Thursday, January 15, 2009

Understanding the Western States Board of Trustees - An Interview with John Trent

Have you ever wondered what the Western States Board of Trustees does? After receiving the notification of the cancellation of the 2008 race, I felt like thanking whomever was looking out for us and realized I didn't know who they were. So I tracked down John Trent, a Trustee of the Board, to do an interview and learn a bit more.

John Trent experienced his first Western States 100-mile Endurance Run in 1987, shortly after graduation from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. An avid runner already, he was sent to Western States to cover a race his sports editor described to him as “some crazy race.” Trent fell in love with the race immediately, and vowed to one day run it himself.

In 1997, he ran the first of what would become eight Western State finishes. His first finish was notable for its time – 24:01, which left him a little more than a minute short of earning a coveted silver belt buckle for a sub-24-hour finish.

In 2000, he ran the first of seven consecutive sub-24’s at Western States. His fastest time at Western States came in 2002, when he finished in 20th place overall in a time of 20:15. Trent became a member of the board of trustees at Western States in 2004, where he focuses on communications and serves as the race’s media relations coordinator.

During a 10-year career as a sportswriter at the Reno Gazette-Journal in Reno, Nev., Trent was a two-time winner of the Nevada Sportswriter of the Year award. He also worked as deputy press secretary and speechwriter for former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, and is currently the senior editor for news and features at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Since undergoing microfracture knee surgery in 2007 following an injury at the 2007 Miwok 100K (a race where he still managed to finish in 18th place after tearing cartilage in his left knee at Miwok’s 15-mile mark), Trent has yet to return to ultramarathoning. Even without active competitive participation, his involvement with Western States remains one of the most important priorities in his life, following his duties as a husband to his wife, Jill, and father to daughters Annie, 19, and Katie, 16 (all three of whom have served as his crew at Western States in years past).

1. Could you tell us a bit about the WS Board of Trustees? What is their charter and how often do they meet?

The Western States Endurance Run’s Board of Trustees is comprised of 13 members. We are a not-for-profit organization charged with all aspects surrounding the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, from organizing each year’s run to fulfilling trail maintenance projects throughout the year to enhancing the historic and cultural significance of the Western States Trail to fostering a medical research agenda that will help science better understand the physical demands of the race to working with the various local, state, regional and national management entities in a shared effort to ensure that the trail remains open to the public.

Our roots go back to 1977, when the first board of directors of the Western States Endurance Run was formed as part of the Western States Trail Foundation. The original group was made up primarily of a handful of runners and horse riders (remember that Western States originally was held in conjunction with the Tevis Cup 100-mile horse race) who had helped monitor the progress of the 14 runners who had run the first official Western States 100-miler earlier that summer. By 1978, the race had mushroomed to 21 aid stations, six medical checks and hundreds of volunteers, and it became more apparent than ever that a board of trustees was needed to manage this massive growth. More than 30 years later, four of the unsung heroes of the race’s history are Phil Gardner, Mo Livermore, Shannon Weil and Curt Sproul. They were the individuals who pushed for an independent event, separate from the Tevis Cup and really set in motion what nearly 400 runners experience each year. Shannon and Mo remain members of the board today. Both Shannon and Mo, in a very real sense, continue to represent the rich history, and moral compass that any modern endurance event needs in order to be successful.

2. Who is on the board and what are their roles? Do you have to have a finisher buckle to be eligible to be on the board?

We have a 13-person board. Our officers are Tim Twietmeyer, president; Shannon Weil, vice president; Kathy Hamilton, secretary; Dr. Gary Towle, M.D., treasurer.

It’s a very eclectic group, and we have a tendency to work in aspects of the areas that play to our strengths and expertise, both professionally and personally.

One quick example. Mark Falcone is in charge of our trail maintenance projects. Anyone who knows “Marko” will tell you that he is an incredibly organized person who has a great knack for bringing together groups for the betterment of all. Under his guidance, the condition and overall health of the trail has improved dramatically over the past five years.

