by Special Guest Contributor, Ethan Veneklasen
For the past 13 years, the Western States Endurance Run has been an annual event for me. Whether running, crewing, or pacing, I rarely miss this gathering of our crazy ultra tribe.
This past weekend, I was honored to crew for my Canadian Salomon teammate, Andy Reed at his debut appearance at the “big dance”. I witnessed some amazing moments out on the trail, but that’s pretty much par for the course…amazing things happen every year at this most iconic race.
I saw something interesting this year that I want to call out.
It bucked a trend has been emerging over the past few years as the sport has become increasingly professionalized.
Recreational runners don’t drop out of Western States easily. The decision to cut off the wristband is an agonizing one, made when there is simply no other choice. In many cases, to continue would risk serious long-term injury or worse. These athletes have fought hard to get to Western States and they know that it may be years before they can return. They will endure unimaginable pain and suffering to earn that coveted buckle.
Conversely, every year, several elite runners (almost exclusively men, by the way…women don’t seem to do this as much) drop out early in the race because it “isn’t their day”. Sometimes they go out too fast, sucked in by the fierce competition. They recognize early on that it’s not going to happen for them and they throw in the towel. Others, usually 100-mile rookies, recognize that they showed up underprepared and pull the plug. In most cases, these runners could continue on to finish with times that few of us could ever contemplate.
This year was different.
Several of the top podium contenders had REALLY rough days and struggled simply to finish. Despite what must have been overwhelming disappointment, they continued to put one foot in front of another and got the job done…just like the rest of us.
Let’s start with the most obvious and dramatic example, Jim Walmsley. After taking a wrong turn after more than 90 miles on the course (among other misadventures), it would have been easy to call it a day. He didn’t. He honored the distance and his fellow competitors, running when he could and walking until he arrived at the Placer High School track in a still very respectable 16th place. It wasn’t what he came to accomplish nor, certainly, indicative of what he is capable of. Finishing was a conscious decision and a show of tremendous sportsmanship, humility, and respect for his fellow competitors. In his post-race comments and social media, he hasn’t assigned blame, but rather has been overwhelmingly gracious in his praise for the eventual victor.
Sage Canaday came to Squaw Valley with his eyes set on taking home a Cougar trophy. But, as he put it in his FB post, his “first goal was to finish the Western States 100”. He accomplished that. Sage is a tremendously talented runner and an intensely competitive guy. While I am sure that while he may be disappointed with his eventual 11th place finish, you’d never know it from his Facebook posts. Super classy, amigo!!!
Finally, David Laney was among a handful of pre-race favorites. He was focused, fit, and ready to rock and roll. One only needed to look at him to know that it was “game on” after his 8th place finish last year. Even in his worst pre-race nightmares, I’m sure that 20:06 (and 33rd place) wasn’t an outcome that he ever imagined. He too kept going and got the job done!!!
This commentary is not intended to disparage or criticize those who have made the other choice. As a sports-marketing professional and agent, I understand better than most why a runner might make that decision.
It is, rather, to recognize that some of the most of the most competitive runners in our sport defied pain, discomfort, and profound disappointment simply to finish. In doing so, they lived up to the spirit of our sport in the best possible way. Their character showed through when it mattered most and it speaks volumes about the great young talent that is being attracted to our sport. CONGRATS, guys!!!
I would be horribly remiss though if I didn’t offer my heartfelt congratulations to Western States Endurance Run Champion, Andrew Miller. He is a tremendous up-and-coming young talent and I, for one, cannot wait to see what else this kid is capable of. He ran a smart, mature, and patient race. It was VERY impressive indeed. CONGRATS, Andrew!!!
Ethan Veneklasen is a competitive masters ultrarunner and Chief He(a)rder at He(a)rd Sports Marketing in California. He has raced throughout the United States and Europe and is Co-Host of UltraRunner Podcast with Eric Schranz. In 2003, Veneklasen founded the Vasque Ultrarunning Team. Since then, he has remained deeply involved in the evolution of the sport, most recently as an advocate for anti-doping policies and performance-enhancing-drug testing. He is sponsored by Salomon, VFuel Endurance, and Victory SportDesign.