Unforgettable Moments in Ultrarunning: Gunhild Swanson and the 2015 Western States 100

An article recalling Gunhild Swanson’s historic finish at the 2015 Western States 100.

By on August 12, 2022 | Leave a reply

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the fifth and final article in my five-part series on unforgettable moments in ultrarunning history. Read our introductory article on this series for a description of what, to me, makes a moment unforgettable.]

I was standing on the football field at Placer High School in Auburn, California, where the Western States 100  finishes each year, at around 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, June 28, 2015, when a rumble spread across the assembled crowd. Word had come from a mile and a half or so up the road that one last runner had cleared Robie Point and was headed for the finish line.

It was the waning moments of the event and Spokane, Washington’s Gunhild Swanson, at the age of 70, was attempting to become the oldest female finisher in the history of the race. She was about a mile and a half from the finishing track and had less than 15 minutes to get there before the 30-hour cutoff.

Up until this time in the proceedings, the 2015 Western States 100 had already been a memorable race. Flagstaff, Arizona’s Rob Krar had successfully defended his 2014 win with a repeat win in an incredible time of 14:48, and Olympic marathoner and crowd favorite Magda Boulet, from Oakland, California, commandingly won the women’s race in her 100-mile debut. But at this moment, with less than 15 minutes left in the Golden Hour, that magical final hour at the Western States 100, all eyes were on the ticking clock and the fate of 70-year-old Gunhild as she made her way through the streets of Auburn toward the finish line.

Gunhild Swanson at Placer High track

Gunhild Swanson at the Placer High School track that day after finishing the 2015 Western States 100. All photos: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

We all learned later that, unbeknownst to the assembled masses at the high school track, Rob Krar and his partner, Christina Bauer, had wandered up to Robie Point to cheer on the final finishers. And, at the moment Gunhild crested the hill and passed the sign marking the race’s 99th mile, Krar, who could barely walk a moment before, jumped in alongside her. Wearing his flip-flops and trademark cowboy hat, he urged her toward the finish. Looking at his watch, Krar did some quick math and realized they would need to run a nine-minute mile to get to the finish in time.

Meanwhile, down at the high school, a steady stream of finishers circled the track en route to their finishes. 29:51, 29:52, 29:53 … the clock kept ticking, the finishers kept coming, and the crowd became more anxious. At the 29:57 mark, John Medinger, the voice of Western States and the track’s announcer, bellowed into the microphone, “If you are within the sound of my voice, you better get moving. Run like you stole something.”

From my position on the infield, I quickly jogged out through the gate and glanced 100 yards up the road. There, in the midst of a large crowd of about 20 people, which included 25-time finisher Tim Twietmeyer and race winner Rob Krar, was 70-year-old Gunhild Swanson, sprinting down the road. Her eyes were glazed over and focused on the road ahead. She pumped her arms aggressively, barely noticing my blood-curdling screams as she ran by. When she entered the track the clock read 29:59:10. With 250 meters to go, it was going to be painfully close.

As Gunhild made her way down the back straight a roar came up from the crowd. Up in the booth, Medinger was on his feet egging Gunhild on to the finish and a massive scrum of race volunteers, spectators, and friends waited just past the finish line. As Gunhild hit the final turn, Krar, Twietmeyer, and most of the entourage peeled off — leaving Gunhild in her own pain cave for the last 60 meters. When she crossed the line, the clock read 29:59:54. With six seconds to spare, Gunhild became the oldest female finisher in the storied history of Western States. And the place went absolutely bonkers.

Gunhild Swanson - 2015 Western States 100

Gunhild Swanson after finishing the 2015 Western States 100 in 29:59:54, six seconds before the race cutoff at 70 years of age.

In my life as an athlete and as a sports fan, I have seen many amazing things, both in person and on television. Looking back on that incredible Sunday morning in June 2015, I can confidently say that I have never, ever seen something as extraordinary as Gunhild’s finish. And I probably will never see anything like it again.

In the years that have followed Gunhild’s historic finish, the Golden Hour has taken on a life of its own and there have been close calls every year. That said, nothing can match the 2015 Golden Hour. For me, and for many who were there, that day Gunhild captured lightning in a bottle, and I feel honored and privileged to have witnessed it — the single most unforgettable moment in ultrarunning.

Bottoms up!

Gunhild Swanson - 2015 Western States 100

The crowd celebrates after Gunhild Swanson finished the 2015 Western States 100. Photo: Ted Knudsen

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Gunhild Swanson’s hometown of Spokane, Washington. Lumberbeard Brewing makes some excellent brews, with none as scrumptious as the new Thunderskunk New England Style IPA. Hoppy and fruity, Thunderskunk certainly bends the rules for typical IPAs and does so unabashedly. Next time you find yourself in the inland U.S. Pacific Northwest, a trip to Lumberbeard would be well worth your time.

Call for Comments

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Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.