Running 100 Miles Is Easier Now: A Talk With The Father of Ultra Trailrunning

Gordy Ainsleigh, with bib number 0, will be shuffling around with 376 other runners at 5 a.m. Saturday. As the sun lights up the rugged peaks that tower over Squaw Valley, they'll be checking their watches, shaking out their legs, trying not to think about the 100.2 miles of soul-grinding Sierra Nevada trail ahead — the snow-covered high country, baking canyons, thigh-shredding climbs and killer descents, hypothermia, hyperthermia, mud, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, a river crossing, eight hours of darkness, vomiting, diarrhea, delirium, quivering bone-deep fatigue and the awful knowledge that they've paid $370 to enjoy this brand of suffering.

But as Ainsleigh cheerfully points out, dying in Western States Endurance Run is generally not a realistic risk anymore.

Not like when he covered the same route, from Squaw Valley to the Placer High School track in Auburn, California in 1974 carrying two packets of dry mix ERG. That was the year Ainsleigh unwittingly established the first ultra-distance trail race for humans, and in fact the entire ultra trail genre, by completing the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Ride without the horse.


Born and raised in those same mountains with the bear-like build and facial hair to prove it, he'd done the challenging horse-powered ride in 1971, '72 and 30 miles of it in 1973 before his horse pulled up lame. Ainsleigh was used to covering a fair amount of the race on foot to spare his horse the effort of lugging his 205-pound body over the steep terrain, so with encouragement from the ride's founder, Wendell Robie, he decided 1974 would be the year he spared his horse completely.

He'd done some running in high school and college, and completed a road marathon in 1973 in 2 hours fifty-two minutes (Ainsleigh lays claim here to a Clydesdale division record), but figuring he'd better get some advice for the 74 miles past marathon distance, he started training with Pete Hanson, an accomplished ultra-distance road runner. After a 35-mile training run over a portion of the Western States trail, Ainsleigh asked Hanson if he thought he could complete the whole 100-mile shebang in the 24 hours horse-and-riders were allowed.

"Pete said, 'Not only do I think you can't do it, I don't think anyone can,'" Ainsleigh recalled.

The idea was just crazy enough and just logical enough ("All I had to do was maintain 4.2 miles/hour") to prove irresistible. Six weeks before the August Western States Ride (now called the Tevis Cup), he started training in earnest, putting himself through the same regimen of 40-mile trail runs every ten days he'd used to whip his horse into 100-mile shape.

At 5 a.m. on August 3, 1974, as mounted riders were gathering for the 20th running of the Western States Ride, running shoe-shod Ainsleigh told race officials he was heading out. They wished him luck and he started jogging. Twenty-three hours and 42 minutes later, Western States Endurance Run, the world's first 100-mile trail run, was in the books and the benchmark for ultra trailrunning as a genre was set.

Now separate from its namesake horse-powered trek, Western States is in its 41st year and Ainsleigh is in his 67th. He talked by phone from that lofty vantage point about the ground he's covered and the figurative trail ahead.

Considering the food and specially formulated drinks and medical support and crews that get people through 100 miles now, that first go in 1974 seems pretty bare bones.

Well, I was running with the horses so there were aid stations and vet checkpoints along the way. The day before, I had stashed a quart of Gatorade at every road access (those are still the aid stations in the race). I thought that would be enough. Oh, and I had those two packets of ERG. I wish they still made that stuff, I really liked it. Wouldn't have made it without those.

You didn't carry a water bottle?

No, I drank from creeks.

Legend has it you got your first whiff of mortality at the bottom of a canyon in the 1974 race. How did that come about?

