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AJW previews the 2024 Western States

Jim Walmsley is the odds-on favorite to win the 2024 Western States.

By Henry Howard

As I write this, we are one week away from Western States, arguably the most anticipated North American ultra race. Once again, I had the pleasure of chatting with Western States expert and 10-time finisher Andy Jones-Wilkins on his thoughts leading up to race day.

Jones-Wilkins, who placed in the top 10 seven times, is the premier ambassador for the nation’s first 100-mile race. We talked earlier this month after the Memorial Weekend Training Camp. Unfortunately, I was not able to “crack a brew” with AJW as it was too early in the morning for both of us. Maybe next year.


Before we dove into all things Western States, I asked Jones-Wilkins about his return to ultra running after he had both of his hips replaced in 2023. “I do have to work hard on getting stronger and the support muscles around the joints, obviously, need a fair bit of attention,” he explains. “And being an older guy, I am not super excited about going to the gym and doing all that stuff, but I do.”


After receiving the go-ahead to run again earlier this year, Jones-Wilkins has completed a couple of sub-ultras, the Crown King 50K in March and then the Cocodona Training Run, which is the first 37 miles of the 250-mile race, the hardest part of the course.


And he’s not stopping there. He signed up for the Javelina Jundred in October, his first 100-miler since 2021; and the Sedona Canyons 125 next May.


“Sedona Canyons 125 is the little sister of the Cocodona 250,” he says. “And if all goes well there, my long-term plan would be to run Cocodona itself in May 2026.”

It does not appear to be a snow year at the race.

A look ahead to the 2024 Western States


In our interview we chat about the favorites for both the men’s and women’s fields, look at some sleepers and cover some other interesting story lines. This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Question: What is your outlook for the course, the conditions, the weather and how that might impact everything that is always a concern like the snow pack and the heat on race day?


Answer: I was in communication with several people who were at the Memorial Day Training Camp and they had a mile of snow at the very beginning of the run, which starts at Robinson Flat, mile 30 of the course. So if history is any guide with only a mile of snow at Memorial Day, and such a late race day this year, June 29, I would anticipate, just looking back on the history, that there'll be little to no snow on race day. If temperatures don't heat up too much in the next couple of weeks, there could be patches in some of the shady sections of the course, but I think, it'll be a relatively benign snow year.


Question: Let's talk about some of the athletes, ladies first. Without Courtney Dauwalter, some might say that it's wide open, but at least, to my mind, it looks like Katie Schide would be the one to beat. What's your analysis of the women’s field?


Katie Schide, who has won UTMB, is the favorite at Western States.

Answer: I agree. Katie Schide got second last year. She was significantly behind Courtney, but ran the second-fastest time ever in the race, a few minutes under Ellie Greenwood's 2012 course record. So Katie knows how to get it done at Western States, it just happened to be an extraordinary Courtney year. This year, she also had a great race. I think she finished fifth or sixth overall at the Canyons 100K, much of which takes place on the Western States course. So I think she's got a real good understanding of what she's in for and she would be my favorite.


My pick for second place is actually a runner who'll be running Western States for the first time, Rachel Drake. I got to see Rachel in action out here at the Black Canyon 100K, which she won, and really won in a kind of come from behind fashion. And just ran so smart and assertive all day. She also has the added bonus of being the spouse of Tyler Green, who is a modern day Western States Jedi, finished in the top five now three years in a row. So I think Rachel has a real good shot for second.


And then, I'm going with Leah Yingling for third. Leah's been seventh and fifth. And I think she's been racing very conservatively at Western States her first two years at the race, and of course, that's really smart, but with experience comes wisdom. And I have a feeling, I haven't talked to her about this, but I have a feeling she's going to be pushing things a little bit harder from the front.


After those top three, I'm really interested to see how Heather Jackson does as she's transitioned over from triathlon and won Javelina in 2023 and is a really, really talented athlete. Emily Hawgood, who, like Tyler Green, is a three-time top 10 finisher and lives not far from the course. And probably the elder stateswoman of the race this year who just seems to continue to have good results into her 40s is Devon Yanko. I think out of those six, if you're a betting person, I'd focus on them.


Leah Yingling returns as a top-10 finisher from 2023.

Question: It’s interesting to me that Leah and Heather both have big efforts at other events fairly close to Western. Heather, just yesterday, did a gravel bike race and finished I think fifth at it, and then, of course, Leah ran 400 miles at the Lululemon FURTHER event. How do you see those efforts playing into how they might fare at Western States?


