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Richmond runner takes on the country’s oldest 100-mile run

on June 28, 2012

It’s almost 1 o’clock in the morning, and Jeff Pflueger is feeling great as he darts down a narrow dirt trail in Auburn, California, his headlamp illuminating a few feet of the path ahead of him. As he rounds the corner, a disco ball suspended from the roof of a white pop-up tent interrupts the lonely, wooded path, throwing beams of glittery light into the cold night. A handful of people stand to cheer as he passes the tent they’ve decorated like a Christmas tree. “314!”—his bib number— Pflueger yells out as he and his good friend and pacer Brian Wyatt rush past. His lanky silhouette quickly disappears into the darkness. There is no time to waste. He is less than four miles from the finish, so close he can feel it—100.2 miles nearly done.

Reflective gear shines as runners start up the mountain at 5 AM.

Pflueger, a Richmond resident, is racing in the United States’ oldest, and most renowned, 100 mile trail run—the Western States Endurance Race (WSER), which is sponsored by Montrail, a running shoe company based in the Ford Point building in Richmond. The run starts in Squaw Valley, adjacent to a skiing chair lift at the base of a mountain. Runners line up in the dark at 5 am, and the first four miles rise a steep 2,500 feet. The course winds from Squaw through the wilderness and into the canyons. Only three miles are paved, mostly it’s rocky terrain. Trail runs like this are meant to test the mettle of an athlete, and WSER does the job well. In the canyons daytime temperatures often soar over 100°F and at mile 78 the course crosses the American River, within spitting distance of a class six rapid. To get across, race organizers reduce water flow at upstream dam and run a guide cable from one side to the other for runners to grip while they wade through. In years with high water flow, volunteers man small rafts to take runners from one side to the other. This year the water was about waist high.

WSER unofficially began in 1974 when Gordy Ainsleigh decided to compete in the Tevis Cup, a 100 mile, 24 hour ride done on horseback. His horse was lame, so Ainsleigh decided he’d run it himself. 23 hours and 42 minutes later Ainsleigh, became the first person in the United States to complete a 100 mile trail race on foot and he set the standard for speed. (Today, only the top runners finish the Western States Endurance Race within 24 hours.) For the few years, Ainsleigh ran the Tevis Cup with only one or two other runners, while everyone else raced on horseback. The people willing to try were few at first, and those who finished were even rarer. But in 1977, fourteen men from around the US decided to sign up and the Western States Endurance Run was officially born.

In recent years, the number of people interested in ultra-marathon distance races has steadily risen in North America. There is at least one 100-miler race every month and California hosts the most races. WSER is now so popular only 10 percent of the thousands who apply get in. Participants are chosen based on a lottery drawing; some people apply for years without winning. Pflueger’s name was pulled the first time he entered. It was luck that got him in to the race, but he’ll need a lot more than luck to get him through it.

Pflueger decided he’d compete in an ultra-distance race a couple of years ago when he watched Nettie Pardue, his wife, run a 50K in the Marin Headlands. The endurance and the dedication he witnessed that day were inspiring. “I was just moved by the effort,” he said of his wife’s performance in the race. “Something about it just really resonated.”

It was another woman in his life who first introduced him to running. “My mom would take us to run Bay to Breakers as a kid,” Pflueger said. Being outdoors and running were just a part of his life. He ran track at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley and his father would take him fishing, hiking, kayaking and camping. He’s done nearly every sport that takes you in to the wild, and done it to the extreme, covering hundreds of miles on bike, kayak, raft and foot. He also enjoys rock climbing, and exploring in general. He says the beauty around him is what keeps him motivated during races, and that passion and vision is evident in his side profession—photography.

Pflueger’s athleticism is apparent in his appearance and movements. At over six feet tall, with a slim torso and long colt-like legs, he looks built to run long distances. His face is open and is rarely without a genuine smile stretching across it. Like other ultra-runners, he seems to move with little impact, ghost-like in his weightlessness. Every movement is controlled and purposeful, no energy wasted with unnecessary gestures.

