Should Gordy Ainsleigh, Ultra Pioneer, Have to Qualify for Western States?

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Update: Gordy Ainsleigh qualified for the 2016 Western States race at the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler in Texas on February 6, running 28:31.

The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, one of the country’s most storied trail races, has been the subject of intense debate in recent weeks, following the news that pioneering runner Gordy Ainsleigh may be barred from the race he essentially founded.

By now, nearly everybody knows the remarkable story of where 100-milers began. Before the legendary Western States 100, there was a horse race. That is, until 1974, when a young bearded lad decided to tackle the 100-mile, single-day Tevis Mountain Cup sans equine because his horse had gone lame. Just to attempt such a feat seemed outlandish, perhaps even dangerous. Yet Ainsleigh reached the finish, to the astonishment of many.

Two years later, Ken “Cowman” Shirk achieved the same feat. Soon, more folks showed up without horses and took on the 100-mile challenge under their own power, and the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run was born.

More: How Western States Became a Race

By 1979, nearly 150 runners toed the starting line to attempt what nobody had thought possible just five years earlier.

Today, the Western States 100 continues as the standard bearer for all 100-mile trail ultramarathons. It is the race that nearly every ultrarunner aspires to run. Cliches encircle the race—”the Boston Marathon of trail 100s”—many of them accurate.

Mirroring the rapid growth of the sport of trail ultrarunning, demand for entries to the Western States 100 has hit record levels in every year but one since 2008.

“These race spots are rare and precious real estate,” says 10-time Western States finisher and regular volunteer Andy Jones-Wilkins. “Each one represents an opportunity to potentially thousands and thousands of people. And the competition for it is huge.” (Despite his maniacal love for the race, Jones-Wilkins is not—and has never been—officially affiliated with the Western States event organization, and clarifies that his views are his own.)

The Evolution of Qualification

Through all of the race’s growth, organizers have continued to extend reverential honor to the sport’s forefathers, Ainsleigh and Shirk. For every year up until 2013, that meant that the two of them received automatic entry into the race under special “pioneer” designations.

Then, in 2013, the Western States 100 began requiring that Ainsleigh and Shirk qualify like all other Western States hopefuls, who since 1979 had been required to complete a race of 50 miles or longer. The rationale for this requirement was and continues to be “to ensure each runner has a reasonable chance to finish Western States within the time limit of 30 hours,” says Western States 100 race director Craig Thornley.

According to Thornley, “Gordy respects that and agreed to these [changes] a few years ago after the backlash that we were getting from the volunteers.” The backlash he refers to was at least partly in response to Shirk’s unprepared attempts at the race, which placed strain on volunteers and resources. It is worth noting that Shirk’s last completion of the Western States 100 was in 1994 and that, according to various accounts, he reached the Mile 16 Red Star Ridge aid station in 2013 nearly an hour after it was to shut down.

Applying the new requirement did not change the “pioneer” status enjoyed by Ainsleigh and Shirk. Both would receive automatic entry status, provided that they ran an official qualifier within the required time.

Then, in late 2013, Western States shifted the rules for all runners. The organizers had seen a dramatic increase in race applicants for its annual lottery, and, according to an announcement from the race that month, decided to “alleviate the increasing pressure on the lottery.”

They shifted the qualifying standards, starting with the 2015 Western States, to races of 100K (in under 16 hours) or 100 miles (in the time allowed by each race). In total, the list of qualifying races in 2014 numbered 63, and was created with an eye on geographic diversity so that “runners from anywhere in the world have an opportunity to run a qualifying race.”

The growth in Western States 100 lottery applicants since 2000. Courtesy of the Western States 100

On his Facebook page, Ainsleigh acknowledged that the new requirement made things substantially more difficult, but “I didn’t complain, because I figured if I couldn’t complete 100 miles on the moderate Javelina Jundred course”—an official qualifying race held every October in the Arizona desert—”then I probably didn’t belong on the starting line at Western States.” (Ainsleigh could not be reached for comment. All quotes come from what he has written on Facebook.)

Ainsleigh completed the 2014 Javelina Jundred to qualify for the 2015 Western States.

A Challenging Year

But 2015 has been a different story for Ainsleigh. At Western States, he missed the cutoff at Robinson Flat (Mile 30), still feeling the effects of a hard fall and injury suffered on the trails one month earlier.

In search of a 2016 qualifier, he traveled to the Where’s Waldo 100K in Oregon, but missed the qualifying time standard by eight minutes and 33 seconds. In one last attempt to qualify before the Western States lottery this month, Ainsleigh returned to the Javelina Jundred, but dropped at Mile 62 after a harrowing experience during which he blacked out and found himself in a hospital emergency room.

