Western States: 71-year-old steals the show

Gunhild Swanson Western States
Gunhild Swanson crosses the line with just six second until the 30-hour cut off, setting the record for runners over the age of 70
Western States finishline
The finish line at the 2013 Western States 100. Timmy Olsen first across the line in a time of 15:17:27. Photo Tonya Perme

In the world of trail running, the 100 mile race is seen as the ultimate accomplishment of human endurance. It stands like a beacon that all serious ultra runners aspire to.

It was no different this year. In fact, the ante was upped as Gunhild Swanson stole the show by becoming the first person over the age of 70 to come in under the 30-hour cutoff.

71 years and six seconds under

It was one of the most incredible stories to come out of the Western States in 2015, Gunhild, a 71-year-old woman, completed the race with just six seconds to go until the 30-hour cut-off.

In an interview with IRunFar’s Meghan Hicks, the record setter spoke about how the tough conditions slowed her down to power-walking and hiking at stages.

“I don’t know what it was, but we really suffered out there,” Swanson said after the race.

“I saw people curled up sleeping in the shade under the tree and laying in the creek. The terrain is so difficult that ordinary mortals like me and you can’t run. You have to power-walk it and hike it, so I just kept getting further and further behind.

“Once I got to where it was runnable, then I started to make up time.”

Gunhild Swanson Western States
Gunhild Swanson crosses the line with just six second until the 30-hour cut off, setting the record for runners over the age of 70. Photo Erin Strout

Even though Gunhild started to make up some time, there was still a major setback to come.

“It was as soon as my son started pacing me at Michigan Bluff that I knew I had to step on it because I was well over the 30-hour pace at that time. So we started just chipping away at it,” she continued.

Gunhild Swanson Western States
Gunhild Swanson looks relieved as friends and family celebrate her record-breaking achievement

“I got pretty comfortable, thinking everything was going to be fine and then disaster happened. At about mile 88, my pacer and I made a terrible rookie mistake and came up the trail and to the left there were a couple runners and followed them rather than looking for the markers. We should have turned right. We got all the way up a steep hill over a mile-and-a-half or so and had to come back down. So, I got three bonus miles.

“At the mile 90 aid station I was over the cutoff times. I can’t make it up. I don’t have enough legs to make it up. So I thought I was done. Physically I just couldn’t do it. I came into the aid station at the highway and Dave, my friend, took over as pacer. He said, ‘Let’s move it.’ I just went straight through the aid station, straight out, and he told me what to do. ‘Okay, you can run here. You can hike this uphill. Watch your footing. There’s rocks there. There’s loose dirt there.’ He talked me through it. Then I still had to hike up that hard stuff coming up to Robie Point from No Hands.”

Gunhild received huge encouragement as she entered the track at Placer High School’s stadium from her friends and pacers, as well as another pal in winner Rob Krar who screamed worlds of encouragement and poured water over the 71-year-old, urging her to make the 30 hour cut-off.

In the end, it was an incredibly close shave, but for Swanson it was an overwhelming experience.

“I must have had the biggest smile on my face, I swear. It was just so exciting. Everyone was shouting. The sheer noise of having everyone in the whole stadium shouting for me, it was just overwhelming,” she said.

The latest edition

2015 was the 42nd running of this prestigious race, and while the men’s winner was not too much of a shock, the women’s race produced a pleasant surprise.

Rob Krar came in at 14:48:59, just over two minutes from the course record set my Timothy Olson in 2012, after winning it last year. Polish-born American Magdalena Boulet, 41, was the women’s race winner in a time of 19:05:21 after getting lost for 30 minutes in the early stages of the race. What is so remarkable about this victory is that it was Magdalena’s first 100-mile race. She was an Olympic Marathon runner before this and competed in Beijing in 2008.

Boulet has not quite given up on her Marathon career, and even has aspirations of making the Olympic team on the track, as well as Marathon, however, her heart now belongs to ultra trail running.

In an interview with Meghan Hicks of IrunFar, Magdalena admits she has not fully committed to returning to defend her title in 2016, but says it will be a battle to stay away from the race in the future.

