The Road to Western States

This month I will run Western States.

Today is 1stJune 2019 and I have been waiting to say those words since 2011.

Sat on a delayed central line underground train in summer 2011, I was idly flicking through the free paper, Metro. Usually I got off the train before I was even halfway through the paper, but being delayed, I strayed further into the pages until I came across the book reviews.

‘Run!’ Was the book that leapt out at me, by a chap called Dean Karnazes. This was his second book and chronicled his journey deep into the world of a sport I had never heard of. A sport called Ultrarunning.

Having just completed the London Marathon for the second time, earlier in 2011 I was intrigued. You can run further than a marathon? You can run in mountains? You can run for days at a time? What the hell is this?

I was sold. I immediately went and bought a copy of his book and that was it- the journey had begun.

Dean had run many races, but one leapt out. Western States. 100 mountainous miles in beautiful Californian wilderness. Extreme heat, extreme snow in the early miles, bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. I had to run this race. I just had to.

Back in 2011, ultrarunning was gaining popularity, but hadn’t yet boomed like it has in recent years. The qualification standard and likelihood of entry is now a lot tougher but back then, you had to run a pre-approved 50 mile race in less than 11 hours to enter into the lottery to get a place at Western States. Searching through the list of races, one jumped out organized in the UK by a group called Centurion- the North Downs Way 50 miler- was set for August 2012. I had a year to prepare.

Even before I ran my first qualifier, I had crewed at Western States. As part of my new found obsession with this race, I contacted a British elite, Jez Bragg, and asked if he wanted any help. He said he would love crew assistance, so in 2012 and again in 2014, I crewed Jez at Western States and got a feel for this race from the sharp end.

But back to 2012.

Having lived in Guildford for 8 years, I knew many of the places on the NDW50 route and decided this was the race for me. I wasn’t a trail runner and had no concept of hills. Back then, the race didn’t even have mandatory kit, so I lined up with just a water bottle in hand and started my ultrarunning adventure.

11 hours and 41 minutes later, I crossed the finish line outside of Western States qualification time, cut to ribbons by brambles and totally, utterly wasted. I had failed.

A few days later and recovered, I made a pledge to myself that I would not quit and no mater how long it took, I would run Western States.

Each and every year you qualify to run Western States, but fail to gain an entry in the lottery, you double your ticket counts for the following year. So firstly I needed to qualify and secondly, I needed to keep on qualifying to get an entry.

In 2013 I returned to the North Downs Way 50 and ran it an hour and a half quicker in just a shade over 10 hours. That year, I watched the lottery, streamed live over the internet, for the first time. I didn’t get in. but with a 4% chance of an entry with one ticket, I didn’t expect to.

By this time, the start of 2014, ultrarunning was starting to boom and as a result, the Western States Board decided to make qualification tougher, but fairer. They had realized that a lot of people who got into the race and subsequently dropped out during the run, were those that had qualified with ‘just’ a 50 miler. They reasoned, quite rightly, that in order to qualify you should really have experience of the distance or at the very least, 100k, before you could qualify. Some 100k races were left in, on the basis that many people would have liked the Western States experience to be their first 100 miler. All 50 milers were dropped. As an aside, my only gripe here is that some elites can still qualify with one 50 mile Golden Ticket race, the Lake Sonoma 50 miler, held every April. This seems unfair as the purpose of Western States should always be that everyone on the start line has earned their spot via a certain distance, rather than their status, but that is by the by.

So, my 2014 qualifier had to be 100k or 100 miles. I had run neither distance, having failed in August 2013 at my first 100 mile distance (incidentally also on the North Downs).

I made a pact to go back to the 2014 NDW100 and this time around I finished my first 100 miler and qualified for Western States again. 2 tickets.

In 2015 I ran the Thames Path 100 as my qualifier. 4 tickets.

In 2016 I ran the South Downs Way 100 miler. 8 tickets.

In 2017 I just missed out at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail with a time slightly over the allotted amount for Western States qualification, so it was back to the North Downs Way 100 miler. 16 tickets.

In 2018, I returned to the Thames Path and again qualified. 32 tickets.

In the lottery in December 2018, my name was finally called. 7 years later, I was in.

I have run countless other races in the build up to Western States, in addition to my lottery qualifiers. I have run all over the world for fun and in races. I am an extremely lucky man and now, this month, my dream race is in front of me.

It’s been a hell of a build up and a hell of a year so far this year, but I can tell you one thing. There won’t be one person on the start line in a few weeks, who wants this more than I do. Bring it on.

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About fromsofatoultra

In August 2011 I heard the term 'Ultramarathon' for the first time and have been obsessed ever since. I am not a race winner but hope to inspire as I have been inspired- I am by no means a natural athlete and if I can do it, anyone can. Having completed my first ultra in August 2012 I have just got started...and I am here for the journey.
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