Life in a day: From Western States wait list to the finish line
(Photo credits: All photos by Amy Currano, except the official Western States pre-race check-in photo and others where noted.)
By Henry Howard
Imagine you suddenly receive a text that represents a dream come true: you will be running Western States.
And you will be running the historic race tomorrow.
That’s what happened to Allen Currano, though he knew that there was a chance because he was next up on the wait list as of June 24, the day before this year’s race (10 key takeaways from the 2022 Western States race). But before he could circle the track at Placer High School, he first had to discover ultra running.
Trail running as training
Currano played baseball in high school before focusing mainly on rock climbing in his 20s and 30s, then started running regularly in 2005.
“I favored long and adventurous routes that took a full day or more to complete, like Half Dome, El Capitan or the Palisades Traverse in the Sierra, with occasional mountaineering and backpacking trips as well,” he says.
In 2010, Currano finished his first 50K on the Skyline to Sea trail. The race taught him “some valuable lessons about pacing appropriately.” After going hard for 20 miles, he suffered cramps and ended up hiking the final 10 miles.
He didn’t immediately continue with ultras.
Around 2010, Currano was drawn to ultralight backpacking/fast packing and “quickly became obsessed with the John Muir Trail and FKT-style adventures.” So he used trail running as training for fast packing trips on the JMT.
After a couple of failed FKT attempts on the JMT, he completed a Yo-Yo FKT/OKT (Only Known Time) in 2016 on the High Sierra Trail. The trail crosses the Sierras from west to east, ending on top of Mount Whitney. He finished the 122 miles/200K round trip in just over 44 hours, with no sleep.
“During this time I was also working with Jason Fitzpatrick from the Muir Project on a short film project called Unsupported, about various unsupported FKTs and FKT attempts on the JMT.”
Focusing on qualifiers
Currano lived in northern California from 2000 to 2019 before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2019. Regardless of his address, he has always preferred running on dirt instead of pavement.
“I have always preferred running on trails and in the mountains, both for the variety of scenery and terrain and as it gets me out in the wilderness, away from civilization,” he explains. “After my first race (the 50K), I got a bit sidetracked with fastpacking on the JMT but a few years later decided to throw my hat in the lottery for Western States and Hardrock, knowing it might take a few years or more to get in.”
Like many of us, he focused on completing his qualifiers, then hoping. Among his finishes are his first 100K, Miwok in 2016; and his first official 100-miler, Wasatch in 2017. He also ran the TRT100 in 2018, and Run Rabbit Run in 2019 and 2021.
“I think mountain 100s suit my strengths,” he says. “I enjoy scenic courses at higher elevation with significant vert. I like to go all day and while I'm not particularly fast on the flats or more runnable uphill grades, I rarely get passed on downhill sections or steeper uphills.”
(Photo by Josh Holer. Allen Currano training on the High Lonesome course in the Sawatch Range, Colorado.)
Training for High Lonesome
When the entrants were drawn last December for the June 2022 Western States, Currano thought he was in a good position with 16 tickets.
“I was watching the lottery like I do every year, and I had a decent chance of getting in,” he recalls. “But after they had drawn the entire entrants list and about 50 waitlist spots I gave up and left the room to do something productive.”
Suddenly, everything changed. Great news! You’re on the wait list — but it will be a long wait.
“I was shocked to hear they drew my name at 68th!” he says. “Given that the omicron variant was exploding at the time, I thought there was a small chance I'd actually get in since travel might be difficult, especially for international runners. With the race over six months away there were still a lot of unknowns.”
Currano immediately started training as if he would run in Western States.
“I wanted to do my best to be ready just in case,” he says. “Simultaneously I started looking for other races around the same time, so I'd have a backup plan in case I didn't get in, which would help motivate my training and make sure it didn't go to waste if I didn't get to run Western States.”
Among those races is the High Lonesome 100, which is about four weeks after Western States. He landed on that wait list as well. He has Run Rabbit Run 100 on the calendar as well, since he received a free entry for winning the Tortoise division last year.
Currano estimated his odds were better at getting into High Lonesome, rather than Western.
“I focused more on training for High Lonesome and figured that would put me in good shape for Western States, if I did get the invitation,” he says. “I did a bunch of ski touring in the local mountains over the winter to keep my climbing legs strong, and started ramping up the running miles again in April.”
Major forest fires in the spring disrupted his trail running routine. The forest land where he normally trains in the summer was closed until about a week ago, and the local trails were closed for a few weeks in May and June due to fire danger.
