The Toughest Footrace in the World
When you enter the Western States 100—a day-and-night endurance run in the Sierra Nevada—you can "mature a lot."
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
It is ironic that Mike Catlin missed the start of the race. For two months, the 27-year old exercise physiology graduate student from Davis, California, had spent his weekends on the trail of the Western States Endurance Run. Once he logged 100 miles in three days; another time he did 50 miles on Saturday and 50 on Sunday. His standard workout was 32 miles. For a year he had been determined to improve upon his performance in 1978, when he'd finished eleventh but faltered and faded in the last 20 miles. Yet, seconds before 5 A.M. on the first Saturday last July, while the rest of the field was getting ready for the final countdown and the first brutal climb, Mike Catlin was in a car several miles away, frantically speeding from his motel in Tahoe City to the starting line at Squaw Valley. He had overslept.
Most of the other runners were dressed warmly for the first leg of the race— the climb to Emigrant Pass, where the cold winds can chill your bones in an instant. Sweat pants, windbreakers, sweaters, ski caps, gloves, and the like could be left with race officials at Hodgson's Cabin, on the other side of the summit. One contestant brought ski poles. Another carried a full backpack, complete with camera, pack stove, and other assorted camping accessories. Dr. Robert Lind, medical director for the race, squinted at his watch. Then, at precisely 5 A.M., without fanfare or ceremony, the race was underway. The motley bunch of runners, juiced with nervous energy, shot off westward like hounds after some elusive fox.
For many this was the first glimpse of the trail, though they had heard it described the day before at a briefing by Wendell Robie, the 84-year-old founder and president of the Western States Trail Foundation. “This is a very, very poor trail,” bellowed the silver-haired, string-tied Robie. “It's probably one of the worst you've ever seen. But if it wasn't as poor a trail as you've ever been on, you'd find it loaded with motorcycles!” The runners cheered.
At night, after running for 22 hours, you hear things rustling in the thickets. You have a flashlight, but the shadows are playing tricks.
The origin of the race can be traced back to 1955, when Robie, a prominent banker in Auburn, California, was a spry 60 years old. He rode the 100 miles from Squaw Valley to his hometown to prove that horses were as durable as they'd been during the time of the Pony Express. That ride inspired the annual Tevis Cup horse race, which follows virtually the same route and attracts riders from all over the country.
In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh, a woodcutter from Colfax, California, found himself without a horse, but he entered the Tevis Cup anyway and covered the 100 miles on foot, a variation instantly popular among the horses. He completed the run in just under 24 hours, laying the groundwork, so to speak, for the Western States Endurance Run.
The Western States 100—corporal punishment thinly disguised as a sporting endeavor—quickly earned a reputation as the most grueling footrace in the world. Its distance is less significant 38 than its other, relentlessly arduous characteristics. The terrain is murderous; two-thirds of the race is run over rocky, rutted trails blazed by Washoe and Paiute Indians. Most of the route is inaccessible except by horseback or by foot, and even then a false step will snap an ankle.
From the starting point, on the 6,200-foot-high floor of Squaw Valley, the trail ascends to 8,750 feet atop Emigrant Pass— a vertical climb of 2,250 feet in the first 5 miles. ln 1978, runners braved below-freezing temperatures and 15 miles of ice and snow on this mountaintop.
From the summit the trail twists southwesterly through the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests, alternately climbing and descending. It wends its way atop wooded ridges, along scrub-lined stream banks, across lush meadows, then down through the Sierra foothills, and finally into Auburn, where the race mercifully concludes at Placer High School's Hillman Stadium.
There is a place along a canyon where the path is only two feet wide, with a perilous drop-off on the exposed edge. Most runners hit this stretch in the middle of the night with rubbery legs and dulled senses. At another point the course turns off a logging road and onto a trail. Miss the turn and you run off a cliff. The summer heat parches you, and there are stretches of up to 16 miles where water is unavailable. Then at 88 miles you're up to your waist in it, hanging on to a guide rope while you ford the moonlit American River. At night, after you've been slogging along for, say, 22 hours, you hear things rustle in the thickets as you pass. Your mind is weary. Your flashlight is your only guide, but the shadows begin to play tricks on you. Are you hallucinating, or were those really raccoons and skunks scurrying across the path at your feet?
