The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run has never been for the faint of heart. In its 45 years of existence it was never meant to be easy. Runs of that distance never are. Starting in Squaw Valley, Calif., just northwest of Lake Tahoe, and following the Western States Trail, the run is roughly the distance from Bassett to Danville and back.
It starts at an elevation of 6,200 feet and climbs another 17,000 before reaching its peak. If the climbing wasn’t tough enough, the way down may be tougher, descending nearly 23,000 feet before the race is said and done.
Seventy-eight miles in, after running for nearly a full day, racers are expected to ford the American River. The website for the race states, in no uncertain terms, “much of this territory is accessible only by foot, horse, or helicopter.”
More than half of the race is run after dark. Temperatures throughout the distance can very from as low as 20 degrees – even in June, the website says snow conditions could force a route change – to well over 100.
This year’s race has a finish rate of 86 percent, the highest since 1977, when only one runner competed. Beginning at 5 a.m. on June 29, runners must have completed all 100 miles by no later than 11 a.m. on June 30.
Bassett’s Ashley Crouch finished it with just enough time to spare.
Crouch was one of 319 finishers of this year’s Western States Endurance Run, running the 100 miles in 29 hours, 31 minutes. The race that calls itself one of the “ultimate endurance tests in the world” was a true test for Crouch. Training mostly around Henry County and Roanoke, she was unable to train for the high altitudes of the race – such elevations are not seen anywhere on the east coast — and she had severe altitude sickness for the first 50 miles.
“During this particular race, the biggest race of my entire life,” she said, “the first 50 miles of this race I spent with a massive headache and throwing up the whole time. It was pretty rough.”
Making the 30-hour cutoff was a risk for Crouch early as she battled sickness and tried to make her way to the lower terrains. Aid stations along the way offered some respite and help from paramedics, who offered her food and advice on how to control her stomach.
“That’s not something you can train for here. We just don’t have something like that here,” she said.
Crouch had completed one other 100-mile race, in Abingdon in 2018. Running that race got her a ticket into the lottery for Western States, but one ticket was a long shot to get chosen to go to California.
“Some people have 15, 27, 50 tickets in there, and I had one ticket in there,” she said. “I think there was about 50,000 tickets in the bucket, and I think there was a 1.27 percent chance of having your name drawn off of one ticket, and mine just happened to be drawn.
“There are people that have been entered in this lottery for five, six, seven years and don’t get in, and for some reason my name was drawn.”
Training wasn’t much more than Crouch was already used to. An ultra-marathon enthusiast, she has done a number of 50K races, and she estimates about 20 ultra marathons, as well as the Blue Ridge Double Marathon.
Crouch’s longest training run for Western States was on the Appalachian Trail in Roanoke, running what hikers have dubbed the “Triple Crown Loop” of three mountain hikes – McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and Dragon’s Tooth – that in all add up to about 40 miles for a single day, with 8,000 feet of elevation change.
The longer runs are actually far less daunting to Crouch than a regular 5K, races that put pressure on the runner to go as fast as possible. She said the only time she ever has been nervous for a race was before a 1-mile run at Martinsville Speedway last year.
“I only had to run one mile, and I thought I was going to die,” she said. “Like, who does this? Runs really fast all the time for just one mile? That’s crazy to me.”
Even marathons, the 26.2-miler that has become the staple race of distance running, is too short for her liking.
“The older I get the harder it gets to run really fast,” she said. “So one day I realized that in ultra running you don’t even have to run really fast, you’ve just got to run really far. And it was easier for me to run really far than it was go really fast, so it just kind of works out for me.
“I think it’s a little bit crazy.”
Crouch, 38, wasn’t always crazy about running. She actually just started about six years ago. After she quit smoking, she gained about 30 pounds and admitted she was “miserable” for a time. After being gifted an old treadmill, she realized running wasn’t as terrible as she may have thought. so she moved from the treadmill to the trails. But she couldn’t get anyone to go with her.
It was okay, though, because running alone proved to be a blessing.
“We had seven kids at home at the time, and I was thinking to myself, ‘No one wants to go with me,’” she said. “That was the first time I was alone in forever. So that’s how running started for me. I got to be alone for the first time in 20 years. And it just escalated. Now all of my kids are runners, and we get to do it together and it’s really fun.”
Exercise as therapy has always been the case for Crouch, and despite early struggles, the Western States run was therapeutic for her. The race wasn’t really about the running. It never is. It’s about getting comfortable in your own head.
