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The popularity of ultra running has shot through the roof with finisher numbers in the U.S. nearly tripling since 2007. And for many, winning the lottery to take part in the famous 100 Mile Western States Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn in California is a dream come true.
Ann Trason has run this trail so often that she knows every turn, climb and canyon like the back of her hand – so much so, that once when she didn’t want competitors to know how close ahead she was at night, she switched off her light and ran in the dark.
“It’s a place I call my home, it’s a special place,” she said sitting on a bench overlooking the Western States trail leading up to Auburn. She remembers the first time she ran it. “It captured something in me, I just felt it was in my blood, I can’t explain the beauty, the freedom.”
The Western States is the world’s oldest and arguably most famous 100-mile race, ascending a total of over 18,000 feet (5500m) and descending nearly 23,000 feet through canyons, along rivers, over hanging bridges and rocky trails in temperatures that can exceed 100F (40C) and drop to well below freezing. The cut-off for the 161k from Squaw Valley to Auburn is 30 hours and it’s so popular that a lottery has to be held each year for the limited spots — chances of getting picked are 5% in the first year.
Ann has won this race 14 times and her course record of 17:37:51 stood for 18 years. Some course records she set in other races, such as Leadville in 1994 where she was also the second overall finisher, still haven’t been beaten, despite all the advances in gear and training methods that have come with the rising popularity of the sport. Of 51 U.S. ultramarathons on Ann’s Ultra Signup page between 1987 and 2004, she was the first woman to cross the finish line in all but two. Add to that her many overseas races – she twice won Western States less than two weeks after winning the 90k Comrades race in South Africa.
Ann has broken 20 world records in various events, but said she never really identified with the term “elite”. “My favourite runs are things where I run across the Sierras by myself,” she said. “I would just do these runs and mail my clothes somewhere and spend the night and then run back to my car a different way. That’s my favourite thing to do in the world. If I could do that every day, I’d be happy.”
As she was telling me an anecdote of the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run, I wanted to confirm she set a course record for that race as well. “I have no clue. It’s possible,” was her response.
Ann got into ultras after learning that one of her idols, Sally Edwards, had run the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run. She was so in awe that it was possible to run that far, she signed up six weeks before the event. Ann caught up with her idol during the race, but the meeting didn’t go well. Sally called her a rabbit and suggested Ann was going out too fast and wouldn’t be able to keep up. That comment lost Sally the race.
“My feelings got hurt, and I decided I was either going to die or I was going to beat her,” Ann said. She won American River that year and set the course record. But she felt awful afterwards and vowed to never run again – until she heard about Western States. When she called home, her mother said: “Oh you heard about that? I was afraid of that.”
So how did she prepare? After all, when Ann started running ultras, the sport was far from as popular as it is now and there wasn’t much information to go by. “There was one guy, Chuck Jones, who’d won it and he ran like a 180, 200 miles a week. So I thought that’s what you did.” She ended up with a swollen knee three weeks before the race and dropped out at mile 50. “Big lessons learned.” The second year, she became very dehydrated and felt miserable at mile 93 – and the medical staff pulled her.
“After that, I swore I’d never do it again and thought the trail was out to get me – pretty funny,” she chuckled. This second defeat prompted a big rethink. Ann retreated to her parents’ remote property and spent days writing down everything she’d learned in the last two years, what problems she’d faced and how she could overcome them. “I wrote a whole notebook.” She said she learned more in those first two years of not making Western States than she did in the next 14 years.
From then on, she always noted down three problems she might experience and how she would deal with them before every race. This included figuring out the right shoe and sock combination to avoid blisters or learning that sucking on ice cubes could be helpful against nausea. Monitoring calories and salt intake was another way to avoid nausea. “I set my watch to go off every 30 minutes so it reminded me to eat.” But just as important as fuelling the body is fuelling the mind. Imagine to keep running for 100 miles through all those highs and lows, pain, heat, cold and exhaustion. What get’s you through mentally?
Ann invented games to keep herself focused. “I like a lot of positive reinforcement,” she said. “For instance, when I do a hundred miles, every mile is my age.” It worked well at Western States where runners are faced with a massive climb right after the start. Those first few miles used to be hard, but Ann used to calm herself by saying that she was just a few years old and learning to walk. “And then you’re at mile 16 and you’re like you’re adolescent, you better calm down and control your enthusiasm, because you’re going to hit middle age.”
Middle age is the canyon section of Western States, full of tough climbs often in blistering heat where Ann would take care not to overdo it by telling herself: “If you take care of yourself in middle age, you’re going to have the most awesome retirement.” Making sure she’d still feel good at mile (age) 60 meant she could still run fast for the next 20-mile stretch. “I’m retired so I can take off, cause that’s where the race starts, really, in my feeling.” And when she’s close to the finish? “With mile 93 when I feel really horrible and I should feel bad for myself, I go hey! You’re 93 years old, you’re moving, good going, yay.”
Ann reckons a 100-miler can seem like a lifetime of experiences, so it’s an appropriate game, really. “I always thought it was like a chess game against yourself, where things come up and how are you going to deal with it.” She’s big on problem solving and approaching every issue as something that can be worked through. Not finishing the first two years made her realise that this was not an experience she wanted to repeat. “It’s worse not to finish so I’ll have to deal with what’s given to me,” she said. “It’s kind of like life, what do you want to do, curl up in a foetal position? No.”
