How Western States Became a Race
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Mo Livermore, a founder of the Western States Endurance Run, shares her experience of organizing and running the race in its early years
Mo Livermore running Western States in 1981. A rider first and runner second, Livermore was a key figure in the early years of the iconic footrace as it spun off from the equestrian Tevis Cup. Photo by Hughes Photography
Any fan of the Western States Endurance Run knows the story of Gordy Ainsleigh’s trailblazing 100-mile trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn in 1974, which launched the modern era of ultrarunning and led to the founding of America’s premier 100-mile footrace.
Before 1974, Ainsleigh and others traversed those 100 miles on horseback as part of a one-day endurance-riding race called the Tevis Cup, started by horseman Wendell Robie in 1955. Ainsleigh didn’t have a horse to ride in ’74 but wanted to take part in the race, so he mustered the courage to try it on foot and finished in 23 hours 42 minutes.
But Ainsleigh’s fabled run could have been a forgotten-about fluke, if not for a few dedicated horse enthusiasts who became passionate about supporting runners as well as riders, leading to the creation of the Western States Endurance Run as we know it.
For an inside look at how this happened, Trail Runner talked to a woman who’s been at the center of the event since the beginning: Mo Livermore, a two-time Western States finisher (1981 and 1983) and the only member of the 13-person Western States Endurance Run Foundation’s board of trustees to have served since its founding.
Livermore, 63, is first and foremost a horsewoman. She and her husband live with 10 horses on a ranch east of San Francisco. As a student at UC Berkeley in 1971, she discovered the Western States Trail when she crewed for a friend who was riding the Tevis. Six years later, Livermore and her good friend Shannon Weil took the lead in establishing the Western States Endurance Run as an independent event, and co-directed it during its first years.
“Mo would probably kill me for saying this,” says Western States Board president John Trent, acknowledging that Livermore is modest and media-shy, “but without her presence, along with a couple of other people at a key juncture in the late 1970s, Western States wouldn’t exist. So much of who we are—especially the spirit, and how we try to find common ground as a board—has to do with Mo.”
Here, Livermore shares her experience as an ultrarunning pioneer and key figure in the Western States Endurance Run of the 1970s and early ’80s.
Before you ran Western States, you rode it. What was that like?
I first rode the Tevis in 1972, when I was 20, and I thought I’d never ride it again—it was like climbing Everest. It was just so hard, and was such a long day. Eventually, I started running to be a better partner for my horse. It made me much more empathic, understanding what he was going through.
Which was harder, riding or running those 100 miles?
In 1981, I finished the run and the ride [held one month later] the same summer, and I was much more tired after having finished the ride. It’s the emotional energy that one puts into a horse, which you don’t need to put into yourself when running, that made it so much more exhausting. You can make yourself lame for six months [by racing], but it’s not right to hurt a horse, so you’re always checking the dials. There’s less at stake with yourself.
When Gordy first ran it in 1974, you were crewing for the Tevis at Robinson Flat [Mile 30]. What did you think of someone trying to run it?
It was an oddity—interesting, but not earth-shaking. This was a time of adventuring, and I’m an adventurer type, so it was just an interesting challenge that somebody was doing.
Then, in 1975, Ron Kelley—a runner who’s almost lost to history—ran with the horses, but headed home a bit early, at the No Hand’s Bridge [Mile 97].
In 1976, Cowman [ultrarunner Ken Shirk] ran it, and he ultimately finished in 24:30. But Cowman was having a good ol’ time at some of the checkpoints, and I think that accounted for his time [being] over the 24-hour mark.
In 1977, Gordy and Wendell [Robie, the Tevis Cup founder] put a little blurb in Runner’s World, with a picture of Gordy going over Cougar Rock, and the address of the Western States Trail Foundation. We had inquiries from 14 runners from four different states, and they all showed up at Squaw Valley to run with the horses. And then in 1978, we established an event that was independent of the horses.
Livermore rides her Arabian gelding, Jhalil, in 1980. Photo courtesy of Mo Livermore
What inspired you to try the Western States run yourself?
