South Downs Way 50 & South Downs Way 100 2016

Well, admittedly these reports are a little belated. I have neglected the blog this year for one reason or another and I wanted to update it with memories of two great races from April and June, respectively, of this year.

This was my second go at the SDW50 and I was returning two years after my (still) PB at the 50 mile distance of 8:47 back in 2014. Considering it has 5,700ft (1,750m) of climb I always knew that was going to be tough to get close to and I was no way near as fit as 2014 this year.

It was a pretty average spring day and had elements of sun, wind and rain. The second half of the South Downs are pretty exposed and so when the wind blows, you always know about it.

I had no idea what to expect coming into this race, but finished just under an hour off my PB in 9:42, which- all things considered- I was delighted with.

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The 100 mile version came two months later and was something I had wanted to run for a while. I have used the North Downs Way 100 (2014) and Thames Path 100 (2015) races as Western States qualifiers in previous years and wanted to extend this to the South Downs 100 in 2016.

The 50 mile event follows the second half of the route- which was useful as I would be “running” a good chunk of this in the dark- and the first 25 miles I had marked with Chris Mills in 2015, so I felt confident I knew what to expect going into the race, bar the 25-50 mile section.

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Winchester to Eastbourne…100 miles, one (and a bit) day(s)

Held in mid-June, it is one of the longest days of the year and starts at 6am. It doesn’t properly get ‘headtorch’ dark until almost 10pm so I had a good 16 hours of daylight ahead of me, which is always attractive. On the flip side, we also had an oppressively humid day which accounted for the vast majority of the drops, I gather. Even an hour into the race at 7am if I had fallen into a lake I couldn’t have got any wetter.

This was my 4th 100 mile race at the time and the last two prior to this had been sub-24 hour times, but I knew my fitness would make this a long shot this time around. Nevertheless, it was in the back of my mind.

I ran well to mile 40, had a rough go of things in the oppressive afternoon heat to mile 50 and then somehow had an incredible section to mile 60 where I picked up my pacer and good friend, Paul Reader. It was one of those 10 mile sections that you dream about and only happen oh so rarely where everything just flowed. It’s these memories that always drag me back to another race when the pain and ‘never, ever again’ fade.

But what goes up and all that…when I met Paul, and it wasn’t his fault whatsoever, I literally instantly felt awful. We walked the first hill together after he joined me, and I waited for that feeling to pass…and waited….and waited….fuck it, lets jog a bit….nope, still feel like dogmince….try again….’ks sake….

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Snooze 1 of 196… 

And we repeated that through the night. I was pretty run down going into this race and where as tiredness is always there overnight in races, in this one it hit me hard. I couldn’t eat and Paul kindly ran to a petrol station to get me the only thing that appealed- lemonade.

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The Reader montage.

At this stage, early evening I was well on for a sub 24 hour finish by quite some margin, but in the end I would estimate of those 40 miles Paul selflessly joined me for, I walked for 30 of them and slept for over an hour. I felt awful- literally and for Paul, but in the end slunk in for just over 26 hours. Not a bad time, not what I wanted but with hindsight I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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Bless him…somehow he is still friends with me

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“I’m fine…”

Having young kids, I’ve seen them fall down in the playground more times than I can remember. The most common being when they take a tumble, stand straight back up a little shocked and say ‘I’m fine’, before the shock wears off, the worry or pain sets in and they start crying and run for me.

Well, that’s what happened to me this year and culminated with my own fall at UTMB (metaphorically speaking…sadly I didn’t have something as spectacular as a real fall as my reason for not completing the race, but rather a power nap that turned into a, ahem, longer nap).

But I got up and said ‘I’m fine’ and quickly entered another 100 mile race for exactly a month later, against a lot of good advice. The problem is, I wasn’t fine.

