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Western States 100's Gordon Ainsleigh: The mountain man of them all

Western States 100's Gordon Ainsleigh: The mountain man of them all

by Mark Vanderhoff - Originally written for the Reno-Gazette Journal, June 2003

The tale of how Sierra foothills resident Gordon Ainsleigh became the first person to run the Western States 100-mile endurance run is the stuff of legends.

“As the story has been passed down, it’s been getting more and more storied,” said Jim Ellsworth, a 64-year-old long-distance runner who works at the aid stations along the Western States. What’s for certain is that the Western States used to be a horse race in which equestrians attempted to ride 100 miles in less than 24 hours. Today, the horse race has evolved into the Tevis Cup and the Western States has become the nation’s original 100-mile trail run - More than 400 athletes will run the race in 2003 - the race limit is filled the previous November every year.

The details of how that change came involve a horse that went lame, some help from a fair maiden and a treacherous path over rugged mountains and out of steep canyons. The protagonist, Ainsleigh, resembled mountain man Jeremiah Johnson, a 200-pound-plus bearded man with shoulder length hair.

The story began one fateful day in 1973, when the 26-year-old Ainsleigh gave his horse to his girlfriend. “That was kind of a stupid thing to do,” he said. “I even knew she was leaving me.” Ainsleigh bought a new horse from a man he describes as “a salesman” who sold him a lemon. Turns out the horse went lame after too much downhill running, a major problem on an up-and-down course like the Western States. Regardless, Ainsleigh tried to ride the horse. He was sidelined after 29 miles.

Anyone else might have gotten a new horse, but Ainsleigh admits he’s a procrastinator. “It’s caused me a lot of problems in life, but it was responsible for one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” he said. And besides, it was a good horse, so long as Ainsleigh didn’t cover too many hills.

As the ride approached one year later, Ainsleigh fretted over what to do. He remembered what a friend told him as she tried to console him shortly after the last race. “We’re all wondering when you’re going to leave the horse behind and just do it on foot,” she said. 1974 seemed as good a year as any.

“Ainsleigh has this huge ego to go with his body,” said Pete Hanson, a marathon runner and high school coach who mentored Ainsleigh in the early 1970s. The determined runner trained by running the toughest 40 miles of the Western States course, a trail from Michigan Bluff to Auburn that runs through two canyons with little shade. He ran that section four times in six weeks and jogged one hour per day in between.

Despite the fact that his girlfriend at the time went to some jalopy races in the foothills instead of seeing him off, Ainsleigh felt good on the day of the race. He had Gatorade, some glucose supplements and snacks stashed along the course in the same places that have become aid stations on the long, brutal course.

He felt so good early on that he raced the horses. His legs began to burn after 15 miles. The next 20 miles were downhill, but exposed. He became dehydrated. He began to think of the woman who wasn’t there for him at the starting line. Halfway through the race, he helped some riders with a horse that collapsed in the river. “If the horses were dying, I thought, I’m a lot less genetically designed for being on the trail this long,” he said.

Aisnleigh decided to quit the race as he ran out of the canyon. But when he reached the top, he met a pretty blonde lady and an old man waiting with their horses that had gone lame. The old man offered Ainsleigh some salt tablets, water and words of encouragement. The pretty blonde gave Ainsleigh a leg massage that he claims seductively traveled farther and farther up his thighs. “She did it on purpose,” Ainsleigh said. “She got me thinking about a lot more than the heat and how bad I felt. I wasn’t exhausted or lonely any more, I was horny.”

At that point, the horse-riding heroine sent a rejuvenated Ainsleigh on his way. He ran into Michigan Bluff, blew off the girlfriend waiting 80 miles too late for him and asked for a guide rider to escort him through the final 20 miles. He asked for a specific rider, a woman he had had his eyes on for a while. “I thought ‘If I’m ever going to impress her, now’s the time,’” he said.

Ainsleigh jabbered the whole way to the finish line, winning the woman’s heart and coming in at 23 hours and some change.

Ainsleigh and the woman ended up parting ways, but his accomplishment formed the basis for the grueling sports of long-distance trail running and ultra marathons. And Ainsleigh eventually married, started his own chiropractic practice in Meadow Vista, Calif., and still runs the Western States at age 56.

“You have to imagine all the people whose lives he’s impacted,” said John Rhodes, 55-year-old long distance runner from Reno who has run several ultra-marathons and finished the Western States four out of seven tries. “This is one of those life-changing impacts on people’s lives,” Rhodes said. “Once you do it, it carries over into your life and you feel like you can do anything.”

The 30th annual Western States 100 will be held June 28. The course begins at Squaw Valley with a 4-mile, 2,500-foot ascent of Emigrant Pass and continues through the rugged canyons and hills of the Sierra Nevada down to Auburn, Calif. Runners must gain 18,000 feet and descend 23,000 feet within 30 hours.

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