Answer: I think Heather's desire to continue to race gravel while running ultras is really, really unique. And of course, the race she raced yesterday is the UNBOUND 200 in Emporia, Kan. It's basically the Western States of gravel races. I mean, it's the biggest gravel race on the calendar, commands the strongest field. And that fifth place finish was pretty darn impressive.


So she has just decided that she's going to continue to be this dual-sport athlete. Time will tell. The nutrition demands are similar, but the wear and tear on the body for both of those events, for an ultra versus a gravel race are quite different. Knowing Heather like I do, I think she's coming into it with a really positive attitude and perhaps the time she has to spend on the bike where she's not able to run might hold her in good stead. She may come in slightly under-trained as compared to some of the other women.


I think Leah will be fully recovered from the FURTHER event. She's shown the ability to bounce back and do sort of double big events, Western States and UTMB, for example. So I think probably the experience of doing the FURTHER event and being out there for that long, a six-day, I think it's probably mentally really going to be a huge benefit for her. So I don't see either of those events having much more of a wear and tear on the two of them than say Katie's Canyons, which was just in late April.


Question: Let's go over to the men's side. Of course, we have to start with Jim Walmsley who's back after he finally conquered UTMB. I know that he's your pick to win Western this year. Do you see this as his race to lose? And who else do you see emerging at the top of the men's field?


Answer: The only question mark for Jim is will there be any effect of him having been away from the race for two years? I doubt it. He's won it and he knows how to run it. I think a lot will depend on how he chooses to execute on race day. Does he do the Jim Walmsley burst off the front and just bury his competitors? I don't know. He's getting older. He's not old by any stretch, but it'll be interesting to see what his tactics are. But he knows the course, he knows how to run it, he knows how to handle the heat for sure. Will he try something like to break his own course record or run a time that maybe we've never seen before?


And then, similar to Rachel Drake, Hayden Hawks' performance at Black Canyon here in Arizona back in February really raised my eyebrows. And were Jim to falter at all, I think Hayden will be right there. In fact, if Jim does go off the front, I don't think Hayden will let him go off very far. He's learned how to run these things like a competitive track racer or cross country race.


Tyler Green, who has two runner-up finishes, will be in the hunt again.

For third place, as I mentioned previously, the Jedi of Western States, a couple seconds and a fourth the last three years, Tyler Green. He just seems to come ready to play every single year. He loves the race. He's done his homework, he's studied it. He spends a lot of time talking to the old veterans of the race. And I don't see any reason why he won't get on the podium again. It just might be that Jim and Hayden are a little too much for him.


I don’t think a lot of people know last year's fourth place finisher but now they do — Jiasheng Shen, from China. Ran his own race. Started out hard. Kind of chilled out a little bit in the middle of the day, and then, came on strong at the end. I think he's got a real good shot at being there if there's anybody who falters.


And then, Jonathan Albon from the UK who's been trying to get into the race for a little while, got a Golden Ticket in late '23 and is a super strong runner.


And then, I've got two more, Dakota Jones who got a Golden Ticket from CCC and Nick Coury, who was at this 12-hour race I was doing. Nick was doing the six-hour as sort of his final tune up for Western States and doing some heat mitigation practice and everything else. And in really hot conditions, he ran 50.5 miles in six hours.


Question: Let's talk about some sleepers, some people who we haven't talked about, some off the radar runners who you could see finishing up in the top 10.


Answer: It's always interesting to look at the Golden Ticket winners and see if you can find a diamond in the rough there, especially international runners that we may not be as familiar with. So for example, on the women's side, not that she's a sleeper, but Yngvild Kaspersen, who's only 29 years old from Norway. She found herself with a Golden Ticket. There's an Italian runner named Giulia Vinco that I think could be interesting. And then, a Spanish runner on the women's side who's been in the top three before, Ragna Debats.


On the men's side, I'm interested in some of these under-30 runners that have found their way into the race with Golden Tickets, Simon Gosselin, who's from France, 28 years old, Blake Slattengren from up in Seattle, had a really impressive race at Javelina, 28 years old, and, Caleb Olson, who's from Utah, went out to Virginia and nabbed a Golden Ticket spot at Grindstone, also 28 years old.


The 2024 Western States will start the morning of June 29.

Question: I was also thinking of Rod Farvard, too, who got his Golden Ticket at Canyons.


Answer: Oh, you're right. And there you go, he's another 28-year-old.


