A Tale of Two Events

By Mario Fraioli

Molly Huddle, front, wound up with two laps to go in the 10,000m at the U.S. Track & Field Championships last Thursday, putting away the field with a 2:14.61 final 800m. 

I spent this past weekend a few hours north of where I live, spectating and Tweeting at the U.S. Track & Field Championships in Sacramento on Thursday night, and coaching, crewing, pacing and supporting athletes at the Western States 100 Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn on Saturday. I’ll refrain from recapping either event as those blow-by-blow accounts are readily available elsewhere (letsrun has the fast stuff, iRunFar has the long stuff), but here are a few things that stood out to me, in no particular order:

— The oven was turned to broiling in northern California the entire weekend, with temperatures in the mid-90s to low-100s affecting performance and attendance to varying degrees at both events. Attendance was the main victim in Sacramento, as only 29,743 fans filled the stands over the course of four days of competition. It’s hard to say for sure how much the weather influenced those numbers but unshaded metal bleachers and 100-plus degree daytime temperatures generally don’t pair well together. I can’t imagine this bodes very well for a 2020 Trials bid, despite reports of 20,000+ fans per day the last two times Sacramento hosted the event in 2000 and 2004. So what’s the solution? I’m not sure, but empty stands don’t do anything to generate excitement or appeal for the sport. The meet lacked any real energy (at least for the few hours I spent at it), which is too bad. You can’t blame it all on the weather.

— At Western States, performances took the biggest hit, as hotter-than-usual temperatures and rough course conditions led to all kinds of carnage. Thirty-three percent of the field (121 or 369 starters) did not finish the race—the highest attrition rate since 2009—while the winning times (16:19:37 for Ryan Sandes and 19:31:30 for Cat Bradley) were the slowest since 2009 and 2000, respectively. Attendance is hard to measure since fans and support crews are constantly in motion throughout the day, but the energy level was at 11 as two exciting races unfolded and the now near-annual finish line drama presented itself once again right before the 30-hour time cutoff.

— Is it just me, or did the Nike Oregon Project athletes seem a little more human this past weekend?

— There was a lot of back and forth—and an equal amount of surprise, struggle and stress—at Western States this past weekend. A lack of drama there was not.

My stomach was in knots as the leader updates rolled in throughout the day. My stoke was high as I paced my buddy Chris DeNucci (M5!) down Cal Street for the third year in a row, less than 10 minutes separating nine guys 62 miles into the race. He has a head that’s wired for long races and a drive that can’t be quantified or explained, qualities that served him well again on Saturday as he put together the race of his life on what was, by all accounts, a brutal day for everyone involved. I couldn’t be more happy for my bearded bro, knowing he spent most of the early part of this year on the sidelines with a foot injury.

And finally, my heart was nearly stopped at the Rucky Chucky river crossing, waiting anxiously for my athlete and friend YiOu Wang—who was leading the race last anyone knew—when her crew and I got word from runners passing by us that she was lying on the ground back near mile 70, hyperventilating with her legs up on a tree. She wasn’t able to finish, but thanks to her pacer Topher Gaylord, fellow runners and volunteers, YiOu got the help she needed and eventually made it back to Auburn OK. While seeing her recovering in the medical tent afterward, I was crushed, knowing how much this race meant to her and witnessing firsthand the massive amount of work she put into it over the past 12 months. But that’s coaching. You’ve got to live it with your athletes—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unpredictable.

So it goes at Western States. Whether you’re competing, crewing or cheering, this race will tug at your soul in a variety of ways. I was physically and emotionally tapped out on Sunday morning. Big ups to everyone who toed the line in Squaw on Saturday and gave it a go, and hats off to those who found their way to the finish line in Auburn. You all have my respect.

— My man David Bracetty, who shot the photos I used for last month’s Kate Grace interview, posted a series of sweet behind-the-scenes images from the U.S. championships in Sacramento to his Instagram feed over the weekend. Can’t wait to see where these end up!

Cool moment: Running into coach Ben Rosario and members of his HOKA Northern Arizona Elite squad at Western States. They came up to watch the race and support their Flagstaff friends after competing in Sacramento. More of this sort of stuff—in both directions—please. The sport of running, regardless of whether road, track or trail is your jam, will be better off for it.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.