At 5 a.m. on Saturday, a shotgun fired in Olympic Valley, Calif., and 383 runners commenced a brutal 4-mile ascent as the sun rose. At the top, they briefly took in the Sierra Nevada vista before pushing forward — for 96 more miles.
The gritty endorphin chasers were competitors in the 2022 Western States Endurance Run, a 100.2-mile ultramarathon. Among these runners were three local Coastside men: Ron Little, of Montara, and Greg Miller and Brendan O’Donnell, of Half Moon Bay.
The 100-mile, one-day challenge began as a horseback ride in 1955. In 1974, a runner decided he would raise the intensity, traveling the route sans horse. Thousands of runners have since followed in his footsteps.
“It’s the Super Bowl of ultrarunning,” said Miller. “It’s just got this electric energy.”
The history and exclusivity of the race make it particularly coveted. “When you run a hundred miles at Western States, it’s like running through a museum,” said O’Donnell. “You feel like you’re running in the footsteps of great runners. To have your chance to line up and be part of the next story is so special.”
The road to Western States is even longer than the race itself. It has become so popular that hopeful runners, after completing a qualifying ultramarathon race, must then win one of the 369 entry tickets in a lottery. This year, 6,208 people entered the lottery. It took Little six years and O’Donnell seven to finally win a coveted entrance ticket. Miller gained entrance after five years as an aid station volunteer.
The 1,500 volunteers, 50 doctors, and 75 nurses lining the course make the race possible. Twenty aid stations serve the runners as they climb up and down the mountainous path. Many agree that this community of supporters is the best part of the sport.
To balance his love of this sport with a desire to spend time with his family, Miller often wakes up before dawn to train on a treadmill.
The three local runners all say the ultrarunning community is the best part of the sport. “We celebrate each others’ successes a lot more than I see for other distances,” said Miller.
At mile 62, O’Donnell reunited with a former Marine he had served alongside 20 years ago, a man who had come to the race with his two sons to support him. The two had not seen each other in person since 2002. “The sport of ultrarunning brought us back together,” he said.
The community is also a necessary component of Western States.
“You need a whole team,” said Greg Miller’s wife, Lauren. She and seven other family members and friends were up for 28 hours as her husband’s crew. When he arrived at each aid station, they flew into action, filling his arm sleeves with ice, handing him electrolytes and
food and delivering motivational pep talks. Lauren Miller has crewed all of her husband’s ultramarathon races, at least 15 or 16 of them, she estimates.
A group of 30 more who couldn’t be at the race were kept updated via group chat. “There was a sense of people sending him love from across the nation to help guide him on this incredible journey,” Miller said.
Last year, only two-thirds of runners finished the race. This year, O’Donnell was among the starting runners who did not make it to the finish line. After 64 grueling miles, stomach problems forced him off the path.
“It’s part of the sport,” he said. “There’s still so much to be grateful for even when you fall short.”
O’Donnell competed in his first ultramarathon when he was 19. He has run 34 ultramarathons and finished four 100-mile races.
Adam Peterman, 26, won this year’s race in 15 hours, 13 minutes, 47 seconds. After running track and field in college, he ran his first ultramarathon less than a year ago and has won all five ultramarathons he has competed in this year.
At 4:19 a.m., after 23 hours, 19 minutes, and 17 seconds of running, Little crossed the finish line in a brightly lit high school stadium in Auburn. He received the coveted silver belt buckle trophy for his sub-24-hour time.
Two hours later, Miller did the same. “I have never dug as deep as what I did to get to the finish line,” Miller wrote in a text to the Review. The race was the hardest he’s run — and he has finished multiple 100-milers. He felt “off,” he said. On Monday, he took a COVID test. It came back positive.
He credits his crew for helping him get to the finish line.
The seasoned endurance athletes shared advice for those looking to take on an athletic challenge, whether it’s a 5K or an ultramarathon.
“Sign up for a race! That’s a great motivator. You make a promise to yourself that you’ll be at a start line at sometime in the future and you want to show up ready,” says Ron Little.
“My advice: You have to have a why. What’s your why? That’s what you’ll return to when you’re hurting, when you’re tired. You have to have a why to come back to,” said Brendan O’Donnell. “For me, it’s my kids. Having them see me set myself a goal and accomplish it.”
Miller’s advice? “Make sure you keep it fun.”
Which might be easier said than done at mile 70.
“There’s something about the need to have a worthy challenge of our own choosing that seems important to the human spirit,” said Ron Little. “I don’t know how else to describe it- I really feel more alive when I can be challenged and overcome a challenge. For me, that’s running.”▪