HARVARD - What percentage of people run? What percentage of people can run 100 miles, non-stop, up and down mountainous terrain on dirt paths thousands of feet above sea level where the air is thin?
Not many. However Michael Thornton, 42 of Mill Road, runs with the pack.
Thornton just completed his first 100 mile ultramarathon - the Western States 100 - which stepped off in Squaw Valley, California on June 23. Runners followed the great Western States Trail (www.WS100.com).
Thornton has run 100 kilometer races before (62 miles).
But to put this most recent race in perspective, a 100 mile race is the length of four 26.2 mile marathons, back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
After completing the grand endurance race, Thornton is chomping at the bit to run another 100 mile race.
The race is the last of ten ultramarathons staged in seven states across the country as part of the 2011-2012 Montrail Ultra Cup series. There's automatic placement in the Western States 100 for top placing finishers from the earlier races.
For the rest, there's a lottery for one of 220 slots. Thornton's name was pulled. "This is the Boston Marathon of ultras," said Thornton.
Thornton began locally in December, thanks to the mild winter. Thornton could be seen running around Harvard's roads and training on the dirt access paths at Mt. Wachusett State Park.
In May, Thornton and fellow marathoner Jon Schoenberg of Harvard ran "down one side, through the middle and up
"He's a really good marathoner," said Thornton of Schoenberg. "I've done the canyon four times before and he decided he wanted to do it with me this time."
"I've done an Iron Man [race] before, I've done a bunch of halves, and I've done a bunch of endurance events," said Thornton. He said the key is "as long as you stay aerobic and run easy you can keep running along."
Thornton's run the Vermont 100 in the 100K division before. "That took me just under 12 hours."
Thornton's time in the Western 100? "Twenty-six hours and 39 minutes." But Thornton was awestruck by the winner's time.
"The winner was just under 15 hours," said Thornton. "That's insane."
There were runners from 30 different countries represented in the race. From the starting point in Squaw Valley, the starting elevation is 6,200 feet above sea level. Harvard, by comparison, is 421 feet above sea level. Mt. Wachusett's peak is 2,006 feet above sea level.
The Western 100 climbs from 6,200 feet to 9,000 feet above sea level. To set the runners on their journey, the opening stretch runs straight-up the side of a ski slope.
Thornton's wife, Lynn, who is a Triathlete, and three of the couple's four children ran the slope as part of a 'fun run' the day before the main event. The couple's 12-year old twins Matthew and Michael, and 11-year old daughter Lindsey took part, while 8 year old Malcolm sat out the run.
But their father rested. Thornton was dealing with a plantar fasciitis. To keep it in check, Thornton didn't run for three weeks before the race.
"I didn't run a step before the race," said Thornton. "I decided I'll either show up healthy or hurt myself before I even run."
Runners were destined for Auburn, California, 100 miles away. The opening climb to Emigrant Pass was a 2,550 vertical climb to an altitude of 8,750 feet - all achieved in the first 4.5 miles.
The course winds along dirt trails and paths which were originally used by gold and silver miners in the mid 1800s. The paths are not accessible by car, foot, horse and helicopter.
The runners climb another 15,540 feet and descend 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn. Thornton stepped off at 5 a.m. on Saturday, June 23. For the first 40 miles, Thornton faced downpours, 50 mile per hour wind gusts and hail.
"I bent my hat down and curved it," said Thornton. The hail stung his face "like little salt pebbles you put on the highway. That part stunk." There wasn't much of a view. "Up on the mountain, you're in a cloud, but that cleared out after 40 miles," said Thornton.
The older children were adamant - they wanted to see their father during the race when they could. "They stayed up all night," said Thornton. "They were at different stations."
To get to the stations in the middle of the night, Lynn put on a headlamp and children Matthew and Michael followed behind her through the woods while the younger children remained at the hotel.
"Turn the light off and its wilderness," said Lynn. "Nobody lives there. It was a good opportunity for them to see that."
At mile 62, runners can bring in a pacer to shadow them. Thornton was joined by his brother-in-law, Brian Stahl of Harvard, who is a marathoner.
"He was with me for eleven hours. He joined at about 8 p.m. He got real quiet at 4 a.m. He said he couldn't keep his eyes awake."
Fatigue set in at 4 a.m.. "I couldn't stay awake anymore," said Thornton. "That was the hardest part, staying awake. That's why it pays to be faster. My goal is to do it in 24 hours."
Stahl provided color commentary as they ran. A former park ranger, Stahl pointed out, for example, fresh evidence of bears having crossed the trail.
Thornton admits he made a "tactical mistake" at mile 78 when the runners traverse the rapids at the Ruck-a-Chucky crossing in the middle fork of the American River. Thornton stopped at the aid station to switch into a dry pair of running shoes.
Thornton's feet had swollen, making the dry shoes an uncomfortable fit. "My feet hurt for the last 20 miles." Next race, Thornton said he'll bring shoes in a bigger size for mid-race changes. "It would have been better to go wet for the final leg."
But Thornton found the race inspiring, with runners ranging in age from 23 to 77. "Anyone can do this." Thornton crossed the finish line on Sunday, June 24 at about 7:30 a.m.
Thornton shared his tale in hopes it would help promote running here at home. Thornton is the director of the Harvard Road Race Association (www.HarvardRaces.org).
Thornton was front and center for the group's July 4th 5-miler and Fun Run last Wednesday morning before the town's Independence Day parade and field events. The association is hosting more events this season.
On Sunday, September 9 is the Run for the Hills 5k Trail Run. On Saturday, October 6 is the Apple Harvest Ramble 10miler & 5miler which steps off from the Bromfield School. And on Saturday, October 27 is the Kids Cross Country Trail Run at Bowers Springs off Flanagan Road in Bolton.
All moneys raised go back to Harvard, with past donations to the Ambulance Squad, Fruitlands Museum, and the Bromfield girls cross country team when they went to nationals a couple of years in a row. Money is also given to help maintain McCurdy track.
Amazingly, Thornton only began running competitively in 1996 when he ran the Veryfine 5 mile race that year.
"He hasn't stopped running yet," said Lynn. The couple is planning to run the Ipswich Stone Cat Marathon and 50 Mile Trail Race in November, among other competitions.
What's next? "Another 100," said Thornton. "I can't wait." Thornton's toying with running in either the Vermont 100 or the Utah Bear 100 in late September, which is a run from Utah to Idaho "where my dad grew up. So, one of those two."
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