Living in the Sierra Nevada foothill community of Auburn since 2007, Debbie Booth (Recreation and Park Administration, ’96; Credential, ’98) has watched thousands of exhausted and exhilarated runners approach the finish of the annual Western States Endurance Run—her house sits at Mile 99 of the fabled 100-mile event. Finally, a few years ago, with several ultramarathons already under her belt, Booth decided it was time for a run at Western States. After qualifying at a different ultramarathon, she was selected in a lottery for 2020’s event, which was canceled due to COVID-19—but the fifth-grade teacher toed the line this year. Battling historic heat over the hilly course, she received support along the way from her husband and friends and ran through her neighborhood to finish in 28 hours, 6 minutes, 50 seconds. Enjoying her post-race meal of vegetarian tacos and admiring the iconic finisher’s belt buckle, Booth basked in the knowledge that she could accomplish very difficult things—a lesson cultivated from her time at Chico State.
How did you get into long-distance trail running?
I’ve always loved the outdoors. I was never someone who liked to be inside very much and I’m not really a TV person. I loved it when my dad would take my sister and I to [Almaden] Quicksilver [County Park in South San Jose] to go hiking. It was definitely a place where I felt happy growing up—and once I started driving, I would go out there and find happiness. Being a recreation major at Chico State encouraged me to push the boundaries a little bit, push the comfort zone. I took a leadership class where we backpacked, did some rock climbing, and some cross-country skiing. I loved challenging myself physically, challenging myself in the outdoors. And I also did a little bit of Adventure Outings, and I loved the community with that. [About 15 years ago], I started running with a few women in my neighborhood whose kids were the same age—we were seeking the same outlet to get away from our houses and screaming children at times. And I ran my first ultra in 2010, which was just over 27 miles.
How do you fuel yourself for a 100-mile run?
I have celiac disease, so I had to bring a lot of my own food. At mile 15, I took a bite of a sandwich I brought and couldn’t even get it down—it was the elevation. I didn’t feel nauseous, but I could not eat. I thought, “well, this is going to be a problem,” so I just kept drinking water. I had some GUs, which I hate eating, but I knew I had to get some sugar in me. Aid stations were positioned about every five to eight miles with water and food, where I was able to get some watermelon, and I kept choking down GUs using little tiny cups of ginger ale because I just needed calories. I was worried about drinking too much water without electrolytes and flushing out all the nutrients, so I starting taking salt tablets. I knew there was no way I would make it if I didn’t start getting some more calories. It wasn’t until the heat started to settle down, maybe around mile 55, that I could start eating, and I had some broth. Some people brought me smoothies. Once I got some calories in me, that really helped because there are some really, really steep climbs, so it was nice to have some energy. Near the end, though, the aid stations had some breakfast items out—boiled potatoes and bacon, which I chowed down on. I was ready to eat something that wasn’t liquid.
What did this experience teach you about yourself?
Whatever you’re given that day, you push through it. To me, the perseverance and grit are what it’s about. What drives me is having to pursue those hard things. When things are all perfect, well, that would be great, but the stories usually come from having to push through something. In our lives—in anything—it’s the obstacles and how we overcome them that really make us who we are. With Western States, it was pushing through the heat, pushing through the elevation, and knowing that yes, in fact, I can do hard things. I’m always in awe at those super-athletes, but you can also be an average person and push through hard things—and I am that person, a middle-of-the-packer. There are so many people just like me, little elementary school teachers or from whatever walk of life that are willing to push through and push themselves. To me, that’s what it’s all about.
How does that philosophy align with your work as an elementary school teacher?
I’m very much into the whole growth mindset idea of teaching young children to set these small goals, you work for them, and then you feel that accomplishment. In elementary school, they’re little and they memorize their multiplication facts or turn their homework in, but it’s trying to help them see that if you can set these little goals and you work for them, it feels good when you accomplish them. I try to take a little part of what works for me and see if I can touch their lives with that.
What was it like running through your neighborhood a mile from the finish line?
I was so happy to be at that point and I had all of this energy because my whole neighborhood was there. There were some random people running with me as well. I think they just caught the Debbie vibe at mile 99, and they thought, ‘whoa, who is this person?’ They just caught the wind, came with me, and got me all the way to the track. It was just amazing. It’s something I’ve been watching and thinking about for so many years and to finally cross that finish line, it was quite an accomplishment. It felt pretty awesome.