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Old School Hero

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With less than 20 minutes left before the 30-hour cutoff at the 2017 Western States 100, cheers erupted as Scotty Mills reached the Placer High School track in Auburn, California.

Blond-haired, with boyish looks and a trim physique that make him seem younger than his 66 years, Mills would be crossing the finish line of this legendary ultra for the 18th time.

But the crowd’s enthusiasm turned to alarm as he wobbled and stumbled around the track, his torso leaning right at a 45-degree angle. He held his right hand to his chest, as if trying to correct his balance. His shoulder drooped toward his hip. Suddenly, he fell.

“Don’t touch me!” he yelled, knowing that hands-on aid would disqualify him.

Over the loudspeaker, Western States Endurance Run president—and Mills’ good friend—John Medinger quipped, “Not to worry, he does this for show.” Later, Medinger would recount, “Watching his finish was wrenching and painful, because he’s my hero in so many ways.”

Mills has been a mentor and hero to many during his 36 years of ultrarunning and race directing. “Cool, calm, collected, he’s the guy you want leading the group out in bad weather and poor trail conditions,” says Sophie Speidel of Charlottesville, Virginia, who learned trail-running skills from Mills as a rookie ultrarunner in the mid 2000s. “He’s the consummate old-school veteran who truly understands the inclusive and supportive culture of ultrarunning.”

As Mills lay on the track, his friends and wife, Jean, hovered nearby with concern etched on their faces. After a few seconds, Mills struggled to his feet and resumed walking, his torso still leaning. As he crossed the finish line and pumped his fists in the air, the clock read 29:44—a triumphant but bittersweet finish for someone who had finished each of his prior 17 Western States in under 24 hours.

“I’m somewhat disappointed and embarrassed I didn’t come around the track with a little more dignity,” Mills says. “But it’s a finish nonetheless. It gives me motivation to try harder, and to do better next time.”

Contemplating “next time” is key to Mills’ longevity and his ability to keep running 100-milers—one of the few in his over-65 peer group to do so. Over nearly four decades of ultrarunning, Mills has racked up finishes in some 200 ultras, including eight finishes at Colorado’s brutal Hardrock 100.

Last summer, he hoped to finish Western States and Hardrock—two of the country’s toughest (and toughest-to-get-into) 100-milers—just weeks apart, to get closer to his goal of 20 Western States and 10 Hardrock finishes.

“Growing older, many runners prefer to retreat to the safety of their memories,” says longtime runner and race director John Trent of Reno, Nevada. “Scotty’s entire life as a runner and as a race director has always been the opposite—what has always mattered most to him has been the challenge of what is to come. Age has never been a deterrent.”

Running Relationships

Mills’ devoted relationship to running began around the time he met his wife, Jean, 40 years ago when he moved to Sacramento, California.

Growing up in northern New Jersey, Mills had been an avid soccer player and attended the United States Air Force Academy on a soccer scholarship. He moved to Sacramento after graduation to become a Navigator Training Officer at Mather Air Force Base, where Jean also worked as an officer.

Mills needed to stay in shape, so he began running casually and soon made friends through Sacramento’s Buffalo Chips Running Club. He progressed to his first marathon, the 1978 Bidwell Classic in nearby Chico, the same year he and Jean got married.

After the inception of the Western States Endurance Run in nearby Auburn in the mid-1970s, Sacramento became a hub for the first generation of ultra-distance trail runners. Mills caught the bug, and, in 1981, at 30, ran the American River 50 in 8:14. A year later, he finished his first Western States in 21:29.

Over the next couple of decades, in his 30s and 40s, Mills ran several ultras that would become classics, such as the Leadville 100 and JFK 50 (four finishes at each). In 1992, at the age of 41, he earned his 100-mile PR at the Vermont 100 with a time of 17:04.

Running as the Silver Legend Entry, Mills at the 2017 Western States, sporting a bib number equaling his age. Photo by Tonya Perme.

Always supporting other runners at events, Mills quickly built a reputation for selflessness and congeniality. Ultrarunner Andy Jones-Wilkins of Charlottesville, Virginia, recalls that every year Mills didn’t gain entry to Western States, he volunteered at an aid station.

Trent tripped and fell, and “about 10 seconds later, I felt a pair of strong hands underneath my armpits. Before I could protest, I’d been pulled to my feet, and a man with blond hair and wondrously caring blue eyes told me everything was going to be OK, and that we needed to run together for a while.

