All photos by Ryan Thrower
Athletes in search of a final shot at a Golden Ticket for the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) in late June descended upon the “endurance capital of the world” Auburn, California this past weekend. As the seventh and final stop for runners looking to gain an automatic qualification into the 2023 WSER, runners would need to finish with a top two placement in the men’s and women’s 100-kilometer to gain a berth into the coveted early-summer race. This race also served as a UTMB World Series Major, allowing top ten finishers in both the men’s and women’s fields an automatic entry into the 101-kilometer Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) race at UTMB in the first week of September.
Starting on the streets of downtown Auburn, runners travelled on a course modified from previous years, due to the impact of the late-2022 Mosquito Fire and historic snowfall this past winter in the Sierra Nevadas. Runners were treated to clear conditions for the race, with temperatures hovering in the mid-high 80s throughout the better part of the day. With great course conditions reported on-site, competitors were primed to run some speedy splits. Paired with some reported issues with course marking and runner navigation, as well as consistent confusion surrounding the live split tracking data, this made for an entertaining race to follow from a fan perspective.
A large pack of male runners stuck together for the better part of the first half of the race, with 17 men within ten minutes of the lead through just over the half marathon mark. Speeding through the halfway mark, race leaders Cole Watson (Hoka), Sébastien Spehler (Salomon) and Matt Daniels (Nike Trail) split through the Browns Bar Aid Station (48k) in 3:49 elapsed. With the race slowly thinning as temperatures climbed the crux of the race appeared to be at the Driver’s Flat Aid Station (78k), where the race leader Cole Watson made up a five-minute deficit from the previous checkpoint. Numerous reports emerged of multiple runners feeling the heat and having to take extended breaks to recoup, with some leaving the aid station walking. Race leader Cole Watson kept up the cadence, building a near ten-minute lead over second place runner Adam Merry (Saucony). Extending his lead by five more minutes over second place through Clementine Aid Station at 92km, Cole continued to push through to the finish line finishing in 8:34:38, closing the final 25k of the race, in just over two hours. Adam Merry finished in second in 8:50:40 with Justin Grunewald (Rabbit/Altra) rounding out the podium in 8:53:30. David Laney (Craft) trailed closely behind in fourth in 8:59:06 with David Roche (SWAP Running) closing out the top five in the men’s field in 9:36:45. The degree of late-race attrition was highlighted by the gap in time between first and tenth place male finishers, which is the largest this race has seen since 2016 (2h8m).
In the women’s race, Ida Nilsson (Craft) took an early lead over the field, coming through the Cool Aid Station (23k) in just under two-hours elapsed, but was quickly matched by Canadian Priscilla Forgie (Norda) in the following miles. A fast group of runners followed in the chase pack including Aroa Sio (Craft), Anna McKenna (2XU), Addie Bracy (Nike Trail) and Naomi Brand (Patagonia). The group kept in close contact with the top women coming through the 48k mark in splits between 4:20-4:30 elapsed. Nilsson and Forgie went on to leapfrog each other over for the next thirty miles, including Nilsson taking a ten-minute wrong turn out of an aid station, leading to both runners coming into the Drivers Flat aid station neck and neck. Perhaps more measured than the men’s field, the back-end carnage did not seem to impact the women’s field as severely, although runners began to spread out at this stage of the race. Flipping on the afterburners in the last fifteen miles of the race, Nilsson opened a progressive lead at each checkpoint, rolling into the finish line in Auburn in 9:51:07, as the top women’s finisher, 6th overall and the top master’s athlete in the race. Nilsson also had the fifth fastest closing (approximate) 50k and 25k splits of the entire race field. Forgie powered through hot on her heels, nine minutes later at 10:00:20 as second female and 7th overall. Sio and McKenna, who have been in clear pursuit of a Golden Ticket this season, finished in third and fourth respectively, in 10:11:43 and 10:12:59. Both Sio and McKenna mirrored their third and fourth place finishes at their previous attempt at a Golden Ticket at the Tarawera Ultramarathon by UTMB 102-kilometer in February of this year. Bracy finished in 10:43:34 to wrap up the top five finishers in the women’s race. The competitiveness of the women’s race is highlighted by the fact that it had the smallest margin of victory (9m13s) and tightest women’s podium (20m35s) in race history, as well as four women in the top eleven overall finishers.
In terms of Golden Tickets for WSER in June, Cole Watson has narrowly missed a Golden Ticket in four previous attempts over the past three years, so there was no doubt that he would accept his automatic entry into the race this time around. Adam Merry also enthusiastically accepted his automatic entry. Ida Nilsson also eagerly accepted her Golden Ticket, and will pursue completion of her first 100 mile race at WSER. Priscilla Forgie is currently undecided about whether she will accept her ticket to WSER, as she had indicated in post-race interviews that she has currently geared her summer towards the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) 170-kilometer race. With her automatic entry into the 101-kilometer CCC race through her top ten finish at the Canyons Endurance Runs, Forgie can apply for an upgrade into the 170-kilometer UTMB race that will take place later this summer.
In the 100-mile race which started on Friday morning, late race entrant Alyssa Clark (Vibram) led the women’s race almost wire-to-wire, finishing in 20:13:21. Alexis Crellin (Salomon) and Annie Hughes (Hoka) held second and third place for the duration of the race, finishing in 20:55:06 and 21:26:05 respectively. In the men’s race, Mathieu Clément (Asics) and Canhua Luo (Hoka) ran a majority of the race together, with Luo tripping and falling en route to the finish chute, and Clément crossing the finish line a step ahead of his fellow runner. Both runners were credited with a finishing time of 17:05:16. Canyon Woodward (Patagonia) faced some issues with course marking navigation and added on some extra miles, but was able to recover and finish third in 17:46:05.
In the 50-kilometer race, Hayden Hawks (Hoka) snuck by Jeshurun Small (Adidas Terrex) and Eric LiPuma (Black Diamond) for the win in the men’s race, finishing in 3:32:11. In the women’s race, former triathlete turned gravel cyclist/ultra-trail runner Heather Jackson (Hoka) took the win in 4:09:36, with Caitriona Jennings (Hoka) edging out Emkay Sullivan (Craft) in sprint finish to complete the podium.
Top ten finishers in the 50-kilometer and 100-mile distance races also auto-qualify for the Orsières-Champex-Chamonix (OCC) race and UTMB 170-kilometer race respectively, in late August/early September.
Full race results available here.