About 42 miles in, a horse had collapsed of exhaustion in a creek at the bottom of a canyon. I helped some riders drag it out of the water so it wouldn't drown but it was obvious the horse was dying. I was pretty burned myself and as I was slogging up that steep climb out of the canyon, I realized for the first time death was a possibility. I was barely moving and felt really weak. I was going to quit at Devil's Thumb [about 45 miles] at the top of this climb because there was an aid station there. But when I got there, they figured out I was low on salt — you need salt for nerve transmission, to move your muscles — so they gave me some salt tablets and massaged my legs and the effect was miraculous. Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to go.

You finished Western States 22 times, but you DNFed a couple years too. A hundred miles is always a sufferfest, there are always really dark moments. What's the tipping point? How much is too much to bear?

I dropped out if I felt I was running a significant chance of permanent injury. That first year when I felt really weak, I asked myself if I could make it to Foresthill, 15 miles from where I was, and the answer came back — No way! Then I asked myself if I could make it to Michigan Bluff and again the answer came back — No. I was not injured or vomiting or anything, so I asked myself what I thought I could do, and I thought I could take one step. So I did. And so on. On the other hand, in 2012, I was wearing shoes that were designed for traction in snow, but they were too tight for later in the race. I didn't get to change them when I thought I would. My feet were bleeding and if I wore through enough skin layers, it would come back as scar tissue not callous. I ended up dropping at Foresthill.

You have said that doing that crazy thing, suffering through 100 miles of mountain trail, was the best thing that ever happened to you — in what way?

It was generally thought to be impossible. I did something that was generally thought to be impossible. Later, I found out that some rich old farts, friends of Wendell Robie's [founder of Western States Ride] bet $1000 I wouldn't make it. I did, and of course they didn't share a dime of that with me, but it made me feel like a superman, like I could do anything. I had had a limited view of what was available to me in life. I figured I'd settle down to a decent career, maybe as a wildlife biologist, or in psychology, or an art therapist. I had no idea of my potential. People had always treated me as an okay guy. I figured I would have an okay wife and an okay family and I'd go through being okay. It never occurred to me I could be exceptional. If I had not run Western States, I wouldn't have had the belief in myself to go to chiropractic school. That was something other people could do but not me. I started chiropractic school in 1980 and passed my licensing exam on the first try.

Within five years, there were 163 entrants in this 100-mile trail race. Did you promote it? Were you surprised by the popularity?

I was surprised. I didn't think it would catch on that soon. Wendell came up to me after the 1976 running [when Ainsleigh's friend and fellow mountain man "Cowman" Shirk was the lone entrant and finisher] and said, "Let's make this a yearly event, with advertising and the whole bit." I was working as a woodcutter, living in my mom's house, and I didn't want to spend my money on advertising. I looked up the cost of a tiny classified ad in RunnersWorld and it was $35. So I got a check from Wendell and wrote the ad in all caps: ULTIMATE CHALLENGE 100 MILES OF CROSS COUNTRY RUNNING THROUGH THE HIGH MOUNTAINS AND DEEP CANYONS OF CALIFORNIA'S SIERRA NEVADA MOUNTAINS. We got 14 entrants. Now, more than 2,000 apply, and about 376 are accepted. We should be letting 1000 people run. I mean, it's one day and these people are on foot. [In 1988, the US Forest Service declared part of the Western States course a Wilderness Area and allowed the race to go through the area but capped at the number of entrants from the previous year, which was about 370.]

What's the draw? Why would anyone want to run 100 miles?

Challenge. We don't have enough challenge in our daily lives. Our ancestors had to fight, starve, struggle. We are designed for elemental struggle. We're genetically programmed to rise to a crisis, a life-threatening situation. An awful lot of our population is bored. America was populated by discontented people looking for something better. It started on the east coast and as people became discontented, they kept moving west. Here in California, people are weirdest of all. I was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist household. We were less normal than Mormons. I rock climb with another guy who was raised Seventh Day Adventist. You know, we used to go to Yosemite or wherever on the weekends and it was so crowded, we couldn't climb. So we took to declaring Wednesday the Sabbath, and going rock climbing on Wednesday when it was less crowded. We declared it the Lord's day when we worshiped in the church of the blue dome. Oh yeah, there's something sacred in trail running too.

