Western States Endurance Run: 100 miles through local eyes
June 28, 2018
This year's Western States Endurance Run will go down as one of the most exciting in the event's three decades of challenging the world's top ultrarunners to 100 miles of trail running from Squaw Valley to Auburn.
Arizona's Jim Walmsley, 28, broke the course record, finishing the race with a time of 14 hours, 30 minutes, 4 seconds to beat the previous record, set in 2012 by Oregon's Timothy Olson, by more than 16 minutes.
On the women's side Colorado's Courtney Dauwalter, 33, finished with the second fastest time ever at 17:27:00.
While some of the world's best distance athletes etched their names into the Western States' record books, five locals completed the arduous 100.2-mile course.
Sean Flanagan, of Carnelian Bay, had less than a 4 percent chance of landing an entry into the exclusive Western States through the race's lottery. When the 38-year-old's name was selected, he'd bring more than himself along the route.
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Flanagan's introduction into the sport came on the heels of tragedy. The death of his brother, a man who he described as "living more in 30 years than most do in a lifetime," five years ago set in motion a creed of living every day to its fullest.
Shortly afterward Flanagan and his wife quit their jobs in San Francisco, sold everything and moved to Lake Tahoe.
"When I lost my brother I had a decision to make, I could either dwell on it and let it ruin my life or find some kind of positive in it and keep taking one step forward," said Flanagan. "This is therapy to me. I love doing it, but I also feel like I have to do it."
After running around 100 miles a week in preparation for the race, Flanagan left the starting line at Squaw in the early hours of Saturday, June 23. He said he'd already envisioned what it would be like finishing the race — smile on his face, the crowd at Placer High School cheering as he cruised through the finish line. The reality of Saturday's race, however, would be a stark contrast.
Around mile 20 Flanagan rolled his ankle. He'd fight through for another 40 miles, periodically rolling the ankle again and again. At an aid station around mile 60 he received medical attention in the form of a wrap, but that would create an issue in itself after a river crossing loosened the bandage, causing it to rub against his foot and ankle with every step.
"I had some of the gnarliest chafing," said Flanagan afterward. "Literally half my foot is a big blister."
Flanagan would continue through the night and into the next day, but with less than 20 miles left to go, staggering and close to blacking out from pain and exhaustion, he hit a wall.
"I visited some scary places that I don't wish anyone to visit. I'd like to think I don't have quit in me, it was either the cutoff or the medical staff would have to pull me. It was literally a death march the last 15 miles," said Flanagan.
"It's a very personal experience. It feels like you are trapped in a cell with no windows and no doors. You want to get out, you're struggling to get out, and you don't want to be there. You just can't find a way to get out and you don't know how to get out … I had the endurance to do it, but the mental aspect didn't allow me. And then I was dealing with the injury to my ankle and that pain consumed me. At one point I felt like I was going to pass out from the pain."
One aching step after another Flanagan battled on. A photo of his late brother placed in his vest, urged him forward.
"I'm not exactly sure what transpired around mile 85 that consumed this man, and trapped him in a very dark place," wrote his pacer Alexander Humenetskyj in a FaceBook post.
"As a pacer it's hard to continue to push a man to keep moving forward when they are in such turmoil and pain. He was wobbly, stating he felt unsafe, in excruciating pain, and stating he may pass out … I also knew there was no quit in this man and stopping was not an option. After scarily succumbing to his darkness and laying down at mile 90.7 I was worried. Fall asleep, and your body can seize up … however, 3 minutes later I witnessed a man rise up with fierceness in his eyes and a scowl on his face."
Flanagan declared "Let's go" and one agonizing step at a time he made his way into Auburn.
"I told myself there's no way I'm going to walk it in. I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm in a severe amount of pain right now and every step hurts, it's an excruciating pain' and I was scaring myself because I knew I wanted to run it in and how much that was going to hurt," he said.
