WeRunFar Profile: Gunhild Swanson

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.

Gunhild Swanson photo 7

“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.”

Gunhild Swanson and Jack photo 5

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.

Gunhild Swanson photo 1

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.

Gunhild Swanson photo 8

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.

Gunhild Swanson photo 2

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.”

Gunhild Swanson photo 10

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?’”

Gunhild Swanson photo 6

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.

WeRunfar Profile: Houston Laws

Alaska. Stereotypically, it is the state where the sun is either always up or always down, and a comfortable temperature is anything above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Realistically, it is the state with gorgeous, diverse scenery and active, down-to-earth people. It is a micro-climate state where temperatures can rise or fall by 30 degrees within a one- to two-hour drive. The many regions vary in terrain, offering treks over the plains in one and hikes into one of the state’s 39 mountain ranges in another. It is the state where warnings of bear sightings outnumber the highways’ speed-limit signs.

In one year, Houston Laws, experienced all of it. From February to August of 2014, the 29-year-old ultrarunner completed what he calls the Alaska Slam, made up of four 100 milers all within differing climates and terrain in Alaska. And, as a bonus to his year, Houston added one more 110-mile ultra, for good measure.

Houston Laws - feature photo

Houston calls himself an Alaskan, having moved to the southeast city of Ketchikan as a young child, after being born in Tennessee. His father, he said, moved for the fishing and to become his own boss, but mostly because he wanted to live the Alaskan dream. Now, Houston lives that dream, too.

Houston Laws - Alaskan landscape 1

After attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study fire science, Houston decided to relocate to the city of Juneau. There, he switched careers, becoming a psych tech for the local hospital, which led him to work more closely with people, something he enjoys. Over the years, Houston dabbled in a few races such as The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in California in 2010, and a 13-mile race up Mount Fuji in Japan called the Fuji Mountain Race in 2011.

Houston Laws - Fuji Mountain Race 2

Yet, it was in Juneau where his love of ultrarunning emerged.

“The terrain was motivating,” he said. “Even in less-desirable weather, there is still beauty.”

This month in Juneau, the daily temperatures are beginning to fall and the sun’s presence is decreasing. Light snow and rain scatter over the trails as the cloudy, overcast sky clashes against the peak of Mount Juneau.

“What’s beyond that mountain peak? What’s beyond that bend?” The many possible answers to those endless questions have molded Houston into the ultrarunner he is now: always encouraged to go a little bit further.

A family friend introduced him to his first ultra distance, the Mt. Hood 50 Mile, in Oregon in 2009. Four years later, Houston threw his name in the lottery draw of the White Mountains 100 Mile in Fairbanks, not really believing his name would be picked. The race only permits 65 participants, which includes cyclists, skiers, and runners.

“I was lucky out of so many people not chosen,” he said, deciding to just go out and try it, walking if needed. Instead, he finished as the second foot participant. “I had the immediate feeling of, ‘I need to do this again,’” he said. He had no regrets, despite dealing with the onslaught of nausea and delusions at mile 60. “I crossed the line and said, ‘I need to do this again, and I need to do it better.’”

Houston Laws - family 3

When January of 2014 came around, he was spurred on by his own determination. Add to that a running buddy’s proposal to complete all four of the Alaska 100 milers. The seed was planted, Houston said.

The next month he started the Alaska Slam: the Susitna 100 Mile, the White Mountains 100, the Sluice Box 100 Mile, and the Resurrection Pass 100 Mile. It was a year of more than just running. It was a year of new, unique adventures, each one requiring its own training, prepping, recovering, and battling through the diverse conditions that Alaska offers.

Susitna 100
Houston’s first 100 of the year started February 15. The race takes place in Anchorage and sidelines Flathorn Lake, Cow Lake, and the Susitna River. Being in winter, the difficulty of trekking 100 miles is amplified by the amount of ice, and safety precautions each runner has to adhere to.

In the winter, the Alaskan terrain accumulates an overflow of underground water, which causes bubbles to form over a thin layer of ice and snow. “It is like running on cereal,” Houston explains. “It crumbles underneath.” Often, the surface layer cracks, causing runners to sink three inches down into the freezing water. Sidestepping off the snow-packed trails, trying to avoid these overflow sections, only causes more trouble, as runners might sink deeper into unconsolidated snow, up to the knee or hip. Trekking through the overflow is often the best bet, Houston advises, and then drying off immediately afterward. Dealing with wet feet is inevitable in Alaskan running.

This year, though the overflow water was cold, the air temperature were not, according to the Alaskan natural. During the race, it was a “warm,” above-zero temperature, usually around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This comfortable temperature, as Houston calls it, allowed him to run in only a light layer and jacket for most of the race.

In Alaskan winter racing, preparing for the race can seem more strenuous than actually running it. The race requires a list of equipment needed to run the race safely, and to even toe the start line.

“There is a safety meeting before the race you have to go to,” he said. “They inspect the bags to make sure you have everything. If you don’t, they wont let you in.”

Houston Laws - Susitna 100 4

The required list includes a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tent, 2,000 extra calories (that cannot be touched until the last aid station), two 64-ounce water bottles, a shelter blanket, clothes, and more suggestions for a successful trip. Other recommended gear includes more food, clothes, a map, and other equipment that would be helpful in case of emergencies. All of this is strapped onto a sled, which is dragged behind each runner. Overall, the runner must start and finish the race with at least 15 pounds of gear, not including the sled.

“The whole race is dragging that sled,” Houston said. “You can feel it going up every hill and bumping behind you going down.”

He, with the side-kick sled at his side (er, back), finished in fourth place in 26 hours and 49 minutes.

White Mountains 100
The second race was colder. In the Fairbanks area, the race took place on March 30, yet the later date did not affect the weather for the better. Instead, the temperatures dropped down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit at night, with blowing snow and strong winds.

“Mile 80 was the coldest,” Houston remembered, specifically around four in the morning.

Ice crystals were forming on the corners of his shoes where he had sweat earlier in the day. “You can tell how much you’re sweating by how many crystals form.”

Houston Laws - White Mountains 100 5

According to Houston, these temperatures are the normal for winter, where the average temperature is below zero for most of the state. Schools officially close at -40 degrees and metal can “burn the hell out of you,” he added.

The race only allows 65 participants, and the field is composed of bikers, runners, and skiers. The number of athletes within each category is determined by the percentage of registrants. With only four aid stations, Houston usually did not see a soul during the 20-mile stretches, which lasted up to five hours when the snow was bad. But, thanks to the bikers and skiers ahead of him, he had a nice, car-wide path to follow.

These stretches also forced Houston to run with most of his nutrition. Personally, Houston likes to think of his fuel in long-term and short-term needs. For longer races, he sticks to just three or four GUs and solid food, and short-term, usually just electrolytes. In 100 milers, he turns to energy bars, many of them. This year the majority of calories came from Mule Bars. So many, in fact, that he is now sick of the taste of them. He also preferred Clif Bars and PROBARS for the calories, and Snickers, of course, were a good pick-me-up, he said, and cheaper, too.

“My favorite food is sweet potatoes,” he added. “They are a good heat source, too.” Besides being flavorful, they also helped keep his water from freezing when the boiling hot potato wrapped in tin foil was placed next to it.

Being the second time Houston has finished this course, he said he was definitely more prepared. After finishing in 22 hours and 50th among the bikers, skiers, and runners, he had about three months before his third race.

Sluice Box 100
The next race was June 28, and as his first summer 100, so Houston had to completely adjust his running and mindset.

“It was a huge learning curve,” he said of the race. The race is known as one of the toughest ultras in Alaska, being in the midst of June, point-to-point, and comprised of 10 different course segments connected together.

Because of the 80-degree temperatures and difficult-to-follow course, 12 of the 18 runners dropped from the race, and Houston almost made 13. It is deemed as the closest thing to a wilderness race, “without actually being wild,” by its race website. The race tests the runners with lingering snow and ice, overhanging trees, just one highway crossing, and weather-beaten trails. The site warns of the possibility of getting lost, but that is all part of the fun it.

Houston may disagree. Overestimating calories, Houston suffered digestive issues and heat cramps about halfway through the race. And, he missed a flag somewhere along the course.

