Nothing slows Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood's day started with a 4 1/2-mile, 2,550-foot climb up a snow-covered mountain, continued with nausea in the dusty canyons and finished with a scamper past a bear just a few miles from the finish.
Along the way, the 32-year-old Canadian ultramarathoner showed she's got the character needed to win the oldest 100-mile trail run in the United States.
Greenwood surged in the closing miles to win the women's title in the 38th annual Western States Endurance Run, a 100.2-mile California trek winding from Squaw Valley to Auburn and challenging the mind, body and spirit.
She was brilliant in her first attempt at the 100-mile distance, overcoming the adversity that comes in a race that starts at 5 a.m. Saturday and includes 16,000 feet in climbs, 22,000 feet in descents and the occasional encounter with a mountain lion, rattlesnake or bear.
Greenwood, from Banff, Alberta, finished in 17 hours, 55 minutes and 29 seconds, more than 22 minutes ahead of runner-up Kami Semick of Bend, Ore. Spain's Kilian Jornet, 23, won the men's title in 15:34:24.
There were 375 starters in the race, with 310 reaching the finish at Placer High School in Auburn before the 30-hour cutoff at 11 a.m. Sunday. Runners took advantage of good racing conditions -- temperatures were in the 80s in the canyons that dot the middle of the race, a relief from the often triple-digit heat.
Hypothermia, heat stroke, kidney failure and hyponatremia, or low sodium level in the blood, are among the medical risks associated with the run, which follows mining trails from the 1850s through the Sierra Nevadas from the Lake Tahoe area to Auburn, a small city 35 miles northeast of Sacramento.
Because of the race's demands, there are 24 aid stations along the course. Pacers are allowed to accompany runners in the final 38 miles.
In the darkness late Saturday night, along a trail less than three miles from the finish, Greenwood faced her toughest foe: a bear apparently protecting its cub.
"She was growling," said Greenwood, who with her pacer managed to sneak past without being attacked en route to an impressive effort that was the second-fastest women's time in race history.
And she did so by surging from way behind the leaders. Greenwood pulled into the small mountain town of Foresthill 62 miles into the race, in fifth place, trailing defending champion and fellow Canadian Tracy Garneau by more than 20 minutes.
But Greenwood caught them all, passing Garneau with about seven miles to go and blowing past race leader Semick with about three miles left. Semick out-sprinted Nikki Kimball for second, finishing in 18:17:34, with Kimball third in 18:17:39.
"I just got a second wind and ran with it," said Greenwood, the defending world 100k road champion and winner of the American River 50-Miler in April.
"I saved my best for last."
Greenwood's surge stunned her rivals.
"I passed Ellie before Devil's Thumb [the top of a steep climb 47.8 miles into the race] and it seemed like she was not having a great day," said Semick, 44. "I said, 'Do you need anything? She said, 'No.' I just thought the race was with Tracy.
"So when Ellie came flying by I thought, 'Unbelievable.' I was extremely impressed. … I didn't have any inner gas in the tank to catch her. I tried to respond for about 10 seconds but then it was, 'Naw, it's not going to happen.'"
Said long-time race director Greg Soderlund: "This was probably the most impressive come-from-behind win in the women's field that I've ever witnessed."
Greenwood said potatoes and ginger ale helped her overcome stomach problems earlier in the race.
"I had a really tough first half of the race, to be honest," she said. "I had some lows earlier than I had hoped, which was discouraging."
Semick and Garneau had their own digestion problems that slowed them late in the race.
"I felt absolutely great until mile 85," Garneau said. "Things happen. My stomach kind of turned sideways. I'm feeling better now."
Soderlund said Greenwood's grit paid off.
"She just didn't give up," he said. "That's the whole thing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
"She didn't have problems [later in the race] but the other ones did. It's kind of like NASCAR."
After Greenwood passed Garneau and Semick, her two rivals ran into the same bear and wound up stopping for several minutes, shouting to volunteers up ahead at the final checkpoint to lend a hand.
"She [the bear] was very angry," Semick said. "We [she and her pacer] just stood there, what should we do?
"After five minutes Tracy came up, she's like, 'Oh, just go by it and she started to, but [the bear] started to get mad and OK, we're not going to do that.
"Another guy came up, he and his pacer said, 'Screw the bear; let's just go' … They were yelling and screaming and the bear was jiggling the tree. We just all started running.
"My guess is she [Greenwood] made the bear a little agitated and that's why it came after us."
Greenwood, an operations manager for a ski tour operation, continued a long tradition of strong women's performances in the race.
Ann Trason, the women's course record holder (17:37:51, 1994), won the Western States women's title 14 times, including 10 in a row from 1989-98.
Amy Palmiero-Winters didn't win last year, but did become the race's first amputee finisher, completing the course on a prosthetic left leg in 27:43:10.
Greenwood will likely be remembered for her 2011 come-from-behind victory. And for getting past that bear.
"I'm pretty determined," she said.