Deep, talented field highlight Western States Endurance Run | SierraSun.com

Deep, talented field highlight Western States Endurance Run

For those rare athletes addicted to the mental anguish and physical toll that comes with running an ultramarathon, this weekend presents the biggest day of the year.

More than 350 of the world’s best endurance athletes will emerge from the cold and dark Saturday morning to stand at the start line at Squaw Valley, eager to begin the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run from the resort to Auburn.

This year’s field of runners is one of the deepest in the history of the race, featuring the return of both the men and women’s champions along with several top-10 finishers from last year.

“The race will have one of the most competitive fields ever,” said Western States President John Medinger in an email to the Sun. “Many of the top US ultrarunners are competing, in addition to several top international runners. Nearly a quarter of the 369-runner field are international runners.”

After coming up short in two previous bids to set the course record at Western States, Jim Walmsley, of Flagstaff, Arizona, broke through last year, finishing with a record time of 14 hours, 30 minutes, 4 seconds. Walmsley, 29, is set to defend his title this year against a deep field in the men’s division, which features eight of last year’s top-10 finishers.

“It’s a Western States sort-of-thing,” said Walmsley on the depth of the men’s division. “You know you always have to bring your A-game.”

Walmsley will make his fourth appearance in the race on Saturday. His attempt to break the course record in 2017 ended due to exhaustion at around mile 78. He rebounded the following year by setting the course record, and said breaking that mark could be in play on Saturday.

“I might kind of pull things back (from) maybe not running as risky, but at the same time, counter to that, there’s pretty good weather predictions right now,” said Walmsley. “This will be my fourth time racing, fourth year in a row, and it’s by far the coolest year. There’s also that tempting side of it of like, I always want to see what I can run here.”

Walmsley said he’s also been told the early stages of the course are in better shape than they were in 2017, which had a similarly large snowpack. During 2017’s race he was also several minutes ahead of the record-breaking time he set in 2018.

“Ultimately, it’s about listening to my own pace and just putting everything out there regardless,” he said. “As long as I end up giving my best effort and going to the well to get there, I’m always happy with it. Whether it’s the DNF in 2017 or the course record last year. I’m pretty proud of both days and the fact that I know I gave everything at both races. You can always live with that.”

Among those who could challenge Walmsley will be 2017 Western States winner Ryan Sandes. The 37-year-old South African broke through in his third attempt to win at Western States, and then ran as a pacer during last year’s event.

“I feel like it was a big thing for me to win Western States and a big achievement, so I feel pretty relaxed going into Western States from that point of view, but Western States is still one of the biggest 100 milers in the world, if not the biggest,” said Sandes. “I’ve still got that drive and hunger and I think that’s why I came back here. That’s a big motivating factor and I’m definitely hungry.”

Other top competitors on the men’s side include: Mark Hammond, Ian Sharman, Jeff Browning, Charlie Ware, Kyle Pietari, Paul Giblin and Kris Brown.

On the women’s side, defending champion Courtney Dauwalter, of Golden, Colorado, returns after winning in her first time out.

Dauwalter, 34, finished with the second fastest time ever for a woman last year, reaching Auburn with a time of 17:27:00.

Second-place finisher Katlyn Gerbin, 30, of Issaquah, Washington will also be in the field. Lucy Bartholomew, 23, of Melbourne, Australia, finished third last year and will be in this year’s field as well. Bartholomew has spent the past few weeks training in the area, and running with Truckee-Tahoe athletes at local races.

Kaci Lickteig, 32, of Omaha, Nebraska, who won in 2016, will race as well.

Other returning top-10 finishers from a year ago include: Amanda Basham, Cecilia Flori, Camelia Mayfield, Aliza Lapierre and Corrine Malcolm.

Local runners

A trio of Truckee-Tahoe runners will compete in this year’s race. Truckee’s Gretchen Brugman, 45, will run in her second Western States. Brugman last ran the event in 2011, and finished with a time of 22:30:38 for 79th overall.

The other two runners are from South Lake Tahoe. Francesca Stone, 57, will make her first Western States appearance, while Amber Weibel, 41, will compete in her third Western States.

The Western States Endurance run will get underway at Squaw Valley beginning at 5 a.m. and will conclude in Auburn. A live webcast can be found at WSER.org.

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at jscacco@sierrasun.com.