AUBURN, Calif. — Shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday, ultrarunner Tom Johnson and his father emerged from a hauntingly quiet moonlit forest to a place where nature meets civilization, a place where the Western States dirt trail merges with asphalt.
Johnson walked deliberately, taking long strides uphill, clutching a flashlight in his left hand, a water bottle in his right.
With his closest competitor a good 40 minutes back, Johnson now had one more mile to go--uphill through the streets of Auburn--to win the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run for the third time in four years.
This was the foregone conclusion to a race that had started at 5 a.m. in the snow-capped mountains of Squaw Valley.
Now, with 99 miles of the world's toughest ultramarathon completed--99 miles of Sierra Nevada outback in his wake--Johnson continued walking, trashed legs, fatigued body and soaked shirt notwithstanding.
His spirit was tight, like a fist.
Johnson reached Robie Point, where a group of about 30 had been waiting, including two friends, members of his crew.
"This is my crew, my pacers, and my father," Johnson told an observer as his entourage started the winding, uphill trek to the finish line at Placer High School.
"This is the final mile, which, oh, on one hand you want it to be over with, but on the other hand, this is the part you can savor," Johnson said.
Quipped his father, Marv: "He's looking forward to the show at the end."
A few minutes later, Johnson, now speedwalking, was joined by his fiancee, and two more friends.
Soon, as if on cue, the pace quickened, and suddenly, everyone was running unbelievably fast, trailing behind Johnson in a crude flying-V.
With the streets of Auburn moving rapidly under their feet, with families sitting in their front yards clapping, the group continued, adding would-be runners as it rolled on. The mood was light.
"Hey, Tom," a friend yelled. "We're not doing this again until you finish in the daytime!"
Joked another: "This is like being a kid in the Bay Area, when we'd go egg houses or toilet paper houses, then you've got to leave the area."
With about a half-mile to go, Johnson, an engineer who lives in nearby Loomis, showed exactly where his mind was.
"Today, you guys were awesome as usual," he told his crew. "There's nothing like it, having the best crew there."
Soon, they turned the corner onto Marvin Street, where the honking cars, the whistles, the cheering, became increasingly loud. Fifty yards away was Placer High's LeFebvre Stadium.
"Ladies and gentleman, Tom Johnson," a friend yelled.
Johnson turned onto Stadium Way, sprinted to the front of the pack, tore through the gates and surged onto the track. A crowd of about 1,500 stood and cheered.
Finally, 17 hours 8 minutes 34 seconds after starting, Johnson crossed the finish line, stopping abruptly amid a wall of spectators.
He was hugged by race director Norman Klein, one of many staffers who hadn't slept well all weekend.
Klein looped a medallion around Johnson's neck, then hugged him again.
Johnson, 34, fought his way through the crowd, and sat down in a plastic chair.
He grabbed a bottle of juice and looked up to see that he was surrounded by a wall of the curious three deep, among them Robert Lind, the race's lead physician.
Lind, with a video camera cupped on his shoulder, played TV reporter, peppering Johnson with questions before the real news media took over minutes later.
Some kids joined in, politely asking Johnson how he felt.
He was surrounded for about 15 minutes.
Was this the price of fame?
Or was this "the show at the end" his father had joked about?
It goes without saying that every runner in the Western States race owes something to Gordy Ainsleigh, who pioneered the race in 1974.
Ainsleigh had always been the reluctant adventurer, the indecisive mountain man, the timid athlete--all that. Until Aug. 4, 1974.
One day changed everything. The day he became the first person to run the Western States trail.
That he would set out, alone, to run a 100-mile trail--a horse trail--was somewhat of a personal upset, an abrupt change in character.
That he would actually finish, in slightly less than 24 hours, was unheard of in running circles, an improbable event that brought Ainsleigh sudden publicity.
"I beat all the competition," joked Ainsleigh, a bearded 47-year-old with thick forearms and a vise-like grip.
Using the race as a catalyst, he also confronted his fear of failure--or whatever it was keeping him from his goals.
"It was a real turning point in my life," said Ainsleigh, who up until then had chopped wood for a living. "It occurred to me that maybe there were a whole bunch of other things . . . I thought I couldn't do."
With a clear vision and a new ambition, he became, among other things, a chiropractor, a second-degree black belt in karate and an elite-level rock climber.