Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk: 100-mile race through the Sierras
Imagine running 100 miles. Now imagine running 100 miles through the mountains.
This weekend, the Western States 100 mile race transforms the Sierras. The race winds it’s way from Squaw Valley to Auburn through the mountains in snow, heat, and sometimes heartbreak. The race is an amazing test of endurance, strength, and fortitude for each runner. In speaking with long time Board member, Mo Livermore, I was curious about the history and role of women in the race. Beginning in 1974, the race grew out of a horse race. In 1979, Pat Smythe held the honor as the first and only official women’s finisher whose time was 29 hours, 34 minutes. Mo, a board member since 1978, ran five times and finished twice. In the ’79 race, men who told her she was running too fast surprised her. In rapid speed, Mo’s 1984 race earned her the coveted “less than 24-hour” silver belt buckle. She has dedicated herself to organizing and working the race ever since. In Western States, she sees a “sense of the possible,” and endless adventure. Over the years, she’s noticed the women as not sweating the small stuff and looking better at the finish.
In 1980, the power of women’s endurance continued to shine as two women finished in the top ten, Sally Edwards and Bjorg Austrheim-Smith. Sally won the race but moved on to become a well-known triathlete, adventure racer, and entrepreneur. She started and owned the many franchises of the well-known running store, Fleet Feet. But, the true queen of Western States remains Ann Trason. She won the women’s division a record 14 times. Ann even managed two second place finishes and a third place overall finish. She still holds the women’s course record of 17:37:51, set in 1994. Ann’s fiercely competitive nature and talent caused her to rightly view the men as her main competition. Ann showed a gracious side when she would come to view the slower finishers and cheer them in at the finish. According to Mo, Ann provided a turning point as to how women were viewed as ultrarunners. Despite these amazing women, the race still only yields about 10%-15% women entrants per year.
Our local Marin women have run the race throughout the years. The first Marin woman to finish under 24 hours was Martha Cederstrom (shown in photo at left). Hers is a hard fought story. Prepped and ready for the 1989 race, Martha’s race day was having it’s ups and downs. She struggled to stay on pace for the coveted silver belt buckle. But something happened at Highway 49 with only 7 miles to go. The jets went on. Her husband, Dane Larsen (a Western States runner himself), watched her take off like a bullet. Off she went, flying up the trail to Robey Point. The below 24-hour finish was hanging in the balance. Down the road she raced to the stadium pushing harder and harder, She flew around the track only to cross the finish line in a heartbreak time of 24:00:46. She had given the race her all. She was spent, but determined to return again the next year. In 1990, Martha trained even harder and tougher. She was determined as only Martha can be. She hit the trail hard at a blistering pace. She was not to be denied. This year, she crossed the finish at 22:53:56. She had plenty of time to spare. The silver belt buckle was hers. Her determination, strength, and mental toughness carried her through to the finish as the 5th place woman. Surrounded by family and friends for crew, her support was boundless.
In this year’s race, a talented and fierce competitor in the likes of Diana Fitzpatrick once again represents Marin. She’s a former competitive road racer and a multiple black shirt Dipsea runner. As she became fully entrenched in the Tamalpa running scene, Diana became interested in running ultras in 2003. She loves the trails of Marin. For Diana, she finds ultras refreshing much like a whole new sport. She won Marin’s own Miwok 100K in 2004. Greg Soderlund, Western States Race Director, was waiting at the finish. Impressed by her finish, she became an invited runner to Western States that year. After only a year of running ultras with impressive results, Diana kicked ass at Western States 100, finishing in 20:22. Her goals for the race were: 1) Finish 2) Break 24 3) Best effort under 24 4) Top 5. She met every goal, including a 4th place finish.
Diana often trains with her husband, Tim. Tim is an ultrarunner himself. He encourages her every step along the way. Throughout their 19-year marriage, they’ve always been runners together. Running is the cornerstone of their lives. Tim often helps with coaching Diana. Their running speed is so closely aligned that they finished within 2 minutes of each other at the Vermont 100 in 2008. Diana finished 19:51:43. She’s clearly a persistent and determined runner who has never dropped out of an ultra. Their two kids have always crewed and helped out. The Fitzpatrick’s enjoy ultras as a family affair. In approaching this year’s Western States, Diana prefers not to think or worry about the race too much ahead of time. However, she was willing to share a couple of her mental strategies. First of all, she focuses on the moment. At Western, she will focus on one section at a time. She does not start thinking about what’s ahead. Secondly, she views bad patches as inevitable and treats them as another challenge within the race. She thinks bad patches will pass. She will continue to press forward.
The women runners of Western States inspire and command respect. They challenge younger female runners to forge ahead. In 2005 mid-pack runner, Mary Kitchens realized the race became an incredible moving meditation providing intense camaraderie and connection providing closeness to friends and family. This connection is what women need, and want. The women of Western States shall continue to experience the sense of possibility and endless adventure the race offers each year.
Dr. Joan Steidinger is a sports and clinical psychologist with offices in Mill Valley and San Francisco. She has been practicing sports psychology with clients ranging from recreational to pro athletes for the past 17 years.
As an athlete herself, she has been a competitive ultrarunner, Ride & Tie competitor, and ultradistance cyclist.