The Western States Endurance Run.100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn across the spine of Northern California.s Sierra Nevada Mountains.has changed countless lives (mostly for the better), and ever so quietly changed the destiny of our natural world. There are now approaching a hundred 100-mile runs in North America, all patterned after the original Western States, along with a plethora of shorter-distance similarly-inspired trail runs, mostly in the 50 kilometer (31.1 miles), 50 mile, and 100K (62.2 miles) distances, with an occasional oddball-distance race of about 40 or 75 miles thrown in.
Each one of these trail runs does its part for the preservation of a piece of our natural world by encouraging a high level of sensitive, non-destructive, and minimally intrusive use of large areas of wild land. The most striking example of this is that we would have an Auburn Dam today were it not for a trail of events that leads back to the founding of the Western States Endurance Run, an event that has caused many very influential trail runners to fall love with the natural wonderland through which the trail meanders.
All this came from a day filled with calamity: August 3, 1974.
On that day, I started the pedestrian version of the Western States 100 by running with about 200 horses and riders who were participating in the annual Western States Trail Ride, a 100-mile one-day event that goes from the Tahoe Basin to Auburn across the high mountains and deep canyons of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and down to the foothills, seldom passing up an opportunity enroute to drop down to a stream crossing and back up to a ridgeline.
There.s a fanciful Internet legend that my horse went lame at about 30 or 35 miles, and I thereupon founded the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run by abandoning my horse at 7,000 feet of elevation in the High Sierra (leaving her to talk to the coyotes and mountain lions, I suppose) and ran the remaining 65-70 miles on foot to the finish. Actually, I really did run that entire horse event on foot from start to finish during that day of suffering and fear, and throughout the ensuing night of other-worldly experiences. Many people do strange and remarkable things on the spur of the moment, when opportunity and necessity hit them unexpectedly in the face. But to knowingly and deliberately take on such a wildly delirious fantasy.with its promise of great suffering.takes a person who has been truly deformed beyond any vestige of normality. You may wonder, gentle reader, what tortured trail of events would create such a human so twisted out of the norm that he would actually do such a thing willingly and knowingly, and with forethought?
Social scientists have long ago established that normal, comfortable people rarely accomplish extraordinary things. So maybe I should be grateful that my Mom and Dad, two of the stubbornest people I have ever met, split up over an unbelievably stupid power play my mom pulled on my dad, and my dad responded in kind, all before I was born. Which left me and my brother to be raised by my Mom and hyper-religious Grandma, who dedicated themselves to the task of making my brother and me into two of God's \"separate and peculiar people\", because THE END was coming any day now. My mom was a nurse, and played the .dad. breadwinner role, and my grandma (nickname pronounced .Gumma., but she always spelled it .Gama.) played .mom. and took care of us and the home.
So there I was in the 1950s, fatherless in an age when no one got divorced and everyone had a father, going to church on the \"wrong day\" (Saturday), and forced to wear long-john underwear into June, because if I didn.t I might catch my death of cold.
One day when I was 7 or 8, I walked out onto the playground with my lunch bag, looking for someone with whom to eat lunch. I looked around, and I just couldn.t see anyone with whom I felt welcome. I felt achingly out-of-place and lonely, separate and peculiar, just like Gama.s God wanted me to feel. But then my logical mind intervened, and I realized that I never felt this way at home (perhaps because everyone there was .separate and peculiar.). No question about it: I always felt loved and wanted at home. So I ran all the way home for lunch, a mile through Deer Creek Canyon and the steep hills of Nevada City, near tears, and with my heart in my throat. Gama was surprised and delighted to see me, treated me like a hero, made me lunch, and sent me running back to school with a warm hug. It felt so good I did it again, and again, whenever I felt overwhelmed by .different and peculiar.. And thus my running career began.
Later, when I took over a friend.s newspaper route, I guess I just got unlucky. I got the route with the longest rural loop, where the boxes were the farthest apart, and the route terminated about two miles from my home way up on top one of the ridges surrounding the town. Nevada City is built like Rome on seven hills, and none of them were gentle gradients, especially on my paper route. I also was living in the age of 45-pound single-speed bicycles. I eventually realized that the only reasonable thing to do was to walk the route until the bags got light, and then start running the flats and downhills from there on. It forced me to be a daily runner, a masochistic and self-destructive pattern that I have largely foresworn for the rest of my 3-day-a-week life as a runner.
