The Western States 100 Race Profile: The King Of 100 Mile Races

The Western States 100 is the oldest 100-mile ultra trail race in the world.

It is well-known for its history and challenging conditions including 18,000 feet of climbing and temperature swings from the blistering cold to triple-digit heat. 

For almost five decades, Western States has been home to some of the sport’s most legendary competitions that include ultra running legends like Scott Jurek, Jim Walmsley, Kilian Jornet, Timothy Olsen, Claire Gallagher, Courtney Dauwalter, and Ellie Greenwood, to name a few.

In this article, we will break down the allure of the Western States, how to enter the race, how to train for it, and more. 

Related article: How To Run 100 Miles – The Essential Guide

What is the Western States 100?

The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race.

In the decades since its inception in 1974, Western States has come to represent one of the ultimate endurance tests in the world.

With more than 1,500 dedicated volunteers helping to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the run has stirred the spirit of runners from all walks of life, from all over the globe, reads the official race site.

The Western States 100 Race Profile: The King Of 100 Mile Races 1

What makes the Western States 100 so difficult?

According to Runner’s World, the Western States 100 is one of the most difficult races in the world.

It is the elevation combined with the extreme hot and cold temperatures that make the race so challenging:

Runners have 30 hours to conquer the west coast beast, and over time will climb more than 18,000 cumulative feet in elevation and descend more than 23,000 feet.

At some points, runners are so high in elevation that they have to run through snow, and other times they are completely exposed in the summer heat,” writes RW.

Related: The Badwater 135 Death Valley Ultramarathon Explained

When did the Western States 100 begin?

The Western States 100 began in 1974.

Where does Western States 100 start?

The Western States ultra starts in Olympic Valley, California, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and ends 100.2 miles later in Auburn, California. 

How many U.S. states does the Western States 100 include?

Despite the name, the Western States 100 takes place in one just state: California.

When is the Western States 100?

The race is held the last weekend of June.

How long is Western States?

The Western States 100 is 100.2 miles long.

Related: What is Ultra Running? The Ultramarathon Explained

western states 100

How do you qualify to enter the Western States 100?

You must run a qualifier from the Western States qualifying list during the qualifying period for the year you wish to run. 

You will be removed from the lottery applicant list if you did not run a qualifier.

The qualifying window closes in early November of the year preceding the Western States 100 run.

Related: Why I’m Running 100 Miles

How do I register for the Western States?

With the exception of the automatics (who include top finishers from the previous year’s race), all applicants who have run a qualifying race must sign up for the annual WS Lottery.

Applications are accepted exclusively via UltraSignup.com during the lottery entry period, a one-week window that opens each November.

What are the odds of getting into the Western States 100?

If you have run a qualifying race and entered the lottery, the odds of getting accepted are currently less than 5 percent. 

How much does it cost to run the Western States?

Currently, the entry fee is $410.00, payable upon being selected in the lottery. 

How do you get a Western States 100 belt buckle?

Western States offers one of the sport’s oldest and most prized possession: you get a silver belt buckle if you finish in under 24 hours and a bronze buckle if you finish in under 30 hours. 

How much money does the winner of the Western States Ultra win?

There is no prize money for the winners of the Western States 100.

Instead, the first male and female runner to complete the race in under 24 hours will be awarded the Wendell Robie Cup, which is a perpetual trophy with the winners’ names engraved upon it.

Related: The Barkley Marathons: All You Need to Know

The Western States 100 Race Profile: The King Of 100 Mile Races 2
Runners on the WS100
Credit / license: “Hanging with the Oregonians” by “Jon Roig” is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How long do you have to finish the Western States 100?

Runners must finish within the 30-hour cutoff time to be included as an official finisher of the Western States.

What is the elevation gain and loss of the Western States 100?

The Western States 100 climbs more than 18,000 feet and descends nearly 23,000 feet before runners reach the finish at Placer High School in Auburn.

What is the course of the Western States 100 like?

According to the race site, the Western States Trail runners experience

  • the majestic high country of Emigrant Pass and the Granite Chief Wilderness,
  • the crucible of the canyons of the California gold country,
  • a memorable crossing of the ice cold waters of the Middle Fork of the American River,
  • and finally the historic reddish brown trails that led many travelers, including gold prospectors, to Auburn.

The race traverses the traditional lands of the Nisenan, Washoe, and other neighboring Indigenous Peoples. 

What do runners say about the Western States 100?

We spoke to Brian Vanderheiden from Steep Endurance coaching about his WS100 experiences:

Generally speaking, the Western States should be an easier 100 miler course as it’s a net downhill (22K down, 18 up), BUT because of that, it is one of the many factors that make it a super challenging race. 

The downhills give you a false sense of security early in the race and by the time you’ve realized it halfway through the race, your quads are shot. 

The last 38 miles of the course are among the most runnable terrain so if you don’t have the legs, then you can’t take advantage of it. 

