Growing Pains - Page 6Soul Searching
The sport’s long-timers argue that the good old days ended when events starting filling up. They claim the casual, quaint, low-key charm of trail ultras is endangered.
Ainsleigh waxes poetic about the earliest Western States 100 races. “Back then, from Foresthill [Mile 62] to Auburn [finish line], I wouldn’t see a single other runner,” he says. “There are just so many people out there now.” And, for Ainsleigh, that’s too bad. “There’s a valuable experience to running through the night-time wilderness alone—one that brings growth and virtue.”
One year, Ainsleigh stopped at an aid station and talked to a guy for 20 minutes. Why? “I was lonely,” he says.
“Ultrarunning was much more of a social event in the 1980s, with post-race dancing and partying to all hours,” he says, remembering races like the Cow Mountain 50 near Lake Mendocino, California. “We competed like hell, but it’d never get in the way of a good party.”
“I might differ with Gordy,” says Knipling. “I don’t see that much change,” he says. “That’s the thing I look forward to at Massanutten Mountain 100—my incentive to reach the finish line is being able to yuck it up with my buddies.”
Whether the sport is irretrievably changed depends on perspective. “The good old days are still easy to find,” says Greg Loomis. “My club [Virginia Happy Trails] has an average of one Fat Ass event per month free of charge to club runners. We use three real races as fund gatherers for the rest of the year’s events.” Fat Ass events, completely informal and often non-competitive runs, have become a fun alternative to the intense environments of the big-time, high-demand races.
Paul Melzer, a 51-year-old ultrarunner from northeastern Maryland who co-directs a few low key runs in the mid-Atlantic region (www.traildawgs.com), also advocates lower-key races. “I’ve lost most interest in attending the ever more bloated, formal races,” he says. “I have no interest in seeing the sport continue to grow.”
Finally, Ainsleigh offers sage advice to anybody longing for the sport’s days of yore. He says, “Go to one of the lesser-known mountain 100 milers, and you’ll get the same experience I had in 1978.”
But, despite the crowds and some other growing pains, it’s still tough to find a bigger advocate for the sport than Ainsleigh. “The trails are still there, the rattlesnakes, bears and mountain lions are still there,” he says. “We have the best sport in the world … we really do.”