Wisdom
Trail Runner|September/October 2018

In life and ultras Gunhild Swanson will not stop

Claire Walla

Dragonflies flitted above weary runners lying in the grass within the Placer High School track like forgotten rag dolls. Families braved the heat to support their broken-down kin, bringing water, massaging feet, mostly just letting them lie. A couple dozen spectators filled the cement stands, which rose high above the last 100 yards of the track—the final 100 yards of the Western States 100.

Placer High School in Auburn, California, was filled with more people in the last hour of the race than it had been in the previous 29 hours since the 2015 Western States 100 began, 100 miles away, in Squaw Valley, California. At least twice as many people filled the stands as the day before when the first place finisher, Rob Krar, zoomed across the line in 14 hours 48 minutes 59 seconds, just two minutes shy of the overall course record.

Some people were there in this last golden hour by default, their bodies unable to move fast enough to vacate the premises. But most wanted to see, first-hand, what grit and determination looked like: runners who, for nearly 30 hours, pushed themselves, often against the edge of failure, to make it to the finish line before the dreaded 30hour cut-off.

Spectators—fully exposed to the heat of the sun—sweated on their concrete seats overlooking the field as they waited for the last of the runners to emerge onto the track.

At the end of a 100-mile race, runners are hardly running. A brisk walking pace is about 20 minutes per mile, and for those who had just spent nearly 30 hours climbing 18,000 feet and descending 22,000 feet, 20 minutes is generous.

As the clock ticked away above the finish line, a runner limped onto the track, sending spectators into an uproar. He was hobbling, like those who had come before, and when he rounded the bend and faced the countdown clock, he slowed, knowing he would make it, if only by seconds.

Go! Go! Go!

The stadium wouldn’t stand by and watch this man give anything less than his best.

Just as he picked it up again, everyone’s focus shifted to the back of the track: bursting onto the scene in a cloud of spinning legs was a runner with bib number 70: Gunhild Swanson.

Spectators flocked to the track and lined the orange lanes as Swanson approached. She was joined by her crew and pacers, as well as the five time Western States champion Tim Twietmeyer and Rob Krar, who had won the race 15 hours earlier.

Seconds ticked away as Swanson rounded the bend... 15 seconds until cutoff… 14 seconds … 13 seconds …

She maintained her speed, arms swinging, legs turning, eyes dead set on the clock.

Gradually, the force field of runners around her disintegrated, and Swanson was left to finish the journey alone.

With less than 10 seconds to go, she persisted through the last 100 yards, flanked by a sea of bewildered faces, people clapping, cheering and ringing cowbells, yet subduing the full extent of the energy until—after 29 hours, 59 minutes 54 seconds—it was confirmed: Gunhild Swanson, at 70 years old, was officially the oldest female finisher of the Western States 100.

The Full Story

Swanson is a striking presence: long and muscular, with a short, no-nonsense hairdo that seems to typify her penchant for efficiency. To speak with Swanson, however, is to glimpse the levity with which she views the world. She tends to punctuate her speech with light, breathy laughs that show the humor and delight she finds in almost every situation—including running 100 miles. A grandmother and mother of four, Swanson is retired and lives alone in her town of almost 55 years: Spokane, Washington.

As of 2015, she is also a minor celebrity. Her story was quickly picked up by international news outlets: ESPN, NPR, the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail, among others. For months after Western States—and still today, more than three years later—Swanson has been stopped by people who congratulate her on her epic feat. She’s also been recognized while traveling across the country. She’s humbled by the praise, but also quite baffled.

The trigger for her story and becoming a social-media phenomenon “is because the clock was running out,” says Chris Morlan, one of Swanson’s sons, who crewed and paced her that day. “But that’s not the story.”

The real story goes beyond a ticking clock. It stretches back before Highway 49, to a critical mistake that changed the course of the day, and the fortitude Swanson called upon to keep going.

In fact, it’s a story that stretches beyond the starting line in Squaw. Swanson’s story weaves through thousands of trail miles accumulated over three decades: 90 trail races, 56 ultra finishes, eight 100-milers.

It goes back to the first mile she ever ran, in 1978. Back when—as a young mother of four who had immigrated to the United States from Germany at age 18 without knowing English—she yearned for a sense of confidence and independence, which she found through running. Her story goes back to the freedom and joy she felt as a teenager in Germany, wandering alone for hours on end through the forests and trails that surrounded her home.

In truth, Swanson’s historic finish at Western States isn’t about Placer High School and seven-minute miles. Not exclusively. It’s the story of passion, confidence and joy that emerge from running trails—a story that has been a lifetime in the making.

Never Look Back

Swanson was born the youngest of three sisters in the little farming town of Laubach, Germany, in 1944. Her father, who served with the German Air Force, had been captured by the Allies and was living in a prisoner-of-war camp in France. He was released a year later, after the war ended, without food, money or transportation. It took him two months—on foot—to get back home to his family.

Swanson’s mother died of an illness when Swanson was 7 years old, and she eventually went to live in Frankfurt with her father and two sisters. She remembers, as a child, playing hide-and-seek with her friends in the bombed-out apartment buildings around the corner from her home.

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