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Western States Endurance Run: A Race For The Ages

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Ruby Wyles

By: Ruby Wyles

Runner, triathlete, and passionate coach, Ruby is most fulfilled by helping athletes overcome limiting beliefs with joy. She is also a proud science nerd, and advocate for athletes' mental and physical health.

As is tradition on the last full weekend of the month, Saturday 29th June 2024 will see hundreds of runners, and their crews, descend upon Olympic Valley, California, for the 51st Western States Endurance Run (WSER). Runners of all ages and paces from around the world will take on the world’s oldest 100-mile trail run, each with their reasons for being there and stories just getting to the start, let alone the finish. Two particularly notable storylines are those of Penelope Allen and Betsy Kalmeyer, the youngest and one of the oldest runners respectively. 

In 2024, 21-year-old Penelope Allen has the opportunity to make history as the race’s youngest-ever female finisher, while Betsy Kalmeyer will run with the esteemed “Silver Legend Runner” badge of honor. For those unfamiliar, WSER’s “Silver Legend Entry” is a spot in the race awarded annually to one athlete who will be over 60 years old on race day and who has been recognized for their contributions to ultrarunning: this year, Betsy Kalmeyer was selected.

Runners head out during a WSER training camp run
Runners head out during the annual WSER training camp.

Meet Penelope Allen, 2024 Western States’ Youngest Entrant

I caught up with Penelope Allen a month before Western States to hear about her running journey, how she qualified for this year’s Western States, and her preparations and goals for this year’s race. 21-year old Penelope has just wrapped up her junior year at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, majoring in mechanical engineering. Alongside this demanding degree, Penelope is quickly finding her footing on the trail.

The 20-year old ultra runner

It wasn’t until her last year that she started taking running more seriously. The pivotal moment came last summer – yep, summer of 2023 – when a friend invited her to join a 50km race. Intimidated by the distance, she opted for the 30km version instead. To her surprise, not only did she love it, but it didn’t challenge her as much as anticipated. The exhilaration of that race made her immediately wish she had signed up for the 50km, so she did, just a month later. 

 “I ran cross country and track in high school, but I didn’t love it. Then when I came to college, I didn’t really do much with it, just a run here and there, but nothing crazy. Then my sophomore year,  a friend of mine was running a 50km. He asked me if I’d join but I thought 50km was way too far, but I saw there was a 30km option at the same event, so I did the 30k. I loved it, and was like: this is the best thing ever! Immediately afterwards I wished I had done the 50km, so that I signed up for one a few weeks later.”

Like her 30km a month prior, Penelope had another positive experience in her first 50km, loving the challenge, the scenery, and the community – it all resonated with her in a way that nothing else had. Encouraged by her success in the 50km, she decided to take on a 100-mile race just six weeks later. Despite the daunting distance, and being only 20 years old, completing it was never in doubt: she had found her passion. 

“I’m from Oregon, and when I heard about the Oregon Cascades 100 [mile race] it was an obvious choice! I thought: sure, why not, what’s the worst that can happen? Yes, it was hard at times, but there was never a doubt in my mind that I wasn’t gonna finish either. One way or another, I knew I was going to get to the end, no matter how long it took. It was an awesome experience, I loved it, and I got addicted to ultrarunning so fast!”

Penelope Allen training on the trails of Montana.
Penelope Allen training on the trails of Montana.

It’s in her genes

It was during last summer that her mom shared with Penelope about her former trail and ultra running success. She had no idea her mom had competed in and won local 50km races when she was in college as well! While this was news to Penelope, it could be one reason why she felt so at home on the trails and clearly has an abundance of natural talent in this sport. 

As for her father, his analytical and spreadsheet-loving brain makes him the ideal crew chief! Together, her parents are her biggest supporters, on and off the run, cheering her on at every checkpoint, ensuring she is well-fed and motivated, and more.

“I literally have the most supportive parents on the planet. And funnily enough, my mom actually used to run ultras when she was my age too, and she didn’t even tell me that until I had already signed up for that first 50km. My dad is the most organized out of us all, and he has the exact kind of mind that you need to crew well. I think he loves the planning of everything: he was like, made to be a crew captain!”

Getting into WSER

Penelope’s mom isn’t the only ultrarunner in the family; during the 2023 Western States week, Penelope’s uncle was drawn in the raffle, rewarding him with an entry into the 2024 race. The catch? He had yet to run a qualifying race, and try as he might on several occasions throughout the summer of 2023, a Western States’ qualifier eluded him. In contrast, Penelope secured a qualifier herself in her debut 100 miler in the fall of 2023. This motivated her uncle to reach out to the WSER board to get his entry transferred to her, by October of 2023, 20 year old Penelope Allen had her place in Western States.

Born in December 2002, Penelope Allen has the chance to make history at Western States by becoming the youngest ever female finisher aged 21 and 7 months. This honor currently belongs to Western States legend Kathy D’Onofrio-Wood, who not only finished, but actually won the 1986 race aged 21 and 11 months. For those curious, from my research at least, the youngest official WSER finisher is Andrew Miller, who won the race in 2016 at the age 20 after Jim Walmsley took his famous wrong turn.

