The things that people can accomplish are truly amazing. When you meet a person who’s passionate and has been that way for their entire life, you can’t help but just feel motivated towards the thing you are passionate about after associating with them. It’s a contagious feeling, and that is how my interview with Gunhild Swanson left me feeling afterward. Gunhild is 74 years old and has completed a total of 289 races that span from marathons to 100 milers over the last 40 years. She has had many accomplishments throughout her running career, but one that really put her in the spotlight was her Western States Finish in 2015 that solidified her as the oldest female to ever finish Western States, finishing with only a mere 6 seconds left until cutoff. While talking to Gunhild, you can’t help but notice her lively demeanor and upbeat attitude. Gunhild touched base with me to provide some great stories about the history of her running career, some awesome info on her longevity in the sport, and an update on her most recent race and upcoming plans.
How did you get started in running?
Gunhild: Well I’ve been going strong for the last 40 years, it was the winter of 1977 when I got started. I was in an exercise class because I was afraid of getting middle age spread (Gunhild laughed out loud when she said this), in this exercise class someone had started talking about a race that had happened in Spokane called Bloomsday. Lately it’s turned into a real famous 12k race with thousands of participants and in little Spokane that’s pretty impressive. But anyways, I had heard about this race and people were talking about how fun it sounded and our exercise instructor, this was before it was called aerobics by the way, it was called ski conditioning had told me one day that I could hang around after the class and we would do some jogging around the inside gym. We would go 10 minutes one direction, and 10 minutes the other and it wad during that time I got to talk with some of the other ladies who chose to do that and I started really having fun with it. I always like telling this story because I remember it took me 6 weeks to do the 24 circuits which equaled out to be a mile without stopping. I then discovered in a very non competitive fun run that first year that I could run hard until I got a side ache and then I have to stop and catch my breath and then I can go hard again. I never really knew I could jog I would usually just push it until i couldn’t run anymore. But I discovered through running in that race I was sort of towards the front of the women and in the top half of the whole crowd and I thought to myself I said, “you know, I like this.. I just like this, this is okay.” and it really made me feel good to do it, and that’s how this particular runner was born.
What type of running did you start with during that time?
Gunhild: Back in those times trail running really hadn’t been invented yet as a thing to go do. Sure, people did it but it didn’t have the name that it does today. The only things I ever really participated in was the local road races, the 5 milers, the 10k races, and the half marathons. In 1980 I ran my first marathon and I was strictly a road racer. I began to dabble in trails and my first ultra race was from downtown Spokane to the top of Mount Spokane, but it was on the roads. My next ultra race was a 50 miler in Montana which was not really a trail race, but it was more of a rocky dirt road but that was basically my introduction to running out in the woods. I didn’t actually get into true trail racing until about 10 years or so ago and at first it was me and my husband, he wasn’t so much into trail running but he gave it a shot with me but during those times we were really into marathon running, we would travel to do marathons with the occasional ultra every so often but that wasn’t the main focus.
When did you realize that running would be a lifetime sport for you?
Gunhild: Well, it just sort of evolved. I was raising a family, 4 children, I was working and running just had to be done on free time. I hadn’t ever decided in my mind that I was just going to do this or make a name for myself or any of that, it just kind of happened. It’s always been a hobby, the older I got the more time I got for it as the kids were grown and some other life changes as well, but running became a focus for me mid 80’s but even then it was still done on a hobby basis, never coached or anything. However, I did get my first coach for the 2015 Western States, I went into that venture to finish and establish a women’s first finish at 70 years old.
So you became the oldest female finisher to complete the Western States, how was that experience for you?
Gunhild: Coming into it I knew I would need all the help I could get. I needed to be able to run long distance of course, but I always needed to be doing some strengthening exercises and balance training etc so that was the first time I brought on a coach.. But during that race, everything had lined up for me to finish and I was largely oblivious to the whole thing as it was happening. So I went off course at around 3 in the morning, before that I had a comfortable margin and had picked up time overnight and had no problems.. until I went off course. Once I realized I was off course, I was back in the cutoff zone and I honestly thought I was going to get cut at the highway 49. I told my pacer, which happened to be my grandson at that point I said “I can’t do it, I’ve done the math and I know I’ve got these climbs ahead and I’ve only got so much time left.. I just don’t think I can do it” and he got real stern with me, turned around and looked me in the face and said “Don’t you talk like that, just don’t even think about it just follow me, I’ll get you there.” And he did, I made it to the aid station with just minutes to spare and I picked up my last pacer and he told me that we have a chance, but I have to keep moving. I blindly followed him and he was a great motivation for me, applauding me when I kept running further than our plan, pointing out rocks and trees and things to look out for, it was all really helpful at that time.