So Currano took a few trips to southern Colorado to train, thinking it would pay off for High Lonesome. His training included a few weeks of 40 miles, three weeks of 60-plus miles and three weeks of about 75 miles and 10K-12K feet of vert, leading up to Western States.
“I was pretty happy with that but would definitely have ramped up earlier and peaked with higher mileage and more vert if I'd known I was going to get in,” he says. “And hopefully I can recover quickly and do well at High Lonesome with the fitness bump from States!”
Moving on up
Chris Thoburn, a friend of Currano’s, moved from his 42nd position on the wait list to the Western States starting line on June 13, roughly two weeks before race day. About a week later, “things really started moving quickly,” Currano recalls, thinking his odds at that point were about 50-50.
By June 22, the Wednesday before the race, he was fourth in line.
“I started contacting those ahead of me to see what they would do if they were invited,” he says. “Only one of them said he was a definite yes, so we bought plane tickets to Reno and started packing.”
Two days before Western States, he had the top spot on the wait list. “I figured we had to make the trip as it could be years before I got the chance again to run States.”
At that point, he figured being first on the list gave him a 90 to 95% chance of getting into the race.
“Historically if you show up on Friday in that position you will get in,” he says. “It was an easy decision at that point. If I had not gotten in, I would have volunteered and was hoping to pace someone to just be a part of the race and get a look at some of the historic Western States course. As it turned out my odds were exactly 100%.”
The first cutoffs
About 24 hours before the start of the race, Currano and his wife started their journey. He kept a positive mindset, knowing that there is often a runner who gets in on the final day. This year, he would be that runner. But he would have to get to Olympic Valley first.
“We had a stopover in Oakland and a brief scare after boarding the plane to Reno,” he says. “The pilot announced there was a disabled plane on the only runway at Reno and we would not be able to take off until it was removed. But we were soon cleared for takeoff and landed in Reno.”
Shortly after landing in Reno around 10 a.m., Western States race director Craig Thornley sent Currano a text.
“A runner from Mexico had just dropped and I was in!” Currano says. “I completed the registration on Ultrasignup at baggage claim, and almost left a bag there — the one with all my drop bags, nutrition, extra shoes, etc.!”
Then he faced his first cutoff.
“We still had to rent a car, drive to Olympic Valley and check in before 1 p.m. — so it was a bit of a scramble to get there in time,” he says.
Currano checked in at noon, then scrambled to pack his drop bags in the parking lot to beat the 1 p.m. cutoff for drop bags. At the same time, his phone was blowing up and his wife was trying to organize friends who had offered to help with pacing and crewing.
“It was a bit hectic to say the least!” he says. “I was tired and hungry as we had gotten up at 3 a.m. to catch our flight and hadn't eaten since the layover in Oakland at about 8 a.m.”
At the pre-race briefing, Thornley shared Currano’s story. “As it turned out a few more people dropped on Friday, so everyone else who was still on the waitlist would have gotten in if they had shown up on Friday!”
Wanted: Crew and pacers
A big challenge for Currano was having a crew and pacers in place, just in case. It’s a big ask for having friends and family members commit to a day-long adventure crewing and pacing. Without the assurance of actually being in the race, it becomes even more complicated.
He did not have a team ready in advance, but says “one somehow materialized at the last minute when I did get in. I didn't want to ask anyone to commit before I was in the race, as they all have busy lives and other commitments. I was comfortable running with minimal crew and no pacers if it came to that.”
His wife, Amy, was 100% committed to crewing. As his odds of racing increased, his friend, Brian Daly, offered to help crew and pace from the river crossing to the finish line. His friend Jack Hsueh offered to let them stay at his place in Truckee, so lodging was set. And another friend, Goran Lynch, “jumped in to pace from Foresthill to the river and did a great job, despite having to ask what pacing means exactly, just 24 hours before the race!”
Running Western States
Now that he had his official Western States bib, he also had the opportunity to achieve one of his primary ultra running goals: a sub-24 and a silver buckle.
“I finally had a chance to achieve it, although under somewhat less than ideal circumstances,” he says. “I was well trained going into the race but hadn't done much heat training aside from a few runs in 80 to 85 degree temperatures. I only had a minimal taper, only a few days really, as I didn't really think I was getting in until just a few days before the race. I had also never run with ice aside from a few ice cubes in my hat, and had never used the ice bandana that Amy hurriedly sewed for me based on a YouTube video she found on Thursday before the race.”
His plan was to be conservative, hike uphill, use a controlled and efficient running effort on the downhills, and go easy on the flats — “which is what I normally do anyway in a 100.”
