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If you were moved by Harriette Thompson‘s story in May, this woman will bring you to tears.
When it was all over, Gunhild Swanson collapsed to her knees and cried. More than a day earlier, Swanson, a runner from Spokane, WA, embarked on a historic journey: to become the first female runner over 70 years old to finish the grueling 100-mile Western States trail race.
This would be no easy feat. Western States is the oldest 100-mile race in the U.S and arguably the most prestigious. In a typical year, 30% of racers do not finish but are admired for the attempt. To run Western States is a bit misleading. Much of the trail that spans Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., is mountainous, rough and unforgiving. To complete the course, racers must hike steep and rocky trails, swim through raging rivers and battle blistering 90-degree heat, all while competing with dizzying elevation changes and a ticking 30-hour cut-off clock.
Swanson began running in 1978 as a means to stay fit. Now, decades later, she has completed more than 250 marathons and 50 ultra-marathons (or footraces of more than 26.2 miles) and she travels the country to race and explore new trails. Several years ago, Swanson’s running partner, travel companion and husband, Jack, died of leukemia. Running helps her to cope with the loss and provides a crucial support group.
To prepare for Western States, Swanson trained vigorously. She logged 100+ miles per week in the trails of Spokane Valley, Wash., for the past 6 months and has kept careful watch of her diet. On Saturday, June 27—race day—Swanson was excited. She had traveled from Spokane to Squaw Valley, and she was about to do what she loves the most: run trails. Many friends, new and old, were there to cheer her on, including her son and grandson. She dreamed of finishing under 28 hours but would be satisfied completing it in less than 30 hours, the course cut-off.
However, the race didn’t go as planned. Though she had a strong start and was mostly on pace, at the 88 mile-mark, she and a pacer followed a group of runners up a steep climb. Once reaching the peak, she realized they had run a mile and a half in the wrong direction. The dream race was turning into a nightmare. Now, what would have been a close finish seemed destined for the dreaded DNF.
Discouraged but not defeated, she returned down the mountain and got back on course. A new pacer tagged in and told her, “We got this.” Swanson gutted out the next several miles, desperate to get back on pace.
When she arrived to the final aid station with just over a mile to go, a dozen friends, supporters and racers joined to cheer her to the finish. By now, she had made up some lost time but would still need to finish the final 1.3 miles in 16 minutes in order to beat the cut-off. 16 minutes may sound like a lot of time for 1.3 miles, but fatigue, climbing and rough terrain add up to a slow finish for most Western States racers, including the 41-year-old women’s winner, Magda Boulet, who finished this stretch in roughly 16 minutes more than 10 hours earlier.
Despite the mounting odds against Swanson, the supporters cheered. Rob Krar, the men’s winner, ran alongside her in sandals, shouting words of encouragement. Cut-off be damned, Swanson was finishing this race. Soon, more fans, race organizers, and racers caught wind of Swanson’s determined effort. Many had sacrificed the last two days for the race, yet stayed to see it through. They were exhausted but had one final runner to cheer home.
As Swanson arrived to the Placer High School track to complete the final 300 meters, the pack of runners around Swanson swelled, screaming for her to run faster and harder. Then, something amazing happened: Swanson ran. She ran faster and harder than she had run all race. But with 90 seconds on the clock and 300 meters to go, time was running out.
As Swanson rounded the final turn, the crowd reached a fever pitch, screaming deliriously for her to keep pushing. Swanson bore down and limped to the finish with everything she had. As she crossed the finish line, Swanson looked up at the clock: 29 hours, 59 minutes, and 54 seconds. She beat the 30 hour cut-off by a mere six seconds. Six seconds, after 100—really, 103—miles and more than a full day of running.
Panting, Swanson looked around the stadium at the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of supporters screaming for her.
“That was unbelievable,” she said, and collapsed to her knees in exhaustion.
Immediately a mob of euphoric fans swallowed her. The cheering was so loud that she couldn’t think straight, so she smiled and hugged, unsure how else to make sense of this scene. Though Swanson’s dream of finishing the race in less than 28 hours didn’t come true, something far better did—a finish for the ages.
Niall Kavanagh is a clinical researcher and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.