Truckee’s Betsy Nye, 51, reaches milestone of 100 endurance races
Below is a sample of the significant ultra races Betsy Nye has completed over her 18-year career.
Tahoe 200 (Calif.): 1 (second place)
Wasatch 100 (Utah): 10 (6 wins; second twice)
Hardrock 100 (Colo.): 14 (1 win; second 11 times)
Coyote 100 (Calif.): 2 (2 wins)
The Bear 100 (Utah): 2 (1 win)
Silver State 50 (Nev.): 11 (5 wins)
TRUCKEE, Calif. — It’s 1989 in Tahoe City, and Betsy Nye is having a conversation with her co-worker, Laura Vaughn — the usual small talk.
But then Vaughn tells Nye something that prompts her to raise an eyebrow: Vaughn is preparing to run the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to Auburn.
Nye was an avid recreational athlete herself at that point. When she wasn’t waiting tables with Vaughn at the Hacienda Del Lago, Nye was likely climbing the facade of a rock, hiking up a Sierra Nevada peak, or skiing down the Tahoe-area slopes.
But, running 100 miles? Nye had no interest. More than that, she couldn’t comprehend why Vaughn did, either.
“I thought it was dumb,” Nye recalls. “I thought ‘that’s nuts, that can’t be good for you.’ I went, ‘That’s silly, who would want to run 100 miles?’”
As it turned out, Nye would do just that— many, many times over.
Twenty-six years after her conversation with Vaughn, Nye, who now lives in Truckee, has not only completed a staggering number of 100-mile races (for some perspective, she’s won eleven 100-milers), she recently added her first 200-mile race to her resumé — that’s right, 200 miles — at the second annual Tahoe 200, held Sept. 11-15.
Circumnavigating Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail and beyond in 75 hours, 7 minutes and 32 seconds, Nye was the second woman to cross the finish line and eighth ultrarunner overall out of 60 competitors in this year’s Tahoe 200.
But what made Nye’s finish really stand out was a number not seen on the results page: The Tahoe 200 marked Nye’s 100th career ultra race. In other words, she’s competed in 100 races of 50 kilometers (31.07 miles) or more.
Even Nye is still wrapping her head around that statistic.
“I was counting them up and was like, ‘oh wow, the Tahoe 200 is going to be my 100th ultra, that’s kind of cool,” Nye said.
What’s more, Nye, now 51, didn’t start racing in ultras until she was 33 years old.
Getting on the ultrarunning path
It wasn’t until 1996 when Nye opened up to the idea of running — what she once described as “silly” — ultra race distances.
What planted the seed was being introduced to the concept of being a “pacer” for an ultrarunner by her then-boyfriend, who happened to have paced for their mutual friend, Laura Vaughn.
For those uninitiated, a pacer is a trail companion who accompanies a runner along designated sections of the race to make sure the runner is safe, to give them emotional support, and keep them apprised of upcoming aid stations, among other duties.
Nye said she was intrigued.
“I was like, I want to try that — I want to pace,” she said.
With that, in ’97 Nye signed up to be a pacer for the Wasatch Front 100 in Kaysville, Utah. To say she relished in the experience would be an understatement. She was perhaps the most enthusiastic pacer the race had ever seen.
“I paced this guy Chris, I paced him 34 miles,” said Nye, who didn’t want to stop there. “I got done with that and I was like, ‘I want to keep pacing,’ so I found someone else to pace. I went 60 miles (total) pretty much off the couch. So I was like, I want to sign up for this (race), I think I can do this.”
As it turns out, she wanted it more so than she could have imagined.
Nye not only found out she could do it — race 100 miles — she quickly realized she had a knack for it. Making her 100-miler debut in the Wasatch 100 a year later (’98), Nye finished in the top five.
“A lot of people get sick, and they can’t eat, and I had no problems at all,” said Nye, who ran two different 50-miler races that year to prepare for the Wasatch 100. “I just felt great. I knew my body and I knew this is a sport I can do well at.”
Nye was hooked. A year later, she won her first ultra race, the Silver State 50 Miler in Reno.
In 2001, three years after breaking ground in the ultrarunning world, she captured her first 100-mile title, fittingly, at the Wasatch 100, a race she’s now won six times.
