The Ten Best WS Races

Updated June 14, 2012

This post was originally published in February 2010.

Are the elite trail ultrarunners of today different from those of previous generations? Are they more competitive? Are they out to set course records whereas the ultrarunners of the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s were satisfied just completing the distance? We sure have seen a plethora of impressive course records set the last few years at well-established trail ultras: Kyle Skaggs at Hardrock, Geoff Roes at Wasatch and Mt Masochist 50, Anton Krupicka at White River 50, Susannah Beck at Way Too Cool 50K, to name a few. However impressive and numerous these current results may be, I think it may be due more to the fact that we have a lot more runners running ultras and less because the runners of today are more competitive. Sure, with Gordy at Western States in 1974 and maybe for the first few years of WS, the mystique of going 100 miles was the appeal and not so much how fast or racing each other, but it didn’t take long before there was great competition and runners were trying to run fast. Perhaps I’m feeling like some of the new people in this sport aren’t giving respect to the old guard. Or, perhaps I just miss the old days. Regardless, there were great races and great athletes in the early years of our sport.  We can only imagine how these runners from the past would stack up against the runners of today, but my hunch is the old guard would hold their own.

What I’m going to do in this post is list what I think are the ten best races ever run at Western States. I’m taking into consideration the competitiveness of the race, the difficulty of the conditions, execution of a perfect race, the course, etc., along with the time. I’m going to limit this to include only winners (male or female) and I will only include a runner once. One might think that we could just list the progression of course records as each was better than the previous but that wouldn’t be very interesting and the snow, heat, and competition vary widely from year to year. One might also argue that non-winners have run better races than the winners. Sure, but we’ll save that for another post. By only choosing ten, I’m obviously going to leave some great races and great runners out.

But, before we can do this we must look at the different courses that have been used since Gordy first ran with the horses in 1974. There have been three distances: the “89 mile” course used from 1974 to 1979, the “93.5 mile” course used from 1980 to 1984, the “Wide World of Sports 100.2 mile” course used in 1985, and then a couple of different configurations of the “Cal St 100.2 mile” course from 1986 to present. While only those times from 1986 are considered for course records, there have been several changes to this standard “Cal St” course and it gets a little tricky comparing the times of say Morton’s course record to Jurek’s course record. From 1986 to 2001 there was the “Duncan and Deep Canyons” course where the significant Duncan Canyon was included but also some gravel roads between Robinson Flat and Last Chance via Cavanaugh Ridge and Deep Canyon.  From 2002 to 2005 the “Star Fire” course was used when Duncan Canyon was closed due to the 2001 Star Fire. This course had a fast gravel road section from Red Star Ridge to Robinson Flat which cut off some mileage so to keep the mileage at 100.2 we did a loop around Little Bald Mtn on new single track, still did the Cavanaugh Ridge route through Dusty Corners but added a few more miles on single track Pucker Pt Trail to Last Chance. Finally, after much volunteer work (real and forced) to get Duncan Canyon re-opened, the current “Miller’s Defeat” course uses new trail from Robinson to Dusty Corners while still using the popular Pucker Pt trail. This has the most single track of all the courses and is arguably the best course.  So how do the times compare on these three Cal St courses?  My opinion, and I’ve run all three of them, is that the Star Fire course was probably the fastest, the Duncan and Deep Canyons course a little slower, and the current Miller’s Defeat course the slowest of the three.  Perhaps the difference between the Star Fire and Miller’s Defeat courses is only in the 10-20 minute range, which is likely to vary between runners, but I believe there is a difference.

