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The History of Western States
Journey Through the 24-Year History Leading to the Silver Anniversary of the Ultimate Ultra Trail Race.
by Norman Klein

© 1998. 42K(+) Press, Inc. "The History of Western States " originally appeared in the May / June 1998 issue of Marathon & Beyond, and is reprinted here with permission of 42K(+) Press, Inc.. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M&B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or by calling (217) 359-9345. Marathon & Beyond is the only bimonthly magazine for marathoners and ultrarunners.

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The year was 1974. The Western States 100-Mile One-Day Ride across the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California was about to begin. Unfortunately, one rider, Gordon Ainsleigh, was unable to take the starter's command because of a chronic lameness in his horse.

Rather than sitting out a race too dear to his heart to miss, the madman maverick, a runner and sometimes Ride & Tie competitor, decided to tackle the impossible: he'd take on the rugged course on foot!

While his detractors said that Ainsleigh had obviously taken leave of his senses, the intrepid Gordy, all 6-foot, 3-inch, 205 pounds and full beard and long hair of him, was far from your average walking-around guy. The 27-year-old adventurer looked more like a 19th-century lumberjack than a runner, but his daring journey over some of the most rugged terrain America has to offer marked what was to become a new arena in the sport of long-distance running. In the period of one day, Ainsleigh created the sport of 100-mile trail racing.


Gordy Ainsleigh, the first person to run, and "Cowman" Kenshirk, the second person to finish (and third person to try) teh Western States Endurance Run, clown around at the start/finish area of the Nugget 50 Miler in Nevada City, CA
To the amazement of his critics, Gordy not only completed the course but finished it in under 24 hours, the same time limit set for the horse riders. He thus earned a silver belt buckle, the same one awarded to those doing the event on horseback.

Before the historic day in August 1974, very few ultramarathons had been contested in United States or in the rest of the world. There were the famed London-to-Brighton race in England and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa but not much else. And those were road races. Gordy Ainsleigh thus established himself as the first runner to complete a 100-mile race over mountain trails.

Today, there are more than twenty-five 100-mile trail races and hundreds of trail races of lesser but still ultra distances: 50Ks, 50-milers, 100Ks. All of those events can trace their origin back to Ainsleigh's crazed run in the summer of 1974.

Gordy's sub-24-hour finish also led to a tradition that has become the standard for most 100-mile races, that is, the awarding of a silver belt buckle to those who break 24 hours. The expression "I buckled" has come to mean "I finished in under 24 hours." (The standard cutoff time for most 100-milers is 30 hours, with those finishing between 24 and 30 hours earning a bronze belt buckle.)

The Early Years

The year after Gordy Ainsleigh set out on his own to cop a silver belt buckle, another runner, inspired by Gordy's hardiness, decided to attempt to duplicate the feat. Ron Kelley ran with the horses and was well on his way to a sub-24-hour finish when suddenly, for no apparent reason, he terminated his run at No Hands Bridge, a mere 3.5 miles from the finish. Those who witnessed his decision to stop running were quite shocked because he did not appear to be under any physical duress and was well within the time frame to reach his goal. To this day, no one is quite sure just why Kelley decided to quit running when he was so close to a successful finish.

Nineteen-seventy-six brought another mountain maverick to the event-Ken "Cowman" Shirk. Very similar in size and stature to Gordy Ainsleigh, Ken took on the name "Cowman" because he felt he was too old to be called "Cowboy." Wearing a headdress that consisted of a set of buffalo horns, this rugged, bearded adventurer bellowed his way through the canyons, making certain all within earshot were aware of his presence. His friend, Gordy, accompanied him over the last 25 miles, thus introducing the concept of "pacers." Runners are now allowed to have another runner accompany them over the last miles of an ultradistance race (the last 38 miles of the Western States course, for example), so they don't have to run the night sections alone. The distance a pacer is allowed to accompany a runner varies from race to race and is done strictly for safety reasons. Pacers cannot assist runners in any way except in the event of an emergency, nor can they act as packmules by carrying anything for them. In most cases, runners who are 60 years of age can be accompanied by pacers for the entire distance, but again this is only done for safety purposes.

First "Official" Year

Nineteen-seventy-seven marked the first "official" Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, where runners actually entered the race as a competition against other runners.