“At mile 70, I came to an aid station and they (volunteers) said I came out on the road, instead of the trail,” he said. He was told quickly that he would not be disqualified, but would have to go back and recover the seven miles he had skipped. The volunteers offered to drive him back to his rightful mile, yet it took some time to get his mind back there, too.

“It was a terrible choice to have,” he said. “I sat there for 40 minutes eating ramen noodles, contemplating not quitting.” His goal of four 100s and stubborn determination forced him out of the lawn chair and back onto the trail. “I knew I was going to have one race that was not going to go my way,” he said. “I wanted to finish the course that everyone else did.”

Houston completed all 100 miles, coming in fifth out of the six finishers in 32 hours. Not a fan of the heat, Houston said temperatures in the summer can rise as high as 80 degrees, yet still drop as low as 15 at night. But ask most people in the state, and they would agree that the best part of Alaska is the long summer days. Throughout June, the sun is above the horizon for 18 to 24 hours, depending on the part of the state.

Houston Laws - Sluice Box 100 6

Resurrection Pass Ultra Trail Races
Six weeks later, on August 8, the last Alaska Slam ultra began. It was run on the Kenai Peninsula in Hope. According to Houston, the remote singletrack wound through the Kenai Mountains. He would go miles without seeing anyone, yet was always on the lookout for bears and moose, which as stated on the race website, have the right of way. The race travels through a high-risk area for bears, prompting runners to carry bear repellant and bells.

Houston Laws - Resurrection Pass 100 7

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides information on wildlife safety. The site also lists wildlife found in Alaska to look out for such as foxes, owls, and Arctic hares.

At night, wildlife knowledge came in handy during the race, Houston recalls. Around 3 a.m., he came upon two animal eyes. Thinking it was a bear, he tried everything to scare it away, yelling and blinding it with his headlamp. Yet the creature stayed put.

“I was weighing the pros and cons,” he said, after several minutes of starring at each other. “It was a smaller animal and I was losing time.” He mustered up courage and began to walk toward it, finally shooing the animal away.

“It was a smaller than me, I believe,” he said. “All that matters in the animal kingdom is that you’re bigger.”

For the low-key race, Houston had to carry everything he needed in a Mountain Hardwear backpack. The semi-self-supported race only supplies a few volunteers, who were camped out at the two aid stations, one at mile 42 and the other at mile 70. There were also only two drop-bag stations. Houston’s race plan accommodated the minimal support.

The local streams provided water sources for the runner, and after learning from the last race, Houston backed off of calories, keeping his stomach and pack light throughout the 100. Being another summer race, the temperatures ranged from the 30’s to the 70’s. In the past, the runners have trekked through wind, rain, sun, and clouds, but this year’s race delivered great weather conditions. He completed the race with a personal-best time of 21 hours and 47 minutes, coming in second place.

The Klondike Relay
Between each 100, Houston focused on proper recovery, physically and mentally. Thinking about eating, sleeping, and his job during the day, he focused on training and prepping for the next race, like practicing with the sled, and getting heat acclimated for the summer 100s. After the Alaska Slam, he thought he was ready to be done, letting his body and mind finally take a much-needed break.

Well, things change.

Klondike Relay - Houston Laws - Klas Stolpe 9

Four weeks later, Houston was called up by Klas Stolpe, 54, to join him in the Klondike Trail of ’98 International Road Relay. Usually run in 10-person teams, Stolpe wanted to run the 110-mile relay as an individual in honor of Alaskan mountain runner Glenn Frick, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 75. Stolpe, the sports editor of the Juneau Empire newspaper, says he prefers to write about sports and sportsters, like Houston and his Alaska Slam, rather than actually competing in events himself. Since he knew about Houston’s experience and had run with him in the past, Stolpe knew he was the best person to accommodate him on the tribute ultra.

“Since I had run a lot with Houston, I signed him up, without telling him first, and then asked him,” he admitted. “I told Houston I would pay all expenses if he made sure I got through the run. And who better to ask than someone that had just completed the Alaska Slam, four 100-mile races in a year?”

Though a little hesitant due to the short recovery time, Houston knew this opportunity was too good to pass up. It was the chance to help someone else complete his first 100, he said.

Despite having the experience of four 100s embedded into his mind, running this race was completely different, Houston said.

“I was constantly aware of the responsibility on my shoulders,” he said. He kept all attention on his runner, asking what he needed and how he was feeling. He even recited the monologue of the movie Dumb and Dumber at one point, Stolpe said.

The two journeyed from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon, running alone through some sections and through others where hordes of fans lined the streets cheering. “It was amazing how much support we received from other competitors who were in the relay portions,” Stolpe said. “We received a lot more attention than we expected. The crowd would not let us leave the finish area. We were overwhelmed with folks wanting photos and congratulations.”

Solo yet still supported describes running in Alaska. The two opposites are embraced by the vast, diverse state. There are the secluded trails where runners don’t see anything but the land and footprints. In other areas, the community opens up toward runners and races, welcoming each other and the outside world into its homes.

“The community makes the races and the runners,” Houston said. “Runners talk about the trails we run on and then make them into a race. We want to share them.”

Alaska Slam finishers - Sarah Duffy - Houston Laws - Laura McDonough 8

Alaska. Mountains, bears, and freezing-cold socks: it is not as intimidating as it sounds. “You just have to ease yourself into it,” Houston advises. “Have plenty of endurance and build up.”

To run in Alaska, you have to prepare for the unfamiliar factors, just like Houston does when he runs outside of his northern land. For his work, Houston accompanies patients traveling among hospitals for treatment. At the time of this interview, he was in Columbus, Ohio on a beautiful, fall day. “I love the colors,” he told me on the phone, before leaving to go for a short run. “We don’t have a lot of [leaf] change in Alaska.”

Change is something Houston is not quite ready for yet. One day, he hopes that the big-name ultras like Western States and Hardrock will show up on his UltraSignup resume. Until then, the Alaskan will remain in his serene and chilly home state.

“I love my winter runs,” he said. “I want to do better and perfect my Alaska 100s first.”

Houston Laws - dogs

Hundreds in the Heartland

Since embarking upon my own short ultrarunning career, I’ll admit I’ve pined for the West, desiring to run in the mountains of Colorado and on the trails circling Lake Tahoe. For someone who has lived in a small, Indiana town all her life, I thought escaping the Midwest was the key to a more, well, diverse life. However, after running ultras and races throughout the MidwestMinnesota, Indiana, and OhioI have come to appreciate the uniqueness my backyard has to offer. Ultrarunners who call the Midwest their home already know this. The Midwest’s unique trails and the people who run them create a distinct trail running environment you don’t find anywhere else in the world.

Though I am still learning to appreciate them, there are many people who call the trails of the Midwest their only true home. For this article, I gathered up a group of Midwestern loyalists, including race directors of events such as the Indiana Trail 100 (IT100) and Ice Age Trail 50 Mile (IAT50). I spoke with veterans who have decades of running-bib accumulation and elites who have chosen to make a home in the area. I have acquired a general consensus of opinion about the Midwest ultrarunning scene: the Midwest is more than just rolling hills between the lakes.

Pre-Race Prep

Looking into the history of the Midwest ultra scene, you may be surprised at what you find. Despite their current residences, there are many Midwest-bred runners who are dominating ultra races throughout the country.

Zach Bitter, from Marinette, Wisconsin, was UltraRunning magazine’s winner of the 2013 Ultra Performance of the Year for his 100-mile American record/12-hour track world record run at the 2013 Desert Solstice Invitational. Cassie Scallon, born in Richmond, Wisconsin, won the 2014 Sean O’Brien 50 Mile. And we gladly remind people that Proctor, Minnesota is the birthplace of the legendary Scott Jurek, before he moved West and dominated the Western States 100 and other ultras.

The Midwest is also the birthplace of some of the nation’s first ultra races. In 1982, the IAT50 in Wisconsin was founded, making it one of the oldest ultras in the country. But it’s also a popular and competitive race, having been part of the 2014 Montrail Ultra Cup.

Jeff Mallach, a past participant, volunteer, and now IAT50 race director, said his registration process’s evolution reveals its increase in popularity. “When I took over the race five years ago, the race had never sold out in those 28 years. Three years ago, it sold out in 10 weeks, last year in 10 days, and this year in three hours.” According to Mallach, IAT50’s reputation and dedicated long-time runners have led to the race becoming a ‘bucket-list’ trail race. The draw comes from the competitive field and the speedy, beautiful trails of Kettle Moraine State Forest. The race receives a lot of interest from elites looking to break course records or qualify for other races in the case of this past year’s Montrail Ultra Cup, but it is also a favorite among veterans, some of whom have completed the race over 20 times, becoming part of the race’s 1,000-mile club.

