This is a podcast about the history of the sport of ultrarunning. An ultramarathon is generally a race of 50K (31 miles) or more. The sport became popular in the 1980s, but had been in existence since the late 19th century. This podcast will share history and tell stories about ultrarunning history generally before 2000.
71: The 100-miler: Part 18 (1977) Western States 100
In 1977, Wendell T. Robie (1895-1984), the president of the Western States Trail Foundation and the director of the Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup), decided that it was time to add a runner division to his famous Ride. He had previously helped seven soldiers successfully complete the course on foot in 1972 (See Forgotten First Finishers), the first to do so, and had been pleased that Gordy Ainsleigh had been the first to finish the trail in under 24-hours in 1974. (See Episode 66). In addition, dozens of people had backpacked the trail since then, and a couple others had tried to run the course solo during the Ride. Robie believed it was time to organize a foot race on "his trail" for the first time.
This first Western States 100 in 1977 was hastily organized by riders, not runners. There was no consultation with the existing well-established ultrarunning sport at that time. Practices were put in place that mostly mirrored the endurance horse sport such as mandatory medical checks. The event would be held with nearly 200 riders and horses also competing on the course at the same time as the runners. The day would turn out to be perhaps the hottest ever for the historic race. The risks were extremely high for this small rookie running race staff and some rather naïve runners. Who were the runners who turned out for this historic first race? Did they have the experience to finish or just survive?
70: The 100-miler: Part 17 (1973-1978) Badwater Roots
Walks and runs across Death Valley, in California during the hot summer started as early as 1966 when Jean Pierre Marquant (1938-) from Nice, France accomplished a 102-mile loop around the valley that included climbing two of the high mountains. (see episode 62).
This started a Death Valley hiking and running frenzy in the lowest and hottest place in North America. It mostly concentrated on 100+ mile end-to-end journeys across the blazing wilderness. End-to-end records were set, broken, and recorded by the Death Valley Monument rangers. All of these accomplishments were the roots for what eventually would be the Badwater Ultramarathon. But when did trekking from Badwater (-282 feet) to the top of Mount Whitney (14,505 feet) start?
69: The 100-miler: Part 16 (1976-1977) Max Telford and Alan Jones
In the 1970s, the sport of ultrarunning received very little attention in the mainstream media. In April 1974, Park Barner from Pennsylvania, the top ultrarunner in America at the time, did appear on a local television show. The episode was entitled, “The Loneliness of the Ultra-Distance Runner.” He also later was on CBS's PM Magazine. But the ultrarunners who really succeeded in getting the attention of the public were those who rarely participated in formal races and instead put on endurance stunts that were attention-grabbers.
The most prominent runners had the help of skilled marketing resources to keep their name in the spotlight. Their goal was not to go after sanctioned records or even formal course records. Instead, they focused mostly on getting their name into the Guinness Book of World Records to claim invented "world records," which are what we call today "fastest known times." Because the most elite ultrarunners in the world were not self-promoters, they remained in general obscurity except among their ultrarunning competitors and clubs. It was the self-promoter record-seekers who truly became famous.
Two of these individuals who caught the attention of the American public in the mid-1970s were Max Telford of New Zealand and Alan Jones, a marine from Iowa, who was stationed in Oregon. Telford was touted as being the greatest long-distance runner in the world and Jones became known as "Captain America." Both ran 100 miles and both their stories are fascinating and inspirational. It is believed that neither went down the fraudulent road as many other self-promoters did.
68: The 100-miler: Part 15 (1975-1976) Andy West
Since the dawn of the sport of ultrarunning more than a century ago, a unique breed of ultrarunner has existed which we will call the "self-promoter." They were skilled in using their running talents to gain fame and fortune, mostly by doing "stunts" rather than participating in competitions. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to make a living this way. Before World War II, most ultrarunners were "professionals" who lived off winnings, wagers, and gate receipts from doing stunts.
But sadly, many self-promoters would make false claims, play on the sympathies of a gullible public, and some would resort to fraud and thievery. When telling the history of the sport, these stories of self-promoters must delicately be pointed out so that their achievements can put in their proper place. Caution must be used to sort through a multitude of claims to find the legitimate. In 1985, Gary Cantrell (of Barkley fame) warned the sport about this type of runner, who would step forward to claim an undeserved spotlight for gain, disrespecting the entire sport.
Why cover this? In the 1975, a young self-promoting talented runner became part of the 100-mile history. After gaining national fame, he sadly turned to fraud. The fascinating story of Andy West is a cautionary tale to beware of the self-promoting, charity-raising ultrarunner. In the next episode, I will cover two other self-promoters who were truly great ultrarunners of the mid-1970s that learned to successfully use their fame to inspire with a bit of “over the top” claims.
67: The 100-miler: Part 14 (1975-1976) Cavin Woodward and Tom Osler
In the early 1970s, several highly competitive 100-mile races had been held in England, but they were still only organized for attempts to break British or world records. In 1975 another classic race was held, perhaps the greatest and most competitive 100-mile race ever held. It left one reporter speechless, witnessing something that he would never forget, watching some of the fastest 100-mile runners ever, and experiencing the sportsmanship of ultrarunning for the first time. This story must be retold.
In America, 100-mile races were being held, open to anyone who wanted to give it a try, even the naïve. In 1975, the annual Camellia 100 held in the Sacramento, California area was held for the fifth year.
But the oldest annual American 100-miler that tends to be forgotten, was the Columbia 100 Mile Walk held in Columbia, Missouri. In 1975 It was held for the ninth year. There had been 23 sub-24-hour 100-miler finishes in its history. But this was nothing compared to Great Britain. There, 100-mile walking races had been held annually since 1946, for 30 years, with more than 450 finishes in less than 24 hours.
Elsewhere, the Durban 100 held every-other year in South Africa, had been competed six times, with at least 33 finishers (only partial results have been preserved). In Italy, 24-hour races had been held every year since 1970 with 100-mile finishers. In 1975, a 24-hour race with many 100-mile finishers was competed inside the Soviet controlled iron curtain, in Czechoslovakia.
66: The 100-miler: Part 13 (1974-1975) Gordy Ainsleigh
974 is the year that most ultrarunners unfortunately think 100-mile ultrarunning history began. Hopefully the previous 12 parts including 80,000 words of pre-1974 100-mile history, has set the record straight.
During 1974, 100-mile races solo runs were held across the globe, but the most significant run, which mostly went unnoticed at the time, was performed by Gordy Ainsleigh in the rugged, hot mountains in California. Previous to that, many sub-24-hours 100-mile solo runs had been accomplished every year on roads, tracks, and trails. Thus, this one did not get much attention until several years later, when with some genius marketing, it became an icon for running 100 miles in the mountains, the symbol for Western States 100, founded in 1977.
But also hidden in the annals of the Western States Endurance Run history, is a forgotten story of 53 individuals, men and women, who covered the Western States Trail on foot in 1974, just one week after Ainsleigh made his famous run. Sadly, it was yet another story that was well-known at the time, but wasn't mentioned in the carefully crafted Western States origin story.