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Even as the number of trail ultras in the United States, and worldwide, has proliferated, the Western States Endurance Run (WSER), a 100.2-mile traverse of California trails from Squaw Valley ski area to the Auburn High School track, captures the attention of ultrarunning each June.
Founded after Gordy Ansleigh famously ran a 100-mile horse-race course along a similar route – finishing that first attempt in under 24 hours – WSER has become the center of the North American ultrarunning universe. And this year should be as exciting as ever.
Both the men’s and women’s elite races will likely be captivating, but for different reasons. Here’s why.
Rematch in the Women’s Race
Three of last year’s top four women are returning – and what a race that was.
In 2015, defending champion Stephanie Howe (32, Bend, Oregon) led much of the race until WSER rookie Magdalena Boulet (42, Oakland, California) made a decisive move and held the lead; Kaci Lickteig (29, Omaha, Nebraska) made a late charge to nab second, finishing 15 minutes behind Boulet; Howe held on for third, 12 minutes behind Lickteig; and Aliza Lapierre (36, Williston, Vermont) finished just 10 minutes later, in fourth.
Of those four, only Howe is not returning. Boulet – a former Olympic marathoner who has pretty much dominated trail ultras since debuting at The North Face 50 Mile San Francisco in 2013 (where she placed second) – will be the woman to beat. But Lickteig, already a contender at any ultra, had a breakthrough at last year’s WSER, which she’ll be looking to improve on.
Then there are the many other women who could contend, in the not unlikely event that running 100 miles on trail wreaks havoc on the best-laid plans of Boulet, Lickteig and/or Lapierre.
For starters, another returning top-10 finisher like Nicole Kalogeropolous (34, Dallas, Texas; sixth in 2015), Sally McRae (37, Huntington Beach, California; seventh), Caroline Boller (41, Solvang, California; eighth) or Erika Linland (24, Fairfax, California; ninth) could mix it up at the front.
So could a “Golden Ticket” entry winner such as YiOu Wang (31, San Anselmo, California; 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile champion) or Amy Sproston (42, Bend, Oregon; 2016 Black Canyon 100K champion, three previous WSER top-10 finishes). These runners win their “tickets” to WSER by finishing first or second at one of several pre-designated, highly competitive races in the spring. Some Golden Ticket entrants are WSER veterans, while some have never run a 100-miler.
The Wide-Open Men’s Race
Two-time defending champ Rob Krar is not running this year, and neither is Seth Swanson, who finished second to Krar both times; Swanson withdrew this year, citing fatigue.
That means it’s anyone’s race, and there will be a first-time champion. It’s honestly difficult to name a favorite, but here are some possible winners.
2012 Leadville 100 winner Thomas Lorblanchet (36, France) and two-time Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) winner Francois D’Haene (30, France) will be seeking revenge. They shared the lead early on during last year’s WSER, but faded to fifth and 14th, respectively; it’s hard to imagine they won’t apply what they learned and improve their finishing positions.
Olympic Trials marathoner David Laney (27, Portland, Oregon; eighth at WSER in 2015) showed he can run with the world’s best over 100 mountainous miles by finishing third at UTMB last year. Plus, Laney is a two-time WSER finisher and has been training on the course a lot this spring.
Ian Sharman (35, Bend, Oregon; seventh last year), the record holder for the Grand Slam – that’s WSER, the Vermont 100, the Leadville Trail 100 and the Wasatch Front 100 in one year – is one of the most consistent runners at WSER each year; his highest finish was fourth in 2013.
While he’s a WSER rookie, former pro marathoner Sage Canaday (30, Boulder, Colorado) has dominated U.S. ultras up to 100K over the last few years, earning wins at TNF 50 San Francisco in 2014 and Lake Sonoma in 2013, as well as multiple wins at the Speedgoat 50K in Utah and New Zealand’s Tarawera 100K. Canaday, who is looking to finish his first 100-miler after an injury forced him to drop from UTMB last year, earned a Golden Ticket entry by winning the Black Canyon 100K in February.
Speaking of Golden Ticket entries, Jim Walmsley (26, Flagstaff, Arizona) put on a clinic amid a loaded field at this year’s Lake Sonoma 50. (He had already earned his place at Western with a course record in the Bandera 100K.) Few would count him out in his 100-mile debut.
Stephen Wassather (25, Kentfield, California; 2016 Sean O’Brien 100K champion) has been improving rapidly and could likewise mix things up. And don’t ignore on Didrik Hermansen (36, Oslo, Norway) who recently won two of Europe’s most challenging races – Spain’s Transgrancanaria 125K in March and Italy’s Lavaredo Trail last year.
We could go on, but you get the idea.
It seems the only thing we can predict about this year’s WSER is that it will be exciting and inspiring to watch. (As well as the elites, there are sure to be some compelling back-of-the-pack storylines, such as Gunhild Swanson’s last-second finish in 2015.) That’s why we keep coming back year after year.