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Ultra hard, ultra long

Determination and obsession drive runners over steep slopes of the Sierra and into the canyons of the American River, as Diane Pucin reports. And no, the hula skirts are not a hallucination.

July 12, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Auburn, Calif. — THE finish line is close. It's 30 miles away, but 30 miles isn't far when you've already run 70.

Jorge Pacheco's arms pump in rhythm with his legs. His feet don't disturb the ground. They barely leave footprints in the snow; they hardly disturb dust on the trail or rearrange the fallen leaves.

It is a gift, Pacheco says, this ability to run forever.

Today forever is 100 miles up and down the Sierra in the Western States Endurance Run, a punishing footrace from Squaw Valley west of Lake Tahoe to Auburn in the Gold Country.

Pacheco has dodged waterfalls and granite cliffs and stared at snowcapped peaks. He's climbed the switchbacks up Devil's Thumb, danced across the lava scree in Volcano Canyon and sped past a flyspeck town called Foresthill, at mile 62, where some say the race starts in earnest.

The Endurance Run barely qualifies as a race. It's an ordeal that weaves the country's fittest runners through a mountainous landscape where they are forced to rely as much on their wits as on their feet. No matter how many miles they've logged on pavement or hiking trails, nothing can prepare them mentally or physically for these 100 miles of hell, as many competitors call it. It's a route most people would take days and 40 pounds of gear to navigate.

With 30 miles to go, Pacheco motors downhill toward the rapids of the American River, cutting in and out of canyons in thick woods. At the bottom, mile 78, the river's so gorged from snowmelt that volunteers ferry runners across in a raft. It's starting to get dark.

Runners must complete the course within 30 hours. Some get lost, some get hurt, but all eventually shake off the fear of dashing through mountains in little more than a singlet and shorts for their quest to finish and know that they have conquered one of the most demanding mountain ranges in the West.

Pacheco has been at it since 5 a.m., and for the most part he's been alone. But there's one runner out there ahead who's setting the pace.

Scott Jurek, a lanky, long-haired 31-year-old vegan from Seattle, has won this race six straight times. Pacheco finished second to Jurek two years ago. This year he's certain it's going to be different, and maybe, just maybe, a machinist from East L.A. can steal a victory.

But first there's a rushing river to cross, a little more than 25 miles of forests and darkness ahead.

Predawn start

Tension riffled the air long before the shotgun blast announced the start of the 32nd running of the race. The starting line, set beneath the Olympic Rings at Squaw Valley, was lighted by floodlights that scoured the ski slopes and blinded Pacheco, Jurek and the other 398 runners who took off into the predawn darkness.

The run, an offshoot of an equestrian endurance event, the Western States Trail Ride or Tevis Cup, began in 1974 when an iconoclastic mountain man -- hair past his shoulders and a beard that tickled his chest -- had his horse pull up lame moments before the 100-mile trail ride began. On the spur of the moment, Gordy Ainsleigh decided to compete on foot. Many observers thought he had lost his mind, but the rail-thin 27-year-old finished the course in less than 24 hours -- the same time limit given to horses and riders -- and proudly accepted the silver belt buckle awarded to the riders.

Today there are nearly 50 organized 100-mile trail races worldwide and dozens more ultra-distance runs that have all sprung from a family tree whose trunk is crazy Gordy. And 31 years later, Ainsleigh is still a beloved presence at the race.

On the day before the race's start, Ainsleigh, now a chiropractor in the Auburn area, set up a table on the lawn near the Squaw Valley tram. A long line of runners waited for their turn. Joints cracked, and there was a lot of moaning and groaning. Pacheco watched for a moment, then whispered, "I don't think I'd want to do that right now."

The first mile was lighted and crowded, but the runners quickly spaced out, climbing four steep miles to the top of Emigrant Pass at 8,750 feet. Once at the summit, they looked over their shoulders and saw in the early light Lake Tahoe, blue and dark, cupped by the mountains.

Fifteen hours earlier, they had gathered in lawn chairs, on blankets or leaned against trees to listen to a pep talk from race director Greg Soderlund and meet the top runners.

When Jurek was introduced to the crowd, there was polite applause as he stepped forward. But when Pacheco's name was called, there were cheers, whistles and a shout, "Go, Jorge." Pacheco, 37, bowed his head modestly.

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