Ul­tra run­ners strive to get into, and then en­dure, the elite, 100- mile Western States race through the Sierra Ne­vada

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Greg Hadley

It was 2: 30 on a Satur­day af­ter­noon, and Sally McRae had been run­ning for 9 1⁄2 hours.

She was tired and sweaty, as the 90- de­gree heat could not re­move the mois­ture from her body fast enough. The climb out of a canyon deep in the Sierra Ne­vada was made even more dif­fi­cult be­cause she had in­jured her knee a few miles back.

McRae was 45 miles into the Western States En­durance Run, the world’s old­est 100- mile foot race. Vet­er­ans of the race say it takes as much of a men­tal toll as a phys­i­cal one. At that point last sum­mer, she was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing both.

If McRae had de­cided she couldn’t go on, she would not have been alone. Last year, of the 376 run­ners that started the race in Squaw Val­ley, 81 did not fin­ish.

Those who make it to the end in Auburn, Calif., re­ceive no prize money. If they make the top 10 or f in­ish in fewer than 24 hours, they re­ceive a sil­ver belt buckle. If they do it in less than 30

hours, they get a bronze buckle. Any longer, and they drive home with noth­ing.

Af­ter 100 miles, hav­ing the race end is all most run­ners care about. They want to sit, eat, shower, and above all, do it very slowly. They cross the fin­ish line, wob­bly- legged and de­hy­drated, and slump in camp chairs or are car­ried to med­i­cal tents by friends and vol­un­teers.

In re­cent years, ul­tra run­ning — any dis­tance be­yond the 26.2 miles of a marathon — has be­come much more pop­u­lar. More than 800 races took place in 2014, dou­ble from 10 years ago, and the num­ber of fin­ish­ers went from 25,000 to 70,000. Western States is con­sid­ered the race that started it all.

More than 4,000 run­ners ap­plied for this year’s race, which takes place Satur­day. But the U. S. For­est Ser­vice, which over­sees the land used for the course, lim­its the rac­ers to fewer than 400 each year. For the last 14 races, a lottery has been used to pick the run­ners.

“It’s the Bos­ton Marathon of ul­tra run­ning,” says Do­minic Grossman, who fin­ished 19th last year.

The ori­gin of the race is leg­endary among the ul­tra run­ning com­mu­nity.

In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh, a chi­ro­prac­tor from Meadow Vista, Calif., stepped to the line of the Te­vis Cup, a 100- mile horse race through the Sierra Ne­vada.

Ainsleigh had fin­ished twice, but in 1973 his mount pulled up lame half­way through the race. The next year, he de­cided to run, not ride, the dis­tance. No one thought he would make it.

Ainsleigh’s name does not ap­pear in the of­fi­cial re­sults that year, but he did fin­ish un­der the 24- hour time limit set for the horses. As a prize, he re­ceived the sil­ver belt buckle that would later also be­come the tro­phy for the Western States run.

The next two years, a few oth­ers tried to repli­cate Ainsleigh’s feat, and then, in 1977, 14 run­ners split off from the Te­vis Cup and of­fi­cially started the foot race. The race’s history, small f ield and chal­leng­ing ter­rain make it the pin­na­cle for ul­tra run­ners.

McRae, 36, never con­sid­ered quit­ting last year. Like the other 295 f in- ish­ers, she trained with these low mo­ments in mind and de­vel­oped a mind­set to over­come them.

“Climb­ing moun­tains, I think of that as just the chal­lenges we face in life,” McRae said. “And you can ei­ther face them and be­come a stronger, bet­ter per­son be­cause of them, or we can turn away. It’s the same thing on trails.”

Vet­er­ans of the race say these mo­ments of self- doubt are un­avoid­able, but they can be over­come.

“The one thing I’ve learned do­ing 100- mile races is that if you just stick with it and keep mov­ing for­ward, that ul­ti­mately you will get out of those lows and you will get back to where you feel bet­ter,” says Will Cooper, who has run the race three times.

Cooper re­calls be­ing en­er­gized when he heard a song by the Doors blast­ing from an aid sta­tion on the trail. “The moon­light above me, the Doors echo­ing across the canyon,” he said, “and you’re just kind of cruis­ing along.”

The canyons, no­to­ri­ous for their pun­ish­ing ter­rain, form the mid­dle part of the race, where McRae in­jured her knee. As she pushed past mile 70 and along the nearly 23,000- foot de­scent, she be­gan to gain ground, mov­ing from 17th place among women to 11th.

In the last 22 miles, McRae ran faster than any other fe­male out­side the top three fin­ish­ers.

The race ends on the track at Placer High, where hun­dreds of sup­port­ers stay through­out the night and into the morn­ing to cheer on each run­ner. By the time McRae got there, she was 10th.

“Peo­ple dream for so long of just get­ting into the Western States race, just in and of it­self,” she says, “but run­ning on that track....”

“I just re­mem­ber see­ing the lights from the track, and my heart was so over­joyed. It’s re­al­iz­ing this dream is com­ing true.”

It was 2: 43 on a Sun­day morn­ing. McRae for­got about the pain in her knee as she jogged the last 50 yards. She leaped across the fin­ish line with a sweep­ing smile as her friends and fam­ily sur­rounded her, hug­ging, laugh­ing and cry­ing. A race of­fi­cial gave her the sil­ver buckle.

Then she sat down, and the pain in her knee came roar­ing back. Ex­haus­tion over­whelmed her, and her joints and mus­cles ached and seized.

“Whether you break the course record or you come in last, you’re hon­ored to have done it and sur­vived, and you feel that com­mon­al­ity,” Grossman said.

“Be­cause no one re­ally con­quers the race. The leader is just happy to not get caught, and the last- place run­ner is just happy to not get caught by the time cut­off.”

McRae will be back on the start­ing line for Satur­day’s race by virtue of f inishing in the top 10 the pre­vi­ous year. She will ex­pe­ri­ence pain, doubt and weari­ness, just as she did last year. But she will still sa­vor her time on the trail.

“Any­thing that you’re pas­sion­ate about, you learn some­thing about your­self when you do it, whether it’s bak­ing or bas­ket weav­ing, writ­ing, even be­ing a par­ent,” McRae said. “Things are re­vealed about your­self, and it al­lows you to grow into a bet­ter per­son, and trail run­ning has def­i­nitely done that for me.”

‘ Any­thing that you’re pas­sion­ate about, you learn some­thing about your­self when you do it.’

— SALLY MCRAE, an ul­tra run­ner who will again take part in Western States En­durance Run

Kent Nishimura Los An­ge­les Times

SALLY McRAE runs along Westridge trail in Los An­ge­les as she trains for the chal­leng­ing ter­rain of the Western States En­durance Run, which starts Satur­day.

Pho­tog r aphs by Kent Nishimura Los An­ge­les Times

UL­TRA RUN­NER Sally McRae, who f in­ished 10th last year, will again take part in Western States race.

McRAE SAYS right mind- set is key to get through low mo­ments.

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