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Western States 2021: Holding On & Letting Go

By: John Trent

Beth Pascall crossed the finish line of the 2021 Western States Endurance Run in 17:10:42, placing first woman and seventh overall. Her time was the second-fastest women’s finish in Western States history. Let’s Wander Photography

Of all the attributes champion ultrarunners possess, confidence is usually the last thing they ever lack.

They train too hard, invest too much time and dream too audaciously not to possess confidence.

Yet, confidence can be a fickle thing. It can flee with the abruptness of a firefly. It can be found in strange places, under strange circumstances, amid confusion, disruption and uncertainty.

Confidence can be discovered for the first time or re-discovered in the nick of time, just when you thought it abandoned you.

There were many storylines at the 2021 Western States Endurance Run – perhaps, most notably, the 48-year-old event’s return following last year’s cancellation due to the pandemic.

But for women’s champion, Beth Pascall, and men’s champion, Jim Walmsley, this year’s race was more about holding on and letting go.

Pascall found that the familiar landscapes of confidence in her mind could be expanded by leaving behind the order and familiarity of her home in England for a trip to America, that at times, wasn’t extraordinarily well-planned, and seemed to fly in the face of her otherwise detailed nature. Out of a little disruption and some uncertainty, in the end, Beth Pascall became a champion and found calm and confidence.

Jim Walmsley discovered first-hand that our greatest difficulty isn’t necessarily adopting or understanding new ideas, particularly as we deal with injuries that threaten our preparation. As Walmsley learned and took to heart, maybe the challenge in life lies in escaping some of the old ideas – allowing himself for perhaps the first time in a storied career known for its meticulousness of preparation – to simply “let things go” and see how they would play out.

On a 101-degree day, Pascall would record the second-fastest women’s time in Western States history in 17:10, and lead the way for one of the most historic days ever. The 33-year-old pediatrician from Belper, England, along with New Zealand’s Ruth Croft, who placed second in 17:33, and Ragna Debats of Spain, coming in third in 17:41, became the first all-international podium at Western States. That wasn’t all. All three women placed in the top 10 – Pascall in seventh, Croft in ninth and Debats in tenth – another Western States first. In all, 15 of the top 30 spots were taken by women.

Ragna Debats climbs to the escarpment above Olympic Valley as the sun rises over Lake Tahoe. Luis Escobar
Keely Henninger gets help cooling off before heading back out on the trail. The high temperature in Auburn was 101 degrees which made it the warmest year since 2013. Luis Escobar

Walmsley’s winning time of 14:46 was the fourth-fastest time in race history. He also owns two of the other three fastest times, including the course record. Not counting the pandemic cancellation, it was Walmsley’s third straight victory. Tyler Green, 37, of Portland, Oregon, was second in 16:11, and Drew Holmen, 29, of Boulder, Colorado, was third in 16:23.

And it all began as two runners searched for their confidence.

IT WAS TWO WEEKS OUT from the 2021 Western States Endurance Run, and Jim Walmsley was worried.

This was uncharted territory for the 31-year-old Walmsley, who had almost always reached this point in his preparation for Western States buoyed by eye-popping runs in and out of the Grand Canyon.

Earlier in the spring, Walmsley’s IT band had begun bothering him. He backed off from his running. He eliminated some of the self-imposed pressures that can come when tens of thousands of people check your training each day, when he stopped posting on Strava. He turned to his physical training guru Wes Gregg in his hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, to build strength and reduce imbalance. The work paid off. Soon, Walmsley was back training again.

And then something strange happened. A rim to rim to rim run in the Grand Canyon went only OK. As with any injury, there can always be lingering whispers, both real and imagined. The days after that run were more than a whisper of doubt. There was lingering soreness in the area Walmsley had worked so diligently earlier in the spring to erase.

“This was three weeks out, then two weeks out from Western States,” Walmsley, Western States’ two-time defending champion, said. “Once I was within two weeks of the race, I was really contemplating whether I should line up or not. I was getting really sick of dealing with the pain. I was literally talking about not running the race with my friends, ‘I don’t know if I can make it all the way to Auburn. I don’t know if it’s going to hold up.’”

Not too far from Walmsley, staying in the same town of Flagstaff, it was also two weeks out from Western States for Beth Pascall. The 33-year-old was feeling, for perhaps the first time in one of ultrarunning’s most accomplished careers, a strange and unfamiliar sense of pre-race confidence.