WSER Course - used with permission from WSER

One more thing we need to consider before we list our top ten is the use of the alternate Original Snow Route. This alternate route has only been used three times and it basically cuts out Duncan Canyon and Robinson Flat by running down Mosquito Ridge Rd and then N44 to Dusty Corners. This was first used in 1983 on the 93.5 mile course, and then again in 1995 and 1998 on the Duncan and Deep Canyons course.  In 2010 a new French Meadows Snow Route was used for the first time. While still 100.2 miles or so the route bypassed Lyons and Red Star Ridges and ran along French Meadows Reservoir on roads and single track before joining the Miller’s Defeat course at Duncan Canyon.  This route is arguably faster than the regular Miller’s Defeat course, perhaps about the same as the Star Fire course.  And then again in 2011 a slightly different snowroute was used as we couldn’t get into Robinson Flat due to very heavy snow. I’ll call this one the French Meadows Mosquito Ridge Snow Route. Enough of the courses already?  If you haven’t had a enough, you should check out my WSER Course Trivia Contest from last February.  If you have had enough let’s finally get to my top ten eleven list.

10 11. 1980 Sally Edwards 22:13 on the 93.5 mile course.  While Sally’s time is not that impressive on the all-time lists this race was significant for women in the sport.  According to former RD Norm Klein in his 1998 The History of Western States, Sally and “Bjorg Austrheim-Smith dueled until the final mile in 1980 with Sally winning by a mere two minutes. Both finished in the top 20. Considering that in 1980 there were 250 entrants, this fight to the finish marked a landmark achievement in the race.”  Austrheim-Smith was catapulted by this race and ended up winning the next three years in significantly faster times.  1980 is still the closest women’s finish in the history of the race.

9 10. 2007 Nikki Kimball 18:12 on the Miller’s Defeat course.  Kimball’s time puts her in the number three spot of all-time among women, behind the incomparable Ann Trason and Ellie Greenwood.  2007 was her third victory, more than an hour of ahead of the second place woman, Beverley Anderson-Abbs, and she finished 8th place overall.  While 2007 was run on the Miller’s Defeat course, Trason’s best on the Duncan and Deep Canyons course, and Ellie’s on the French Meadows Mosquito Ridge Snow Route, her time is exactly where it should be on the all-time list and I put her at number 9 on my list.

8 9. 2009 Hal Koerner 16:24 on the Miller’s Defeat course.  This was Hal’s second victory and not his fastest time or even a CR for the Miller’s Defeat course, but this was perhaps the deepest field ever after two years of Montrail Ultra Cup qualifiers due to the cancellation of the 2008 race.  Despite race day temps over 100 degrees and a DNF list that was a Who’s Who of modern ultrarunning, there were 5 men under 17 hours.  Hal told me he thinks he ran better in 2007 (16:12) and that the 2009 race for the top was really only between three guys:  “The competition was fierce, but I only viewed 2 people as possible contenders, no matter how many had a shot. It was a race for the ages however, considering the heat and the drops and how many could’ve been under 17.”  I probably could have moved Hal up this list a bit but I expect even better things to come from him in the future.

King in 1984

King in 1984 (photo by Duane Matsen via Flickr)

7 8. 1984 Jim King 14:54 CR on the 93.5 mile course.  Unfortunately, this race is kinda lost because it was the last year of the 93.5 mile course, but it was a stellar performance and the fastest on any WS course.  There was a quality field with past champions Jim Howard and Doug Latimer, Skip Hamilton and Barney Klecker.  King, on his third try, smashed the course record by over an hour.  Bruce LaBelle finished second in 15:47, also under the old course record.  This was the second of his three victories and he earned $2500 in prize money.  King brought running all the hills to the race and we can only imagine how he’d stack up with the likes of Roes, Anton, Jurek, or Koerner.  You can read about King’s own account of his 1984 race here.

6 7. 1995 Tim Twietmeyer 18:34 on the Snow Route.  This was Twiet’s third of five victories and was in the middle of his unprecedented 15 straight years finishing in the top five.  Mr Consistency gets the nod for his 1995 victory because of the conditions and the competition.  This was the year known as “Fire and Ice” and was the second year the Snow Route had to be used.  Highs in Auburn were 107 on Saturday and 109 on Sunday.  It was very competitive to the end with Twiet holding off Ann Trason by 5 minutes and the Tarahumaran by 11 minutes.  You can read Twiet’s account of 1995 in Running Through the Wall: Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon (read part of the story here).

