Could 74-Year-Old Eric Spector Become Oldest Western States 100 Finisher?
Here's how the septuagenarian has trained his body and mind to face the challenges of the WS-100's difficult course and expected blistering heat.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Like many, Eric Spector is eager for a long overdue family get-together after a year of COVID-19 separation. This weekend he’ll see his son Jackson for the first time in 18 months. But not for long.
Eric, 74, and Jackson, 24, will have their reunion at the 61-mile aid station of the famous Western States 100 trail race — the world’s oldest 100-miler, and one of the toughest. “I’ve been apologizing to him for months,” says the elder Spector, “but I’ve got to get in and out of those stations in 60 seconds.” Jackson will run briefly with his father, and then join him later for the final mile.
Eric, a lifelong entrepreneur and endurance athlete now living in Palo Alto, Cal., hopes to become one of the few over-70s to complete Western States. He could also become the oldest-ever to go the distance on the rugged 100-mile course. To do so, he’ll have to crack the 30-hour barrier, after which the race shuts down, recording no additional finishers.
Six years ago, Gunhild Swanson, 70, beat the clock by six seconds, making her the only female over-70 in the Western States record book. Nick Bassett has the record for oldest finisher, set in 2018 when he was 73. Spector will face two other over-70s on Saturday — Gordon Ainsleigh, the race founder, who’s a month younger than Spector, and Denis Trafecanty, 78. The over-70 course record belongs to Ray Piva, who ran 28:09:24 in 1998. Spector has spoken to Piva, asking for his advice. “Do a lot of hill repeats,” Piva told him. “And take ice-cold baths.”
Spector followed this regimen in his own training, observing, “It seems that not very much has changed in the last 20 years.”
The Hardest Part — Getting Entered
The Western States 100, which runs from Squaw Valley, Cal., to Placer High School in Auburn, Cal., is famous for many things, including the difficulty of gaining an entry. The process is long, complex, and mostly decided by lottery. Spector had failed on several occasions before he attended the December, 2019, lottery party for the 2020 race (that was eventually canceled due to Covid). Once again he had put himself in the running by completing several qualifying races, but he rated his mathematical chances at only 3.5 percent in the lottery.
What he didn’t know was that his shoe sponsor, also the race sponsor, HOKA, had picked him for one of its reserved slots. He learned of his selection from HOKA superstar and WS 100 course-record-holder Jim Walmsley, who announced to him out of the blue: “Hey, Eric. Guess what? You’re going to be running Western States next June.” Even though he’s one year older, the HOKA selection held for this year’s 2021 event.
The Next Hardest Part — The Training
As a 20-time finisher of the Dipsea trail race in Marin County, Cal., Spector understands the importance of practice runs on a technical course like Western States. He has paced the final miles of the race several times for other athletes, and trained on virtually every part of the course in the last year. This has given him a mix of appreciation and outright fear.
“On my last five or six practice runs on the course, I haven’t seen another human being,” he says. “Some parts are so spectacularly beautiful that you could only call them ‘magical.’ Other parts are so difficult, especially the long downhills, that they can absolutely shred your quads.”
Spector has prepared himself to speed-hike the uphills and to run as much as possible on the flats and downhills. He will certainly be walking at times, “but it won’t be a casual walk.” The goal is to keep moving forward as fast and efficiently as possible. He’s also at his lowest weight in many years. “You don’t want to carry any extra pounds up those hills,” he notes.
How the Lifetime Journey Began
Spector was an overweight, out-of-shape 31-year-old working crazy long hours in a startup company when a friend flew to New York City for the 1978 Marathon. Spector watched his friend and the other runners, and thought, “If he can do it, maybe I can too.” He started training, and stuck it out through the difficult and humbling first weeks. Before long, he found that the early-morning runs brought him “serenity and a ‘creative consciousness’” that had been missing in his life.
