This weekend I will take to the start line of the Western States 100, the oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail running race in the world. For the last three years I have obsessed about running the Western States, driven by a desire to proudly own an iconic finishers’ buckle. This year I will get my chance. My journey to the Californian promised land, however, started long ago in North East Europe.
Winter 2012, Lithuania –
How a quarell led to an obsession
I’d just returned home after a quarrel with two running friends and was eager to find the answer as to who was right. With a mug of tea in one hand, I sat down at the computer and loaded up the internet search engine with the following: Who is faster… man or horse?
I found stories of a few races in which men had raced horses, but none of the information satisfied me. The races were too short, too fast or too easy. None of the stories supported my theory that man was faster. Undeterred, I dug deeper and expanded my research. Eventually I discovered something called the Western States Endurance Run (WSER), which had evolved from the Western States Trail Ride, more commonly known as the Tevis Cup or the 100-Mile Endurance Ride. Bingo… this is what I had been looking for!
The human, with their evolved sweating system, running so many miles in such a hot climate was bound to kick the horses’ ass… or so I thought. The problem in my research was that from 1978 onwards the Western States Endurance Run was organized separately from the Tevis Cup. However, given the two events were held only a month apart – and were run on the same trails – I began comparing the results. ‘Not fair’ you may say and, yes, you’re probably right, but I was so determined to win the quarrel that a little bit of bias was always likely to creep into my research!
To my huge disappointment, after digging into years and years of race results, the horses still had the faster times. Ultimately I had to admit defeat. I was wrong. Upset at losing the argument, I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. My mind was obsessed with the Western States. Inside of me, torturing my brain and body, were thoughts of racing against horses. Could I outrun a horse? Maybe not all of them, but surely I could outrun some of them. Still unable to sleep, I kissed my wife goodbye, put on my trainers and went for a run.
It was cold and dark outside, but while running I kept envisaging parts the Western States movie footage I’d just watched. Suddenly I was not alone. Horses and trail runners were all around me and the hot Californian sun was burning my skin. I was in my own little Western States bubble. My obsession had started.
Summer 2013, Poland –
Discovering a Lithuanian trail running monster
I moved to Poland in 2013. With its mountains and huge trail running community, I was excited by this new challenge. My running too was in a transitional period, from road to trail and from flat to mountains. Despite this, I never neglected the trail running community in Lithuania, where the sport was up-and-coming.
Lithuania was offered the chance to participate in the IAU Trail World Championships but our small, enthusiastic group lacked the numbers to make up a strong team. It was then that I took to the internet in a bid to find ‘undercover’ trail runners in Lithuania.
During my search I came across the name of Dalius Kumpa. According to his records, he was the most experienced Lithuanian runner on the trails. He already had iconic races like Way Too Cool, American River, Miwok 100 and Tahoe Rim Trail under his belt. But the most fascinating fact for me was that he’d finished Western States and, having completed the course in under 24 hours, owned a prestigious silver finishers’ buckle.
Wow, there was a Lithuanian trail running monster living somewhere and nobody back home knew anything about him. I had to contact him, so I did. As our friendship evolved, he encouraged me to visit the US and try to gain an entry for Western States. For Dalius, everything looked so easy. ‘Hey, it’s time to visit the US and run WSER, believe me you are ready,’ he told me in one of our chats. ‘Just simply apply and the organizers are sure to accept you,’ he added.
I wasn’t quite so sure. The Western States is a hugely popular race and is always oversubscribed. They also have a lottery system to select runners. Dalius, however, remained confident about my chances. I decided to give it a try.
Summer 2014, Italy –
Mixing it with trail running royalty
I’d just finished the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy – held on the same weekend as Western States – placing third behind Anton Krupicka and Mike Foote. Hanging out at the finish line with these two greats of ultra running, I couldn’t really believe what had happened, what I had achieved. It was surreal. I was in dreamland. A couple of days later I started thinking… could I do even better? Could I get even closer in a race to a legend like Anton, the American hero who I’d seen in the run the 2010 Western States in the film Unbreakable? (Watch film trailer above). Maybe not now, but in the near future, probably yes.
That performance in Italy gave me the confidence to go on and survive the longest, hardest, but easily the most fruitful, running season of my life. More importantly, a third place finish in the Ultra-Trail World Tour strengthened my chances of being accepted an entry for Western States.
Spring 2015, Spain –
Reaching the unreachable
Hooray! My application was successful and together with Julien Chorier and Francois D’Haene, I was chosen as foreign consideration for Western States. It’s a bit scary given I have climbed such a long way up the trail and ultra running ladder to reach what I thought was unreachable and, to be honest, upon receiving my entry, I started to question myself. To prove to myself that everything was under control and training was going well, I went to race the 77-mile Transgrancanaria ultra, which includes 8,500m of elevation gain. I ran really well, winning the race in a new course record time. It proved that I was on the right track and filled me with the belief that I could do well in the US too.
Summer 2015, USA –
Western States 100 – the time is now
I arrived in the US two weeks prior to Western States. My tapering has gone well and I’ve eaten lots of carbs, including the American-style pancakes! Despite all the research, what I’ve actually found is that I knew very little about the Western States course, which includes over 5,000m of elevation gain. It has me concerned that I haven’t done enough specific training and maybe my legs have too much racing in them to perform well on this speedy, runnable and hot course.
Checking out sections of this epic trail in my X-TALON 200 shoes, I have been left surprised at how unpopulated the trails are. Even though some places are partially civilized, the trails are full of savage animals, such as black bears, mountain lions, coyotes and, of course, wild horses.
So, my Western States journey that started in the local pub with friends has brought me directly to the roots of the quarrel. Western States is, I guess, the best place finally to find out the answer to that question – who is the better runner, man or horse? Actually, it doesn’t really matter anymore. The three-year journey I’ve made to get here is what matters. It’s a journey that has seen me establish new friendships, travel the world and immerse myself in a sport that I’m passionate about and a style of living that I love. Thank you, Western States.