Wendell Robie, the patriarch whose idea in 1955 led to the organization of the Western States 100-Mile One-Day Ride, later nicknamed the Tevis Cup, felt that it was time that runners had a separate competition, although the run would still be held the same day as the horse race.

Wendell gathered a small "executive" committee to organize the race, consisting of Gordy Ainsleigh, Mo Livermore, Curt Sproul, and Jim Larimer. All were experienced riders and veterans of the Tevis Cup, so they were familiar with the course and the mechanics of staging such an event. Bob Lind, MD, an emergency room physician who had been present at Gordy's run in 1974, served as medical director, assisted by Carol Van Ness, RN.

Fourteen men from four different states lined up at the start at Squaw Valley, and the runners headed up the trail with the horses. It was a very low-key affair, with only three aid stations, which were staged in conjunction with veterinary checks for the horses. The runners were required to rely on drop bags and crews for whatever their needs were along the way. Compare that to today's race, where there are 1,300 volunteers, 30 aid stations, 11 medical checkpoints, a medical and podiatry corps that could staff a small hospital, communications networks, search-and-rescue units, massage therapists, and on and on.

The outcome of the 1977 race was decided by the time the runners had reached the Michigan Bluff checkpoint, which is slightly past the halfway point of the race. Of the 14 runners, 11 had already dropped out or were too late through checkpoints to continue safely and were pulled from the course.

Of the remaining three runners, only 22-year-old Andy Gonzales was able to finish under 24 hours to earn a silver belt buckle. Peter Mattei and Ralph Paffenbarger, ages 53 and 54, respectively, ran together on their own and finished unofficially in 28:36. This led to the establishment of a 30-hour cutoff the following year.

Following the race, the Western States Endurance Run Board of Governors was established to work independently but under the corporate umbrella of the Western States Trail Foundation. Three of those original members (Mo Livermore, Shannon Weil, and Bob Lind) still serve on the board today.

Course Challenges

In a single year, the Western States Endurance Run developed a national reputation as runners from many states came to Northern California to do battle with the trails and the heat for which the race had become famous. The following factors show why competing in the Western States 100 is not to be taken lightly: heat (it is not unusual for temperatures in the canyons to exceed 110 degrees), the possibility of snow, altitude, elevation changes (18,000 feet of elevation gain and 22,000 feet of elevation loss), rocks, dust, river crossings, nighttime running where temperatures can drop to below freezing, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bears, dehydration, hyperthermia, hypothermia, kidney shutdown, bee stings, and so on. In spite of-or perhaps because of-these factors, 63 runners braved the conditions and participated in the 1978 edition, which for the first time was run independent of the horse race. It was also the first year that women competed. Five women started, with Pat Smythe going on to become the first official woman finisher (with a time of 29:34:21). It was also the first year that a 30-hour cutoff was made official. Andy Gonzales won the race for the second straight year, to become the first of a number of repeat winners.

In 1979 the race truly became an international event, as runners from three foreign countries were among the 143 runners who took the starter's command. Nineteen-seventy-nine also saw a key change in the race. Runners were now required to do a qualifying run to be able to participate in Western States. To prove that they had completed at least one run longer than the marathon in a credible time, runners had to show proof that they had run a 50-miler in under 10 hours.

In 1979 women proved that they could compete with men when Skip Swannack Gibbs became the first female sub-24-hour finisher with an impressive 21:56.

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Do you enjoy Trail Running? if so, check this out !
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Trail Runners Guide to Colorado : 50 Great Trail Runs

From the publisher
The first book on trail running in Colorado!
You won't find any concrete paths or gravel roads here! Increasing numbers of runners are chucking the roads and hitting the trails--and this book is for them. Ranging from 4 to 28 miles, the 50 trails in this book were chosen for their single track terrain, incredible views, historical significance, "runability," and proximity to major towns and summer destinations.

Each write-up includes a trail description, directions to the trailhead and route, humorous comments, and runner-friendly notes on fees, dog regulations, toilet and water locations, and horse and bike traffic. The descriptions also include a photograph, trail elevation, and a topographical map.

Divided into regional chapters, the book also provides guidance on altitude, equipment and clothing, weather conditions and safety considerations, as well as information on where to eat sleep and be merry. Trail Runner's Guide to Colorado covers the entire state from Denver, Boulder, and Rocky Mountain National Park to Summit County, Vail and the Southwest region of the state.
Order the "Trail Runners Guide to Colorado : 50 Great Trail Runs" here

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