Imagine the requisite athleticism it’d take to run for 100 miles, up an 18,000 foot incline and back down nearly 23,000 feet, with summer’s ever-present 100 degree heat bearing down.
“It’s pretty much the Super Bowl of ultra-running,” local runner Martin Sengo said of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. “There’s no bigger or more renowned event. It also just happens to be in our backyard.”
And there’s a Davis-based group of passionate runners — known as the Golden Valley Harriers — taking advantage of the fact that this intense trek starts and ends in Northern California; on a mountainous trail from Squaw Valley into Auburn.
Three members of this two-decade-old running club — Bruce Labelle, Alex McDaniel and Di Wu — competed in the 2013 Western States run in June, and each completed it within 24 hours.
And though all of the local running crew is deserved respect for even crossing the finish line (not all entrants of the race achieve that much), it was a special honor for Labelle, as it was his 10th finish under the 24-hour mark.
“Instead of receiving the regular award, a belt buckle that reads ‘100 miles, one day,’ I got one that reads ‘1,000 miles, 10 days,’ ” Labelle said. “It’s relatively rare to have that given out, and it was a fun challenge to achieve.”
Even more significant is the accomplishment in context: Labelle is a 57-year-old man who first participated in the Western States event more than 20 years ago. He’s for that long been in shape enough to compete in other ultra-marathons and trail runs.
Actually, Labelle doesn’t subscribe to the idea that it’s all in the fitness level. He’s found that the key to success actually is patience, and equated it to the difference been youthful hastiness and the calm demeanor that comes with maturity.
His goal now is to help other Golden Valley Harrier members prepare themselves physically (and mentally) for these lengthy events; runners like Sengo, a Davis resident who aspires to don the congratulatory belt buckle one day.
The GVH crew includes runners of all levels, from those on a constant pursuit of bettering times in the most challenging of races, to those content with personal betterment of any sort.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter mindset, as UC Davis researcher and amateur runner Paula Checchi can attest. She does it for a reason that speaks to the nation’s oft-cited obesity epidemic.
“My family has all struggled with weight issues, and a lot of them have problems with heart disease and diabetes,” she said. “I really don’t want that to happen to me, which is part of why I like to run — to keep an active lifestyle.”
While she’s done 50-mile trail runs (exhausting in its own right), the Western States Endurance Run is somewhat off her radar.
“I’m still not sure that I see myself as having the guts to do it,” she admits, “but it’s really inspiring, the people who are out there.”
Then again, she recalls a time when she told her husband there was no way she’d ever run more than a half marathon (less than 15 miles on average), and ended up running 50 miles shortly thereafter.
“The trail running group here is pretty convincing in terms of their ability to get you to sign up for distances that you never thought you’d run,” she said with a chuckle.
Checchi never pictured herself as a runner, she added. She’s not someone who ran in high school or college, aside from what was the minimum requirement in physical education courses. She began running on a whim while in graduate school.
“When I started, I could only run a portion of the track. I would run the straights, and walk the turns,” she said. “I’ve come a long way, but definitely did not come with any natural talent at all.”
Checchi has kept on with the Golden Valley Harriers’ weekly training regimen ever since moving here four years ago. She now cites the running group as the people she often spends the most time with.
The camaraderie they have, which was also mentioned by Labelle and Sengo, is another of the motivating factors in her continued interest.
“Sometimes I tell people that it’s less about the actual running, even though that’s the key activity, but more about the wonderful social connections you make running together,” Checchi said.
For more details on Golden Valley Harriers and the races it participates in, visit www.goldenvalleyharriers.org.
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett