WeRunFar Profile: Gunhild Swanson

An in-depth profile of ultrarunner Gunhild Swanson.

By on December 16, 2014 | Comments

It was a long month of waiting. Gunhild Swanson, an ultrarunner originally from Laubach, Germany, who lives in Spokane, Washington, sent her application in early November. If she gained entrance to the race, the 2015 Western States 100, it would be her third time at the beloved California event. She had applied for a special-consideration entry, and was supposed to hear back before the December 6, 2014 lottery if she was to be granted special consideration.

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Gunhild Swanson. All photos courtesy of Gunhild Swanson unless otherwise noted.

“I am on pins and needles,” Gunhild said, while we chatted the Friday afternoon before the drawing. “I was told that if I was picked early I would be notified.” Gunhild’s chances at this late hour, thus, were not looking good.

By Saturday night she was finally contacted, but not with the words she wanted to hear.

Gunhild Swanson is 70 years old. On December 14 at the Deception Pass 50k in Washington state, she ran her 15th race of the year. Her 2014 running schedule has been busy and diverse, and has included shorter-distance races, marathons, and ultras. She even nabbed a 100-mile finish at the 2014 Javelina Jundred.

Gunhild has been competing in ultras since 1987, and long before that she was making a name for herself at the marathon distance. She began running in Germany, and continued the sport when she moved to the U.S. in 1963. She moved to Washington state with her then husband, who had been stationed in Germany for the military.

Her performance in the 1982 Seattle Marathon remains her fastest marathon time: 2 hours, 56 minutes, and 38 seconds. In 2005, she won her age group at the Boston Marathon.

Gunhild and her first husband had four children before deciding to divorce. In 1986, she remarried Jack Swanson, who she met through the Washington running community.

Like most marathoners turned ultrarunners, a friend talked Gunhild into her first ultra. It was the Let’s Climb a Mountain race, a 34.3-mile event in her town of Spokane. That infamous, ‘You can run marathons, so you can 50 miles’ attitude directed her to her next ultra, the 50-mile Le Grizz Ultramarathon in Montana. Gunhild has been hooked ever since.

“Adventure is my favorite word,” she said. “No matter the distance, no matter what race it is. I love adventures.”

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Gunhild and Jack Swanson, many years ago. Photo: Janine Fraser

Her second Western States journey in 2005 was an adventure all its own. Fueled by GUs and her son, Chris’s, support and pacing, Gunhild finished the race in 25 hours, 40 minutes, and 29 seconds, setting the women’s record for the 60 to 69 age group, at the age of 61. The record still stands.

The evening of December 8 was almost over when a friend called Gunhild, telling her to quickly check her email. After another look at the impressive ultrarunner’s application, the WS100 race director, Craig Thornley, had reconsidered her request for special consideration.

She was in.

“I received an email that race director Craig Thornley spoke with one of their sponsors, who graciously gave me their entry spot,” Gunhild explained about the unexpected change of events. “I’m still pretty overwhelmed with people’s responses, first to my missing out, and then with all the congratulatory messages after I got in. I just know that I’m deeply grateful and will do my best to succeed.”

For anyone who knows Gunhild, not gaining WS100 entrance was devastating, especially since she had another crazy adventure in the works.

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Gunhild running the 2014 Chilco Peaks 50k. Photo: Sandee McKinney

Gunhild will be 71 years old on the 2015 WS100 race day. In 1998, Ray Piva set the male 70-plus age-group record in 28:09:24, but there has not yet been a woman of that age to complete the race.

“To be the first,” she declared, “that is my goal.”

It was this mindset that led me to Gunhild in the first place. Recommended by her numerous fans and friends, I was afraid of what would happen if I did not pursue an interview with her.

“It is very humbling,” she said, referring to her community of support. “I don’t promote myself or my running. I just enjoy myself and I think that joy draws others in.”

Gunhild strives for that joy in every adventure, experiencing everything with a new sense of wonder, even if it is mile 80 of a 100-mile race. For example, in the pitch-black desert night of the Javelina Jundred this year, Gunhild listened to the ‘singing’ of coyotes with unadulterated joy. For Gunhild, it was the sweetest and most beautiful thing she’d ever heard, as she trekked on through the night.

“I don’t really have any bad moments,” she chuckled at herself. “I have this feeling of wonder and awesomeness, like ‘I can do this? Yes!’”

That same, upbeat, no-negativity attitude will be present in the ultrarunner for the next eight months as Gunhild trains for her third Western States. In her 2005 training schedule, Gunhild kept the age-group-record goal to herself, not letting anyone in on her secret until a few days before the race. She spent months studying the course map, plotting out splits, and even making her computer’s login password a reference to that age-group record for a daily reminder. She tried to engrave the Western States experience deeply into her mind before she even set foot on the trail. This year her goal is out in the open, in this article, on social media, and on her refrigerator, too.

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Gunhild’s fridge. (Hey hackers, none of these are her passwords anymore. They are for inspiration only.)

Training for next year’s race will not differ much from her normal routine, she said, though she is thinking about hiring a coach. Most years Gunhild logs over 2,000 miles, and one year, over 3,000.

“I do not run every day,” she said. “There is no heartache if I miss. I am cool with a little break.”

But when you look over Gunhild’s long history in running shoes, there have not been many of those breaks. Gunhild has recorded every race she has run. Last year, she counted each race, coming up with an unexpected number.

In 2015, Gunhild’s first race will be the Yakima River Canyon Marathon in Washington. On March 28, she will start the race wearing bib number 261, for her 261st ultra or marathon race. The number’s significance is not lost on Gunhild.

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Gunhild with her son, Chris, and grandson, Turlan, after the 2014 Schweitzer Mountain Trail Run. Photo: Heather Mclaughlin LeFriec

Kathrine Switzer wore bib number 261 during the infamous 1967 Boston Marathon, when the then race director tried to physically remove her from the race because she was female. Kathrine persevered to the finish and her bib number has since become a symbol of ferocity and strength for female runners. “Women from all over the world embrace that [number],” Gunhild said. “It makes them fearless. I asked the race director if I could use the number and he said yes. I thought it was a pretty worthy goal.”

In her ultrarunning, Gunhild is driven by the support of the community, new adventures, and goals set for herself. But in her life, it is her passion for running that keeps her going through difficult times. In 2008, Gunhild lost her spouse, Jack, to leukemia. At the time of this interview, Gunhild was back at the hospital, but this time for another family member undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

“Running helped me get through the loss of my spouse,” she said. “It eases the burden, and allows you to share the burden.” Gunhild says her running grounds her within the community, even when not logging in the miles on the trails.

In her downtime, Gunhild’s voracious appetite for books takes over her days. After the death of her husband, her children built a Little Free Library in her front yard. A reader himself, Jack also loved the beach and any seafaring things, Gunhild said. The library sits at the edge of the yard in the shape of an eight-foot tall lighthouse, designed with two rooms, one for adult books and one with children’s books.

“People in the neighborhood enjoy it,” she said. “It is an homage to Jack and his love of reading and the ocean.”

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The Little Free Library in Gunhild’s front yard.

Gunhild and Jack’s incredible passion for running and life has affected the community of Spokane, especially within her own family tree. Her son, Chris, has paced Gunhild toward many great finishes, including her 2005 record at the WS100. When approaching an aid station, Chris remembered that the volunteers were in disbelief that he was pacing his mother, and they cheered as the team ran on down the trail.

Chris, who hopes to be at her side again for next year’s race, says he enjoys the job of pacer. “The only actual difficulty is my own condition. Not being an endurance athlete, it’s actually quite hard to run/walk/jog for so many hours at a pace I just don’t know,” he said. “I felt sometimes that, ‘Man, can I finish my task here? Is mom going to have to leave me?’”

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Gunhild at the 2010 Cle Elum Ridge 50k. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

Her other pacer at times, like at the Riverside 24 Hour Relay in Spokane, is Gunhild’s grandson, Turlan. “I was able to introduce him to night running,” she said. “When the dawn breaks and you hear birds and the new day sounds, it was just really fun to experience with my grandson.”

According to Chris, it takes two things to be a champion, talent and motivation, and Gunhild has both. “Skill of course resides in your physical self–bones and heart and, in her case, surplus blood-circulation paths in her legs,” he said. “Motivation resides in your soul, and mom’s soul is filled with her memories of Jack and her friendships. If you could graph skill versus motivation versus age, she’s somehow topping out the further we go along in life.”

While learning about Gunhild and looking over her impressive running history, I had no doubt she would be a perfect candidate for WeRunFar. Gunhild, though, was not so sure. “When I looked at the famous runners on the site, I thought, ‘I am not in that league!’” she told me.

Gunhild, we all disagree. We’ll all be watching with joy for your 261st race, as well as your attempt at establishing the 70-plus female record at next year’s Western States 100.

Jessica Campbell
Jessica Campbell began her iRunFar career as an intern. A former 'swammer,' Jessica turned her passion of endurance sports to marathon and ultrarunning. She lives on the shores of Lake Michigan and works as a journalist for a small-town Indiana newspaper.