Welcome to the second installment of The Story Goes, a monthly column with stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the column here.
Sometimes the sun shines over Squaw Valley, California and sometimes it doesn’t.
When the sun is shining and it’s the morning and you drive west on Squaw Valley Road, the massive rock face that protrudes from the mountainside above the small village that once hosted the Winter Olympics shimmers in the rising sun. As you pass by the Olympic rings at the junction of Squaw Valley Road and Highway 89, you have the sense that this is a place of some importance. If you’re an ultrarunner, then you’re right because this is where the oldest 100-mile footrace begins. And if you’re a lucky ultrarunner, then you’re here to run that race on the last Saturday in June.
When the Western States 100 starts at the base of the Squaw Valley Ski Area at five o’clock sharp each year, the sun isn’t shining. You don’t see a glistening rock face or the Olympic rings. But those things are still there and somehow you can feel that they’re there. I don’t know if you first need to experience race morning at Western States in order to feel the magic of the looming mountains and the Olympic rings, or if those five rings and the towering peaks are what make the start of the race so magical, or if everything--the place and the history and the race--together makes those early, dark hours so seemingly bright. Whatever the case, the result is magnifying and it creates a feeling within you that resembles some combination of anxiousness and excitement and fear and hope, and there exists a heightened level of awareness and adrenaline that only a start line in the dark at the base of a mountain on the last Saturday in June can bring. I first experienced this on June 29th, 2018, when I ran the race for the first time.
As soon as you immerse yourself in the ultrarunning community, and most likely before, you’ll learn about the Western States 100. Before you actually experience the race, you’ll know that it starts in Squaw Valley and finishes in Auburn, California. Someone will tell you about the high country and the years the course was rerouted because of significant snowfall preceding the race. You’ll learn about the grueling canyons sections, or the pivotal section of race known as Cal Street, or the famous No Hands Bridge, or the river crossing and how some years you ford the river by boat and others you swim across. You’ll know the precise locations of Robinson Flat, Dusty Corners, Devils Thumb, Foresthill and Green Gate. You’ll know that Robie Point is about a mile from the finish. You’ll have heard about the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile horse race on the Western States trail that began in 1955. You’ll know the name Gordy Ainsleigh and about the legend of his lame horse, and how Gordy covered 100 miles that day in 1974 on foot in less than twenty-four hours. If you get curious and you do a little digging, or if you meet someone with grey hair and tanned, wrinkled skin and deep, knowing eyes, you’ll know when the race was cancelled due to fires, and the names Ann Trason and Scott Jurek will create a sense of admiration and inspiration within you.
By the time you actually toe the start line of the Western States 100, you’ll have countless ideas about the race and what it entails and you’ll likely find the history so fascinating and gripping that you’ll forget for a moment that you yourself are about to run 100 miles. It won’t be until after the race when you realize that your previous conceptions of the race are just that, previous, but the hand of time is still moving and now you’ll be part of that history and you’ll have your own stories to tell.
The year 2018 was an exciting one for me and my friends. A group of relative youngsters called the Coconino Cowboys had been formed a few years before and the five of us, all from Flagstaff, Arizona, got the idea that we should run the race together. Since we were immersed in the ultrarunning community and we knew a few people with grey hair and tanned, wrinkled skin and deep, knowing eyes and we’re all a little curious, we knew a lot about the race, including the fact that it’s not the easiest race to gain entry to. You have to get in through a lottery with lots of applicants and none of us had been chosen. But you can gain automatic entry into the race by receiving a so-called “Golden Ticket”. To do that, you have to be one of the first two finishers in a handful of other races. If five people in a group say they all want to race into Western States some year, it’s not very probable that all five will succeed. But, after a lot of hard work and determination and probably a bit of luck and definitely a little drama, we all made it. Jim Walmsley, Cody Reed, Tim Freriks, Jared Hazen and I all successfully gained entry into the 2018 Western States 100. The details of how that unfolded is a story for another time.
Tim Freriks is one of the best training partners I’ve ever had the pleasure to run with. It’s probably because we have a similar worldview and enough cynicism to question what we’re doing but not so much that it keeps us from doing it, especially when it comes to training. The result is that we end up doing some retrospectively foolish runs together that you really need to do if you want to get really good at suffering for a long time but which you probably wouldn’t do if you were cynical enough and by yourself. At the moment I can’t even recall how many times I’ve been in the middle of thirty-plus mile training runs with Tim, somewhere in the unforgiving terrain of Arizona, completely worked and rather despondent and questioning why the hell we’re doing what we’re doing. These runs have taken us into the depths of the Grand Canyon, the heat of the Black Canyon, the aimless trails of the White Mountains, the red rock of Sedona and, most memorably, the Western States trail. I could tell enough stories from those many days to fill a book.