5 6. 2004 Scott Jurek 15:36 CR on the Star Fire course.  This was Jurek’s sixth victory in a row, and sixth consecutive race where he ran a PR.  His determination and focus on getting the course record was legendary.  He was pushed this year by Dave Mackey who was near him until around Michigan Bluff.  He mastered WS and this current course record unfortunately has an asterisk by it because it was on the Star Fire course.  Would Jurek have broken Morton’s record on the current course?  I think he would have.

4 5. 1997 Mike Morton 15:40 CR on the Duncan and Deep Canyons course.  Morton just nailed this one.  He was the first non-Californian to win the race.  The Navy Diver from Maryland came to WS for the second time and smashed Tom Johnson’s course record by 14 minutes.  I was fortunate enough to watch Mike come through highway 49 and then again at No Hands Bridge.  He looked so fresh as he pranced across the bridge in daylight.  It was beautiful to watch.  Morton would never return to WS again.  Where are you, Mike?

3 4. 1993 Tom Johnson 17:08 on the Duncan and Deep Canyons course.  TJ was possibly the best male runner to ever win at WS.  And even though this was the slowest of his three victories, 1993 stands out above the rest because of the conditions.  Very hot and snowy on the Duncan and Deep Canyon course which yielded one of the lowest finishing rates ever at 54%.  TJ’s modest recollection was that “93 took a lot of concentration to get it right & maximize pace…  back off a couple of notches in the sun-exposed areas, pick it up a couple notches in the bits of shade to try to maintain best overall pace, but the whole effort right on the edge of blowup.  A challenge if nothing else!”  He did tell me he thought his best race was his 1991 16:38 where he felt like he could have run 10 more miles after he finished, but I’m giving his 1993 race the number 3 race of all time.

2 3. 1994 Ann Trason 17:37 CR on the Duncan and Deep Canyons course.  What can we say about Ann?  In 1994 she set the course record with her sixth of ten straight and 14 total victories.  She was second overall to Twietmeyer.  Ann wasn’t racing the women as the second place woman was over 3.5 hours behind.  In 1995 she ran 18:40 for second place overall again, this time by a scant 5 minutes, and held off a Tarahumaran who didn’t like being beaten by a woman.  No other woman has finished under 18 hours.  When will it happen and who will do it?

Desperate Dreams II - 1983

Desperate Dreams II - 1983

1 2. 1983 Jim Howard 16:07 on the Snow Route.  I think this is easily the second best race ever at WS and lucky for us it is recorded on DVD on Desperate Dreams II (available at Auburn Running Company).  It was a huge snow year so the alternate snow course had to be used for the first time.  Returning champion Jim King was hammering through the snow early and had a huge lead over the field at Red Star, including 36 minutes over former co-champion Howard.  By Duncan Canyon aid station, King had fallen back to 15th after getting lost for 45 minutes.  King and Howard moved up in the field and were together at Dusty Corners and Last Chance (in 3rd and 4th place).  King hammered the canyons and arrived in Michigan Bluff in first place, 27 minutes ahead of Howard who was in 4th.  King’s split from Last Chance to Michigan Bluff was 2:13!  For comparison, Jurek’s split on his CR run in 2004 was 2:19.  The lead over Howard remained around 30 minutes through ALT by which time Howard was comfortably in 2nd place.  But he was not running for 2nd place.  He was 7 minutes behind at hwy 49 and threw down the unbelievable split of 56 minutes to the finish to catch King right before the white bridge and finish 30 seconds ahead of King.  Anybody think these guys weren’t competitive?

