Of the 63 runners who toed the line at the first official Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, five were women. Pat Smythe was the first women to finish and win the race, with a time of 29:24. Little is known about Smythe, beyond her win. Since then, the race has expanded to become the most iconic in the sport. Now entrants are capped at 369 racers and women have moved their way into the spotlight, nailing top 10 spots and sub-24 hour finishes alongside the men.
After twice failing to finish the race, Ann Trason, now 57, of El Cerrito, California, became the first woman to break into the top 10 in 1989. She would race—and win—the women’s division an historical 14 times. Trason’s women’s course record, 17:37:51, set in 1994, was thought to be nearly untouchable until Ellie Greenwood, 39, of Vancouver, Canada, shattered it 2012 with a mind-blowing time of 16:47:19 (the equivalent of holding a 10-minute pace the entire race.) This year, about 20 percent of the field (77 of 369 runners) is female. Here, we highlight four of those women who all have a shot at the podium.
Meghan Laws (previously Meghan Arbogast), also often known as “the queen” in the ultrarunning community, has run Western States 10 times, each time under 24 hours, and nine times placing in the top 10 women. Laws’ consistency and strength is remarkable: she first raced Western 12 years ago at age 45 and hasn’t really slowed down since, continuing to best competitors 20 to 30 years her junior. She has also represented the United States in the World 100K Championships on eight consecutive teams. While Laws has never won Western, she’s clearly an ultra powerhouse and a contender for a top spot.
Speaking of ultra powerhouses, Courtney Dauwalter has gotten comfortable on podiums recently and could easily stand atop Western’s this weekend. Dauwalter, 33, has been trail racing since 2011 but really took the ultra scene by storm starting in 2016, bagging big wins in both the womens’ divisions and overall. In 2017, she won the Bear Chase 50-Mile, the Run Rabbit Run 100-Mile and the Moab 240 Endurance Run (by a remarkable 10-hour margin) overall, beating women and men alike. This will be Dauwalter’s first time at Western.
Stephanie Howe Violett (whose chosen spirit animal and nickname is “the gazelle”) won the women’s race in 2014 with a time of 18:01:42, and placed third in 2015. She is one of the returning champs to the field this year, along with Pam Smith (2013 winner) and Kaci Lickteig (2016 winner). While attending Northern Michigan University, Howe Violett raced both Nordic skiing and cross country, and was named two-time All-American, only falling in love with trails after college. Now 34, Howe Violett lives in Bend, Oregon, and works as a coach and sports nutritionist. Although the field for Western is always incredibly competitive, past winners can usually be counted on to know the course and their bodies better than beginners.
Lauren Pearch, 33, of Akron, Ohio, is a first timer to Western. Pearch got into ultrarunning about six years ago, and has recently started scoring podium finishes in races like the Mohican 100 Miler and the Glacier Ridge 50 Miler. Although Pearch isn’t a known name on the scene (yet!), she is a prime example of the true depth of the field, and the spirit of Western itself.
Pearch entered the lottery to run Western four times before finally getting in this year (read how Western’s lottery entry works here ). Western is an elite trail race and it can be easy to forget that middle-of-the-pack runners worked just as hard to be there as the standouts. Pearch, for her part, has been consistently logging miles while working full time as a pediatric-intensive-care-unit (PICU) nurse.
I like to ask people who inspires them in the sport, and a few people have said you. How does that feel?
I love that. It makes me feel happy that what I do can impact others in a positive way.
Who inspires you outside of the sport?
My daughter inspires me—she has struggled with a rare disease, POTS, for years and to this day cannot predict how she will feel or how she will function, but she never gives up.
And Anthony Bourdain. His goal was to bring people together from around the world across political, social and economic lines, through food, the one thing we all have in common. If I could do what he did through running, I would feel like I really accomplished something good in the world. I sorely miss him.
What is your most standout memory of Western?
2012, a couple miles before getting to Robinson Flat, mile 30, I heard something that sounded like yelling or cheering. I thought, “Wow, that is a long way for spectators to trek out.”
When I came to the scene, I saw three men standing in the trail and a woman on her back, her head against a log. She was gasping for breath. It was my good friend Kami Semick. She was having a severe asthma attack.
I ran up and laid next to her, cradling her head and talking to her to get her respiration to settle down. I told the men to get help. As each person ran by, they all offered their help, including two inhalers. With the use of those, we were able to get her on her feet and slowly walking. Kami tried hard to get me to get back in the race, but I wouldn’t go until another man said he would stay with her, as he was not “racing.” I reluctantly left, and the story ended well. It was a great example of how we first must care about each other as human beings and that we need to take care of each other.
How are you training right now—anything different from previous races?
Not a lot has changed. If it isn’t broke, why fix it! A typical week would be tempo interval runs on Tuesday and Thursday, that would add up to 12 to 15 miles, easy 10-mile runs on Monday and Wednesday, then back-to-back long runs Friday and Saturday that would add up to at least 50 miles. Those were recently done in the canyons on the Western States course. Sundays are short, easy days.
