Weather Window: Western States Endurance Run from Squaw Valley USA to Auburn, Calif.
On Saturday morning, June 26, 2010, more than 450 endurance runners from around the world will bolt up the side of Squaw Valley USA in a bid to complete a 100-mile ultra marathon race from the resort’s valley floor all the way to Auburn, Calif. Athletes from as far away as Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay will compete in this year’s 36th annual Western States Endurance Run, considered one of the oldest ultra trail events in the world and probably the most challenging running competition in the West.
Come on you say, how tough can it be? The slogan says it all and#8212; and#8220;100 miles and#8211; One day.and#8221; And that’s only the distance. This world-class foot race is conducted along the historic Western States Trail, a grueling trek over snow-covered, mountainous topography. Most of the trail passes through remote territory, accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters.
The race is always held Saturday of the last weekend in June (except for 2008 when it was canceled due to smoke and danger from extensive Sierra wild fires). The runners will start at 5 a.m. from Squaw Valley (elevation 6,200 feet) and quickly ascend to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4.5 miles. From Emigrant Pass the route follows the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850s. After the competitors enter the rugged country west of the Sierra Crest, they must climb another 15,540 vertical feet and descend 22,970 feet before reaching the finish line in Auburn. It is common (as it will be this year) for racers to slog through snowdrifts in the chilly upper elevations of the Sierra before they descend into the potentially 100 degree heat of the foothills. Runners must reach the finish line no later than 11 a.m. the following day in order to be eligible for an award.
This ultimate trail race got its start in 1955 when the late Wendell T. Robie, an avid horseman, Sierra history buff and founder of the Auburn Ski Club rode the historic trail with a party of five horsemen to prove that horses could still cover 100 miles in one day. Robie’s energy and vision led to the establishment of the Western States Trail Foundation, which organized an annual Trail Ride, also known as the Tevis Cup.
In 1974, the horse of equestrian Gordy Ainsleigh went lame before the start of the race, so Ainsleigh, a strapping 6-foot, 3-inch, 205 pound mountain man, decided to run the race on foot. He not only completed the course, to the amazement of everyone, he finished it in less than 24 hours, the official time limit set for the riders on horseback. On that day, Gordy established the sport of ultra marathon trail running. The following year, Ron Kelley jogged behind the horses in the Tevis Cup Ride as Gordy had done, but for reasons still unknown stopped running just two miles from the finish. In 1976, Ken and#8220;Cowmanand#8221; Shirk, took on the 100 mile Western States Trail challenge, also running solo behind the horse riders. Cowman was a legendary athlete and a well-known personality around Truckee in the 1970s and early 80s, acclaimed for his physical prowess, tremendous endurance, and for wearing a pair of buffalo horns on his head during various competitions. Shirk constantly bellowed like a bull as he ran through the Sierra canyons and completed the race. The following year, Wendell Robie made the decision that it was time to separate the horseback riders and the foot runners, giving each their own 100-mile, one day contest.
Snowpack conditions have been a challenge over the years. In June 1983, after the big El Nino-influenced winter, the first 24 miles of the course were covered with drifts up to 20 feet deep. During that race, more than 30 top runners followed the race leader’s footprints in the snow when he took a wrong turn. Heat has also been an issue in years past. In 1987, the temperature reached 114 degrees in El Dorado Canyon, but Mary Hammes of Fort Worth, Texas, persevered to become the first non-Californian (man or woman) to win. It was so cold in 1991 that runners encountered snow showers on Emigrant Pass and aid workers stationed along the route had to chop up energy bars with axes.
Although most of the race course is too remote for spectator viewing, this year’s contest will be broadcast live via webcast at http://ws100.ultralive.net/webcast.php. For those looking for an overview of the Western States Trail, with plenty of historic facts and photographs, check out the 2008 DVD documentary and#8220;They Crossed the Mountainsand#8221; available at http://www.auburnrunningcompany.com.
and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submitted via e-mail to email@example.com
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