Remember in high school when you were reading Shakespeare and the professor was making you do way more than just read? You were having to study the prose, the context, the definition for intpinse. But also, each of his plays were (usually, I think?) categorized into either comedies, histories, or tragedies. Sometimes, though, a comedy felt like a tragedy that could have been a history if the mother and father and son were actually siblings, or some wild shit like that. I know extremely little about the exact way his plays are neatly packaged into categories, but I do know the weirder they got, the more incest Shakespeare shoved into his plays, the more my attention was piqued. You have to believe at some point that he was tired of his plays being shoved into neat little boxes and so, what he did next, was create the Western States Endurance Run.
The Western States Endurance Run is a comedic, historical drama played out over 100 miles from Squaw Valley, California to Auburn, California. There are literal peaks and valleys. (Hand clap emoji between each word in that sentence, please). I saw, with my own god-damn eyes, catharsis. It is as complete a spectacle, as complete an analogy for navigating the perils of our lives, as I’m able to imagine.
Everyone starts together. The champion and the back-of-the-packer. Both of them line up in the early morning with one, singular goal: move their bodies 100 miles to the finish line. The way they go about it will be different, the struggles they face will be unique, but the shared goal lends itself to a connection between runners that is striking and ever apparent.
With morning light attempting to creep over the horizon to catch the start of the chaos, the gun goes off and runners scamper up the Escarpment and over the Sierra Nevada. Gingerly moving up the steep climb, almost every runner had a smile on their face. Smiling in the face of actual hell. Bastards. Ignorant to the impending doom. Beautiful.
I saw the leaders of the race about 30 miles later at Robinson Flat. Elation had left most of their ethos and was replaced by focus and fear. Jim Walmsley, the provocative race favorite, came through the aid station with already a sizeable lead and, contrary to most others, a palpable calm. He had tried the previous two years to burn down the course en route to a record-setting victory, but failed. There was plenty of talk about Jim needing a cooler head, a more time-tested strategy to succeed over the 100-mile distance. While it seemed Jim may have begrudgingly heeded some advice, he was still running faster than anyone other than previous iterations of himself had covered that section of the course. He came into the aid station with his signature prance, quickly cooled off and bounded towards the next few chapters of the day.
Behind him was a mixed bag. Some athletes mimicked the collected demeanor of the race leader, others seemed to already be too far in over their head. A drama was approaching too soon for some.
The female race leader was Lucy Bartholomew. A 22-year old Australian choked full of fear aversion. Her blistering pace was matched by no female and only a few men as she came into the 30-mile mark in the top-10 of the race. Surrounded by her father’s enormous ‘stralian accent and deep, obvious devotion to his daughter’s quest, a smile never left Lucy’s face and a “thank you” was never far from her lips.
Her gratitude is well placed. The crew component of ultrarunning, especially Western States is critical. These gangs are composed of people so full of love and desire to see their person succeed that they’re willing to subject themselves to serious misery and sacrifice. It sounds like my parents. The crew washes the runner down, forces the runner to eat when they are nauseous, and runs with them when they are all out of run. Some old adage rings out in my mind when I see these interactions between athlete and crew.
Aside from a chipper Jim Walmsley, attitudes were different at Michigan Bluff – the race’s just-over-halfway point. Gone were the ideas of grandeur, replaced by intense doubt and a gambit of other terrible emotions.
One of the best runners in the world, Tim Freriks, arrived at the aid station looking like he had survived a war the last 20 miles. World War III has happened. It was between Tim Freriks and Devil’s Thumb and a world of fear on June 23, 2018.
“I’m gassed,” he told his crew. “Completely done.” He looked it. The heat was stealing his energy and refusing to give it back. I walked away from his crew, feeling as if an impending conversation about stopping was forthcoming. I now doubt the conversation was ever an option. As Tim ran out of the aid station, he still looked to be struggling. But that wasn’t the point. The point was the progress he was making towards Auburn. Step by step. All that other shit was an asterisk.
A river crossing was next. 78 miles into the race, and everyone has to cross the American River at Rucky Chucky. Volunteers stand in the water holding a rope affixed to both sides of the river. As a runner descends from the aid station to the river, they are presented with a life preserver and a promise that complete strangers will help them get across to the other side. In doing so, the life-mimicking continues for Western States.
The man trailing Jim by more than hour at this point was Francois D’haene. The Frenchman is a legend for his abilities in the technical, mountainous terrain. Entering the river with his pacer Ryan Sandes, last year’s Western States champion, D’haene knew that barring disaster he would finish in second place but also would be overshadowed by the course mastery of Walmsley. Personally, I don’t think D’haene showed up to Squaw Valley for a second-place medal. His goal was slipping away like the river washing the accumulated dirt and grime of the previous 12 hours. Once he crossed the river, he wasted no time in gathering himself and start his run towards Auburn. Futility is in the eye of the beholder.
To finish Western States, runners complete almost a full lap of the Placer High School track. They enter the backstretch, run the bend and then come down a homestretch to what is probably the most fanfare they’ve ever experienced. Jim arrived to a packed house cheering his name, completing the run he had shown he had the capability for. His 14:30:04 was a 15-minute course record and an unfathomable time to most minds. Which is what makes Jim different. His audaciousness ruffles feathers, but it allows him the opportunity to dream, to be one-of-a-kind. He runs with authenticity and he ran Western States the only way he knew how. Jim spent 14 hours and 30 minutes as his absolute self yesterday.
Exhaustion gave way to subdued elation as runners crossed the finish line at Placer High. Likely not a chance they have been able to comprehend what had happened over the previous 100.2 miles, the finishers know via osmosis this was a life-changing event. Some hands shoot up to the sky upon finishing, others wipe the emotion from their face before choosing their preferred static position.
Courtney Dauwalter, a growing cult hero, captured her first Western State’s crown. She crossed over the line and immediately searched out her husband, eventually having to use the PA system (“KEVIN”) to have him ushered to the finish line. Her journey through the race was mostly alone except for brief minutes at aid stations. She was the only person capable of getting herself to the finish, but her immediate recognition of the importance of her husband reinforced that life is much more robust when experienced with others.
Everyone I saw suffering at the halfway point of the race, finished. Those 100 miles brought just about everyone to their knees, to their most vulnerable state of existence. The questions these people were asking themselves were likely going beyond “should I finish this race?”. But they did it. They answered those questions.
Their day weaved from hope, to disaster, to triumph, and likely avoided any incest. Which is great, but not very Shakespearean.
These people are fortunate. Fortunate to have felt tremendous lows and peaking highs over the course of a day. While Western States truly presents someone with a full life experience in a day, what it may do even more is emphasize that life goes on. But who knows. I’m just trying to get through the day.