Are you nervous about anything?
I don’t think so. I find it pointless to be nervous or anxious or worried. I just need to get through the course one step at a time like everyone else.
With running, where is the intersection between selfishness and selflessness?
Now that is a complicated question. No doubt the amount of running I do is selfish. But—it is also my job. Nothing wrong with loving your job. By inspiring others, I feel there is more value to what I do, and it also helps me be a better coach.
What was your first album purchase?
Oh, you are really dating me here. Probably a Beach Boys or Barry Manilow in the ’70s.
Who inspires you?
There are way too many examples of people I look to and admire for the various qualities they possess for me to even begin to list them. In general, I’m inspired by people both in the sport and outside of the sport that are brave enough to chase down their dreams, no matter how crazy those dreams are.
Are you nervous about anything for WS100?
There are a lot of things I don’t know and I am well aware of that. There are a lot of athletes who have more experience than me, both in this particular race and in running ultras in general. But it doesn’t make me nervous—it’s part of the fun! I hope to soak up some of their wisdom. I am still figuring out the whole ultrarunning thing and each race I have learned something that I can do better. I am pumped to get to the start line and get this thing rolling so I can put some of the things I have learned into action, and to be reminded of all the things I still don’t know!
Why is Western States important?
The history of the race makes it special and the excitement the race generates is really awesome to be part of. In addition to that, Western States is the perfect opportunity to test myself on a fast, hot course against some incredible athletes.
Who are you underneath the runner?
Being connected with my family is a huge part of who I am. I love being by myself in silence—I love the thinking that can happen in those moments. I also love being with friends and sharing laughs and adventures. I’d say that I’m just doing my best to make this life as wonderful as possible.
What are you most looking forward to, other than crossing the finish line?
The beer? Also, sharing this race with my husband and a good friend, who will both be pacing me. Big picture, I am looking forward to meeting new people, running new trails and taking in the whole experience.
Stephanie Howe Violett
Are you ready?
I’m ready. I’m a little nervous. I just realized things are good, like a couple of days ago.
If you had to pick the most important area of training, what would it be?
What do you think about your competition?
I don’t look at it like that. Running 100 miles is so far. It’s not like you go in and are like, “who am I racing?” There are certain things I want to do for myself that are not related to running against other people. Last year I made some errors early on and had to lie down for an hour at Devil’s Thumb.
How can you avoid that?
Starting slow, taking care of myself. I’ve got some nutrition changes that I’ve made.
What are you looking forward to?
Running with my friends. Kaci [Lickteig] and I have a sunrise date at the top of the Escarpment. We do that every year. And, ultimately, crossing the finish line. It’s the best feeling. When I won it was great, but it doesn’t really matter.
Who is inspiring to you?
I’m inspired by so many people. Claire Gallagher. She’s a shredder badass. She’s down to earth and cares about a lot of things outside of running. It’s cool when you’re a real person first. Meghan Laws. She’s 57 and kicking ass.
What’s your favorite race?
Western. It means a lot to me because it was my first 100. I think it’s the most iconic 100-mile race because of the history. I love that there’s no prize money. The top 10 [from the previous year] get in each year, but other than that, every runner has the same chances of getting in. I don’t like when races play favorites to elites. Everyone’s just running 100 miles together.
How are you training for Western?
I put a large focus on beating my legs up the day before a long run. Fifteen miles of downhill repeats followed by a 25-mile long run. Also remembering that time on my feet is more important than the number on my Garmin, that 15-minute miles are still going to get me to the finish. Most of us are neurotic runners and it’s hard to practice patience.
What does Western States mean to you?
For most of us, entry into the race isn’t a one-year process. For me, it took five years of patience and determination just to get to the start line. I’ve spent a huge part of my adult life focused on qualifying for this one race and a lot has happened in that time. To me, Western States is finishing what I set out to accomplish five years ago. It’s about heart, grit, determination and embracing the support of my tribe.
What are you most excited about?
Rucky Chucky. Hands down. By the river crossing, the hay is in the barn and it’s straight to Auburn. I think.
If you could have one superpower for the race, what would it be, other than speed?
I wish I could summon Kilian Jornet’s fearlessness and agility on the downhills. So the downhill quad bombing would be my superpower.
Do you have any running idols? Non-running idols?
I really admire [Jim] Walmsley’s determination. He keeps setting high (and achievable!) goals, attacking the course record at Western, despite what the ultra community says about his “recklessness.” I also look up to Stephanie Howe Violett and her accessibility and humility within the ultra community.
What was the first album you ever purchased?
Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day. And you better believe I can rattle off the lyrics to “Amish Paradise.”
What’s your most embarrassing running moment?
I’m a hot mess on icy trails. A few years back we were doing an overnight run and I must have fallen and cracked my knee on the ice three different times. It seems pretty benign but I had just met most of the group and felt like a complete idiot. We still talk about that run, and those people have become the best of friends.