1. 2010 Geoff Roes 15:07 on the French Meadows Snow Route. The Montrail Ultra Cup continued to bring a depth of quality runners like we’ve never seen before.  The 2010 field was packed with winners and runner-ups from ten competitive races throughout the country.  As deep as the field was, the focus was on the big four: Anton Krupicka, Geoff Roes, Kilian Jornet, and defending champion Hal Koerner.  The race started as expected with the three newbies hammering off the front and the defending champ lagging just slightly.  The three of them get to Last Chance at 11:04 am which is eight minutes faster than Jurek during his course record run of 2004.  Was this because the course was faster or were they running faster?  In the middle miles of the race Kilian and Anton pushed each other to amazing splits (including 2:16 and 2:17 record Cal St splits) while Geoff dropped off the pace by as much as 15 minutes at the river crossing.  Things changed rapidly after the river as Kilian took a needed break at Green Gate and Geoff climbed up from the river in an amazing 18 minutes to move into second, only 11 minutes behind.  While Anton ran great to the finish he couldn’t hold off the push by Geoff that brought him to the finish in a new course record 15:07.  Anton finished second, under Jurek’s old course record of 15:36, in 15:13.  The course that these guys ran from Last Chance to the finish was the same that Jurek and Morton ran for their course records.  The splits of 9:03 and 9:09 for the last 56.8 miles indicate that they were running faster than anybody ever has.  This race will be hard to top.

For more history read The History of Western States by Norm Klein, which appeared in Marathon and Beyond in 1998, or The WS Run, Year by Year on the WS website.  And here’s a nice concise list of all the winners and some other race stats.

23 Comments

  1. Craig,

    I think you have it exactly right that conditions play a huge role. I’ve only run it once, so I have no scientific basis for comparison, but I felt like the heat last year cost me a half hour compared to what I could have run if it was 10-15 degrees cool. I’m sure people who ran in really hot years would attest to even bigger time differentials (I’m thinking the year Graham won, for instance). Given the role of the elements, there have been some amazing performances at WS over the years.

    -Jasper

    P.S. Hal is a very confident man. I guess he has certainly earned the right to talk the talk. He’s been nothing short of phenomenal in 100′s over the last few years. I will say that I think Kaburaki, for one, would have been a lot closer to him last year with any course knowledge at all, and some better crewing/pacing help. My crew told me he probably lost a half hour just to poor aid station transitions etc. But, woulda coulda shoulda, right?

  2. Also, just curious why you think Scott would’ve gotten Morton’s record on the current course, given that you say it is 10-20 minutes slower, and he only beat it by four minutes… Are you thinking he had a little more to give out there that particular day, or just that he would have kept coming back till he nailed it?

    -J

  3. Jasper, that’s why I didn’t worry too much about him. I ran 50% of Mt Blanc in 2007 and I can’t even think of how hard it’s going to be to go back. He ran well for traveling to a foreign country and I give him even more credit for being a rookie as do I the other sub 17er’s. However 30 minutes is forever, really? I mean if you’re getting lost at WS in 2009? He also had 4 people to motivate him, one of which was you.

    Craig, the list is hard to argue with. I thought Nikki’s run in 2006 was pretty special as well. Better than 2007?

    Desperate Dreams is playing on the TV at RVR right now. You want to talk about confident, just watch Jim King for 2 minutes.

  4. I agree that the current Miller’s Defeat Course is the slowest of the three courses used since 2000. However, remember, that a mile was cut off on the climb up to the Escarpment with the latest course as well. Not much to quibble about but it makes the opening climb shorter and steeper. Good for some, not so good for others.

  5. Craig…Good post, I enjoyed it and went over to Auburn Running and purchased Desperate Dreams…Now that they are handling the WS merchandise..The dvd is classic. All these runners in nike waffle shoes..many with no water bottles, and my fav..the guy with the largest flashlight ever carried at the finish…First official WS training run this weekend..a lot of folks will be out on the course many for the first time…it should be a good weekend.

    • @Tony, good to know the DVD is still available at ARC. Yeah, the fashion and gear from the early 80s was awesome. I also love the pre-race interview with King and his mullet: “They say there are three types of runners at Western States: the survivors, the runners, and the racers. Of that group I’d say that I’m one of the racers.” He definitely was a racer.

      Have fun this weekend at the WS training run. I’ll be hitting Rooster Rock (our canyon simulator) for my first quad thrashing.

