An Interview With: Gordy Ainsleigh

Gordy Ainsleigh. Photo c/o Ian Corless

Gordy Ainsleigh. Photo c/o Ian Corless

If you run trail 100 mile races or one day dream of earning a belt buckle for yourself, then you have one man to thank for making this possible. Sure, people have run a long way throughout history. Just Google ‘Pheidippides’ to look into it. Or read about subsistence hunting. But one man created the rebirth of those long-ago epic runs, and gave them their modern identity as a sport with yearly events when, in 1974, he did what many thought was humanly impossible: he ran the mountains and canyons of the Tevis Cup 100, the supreme test of equine endurance, within the same 24-hour time limit as the horses.

If you love trail ultramarathons, this man needs no introduction. Gordy Ainsleigh started it all. Many of you will know the story, but to quickly summarize: after two successful rides at the 100 mile horse-race, The Tevis Cup, from Squaw Valley to Auburn over the Western States Trail in Northern California, Gordy gave away his durable endurance horse to a girlfriend in a weak moment, and the replacement horse went lame on his third Tevis Cup attempt. Wendell Robie and Drucilla Barner, the godfather and godmother of the ride, offered Gordy a consolation opportunity: leave the horse behind next year, and try to run the whole ride on foot in 1974.  Gordy, who still lives in the rural hills where he grew up a few mile outside Auburn, California, knew the Western States trail like the back of his hand. Many had hiked it over multi-days and it was the original ‘gold highway’ for those getting in and out of the Sierra Nevada mountains during the gold rush of the mid and late 1800’s. However, no one had attempted to traverse the 100 mile route in one day on foot.

In spite of running authorities who said it couldn’t be done, Gordy kept coming back to the fact that all he had to do was average 4.2 mph to get to Auburn in under 24 hours. It just seemed so possible to him, despite the steep terrain, heat, snakes, cougars, poison oak and bears that are just some of the furniture that decorates the route. So he gave it a try, and with no assistance and just 10 bottles of Gatorade stashed on the course, popped out onto the streets of Auburn, and on to the finish on the track, 18 minutes under 24 hours. Thus the sport of 100-mile trail foot races was born.

Not only is Gordy the founder of modern trail ultra running, but he is also a remarkable man in many respects. If ever there was someone who should have a movie made about his life, it is Gordy. Chuck Norris would probably be front runner for the lead if he wasn’t, like Gordy, getting a bit old (Gordy added that bit- not me!).

I suppose I should start at the beginning. When you realised your horse was lame, can you remember the exact time you got the idea to do something as preposterous, back then, as run the Tevis Cup?

Actually, I first contemplated running the Tevis Cup Ride over the Western States trail in the late winter and spring of 1972, after the first of my two successful completions of the Ride in the summer of ’71.

In January of ’72, I had taken up running with Pete Hanson, who had recently arrived at my old high school, and was happy to show me the ropes in long distance running. At that time, Pete was about the 5th fastest man in the nation in the 50 mile run, and had placed third in the West’s premier 100-mile 3-day run. Pete had been running long-distance road races since the age of 13, and was then in his early 30s. He pretty much knew everything there was about long distance running, and was happy to coach me in my transition from college and military running competitions in the 1-3 mile distances, and work up to 7, 14 and marathon distances.

So I took Pete out on 35 typical miles of the Tevis Cup course on the Western States Trail, and when we finished, asked him if he thought I could do 100 miles of that trail in 24 hours. He looked at me like I had lost my mind. After all, I had had to take my horse along because I didn’t yet have the endurance to run 35 miles. And he told me: No, not only did he think that I couldn’t do it; he didn’t think that anyone could. So I didn’t talk about it anymore.

But the next year, in May of 1973, I ran a marathon in 2:52, and a couple weeks later, on a lark, went with my Ride and Tie Partner Jim Larimer and his wife when they travelled to the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco to do the Castle Rock 50 mile equestrian ride, to see if I could run that 50 on foot. And I did, finishing in about 9 hours in the middle of the pack, because the horses had to stop twice for 45-minute veterinarian inspections. That got Wendell and Drucilla, the “rulers” of the Tevis Cup, thinking about me running the Tevis on foot. And when my new horse went lame later that year (1973) Drucilla made the invitation for me to run the Ride in 1974.

At the time, I said, “Well, maybe.” But as next year’s ride approached, being a procrastinator, I still had the same lame horse, and I had to either sit on the sidelines and watch, or I had to run. And I’ve never been a very good spectator.

