GUEST COLUMN: Why would anyone want to run 100 miles?
June 30, 2011
TRUCKEE, Calif. – It’s been said that the 100-mile race is to the ultrarunner what the marathon is to most runners – the pinnacle distance for the sport. And if that is true, then Western States 100, starting in Squaw every year on the last weekend in June, is easily the pinnacle of 100-milers. Few ultrarunners haven’t dreamed of some day running this race.
I had been trying to gain entry since 2006, although dreams of running it began years before. Like many others, I hadn’t had any luck in the competitive lottery system used to select entrants. 2011 was finally to be my year. But the question remained for most of my family and friends: Why would anyone want to run 100 miles?
It’s a question with many different answers, but for me, the answers all lie within the journey itself.
Lining up for the 5 a.m. start, the excitement was evident on the face of every runner and supporter. One of the unique aspects of ultrarunning is that we get to rub shoulders with the elite athletes of the sport, standing together on the starting line to face the same challenges. The crowd counted down from 10, and with the blast of a shotgun, 400 runners surged up the mountain. A chorus of hoots and hollers from runners and spectators alike echoed across the valley.
Running across firmly packed snow, sometimes on steep slopes, required a lot of concentration and wasn’t fast. I felt fortunate to have more experience in these conditions than many runners, and after about 16 miles we left most of the snow behind for good.
With 40 miles on our legs, runners entered the canyons – three steep, technical descents, each followed by an equally steep climb. By mile 60 the hardest part of the race was over, and I knew I was doing well.
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At mile 62 runners enter the Foresthill aid station and can pick up a pacer. Pacers run with an athlete for purposes of safety and to support the runner mentally and emotionally. Good pacers help their runners stay on course when fatigue and delirium set in, remind them to keep eating and drinking, provide entertainment, and keep the runner moving forward. For a suffering runner, having company and support can be a huge boost.
The remaining 38 miles of the race presents relatively mild terrain, but of course nothing is easy after running 62 miles. I was fortunate to be feeling quite good at this point in the race, and enjoyed myself immensely. I ran along the river watching the light fade to gold as the sun dropped behind the hills, the frogs chirping gentle encouragement. I smiled with the knowledge that so far, I was having exactly the race I wanted.
We crossed the middle fork of the American River via raft and had 22 miles left. Although I was familiar with the remaining part of the trail, everything looked different in darkness. The sun had finally gone down, and with no moon, our world was limited to the circle of trail illuminated by our headlamps. Soon, I heard the music from the Brown’s Bar aid station in the distance.
Aid stations are in many ways the lifeblood of an ultra, and the volunteers their power source. It’s important to keep eating small portions constantly during a race, and each person’s needs are different. Typical aid station fare consists of sandwiches, an array of cookies and candies, GU, hot soup, various drinks, and fresh fruit. A runner might also get blister care and other medical treatment.
At the Brown’s Bar aid station at mile 90, the music was so loud and the lights strung through the trees so brightly that I couldn’t help but feel energized. Even at 1 a.m. the volunteers were ready to help in every way, and I headed off down the dark trail singing and dancing to “American Pie” echoing into the night.
At Western States, runners have 30 hours to finish the race and earn their coveted finisher’s buckle. Many runners aim for the prestigious sub 24-hour finish – 100 miles in one day, which garners them a silver version of the hand-crafted buckle.
I knew I wanted the silver buckle, and by this point in the race I even felt confident about running faster than 23 hours. My pacer and I briefly discussed the possibility of finishing under 22 hours. It was a beautiful thought, and might have been a real possibility if a strained quad muscle hadn’t flared up around mile 90 and forced me to a painful walk on even the slightest of downhills.
In the end, I had an exceptionally good day, crossing the line in 22:30 and earning my silver buckle. At this distance, something nearly always goes wrong, and the inability to run much in the final miles in spite of feeling well was my challenge. That’s part of the point of running this far, though – not only pushing your physical limits but testing your ability to deal with unique and often painful challenges. Dehydration, dizziness, extreme muscle soreness, nausea and vomiting, getting lost, blisters – these are all common place at 100-mile foot races.
People wonder why athletes would put themselves through such things. But I, in turn, wonder why people so often avoid physical challenges. The pain and suffering encountered in extreme endurance events may not exactly be the fun part, but it’s the essential part of the experience. I fear that pain, and facing that fear reminds me that I am truly and completely alive.
– Gretchen Brugman is a Truckee ultrarunner and former women’s champion of the Lake Tahoe Marathon.