The 70-year-old woman’s record almost never came to be. Here’s how she beat the odds to get into the 100-mile race and then overcame a serious error to complete her historic run.
By Henry Howard
Gunhild Swanson’s dramatic finish at this year’s 100-mile Western States Endurance Run almost never happened.
The jubilation that erupted in the final stretch of the race — as Swanson closed in on the finish line, then crossed it 6 seconds before the 30-hour cutoff —almost never happened.
But the 70-year-old Swanson did cross the Western States finish in time, becoming the oldest woman to ever do so. Her remarkable run set off a boisterous celebration at the finish line and a video that went viral.
Gunhild Swanson’s Western States Finish
First obstacle: Finding a qualifying race
Western States is not only the world’s oldest 100-mile race, it’s among the toughest. Starting in Squaw Valley, California, runners ascend more than 18,000 feet and descend nearly 23,000 feet before they reach the finish line at a high school track in Auburn, Calif.
Swanson had run Western States earlier in her career. In fact, she set the record for women age 60 and older.
“I thought I could still do 100s but I didn’t want to do anything mountainous or really difficult anymore because it is so hard,” she says. “Then I had my 70th birthday (July 2, 2014), then my little old brain starting spinning, and saying, ‘What if?’ What if? ‘What if I can do this?’ I looked at the Western States website and saw that no woman my age had ever completed it. Here is a challenge being dropped in my lap.”
But times had changed, much to her surprise.
Western States is a bucket list race for many ultra runners, which is why race officials have made entry more challenging in recent years. Like many well-known ultras, Western States participants must qualify to run. The window for Western States runs from early November one year to the next.
It was July, and the qualification window was starting to close. Instead of running a 50-miler like in the past, Swanson had to run a 100-miler or 100K with a finishing time good enough to qualify.
“I thought, ‘Oh Lord, now I am in trouble,’ “ she says. “It was the second half of the year, and most of the qualifying races had already happened. And the ones that hadn’t happened, had sold out, at least the ones in our area. I couldn’t get in anywhere. Javelina 100 (Fountain Hills, Arizona) was just about my only chance. It was not sold out yet.”
She signed up, made the qualifying time and filled out the paperwork for Western States with a few short weeks to spare.
However, that gave her only a 4.7 percent chance of being drawn among the 2,700 entries.
Her ticket was not called. “It was all over,” she says.
Not quite. A week later, she was informed that a sponsor selected her out of several competitors and awarded her a bib for Western States.
A great day for three generations
A decade earlier when Swanson set the Western States record (26:41, for ages 60 and older), she kept the goal to herself. But the goal was on her mind constantly. She even changed the password on her work computer to WSRECORD. “It was totally ingrained in my head that’s what I was going to do. With (son) Chris’ help, we kept gaining on the pace chart. In the end, I broke the record by an hour and one minute.”
But for the most recent Western States, she was very public about the goal. She told her friends. She posted the goal on Facebook. She also posted reminders on her refrigerator six months before the race: WSRECORD, WS100RECORD, G’sWS100RECORD and WSRECORD100.
She also posted her mantra:
Live with intention.
Walk to the edge.
Play with abandon.
Continue to learn.
Appreciate your friends.
Choose with no regret.
Do what you love.
Live as if this is all there is.
— By Mary Ann Rademacher
“I found that many years ago on a website,” she says. “I thought that was really cool. So I adopted that as my mantra. That’s how I like to live my life. I just find it appropriate. It’s how I want to conduct my life, not just my running but everything.”
With her race entry secured and goal announced, Swanson dove into training and picking out her crew. Her pacers included her son, Chris, who has a 2:21 marathon PR and ran in the 1996 Olympic Trials, and her grandson, Turlan, a 15-year-old track and cross-country runner.
“It was very extremely important (to share the Western States experience with family members),” she says. “When I ran my PR marathon in 1982 in Seattle, Chris was there as a teenager. He showed up as I ran my second loop in the marathon and paced me to my lifetime PR (2:56). When I ran Western States at age 60 to set the record, he paced me. He has been instrumental. He knows running, knows what it takes, understands my desire to do these things. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have three generations … it became a dream. That was really my number one motivation to have them experience it. They get it.”
Little did she know how significant it would be to have Turlan as a pacer.
A critical wrong turn
Her goal was anywhere between 28 and 30 hours. “Twenty-eight hours was an ambitious dream time. I actually had it on my pace chart, based on what I did 10 years before. I never really consider the cutoff.”
The heat took its toll on runners. Swanson admits it was hot but adding that it never really made her suffer. She did mention seeing other runners in distress or sitting in creeks to stay cool.
During the day, she knew that she was trailing the 30-hour cutoff, but wasn’t sure by how much. “I wasn’t overly worried about it. I was sure later on that there were some really runnable sections. And once my son started pacing me through the night, he would help out. And those things combined would bring me back to where I needed to be. And actually that happened. It was a concern but it wasn’t like, ‘I’m not going to finish this.’ So I started gaining time and all was well.”
Then a mistake threw her off course, and jeopardized her finish.
“Just after daybreak, I went off course. It was a stupid mistake on my part. I had my grandson pacing me at the time and we had a wrong turn,” she says, with an audible sigh. “We should have turned right, but turned left. And there were two runners ahead of us. They were part of the race and also off course. One of them insisted we were going the right way.”
Down deep inside, Swanson knew something was wrong even though there were plenty of footprints on the trail. They didn’t see any course markings. “It wasn’t until we came out on top did we know for sure that we were in the wrong spot. So we turned around and went back. I sent my grandson ahead and said, ‘You look for the yellow ribbon and then come back toward me.’ And he did.”