Then, in my freshman year of high school, misfortune struck again. I had a P.E. instructor who either had recently been a Marine, or who badly wanted to be a Marine. In any event, he believed that P.E. was worthless if he didn.t put us through 10 minutes of painful calisthenics prior to his ball sport of the day. There was, however, a flaw in his sadist indulgences: he hated to run. So he knew God was speaking to him when he decided that the ultimate punishment for not doing pushups hard enough was to assign the slackers with the most painful punishment known to man. well, at least, men like him: .r.u.n.n.i.n.g...l.a.p.s.a.r.o.u.n.d.t.h.e.t.r.a.c.k.
Like Larry Bird, I have always had .White man.s disease.. It.s just as .The Bird. defined it: .I can.t run very fast and I can.t jump very high.. And I especially can.t do pushups very well. And I hate them anyway. And I.m inept. And they hurt. So one day when I was grinding out Sergeant Sado.s latest assignment of pain-wracking pushups, I realized that I.d really rather be running. So I started slacking off, and Sgt. Sado responded with his usual punishment: .Ainsleigh, you.re loafing. Take a lap!. All around me, sweating, pain-wracked bodies were looking at me with pity, knowing that I had just entered a netherworld of pain much greater than theirs. And I? I was The Bird, freed from the bars and shackles of Sgt. Sado.s pain machine.
This went on for a couple weeks, until one day Sgt. Sado realized what I had become. .Ainsleigh! You.re a slacker!. he yelled. And then Sgt. Sado did what the highly-regarded physician did who bled the Father of Our Nation, George Washington, to death to stop his illness: he doubled up on the treatment that wasn.t working. .Two laps!. All around me, blubberly muscular bodies pumped and strained in sheer terror, as I floated around the track in extraordinary pain. You could see the agony on my face. whenever my face was visible to Sgt. Sado, a who knew right from wrong and weak from strong. He knew he had to be harsh on me in order to properly prepare me for life. I wonder if he ever found out that he was preparing me for life as a trail ultrarunner. Good old Sgt. Sado!
For a while, everything seemed to be going okay, and then, misfortune struck again. All those years, my Mom had been driving from Nevada City to work as the night supervisor in a tuberculosis hospital in Weimar, across the often-snowbound Cedar Ridge and down into the torturously twisting road through the Bear River Canyon. Meanwhile, I was getting bored within the confines of Nevada City, fell in with a juvenile hoodlum for my frequent companion, and started swiping flasher lights and red lanterns off PG&E work site for something exciting to do, always leaving enough so that accidents didn.t happen. But after a couple exciting nights, that got old. Then he introduced me to shoplifting, That was exciting too, and I always returned every fishing lure etc. that I swiped, just like I always dropped off the flasher lights an red lanterns another night at another PG&E work site.
Actually, puberty was hitting me pretty hard about then, and I became much more interested in this newfound excitement called .LUST. than I was in the relatively less interesting process of swiping-and-returning. So it came as a bit of surprise that after I had largely quit seeking thrills with my juvenile delinquent friend that he got busted stealing candy from a Safeway store in neighboring Grass Valley, and, hoping to get a lighter punishment if he .came clean. mentioned my name along with all his other more-worthy accomplices. So my mother and grandmother and I all had a talk with Officer Friendly. And, even though I had returned everything I had swiped, I was put on informal probabtion. It was a very bad day. At that point, my mom decided to kill two birds with one stone: Get Gordy away from bad friends and turn him into a wholesome country boy, and, for her, relocate to a home on the same warm ridge as the hospital where she worked, and cut her drive down from 21 miles across snowbound Cedar Ridge and the twisty icy roads of Bear River Canyon, down to 3 miles around the base of Coyote Hill on roads that seldom snowed in.