I did a ride-and-tie [a race in which teams of two runners alternately run and ride a horse] in 1976. I’d never done a running race before. It was at Northstar [near Lake Tahoe], about 31 miles, and I ended up running about 25 miles of it when my partner became injured. Unexpectedly, I learned that by running aerobically you could get much farther than you thought you could. That was an eye-opener: that if you figure you’re in it for the long haul, you can do a lot better than you thought possible. I thought, “Wow, I can do this!”, and the thought of running 100 miles didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.
Then, in 1977, Wendell called and said, “Would you please come be a timer for these runners who are running with the horses?” I said, “No, it’s too hot, I’m not driving around after a bunch of runners.” Finally, I broke down and said yes. So we shot the gun off at the start, and then I followed all the way along with Bob Lind, our doctor, who was looking after the runners and trying to keep track of medical data. I became completely fascinated by what the runners ate, what they were trying to do and how their weight changed. That’s when I got really hooked on what it meant to run through those mountains in those conditions.
How did those 14 runners in 1977 do?
We had no checkpoint between Squaw Valley and Robinson Flat, which is about 30 miles—no water, no anything. Those of us who were trying to help the runners were a moving aid station and would produce for them the supplies they brought. This was before Camelbacks and plastic water bottles. One guy was carrying an Aunt Jemima syrup bottle for water; most people didn’t carry any, and we didn’t know what needed to be carried.
We had scales and saw that there were precipitous drops in weight from many of the runners, and by Michigan Bluff [Mile 55], Andy Gonzalez—he was 22, and ultimately the only one who finished in under 24 hours—was the only one able to continue on. All the others had dropped by then, except for the two “old” guys, Peter Mattei and Ralph Paffenbarger, who were 53 and 54. The Tevis Cup was a 24-hour race, and Peter and Ralph had arrived at Michigan too late for a 24-hour finish, so they continued on their own and arrived in Auburn in 28 hours 36 minutes.
It was from that, when we were forming the organization for the run, that we established the 30-hour award. It was based on their finish, because we thought it was only the extraordinary young athlete, exemplified by Andy, who could finish under 24 hours—and therefore, anybody who wasn’t extraordinary and young couldn’t possibly do it under 24. So I said, “Why don’t we make it 30 hours?” and everyone said, “OK.” Now that’s the standard that we use.
How did the Western States run spin off from the Tevis Cup?
In 1977, after the ride was completed, it seemed that an independent event should be created. Wendell Robie was very excited about the runners, but it was clear that it wasn’t compatible with the riders. A lot of the trail is single file, and it’s difficult when there are runners and horses sharing a trail under those conditions with that duration and in the dark.
The big worry was our volunteers. We were worried about stressing them if we had the events too close together. We decided to try having the events one month apart, so we had the run on the previous full moon, in June.
Wendell established the Western States Endurance Run board in 1977, and a few of us spent the spring [of 1978] driving into the high country to figure out where to put the checkpoints. Then we begged all our friends to man an aid station. They’d say, “A what?”
The other thing we did is try to make our publications as top-drawer as they could be, so that we presented an organized face to the outside world, even though a lot of it was being done in my kitchen or at Shannon’s desk. So that’s really how it got started, and we had 63 runners in 1978.
You developed 18 aid stations for the runners [today there are 23, including the start and finish], whereas the Tevis ride only had five checkpoints. What did you have at those aid stations?
In the high country we probably only had water. At other checkpoints, we served ERG [an electrolyte-replacement and glucose drink] early on, and probably had cookies and fruit. A couple of years into the run, probably in 1979 or ’80, Larry Griffith, who was manning the aid station down at Bath Road, got Campbell Soup to donate some soup, and that was huge! That was so innovative, to get a donation of soup.
Tell us about your first Western States run.
I really wanted to run in ’78, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do, since I didn’t want to leave our little group of organizers in a lurch; we were everywhere, trying to take care of everybody. Shannon and I were the race directors—we were co-race directors in ’78, ’79, ’80 and ’81, and I did it alone in ’82 and ’83.
