Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Moving forward on the Western States Trail

This weekend I traveled out to Auburn to record a few interviews with Ann Trason. I've been wanting to work on a biography about Ann for two years now, but pushed the project to the back-burner last year when we reached what I felt was an impasse. I operate best as a visual writer, which requires a lot more details than a bullet list of of accomplishments with quotes from people who were on the periphery. Since I wasn't there to witness any of the events I want to write about, I have to rely on Ann for these details. It's a problem, because Ann feels mortified by even the idea of talking about herself. She's an extremely private person, and that's okay. But as self-effacing as she can be, I think she understands that she's led an extraordinary life, and has a story that's worth telling.

The only window I've ever found with Ann is when she's running — out on the trails, she lets the stories flow out, and they're wonderful. Somewhat belatedly, I realized that I need to carry a voice recorder with me when she invites me for a run, collect the steam-of-consciousness, approach her contacts with questions to fill in the holes, and then use existing archives to connect stories and facts on a timeline. The issue, of course, is carving out the time to do the journalistic detective work needed to reconstruct a narrative. And lately, there's also been the issue of injury. Ann recently had knee surgery and probably needs another. She hasn't been running, and without her outlet, the quiet settles back in.

Two weeks ago, Ann purchased her dream home: an airy 1940s single-level house with a large garden at the top of Robie Point in Auburn, California — mile 99 of the Western States course. Ann feels a deep connection with the Western States 100 race and trail, and understanding that connection, I believe, is one of the keys to unlocking her narrative. She's been able to walk longer distances recently, so she invited me to join her and a friend for a run/hike on the Cal Loop segment this weekend.

The plan was for her friend, Bruce, and I to run segment along the river to collect leftover ribbons from the 50K trail race she organized last weekend, then loop back and meet her as she hiked down from Foresthill. Bruce, an old-school ultrarunner who has been around long enough to consider Ann one of the "kids," pulled me along at what I did not consider a conversational pace, chatting up a storm about the sport in the early 1980s. He coached me on my downhill technique — "Run like you're running in place. Don't think too hard about it. Look ahead, don't look at the ground" — and then flew up hills as I gasped behind him and tried to ask questions when I could catch my breath. Here's a guy in his 60s who has been running long distances for 40-plus years, and still runs hard.

"What's the secret to your longevity?" I asked him.

"Don't think too hard about it," Bruce recommended. "Just run."

After 15 miles of running we caught up with Ann and hiked with her for nine miles. We told her we filtered water out of the American River and she wondered why we didn't just wait until a perennial stream that was a half mile ahead.

"I didn't know about that stream," Bruce answered, and she wondered aloud with a tone of innocent amazement how he'd forgotten about that particular stream. Ann knows this trail inside and out, and still loves it after all these years, after all these miles, even when she can only walk its corridors at what to her is a frustratingly stilted pace. From my perspective — as someone who finds the California foothills pretty, but not stunning, and the climate unpleasantly dry and hot — it's an interesting intellectual challenge to surmise the root of her passion. She's traveled all over the world, gone on many adventures, won many races, and still she returns her love here, to this dusty trail where it all started.

I wonder if it's as simple as that. This is where it all started — where a friend took a high school track star who had a disappointing college career on a 30-mile trail run that launched 14 Western States wins and a lifelong relationship with this place. Although I can't relate to her level of success, I do see my love of the Susitna River Valley mirrored in Ann's Western States Trail. Ann's oak-dotted hills and yellow pine forests are my frozen swamps and black spruce stands. Maybe it's as simple as that.

After unwinding with the 18-mile hike, Ann was ready to retackle her home-improvement projects on Monday. I spent the day holed up in the crawl space of her new home, plying through boxes and file cabinets filled of old newspaper clippings, magazines, and correspondence. It was a fascinating if brief journey into her past, and helped me form a clearer picture of the depth of her accomplishments. In doing so, I realized that the reason I want so much to write about Ann is not because she was great, and not even because she was great outright in an era heavily dominated by men. I admire Ann for her passion. Finding a way through all the barriers into the bright core of this passion will be an adventure in itself, and an honor.


  1. should write a collection of athlete stories - from the ground up...

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V68SMFrpFt8

      I just check from time to time to see great photos. What would Neil Armstrong do? WWNAD..

  2. Eric and I were just wondering the other day where you were at with Ann's story. Now we know! I hope you can make this book happen. It sounds like it would be an amazing story.


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