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Western States Endurance Run canceled

Decision hinged on smoke, fire, safety
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Lightning, fire and smoke did what snow, heat and the test of time could not. In a move unprecedented since the Western States Endurance Run’s first 100-mile trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn in 1977, the event was called off Wednesday. Tim Twietmeyer, Western States Run board president, said air quality and safety were key reasons for the decision to cancel the run. "It puts a pall on things but it's the right thing to do in terms of safety and maintaining the integrity of the run," Twietmeyer said. With three days to go before a field of 370 runners was to start on a grueling ultramarathon that draws competitors from around the world, Western States organizers spent much of the hours leading up to the decision Wednesday evening conferring over how to deal with smoky conditions in the mountains, the threat of fire along the rugged, sometimes-isolated trail, and the event’s impact on firefighting operations. Three larger fires were burning Wednesday, with one about 8 miles northeast of Foresthill along Peavine Ridge threatening to overrun a section of the Western States Trail in the Last Chance-Dusty Corners area. The other two fires were burning in the North Fork American River watershed – far from the trail but close to routes that would have seen increased traffic along Foresthill Road to Robinson Flat, one of the main aid stations for runners. As well as 370 runners, 1,500 volunteers man the route, and each runner averages three or four crew members. Jan Cutts, Foresthill Ranger District chief ranger, said that forecast dry lightning for Friday and Saturday have also been concerns in discussions with Western States organizers. More than 300 fires broke out Saturday after a dry lightning storm rolled through Northern California. Fires throughout the region were contributing to smoky conditions and the Placer County Air Pollution Control District issued an air-quality advisory. “We recognized they were telling us to not go out and mow the lawn, much less run 100 miles,” Twietmeyer said. The Forest Service was letting organizers decide whether to go ahead with the run, Cutts said. “We’ve been giving them our opinion and feedback,” she said. By early Wednesday, race officials were exploring the possibility of canceling an event that had its roots in a 1974 run by Meadow Vista’s Gordy Ainsleigh who challenged the horses and riders onfoot along the Tevis Cup route. The run officially started in 1977 and has established itself in the world of ultra marathons as one of its premier events. This year, more than 1,400 people signed up for a lottery in which fewer than 400 runners were chosen. Auburn’s Bill Finkbeiner, a runner with 15 Western States finisher buckles, said that while it was disappointing for him, this year’s race wasn’t the single shot at the buckle other runners were facing after training for a year and flying in for the event. Many are now trying to find another run in an attempt to not let months of training go to waste, Finkbeiner said. Ainsleigh, who will miss this year’s run because of a knee injury, said that if he was able to, he would run in the smoky conditions. He added that he would have liked to have seen race officials adjust the course to take into account fires in the area. “It certainly wouldn’t stop me,” Ainsleigh said, alluding to temperatures over 100 degrees and traveling over miles of snow in the mountains some years. Ainsleigh said wood smoke is far less toxic that petrochemical pollution and he’s run in smoke similar to conditions on Wednesday without any ill effect. Potato Richardson, a member of the Auburn Challenge committee, a Western States competitor, and a 100-mile Tevis Cup endurance ride winner, said he would still see doing the run in the smoke but with participants wearing a protective face mask. Riding a horse in the smoke is a different, however, he said. “I wouldn’t take my horse out riding yesterday because of the smoke,” Richardson said. Twietmeyer said runners had already arrived from around the United States, as well as other nations from around throughout the world. The first event in Squaw Valley took place Wednesday and more activities, including a luncheon, flag-raising and a shorter run in place of the 100-miler would take place before Saturday, he said. There had been discussions about running a loop course in the Squaw Valley. The possibility of postponing the event was dismissed because of runners having to peak a second time for a later run and the degraded, dusty condition of the trails later in the summer, Twietmeyer said. The finish line drama that takes place starting on Saturday evenings of Western States weekend at Auburn’s LeFebvre Stadium will be taking a year off. Runners finishing the event circle the football field’s track at Placer High School before their triumphant crossing of the finish line. The finishes continue through the night and into late morning on Sundays. Auburn City Manager Bob Richardson said that the impact would be far greater on the run organization than it would be on the city’s Auburn Endurance Challenge Committee. “We hate to see the first cancellation of this event but understand the well-thought-through reasoning by organizers,” Richardson said. “They did their homework.” The Journal's Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.