Early Wednesday evening, through the thick smoke blanketing the forests, you may have heard the sound of 390 hearts collectively breaking. These were the runners slated to be on the starting line this morning at the 35th running of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Dreams dashed with the cancellation of the race, the runners did what ultrarunners do: They kept on going.
Although most people meet the idea of any 100-mile foot race with awe, among ultrarunners Western States holds a special status. It is considered the race to run, and everyone has it on their race "wish list." As a runner myself, I had the audacity to start dreaming about it back in high school, when I thought eight miles was a long run.
The trail itself crosses rugged mountains and canyons on a route once followed by Indians and pioneers alike. For runners, the historical significance of the race began when Gordy Ainsleigh crossed the line in 1974 as the only runner among horses in the Western States Trail Ride. From there, the legends and lore surrounding the race have grown, with names like Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer and Scott Jurek drawing a hush of respect from athletes dreaming of running the famed race one day ourselves.
Runner Scott Dunlap of Woodside, Calif., was to run his first Western States this year. Referencing the belt buckle awarded to finishers, he said, "The community around the event is amazing. So many of the people around States have been in it for 10 or more years. To have a buckle and be a part of it is to be a part of this family."
Trason, a race legend and 14-time winner, reportedly said that the dust from the trail gets in your blood and never goes away.
The popularity of the race has made it very challenging to gain an entry, and thus running Western States represents more than just the eight to 12 months of training. Runners must first run a qualifying race and then enter a lottery process. It's a drawing with so many entries that hopeful athletes this year only had a 16 percent chance of getting selected. Because of this, most runners have been trying to gain entry into the race for years.
"It took me three years to win a lottery slot," Dunlap said, "but I started training as soon as I did, in November of 2007."
Donald Buraglio of Carmel Valley, Calif., welcomed his first 100-mile race on his blog, "Running and Rambling," with these words: "After months of training " not to mention years of anticipation " I'm finally on my way to the Western States Endurance Run."
Today was supposed to be the culmination of dreams.
With the cancellation of the race due to the proximity of several fires, runners are forced to come to terms with a painful loss. Are they crying in their Gatorade? Sending irate e-mails to the race director? Swearing off running forever, madly shaking their fists at mother nature?
Although the runners are understandably devastated, the pervasive attitude seems to be one largely of philosophical acceptance.
"It's kind of funny how my emotions went up and down more than the Western States course," Dunlap said. "At first, I was angry thinking about the hundreds of hours put in to be ready for this day, and the years of waiting just to get in. But then I also realized that given this escalation of commitment, I was prone to do something stupid like try and run through 24 hours of smoke. I respect that a race director and their staff need to be the sane ones who think about our safety, and I thank them for making a decision that couldn't have come easy."
Buraglio had similar sentiments. "Although this is a heartbreaking turn of events for everyone associated with the race, I certainly can't say I'm upset by the cancellation " because I know it was probably the right thing to do. As much as I was looking forward to it, I'm sure that nobody loves Western States more than the race committee. They undoubtedly exhausted every last possibility to make this event happen, and their decision wasn't made irrationally."
Part of learning to endure 100 miles of trail running is knowing how to make the best of things. Dealing with the adversities of the trail seems to lend itself to an understanding that some things are beyond our control, and that there will always be another day. Ultrarunners know how to think long-term.
Andy Jones-Wilkins, who finished second in 2005, was already anticipating the 2009 race with enthusiasm, just hours after Wednesday's announcement of the cancellation.
In lieu of Saturday's race, Sean Meissner planned a weekend of running in the wilderness near his home of Sisters, Ore., along with fellow top Western States contenders Prudence L'Heureux and Kami Semik. Buraglio took the opportunity for some family time, spending the weekend on an impromptu family vacation.
Although stomaching the loss of a dream isn't easy, the sentiments of many of the runners are summed up well by Buraglio.
"I've always felt that ultrarunning isn't so much about the races themselves as it is the process to get there," he said. "In fact, by the time we stand on the start line, most of us are already fully aware of the physical ability and psychological resolve we've forged within ourselves."
And so, for these racers, dreams will have to wait for yet another year.
"We ultrarunners are patient and tenacious," said Dunlap. "There will always be another day to enjoy this race, and it will be that much more epic when it arrives."
Gretchen Brugman is a Truckee ultrarunner. Check out her running blog at dailyadventuregretch.blogspot.com.