Chasing the Technology of Ultra Running

Squaw Valley 1983 — Credit: WSER

In 1974, an innovator and pioneer named Gordy Ainsleigh toed the line of a 100-mile trail race. The biggest difference between that race and races of today was that he was competing against, wait for it, horses.

He completed that race, the Tevis Cup, in under 24 hours, running from Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe to Auburn, CA. In doing so, he sparked what would become the Western States Endurance Run (no horses!) and eventually the burgeoning sport of ultra trail running.

And one can draw an extraordinary line between that hot August day to this Saturday in an auditorium at Placer High School where the Western States will conduct an annual lottery to determine which runners will gain acceptance into the race that will be held in June, 2018.

Hard to imagine which is more unlikely: that Gordy would finish that race dodging 4-legged competitors or that on Saturday, more than 4,900 people worldwide will be waiting and hoping to hear their name called for one of 261 spots. Several hundred of them will gather in person at Place High School in Auburn and thousands more will watch this spectacle live-streamed through Facebook.

4,900 runners who have already completed a 100 kilometer or 100 mile trail run in the last 12 months just for the hope of getting to do another one in June!

My fascination with technology and with the Western States began coincidentally in the same year, 1993. That year, I started my first Web consulting business and helped crew for a friend who was attempting the race that summer. He ran for 28 hours, first in deep snow and then triple-digit heat only to miss the cutoff just before mile 90.

When I press my memory back to 1993, nearly 20 years after Gordy’s achievement, and 25 from the present day, I see some pretty amazing running tech that had already evolved. Gordy isn’t stashing watermelons along the course and runners aren’t in cotton shorts! There are sports drinks, energy bars, and blister kits. The culture is fringe but largely prepared for the undertaking. Lighting for those hours in the dark is not great, and nowhere near the lightweight LED devices available today. Many runners tote hand-held pen lights and carry extra batteries.

What is still distinctly absent is the information technology. The race director and volunteers have a singular responsibility to the health and safety of the runners. This is supported by a network of HAM radio operators who relay information to ensure that anyone who has not crossed a checkpoint will be accounted for. While waiting hours in the dark and finally sunrise, there is no support system letting me know when my buddy will arrive at mile 80 where I am designated to meet him.

There are no mobile phones and no split times available online. Information travels as fast as either the trail runner or the crews driving up and down the Foresthill Divide in pursuit. Maybe a pay-phone call to an answering machine.

The community itself is tiny, far spread, and largely glued together by a postal subscription to UltraRunning Magazine or via trail running clubs at a handful of running shoe stores.

When we go pick up my friend’s bag at the Placer High track late that Sunday morning, it is in the searing heat. I remember the distinct feeling of sheer exhaustion because apparently the only thing more tiring than running an ultra is crewing for one. There are no sponsor tents and not many people.

Anyone there is likely muttering about the heat.

As we drive away, I am very bullish on the Web business I am starting. On ultra trail running, not so much.

It was not until 2005 thatI found myself drawn somewhat unexpectedly to the trail, and living in the Bay Area, eventually back to that iconic race. In fact, next year will mark my 10th as a volunteer WSER innovate with information technology and media. Most recently, as videographer, focusing on individual finisher videos and the live stream.

Ultra trail running has boomed in the last 5 or so years. Races fill in under an hour. Where Western States was the first 100-mile event in North America, today there are more than 150 of these events.

I would argue that as the technology boom has spread to encompass every part of our lives, trail running’s popularity surge is a natural offshoot from the growth of social media platforms. Enthusiasts now can easily form communities to share advice, support, and co-miseration. Friend networks market feats of endurance with both light speed and a reach never before imaginable. Western States alone touches millions of people through various social channels and news feeds during race week in June.

And like Jim Ryun breaking the 4-minute barrier for the mile, as this media has hit critical mass it has made these efforts seem, well, doable.

I’ve completed a few ultra trail runs including Western States (2010) and having seen this entire arc, I feel downright ambivalent. First, my mind and my body tells me from experience that 100 miles is really really far and really really hard. And yet the result lists in UltraRunning (still the glue that ties together a much larger community!), tells me that apparently, maybe, it isn’t that far and maybe not that hard.

So, this Saturday, if you have idle curiosity and some time to kill, you can watch an auditorium full of ultra trail loving runners hope beyond hope that their name will be selected. Live. On the web, or video streamed.

What is coming in the future? Well, all signs point to lots of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices this holiday season. And Western States already has you covered.

Amazon Echo

“Activate The Green Bird. What is the latest on Western States?”

Google Home/Assistant

“Ok Google, ask The Green Bird what is the latest on Western States?”

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.