What does the Western States 100 mean to you?
That was the question that I dropped on pretty much anyone that I could find during my time volunteering at the race. Every time I got a couple of minutes alone with a volunteer I quizzed them on their connection with the world famous ultramarathon. Western States is so iconic and means so much to the people who are involved with it every year. I knew that the question would prompt some heartfelt responses.
Getting to the race.
My flight out of LA to the closest airport within an Uber ride of the race was Sacramento. A seemingly pancake flat farming sprawl.
Sacramento didn’t seem like it could be only 33 miles from the world famous Western States mountain trail. But California is full of surprises and within minutes of driving away from the airport I could see the Sierra Nevada mountain range that the race traverses looming in the distance.
Since I’d gotten the early flight I arrived 7 hours early for my first shift on the live-streaming team. So I took the chance to offer my hand to anyone who needed help during the set up phase. I helped move chairs, carry some ice…..endless mountains of ice!and helped carry the biggest TV I’ve ever seen for the Hoka set up team.
A little known fact about the race is that it has the highest volunteer to competitor ratio, with nearly 4 volunteers to every runner. This figure isn’t just about the fact that due to trail conservation the trail authorities only permit 369 runners a year to take part.
I get the impression that even if the race allowed 1000 entrants the ratio would still be that high with more people signing up to lend a hand over the weekend, for the race that is essentially the world cup final of North American ultra-trail running.
Everyone I spoke to had a deep connection with the race. The staff and students at Placer high school who not only let the race finish on their immaculate running track, but actually all chip in and help with the finish line set up.
Droves of teenage kids proudly wearing their WSER volunteer T-shirts milled around carrying tables, chairs and helping to put up endless gazebos. Whilst simultaneously grabbing cans of soda from the giant tubs of ice and cramming slices of pizza into their mouths as they sweated in the midday heat.
The race has a long history in Auburn, way before it became the spectacle that it is today. To say that the locals are passionate about WSER is an understatement! They literally have street parties outside their houses for hours on end through the night. Blaring motivational music as they sit in their deckchairs drinking beers and screaming support for the runners as they make their way from the last checkpoint at Robie Point down to the finish-line on the track.
I’ve been to plenty of races with good support but the atmosphere here is on another level. You can’t help but be whipped up into a frenzy by it.
This was something that took me off guard being a reserved Englishman, but even I found myself whooping and egging the crowd on as we past through the crowds on the way down to the finish.
My job here as a volunteer was to work the media livestream on YouTube. A 30 hour continuous video stream of the race made possible by Starlink internet being installed at critical points along the course. This gave the whole world unprecedented access to never before seen live images of the race as it unfolded.
My job was to run with a gimbal mounted mobile phone, connected via a link to the media hub at the track. Our live feed of the runners was being beamed straight to this hub where the great Billy Yang himself directed proceedings. The air conditioned RV that served as the production studio was a hub of activity as they decided which video link showed the best shot and was connected to the main outgoing livestream on YouTube.
When I volunteered for this assignment I didn’t really comprehend the gravity of the privilege that I’d been given. I assumed that I’d be doing menial tasks to help out the media team like moving and setting up equipment. Which I was more than happy to do as it takes a village to put on a race and no job should be too small or menial if it helps put the show on the road.
But as it turns out, I think that myself and my shift partner Dan Davis had THE best job at the race. We got to literally run from the last checkpoint at Robie Point down to the famous Placer High School with every runner that came through. Runners like Adam Peterman the winner, whose entourage of crew and family completely filled the road as they came through the final suburban streets leading to the track. So much so that I had to fight at times to make sure that I’d got the shot that the livestream needed.
We’ve all seen those shots of Tour de France cyclists being crowded on important climbs to stage wins and this was no different. Spectators swarm the road screaming support in the faces of the runners and crews making the atmosphere completely electric!
