Dare To Be 100: Ecstasy Then Agony

The last weekend of June every year for 37 years has been given over to the running of the Western States 100 Mile Trail Run, the premier endurance running race in the world. To me it is an assertion of the human potential, written in capital letters.

It starts under the chair lift at Squaw Valley and ends at the high school track in Auburn, California, 100 miles distant with a cumulative altitude gain of 15,000 feet and a 22,000 foot descent. En route it traverses a series of deep canyons that are usually scorching hot, it crosses the American River waist deep with a fixed rope provided. All day, all night. The lead runners take about 16 hours to finish. I still can’t believe that it’s possible. The three hundred others are strung out behind. The race is not for the faint of heart or body. In comparison running a marathon is trivial. Thirty seven years ago my wife Ruth Anne and I created prizes for the oldest male and female finishers as a celebration of the human potential. Along the way both Ruth Anne and son Walter have both successfully finished, the only mother- son team who have done so.

3500 masochists apply, 350 gain a lottery start, 280 finish, the ultimate goal is to finish under 24 hours which is rewarded by a silver buckle, the second prize is finishing under 30 hours and a bronze buckle. Walter has two silver buckles, Ruth Anne has two bronze trophies. Her second time, 1986, she finished in 24 hours and 24 minutes at the age of 56. I crewed her the last 35 miles and en route did everything short of kicking her to break the 24 hour deadline. Close, but no silver.

I personally have exploited the run for recruiting these amazing athletes into significant scientific research. I measured the endorphin levels which were sky high (endorsing the “Runner’s high), and published these results in the New England Journal of Medicine. I also coaxed 12 runners to the cath lab at Stanford and measured the size of their coronary arteries. A la Clarence de Mar, they were huge. Who cares what your cholesterol level is if your artery is an inch across? I published this in the major journal Circulation.

But my major involvement has been the recognition of the oldest finishers. Last year, 2015, was Ruth Anne’s last hurrah. Her Alzheimer’s disease was brutal, she scarcely knew what was going. She died three weeks later, but she was there to join in the ecstasy as Gunhild Swanson became the first woman over 70 years of age to win a buckle. Her finish time was 29 hours 59 minutes and 54 seconds, six whole seconds to spare. Her last 300 yard “dash” around the track was of Olympic proportions. The stands were bedlam, pure, pure ecstasy.

So this year the joint was jumping as 72-year-old Wally Hesseltine hoped to be the oldest ever finisher. The electronic telemetry of the runners’ performances let us know of his progress. He was just at the edge of a satisfactory conclusion. We tracked him for many hours. He arrived at the track with a minute or two to spare. But fell, and by the time he reconstituted it was too late. He made the finish in thirty hours and one minute. No buckle. There was an audible groan from the crowd. A deep shudder overcame the moment. Agony! At the award ceremony an acknowledgment of Wally’s effort was made, but no hardware to show for it.

I presented our awards to the oldest female and male as usual. But I gave an extra shout out to Bruce Labelle, 60 years of age who finished nobly just as he had 35 years before. Now at age 86 I make particular notice of those who keep it up longer. Bruce finished way back then just as our awards were getting started. I commented on the durability of his effort. To do the hundred mile run over a 35 year age interval was phenomenal. Any youngster can do the 100 mile race and keep it up once or twice, but for a 60-year-old to keep it up for 35 years should be celebrated and emulated.

I told him that I expected to award him when he comes back at 72 years of age to celebrate and to embrace the human potential. Then I will be 98.

Agony and ecstasy at the Western States 100 mile Trail Run.

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