This isn’t to say that Pascall has ever lacked confidence. Her journey to the starting line at Western States included a two-month odyssey that had taken her from her home and medical duties as a pediatrician in England, first on her own and then eventually joined by her husband, Matt. The trip included an impressive win at the Canyons 100K on a significant portion of the Western States course, travel and training through some of the more picturesque trails in the American West and finally, now, a reassuring feeling that she was in a good place, both mentally and physically.

Her dominating run at the Canyons 100K at the end of April on the Western States Trail, coupled with her fourth-place finish in 2019 – the last time Western States was held due to COVID – had placed Pascall squarely in the conversation of those favored to win the race as it made its return.

“It had all helped, to be honest,” Pascall said. “I did feel a lot of pressure, but not because of the change of expectations this year. It gave me confidence, more than anything, the fact that I’d won Canyons. Everyone began saying, ‘You could actually do this.’ And I was like, ‘You know, maybe I could.’”

“It helped me believe it was possible. It was positive in that sense, this belief I had that maybe I could. I really struggle with confidence going into races. This was the first time that I can remember that going in, as I was going to stand on that start line, that I thought I could win a major race like Western States. It was a stronger sense of confidence, but also a sense of pressure, but it was a pressure that I had put on myself only because I approached this year very differently.”

“I would say under normal circumstances I’m a planner, yes,” Pascall added. “Very much so. It was very disconcerting that a lot of it was very last minute. You can’t get into the US without a special waiver. It’s a long and complicated process and I got the waiver only two weeks before Canyons. My husband couldn’t get a waiver at first and didn’t know if he could come out at all. It was only after a couple of weeks that he could come out. That was a very big deal for me.”

And as race week arrived, Pascall felt ready. Her confidence had an easy, almost tactile sense to it. There had been the difficulties of the travel early in the trip, the elevated expectations of the ultra world following her run at Canyons, and through it all, she had absorbed it without flinching.

“I put all my eggs into one basket and didn’t want to feel that I wasted all that time,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’ve never been one of those people who will stand on the start line and think, ‘I will definitely win this race.’ But I have to admit things were feeling good. I knew there was a possibility that I could win the race. That was a new experience for me before a major race, and it felt reassuring to me.”

Walmsley’s challenge was his frustration with an injury he thought he had gotten the better of a few weeks earlier.

“That was probably the lowest moment,” he said, “just not knowing if it was going to hold up. I more or less kept it to myself except for a few of my friends.”

About 10 days out from Western States, everything changed. It came about because of a conscious decision made by a runner whose threshold to simply do more and more is perhaps higher than any other ultrarunner: He decided to do less.

“I backed off a bit,” he said. “My calves and quads were really tight from the climbing I’d been doing and I thought that was possibly prolonging the IT from healing the way it should. About 10 days out from the race, as I was tapering, it was legitimately pain-free. My whole mentality started to shift.”

Walmsley’s build-up heading into Western States, truncated by the IT band problems, hadn’t been perfect by any means. He’d still gotten in “vert and time” as he likes to call that magical combination he puts together of long, fast runs with thousands of feet of ascending and descending – just not as much as normal. There hadn’t been as many drives to the Grand Canyon or to nearby Sedona for needed heat training. Yet, he’d poured himself into the “little” things of strength and stability training with Gregg, and found the process fascinating and fruitful. He’d been less about Strava and more about self care. In the complexity of balancing a fickle injury, he hadn’t found athletic anarchy, but rather a more complete sense of coming together, that he’d tried and learned a few new things.

The most important lesson of all: letting go.

Whatever he had done, Walmsley decided, had to be enough.

“As long as it was going to hold and I felt good about it – and I was finally feeling good about it – I came to the realization that what I’d gotten in was enough,” Walmsley said.

Jim Walmsley crosses the finish line holding up three fingers to signify his third consecutive win. Paul nelson

BETH PASCALL WAS CALM AND COMPOSED as she made her way to the starting line in Olympic Valley. The temperature was already in the low 50s, and would soon leap into the 70s and 80s throughout the “high country” portion of the course.

“As much as I have ever before, I was confident,” she said. “I told myself that whatever happened in the race would be OK. I convinced myself that whatever happens, I’d already learned so much and had such an amazing experience. Yes, there had been a few challenges early in the trip, but everything and how I was feeling was just so overwhelmingly positive. Things were feeling good.”

She ran with two Colorado women, defending champion, Clare Gallagher, and Addie Bracy, up the winding 2,000-foot climb to the iconic Watson Monument and the escarpment at mile 3.5. The three were in high spirits, energized by the prospect of racing again. They exchanged lively banter that is best left unrecorded. Pascall noted with a laugh, “I couldn’t possibly share with you what we were talking about. It certainly wasn’t the conversation I expected to have.”