In the 1990s, Jones-Wilkins cut a photo from UltraRunning magazine of Mills finishing Hardrock, and taped it to a mirror in his closet. “Scotty has been a hero of mine since my early years in the sport,” he says. “Something about his grit and toughness, mixed with his positivity and love of life, inspired me. It still does today.”

Likewise, Trent has clear memories of his first interaction with Mills. They met around mile 16 of the 2000 Western States 100. Trent tripped and fell, and “about 10 seconds later, I felt a pair of strong hands underneath my armpits. Before I could protest, I’d been pulled to my feet, and a man with blond hair and wondrously caring blue eyes told me everything was going to be OK, and that we needed to run together for a while. Scotty and I ran the next 60-plus miles together … [and] I tried to absorb everything he told me to do.”

Trent nailed his goal with a sub-22-hour finish that year. “Scotty put his race plan on hold—he was hoping to break 20 hours—to help a young-ish runner like me … I am the runner and person I am today because of meeting Scotty Mills in 2000.”

An instructor both by trade and by instinct, Mills relishes building camaraderie through ultrarunning. “A big part of my happiness comes from mentoring and introducing others to this sport,” he says. “The bond created among those of us who train and spend a great deal of time together is hard to put into words.”

To that end, Mills took up the reins as a race director. In 1993, when his and Jean’s Air Force careers transferred them to Washington, D.C., he became involved at the grassroots level with the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, which had been formed a year earlier to support the inaugural Bull Run Run 50. In 1996, when the race’s founder moved away, Mills took the helm directing the Bull Run Run 50. He would do so for the next nine years.

Mills nearing the finish line of the 2017 Western States 100, with his wife, Jean, directly behind him. Photo by Tonya Perme.

Following his retirement from the Air Force in 1995, Mills managed two Fleet Feet running-store franchises in northern Virginia.

In 2007, he and Jean—who decided not to have kids—returned to California. Within a year, the then-director of the San Diego 100, Paul Schmidt, asked Mills to take over the race. Says Mills, “I accepted, knowing that San Diego was ripe for building a great long-distance trail-running community.”

“Being a good race director is mostly about caring and attention to detail,” says Medinger, who directs the Lake Sonoma 50. “Scotty gets an A+ here. He has taken the San Diego 100 to another level.”

During one year’s brutally hot conditions, for example, Mills realized that runners would overheat in the final miles and managed to get extra ice, water and Coke to a remote location between aid stations.

Says Mills, “People will never remember your time or place [in a race], but they’ll remember what you’ve given back to the sport. If I have a legacy at all, I’d rather be remembered as a great race director than runner.”

The Monkey on His Back

To date, Mills has failed to finish only a couple of races. The DNF he calls “the monkey on my back” happened at the 2013 Western States 100.

Some 70 miles into the race, he developed an uncontrollable sideways tilt. It didn’t hurt, but as the miles passed, the lean worsened and caused him to fall repeatedly. His pace slowed to about 40 minutes per mile, and he dropped out with 10 miles to go.

“He was so frustrated,” recalls his friend and pacer Angela Shartel. “For the next two years he asked me, ‘Do you think I could’ve finished?’”

Medical experts aren’t sure what causes some ultrarunners over the age of 55 to develop a noticeable lean late in their run, or even how common the problem is. Dr. Marty Hoffman, a former research director for the Western States 100 who specializes in studying ultrarunners, theorizes that a tight iliopsoas muscle (located on both sides of the hips) could be an underlying cause.

After that 2013 DNF, Mills learned all he could about his trouble with leaning and concluded that core strength, hydration, electrolytes, heat and a past history with lower-back pain all may play a roll. He dedicated himself to improving these factors, mostly through yoga, Pilates and core conditioning.

The following summer, in 2014, at the age of 63, he finished the Hardrock 100 and the 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc about six weeks apart—without leaning. Mills believes that cooler temperatures, a slower pace and the use of trekking poles (which are prohibited at Western States) all worked to his advantage.

The Silver Legend

Despite age, and the confounding lean, Mills wants to attempt Western States and Hardrock at least a couple more times each, in order to reach the coveted round numbers of 20 and 10 finishes, respectively.

Given the long-shot lottery odds, Mills didn’t think he’d get another chance at Western States. But, in 2017, a special opportunity arose: the “Silver Legend Entry,” which was created to honor longtime Western States race director Greg Soderlund, who passed away in 2016 and was a friend of Mills. The award grants entry to a qualified runner age 60 or older who has given back to the sport of ultrarunning in significant ways.

