Learn the backstories behind a few everyday heroes heading to the nation’s oldest 100-mile footrace.
For ultrarunners, flipping the calendar to June means one thing: It’s time for Western States. Annually hosted on the last full weekend of the month, the Western States 100 Endurance Run (WSER) is one of those time-honored traditions that captivates runners and spectators alike. Every year, fans flock to Placer High School in Auburn to cheer on athletes earning a Silver Buckle (sub-24 hour finish) and runners squeaking across the finish line during the Golden Hour, the 30th and final hour of the race. It doesn’t matter that most of us will never suffer beneath the blazing sun as we traverse the race course through traditional Nisenan and Washoe lands; we’re there in spirit and celebration.
The 2022 WSER is a big deal, too. After a few weird years (the pandemic shuttered the race in 2020 and 2021 saw fewer international competitors due to COVID-related travel hesitancy), this year’s event is guaranteed to be a party. As race day draws closer, we found ourselves wondering how folks were prepping for the big day.
So, we asked. We sat down with race director Craig Thornley and a trio of athletes toeing the line at Olympic Valley. They’re each looking at the event from very different angles, but share one thing in common: They are stoked to get this show on the road.
When Thornley and I chat in late April, the veteran race director is firing on all cylinders. The last Golden Ticket race just wrapped and the roster for the 2022 WSER race is finally set. You’d think Thornley would catch a moment to breathe, but his chaos is just getting started. “I get hit with so many different things and I wonder sometimes how much my head and my brain can handle,” he says. “Someone can ask the smallest question this time of year and I’m just overwhelmed.”
It’s a heady thing to be the man behind a race as revered as WSER, but Thornley has successfully captained the event for a decade. In addition to managing volunteers, he personally wrangles everything from the lottery and trail maintenance to race-day communications and public relations. But the task really consuming his time right now? The race program. More like a mini-magazine, this 34-page printed brochure detail logistics, rules, and feature stories leading up to race day. Over the years, Thornley has realized that he is the tourniquet for the program: He oversees every tweak, edit, or introduction that goes into the endeavor. “And I am not a magazine publisher!” he laughs. “The whole process of editing PDFs and the design or whatever is just painful.”
So, how does a busy man like Thornley stay sane as the frenzy builds? Rock climbing. Regardless of the day’s chaos, he makes sure to get outside for a little exercise every single day. “It helps me zoom out on the day-to-day problems,” he says. “If I find myself hyper-focused on an issue, going climbing helps me zoom out and reset. It helps me remember how excited people are for this race.”
It took him seven years and 32 tickets but Victor Fallon is finally heading to WSER for the first time–and he couldn’t be happier. After first qualifying in 2015, the Colorado resident and co-founder of Trailtinos set his sights on the race and ensured his name was in the annual lottery. But every December brought heartbreak when he wasn’t selected. Luckily, this year was different. Visiting California to run CIM, Fallon and his buddies went up to attend the lottery in person. As the name draws neared the end, Fallon began plotting his racing schedule for the next year, assuming the worst. He was so lost in his reverie that he barely heard his name announced. “My friend started shaking me and that’s when I realized,” he laughs. “I was so excited that I literally ran up to the stage. The whole place was cheering so loudly– I felt like I just won the NBA finals or something.”
For Fallon, the heat is his biggest concern. He operates on a minimalist basis but his friend designed a heat-training plan for him which he admits he didn’t follow. “I don’t have time to sit in a sauna every day and I don’t have a sauna anyway,” he says. He did swap out his usual running vest for a waistbelt in the hopes he can adjust and stay as cool as possible. But otherwise, Fallon is a realist: He put in the work so he hopes to get it done. “I’ve wanted this for so long and it’s such a honor to finally get the chance,” he says. “I know how many people want to get in—I was one of them—so I’m just so excited.”
For Canada’s James Schwartz, this year’s WSER is a redemption race with roots running back to 2018.
In 2017, he learned he’d gained entrance to the 2018 race with his first-and-only lottery ticket. Luck was on his side and he went into Western States feeling like it was a dream come true. But the tide changed at mile 70. With an upset stomach and painful quads from the miles of screaming downhills, Schwartz made the ultimately poor decision to pop an Advil to minimize his discomfort. (He notes that he has since learned how tough Advil is on kidneys during endurance events and no longer uses the medication.) Unfortunately, he didn’t swallow fast enough and the melted medication in his throat made him gag. As he felt the vomit rising, he bent at the waist and fought against his body. End result: The built-up pressure immediately ruptured a hole in his esophagus as he stood 400 yards outside of Peachstone. “It felt like I got punched in the stomach, but I couldn’t get my breath back,” Schwartz remembers. As he later learned, the vomit leaked through the hole in his esophagus and into his chest, partially collapsing a lung.
Fortunately, Andy Pasternak, the current race medical director, was volunteering at the aid station alongside his wife, JoAnn, who is an anesthesiologist. They both recognized that Schwartz was in trouble, but he didn’t realize the finality until they cut his race band from his wrist. “That’s when I knew I was done,” he says. He ultimately underwent surgery to repair his esophagus on Sunday evening, followed by two weeks in the California hospital before transferring back to Canada where he spent another 26 days at a Toronto hospital.
After his release in early August, he spent months upon months clawing himself back into running shape. He finished a qualifying race in September 2019 and then applied for Special Consideration, which was granted for the 2020 race. But as we know, that race was canceled. In 2021, international travel-related concerns with the pandemic kept Schwartz away yet again.
But this year, he is finally back. Like Fallon, he is most concerned with the heat and signed up for a gym membership exclusively so he can use the saunas to prepare. “My coach has me sitting in there for 20 minutes after every run just so I can get used to staying hot,” Schwartz explains. But beyond training, Schwartz is mostly stoked to get another opportunity. “I feel really privileged to have people like Craig [Thornley] who are willing to give me another chance,” he says. “The kindness from the race and the board and Craig means everything.”
After pacing her 61-year-old father to a 29:59.07 finish in 2017, California’s Dana Trach knew she wanted her own shot at the race. Her chance came after successfully qualifying at the 2019 Cuyamaca 100K, but luck solidified it when her name was drawn in the December lottery with just one ticket. But, as with many other runners, 2020 squashed those plans. “I was so bummed,” remembers Trach. “It felt like I’d been waiting for so many years and then nothing.”
Life goes on, though. After discussing it, she and her husband realized the 2021 race was still uncertain with the pandemic and they didn’t want to put their life on hold. They began trying for a baby. Trach learned she was pregnant in October 2020 and immediately emailed Thornley to become one of the first athletes to use the race’s newly-established pregnancy entry deferral. One catch: after the birth of her son in July 2021, Trach realized she hadn’t read the fine print on the deferral. “I thought I had 11 months until the following year’s race but then I saw that I needed to run a qualifier before the lottery in December,” Trach laughs. After some research, she learned that the Rio Del Lago 100 miler was the absolute last qualifying race on November 6, so that gave her 3.5 months to go from labor to…finish line. Miraculously, she did it, all while pumping breastmilk at the main aid stations. “It sounds crazy but the alternative was waiting another year, and we know we want another baby,” Trach explains. “Doing the math, it just made sense.”
As she looks toward WSER this year, Trach feels confident that she is physically prepared. Her husband will be crewing for her—“After Rio Del Lago, he isn’t allowed to pace for me anymore!”—but there is still a special family moment she is hoping for at the finish line. “I’ve done some 50Ks and a 100K since my son was born but he is always napping or my finish has been too early or late and he’s just missed me coming in,” she says. “But more than anything, I just want to cross that finish line in Auburn holding my baby.”