One of the things I’ve always loved about trail and ultra runners is their laid back and humble demeanour. I guess to run 100 miles though the mountains takes a certain type of personality and this showed in their gratefulness to us as volunteers at the race. There was no ego, just smiles and thanks for the job we were doing to help them. Even after 100 miles they still had the energy to smile and thank us for our hard work. Hard work? This wasn’t work, this was 100 percent joy to behold and I lapped up every second!
If you follow the race then you will know the term. After the excitement of the top 10 men and women coming in there’s a slight lull in proceedings as runners come through in dribs and drabs. No matter what time a runner comes in though, there’s always plenty of support from the spectators. But nothing quite compares to the lead up to Golden Hour.
Most runners are aiming for under 24 hours to claim the coveted silver belt buckle. But for ones that have battled through the night just to get to Auburn, the 30 hour cut off is looming and checkpoint crews will literally pull you off the course if they don’t think you can make it down to the track for the 30 hour deadline.
The 24-30 hour period for us on the media team was absolute bedlam! As the countdown to the end of the race got closer the atmosphere became a frenzy. Our team of on-course cameras went from 2 to 5 as we struggled to keep up with the waves of runners crashing through the crowds to fly around one last loop of the track to the finish line.
By now the temperature had climbed back up to 36+ degrees Celsius and even walking brought on floods of sweat!
But there was no walking for us. We all ran constantly, following every runner as they came onto the track and around to the finish. Once I’d followed one runner back to the finish line, it was off again to the gate to grab the next one coming in with even the announcer struggling to explain in time who each runner was.
Having done a similar job on other big ultras guiding runners in from the course, I knew that I was going to clock up significant mileage during my shifts. So I clicked start on my Garmin at the beginning of our shift at 6pm and tracked right through to the end of Golden Hour to clock up 38 miles! An ultra in itself but nothing compared to what these guys had done.
Now I’m no stranger to running ultras and I’ve done plenty of hot summer ones here in the UK. But being a whiter than white Brit, the heat and constant track sprints with endorphin crazed finishers were an experience like nothing before. Sweat poured off me like the Rucky Chucky river and I gulped bottled water and Red-bulls every time there was more than a 30 second break in the runners!
So by this point I was sleep deprived, jetlagged and on the verge of heat stroke. Not to the same levels as the runners obviously, but a great taste of what it takes to finish a race known for its tough conditions!
What I hadn’t anticipated was the emotional rollercoaster that those last couple of hours became. I couldn’t help but get involved with every runners story as I guided them in on camera. As I ran with them along the back straight of the running track I could see when the livestream flicked over to my camera and I took great delight in telling each runner, their crew and family that they were now live on YouTube with over 40,000 people watching them finish the greatest ultramarathon in the world.
As they ran or shuffled along the track the dulcet tones of Andy Jones-Wilkins could be heard over the loudspeaker relaying the backstory of every runner and what it took to get them there. Some stories were clearly emotional to them and many runners were running with tears in their eyes surrounded by family and young children all willing them on to the finish line. As a dad of two pre-teen girls I couldn’t help but get emotional too as I put myself in their shoes. Fortunately my sunglasses hid my eyes as I welled up with them.
What did WSER mean to me?
So if someone had cornered me and asked what Western States means to me prior to this experience. I would have probably said that it was a race that I’d heard a lot about and represented the pinnacle of ultra-trail running in North America…….But what about now?
Well now, I think I’d say that it means so much more for me personally now that I’ve been part of it. Running ultras are one way to experience a race, but volunteering at them puts a completely new angle on them.
Knowing that you’ve helped numerous people enjoy their experience of the race is invaluable. Whether it’s just the camera shot that you got for the guy that stayed up for 24 hours straight to watch his friend finish the race. Or the encouragement you gave that runner to finish strong who thought their legs couldn’t get them that last mile to the track. Every moment meant something to someone and that’s what will stick with me.
I now love the race like it’s my own and I will be back next year to do the same job again. Who knows, maybe one year my ticket in the lottery will come up and I will even get to do the race for myself!
But for now, as they say here ‘See you at States’