AJW previews the 2023 Western States
By Henry Howard
It’s less than a month to go until the Western States race. And Andy Jones-Wilkins is as excited as a kid counting the days down until Christmas.
Jones-Wilkins, a 10-time finisher who has placed in the top 10 seven times, is the premier ambassador for the nation’s first 100-mile race. We talked last week after the Memorial Weekend Training Camp, which provided a glimpse not only of the athletes who will be competing but the course itself after it sustained raging fires and blitzing snowfall.
“The star of the show this year will be the course,” he says. “Every year at Western States I think the course throws a few curveballs at the runners. But this year, even though it’s melting fast, there will definitely be some snow up high over that first 25-mile stretch. I don’t think it’ll be constant snow for 25 miles but it’ll be snow, it’ll be slippery, it’ll be slushy, it’ll be muddy. That’ll be an added challenge.”
He said runners at the camp talked about how running on that type of hard-packed snow forced them to use different muscles and hip stabilizers. But there’s another issue.
“Snow will be a factor, but the bigger factor will be the 16-mile section that burned in the Mosquito Fire back in September,” Jones-Wilkins says. “I was able to get out on a couple of those sections. The trail is in good shape. The trail crew has gone out and rebuilt sections of trail, and they’ve logged down trees and gotten rid of hazardous trees. But, because the fire burned so hot and so aggressively, there’s virtually no shade in that entire 16-mile section. And since it comes at such a critical point, between mile 45 and mile 65, for a lot of people that's the middle of the day, and it’s just going to be hot.”
In our interview we dive deeper into the snow, analyze both the men’s and women’s fields, and cover some other interesting story lines like who will win the 2023 Western States. This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: It seems like the course itself has come a long way since the fire. What does it say about the love trail and ultra runners have for the course and race that volunteers have worked so hard to get the course ready as much as possible for the big day?
Answer: As soon as the Forest Service declared it safe for civilians to go in there, both the running race and the horse race began recruiting their volunteers. For a stretch there, in the end of March and into April, they were doing stuff every single weekend. And not surprisingly, they were clearing trees right up until 6 o'clock at night, 7 o’ clock at night, before the Saturday training runs. Just a Herculean effort — it says a lot. I don’t think any old race could pull that off. But Western States, with its loyal volunteers and its good organization and the love for the trail, they’ve been able to pull it off and they’re going to run the original course, even in the snow, from Olympic Valley to Auburn.
Question: That’s what I wanted to talk about a little bit more. You mentioned the snow. Talk about the expectations on how the snow is going to affect the faster runners. How is it going to affect them and the overall race?
Answer: The biggest issue with the snow — and Craig Thornley, the race director, mentioned this in his most recent email to the participants — is aid station access to the two highest elevation aid stations that come early in the race, Lyon Ridge at mile 10, and Red Star Ridge at mile 16. They have a three-pronged process. First is, if they can, they’ll get in the conventional way. They’ll drive cars in, but that’s unlikely. The second possibility is getting into aid stations with Snowcat vehicles. If the snow doesn’t melt quickly enough, the third and least likely option, but certainly the most exciting option, would be to equip the aid stations via helicopter, which they’re actually prepared to do and I’ve learned is something they’ve done a couple of times years ago.
I think from a competitive standpoint, at the front of the pack the runners are going to need to preserve their energy through that snow section. Running in snow and slipping and sliding has a different impact on your joints and your muscles and your energy expenditure than just running on good old fashioned dirt. So I think the smart runner will get through the snow moving well, but certainly preserve energy through the snow. Once they hit the dirt, they can open it up and it’ll be game on.
Question: Let’s talk about the men’s field. With the defending champion, Adam Peterman, out, there will be one less contender. Who are some from the men’s side you are looking at to emerge at the top?
Answer: I’ve got a couple of groups. I’ll name six but there’s a lot more than six that can do it. In one group are the men who have run the race before. Of course not having won it, but having run the race before and been successful, that is they finished within the top three. Arlen Glick, Hayden Hawks and Tom Evans. The three of them know the course, they know heat, they know how to race Western States. Many of them have raced in a lot of other places, and I think might be primed for whatever the conditions might bring.
In a second group that in many ways is a bit more intriguing, are people with quite a bit of ultramarathoning experience but have not run Western States before. Mathieu Blanchard, who finished second to Kilian Jornet recently at UTMB last fall. Cole Watson, who is a local runner who just punched his Golden Ticket with a commanding win at the Canyons 100K. And then really one of the most intriguing stories to me is Dakota Jones, who at 32 years old is a 14-year ultra veteran. He started running ultras when he was 18 and is finally in Western States. An interesting story about Dakota is he actually has qualified with Golden Tickets a couple of times before and declined them. But this past October he won the Javelina 100 in a course-record time and I’m sure he's going to come out here to Western States with his eye on that cougar.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the win came from one of those six, but then it goes deeper. A gentleman with incredible family history on the course, Cody Lind, who had top 10 finishes in the past two years. Tyler Green, who finished second place to Jim Walmsley a couple of years back. And the winners of the two 100K Golden Ticket races, Anthony Costales, who won Black Canyon, and Jeff Colt, who won Bandera.
Question: Let’s go over to the women’s side, another very competitive field. It’s hard to bet against Courtney Dauwalter in anything. But I’m wondering about the impact the snow will have on slowing her down. Who are some of the women you are looking at for top finishers?
