10 questions for the 2021 Western States race
By Henry Howard
The most closely watched 100-mile race in North America returns June 26 after the pandemic canceled it in 2020. There is a stacked field for both the men’s and women’s races with multiple returning champions and plenty of top-10 contenders in the mix.
There are plenty of places to get predictions on who will win or podium this year. But for my preview, I’ll focus on 10 questions that we will have answered soon enough. Buckle up, friends, we’re in for a fun ride next week at the historic Western States 100.
1. What will a pandemic-induced year off mean to the overall fitness of the elites? The time off from racing, for the most part, has allowed elite athletes a mental break as well as time off from the physical pounding their bodies have taken over the years. It stands to reason that all the additional training and adaptation that goes with it will equate to strong performances this season and beyond. We’ve already seen some blazing times at Javelina Jundred last fall, Black Canyon and other races. Expect to see strong times at Western.
2. Can Jim Walmsley make it a three-peat? After setting course records in 2018 and 2019, Walmsley opted to take a year off Western in 2020. Then the pandemic gave everyone the year off. He’s back after making a run at the Olympic Qualifying Trials for the marathon and coming oh, so close, to setting the 100K world record at the Hoka One One Project Carbon X challenge in late January. The year “off” from Western may have been just the break Walmsley needed to recharge and experiment with something different. He still remains the male runner to beat.
3. If not Jim, then who? Walmsley is the favorite but if he has an off-day, then his roommate, Jared Hazen, might take it. Hazen’s 14:26 in 2019 is the second-fastest time ever. His results since then have taken a step back but the talented 26-year-old has the fitness and drive to improve upon his last run at Western. Another contender is Tim Tollefson, a 2:18 marathoner who won the Javelina Jundred last October and Pioneer Spirit 50-miler about 15 months ago. Hayden Hawks makes his second attempt at the 100-mile distance after a Did Not Finish (DNF) in his debut. While he has a collection of DNFs at longer distances, he also has successes including a victory at JFK 50, where his 5:18 topped Walmsley’s course record of 5:21. Hawks also has won the 2020 Black Canyon 100K, Lavaredo Ultra Trail 120K in 2018 and CCC in 2017. Others to watch include Matt Daniels, who placed fourth in 2019 at Western; Mark Hammond, who finished third in both 2017 and 2018, and fifth during the last race; and the speedy Patrick Reagan, who has the course record at Javelina Jundred with a 13:01 and went under 16 hours for eighth place at the 2019 Western States.
4. Will there be another Clare Gallagher-Brittany Peterson duel? In the 2019 Western States Gallagher took the lead around mile 80 only to be caught by Peterson. In the final miles, Gallagher asserted herself and finished with the second-fastest time in race history with a 17:23. Peterson, who won Black Canyon 100K earlier this year, finished second behind Gallagher (who is an environmental advocate) at the 2019 Western States with the fourth-fastest time with 17:34. While it’s unlikely we’ll see such a dramatic finish, it would not be a surprise to see these two back on the podium.
5. Another top 10 showing for Jeff Browning? The ageless 100-mile competitor has quite a summer race season planned. After Western, he is signed up to run Hardrock three weeks later and the Bigfoot 200 less than a month later. As for Western, he has finished ninth in 2019, fifth in 2018, fourth in 2017 and third in 2016. Will Browning go all-out at Western, knowing he has another challenging ultra just ahead? He’s well-known for moving up in the field in latter stages of long races. It will be interesting to see his approach and how hard he pushes for a top-10 finish and automatic entry back to Western States next year.
6. Is this the year Nicole Bitter makes the podium? She’s been very consistent at Western, finishing sixth or seventh three times (but had DNFs in 2014 and 2016). Bitter performed well at her two ultras in 2020, winning the Javelina Jundred and placing fourth at the Tarawera Ultra 100K, just before the pandemic. I could see her making the top three this year. After all, her well-known husband Zach Bitter says, “Nicole is the hardest-working person I have ever met.”
7. Will Ryan Miller be the next Matt Daniels? In 2019, Daniels burst onto the scene, zooming his way to a fourth-place finish. Like Daniels, Miller has a background of being a fast collegiate and road runner who is somewhat new to ultras. But no matter, he won first place at the Bandera 100K to grab his Golden Ticket. Not bad for his first ultra. Both are coached by David Roche so they will definitely be ready.
8. Can Camille Herron put together a solid race? Herron has a collection of amazing records and victories mixed along with some disappointing finishes. The latter includes two DNFs at previous Western States. She clearly has had the fitness and competitive fire for a strong race, and now she has more trail experience. Herron won the 2019 Tarawera 100-miler and 2020 Black Canyons 100K. Now training and living in Colorado, Herron may very well be primed for a strong showing at this year’s Western.
9. How will the international women fare? Thank goodness the pandemic has eased and not only are top races coming back, but they are setting up to be highly competitive. At the top of the list (and perhaps the podium) is Beth Pascall, who finished fourth in the most recent Western States with an 18:06. In the past two years, Pascall, of the United Kingdom, won this year’s Canyons 100K and took fifth at UTMB. Other international runners to watch include: Ruth Croft from New Zealand, who won this year’s Tarawera 100K; Audrey Tanguy of France, who took first in the Hoka One One Project Carbon X 100K race; and Ragna Debats from the Netherlands, who had a strong 2019, claiming victories in the Marathon des Sables, Transvulcania and CCC.
10. Who are some of the underdogs who could finish top 10, or even podium? For the men, Cody Lind, Drew Holmen and Tyler Green come to mind. On the women’s side, I’m looking at Keely Henninger, Mireya Vargas and Katie Asmuth, as well as the international women mentioned above.