He ran New York the next fall in 3:26 and eventually improved to a 3:08 on a hot, humid day in Houston in 1988. He’s been at it more or less continuously since then, fitting in training around life and business changes. On turning 65, Spector set himself a “Challenge 65” that included 10 big endurance events. Among them: a marathon, a full Ironman triathlon — the California Death Ride — and a swim from Alcatraz Island to the mainland.
Running Scared, Racing the Cut-Off
Spector realizes that there’s no guaranteed finish line at Western States. He’s healthy and prepared; he should reach the start line. He’ll be out there negotiating the trails, the climbs, and the long descents for 24 hours. Then comes the beginning of day two. The Western States course closes down after 30 hours. If you reach the finish at Placer High School in Auburn, Cal., you get the famous bronze belt buckle. If you don’t, you go home with nothing — not even a teeny ribbon. Many will go home with nothing. In 2016, 72-year-old Wally Hesseltine, missed the cut-off — and the chance to set the record as the oldest finisher — by less than 2 minutes, his story made famous in a short documentary, Thirty Hours.
“I’ll be running scared the whole way,” Spector notes. “I can’t afford to lose a second. After the American River crossing, I might stop to change my shoes, but I probably won’t. That could take three or four minutes. I might finish, or I might not. That’s why they call it a race.”
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get a Little Ugly
Spector will have a crew of a dozen-plus family and friends to meet him at official race checkpoints and aid stations. They have a plan roughly equivalent to a pit crew in the Indianapolis 500. Every second has been accounted for, and nearly every calorie, fluid oz, and electrolyte tab.
Spector will be carrying 20 oz flasks of pre-mixed TORQ energy liquid gels in his Nathan VaporKrar vest. At family-manned checkpoints, he’ll swap one fully loaded vest for the next. His AppleWatch is set to buzz every 20 minutes to remind him to drink. He’ll take two Hammer electrolyte tabs every hour, or perhaps three if it’s unusually hot. [The weather forecast is predicting temperatures close to 100 degrees, which may mean 110 on certain parts of the course.] For cushioning and a good grip on the sometimes-rocky course, he’ll rely on his longtime favorite trail shoe, the Hoka Stinson.
After 62 miles, Spector will be accompanied by pacers, as permitted per Western States regulations. His pacers are veteran Western States ultra runners who know their job, and how to get it done with a minimum of muss and fuss. “They’ll run just far enough ahead of me that they can’t hear me when I start the bitching and whining,” Spector says.
50% Physical, 90% Mental
Spector has spent decades preparing himself for Western States with all the other marathons, triathlons, and endurance events he has amassed. He has paced other runners in the final stages of past WS 100s, and trained on virtually every part of the course over the last six months. None of that will prove as important as the mental toughness he’ll need in the cauldron of mid- and late-race fatigue.
He knows this, of course. “I’m counting on my experience — what I’ve learned through the years,” he says. “I know the pain will come in waves. I just have to keep moving through them, keep maintaining.
I’ll break everything down to small pieces, and focus on every footfall. When it gets really difficult, I’ll think of the family who’s supporting me, the friends and mentors who are no longer with us, and how lucky I am to still be doing this.”
The Next Bend in the Road
Since Spector’s a big time planner and adventure seeker, you might expect that he’s got another big event lined up to follow his Challenge 65 and his Western States 100 at 74. But he doesn’t, not unless you count August’s Hood to Coast Relay that he has entered with a team of 70+ runners including superstars Jeannie Rice and Gene Dykes.
Instead he expects that he’ll “mix things up a bit more,” meaning that he’ll get back on his bike and in a pool. “I’ll do small, local races like Dipsea and modest length triathlons,” he says. “I’ll train [in] different ways, with more low-impact stuff. The one thing that’s certain is I’ll stay active. I’m an outdoor exerciser type of guy. That’s my tonic. Movement is my medicine.”
You can follow Eric on Twitter @fitatallages where he posts science-based articles on running, health and inspirational stories.
Editor’s Note: None of the three 70+ age-group runners entered in the 2021 Western States 100 were able to complete the race. Gordon Ainsleigh did not start; Eric Spector and Denis Trafecanty were forced to retire from the event when they did not hit required checkpoint times en route.