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Western States; Jim Walmsley versus Jon Albon

It’s Western States weekend in California. The race is often seen as the oldest 100 mile trail race in the world. This year it’s also the battle between Jim Walmsley, the winner of the UTMB 2023, and Jonathan Albon, the winner of the UTMB CCC 2023.

But they are not the only big names that are on the start line. Katie Schide, Emily Hawgood, Eszter Csillag, Yngvild Kaspersen, Ragna Debats, Rachel Drake, Tyler Green, Jiasheng Shen, Daniel Jones, and Dakota Jones are all lining up in the Olympic Valley, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. And all of them will be dreaming of crossing the finish line first; 100,2 miles further in Auburn.

To do so, the trail and ultra runners have to run through the traditional lands of the Nisenan, Washoe, and the lands of other neighbouring Indigenous Peoples and have to climb more than 5.480 metres and descend almost 7.000 metres.

Last year’s winners absent

Last year’s winners, Courtney Dauwalter and Tom Evans, aren’t running this year. Evans is starting in Italy, at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. Who is running, is Katie Schide (USA), who finished second last year. “Returning to a race makes it always easier. Just the simple fact of knowing where things are and how things are going to play out makes me feel more calm. Last year it was all new to me. This year I have the idea that I’m starting with a better plan in my head”, she said in a pre-race interview with iRunFar.

Last year Schide also adjusted her training especially for Western States, which has a reputation as a fast race. This year she didn’t. “I don’t have a strong running or track background, so for last year’s edition I decided to do less hiking in winter and more running. Afterwards I evaluated the race and felt confident I can do it my way. So this winter I didn’t over emphasise running. Only in Spring did I crack up the running volume.”

Jim Walmsley returns to Western States

Jim Walmsley returns to Western States, after missing last year’s race. The Hoka athlete won the race in 2018, 2019 and 2021 and still holds the course record; 14:09:28. In the last couple of years he focussed on winning UTMB. “It feels natural to be back again”, he said in a pre-race interview with iRunFar. “This is running as I’m used to; less gear, less pack, warmer weather.”

Three times winner or not, Walmsley had to qualify for Western States. Something he did only a month after running UTMB, by winning Nice Côte d’Azur; the 115 kilometres long (4.800m+) race in the South of France. “There wasn’t a lot of time between those two races, so I decided not to do a lot of training in between. That way I could show up with enough energy to go for the win. It was kind of crazy to do a big race so shortly after UTMB, but it also meant that not a lot of big runners were racing it. And by securing myself of a golden ticket for Western States I took a lot of pressure of the rest of the season.”

Injury

Looking backwards, that was probably a smart move, because Walmsley got injured in january. “I had to stop running for six weeks and couldn’t run Transgrancanaria. My first idea was to do a race in April, but then I decided to take my time. Hopefully it means that after Western States I still have some energy for the later this year.”

Later means UTMB, because Walmsley is planning to run both. “So far I haven’t been able to put both races together. This year that’s my goal. I’m not going to try to win both of them, I just want to have two good performances. That’s my challenge.”

Jon Albon struggled with Covid

One of the athletes Walmsley has to beat is Jon Albon. The English trail runner is making his debut in the 100 miles. Although, he has run the distance before: “But that was during a 24-hours obstacle race.”

How good Albon is, has to be seen as he got Covid when he arrived in the United States: “The way I schedule my training, I always try to do the most training a few weeks before a race. I was planning to do my last training block here, in the States, on the course. Get used to the heat, get some altitude. But then I got Covid. So I didn’t really know how much time I should spend resting, or how much time I should train. Another problem was going with Covid up to 2.000 metres above sea level. For me that is high. I live at sea level. So I haven’t had the preparation I would like to have had. At the same time, I feel like I got myself in a healthy state, in which it’s not dangerous to race.”

What is an extra challenge for Albon, is that Western States is new to him. “It’s going to be a challenge. It’s not the sort of race I’m used to. Hotter, more downhill. And I’ve never done a trail run in the States. I never really chose to come here. I won a golden ticket and was asked if I wanted to. Sometimes it is nice to leave it up to the faith and the faith chooses this year for me. I’m excited. It should be interesting.”

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