Our Dodge Caravan pulled up to Squaw blasting Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” just after 4 o’clock in the morning. Everyone in the van was in good spirits and ready to assist Stephen Kersh in his 100-mile journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California.
Kersh had the harder job of actually running. In April, he earned a Golden Ticket into the race by finishing fourth at the Lake Sonoma 50 Miler. That was his debut at that distance, and up until the starting gun sounded, it was his longest completed run ever. To help him make it to the finish, a crack team had been assembled: Tim Jeffreys, Jeanne Mack, Paul Snyder, Ryan Sterner and me in one van and then Stephen’s mother, father, brother and brother’s girlfriend in another van – all of us were also rookies to Western States.
For those of you unfamiliar with the race, Western States is the oldest 100-mile footrace on the planet, having first been run by a person in the 1970s. It was originally a horseback trail ride, but when Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse pulled up lame in 1973, he had to finish the rest of the race on foot. A year later, he decided to cover the full 100-mile distance sans horse, and completed it in 23 hours and 42 minutes.
It’s emblematic of what I’ve gathered about trail running culture: ridiculously challenging and steeped in mythology. I think it was previously called the “Super Bowl of U.S. ultrarunning” in a previous episode of the CITIUS MAG Podcast. And I’ve been curious about ultras since being captivated from a YouTube rabbit hole that included watching documentaries of past Western States. In April, I taped a podcast with Eric Senseman that served as my own Ultrarunning for Dummies course. So after Kersh qualified, I volunteered to assist him on his quest and to get my own first-hand look at a 100-mile race.
I’ve known Kersh for about four years now. When I came up with the idea to start CITIUS MAG in late 2016, he was one of the first people to come onboard and contributed immensely. He’s hilarious, creative, hard-working and brings all those same qualities to running as a member of the Coconino Cowboys in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Cowboys are comprised of some of the best American ultra runners and are headlined by 2018 Western States champion and course-record holder Jim Walmsley (14:31). Kersh was in the best company for his foray into the ultra and trail scene so those close to him knew that when he’d ultimately end up on a stage like Western States, he’d be ready to put on a special performance.
Kersh stayed with us as we mulled around the starting area in Squaw Valley until about seven minutes before the gun. He was right up in front on the starting line, among stars like Camille Herron (who famously ran a 24-hour world record in December) and Walmsley. There was a lot of “content” happening. Photographers and videographers captured every pre-race stretch, camelback sip and fistbump. Some fans and crew members with ‘Mocko Show’ hats captured their own shots with their cellphones out. It was before 5 a.m. I tried not to yawn. This was going to be a long day. With two minutes to go, those smiles quickly turned to everyone’s respective game faces.
“Run with a little personal vulnerability today, if you don’t mind,” the announcer said. “Open your hearts. Look beyond those splits and numbers..Remember that there are people out there – your crews, your family, our volunteers – who want nothing more than one smile from you out there today or at least one hug from you today.”
We already had a headstart on the smiles and laughter. Tim, a filmmaker and marketing director for Fohr in New York, has a lot of self-described “sartorial proclivities.” Stephen has made note of it from Instagram and then dared Tim to crew at Western States while wearing a suit. When the weather forecast called for a high of 85 degrees (a cooler Western States than in recent years, Tim decided to break out a navy blue suit for the occasion.
“My big thing was that if I can make Steve giggle a bit at each aid station and get his mind off the race because I’m jumping up and down or looking goofy with a suit on, then it’s worth it,” Tim later said.
Everyone was relaxed. The shotgun went off and we saw our boy off to war among the best ultrarunners in the country. Team Kersh hustled back to the minivan to start our drive to Robinson Flats (at approximately the 31-mile mark) for our first official on-course duties. “Sirius” by The Alan Parsons Project, known to many as the Chicago Bulls intro song, was blasting to get us amped for our responsibilities when we got the first update from the iRunFar Twitter account, “Stephen Kersh is third to Mile 3.5 30 seconds back of the leader.”
“What an idiot,” Ryan exclaimed.
Before the race, Stephen didn’t divulge too many specifics about his race plan. A spreadsheet gave us estimated arrivals at checkpoints based on his “Great Day’ and “OK Day” prognostications. To hear he was in third place was admittedly a little concerning.
Walmsley and Jared Hazen (a fellow Coconino Cowboy) were the first two guys into Robinson Flat. The crowd of crew members and die-hard ultramarathoning fans fell silent as Walmsley changed out of his singlet, took a quick read of a tiny scroll (assuming these were splits) and then took off. The efficiency and speed of these pit stops were astounding and a reminder that this was a race.
