Posted by: pointlenana | June 30, 2015

Gunhild Swanson – DFL (Western States Part 1)

Every once in a while I hear a runner express fear about entering a race/event because they might be slow or, worst of all, finish last.  In the ultra running world, there are some three letter acronyms that everyone knows – DNS (did not start) and DNF (did not finish).  My favorite is a bit obscure: RTC (refused to continue), which Gary Cantrell uses for people who do his ridiculously hard races and at some point decide, um, not to continue.  Another one that sometimes comes up is DFL (dead F’ing last).  In the ultra world, no one aspires to be DFL but there is some honor to it.  Whether due to simple slowness or injury or problems during the race, the person persisted for longer than anyone else and still managed to finish.

This weekend I saw the most exciting and amazing thing of my life – Gunhild Swanson finishing the Western States 100 just six seconds before the 30 hour cutoff, DFL and the first 70+ woman to finish the race.  (Here’s another video in case the one above doesn’t work.) There are some decent articles on iRunFar and Runners World about this, but I still wanted to write what it was like to see it unfold over the course of several hours and explain why it was so amazing.

Some basics for those who don’t know:  Western States Endurance Run is a 100 mile running race from Squaw Valley to Auburn in CA.  It is the oldest 100 mile race, it’s hard to get into, it’s known for its hills (20000+/- feet up and also down) and heat (typical midday temperatures are in the 90s), and there is a time limit of 30 hours.  Gunhild Swanson is a very accomplished runner who holds the age group record for 60-69 women at Western States and has a bunch of other impressive feats in her running resume.  Lastly and leastly, I lucked out in the Western States lottery this year and happened to be at the track/finish line as she came in.

Janet and I literally crossed paths with Gunhild 6 weeks ago at the Sun Mountain 50 mile race.  It was Janet’s first 50 mile run.  Late in the race Janet was cramping after a fall, and doing everything she could to gimp her way to a finish in “I don’t care about my time, I’m just getting to the finish even if it’s walking” mode.  At the end of that race, there is a long climb up to the top of Patterson Mountain, and then a final descent to the finish.  Near the top, there is a short out-and-back where runners coming down pass people working their way up.  Shortly after we started down, we passed Gunhild coming up and thought “she’s badass”.  A little further down, with Janet still hobbling, Gunhild passed us.  (I happened to catch both of these moments in my Sun Mountain video – 10:38 and 11:34 in the video).  Maybe Janet started feeling better right at that moment, or maybe it was being passed by a 70 year old woman, but Janet started running a little more and walking a little less, and then running more, and then she was running without walking.  We hustled down and passed several of the walking dead, slowly gaining on Gunhild.  (I enjoyed watching two badass 55+yo women passing guys half their age.)  We passed Gunhild about a quarter mile before the finish, and finished about 20 seconds ahead of her.  When Gunhild finished, Janet told her “you are very inspiring”, meant both in a general way and more specifically “you just inspired me to go faster and harder than I thought I could”.  So we were excited to see Gunhild’s Western States attempt and rooting for success.

Towards the end of my Western States race, my pacer Bob Hearn started looking on his phone at the results/tracking info for other runners.  (This tells you two things:  1) Bob is pretty talented to run on rough surfaces in the dark while looking at his phone. 2) maybe I wasn’t travelling very fast.)  Shortly before 5am, six hours before the race cutoff, Bob looked and Gunhild was on her way to Green Gate.  Western States provides a lot of information about times it typically takes to cover pieces of the course.  The typical time from Green Gate to the finish for a 30 hour finisher is about six hours.  And she wasn’t at Green Gate yet.  Uh-oh.  Having seen her at Sun Mountain I felt she’d move along and do better than the typical 30 hour finisher but we both realized it would be close.

The next time we looked, Gunhild had reached Highway 49, about 6.5 miles from the finish.  It’s a big moment in the race – one last downhill, a bridge crossing, one last uphill, and one mile through town to the finish.  The typical time from Highway 49 to the finish for a 30 hour finisher is 2 hours, meaning runners have to leave Highway 49 by 9am.  Gunhild left at 9:10.  Uh-oh.  Not out of the question but the probability seemed to moving in the wrong direction.