For the dubious honor of running the 1979 Western States Endurance Run, 143 people each paid an entry fee of $50. They came from Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Michigan—21 states in all—as well as from New Zealand, West Germany, and England. Eighteen of the 28 people who had completed the 1978 run were on hand, including 12 of the top 15. One of the veterans was Pat Smythe, 36, the only woman ever to finish. This year there were 11 other women in the race, including Skip Swannack, a 37-year-old physical education instructor from northern California who had been obsessed with completing the run ever since she'd quit after 55 miles in 1978. Disgusted with herself for withering in the face of something as minor as excruciating pain, she was back on the trail a week later, training for 1979. “Unfinished business,” she called it.
The field also included 35 masters (age 40 and older)-including nine in their 50s and one aged 65. John Huckaby (the back of his jacket immodestly advertised him as “The Incredible Huck”) was a 58-year-old electrical engineer from Lee Center, New York, who spouted an endless stream of chatter about his running exploits. He wore a medallion around his neck commemorating his greatest feat, which occurred last year at Greece's Pheidippides Marathon. He completed the race, then ran it in the opposite direction, then reversed himself again and ran it a third time—a total of 78.6 nonstop miles. The Greeks, said Huckaby, were incredulous.
There were doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, construction workers, students, teachers, soldiers, salesmen, engineers, business consultants, all with common priorities: first, to survive; second, to make it to the finish line in Auburn; and third, to complete the run in under 24 hours, earning the coveted sterling-silver belt buckle that is rapidly becoming the ultimate cachet in this country for ultradistance runners.
Another thing the runners shared was apprehension. Paul Garnett, a 31- year-old yacht salesman from Los Angeles, was particularly worried—after talking with several other entrants, he was convinced that he was among the least prepared, despite his 90-mile-a-week regimen for the past two months. As a precaution, he wrote his name, telephone number, and blood type on his T-shirt. “What if they find me unconscious at the bottom of a canyon?” he said.
Like many others, Scott McCauly, a 34-year-old from Santa Fe, could manage only a couple of hours of sleep the night before the race. “This morning I woke up and 1 was petrified,” said McCauly. “I thought to myself, 'My God, what have I gotten myself into?' “
One person who knew what he was in for was Andy Gonzales, a handsome 24-year-old from Colfax. In 1977, when the Western States Endurance Run became an official race sponsored by the Western States Trail Foundation and conducted concurrently with the Tevis Cup, Gonzales topped a field of 14 (only 3 completed the course) with a time of 22 hours and 57 minutes. The '1978 run, held separately from the Tevis Cup, drew 63 entrants and, not surprisingly, Gonzales won again- but with the shocking time of 18:50, four hours under the record. ” I think my time will stand for a while,” Gonzales said. He was favored to win the race again in 1979; the day before the race he stated confidently that he was ” dead serious” and was simply “going to go out and win.”
“I don' t care who it is,” Gonzales said. “If they're with me at 50 miles I'll bury them.”
Robinson Flat, 35 miles from the starting line, is the first of five major checkpoints along the route. By the time the runners reach this meadowy forest clearing, they have crested Emigrant Pass, traversed Foresthill Divide and Red Star Ridge, descended to the 5,500-foot bottom of Duncan Canyon, and climbed back up to about 7,000 feet. Two runners would be unable to make it this far, six others would call it quits once they got here; two more would arrive after the nine-and-a-half-hour cutoff time.
Because it is accessible by logging roads, Robinson Flat was a swirl of activity well before the lead runners arrived. Dr. Lind and several members of his volunteer medical retinue prepared to check the blood pressure, pulse, and weight of each runner. a process that would be repeated at several other points in the race as a precaution against the effects of dehydration, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, and hypoglycemia. (Fortunately temperatures were moderate, ranging from the high 40s at Emigrant Pass to the mid-80s in the canyons.)
Podiatrists and ophthalmologists were available to treat foot and eye injuries, and a helicopter from the Placer County Sheriff's Department was on call for emergencies, such as broken bones, heat stroke, or rattlesnake bites. Fifty-two volunteers from the sheriffs department began monitoring the runners as they descended from Red Star Ridge. Already they had received reports of black bears lurking just off the trail.
