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Gunhild Swanson, Oldest Woman Finisher, Returns to Western States

In 2015, at age 70, Gunhild Swanson became the oldest woman ever to finish Western States. And boy, did she make it interesting.

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Last year, at age 70, Gunhild Swanson became the oldest woman ever to finish the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run (WSER).

And boy, did she make it interesting.

Swanson, you might recall, was the very last finisher, slipping across the finish line on the Auburn High School track with six seconds to spare before the final cutoff of 30 hours.

That was after she got lost for 45 minutes, and had a veritable posse of crew and outsiders – including overall winner Rob Krar, who had finished the night before – moving with her the last mile, compelling her to save every second possible. (You can read more about her nail-biting finish here.)

Swanson, now 71, of Spokane, Washington, will again be toeing the line in Squaw Valley on Saturday. We recently chatted with her on the phone about her training, how she’s feeling, how she plans to avoid wrong turns and whether she can leave herself more breathing room to enjoy rounding the track at this year’s race.

First of all, you recently raced the Miwok 100K [in the Bay Area], which you finished in 15:27:51. How was that race?

Miwok went really well. I was very worried about cutoffs because I have to average 15 minutes a mile, and not being very familiar with the course at all, I thought it would be hard. But I did it.

Miwok is well over a month before Western States; was that your last big effort before the race?

I attended the Western States Training Weekend [a three-day event where runners can run up to 70 miles of the course over Memorial Day weekend]. I was with some people who combined Saturday’s 30-miler and Sunday’s 20-miler into a 50-mile run Saturday, took Sunday off, then ran 20 on Monday. That was my last big effort before the race.

Overall, how has your training been going? Do you feel stronger or otherwise different from this point last year?

I feel about the same as last year. Maybe a little stronger. I utilize a coach, just for Western States, the same coach I had last year, and she’s guiding me through my training, keeping me from getting too lazy (laughs). So far, I feel good. I feel confident.

How many miles a week are you running?

75 or 80 miles a week. [Author’s note: Damn.]

In addition to last year, you ran WSER in 2002 and 2005. What have you learned from the first three that you’ll put to use this time?

I know the course now and what I learned from last year is to be more careful and not get lost. I had my grandson pacing me and we followed some other runners the wrong direction at a fork in the trail. But, interestingly, in 2002 and 2005 the early part of the course was an alternate route, due to fires one year and snow another. Last year was the first time I got to run the original course that goes down into Volcano Canyon.

Given how narrowly you made the cutoff last year, are you planning to do anything this year to help save more precious minutes and seconds?

Not really. I’ll just sort of go out and run the race. Last year, I didn’t linger much at aid stations; I always try to get through them as quickly as possible. Outside my pacers, I don’t have a crew, so I’ll be relying on aid stations and my drop bags. I’ll know what’s in my drop bags and where, so that will help.

But is it safe to say you’re hoping to run faster this year?

Oh yes. I don’t plan on a last-second finish this time.