Dr. Robert Lind, founding board member, medical director emeritus and a towering figure in the history of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, passed away on March 2.
Lind, who had been battling cancer, was 81.
“Bob was a genuinely kind and enthusiastic man,” said John Medinger, president of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Board of Trustees. “He contributed hugely to the advancement of medical knowledge of endurance running, and encouraged hundreds of distressed runners to make it to the finish line. An old-school doctor, he famously said that he’d examine a runner and make a determination by ‘looking into his eyes to see if his soul had separated from his body.’
“He was a huge part of the Western States family. It’s hard to imagine the race without him.”
As Medinger indicated, Lind’s influence on the Run was profound.
Lind’s association with Western States began in August 1974, when a family friend, runner and Tevis Cup competitor Gordy Ainsleigh ran the 100-mile distance of the Tevis Cup from Squaw Valley to Auburn in under 24 hours. Lind, a physician from Roseville, Calif., had served as the medical director for the riders of the Tevis Cup. He was on hand throughout the day and night to monitor Ainsleigh’s physical condition.
Over the next three decades, until his retirement in 2006, Lind would serve as Western States’ medical director, meticulously recording vital signs and other medical data on lined sheets that after each Run, he stored in his garage at his home in Roseville. The data have since become a living medical record of the Run. Lind’s medical assistance for a race field that grew from three finishers in 1977 to a federally mandated limit of 369 runners over the final two decades of his tenure, has often been credited for the Run’s increasingly high finish rates.
Western States runners through the years took Lind’s sagacious advice on fueling and pacing to heart. They would quote verbatim the understatedly thoughtful instructions Lind would deliver during the run’s pre-race briefing in Squaw Valley.
Five-time Western States champion, 25-time Run finisher and board member Tim Twietmeyer recalled listening to Lind in the spring of 1980 during a Western States clinic at the old State Theatre in Auburn, Calif.
“The race folks talked about the event and Doc Lind talked about the medical implications of trying to run 100 miles,” Twietmeyer said. “We then went for a 20-mile run from Green Gate to the finish, and I got destroyed. The one phrase he used that day and continued to use over the years was, ‘A pint’s a pound the world around.’ How could I ever forget that? His point was that as your weight goes down during the race you’re losing fluids and you need to pay attention to that so that it doesn’t go too low … once too low it’s hard to get back to something normal.
“The old doctor adage, ‘if you listen to your patient long enough they’ll soon tell you what’s wrong with them’ held true for me with Dr. Lind, only it was more like, ‘if you listened to Dr. Lind enough he’d soon tell you the secrets to finishing Western States.’”
Twietmeyer, whose association with the Run goes back 36 years, said that in all that time, he never saw Lind lose his temper, or grow short with any crew, volunteer or runner. Twietmeyer said Lind had a Dr. Welby-like patience with all he encountered.
“I’ve never seen him flustered,” Twietmeyer said. “I actually had him as my personal physician for a bit and that was one of his endearing qualities; he was soft-spoken but really knew what he was talking about. He’d occasionally stump me when he’d start dropping a mitochondria or two into the conversation, but that gave me a reason to do some homework on that when our conversation was over.”
Twietmeyer took a long pause, then added, “Dr. Lind was one of the Western States originals. The event wouldn’t be where it is today without him.”
Lind, a board member from 1977-2006, was the driving force behind the development of Western States’ medical research program, which is universally considered the most successful and influential of any medical research program associated with a race in the sport of ultra running.
Lind encouraged exercise physiologists and human performance researchers from throughout the country to visit California each June to conduct studies that have since provided the foundational knowledge, key performance breakthroughs and innovative ways of understanding how the body withstands the physiological stresses of 100-mile runs. Lind has long been credited with creating numerous medical protocols that continue to be considered best practices by ultra events worldwide.
Some of the earliest research studies concerning the physiology of endurance running can be found at Western States, starting with a 1980 study (published in 1981 in the New England Journal of Medicine) conducted by a team of researchers led by Dr. Walter Bortz of Stanford University.
According to Bortz, it was Lind’s inquisitive and collaborative nature that helped pave the way for his research team, and others that were soon to follow. Lind welcomed them all to conduct studies in Western States’ special “outdoor laboratory.”
“Bob Lind was incredibly generous in his support and encouragement of medical researchers from throughout the world … he always made them feel welcome, and made sure their work was given the respect it deserved at Western States,” Bortz recalled in an interview several years ago. “Without Bob Lind, there would not have been this impressive body of medical research that has been conducted at Western States. Bob set the stage, and he did so in the most collaborative and encouraging manner possible.”
And then there was the shotgun. Lind had grown up on a farm in Iowa. He had taught his sons, Paul and Kurt, to safely handle the family’s single-shot, 20-gauge shotgun. Before every Western States, Lind would take two shotgun shells, and with the precision of a jeweler, he’d carefully stencil on the shell’s casing the inscription, “WS 100,” followed by the date of that year’s run. Then, when race morning would arrive for Western States’ runners, Lind, at 5 a.m., would discharge his shotgun into the chilled Squaw Valley air, sending the runners officially off.
Lind performed his starter’s duty like clockwork, throughout his association with Western States, including for the final time on the morning of June 27, 2015. Weakened because of his cancer treatments and steadied by Paul and Kurt, a smiling Lind fired his 20-gauge into the air to start the 2015 edition of the Run.
