Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run | California | June 28, 2003
Trial By Fire
By Gary Dudney
Sitting at the Green Gate aid station, mile 80, about 2:00 am, working through some soup and coffee, I looked up to see Gordy Ainsleigh (“the man who started it all”) trot into the halo of light around the station. Tall, despite the slight stoop, bare-chested, flowing blonde hair and rugged beard, he looked a man squarely in his element. He plunked down in the chair next to me. The volunteers, who all seemed old friends, joshed and needled him mercilessly. Ainsleigh just smiled.
“What can we get you?” they asked. As if born to amaze, Ainsleigh thought for awhile and then said, “I’ll have a beer.”
A long-necked Cerveza immediately appeared in his hand. “Do you have any limes?” he asked. And along came a wedge of lime that Ainsleigh poked neatly into the beer. (Don’t ask me what a beer and a lime(!) were doing at this aid station.)
Hours later zipping out of Highway 49 with just 7 miles to go, I saw Ainsleigh up ahead standing on the trail with his pacer. I took him to be struggling and said as I passed, “Gordy, it’s that beer catching up with you.” Without missing a beat, he shouted after me, “I’ll be at No Hands before you.” (The famous No Hands Bridge just 3 miles from the finish.)
Seemed pretty unlikely he would catch me as I was running well so I imagined he was just indulging in some empty bravado. Shortly before reaching the bridge, Ainsleigh glided smoothly by without saying a word. He just turned his head slightly and flashed me a big toothy grin.
Ah, Western States! How you continue to amaze and beguile and confound. After thirty years, the race just gets better and 56-year-old Gordy Ainsleigh can still run under 24 hours when he really tries.
Even the race program, full color cover and loaded with vintage photos, was a marvel. For example, a section titled “Early History of the Race” steps us through the remarkable first years: Ainsleigh’s inspired notion to try the Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup) on foot in 1974, finishing just under 24 hours. A solo second runner trying in 1975 but withdrawing within two miles of the finish. Then came Cowman’s solo 1976 run in slightly over 24 hours with Ainsleigh as the first ever pacer. Fourteen men attempting the now official run in 1977 with only three finishers, but one set a new course record and two older fellows finished just under thirty hours and gave the race its time limit. In 1978, the first woman finisher. By 1979 the race had mushroomed to 143 runners and has filled to capacity ever since.
The Friday check in and race briefing invariably brings out a world’s complement of great runners and old friends. While Gordy works his massage table at the back of the crowd, Race Director Greg Soderlund runs smoothly through the announcements, with the back end of Squaw Valley, a fantastic display of rock, trees, ridges, trails and snow, rising up behind him. The best ultrarunners in the country stand in the sun before us kicking at the ground nervously like thoroughbreds in the gates. What a thrill to see the gracious five time winner Tim Twietmeyer smile and wave.
Scott Jurek, the defending champion looking for his fifth win in a row, is familiar to us from the Western States training camp last May, where I remember him cruising up and down Devil’s Thumb and cooling off in the river with the rest of us. He also gave a talk one evening after dinner, sharing his gold standard race techniques with us. When he finished, he laughed and said, “Okay, now you’ve got it all.”
Thirteen time WS100 champ Ann Trason was also at the camp. Her “woodland sprite” photo in the program is worth the whole race fee. It reminds me of her puckish 1989 post race interview with Frank Shorter, where he seemed determined to feed her stock answers to his questions. Shorter wanted her to gush over her feelings at passing the point in the course where she’d been given an IV and eliminated from the race the year before. Trason said, “Ah, I don’t know. It seemed like a long ways. I sort of wanted to stop again.” Then Shorter, marveling at the prospect of running one hundred miles, suggested she does it in increments, “from one check point to the next.” Trason responded, “I do it tree to tree.”
John Medinger, the Western States Endurance Run Foundation President, quips his way through his introductions and leaves us with a quote from ancient Greece, “Ask not for victory. Ask only for courage. If you endure, you’ve brought honor to yourself and more importantly you’ve brought honor to us all.”
Before the briefing, I ran into Monica Scholz hiking in the hot sun from Alpine Meadows to the Olympic Plaza. She was obviously going to be very late so I gave her a ride. The Canadian lawyer and running superstar, who finished 32 one hundred mile races in a single year, smiled and told me, “I misjudged the distance.”
Yes, the run up to Western amazes as we go back to relax in our funky 1960s cabins. (I think the architects got together and said, “We need big pretentious living areas with balconies in case the skiers want to stage Romeo and Juliet. And the kitchens have to be ridiculously small with no counter space. Oh, yeah, and let’s make everything mod.”) Then the gun goes off at the 5:00 am start and Western proceeds to kick your butt. The heat was all the rage this year. Stopping for dinner the day before in Auburn, my car thermometer hit 105. (Are those things accurate?) It showed 111 on the drive over from the coast. In the canyons I started walking anything that was sunny, didn’t matter if it was uphill or down. I filled empty water bottles with river water to pour over my head. I loaded my hat with ice at the aid stations where swarms of orange-shirted volunteers invariably greeted every runner.
People couldn’t wait to get to the water at the bottom of Deadwood canyon. One guy jumped straight in and then couldn’t stop yelping and moaning at the shock. Going up Devil’s thumb, runners were getting nauseous and losing it. I dunked my head in the river thinking that if I washed off completely, I would be without sunblock and bug spray until I saw my crew at Michigan Bluff. When I eventually got to Michigan, I overheard a runner complaining, “The mosquitoes have been eating me alive ever since I got in the river.” It’s great to be right.
Volcano Canyon between Michigan Bluff and Foresthill at eight in the evening was still hot enough to keep my stomach marginal and forced me to sip soup and nibble GU carefully. But at last a black moonless night descended and we headed out of Foresthill on that wonderful mostly downhill stretch to the river with brief poetic interludes at Dardanelles, Peachstone, and Ford’s Bar aid stations to break up the roll. Somewhere in that stretch I sampled the world’s worst coffee in what I assume was an attempt to poison me and put me out of my misery. The guy at Ford’s Bar wanted to be understood clearly, “There are NO drop bags here and NO dropped runners. So get out of here.”
Then came the surreal Rucky Chucky river crossing: the awkward, bent over grabbing at the cable, the volunteers standing in the icy river murmuring encouragement, the eerie submerged glowsticks, the shock of the water rushing up to soak your running shorts, and finally someone picking out the correct stones with a flashlight to get you back on shore. I sat in the aid station on the far side numb but invigorated. Time to concentrate on the jumble of stuff coming out of my drop bag and the final march to the finish.
The last seven miles at Western from Highway 49 to the stadium at Placer High School are legend. After a rocky climb away from the highway, we cross the race’s only open field and make our way to a spot above the American River. Here the trail turns “annoying” (according to Twietmeyer), meaning constant rocky shelves, roots, deep trenches, dust, and other nasty formations meant to trap weary runners. But then the Mountain Quarry Cement Bridge (No Hands) comes into view and all is forgiven. Beyond the bridge is a sunny mile above the river around to the last big obstacle, a gnarly switchback up to Robie Point, but the gathering adrenaline stimulated by the smell of the barn door is kicking in “big time” by now.
The neighborhoods of Auburn flash by quickly and spectators wave us toward the stadium entrance. The droll drone of the announcer’s voice can be heard introducing finishers. Black asphalt gives way to the red cinder track and I float around the oval toward the finish line. Now my name rings through the morning air and there is Greg Soderlund waiting with my medal. It is another finish at Western States…another story to last a lifetime.