Gary Deacon turned 60 years old July 14, and he decided the best way to give thanks for 60 years of health would be to run 60 miles.

He’d run three marathons, including the Boston Marathon, in the past seven years. He’d also recently run a 50K, equal to 31 miles. He’d never run 60 miles.

“I love the Emigrant Wilderness, and I thought I’d like to find a place 60 miles from home to start,” Deacon said. “I thought Kennedy Meadows is about 60 miles.”

Initially, he planned to run the whole 60 miles on trails from Kennedy Meadows to his place on Yankee Hill in Columbia. He usually runs four days a week and he likes to run trails, so he was already familiar with trails for the lower half of his route.

He did about three months of reconnaissance runs on trails by Kennedy Meadows and Relief Reservoir and Gianelli Cabin and Crabtree Road. In late June he ran from Dodge Ridge up over Chair 7 and Chair 8 out to Gianelli Cabin, and he found snow still covering the dirt road.

Deacon’s concerns compounded in mid-July when he tried to run from Kennedy Meadows up toward Relief Reservoir and found snowmelt and water running so high in creeks and tributaries flowing into the manmade lake he would have to wade ice-cold waters or even swim in places.

So he scrapped his trail plan and switched to doing the first half on and next to Highway 108 until he reached the outskirts of Strawberry, about 27 miles west of Kennedy Meadows Resort & Pack Station.

He would follow mountain bike trails and dirt roads through Fraser Flat to Lyons Reservoir. There he’d pick up the flume-ditch system and run all the way through Old Oak Ranch to Mountain Boy Road and down to Yankee Hill Road, where he hoped to finish at his family’s home on Yankee Hill. His son-in-law, Martin, helped him map out the final route.

Never alone

Deacon started running at 4:30 a.m. Sunday. His helpers included his daughter, Alison Nash, her husband, Martin Nash, his son, Mitchell Deacon, and his wife, Teri Deacon.

“I’ve been running 10 years. I’d never run this far, but if I had a whole day I felt I could do it, with God’s help, of course,” he said.

He drank multiple bottles of water and electrolyte liquids. His wife made him two potato-veggie burritos, and he consumed multiple Spring Energy gel packets along the way. He also ate raisins and nuts. His wife made oatmeal cookies so he had some of those, too. She was driving, and she’d stop to meet the runners at different places. She’d refill their bottles with water and electrolyte fluids mixed with water.

His son ran with him for the first 26 miles. Then Martin Nash ran 15 miles and rode his bicycle 13 miles. At one point, Aspen, the family border collie, ran about 7 miles with Deacon.

Feeling the heat

Sunday was a scorcher in the Sonora area, with daytime highs approaching and exceeeding 100 degrees.

By noon, it was getting warm higher up on Highway 108 and out on the trails at lower elevations. He said the heat was tough.

“There was quite a bit of shade along the river and the ditch. But when there was no shade and the sun was directly overhead, that’s when it got the hottest,” he said.

As he ran, he talked with family members about running events they were planning to do.

There were also times when they were just quiet and running together in the silence of the forest, or close to the noise of the South Fork Stanislaus River or the water running gently in the flumes and ditches.

“There was one time toward the last stop before our house, my son was waiting for me in the car,” Deacon said. “Because I was almost home I went right on by and said I’m not stopping.”

The final leg was 2 miles. His wife, daughter and son all joined, and they ran up the driveway together.

Fifteen hours after that predawn start.

They went inside, and Deacon’s his wife cut up some fresh peaches with a little dairy-free vanilla ice cream.

“They were fantastic,” Deacon said.