That attitude got her through more than a few setbacks. At college she suffered a knee injury and had to stop running. After completing her biochemistry degree with honours at UC Berkeley, and feeling bored with her job in a lab, she got back into training and did a Half Ironman. After getting hit by a car during bike training, she strived to stay away from motor vehicles and started trail running. There were plenty of other injuries. She’s run Comrades and Western States with a torn cruciate ligament, once badly tore a hamstring and often struggled with back pain. Her surgeon thinks she has a very high pain threshold.
And while these days, women make up nearly a third of the field at ultramarathons, times were different when Ann started out in the 80s. “It would be all guys and then there’d be Ann – and then there were all these females crewing for us,” she said. “There were a lot fewer women running. There were still a lot of very talented women running, but probably not the depth.”
Running such extreme distances together created strong bonds and most people were very encouraging, she said. “The distances are so out there, it really didn’t matter, at least that’s how I envisioned it. We were all trying to do this crazy thing and there was just a lot of camaraderie because of it.” One time, however, after she hadn’t finished Western States twice, a male friend told her she didn’t have the right genes and that it was a man’s sport. In the next WS race, that friend couldn’t keep up with her. “I shouldn’t have done this, but when I saw him at mile 75, 70, when I passed him, I asked him how his genes were doing.”
And in 1996, Ann Trason told the New York Times that when she set a women’s world record some years earlier for 100 kilometers in the Netherlands, the media ignored her and instead focused on the male winner who’d finished ahead of her but hadn’t broken a record. In the awards ceremony, the men received metal trophies, the women flowers that didn’t even last until they got home.
Other female runners have echoed these experiences. In her book The Extra Mile, Pam Reed, who twice was the overall winner of the grueling 135-mile desert race Badwater, said media didn’t acknowledge her finishing ahead of all male competitors nearly as strongly as when a man won it. It’s a great pity if inspiring stories aren’t told because of gender bias. Fortunately though, there’s a shift on some fronts. Half of the documentaries at the most recent Trails in Motion trail running film festival, for instance, were about women runners and made you want to hit the trail right then and there.
While the field is still predominantly male in 100 milers such as Western States, the percentage of women has increased. In 1987, when Ann entered WS for the first time, 16 of the 183 finishers were women – a mere 8.7%. In 2003, when Ann ran it for the last time before taking a break from running, about 20% of finishers were female. “I’m hoping it inspired some people to try and now a lot of women are doing it,” Ann said.
The one person who initially wasn’t happy Ann was running such distances was her mother, Dr. Winona Trason, who taught biology at the Monterey Peninsula community college. Once, when Ann had made it to mile 30 at Western States, her mum sat her down and told her she’d run far enough and that she looked “really horrible”. “That was the first year I finished,” Ann laughed. “But then she jumped up and down when I finished.”
Still at the height of her career, Ann left the sport in 2004 and got into ultra cycling. “The person I was with couldn’t run anymore and I deeply loved him and he became a cyclist and I wanted to spend a lot of time with him, so that’s what I did for ten years.” When her husband and she split, she realised how much she’d missed the social side of running. “I guess I’m someone who’s always liked to give back. I can do aid stations, I can coach people,” she said. “I like to work with kids and give back how people gave to me when I was that age. It was something I really missed, so that’s why I’m doing it now.” She spends her days coaching runners from Australia, NZ, Africa, the US, and Canada. “Their goals become my goals. It’s really fun.”
Each runner is different and training plans depend entirely on the individual. Some can handle high mileage, others get injured and are better off with less. “I thrived off about 100 miles a week. I would do one high mileage like 120 miles week and then a 60 mile week,” Ann said. A big day for her would be a 50-mile day. She also found that doing 5 to 10 miles twice in a day really helped her training. In addition, there’d be 15-mile tempo runs where she would hold her 50k race pace and one long run with her 100 mile pace. On top of that, there might be some speed work.
With her clients, she emphasises recovery and said it can take her months to convince her top runners to do an easy day, which is vital to improving performance. Not that Ann was taking many breaks from running when she was racing. “During those times where I was really training I probably only took off one day a month.” Nike sponsored Ann for about 10 years and together with the bonus money from winning races it was enough to live off. She was completely committed to working incredibly hard to achieve her goals.
That commitment to give it her all shows up in many areas of her life. When I caught up with her again after the she’d been out volunteering, she was shattered because she’d been so busy helping runners that she’d forgotten to drink or eat herself. Turns out she needs to set her watch to go off to remind her to eat even when she’d not running!
For years, she also directed the Dick Collins Firetrails 50-miler and got so carried away with making all the food for the aid stations herself that she had to buy a new freezer for the mounts of soups and cookies coming out of her kitchen. “I just thought I’m going to put on a race that I would like and that’s what I did.” When it got to the point where she was putting her own baking logo on her baked goods, she thought that perhaps it was all getting a bit much.
Ann is now getting more people to run on her beloved Western States trail by directing the Overland Endurance Run 50k/30k. And while she’ll still be making the soups for that run, she said there’s no way she’ll be making all the baked goods this time. But then again… “Well, I say that – I’ll probably make some of the finish line stuff.”
To be coached by Ann, participate in a training camp or sign up for the Overland races on the Western States trail, check out her website http://www.trasonrunning.com.
10% of all money generated from Ann’s coaching will flow into a scholarship fund that was set up in honour of her mother Winona Trason, a professor emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College, after she passed away from cancer in 1991. The Dr. Winona Trason Health Sciences Scholarship supports the studies of health sciences students.
ANN’S RUNNING TIPS:
- note down three things that could go wrong in a race and how you would solve them
- try sucking on ice cubes if you feel nauseous
- do your recovery days super easy to give your body a chance to rebuild