Ultra hard, ultra long
THE finish line is close. It’s 30 miles away, but 30 miles isn’t far when you’ve already run 70.
Jorge Pacheco’s arms pump in rhythm with his legs. His feet don’t disturb the ground. They barely leave footprints in the snow; they hardly disturb dust on the trail or rearrange the fallen leaves.
It is a gift, Pacheco says, this ability to run forever.
Today forever is 100 miles up and down the Sierra in the Western States Endurance Run, a punishing footrace from Squaw Valley west of Lake Tahoe to Auburn in the Gold Country.
Pacheco has dodged waterfalls and granite cliffs and stared at snowcapped peaks. He’s climbed the switchbacks up Devil’s Thumb, danced across the lava scree in Volcano Canyon and sped past a flyspeck town called Foresthill, at mile 62, where some say the race starts in earnest.
The Endurance Run barely qualifies as a race. It’s an ordeal that weaves the country’s fittest runners through a mountainous landscape where they are forced to rely as much on their wits as on their feet. No matter how many miles they’ve logged on pavement or hiking trails, nothing can prepare them mentally or physically for these 100 miles of hell, as many competitors call it. It’s a route most people would take days and 40 pounds of gear to navigate.
With 30 miles to go, Pacheco motors downhill toward the rapids of the American River, cutting in and out of canyons in thick woods. At the bottom, mile 78, the river’s so gorged from snowmelt that volunteers ferry runners across in a raft. It’s starting to get dark.
Runners must complete the course within 30 hours. Some get lost, some get hurt, but all eventually shake off the fear of dashing through mountains in little more than a singlet and shorts for their quest to finish and know that they have conquered one of the most demanding mountain ranges in the West.
Pacheco has been at it since 5 a.m., and for the most part he’s been alone. But there’s one runner out there ahead who’s setting the pace.
Scott Jurek, a lanky, long-haired 31-year-old vegan from Seattle, has won this race six straight times. Pacheco finished second to Jurek two years ago. This year he’s certain it’s going to be different, and maybe, just maybe, a machinist from East L.A. can steal a victory.
But first there’s a rushing river to cross, a little more than 25 miles of forests and darkness ahead.
Tension riffled the air long before the shotgun blast announced the start of the 32nd running of the race. The starting line, set beneath the Olympic Rings at Squaw Valley, was lighted by floodlights that scoured the ski slopes and blinded Pacheco, Jurek and the other 398 runners who took off into the predawn darkness.
The run, an offshoot of an equestrian endurance event, the Western States Trail Ride or Tevis Cup, began in 1974 when an iconoclastic mountain man -- hair past his shoulders and a beard that tickled his chest -- had his horse pull up lame moments before the 100-mile trail ride began. On the spur of the moment, Gordy Ainsleigh decided to compete on foot. Many observers thought he had lost his mind, but the rail-thin 27-year-old finished the course in less than 24 hours -- the same time limit given to horses and riders -- and proudly accepted the silver belt buckle awarded to the riders.
Today there are nearly 50 organized 100-mile trail races worldwide and dozens more ultra-distance runs that have all sprung from a family tree whose trunk is crazy Gordy. And 31 years later, Ainsleigh is still a beloved presence at the race.
On the day before the race’s start, Ainsleigh, now a chiropractor in the Auburn area, set up a table on the lawn near the Squaw Valley tram. A long line of runners waited for their turn. Joints cracked, and there was a lot of moaning and groaning. Pacheco watched for a moment, then whispered, “I don’t think I’d want to do that right now.”
The first mile was lighted and crowded, but the runners quickly spaced out, climbing four steep miles to the top of Emigrant Pass at 8,750 feet. Once at the summit, they looked over their shoulders and saw in the early light Lake Tahoe, blue and dark, cupped by the mountains.
Fifteen hours earlier, they had gathered in lawn chairs, on blankets or leaned against trees to listen to a pep talk from race director Greg Soderlund and meet the top runners.
When Jurek was introduced to the crowd, there was polite applause as he stepped forward. But when Pacheco’s name was called, there were cheers, whistles and a shout, “Go, Jorge.” Pacheco, 37, bowed his head modestly.
Pacheco typically runs about 130 miles a week, driving 120 miles on weekends just to train on the top of mountains. He works as a machinist in a garment factory in Los Angeles, and between work and training, Jorge and his wife, Maria, don’t have time for much else. They live in a modest home near USC cluttered with worn-out running shoes and trophies. Maria, a nanny, runs too -- they met at a race in Palos Verdes in 1998 -- but she says her running isn’t a gift. It’s more of an effort.
The people at the factory where Pacheco works know he does something athletic but don’t really comprehend what it means to run 100 miles, let alone win the Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Race and the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville, Texas.
Before the race, Pacheco and Maria joined other runners and participants for a meal. He ordered an enchilada, a gooey mess of meat and cheese and sour cream that he cut into with dainty gentleness. It disappeared in minutes. He was looking forward to the Kentucky fried chicken he’d be having in another hour or so, just before going to bed.
Growing up in Mexico, Pacheco learned to love running at an early age. He entered whatever races he could. A 5K, a 10K, that was great. A marathon, even better. About 15 years ago, he came to Los Angeles. Then one day a friend invited him for a 50-mile run in the mountains.
“I liked it,” he remembers. “I loved it.”
Pacheco conserves words, running thoughts through his mind before he speaks, culling into a single sentence the essence of his pastime, some would say his obsession. Yet the man who so carefully measures his words confides in his wife: “Mari, I want to win,” he says. “Mari, I know I can beat Scott.”
