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Encinitas ultra-runner finishes 100-mile run across tough terrain

While Encinitas’ Jeff Hooker might be hesitant to say he ran 100 miles for a belt buckle, he pretty much did just that.

Every runner who finishes the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run under the benchmarks of 24 hours or 30 hours earns themselves a hefty, handmade silver or bronze belt buckle — a coveted prize among ultra-runners.

Hooker got 100 tough miles under his belt — and the buckle to boot — by being one of only 254 runners to finish Western States on June 28 in California gold country. Hooker, 48, completed what is considered the oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race in 29 hours and 29 minutes.

The race takes runners from Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics at 6,200 feet elevation, ascending to Emigrant Pass at an elevation of 8,750 feet. The remote and rugged trail course ascends 15,540 feet more, then descends 22,970 feet before finishing in Auburn on the track at Placer High School.

Western States has a dropout rate of 30 percent; runners must meet the 30-hour cut-off point to be considered finishers. While some 26,000 people ran in this year’s Rock n’ Roll San Diego Marathon and Half, fewer than 10,000 people have run Western States over the race’s lifespan since 1974.

So why does Hooker want to run 100-mile races?

“I don’t know,” he stated honestly with a laugh, except that he loves to run and he had already tackled every distance from 5K to marathon. One hundred miles was just another challenging distance to take down.

“The reason why I keep doing it is the community. The trail-running community is very different from the road-racing community. It’s a smaller community because not a lot of runners go out and run 100 or more miles. It’s just a different mentality, and a different group of very, very supportive and yet highly competitive people.”

In San Diego, they are called SURF (San Diego Ultra-Running Friends). They organize group-training runs and serve as a valuable resource for ultra-runners. Several SURFers began Western States and were cut off by time; Hooker and Joey Bryan were the only locals to finish.

Western States was Hooker’s fourth start and third finish of a 100-mile race. He has started the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run three times and finished twice — in 2013, he missed the cut-off time after being slowed by 100-degree heat and getting lost at mile 51.

Hooker has been training in ultra-running for the past five years, balancing running long with life and work at a computer technology company.

He will ramp up training in January for spring, summer and fall ultras, logging 60 to 70 miles a week during training, with long runs of 20 to 30 miles on the weekends.

Typically, having a few 30-plus-mile runs will have him feeling sufficiently prepared for a 100-mile race, although before Western States, he ran the 50-mile Pacific Coast Trail Run as a training run.

He frequently runs Lake Hodges, Elfin Forest or Los Penasquitos Canyon, and goes out to Mount Laguna or Lake Cuyamuca to get used to elevation and mountain climbs.

As Western States has big elevation gains and losses, Hooker focused on his downhill training as well as his climbing. For the first time in his ultra-running career, he also dealt with an injury during training — a peroneal (ankle) tendon started to flare up in his left foot from overuse, which he handled by visits to a chiropractor and adjusting his training schedule.

To race Western States, runners first must qualify and win in a participant lottery. It is extremely hard to get in, and Hooker had one ticket in the lottery, a 48 percent chance to get selected.

Team Hooker, which included his wife, Charlene; his daughter, Theresa; his mother, Gayle Griffith; his daughter’s best friend, Sami Amezcua; and Gloria King, his “safety runner” and pacer, traveled to Lake Tahoe the Saturday before the race so Hooker could adjust to the altitude. The foot felt fine and he hiked up the race’s first big climb, 2,550 vertical feet, to get his nerves out.

“It ended up being the easiest hill there was,” Hooker said.

The race started at 5 a.m. and the winner, Rob Krar, was done before the sun set, in 14:48:59. For others, like Hooker, the race goes into the night with runners donning headgear to light their way.

“I break the race into sub-races: the first day, the night race and the next-day race, because I’m a bit slower,” Hooker said. “I run aid station to aid station. I tell myself, ‘I just need to go eight more miles,’ rather than ‘I’ve got to go 88 more miles.’

“Every race typically has a low, and the low can be small or a big low,” he said.

Hooker’s big low came after mile 30 — he’d just had a very long climb to Robinson Flat in the peak of the day’s 98-degree heat. He reached the aid station where Team Hooker was waiting to greet him. Typically, he remembers the ultra-runner’s credo of “Beware of the chair” (meaning once you sit, it’s pretty hard to get back up), but he found a rock in the shade and sat down.

“My wife was aghast. She said, ‘You don’t ever sit down!’” Hooker recalled. He usually tries not to spend more than two minutes at an aid station, mostly just taking time to refill his water bottles and get a protein shake from Charlene.

Each aid station in Western States is manned by a volunteer crew, whose mission it is to keep their eyes on the runners for any health problems and to keep them on course when they start to feel defeated. One such volunteer was key to getting Hooker back on his feet.

“He said, ‘I know you’re hot and tired, but I can see in your eyes that you’re not done yet, so get up and go,’” Hooker said, growing emotional remembering that “wonderful” volunteer’s motivational words.

“Those little things, they just get you going because physically you don’t want to. The body will do what the mind believes. That was my mantra I repeated many, many times. And I visualized that belt buckle in my mind.”

So on (and on) he went, through crests and descents with names like Miller’s Defeat, Dusty Corners, Last Chance and Devil’s Thumb.

The race had fantastic, “awe-inspiring” views that Hooker had to remind himself to stop and take in. His pacer, King, joined him for 38 miles.

While he grabbed a cooked potato at one aid station, he mostly subsisted on water and his wife’s protein shakes.

“That’s my carrot,” he said of Charlene’s magic almond milk-and-protein concoction. “It really refuels me.”

As it was very hot that day, Hooker was really chasing the clock the whole time to try and stay under 30 hours. Not until he reached the Placer High track and saw that he had a 30-minute buffer could he finally let go.

He had studied Western States for years and knew every part of the race by heart. His eyes welled up when he talked about how long he had visualized himself on that track, on the homestretch of a 100-mile feat of endurance.

At the last aid station at Robie Point, anyone can join the runners for the last 1.5 miles of the course. Theresa (who runs cross country at Santa Fe Christian) and Sami were waiting to run with him. Sami peeled off as they reached the entrance to the track, and he and his daughter did the last quarter-mile lap together — a race photographer capturing the “awesome” moment with smiles on both their faces.

“It was amazing how many people were enthusiastically cheering, almost overjoyed for you that you made it,” Hooker said. “To do that for every runner, to have that much enthusiasm, for me that was special. That was the high.”

As much as he loves the challenge of 100-mile races, he admits he does really like the end of them.

“When I crossed the line, my answer was ‘No, I’m not running this again.’ My answer today is ‘Absolutely,’” said Hooker last week, wearing his belt buckle and a Western States button-up, and walking with a proud hobble.

At the end of August, Hooker will run in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a mountainous 103-mile quest through the Swiss Alps. Different from Western States, UTMB stays at an elevation of 8,000 feet and involves a lot more power hiking in the rugged terrain. The cut-off is 46 hours; last year’s winner did it in 22 hours.

“Even the fast guy and gals go much slower, so it’s a different style of race,” Hooker said.

In October, he plans to run the Cuyamaca 100K, a 62-mile race.

Hooker hasn’t run since Western States and is taking a two-week break from running.

“Mentally, it’s hard, because running is a love,” Hooker said. “But I do need to let my body recover and respect that I put it through a lot.”


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