Ice Age Trail 50 Mile 2014

The 32nd IAT50 was run this past May and it welcomed new and veteran runners. Kaci Licktieg, the 2014 Rocky Raccoon 100 second-place finisher, traveled the ground that established runners Ann Trason in 1993 and Pam Smith in 2001 have already conquered as she went on to win and set a new course record. Timothy Olson, who grew up in Wisconsin, ran the race in 2012 for the first time. He wrote in his personal blog, “The singletrack was a lot of fun to run. There was not really much climbing or descending which I am more used to, but there were enough roots and rocks to add some flavor and make it interesting as the miles went on.”

General Information

Due to the popularity of Ice Age, people also line up at other race starts in Kettle Moraine State Forest, including the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile and 100k, Glacial Trail 50 Mile and 50k, and The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile-Wisconsin. The creation of new races in just this one area represents how the needs of the rapidly growing ultra community are being met, as well as showing how the world of running is changing in general.

For Mike Pfefferkorn, the idea for Indiana’s first 100 miler sparked after a motivational and welcoming training run for his own first hundred, the Mohican Trail 100 (MO100) in Ohio. “We were so far behind the runners in Northeast Ohio and we had to do something to increase the talent level in our state of Indiana,” he said. With the help of others with similar thoughts and aspirations, the Indiana Trail 100 was born within the Chain O’ Lakes State Park near Albion, Indiana. In its second year in 2014, the race is part of the Midwest Grand Slam series, and has grown to accommodate 330 participants on its “lightning fast” six-loop course, according to Pfefferkorn. Filling the gap in Indiana ultras, the race was planned and designed to be an established race in the state for future years to come. We can also grant fat-ass events, and a general desire to share one’s daily hometown trails, with the creation of the many legitimate races we now have.

Residing in Crystal Lake, Illinois, Geoff Moffat is a race director for two fairly new races, the Frozen Gnome 50k/10k and Earth Day 50k/15 Mile. Run for the second year in January of 2014, the Frozen Gnome 50k evolved from a fat-ass event. “It is a small, organic race that was born out of our running group’s desire to share our trails with the community,” he said. The Earth Day 50k was created to introduce people to the trails, Moffat said.

This mentality can be seen among many of the new ultras popping up through the area, contrasting against the growing showier races, like The North Face Endurance Challenge runs.

“Curmudgeons sometimes look at ‘glitzy’ events like The North Face and grumble, ‘Back in the old days of ultrarunning you didn’t get all these frills,’” Mary Gorski said, mimicking some of the old timers with whom she runs. “It didn’t cost so much, it was off-beat, not so mainstream, but now…’” Gorski, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who has been competing in ultramarathons throughout the country for 20 years, said the glitz and mainstream feel has helped events draw more people to the sport of running. “I can be a curmudgeon, too, sometimes,” she said. “I like the fat-ass events, but I also like what some of the bigger events like The North Face have done. It’s fun to be among the elite, but if a person wants to just run or do other types of ultras, there are still plenty of venues.”

Mary Gorski

Course Description

Ozark Trail 100 1

But what exactly is ‘the Midwest trail,’ you ask? You’ve got dirt, trees, some roots, and rockstypical trail fashion throughout the country, right? Yet, ‘the Midwest trail’ embraces unique elements of the environment. One race, the MO100 in Loudonville, Ohio, takes place on 95% runnable trail through the canopy-enveloped, lush Mohican Memorial State Forest. According to the race , the challenging course, hosted in June, should have a place on every runner’s must-do list. Just be ready for some hot and humid running!

And in southern Indiana, the infamous, muddy, Dances With Dirt Gnaw Bone Relays, 50 mile, and 50k is another race to check off on the Midwest-ultras-to-run list. Run through Brown County State Park in Nashville, I can only rely on former participant comments to convince those interested that, yes, Indiana has elevation and, yes, we know how to throw a good after party. Other Dances with Dirt races take place at other times of the year in Baraboo, Wisconsin and Hell, Michigan (and Florida, too).

However, the lack of elites toeing the line of these Midwest races has not gone unnoticed. Some link a mistaken belief that the Midwest has nothing but flat, easy, runnable courses, and boring scenery to the shortage of elite racers.

David Riddle, the 2013 IAT50 winner and Midwest resident since 2010, said there is an absence of interest in the style of trails in the Midwest. “I enjoy the accomplishment of tagging a peak and the views that come along with the big climbs,” he said, “but I also can find a different kind of beauty in Midwest trails.”

Features of the Midwest may not call for trekking poles and gaiters worn around our trail shoes, but we do offer terrain that will require some pain, both physically and mentally. Loops are one of those things. Due to limitations of state-park locations, national forests, and land space in general, courses looped around six or more times to get in the 100-mile distance are common in the area. “There is a subtle attitude among even some of the sport’s biggest supporters that loop courses violate the very essence of trail running,” said Riddle, adding his preference of having the ability to fun fast rather than having to powerhike parts of the course. “I wouldn’t be a trail runner right now if it weren’t for loop courses.”

Indiana Trail 100 1

Travis Liles, co-director of the Mark Twain 100-Mile Endurance Run in Missouri, summed up the ambiance of Midwest ultrarunning perfectly: “We have trail running here, not mountain running.” Liles is a finisher of the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and Leadville Trail 100. He said with confidence that races in the Midwest, like those raced in the Mark Twain National Forest, includes technical features such as creek crossings and various dirt surfaces, from extremely rooted to very smooth. Winding singletrack sections promote a faster running speed, he added. And the continuous ups and downs, rather than steep mountains, force runners to constantly keep moving along the trails.

“Overall are our races harder? No,” he answered himself. “They just have their own little nuances, but to assume they are easy just because there are no 2,000-foot climbs would be a mistake.”

Ohio elite Connie Gardner also commented that people come to the Midwest to run races like MO100 or Burning River 100 (also in Ohio), adding to Liles’s flat-racing observations. The 15-year ultrarunner says you have to have a running strategy to help cope with the constant movement.

“You have to be smart,” added Gardner. “In a flat race, you have to put those breaks on yourself. When you have to run every single step on a flat course, it’s hard.”

Gardner also mentions the surprise addition of the heat and humidity by outside racers. In the summer, temperatures can rise to 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, in addition to humidity levels of 70 to 80 percent.

Indiana Trail 100 2

But on the other hand, the Midwest’s cold temperatures can be another ‘fun’ feature for winter races. Runners of 2011 December race, called The Huff 50k, in Albion, Indiana, ran on top of frozen trails in between the passages of treading through waist-deep water. And, as we all remember and are still trying to forget, the polar-vortex winter of 2014. Temperatures dropped to negative numbers, freezing the trails so much that Yaktrax and spikes didn’t stand a chance.

Now, most agree flying to France to run the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, rather than arriving at the Detroit, Michigan airport to run the Hallucination 100 of the Run Woodstock race series may be the more exotic choice. And we understand the specialness of being a part of the legendary “Western States club” versus arriving at the start at a newly founded race. Yet Pfefferkorn, with his two-year-old IT100, keeps a positive outlook for the Midwest and outside participation. “In terms of attracting runners outside of our region, you have to be successful from the inside out, meaning that the growth has to start locally first, then work its way out into other regions,” he said.

UltraRunning magazine’s 2013 Ultrarunner of the Year, Michele Yates, selected IT100’s inaugural race for her first attempt to break the women’s American 100-mile trail record. Due to unfavorable weather conditions, Yates was unable to achieve that goal, however she wrote on her personal blog, “Put this race on your race calendar for next year-under normal conditions IT100 would be a phenomenally fast course.”

As for the race, which takes place every April, Pfefferkorn says his attitude toward elites is, “If they show up, terrific. We hope they have a good time. If not, no worries!”

Post Race: What’s Next?

Whether it was the chicken or the eggthe birth of new races or the rise in runner participationthe Midwest ultra community is definitely growing in reputation and stature. We can claim that events such as the Midwest Grand Slam and the accumulation of trail running clubs throughout the area are helping the sport of ultrarunning grow almost as quickly as our cornstalks. Nevertheless, in comparison to the rest of the country, and with the ongoing transformations the sport is undertaking, how does the Midwest stack up?

Karen Erba, an Indiana-based runner, believes the Midwest is on the brink of much growth thanks to events like the Slam, new races, and veterans and running clubs introducing new people to the sport. Erba was an experienced marathoner before she became hooked on the idea of running 100 miles. She dove into the summer of 2012, signing up for and finishing four ultras. The following year, she completed the Midwest Grand Slam, tackling another five 100 milers that summer. “I think it’s an exciting time to be an ultrarunner in the Midwest,” she said. “We’re seeing a definite rise in the number of races and participation. A person could race as much as he or she likes and never need to leave the region!”

In Riddle’s opinion, the Midwest is slowly climbing to the level of the rest of the nation, but the lack of mountainous terrain will always be a hindrance to total equality. Instead, he believes the true test for the future of ultrarunning lies in the balance between the “speedsters” crushing 50ks and 50-mile course records, and races like the Tahoe 200-Mile Endurance Run, which had a successful inaugural production this year. “Finding that balance between encouraging robust competition and allowing those who want to participate for other reasons will be critical to the continued success of the sport, not just in the Midwest, but nationwide,” he said.

Also on the horizon, be it viewed from the mountaintop or a gravel road in Illinois, we are seeing bursts of popularity of stage races, six-hour, 12-hour, or 24-hour races, and even a few of those Forrest-Gump-style, ‘let’s see how far our bodies can go’ endeavors. There is always something new, and something that redefines the ‘ultra-endurance’ label.

All in all, the community of ultrarunning is going strong, as a whole nation and within our hometowns. Will it lose some of its trendiness? Will it begin to level out across the nation? Who knows?

But what I do know is that ultrarunning in the Midwest is no longer hiding in the background. Despite our lack of cloud-scraping peaks and infamously known difficulty rates, Midwesterners value one thing: running our hearts out 100 percent on our 100-percent runnable trails.

The Midwest To-Run List

Katie DeSplinter runs the Ozark Trail 100. Photo: Chris Wristen

After reading many race recaps, course descriptions, and race-director testimonials, I have narrowed down the top-five ultramarathons to run in the Midwest. Chosen for location, scenery, reputation, speediness, and difficulty, I hope one of these inspires the outsider, or fellow Midwesterner, to jump onto UltraSignup.

  1. Classic — Ice Age Trail 50 Mile: With continuous hills, the race’s terrain is comprised of mostly singletrack, rocky, and rooted trails. Through hardwood forests, pinewoods, and prairies, the race is a classic example of Midwest running.
  2. Peace’n Out — Run Woodstock: From five to 100 miles, the Run Woodstock Race Series is a party of a run, starting on Friday night and ending with the last runner on Sunday. Hosted in September in Pinckney State Park in Michigan, the 100-mile course embraces six loops of runnable singletrack, rail, and horse trails. The race also features weekend-long karaoke, yoga, and a peace-loving good time.
  3. Old School — Mohican Trail 100: The MO100 is the nation’s fifth-oldest ultramarathon and a qualifier for UTMB in France. Whether veteran or newbie, the MO100 welcomes each finisher with a buckle and awards those who have completed the race more than 10 times with a direct entry and a custom 1,000-mile finisher buckle. And for those back-of-packers, The Last of the Mohicans award is given to the last runner to cross the finish line within the 32-hour limit.
  4. Mind-Numbing — The Potowatomi Trail Runs: Originally called the McNaughton Trail Runs, these races are run on a 10-mile loop through the McNaughton Park in Pekin, Illinois. The race hosts 30-, 50-, 100-mile, and 150-mile race options, and they are adding a 200 miler for 2015. If the relentless continuation of circles and rolling hills is not difficult enough, planning what to bring for the unexpected Midwest April weather will be. Described on the website as “Easier than Barkley, cooler than Badwater, lower altitude than Leadville, and warmer than Yukon Artic Ultras,” this race is perfect for the endurance junkie, or someone really good at sleeping while running.
  5. Point-to-Point — The Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run: More like 104.5 miles… but close enough. The November-dated race is run on the Ozark Trail through the Mark Twain National Forest in south central Missouri. On a leaf-covered, moderately technical trail, the race finishes at the Bass River Resort and includes 12 aid stations as well as a helpful Yahoo Group to chat about the race.
  6. Bonus — A Little Bit of Everything: The Midwest Grand Slam: If I have convinced you that the Midwest is the place to be, then a shot at the Midwest Slam is the perfect vacation activity. 2014 was the third year of the Slam. It starts with the Indiana Trail 100 in Albion, Indiana, the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run in Eagle, Wisconsin, the Mohican Trail Run in Loudonville, Ohio, the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, and finishes with the Hallucination 100 Mile Run in Pinckney, Michigan. What easier way is there to get know the Midwest than by running all over it?

WeRunFar Profile: Scotty Mills

After a long day of college classes and coaching the local swim team, I sat down on my bed to talk with WeRunFar’s October profile, Scotty Mills. At 63 years old, Scotty has run over 200 ultras—the exact number is unknown since he was competing in races before UltraSignup was established. My pen flew across numerous pages of my notebook, taking down historical facts, numbers and dates, and tips on how to run a successful race. Within the short time I was talking to Scotty I realized I was back in class, Ultrarunning 101.

As a mentor to many, and a friend and fellow runner to others, to me, Scotty felt like my professor. An expert in the ultrarunning field, he is the guy that has seen and done it all, the one to answer all of my questions, and hopefully not grade too harshly on my next race performance.

Scotty Mills 1

Scotty has it down to a science. His formula, designed and tweaked throughout the last 30 years, has allowed the veteran runner to complete 37 100 milers, 10 100ks, and an unknown number of 50ks and 50 milers. It involves resting during his ‘off-season’ (the months of October to December), listening to one’s body, and sticking to one or two keys races a year.

“You have to respect the human body,” he said. “This sport is hard. If you don’t rest and look at the overall picture, your time is limited.”

This formula and mindset allowed Scotty to run both the Hardrock 100 and The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mount-Blanc this past year. It has also certifies that, when given the opportunity to talk to Scotty about running, you better listen.

Scotty Mills 2

According to Bryon Powell of iRunFar, Scotty is no stranger to the student-and-teacher relationship.

“He IS my ultrarunning mentor,” Bryon said in an email. They met at the Bull Run Run 50 Mile in Virginia in the early 1990s. Scotty was the substitute director of the race while the founder of the race went overseas, and Bryon was just getting his feet wet in the ultra world by volunteering.

Scotty Mills 3

Whether it was tips for the trail, like the “Scotty Shuffle” (switching from walking to running based on the trail terrain) or presenting step-by-step directions on how to master the Western States 100, Bryon said Scotty shares every ounce of knowledge he has gathered throughout his 30 years of running.

It started in 1982, after watching runners sprint past the window of his Sacramento, California home. Coincidentally, his house butted up against the trail used by the participants of the American River 50 Mile. The next year, Scotty’s name was on the entrants list and his feet never left the trails again.

Scotty was born in Berkeley, California but made an early move to Portland, Oregon, then New Jersey during his high-school years. He attended college in Colorado at the United States Air Force Academy on a soccer scholarship.

“After Air Force college, I felt like I needed to stay fit,” Scotty said. Chasing after something—a ball, a girl—was the only running Scotty engaged in before becoming the ultra wiz he is now.

Scotty Mills 4

“My wife was a jogger when I met her,” he said. “So, to date her, I had to jog. But I realized that I felt good and began to love it.”

After spending 22 years in the Air Force, where he was mostly stationed in Virginia, Scotty and his wife, Jean, stayed in the state for the next 10 years. In 1980 they decided to return to the West Coast, settling in California.

It only took one year before Scotty was on the trails of Western States, but his passion for the sport had already begun.

I would train up in the Sacramento mountains,” he said. “I found my love of the sport, the beauty, the people, and the distances that others thought were absurd.”

A self-proclaimed mountain runner, Scotty’s successful career comes from accepting and playing to his own strengths.

“I am not fast or competitive, in that I have never won an ultra,” he said, though 17 sub-24-hour-100-mile belt buckles, and one top-10 WS100 finish are not stats to browse over. “Longer races that build mental tenacity, especially mountain runs, are my favorite.”