What that meant for me was that I found myself going to newly-built Colfax High School, with a total population of about 300 student then, and 400 three years later, when I graduated. There were slots of the track team that were going begging in distance running, and my PE teacher just happened to be the head track coach. Being somewhat more perceptive of these things than Sgt. Sado of 9th-grade fame, my sophomore PE teacher noticed I actually liked running, and would race Jerry Finch each day around the track for our warm-up lap before the ball sport of the day. So he recruited me for the mile, a race that none of the real athletes and sports heroes in my PE class (and the rest of the school) would ever have anything to do with. Except for the Garcia brothers, Pedro and Ignacio: I was their understudy for those Native American speedsters for a year or two.
Initially, my dreams of glory were quickly dashed upon the trash heap of reality: I was the second-slowest guy on the team. So the slowest guy and I took the race that nobody else wanted: the 2-mile run. Other guys got the exciting glamorous races that had the folks in the stands jumping to their feet. All that was left untaken was the chance to go around and around for eight laps at a boringly slow pace, while the fans watched the pole-vaulting and high-jump finals. So my ignominious, tragic, blissfully unaware preparation continued.
The humiliations piled up: Even in the humble microcosm of the universally ignored 2-mile run, I was able to find defeat. In my senior year at Colfax High School, I missed winning the league championship by about a second, leaving me with unfinished business in running.a never-to-be-filled empty spot.a once-in-a-lifetime missed opportunity.a hunger that spurred me ever onward toward I knew not what.
Another bitter disappointment came when my application to UC Berkeley was turned down. I had to settle for UC Santa Barbara, where, by happenstance, I started renting horses from the University.s Recreation Department, and finally bought my first horse at the University stable because it was cheaper than so many rental fees. It was in the barn of that stable where I eventually saw a Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup) brochure on the bulletin board when I came in to feed Rebel. Ah, yes, Rebel: my own Rocinante (the .supreme nag. of Don Quixote fame), who actually, through no astuteness on my part, eventually proved that I had accidentally bought a pretty good endurance horse.
I sent in an application in April of 1970, and got turned away, rebuffed yet again. I was getting used to it by then. In a polite, devastating letter, Drucilla Barner, the Ride secretary, advised me to apply next November, before the Ride filled up. So I applied again in November, and started training my horse by galloping him around a hilly 5-mile loop with a long climb at the end, little knowing that such a course hardly prepared him or me for 100 miles of mountains and canyons.
I was so unbelievably ignorant in 1971 that I did the ride on a bareback pad without stirrups. From that excruciating experience, I learned that I could tolerate the pain of doing 70 miles on foot without previous training, when the alternative was an even more painful brutalizing of my raw thighs on horseback. The silver lining on that cloud came 10 days later, when I could finally walk without limping. I went into the savings & loan commanded by Wendell Robie, the founder and president of the Ride, to get the ride results, and was promptly ushered into the private office of Wendell and Drucilla Barner, his secretary and assistant in all aspects of his far-reaching life. It turned out that Wendell and .Dru. were greatly amused by my wild display of masochistic ignorance, and respected me for sticking out my self-inflicted ordeal to a successful completion. I was welcomed into their circle of friends, which changed my life from that day forward.
Rebel, that first horse I bought at UCSB in 1970, turned out to be a sturdy, durable and competent endurance horse. With a reliable horse like Rebel, I might have gone on to be the second person behind Nick Mansfield to finish 10 Tevis Cup Rides in a row, and the WS-100 Run would never have happened. So after the 1972 ride, which Rebel and I completed with relatively little pain (because by then I had realized that a light saddle and 40 mile training rides were necessary), what I obviously needed.if I was ever to become the \"Father of the Sport. of ultramarathon trail running.was to get rid of that sturdy horse and get another horse that was highly unreliable. That irresistible opportunity came in the form of one of the prettiest little hippie chicks to come out of Southern California in the days of \"Make Love, Not War\" and $75-a-kilo weed.
She loved beer and pot, camping and parties, horses in general and my horse Rebel in particular, and always told me she loved me too, until she talked me into giving Rebel to her, and then left me for a short, fat, balding, big-gut & short-legged older married guy with a gift for gab a mile long, who often showed up at rides wearing shirts that said .Free Moustache Rides.. I mean, how could I compete with a winning package like that? Yet for decades thereafter, I puzzled over how she could have left me for him, to live in a shed in his stables and pretend, as long as she could, that she was still my girlfriend, until his wife finally figured out what was going on and told her husband, .Either she leaves or I leave., so my now-ex-girlfriend was a told to leave, and she went back to Southern California, with my good horse Rebel.
