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Hot on the Trail

July 25, 1994
July 25, 1994

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July 25, 1994

Running
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SI 40th Anniversary
Reporter At Large
Point After

Hot on the Trail

Ann Trason is among ultramarathon's top competitors, male or female

It seemed an odd time for Tim Twietmeyer to have a woman on his mind. But there he was, seven miles from the finish of a hellish 100-mile trek through the Sierra Nevada, asking, "Where is she?"

This is an article from the July 25, 1994 issue

As he loped into the Highway 49 checkpoint at mile marker 93 of the Western States Endurance Run at about 9 p.m. on June 25, Twietmeyer was running well and running scared. Having started, along with 381 other kindred lunatics, at 5 o'clock that morning, Twietmeyer had taken the lead after the 62-mile mark. A software engineer from Auburn, Calif., he had spent the next 30 miles alternately looking ahead—for rattlers, cougars and bears, all of which have surprised runners on race day—and over his shoulder. Between gulps of water Twietmeyer inquired again, "How close is she?"

His concern was well-founded. Lurking somewhere on the trail behind him was Ann Trason, a gutsy divining rod of a woman who six weeks earlier had won the Silver State 50 in Nevada over 107 other runners. When the 5'4", 105-pound Trason crossed the tape there, she was literally foaming at the mouth. In addition to holding six women's ultramarathon world records, Trason, 33, has won five races outright, including the '89 TAC 24-hour national championship. While other women have won mixed ultramarathon national titles, none have had Trason's success. When she is at her best, ultramarathon's gender gap becomes the distance between her and the men eating her dust.

In the Western States she had no such bold kick. Twietmeyer, 35, crossed the finish line at the Placer High football stadium in Auburn in 16:51:01. Striding in strongly in 17:37:51, Trason lopped 38 minutes from her own course record to finish 3½ hours ahead of the next-fastest woman and second overall. It was Trason's sixth straight year as the Western States' top female finisher, inducing Earl Towner, who had tried to stay with her only to drop out at the 62-mile mark, to say, "That chick is bionic!"

Several serious injuries have proved otherwise. After a sensational scholastic track career in Pacific Grove, Calif., Trason blew out a knee as a freshman at the University of New Mexico and did not compete in college. She had already begun to tire of the sport, anyway. "Times were sooooo important," she says.

After transferring to Cal and graduating in 1983 with a degree in biochemistry, she tried bicycling but got hit from behind by a car and injured her right elbow. In 1985 she read about a race in Sacramento called the American River 50 and asked a salesman in an athletic-shoe store what to expect. Be ready to do a lot of walking, he told her.

In retrospect Trason sees the point he was making; she had no ultra experience and only six weeks to train. Still, she was insulted and entered the race with a chip on her shoulder and, fortunately, a water bottle; some kind soul handed her one in the race's early stages. A good thing, too, because the temperature on the course that day reached 100°. Astonishingly, Trason won. "Afterward, everyone was walking around smiling," she says, recalling the feeling of camaraderie and goodwill among the racers at the finish. "I was like, Why are these people so happy?"

Along with an uncanny pain threshold, Trason harbors a wide contrary streak: Despite entreaties from her friends, she refused to enter another ultra for two years. In 1987 she ran the first 50 miles of the Western States, her first 100-mile race, before a bum knee forced her out. In those 50 miles she had an epiphany. She fell in love with the Western States trail. "I consider ultra pure sport," she says. "It's you against the trail."

Blazed first by Paiute and Washoe Indians, then by gold miners, the Western States trail is a supremely worthy opponent. Plenty of racers leave their breakfast along the first 4.7 miles of the course, from Squaw Valley at 6,200 feet to Emigrant Pass at 8,700 feet. At mile 78, runners must ford the wide, frigid and waist-deep Rucky-Chucky rapids. These ordeals bookend the trail's trademark open-air torture chambers—a series of heat-trapping, brain-baking canyons that begin at the 40-mile mark. In 1986, when ABC had the television rights to the race, reporter Jimmy Cefalo decided he would run from the floor of Deadwood Canyon to Devils Thumb, a near-vertical climb of 1,700 feet crammed into 1.8 miles. On the air Cefalo gasped, "The only word to describe what I just did: gruesome."

"He'd run one sixtieth of the course, and it took him 45 minutes to catch his breath," recalls race director Norm Klein, tickled to this day by the memory.

The course is shot through with treacherous twists. This spring, Barbara Schoener, a 40-year-old mother of two and an avid ultramarathoner, was killed by a mountain lion during a recreational run on the trail. Some runners have been bitten by rattlesnakes, others airlifted to hospitals in states of renal shutdown and severe dehydration. Says Dr. Bob Lind, the race's medical adviser since its inception, "We've found that, over the course of the race, a 150-pound man will have to replace 50 pounds of fluids."

The weight of each runner is monitored at 11 of the race's 28 aid stations. Those who have lost more than 5% of their body weight are required to sit and drink fluids. Chicken soup is a favorite—"It's got lots of salt," says Lind. A 7% body-weight loss means you're out of the race. Of the 5,286 entrants to run the Western States, none has died as a result of participating in the race.

Bizarre climate swings are the norm. Last year's race featured snowdrifts at Emigrant Pass and temperatures in the canyons that reached 108°. The weather was cooler this year, but Trason started slowly. "For the first 40 miles I felt like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz," she said afterward. "I was tripping and kicking rocks."

At 40 miles she stopped kicking rocks and commenced kicking butt. Trason entered the canyons in ninth place and emerged from them, at mile 55, in third. Fifteen miles later she overtook Harry Johnson of Anchorage, who could not greet her, occupied as he was with vomiting on the side of the trail. "I told him to hang in there," said Trason, who was paced over the last 38 miles by her husband, Carl Andersen, 33, a banker and an ultramarathoner himself.

Many people have urged Trason—who lives in Kensington, Calif., and has worked as a lab technician, taught classes in microbiology at nearby Contra Costa College and plans to return to school for a degree in physical therapy—to enter marathons. Her personal best over 26.5 miles is a highly respectable 2:39, which she could lower substantially if she were to concentrate on that distance. "Ann could make a lot of money if she ran shorter races," says Helen Klein, who is Norm's wife and a close friend of Trason's. "But she just loves the trails."

The solidarity of these extremists was evident at 4:55 a.m. on race day, when Western States veteran Gordon Ainsleigh, 47, pulled out Shakespeare's Henry V and read to the assembled runners what is arguably the greatest pep talk in history, King Henry's oration to the troops before the battle of Agincourt. It was Ainsleigh who started this insanity back in 1974. Just before the annual Tevis Cup, a 100-mile horse race over what would become the Western States course, Ainsleigh's mount pulled up lame. Ainsleigh decided to run the course on foot. Drinking from streams and accepting food from strangers, he finished in less than 24 hours.

Twenty years later, there he was, reading Shakespeare in the predawn light. "We few, we happy few," read Ainsleigh, who would finish in 23:50:07. "We band of brothers."

The crowd cheered, the gun fired, and the throng began its ascent. Less than 18 hours later, all but one of the happy band of brothers had been bested by a sister.

PHOTODAVID MADISONTrason, who holds six women's ultramarathon world records, has won five events open to both sexes.TWO PHOTOSDAVID MADISONThe Western States run, in which Trason was the top woman finisher this year, poses myriad challenges.PHOTOBRAD MANGIN[See caption above.]