Western States 100 decision to raise qualifying standards draws concern

Run pioneer Gordy Ainsleigh suggests skirting Desolation Wilderness to let more entrants take part
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Will success spoil the Western State 100-Mile Endurance Run?

In the wake of a decision by the Squaw Valley-to-Auburn ultramarathon’s board to raise the bar for qualifiers to require completion of a 100-mile or 100-kilometer race instead of a 50, four-time finisher Chuck Kratochvil is saying the move could diminish the local field of runners.

The Woodland resident said that too few lengthier ultramarathons are being slated in Northern California and costs will be prohibitive for some runners to travel to Southern California or beyond to qualify.

“There’s a real need to protect the people in the Auburn area,” Kratochvil said. “They’re the ones who work on the trail, do all the aid stations and go on horse patrol at night.”

The Western States board announced the changes in October, providing statistics that indicate tremendous growth in demand to take part in a race along the historic Western States Trail and protected Desolation Wilderness in the Sierra. There are 369 slots available and 270 are open in a drawing. The new qualifying rules won’t impact the drawing for the June 28-29 race but will be in effect for the 2015 version of the Western States 100.

Board President John Trent said there are 2,700 sign-ups for the 2014 race lottery, giving people a 1-in-10 chance of being part of the ultramarathon.

“These are tough odds,” Trent said. “On one hand we’re trying to balance the concerns of our local constituency. We’re very respectful and thankful for local support.”

Trent said that one underlying hope is that the new qualifying standards will spur race organizers in the region to develop 100K or 100-mile events that could be part of the qualifying list in the future.

Each of the close-to 30 aid stations along the route qualify a runner for the event – if that runner can also qualify through one of the designated ultra races, Trent said. The qualifying runs are chosen to be hilly and difficult, he said.

“The difficulty is important,” Trent added. “We want them to have the experience so they have a taste of what Western States can be like.”

Trent added that the sport of ultramarathon distance running has experienced explosive growth throughout the world in recent years, particularly among women and runners in the 20-39 age range.

“A number of events are facing the same situation,’ he said. “Leadville (an ultramarathon in Colorado) had 943 starters this year compared with only about 500 in 2009.”

Pioneering ultramarathoner Gordy Ainsleigh of Meadow Vista said he’s disturbed that many of the 100-mile and 100K races designated as qualifiers for Western States are also hard to get into because of their popularity and limited slots.

Ainsleigh said one solution would be to allow more runners to take part in the Western States 100 by changing the route to avoid Desolation Wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service has limited the number of entrants to 369 since the mid-1980s.

“My thought is give it up (the 5-mile Desolation Wilderness stretch) or make a deal with the Forest Service to acknowledge that the run is being done by a low-impact group,” Ainsleigh said. “It never hurts to ask. You never know what’s on their mind.”