I never could understand how she could prefer that guy to me, especially since she had volunteered several times that I was her best lover and had never shown all that much interest in moustache rides. But then, 38 years later, I was musing over this mystery aloud in the company of my old friend Diane, the queen of endurance riding back then, who knew all of the actors in this drama quite well, and she said in exasperation, .Gordy! He had the best drugs on the endurance ride circuit!. And then I remembered how she had told me that she loved cocaine more than anything, and how, when she died, she wanted to go out on cocaine, ..with a smile from ear to ear and horny as hell.. So that.s how the wine barrel on dwarf legs got to be a better lay than I was! He needed drugs to attain that status. I was feeling better already.
.Oh., was all I had to say to Diane. I have never felt that drugs were worth spending money on, so it just never occurred to me that I would have to buy drugs for a woman to keep her around. .Well, that explains a lot., I finally said.
Anyway, I had to get another horse. Now, if I had gotten another durable horse like Rebel, there never would have been a Western States Endurance Run, which would have much delayed or erased the future of the sport of trail ultrarunning. So Divine Providence intervened to preserve the destiny of the pedestrian version of the Western States 100. That Intervention from on High came in the unlikely form of the guy I chose to be my best friend during the winter of 1972-3, a person so morally bankrupt that, in our hour of need (his need for money, my need for a horse), he sold me a horse that the ride vets during the previous summer had told him had a permanent lameness problem, with the 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.\"
So the following summer, 1973, my new horse went lame of course, and did so on my very last training ride a week before the Big Event of the Year. I was devastated, trudging up Robie Drive on my way to the finish at the Fairgrounds, leading my newly lame new horse, when a cheery voice came from Drucilla's front yard on the left side of the road: \"Well, Hello Gordy! How are things?\" She was out watering flowers.
I started pouring out my long, sad tale of woe, but Dru stopped me, put down her hose, and said .Wait. Don.t go away; I.ll be right back.. She disappeared into her house and came back with a bottle of a most excellent white wine and two glasses, poured us both a glass, sat down with me on the bench next to the hitching post alongside her driveway, and said, .Okay, go ahead., and listened to my long sad tale. When I was done, she advised me to get my horse re-shod by a professional (I had installed the current shoes), and observed matter-of-factly, .If that.s the problem, you.ll be okay, and if that isn.t the problem, your horse is going to go lame next week..
I must have looked like someone had run over my favorite dog, because she went on: \"And even if your horse does go lame next week on the Ride, it's not the end of the world. In fact, it might even be a blessing in disguise.\" I didn.t even look up. .Yeah. Right., I muttered in my most depressed voice and body language to match. I didn.t have as much going in my life back then, and the Western States 100 Miles in One Day Ride was the biggest of the big from my perspective.
.Well,. she said brightly, .Every year you seem to spend more time on the ground than on the horse, and we are wondering when you.re just going to leave your horse behind and do the whole thing on foot.. I just looked at her. That .we. was the .royal we., meaning her and Wendell. It was kind of like getting an invitation from God. After a short pause, Dru went on: .Next year is going to be the 20th anniversary of the ride, and I think that would be a wonderful time for you to just leave your horse in the pasture and run the whole thing.. So I knew I was getting an invitation from On High. All I said was, .Well, maybe..
Still, the Western States might never have been, if I had done the reasonable thing: get another horse that was tough and durable. However, one of my greatest gifts.a real talent, if you will.is my ability to procrastinate extravagantly. Consequently, when the summer of 1974 rolled around, I still had the same horse with the same lameness problem. I took her through several 50 mile rides after that, but she would never make 100 miles. So I had no choice but to either run the Western States 100, or to sit on the sidelines and be a spectator... and I've never been much of a spectator.
