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Their Enemy Is Weakness : Runners in 100-Mile Race Seek to Overcome Pain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday, ultrarunner Tom Johnson and his father emerged from a hauntingly quiet moonlit forest to a place where nature meets civilization, a place where the Western States dirt trail merges with asphalt.

Johnson walked deliberately, taking long strides uphill, clutching a flashlight in his left hand, a water bottle in his right.

With his closest competitor a good 40 minutes back, Johnson now had one more mile to go--uphill through the streets of Auburn--to win the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run for the third time in four years.

This was the foregone conclusion to a race that had started at 5 a.m. in the snow-capped mountains of Squaw Valley.

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Now, with 99 miles of the world’s toughest ultramarathon completed--99 miles of Sierra Nevada outback in his wake--Johnson continued walking, trashed legs, fatigued body and soaked shirt notwithstanding.

His spirit was tight, like a fist.

Johnson reached Robie Point, where a group of about 30 had been waiting, including two friends, members of his crew.

“This is my crew, my pacers, and my father,” Johnson told an observer as his entourage started the winding, uphill trek to the finish line at Placer High School.

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“This is the final mile, which, oh, on one hand you want it to be over with, but on the other hand, this is the part you can savor,” Johnson said.

Quipped his father, Marv: “He’s looking forward to the show at the end.”

A few minutes later, Johnson, now speedwalking, was joined by his fiancee, and two more friends.

Soon, as if on cue, the pace quickened, and suddenly, everyone was running unbelievably fast, trailing behind Johnson in a crude flying-V.

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With the streets of Auburn moving rapidly under their feet, with families sitting in their front yards clapping, the group continued, adding would-be runners as it rolled on. The mood was light.

“Hey, Tom,” a friend yelled. “We’re not doing this again until you finish in the daytime!”

Joked another: “This is like being a kid in the Bay Area, when we’d go egg houses or toilet paper houses, then you’ve got to leave the area.”

With about a half-mile to go, Johnson, an engineer who lives in nearby Loomis, showed exactly where his mind was.

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“Today, you guys were awesome as usual,” he told his crew. “There’s nothing like it, having the best crew there.”

Soon, they turned the corner onto Marvin Street, where the honking cars, the whistles, the cheering, became increasingly loud. Fifty yards away was Placer High’s LeFebvre Stadium.

“Ladies and gentleman, Tom Johnson,” a friend yelled.

Johnson turned onto Stadium Way, sprinted to the front of the pack, tore through the gates and surged onto the track. A crowd of about 1,500 stood and cheered.

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Finally, 17 hours 8 minutes 34 seconds after starting, Johnson crossed the finish line, stopping abruptly amid a wall of spectators.

He was hugged by race director Norman Klein, one of many staffers who hadn’t slept well all weekend.

Klein looped a medallion around Johnson’s neck, then hugged him again.

Johnson, 34, fought his way through the crowd, and sat down in a plastic chair.

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He grabbed a bottle of juice and looked up to see that he was surrounded by a wall of the curious three deep, among them Robert Lind, the race’s lead physician.

Lind, with a video camera cupped on his shoulder, played TV reporter, peppering Johnson with questions before the real news media took over minutes later.

Some kids joined in, politely asking Johnson how he felt.

He was surrounded for about 15 minutes.

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Was this the price of fame?

Or was this “the show at the end” his father had joked about?

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It goes without saying that every runner in the Western States race owes something to Gordy Ainsleigh, who pioneered the race in 1974.

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Ainsleigh had always been the reluctant adventurer, the indecisive mountain man, the timid athlete--all that. Until Aug. 4, 1974.

One day changed everything. The day he became the first person to run the Western States trail.

That he would set out, alone, to run a 100-mile trail--a horse trail--was somewhat of a personal upset, an abrupt change in character.

That he would actually finish, in slightly less than 24 hours, was unheard of in running circles, an improbable event that brought Ainsleigh sudden publicity.

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“I beat all the competition,” joked Ainsleigh, a bearded 47-year-old with thick forearms and a vise-like grip.

Using the race as a catalyst, he also confronted his fear of failure--or whatever it was keeping him from his goals.

“It was a real turning point in my life,” said Ainsleigh, who up until then had chopped wood for a living. “It occurred to me that maybe there were a whole bunch of other things . . . I thought I couldn’t do.”

With a clear vision and a new ambition, he became, among other things, a chiropractor, a second-degree black belt in karate and an elite-level rock climber.

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“I’ve done all these things that, in my youth, I thought, ‘That’s what these other kinds of people did,’ ” Ainsleigh said, a day before completing his ninth Western States race in 29 hours 34 seconds. “It was really a breakthrough.”

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The semanticists say that ultramarathons are the “prolonged management of discomfort.”

Translated, that means that the Western States trail is brutally indiscriminate when dispensing pain.

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One sees how indiscriminate at so-called Blister City--the last few miles of the race--which features dime-sized blisters and four D’s: discomfort, disorientation, dehydration and dizziness.

“You’ll be amazed at the amount of injuries these people have, and they finish the race,” said Lind, who has volunteered medical assistance at all 17 Western States races.

“This develops a strength of character like nothing else I’ve ever seen,” Ainsleigh said. “This is the Olympics of 100-mile runs.”

Western States is, by all accounts, the most difficult 100-mile race in the world, from its start in Squaw Valley through its rugged terrain, rivers, canyons and winding trails, to its finish in the 80-degree temperatures in Auburn. (The high in Auburn on Saturday was 104.)

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The intense conditions can shrivel even the most experienced runners and send the uninitiated to the hospital.

To preserve their sanity in the face of adversity, ultrarunners often resort to humor.

From the first unofficial race, when Ainsleigh performed a front flip at the finish line, ultrarunners have shown that they are a different breed, markedly different from those who run a mere 6.2 miles.

“People who run 10Ks are the kind of people who can put their thumb on a table, hit it real hard, and that’s the end of it,” ultrarunning legend Doug Latimer once said. “Ultra(runners) are the type who’ll put their thumbs in a vise, squeeze real tight and leave it there for 24 hours.”

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To be sure, some of them are masochists; others inhabit the lunatic fringe. Ken (Cowman) Shirk prepared for one race by running naked through Tahoe City. He sometimes wears devil’s horns during races.

“The camaraderie is great among us,” said Clark, a friend of Shirk’s. “This is a way of life to most of us. We’ve been doing it all our lives. We could (not) care less if we get a Cougar trophy at the end or a buckle.”

The top male and female winners earn a bronze trophy; those who finish in less than 30 hours receive a belt buckle.

“Buckling,” as it’s called, is a great reward for most runners. It seems that here, winning isn’t everything, or the only thing.

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That credo was perhaps best illustrated in 1981, when Latimer and Jim Howard found themselves fighting for the lead throughout the race.

When they made it to the Placer High track, neither runner surged ahead. They decided to tie.


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