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Women of Western States
After a year away due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Western States 100-mile signaled a return to racing for the trail and ultra-community this past weekend. Western States is often touted as the “Super Bowl of Ultrarunning” in the US. Between its storied history as the oldest 100-mile race in the world, the exceptionally deep elite field it draws, and the fact that people try for 7, 8, even 9 years to get in through the lottery, it lives up to that moniker. The 2021 race set up to be no exception, with the women’s field made up of eight of the top ten from 2019 returning (including three previous champions), 7 golden ticket winners who had successfully raced their way into a start spot, 5 women who were granted entry through a global athlete initiative designed to bring in international competitors, and finally many other talented women who got exceptionally lucky through the annual lottery.
The field included women with ample experience on the Western States course, women who understood the distance but racing States for the first time, and those who would be debuting at the 100-mile distance as they raced their way towards Auburn. This increasing depth in the women’s field over the past two decades is exciting because it leads to close finishes and athletes battling 70, 80, even 90 miles into the race which makes for pretty good spectating. Put all these women on the start line together, add in pent-up expectations after a year without racing, and sprinkle in near-record heat and suddenly you have the recipe for fireworks!
For the first time ever this year, having crewed and paced in 2017 and run the 2018 and 2019 editions of the race, I would be watching from the sidelines. Despite not being physically out on course, as I sat in our studio on the Placer High School Track just beyond the finish arch, I was more tuned into the race than ever before as the co-host for the inaugural live broadcast of the event. The race starts with a 3.5 mile climb up the escarpment where the runners are greeted at the top by sunrise and those willing to start the hike before a shotgun fired at 5am starts the race.
The token piece of advice given out to Western State first-timers is, “don’t be the first over the top.”
This year we have two volunteers with go-pros helping capture the energy. Some of the first women to the top pause for a quick moment to look back at the sun rising over Lake Tahoe before dropping down the backside into what is known as the High Country section of the course.
By mile 15 Beth Pascall was in control of the front of the race. She had felt like she ran out of real estate and had to settle for 4th in the 2019 race and was clearly out to change that this year. By mile 30, the Robinson Flat aid station and the start of the famed Canyons section of the course, she was flirting with the women’s course record set in 2012 by Ellie Greenwood. However, close behind Pascall followed a hit list of contenders, including the two women deemed the race favorites, Clare Gallagher and Brittany Peterson who had battled to the finish line of the 2019 race in the closest finish we have ever seen.
Was Beth’s pace aggressive? Maybe, considering the predicted temperature highs for the day were nearly 30 degrees fahrenheit warmer than in 2012. Nevertheless she drove the pace forward and the chase continued behind her. At the halfway mark only 15 minutes separated first through fifth and 37 minutes separated first through tenth and anything could happen. Even an hour lead can disappear quickly when disaster strikes in the late stages of a 100-mile race.
Even in our tent studio at the finish, we were starting to feel the heat. Our laptops were hot to the touch and the Wi-Fi booster by the finishing arch had overheated and crashed, completely shutting down the live broadcast momentarily. As this was going on the heat was starting to take a similar toll on the runners making their way up and down the American River Canyon. By mile 61, Pascall had fallen off course record pace but was still running in 10th overall. She led the charge for the rest of the women past the men’s field that was seemingly coming apart at the seams.
She raced methodically and at mile 75 was leading the closest race in recent memory with a group of six women only separated by 27 minutes. As she solidified her hold on the F1 bib over the final 20 miles the race for F2-F6 was intense as first time 100-mile runners Ruth Croft of New Zealand and Ragna Debats of Spain moved into F2 and F3, a hard charging 2019 runner-up Brittany Peterson moved into F4, a relative unknown Katie Asmuth found herself in F5, and the first women over the escarpment, France’s Audrey Tanguy, found herself safely in F6. These women truly raced for 100 miles and never took their feet off the gas pedal.
At the metaphorical and literal end of the day, Beth Pascall put on a master class in executing on the Western States course, ultimately finishing 7th overall in the second-fastest time ever run in women’s history, 17:10:41. Ruth Croft scored a strong second-place finish in her debut 100-miler, finishing 9th overall, covering the course in 17:33:48. Also in her 100-miler debut, Ragna Debats held on for a phenomenal third-place performance, finishing 10th overall, in 17:41:13. Not only that, but at 42 years of age, Debats’ time took 35 minutes off of 11-time Western States Champion Ann Trason’s 2002 women’s masters' record!
That was not the only page in the history books that was rewritten last weekend. For the first time ever the women put not one, not two, but three women into the top ten overall! For reference the last time a woman finished in the top ten overall was Pam Smith in 2013 (9th place), and the last time two women finished in the top ten overall was in 2006 with Nikki Kimball and Beverley Anderson-Abbs finishing 3rd and 9th respectively. Charging in behind them the rest of the top ten women (an important distinction as they get automatic entry into next year’s race) were the second fastest ever with all ten women finishing in under 20 hours for only the second time in history.
Maybe most remarkably, the strength of this year’s field goes deeper than that with a record 17 women in the top 35 which doubles or even triples the normal number of women in this group. These feats did not go unnoticed on the course or in the broadcast studio. With tears rolling down her face, Beth Pascall finally let out tired and happy, “holy s*%t I just did that.” As she clutched the finishing ribbon and hugged her husband, I too let out tired and happy, “holy s*%t you just did that,” and tried to ready myself to interview her at the finish line.
In a year that was marked with the lowest finishing rate (66%) since 2009 and the fewest silver buckles (finishing in sub-24 hours) awarded since 2006, the women shown brighter than ever. They greeted the impending heat and the unknown that comes with not having raced in as much as 18 months with grit, determination, and a whole lot of speed to buck a trend that upended many other runners’ days. The women of the 2021 Western States didn’t just run better than ever because the conditions were so difficult, they ran better than ever despite the conditions.