Western States 100: Folsom man running for 10-day buckle, camaraderie

Erik Skaden, former foe can achieve feat together
By: Matthew Kimel, Journal sports editor
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Erik Skaden hopes he doesn’t screw up.

The 42-year-old Folsom resident is seeking to do something only 33 runners have done in the history of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run: earn a 1,000-Mile, 10-Day Buckle.

Recipients of the award, given to a runner who completes the Western States ten times and each in fewer than 24 hours, include Tim Twietmeyer of Auburn, Gordy Ainsleigh of Meadow Vista and Simon Mtuy of Tanzania, who achieved the feat in 2013.

Skaden and a former rival could be joining the list after the 41st rendition of the footrace that starts in Squaw Valley on Saturday, June 28 and ends at Placer High School in the Endurance Capital of the World.  

“I’m under pressure,” said Skaden, an economist who has entered the Western States nine times, completing it each and every time in fewer than 24 hours. “I need to make sure not to do something foolish.” An additional 36 runners have received the 1,000-Mile Buckle, finishing the course 10 times but not all in less than a day’s time.

Skaden didn’t start running ultras until he graduated college but he was hooked on the Western States from an early age.

“In the early 1980s, when I was in sixth or seventh grade, my parents took me out to Placer High and I remember seeing the race at Michigan Bluff,” he said. “I was just a kid at the time but I had already developed a fascination with the race. I was too young to be a participant.”

After graduating Jesuit High, where he was a member of the school’s first CIF Division II cross country state championship team in 1989, and finishing college, Skaden started thinking more about competing in the Western States 100.

“In my 20s I remembered my interest in the event and made it a priority after doing some marathons and shorter distances,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s raise the bar.’ I went out there and finished and it whet my appetite.”

‘Man, I didn’t win’

Skaden eventually developed into an elite runner, finishing second in the Western States in 2006 and 2007.

“The first time it was awesome,” Skaden said. “The second time it was like, ‘Man, I didn’t win.’”

In his peak days, Skaden recalls battling against his rival, Andy Jones-Wilkins of Virginia. The 46-year-old from the East Coast finished second in 2009 and is in the same class as Skaden, meaning they’ll both be going for their 10-day buckles this time around. 

“He’s currently a friend and a prior rival,” Skaden said. “We’re just happy to still be at it and finishing. We had some very, very competitive years. He’s finished the race second as well. He was a former elite. We stay in contact. He was out here a couple of weeks ago. A couple of weeks ago we went out and did 50 miles together on the course for a training run.”

In an email to the Journal, Jones-Wilkins wrote he’s really excited about the possibility of earning the buckle.

“It’s actually been a goal of mine since the fourth finish,” he added. “Given the fact that there are only 30 or so people in the history of the race who have earned it makes it a big deal to me. From my perspective, the 10-day buckle is emblematic of consistency and longevity in the sport and that is important to me.”

And for Jones-Wilkins, who finished 17th overall in 2013, earning the buckle on the same day as Skaden would be an “added thrill.”

“In 2006, ’07 and ’09 we were rivals,” he wrote. “Erik finished second place twice and I finished second once. We also each have several top-10 (finishes). Last year we ran most of the last 40 miles of the race together and had an amazing time re-living old memories and dreaming about No. 10. Our motto going into this year’s race is, “900 miles down, 100 miles to go.”

Throughout those 100 miles, however, is an element of unpredictability.

“There’s a little bit of fear,” Skaden said. “I know (Andy’s) probably thinking like I am — it’s not a done deal. There are a lot of things outside of your control that could impair your ability. It’s not a sure deal. There’s going to be a lot of management early on in the race of not doing anything stupid to jeopardize or sabotage your ability to be successful later in the day.”

‘Long journey’

Skaden is aiming to finish this year’s ultra in about 20 hours — a sign he’s no longer an elite runner.

Last year, he finished in 19:49.15, coming in 21st place and reaching LeFebvre Stadium more than 4 ½ hours after champion Timothy Olson.

“It’s been a long journey for him getting the 10,” said Craig Thornley, Western States 100 race director.

According to Skaden, some ultrarunners give up the sport once their heydays are over.

“People like me and Andy, when they drop from that elite category, they just simply walk away,” he said. “They decided finishing a race isn’t enriching enough. They want to be in the leader mix. It’s been a long journey to recognize that I’m not who I was. I’ve had to adjust my expectations knowing I’m not a front-runner anymore. I’m a mid-pack guy.”

Skaden has had to cut his hours of training substantially over the years with new priorities, including work and family. Still, his preparation runs from Foresthill to Devil’s Thumb to Swinging Bridge and back are demanding and he’s going to be “ecstatic when it’s over.”

“I’m not doing the quantity (of hours training) that I had done but I’m doing just enough to finish at a reasonable hour,” he said. “I’m looking to finish around 1 a.m., a 20-hour finish, to be able to hang out at the high school and celebrate with those who had a successful day and share camaraderie. That’s really what the last few have been more about. Not really competitive.

“It’s about living a shared experience with those that treasure this sport.”

Even if that includes a former foe.

Reach Matthew Kimel at Follow him on Twitter @matthewkimel