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Green Flag, Checkered Flag

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Shawna Tompkins and her husband, Joe, pitched their tent in a grassy meadow next to a small lake. Shawna’s dog, Sammy—part blue heeler, part Rhodesian ridgeback—galloped around in happy circles, sniffing the crisp mountain air. All around them, noble firs and hemlocks stood lodged in the ground like arrows pointing skyward.

In theory, Shawna should know this place well; she’d run this stretch of the trail three years in a row at Cascade Crest 100, where nearly a third of the race course falls on the PCT. And yet now, as she watched the evening mist settle over the lake, she felt as though she were seeing it all for the very first time.

•••

From roughly 2009 through 2012, Shawna Tompkins was the woman to beat on the Pacific Northwest ultra scene. She raced ultras nearly every month, racking up wins at local classics—Cascade Crest 100, White River 50, Baker Lake 50K, Sun Mountain 50, Cle Elum Ridge 50K and more. In 2012, she took the overall win at Badger Mountain Challenge 100, even after getting lost in a residential neighborhood for five miles near the end and ringing doorbells to ask for directions to the finish. When she didn’t win races, she almost always shared the podium with top elite women: Ellie Greenwood, Krissy Moehl, Darcy Piceu, Pam Smith, Kami Semick.

“If I were to describe her in one phrase,” says four-time Chuckanut 50K champion and Western States course-record holder Ellie Greenwood, “it would be ‘friendly but fierce.’”

“Shawna didn’t seem to have a distance she was weak at,” says the 2013 Western States 100 champion Pam Smith. “She was an intense competitor, and I always knew she’d be bringing her A game on race day.”

When Shawna showed up, she lined up at the front, with the boys. She wore the same thing to every race: a black sports bra, long black shorts, dark sunglasses and a pair of Montrail Masochists. She carried a single handheld bottle. Before the race began, she’d clip an MP3 player to the left strap of her sports bra and put her earbuds in. (The less she could hear, the better, she says. She’d always hated the sound of cheering at aid stations. Too much noise.)

When the race began, everything around her faded. Her mind focused. The only thing that mattered was getting to the finish line as fast as she could.

•••

Racing was in Shawna’s blood. She’d been born into a family of racers in Bothell, Washington, just north of Seattle. Her parents, Jan and Richard “Dick” Wilskey, were both accomplished sprint-car racers who’d met each other at the racetrack.

Sprint-car racing is to stock-car racing (i.e. NASCAR) what ultrarunning is to road marathoning; it’s niche, it’s old school and its participants usually end up splattered in dirt, dust and mud. Resembling encaged go-carts, sprint cars are compact, powerful machines—capable of reaching speeds nearly as high as NASCAR cars, at half the weight. They often have sizable wings atop them, which increase the downforce generated on the otherwise featherweight vehicle—making it easier to maneuver and less likely to go airborne.

Dick Wilskey was a legend in the local sprint-car-racing community. He worked 60 to 80 hours a week as an electrical contractor to provide for his family (and, according to Shawna, never once complained about it) and spent the rest of his time devoted to sprint-car racing—first as a champion driver, later as a venerated car owner, famous for what one newspaper referred to as his “immaculately prepared cars.”

He was a man to whom appearances mattered greatly—“in an inspiring way,” Shawna says. “He always had perfectly slicked-back, Jimmy Johnson hair. He wore a three-piece suit to work every day, and my mom ironed everything on his body. Even his handkerchiefs were ironed. There was no one in his circles who didn’t respect Dick Wilskey.”

It was important to him to be the best, and he instilled that drive in Shawna from a young age. As a family, they attended not only car races, but sports events of all kinds—Sonics games, Sounders games and every soccer, tennis, basketball and fast-pitch-softball game Shawna ever played. (She even played football for a while, before she was told that girls weren’t allowed to play.)

“Everything I did was competitive,” she says. “Life was about getting ahead. Success was achievement and winning.”

For years, she begged and pleaded with her parents to let her race cars, and by the time she was 15, they finally gave in. Dick lied about her age to get her into her first mini-sprint car race before she was even of legal driving age. She won. Within three years, she already had three mini-sprint championships under her belt.

It was the beginning of a storied racing career and a close friendship between her and her father. He’d only recently retired from racing himself, so he gladly picked up the role of crew chief for Shawna. After two quarters in college, she quit school and focused everything on racing.

“I’d been a 4.0 student in high school,” she says, “but I got to college and learned I couldn’t BS my way through it anymore. I never wanted an 8-to-5, sit-down job anyway. The only thing that mattered was my active life.”

In 1995, she became the first female to win a major sprint-car race in the U.S. and was inducted into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Not long after, as a young twentysomething, she decided to try to go pro. She brought on a new crew chief, Ben Curtis, and began building her own $35,000 sprint car from scratch—all on a blue-collar budget.

“I waitressed at Red Robin for 11 years and loved it,” she says. “I worked the graveyard shift doing highway construction for two years, digging ditches, and loved it. I bought a bag of bagels on Monday to eat for the week and never put a dime on my credit card. Racing was all that mattered.”

Together, she and Curtis ran their own company, Rocket Chassis, building sprint cars. For years, Shawna racked up Northern Sprint Tour championships and set new track records all over Washington, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia.

But life in the auto-racing world was also harsh. People often raced a couple of nights a week, then filled the rest of their time with drinking and partying—activities Shawna had little interest in. At some point, a friend of her father’s suggested to Shawna she might score more sponsorships if she put on a skirt and heels, and really marketed herself “as a chick” on the racing circuit. She refused. Though Shawna says her father never wanted her to be anyone but exactly who she was, the racetrack increasingly felt like somewhere where she couldn’t be herself.

From 2001 to 2003, burnout crept into her heart. Shawna’s love for the sport faltered. Yet racing was also all she knew. She wondered whether the success of her race-car business with Curtis depended on her continuing to race forever.

In March 2003, a couple of big shots from California hired her to drive their car. As she came out of the first straightaway into the second corner, she saw a car ahead in the track that she knew she needed to pass—a maneuver she’d done hundreds of times before.

“I remember very clearly not doing that,” she says. Instead, she hit the car’s rear right bumper, which sent her own car flying off the track. She walked away from the crash with two fractured vertebrae.

It was a wakeup call: “I wasn’t mentally in that race car. It was a $150,000 machine, and I was a human in the cockpit who wasn’t all in. I knew I had to quit.”

Three weeks later, she was slated for a final race on the circuit, on a rough track in Oregon. As she flew past the checkered flag in first place, she says, “I knew right then that I was done.”