"When we merged off the trail and my sister was there, my mom was there, my wife, and a couple of our running club friends and I saw them, and they could see the pain in my face, I said I want to run this in. It took every fiber in my body to run that guy in, so much so that I was worried I was going to collapse on the track."
Flanagan crossed the finish line at Placer High School with a time of 28 hours, 38 minutes, 40 seconds.
"I didn't finish with a smile and the cheers I thought I would have. It was more of a very personal, emotional battle," he said. "I think I'm going to take away more from that than the alternative … to finish the way I did, I'm going to take away so much more from that."
Spirit of Western States
Last May the Truckee-Tahoe running community suffered a loss of one of its own when 27-year-old Julia Millon was killed in a car accident.
Millon touched the lives of each person she met, and was a motivating factor in several of the locals as they pushed through last weekend's Western States.
Truckee's Jenelle Potvin was with Millon when her name was drawn to compete in her second Western States race.
"Julia and I had gone to the last two Western States lotteries together. She was sitting with me at the lottery when my name got picked. She grabbed my shoulders and screamed in my face, 'You're running Western States!'" said Potvin.
"It's been a really awful last month without her. There were many times I thought, 'How am I going to do this?' And I'd just see her grabbing my shoulders and screaming at me in the face. I carried her with me the whole way."
When times during the race became difficult, Potvin said she would find the will to push on through her friend.
"When it got hard, I'd think of her and everything she went through. She had an autoimmune disorder but she still raced these ultramarathons," Potvin said. "She went through pain like no one can imagine, but she did it. Anytime I think about, 'Oh this hurts,' No it doesn't. You don't know what pain is, and you've got to get this done."
Potvin crossed the line with a time of 25:28:38, duplicating her mark of 25 hours, 28 minutes from the first time she competed in Western Sates.
"(Millon's mom) met me at the finish, and I crossed the line and the time was exactly the same," she said. "That's so weird, that just doesn't happen. When that happened, I'm like 'Oh my gosh, that's got to be a little — a wink from her, a sign from her."
Millon was also on Flanagan's mind throughout the race. Next to the picture of his deceased brother, was one of Millon, and it was her image that helped push him through the final 15 miles of the race.
"I had a picture of my brother and Julia in my hand at the finish line," he said. "It was one of the most emotional finishes I've ever had."
Tahoe's top runner
Adam Kimble, of Tahoe City, came into his first Western States with aspirations of claiming a top-10 finish, and while he came up just shy, placing 13th, he said the iconic race lived up to everything he expected.
"It was incredible," said Kimble. "I've been wanting to run this race for years. And for all intents and purposes this was the strongest field ever assembled at Western States, and so as a competitor I was real excited about that."
Before hitting the course to compete in an ultramarathon, Kimble always finds his way to a local pizzeria for dinner the night before. With the Western States beginning at Squaw, he didn't have to go far to fulfill his pre-race ritual.
"My go-to meal right before a race is always a pizza," he said. "My favorite pizza place now is Mountain Slice in Tahoe City, so I got a bell pepper and onion pizza."
Kimble shot out with the lead pack of runners the following day, battling temperatures of more than 100 degrees in the canyons leading toward Auburn. He said he started slow, running in 21st place before turning up the volume over the final third of the race to pass eight other runners.
"It was a more conservative approach early and then let if fly more the last third of the race," said Kimble
As one of the top finishers, Kimble entered Auburn amid fanfare as he made his way through the city toward the finish line at the high school.
"You're running basically through a neighborhood in Auburn and there was a whole bunch of people on the street with tents up cheering," he said. "I finished at like 10:30 p.m. so there was a bunch of people on the street, and then when I got to the track at Placer High School there was a whole bunch of people in the stands and out on the track. I timed it right and it was really special."
He crossed the line with a time of 17:33:10.
After completing the race Kimble said he wasn't planning on waiting long to compete again, and is eyeing the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run in September.
Two other locals ran last weekend. Truckee's Annie Rutledge finished with a time of 22:41:33, and Truckee's Peter Broomhall crossed the line with a time of 22:49:26 for 72nd overall.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.