All through the spring of 1974, I trained hard for the other big event of the year, the Levi Ride & Tie in mid-June. I was in excellent marathon-distance condition, but wasn.t racing the road runs, with my training focused on the trails. My partner Jim Larimer and I won the Ride & Tie that year so decisively that we never even saw a competitor for the last 15 miles of the 42-mile course. We even got off course for several minutes, and still were dried and rested when the second team came in 16-17 minutes later. I thought I was in great shape, and the Western States 100 was seven weeks away. I decided to think about it for a week, and then make my decision.
I decided to go, and with six weeks left before the big event, I set out to upgrade my marathon conditioning to prepare for my new, more distant goal. I decided to train my body the same way I had trained my horse: by running the last 40 miles of the Western States Trail from Michigan Bluff to Auburn every Saturday. Well, at least that was the plan. I quickly found out that the trail to Auburn was so hard on me that it took a week and a half to recover enough to do it again.
1974 was a very hot summer. The Trail today gently climbs to Green Gate, halfway up on the south bank (the cooler north slope) of the Middle Fork American Canyon, and winds among the trees in and out of verdant north slope side canyons for 10 miles. But in those days, the Trail stayed on the north bank of the River, brutally exposed on a dry, hot, southern-exposure, for the brutal climb all the way to the top of the Foresthill Divide at Echo Hills, a small, private lower-middle-class resort, with a small swimming pool, snack bar and picnic tables, that was always closed when I came through at 10:30. There was even some brutal bonus elevation in that climb, because when I got within sight of the top, the trail abruptly dropped all the way to the bottom of a side canyon, and back up the other side. But at least that final part of the climb (unlike the rest of that brutal climb) had good tree cover. Did I mention that climb was brutal? Thankfully, I got there before the worst of the heat set in. And there was always a bottle of Gatorade there, dropped off by my girlfriend on her way back from dropping me off at Michigan Bluff.
After that, it was like descending into Hell for the next 10 miles. I would usually come through Echo Hills at about 10:30-11 AM, and it always took me until about 4 in the afternoon to stagger through that last 17 miles into Auburn. The Trail dropped so steeply to the bottom of the Canyon that I had to work to get down there, and then it followed blazing sand bars and river rock flats of boulders and miserable footing, at the bottom of the canyon but far from the cool river water. There never was any overcast, and throughout the heat of the day, the sun baked me from above and the burning sand and rocks baked me from below.
There was one redeeming salvation in that whole 10 miles of inferno: a cool, deeply shaded creek at the mouth of a side canyon. It never went dry, like all the others did, in that entire 6 weeks. I would stagger in, collapse and drink, lie there exhausted for about 20 minutes, and then get up and resume my trek through the inferno. Looking at the bright side, it was wonderful heat training, but I can.t recall looking at the bright side during any of those miserable days. I still occasionally run that trail on hot days for old times. sake, and stop to drink in that cool shady haven at the mouth of that creek.
Back in those days, I was riding one of the best street-legal dirt motorcycles in the world, a Kawasaki 350 Big Horn. So on the Thursday before the Big Day, I packed ten one-quart bottles of Gatorade into a backpack, and headed out for what is now the Lyon Ridge Aid Station. I had mapped out in my mind every place I thought I would need a bottle of Gatorade from Squaw Valley to Michigan Bluff. Today, with one addition and one omission, there is an aid station at every place I left a Gatorade bottle on August 1, 1974: I didn.t think I would need a bottle at Dusty Corners, because it was such an easy, mostly downhill 3 miles into Last Chance. Oh, how I came to regret that omission two days later!
The day before Saturday, August 3, 1974, I started to make arrangements for the upcoming weekend with the girlfriend who had dropped me off at Michigan Bluff and left Gatorade at Echo Hills for all of my four training runs over the previous six weeks. It had never occurred to me that she would not want to be there with me, meeting me whenever she could and helping me as much as possible, as I embarked on what I knew was the most important and difficult effort I had ever attempted in my life. So I was stunned, and felt struck down, when she informed me that she wasn.t going up to Squaw Valley with me Friday afternoon, wouldn.t be there through the night to hold and quiet my fears, wouldn.t be there in the morning to wish me luck and see me off, and wouldn.t be there to meet me at Robinson Flat and Devil.s Thumb. .I.m going to the jalopy races with Margaret Friday night. I.ll see you in Michigan Bluff. You.ll be fine., she informed me breezily. So I packed a single sleeping bag and asked my friends Dave and Diane if I could sleep in the back of their horse trailer on the rubber traction mat, after scooping out the horse poop as best as I could. To say I felt depressed, abandoned, and painfully alone would be a master work of British understatement.
