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The grueling grandad of running races

One hundred miles is a lengthy jaunt in a car. Traveling 100 miles on foot – while scaling rocks, negotiating swift-flowing streams, trekking through snow before blazing hot canyons and forcefully pushing body and mind to the point of utter exhaustion – is an unfathomable feat for most logical humans. For the average person, a dire emergency is the only situation that would warrant such a journey. And most would collapse far before reaching 100 miles. But at the 32nd annual Western States Endurance Run this Saturday and Sunday, more than 360 athletes will tackle the brutal 100-mile course. And they’re doing it for fun.Truckee resident Kathy D’Onofrio, 40, is one of those rare athletes, known fittingly in the running world as an ultrarunner. D’Onofrio, who has competed in Western States several times beginning in 1985 – she won the race in ’86 and ’88 – knows the course like the back of her hand.”It has these steep canyons that are difficult,” D’Onofrio said, “but the hard stuff is in the first half. The second half is really quick. The only problem is, you have to survive the first half. Then it usually gets really hot.”The challenge of surviving what is widely considered the most infamous 100-mile race in the country – there are more than 25 of them – lures entrants from around the globe, from places such as New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Nepal and Iceland. The race has become so popular since its birth in 1974, a lottery had to be implemented to keep the numbers manageable.”Western States can be compared to the Olympics in a way for ultras because it’s respected and it’s been around for a long time,” D’Onofrio said.Typically, about 700 ultrarunners apply and only about 400 are chosen in the lottery. Some have been waiting for years to be picked. Chris Luberecki of Tahoe City will brave the course for the first time, only because it’s the first time his name has been drawn.”I’ve never got in before,” Luberecki said. “Western States is like the Holy Grail of races. It’s all about the prestige and glory. It’s the mack daddy race.”Why run 100 grueling miles across the crest of the Sierra Nevada, though?”Because I can,” Luberecki said. “I enjoy running incredibly. I tell people I started running from the law and just kept going.”D’Onofrio has her own reasons for loving the sport.”It’s meditative,” she said. “It takes you away. There’s no one telling you what to do. No one can tell you anything. The phone can’t ring. Just getting away.”Another Tahoe City resident competing in the race, Robert Kronkhyte, tops off the field of locals picked in the lottery. Kronkhyte, 49, has simple reasons for his desire to run 100 miles. “I find it’s fun,” said Kronkhyte, who has completed three of the six Western States Endurance Runs he has entered, his best time in 25 hours. “I enjoy pushing my body to its limits, and beyond that point … It’s some kind of primal thing.”The raceThe Western States Endurance Run begins at 5 a.m. Saturday at the 6,200-foot base of Squaw Valley, then climbs up and over 8,750-foot Emigrant Pass – that’s 2,550 feet in the first 4 1/2 miles. From there the trail, much of it following the original routes that gold and silver miners used in the 1850s, travels west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching the finish line in Auburn.Aid stations are sprinkled along the trail for those in need of medical attention or food and water.Due to abundant snowpack still lingering in the backcountry, the first 15 miles once reaching Emigrant Pass are blanketed. But for Tahoe-area ultrarunners accustomed to dealing with snow, that may work to their advantage. Especially for D’Onofrio, who at 95 pounds may just glide across it without leaving a dent. “I’m excited there’s a lot of snow,” D’Onofrio said. “I’m really light, so I have an advantage. And I love snow. It’s great. No problems with the snow. I don’t care. If it’s snowing, so what. It’s good for me.”Kronkhyte, who described himself as a “middle-of-the-pack-guy” when it comes to racing, said he’s not worried about the snow, either.”A lot of people are pretty worked up about that,” he said. “I’ve been running in the snow, so I don’t mind it.”Luberecki said the same..”The snow gives me an advantage,” he said. “I’ve been training on [the snow] for a long time. I’ve been training a lot, so I’m pretty confident.”Like many Western States entrants – besides six-time victor Scott Jurek, who set a new course record last year in 15 hours, 36 minutes and 27 seconds – Luberecki’s goal is to finish the race in one day.”Am Igoing to win? No,” Luberecki said. “Am I hoping to break 24 hours? Yes.”Rules are, racers must cross the finish line in less than 24 hours. The absolute cutoff time is 30 hours, or 11 a.m. on Sunday.Some will make it, some won’t.But one thing is as sure as it was in the very first Western States Endurance Race: Body and mind will be put to the test.


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