“Twenty-two miles of walking [to the finish] just didn’t sound great.” That is, until Stephanie Case, 35, of Geneva, Switzerland, convinced her to get to the Green Gate aid station, 1.8 miles away.
“[Stephanie] put her headlamp around my waist and we started across the river and I wondered why I was doing this race at all. What did it mean to me?” says Lickteig. “I thought of my grandma who has been going through chemotherapy and has been really frustrated and wanting to quit. I’ve been telling her to keep fighting and not to quit. I realized I had to keep going to show that it’s possible.”
Lickteig finished, with a combination of running and walking, in 24 hours 2 minutes.
Breakout trail ultrarunner, Camille Herron, drops with joy
Camille Herron is an established marathoner from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who has taken the trails by storm over the last year and a half. In June, Herron, 35, dominated the hyper-competitive 87K Comrades Marathon in South Africa, winning in 6 hours 27 minutes. Western States was her first 100-mile race, but she was a serious contender nonetheless.
It was a short and sweet race for Herron, though. She realized she was in trouble with “the first bit of snow we hit. My light and springy gait makes me like Bambi on ice! I felt my hamstring pull from the first slip and fall. I slid down iced-over snow embankments several times into trees, hitting my head and ribs and [I was] unable to see straight and stand without falling. I lost feeling and strength in my hands and wrists from all the falls. I had trouble holding and squeezing my bottles and opening my gels.”
Herron seems almost thrilled to have DNF’ed at Western States. At the Red Star aid station, she says, “We cried, laughed, shared a beer and took pictures. The sunrise with the snow was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Even in my very brief experience, I could feel the magic of Western States. I’m at total peace having dropped at mile 15. It wasn’t meant to be, and I will definitely try again.”
Walmsley foregoes his 14-hour goal
Trail-running phenom Jim Walmsley, of Flagstaff, Arizona was ready to crush Western States this year and had his sights set on beating the record of 14 hours 46 minutes set by Timothy Olson in 2012.
“He wanted to go 14 hours or less,” says friend and ultrarunner Chris Rennaker. That would have been a tall order, especially considering the abundant snow and mud in the high country. But Walmsley, 27, wasn’t deterred.
“I had been preparing mentally for that moment since Western States 2016,” he says. “I think I had an almost perfect training block for the race and wouldn’t change any of my preparations that I did.”
At the starting line, eventual winner Ryan Sandes, 35, of South Africa, asked him if he still intended to run sub 14, despite the conditions.
“He said, ‘Yeah baby,’ and took off,” Sandes remembers. “We only ran together for like 20 meters. He’s got bigger balls than me to go for it.”
Walmsley went out with a bang and dominated the first half of the race, his lead ranging from 30 minutes to almost an hour. But then things soured.
“It was a pretty quick decline down the Cal Streets [miles 65 to 73],” says Walmsley. “I didn’t throw in the towel until probably just over a mile to the river [mile 78]. Walking became harder and harder. Cal 3 [aid station] was a very difficult moment. A hundred feet out, I threw everything up that I had just tried to eat. My pacer, Tim Freriks, and I started to talk about adjusting race goals drastically.”
If you think Walmsley has learned his lesson, think again. “The wise racers dominated me again. But I know it’s still in my heart to keep striving for that perfect race at Western States.”
Magdalena Boulet lands 2nd, sustained by energy drinks
“Nutrition is my secret weapon to success,” says 43-year-old Boulet, who took the Western States title in 2015 but came down with the stomach flu in 2016 and had to drop at mile 60. She was ready for vengeance this year.
“I had a few instances [this year] where my body just gave me cues. Back off. This isn’t sustainable,” she says.
Boulet was determined to reach the finish line and knew that with the heat and conditions of the course, she’d need to keep an even, controlled pace and a simple diet to get there.
“People struggle with digestion in the heat,” she says. “I keep it really simple. One bottle of Roctane per hour. I did that for 19 hours. That’s it. It takes the complexity out of something that is already very complex.”
Boulet finished 2nd in 19 hours 49 minutes, having put down 19 bottles of Roctane, Summit Tea flavor.
YiOu Wang’s body unexpectedly shuts down
Wang crushed the first two-thirds of the course. She was prepared for the snow, the heat and the mud and had just come off a very strong training cycle. Relatively un-phased by the rough conditions of the high country, she was able to turn it on once she came down.
“After we got into the runnable, clear sections,” she says, “I pulled away a little and still felt really fresh.”
Wang passed Boulet around mile 35 and made it through the heat of the canyons, pulling into Foresthill (mile 62) in the lead.
Wang and Cat Bradley (the eventual winner) traded places in the lead a couple of times before reaching the aid station at mile 65.7. It was here that Wang realized she hadn’t eaten in a while and her hands were starting to tingle. As she tried to open her gel pack, she fumbled, her hands going completely numb. She couldn’t concentrate. She finally managed to get the packet open, take “one bite, and, next thing I’m on the ground. I couldn’t get the gel down. I couldn’t stay upright. I was flat on my back.”
Wang couldn’t control or catch her breath. Her pacer and other runners were trying to talk to her and, while she could hear them, she couldn’t respond.
Even in this delirious state, Wang thought she’d get back on the trail.
“When it first happened, I was thinking, ‘I need to stay as close to Cat as I can.’ I’m a competitor. I wanted to race.”
She realized, more than an hour later, after needing assistance just to sit up, that her race was over.
“I felt so powerless,” she says. “I’ve DNF’ed a couple of times and it’s OK because I know the reason. But this came on so suddenly, and I had been feeling really good to that point. It feels particularly hurtful. That’s 100 miles for you.”
Gordy offers his bib to Fegy, who finishes 145th
You might remember John “Fegy” Fegyveresi as one of only 15 people to have ever finished infamous Barkley Marathons in Tennessee. He did it as a first-timer in 2012. Fegy traveled all the way from Vermont to California to try his luck at getting into Western States, though he was on the waitlist.
“I saw him before the race,” says Camille Herron. “He was very optimistic and hopeful that he’d get in.”
Then, Gordon Ainsleigh, founder of the race, offered Fegy his bib. And then Fegy cried. He would go on to finish the race in 27 hours 51 minutes.