Redding resident Luanne Park completed the Western States 100-mile endurance run last weekend, and she intends to do it again in June of 2011.
Those of you who are not familiar with ultra marathons, which is probably most of you, are probably wondering what the heck. People run 100 miles? All at once? The answers are yes and yes. A few thousand people finish 100-mile runs every year in the United States. Obviously, these folks are serious athletes, but very few are professional jocks. Rather, they are people like Luanne Park, a Shasta Lake Middle School art teacher with an 11-year-old son.
OK, so wrap your mind around the fact that “ordinary” people run 100 miles. Then I’ll tell you the three things that truly impress me about Park’s performance on June 26 and 27.
• It was her 8th finish in the Western States 100.
• She didn’t learn she was in the race until the last minute.
• She, uh … got to be careful here … isn’t getting any younger.
So let’s start with this being Park’s 8th finish in the event, which traverses mountainous trails from Squaw Valley to Auburn. After dropping out of Western States at the 30-mile mark in 2006 because of an injury, Park was probably wondering if she would ever get to run the race again. I’m not going to attempt to explain the arcane entrance procedures. Suffice to say that far more people want to run Western States than organizers may accommodate, and Park didn’t get into the event in 2007 or 2009 (wildfires canceled the 2008 race). Park gained entry in this year thanks to an exemption from her sponsor, Montrail, which also sponsors the event.
Her finishing time of 21 hours and 51 minutes was neither her slowest time nor her fastest, which was 19 hours and 42 minutes in 2004, when she was the second woman and 17th runner overall to cross the finish line. This year, she was the 13th female finisher. Every finish has come in less than 24 hours. If Park manages two more, she could become only the second woman to have 10 finishes of less than 24 hours in the most prestigious race of its type in the country.
Park said a couple factors worked against her this year. At least 5 miles of the course in the high Sierra was covered with slushy snow, and Park admits to being a terrible snow runner. The heavy snowfall forced organizers to reroute miles 9 through 24 away from high country trails and onto mostly lower elevation gravel, dirt and even paved roads. Although the consensus was that the detour made the course faster, Park is a mountain goat and “did not enjoy the detour” onto roads. Later, just before the halfway point, she had a bad patch and took a couple rest breaks. But a change of shoes at 55 miles helped bring rejuvenation.
“The second half of my race was so much better than the first half,” she said. “I felt like I had a lot of energy at the end.”
She passed numerous runners and remained strong enough that she nearly closed a three-minute gap on the 12th place woman in the final mile.
That she had such a strong finish is amazing considering that she did not learn until May that she was in the race. Most people know by December at the latest whether or not they are in next June’s race, and they spend a solid six months training specifically for Western States’ hills, distance and high temperatures. Park got in only five weeks of race-specific training, topping out with 90 miles of running one week.
“It’s not like I’m not training anyways. I was doing 60-mile weeks,” she said. Park relied on her 30-year reserve of training for marathons, ultra marathons (races longer than a 26.2-mile marathon) and Iron Man-length triathlons.
“I have such a huge base, and I am so effective with the training that I do. I don’t feel like I have to do all of the mileage (that other runners do).”
Still, Park is happy to know that she already has a slot in the 2011 race and can gear her running calendar around the event. “I’m looking forward to doing it the right way,” she said.
When she toes the line in 2011, Luanne Park will be 50 years old. It’s not unusual for veteran runners to do well in ultra marathons (the top 5 women at Western States this year were 41, 49, 39, 25 and 42 years old, respectively), but there is no denying the human body is not the same at 50 as it is at 25 or even 35.
“You will never hear me say a thing about being older,” Park responded. “If anything, I use it to my advantage. I wonder what these runners who are 25 years younger than me think when I can keep up with them.”
Park intends to set a new course record for the 50-59 age group, which now stands at 23 hours and 15 minutes. Of course, this year’s second place finisher, Meghan Arbogast of Corvallis, Oregon, will also be 50 next year, and she also has committed to the 2011 race. It should be quite a contest between two women who prove that age might mean less than experience in endurance sports.
“I want to be in the top 10 again. I still think I could go under 20 hours,” Park said.
• Congratulations also to Red Bluff’s Alan Abbs, who racked up his fifth Western States finish last weekend. Abbs crossed the line in 21 hours and 10 minutes, good enough for 47th place out of 328 finishers. His wife, Beverly Anderson-Abbs – who, like Park, has finished as high as second place – withdrew from the event because of a recent knee surgery. Get well, Bev.
• Runners interested in covering a little less distance have two great Fourth of July races from which to choose: the Mt. Shasta 5-mile run, 2-mile youth run and 2-mile walk in Mount Shasta, and the Independence Day 5Kat Bidwell Park in Chico.
Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planningmagazine and, almost passed Luanne Park in a 4-mile race a few years ago. Yeah, almost. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.