Just take last year as an example. Marko and his trail crews cleared more than 450 trees from Robinson Flat to the finish line, and cleared an additional 200 trees from Red Star Ridge to Duncan Canyon in the course’s “High Country.” More than 4,300 red fir seedlings were planted on June 1 in the Duncan Canyon and Red Star Ridge area that had been hit so hard earlier this decade by the huge Star Fire. Marko would tell you, in typical fashion, that it’s all about the selfless volunteers and great partners, but it’s his vision, his enthusiasm, his know-how and expertise in bringing people together for a common cause, that really make all the difference in this effort.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that our president, Tim Twietmeyer, has also played an instrumental role in Marko’s efforts. Not only is Tim a five-time Western States champion, he has been there every step of the way for board members like Marko who have special talents, and who see the trail in special ways.

Western States also has the services of the best race director in the land, Greg Soderlund. I’ve known Greg for more than a decade now, and I can’t think of a more responsible and reasoned person than Greg. No one cares more about the welfare of the runners at Western States than Greg. His attention to detail is simply amazing, and I’m always inspired by his patience, and his endurance. You should see him a week or two after the race. That’s when you can tell the toll the race takes on him. Multiply running 100 miles by about 400 runners. That’s how Greg looks when the barn door has finally been closed and everyone has safely made it to Auburn.

And no, you don’t have to be a Western States finisher to be on the Western States board. It is important, though, that you have a great deal of passion about the race, as well as a willingness to work hard. In May and June, when the race draws nearer, it can easily become a fulltime endeavor.

3. Is it common for a race to have a board of trustees? If not, why does WS have one?

It depends on the race. For Western States, a board of trustees is a must, simply because the trail traverses numerous local, state, regional and federal management entities and jurisdictions, which can sometimes create complicated layers of bureaucracy. A single race director, no matter how skilled, would have great difficulty handling all that is involved when you consider the sheer number of stakeholder groups who are located on or near the Western States Trail.

Again, it is the expertise of some of the people on the board that really helps. We have the good fortune of having individuals such as Tony Rossmann on our board. Tony is a professor at University of California, Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law and is considered one of the finest environmental law attorneys in the country. If not for his efforts in working with key legislators on the state level in California and on the federal level in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s through today, I don’t know if the trail would be as completely accessible to the public as it is.

These are things that we just take for granted as trail runners; yet, for trail to remain open, we have to have people working behind the scenes on our behalf. Tony has played a major role in almost every instance where the federal government has bestowed special status on the trail. The most recent came in April 2008 when California U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein introduced Senate Bill 2909, the Western States Trail Study Act, which represents the initial effort by Congress that can lead to designation of the Western States Trail as a National Historic and Scenic Trail – the highest level of federal recognition and protection that the federal government can give a trail.

These are milestones that have Tony’s very capable and thoughtful fingerprints all over them. His work on behalf of the race – simply because he loves the race and what it represents – is just one example of the benefit of a board of trustees.

4. Can you give us some examples of decisions/outcomes of the board and how it affects the race?

The events that led to the cancellation of last year’s race is probably the best example. During several group phone calls in the days leading to the cancellation, the board did everything in its power not to reach our final decision to cancel the race. We fully realized the commitment our runners had made, the months of training they had undergone, and we looked at every possible alternative to still hold the race.

Although some of the alternatives seemed feasible for a while, ultimately each one led us to the same conclusion: No matter what the plan was, it still seemed to put the health and safety of our runners at too great a risk. We all realize that running 100 miles over difficult terrain, sometimes through infernal heat, is a risk for runners. But then to knowingly compound that risk by adding air that was deemed as some of the most unhealthful in the history of the region by air quality experts, seemed to be too over the top.

Given that fact, we were all in complete agreement that the most prudent course of action was to cancel the race. It was a precedent-making decision, one that obviously disappointed a number of runners throughout the country and the world. On the other hand, on a personal level, do I feel that the board acted wisely, and in the best long-term interest of our runners? Is it a decision I still support? Absolutely.

The other example of decisions/outcomes by the board that sticks with me was the disqualification of Brian Morrison in 2006. That was a difficult decision. I’ve been involved or have covered Western States as a journalist for more than 21 years, and I don’t think there has been a more courageous run than Brian’s run in 2006. Conditions were brutal on that day and he literally ran himself to exhaustion. By the time he reached the track, he was so exhausted his mind had detached itself from his body. He didn’t knowingly break the race’s performance rules, although it was clear that he had, as a few other well-intended individuals helped him across the finish line. Brian has said he doesn’t have any recollection of the events on the track – and for good reason, he was utterly, absolutely exhausted at that point.