Everyone gets cheered in during the 30 hours of WSER 100
Every finisher is celebrated during the WSER 100 mile – Golden Hour (the final hour of the race) especially so.

Build up to 2024 WSER

Following her 100-mile finish, and with Western States on the calendar, running became an integral part of Penelope’s life. Working with her coach, Adam Ferdinandson, she trained diligently, running up to 80-mile weeks, even in the challenging winter months of Montana. All was going well, and she had high hopes for Western States, until it wasn’t. Months of progressive training, going from a running novice to aspiring professional ultrarunner in less than a year, caught up with Penelope’s body.

“I had an awesome winter, I was running way more than I ever had and I was feeling so good. And then all of a sudden, in March, I just started to feel like I wasn’t recovering well. I don’t think my body was used to doing this amount of exercise and, totally unintentionally, I probably wasn’t eating enough. At this time, I developed some pain in my hip which I just thought was tendinitis or something minor as it never really hurt that bad. But after a month or so when it wasn’t going away, I got an MRI which revealed a stress fracture in my hip. That was in April, and I was on crutches for six weeks, and then slowly started biking again. Last week [at the end of May] I had another MRI, and I expected it to be totally clear because it feels completely fine walking, but then the MRI scan showed that it was still broken.”

With less than a month to go until Western States, much to her dismay, a broken hip means that Penelope has had to withdraw from the race.

Down but not out

While 21 year old Penelope Allen won’t have the opportunity to make history as Western States’ youngest ever female finisher, Penelope’s ultrarunning journey is only just beginning. 

“I want to be a professional runner. I want to make running my life. And sure, I have other career goals, but I love this, and I think that I can go really far in this sport.”

Despite the setback with her injury, Penelope’s spirit remained unbroken, and she’s eying some late summer and early fall races: Fat Dog 100 km in August, and The Rut 50 km a month later in her home state of Montana. Zooming out, Penelope is still very much a rookie with only three trail races to her name. Watch out for Penelope racing all different distances and terrains exploring what suits her best, and what sets her heart on fire. 

With Penelope Allen out of this year’s race, 23-year-old Madeline Wighardt from Ancaster, Ontario, has the honor of being the youngest athlete on the start line. 

WSER finish line vibes in 2022
Youngest or oldest – every finisher is looking to make it to the track before the 30 hour time clock runs out.

Get to know WSER’s 2024 Silver Legend Betsy Kalmeyer

Stalking – or should I say “researching” – Betsy on UltraSignup, her page reads similar to how I imagine Courtney Dauwalter’s will in 25 years. Betsy’s been racking up trail and ultrarunning accolades for well over half her lifetime, with results dating back to 1988, where she finished 7th in the Leadville Trail 100 Miler, aged 27. From there, she raced many of America’s most famous ultras, including the Hardrock 100 and Leadville Trail 100 multiple times, rarely finishing outside the top 10. In fact, she’s completed the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run 21 times, finishing in the top 10 on 19 occasions, and winning 5 times. Equally impressive, if not more so. Betsy held the Colorado Trail FKT for 20 years: set in 2003, Betsy’s time stood strong until Tara Dower’s record-breaking run in 2023.

A stalwart in the running community for over 50 years, and a member of the Sportswomen of Colorado Hall of Fame for Ultratrail Running, Betsy began running AAU track at the age of nine, continuing through high school alongside tennis and basketball. Attending the Air Force Academy, Betsy played college basketball before finding her way back to running post college. Betsy has called Colorado’s high altitude towns of Steamboat Springs and Leadville home for the majority of her life, so it’s no wonder she’s developed an affinity for the Hardrock 100 and Leadville Trail 100 mile races. More than a decorated athlete, Betsy is a common sight volunteering at her local races, including taking on the role of course clearing director for this year’s Hardrock 100. 

Betsy’s Western States Debut

Not to criticize Betsy’s phenomenal, and dare I say aspirational, running career, but one standout omission is a result for the Western States Endurance Run. It appears that so far this race has eluded her… until now that is! Awarded the Silver Legend Entry for her contributions to trail running, as well as being over 60 years old, Betsy Kalmeyer will be another debutant on the start line in Olympic Valley this year.

Far from a stranger to the 100 mile distance, Betsy will be hoping for more than merely finishing her first Western States this June. From the outside looking in, training appears to be going well for Besty, running the Pine Trail Run 50 km on May 4th, before backing up a week later with the Jemez Mountain 50 km on May 11th. Finishing in the middle of the pack in both of the aforementioned training races, 63 year old Betsy Kalmeyer proves that age really is just a number! While we are highlighting Betsy here as the Silver Legend athlete, she is far from the oldest competitor: 77-year old Eric Spector of Greenbrae, California, takes that honor. In fact, there will be an incredible 26 runners aged 60 or above in this years race, the majority of which have been collecting lottery tickets for many years. Persistence pays off!

For more Western States storylines, check out “Careth Arnold Has a Secret Weapon” and “Chris Myers Leads a Double Life”.

The calm before the storm at the Placer High School Track.
The calm before the storm at the Placer High School Track.

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