In 1979, when I ran the first time, I wound up being incredibly sick to my stomach. I’d had a tuna-sandwich dinner the night before, and I don’t know if it was that, but I got to Devil’s Thumb [Mile 48] extremely sick, throwing everything up. The next week, I was supposed to be in Missouri riding west with four horses on a 2,000-mile horse race, so I sat there in the lounge chair thinking I have to keep my priorities straight. But I probably couldn’t have continued anyway because I was very sick.
In 1980, I twisted my knee in the snow and ran as far as I could, and found myself at Devil’s Thumb again. I couldn’t walk anymore, so I stopped. Then in 1981 I came back. I did the whole thing and spent two-and-a-half hours sleeping at about the 75-mile point because I had hyponatremia, as it turned out. But we didn’t know that then.
In the early years of ultrarunning, there was a different prevailing wisdom each year about how much water you should drink or how much salt you should ingest. There wasn’t any solid research to give us advice. In 1981, what I had heard is you didn’t want to get dehydrated, so drink all you want. I don’t care for Gatorade or ERG, which is what we used to serve in the aid stations, so I just drank copious amounts of water and wound up passing out just after the Foresthill aid station. When I woke up, I made it to the next aid station and slept in a lounge chair wrapped up in a piano packing blanket.
Then Dr. Lind peered down at me with a big smile and said, “Time to go!” I looked up and said, “Yeah, well, I know it’s my third time, but I feel kind of sick.” And he said, “No, get up,” so he got me to my feet and pushed me down the trail, and I finished in 28:47 [16th out of 19 women].
Had you ever run another marathon or ultra before finishing States in 1981?
I had not run any sort of race until the spring of 1981, when I ran three marathons in six weeks because I decided I wanted to run Boston. Napa in March was the last marathon to qualify for Boston, so I ran Napa. My time was 3:10. Then I went to the Catalina Trail Marathon, and then did Boston in April. I think I ran it in an adjusted time of 3:20.
I did not have any sort of concentrated training program until 1983, when I actually finished Western States in under 24 hours. That spring, my horse injured himself, so I couldn’t ride. So, my success in 1983 was based much more on what I didn’t do. The ride-and-tie race had always been a week before the Western States run, so I’d use a lot of energy training for and competing in the ride-and-tie and then come back and do the run.
In 1983, I decided I really wanted to finish in under 24 hours, so those last 20 miles I focused on making every single step count. I passed 20 people in the last 20 miles, dropped my pacer and finished with seven minutes to spare [in 23:53, seventh out of 21 women]. Western States is 65- to 75-percent mental.
What has motivated you to devote yourself to the Western States Endurance Run as a founder, director and trustee for nearly four decades?
I believe in the gift of the Western States Trail, and I think people really grow when they challenge themselves on that beautiful trail. I wanted to share that. I also felt that when you challenge yourself and pull out all the stops physically and emotionally and spiritually, you learn things that then you take into other parts of your life and are better for it.
Also, it was fun to organize, fun to see the growing enthusiasm and fun to see Wendell’s interest in it. Wendell and his administrative assistant, Drucilla Barner [the first woman to win the Tevis Cup], were encouraging Shannon and me to help this event grow. It was their enthusiasm combined with ours that launched it.
We’ve had amazing people who’ve been part of our event—runners, volunteers, board members—so it’s always been fun to be part of this, and the board has been lucky to have such fine RDs as Craig Thornley and Greg Soderlund. We want to preserve and protect the trail, and we want to protect our fundamental values, including our belief that the race should be open to athletes of all skill levels, not just the elites. Western States is more than just a race. It’s a multifaceted organization with a mission that strives to make a difference in many areas of life—to the sport of ultrarunning and beyond.
Sarah Lavender Smith is a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner who blogs at TheRunnersTrip.com. She met Livermore on a horseback ride more than a decade ago while learning about the sport of ride-and-tie.