As we gathered as a board to decide on what to do, we all felt an incredible amount of sadness and empathy for Brian. He had with great courage run his heart out. But the race’s performance rules were clear.

Brian’s sense of sportsmanship in the wake of his disqualification was something that I will always remember. There are a number of truly wonderful people who have run Western States over the years, but I find it hard to think of anyone who has shown the type of graciousness and nobility and spirit that Brian has shown over the past couple of years. He’s a truly remarkable person – and he’s on the entrant list for 2009. As I’ve said many times to our fellow board members, rooting against Brian at this point is a little bit like rooting against Seabiscuit – no one with a heart ever should, nor should they ever count him out.

5. You’ve been involved with Western States over a decade, and officially on the board for the last five years. How did you get involved? What have been some of the bigger challenges since you have been a part of it?

In 1987, I had just graduated from Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I was hoping to catch on as a fulltime sportswriter at my hometown paper, the Reno Gazette-Journal. The sports editor at the time, Mike Blackwell, knew I was a runner and asked me if I’d be interested in driving over to Auburn to cover “this crazy 100-mile race where they run from Squaw Valley.” I was desperate to impress him – and also intrigued by the race. I had seen it covered on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” before. It was a day of unrelenting heat, one of the hottest Western States on record. The steady Herb Tanzer caught Steve Warshawer to win. I was just so struck by the beauty of the trail that day, plus the friendliness of the volunteers and the spirit of the athletes.

I covered the race for several years after that as a sportswriter for the Reno Gazette-Journal (I got my fulltime job there eventually), and really lost my mind about the race when I paced a good friend, Joe Braninburg of Reno, in the ’95 race. I ran the final 38 miles with Joe for a story I was writing, and you couldn’t have asked for a more interesting day. It had all the elements of a great story: Joe was gunning for the 50 to 59 age group title, it was another year of great ice (snow for the first 30 miles of the course) and fire (temperatures of 107 degrees during the day), plus the Tarahumara Indians were running that year. Several of them were busy battling the legendary Ann Trason that day and Tim Twietmeyer was well on his way to cementing his legend at Western States with yet another difficult win.

What has stayed with me since that day are the bells that the Tarahumaras wore on their sandals. A couple of the Tarahumaras chased my friend Joe through the night, and it was exciting to race the haunting sound of those bells through all the canyons, up Robie Point and onto the track at Placer High. I’ll always remember how Joe shifted into high gear when he saw the lights of Placer High. Another great older runner, Ruth Anne Bortz, who ran an amazing 24:34 at age 56 in 1986 might’ve said it best: When you step foot on that track for the first time for the finish, it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven. Joe ran a remarkable race for a 51-year-old; he finished in the top 10 that day, and I had a story that I was immensely proud of afterward. I could barely walk for three or four days afterward. It was my longest run ever to that point. It ensured that I was hooked, and that I would try the race myself. I’ve since finished the race eight times, seven under 24 hours, with my best time of 20:15, good for 20th place, in 2002.

My area of expertise for the board is in communications. I’ve been a writer all my life, and in addition to being a sportswriter, I teach journalism at the college level and have served as a speechwriter and deputy press secretary for former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn.

My role is to handle a number of communications related issues for the race. Probably my biggest challenge to date occurred on the evening of June 25, 2008, when I had about 40 minutes to draft the race’s statement that the race was in fact being cancelled. It kind of reminded me of a moment that the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns related when he was finishing up “The Civil War.” Burns said that it took him a long time to actually emotionally prepare for the moment in the film when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. “The longer we waited in the editing room, the more it seemed like we were delaying the inevitability of a painfully dreadful moment,” Burns has said in an interview.

In might sound like a stretch, but I felt the same way. Before I could actually write the words that the race was being cancelled, I had to get up from my computer at home, take a deep breath and compose myself, because I knew once the message was completed, there was no turning back.

