The Western States 100, the world’s oldest 100-mile footrace, stands as a monumental test of human endurance. Traversing California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, this race demands competitors climb over 5,000 meters, challenging even the most seasoned athletes. It has become synonymous with the legends of ultrarunning, including Jim Walmsley, Scott Jurek, and Ann Trason.

The Western States 100 began as a horse riding event in 1955. It wasn’t until 1972 that a group of infantry soldiers attempted the trail on foot, with seven successfully completing the 100-mile distance in under 48 hours. Inspired by this feat, Gordy Ainsleigh ran the course alongside horses in 1974, finishing in 24 hours and 42 minutes. This marked the birth of the official footrace in 1977.

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Ann Trason holds the record for the most victories at Western States, securing 14 wins from 1989 to 2003. Scott Jurek dominated the men’s competition with seven consecutive victories from 1999 to 2005. In 2021, Beth Pascall of the UK won the women’s race, recording the second-fastest time in the history of women’s 100-mile races with a finish of 17:10:42.

The Course: A Test of Will and Stamina

The Western States Trail stretches from Olympic Valley to Auburn, California. Runners start at 5 a.m. on Saturday and must reach the finish line by 10:59:59 a.m. on Sunday to be eligible for an award. The race begins with a steep 777-meter ascent to Emigrant Pass in the first 4.5 miles, then follows historic gold and silver mining trails, climbing an additional 4,700 meters and descending 7,000 meters to Auburn.

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The trail cuts through rugged, remote terrain, accessible only by foot, horse, or helicopter. With temperatures reaching up to 35°C, the race tests runners’ resilience in extreme conditions. Despite the challenges, support is robust, with a volunteer-to-runner ratio of 4:1 and 20 aid stations, including 10 medical checkpoints.

The Coveted Buckle

Finishers of the Western States 100 are awarded a buckle, a nod to the race’s roots in endurance horse racing. A silver buckle is given to those who finish under 24 hours, and a bronze buckle to those finishing within 30 hours.

Securing a spot in the Western States 100 is highly competitive, with only 369 entries available each year. Runners must qualify through designated races and enter a ballot. Automatic entries are granted to the top 10 finishers from the previous year and top performers in Golden Ticket Races such as the Black Canyon 100K. Additionally, the race offers a pregnancy deferral policy, allowing expectant participants to defer their entry without a time limit.

Preparing for the Race

Runners typically arrive in Olympic Valley early in the week, with pre-race activities including a shakeout run on Thursday and a mandatory briefing on Friday. The nearest airports are in Reno, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Accommodations are available in Olympic Valley, home to the Palisades Tahoe ski resort, and in nearby Truckee and Tahoe City. Although the start and finish locations differ, transportation options are plentiful, with rideshares and shuttles available.

The Western States 100 is more than just a race; it is a journey of perseverance and grit. Finishing the 100-mile course within the 30-hour limit is a badge of honor, joining the ranks of those who have conquered one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world.