The Western States 100-mile Endurance Run is sometimes compared to the Boston Marathon—a long-established tradition that’s both a major elite competition and a lifelong goal for serious amateurs.
The two races share something else, too: They’re beasts to get into.
In the most recent lottery, 4,248 people applied for 270 lottery spots. Those odds mean that, for many runners, simply reaching the start line will be a years-long journey.
If you’re at the very beginning of that process—or even just considering it—what do you need to know? Here’s a quick guide for those California dreamers.
What’s the Big Deal, Anyway?
Western States plays a foundational role in the history of U.S. ultrarunning. In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh ran, on foot, what was then a 100-mile horse race. Ainsleigh’s run became legend, and sparked the creation of the country’s first 100-mile trail-running race. The race remains a cultural touchstone that connects modern runners to the sport’s early history.
It’s also one of the biggest competitive events in trail running, year after year, with fields as deep as the course’s famed canyons.
Those factors contribute to making the Western States experience what it is. “Western States is just so different,” says race director Craig Thornley. “The limited number of entrants allows it to be really special and unique,”.
The race’s permit caps its participants at 369. About 100 of those spots go to elite runners, including those who have won “Golden Tickets” at one of six specific races, or non-elites who get in through some form of special entry (more on that later). That leaves about 270 fiercely contested lottery spots.
Every year a runner wishes to enter the lottery, he or she must complete one of the more than 90 qualifying races, all trail 100-milers and 100Ks “of significant difficulty.”
The number of tickets a runner has in the lottery rises exponentially for every consecutive year he or she has applied unsuccessfully. Unlike the Hardrock 100 lottery, which allots extra tickets for volunteer work, Western States gives runners no way to enhance their chances other than the passage of time.
“I hate to tell people to start applying as soon as they can qualify, but that’s probably what they need to do,” Thornley says. “Because on average, it’s going to take four years, five years to get in the race.
“I hate to say that,” he continues, “because sometimes—oftentimes—people apply for the first time and they get selected in the lottery, and it may be a little early in their ultrarunning career.”
Even so, Thornley adds, anyone who has made it past the challenging qualification process should be able to tackle Western States.
There are other avenues of entry, though all of them are at least as difficult as the lottery:
Be really fast. Place first or second at one of a few “Golden Ticket” races in the spring, and you’ll be headed for the big dance. International elites can qualify via the Ultra-Trail World Tour. Race sponsors also get spots. Needless to say, these options are out of reach for most of us.
Win the raffle. Twice a year, Western States draws up to five names through a charitable raffle. You can buy as many tickets as you want!
Volunteer—and cross your fingers. Every club that crews an aid station (or does other volunteer work, like manning the radios) can designate one person to run the race. Western States sets no rules for how clubs choose, but clubs typically select someone who has volunteered in the past.
Be a badass senior citizen. Starting this year, Western States will grant the Greg Soderlund Silver Legend Entry to one outstanding applicant over age 60 on race day. The award honors former race director Greg Soderlund, who passed away last year.
Training and Preparation
Congrats! After many years of running qualifiers, entering the lottery and awaiting the early-December drawing like it’s Christmas morning, you’ve got your entry to Western States.
Now what do you do?
“Western States is famous for its canyon [descents] and its heat, so targeting those things in training will pay dividends on race day,” says Pam Smith, a six-time finisher who won the race in 2013.
With about 23,000 feet of total descent, Western States’s net downhill course can “make the last part of the race really a crawl instead of a run,” Thornley says.
“Western has a lot of downhills, which many people don’t specifically train for,” says Chris DeNucci, a two-time finisher who placed ninth last year. “I try to do long downhills—three to five miles—while keeping up my heart rate and turnover.”
If the landscape near you is more molehills than mountains, you can still have success with shorter downhill reps.
“I do a good amount of my hill training on a half-mile road with 300 feet of gain,” Smith says. “One workout I really like is to do three to five reps where I hike up and then run down hard. This also serves to practice hiking skills, which are important for getting yourself back out of those canyons.”
Temperatures on race day can top 100 degrees, so heat adaptation is paramount. But unless you live in Tucson, springtime temperatures probably won’t be a sufficient training stimulus in the months leading up to the race.
Running in extra layers is an option. Another is the sauna, which some runners use in the run-up to the race.
“I start around three to four weeks out, with 15 to 20 minutes every other day, eventually building up to 30 minutes daily the week prior to the race,” DeNucci says.
Smith adds that, while helpful, sauna sessions should not fully replace training runs in the heat.
“Hot days make it harder to digest while you are running,” she says. “Practicing your nutrition dials in what your needs are, but also helps you get used to eating on the run so you can hopefully avoid terrible GI issues.”
Also, strategize for race day. Dylan Bowman, a three-time top-10 finisher, recommends wearing arm sleeves and a bandana around your neck, and filling them with ice from aid stations.
“Keeping the neck and wrists cool helps to lower the core temperature, which will lead to a decreased perceived exertion and, ultimately, a faster race,” he says.
Getting on the Course
Finally, the race hosts a few training runs on the course—the final 20 miles in February and then, over the three days of Memorial Day Weekend, the final 70 miles.
The best part? You don’t even need to be signed up for the race. So while you wait on the lottery, you can still run Western States lite.
Paul Cuno-Booth is a Colorado-based freelance writer.