At UTMB, it was an exceptionally hot year for the second year in a row. This resulted in a slower pace and, therefore, longer gaps between aid stations. Everyone in my chalet, myself included, ended up drinking from streams as a means of just getting through the race. A few days later, after we had all left Chamonix, our group chat on messenger lit up with “anyone else got a bad stomach?”. I hadn’t given it much thought as often after a race I take a few days to settle down, but yes, I realised I did have a bad stomach. But it got better and I disregarded it.

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A picture says 1000 words

This depletion of the system, combined with 25 hours out in the mountains in very hot conditions, combined with an incredibly tough year mentally- which resulted in decreased training performance- meant I was due a serious period of recuperation. I am not a runner who races that often, perhaps 3 or 4 ultras in a year, so to do another so soon was something I felt necessary and cathartic, but wasn’t sensible. It ended inevitably with a drop.

And from the wobbly lip under the swings, came the moment the pain set in.

This morning I ran 4 miles and I feel like I have just run 50. Yet it was fantastic. Running for me, not for a race around the corner. It was the late Dave Terry who said “Not all pain is significant” and I think about this a lot. The antithesis of this is my Mum saying “Listen to your body”. And I think the balance is in-between. You have to know when you can, and to push. And you have to know when you can’t and rest.

We have all seen ultra runners burn out, both at the elite and amateur level and I don’t want to burn out. Neither do I want to fade away (thanks, Neil Young), but I want to enjoy this for years to come and so, for now, I’m going to smile and enjoy my four milers and when the time is right, I’ll up that to five.

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Exactly, Beau.

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UTM(not to)B & Cotswold Fail Century

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I haven’t enjoyed running an ultra since the Green Man Ultra in March 2015. Since then I went through the motions at the Thames Path 100, my first sub 24 race on UK soil. I had run a 22:31 at the stifling, muggy Brazos Bend in Texas a few months before and thought I had it in me to go sub 20 hours at the Thames Path, but sickness transpired against me and I death marched in for a 23 something finish. That was my third 100 mile finish and the first where I felt nothing.

In September during the start of a year from hell I dropped at the Cotswold Century, emotionally wiped out by 60 miles.

But then in January this year I found out I had a place in UTMB. I firmly believe that UTMB helped me get through these last few months with something so huge, so epic to aim for amidst all the struggles I had day to day to get there.

On the way I finished the South Downs Way 50 in April and the South Downs 100 a couple of months later in June. Both finishes meant very little and I knew I was suffering.

 

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Meeting Anton was pretty cool

By the time August came around, I finally had some good news and was able to fly out to Chamonix in a positive state of mind, but you can’t run UTMB on less than 100% mental focus. I was fit for sure, but it wasn’t meant to be. I learnt a huge amount and will be back to complete this race, of that I am certain. The race didn’t destroy me physically like a lot of races do. To be honest, most of it was hiking and I was back running a week later in the Dolomites and feeling good.

 

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Framed race number. Note the cut away section on the bottom right, which was the ticket to the ‘loser bus’. I look at this every day as I work.

So good in fact, that I decided to seek redemption and for all of the wrong reasons, decided to enter the Cotswold Way Century again and close down a horrible year with a strong finish. 55 miles in this weekend I was pulled from the course having fainted and with uncontrollable vomiting from mile 30. I wasn’t ready. My body and mind weren’t ready.

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A massive thanks to Mountain King for the fantastic poles. I can’t recommend them enough.

But, and this is a huge but, both these failures were way more beautiful than my two victories earlier this year. Both took everything from me in different ways and I discovered more about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, my goals, my aspirations, my life, my focuses in these races. I prayed during both, I cried, I fell down and I started to heal because of both.

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Factor 50, stubble and tiredness don’t mix all that well. Remember that.

I am not done with ultras. Not by a long way. But I am taking a long winter rest now and focussing on whats truly important as I look forward to life again. And if this text doesn’t sum it up, the below hopefully will.

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The Fight Back

The 20 mile route that is one of my favourite training runs.

The 20 mile route that is one of my favourite training runs.