In 2011, Pflueger ran his first 100-miler—Angeles Crest—a tough trail run in the San Gabriel Mountains. He placed fourth, finishing in 23 hours and 33 minutes. That’s something he won’t tell you. “He’s too modest to mention it,” his father, Bud, says of Pflueger’s accomplishment at that first race.

Western States is only Pflueger’s second 100-miler, so he hasn’t developed a pre-race “ritual” yet. He woke up at 3:30 AM to start preparing. Although he usually likes to eat tamales before, or during, a long run (“They’re a really good simple carb!”) he started this morning off with mini bagels and his own power smoothie recipe. After driving to Squaw Valley with his crew, Pflueger joined 381 other runners to check in, get his bib number and line up for the long day ahead.

Each runner is encouraged to bring at least one person along to support them at various aid stations throughout the race where they will supply the runner with additional food, drinks or equipment and cheer them on. Pflueger’s crew consisted of Victoria Folks, a Richmond resident and ultra-runner (currently eight months pregnant), Brian Wyatt (Victoria’s husband and one of Pflueger’s pacer) Chaia Wyatt, Brian’s 13-year- old daughter and Victor Ballesteros, an accomplished ultra-runner from San Rafael.

Over the course of 100 miles, runners experience a pendulum of emotions—from soaring happiness to deep despair. Mental and emotional stamina become at least as important as physical preparedness. “It’s draining, but the most important thing is knowing that things will change. Not getting too wrapped up in either of those emotions—the highs or the lows. The best runners are those who can deal with the bad patches really well,” Pflueger said.

Pfluger cruises in to the checkpoint at mile 62.

And bad patches there were during Saturday’s race, those 100 miles with 18,090 feet of climbing and 22,970 feet of total descents. The first half of the race Pflueger said he felt great and looked fresh—like he was just out for a fun jaunt. Coming in to Foresthill, one of the only spectator-friendly aid stations, at mile 62 he’d barely broken a sweat. Baseball cap on backward, he bounded on to the scale and weighed in—all participants weigh in at multiple stations along the course to make sure they haven’t lost too much water. He was wearing a big grin and gave a polite thank you to the volunteers.

But after leaving the aid station and heading back into the lonely trails things took a turn for the worse. “There was a lot of barfing,” he said. “A lot.” For the next 18 miles, Pflueger’s stomach violently rejected anything he put in it. It’s not uncommon for runners’ bodies to shut down during a long race, but it’s imperative that they take in calories and fuel to continue.

At this point in a race many drop out, but Pflueger endured, even managing to smile through the pain. Around mile 90 something changed for him. Over the next ten miles he passed at least ten other runners. Shortly after 1:30 Sunday morning, Pflueger finally stepped on to the track at Placer High School in Auburn. A small crowd of about a hundred shivering finishers, photographers and spectators stood at the other end of the stadium standing and clapping as he ran the last 400 meters to the finish. Arms held high over his head, and wearing his trademark grin, Pflueger crossed the finish line at 20 hours, 35 minutes and one second—a personal record and a nearly three-hour improvement on his previous time.

Race volunteers quickly converged around him—as they do with all runners—and weighed him in one last time. His total weight loss was four pounds, placing him well within the average, and he reassured them he was happy and feeling a little “barfy,” but good.

Pflueger’s advice for anyone who thinks running so far is unattainable, “If you can run 5 miles, you can run a hundred. Think of 100 miles as just 20 five mile runs.”

Until the next race you can catch Pflueger with his wife, and running pals, traversing the hills in Wild Cat Canyon, or perhaps just walking around Richmond sporting his shiny new belt buckle—the coveted award for runners who finish Western States in under 24 hours.

This story was amended to correct the distance of Nettie Pardue’s first race distance, the name of Pflueger’s first 100 mile race, and Pflueger’s profession. Richmond Confidential regrets the errors.

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