Has Ultrarunning Evolved Past Western States?

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On April 1st, the eyes of ultrarunners across the country lit up when they read about the drastic changes to the Western States 100 course. You can read the article on irunfar here: Western States Announces Changes.

Minutes (hours?) later, hopes were shattered when runners learned the article was actually an April Fool’s joke and Western States was still same old, same old.

But the real joke, it seems, was on Western States.

Tracking the excitement around the changes, followed by the let-down of the prank, I wonder whether ultrarunners are begging for a real change.

The article proposed changes that would make the course harder, the most popular change being a hard 24-hour cutoff.

Western States’ own godfather Gordon Ainsleigh famously ran the course for the first time in under 24 hours, and was thrilled with the new “changes”. His Facebook post:

“It’s great to be a part of this epic improvement in the race I started… It’s finally getting back to the way it was when I did it in 1974: Just 3 aid-station/crew-access points… About time!”

His comment when he found out it was a joke?

“Oh, shift! Was it all a tragicomic dream?”

Jokes aside, Ainsleigh actually has some realistic and innovative ideas to make the race:

a) harder

b) guaranteed entry for everyone

c) more accessible to 55+ seniors

If even a stubborn old man like Gordy knows it’s time to evolve the race, perhaps it’s time we listened.

Yes, Western States has the historic appeal. Yes, it has the hype and the hoopla. But are runners starting to say this is no longer enough?

Sherpa John wrote a great post on his Western States experience that actually made me think that I never want to run it. You can read it here: Western States Thoughts

I entered the WS lottery for the first time last year, secretly hoping that I wouldn’t get in. We had plans to spend the summer in Alaska, and Western States would have conflicted.

Still, it seemed that entering the lottery was the thing to do and I couldn’t be a “real” ultrarunner unless I threw my name in like everyone else, never mind that I have five buckles sitting in the RV.

I realize now how lame this was and I’m relieved I didn’t get in. I doubt I’ll qualify or enter the next lottery. What bothers me the most is that the races I want to run aren’t qualifying races, yet they’re much harder than the qualifiers.

I have my eye on a 100-miler in Alaska this summer and I’ll be running Zion 100 in three weeks (neither are qualifiers). I ran the last Chimera 100, and was shocked to learn that although it was not a qualifier, the Old Goat 50 (exactly half of the Chimera course), was. It makes no sense.

The races I seek out are newer, grassroot events. So my chances of qualifying are pretty low, even though I’ll end up with some rock hard mountain miles under my belt.

I haven’t been around this sport long enough to have an expert, informed opinion. But I do know what ultrarunning means to me. It’s not about the politics, hype, and drama of Western States.

It’s certainly NOT about entering a race because you’re “supposed” to.

It’s about community. It’s about mountain solitude. It’s about accessibility for all who are crazy enough to attempt a race. And if a race can’t be accessible to everyone, it better be extremely hard.

I’m curious about where others weigh in on this. What are your thoughts?

Check out the Facebook discussion HERE.

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2 responses

  1. I’m all for doing the events and races that you want to run, rather than those you are supposed to do. I find it interesting that the races that are now on the ‘you’re not a runner unless you run …’ list were often started as independent adventures that were alternatives to the commercialisation of sport. Yet now, they themselves are the big commercial events.

    It’s a bit like the Gold Coast Marathon here in Australia. It’s the must do marathon for many runners. But all that means is that you have a crowded and hyped up day out while you could have a beautiful and more enjoyable day out at a lower-key event.

    As for qualifiers – don’t even get me started. Sure, some qualification might be needed in some instances. But by specifying certain qualification races, all you do is support those specific events and RDs. There’s a couple of races here in Australia that I desperately want to run. Both have qualification requirements but the requirements are to complete any 100km race within 20 hours or any other ultra within the time limit (and one race requires completion of at least one 8 hour rogaine because the course is unmarked other than national park signage). For both races, safety is the main concern (the races are in alpine areas, which is uncommon in Australia).

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