Also waiting at Robinson Flat were some 80 crew members-friends and relatives who meet their runners where access is possible and furnish nourishment, fresh clothing and shoes, muscle massages, flashlights, and, most important, moral support. During the final third of the race, crewmembers often accompany runners on the trail. Such pacing isn't allowed during the first 64 miles, but thereafter is encouraged for safety. And since runners sometimes 70 or 80 miles, the Placer County Sheriff's Department keeps horseback “drag riders” on the trail throughout the race so that someone won't simply wander into the darkness never to be seen again. Even so, in 1978 a runner who was well under a 24-hour pace became lost around 2 A.M. somewhere between 93 and 97 miles. He was found at daybreak complaining that his wife had failed to meet him at a checkpoint. He has since divorced her, abandoned running, started smoking, and gained considerable weight.
Like an apparition, a lone runner suddenly appeared at Robinson Flat at 10:11 A.M., fully 52 minutes ahead of Gonzales's 1978 record pace. Doug Latimer, a clean-cut, 41-year-old magazine publisher from Redwood City, California, looked remarkably fresh as he hopped on the scale for his weigh-in. While the medical team quickly checked his vital signs, someone asked how he felt. “Good,” said the 5-foot-11-inch, 145-pound runner. “I've just been rolling along, feeling real good.” Within 60 seconds he was on his way, pausing long enough for a few sips of ERG (electrolyte replacement with glucose) and a fresh Bodabelt (a nylon, belt-like canteen) provided by his crew.
Latimer's quiet, soft-spoken manner belied his competitiveness. Though he hadn't admitted it publicly, he was in this race to win. In 1978 he'd finished fifth but was hurting badly at the end—he had trained a mere 45 miles a week. This year, however, he had averaged 75 miles a week, increasing that to 110 in the last two months, and had done some of his training on the course. He also had the invaluable benefit of having already experienced the race.
“The key is to run as fast as you can without straining,” said Latimer. Using a tachometer as an analogy, he added: “You want to extend yourself so that you're always just below the red line, but never in the red.” All the experts agree that restraint is the secret-walk all but the easiest upgrades, even early in the race when you're feeling strong.
As Latimer took off from Robinson Flat, he was puzzled. “I can't figure this out,” he said. “I haven't been pushing it at all and I still feel good. I don't know where everybody else is.” Though Latimer was a 2:38 marathoner, he didn't consider himself blessed with much speed, expecting the others to gain on him during the relatively easy 12-mile downgrade ahead. If I can just get to the canyons, he told himself, I think I'll be all right.
Andy Gonzales was the fourth man into Robinson Flat, running 14 minutes behind Latimer. After his medical check, he flopped himself on the ground, drank some ERG, wiped the mud off his calves, and asked the inevitable: “How does Latimer look?”
“He's looking good,” replied a sheriff’s deputy who had squatted next to Gonzales to survey his condition.
Gonzales was worried. The anxiety on his face was in marked contrast to the expression he'd worn the day before. For him, this was more than a race—the Western States Endurance Run had been the central focus in his life for two years. According to friends, Gonzales's back-to-back victories were his most treasured accomplishments, giving him a purpose and celebrity he'd never known before. And now, with his title in the balance, the pressure was exploding in every fiber of his body. His statements of the previous day had been fear masquerading as confidence.
After changing shoes, donning a shirt, and swallowing some mineral and vitamin pills, Gonzales headed off in pursuit of Latimer. It irritated him that he couldn't shake his nervousness. His stomach was in knots. Although he'd said he would run his own race, he feared the others had drawn him out too fast.
Even before Gonzales left Robinson Rat, Frank Bozanich checked in. Hot and thirsty, he seized a bucket of ERG—mistaking it for water—and poured it over his head. He'd been given a Boda Belt at the start by Steve Muscatell, the man who invented them, but decided it was just extra weight and tossed it to the ground before he had climbed the first grade. Bozanich generally has disdain for such luxuries. He'd come to this race from his San Diego home about as unprepared as one could be—no spare shoes or extra clothing, no water bottle, no flashlight. He didn't even have a crew until Muscatell met him the day before the race and offered to help. But that's Bozanich—a rough, five-foot-seven-inch, 145-pound package of unadulterated machismo. It was said that nothing could stop this man, that a head-on collison with a tree would scarcely get his attention. Everyone agreed: This was the man who could beat Gonzales.
