AUBURN, Calif. — Ashland's Timothy Olson toed the starting line of the Western States Endurance Run on Saturday morning at 5 a.m. with a goal to stay with the lead pack as long as he could.
For the last 50 miles of this, the oldest and most prestigious of the country's 100-mile foot races, it was the rest of the field that couldn't keep up with the 28-year-old.
Olson not only won the 39th annual event, but his time of 14:46:44 smashed the course record of 15:07:04 set by Geoff Roes in 2010 by more than 20 minutes. His time was an improvement of more than an hour off his sixth-place finish last year.
"It was one of those races where everything just fell into place," Olson said shortly after the finish. "Nothing went too wrong, the body held up. It was hurting a lot, cramping up a little bit, but it didn't make me stop."
The Western States race begins in Squaw Valley, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. The course is run primarily on trails and ends in Auburn. In between are 18,090 feet of climbing and 22,970 feet of descent.
The race is known for its brutal heat, the temperature often reaching triple digits in the canyons.
Not this year, however; 2012 proved to be the coolest in the race's history, with high temperatures for the day in the 60s.
Ideal running weather.
Of the 382 starters in this race, 316 finished, far more than usual.
Early on, however, runners faced brutal conditions at the higher elevations.
"It was raining, sleeting in the high country," Olson said. "That's never happened in the (nearly) 40-year history of Western States. It was crazy weather but I brought enough clothes, so I stayed particularly warm."
The lead pack of five, including Olson, briefly got lost during the sleet storm but got back on track and took the lead back a few miles later. The cold, Olson said, worked to his advantage.
"I think it made us stay hydrated and keep our bodies cool for when it did heat up," Olson explained.
Performance, and thus finishing times, are limited in distance races by the body's ability to keep itself from overheating.
Olson is a strong hill climber and used this ability to take a small lead on a long, steep hill just after the halfway mark.
At the Michigan Bluff aid station at mile 55, his crew saw him in the lead for the first time.
"I tried not to get too excited when he popped out first; it was only (by) a minute and they're all strong athletes," said Krista Olson, Timothy's wife and crew leader. "When the minute became a couple of minutes I started to get excited."
Krista and Timothy Olson are expecting their first child, a son, in August.
At mile 62, Olson was joined on the course by his pacer, fellow Ashland runner, Hal Koerner. With two Western States victories of his own — in 2007 and 2009 — Koerner was able to offer sage advice to his friend.
"(I gave) a lot of encouragement, how well I thought his pace was going," Koerner said. "I tried to detail the course for him, let him know what was coming up, what terrain we were going to see."
As they talked, Ryan Sandes, the South African runner, inched closer and made a solid move on Olson between the 65-mile and 70-mile mark. Sandes led for several miles until the long approach to the crossing of the American River at mile 78.
"Tim, in four or five miles, put four or five minutes on him and I think that kind of crushed him," Koerner said. "That was the crux of the race, right before the river. That's where Tim kind of broke him."
From that point, Olson continued to increase his lead. At one aid station, he learned his lead was up to ten minutes.
"It was nice to know I had a little bit of space," Olson said. "It hurt. I realized at one point that it hurt as much going fast as going slow so I just gave it everything I had."
At the finish line, Olson's lead was 17:12 over Sandes, whose performance also broke the previous course record. The record books will show that 2012 was a phenomenal year in several other respects, as well. Scottish native Ellie Greenwood, the women's defending champion, obliterated the women's course record by 50:32 to finish in 16:47:19. The men's fourth-place runner, 42-year-old Dave Mackey, broke the masters record.
Olson won't have to worry about covering his travel expenses for this race.
Although Western States offers no prize money, it is the final race in the Montrail Cup, a series of ultra races in which competitors are given points depending on their finishes in each series race. Olson's victory at Western States gives him the top point total, good for $5,000.
He hasn't yet figured out how he's going to spend his winnings.
"It still hasn't clicked in that I won," Olson said. "It was a fun experience to cross that finish line first and having everyone giving me high fives along the way and having everyone cheer me in."
Western States Endurance Run
To see the full results, visit http://www.ultralive.net/ws100/webcast.php
MEN'S TOP 10
1. Timothy Olson, 28, 14:46:44
2. Ryan Sandes, 30, 15:03:56
3. Nick Clark, 38, 15:44:09
4. Dave Mackey, 42, 15:53:36
5. Ian Sharman, 31, 15:54:38
6. Zeke Tiernan, 36, 15:57:59
7. Dylan Bowman, 26, 16:03:24
8. Jorge Maravilla, 34, 16:05:30
9. Joe Uhan, 34, 16:13:14
10. Neal Gorman, 35, 16:18:40
WOMEN'S TOP 10
1. Ellie Greenwood, 33, 16:47:19
2. Rory Bosio, 27, 18:08:06
3. Aliza Lapierre, 32, 18:18:29
4 Kristin Moehl, 34, 18:29:15
5. Nikki Kimball, 41, 18:31:39
6. Lizzy Hawker, 36, 18:32:20
7. Tina Lewis, 39, 19:09:49
8. Amy Sproston, 38, 19:11:02
9. Ashley Nordell, 32, 19:26:30
10. Meghan Arbogast, 51, 19:45:24
1. Timothy Olson, 28, Ashland, 14:46:44
77. Jerry Nowak, 50, Medford, 21:14:33
190. Desiree Barnes, 30, Ashland, 26:46:51
229. C.B. Fralich, 39, Grants Pass, 28:01:01
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org