Mental toughness is Scotty’s strong suit, according to his wife, who has built up her own mental hardness through the years of crewing.

“He is very mentally tough,” she told me, laughing through the phone. “It is his strongest attribute. He will go on through when normal (or sane) people stop. He is unbelievable.”

Though, she says she will leave the ultras to Scotty, Jean is on the sidelines of nearly every race of his.

“You get drawn into it,” she said. “The people, trails, the support and crew of friends and family. It is the experience of ultrarunning.”

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Though accused by Jean that he may “overdo it” sometimes, Scotty knows what it takes to ace or flunk a race. And this past year was the ultimate test.

Two slight spur-of-the-moment decisions led Scotty to his sixth running of Hardrock and his first encounter with UTMB. Though used to the extreme conditions, Scotty knew he had to prepare for the Colorado race.

“To do well at Hardrock, at my age, I am a firm believer you have to be acclimated to the altitude,” he said, just one way to help prep his body. He went out about three weeks before the start of the race to run different sections of the course. Scotty focused on running the race smartly and taking advantage of having a pacer the entire race, an option given to participants over the age of 60.

“I approached the race with my older age in mind,” he said. “I wanted to run strong, but not overdo it, and save for recovery.”

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Though the weather was difficult, Scotty said he dealt with it like any other race. He easily moved up through the field, finishing the race in 28th place for a personally satisfactory time of 36 hours, 27 minutes, and 51 seconds.

Leading up to the race, Scotty took part in the training camp where he was asked by Karl Hoagland to join a group of runners preparing to run UTMB.

Agreeing to the trip, Scotty said he would go just to be there, and planned on hiking and running the new adventure rather than truly competing.

Scotty Mills 7

“I was really concerned with having only seven weeks till UTMB,” he said. For someone who believes that total recovery for a 100 miler consists of one day of rest per every mile, Scotty had to redesign his typical recovery schedule. He spent the next two weeks barely running, and then slowly built up the mileage. He tapered back down, arrived in France feeling recovered, and crossed the finish line happy and exhilarated.

Surprisingly, he finished one minute faster than his Hardrock time and four hours faster than his self-predicted time.

“UTMB was the most memorable event of the year,” he said. “It was just amazing. I remember the climb up the mountains at night and looking back down. It was a long conga line of headlamps ‘serpentine-ing’ up the mountain. Just magical.”

According to the experienced runner, it was a great summer of racing. Though, the times were not the fastest, he noted, they were races that required an extreme amount of effort.

“The European experience was really special,” he said, but still admits Hardrock will always hold a special place in his heart. “Hardrock is an iconic event. It is a family race. People compete together against the course. You run over the most scenic, beautiful mountains in the country. It just has the whole package.”

We hear about the ‘family’ of ultrarunning a lot, whether it involves the community in general, or within a specific race. Scotty embraces both. As the race director of the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run in Lake Cuyamaca, California, Scotty believes having a strong circle of friends and family is the key to a successful race.

“We try to instill that family aspect,” he said, describing his race as “an experience for runners, by runners.”

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Scotty inherited the race six years ago from Paul Schmidt, who knew he was leaving the race in good hands. Schmidt knew Scotty’s vision for the race would be the best way to build and grow the event.

Once under his direction, Scotty changed the San Diego course, making it into a more mountainous trek. The route travels through several ecosystems and includes sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, and Noble Canyon.

Scotty Mills 9

“Before I decided to take over, I had to feel like I had the power to delegate and put on a race with the same standards as a good 100 miler,” he said. Modeling San Diego after Western States and Hardrock, Scotty incorporates a lottery system and caps off the race at 250 people, a number he feels is best for the enjoyment and safety of the runners.

“For me, my goal as a race director is to get the highest finishing rate of runners,” he explained. A 100 percent finishing rate is the ultimate goal, yet Scotty knows the impossibility of that. Instead, he strives on finding the line between motivation and pushing people beyond their limits.

“[Directing] is a lot of hard work if you do it right,” he said. “ You can easily overdo it, but I find as much enjoyment as running an ultra as I do putting one on.”

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Looking at the syllabus for mid-October, we find Scotty taking his obligatory downtime to rest physically and mentally before starting over again in January.

This time includes easy, watch-less runs in the mountains, and watching other runners embark on their own adventures, such as iRunFar’s Meghan Hicks during her Tor des Géants race in September (her report).

“I was glued to Meghan’s race. I thought, Wow, I wonder if I could do that?” he said, also mentioning the slow shaking of Jean’s head in the background as he speaks.

It is this fear of missing out, or as Scotty calls it, “FOMO,” that keeps his name on the sign-up lists of new and already completed races. However, he knows that running will not always be the viable option.

“You cannot run forever,” he stated. “But you can stay active in the community even if [you’re] not running.”

For Scotty this means volunteering, crewing, and continuing as an RD. It also means having the opportunity to pass down the knowledge he’s gained to the beginners in the field. And amateurs, if they’re like me, would be in the top row of seats, pen poised, and arm constantly raised, ready to learn from the best.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Scotty Mills is a bounty of knowledge for many, a jokester to even more, and an icon to all in the trail and ultrarunning community. Many of us have stories about this guy, so it’s time to let ‘er rip and roast Scotty. Do tell!

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Scotty Mills feature

WeRunFar Profile: Shannon Farar-Griefer

In a neighborhood recently joined by the paparazzi-loving couple Kanye and Kim West lives an individual the ultrarunning community is more connected with. Shannon Farar-Griefer, 53 years old, mother of three boys, and founder of Moeben arm sleeves, resides in Hidden Hills, California, a small city in Los Angeles County. While her neighbors engage in the celebrity lifestyle, Shannon escapes to her backyard trails of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Ultrarunning detaches me from the celebrity lifestyle I live among,” she said. “Throw me in the mountains with a water bottle, where I am out there puking and getting dirty. I would rather be that person.”

Photo 1 - Shannon Farar-Griefer - Rocky Raccoon

Shannon was originally from Palm Springs, California before moving to the house in Hidden Hills with her husband at the time and three children: Moe, Ben, and Jet. After high school she started acting and modeling, becoming a fitness model for the sports channel, ESPN2. Her running career began in 1990, at age 35, to help get rid of the excess pregnancy weight she gained with her first son. It was in that year she ran her first race, the Los Angeles Marathon.

“It was pouring rain and I was freezing in that metal blanket while looking for my husband,” she said. “And I kept thinking, ‘Okay, when’s the next marathon?’”

One for endurance, Shannon said she always felt good near the 20-mile mark, whereas her fellow racers began painfully fatiguing. After dabbling in triathlons, she realized running was her true calling, and found herself asking the kid at the local running store what was beyond that 26.2-mile distance.

Photo 2 - Shannon Farar-Griefer and her kids

Shannon finished fourth woman at the Bulldog 50k Trail Run in California, her first ultra. That was 1996, and since then, she has competed in the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile five times, earning herself the five-time finisher race jacket. She has also finished two Western States, her favorite ultra, one Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, three Javelina Jundred 100 Mile races, various 50 milers, and her favorite race over the 100-mile distance, the Badwater Ultramarathon, five times.

Shannon calls running her passion. It is her savior now. Nine years ago, she was forced to drop from the Javelina Jundred due to pain, a different kind of pain than what ultrarunners experience during long races, in her legs and muscles. That pain led to the discovery of lesions forming on her brain, and Shannon was eventually diagnosed with an aggressive case of multiple sclerosis. Her doctors began prepping for immediate treatment strategies.

Photo 3 - Shannon Farar-Griefer and her nurse

However, the ‘oops’ pregnancy with her third son at age 45 forced the postponement of treatment, allowing the risk of new lesions to form.

“I had another brain scan and did not have any new lesions,” Shannon said about the scan she had immediately after her son’s birth. “It was a miracle.” With that blessing, Shannon continued her running career and attempted to live as normally as possible.

In addition to her full-time mom gig, Shannon is the founder of the two companies, Moeben, which manufactures arm sleeves and other tech wear, and Jetanna, a new swim, sport, and lifestyle-wear series.

In 2004, while stuck on bed rest during her third pregnancy, Shannon had the idea of the Moeben (the combination of her son’s names, Moe and Ben) arm sleeves. Her beloved Badwater race and the problems runners face while out in Death Valley inspired the accessory line.

