by firebirdrunning | 10:45 am



A sport where your mind takes over and body tries to hold on. Running a distance most say “I don’t even like to drive that far.” But that is exactly what these amazing athletes do, run distances that most people would say is impossible. The 100 distance was something no one thought of doing until fortune struck in the form of a horse race and a brave man.

The year was 1974, on the 19th running of the Tevis Cup Ride. A horse race that proved since it was founded that horses could go 100 Miles in one day. But this was not it’s normal year. A veteran of the Tevis Cup, 26 year old Gordy Ainsleigh, decided that he would attempt the same course on foot . The previous year he dropped out of the Tevis Cup when his horse went lame at mile 30. After a little encouragement and training he came back and joined the horses. Gordy arrived in Auburn, Twenty-three hours and forty-two minutes later, proving that a runner could indeed traverse the rugged 100 miles in one day. He was awarded the same belt buckle Tevis cup riders get for the race. He was the first of a new breed and the sport of Ultrarunning was born.

Ron Kelley ran the Tevis Cup Ride in 1975, starting on July 26th with the horses as Gordy had done, but he withdrew at No Hands Bridge, despite being on track for a sub-24-hour finish. The next year Ken “Cowman” Shirk ran the Tevis Cup course hooting and hollering the whole way, starting July 10th, finishing just 30 minutes over the 24-hour mark. He was paced by his pal Gordy Ainsleigh for the last 25 miles.

The race officially became the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) in 1977. Fourteen brave men from four states participated in the race, which was held in conjunction with the Tevis Cup Ride. Andy Gonzales (22), was the winner and the sole sub-24-hour finisher with the time of 22:57. All other runners had dropped out or were “too late.” Peter Mattei and Ralph Paffenbarger, ages 53 and 54, continued on their own, arriving at the finish line in a then-unofficial 28:36. Their performance and persistence resulted in the decision to provide official finisher status and an award to sub-30-hour finishers.

The year of 1978, WSER had a dramatic increase in both interest and participation. The decision was made to separate the WSER from  the Tevis Cup Ride; therefore the race took place in June, a month earlier. There were 63 who started the race, and 30 finished, including the first woman, Pat Smythe in the time of 29:34.

In 1979, the Western States Endurance Run became an international event, with 143 athletes drawn from three foreign countries and 21 states. This was the first year that a qualifying standard was required to enter: certification of having run 50 miles in under 10 hours. Aid station cut-off times were also established for the first time. Mike Catlin won with a time of 16:11:56, despite having overslept and starting 10 minutes after everyone else. Skip Swannack became the first female buckle winner (21:56) There were 96 finishers, a finisher rate of 67.1%.

In 1980, WSER grew again, as 250 athletes challenged the course on June 28th. Much of the first ten miles was covered with snow making it even more difficult. Out of 124 finishers, Mike Catlin won in a time of 18:35:42. Two women finished with in the top ten, 1st place Sally Edwards and 2nd place Bjorg Austrheim-Smith.

Today Ultarunning encompasses any foot race longer the marathon distance. The four normal distances are 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles. Most of the events are held on trails, often with a lot of elevation change. There are now over 120, 100 mile races and many more of the shorter distances. But Ultras don’t stop here, there are also 24 hour races and the very new distance of the 200 miler. The most notable is the Tahoe 200, circumnavigating Lake Tahoe in the surrounding mountain ranges. Ultrarunning is now a worldwide sport.

The WSER now has a limit on the number of athletes who can race, 369 to be exact. WSER uses a lottery system to ensure fairness in entry. The race’s popularity has caused lottery entries to grow every year, to this year’s 4248 entries. Timothy Olson set the current men’s record of 14:46:44 in 2012. The women’s record was set the same year by Ellie Greenwood at 16:47:19. This race remains one of the most competitive 100 milers in the USA.

You can find more on


The Iron Challenge.

You have probably heard of The Ironman Triathlon. What you might not know, is that its history falls in a similar timeline to the Western States. The year after the WSER officially became the world’s first 100 mile race, an equally crazy group assembled to test the limits of human endurance.

The idea for the Ironman started in 1977. During an awards banquet at the Waikiki Swim Club, John Collins, a Naval Officer stationed in Hawaii, and his fellow athletes began debating which athletes were the fittest: swimmers, bikers, or runners. Later, Collins and his wife Judy, who had both participated in a new type of competition known as triathlons, decided to combine three of the toughest existing endurance races on the island. The courses of the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles, originally over two days) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles).

“Whoever finishes first, we’ll call the Ironman,” said Collins.

On February 18, 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, lined up on the shores of Waikiki to take on the first-ever IRONMAN challenge. The entry fee was only $3. Prior to racing, each received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. Hand-written on the last page was this exhortation: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”  At the end of the day, 12 had finished with Gordon Haller, a taxi cab driver and fitness enthusiast, crossing the finish line first in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds. Collins finished 9th with a time of 17:00:38.

The Ironman once again in 1979 attracted 15 athletes to take on the challenge. Tom Warren won in 11:15:56, and Lyn Lemaire became the first Ironwoman, fifth overall — 12:55:38. In an unexpected bit of luck, Sports Illustrated reporter Barry McDermott was on the island covering a golf tournament. Fascinated with the race, he wrote a 10-page story that garnered national attention.

IRONMAN founders John and Judy Collins give ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” permission to film the 1980 event, which brought worldwide recognition to IRONMAN. Dave Scott had his first of six victories, with a time of 9:24:33. Robin Beck is top female finisher, 12th overall time of 11:21:24. There were 95 finishers out of 108 entrants.

The annual race in Hawaii has become The Ironman World Championship, with a series of qualifying races required to enter. It was moved to October in 1982, so athletes from colder climates could train during the summer. The current Ironman World Championship men’s record was set in 2017 by Patrick Lange (Germany), whose winning time was 8 hours 1 minute 40 seconds. Daniela Ryf (Switzerland) set the women’s record in 2016 with a winning time of 8 hours 46 minutes 46 seconds. There are roughly 42 official Ironman races around the world and over 200 Half Ironman events. Not bad for a sport that has only been around 39 years.

As it has always been, it is these athletes who continue to inspired me and believe in the impossible. In the words of William Arthur Ward,

“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”

Read more about the Ironman and it’s beginnings at

(This Article was published in two separate parts on January 5th and 12th by the Nickles Worth)


No comments yet...

Leave a Reply