Paul, who finished the 2015 Run in under 24 hours in honor of his father, said later that the shotgun start of each Western States was a major moment for his otherwise low-key father, as well as for the entire Lind family.
“Starting a race like Western States with a whistle or a horn just wasn’t appropriate,” Paul said. “You need to start a race like Western States in a special way. It’s a very sacred thing.
“With the shotgun, we’ve kept it in the family.”
It was this sense of family that many individuals who met Lind over the years felt. It was most notable in his presence, when Lind would engage in long, deep and meaningful conversations about the lore of the run, as well as the secrets of Western States success he had unearthed as medical director.
Mo Livermore, one of the founders of the Western States Endurance Run organization, recalled that in August of 1977, as 14 runners from four states wandered around the edge of the old horse pasture at Squaw Valley waiting for the Friday briefing to begin before the very first “Western States Endurance Run”, it was Lind, yellow legal pad in hand upon which to record the runners’ weight and vital signs, who greeted her with a welcoming grin.
“From that first hello, Bob was always so kind and considerate,” Livermore recalled. “His first question to me was, ‘Well, what should we check the runners for?’ I was a 25-year-old endurance rider with no medical background who had been asked to just help out as a timer for the event; he was an eminent physician who was now asking me to be on his team. Bob waited patiently for my answer, listening intently as I stammered nervously, drawing on the full extent of my medical knowledge, which at the time had only to do with horses, ‘Uh, pulse and respiration?’”
Livermore added that Lind’s impact on the Run went far beyond medical assistance. She said it was Lind’s empathetic nature and his genuine interest and care for all the people he met, that made him special.
“Bob’s wisdom and perspective, combined with his gentle manner, guided all of us who were part of that first Run safely through the wild unknown, setting the stage for the creation of a permanent event,” she said. “Bob became a founding member of the Western Sates Endurance Run Foundation Board, leading the development of the medical teams which have helped ensure the safety of runners throughout the decades. He was fascinated by the challenge of running the Western States Trail, and his interest, skills, and spirit empowered countless runners to push away their demons to reach a successful finish. It was Bob’s beaming smile and persistent, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer encouragement that helped me out of a lounge chair at the 70-mile point after sleeping for more than two hours, effectively launching me down the trail for a finish. That buckle is one of thousands which shines with Bob’s light.”
The Lind family, in a statement, added: “Our Dad was above all a compassionate humanitarian, for all the runners, finishers, non-finishers, crews, aid station folks and volunteers, and always sought to advocate human health, welfare and well-being.”
Lind, as many indicated, was an important psychological presence for the Run. He had said in an interview in 1980 that running Western States was not exactly normal behavior – though physiologically, running 100 miles over demanding mountain terrain was entirely doable. Fueling, hydration, pacing, cooling the inner core of the body through external application of ice and the consumption of cold fluid, never over-exerting to the point of exhaustion, were central entry points in Lind’s understanding of the stresses Western States’ runners faced.
Context, both medically and psychologically, he believed, was everything. What was perhaps not considered normal behavior on a neighborhood street in Roseville could be considered entirely normal on the fourth Saturday of every June on the Western States Trail.
“You’re pushing human endurance beyond the point where anybody knows what the hell is happening,” Lind told People Magazine in 1980, explaining why he felt it was important to monitor blood pressure, pulse, and urine throughout the Run’s then five medical checkpoints. “If you went into a hospital and had these tests done, every one (of Western States’ entrants) would be rushed to the Intensive Care Unit.”
By the mid-1980s, Lind, with his proven experience of treating endurance runners under the extreme duress of heat, elevation, and rugged terrain, was considered one of the leading voices of physiological performance in the world.
He was an early proponent of heat training – “The difference in salt loss can be tenfold or more between people who are acclimated to the heat and those who are not,” Lind was quoted in the best-selling “Runner’s Handbook” in 1986. Lind also loved his home remedies, which included novel ideas such as eating potato chips and ice as way to ward off low sodium levels at the end of races. “The salt and ice in the mouth form a solution of concentrated salt,” Lind told the Chicago Tribune in one interview. “It’s as good a technique as we’ve found for preventing low sodium levels in a large number of athletes.”
Lind, though a medical practitioner by profession, often expressed his admiration of the runners of Western States in poetic, almost mystical terms. When he spoke of WS runners, his words would become elegant, and rich with imagery, like a last wash of daylight.
“For the runners who finish in more than 24 hours but in less than 30 hours, you have two suns to work through, which can present significant metabolic problems if you are not careful,” he once said. “It’s interesting to note, however, that with the second sunrise can come renewed hope and motivation. Western States runners are often very optimistic people by nature. Our runners, perhaps more than any other runners on the planet, clearly understand that a second sunrise can mean a rebirth and a renewed chance for success.
“The second sunrise is a powerful psychological tool. We realize that with rebirth, with renewal, there is still time to get to the finish. The spirit sometimes can find ways to inform and soothe the body. It’s a fascinating process to witness. Even as a doctor, I am always moved by the way our runners handle such moments.”
Lind is survived by sons, Paul, a two-time Western States finisher, of Challis, Idaho, and Kurt, of Turlock, Calif., as well as four grandchildren.
A Celebration of Life for Bob will be held at the Granite Bay Golf Club on Saturday, April 23rd, at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Western States Endurance Run Foundation, “in honor of Bob Lind, M.D.” for the preservation, maintenance, and improvement of the Western States Trail. (WSER, 8300 Niessen Way, Fair Oaks, CA 95628).