How the essence of Western States 100 comes alive after the sun rises again.
The first thing that John Maas said to his crew after thanking them as he crossed the finish line of the Western States Endurance Run early on Sunday morning in Auburn, California, was that he wanted to sleep.
And who could blame him? The 61-year-old runner was out on the course for 25 hours, 52 minutes and 27 seconds and watched the sun rise twice in his quest to finish the race for the second time, so he certainly earned his ensuing slumber.
While Maas admitted he fell short of his goal of earning another 24-hour silver finisher’s buckle to match his 2016 effort when he finished in 22:55, he was still overjoyed to reach the finish line at all after battling 99-degree heat the previous afternoon and suffering from trench foot through the night. He was grateful to have family and friends crew him and appreciative to have his 32-year-old son, Taylor, pace him — for the first time ever — along the final 6 miles of the course from Pointed Rocks aid station.
“I had higher expectations, but it was a pretty hard day,” he said. “I really wanted a silver buckle in my 60s. But the bronze finisher’s buckle will always be special because you work so darn hard for it. I worked much harder on this one than I did earning a silver one six years ago. I’ll never forget this one.”
That Maas is an early-to-rise corn and soybean farmer from the tiny town of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, might be pure irony, but his well-honed tenacity and ability to grind his way to the finish line is tied to the shared essence of ultrarunning and what has always made the sport — and specifically the Western States 100 — so amazing.
Ultrarunning is certainly about personal ambition and individual dedication, but it’s almost equally about honest vulnerability, it-takes-a-village humility and the supportive community atmosphere and collective sense of perseverance it fosters. And that testament of the human spirit is always on display at the most prestigious ultra race in the world, especially early on the second morning in the final miles on the way to the finish at the Placer High School track in Auburn.
“I might have pushed too much. I didn’t sit at any aid stations, but I just wanted to keep moving,” said Akira Yamada, a 46-year-old commercial photographer from Brooklyn, New York, who was sprawled out on the infield of the track after finishing in 25:31. “I just gave everything I had.”
Much has been made about what is known as the Golden Hour at Western States — the magical final hour in which the last finishers round the track and reach the finish line to the roar of the enthusiastic crowd of finishers, crew members, friends and fans — but that enchanted vibe really begins to emerge hours earlier in the dead of the night as determined runners of varying athletic ability dig to their depth to relentlessly keep moving forward.
Let’s face it, everyone who finishes the Western States 100 earns it and deserves the accolades and bragging rights that come with it. The efforts of this year’s champions, Montana’s Adam Peterman (15:13:48) and New Zealand’s Ruth Croft (17:21:30), were amazing and will rank with the all-time great moments of the event, while the string of other top finishers was nearly as impressive.
But it’s well after midnight, with little to no fanfare, a different kind of ambiance always brews as runners from all walks of life keep grinding for long hours in the darkness and digging even deeper amid tired legs, achy feet and, in some cases, a deafening cacophony of internal doubts.
“It’s super cool that people can run this in 15 hours and crush it, but I think it’s just really special when you work really hard for something and achieve a dream goal when you cross the finish line,” says first-time finisher Cassy Campanella, 31, of Cumming, Georgia, who completed the course in 25:55. “I think it’s about having a personal sense of accomplishment from having a goal, working hard and training for it and then achieving it.”
Of the 305 finishers in this year’s race, only 24 reached the finish line before midnight and 101 made it under 24 hours to earn a silver finisher’s buckle. The vast majority of runners — 204 to be exact — finished between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. to claim a bronze buckle. Seemingly endless examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Included in their longer and more complicated journey was the task of crossing the Middle Fork of the American River at the Rucky Chucky aid station in the wee hours of the morning when the water no longer feels refreshingly cool but exceedingly cold.
“That was cold and shocking for me,” says Jaime Fensterl, 36, a gene therapy researcher from New Albany, Ohio. “After that, I spent a couple miles of feeling sorry for myself. I have DNF’ed three 100s, so my confidence coming in wasn’t high. It wasn’t until Mile 90 that I felt like I was able to start picking it up again.”
With the help of her pacer Rick Holman, the renewed energy of the morning’s first light and eventually the warmth of the rising sun, Fensterl not only preserved but picked up the pace and finished under 26 hours at 6:52 a.m.
Sunaad Nataraju, a 36-year-old artificial intelligence engineer from San Mateo, California, finished about 15 minutes later to earn his first Western States finish despite battling diarrhea and dehydration for more than 55 miles midway through the race. A little bit later, Junko Kazukawa, a 58-year-old Japanese-born runner and two-time breast cancer survivor from Denver, finished for the second year in a row in 27:24, roughly 6 minutes faster than last year.
“When the sun goes down, it’s like I start to sleep walk,” she says. “But when the sun comes, nothing really happens, but — ting! — it’s like I have a new energy.”
As the sun started to rise above the Auburn foothills on the eastern horizon line, a noticeable warming of the finish-line aura could be felt. Runners began to arrive more regularly and with them more family, friends and spectators did, too. There was more clapping, chatter and cheering and the start of a celebratory mood that would eventually crescendo into the Golden Hour.
Among them was Yatika Starr Fields, Native American artist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who ran the race in support of Rising Hearts, an Indigenous-led advocacy organization bringing attention to the Southeastern Pomo, Ohlone, Washoe, and the Nisenan people who inhabited the lands of the Western States course. He suffered from muscle cramps early in the race and struggled more than he expected, but persisted to finish in 26:28.
“I was running for a lot of Native People, and I felt that out there,” he said. “I was in pain and I wanted to stop, but I got it done with that in my mind. I broke down crying out there because I could feel it. That’s what helped me finish, to be honest.”
Many Sunday morning finishers ran, jogged, hobbled or walked down the final homestretch of the track with family and friends in tow, some even with young babies like San Francisco’s David Chase, 30, who carried 7-month-old daughter Honoo, with him, and Denver’s Rick Hoberg, 33, and 15-month old daughter Jordan, who was wearing a green, infant-sized Rocky Mountain Runners T-shirt that has been passed down through the club for several years.
In the end, Golden Hour was everything it was cracked up to be, with a crowd estimated at more than 1,500 people in the bleachers and around the track raucously cheering on 78 runners who finished in the final 60 minutes before the 30-hour cutoff. (Plus, there was an additional 15,000 more fans from around the world watching via the YouTube live feed.) Ohio’s Markus Baumgartner, 48, and California’s Randy Van Dusen, 47, arrived with less than 7 minutes to spare. Then it was Colorado’s Benjamin Coon, 45, and Norway’s Ninette Banoun, 57, before Poland’s Andrzej Ulatowski, 50, ambled home to become the last official finisher at the 29:55:48 mark.
But the beauty of ultrarunning is that it doesn’t just celebrate those who finish, but instead honors all who have the courage to participate. That especially includes Jennifer Shultis, a 53-year-old runner from Kingston, Washington, who narrowly missed the cutoff by 2 minutes. Several years ago, Shultis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the plasma cells but it has been in remission for three years.
Despite knowing she wouldn’t make the cutoff, Shultis ran strong to the finish over the last miles and received the loudest cheers of the day, even though most didn’t know her full story.
“The clock stops for no one, and I think Jennifer knows that better than any person out on the course today, but we’re going to give her the loudest cheers possible,” broadcast commentator Corrine Malcom said amid tears on the livestream. “Congratulations Jennifer. I know you wanted to sneak under that 30-hour mark. But you are a Western States finisher and you covered every inch of the course under your own volition. (Your) story is going to motivate and inspire so many individuals out there. Thank you for sharing it with us. Unofficial or otherwise, Jennifer, you brought down the house today.”