The other “X” factor is the heat.  Most years including the year I ran, it is just hot from about Mile 20 on. 

The start is fairly cool in Squaw Valley, but once you reach Robinson Flat at Mile 31, it is starting to heat up and the course becomes pretty exposed in certain spots. 

By the time you reach the “canyons” in the course between about Miles 40-60 (of which there are 3-4 of them), the temps can reach 110-115 degrees. 

There are a few streams to cool off at the bottom of these canyons and you have to try to keep the fluid intake up/keep wet with ice in the hat/bandanas to stave off the heat as well. 

It’s a dry heat, but it’s scorching at times. 

Usually, when one starts to overheat, they don’t get enough calories in, thus adding to the difficulty of the event.  

Western States 100
Brian and his support team at the race.
Credit: Brian Vanderheiden, Steep Endurance coaching

What is the course record for the Western States 100?

Jim Walmsley is a two-time champion of the Western States and holds the course record of 14:09, set in 2019.

Walmsley broke the course record the year before in 14:30 despite being reportedly delayed by a few minutes at 95 miles by a mother bear and cubs on the trail. 

In a candid interview to Runner’s World, Walmsley shared why he was so determined to win the Western States after two previous failed attempts, including a DNF.

“I love the race, love the experience. Now I have a little monkey on my back with it. Eventually I gotta knock it off and get one really done at Western States,” he said.

What is the course record for female finishers of the Western States 100?

Ellie Greenwood holds the female course record for the Western States 100 with a time of 16:47 set in 2012. 

Who is the youngest winner of the Western States 100?

In 2016, Andrew Miller, 20, became the youngest male winner of the Western States 100.

He won after Jim Walmsley took a wrong turn approaching the north fork of the American River near mile 95.

Has anyone died running the Western States 100?

No one has died running the Western States 100 but the race site says it is important for each entrant to recognize the potential physical and mental stresses which may evolve from participation in the run. 

The risks of this endurance event include hypothermia, hyperthermia, dehydration, hypoglycemia, hyponatremia, disorientation, mental and physical exhaustion, renal failure, heat stroke, altitude sickness, rhabdomyolysis, overuse injuries, extreme fatigue, and poison oak. There are also risks associated with wildlife, vehicle traffic, and getting lost, to name a few.

“Adequate physical and mental conditioning prior to the Run is mandatory. If you have not been able to prepare properly, do not attempt to run!” reads the site.

How do you train for the Western States 100?

The Western States 100 gives advice on its site for how to train for the 100 mile race

The race suggests starting to train in January for the June race. It says to aim for specificity of the terrain and conditions. Also, it is not necessary to cover 100 miles in a run leading up to the race. Aim for weekly mileage of 60-90 miles. 

A sample week for the middle of a training block looks like:

Monday: rest, or 45 minutes easy

Tuesday: 60 to 90 minutes

Wednesday: 2 to 3 hours

Thursday: rest, or 45 minutes easy

Friday: 60 to 90 minutes

Saturday: 5 to 6 hours

Sunday: 1 to 3 hours, slowly – even walking

The site includes pro tips like weightlifting so you can carry a water bottle throughout the run, ensure you have a spare light on your runs, and consider back-to-back long runs on weekends. 

According to famed running coach and trail runner David Roche in Trail Runner Magazine who surveyed participant Strava data, consistency, hard work, and harder recovery are what it takes to train for the Western States 100. 

“Beyond that, it’s probably highly variable for different athletes and even the same athlete at different times.”

How do I follow Western States 100?

The best way to follow the Western States 100 is by the race’s YouTube livestream, which operates for the entirety of the race.

Learn more about the Western States 100 on the race’s website.

Interested in Ultra Running? Check out my Ultra Running training resources!

OUR FREE 100 MILE ULTRAMARATHON TRAINING PLANS

The Western States 100 Race Profile: The King Of 100 Mile Races 3

100 Mile Ultra Training Plan – Just Finish

This 100 Mile Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are simply looking to comfortably complete their event.

With 6 months to prepare, we focus on very gradually increasing the weekly mileage at a manageable rate, so you don’t end up burning out.

Ideally you should be able to run 3-5 miles without stopping before you begin this plan, but you can choose to adopt a run/walk strategy too!

Who is it for?:  First-time ultramarathon runners, runners who want to complete an ultra with limited time to train each week, runners who just want to focus on comfortably reaching the finish line.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  If your only objective is to complete your ultramarathon comfortably, and you have six months (or more) to prepare, this is the plan for you!

The plan includes some optional speed work, but this is only if you’re comfortable and can squeeze it in – the objective is to get the required mileage in.   It includes 3 mid-week runs, to be performed at a comfortable pace, and one long-slow run each weekend to build your max mileage.   The plan includes one cross-training day per week and two rest days. 

Whitney Heins
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the 2024 US Olympic Trials marathon.

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