Magdalena Boulet Western States
Magdalena Boluet crosses the line as the fastest woman in her debut race. Photo Pam Kennedy

“I definitely want to come back to this race,” the Olympian said.

“Next year is a really tough one. I’m definitely doing the Olympic Trials in the marathon. I’m toying with the idea of doing also the Olympic Trials on the track.

“We’ll see. This [race] really has my heart. This race has stolen my heart. I’ve got to figure out what 2016 has to offer me.”

South African Sandes in the Western States

The Western States is part of trail running folklore in the United States, but its voice has been heard in South Africa with Ryan Sandes naming it as one of his favourite races.

Sandes, one of South Africa’s most successful trail runners, entered the Western States 100 in 2012 and set what would have been a new fastest time time of 15:03:56 – had it not been for Timmy Olsen. Timmy became the first runner to break 15 hours – clocking a 14:46:44 and bettering Geoff Roes’ course record of 15:07:04, set in 2010.

Ryan Sandes Western States 100
Ryan Sandes crosses the line proudly holding the South Africa flag in second place in 2012, just behind new course record holder Timmy Olsen. Photo Byron Powell.

Ryan returned in 2014, but could not better his second-place finish, coming in fifth. 2015 was set to be Sandes’ year as he felt dropping out of the 73km TransVulcania race in the Canary Islands early in the year would allow him to focus solely on Western States

All of Ryan’s attention then shifted to Western States: “The positive of that was that I was able to get straight into training for Western States and not have to take two weeks off to recover,” he said in an interview with allathletics.co.za.

“I went straight to Big Bear, California after TransVulcania and got a great four-week block of training in at altitude.

“My preparation has gone really well and I am feeling really good.”

WATCH: Ryan Sandes takes us through his preparation for the 2012 Western States and his joy at coming in second.

Unfortunately it was not to be for Ryan. The night before the race he was struck with a gastric virus and had to pull out. The South African expressed his disappointment on Twitter, but also congratulated the two winners.

One for the horses: A Western States history

Within the scope of endurance events, races such as the Tour de France, Iditarod invitational, Marathon des Sables, Ironman World Championship, and the Western States 100 all drum up incredible emotions in athletes and fans alike. These are feats of human achievement that are shrouded in history and layered in wonder.

From Squaw Valley to Auburn, California, the Western States was never intended to be a race for people, rather it started as proof that horses could complete 100 miles in a day.

Wendell Robie Tevis Cup
Wendell Robie in the early days of the Tevis Cup

The roots of Western States began with the late Wendell T. Robie who, in 1955, set off from a post office in Tahoe towards the city of Auburn with a party of five horsemen to prove 100 miles could be done in a day – on horseback. Soon after this was proved, Wendell set the wheels in motion for an annual Western States trail ride called the Tevis Cup 100 Miles – One Day Ride.

The Tevis Cup remained a trail ride until 1974 when veteran rider Gordy Ainsleigh took it upon himself to complete the ride on foot.

In 1971 Gordy won the admiration of Robie and the inner circle of the Tevis Cup riders when he completed the ride bareback. It was not the mere fact that Gordy pushed the limits of this already grueling horse trail, it was Ainsleigh’s determination not to quit, and to go through such pain that made him stand out to Robie.

Gordy Ainsleigh Western States 100
Gordy Ainsleigh in March 2014

In 1973, Gordy’s horse went lame and Drucilla Barner  (the first woman to win the Tevis Cup) invited Ainsleigh to do the race on foot. He tentatively accepted the challenge knowing that he should have a better horse by then. However, 1974’s Tevis Cup rolled around and Ainsleigh was not prepared.

So, in the Spring on 1974 Gordy ran, he ran because it was the most important thing in his life at the time and knew he had to be a part of it. Twenty-three hours and forty-two minutes later he arrived in Auburn, proving that a runner could indeed traverse the rugged 100 miles in one day. This was the genesis of modern ultra distance trail running.

Gordy is a licenced chiropractor in California and in the late 80’s he decided to volunteer his services instead of running the race. Within a few years, this grew into a team of chiropractors that he organises each year, who join with medical doctors and podiatrists to assist runners to arrive safely at the finish line.