At that point, Ainsleigh seemed to be out of choices for qualifying for the 2016 running of Western States. However, he made a special request that he be allowed to qualify a few months later, at the Rocky Raccoon 100, held in February in Huntsville, Texas.

The race is outside of the annual qualifying window for the Western States 100 held that same year; anyone who completes the Rocky Raccoon 100 in 2016 can apply it as a qualifier only to the 2017 Western States 100.

In a Facebook post, Ainsleigh wrote, “I told [the Western States organizers] that the originator of the race should get at least equal treatment with the youngsters who are benefiting so much from his founding effort.” By “youngsters” Ainsleigh meant the elite runners who are able to win “golden tickets” for Western States as late as April by placing first or second in a very small number of specially designated races.

Ainsleigh added, “Their answer was ‘NO’ until all of you my friends raised a chorus so loud that they could no longer ignore you.”

Thornley says, “We are accommodating his request to extend the period for him and are letting him run Raccoon long after the qualifying period has closed for everybody else,” adding that everybody outside of the “golden ticket” entrants and those who claim Ultra-Trail World Tour spots must run a qualifier. Through the UTWT, Western States reserves six spots for elite athletes from outside North America. “This has been consistently applied to everybody, including several Board members who were unable to get qualifiers and thus not given a bib number.”

A Brushfire of Opinion

At this point it would seem that the path forward is clear: Months after the 2016 Western States 100 lottery has taken place, Ainsleigh will put tread to dirt in Texas to attempt to qualify for the race that he helped start in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, a debate simmers on social media. The online buzz leans strongly in favor of granting Ainsleigh what amounts to a lifetime entry, based upon the role that he played in the race’s (and sport’s) infancy. Some have suggested that veteran runners boycott Western States in protest, others have offered their own entry to Ainsleigh and a few have even recommended that a new race be started: “The Gordy 100.”

“There should be a bib number and open slot available for Gordy EVERY year that this race is held,” wrote ultrarunner Dave Harber of Clermont, Florida, on Facebook. “If he’s 110 years old and in a wheelchair, and wants to be on the starting line, that’s where you should put him.”

Kaci Nash from Colierville, Tennessee, wrote, “The sport and the Western States Board of Directors should respect him enough to grant him entry every year. He earned the lifetime qualification by starting it all and finishing it 22 times.”

Jennifer Lee Dicus of Sparks, Nevada, acknowledged that she has friends on both sides of the issue, but ultimately sided with letting Ainsleigh run without qualification: “When a man as great as Gordon Ainsleigh is still able to run, he should be allowed to run the race that would not exist without him! Hell, we don’t know that 100-mile endurance runs would exist without this man. As long as he is able-bodied and wants to run Western States 100, he should always have a spot open for him. ALWAYS. Regardless of whether or not he has run a qualifier, period, end of discussion. Come on Western States Board, you save spots for sponsors, so you can save a spot for Gordy, too.”

Scott Jurek, a seven-time Western States 100 champion and renowned ambassador of the sport, feels that the race could find a way for Ainsleigh to participate every year. “It’s an important part of the race’s history and I’d say he could be let in,” he says. “They should take a poll, and see how many people don’t care. We’re talking about one entry. If they were letting in 30 people, it would be a different story.”

Jurek references other famed races that find a way to honor their history. “If Bill Rodgers”—the four-time champion of the Boston Marathon—”was 80-something years old and wanted to run Boston, they would let him run,” he says. “These race organizers see it as an honor to have these individuals out there.”

Other trail runners recognize that Ainsleigh (and Shirk) hold very special status in the sport, but feel that qualifying standards should exist—both for fairness and to ensure that those who toe the starting line have a realistic chance of finishing and are not likely to put themselves or others in danger.

Jones-Wilkins is clear on his viewpoint: “I believe that Gordy should run a qualifier like everybody else.

“Look, I’ve known Gordy for as long as I’ve been in the sport,” he adds. “I think that deep down inside he knows that it’s the right thing for him to be required to get a qualifier.”

He points out that it’s important for Western States to require a qualifier. “I think it’s right for them to stick to the rules because for many years there was the perception that they weren’t,” he says, alluding to some previous—and unfounded—community rumblings that favoritism determined who got into the race.

“If I’m Gordy, I’m going to be training my butt off to get to that finish at the Raccoon before 30 hours,” he says. “And I think he can do it.”

For their part, Thornley and the Western States 100 maintain that there is no story here, and that they have acted in the best interests of the legendary race. “Gordy was fine with the rules until this year, when he didn’t qualify,” says Thornley.

At the same time, Ainsleigh, despite his obvious free-thinking streak, is not calling for any sort of revolution. On the contrary, he’s asking that “we quit asking the WS Board to do away with the qualifier requirement for Cowman and I, because it’s not right to take away a cherished opportunity to finish for a new runner unless we ourselves have the possibility of another cherished day and night of running.”

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