Benefield: Windsor schoolteacher preparing for grueling 100-mile footrace

Bob Shebest is still chapped by an 18th-place overall finish two years ago in the Sierra mountain endurance run. When the horn is sounded on Saturday, he'll get his chance to do better.|


Almost two years ago to the day, Bob Shebest was lying on the track at Placer High School in Auburn in a fetal position. He’d crossed the finish line of the legendary Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, but it had not gone well.

He curled into a ball. Then came the watery bile.

“My wife rolled me into a burrito in the middle of the track,” he said. “I vomited into a box for two hours.”

So where is Shebest, 44, today? Up in Tahoe, champing at the bit to do it again.

This anecdote ignites no small number of questions in my mind. But there is one I just can’t ignore: For the love of God, why?

“Because I’m crazy,” he said. But he’s smiling. He’s standing in Shiloh Ranch Regional Park in his running shorts and HOKA One One shirt, his shoes are laced up and his voice sounds jazzed. He is looking forward to this. He should, after all - already an accomplished ultra racer, he’s devoted the better portion of the last six months on gaining entry to one of the most elite fields in ultra running.

He’s still chapped by that 18th-place overall finish two years ago and he wants to rewrite the script a little. When the horn is sounded at 5 a.m. Saturday, he’ll get his chance.

“The draw is certainly the mystique of the race,” Shebest said. “It’s the most iconic hundred miler in the world. Some would say it launched the sport of ultra running.”

It started as a trail ride for cowboys. Then someone suggested a footrace. It takes runners from Squaw Valley to Auburn. It’s 100 miles of rugged trails that climb more than 18,000 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet. There is unpredictable weather (but it’s usually roasting), a dicey river crossing and the threat of darkness for those who take too long. It’s been run every year since 1974, barring 2008 when wildfires canceled the race.

All of which makes it seem strange to many of us why so many elite runners would cut off their left arms for a chance to just toe the line at Western States. For those loony enough to want to do it, it’s incredibly difficult to gain entry. Terrific finishes at so-called qualifying events only get you into the lottery, where names are drawn from a hat.

Organizers understand the yearning so much that they give extra lottery tickets to those whose number isn’t drawn the previous year. The more times you have been denied, the more chits they put into the hat for you the following year.

After gaining entry in 2016, Shebest was shut out in 2017, narrowly missing multiple windows. He says he gained a reputation among his peers.

“I’m the guy who just missed out on the golden ticket,” he said.

This year, he zeroed in on the Georgia Death Race (sounds fun, right?). The top two finishers there earn so-called Golden Tickets - automatic entry to Western States. There are only five Golden Ticket races out there.

After running almost straight up through the backwoods of Blairsville, Georgia for 12 hours, 23 minutes and 31 seconds, Shebest finished in second place. Third place crossed the line 3:23 later. Shebest was in. Some poor fella named Caleb Denton was out - by three minutes.

This year, the Western States entry list is 369 people strong. Organizers strictly enforce the quota.

If you are in and you make it to the start line, finishing is not an option. It’s mandatory, Shebest said.

“If you don’t have a bone sticking out, you have to finish the damn thing or you will never hear the end of it,” he said.

Shebest is not a novice at this. If he finishes Western States, it will be his 10th 100-mile race. He set the course record at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in 2014 when he was 40. He won the 2014 Pine to Palm 100. He’s finished Ironman Hawaii four times. And he likes it all much more when he can hear people breathing down his neck.

“It’s the most fun when it’s most competitive,” he said.

Which means this weekend should be a blast. The big guns in ultra running will be there. Jim Walmsley, Tim Freriks and Francois Dhaene are listed as entrants on the official race web site.

Also listed on the web site? A couple of warnings. Potential issues for runners include renal shutdown, heat stroke/hyperthermia, hypothermia, altitude sickness and Rhabdomyolsis (that’s a kind of muscle cell death to you and me).

Oh, and then there is nature. The site warns: “Rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions and other potentially hazardous forms of wildlife live on the course and have surprised runners in the past.”

And this: Getting lost. As big as this race is, runners are alone much of the time. Little ribbons affixed to trees and bushes guide the way for the most part.

But none of this fazes Shebest. It seems to fuel him. He’s done BMX, then mountain biking, marathons and triathlons. But running nonstop for nearly 17 hours is his thing now.

“The human body is pretty amazing,” he said.

Shebest, a math and science teacher at Windsor Middle School who also coaches other athletes, is a font of inspirational mantras. He pops off with “pain is temporary, pride is forever.” Followed by, “On race day we don’t rise to the occasion, we sink to the level of our preparation.” Or, “Nine times out of 10 you get the race you deserve.” And one that I think he just made up: “Failure is not an option unless you have some major physical, mechanical breakdown.”

At 44, he’s not going to outsprint guys. But he can outlast them. And his mind, and his mantras, probably play a key role. Sixteen hours is a long time to be alone with your thoughts, especially in the thick of it when your thoughts drift toward panic.

He says he actively works on staying mentally engaged in the process. If he slips, he can just look at his wrist where he wears a rubber bracelet that says “The. Process.”

He’s also patient. He is a believer that a 100-mile race doesn’t really start until mile 62. He has experience and maturity that comes with age, if not the fast-twitch speed of his youth.

“I need to simply outlast those young guys,” he said. “The sport is getting bigger. There is a lot more talent coming into the sport. They are just faster, so I just have to kind of rely on experience and being able to mow them down late in the race. That’s the goal: Don’t be part of the carnage.”

He has his fuel, mostly in the form of powdered energy drinks apportioned out to the calorie. He’ll reload at various aid stations where his stuff is waiting for him. He’ll have ginger chews on hand to tamp down any nausea.

“Running in the 100-degree heat, you’ve got to keep your belly happy,” he said. “If your stomach goes south, you are screwed. You can only push so hard on the body before it pushes back.”

Proof: The whole human burrito and vomiting-into-a-box episode.

From the moment he recovered from Western States 2016, he’s wanted another shot at it. This weekend, he gets it. He’s talking about savoring the moment, enjoying everything that goes with one of the most storied events in his sport.

That’s what he says when I ask what he wants out of the day. But he’s competitive, clearly. So I push a little bit. He gives in.

“I really want to honor that ticket,” he said.

He wants to finish in 16 hours and perhaps change.

“I want to be top 10 overall,” he said. “If you are top 10, you get invited back next year.”

A belt buckle and return visit to hell.

But Shebest doesn’t see it that way. It’s not hell at all. In fact, it might be the opposite. The day might take him through pits of hellish discomfort, even pain, but it’s his quest to ride it out and see himself through to the other side.

And on the other side, his wife, Amanda, will be at the finish line. She’ll wrap him in a hug either way, but Shebest would sure like to be on two feet when she does. And he wants no part of a cardboard box of bile.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at kerry.benefield, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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