Every year the first Saturday in August I run up the slippery granite face of Squaw Valley. I am infected by the morning hum of race-day runners, the smell of coffee and sunblock and fine Alpine dust mixed with flirting-with-the-ground sound from the bronze pistons of experienced climbers and endurance athletes—all elongated fingers and push pins for knees shaking their arms and legs and internal combustion engine to ready.
Local Truckee teens, out to bound a morning lap up the hill, sometimes leaving their folks in the dust, sometimes dusted by their folks, laugh encouragingly the way you do at the age when you’re still being dropped-off everywhere. Flashing braces in the sunlight.
To take a moment prior to the start from beside the dormant sway of the KT lift and pan all the way to the shiny peak of the resort’s Funitel tower and think I’m just three miles and 2,500 feet away from that glory—and a morning celebratory High Camp beer, is Christmas.
A snort and a chuckle and the gun goes off and the Sherpas of Squaw shuffle up and up the hill.
Some find their stride right away, jumping up the first pair of switchbacks as if they were traversing the line at Starbucks, extremities pumping, neck veins protruding, cheeks billowing and blowing out factory exhaust expelling the carbon of a body’s first strides. In all of it, seemingly little effort coming from the rare depths of a human runner’s stores.
Me, it’s as if I’ve just materialized on center stage in Carnegie Hall in a three-piece tuxedo and a conductor’s wand and asked to handle Handle’s Messiah off the couch. Sweat pours down my forehead to create such a spike in groundwater that drought measures are temporarily off the table. My heart leaps from my chest and does a jig five steps in front of me before collapsing on his side and crawling under a nearby loose rock just off the fire road. My lungs inflate with expectation, but also decide to leave me naked and afraid as their tent stakes get blown off the ground and they tumble back down the hill towards the car.
And now I’m chocking on the taste of that same chalky dust that so few seconds ago I thought of as the smell of triumph, of ascent, of going faster, farther—this year surely a personal best. Now I doubt I’ll finish.
Forty five-to-50 minutes later, I am at the peak. I am staring down at a serpentine line of neon ants pushing themselves up toward me. The finish is in site, the mouth waters for the sip of that beer, something besides the dry salt mine that has replaced the raspy hole beneath my nostrils. The pupils dilate as I see the elite men and women, all of whom appear to weigh no more than a Frisbee, relaxed, all laughs, the top finishers’ legs like rubber bands popped off a newspaper. Their morning stretch complete, ready to continue from the finish line and shoot across the ridge line.
As for me, my journey ends there, with a photo op from the High Camp deck, the sea of forest and tree and shale and stone and blue lake over my shoulder. A view worthy of 20 such climbs. A change of the shirt and a quick blister check later, a pint glass in hand catching a ray of the ever-warming mountain morning sun shooting a rainbow across the foam-coated lip. Summer Santa in the Sierra brings me such treats.
It is on that first Saturday of August, I think of the men and women who have the courage, cojones and crazy to attempt—and complete—the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run.
Perhaps the best-known but seriously still under-promoted/under-watched running endurance event in the world, Western States’ warm-up is those first three miles from the base to the peak of Squaw—precisely three percent of the race from bottom to top. The first peak reached, it’s all uphill some more, then downhill, then up again, for its participants. Three down, 97 to go. Finish in under a day and take home a belt buckle for the effort.
Even the most tested endurance athletes in the world will tire and drop. Some take a seat around mile 57 and say, that’s a good day. And some will meet a friend, a pacer on the trail and miles 73 through 92 will go by in less time than it takes to splash across a creek and exchange pleasantries.
But oh mile 93, oh how it can take an eternity. In the very darkest recesses of the night, when your hand and the trees and the stars up above seem equally far away. Tracers across the sky are no longer your imagination as your legs have since melted into the ground and you become a fine powder. The whole of your body now that chalky mountain dust.
Part of me wants to see Western States get its due. It deserves to be watched and appreciated in its time as all major sporting events do. The race started on horseback in 1955 by one appropriately named cowboy Wendell T. Robie. The roustabout wanted to prove his horse was still worth a salt and could go 100 miles. Two decades later in 1974, horseman participant Gordy Ainsliegh decided his steed had proved enough and it was his turn to hoof it.
Twenty-three hours and 42 minutes later, he did.
Ainsliegh, at 67, it should be noted, was at the Western States starting line Saturday morning. Ben Hogan teeing off in the same group as Tiger Woods. Bill Russell d’ing up LeBron James. Ali vs. Tyson. Joe Montana starting under center across the line from Robert Mathis. Or more accurately, Goodell strapping on pads, Silver showcasing his first step or Selig in the on-deck circle.
There is no other event in elite sport today with its groundbreaking founder still shoulder-to-shoulder with the athletes he spawned, much less running a century nearing his eighth decade. And there never will be another.
In the early days of the Western States, there was no money, no sponsors. Hell, they didn’t even have a sport to call their own. Back then it was just “running far.” Like today, they did have 100 miles and 18,000 feet to tick off their bucket lists. Something that would identify them, just for one summer day, as more highly elevated members of this race.
It has been increasingly difficult to be one of the 369 who get to call themselves Western States alum annually. Like everything phenomenal, it has caught on and now there’s qualifiers and sponsors and money involved, but to say that’s what it’s about is dismissive and inaccurate. Because there’s not a lot of money and the sponsors are companies that make relatively small margins (in the ultra-running sector anyway) for a lot of design and support and outlay to just get their athletes to that first step after the starting gun.
I spend a lot of time writing about professional athletes and big contracts and superstars shrugging over microphones getting paid more than the next 18 generations of your family combined to only maybe pretend to care whether they won the game—as long as the right headphones are around the neck. And you know what? Fuck ’em.
I’d rather discuss the dentist from down the road in the Sierra foothill town of Colfax who runs the Western States every year, a 100-mile break from abscesses and receding gums and gingivitis and lies about flossing. He is in and of the trees and the air and the dirt. He is the race. He works hard, harder than many man can say they ever have, for that silver buckle to frame and hang in his office.
To me, that is sport.
Western States won’t be unspoiled forever. All it takes is one keen marketing eye and a little money on the table. There are too many big sponsors already circling the event like vultures over a lost fawn. Pedophiles of profit driving casual around the stucco strip mall where the new Chuck-E-Cheese is going in: GoPro, Outside Magazine, Rudy Project, Scott, Smith, Gu, Montrail, Suunto, Salomon, The North Face, Patagonia, Garmin, Clif, ESPN—billions of dollars backing the most active, biggest growing and deepest-pocketed sector of sport in the world. The endurance athlete loves his body, loves his beer, but most of all, loves his gear as much or more than anyone around, including Golfer Guy. The only thing holding back Western States is its one true quality: unattainability. But for a price, and that price is time, anything is possible.
Before the dawn of 24-hour run coverage, of shoe-top cams and ITU triathlete-style running singlets-as-billboards, I’ll enjoy this moment for Western States. I’ll enjoy seeing the parched lips and final laps at the Placer High track taken out of spite, legs like accordions. The emergence of hollow-cheeked bright-eyed bearded men and women who appear from the glen all hair tied back and smooth like fur dropped rich in the shadow of the Sierra by Eve herself.
My goal some June is to make it the rest of the way beyond the Squaw Mountain Run, to touch that sun and blur those stars of the Western States. To be humbled by a full day’s worth of work that quickly and surely transforms right there into a lifetime achievement.
For now, I train as ever for those first three miles in hopes I soon go the distance. To the rare summit of treacherous and funny and deliberately smart individuals. Not before it’s all gone, but before it all changes.