With hindsight, having run my A race so early in the season it has been a summer where I have involuntarily felt disjointed from the ultra scene.

When I actually think about this, that is just in my head. I think with all else that has been going on, particularly with a huge lifestyle and career change I have possibly talked myself out of ‘form’ when I actually realised this is not the case at all.

I never go into a race conscious of not finishing it. I know that is always a risk and that is why the reward of finishing an ultra, in terms of personal satisfaction, is so high. But as I have started to get conscious of the Cotswold Way Century getting closer, I have already been softening myself up, that maybe I am not ready for a challenge of this nature right now. Maybe it’s OK to start and give it my best shot and if I drop, I drop.

That’s not me.

So, as I went for my longest run in a while yesterday, on one of my favourite routes around Bath and where my best time for the 20 hilly miles has topped out at around 3 hours 45 minutes, I said to myself that anything around 4 hours would be fine. I finished in 3:30 and I enjoyed every single step. It was one of those runs where everything, simply everything, felt right and it has firmly put my mindset back in the game for 5 weeks time. Three weeks of solid training and two of gentle tapering and I will be on the start line raring to go.

Ironically, because my runs in London in the mornings before work have been shorter, I have made them fast and it is this speed which I realise made yesterday feel so easy. I may not currently be logging the miles or having the time on my feet that I would usually like, but the miles I am logging are hard earned and quality miles.

This morning I also booked my flights to return to Brazos Bend in December to take on the 100 miler once again. This is a very personal and very poignant run for me and it is important I end my year back in Texas for this.

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Bath Trail Marathon 2015

A certain idiot leads the race at mile 2.

A certain idiot leads the race at mile 2. All photos c/o Relish Running

It wasn’t Relish Running weather on Sunday. It was pure Centurion weather and as I opened the curtains on Sunday morning I couldn’t wait.

I love running in the rain and whilst this is an ultrarunning perspective, to run a ‘shorter’ distance such as a marathon, which doesn’t have to take into account night legs or change of clothes, running in the rain is fantastic. In its essence, you are never going slow enough to get cold.

After losing my mojo following the Thames Path 100 back in May, I opted to drop the 12 Labours of Hercules and run this race instead, to have a fast run and get my passion back. It didn’t all go to plan, but three days on my legs hurt more than they did after any 100 miler, so I certainly didn’t hold back.

The morning started stressfully as we had some childcare issues, but fortunately a friend stepped in and saved the day. It came very close to me not even making the start line, so once I was running it was great to just be out there at all.

The monkeys earning their medals.

The monkeys earning their medals.

Monty and Luena both finished the kids race, despite the rain and got their medals. They then watched me start the marathon. On the day in addition to the marathon there was also a half, 10k and 5k so the starts happened in waves. Fortunately due to the weather it was great for me that the marathon and half were the first wave to go off together. Personally I would have preferred to have the half go off first as they are naturally quicker, running a shorter distance, but it didn’t cause too many issues.

Now, having watched Mo Farah win the 3000m on Friday night at the anniversary games, I was conscious that there was one guy who paced the first 2000m and then dropped off to let the race unfold. This stuck in my mind and I also thought of the guy who ran Boston this year and trained himself to run at a pace to match the elite East Africans for 5 miles and was leading the Boston Marathon for the first 5k and promised his kids he would, who were watching on TV. I love that story. So, I said to the kids they would see me leading the race as I went out of site.

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There is also a slight possibility that I forget I am not very good at this. So I went haring off and found myself in the lead as I hit the first turn. I slowed as I move out of site of the kids, but so did everyone behind me and I found myself still leading at the 2k point. Unexpected. I just need to work out how to maintain this for the next 40k and I’ve got the marathon distance licked. Simples.

So, bearing in mind that I wasn’t just leading the marathon but also the half marathon (and also don’t forget, I am not very good at this), something was quite clearly wrong and unsustainable. I slowed and thankfully started to be passed so I could relax a bit.

Not my image, but gives an idea of some of the hills on this course.

