As anyone who might be reading this blog already knows, the Western States Lottery was this past weekend. I won’t get into the specifics of the process, nor the history of the event as perfectly good accounts of both can be found other places. However, also as many already know, a number of who some might consider to be “top runners” (most prominently, I suppose, being Karl Meltzer, myself, and Leigh Schmitt) weren’t picked in the lottery nor allowed entry by the race committee.
Why am I writing about this, and why might this be considered troublesome? Well, it’s my blog and the nature of blog writing is inherently selfish, so I’m going to write about whatever concerns me. And, I guess the main reasons that me not being allowed into Western States concerns me is A) for the selfish reason of my wanting the opportunity to test myself against the stiffest competition available in ultra running, and B) because I love the sport of ultra running and think that some of the actions of several race committees, including Western States, across the country are somewhat hurtful to the sport in general.
I’m not really one who is typically content with the status quo in any situation, and for me, ultra running is no different. I yearn to push the boundaries, explore my limits, and hopefully, be allowed a more intimate glimpse into the core of my being in the process. And all that other cliché stuff (seriously). Although ultra running offers that opportunity to me on many levels, racing is a unique experience. To paraphrase Jenn Shelton, “Running is a way of life, and racing is a celebration of that life.” And, to me, the unique thing about racing is the presence of others—be it spectators, a crew, a pacer, media, other competitors—sharing in that wonderful yet heart-rending experience of plumbing the depths of the soul.
So, my first point is that without sufficient competition a race loses a whole bundle of its meaning for me. In order to inspire my absolute best performance, in order to truly fulfill my potential, in order to be allowed that aforementioned privileged view with the utmost clarity, I need others of equal or greater ability out there pushing me to step as close to the edge as possible, to achieve the most pristine look afforded to only the truly brave (or, stupid, maybe). I need to be prodded to that terrifying territory where one knows for sure that an inch further and nothing but the great, yawning abyss awaits.
I have only been there but once thus far in my (so far, very short) ultra racing career. It was at 11,400’ on the top of Sugarloaf Pass at about mile 80 of the 2006 Leadville 100. I’d been doing everything in my power to continue simple forward motion ever since leaving the Fish Hatchery aid station at 76.5 miles and having my crew tell me (wrongly) that Steve Peterson was only 20 minutes behind me. As shitty as I was feeling, I knew that if I wanted to maintain my lead I needed to go as hard as possible. All I’ll say is that crazy things happened on top of that mountain, and if you’re an ultra runner I don’t really need to tell you about them, because you already know. But, the point is, I never would’ve accessed that raw, primitive, unadulterated portion of my being if I hadn’t been forced to by the (albeit, false) pressure of knowing that a 5-time Leadville champion was hot on my trail (Steve was actually nearly an hour back at that point).
The two other 100 milers that I’ve had the pleasure of finishing since that first finish at Leadville have done far less to throw my psyche into such a clarifying frenzy. They were both certainly a measure more comfortable, but consequently, a touch less fulfilling. (But, only a touch…a very, very light touch.) Maybe the experience of a first 100 mile finish can never be regained, but I do know that I have disappointingly been unable to give my absolute best effort at either subsequent event because of a lack of competition. So, I primarily plan my racing schedule by looking for the competition that will force me back to that rare position on the edge of the precipice.
Western States clearly offers the competition this year to provide that kind of race, but it saddens me to think just how great the field could be at Western States in 2008.
The second part to all of this is that I think not promoting the top competition possible at any given ultra is actually a disservice to the sport and the mid- and back-of-the-packers that compose the majority of any race field. What, you say? Aren’t you being a bit elitist by calling for all these concessions for the top athletes? Yes, I can see that point of view, and I think that I understand the importance of essentially treating all runners in a race “the same.” There certainly seems to be a noble egalitarianism in it. Plus, I have spent many years as a mid- and even back-of-the-pack runner. The only thing I need to do to ever get humbled is go jump in the average big-city road marathon or even the average NCAA Division III Cross Country meet. The depth of decently good runners in this country is absurd and I am nowhere near the top.
However, even though I am a mid-packer in either of those types of races, I don’t feel any such sentiment that, in order to treat me more “fairly”, the race directors should block the admittance of the truly top runners. In fact, one of the coolest things about going and running a big-city marathon for me is that I get to toe the same line as any of the East African runners—the best runners on the planet—and run the same race as them. That is the essential beauty of our sport.
This type of fraternity is magnified in the ultra running scene because the top runners in ultra running are just normal dudes (and chicks) and don’t have a hard time relating to slower (but no less committed or passionate) ultra runners. I don’t really understand how giving other ultra runners the opportunity to be in the same competition while something historic occurs up front is treating those mid-pack runners unfairly. Some day, I would love to be running in the Berlin or London or Chicago marathon at which the world record is being set.
I think the same sort of thing is true in ultra running. When the tight-knit community finds out that some big face-off is going down (e.g. Scott and Karl at Hardrock last summer, or Uli and Matt at the TNF 50 this past weekend) everyone gets excited and wishes that they could be there so that when they finish their races a few hours later they might actually have the opportunity to share a beer with them or ask them how many gels they ate per hour or if they had any rough patches and what they did to get through them. The ultra running community is a wonderfully intimate one and I don’t think allowing more heated competitions to occur more often is going to change that.
Now. As for the current Western States field, it’s going to be a barn-burner. Here is my list of notable runners currently in the race (I really hope I didn’t miss anyone):
Bev Anderson-Abbs (2nd Woman and 13th overall last year)
Meghan Arbogast (1st overall at Where’s Waldo 100K this year)
Michelle Barton (2006 Javelina Jundred Champion)
Annette Bednosky (2005 WS Champion)
Chrissy Ferguson (too lazy to look anything up...)
Devon Crosby-Helms (2007 US World 100K team)
Nikki Kimball (2007 WS Champ and 8th overall…among other things…)
Caren Spore (perennial top-3 finisher in races)
Josh Brimhall (2nd at 2006 San Diego 100, 1st 2006 Zane Grey)
Graham Cooper (2006 WS Champion, 3rd 2007 WS)
Mark Godale (2007 Burning River 100 Champion)
Hiroki Ishikawa (8th 2007 WS, 1st 2007 Grand Slam)
Andy Jones-Wilkins (4th 2007 WS, 1st 2007 VT, 1st 2007 Teton, 2nd 2007 JJ)
Hal Koerner (defending WS Champ)
Sean Meissner (damn you, laziness...)
Zach Miller (2007 Mt. Masochist Champ, 2nd 2007 JFK…never worse than 2nd in a 50)
Brian Morrison (<300y from 2006 WS Champ)
Glen Redpath (6th 2007 WS, 1st Master)
Erik Skaden (2nd 2007 WS, 2007 MUC Champ)
Michael Wardian (2007 JFK Champion, prolific 2:2x marathoner)
Mike Wolfe (2006 & 2007 White River 50 Champ, 2nd 2007 Bighorn 100)
Of course, there are many other possible entries with the remainder of the MUC series…but right now a top-10 finish in this field makes you one heckuva runner (right now, I’m going to say Zach Miller for the win…).