It was down to the wire, what helped push you to the end?
Gunhild: I came up the hill and finally got onto the road, I had to walk the majority of that last climb, I really had nothing in the tank. Before I got to the last aid station, I saw people coming down toward me, they knew I was almost there and I remember somebody had a bucket of water and sponge, they had started to douse me in water. From that last aid station the people around me became more and more because from that point anybody can go with you. I actually have a picture where right behind me, the people who ride horses and do the sweeping, they were riding with me I mean it was crazy! At the time I wasn’t really thinking about anything, I didn’t know how close I was, nobody told me that I only had so many minutes they just kept saying I needed to keep going. So i’m coming further into town, I have this large crowd around me and to be honest I can’t really ever remember who said what, I just was following everything I was told. “There is shade up on the left, think cool.. run through the shade. You’ll see a right hand turn, take it and it’s some uphill, run don’t walk”, and I listened to all of it. I finally got to the downhill section right before the track and I was told to just fly, so I was coming down the hill and I was hearing people yell for me and someone told me “when you hit the bottom, it’s going to feel like you bottom out and you’ll want to slow down. Don’t.. keep the momentum.” When I got on the track, someone had yelled “grab the inside lane” and to me that made sense, so without even thinking I remember there was a guy to my left about a step ahead of me who was running with me at the end and I needed to go there, my left arm went out and I literally pushed him out of my way and I truly didn’t mean to, it just happened. When I came around the turn I looked up and I saw the clock and only then did I know just how close I was, and I needed to sprint to get in and I knew I could do it. My coach, in her wisdom had made me do track workouts and I always kind of thought, this is sort of a nuisance but the minute I saw the clock it was just natural, my legs knew what to do. And voila, there was the finish at 29 hours, 59 minutes, and 54 seconds that solidified me as the oldest female finisher of the Western States 100. Everything just clicked you know? And I still laugh because I was completely clueless. Everybody was prepared for a heartbreak when it came down to getting around the track in that last 90 seconds.. it was definitely down to the wire.
What is one of your favorite aspects of the Ultra community?
Gunhild: oh man… I really just love the ultra community. It’s like what marathoning was like in the 80’s when the races weren’t really big and you would get to know people and make friends and see each other at the next marathon you went to, the ultra community is sort of like that now.
With so many races under your belt, what is your most memorable one?
Gunhild: In 1982 I set my all time marathon PR, it was at the Seattle marathon. Well my son Chris, he started running with me and of my 4 children he was the one who really stuck with it and he became an excellent runner, to the point of running in the 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials. He has been one of my biggest supporters and when he was 10 years old he started running with me. So in the 1982 Seattle marathon Chris came with me on the trip just to cheer me on and it was kind of a double out and back and he didn’t tell me this prior, but on the second loop he fell in and decided to run it with me, which was great. I really enjoyed that and I was on an insane pace, back then they marked that race in kilometers rather than meters and I had run the first 10k in a time that I had yet to equal in any official 10k that I had run. Chris stayed like a step ahead of me, and all I did was focus on Chris and kept up with him, well he stepped up the pace and I didn’t notice and he pushed me without me realizing and when I got to the finish I had a time of 2:56 and my son was a huge factor in me doing that. That was followed by the 2005 Western States which I set out to better the existing 60 and over mark for females which I hadn’t told anyone I was trying to do, except the night before I handed Chris a pace chart and said “bring me in at that time” and I beat that time by just over an hour and again Chris was a critical part in making that happen, and we did it.
What types of things do you have planned on your running agenda?
Gunhild: Oh that’s hard to say, I honestly don’t know. My plan is to keep running for the rest of my life. Not only that, but to run to my full potential and to continue to keep pushing myself as hard as I can. And I know as i continue to get older it’s going to be harder but that’s where I’ll just adjust, because it’s what makes me happy.
What type of things make you happy? What type of goals do you set for yourself? In running we can see longevity that is longer than most sports and for that we are lucky. Gunhild Swanson is an example of creating your best life and finding a way to do what you love, and make it work.