“Scotty was a very easy choice for the first year of the award, because precious few individuals have given as much as he has over the years,” says Medinger.

Mills also lucked out with the 2017 Hardrock 100 lottery, earning a spot at what would be his ninth attempt at the iconic Colorado race. He had run the States-Hardrock double—the two events, three weeks apart—three times before, but not since 2001. Could he do it again?

“When I got the opportunity for the Greg Soderlund award, I felt a lot of pressure to respect and honor that gift, so I trained super hard,” Mills says. He increased his mileage on vertical terrain and redoubled his commitment to building core strength. During peak training last spring, he ran the Lake Sonoma 50 in a confidence-building 10:11—a time that many runners half his age would envy—without leaning.

But Western States had an inauspicious start. The 2017 edition tested many runners’ resolve in its first 15 miles, with deep snow and mud. Mills came into his first crew meeting about an hour later than expected. Shartel, his pacer, says he told the crew, “That was the toughest 30 miles I’ve ever been through at States,” and that a sub-24-hour finish was out the window.

At nighttime, around mile 75, Mills began to tilt to the right. “He said, ‘I need to finish this race,’” says Shartel. “I saw him push through with incredible heart, wanting to honor everything the race had given him and everything Greg [Soderlund] was.”

He made it to the finish with 15 minutes to spare. As Jean and his friends escorted him to the medical tent, he reassured them that he was OK.

“People thought I was totally trashed and hurting, but the reality was there was no pain [from leaning],” he says. “I felt happy and gratified I was able to get it done.”

A Helping Hand at Hardrock

As soon as Mills finished Western States on June 25, he faced a tough decision: Should he pull out of the July 14 Hardrock 100, or go for it?

Three days later, he decided to withdraw. “I didn’t want to start that race unless I was confident I could finish it,” he says. “I didn’t want to take the slot from somebody.” 

“OK, you guys, you’re gonna get muddy and sloppy through the swamp, but then you’ve got a climb,” he said to the runners hunched around an aid-station heater. “When you get to those false summits, don’t get discouraged, because you’re getting close.”

Rather than stay home, though, he and Jean traveled to Colorado as planned. Mills helped with course marking and aid-station preparation. Then, during the 48 hours of the event, he crewed and paced another legendary ultrarunner Betsy Kalmeyer, who, at 56, is an 18-time Hardrock finisher.

Mills met Kalmeyer at the mile-56 Ouray aid station and sat by her side for three hours as she lay on a cot suffering nausea and fatigue, gently coaxing her to eat. “He was really patient,” Kalmeyer recalls.

She finally sat up and said, “Let’s give it a go.”

Mills hiked by her side as she set the pace. Several miles in, as the pair ascended the Camp Bird Mine Road, Mills noticed another runner who neeeded help with his trekking poles. He ran ahead to offer advice.

“He wasn’t just concerned about me—he was concerned about everyone else around, too,” Kalmeyer recalls.

After pacing Kalmeyer for 28 miles, Mills headed to the mile-89 KT aid station, where runners were shivering in the nighttime cold. Mills threw a blanket around the shoulders of a friend.

“OK, you guys, you’re gonna get muddy and sloppy through the swamp, but then you’ve got a climb,” he said to the runners hunched around an aid-station heater. “When you get to those false summits, don’t get discouraged, because you’re getting close.”

Speidel, who was there as a pacer, fondly recalls, “When I saw him at the KT aid station, I felt a great sense of calm. It was so typical—Scotty took over, and we were all going to be fine.”

Mills remains determined to train for a 2018 Western States-Hardrock double if he earns a spot in the Hardrock lottery. (In the lottery held in December, he earned the third position on the waitlist for the “veterans” category, meaning he has a good chance but not guaranteed. He has a spot in Western States because that race grants automatic entry to any 18- and 19-time finishers going for a 20th.)

He’s feeling more confident about his ability because he pulled off a strong, upright finish at the Cuyamaca 100K in October in 15:12, which he attributes to running at a lower intensity and managing heat better than he did at Western States.

Thinking ahead to the 2018 Western States, Mills says, “I’d love to run around the track upright and with a good stride, regardless of the time.” Meanwhile, he’s accepting a slower pace and building more recovery into training.

“What’s more important: to be out there giving it your best and accepting you’ll never do as well as you once did, or to withdraw from the sport?” Mills asks. “For me that’s an easy answer. You have to accept you’re going to slow down with age and be willing to continue for the love of it, without comparing times.”

Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor to Trail Runner and author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras.

This article first appeared in the 2018 issue of Dirt.