The Western States 100 and Hardrock 100: A Metaphorical Comparison

With the Western States 100 taking place last weekend and Hardrock 100 taking place next weekend, this is the time of year when all ultrarunners look to California and Colorado.

I’ve been privileged to run both of these iconic events, and in recent years, I have traveled to Auburn, California, and Silverton, Colorado, each year to spectate and volunteer. I’ve had the opportunity to observe and experience what makes these events so different from each other and yet, on some level, very much the same.


I like to compare the vibes of Hardrock and Western States to rock concerts.

Hardrock is that concert that takes place in a modest venue with a few thousand seats, think the Beacon Theatre in New York City. Think of the last concert you attended that brought you close to the artist and allowed you to interact socially with other concertgoers. That’s Hardrock.

Western States, on the other hand, is the massive stadium show, think Kenny Chesney at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts. These concerts take on a festival atmosphere and bring thousands of people out long before the concert is scheduled to start. Loud, chaotic, and celebratory, Western States shares the vibe with these large stadium shows.

Track Versus Cross Country

In my previous professional life as a high school principal I attended more than my fair share of track and cross-country meets. Over the years I made some observations that remind me of the difference between Western States and Hardrock.

Track meets are slick and fancy. Track athletes wear crisp kits and sleek shoes. Western States is track.

Cross-country meets are loose and in the woods. Cross-country runners are a ragtag group with unkempt hair and oversized kits. They know how to run they just do it a little differently. Hardrock is cross country.


Hardrock weekend moves at a pace akin to a small town. Sure, the runners up front need to move fast, and those at the back may feel the pressure of meeting the cutoffs, but by and large, the race moves at a laid-back pace. Runners spend time regrouping at aid stations, volunteers linger to chat and share stories, and race officials and veterans of the event make everyone feel welcome and embraced by the community.

The pace at Western States is more like New York City during rush hour. Intensely competitive at the front of the pack and challenging with tight cutoffs at the back, there is little time for dilly-dallying for anyone. It’s an intense, fast-moving pace, the rewards of which are a shiny belt buckle and big city memories to last a lifetime.


Both events celebrate and embrace community. In fact, they both endeavor to nurture a sense of community in the many activities surrounding their events. Additionally, the phrases “Western States family” and “Hardrock family” are part of the language around each race.

As you might expect, Hardrock is a close-knit family — the kind where many still live in the same area, get together often, and share many common characteristics. The Western States family is a massive extended family that is spread around the world, getting together only occasionally and with disparate goals, attitudes, and temperaments. Both families share common connections but do so in very different ways.


Regardless of their differences in vibes, type of race, pace, and community, both Western States and Hardrock have earned their places on the top step of North American ultrarunning culture. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their unique characteristics, these two events have been able to stand the test of time, doing so in their own unique ways and on their own independent terms. As a result, they continue to be the two of the most sought-after events in American trail running and ultrarunning.





posted Sunday July 7th
by I Run Far