By Red Star Ridge at mile 16, Pascall was running in the lead. In some ways, the rocky, root-laden high country reminded her of the kinds of fell races she enjoys in England – disruptive, difficult and deceptive in how quickly it demands a runner to jump or hop or turn on a dime.

“I felt good,” she said. “I much prefer slightly rougher terrain. I really enjoyed that section. I would be happy if they left a few more trees across the trail. I didn’t expect to be out in the lead and sometimes when you do something like that, people think you’re pushing or taking risks. It felt really comfortable. I didn’t feel like I was pushing.”

She reached Robinson Flat at mile 30, in five hours exactly, three minutes up on Bracy and six ahead of Debats.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was under record pace,” she said. “I’m actually relieved I didn’t know I was running under the record at that point. I’m sure there were some people following along who were like, ‘Oh God, what is Beth doing? This is insanity.’”

While Pascall was alone, Walmsley had company. The early miles through the Granite Chief Wilderness were spent with Hayden Hawks, 30, of Cedar City, Utah, and Walmsley’s good friend and 2019 runner-up, Jared Hazen, not far behind. It was Hawks’ Western States debut. Hawks wasn’t afraid to pepper Walmsley with questions.

“Hayden and I are friends,” Walmsley said. “He had all of these questions, which I totally understand. It was fun to share some of my experiences with him. When we got to the creek (Duncan Creek, at about the 26-mile mark), I told him, ‘This is the creek where you need to take extra time before you make the climb to Robinson Flat. In 2017, I didn’t dunk here and I got fried. I haven’t missed this creek since.’”

Walmsley said the company made the early miles flow by easily. He was sharing some – but not all – of the secrets he had accumulated over the five years he had been coming to the race.

“I’m running with Hayden, who I really like, and I used to live with Jared, who’s not that far behind,” Walmsley said. “I’ve got all these friends in the race, and they’re running with me or not that far back, and we’re all racing, and I’m sort of wondering, ‘Am I giving them too much information and I don’t have any tricks left to win the race anymore?’”

AND THEN, FOR ALL OF the runners at Western States, the heat began in earnest. For Walmsley, it became a signal to see if he could form what he called “a protection bubble” for later in the race. Leaving Robinson Flat with Hawks, Walmsley scorched the 13 miles from Robinson Flat to Last Chance in 1:29 – tying the fastest split ever recorded (also by Walmsley from 2019). He held a 10-minute advantage on Hawks, who would eventually finish eighth male and 11th overall, at Last Chance.

“It was about running smooth and finding my rhythm and knowing it was going to be a lot hotter later,” Walmsley said. “I was not wanting to over exert myself. It just happened to be that fast.”

Pascall said the heat was the beginning of what felt like a physical rollercoaster with welcome highs and unrelenting lows.

“It started to feel different,” she said on the miles to Last Chance and into the awaiting canyons. “It wasn’t super smooth. I felt OK, but you could feel the heat really starting to take hold. I guess every time you run an ultra, you’re cruising and waiting for that moment when it starts to feel hard. You’re almost relieved when that happens, because then you know, ‘This is what it’s going to feel like now.’”

“It started to feel that way, just yo-yo’ing up and down. Leaving an aid station feeling pretty good, then feeling rough, then good again, then rough. That’s what the whole race became.”

Even as the heat bore down on them, Walmsley and Pascall continued to run strong. Walmsley’s split of 2:15 from Foresthill to the river crossing at mile 78 lengthened his lead over Hawks to a staggering 67 minutes. Pascall’s equally impressive 2:38 saw her lead grow to 16 minutes over Debats at the river.

The run to the river wasn’t without its drama, however. It was now in the afternoon, and the heat-warped light was bearing down with unrelenting force. The ice in the bandanas around their necks was melting so quickly it was like the dry air was acting like the head of a hot vacuum cleaner.

Brittany Peterson reaches the end of the river crossing at Rucky Chucky (mile 78). Let’s Wander photography

It got to Pascall at one point.

“Cal Street (the section from Foresthill at mile 62 to the river at mile 78), probably for everybody, was the worst,” she said. “It was a completely different experience for me in terms of comparing it to 2019 when I felt amazing. It was the best part of the race. Cal Street this year felt uphill the whole way. I mean, even as we were sitting around on Sunday after the race, you have to wonder, ‘How on earth did we run this?’ It was almost unbearable in the shade.”