Do you ever wonder how different your life might have been if you had been sold a healthy horse? How that one thing could have made your life, my life and so many thousands of others so different?

That’s funny! The guy who sold me that lame horse was a fellow I thought of as my best friend at the time. He was selling the horse because it had gone lame the previous summer at a 50 mile ride north of Sacramento, and he had been told by a veterinarian that it was a permanent problem. AND, he sold it to me with these words: “One thing you’ll never have to worry about is this horse going lame. She’s never even offered to take a lame step.”

If I had been a better judge of character, and he had not been so morally bankrupt, all of this wonderful flowering of our sport would certainly not have happened then, and maybe never. At the time when I ran the Western State Trail in 1974, ultrarunning had been around for 100 years on roads and tracks, and had never deviated out onto trails. We owe a lot to that jerk.

In 1974 and in 2013. Photo c/o Gritfire

In 1974 and in 2013. Photo c/o Gritfire

Do you think if you hadn’t run that day, society would have found a way for 100 mile trail races to happen with people needing to find a way to push themselves? Do you ever dwell on what you started?

I’d say it’s a sure thing that 100-mile races would be around and be popular in a limited way, but they might still be only on roads and tracks. Probably, by now, some people would have gotten the idea that trails are wonderful to run. But really, who knows?

Have you always pushed boundaries? For example, much of your skin cancer research on UV exposure goes against the grain, but yet your theories from decades ago are now being respected a lot more than when they were first published.

The way I look at life, if I’m doing what everyone else is doing, there’s no point in my even being here. I believe that we are all put on this earth to accomplish certain things that only we can do, and if we don’t do them, they won’t get done.

My work in sun exposure science is quite a different experience from trail ultrarunning, which has bloomed beyond my wildest expectations. But the health and healing power of the sun goes against a lot of very profitable misinformation pseudo-science that makes a fortune for sunscreen manufacturers and cancer treatment centers. There is good science going back to 1936 showing that the more regular, routine, non-burning sun exposure a person gets, the less likely they are to die of cancer, because sun exposure causes generally-nonfatal skin cancer while inhibiting frequently-fatal internal cancer. And most of the sunscreens on the market actually promote deadly melanoma skin cancer because they screen out the burning light but let through the melanoma light.

The FDA could stop this travesty overnight by requiring sunscreens to post on the label an SPF rating for both types of light, but they refuse to do that because there’s so much money being made manufacturing bad sunscreens and treating melanoma. It’s despicable. Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote surrounded by too many windmills, and I know other scientists who feel the same. It’s an unequal match between truth and big money.

Have you always seen yourself as a pioneer? Or just someone who doesn’t like being told something can’t be done?

It’s my nature to wonder. I remember lying on my back on our lawn when I was very young, looking up at the sky, and wondering why I couldn’t focus on the sky, and wondering how far away the sky was. So I asked my mother how far away the sky was. She didn’t have an easy answer for that one.

And when Pete Hanson, one of the great long-distance running authorities of that time, told me he thought that running 100 miles on the Western States Trail was impossible, I must say that made it more attractive.  And when I started reading the science on the cancer-preventing effects of sun exposure, and realized that no one had ever authored a literature review in a medical journal on that subject, and that the science couldn’t move forward until that was done, I decided I had better do that.

Cresting Escarpment- the first climb of Western States in 2014. Photo c/o Luis Escobar

Cresting Escarpment- the first climb of Western States in 2014. Photo c/o Luis Escobar

When you first ran the course in 1974, how close were you at times to giving up and agreeing that the naysayers were right? What spurred you on to finish? Stubbornness or something else?

It was around Dusty Corners, 40 miles, when I realized that it was impossible for me to finish that run. The temperature was 107. I couldn’t even focus on the surface of the dirt road I was running. I realized that there was no chance that I could even make it to Michigan Bluff, 55 miles, across those two deep canyons. But the thought of quitting was horrifying, so I decided to keep taking one more step until I could no longer take one more step.

I didn’t want to disappoint all the people who believed in me, especially Wendell and Drucilla. Then, at the bottom of the first canyon, 46 miles, I helped drag a horse into shallow water that had collapsed in the river. The horse looked like he was dying. That scared me, and I decided to quit at the top of the ridge at Devil’s Thumb, 48 miles. But my adopted sister Diane was there because her horse had gone lame, and she told me not to quit just yet, took me over under a tree, fed me salt tablets and water, massaged my legs, reassured me, and sent me down the trail into the next canyon feeling pretty good. That was my introduction to the miraculous power of salt in a salt-depleted body, and the last time I thought of quitting that day. It was an incredible lesson in how much salt, water and love make a difference to a dazed, exhausted runner who has been staggering through the wilderness.

