The Meaning of Western States

March 5, 2021

Kris Brown, a Hoka athlete and Chaski Endurance Coach, writes about the history and allure of Western States and his first experience there. Based in California, he's finished top-10 at the prestigious Western States 100 Mile and recently set the Unsupported FKT on the 96-mile Wonderland Trail.

I grew up looking up to ultrarunners, and I had distant plans to run Western States from a very young age. When I transitioned into ultrarunning seriously around 2015, like many other runners I decided to start playing the long game of building lottery tickets to get into the race. I ran my first qualifier that fall, a 100k for which I was woefully unprepared, and I got my first ticket. A couple of months later, the night before the lottery, I went on a run around my neighborhood and day-dreamed about what it would be like to get in. Despite the remote odds of having my name pulled, I started to feel excited. My pace quickened as a little drip of adrenaline coursed through me, and I decided momentarily to make a deal with the lottery gods: if I got in, I was going to run 15 miles every day for seven days straight. My first 100-mile week! But I quickly shot down my own idea. “That’s crazy,” I thought. “You’re going to hurt yourself.” Of course, my name did not get pulled that year, and so I didn’t have to hold up my end of the bargain, but I wish I could go back and tell myself in that moment about the 120-mile weeks with 20,000+ feet of climbing on hot, exposed, technical trails that I would be putting in just a couple years later once my name did get called.

In June of 2017, a year and a half after my first lottery miss, my roommate and I made a last minute decision to drive from Santa Barbara to Tahoe to watch the race. I’ve always been a fan of watching running, not just doing it. The stakes don’t have to be high for me to be entertained -- I can spend all day at a track meet in which no one I know is running -- but the atmospheric electricity of Western States is well-reputed, and since I planned to run it myself someday, I figured it would be a good idea to go see it in person. My interest in running the race wasn’t connected to the spectator experience of it, of course, or at least it wasn’t at that point, but still, when my housemate suggested we share driving duties and camp in his van, my bag was packed in about 30 seconds.

While a solid recreational runner himself, my roommate is also a professional photographer and at that point, he occasionally worked for HOKA. We called the trip a scouting mission for him, and a year later he took the iconic photo of Jim Walmsley throwing his fist up into the air as he broke the tape and with it the Western States course record.

Of course, the start line buzz was palpable, but I had seen that before. The only thing particularly interesting to me about the scene at Squaw Valley that morning was the extent to which it felt like a reunion. Hugs and high fives were being thrown around as if every participant and spectator were old friends (as many of them were). No one was there by accident, and so the crowd there was a cross-section of ultrarunning devotees. The electricity was there, I suppose, but only in one of its forms: joyful excitement. It wouldn’t be until later in the race that I would see the other, more sinister manifestation of that electricity when I watched aid station crowds roar and then fall deadly silent as runners came through, hyper-focused, in various states of physical degeneration. Their friends and families would get to work, resembling something between a NASCAR pit crew and a group of first responders, frantically busying themselves with reviving athletes who looked like they were moving through Jell-O, and whose slurred, disorganized speech betrayed their cognitive inability to manage anything but the simple act of moving forward. If the start line had the kinetic energy of a fireworks show, the aid stations had the potential energy of a boulder teetering on the edge of a cliff. The tension was thick and enthralling.

From the start line, we drove down to Michigan Bluff, mile 55, to watch the runners come through. Once we got there, we hiked the trail a mile or so up the course to watch the runners approach the top of one of the toughest climbs of the day before arriving at the aid station. We were far enough away from the crowd to be completely alone on a silent stretch of trail where we waited for more than an hour, settling into a peaceful little patch of shade as the rising heat radiated through still air. Birds chirped, bugs crawled, and all was calm.

Then, from far away, we heard a rhythmic thud and the unmistakable robotic huff of a runner. From where we sat in a heavily vegetated canyon at the top of a long set of switchbacks it was impossible to tell how far away he was, but he was coming. And then he emerged, breaking the stillness of the scene with the brutal heaving force of his body moving upward along the trail. Every inch of him was soaking wet, glistening, dripping, and his shoes squished with each step, though there was no water to be seen or heard anywhere near us. We knew he had come from the base of the canyon a few miles earlier where he had crossed a creek and submerged himself, but somehow he seemed wetter than soaked. His gaze stayed forward as he plowed forward like a workhorse, sinewy muscles tensing and relaxing. He looked like a machine composed of parts rather than a man made of flesh -- something about how he moved felt mechanistic rather than athletic. And then he was gone, and the moment returned to an even deeper silence than we felt before. I was struck dumb by it. I had seen runners before, I had watched races before, and I knew what it looked like when the leader went by, even in super-elite races. But this was different. As he ran by this time, he carried the full weight of the previous 54 miles in his stride, and it was audible, palpable, fully seismic each time his foot hit the ground. He ripped through our silent little pocket of trail with seven hours of hard work echoing in each breath, and he had in that time turned himself into the machine that we saw go by instead of the runner we were expecting. It was loud, it was disruptive, and no one could have mistaken it. No matter the pace, it looks and sounds different when someone runs by carrying that weight.