Pascall had convinced herself someone was going to catch her on Cal Street.

“I was constantly looking over my shoulder,” she said.

Finally, at the mile 70 aid station, Peachstone, Pascall asked the volunteers if she could sit.

“They were all really helpful,” she said. “I got iced up and just sat down. I don’t actually remember how long I sat there. I imagine it was a couple of minutes. It could have been three minutes. It was longer than I felt I needed. But when I got up and got going again, I felt a lot better.”

“It was my first 100-degree day at Western States,” Walmsley said. “It was really hot. When you were exposed it could get extremely difficult. But, the heat in the canyons became my protection bubble later in the day. When people had to close that gap, they were going to have to fight a long way by themselves in order to do that. Even as the lead kept growing, I thought I was ready for a fight. If someone caught me, that would’ve taken one heck of a performance.”

THE RUN FROM ROBIE POINT to the finish line at Placer High School in Auburn is only 1.3 miles. In that 1.3 miles, a runner can find the gifts or regrets of a day spent running 100 miles. If you are old or young, exhausted or energized, one’s arrival at Robie Point always signals the passage of time. You can be resigned that the day just wasn’t what you’d hoped and wish things would end soon, or you can feel a restless sense of joy that begs you, as strangely and illogically as it sounds, for your Western States to never end.

The Robie Point neighborhood came alive as Walmsley came through in the early evening a little after 7:30 p.m. There were flags, banners, hand-written signs and an expectant electricity that felt like the entire neighborhood was in the midst of a Fourth of July street party, only on June 26. About two miles earlier, right before No Hands Bridge, Walmsley made about the only mistake he would make during the whole race when he poured all of his water on his head, expecting an aid station to be at No Hands. When there wasn’t, Walmsley simply shrugged, let any negativity go, and thought, “Oh well, it’s going to be a dry climb up to Robie,” and kept moving.

“I was pretty thirsty by the time I got to Robie,” Walmsley said. He had told his partner, Jessica Brazeau, “That I wanted to run in with her and my brother, and Jess got the whole crew to run in with me.” It was unlike any of Walmsley’s previous visits to Robie Point. Surrounded by his crew, Walmsley took his time. He took a Coke from the Robie aid station and walked for a bit, savoring the energy of a neighborhood that treats all runners like long-lost friends, heaping cheers over them throughout Western States weekend.

“I thought I did a good job of advancing the Coke up Robie Point,” Walmsley said with a light chuckle. More seriously, he added, “It was pretty incredible. The streets were almost lined from Robie Point all the way to the track. The track was overflowing with people. It was an amazing finish. I think there were just so many people this year who wanted and needed Western States to be there and to be back. It’s something we obviously all have missed. It was amazing it was as normal as it was, given what we’ve had the past year and a half. I’m still blown away by the fact that almost 48% of the finishers finished in the last two hours. The 101 degrees just doesn’t give the race justice for how hard it felt out there.”

A few days later, Pascall was back home in England. She was in the backyard of her parents’ home in quarantine along with Matt. You could hear the birds chirping in the backyard. She had been picking berries.

She said that she was about to launch another planned/unplanned initiative that in some ways mirrored her just completed visit to America.

“I’ve been referring to this guy Matt as my husband,” she says. “Last year during the pandemic we had to cancel our wedding. We had a two-guest legal ceremony and that was it. In 10 days time, right when we’re out of quarantine, we’re having our actual wedding. We only found out we could go ahead and hold it a couple of weeks ago. We have to follow some rules, and I have to admit it’s been kind of stressful. I didn’t want to think about it until after the race. Now I have 10 days to put together a big DIY wedding. We never quite planned it to be like this, but this is how it is.”

If Pascall’s wedding turns out to be like the final mile she ran at Western States, it may never end.

“That’s a mile I will never forget,” she said.

It was a mile that was forged from a day where Pascall’s confidence was always there for her to draw upon, where whenever she needed to show why she was going to win, she did.

“As what usually happens when you reach that point, all the pain goes away and it became super, super special running through the neighborhood,” she says. “It’s interesting, because as I did that, I actually wasn’t happy to see the track. I could’ve happily run another couple of miles after what I’d experienced running through town at the end. The whole final mile, with loads of people, all cheering for you, it was really cool to experience. I think in a way, I didn’t want to speed up. I wanted to keep savoring what I was feeling over that last mile.”

The top 10 men and women finishers line up for recognition at the Western States awards ceremony. Paul Nelson