Bozanich's reputation preceded him to Squaw Valley, largely because of his accomplishments as an ultramarathoner. He is the American record holder for 100 kilometers and is a former United States national champion in the 50-mile run, a distance he has covered on roads in 5 hours 14 minutes. His best marathon time was 2:25. And Bozanich, who left the Marine Corps just a week before the Western States 100 because “they didn't help my [running] career,” was not humble about all this. When Gonzales was introduced at the prerace briefing as “the guy you're going to be following,” Bozanich raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Is that so?” he sneered under his breath. A few minutes later, when someone referred to the race's leading competitors as ” the cream of the crop,” Bozanich announced quietly, “Here I am.” There did seem to be a rather affable fellow beneath the tough-guy exterior—he's been married for 13 years and has three children—but when he'd say things like, “My wife says no more races until I find a job,” the image tarnished, if just a little.
Michigan Bluff, population 30, is situated on the 3,800-foot west rim of Eldorado Canyon and serves as the 64-mile checkpoint. By the time runners get here, the heat of day and 14 miles of severe canyons have left most fatigued, sweaty, sallow, and sore. Mental toughness is replacing physical talent as the sustaining element.
It was not surprising, then, that 20 runners did not make it this far. But it was astonishing that Andy Gonzales was one of them. He'd struggled for 8 miles out of Robinson Flat, to the 43-mile checkpoint at Deep Canyon I, before chills and dry heaves convinced him that this was not to be his day. When Doug Latimer appeared at Michigan Bluff at 2:52 in the afternoon, Gonzales was among the spectators.
As Latimer went through his medical checkup he appeared absolutely unfazed. It was a performance calculated to have a demoralizing effect on his pursuers when they asked, as he knew they would, “How does Latimer look?” Once alone with his crew, however, the leader made no pretense about his condition. His legs felt completely drained, and his quadriceps were cramping badly. Understandably, his spirits were flagging. He drank some fruit juice, took a couple of Excedrin, changed Boda Belts, and started off again with a friend as a pacer. Trotting slowly on a flat, dusty road, the athlete contemplated his lead, which he'd been told was 12to15 minutes over Bozanich. “The way I feel I don't see how I can possibly hold it,” he said. Then, after considering his situation for another moment: “Do you know who's in back of Bozanich?”
As it happened, Bozanich was 23 minutes behind Latimer when he hit Michigan Bluff. He slaked his thirst with a Coke, drenched himself with a handy garden hose, and resumed his pursuit. “I'm not gonna pick up any on him,” he admitted. “The son of a bitch is gonna have to fall back.”
The answer to Latimer's question—who's behind Bozanich—turned out to and missed the start of the race. Working with a 10-minute deficit, Catlin had advanced to tenth place by 35 miles and was fifth by the halfway mark. The lean, bearded runner had encountered Gonzales lying on a mattress at Deep Canyon I. “You can win this thing,” Andy had said. “Those guys up front are killing themselves with this pace. They're gonna burn out.”
As near as Catlin could figure, Gonzales's theory wasn't holding. Though he had been feeling good and running strongly since he'd seen Gonzales 21 miles back, Latimer's lead over him had increased from 39 minutes to 44. Bozanich had stretched out his lead, too.
Despite his deteriorating physical state, Latimer's morale had improved by the time he reached the 80-mile checkpoint at White Oak Flat in the late afternoon. After the briefest possible stop for his medical check he was off again. “My legs are worse, but my head is better,” he confided. “I'm getting spasms in my calves, and my quads are tight. But mentally I feel good.”
Behind Latimer, Bozanich was hurting. Unaccustomed to the mountainous terrain, his legs were cramping. Catlin rolled past him at about 72 miles without saying a word and checked into White Oak Flat in second place. In the 16 miles since Michigan Bluff, Catlin had gained 11 minutes on Latimer but was still trailing by 33.
The eight-mile descent to the American River was calamitous for Doug Latimer. Although he was able to move at a reasonably good pace, the downhill jarring was causing his spent legs to buckle. Four or five times his muscles failed to respond when he planted a foot, causing him to fall to the ground in a heap. ” It wasn't that painful,” he would later admit, ” but it was frustrating.” Things didn't improve at the river crossing. Latimer's plan to wrap his feet in plastic garbage bags to keep his shoes dry proved a folly. If it hadn't been for the guide rope stretched across the water, he might have been swept downstream, so buoyant were his feet from the air trapped in the bags.