I had finished my own race by now, and we were standing at the track watching others finish.  We watched and waited, and at 10:43am announcer John Medinger told us “Gunhild Swanson just reached Robie Point and has 17 minutes left to get here”.  Uh-oh.  The typical time for a 30 hour finisher to cover that distance is 25 minutes.  The typical time for a 24 hour finisher is 20 minutes.  Oh, and the women’s winner this year – Magda Boulet – took 15 minutes and 35 seconds to get from Robie Point to the finish.  It seemed unlikely that a 70 year old woman with 100 miles on her legs could cover the distance almost as fast as the winner, especially given that the first 0.3 miles from Robie Point is an uphill that is very hard to gain time on.  And it was already hot and humid again.

We talked and decided that Gunhild would have to arrive at the track with 2 minutes to spare in order to get around the final 300 yards safely and without it being incredibly intense.  Right at 2 minutes, John Medinger announced “Gunhild Swanson is approaching the track”.  Yay!  A runner and a small group of people entered the track a few seconds later, and we started cheering.  Most of us were across the field near the finish – we looked carefully and after a bit realized that the runner wasn’t Gunhild.  Uh-oh.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

With about 90 seconds left in the race, Gunhild and a pack of about 20 crew/friends came onto the track.  300 yards to get to the finish.  We looked carefully again, and saw that Rob Krar (overall winner of the race) was running with her.  (The finish line video shows that Tim Twietmeyer – 5 time Western States winner and 25-time sub-24 hour finisher – was also running with her).  Bob and I are both pretty analytical, so we started doing hurried calculations – 90 seconds, 300 yards, that’s about 8 minutes/mile.  Not inconceivable but a lot to hope for after 100 miles.  Gunhild ran on, the crowd cheered.

With about 200 yards left, the clock showed 53 seconds remaining.  The clock was pretty accurate, everything else was us estimating from a distance, but using about 37 seconds for the first 100 yards of track made it seem unlikely that she’d travel 200 yards in 53 seconds.  It seemed like she’d miss by a heartbreakingly small amount.  As she rounded the last turn, I moved to the fence about 75 feet from the finish and got my phone out to take a picture.

Once she reached the final straightaway, most of us were snapping our heads back and forth between Gunhild and the clock.  Maybe at that point she knew she had it, but to me it still didn’t seem possible – only 20 seconds left and just too much track.  As she passed by I managed to take the picture below.  I love zooming in on her eyes, and her pacer’s face – incredible focus and determination.

When I looked up again at her and the clock, there were 10 seconds left and only a few feet to go.  Oh. My.  She crossed the line with 6 seconds to spare, and the stadium erupted with cheers, tears and hugs.

Janet got it right – Gunhild, you are very inspiring.

Gunhild Swanson - DFL and getting it done.

Gunhild Swanson – DFL and getting it done.


  1. Yes, agreed: “you are very inspiring, Gunhild!” Wow! Just watching the videos and reading your account, Mark, tears welling up.

    • I tried to say something to her at the awards ceremony and could only get a few words out before the tears hit. Probably just fatigue from my day…

  2. […] Bob was very supportive and indeed the goal was out of reach when I arrived in Foresthill.  (I would have to be Gunhild Swanson to make up that kind of time.) Bob and I set off together from Foresthill as night […]

  3. […] thought my 10 chapter Western States book was done after I finished last year, but Janet and I volunteered at the Devil’s Thumb aid […]

  4. […] Swanson:  More heartbreak.  Last year’s amazing DFL, she dropped/missed the cutoff at Rucky Chuck.  She arrived at Devil’s Thumb with 16 minutes […]

  5. […] won’t want to miss Mark’s inspirational telling of racer Gunhild Swanson’s race to the finish of the Western States Endurance Race!  Truly […]

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