Currano recalls being a bit slower than goal pace in the early miles but more or less caught up to the 24-hour splits by mile 30 and building a bit of a cushion afterward. He first received help from Amy at Robinson Flat, the aid station at around mile 30.
“I was starting to get hot and a bit cranky, and my left hip had been pretty tight for a while, so I decided to keep it fairly relaxed through the canyons. I took on a bunch of ice at Robinson.”
In addition to his wife, Currano credits Tim Christoni, who they had never met before. “He was there to crew another runner, but very kindly jumped in to help us as Amy was solo at that point and I guess he could tell we needed help. A change of shoes and socks, and a few pounds of ice brought me back to life and I left much cooler and in much better spirits than I arrived, and moved well through the first canyon and into the second.”
Currano says the long hike up to Devil's Thumb took a lot out of him, between the heat and “the seemingly endless switchbacks.” He eased the pace to the next climb up to Michigan Bluff so he could recover. At Foresthill, he met his pacer, Lynch, who brought along his “boundless energy and enthusiasm, which helped raise my spirits for the upcoming and much anticipated Cal Street section.”
After another change of shoes and socks, plus more ice, they were off.
“Goran set a brisk pace and kept me distracted with stories and conversation and threats to sing bad 80s songs at me, and the miles just flew by. Before I knew it, we were at the river crossing and on track for a finish well under 24 hours.”
With 22 miles to go, Daly took over pacing.
“I was tired but knew all I had to do was keep eating and keep moving and we'd get to Auburn before the sunrise. After a very cold river crossing in the dark and the hike up to Green Gate, Brian caught his foot on a root and fell pretty hard, ending up with a boxer's cut over his left eye. He shook it off quickly and got patched up at the next aid station, and was able to keep running with me, although he then discovered that his shoe had been ripped completely open across the toes and down the entire arch!" Currano remembers, referring to the accompanying photo that Brian Daly took. "His shoe was so blown out that his toes kept popping out and he'd have to stop occasionally to stuff them back in and then run to catch up with me. Fortunately I wasn't moving that fast at that point and he was always able to catch me pretty easily.”
Heading toward the finish, Currano swapped placed back and forth with a few runners, including Kaci Lickteig.
“We would pass them on the downhills and they would pass us on the uphills. Kaci passed me yet again on the final uphill from Robie Point to the finish, with a film crew following her — but not wanting to get caught up in all that, I turned on whatever speed I had left as soon as I crested the final hill.”
He moved ahead of Lickteig, still recovering from surgery, and completed the final half mile with a 6:30 pace, finishing in 23:05:55. “I was ecstatic to finish in well under 24 hours, and overall the run went about as smoothly as I could have hoped under the circumstances.”
‘Train like you’re in’
Currano is grateful for the support of the volunteers, race organizers and his team.
“A huge thanks to my wife, Amy, for supporting me in all my adventures, and to my pacers Goran and Brian, and to Jack and Kelly for putting us up in Tahoe for the race,” he says. “And to the race organizers and volunteers for making it happen and taking care of us along the way. This is definitely the best organized race I've ever seen and likely the best in the U.S. if not the world.”
Every year dreams come true for runners circling the Placer High School track and crossing the finish line. But few have such a roundabout 24 hours before the start of the race. For those who may be in the same situation in 2023 and beyond, Currano shares what worked to make his race day a success.
“Train like you're in, and have a backup race or other adventure planned to help motivate your training,” he recommends. “Having High Lonesome on the calendar really helped keep me motivated to know that all that training would not be wasted if I didn't get into Western States. Knowing that I had trained consistently, and finished four other 100s as well as a number of other adventures of similar or greater difficulty gave me the confidence that I would be able to finish even if things didn't go to plan.”
Name: Allen Currano
Hometown: Santa Fe, N.M.
Number of years running: 12 seriously, a bunch more occasionally.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 20 to 80, depending on the season
Point of pride: High Sierra trail Yo-Yo FKT/OKT, 2016
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: eggs and potatoes before /Skratch powder and bananas during.
Favorite piece of gear: Hoka Evo Mafate shoes, Patagonia Strider Pro shorts and Airchaser shirt.
Who inspires you: “Quiet crushers like Brett Maune, Jared Cambell, and Amber and Ryan Weibel. People who fly under the radar a bit, but put in the work and consistently perform at or near the limits of their ability.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I haven't run with music for a year or two since my Bluetooth headphones quit working. But Iggy Pop's Lust for Life and the Beastie Boys' Sabotage are a couple of favorites.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Keep 'er movin'!”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: