While Gordy Ainsleigh will be the first to admit he didn’t invent the sport of ultrarunning, he’s definitely the venerable godfather of the modern form of crazy long-distance trail running.
In the early 1970s, Ainsleigh, a spirited mountain man from Auburn, Calif., twice completed the 100-mile Tevis Cup horse race through the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California. But in 1973, as legend has it, he had to drop out of the event when his horse came up lame. The following year, Ainsleigh, then 27, started the race on foot alongside the horses to see if he could complete the course in 24 hours. When Ainsleigh jogged his way over the finish line in 23 hours and 42 minutes, he proved that it was, in fact, possible to cover 100 miles over dusty trails in less than a day.
Although it took years to catch on, his courageous effort—even though it was considered ridiculous at the time—created what would become the 100.2-mile Western States Endurance Run (WSER) between Squaw Valley ski resort and Auburn, which helped spark the consistent growth ultrarunning has experienced for the past four decades.
Back then, not only were there no other 100-mile trail runs, there was, of course, no Internet or Facebook, either. But thanks to the proliferation of longer events like the Rocky Raccoon 100 (RR100), his 28-hour, 31-minute finish at the 2016 RR100 on Feb. 7 in Huntsville, Texas, and the #LetGordyRun social media campaign, the godfather of modern ultras will once again toe the line in Squaw Valley on June 25 for the 39th official running of the historic race.
But it hasn’t been a smooth journey for the sometimes zany 68-year-old chiropractic doctor, who is a self-professed homebody.
Since 1981 WSER has used a lottery system for race entry. Runners must qualify—meaning run a qualifying time at a 100-miler or 100K by officially finishing a designated race or, in the case of the approved 100K events, finish within a certain time. Races must fall within the November-to-November window. Qualified entrants are included in the lottery, held in December, to determine the start list for the following June.
For the 2016 race, there were 3,510 applicants. According to the event permit with the U.S. Forest Service, the WSER is allowed to have only 369 starters.
“About 100 of those spots are reserved for elite runners, aid station volunteers, a few other key race officials and a few sponsors,” said John Medinger, President of the Western States Board of Trustees, which oversees the race. “The remaining slots are determined in a public lottery.”
As the first person to run Western States (when it was still the Tevis Cup), Ainsleigh usually gets one of the automatic spots. But he still has to qualify, a task he was unable to accomplish during the 2016 qualifying window.
Ainsleigh had a bad luck year. Lingering effects from a fall during a training run resulted in a missed cut-off time and DNF at WSER 2015. Ainsleigh finished the Where’s Waldo 100K in Oregon last August, but missed earning a WSER qualifying time by just over 8 minutes. He made it to mile 62 of another qualifier, the Javelina Jundred, before dropping out because he blacked out from falling and hitting his head. He kept on running, but was finally encouraged to stop by a good friend, who’s name he couldn’t remember. (According to Gordy, she said, “If you can’t remember me, then you need to go back to medical.” Once he got to the medical tent he also couldn’t tell them what race he was running.)
Indignation about him not being able to run the race he helped bring to life is what caused Ainsleigh’s fans to start the #LetGordyRun and #GoGordyGo campaigns on social media. Many wanted him to be given an automatic entry to WSER for life, regardless of whether or not he’s able to qualify.
For both Ainsleigh, who was astounded by the outpouring of support, and the WSER board of directors, the discussion was never whether Ainsleigh should have to qualify. In fact, the optimistic ultrarunner said, “I respect that I have to qualify and am grateful to WSER for the adventure it’s added to my life and for the races I’ve had to run because of it.”
Ainsleigh’s request to race management was for more time to qualify. But, until the public outcry, the answer was “No.” However, Ainsleigh’s request, as acknowledged by Medinger, was not without precedent.
“Gordy made the point that a few elite runners were allowed to qualify late in one of six ‘Golden Ticket’ races, where top runners can earn a spot in the race by finishing first or second place,” Medinger said. “So, because he asked—and, well, because he’s Gordy—we agreed to allow him to qualify up through April 9, which is the date of the last Golden Ticket race.”
Which is exactly what the owner of the original beard of ultrarunning—he says he has a beard because he doesn’t like to spend time in front of a mirror in the morning and it’s a secondary sexual characteristic, one of the signs of manhood—accomplished at the 2016 Rocky Raccoon 100 last weekend. Ainsleigh ran the race wearing a helmet—yes, you read that correctly: a helmet!—because “there was too much on the line” and, even though it’s a relatively smooth course, he couldn’t risk being taken out by another concussion.
“I fall a lot. Since my 50s, I just can’t see the trail as well,” Ainsleigh said. “I’m getting good at it though. I usually have a beautiful tuck and roll.”
Recovering from his fall during the Javelina Jundred last October in Fountain Hills, Ariz., and being down with a bad lung infection for most of December put Ainsleigh behind in his training for RR100. He likes to have a 45-mile training run a few weeks before a 100-miler, but all he was able to get in then was running the Way Too Cool 50K course in Cool, Calif., although it took 11 hours instead of his usual 7-8 hours because he wasn’t well yet.
“I appreciate the opportunity the WSER board gave me and was ready to suffer to earn my spot in Western States,” Ainsleigh said. While he definitely did suffer, he also had fun, enjoying a solid back and forth race with 71-year-old Gunhild Swanson, who finished just ahead of Ainsleigh in 28:22. (Ainsleigh says first goal at WSER is to finish. His second goal is to beat Gunhild.)
“I asked him after he finished lap three if he was going to do it. [Gordy] simply waltzed right through the crowd into the aid station stating, ‘Well, looks like it, there’s lots of time left’,” said Chris McWatters, Rocky Raccoon 100 race director, of a mid-race exchange with the confident Ainsleigh (The RR100 is a five-lap course). “And sure enough, he stayed steady enough to cross well in front of the cutoff.”
His choice of pacers also helped. In a pre-race Facebook post, Ainsleigh, who as a living legend is frequently photographed “vertical snuggling” with other (predominately female) runners, said he was aiming to become the “George Burns of trail ultrarunning.” In his request to find pacers to help him get through the 20-mile loops of the Rocky Raccoon races, he posted that, in addition to being able to comfortably run 20 miles of easy trail in four hours, “applicants must be talented, gorgeous, young, nubile athletes under the age of 76 and a better-looking woman than I am.”
Unapologetic for his flirtatious behavior and love of women, the happily married ultrarunner (who often runs and climbs shirtless, he says, to help with vitamin D absorption) says his wife has a good sense of humor. “She doesn’t mind the flirting as long as it doesn’t go too deep,” he says.
In a December Facebook post, Ainsleigh asked his “incredibly loyal friends to give the Western States board a breather.” Now he can take one too, although he’s already planning his qualifying run for WSER 2017, with an eye toward running the Umstead 100 in Raleigh, N.C., this April.
But, Ainsleigh admits, he’ll have a tough time finishing WSER in June. He has 23 finishes to his credit (including 1974), but he hasn’t completed the course since 2007, when he was 60. Still, he’s running this year’s race with reaching Auburn in under the 30-hour cut-off time as his main goal.
“The chances of me finishing WSER aren’t good, but I keep waiting for one of those magical days, like at WSER in 2001, where I came in 17 seconds under 24 hours,” said a thoughtful Ainsleigh. “Those days happen. I’m not done yet.”
As for the crew at WSER, they are also glad he qualified.
“We feel it’s really important to have a well-defined and transparent process so that everyone can see exactly how everything is done,” Medinger said. “But it’s also important to have a heart, and to have the ability to be a bit flexible when it comes to someone who is so entwined with the history of the race. We’re really delighted he got the job done and look forward to having him in the race again in June.”
Ainsleigh will be covering the route from Squaw Valley to Auburn to prove that life is good and encouraging others to get as much out of it as they can.
“In his early years, the Buddha was a river crossing guy,” he said. “That’s how I feel about my life. I’m helping people cross a river to a new way of living.”