As each runner went by it looked the same -- everyone exuded a sort of controlled chaos as they dragged up that hill whatever part of themselves was still present in that moment. It was like looking into the eyes of a succession of men who all carried a terrible secret. Since I was interested in the competition, I was paying careful attention to who was passing and how they appeared. What excited me was the fact that most of the top-ten runners at that point were young. Western States, and ultrarunning in general, has a reputation of being an old-guy event, unlike shorter distances. As a young guy myself, I was rooting for those men in their 20’s who were, at this point, beating the grizzled veterans. I waited for three particular men who had developed reputations, at least with me, as the contemporary royalty of the race: Jeff Browning, Ian Sharman, and Jesse Haynes. All of them had been top-ten multiple times in a row, and all of them were comparatively old. At this point in the race, all of them were somewhere in the teens in placement. “Good,” I thought. “Out with the old, in with the young!” I made sure to assess the states of all the runners, trying to determine if it seemed like anyone was pushing too hard. While I didn’t notice anyone who appeared to be on a suicide pace, I did notice that these three men looked especially calm.

By the time we got to the river, at mile 78, my roommate was beginning to suffer in the heat. He wandered off away from the group to soak himself in the river and stare at the sky, now mostly uninterested in how the race continued to progress. His day was done. Likewise, the field of the race had been blown apart. Several people had dropped or slowed to a walk, but Jeff, Ian, and Jesse were now all in the top ten, which would stay true until the finish. I had seen what I needed to see. I remember watching Jesse run by wearing a bib that said M10, thinking to myself: “I can be that guy. If that’s what tenth looks like, I will be that.” Jesse Haynes took eighth and would run again in 2018 for the fourth year in a row.

It was that moment, down at the Rucky Chucky river crossing in 2017, watching the runners go by in various states of composure and destruction, that I decided I would be at Western States the following year, and that I was going to finish in the top ten. It would be my third year in the lottery and my odds were still bad, but that didn’t matter, because if I didn’t get picked I was going to go get a Golden Ticket. Six months later in the Placer High School gymnasium, Zach Bitter pulled my name out of the proverbial hat. Sadly, but kind of hilariously, he ended up finishing 11th in 2018.

It probably goes without saying the cliche that I trained harder than I’ve ever trained in my life. I adjusted my work schedule to accommodate more running, and I did most of my runs around midday to prepare for the heat. I spent hours upon hours in the sauna, and almost all of my runs involved thousands of feet of climbing. I’ll spare you the training montage, but I am confident when I say that very few people in that race put in more work than I did. In fact, I likely came in a bit overtrained. But I don’t regret it, because I was mentally prepared at an extremely high level. I’m not typically one who sets extremely high goals; instead, I train hard and race without expectations. But this time I decided a year in advance that I wanted top-ten, and I spent an entire year planning for it. That was completely unprecedented for me.

I left my hotel room in the predawn darkness of that most important Saturday in late June, and I walked alone toward the start. I could see the lights and hear some distant crowd noise, but it was dark around me and the buzz was quieter than my own breath. I had that walk to myself, and I appreciated every second of it. I didn’t think about the competition into which I was heading, but instead about how much it meant to me to be there, and about how hard I had worked to prepare myself to honor the event. I knew that while a certain amount of luck had been involved, I had earned my spot on that line and that nobody cherished the opportunity more than I did. I was stoic and reverent as I approached and entered the start area, and when those lights and that noise swallowed me, I remained in a tunnel of my own focus. Runners, family, and fans were congregating in little groups, chatting excitedly, but I ignored them. I saw familiar faces and brushed right past them. I hovered outside of my own body, hearing my own voice come from elsewhere as I checked in and picked up my bib.

Then, as I walked into the lodge that athletes and spectators use as a staging area, I ran into my friend Magda Boulet, and suddenly I just started weeping. She hugged me and I could tell she knew just what I felt, and she was so happy for me. When I had come to watch the race the previous year, I didn’t have access to this layer of experience at the start line. It seemed fun and upbeat to me then, but I wasn’t capable of noticing the heavier, emotional side of it. And of course, that’s the case, because the weight of that start line is derived from the condensation of the disparate journeys that everyone takes to get there. But man, I’ll tell you what: it’s fucking heavy. I cried in 2019, too, and when I go back next time, I’ll do it again.

It’s arbitrary, I suppose, that we’ve built this race up to mean so much to our sport. The 1970’s are not that long ago, and the pioneers of the race are still alive. It’s not shrouded in very much mystery, and there’s not a good, strong case to be made that we’re making any sort of ancestral tribute by running from Squaw to Auburn. But something about it still commands that reverence, and it’s because we all agree to it. Committing wholly to this event and putting in the work to properly run it is itself a journey worth celebrating, but what’s unique about Western States is our ability to put that journey in the context of all of the other people who have decided to be similarly devoted. Almost nobody sandbags Western States. Ever. And that’s what turns the day into the most significant rite of passage that we have in ultrarunning.

The gun went off and whatever happened happened. I ran mostly smart, consciously imitating Jeff, Ian, and Jesse. I worked my ass off, bonked a few times, and got lucky again, and eventually, I finished in tenth, completing exactly what I set out to do.

When I got to the finish, I felt nothing. Part of it was that I genuinely didn’t know what place I was in, so after many hours of trying to figure out whether I was in ninth or twelfth, I had lost my sense of agency over where I was in the standings. Another part of it was that I probably blew out my brain chemicals to such an extent that I wasn’t really capable of feeling joy or catharsis in that moment. But part of it was also that I already knew, deep down, well before the race, that I would be tenth. There was nothing to be excited about because there was nothing to be surprised about. I could not have been ninth or better, nor could I have been eleventh or worse. I was perfectly suited to be M10. Mostly, though, it was probably the brain chemicals.

— Kris Brown

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