Did you have had any idea at the time what you were starting?

No!

How proud of you are your legacy or is it just something of many within a remarkable life?

I am very happy and proud to have created so much joy, purpose and meaning in the lives of so many people. It’s quite an honor that has been bestowed on me by “The Folks Upstairs”.

Are you happy with how Western States has grown or would you change anything if you could?

I wish everybody could run the Western States as often as they want to, but that can’t be because it would destroy the course, the event and the experience.

You are the only person who gets a guaranteed place every year. What does lining up in Squaw Valley each year mean to you?

Actually, I think all previous winners of the race get a guaranteed place at the starting line, provided that they do a qualifying run. I don’t know of them having changed that rule. Cowman would also get a place at the starting line, but he’s let his weight get up to 250 pounds, and that doesn’t go over hills and canyons very well, so he can’t finish qualifying runs anymore.

I’m still coming to the starting line because I can still run 100 miles in under 30 hours, although I have to choose 100s that are easier than Western States. Showing up on the starting line is a good thing, and hope springs anew that maybe this year, in spite of the frustrations of aging, I may be able to pull it off.

Heading towards Granite Chief Wilderness. Photo c/o

Heading towards Granite Chief Wilderness. Photo c/o Tanner Johnson

How has trail running dominated your life and how do you stay grounded with all the attention that you get?

I need trail running as much as trail running once needed me. I need the warmth and affection that we all feel for each other, the hard miles, the dust, and the fabulous days when it seems we could run forever. My cartilages are wearing thin, I’m getting old and haggard, I’ve got arthritis beginning in my right hip, and the doctors think I’m nuts to keep running the long runs.

But, like that day in 1974, I’ll keep taking one more step until I can no longer take one more step. Then I’ll take up jumping off of cliffs in flying-squirrel suits.

What advice would you give someone training for Western States if they don’t know the area?

Come out and run with us on Memorial Day Weekend as often as you can. Make friends with someone who knows the trail, and come out and run with them.

Find trails and races near your home that have the same amount of climb and descent as Western States, and do a 40-60 mile run on those trails every 2-3 weeks. Don’t run on consecutive days; it’s too hard on the joints, and unnecessary; just run the uphills harder.

I have crewed at Western States in 2012 and 2014 and there is a real family atmosphere at the race. Do you look forward to that last weekend in June or is it just another weekend amongst all the other races that you do?

Actually, it’s gotten to where the other races are more enjoyable because everyone is more relaxed. The stakes are now so high at Western States because it may be many years before you get in again. As I wrote in the first ad I put into Runner’s World magazine, it is “THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE”. The spirit of those early years, when anyone who qualified could get in, lives on at races like Born to Run, Way Too Cool, Mokelumne River, Javelina, Firetrails.

It’s a wonderful world that all of you have created for me, and for everyone else who aspires to run far, by deciding that I had a good idea and following my lead. It’s like I was the pilot light, but all the rest of you created the fire, the demanding and loving world of trail ultrarunning, where we can grow into who we were really meant to be.

You are a true example of longevity within this sport. What do you put your continued ability down to?

I give my body time to heal by only running 2-3 times a week on non-consecutive days. I keep my runs in the ¾-hour to 2-hour range, except for a long run every 2 or 3 weeks. I eat whole foods, avoid white flour and sugar and cheap fats, eat a lot of 100% whole-grain sprouted bread and a lot of fruit, take a high-power multiple and extra calcium-magnesium, take high doses of vitamin D or go to a tanning salon when I can’t get sun, grow a vegetable garden every year, got raised by a grandmother who opened the first health food store in Nevada City, and married a devoted woman who thinks like I do about food and exercise when my mother got too old to properly take care of me. (God help me if Paula ever reads that!)

And I have another sport that I like a lot and do with some regularity: rock climbing.   And I bicycle when I’m recovering from injuries, and sometimes just for fun, although flat tires and chain shifters that don’t always work right are so much less fun than a pair of shorts and a pair of running shoes. I also trade for regular chiropractic care and less-regular massage (because I can’t find massage therapists who need as much chiropractic as I need massage) (Applicants welcome).