  6. I’ve been meaning to post a comment on this post for a while and I finally have chance to do so.

    It is clear to me, today, that the sport of ultramarathon running is changing. More people are coming to the sport and faster, younger runners are getting into these distances earlier. The proof is in the pudding with the performances of Skaggs, Krupicka and Roes to name just a few. That said, to suggest that today’s runners are more competitive and more willing to lay it all out there is just plain wrong. And, I might add, insulting to those runners from the ’80′s and ’90′s who truly did, lay it all out there. They may have not done so against the depth of fields we have today but they laid it out there nonetheless and that should not go unnoticed.

    I have a hunch that part of the impetus behind this post was the comment thread that followed my dnf post on my blog a couple months ago. In response to that post, several commenters suggested that there will likely be more dnf’s in the future as more people lay it all on the line to make a run at cr’s etc…and that may well be true. But, what is also true is that King, Howard, Latimer, Trason, Twietmeyer, Hian, O’Brien and many others also laid it out there and should certainly stand the test of time.

    Just as we’d all love to see a World Series between the ’27 Yankees and the ’76 Reds or a Super Bowl between the ’74 Steelers and the ’85 Bears or even a Master’s between Nicklaus, Palmer and Woods the truth is we can’t. But to belittle the achievements of those who’ve gone before, simply because those who are here today think they are better, is short-sighted and ultimately harmful for the sport. It is actually quite fun to think of a WS starting line with King, Krupicka, Latimer, Roes, Hian, Koerner, Jurek, Tweitmeyer, Trason, O’Brien and Howard. Who do you think would win? And, who wouldn’t finish? Just my 2 cents.

    AJW ‘

    • @AJW, yes, the thread from your post was partially the motivation. I also heard the same type of we’re-out-to-set-course-records rhetoric in a DVD I watched a year or so ago by one of the young elites in the sport today… And, Greg S also suggested a post comparing the WS course records. So, it was collection of motivations.

  7. Do you mind if I chime in…words from a back of the pack old timer? The race has changed, back in the day – we didn’t have all the aid that is supplied nowadays – yes we did have Gatorade and a banana or so, but in those early days we carried our water in Chlorox bottles, pancake syrup bottles or whatever we had around the house. I remember carrying a 5 lb. divers light through the night. Maybe there is something to be said for running barefooted because the shoes back then had little more support then running in your barefeet (with the exception of Adidas). We didn’t have the numerous ultras there are today to use as training runs. I think you’ll find the mental toughness of the old guard just as competitive.

    • @E-Less, did you run to school 5 miles in the snow uphill both ways, too? But, seriously, you were anything but a back of the packer. Top ten at WS in my books is front of the pack.

      OK so you didn’t have all the fancy gear we have now, but remember one of King’s races when he had members of his church all over the course giving him aid?

  8. Firstly, I can’t say how refreshing it is to check your blog and read the same old banter between you and AJW. It gives me hope and faith that the sun will indeed rise this morning.

    Secondly, your post about the top ten Western States finishes is thoughtful and inspiring. Your posted links led me back to Jim Howard’s article about his CR. He talks about the “gradual climb to Hwy 49″ and uses understatements of the like. Glad to see that no matter if it’s Jurek, Anton or Howard, understatements are still used across decades. Hell…if I hadn’t been there I would have thought that going up to Hwy 49 crossing was akin to walking a block to cross the road to get to the beach!

    As usual, you’re an inspiration. Please continue to be.

    Hope you’re well.

    Jed

  9. Craig…good post and enjoy the debate the best races ever…The first sentances of the blog about new vs. old drew the most thought. From my observation looking in…Today it is becoming a sport. Sure are a lot of little perks afforded the elite runners with lots more exposure and sponsorship. Just look at the advertising by these top runners..Even though the dollars may not be large they are being compensated for trips, time spent training and gear..Not so much in the past. One thing today that is still true is the level of achievment outside the sport that many ultra runners have that impresses me most…Not so much the course records. The folks raising a family, careers and following the dream outside of running the trails just amazes me..It is a pretty special group.
    Enough gushing…See you on the line…

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