Impacts on canceled Western States Endurance Run for runners, Auburn businesses

Fire, smoke and safety concerns stop Saturday's world-class ultramarathon
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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With dreams of going the distance in the fabled 100-mile trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn up in smoke, runners were taking the event’s cancellation in stride Thursday, Western States Endurance Run President Tim Twietmeyer said. “So far, so good,” Twietmeyer said, on a day that should have seen the Squaw Valley start area welcome most of the run’s 370 participants in a festive atmosphere. “A vast majority think we made the right decision,” he said. The decision to cancel the run for the first time since the event was officially held in 1977 was made late Wednesday by the board. Wildfire danger and health risks associated with the smoke were cited in a statement subsequently released by the board to provide runners, volunteers and the public with their rationale behind not holding the run. It was set to start Saturday morning, with the first finishers arriving in Auburn on Saturday evening. FINISH LINE VISIT Rick Mayo was one of several disappointed Western States registrants who dropped by what would have been the finish line at Auburn’s Lefebvre Stadium. He walked the track with his wife and daughter on a route that finishers would have passed to cheers from supporters and local residents. Instead, there was silence punctuated by the sound of a siren from a fire truck. Mayo said he felt good about the decision to cancel the run but as late as Wednesday, he still had his hopes up. Mayo, a 32-year-old Hallmark Cards employee and personal trainer from Kansas City, Mo., had flown in Wednesday and heard the news at Squaw Valley’s Olympic Village. “It’s been pretty painful but I think it was a good idea – they’re looking out for our safety,” Mayo said. Doubts about the run began to emerge Saturday after a series of 3,200 lightning strikes in the Tahoe National Forest caused several fires to break out in relatively inaccessible areas. By Monday, smoke as thick as a light fog had enveloped the region and was expected to worsen by the weekend. Twietmeyer, an Auburn resident, said that while the smoke was worse in his hometown on Thursday, the Squaw Valley staging area was also covered by a thick haze. SOME EVENTS GO ON About 100 runners had registered Thursday for what are now health-related workshops, goodie bag pickup, a raffle and showing of Western States documentaries. A gathering of runners commemorating the race’s start will take place on Saturday. Twietmeyer, a multiple top finisher in the run and one of endurance sports’ most respected ambassadors, said the smoke had cut visibility from a nearby peak from about 30 miles down to five. Runners, although disappointed, have understood the reasons behind the decision, he said. “I really haven’t heard anyone say a bad thing,” Twietmeyer said. Even run pioneer Gordy Ainsleigh, a former Western States board member, was willing to admit that running the event would have been a mistake. Ainsleigh had suggested Wednesday that the run go on because he didn’t think the smoke in the air would hamper some runners. Ainsleigh was the first runner to make the 100-mile trek, running against horses in the Tevis Cup ride. Ainsleigh said he had changed his mind because he had initially been unaware of two fires burning within 3 miles of the Western States Trail and its access roads. “When I found out about the locations of those fires, I realized that they had the potential, if the wind came up, to cut off evacuations of crews and runners, with the possibility of a mass tragedy,” Ainsleigh said. “I also noticed that the air quality is progressively worsening, to the point where I would not want to run in it.” Ainsleigh said he would commend the board for a “wise and informed decision.” WEB COMMENTS FAVORABLE By late Thursday afternoon, comments on the Auburn Journal’s Web site were unanimously in favor of the decision. “Pagejohn,” an ultrarunner from Auburn, said “Bravo to the committee for choosing safety and responsible decision making first.” “Remember that it’s really not the runners who are put at risk – it’s the volunteers and then the forest service personnel who have to do rescues that are at issue,” Pagejohn said. “There’s just too much going on and the possibility of more fires in the vicinity is just too great,” “GreenBeans” stated. “And one also has to think of the possibility of starting another fire as a result of the race … glad they canceled it but sad at the same time,” wrote “auburnite.” The biggest event in Auburn on the weekend and one of the biggest of the year had already meant sell-outs at accommodations facilities and the promise of a spike in business for restaurants. “It’s messed up – everything is cancelled,” said Nick Joshi, manager of Auburn Travelodge. The 76-room motel had no rooms left for Friday and Saturday – before the announcement was made to cancel the run. By late Thursday, 16 cancellations had come in for Friday and 27 cancellations had been made for Saturday. “We lost some business but we feel good that they canceled it, because of safety issues,” Joshi said. OUTLOOK HOPEFUL Judi La Bonte, owner of the Foresthill exit’s Lou La Bonte’s restaurant, said she normally gets good crowds and will take a wait-and-see approach as the weekend approaches to gauge how business is impacted. “We do well when the hotels fill up so now we just have to hope for the best,” La Bonte said. At the nearby Motel 6, guest service representative Noel Dela Cruz echoed Joshi’s sentiments. The 57-room motel had already field 19 cancellations for Thursday night. It had been fully booked for the weekend. “It’s not good for our business,” he said. “We were looking forward to this.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at