Answer: Any time Courtney Dauwalter is in a race, she should be considered a favorite. However, an American who lives in Europe, Katie Schide, who ran an absolutely incredible race at UTMB this past September, is in the race, and has been training on the Western States course. I’m not a huge Strava stalker, but somebody tipped me off to a training run she did, a 50-miler on the Western States course a week and a half ago. She’s preparing and prepared. I think those two could have a real battle.
There are also some favorites that have repeat finishes at Western States. Devon Yanko, 17 years she’s been in the sport. She got a third-place finish a few years back. Also, like Dakota on the men’s side, punched her ticket with a record-breaking run at Javelina. Keely Henninger, who’s been a top finisher before and had a devastating injury at last year’s race, got healthy and punched a Golden Ticket at Black Canyon. And one of the smartest runners out there — she was seventh place last year and earlier this year won the Bull Run Run 50-miler, and I just saw her running the three days at the Memorial Day Training Camp, she’s focused and ready — is Leah Yingling. In that same boat, smart and experienced, two-time finisher Katie Asmuth.
Emily Hawgood is in fact the highest returning finisher. For a variety of reasons, the top four women from last year are not on the start list this year. It’s a blend of preparing for other races or injuries. And a huge human interest story, Heather Jackson, who has transitioned from being an international, global star in triathlon, came to Javelina and was in the lead for four loops before fading, ran Black Canyon really well, is just an intriguing story to see how she’ll do. Taylor Nowlin, who was an eighth place finisher last year. And then the sentimental favorite, coming back for her ninth go at the race, Kaci Lickteig.
Like the men, that’s a murderous row of 10 runners. It’ll be awesome to see. I give the nod to Courtney but not in as overwhelming a way as I might with less competitive fields.
Question: There are some notable runners doing Western and Hardrock doubles — Arlen, Pam Reed, etc.
Answer: Pam Reed is definitely among my most intriguing stories. She’s doing a triple. She’s doing Badwater also. In a 20-day period, 62-year-old Pam Reed is running Western States, Badwater and Hardrock. Incredible.
Question: As a coach, what would you say to the top athletes who are signed up to do both Western and Hardrock. How do you approach that?
Answer: I was fortunate enough to have both Courtney and Arlen on my podcast and I talked to them about it. I did the double back in 2009. There weren’t a lot of people who had done it back then. I ran Western States as if I was not running Hardrock. Western States was a full-out effort, and I decided I’ll worry about Hardrock later. Talking with Arlen and Courtney, they basically said the same thing. Maybe in their training they had done the occasional big climbing day with poles, or carrying a bigger pack then they’ll carry at Western States to get their body accustomed to it. But my advice would be to run it one race at a time. Don’t look past Western States to Hardrock.
Question: We covered the top of the pack, but it seems like every year there is someone who emerges seemingly from out of nowhere with a top 10 finish. Who are some of the rising stars or those under the radar who you think would have a good shot at finishing in the top 10?
Answer: I mentioned Anthony Costales and Jeff Colt. I know Jeff Colt finished 11th last year, so he’s not exactly unknown, but Anthony Costales, I believe this will be his first 100-miler. Another guy I talked to a little bit at the training camp is J.P. Giblin, a 28-year-old from Boulder, who got a Golden Ticket at Bandera. There’s an interesting story, I don’t know much about the New Zealand and Australian scene, but there’s a guy coming over named Daniel Jones from Wellington, New Zealand, who apparently can fly.
On the women’s side. Since I live in Arizona I went to Black Canyon, and a 25-year-old from Boulder, Megan Morgan, got second place. She ran an incredible race. She’s tall and lanky and smiles all the time. She runs with great joy and she definitely would be in that rising star category. As will Riley Brady, who got the second Golden Ticket at Javelina, runs as a nonbinary runner, from Boulder. Very interesting in that 20-something group for both men and the women, and how that is going to play out. Like you said, there’s always somebody that nobody talks about in these pre-race previews that makes it into the top 10. So we shall see.
Question: We talked a lot about the elites, but there are 370 runners at the race. How do you think the course, the snow, and the heat, is going to affect those who are either trying to get under 24, or those who are trying to finish before those final seconds?
Answer: One of the more intriguing stories is Gene Dykes, from Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, who’s 75 years old. Were he to finish, he would be the oldest ever Western States finisher. Five years ago Nick Bassett completed the race in 29 hours as a 73-year-old. Gene Dykes got his qualifier at Javelina and just a couple of weeks ago covered 62.5 miles at a 12-hour run down in Texas. He can move! The snow certainly has a huge effect on the middle and back of the packers. At some point to the extent that it may put a fair bit of pressure on them to make the first cutoff at Red Star Ridge. The mid and back of the pack will be impacted, but probably not as much by the snow as what happens with the heat and the exposure. I will predict that we will see a below average number of sub-24 buckles because of both of those reasons. It’ll just require patience and waiting until the cool of the night to make your move.
Question: This has been awesome. Any other final thoughts or anything we didn’t cover that you want to mention?
Answer: The movement on the waitlist. It was only 2017 when they began using a waitlist. For the first couple of years, they usually went 30 deep. Then COVID came, and the year after they only had picked 50 names on the waitlist, and all 50 got off of the waitlist. And then last year the final runner pulled off the waitlist — which now goes to 75 — was number 68. They’ve already gone up to 40 on the waitlist this year. It’s conceivable that the waitlist this year could go all the way down to the end. So anybody reading this who’s on the waitlist — I hope you’re training like you’re in the race.