Catlin wasted no time with such schemes. He just splashed through the river and kept running, his soaked shoes squishing with each step for the next mile or so. He had picked up 5 minutes in the 8 miles between White Oak Flat and the river and another 5 at the fording. But he was still 23 minutes behind Latimer with just 12 miles left. His chances didn't look good.
With just 12 miles left, Catlin was staring absently at Latimer's footprints when he realized that his adversary was walking where he should have been running. He sensed the kill.
Catlin was pondering his plight as he trotted along toward the 93-mile checkpoint at the Highway 49 crossing, staring absently at Latimer's footprints, as he had been for miles, when suddenly it struck him that he was looking at precisely what he had been searching for: evidence of his rival's vulnerability. For all of Latimer's efforts to prevent word of his physical degeneration from filtering back to his pursuers, he had been betrayed by his footprints. Catlin could tell by the stride length that his adversary was walking—walking where he should have been running—so he quickened his pace. He sensed the kill.
Upon clearing the Highway 49 checkpoint, Latimer and a pacer hastened through a golden field of dried grass, unaware that Catlin, adrenaline pumping, was closing fast. For the first time in 15 hours of racing and 65 miles of leading, Latimer permitted himself to contemplate winning. “I think maybe we're gonna do it,” he said to his pacer. He savored that thought for about three minutes before word reached him that Mike Catlin was less than a half mile back. A few minutes later, in a long meadow following a steep hill somewhere between miles 94 and 95, Catlin drew up from behind. It was the first time Latimer had even seen a competitor in 11 hours.
“Good job, Doug,” Catlin offered as he passed, striding lightly.
“You look great, Mike. You're one hell of a runner,” responded Latimer. Then, after a brief pause, he asked, “Where's Bozanich?”
“Don't worry about Bozanich,” scoffed Catlin as he pulled away. “I don't even think he'll finish.” Then, quickly, he disappeared in the fading daylight.
No more than a hundred people were on hand to greet Mike Catlin as he entered the illuminated Placer High School football stadium at 9:11 P.M. and jogged the last 300 yards on the track. The smattering of applause seemed incommensurate with the feat. This man in the red, white, and blue shorts; the white, short-sleeved shirt; and the orange-and-white baseball cap had just carved 2 hours and 38 minutes off Gonzales' record with an unbelievable time: 16 hours 11 minutes. Exhausted, Catlin stood still just long enough for the obligatory medical check and then walked and stretched out—alone—on the damp stadium grass, savoring the moment. He was gone well before Doug Latimer's languid figure appeared 23 minutes later.
In his wake Catlin left 142 individual cases of agony, injury, failure, victory. Forty-seven runners failed to finish. Andy Gonzales cried in privacy and then told friends the next day that he had “matured a lot in the last 24 hours.” Doug Latimer ended his ordeal by throwing up on the stadium infield, but within a few hours was back on the trail encouraging friends. A 31-year-old “running reverend” from southern California, a 28-year-old science teacher from Pennsylvania, and a 25-year-old Air Force officer from New Mexico finished ahead of Frank Bozanich, who rolled in at 23 minutes before midnight in sixth place, possessed of a new respect for just how tough 100 miles can be.
At 2:56 A.M. Skip Swannack satisfied her year-long obsession, finishing twenty-eighth overall and becoming the first woman ever to complete the race in under 24 hours. Her closest female rival, 36-year-old Candy Heam, finished less than an hour later. At 4:55 A.M. P.J. Downey of Tahoe City crossed the finish line-the sixty-seventh and last person to earn the silver belt-buckle for completing the race in one day.
At 10:42, with the new day heating up, Larry King, husband of Billie Jean, reached the finish. At 10:58, in came “The Incredible Huck,” kicking a seven-minute mile to get in under the 30-hour deadline. At 58, he was the oldest finisher. And finally, at 11 A.M. (plus a few seconds, but at that point few were counting closely) Karin Stock, 19, became the youngest-and last-official finisher.
Paul Garnett, the fellow who had written his blood type on his T-shirt, amazed himself by finishing thirty-first, with a time of 22 hours and 8 minutes. An hour and a half later, as he relaxed in an Auburn motel room, a friend offered congratulations.
“Well Paul, you did it!”
“Yep,” said Garnett. “Although I don't know why.”
Thirteen hours later, while driving to the awards banquet, Garnett was still wrestling with that question . “You know,” he said, “I'm reluctant to boast about having done this. It's kind of like telling people you beat yourself at night with chains.”