Gordy at the finish line plaque at Placer High School in Auburn. Photo c/o Auburn Journal

Gordy at the finish line plaque at Placer High School in Auburn. Photo c/o Auburn Journal

Are there any international races on your bucket list you would like to do? For example, I think you would have an excellent run at something like the UTMB with a longer (48 hour) cut off than the 30 hour Western States.

Well, the USA has more wonders for me to explore and run through than I will ever get around to; although I would like to run in Australia and New Zealand. I don’t like being cold, so UTMB is not high on my list because it isn’t run in very warm weather. Spain, Portugal, Italy are more my style, but I’d be interested in Northern Europe and Scandinavia and the British Isles in July and August.

How is training going for this year’s Western States- do you train specifically or just stay in shape, using the trails around the course?

My training started out real well, with Cool and Lake Sonoma, but got disrupted by a baby squirrel I had to care for instead of going to the races I needed, a night before a strategic race when I couldn’t go because I couldn’t find my keys, and a trip and fall that created some injury time-out with a broken rib and blood inside my chest cavity that irritated my lung lining for weeks.

Hopefully, there’s still time to get back on track. I’ll know more after the Western States Training Camp.

Is there anything you haven’t achieved yet that you retain as a goal, whether in running or life?

Oh My God, yes! I’m working on tree-planting projects to create the environment of my dreams for all of us. I’m working on making local politics serve the people better. I’m working on better treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s disease (see my web site at gordonainsleigh.com), expanding my garden so I can grow more wine grapes on the deer fence, a bunch of climbing goals in Yosemite (Middle Cathedral Rock, Higher Cathedral Spire, Snake Dike on Half Dome, East Buttress of El Capitan).

And there are still some very hot athletic women with whom I have to flirt before I get too old (if I’m not already). There’s so much to do, and I’m running out of time, so I have to speed up, try to change the world again, and drink better and better wine and beer. And I want to do away with all religions that aren’t tolerant of other religious beliefs. It’s enough for 3 or 4 more lifetimes. What a wonderful life!

You are quite an outspoken individual and speak your mind. Has politics ever appealed?

I AM a politician! I’m an elected “honorable”, as one oddball referred to me; on the board of the Auburn Area Recreation and Park District, working hard to create the closest thing to paradise that’s possible, both in terms of health through exercise and an emotionally nurturing environment.

One of our parks is Overlook Park, the start and finish of many of the local trail races. Most of the trees in that park are ones I planted, and I’m still planting more.

I know a few Race Directors here in England who would love to have to run one of their 100 milers. What would it take to make that happen?!

I pretty much go to any race that wants to give me a free entry, pay for my transportation, provide meals, and give me a warm place to throw my sleeping bag–as long as it’s not too cold, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with something else I’m trying to accomplish.

What is your favourite and least favourite thing about running 100 milers?

I guess I’m getting old. Staying up all night just isn’t fun like it used to be. I’m gravitating more toward 100K, 50M and 50K because I get to go to sleep by at least midnight.

I really liked racing the daylight to Auburn in the old days, but I can’t do that anymore. My most favorite thing about running 100 milers is finishing them.

How did you cope when you first ran back in 1974 with hydration and the night leg? Ultra equipment has come on a million percent since then, so I presume it was just stashed water bottles, some food and a hand held torch?

You got that right! I did have one advantage back then: all the creeks were good to drink out of because no one had told us otherwise. Nothing has changed, really: the deer and beavers still carry giardia and still poop in the water, but now we know that we’ll die, or nearly so, if we drink the water along the trail. I just think it’s stupid.

Jedidiah Smith and all his explorer and fur-trapping colleagues—Lewis & Clark and all those Indians—never seemed to have a problem, so I just drink the water instead of carrying it; always have and always will. Strapping a headlamp around my waist was a great leap forward, as were bottles with handles. And gels with amino acids are quite the fuel.

Can you remember your recovery from that first run? Was there a lot of instant attention or did it slowly grow after Cowman-a-moo-ha finished the race too, two years on?

In the early days, Cowman never fell short. He was a spectacular athlete, and had the mind to do it. The guy who fell short the year after my successful run was a very  talented athlete who was on time for a 24-hour finish, but dumped his trail-experienced pacer 7-miles from the finish and then quit at No Hands Bridge, 2.7 miles from the finish, because his father, who was his crew, said, “You’ve had enough of this. Get in the truck. We’re going home.”

The lesson I got from that is we shouldn’t refuse help when offered, and we should never listen to anyone who doesn’t support our success. Also, that guy never returned to redeem himself, and his life thereafter went to hell in a handbasket. Cowman, on the other hand, had me to keep him on course through the hours of darkness the following year, 1976, and had his usual “Of course I can do this!” attitude.