Not my image, but gives an idea of some of the hills on this course.

The race itself was great fun and I got chatting to Jonathan Carter who is running 48 marathons this year for charity and is the RD of The Fellsman race. I also was passed by Brian Robb after about 10k (how I was in front of him for this long I have no idea) and he went on to finish second with Jonathan in 9th. Both great runs from great blokes.

Since being in London I have been so busy these last few weeks that I knew I didn’t stand a chance at a good race, but wanted to enjoy it most of all. I struggled with the enjoyment but had some good patches and some low patches. Typically the low patches were on the long flat sections, coincidentally where Solange was marshalling, so she saw the lowest ebb of my race, but honestly whilst it was a tough day, it was a good day.

Nearly finished...

Nearly finished…

I finished lap one in 12th place and ended the race in 24th, literally walking the last 3k or so. It wasn’t my finest hour but I was only four minutes slower than my 20th place in 2013 and with some very slippery, wet conditions so considering I was not as fit as I would have liked starting this race, I can’t be disappointed with the result. I was 40 minutes behind the winner, so lost 10 minutes per 10k, which really isn’t that bad as, after all, I am not very good at this, but you know what? I love running and I am back. Roll on the Cotswold Way 100.

A huge thanks to Tom Room who is one of the best but lowest key race directors in the UK. If you haven’t run a relish race, whether one of their winter 5 or 10k’s or summer longer races, I can’t rate them highly enough. Also to every single marshall who were out in force on the course- there must have been 100 of them, always smiling despite the weather being horrific to stand still in all day. British races at their finest.

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Summer & Plans

I haven’t written on here for a while. In some respects that’s because I haven’t had a huge amount to say, as running has been a little flat. In others, I have just been too busy to give the blog a second thought.

On 6th July I started a new job in London. It means four nights away each week and three back home. In addition, I have been living out of a suitcase until my accommodation in London is ready (as of tomorrow), so with a hectic new job, back and forth on tubes and trains, in hotels and with friends, running has been lost a little.

But, every cloud…just before I started work I knew the first couple of weeks would be like this and having read a lot about recent overtraining stories I put no pressure on myself and just went with the flow. It’s healthy to have a break every now and then.

Yes, its the height of the season, but my ‘A’ race is behind me and it is nice to not feel the pressure to train too much when I just don’t have the time. From next week, it will ramp back up.

That said, last Wednesday, on the 3rd day of the new job, I was roped into the JP Morgan Challenge, a 5.6K route around Battersea Park. I had never run a race this short before so just opted to go flat out until I could no longer go flat out and see what happens. I got it done in 23 minutes and that also involved a lot of weaving as the wave I started in was too far back, so I was pretty happy overall.There was also a tube strike on that day, so I had a further 5 mile run back to the mainline train after the run. Jelly legs just about describes that one.

I’d like to see where I could go with this distance over the winter and maybe a sub 20 5k time isn’t out of the question.

Coming up to the finish of the JP Morgan 5.6k Challenge

Heel strike all the way

Next weekend, on Sunday 26th I return to the Bath Trail Marathon and cannot wait. This is a great race and I intend to race this as hard as I can. I finished in 20th place in 4:30 a couple of years ago and would like to think I can get this down to 4:15 on a good day. Considering the course profile, that would push me more towards a 3:30 road marathon which is my goal in the Autumn.

Then it’s back to the North Downs to pace Dan Park for the last 40 miles of this two weeks later, followed by the big one, the Cotswold Way Century at the end of September. 102 miles of the Cotswold Way end to end, finishing in Bath with over 12,000 ft of ascent on an essentially unmarked course. I can’t wait to run this, having volunteered the last two years.

And to end the year, flights aren’t booked yet, but I think I’d like to get back out to Brazos Bend and try and run a sub 22 (or maybe 21…) hour 100 miler there. A lot has happened since I last set foot in Houston and it would be fitting to round off the year by returning.

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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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