If you’re going to embark on a 100-mile journey through the California foothills--your first attempt at such a distance--having a friend like Tim by your side reassures and calms you, which is sort of odd because it ought to do the opposite given what we tend to do when we’re together, i.e. suffer immensely for long periods of time. So, if I had had time to think about it when the gun went off at five in the morning on June 29th, 2018, I would have known that I would have a story to tell about the day ahead. I wouldn’t have known that it would be about me and Tim and a bear.
In 100-mile races you often have a support crew. These people have to love you a lot because they spend their entire day driving hundreds of miles, mostly on winding, single-lane roads, occasionally through small towns but mostly in the middle of nowhere. They’re up all day and they sacrifice a lot and if you ever get a group of people to help you at a 100-mile race, you should thank them endlessly. On the Western States course, you don’t have an opportunity to see your crew until about mile twenty-four at Duncan Canyon. Next you see them around mile thirty-one at Robinson Flat and again at Dusty Corners around mile thirty-eight. (Although, to see your crew in all three places, you actually need two crews--the three points are too distant by car for one crew to get to all of them.) As the crow flies, the start line in Squaw Valley isn’t all that far from Dusty Corners but the Western States guidebook suggests three hours of drive time to get there. That’s because the first half of the Western States trail navigates really challenging and remote terrain. The point is that when you’re running the race, you’re basically off the grid and a very far cry from civilization. I guess that’s why bears live there.
When I came into Robinson Flat in 2018, I was in eighth or ninth place. The next seven-ish miles of the course take an old dirt road and then some single-track trail and then double-track trail before you arrive at Dusty Corners. It’s a rather fast section, too, because it’s not technical and it’s mostly downhill. Tim was ahead of me but I managed to catch him on this downhill section and as we passed through a small aid station called Miller’s Defeat, we pulled away from Cody Reed and Mario Mendoza. Then we were running through the pines and it felt like so many of those long training runs except that fortunately neither of us felt as bad as we often have running together. But despite not feeling that bad, you have to remember that we were now thirty-five miles into the race and it was starting to get warm. You really don’t respond to stimuli in a normal way under those circumstances. What I mean, by way of example, is that if I was on an easy hour-and-a-half training run in the mountains of Flagstaff, I’d probably notice if a squirrel ran up a tree next to the trail. At this point in the Western States 100, I probably wouldn’t have. I probably would notice a bear running toward me but I might not realize that a bear was actually running towards me, which it was and I did notice but I didn’t really realize it immediately. What I realized is that it had been very quiet and now there was a lot of noise.
Tim was maybe fifty meters ahead of me at this moment, far enough that I sort of had to yell to get his attention. I was suddenly stopped although I don’t remember stopping. And that’s when I realized that a bear, a full-grown adult bear, was dashing through the trees and covering the ground between us at a remarkably fast pace. That’s the first thing I really realized: something is moving very fast toward me, isn’t that neat. I don’t know how much time had passed, probably only a second or two, but then it finally did fully occur to me that a BEAR was running toward me. Galloping. Lunging. Springing. Fast. I looked down the trail and Tim was still running.
Then Tim stopped and looked at me and then seemed to hear the noise and his mind was probably taking a few seconds to go through what my mind had just processed. I started to run toward him.
And then I looked to my right and the bear had taken a ninety-degree turn, now running parallel with me. Next to me. Tim started running, too. Now Tim and the bear and I were running through the middle of the woods--we on the trail, the bear fifty meters to our right in the woods--at mile thirty-seven of the 2018 Western States 100 and I’ve thought about it almost every day since then. I would later look at my mile splits and find that my fastest mile of the day, mile thirty-eight, was covered in six minutes and eighteen seconds. After what felt like a long time but I’m sure it wasn’t a long time, this large animal--one that could catch us in no time and put an end to both of our races very quickly--fortunately turned right again and disappeared through the woods and down a hillside.
That wasn’t the only time someone saw a bear during the race that day and surely is one of hundreds of times that someone has seen a bear during the Western States 100. In winning the race for the first time in course-record time, Jim saw a bear and her cub a few miles from the finish. In my deteriorating state much later that day, after blowing up horribly and walking for hours, I thought I saw another bear before Auburn Lake Trails at mile eighty-three but that supposed sighting should be contested because it was dark and I only saw eyes in my headlamp and my ability to correctly identify even my feet beneath me me would have been questionable.
Since that race day in 2018, Tim and I (and the rest of the Coconino Cowboys) have continued to run very long distances in very remote terrain. Tim and I (and Jim) even managed to successfully swim across the Colorado River twice during one such endeavor. Sometimes our adventures are in the shining sun and sometimes they’re not. With or without the sun, there’s always some sense of magic, just like at Western States. We’ve yet to see a bear again. I’m grateful for that and I’m grateful for my wild and crazy friends and the excruciating runs we’ve shared together. Without the sun and my friends and our excursions and subsequent races, I wouldn’t have many stories to tell.