A mile from the summit, high above Lake Tahoe, runners hit the cold, west-facing slopes in the Granite Chief Wilderness. Where there was no snow, there was water and mud; where there was snow -- a hard, frozen pack -- there was slipping, sliding, falling.
At one point, Jurek lost his footing and slid so fast that Pacheco instinctively reached out and grabbed him to keep him from careening into a tree or boulders. It’s a gesture that’s typical of Pacheco, always helping someone else, even a rival.
The first aid station was at Lyon Ridge. Beyond that was Cougar Rock, a steep ascent onto one of the picturesque spots in the Sierra. This is the spine of the mountains, right at tree line. To the left is the Desolation Wilderness and to the right are the Sierra Buttes and Tinker’s Knob in the distance.
As he ran, Pacheco was grateful for the cooler temperatures. About a quarter into the race, he felt strong. Top French runner Vincent Delebarre was about 10 minutes ahead of him, but Pacheco wasn’t worried; he knew he could catch him.
Robinson Flat was the first major medical checkpoint where runners were weighed and probed. Anyone who was dehydrated or not making sense was asked to sit awhile and be evaluated before being allowed to continue. Volunteers doled out turkey sandwiches, cookies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watermelon to be dipped in salt.
Roughly 1,300 volunteers were spread out along the course, staffing medical way stations where they treated blistered feet, handed out food and drink and gave encouragement. For the first time, this year runners wore electronic chips around their ankles that tracked them through the wilderness; anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection could follow a runner’s progress on the race’s website.
Coming out of Robinson Flat, Pacheco took a wrong turn, costing him valuable time. Runners follow a course marked by series of yellow ribbons that give way to glow sticks when darkness hits, but sometimes, given exhaustion and disorientation, wrong turns are inevitable.
He was discouraged and slightly mad at himself. The trail ahead was nothing but mud and water, then a mile climb in the snow up the backside of Little Bald Mountain. He matched his stride with the runners ahead of him who had punched foot holes in the snowpack. At the aid station, he found Maria -- it’s her habit to meet him at certain stops -- and he felt encouraged again.
Two years ago, the Duncan fire ripped through this area, altering the original race course. The runners ran above the partially scorched terrain, before heading straight down Cavanaugh Ridge, a quad-busting descent along a minefield of small rocks, scree and tree roots that goes on and on for a couple miles.
For Pacheco, the trail ahead improved; the footing was good, a chance to make up for lost time. Landmarks passed in a blur: Pucker Point, the Sierra Highlands, a bridge over the American River, Devil’s Thumb and the century-old gravestones at Deadwood Cemetery.
Jurek was 18 minutes ahead but not looking good. Delebarre was five minutes ahead and moving slowly. Pacheco stayed on pace to catch Delebarre. The runners were closing in on 56 miles and the 1,800-foot climb to the Michigan Bluff aid station, a small community just hanging onto the mountains.
Racing daylight, the runners tore through Volcano Canyon, the red, fine pumice quickly discoloring their shoes. They flew past Foresthill where a running club, the Silver State Striders from Reno, greeted runners in hula skirts. Here, some runners picked up companions, who would accompany them for the remainder of the race. As night started to fall, everybody was thinking the same thing: Don’t get lost. Stay on the trail. Keep it together.
By mile 70, Jurek was a mere 12 minutes away -- well within striking distance for Pacheco. But that’s when it all started to unravel.
When will it end?
The finish line is close, 30 miles. As Pacheco approaches the Peachstone checkpoint, he wishes he had the hot, homemade soup that Maria brings him. It’s a critical part of their routine. But she isn’t allowed on this section of trail, so he grabs soup from a volunteer. It’s tepid, and almost immediately he starts feeling nauseated.
As he tries to push ahead, the course closes in upon him. Ahead lies Ford’s Bar and beyond, the crossing at the American River, a place called Rucky Chucky. It’s an easy, eight-mile route down a ridgeline to the river through deep, sandy soil that opens onto a fire road. But with each step, Pacheco feels worse.
Just before he reaches the rapids, he collapses on a bench, nauseated and unable to even walk. For Jorge Pacheco, the Western States Endurance Run is about to end.
Maria waits at the Green Gate aid station on the other side of river. She doesn’t know what’s happening; she keeps waiting for her husband to cross. Standing beside her is Jurek’s wife, Leah, who turns to her. “I think it will be close,” she says. “I think Scott and Jorge will be racing to the finish.”
But Maria senses something’s wrong. A minute, two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes pass and Jorge doesn’t arrive. She asks runners whether they’ve seen him. None has.
She searches out a race official. Frantic, she receives permission to run back on the course to find her husband. She is ferried across the river and sees him laid out on a picnic bench.
“It’s OK, you’re only 10 minutes behind still. You can catch Scott,” she says, helping him to his feet. But he can’t stop vomiting.
She tries to help him walk, to finish, to at least complete the run he once thought he could win. But at mile 80, it’s over. A race official takes his wrist and cuts off his ID band.
“All the hard work, all the hopes, mostly of people that believed in me,” he pauses, “this is what really hurts most.”
A few hours later, Jurek takes the final turn on the track at Placer High School in Auburn to win his seventh straight Western States Endurance Run in 16 hours, 40 minutes and 45 seconds. Of the 400 who started, 318 finished -- the highest percentage ever.
But Jorge Pacheco was not one of them. Sunday morning, he cried. Because he had only run 80 miles.
Times staff writer John Stewart contributed to this report. Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com.