Jeanne laid out Stephen’s necessities including energy gels, chews, salt pills, chips, gingersnaps and two fresh handheld bottles of water and drink mix. The presentation was everything for Jeanne as her possible OCD kicked in and she tried to make it look like the ultimate runner’s buffet. I took to Twitter before the race to joke about my duties but was all business. Cleaning out Stephen’s pockets, spraying him down with sunscreen, asking if he’s taken enough salt and keeping him calm were just some of the things that Jeanne, Paul, Tim and I tried to help with. Within two minutes of his arrival, he was off and we wouldn’t see him again for another 24 miles—any updates would have to come via Stephen’s family or Twitter, but cell reception was often spotty
“Our boy is in third!” Tim yelled and repeated all the way to the car.
A volunteer complimented Tim as the best-dressed man that she’d seen in 34 years of working the race and then we were back in our car, off to Michigan Bluff. We arrived early. One of the key things that I read before the race was that parking can be stressful but thanks to Stephen’s athletic ability and Paul’s excellent driving, we were able to beat most crowds.
With three hours to spare in Michigan Bluff, Jeanne, Ryan and I decided to go for a short run on the course. After about 15 minutes, they dropped me. I turned back and tried to make my way back. After about 10 minutes of being alone on the trail, I was convinced I was lost. All I had was a Garmin with 5% battery life and no sign of humanity. I cried out Jeanne’s name like a child lost in a grocery store. This was the end. Either Stephen’s race gets derailed because his crew became a search party for me or they go on without me and I’m left to roast in the middle of nowhere. Neither option was great and I was about to start crying until a fellow jogger appeared. I pretended that I wasn’t calling out for help just five seconds before spotting him. Turned out, I was just a quarter of a mile from where I started.
This city boy is not cut out for the trails.
However, in those four miles of terrain I was able to cover, I looked down at my watch to check on my pace at several times. To realize how fast Walmsley, Hazen and other stars cover that same terrain really put their fitness into perspective for me.
I made it back in time to help set up for Stephen. Jeanne and I walked a quarter mile into the trail before the runners arrived at the aid station. Walmsley continued crushing and managed to give Jeanne and I a tiny wave when he spotted us. (It’s worth pointing out that Jim has this “being the best at his sport” thing down pat—he did a lot of waving to fans as he blazed in and out of aid stations. He’s very gracious about acknowledging his supporters.)
About 25 minutes later, Stephen sat down in our folding chair, took his fuel, changed out of his singlet and swapped out shoes before looking to keep up with Tom Evans of Adidas, who he raced and finished behind at Lake Sonoma. Matt Daniels, a sub-four minute miler and fellow debutant at the 100-mile distance, was also within reach. A top-five finish would be an A+ day.
We made our way to Forest Hill (Mile 62) where Paul was tasked with stepping in as Stephen’s pacer for the next 16ish miles. Tim and I ran into Mario Fraioli of the Morning Shakeout and chatted briefly. We briefly learned that this was where the racing really starts. It was a little alarming since Stephen had already blown past his longest race and was starting to lose a little color in his face.
We missed Walmsley and Hazen zip past Forest Hill but caught the chase pack that included Daniels, Evans and Stephen. Stephen sat down, got sponged down with cold water, re-filled his arm sleeves with ice, took a few sips of Coca Cola and packed his pockets with more gels. When Stephen stood up, he looked over his right shoulder and spotted one of the fellow competitors (name escapes me right now) also getting up to leave Forest Hill. I realized that I had never seen Stephen race before and this staredown was intense. Paul and Stephen departed on a mission to hold onto a top five spot for as long as possible.
To be a good crew member, you have to be okay with waiting around. Anything can happen in the 16 miles between aid stations and regardless of when your charge arrives, you have to be there with nutrition, and a bad joke or two to lift their spirits. At the front end of the race, Walmsley and Hazen were both under course record pace in what could turn into a duel at any moment. Our friend Kevin Cave (a 39-year-old high school athletic director in Oregon and Jacuzzi Boys Athletic club member) was running along the course as Stephen’s No. 1 fan. He overheard a rumor that Walmsley and Hazen were running together approaching the Rucky Chucky river crossing. We laughed as Walmsley arrived still several minutes ahead of Hazen. In a race with spots that may not have much cellphone service, a funny game of telephone can sometimes be played with race intel.
Stephen was in sixth place when he arrived. However, he was alone.
“Where’s Paul?” Jeanne asked as we changed his bottles, doused him in water and fueled him up again.
“He dropped back about 14 miles in,” Stephen said. “How are you guys doing?”
Who cares how we were doing?! We were there for him. We didn’t care about any fatigue we were feeling. Jeanne and I made it a point not to say we were “tired” and I dubbed it the “t-word.”
“I care about Paul,” Stephen said.
We’d get to Paul eventually. For now, we just needed to get him ready to cross the river in a boat and then up a two-mile climb before his brother, Andrew, would take over the pacing duties. A quick dip into the river and Stephen kept going. Jeanne ran in the opposite direction with concern for her fiance’s disappearance.