Question: You mentioned this on your podcast, but another interesting storyline is Eric Spector who is trying to become the oldest finisher at Western States. Tell me who currently holds that record and what do you think about Eric's chances?


Answer: Ray Piva, when he was 70 way back in 1998, ran the fastest 70 and over time at the course in 28:09. The oldest finisher was Nick Bassett a few years ago, in 29-and-change, 73 years old.


Eric is four years older than Nick, 77 years old. And so, he and I talked a couple of times, most recently after he had run all three of the days at the Memorial Day Weekend Training Camp. He ran the training runs comfortably in paces that would put him in a pretty good category to possibly getting this done.


I think what has done in some of the 70-plus-year-olds in recent years is the high country, the snow and the altitude in the high country. So if it's a less snowy year and he's able to get to Robinson Flat with some time on the clock, maybe 45 minutes to an hour before the cutoffs, I think he could be successful there. And then, it's just a matter of if he's able to hold on through the night and if the second day doesn't get too hot. So I'm really interested in seeing how Eric does. He's 100% focused on this. He told me he's logged over 200 miles on the course.


Question: This past year, the drawing shattered previous records, which had been broken every year for four or five years. In your crystal ball, what does that look like for those trying to get into the race just one time?


Answer: I think we're getting close to the time when the 256 ticket holders don't virtually automatically get in. As you probably know, in last year's lottery, all but one of the 256 ticket holders was pulled in the lottery and they put the one that wasn't pulled in the first position on the wait list, and he got in within days of the lottery. Right now, there are five 128 ticket holders on the current wait list. Assuming they qualify again, they're going to be 256 ticket holders next year. So we could be getting to a point, looking into the crystal ball, where we actually have a 512 ticket-holder waiting 11 years to get in for the first time. So time will tell. The numbers were insane, right? As you mentioned, it was over 9,000 in the lottery, so you have to imagine, it'll be over 10,000 for the 2025 race.


Andy Jones-Wilkins, a 10-time finisher, now volunteers in a number of ways for his beloved race.

Question: Well, then, if Eric Spector sets the record, there's probably people who aren't going to be able to get into the race until they're 77 or older. So the last question I have is actually more about you. It's been 10 years now since your final Western States as a runner, and obviously you ran that race 10 times. So compare and contrast the 10 years you ran the race —and I know the COVID year we didn't have a Western States — with the 10 years since, as you've become a commentator, advocate, historian, volunteer, all the things, for the race.


Answer: Yeah, thanks for asking. I remember 2009 when my good friend Kevin Sawchuk was awarded his 10-day buckle, finishing the race 10 times all in under 24 hours. At that point, I had finished it five times. They don't do this anymore, but at the time, they handed the microphone to the 10-time finishers and gave them an opportunity to talk a little bit. And Kevin said thank you to Greg and the race organizers, and then said, "And I pledge to you that I'll continue to return to the race for the next 10 years as a volunteer." And I thought that was so darn cool. Kevin is a doctor, a medical doctor, and so, for all 10 of those years, he volunteered at the race as a medical professional at Michigan Bluff and at the finish line.


So fast-forward five years later when I got my 10-day buckle along with good friend, Erik Skaden, nobody handed me the microphone, but I pretty much said the same thing to Craig and Tim when they handed me the buckle, I was like, "Look, if you guys will have me, my days running the race are over, but I'd be excited to volunteer for at least the next 10 years. I'll do whatever you want." So I've done finish line interviews. I've worked at setting up the finish line. Last several years, and again, this year, I've done parking patrol at Duncan Canyon. I announced in the booth for a few hours on Sunday morning.


I can't believe it's been 10 years. But in many ways, seeing the race from the other side, it's really exciting for me. I love it. And I am already looking forward to getting in the car and being there. I have five runners that I coach who are in the race, so I'm excited about them. And as it is every year, it's kind of the highlight of my calendar.


Question: Those are all the questions I have. Anything we didn't talk about that you want to mention?


Answer: I'd like to add one thing that I think is a byproduct of the race's popularity, and also, kind of an interesting note about this year. It's been since 2019 that a 1,000-mile buckle has been awarded. That year, it was awarded to Ian Sharman. This year, there are three in the race with nine finishes, Phil Sanderson, Ken Ward and Kaci Lickteig. Certainly, over the years, there will be fewer and fewer 10-time finishers just because of how difficult it is to get in the race, but it's really cool to see three people going for it this year.



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