[Author’s Note: Below is the second in my three-part series on the ‘Lore of Western States.’ The first piece, published in April, was about the agony of 11th place and the third piece in June will be on the ‘golden hour.’ I hope you enjoy!]
Considered by some to be the most prestigious finisher’s award in all of ultrarunning, the Western States silver buckle holds an iconic place in the hearts and minds of trail runners everywhere. First awarded in 1974, the Western States silver belt buckle, individually handcrafted in Carson City, Nevada by the family-run business Comstock Heritage, is synonymous with ultrarunning glory. Indeed, for decades, runners the world over have trained with the single-minded focus on finishing Western States under 24 hours to earn the coveted belt buckle.
Anyone who has been to Placer High School on the last Sunday in June at 4:55 a.m. has felt the palpable excitement in the air as the stadium awaits the arrival of the last few silver-buckle winners. As dawn is creeping into the eastern sky above the track, nervous crews and spectators glance at the entrance to the track awaiting the arrival of runners. Many years, there are runners arriving within minutes, and in some cases, seconds, of the 24-hour cutoff. Two legendary Western States runners, Luanne Park and Gordy Ainsleigh, each cut it particularly close after years of finishing with ease.
These are their stories.
Luanne Park finished her first Western States back in 1997 in a time of 23:07. Between then and 2013, she finished the race eight other times with only one finish, a 26:08 in 2011, being over 24 hours. She came into the race in 2013 with the single-minded goal of finishing under 24 hours while achieving her 10th total finish.
Through the spring of 2013, Luanne’s training was going well as she built strength and speed to complement her steady endurance. As a 50-year-old veteran, she knew going into the race what to expect and how to deal with adversity. However, a fluke injury in mid-May sidelined her for two weeks in the heart of her final build up and shook her confidence slightly.
Race day started out well for Luanne and as she crested the top of Squaw Valley running with her friend Meghan Arbogast, she felt like she was on target for a great day. However, as Luanne said in an interview with me earlier this week, “My race went from great to good to bad real fast.” Luanne admits that she was a bit overconfident with respect to the heat, feeling as though she had heat training “in the bag.” As such, through the first six hours of the race, she consumed little water and felt herself “tipping my body increasingly out of balance.”
When she pulled into Miller’s Defeat Aid Station at mile 34, she had been reduced to a shuffling walk and the prospect of a 65-mile death march seemed ominous. Thanks to a friend and medical volunteer at the aid station, Luanne pulled herself back together with a prolonged stop and was able to begin running again on her way through the Canyons. During this stretch, the silver buckle crept back into her mind.
When she arrived at Foresthill (mile 62) where she would pick up her pacer, good friend, and multiple Western States finisher Emma Winfield, Luanne took stock. It was just after 7 p.m. She had 10 hours to get to Auburn for the silver buckle. She and Emma knew that had to keep moving. “I put myself on autopilot, Emma was now my brains (thank God!), knowing we didn’t have a moment to spare if I was going to achieve my new goal, breaking 24 hours.”
It took Luanne just over four hours to get down and across the river and another 37 minutes to get to Green Gate, so by the time she arrived there, she knew she had a bit over five hours for a silver-buckle finish, “Having finished nine WS100’s, I knew that once I was at Green Gate it usually took me five hours, give or take a few minutes, to finish. Since this wasn’t my typical race, I was hoping that I could stick to that five-hour split although what I really wanted to do was take a nap.”
In the end, battling fatigue, stress, and pain, Luanne Park rounded the track at Placer High School with 91 seconds to spare. She had finished her 10th Western States and was awarded her ninth silver buckle!
Gordy Ainsleigh, as most everyone knows, is the founder of Western States and between 1974 and the present, he has completed the run 22 times. Of those 22 finishes, 12 have been under 24 hours. One of those finishes, however, stands above the others as Gordy’s most satisfying. That was in 2001 when he crossed the finish line at Placer High School in 23:59:44. Sixteen seconds to spare!
In 2001, Gordy’s race went according to plan until just after the Rucky Chucky River Crossing. Reaching the River by 11:15 p.m. gave Gordy the confidence he thought he needed to finish the race under 24 hours. Then, on the climb up to Green Gate, the proverbial wheels came off and he found himself on a cot at the 80-mile aid station. His friend and pacer, Ralph Argenal, confronted him after about 10 minutes on the cot. The conversation went something like this:
Ralph: “Why are you lying here instead of running down the trail?”
Gordy: “I feel like if I head down the trail, I might dissolve into a mass of gelatinous goo at any moment.”
Ralph: “Well, if you head down the trail, you might dissolve into a mass of goo and you might not. If you don’t dissolve, you’ll make it in 24. If you do dissolve, you’ll have to rest for a couple of hours and finish under 30. One thing’s for sure, you definitely won’t make 24 if you lie here any longer.”
With that, Gordy stood up and began shuffling down the trail. A few minutes later, he started to run and by the time he arrived at Browns Bar Aid Station at mile 90, he thought he had built up a bit of a cushion so he took a seat. However, it turned out that the night’s running had significantly impaired Gordy’s ability to do math.
“So, by the time I got down to the river road, I realized that I had not been on the bubble at Browns Bar and now I was actually five minutes behind. Without a word, I took off up the hill toward Highway 49 like a scalded cat.”
Finally, at long last, Gordy arrived at Robie Point, 1.3 miles from the finish. He dropped his bottles and light and headed up the final, paved climb of the race.
“I passed a guy a mile out and he asked, ‘Do you think we’ll make it?'”
“I said, ‘I think so,’ and hammered on.”
“I should have said, ‘Drop everything and run for your life!'”
“I ended up finishing 16 seconds under 24 and he ended up 41 seconds over.”
The triumph and heartbreak that accompanies the quest for the silver buckle is legendary. These two stories from two Western States runners are emblematic of the hundreds of runners who have, over the years, relentlessly pursued the elusive 24-hour buckle. The tension, drama, and passion that envelops the quest for the buckle is inspiring and humbling. Perhaps this year, in less than seven weeks, we’ll see more 24-hour drama unfold on the track at Placer High School. Until then,
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado and North Carolina. Just yesterday, a keg of Deviant Dale’s Imperial IPA went on tap at my local watering hole and I have to say, it is extraordinary. In fact, I would stack it up against just about any of the top-shelf Imperial IPAs out there for balance, drinkability, and full-bodied flavor.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Have you been on the cusp of finishing Western States in 24 hours? Or, have you been on the cusp of another important cutoff at a long ultramarathon? Share your story in the comments section of this article so that we can all commiserate on cutting things close!