“What do runners need for 135 miles?” Shannon asked herself. “It is always hot and windy, we always need a place to blow our nose, and we need UV protection.”

She first launched the company at the 2007 Western States race, providing arm sleeves for each of the participants. The feedback Shannon received blew her away.

“For days after, I was bombarded with emails,” she said, “all saying, ‘Hey Shannon, I work at so and so running store. Can I sell your product?’”

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have a newborn baby. I don’t even know where to get that much fabric!’”

Yet Shannon succeeded. The sleeves have been featured on The Biggest Loser, deemed a “must have accessory” from Trail Runner Magazine, and were The New York Times’s “favorite” arm sleeve. The success of Moeben has led Shannon to the creation of the 2013 clothing line, Jetanna (once again the combination of her youngest son and boyfriend’s, Barry Barnholtz, daughter).

Photo 5 - Shannon Farar-Griefer hiking

After being sidetracked from illness and family issues, Shannon is ready to return to her true roots. She recently reopened Moeben, which was closed for three years due to personal reasons.

“I am running again, launching a new company, and back to Moeben,” she said. “It is like being back at square one. I just have to see where my body takes me.”

May of 2013 was Shannon’s last ultra and in April of this year she laced up her shoes for another adventure. In the MS Run the US, the 3,000-mile run across America from California to New York City, Shannon led off the 16-person relay. On April 13 Shannon had seven days to run about 160 miles, but drawing on her ultra experiences and with the help of pacer, Timothy Olson, she completed the run in 50 hours.

Raising awareness and money for diseases provides the motivation Shannon needs to keep going each day.

“This disease has helped me appreciate each day as a blessing and has helped me with my own running,” she said. Shannon claims that running not only defines her, but is her. She says she is a mom first in being, but a runner in identity. “Ultrarunning is my metaphor in life. I don’t know where the finish line is, but either the race beats you, or you beat the race.”

Photo 6 - Shannon Farar-Griefer and Timothy Olson

Some mornings, Shannon wakes up and cannot complete her daily walk through the mountains. She cannot even move her arms, but that doesn’t stop her.

“I put on my brace and do as much as I can,” she said. “It is like a 100-mile race. When you’re at mile 80, puking, blistered feet, and everything hurts. You don’t give up, and that is how I am now with this disease.”

In her hometown, Shannon is known as ‘the woman who runs ultras’ and ‘that desert race’ rather than by her MS status. At a Ronald McDonald charity event in the late 1990s, a boy named Michael, who had lost a leg to cancer, came up to her and asked, “Shannon, are you still running those crazy races?” She answered yes, and continued to reply to the typical ultrarunning questions such as where she eats, sleeps, and goes to the bathroom while out on the trails. He then asked, “What is the hardest part of ultrarunning?”

“I told him, ‘When my whole body hurts and I just want to stop and go to bed.’”

The boy then stated, “Shannon please don’t ever give up.”

“For a little boy with cancer to say that…” Shannon said, trailing off as she described the memory. “As an ultrarunner you can never feel self pity. We volunteer our body and mind. We know the pain we are about to endure, but it is not the same kind of pain as in life. In a 100 you have to overcome so many hurdles, and for me those hurdles make me feel like I am so much mentally stronger in life.”

Photo 7 - Shannon Farar-Griefer at the 2009 Badwater

On August 19, Shannon sat in her car, bumper to bumper in LA traffic. She was on the way to another appointment with her doctor, expecting to volunteer herself for clinical trials for MS research. Instead, she received the disappointing news that she will be back on an aggressive treatment plan, including shots and additional scans of her spine throughout the rest of the year.

Photo 8 - Shannon Farar-Griefer at the MS Run

“If I get pushed down, I bounce right up,” she said. “I don’t know if I am able to run 100s anymore, but I am going to try.”

If both her running and health goes well, Shannon plans on continuing her involvement with charity events and races. In November, a determined Shannon, most likely donned in her favorite arm sleeves, will be joining her fellow runners at this year’s Javelina Jundred.

“It is hard to talk about,” she confessed while in the car, her voice muffled by blaring car horns. Each race, clothing product, charity event appearance: it is done to show others that they too can live with MS.”

“I am the kind of person who believes you can continue living your life with this disease,” she said, her words choking in the back of her throat. “I am a trooper, at least, I’m trying to be.”

WeRunFar Profile: Lisa Smith-Batchen

Beginning this past July 1, for 14 days and 584 miles, Lisa Smith-Batchen ran in Death Valley, California, a charity effort she dubbed the Badwater4Goodwater Quadruple. Six days after that, and for 24 hours and 43 minutes, she crewed second-place finisher, Grant Maughan, at the 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon. Less than 48 hours from that finish, Lisa was praying in the Louisiana hospital room of her 82 year-old father after he had hip surgery.

Nearly a month after her journey began, I am able to talk with the resilient runner. I called on a Sunday afternoon with a list of questions that has grown exponentially as the summer sped by. After a day of unpacking from a trip that unfortunately extended longer than planned, Lisa was finally home in Driggs, Idaho. It was a trip that triggered more emotions than Lisa expected to experience this summer yet it was one she would never forget.

Lisa, age 53, completed the incredible feat of quadrupling the original Badwater Ultramarathon course. She repeated the route four times from Badwater to Whitney Portal, and added the ascent to the summit of Mount Whitney, making the total distance 146 miles per leg. It was a journey dedicated to raising money to provide clean, healthy water around the world, rather than running for a race or competition.

Lisa Smith-Batchen - 2014 Badwater Quad attempt

Over time Lisa’s running career of racing and competing was being replaced with running for causes and fundraisers. “I was running races every weekend,” she said. “Winning, winning, winning, but never really satisfied.”

Sister Marybeth Lloyd, who works with the Missions of the Religious Teachers Filippini organization, asked her, “Why not turn racing into something?” For the last 27 years, Lisa has been helping children around the world receive food, clothing, and education, which is how she met Sister Lloyd.

“What was the real issue at stake?” she said she asked herself after years of providing substantial aid to towns, but continuing to see a high number of deaths occur. “And it hit me so hard; it was the tree of life, the real necessity of the world. Clean water.”

Lisa was then inspired to found the Badwater4Goodwater nonprofit where proceeds donated will be spent building wells in Ethiopia and India and will be given to Water Alliance, a global movement dedicated to water issues throughout the world.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 15, Lisa took her final steps of the quadruple. She distanced 40 to 45 miles a day in the desert, battled 120-degree temperatures, dusty winds, and a scorching sun. It was the last two miles though that Lisa describes as the most surreal moment of the entire journey. Alone with one water bottle, Lisa reflected on the last 13 days.

Lisa Smith-Batchen - 2014 Badwater Quad attempt crew

“I was scared to finish. I was glad, yet didn’t want it to be over.” She crossed the finish line without a drop of water left and then it hit her. “During the journey I heard about the movie star who died out in the desert without water and I thought about him. If I didn’t have my crew then I too would die out here,” she said. “It hit me hard, that if my water was gone I wouldn’t have made it, just like those who don’t have access to clean water.” [Author’s Note: The actor who died was Dave Legeno, whose body was found on July 6 after hiking through Death Valley].

It was Army Major and president of Trail Toes LLC, Vincent Antunez, who recommended that Lisa should run the last two miles alone.

“I think it was the right decision and the emotion and elation she had crossing the finish line was palpable,” he said. “When she got down on the ground and raised her arms in triumph, there was absolute resignation that she did not do that alone and that we, others, and just maybe something a little more powerful, played a role in helping her achieve what others may have thought impossible.”

Lisa planned on completing the journey in 12 days, but stomach issues took her off the road for a day. She was expecting to have a week to fly home, recover, and make it back to California. However, with the extra two days in the desert she only had about four days to recover before going back into the desert to crew Maughan for the actual Badwater race, which started July 21. So, dreading the heat once more, Lisa got back into the car and drove back into the desert. “Going back to Death Valley was the hardest thing ever,” she confessed. “[Grant] gave me the option to go home and not pace, but I knew I had to honor that commitment.”

Grant Maughn - 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon second place

Knowing Maughan would finish near 24 hours, Lisa said her exhausted state could not keep his pace. Instead Lisa drove, prepared food and water, slept when she could, and kept all her attention on the runner.

“I didn’t think about what I had done, until he was done,” she said.