August 3rd, 1974, the temperature was 107 degrees in Cool, California, and two horses died from the struggles of that day. I suffered beyond my wildest imaginations, but that was the day I ran into history by founding of the Western States Endurance Run and the sport of trail ultrarunning, on a day of heat straight out of Dante.s Inferno, and a night of strange happenings and even stranger mental function.
I owe it to my friend Diane (of Dave and Diane and the horse trailer with the rubber mat and the perfume of horse poo through the night) that I made it to Auburn, and that there is a Western States 100-Mile Run and a trail ultrarunning sport for me to enjoy today. At mile 46, at the bottom of the North Middle Fork Canyon, I helped pull an exhausted, passed-out horse into the shallows from where it had collapsed in deeper water while crossing the river. I knew that horse was dying, and I arrived in Devil.s Thumb, two miles and 1,800 feet of climbing later, in quite a state: exhausted, scared, and having decided to quit. But Divine Providence had arranged for Diane to be there with her slightly-lame horse. She rushed up to me as I came into the Thumb, and excitedly asked me how I was doing. .I.m quitting., I answered. .Well, don.t quit just yet,. she said warmly. .Come over under this tree and with Page and I, and let.s talk about it. So Diane fed me water and salt tablets (I didn.t know I was de-salted), massaged my legs wonderfully, and spoke to me caringly. A half hour later I was feeling just fine, recovered and cared for, and ready to finish my run into Auburn. The girlfriend who went to the jalopy races with Margaret was soon history, Diane has been my friend ever since, and, in the world of Unintended Consequences, a whole bunch of clouds with silver linings were created in the lives of a whole bunch of people who followed in my footsteps, as I followed in Wendell Robie.s footsteps. Most of them I will never know, but I do know that the run and sport I started has enabled many of them to turn some very serious lemons into some very good lemonade in their own lives.
It had to happen this way: A kid who was (1) made to feel so peculiar that he had to (2) start running home for lunch out of loneliness, (3) got a P.E. teacher who punished him with misguided sadism by making him run laps around the track, (4) was a complete failure at all speed events and was forced to run the longest track events that no one else wanted to do, (5) failed to win the 2 mile run in his senior year high school track league championship, leaving him with unfinished business in running for the rest of his life, (6) got rejected by the University of California--Berkeley, forcing him to (7) go to a less-prestigious U.C. Campus where there was a decent endurance horse waiting for him to buy, (8) was so ignorant that he would try to ride 100 miles on a bareback pad, forcing him to prove that he could do 65 or 70 miles on foot, (9) chose for the love of his life in the storied .Summer of .72. a woman so faithless that she would talk him out of his good endurance horse and then leave him for a short, fat, bald married man, and live in a shed in his stable to have sex with him on cocaine, (10) was such a bad judge of character that he would choose for his best friend a guy who would knowingly and deliberately sell him a lame horse, (11) was such a procrastinator that he would let a whole year pass by without replacing that lame horse, even though he knew he was (12) the kind of guy who hated being a spectator, even on (13) a day so hot that even the horses were dying.
Today, horses no longer die of heat and exhaustion on the Western States Trail. As a result of the insights I gained during my day in the inferno, watching a horse dying in the bottom of a 2,000-foot deep canyon, I made suggestions to Wendell on the placement of a new veterinarian checkpoint at Last Chance, which plugged the hole in the veterinarian safety net that protects the horses.
And because of all those bad things that happened in my life for all those years, we trail runners can go almost anywhere in North America and run a majestic trail through some of the most beautiful places on earth. As Buddha is reputed to have said: the most beautiful lotus flower will be the one that grows out of a manure pile. And so we have the Western States Endurance Run and the sport of trail ultrarunning.the glorious fruits that grew out of the manure pile of my early life.