Keeping the pace
Since ’98, Nye has competed in an average of nearly six ultra races a year. In that span, she’s won eleven 100-milers and six 50-milers, to go with countless second- and third-place finishes.
It’s a staggering pace that has required diligence, patience, plenty of training, even more rest, and dozens and dozens of running shoes — Nye said she goes through an average of eight pairs a year.
“You have to be patient, that’s the key,” Nye said. “When you’re doing a big race, you have to think ‘I’m going seven miles to the next aid station’ — you just think of it in chunks.”
Only twice has Nye started an ultra race and not crossed the finish line. She pulled a muscle during her second Wasatch 100 in ’99, and in 2004 at the HURT 100-mile race in Oahu, Hawaii, Nye ran just 20 miles.
She was 11 weeks pregnant at the time.
“She’s pretty stubborn, which in ultras can be a good thing,” said Paul Sweeney, Nye’s husband and a fellow ultrarunner. “It’s impressive longevity. I think there are a lot of people that are pretty passionate about the sport and forced out of it for different reasons, health reasons and stuff. So it’s impressive.”
Not that Nye hasn’t cleared her own share of injury hurdles throughout her career. In one instance, on March 31, 2012, Nye broke her tibia and fibula while running the Grand Canyon rim with a group of friends.
As Nye described it: “I heard sheep and I was looking for big horned sheep and I tripped, and instead of just falling, I caught myself and my leg fell into a hole. So I got a helicopter ride out of there.”
Nye, however, was back on her feet and regained her stride in short order. Unbelievably, less than a year following her fall, Nye ran a 50K, and — if that wasn’t enough — she completed a 68-miler three weeks later.
“Since then, I’ve just been happy to be on the trails again, still doing OK,” Nye said. “Once I broke my leg my attitude changed; I wasn’t as serious, I love competing, but I mostly like being out on the trails and being with my dogs (Daisy and Buck). It’s just fun to be out.”
Taking on Tahoe
Betsy Nye has done everything from racing while pregnant to racing shortly after giving birth to her and Sweeney’s daughter, Lizzie.
She’s conquered more than thirty 100-mile races — including 14 Hardrock 100s in Silverton, Colo., widely considered the most challenging 100-miler in the country.
And yet, Nye still managed to find a new challenge to take on: a 200-mile race.
Since the first-ever 200-mile race in the U.S. landed in her backyard, it only made sense to her that she try to tackle the second annual Tahoe 200 this year.
At the very least, Nye wanted to finish inside the cutoff time of 100 hours, but her primary goal, the target time she felt she could hit, was around 75 hours.
Nye clocked in at 75:07:32, crossing the finish line, incredibly, in a full sprint.
“I was so ready to be done,” Nye said. “I was actually running really fast on the downhill; I was anxious because I knew I was going to finish, but also in the back of my head I was thinking, ‘don’t fall, don’t break your leg.’
“The last thing I wanted to do a mile out (from the finish) is fall down.”
Sure-footed, Nye sped across the finish line, where friends and family greeted her with loud cheers and big hugs; the biggest coming from her sister, Julie, who paced Betsy to the finish.
“She was crying, she was more emotional than I was,” Nye said. “I was kind of delirious; I was kind of hallucinating.”
The surrealism stemmed from the fact Nye had slept only 120 minutes over her three-plus days roaming the Tahoe Rim Trail. Moreover, Nye “wasn’t feeling that great” at mile 80.
“Going into the 100 distance, I was like, ‘oh my god, how am I going to do this?’” Nye said. “But then the third day I was totally refreshed; I took a nap, my legs were fresh and I was able to run again. I caught my second wind on the third day.”
The truth is, though, Nye knew eventually she’d lock into a groove; eventually the pain would subside; eventually, she’d find the finish line.
Just as she had the 99 times before.
“In races, in the 100s and the 200, you go through ups and downs,” said Nye, miming a rollercoaster with her hand. “Sometimes you feel like you’re not going to be able to make it and you doubt yourself, and then once you get through it, you can come back totally around. It’s kind of cool.
“I sort of compare that to life in general — we all have good days and bad days in life, but you just keep going.”