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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 30-hour 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 cut-off … 14 seconds … 13 seconds …
She maintained her speed, arms swinging, legs turning, eyes dead set on the clock. Gradually, the forcefield 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.
“I have a lot of images of post-World War II devastation,” Swanson says. “But I don’t think it had an impact on me. My dad never talked about the war or about his experiences. None of it was taught in school. People were ashamed, so the subject was avoided.”
As she got older, Swanson savored the freedom of hiking in the mountains, exploring forest trails for hours on end and basking in the solitude of nature. She never ran, but she would bike long distances, up to 50 miles, on weekends to see family and friends.
“In retrospect, I think the trails and the outdoors have been in my blood since I was born,” Swanson says.
Swanson dreamed of going to college and becoming a teacher, but an illness prevented her from passing the required exams. So, at 14, she was encouraged to enroll in trade school to become a secretary and bookkeeper. It wasn’t her plan, but she says she felt no animosity toward her teachers or parents for the missed opportunity.
“I’ve always been a forward-looking person,” she says. “I roll with the punches and look forward to what’s next. My life has always kind of been governed by that.”
Swanson worked for a few years as a teenager in Germany, but she eventually fell in love with an American soldier, David Morlan, stationed in Frankfurt. Suddenly, at the age of 18, in 1963, she found herself married, pregnant and making arrangements to fly across the globe to start a new life in Spokane, Washington.
“I fully expected to never get back to Germany again,” Swanson says. “In my mind, I had severed my ‘before life’ and my ‘new life.’ And I was reconciled to that.”
Swanson stared straight into the unknown and forged ahead, following life’s new trajectory.
Through the Darkness
By 2015, Swanson was well-known in the local Spokane running community. She was an active member of the Spokane Road Runners, organized weekly training events and participated in almost every local 50K available. She even found success as a marathon runner, earning three sub-three-hour finishes.
Her transition to America, in 1963, wasn’t easy. She had never been anywhere outside of Germany, spoke very little English, and had just moved to a new country where she only knew one person: her husband.
Swanson was immediately swept into a life of caring for her newborn baby, a responsibility that eventually broadened to include three other children, all born before she was 25.
“I had all four kids before I ever learned how to drive, so I was pretty dependent on other people,” Swanson says. She also found it challenging to express herself in a second language, which made it difficult for her to branch out socially and professionally. “I felt inadequate,” she says.
As her kids got older, Swanson faced her fears and got a job as a clerk at an insurance-claims office. Then, on lunch breaks, she studied for her driver’s license and eventually learned to drive.
Finally, in 1978, after 15 years in the U.S., Swanson signed up for an aerobics class—and that’s when everything changed.
“I always felt like I was being held back,” Swanson says. “Once I started running, I was able to do things independently, and my life opened up.”
At the end of each class, Swanson’s aerobics instructor blasted her boom box and encouraged her class to run laps around the gym for 20 minutes. The goal was to make it a mile.
“It took me six weeks before I could go one mile without stopping to walk!” Swanson exclaimed. But she was hooked.
“I always felt like I was being held back,” Swanson says. “Once I started running, I was able to do things independently, and my life opened up. I felt this new self-worth, not just as a wife and mother, but in me. I became confident, I became able to tackle every day, raise my kids, go to work. I became what I thought I was when I was a teenager back home in Germany—I could do anything I set my mind to.”
She and her son Chris, who was about 10 at the time, started running around the block for exercise. Then they ran farther, past orchards a couple miles from their front door, often stopping to pick fresh strawberries on the way home. Soon, they were signing up for local 5Ks and 10Ks.
“Running really changed my life,” Swanson says. “It changed my outlook, my confidence … I think it was also the beginning of the end of my marriage.”
Swanson and her first husband eventually divorced after 22 years. She moved forward—as always—now with running to guide the way.
In fact, it was running that led her to Jack Swanson, whom Gunhild describes as “the love of my life.” Gunhild and Jack married in 1986 and shared 22 years together, until Jack passed away in 2008 after a battle with cancer. They were a beloved duo in Spokane, supporting their fellow runners as well as their own running pursuits. It was Jack who was there when Gunhild began her foray into ultras.
“He just totally had her ready for whatever she needed to do for the day, for work, or for nutrition, or for training,” says Gunhild’s son Chris. “It was such a support system, allowing her to work but still develop this passion for ultras that was getting stronger and stronger.”
Jack wasn’t interested in running ultras himself, but he was always there for Gunhild. “We had a storybook marriage,” she says. “Truly.”
Squaw Valley to Michigan Bluff
At 5 a.m. on Saturday, June 27, 2015, Swanson toed the line of the Western States 100 with one goal in mind: set a new 70-79 Female Course Record. There was no record at that point, so all she had to do was finish in under 30 hours.
In 2005, she had set the women’s 60-69 Female Course Record, of 25:40:29. (That record stood until this year, when Diana Fitzpatrick, at 60, ran 23:52:56.) But Swanson had slowed since then, so she hired a coach for the first time ever: “I needed to give myself the best chance that I had.”
By mile 15, Swanson knew her dream goal of finishing in 28 hours was out of the question. So she moved on to goal number two: Finish. “It didn’t upset me or anything,” Swanson says. “I just kept on moving.”
Foresthill to Highway 49
Darkness was now descending over the Foresthill Aid Station. Swanson was close to cut-offs. Too close for comfort, but she didn’t worry. She picked up her first pacer, Chris, knowing the next few miles would be smooth, easy single-track through the middle of the night.
“It’s so cool when daylight turns to darkness, and sounds change,” Swanson says. “Instead of birds chirping you get crickets and things scurrying on the ground. And you’re totally shut off, except for what you see in your headlamp. That’s your little world, and you move along in that little world, just like you’re in a dream.”