However, he does like to gab, and I was stationed at last chance that year to stop any horses that might die in the first canyon. (I instituted that checkpoint with Wendell’s blessing after seeing that horse dying in 1974, and no horses have died in that canyon ever since. Of course, horses still do stupid things like jumping off of cliff-side trails, just as often killing the rider as themselves.)

Anyway, Cowman got to Last Chance in 1976 and sat down with his buddy Gordy for a half hour and, wouldn’t you know it, was a half hour over 24 hours getting into Auburn. But his finish and the other guy’s near miss made it clear that I was not superhuman, and this was something that many people could do, so Wendell authorized a real running event for 1977, complete with my “THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE” ad in Runner’s World. We got, I think, 14 runners in ’77 and 3 finishes, 60 runners in ’78 with 30 finishes, and by the mid-1980s we were up to about 500, when the Forest Service stepped in and limited the Western States to 375 or so runners per year.

You inspire a lot of people, myself included, to want to run Western States. How does that make you feel?

I’m just glad so many of you thought my kind of running was a good idea, because now I can go almost anywhere that has a European-origin population and run a gorgeous trail in a dramatic landscape with wonderful people who are happy to spend time with me and with each other.

I frequently hear of people, and from people, whose lives have been made so much better by doing trail ultrarunning. One of the friends I met at the Vermont 100 told me he wouldn’t have chosen to still be here on this planet if it hadn’t been for my odd invention, and I think that sentiment might apply to me too. I too was saved by trail ultrarunning.

Regularly, when I was a young boy, my mother would say to my brother and me, “Leave the world a better place than you found it.” I know I have done that, and I know my mother is quite pleased with me, wherever her spirit abides. Having so many of you tell me of the value of my gift makes me feel very worthwhile. I thank you all for making such a wonderful experience for so many of us from my original “pilot light”, and I especially thank my friends who joined in with me to shepherd this small, odd, faltering light into a bonfire in those early days: Wendell Robie, Drucilla Barner, Ron Kelly, “Cowman” Ken Shirk, Andy Gonzales, Curt Sproul, Shannon Weil, Phil Gardener, Jim Larimer, Mo Livermore, and my sister Diane Marquard who picked me up and set me back on my feet when I was going to quit.

Photo c/o Maggie Guterl

Photo c/o Maggie Guterl

Any parting thoughts?

Well…Ten or fifteen years ago, I was driving south along the coast highway, approaching the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I had spent my 3rd and 4th years of college. I was thinking  about the fantastic trail system that weaves through the mountains that line the coastal plain, and mentally kicking myself in the behind for not taking up trail ultrarunning back then, in 1969-71, thinking about how much happier I would have been if I was a trail ultrarunner back then… When—suddenly—I realized that I couldn’t have been a trail ultrarunner back then, in 1969-71, because I hadn’t yet invented trail ultrarunning. It was the strangest feeling I got then.

Also, it’s important that we remember that all of us owe a tremendous debt to Wendell Robie, the Auburn lumberman, banker and horseman who saw the initial vision of how much good it would do for modern humans, in our soft coddled age, to go back to the hard old ways of traveling 100 miles: on a horse.

It was Wendell’s original creation in 1955 that made it possible for me, 16 years later, to get absorbed into Wendell’s world and come up with what was really just a variation on Wendell’s theme: taking modern, soft, pampered humanity back to an even earlier time, before the horse, when the Native American Indians went everywhere they needed to go on foot, sometimes very rapidly over a very long distance.

At the beginning of November last year, about halfway through the Javelina Jundred 100 miler, I ran for about 4 miles under a moon so bright that I didn’t need my light. I could feel the spirits of those ancestors of ours as we ran through the desert northeast of Phoenix, Arizona– not our genetic ancestors, but our spiritual ancestors, somewhere out there, accompanying us in our journey, doing it the old way.

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About fromsofatoultra

In August 2011 I heard the term 'Ultramarathon' for the first time and have been obsessed ever since. I am not a race winner but hope to inspire as I have been inspired- I am by no means a natural athlete and if I can do it, anyone can. Having completed my first ultra in August 2012 I have just got started...and I am here for the journey.
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2 Responses to An Interview With: Gordy Ainsleigh

  1. Pingback: Ultramarathon and Outdoor Daily News, Thurs, May 28

  2. RunDarka says:

    An amazing interview, thank you for sharing!

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