The dean of ultra trail running is permanently assigned the number ‘Zero’ on his bib with the previous year’s winner wearing #1. Gordy has completed the Western States 22 times, most recently in June, 2007, with his fastest time being 20 hours and 55 minutes in 1984 after starting eight minutes late.

WATCH: A fascinating video about the origins of the Western States 100 as told by the original runner, Gordy Ainsleigh.

From the Wilderness to Darkness – the six sections

The Western States 100 traverses the trans-Sierra portion of the historic Western States Trail, which stretches from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Sacramento, California. The trail was first used by the Paiute and Washoe Indians but later became the most direct route between the gold camps in California and the silver mines in Nevada.

The Western States 100 is divided into six distinct sections.

The Wilderness section of Western States 100The Wilderness

It all begins in Squaw valley California with over 2,500 feet (750m) of climbing over the first four miles where the trail crests at Emigrant Pass at 8,750 feet (2,660m) and onto Robinson’s flat which, at an altitude of 7,000 feet (2,100m) is often blanketed in snow.

The Canyon section of the Western StatesThe Canyons

The trail climbs to the top of Little Bald Mountain after the flats before descending 1,043 feet (320m) to Miller’s Defeat and onto Last Chance, a mining ghost town.

The first canyon, Deadwood, drops 2,000feet (600m) and then ascends an extremely steep 1,500feet (460m) to Devil’s Thumb.

The second canyon, El Dorado, is more gradual but deeper, with a descent of 2,600 feet (800m) followed by an 1,800-foot (550m) climb to the old mining community of Michigan Bluff.

Runners can encounter temperatures reaching 43° in these canyons.

The Divide

The DIVIDE OF THE WESTERN STATES 100From Michigan Bluff, the trail follows the Foresthill Divide as it dips in and out of the small but difficult Volcano Canyon before reaching pavement for the first time on the outskirts of Foresthill. From here, runners head back into remoteness on the California Trail, a 16-mile rolling descent to the bottom of the American River Canyon. Front runners will have to deal with the most intense heat of the day in this stretch, due to the oven effect of the mid-afternoon sun reflecting off the south-facing wall of the canyon.

Rucky Chucky Crossing Western States 100Rucky Chucky Crossing

This is where the trail crosses the American River just below a class six rapid. Runners will have the benefit of a cable running from bank to bank, and numerous volunteers to help them if needed.

The Darkness

TechnicalThe Darkness section of the Western States 100ly one of the easier sections of the trail, but seen as one of the toughest. The trail climbs up the canyon to Green Gate and then follows gently undulating terrain through Auburn Lake Trails and Brown’s Bar. The slightly easier trail in this section is more than offset by the weariness of the runners, and the fact that most traverse this section at night by torch.

No Hands and the climb to the finish

No hands bridge Western States 100Descending for the last time into a canyon, the trail crosses the American River on the historic No Hands Bridge, the longest concrete-arch bridge in the world at the time of its construction. From this lowest point on its entire length, the trail then begins the final climb to Robie Point and the outskirts of Auburn. Here, stepping onto pavement for the third and last time in 100 miles, runners are just 1.3 miles from the finish line at Auburn’s Placer High School stadium.

Western States 100 Race Profile
The race profile for the Western States 100 race

The most prestigious race

Western States 100 Belt buckle
Runners who come in under 24 hours receive a handmade silver belt buckle, while those coming in under 30 hours get a bronze version

There may well be races that are longer, tougher and more daunting than the Western Staes 100, but there are few that hold such prestige in the world of ultra trail running.

To complete the original 100-miler is an achievement that many athletes dream of; it is the notch they want on their belt – which is convenient seeing as the medal is a belt buckle!

The first official male and female runner to cross the finish line within 24 hours also win the Wendell Robie Cup, a perpetual trophy on which the victor’s name is be engraved.

The first male and female finishers are each be awarded the bronze Western States Cougar Trophy.

Additional age-group awards are be given to the top three men and women in the following categories: 39 and under; 40-49; 50-59; 60-69, and 70 and over.

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