The Rucky Chucky Aid Station, she says, was “like a beacon in the dark.”
“It just really lifts your heart and your mind,” she says. “You look forward to people being there, and they’re going to take care of you and talk to you and laugh—it’s not just you and your pacer anymore.”
Swanson switched pacers at the river crossing, exchanging her son Chris for Chris’s 16-year-old son Turlan.
Swanson was now 22 miles from the finish, and she was finally doing well with time, having made up about 45 minutes overnight. She was excited to share nighttime hours with her grandson, and be with him during that “magical” transition to light.
“At first, you can just see the silhouettes of the trees against the sky, then you begin to hear daylight sounds,” Swanson says. “And you feel invigorated and ready to push through the last stretch. You made it through the night, you’re still moving, you take stock, and everything is still in working order—you’ve got this!”
“I’m not going to do it, I can’t do it, I don’t have enough time left.”
That enthusiasm didn’t last.
Somewhere around the 85-mile mark, Swanson and Turlan turned left at a fork in the road, following another runner who’d done the same, and ended up adding an extra three miles. Swanson estimates the error cost her roughly 45 minutes. For the first time in nearly 27 hours of running, she lost hope. She turned to her grandson with an honest confession: “I’m not going to do it, I can’t do it, I don’t have enough time left.”
Turlan looked at his grandmother and flat-out told her otherwise: “Nana, don’t even think that. I know you’re going to make it, and I’m going to get you there. You’ll be fine—shake it off.”
Swanson kept going.
Robie Point to Placer High
Swanson switched pacers at Highway 49 and charged up to Robie Point, mile 98.9. She had 16 minutes to get to the Placer High School track. By most accounts, that was an impossible feat.
Aid-station workers and spectators joined Swanson’s crew to greet her as she ascended the trail, ready to embark on the final leg of her journey. Krar was there, too. Freshly showered and in a cowboy hat and flip-flops, Krar had already planned to go to Robie Point to cheer on the last remaining runners. Then he saw Swanson.
“I was incredibly sore from my own race and most of the moving I’d done that morning was more of a hobble than a walk. However, I was quickly caught in the moment and found myself running in my flip-flops next to Gunhild and her crew,” Krar recounted via email. “A voice in my head told me not to do it, she wasn’t going to make it, and it was going to be heartbreaking to witness. But I couldn’t help it, the energy and thrill was overpowering, almost as though I was reliving my experience the evening before.”
A cocoon of people accumulated around Swanson, all spewing advice:
Take your hands off your hips!
Pump your arms!
Run through the shade!
She followed all of it. Finally, she hit the downhill to Placer High School. She let gravity take hold and she sprinted, never letting up, even when she got to the track.
“Take the inside lane!” someone shouted. Swanson swung her left arm out to the side, smacking the torso of the man next to her; she didn’t have time to think, to be polite.
“I don’t know what made me do it,” she says with a laugh. “I was just told to take the inside lane, and I needed to get there!”
Swanson had spent her lifetime moving through adversity; she was now seconds away from overcoming another obstacle … and nothing was going to get in her way.
“I certainly know that she’s got this kind of grit and this core motivational strength and belief in herself that’s been there through her training and through everything she’s done in her life,” says Swanson’s son Chris. “But, when you see it so tangibly in front of you, you can touch it like a wall, it’s not a philosophy, it’s just physically right there, that’s when you’re a believer.”
Chris stood in disbelief much of the morning as he calculated probabilities and watched his mother push through barriers. Says Chris, “We can look at our watch and wonder how it can happen, but then you’ve got Gunhild Swanson running up the road and you kind of forget about the impossibility of it. It’s just go time!”
“I think the reason she’s so surprised that people think she’s so amazing is because this is who Gunhild is,” says Swanson’s friend Dori Whitford. “It’s not amazing to her, because she’s done it her whole life. She came to America, she couldn’t speak English… She’s just like: here’s a job I have to do; let’s go!”
And she does it. Even if she doesn’t quite know how.
Swanson says one of her weaknesses is accelerating at the end of races.
“I never had a kick. So, for me to accelerate on that track and get around 300 meters in 90 seconds, it had to have been some sort of superhuman feat or an animal instinct, because it certainly wasn’t any rational thought or plan or intention on my part. It was the crowd and the yelling… everything combined just carried me through.”
Still Going Strong
Swanson says she’ll never go back to Western States again. She’d be happy to crew or to pace, but she’ll never compete. She has slowed down in the last three years, having experienced her first DNF ever at Western States in 2016, the year after her historic finish.
In the past year, she has suffered knee and back injuries. But, at 73—all things considered—she’s still going strong.
According to Tia Bodington, race director of the Miwok 100K, Swanson accepts she’s slowing down and “views that as a training challenge, rather than a game-stopper.”
This September, Swanson will be participating in A Race for the Ages, a unique ultra that gives runners their age in hours to finish as many miles as possible around a one-mile loop. Swanson will have 73 hours to run, and hopes to complete 150 miles.
“I think she can do it,” says Swanson’s friend and current training partner Sylvia Quinn, who’s eight years her senior. She and Swanson had just finished an 18.5-mile run in May, and Quinn was quick to point out that Swanson had also done 20 miles the day before. “She’s a tough German lady!”
Swanson is focusing primarily on mental training, cultivating the power to overcome the monotony of a one-mile loop and the will to keep going for three straight days.
“It’s not easy, it’s never easy. But you have to believe, going into a race, that you’re going to finish, no matter what,” Swanson says. “I’m no special person. I’m just lucky and blessed to have been able to discover what I like and what I’m good at, and be able to pursue it.”
—Trail Runner contributing editor Claire Walla writes and runs in Los Angeles.