6. How does the board view the increased popularity of ultrarunning?

In general, I think we are happy that the sport continues to grow, and that it has continued to attract the young and the young at heart. The growth of ultrarunning has certainly presented numerous challenges for our board, in terms of making sure that there is a sense of fairness and transparency in what we do in selecting a field for the race. No selection process is perfect, and I think that is why you see that as more ultras are looking at limiting the number of participants, they each use a slightly different method. Not every race is the same, nor should they try to be. That’s why you see a race like “Way Too Cool” taking a first-come, first-served approach while ours and others have chosen over the years to use a lottery system. The upside to this great growth is that there are so many possibilities out there. If you can’t get into Western States there are a number of great ultras out there to choose from. Variety is extremely important, and since I underwent microfracture knee surgery about 18 months ago and my 100-mile days might be behind me now, I sort of wish I had tried Leadville or Wasatch or even Badwater. That’s what we tend to lose sight of as ultrarunners; there are plenty of great races to choose from, and we should constantly challenge ourselves to experience new races in new locales.

7. Is there anything that Western States participants can do to assist the board in their planning and decision making?

We value feedback from all of our runners, and the ultra community in general. The only way a run can hope to improve is to seriously invite feedback from its core constituency, its runners. The lottery has always been a hot-button topic for the ultra community, which is, I think, great. In an interesting and meaningful way, it shows that there are a lot of people out there who really care about our race. We’ve received a number of exceptionally creative suggestions from runners from throughout the country and the world, and we truly do appreciate the fact that often that type of feedback is detailed down to the spread sheet level.

Here is a link to the photos of our board members -

Mine is pretty bad (I had just thrown up about a half mile earlier on the climb from Swinging Bridge), but now that you know what we all look like, feel free to share your thoughts with us.
Any and all emails, phone calls, letters or comments in the middle of a 50-miler somewhere are always appreciated.

Scott, thanks for the opportunity to share some thoughts about Western States. From the members of the Western States board to you, we sincerely look forward to watching your finishing lap at Placer High this June.

I'm looking forward to it as well! Thanks for taking the time, John. I hope your recovery is coming along nicely.

- SD

An additional note to this post - other great runner/bloggers are writing opinions, questions, open statements, etc., about the Board of Trustees in various forms today. Be sure to check them out:

Bryon Powell - Accountability and Transparency

AJ Wilkins - An Open Letter to the Board of Trustees
Craig Thornley - WS Board - Reconsider Mandatory Volunteerism
Sean Meissner - Suggestions to the WS Board of Trustees


  1. Scott a very timely interview..and perhaps on of your most important. Well done and insightful. Each of the very popular ultra events have strong support behind the scenes which makes things happen. I would hope up next in your interviews would be for those other biggies..Hardrock, Wasatch, Leadville, Vermont. I think what the community would see are directors or organizations with a strong commitment to the sport and each with different skills and issues which make each event unique.
    Tony Lafferty

  2. John, I too was very active in the early years of WS100. Phil Gardner and I were the ones called on to mark the trail in the early years and my experience doing the run in 1982 was nothing short of spectacular. Again in 1987 I was a participant that too was a spectacular year for me. We should talk some time. Potato Richardson

  3. Scott,

    This "synchroblog" is very interesting. I hope that John and other board members are tracking all the posts. Craig and Bryon have some very interesting things to say, and I think the board should be paying attention to their ideas.

    Andy, well he's just a goofball, but they might get a smile out of it... ;)


  4. Jasper,

    Who you callin' a goofball? What, you don't like all my neat ideas? They actually started work on the sprinkler system this morning:)


  5. Another great and very informative interview Scott. I am glad there's such an enthusiastic and talented team that comprise the Board. Here's a photo of Marc Falcone (Marko) taken at the Duncan Canyon Trail Clearing day last June.

    A couple of days before, a doctor had told Marko he has a serious heart condition and should not under any circumstances do anything stressful. So, he's biking into Duncan Canyon with with his chainsaw. Turns out the doctors diagnosis was bogus.

    Cheers, Paul

  6. I'm not sure how I missed this post back in January, but thanks so much Scott for posting. Thanks especially to John for taking the time to give such thoughtful responses. Fascinating stuff, and John is such an enthralling writer!


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