Ultras used to be sort of fringe. Now it's the fastest growing category in running. How have Western States entrants changed?

We used to get people who were at the far end of the bell curve. Now we get a lot of pretty normal people, high attainers in life. But now it's so easy by comparison. Every 5 to 8 miles there are people with watermelon, food, electrolyte replacement. [Tim Olson holds the men's course record, 14 hours 46:44 minutes; Ellie Greenwood is the women's record holder, 16 hours 47:19 minutes. Both were set in 2012].

We're going to make a sharp left here. In an Outside video you talked about being completely unprepared for old age and that it sucked. For a person so full of life, that sentiment seems incongruous.

I was raised in apocalyptic times. I mean, we were practicing hiding under our desks. Nuclear war, the end times were just around the corner. I never thought I'd live to middle age. I'm completely unprepared. Look at it this way — in my 30s, I always finished Western States in 24 hours. In my 40s, I finished more than half the time under 30 hours. In my 60s, I don't seem to be able to finish the damn thing. This year, based on my last 40-mile training run, the chances of a 30-hour finish are dismal. I don't mind slowing down… ok well, I do but... they won't let me finish. It sucks. That's why I climb twice week. Only the rock can kick you off.

You wrote on your Facebook page a fake announcement of your passing on the trail, ala Micah True. Was that a joke or not?

Absolutely serious. In that I have no desire to die on a sick bed in a hospital. I would like to die out on the trail. Micah True really did it right, though it was a little too early. I'm not planning anything but I don't worry about it too much. People say I shouldn't be running alone at dusk because that's when mountain lions hunt. I still run alone. I figure if I'm real careful, I'll just waste away in a hospital bed. That's not my idea of how you leave the world. I'm more of a risk taker than most people. I mean, I don't do stupid things, but I rock climb.

You're on the start list for Western States this year. At 67 years old, is that a good way to live or a good way to die?

I'm going to start. I'll probably make it to Robinson Flat [29 miles]. I'm still fast where the footing is bad. I still have skill, but I'm slower on the uphill. I've been eliminated twice in my old age because I didn't make the cut-off time at an aid station. I hate this. People who say age has nothing to do with it — how stupid. I can't do 5.10 climbs at Yosemite any more because I'm not strong enough. Getting old — it's depressing. It really sucks. People sitting around with their big bellies eating chips, they're happy as anything. They can pretend they're not getting old.

I think that's the flip side, the dark side, of being active and healthy your whole life. It's really apparent that you're not as fast or as able as your were the year before.

Our kidneys are a wonderful metaphor for that. Seventy percent of our kidney function is not used, so you don't notice kidney degeneration until the kidney is 70% gone. Nobody comes near the limits of their ability. Well, I do and my colleagues do, but the average person doesn't. They don't feel the effects of growing old until they're 70% gone. I'm used to being able to run 100 miles in 22, 23 hours. After age 60, it's like the wheels came off. I started having knee problems that took three years to get well. Then I got a hip problem. There are two philosophies of aging: Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth [Desiderata, 1927], or Dylan Thomas: Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I'm on Thomas' side. You know, when I was between 55 and 57, I had what I call a Norwegian spring (I'm Norwegian). I pulled off some 5.9 climbs and had my all-time fastest performance in the American River 50-Mile. Maybe if I really pay attention to my body, I can have another Norwegian spring.

[Ainsleigh called back five hours later with some further parting shots]

I was thinking of something Pete Hanson said — he wanted to go out with his running shoes in one hand and his clothes in the other, shot in the back by a jealous husband. It didn't turn out that way. As it turned out, Pete asked for a choke on his 12-gauge. No one questioned it. If he'd asked to have the barrel shortened, they would have. I personally am thinking of a flying squirrel suit while rock climbing at the age of 96. I still have things I want to do.

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