An Idiot’s Guide to Western States 100: Sitting down with the Coconino Cowboys
History always makes things more interesting.
If I told you I ran a marathon in Boston in April, you probably wouldn’t and shouldn’t care too much. But if I told you I ran the Boston Marathon, I imagine you would care. Because it stands up to the test of time. Because that shit is historic.
If I told you the person who just walked by us was an ex-girlfriend, you probably wouldn’t and shouldn’t care too much. But if I told you the person who just walked by us was an ex-girlfriend and we had history, I imagine you would care. As long as I correctly emphasized history and raised my eyebrows at the appropriate moment. Because that shit is intriguing.
Basically, and I’ve done a certainly poor job explaining this, when an event has deep, rich historical roots, it is almost always more intriguing than the alternative: an event with shallow, light history.
Enter the Western States Endurance 100-Mile Run: the granddaddy of them all. Western States started as a 100-mile horse race through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and in 1977, 14 men lined up for the inaugural 100-mile footrace. Since then, the race has blossomed into one of the most prestigious ultramarathons in the world.
That last paragraph gave severe injustice to the fascinating birth of the race and so, to combat my insufficiencies, I grabbed some beers with three runners taking on Western States this year to try and create a sort-of Idiot’s Guide to Western States.
My three sherpas were Jared Hazen (placed 3rd at WS in 2015 as a 20-year old, sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE), Cody Reed (2018 will be his first go at the 100-mile distance, sponsored by Under Armour), and Eric Senseman (has a great mustache, sponsored by Rabbit).
Boil down Western States for the layman
Eric Senseman: People refer to it as the Super Bowl or World Series of ultra running. What’s an American kid’s dream who plays baseball? To play in the World Series. It’s the dream. That’s what Western States is to ultrarunning. When you line up at that race, it’s the biggest stage in the sport. You have the opportunity to do something that will legitimately change your life. If you can win Western States, your life will be different.
Jared Hazen: Before the race, it’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been there. It’s a special thing. The buzz. The excitement. The hype. It’s a really special feeling. I remember both years, never had this, I was almost crying at five o’clock in the morning. I was just super emotional and I told my parents I needed to go be by myself for a few minutes.
The other thing is ultra running isn’t much of a spectator sport, no one is really out there. But at Western States there are fans and people lining the roads. The hype is what makes Western States different.
Cody Reed: When I think of Western States, I think of the song from 8 Mile. (Cody then begins rapping “Lose Yourself” by Eminem). Turns out Marshall Mathers was talking about Western States.
What does the rich history of Western States provide?
ES: I think it’s cool to run races in which you can compare yourself to some of the best from previous generations. That’s why I love the marathon, as well. It’s just an absolute number. Western is the oldest 100-mile race in the world, and all that past history is why I love it.
JH: Aside from the history, it’s the race I’ve been to that reaches the biggest audience. People follow this race all over the world. They are glued to their computer screens all day long just to track men and women running 100 miles.
(I interrupted Jared to ask him if he appreciates his 3rd place at Western States any more now than he did back in 2015)
JH: I definitely appreciated when I did it. But, I think because I’m still young I look at it as “yeah I finished third, but I foresee myself winning it one day.” Maybe this year you know? So, yeah, it’s great I finished third, but I see myself winning the race one day so it doesn’t seem like as big of a deal.
SK: Did that change your life?
JH: Placing highly at Western States automatically makes you relatable to fans of the sport. Everyone knows about the race, so if you win the race – or even make the podium – it can change your life.
ES: People have built careers on winning Western States.
CR: Or losing it.
100 miles is a long way, how are you going to deal with all those dang miles?
CR: My first trail race was 100k (62 miles), and I was able to wrap my mind around that. I had done some 30-mile training runs, so just figured I would do that twice. But with 100 miles, it isn’t very often you do 50-mile training runs. I’ve thought about the 100k races I’ve done and how I’ve felt at the end of those, but then having to run another 40 miles. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the distance. It’s hard.
In ultras, you let the race come to you. If you run 9-minute pace at this race, you’ll probably win. The course record is something in the high 14-hour area. But it’s tricky because you get to the race tapered, feeling good and want to run fast. So letting the race come to you is important because 9-minute pace won’t feel slow after 12 hours.
ES: There are 25 aid stations throughout the course. Every four to five miles, they have anything you need. Water, coke, salt tablets, electrolytes. If you’re thinking of anything other than the next aid station, you’re doing it wrong. You can’t be counting down from 90 miles to go. It’s just got to be about getting to the next aid station and then, eventually, you finish.
Why do people want to do this thing?
ES: There’s a reason why there are the World Marathon Majors. They create a stage for the best of the best. Western States is a similar stage and you have to show up ready to throw down. And if you scalp some people, it may provide a sponsorship opportunity.
JH: I don’t think we go in thinking we’re going to get a sponsorship deal out of this, but it’s more of “you are going to have a really hard race and, consequentially, may get some attention.”. Over 100 miles, with everything that course throws at you – the heat, the canyons, the number of high quality athletes – a lot of shit will happen. It’s not a boring race.
Tell us about how you fuel up for 100 miles?
ES: You should eat 1,000 calories per hour and only drink water at river crossings.
(Editor’s note: Eric had been wanting to make this joke for a while, so I left it in. Pretty bad joke.)
ES: Eating is training. Eating is ultra racing. Apart from running too fast, nutrition is the biggest factor to completely ruin a race. When you’re running an ultra, you’re constantly taking vitals and checking in with how you’re feeling. There are suggested ranges of nutritional intake – usually 200-300 calories per hour and 16-32 ounces of fluid per hour. There are general guidelines but obviously things change with weather and other variables.
CR: Everyone’s different, but those are pretty much the accepted ranges.
ES: But, that’s why you see some studs try to transition from the track or road scene to the ultra world and they don’t find success immediately. It takes practice to dial in your nutrition. Everyone is different.
JH: For me, I’ve always gone by the rule of 300-400 calories an hour with 80-100 grams of carbohydrate. How you go about doing that really doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting your nutrition.
ES: Jared used to eat Cosmic Brownies during races.
JH: I did. But you’re running slowly so you can digest. I basically resign myself to having a stomach ache all day, though. You get to mile 20, 40, 60, 80 and you’re pretty sure if you eat anything you’re going to throw up, but you do it anyways.
ES: Ultra running is basically eating when you don’t want to eat.
JH: Yep – it comes down to do I want to maybe throw up, or bonk and be walking in five miles. You have to answer that question a lot.
ES: I read Ian Sharman’s race report after he won Leadville 100 one year, and he said he ate 45-50 gels. I saw him not long after and asked him how he had the will to eat, you know, the 30th gel. He said “Well, Eric. It’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need.” I’ve always thought that is a nice anecdote for this.
CR: Your body doesn’t want to run 100 miles, your body doesn’t want to eat while running 100 miles, but your mind knows what it needs to get through the distance and you have to do those things.
What are you looking forward to most within your race?
ES: Running 100 miles for the first time.
JH: I think running the last 38 miles. That’s when things get really difficult physically. It’s also the most runnable portion of the course.