Moments later, Paul walked it into the aid station to a slow clap from the crew that he inherited. iRunFar’s Bryon Powell jokingly chided him for making the “walk of shame” and snapped a quick photo of the worn out pacer. It turned out that Paul was so concerned for Stephen’s well-being that he forgot to fill his own water bottles at aid stations and paid the price.
I sponged Paul’s bald dome. Tim tossed a couple of cold towels on him and we recycled Stephen’s leftover supplies to bring Paul back to life. Our crewing duties were done so we took our time getting to the finish.
We had a decision to make. Do we head over to the finish to see Walmsley break his own record in epic fashion or try and catch Stephen one more time at No Hands Bridge, with just three grueling, uphill miles to go? We decided to be there to provide any sort of pick-me-up for the final stretch. We arrived at the bridge around 6:30 and soaked in the views. We were able to see Walmsley pass, change his shirt on the run (possibly for a better finish line photo) and put the final touches on his 14:09:28 win. Hazen quickly followed suit.
Other runners started coming by and the finishing order started to take shape. Tom Evans had pulled away from Stephen. Matt Daniels moved from third to fourth. When Mark Hammond and Gediminas Grinius passed, Jeanne started her watch to see if Stephen could close the gap on them.
Unfortunately, the Stephen that came out of the woods and into the aid station at 8:15 a.m. was a battered version of himself. There was a hitch in his step. Andrew, who works as a nurse, stuck in to pace him until the end and instructed his brother to take some acetaminophen from the aid station—anything to alleviate the severe pain in Stephen’s knee. After a few bites of watermelon, Stephen quickly told Paul and Jeanne he was hurting but then turned to cross the bridge. It was clear that it could be a run-walk shuffle to the finish.
There were mixed feelings in the car ride to the finish at Placer High School. On one hand, Stephen looked like he would miss his goal of getting under 16 hours. On the other hand, there was no question that he was going to finish. We would be proud of him regardless.
Ryan and I made our way to the finish line since our credentials had access. The Kersh family awaited on one side of the track while Paul, Jeanne, Tim, Kevin and dozens of fans stood by on the runner’s left. After Hammond locked up fifth place, Ryan and I were able to get a few updates from a friend in the stands that Stephen was approaching the finish…the only problem was that four or five other guys were on his tail. This could have been the difference between sixth place and 11th place (which would not guarantee his place in next year’s race). Given Stephen’s condition, we thought there was no chance for him to overcome a sprint finish on the track – if those even exist in ultrarunning.
At Robie Point (Mile 98.9), Stephen and Andrew saw the bobbing of headlamps approaching them in the dark. Andrew told Stephen that it was time to run and there wouldn’t be any permanent damage from running one last hard mile. Stephen later described that final mile by saying that he felt like he was running four-minute pace but in reality was it was somewhere in a still impressive seven-minute range.
Kevin managed to find Stephen before he hit the track and tossed him a black and white Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club singlet so that if it crossed the finish line, it would be a club record. (The record is still pending ratification from club founder Scott Olberding).
Somehow, Stephen found another gear and sprinted down the final 100 meters. Tim estimates the final 200 meters were covered in about 24 seconds. That can’t be true but we’ll tell our kids that.
In his first Western States and first 100-miler, Stephen crossed the finish line after 15 hours, 54 minutes and 15 seconds for seventh place.
Stephen bent over as a medal was placed around his neck. He walked over to hug those friends and family members who made stops along the way and helped throughout the race. He clutched a Glacier Freeze Gatorade (to stay on brand) and raised his arms toward the crowd. He did the damn thing.
I’d love to say that we followed this up with celebratory beers and lots of food but that wasn’t the case. We followed Stephen to the medical tent, where he had to get checked out by a doctor and then get drug tested. Beers would have to wait until Stephen was able to pee in a cup, something he’d last been capable of accomplishing 70 miles earlier in the day. Somehow, Stephen still found the energy to crack jokes while he laid down covered in blankets in a cot. His lips turned blue (definitely not from the Gatorade) and the color was quickly leaving his face. It’s amazing to see what 100 miles can do to the human body when they stop running. We knew it could get ugly but it was still a beautiful day.
I learned the truth behind the common expression that running 100 miles is “life in a day” because of the different versions of Stephen we witnessed over the course of those 16+ hours. We saw Stephen as a freak athlete from the start, bounding up a still-snowy mountain peak as the sun rose. We saw Stephen as a competitor at Forest Hill, one of his darker moments but one of the brightest, as far as sun coverage was concerned. We saw Stephen as a worried friend after dropping Paul. We saw Stephen as an embodiment of instincts and will power—all medulla, willing his body forward, upright, and to the finish just before nightfall. We saw Stephen as the uniting force between a crew of friends looking out for each other. It was a truly special day and one that I will not forget for a long time.
See you in Squaw next year.