While top endurance runners from around the world are losing sleep, anxiously waiting to embark on the renowned Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, owners and operators of a family-owned silversmith business are also losing sleep.
In a shop in Carson City, the Stegman family and employees of Comstock Heritage are wiping fingerprints off belt buckles and touching up engraved lettering that reads, “100 Miles One Day.”
Then the crew will box up about 150 silver buckles for those who traverse the 100-mile route from Squaw Valley to Auburn within a 24-hour period. About 200 bronze buckles with “100 miles” engraved on them will be packed alongside the silver buckles, to be awarded to runners who complete the race within a 30-hour period.
The process of hand-crafting the buckles begins in January, and continues in the months before the Western States, which is always the last weekend in June. This week the silversmiths work additional hours and take buckles home at night to make sure they are completed in time for the race, which starts Saturday.
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James Stegman, president of Comstock Heritage, following in the footsteps of his dad and grandfather, was raised making buckles for the elite runners.
Before the first Western States run, the Stegman family cast the awards for riders of the Tevis Cup, an endurance horseback ride along the same course dating to 1955. The Tevis Cup awarded silver buckles to riders who finished within 24 hours, a tradition that carried over when a Tevis Cup competitor ran the race on foot instead of riding horseback in 1974.
The Western States, officially started in 1977, was the first 100-mile trail run, and spurred hundreds of endurance runs of a variety of distances throughout the world. Many race organizations also took up the tradition of awarding belt buckles to finishers – even though runners don’t tend to be the belt-wearing type.
Western States buckles are handed out at an awards ceremony 90 minutes after the 30-hour cut-off time for the runners to receive bronze buckles. The silver buckles are worth about the same as the $375 race entry fee, race officials said. Bronze buckles are worth about a third of that.
“There’s a strange sense of pride, when you see the people come across the finish line,” Stegman said. “It is gratifying. Everyone is so happy to get them, and they are so coveted.”
Earning a buckle marks you among runners, said Tim Twietmeyer, 55, the only person to date to have earned 25 buckles.
“I started out as a guy that just wanted to finish. I wasn’t really any good at it,” Twietmeyer said. “I really enjoyed the challenge and the people, and then it just gets in your blood, and it got to the point where I was like, ‘I could really race this thing.’ ”
Twietmeyer came in first five times. He ran his first Western States at age 22 and his 25th at 47, and has seen the buckle designs evolve over time. His 10th, 20th and 25th are all additionally engraved to note his accomplishments. His buckles are arranged on a hand-crafted wooden display, and he wears one on special occasions.
The first time you race, Twietmeyer said, you want to get the buckle and become part of the club. Completing the race is now often referred to as “buckling.”
“You’ve bought in, you’re trying to make it. You just want to get to the finish line and be included.”
Race director Craig Thornley acknowledged that the buckles “don’t really fit with the way most runners dress. It is a really weird tradition because most of us aren’t cowboys.”
Thornley didn’t wear any of his buckles until he had collected five. He now has eight and keeps two on belts. “I didn’t even wear belts,” he said. “I had to get a belt to put the buckle on.”
This year, about 2,700 runners entered a lottery to be a part of the Western States after having run qualifying races. Roughly 370 will start, of which about 70 percent are expected to finish.
Donna Stegman, wife of James Stegman, said attending an award ceremony and seeing the importance of the buckles to the runners changed her perspective on her family’s business.
“I was very, very surprised ... to realize that people were this nuts about their belt buckles,” she said.
“I didn’t realize that it was that big of a deal. It is strange to be at a stoplight somewhere in town, and see the Western States bumper sticker with our buckle on it.”