It’s no exaggeration to say that Gunhild Swanson was the show stopper at this year’s Western States 100, as she became not only the first woman over the age of 70 to finish the race, she also finished the race in 29:59:54, just 6 seconds under the 30-hour race cutoff. In the following interview, Gunhild talks about what her race plan was, how her race went, why her pacer was important, what it felt like to run in the final miles with Rob Krar and Tim Twietmeyer, and how moving the community’s reaction was to her.
To learn more about Gunhild, be sure to read our in-depth WeRunFar profile of her.
For more on how the race went down, check out our Western States results article.
Before we get to the interview, here’s the Western States Endurance Run’s video of Gunhild finishing the race!
(Click the image to play.)
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Gunhild Swanson Post-2015 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar and I’m here at the Placer High School track after the 2015 Western States Endurance Run. I’m here with this year’s final finisher and first female 70-years-and-up finisher, Gundhild Swanson. My goodness, it’s an honor to be with you.
Gundhild Swanson: Thank you.
Swanson: Thank you.
iRunFar: Your race was an absolute nail-biter from the outside looking in. Was it a nail-biter living it?
Swanson: Yes. Very much so.
iRunFar: You’ve run Western States before, so you kind of knew what you were getting into. Did you know before the race that it was going to come down to cutoffs and it being very close?
Swanson: No, I made a pace chart for my pacers and cutoff times I hand wrote as an afterthought on one of them, but 28 hours was my ‘dream time’ and sub-30 ‘realistic.’ At one point early in the race I was within 10 minutes of the cutoff time.
iRunFar: Where was that in the race?
Swanson: I don’t know. It was in the first half somewhere.
iRunFar: You were already approaching the cutoffs sooner than you thought you would.
iRunFar: The pressure was on even in the first half.
Swanson: Yeah, although it wasn’t terribly hot, I don’t know what it was, but we really suffered out there. I saw people curled up sleeping in the shade under the tree and laying in the creek. The terrain is so difficult that ordinary mortals like me, you can’t run. You have to powerwalk it and hike it, so I just kept getting further and further behind. Once I got to where it was runnable, then I started to make up time.
iRunFar: So is that in the last 20 miles you started making up time?
Swanson: Actually, it was as soon as my son started pacing me at Michigan Bluff because I was well over 30-hour pace at that time and into the cutoff time. So we started just chipping away at it. Then I got pretty comfortable, thinking everything was going to be fine and then disaster happened. At about mile 88, my pacer and I made a terrible rookie mistake and came up the trail and to the left there were a couple runners and followed them rather than looking for the markers. We should have turned right. We got all the way up a steep hill over a mile-and-a-half or so and had to come back down. So, I got three bonus miles. AND THEN… that was coming into the mile 90 aid station and I was back into cutoff times. I can’t make it up. I don’t have enough legs to make it up. So I thought I was done. Physically I just couldn’t do it. I came into the aid station at the highway and Dave, my friend, took over as pacer. He said, “Let’s move it.” I just went straight through the aid station, straight out, and he told me what to do. “Okay, you can run here. You can hike this uphill. Watch your footing. There’s rocks there. There’s loose dirt there.” He talked me through it. Then I still had to hike up that hard stuff coming up to Robie Point from No Hands.
iRunFar: That’s not an easy climb.
Swanson: It’s not an easy climb. I was totally out of breath. I couldn’t do it. People were shouting at me. “There’s a piece of shade. Run through that.” “Okay.” It didn’t feel like I was running. I did the best I could. Once we were on top…
iRunFar: Once you were at Robie Point with 1.2 miles to go, you had an entourage waiting for you there.
Swanson: Two friends, my pacers, another friend, Rob Krar, the winner of this race came down. He wasn’t waiting there, but he came down the road, and Tim Twietmeyer. Everybody started yelling at me and telling me what to do and pouring ice water all over me. Then I was told, “You have to run as hard as you possibly can. When you get to the track, you can’t let up. Down the hill you’re okay, but you have to maintain that pace. You have to go with all you possibly can on the track.” I came around and saw the clock. Oh, my gosh.
iRunFar: How close it was…
Swanson: Four seconds. [Editor’s Note: For the sake of precision, we note that Gunhild actually had six seconds to spare.]
iRunFar: When Robie Point updated, it said you had come through with 17 minutes to go. To be honest, a few of us looked at each other said, “Many of the top runners run this time. It takes them 17 minutes to get to the finish line.” We thought, “Wow, I’m not sure this is going to happen today.” Even when you came through on the track with a little over 90 seconds to go…
Swanson: My friend looked at his Garmin and said I ran 7:00-minute miles on the track.
iRunFar: You had to run seven-minute pace to get around the track in time. When you rounded the corner here, you looked down the straightaway, you saw the time on the clock, and you said, “I’m going to get there.” After so much tension and so much stress for so many hours, did relief start to wash over you or did it wait until you crossed the finish line?
Swanson: I think it waited. I must have had the biggest smile on my face, I swear. It was just so exciting. Everyone was shouting. The sheer noise of having everyone in the whole stadium shouting for me, it was just overwhelming.
iRunFar: Now you have this great buckle here marking your 29:59:56. [Editor’s Note: For the sake of precision, we note that Gunhild’s official time is 29:59:54.] You got every ounce of that buckle’s worth, didn’t you?
Swanson: I did. I earned it.
iRunFar: So now that this has happened, this is something you’ve been working toward for awhile. You established a record for women 70 and older. What do you do now? Do you go rest on your laurels for awhile?
Swanson: A little while.
iRunFar: What do you do now that you have something like that?
Swanson: Oh, nothing different.
iRunFar: Nothing different. Life goes on.
Swanson: I am involved with a local trail running group and when they put on races I go to those. They can be anything from a half marathon to a 50 miler. I continue to do that. We’re kind of a club and everybody, we know each other, and it will just be low-key.
iRunFar: Fantastic. Congratulations to you.
Swanson: Thank you.
iRunFar: This is a race where there is often focus on the front of the competition, but I think as this stadium annotated today, this isn’t just a race about the front of the pack. This is a race about the community. The community really put it forth to see you come home today.
iRunFar: Congratulations again.
Swanson: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: Thanks for inspiring the community.
Swanson: It was certainly my pleasure.
B ROLL BONUS
Swanson: I finished this sucker.