However, even after Maughan crossed the finish line on July 22, Lisa would once again not be afforded the time to reflect on her own amazing accomplishment in the desert.

On July 24 Lisa made it home to Idaho after a 14-hour drive. She was home with her family less than 24 hours before the phone rang. Without unpacking, Lisa was on a plane to Monroe, Louisiana where her father was undergoing surgery for a broken hip. For the next week, Lisa and her family waited at the bedside of her father, whose kidneys began to fail and he was put on dialysis. The weakened heart of her father could not keep up, and on August 4 Lisa was standing by his side as he passed away.

“What I went through in the ICU was harder than anything, harder than the 500 miles,” she said. “I feel like I have done 1,000 miles. It was brutal, brutal, brutal.”

Lisa told me that her father was her biggest supporter for her endurance experiences, was part Indian, and could grow anything in the garden. He worked hard his entire life, she said, which then transferred to her own discipline in life.

“He told me, ‘Gotta’ be tough, gal,’ while in the ICU,” she said. “That’s where I get it from. Be tough and follow through in your commitments.”

Lisa Smith-Batchen hiking with her two daughters

Lisa has lived in Idaho for the last 14 years with her husband, Jay, who is also a runner and avid ice-hockey player. Her two daughters were adopted as infants, now 11 and eight, one an equestrian rider and the other an ice-hockey player. Lisa has several career titles including motivational speaker and co-race director of the Yellowstone-Teton Races as well as marathons in Wyoming and Arizona. She is a USA representative for the Marathon des Sables and has been an online coach for worldwide athletes for 15 years. She coaches, as well as provides opportunities for races, training runs, and camps through her and Jay’s company, Dreamchasers Outdoor Adventures.

Lisa Smith-Batchen and Jay Batchen

She was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and moved to Deerfield, Illinois at the age of five.

Not making her cross-country and track teams in high school, Lisa claims she was not a natural-born athlete. She started running in college and began her running career with a win at a local turkey trot 5k.

Lisa spent the next few years “dabbling” in marathons, five Ironman triathlons, several EcoChallenge adventure races, and over 35 ultramarathons. Her first ultra was Badwater in 1995, when friend Marshall Ulrich urged her to sign up. Since then, she has not been able to keep away, completing the race nine times and crewing for athletes when possible.

“Going into the first Badwater I had no idea what I was getting into: the heat, the mountains, the distance,” she said, describing her experience in Death Valley. However, the conditions, extreme heat of the pavement and air, did not deter her from coming back to the Badwater race or the desert itself. “I wanted to experience the race in a different way,” she said. “I feel like I have lived out there in a past life. I fell in love with the spiritual energy and beauty of Death Valley.”

In 2001, Lisa helped crew Ulrich in his own journey of the quadruple to raise money for the Missions of the Religious Teachers Filippini organization.

“What Ulrich did was inconceivable to me,” Lisa said. “It was so way out there that it seemed impossible.”

Lisa Smith-Batchen and Marshall Ulrich

Lisa Smith-Batchen and her father

Yet, as Lisa continued to run, her own 584 miles did not seem so incredible. “Over the years of running and growing as a person, I gained more wisdom. I was growing in a sport that I love so much. I feel like it has all come down to this. The learning, training, and other journeys were the steps in life taken to get to this.”

Sister Lloyd, a member of Lisa’s Badwater quad attempt crew and now longtime friend, said the quadruple has been on the runner’s mind for years.

“She has always felt that she could be the first woman to complete it,” Lloyd said, “She has had some bad runs at Badwater the past few years so my main concern was for her health.”

In last year’s attempt in the quad, in which she had to drop due to medical conditions, Lisa said there were so many red flags she ignored that led to her inability to finish. “I really wanted to do it last year, but I rushed,” she said. “Everything this year was perfect. The time was now and I felt like I had unfinished business.”

Now, mid-August, Lisa sits on the couch at home in Idaho, finally allowing herself to soak in the last seven weeks. She thinks again about all of the miles, each one helping a child receive fresh, clean water (a mind trick that Lisa used when she was out in the desert). She looks back over the photos as her friend Grant Maughan finishes his own Badwater adventure. And she reminisces on her time in the hospital with her father, thankful she was able to spend his last hours with him.

Lisa Smith-Batchen finishing her 2014 Badwater Quad

“I really can’t wait to just sit and reflect on this one,” she said. “Summer is almost over. I just want to spend time with my daughters and my husband.”

After a summer like that, who would dispute her? I still had to ask: “Will you ever go back to Badwater and Death Valley?”

Back to the race was a definite no according to the veteran, but back to the valley was a no brainer.

“I have no interest in going back to the race,” she said. “I would rather crew or pace, or do my own journeys.”

And instead of running up Mount Whitney, Lisa said hiking with her girls and letting them experience it would be the next reason to return to the desert.

“I love it, and I don’t think I have experienced everything from it,” she said. “So, no aspirations to do anything like the quad ever again. I am satisfied now.”

WeRunFar Profile: Gary Knipling

Ultraunning. Is it a hobby? A cult? Or a culture that takes over one’s life? Gary Knipling, from Fairfax City, Virginia is not completely sure. But for the veteran runner of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) who has completed over 30 100 milers and has the highest number of finishes of the local Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Race (MMT) with 17, he believes ultrarunning is a way of life that latches onto people like it latched onto him nearly 22 years ago.

Gary Knipling and his bourbon

For those who know the always grinning 70 year old, he is the Virginia-trails expert and the go-to guy for advice or a good story. For those who don’t, he’s ‘the guy with the mango panties’ you’ve probably have heard about, chugging sweet tea and pickle juice at aid stations before bounding off toward his next finish-line buckle and bourbon.

Gary’s tweaked version of the quote by John Muir, “Whenever you go on a trail run you find more than seek,” inspires him to push through mile after mile.

“It is a mixture of endorphins, fatigue, and the feeling that your body is spent,” he said, describing his love of the sport. “You get to the finish line, have a post-race bourbon, and swap stories with other runners.”

“Every trail run is an experience,” he added. “And I am never disappointed.”

Gary has lived in Virginia all of his life. He and his wife, Charlotte, reside outside the Washington D.C area in a small, historically rich town on a peninsula of the Potomac River. He has two grown children who also live in Virginia, Kristen and Keith, both of whom have long-distance running experience. Gary attended undergraduate school at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for veterinary medicine. He then graduated in 1969 from the University of Georgia graduate program with a specialization in small-animal, household pets. Now semi-retired, as he calls himself, Gary helps in the administration of his shared ownership of two animal hospitals in Virginia. His decreased hours from work allow him to stay active in the business yet even more active with his running.

His running career actually began in high school by default.

“I loved sports, but was not big enough for football or basketball,” Gary said. “I was set on a varsity letter and the only chance I was going to get one was to run cross country.”

Sliding into the seventh spot on his seven-man cross-country team, Gary claimed the letter his senior year, and started a gradual shift into the life of an ultrarunner. Life became hectic for Gary, whilst balancing college life, a new business, and a growing family, so early on he only dabbled with running to keep fit.

Gary Knipling and his family

“I came back to running during the early ‘70s marathon craze,” Gary said, believing then that the 26.2-mile race was the ultimate distance. “I thought the world dropped off after that.” But like most ultrarunners soon realize: the longer the distance, the more interesting it gets.

“The marathon is hard, but I’d rather run a 50k than a marathon,” he said. “And I’d rather run a 50 miler than a 50k.”

It is the lack of pressure and speed that Gary appreciates in the longer distances. “A 50 miler, you can do in a day,” he acknowledged. “Get to the finish line, swap stories with the other runners, and be home by midnight.” Yet, the 100-mile race is not an uncommon feat for Gary. On May 18, just about a month ago, Gary completed his 30th 100-mile race and 17th finish of his favorite race, the MMT. The race is run through the George Washington National Forest and is one of the three races put on by the VHTRC, the renowned Virginia trail running club.

The VHTRC was founded in the early 1980s to host its three races: the MMT, the Bull Run Run 50 Miler (BRR), and the VHTRC Women’s Half Marathon. These races intersperse through the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the Appalachian Trail. Training runs for the club also take place on these trails and within the Shenandoah National Park, which helps the Virginia runners experience decent elevation and hill training.

