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Q&A: Gordy Ainsleigh Talks Western States, Trail Running, Beards and More

The 69-year-old has lived an interesting life, including 42 years as an ultrarunner.

While the Tarahumra and many other indigenous cultures have been running long distances for ages, Gordy Ainsleigh was the first person to officially cover 100 miles on foot in a trail race. Many at the time, including Ainsleigh’s coach, didn’t think it could be done. But in 1974, when the horseman showed up for the 100-mile Western States Trail Ride without a horse, he was ready to give it a try. The race eventually became the Western States Endurance Run (WSER), and is now the oldest 100-mile race in the country. Ainsleigh, 69, who is also a chiropractor, sommelier, arborist and gardener, was a late addition to the 2016 WSER roster due to challenges qualifying during the standard November-to-November window. After being granted an extension, he earned his bib at the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler in February.

You’ve completed WSER more than 20 times, yet this June you are towing the line yet again. Why?

Because I qualified! Except for my time in the military and school, I’ve lived within 12 miles of Auburn my entire life. I’m a homebody. But I love adventure. The WSER board has created a whole-feeling adventure right here on my favorite trails. Life is good, why not get as much as you can?

What is your training protocol for 100-mile races?

When I started running, I trained on trails because I came from a horse background and that’s what I knew. I train the way people trained on horses—you didn’t run a horse hard two days in a row. I used to run every other day. Now running every third or fourth day is good. I like to get in a 45-mile training run before a 100-mile race. I also still ride horses, practice martial arts and rock climb.

With spending so much time on the trails, have you had any close calls with wildlife?

I’ve met four mountain lions in my years of running. Three ran away. The fourth time, he and I were coming towards each other, and we both just stood there. The unblinking three-minute stare down was trying to see if I was a safe kill. I didn’t give him that. I’m quite a wildlife fan. The whole time I was in awe of just how incredibly special it was to be in that situation, staring into those luminous green eyes, even with the deadly potential. Our standoff ended when a squirrel charged the mountain lion. Most times, especially when running at dusk, I’ll carry a nice sturdy piece of dead Manzanita in one hand so I’m prepared. That time took me by surprise.

Given that you are the first official trail ultra finisher, yours also counts as the first beard of ultrarunning, yet another trend to your credit! Why do you have one?

I don’t like to spend time in front of a mirror. It’s absurd to me that men shave off one of the signs of manhood. It’s a secondary sexual characteristic. Men with stubble aren’t giving themselves permission to really show their masculinity. It’s more of a halfway, socially acceptable thing.

What do you think about ultrarunner, two-time winner of WSER and fellow beard aficionado Rob Krar?

I think he’s zealous, like me.

How does nutrition come into play for you?

I eat whole foods. I also run and climb shirtless to get more sun exposure and Vitamin D. It really helps with malabsorption issues and promotes good health. I’m a big guy; my race weight is 203 pounds.

What do you think has contributed to your enduring running success?

“If I go further than others it’s because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Wendell Robie (founder of the Western States Trail Ride, aka the Tevis Cup) and Bud Johns (a public relations director at Levi Strauss & Company who came up with the ‘Ride & Tie’ race concept) created the framework for my success. I just added the running element to what they developed.

I also have guardian angles. I had five. Now it’s either four or five. I sent two to a friend who was going on a mission and I know one came back. The folks upstairs get tired of people acting stupid. I’ve had many deliveries from certain death.