They were back on course, but now running against the clock. They had to make up a lot of time.
60 minutes. That’s how much time Swanson thinks the wrong turn cost her, knowing that she was now on the wrong side of the 30-hour pace.
“I started in my mind doing the math,” she recalls, thinking. “I can’t do it, Turlan. I can’t do it. I don’t have enough race left to make up an hour. I can’t. I know I have several big climbs left. I don’t know how I can possibly make up the time.”
But Turlan played the role of pacer well.
“Nana, just shake it off. You’re going to make it. I have no doubt. Just follow me. Let’s go. Let’s move it.”
She kept following him; they ran anything that was runnable. If she needed to slow down, they trotted. She kept 5-6 steps behind him until they got to the Highway 49 (Mile 93.5) aid station, where her third pacer took over.
‘A glimmer of hope’
She knew that Turlan helped her make up some minutes, catching her up to within minutes of the cutoff. But there were still miles of hills before the finish line.
“There was a glimmer of hope,” she says. “I was ready to quit at the Highway 49 aid station. Turlan had persuaded me to keep going. All I could think of was that I can’t voluntarily quit. If I miss the cutoff, fine. If they pull me, fine. Then so be it. As long as I still have minutes to pull through there.”
Her last pacer, Dave, started coaching her every step of the way. “You can do this.” “Watch for the big rock.” “It’s slippery here.”
And with that, in her words, the doubt was gone. “I was solely concentrating on getting to the finish on time. There were no more thoughts on quitting or not making it.”
1.3 miles to glory
At the final aid station, runners are coming out of a steep climb. Once they do, they are greeted by their family, crew, pacers and so on. Swanson needed all their support plus, the jubilation at the finish line and encouragement from a well-known ultra athlete.
“I was really having trouble up that climb,” she says. “It was blazing hot. I was struggling and doing a lot of fast walking I just couldn’t get my legs lifted to run to the steep part. I knew they (her crew) would be there. I was struggling up that hill, and my pacer, Dave, just said, ‘Keep moving, just keep moving.’ Then I saw a person from the aid station with a bucket and a sponge come down the trail about 100 meters, and doused me with the ice water. Omigosh, that felt good.”
Swanson and Dave didn’t stop at the final aid station. They had to get to the finish line. An entourage of well-wishing supporters joined her for the final push.
“People are cheering and they line up around me,” Swanson recalls. “Most of that mile is uphill, just a little downhill before you enter the track. People are telling me, ‘You have to run hard. We don’t have much time left,’ I’m doing the best I can and I look up and there is the winner of the race, Rob Krar, in front of me, looking at me, hollering and clapping for me. My pacer, Dave, said later that as soon as I saw Rob, I straightened up and started running faster.”
After winning his race more than 15 hours earlier, Krar — wearing flip flops — fell in with the crowd and ran beside Swanson all the way to the final turn on the track.
Swanson remembers someone yelling, “Pump your arms, you can’t stop running.” Someone else, said, “There is shade. Run harder through the shade.” Another well-wisher warned, “There is another uphill, you have to run it hard.”
As the clock ticked down toward the 30-hour mark, Swanson pressed on. “When the final downhill finally got there, I stretched out my legs and ran for all I was worth. And then the right-turn onto the track, and somebody told me, ‘When you get off the hill, you have to keep the same momentum. You can’t slow down.’ “
From this point on, she never slowed.
“By the time we reached the track the noise was defeaning,” she said. “It was loud, loud, loud cheering. As I came around the turn, I see the clock. I don’t remember what it said, but in my mind I knew I could make it around the track to the finish line. And everyone peeled off around the turn, heading into the straightaway. I just ran as hard as I could. And that’s the end … I made it.”
By six seconds.
Believe in your dreams
As the attention from her amazing finish has started to recede, Swanson gazes into the future. Her running calendar has a couple of trail half marathons and a September destination marathon.
Ultimately, she still has two goals: complete another 24-hour race; and go to South Africa to run the Comrades 56-mile race, something that has been on her bucket list for 10 years.
No doubt she will check both of those off her to-do list. She knows that dedication and perseverance will get her — and other runners — through anything.
“It does take dedication with the training to get yourself ready,” she says. “Most of the barriers to success are in your head. They are not in your body. You’ve done the homework, you’ve trained, you’re ready for this. Believe in yourself and know that there are things you can do that you don’t even know you can do. Given a chance, you can succeed. Believe in yourself and just go for it.”
Name: Gunhild Swanson
Hometown: Spokane, Wash., since 1963. Born/raised in Germany
Number of years running: 38
How many miles a week do you typically run: 48 miles weekly average for 2014; 61 miles average 2015 to date.
Point of pride: Endurance. I long ago discovered that I can’t outsprint them, but I can surely outlast them. Also my legs. For some reason, perfect strangers will comment on how great my legs look.
Favorite race distance: That’s hard to decide. Probably marathons and 50-milers.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Evening before a race, ordinary food including rice/pasta, some meat, veggies, salad, tea or iced tea. Race morning, oatmeal, topped with yogurt, banana, dried cranberries and nuts, and coffee.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I never run with anything in my ears.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: It’s more a motto by which I live, not a mantra or phrase I repeat to myself while running a race. For some reason my mind scatters during runs and I don’t form a mantra. Having said that, during Western States I did repeat to myself the words I had posted on my refrigerator for six months: “Western States Record:”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Facebook – www.facebook.com/gunhild.swanson.