MMT Training Run

“Because of the existence of the VHTRC, there is a strong nucleus of runners that makes up the [local] ultra community,” Gary said. With a long list of evidence to back him up, he strongly claims Virginia as the best ultra community in the U.S. With over 500 members from the eastern states and from as far away as Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, Gary said the club is active and vibrant with members who both take and give back to the ultrarunning way of life.

“We probably have 100 or more active members coming to the training runs, races, or to volunteer,” he said. “They give back what they take and with a good attitude. They volunteer, not because it is required, but because they want to.”

Six-year VHTRC member Katie Keier first met Gary while volunteering at the Elizabeth Furnace Aid Station during the 2011 MMT.

“One thing I love about Gary is that he always remembers your name and your history,” she said. “He stops to talk with everyone, and makes you feel very special and encouraged. I’ve run several races where I’ve found myself running with Gary, and he is always talking, laughing, and encouraging everyone around him.”

Gary Knipling volunteering

It is this mix of incredible socialization with the magic of a trail that ignites Gary’s passion mile after mile. He calls himself an amateur naturalist—a student of nature—even at age 70.

“I have my soul time and sole time,” he described. “When I am out on a run, I like to socialize, but I also love the nature and beauty of the trails. I watch the birds and look for wildflowers and mushrooms. I am always in anticipation of what is around the trail; maybe a bear, coyote, or snake? I love every aspect of being outdoors.”

VHTRC tree

“He is a wealth of knowledge with nature,” Keier added. “We always say ‘Where’s Gary?’ when we are wondering what a plant, flower, rock formation, or animal on trail is.”

However, this student of nature is still learning. Once, during a long, evening trail run in the mountains, Gary came upon a small copperhead snake. Picking it up, he decided to show off his wild side. “I was just showing off,” he said, chuckling at the memory. “Well, it then went limp in my hands and I thought I might have hurt it. As I set it down on a rock it flinched and bit me.”

With a pain described as 20 to 30 bee stings all at one time, the fang of the snake caught Gary’s finger, causing his hand to swell up within minutes. Gary decided to forgo the rest of the training run, make his way back to the car, and drive to the local emergency hospital where he was treated with steroids and antibiotics.

“There is still an area the size of a dime on my right middle finger that has no skin sensation, but [everything’s] normal otherwise,” Gary said, recalling the incident. “I have not messed with any venomous snakes since then but have enjoyed seeing many from a safe distance. I’m okay with feeling the beauty and wonder of nonvenomous reptiles and creatures as a bonus gift from being out on nature’s trails.”

As most runners can agree with, whether it is a snakebite or a DNF, the trail can throw some tough obstacles at even the toughest of runners.

Over the years Gary has had to adjust his trail running habits to accommodate some of the changes. Unable to stomach the sweet taste of energy gels, Gary prefers sweet tea, pickle juice, olives, and bacon for his mid-race fuel. Time limits, once just mere numbers Gary brushed off in previous ultras, now creep up on him, hovering just a little too close for comfort. And the ups and downs of a 100 miler become more constant downs as a result of the little aches and pains a body that has been ultrarunning for the past 22 years is bound to have.

“My age is definitely a weakness,” he said. “I am getting slower yet working just as hard. But I am incredibly lucky to be able to do what I can. I am not complaining!”

Despite these new struggles that Gary runs through each day, one thing has not changed about the positive-thinking, smile-wearing runner: his ability to keep going and have fun while doing it.

Gary Knipling's 14th MMT Finish

Each year, the VHTRC chooses a destination race to experience trails outside the Virginia area. In the past, a typical range of 10 to 15 members have traveled to races such as the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run, the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, and both the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 100 Mile and 50 Mile. This year, the club chose the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run and the Ghosts of Yellowstone 100 Mile of the Mystery Ranch Ultra Challenge, in Pony, Montana.

Being such a celebrity among the trails of Virginia, these destination trips allow Gary to wet his feet on new territory, experience new challenges, and shock his fellow runners and volunteers.

During the race, he looks like every other runner: sweaty hat and shirt, bottles strapped to his hands, and food wrappers peeping out from his pockets. Yet the pair of women’s mango-colored bikini bottoms dangling from his hands and his inquiry, “Hey, have you seen the runner who lost these?” usually makes the white-haired, jolly runner a talked-about subject at aid stations.

“When people don’t know me it is fun to ask and see their expressions,” he said, chuckling at the inside joke shared by his many running friends and acquaintances. “In pictures, I am displaying the panties proudly next to my handheld.”

This famous running-with-the-panties habit originated at the 2004 BRR when ‘Team Mango’ and ‘Team Bananahammock’ battled for the finish line of the 50 miler. The race offers a team category of four runners, either mixed or same gender. Each person runs the entire race, and the winning team is decided by adding each members’ finish time together, producing the fastest total finish time. Wearing nothing but mango-colored two-piece bikinis, Team Mango overcame Gary and the Bananahammocks, finishing with the combined score of about five minutes faster. At the finish line, though, Gary came across a loose pair of the team’s bottoms, and after losing the battle to the Mangos, Gary decided to keep the panties as a memento of the enemy.

Gary Knipling and his mango panties

“I started carrying them instead of handkerchiefs,” he said laughing. “I have used them in every 100 miler since.”

But of course, the wear and tear of a 100-mile race can pay its toll on the flimsy bottoms, so Gary has back-ups.

“I have been through a couple of pairs now and some have been stolen from me,” he said, without resentment. “I do have one pair of virgin panties that I am saving. For which run I am not sure yet, but I like knowing I have a virgin pair!”

The bottoms were proudly swaying in 2006 when Gary entered the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning with his son, Keith, now age 38, creating what they believe was the first father-and-son team to complete the four ultras in the same year. Because of the altitude, Gary squeaked under the time limit of the Leadville 100 with only 30 minutes to spare. Not taking any chances, Keith then chose to run the next 100 miles of the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run stride for stride with Gary, walking over the finish line together.

“It was a very hot year at Western States,” Keith said. “My dad ended up finishing Western States pretty strong, but it was touch and go for much of the race. One bullet narrowly dodged.

Keith thought Wasatch, the last of the four races in the Slam, was probably the Slam’s hardest 100 miler, but he also thought it was the easiest because of the 36-hour time cutoff. “I don’t think finishing was ever in question,” he said, confident in his father and his own running abilities. “You just lean on all those other 100s leading up to Wasatch, remember all it took to finish those (sometimes barely), and get it done.  It seemed fitting to run that one together.”

Gary and Keith Knipling

“I feel blessed and privileged to share the trails with Keith,” Gary said. It took a few years to get Keith running, finally breaking through when Keith thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and was inspired by fellow hikers to delve into the ultra business. He began the trail in Maine on July 1, 1998, finishing in Georgia that on December 15. After feeling like he was in the best shape of his life, Keith ran a New Year’s Day 50k Fat Ass run put on by the VHTRC. He then entered the BRR and MMT immediately following and has been hooked ever since, with 140 completed races on his UltraSignup resume.

“We are really quite different,” Keith added. “He prefers to run with people while I much prefer to run alone. When I was first starting out we ended up running together fairly often during races. I would usually go out too hard and then crash and burn, and he would catch me from behind and we would often finish together.” A member of the VHTRC governance board and a finisher of over 40 100 milers, Keith said he feels the company of his fellow club members and runners even when racing alone.

When browsing through Gary’s personal Facebook page, the feel of the VHTRC family gushes through the posts celebrating his latest feat: his 17th finish of the MMT. The MMT was Gary’s third ultra already this year, and he has planned an aggressive schedule for the rest of 2014. Gary, will race the Vermont 100 in July and the Ghosts of Yellowstone in August. Gary is also aiming for a finish in October at the Grindstone 100 in Swoope, Virginia.

But even with the support of his family, club members, and friends, a 100-mile race requires a little bit more to get through. When alone, in pain, or just feeling a low point, Gary asks himself one thing, What would I rather look back on?

“On Tuesday, when the excitement of the race is gone and I am thinking back over it,” he said, “What would I rather have? Another 100-mile finish or a DNF?” The answer is always another aid station, another end-of-race bourbon, another 100-mile finish.

“This year we will find out if I can keep clicking these things off,” Gary said reservedly. “Only time will tell. Maybe I can get in a few more years of 50ks. I mean, what else would I do?”

Gary Knipling's 17th MMT 100 finish