To get ready for Western States, Crouch spent a lot of time on the treadmill to get more experience for extreme downhills that she can’t find on trails around the area. She said that process meant more time to catch up on her TV. She’s pretty sure she saw everything Netflix has put out in the past five months.
But it’s important to let your mind wander and not think about the pain of each step and additional mile. Training your mind for races is often much more important than training your body.
“Your body is going to hurt. Your feet are going to hurt. You’re going to get tired, and you have to understand that,” Crouch said. “But the second that you kind of let your mind wander where it shouldn’t, you’re done. So you have to make sure you stay very comfortable in your brain within yourself. And it’s fine. I think that’s the biggest challenge is the mental challenge. It’s not even the physical challenge, it’s just staying happy mentally.
“I kind of just zone out a little bit. Running is like the one time in my life I don’t have to concern myself with what’s going on around me so I just zone it all out and just go out for a run.”
Twenty nine hours is a long time. Quite long, especially when running the entire time, as Crouch knows. There’s no sleeping during a 100-mile race, and no sitting down for a meal. Even at the aid stations where they have food and water, it’s dangerous to sit for too long or your body becomes too comfortable. Discomfort is the most important thing.
Even after finishing the race, the discomfort continues. Crouch said her first thoughts after finishing weren’t joyful. When asked what was going through her mind as she crossed the finish line, she said it was simply “Can I please take my shoes off?”
“That’s really all I want,” she said with a laugh. “I just want to take my shoes off. That’s it.”
And the weeks after the race aren’t really joyful either. While a runner’s high is definitely a real thing — “It’s really funny because my kids will tell you after a long, really fun race like that I have a runners high for about four days and I really, really love them a whole lot” – once the high wears off it’s time for the real world to set back in again.
Athletes will often say that after training for weeks, months, and years, after completing a championship season or a long career, when the celebrations are done it can be tough to move on. What do you do next? Where do you go from there?
“It’s very depressing,” Crouch said. “I was so depressed for about two weeks because I had all this free time now and there was nothing filling it because I was running for hours and hours and hours a day and now nothing.
“So it was actually quite depressing. It was a weird change. Now I’m back into a different new training cycle and it’s all O.K. again, but for about two weeks I was jut really sad that I wasn’t running all these miles.”
Crouch has neuropathy, which affects her feet and causes nerve damage, and said she didn’t have any feeling for about a week following the race. Even if she wanted, needed, to run to get out of her rut, she just couldn’t. She could barely move her feet at all.
That coupled with the effects of the altitude sickness really took a lot out of her body.
On the second week she was able to get back into a little bit of a routine, running about three or four miles a day.
Now, she said she’s feeling good and back to her normal 10-12 miles a day.
And even after completing one of the toughest races in the country, less than a month later she’s already set her sights on the next ones. Crouch plans to do another 100-miler in September, and a half Iron Man in October.
The Iron Man race will add another element, with biking and swimming as well as a run part of the trio of events. She admits those other two aren’t really her thing, but she was peer pressured by good friends into giving it a try.
And when she’s not running and training herself, she’s helping others learn to fall in love with the sport that has done so much good for her. Crouch does a lot of coaching through Miles in Martinsville and the YMCA, helping coach for 5Ks and half-marathons. She also works with “Girls on the Run,” a nonprofit that encourages young girls to give cross country a try and be confident in their athletic abilities.
“It’s definitely a male-dominated field,” she said. “This year at that particular race [Western States] we had a record-breaking number of women that were running it, and when they told us 24 percent was a record-breaking number, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh what a low number.’ … Girls are just, I don’t know, we’re just not in the field of distance running and I would love to change that.”
Don’t let the grueling races fool you. No amount of sickness or pain would keep Crouch from putting on her running shoes and going as far as she possibly can. Because for her, the pain in her body is worth it for the joy the sport brings to her mind.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago or when I was in high school, I would just have died laughing,” she said. “That is not me. But it just became my thing. I don’t know, it just happened and it worked out.
“They tell me I’m crazy all the time. My kids are like, ‘This is crazy, why are we doing this?’ but, I don’t know. It’s fun. I really love it… It definitely is my therapy for sure. You have to be a certain kind of stressed to even want to run three hours a day, much less run a hundred miles. You really have to be something. I don’t even really know the word for that. You just got to be something. I don’t think it’s everybody’s cup of tea.”
(This story originally appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.)