Mike Acer: A Story of Endurance & Perseverance
Story by Jim and Heather DiPrato, cover photo by Facchino Photography
Imagine having to run 100 miles in 100-degee heat through rough, hilly terrain, and completing all 100-miles within just 30 hours without sleep. No, this is not the plot for a dystopian “Hunger Games” style novel, this is what it takes to compete in the renowned Western States Endurance Run, and thousands of runners across the world vie for a chance to take part in it every year. Since there are more than 6,000 applicants and only a few hundred spots annually, hopefuls must prove their ability to complete a local 100-mile endurance run then win a lottery to secure their place in this ultra-competitive event.
Mike Acer has lived in Lower Makefield for 8 years, and for the same 8 years has been working for a spot in this exclusive race. In 2021, Mike finally achieved this dream. But, he says, it likely never would have happened without the crew who helped him prepare for and complete the race. “During the race,” says Mike, “They really brought me through some rough patches and helped keep me moving.”
Mike’s crew included Chrystal Molnar, Tom Peterson, and Cheryl Chambliss. All three were instrumental in training and helping him through the event itself. “I had specifically chosen the crew members, knowing they would need to think for me at some point in the race,” Mike explains. “Tom is a veteran of Western State 100 and knew the perils and where I may need additional assistance. Chrystal is a rock-solid ultra-runner, who I knew would move me forward at a steady pace late in the race. Cheryl coordinated crew activities, logistics and knew when I needed an extra push.”
Where it all began… Back in the 1990s, Mike started running at lunch with some co-workers. He really liked the sport. He began by entering 5k and 10k runs, then half marathons. Eventually, he worked his way up to road marathons. About 10 years ago he decided to try trail marathons and began doing some long distances. “It was exhilarating,” says Mike. “Challenging, unpredictable, and so much fun.” Mike is a member of the Bucks County Road Runners, a community of like-minded runners who engage in activities throughout the year. There is a large trail running group inside the club with many experienced ultra-distance runners. “It has been outstanding to run trails and races with those who share my passion for running in the woods and mountains.”
“The crew met me at 6 different locations throughout the race, providing nutrition, assistance and encouragement,” Mike continues. “I struggled with mental fogginess during much of the first half of the race, which impacted focus and motivation. Mid race, due to the high heat and other factors, I had what I call a brain bonk or brain crash. It was an overwhelming desire to sleep. I walked almost 5 miles (unable to run), down and up through a canyon, in 100-degree heat, to mile 55, where Tom met me. He helped me start running again and pulled me to mile 62, where Chrystal took over pacing. We started moving well and passed many runners in the next 18 miles. Tom brought me from mile 80 to the finish, where the entire crew joined the last mile. If they had allowed me to sleep, it was likely I would not have completed the race within the 30-hour limit!”
While his running community is an important part of his life, Mike is also the dad to 3 grown daughters and loves living in the Yardley area. “Lower Makefield has a beautiful mix of residential neighborhoods, historic towns, and farms,” says Mike. “I love the small-town feel of Yardley Borough, and my favorite place for a bite to eat is The Vault. Good food, great beer!”
On June 27, 2021, Mike successfully completed the Western States 100- mile Endurance Run at the age of 59. The Western States ® 100-Mile Endurance Run is the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race. It takes place every year on the 4th full weekend in June. The Western States Trail climbs more than 18,000 feet and descends nearly 23,000 feet before runners reach the finish at Placer High School in Auburn. Beginning in Olympic Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, the race ascends from the valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. From the pass, following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850’s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn, a small town in the heart of California’s historic gold country.
Most of the trail passes through the remote and rugged territory and is accessible only by foot, horse or helicopter. In the decades since its inception in 1974, Western States has come to represent one of the ultimate endurance tests in the world. Entry to the race is gained through an annual lottery where the number of applications received greatly exceeds the available spaces for the race. Only 369 runners are allowed in each year. During the last lottery, there were 6664 applicants. Each lottery applicant needs to complete a qualifying race – another 100 mile or 100k race – in the allotted time during the qualifying period to earn a ticket to the lottery. Unlike other races, such as the Boston Marathon where you just qualify with running a specific time, for WSER you also need to be selected in the race lottery. This means you need to run a qualifying race each consecutive year and given the small chance of being selected in the lottery for many WSER runners this is a commitment of years, not just months.
Mike has been trying to gain entry to WSER for eight years, which means he has been running qualifying races for at least that amount of time. For Mike to finish this race, it is the culmination of thousands and thousands of miles of running and years of training and running ultra-races. Temperatures for the race are frequently in the 90s, into the 100s in the canyons, and managing the heat is typically the largest challenge for runners. The temps were especially high this year and were measured at 106 degrees at the American river during the race. There was only a 66% finishing rate this year which is the lowest since 2009 and attributed to the high heat. Runners spend much of the race trying to manage the heat and keep cool.
Aid stations throughout the race provide ice and spray runners with water to keep people from over-heating. Runners are also allowed to have crew meet them at certain points and can have a pacer run with them after mile 62 to the finish. Mike was able to complete the run in 29:12:06 during the Golden Hour of the race. The Golden Hour is the last hour of the race before the 30-hour cutoff. It is the most exciting and special hour of the race as the people who have spent the longest time out on the course finish. There are times when some runners finish with just seconds to spare before the race ends.
After his finish, he said his finish at States felt so amazing. He was extremely humbled by the course and by the efforts of his friends, doing everything to make sure he finished. “My Western States Adventure was so much more than I hoped for,” says Mike. Mike has run over 40 ultramarathon races. As we mentioned earlier, he is an active member of the Bucks County Roadrunners (BCRR) as well as being a member of the Bucks County Triathlon club (BCTC). He is incredibly supportive of all other runners and has supported many people – whether they are new to trail running, attempting their first trail race, or attempting to run a new distance for the first time.
Mike volunteers his time, including traveling to events to provide support for others. He also volunteers countless hours helping with many local running events such as the BCRR winter series races, BCRR Equinox 11-hour trail event and Trails4Tails Fest which is hosted by the BCTC and supports It’s a Ruff Life Dog Rescue. He never hesitates to jump in to help wherever it is needed – whether it be ordering and providing food, cleaning up trails, or taking care of permits with the local parks. He shows up wherever he is needed and always with a smiling face. He also organizes the weekly trail run which meets every Saturday morning at Washington Crossing State Park (and never fails to bring coffee for everyone who may show up).
Mike has been awarded the Bucks County Roadrunners President’s Award for his countless contributions to the club. It is given to someone who exemplifies leadership and volunteering in the BCRR organization. Johnny King-Marino, BCRR president, indicated “He is the quintessential volunteer and participant that is why I chose him for the president’s award I couldn’t think of a more worthy recipient.” Mike can frequently be found running the trails around Washington Crossing and Baldpate Mountain on the weekends, on the LMT bike path with the McTuesday group running around McCaffrey’s or having a beer at The Vault.
“If anyone wants to start running and would like to join some group runs, check out http://www.bcrrclub.com/” says Mike. The club has scheduled runs Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. For trail running meet the trail group on Saturdays at 7:30 am at the Washington Crossing Park river lot. There are several different pace groups and it’s great fun for all.