For the gold miners who walked the Western States Trail, the old Native American path through the mountains of California to its west coast, the trail was “tough, dangerous, and way too rough”. But nowadays, ultramarathoners have another word to describe it: perfect. Today they trace those prospectors’ footsteps in the world’s oldest 100-mile footrace, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
Gold stands for perfection and purity. Throughout human history, people have adorned themselves with this precious metal. For kings and rulers, gold rings, crowns, and scepters were symbols of power. And even today, Olympic athletes compete for gold medals. So it may come as no surprise that the world’s oldest ultramarathon, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, has its roots in humankind’s eternal search for gold.
In 1848 a sawmill worker walking beside the American River, a tributary of the Sacramento River in northern California, found gold nuggets on the riverbanks. His chance discovery touched off the famed California Gold Rush as people from all over the world poured into the California gold fields. Many of them would never find gold. But most of them became all too familiar with the winding paths that followed the most direct routes from one gold mine to the next. One such trail led from a gold mine near the California town of Auburn to another some 100 miles away near Lake Tahoe on the Nevada border. What came to be known as the Western States Trail had previously been a path used by the original Native American inhabitants of the region. The description handed down by the gold miners doesn’t sound very encouraging: “It’s extremely dangerous and tough, in poor condition and far too rough.” But for modern-day ultrarunners, it presents the perfect challenge and today the trail is home to the world’s oldest 100-mile foot race, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
The route has lost none of its innate charm – although extreme-sport lovers may define “charm” differently. The German ultramarathoner Florian Neuschwander, a highly experienced competitor who took part in the Western States 100 for the first time last year, had this to day about the challenging terrain: “Those downhill stretches in the canyons really kick your butt.” And indeed, the run through California forces runners to grapple with an elevation gain of 5,500 meters and an elevation loss of 8,000 meters. But how did a Native American trail become an ultramarathon racecourse?
It has been almost 60 years since a lonesome cowboy drew wider attention to the ancient path. As the American automobile industry began to boom during the 1950s, Californian Wendell Robie wanted to prove to himself and the world that a horse could cover 100 miles in a single day. And he selected the rugged Western States Trail to demonstrate his point. Robie proved himself right and used his momentum to found the Western Trail Ride equestrian competition. Today it is still considered the benchmark for distance trail riding events across the globe, and can also be seen as an important milestone in the history of endurance sports. Why? Twenty years after Robie’s famous ride, a daredevil group of soldiers decided to participate in the riding competition – without horses. They were hoping to prove that anything a horse could do, they could do better. Even though they failed, they inspired future runners to take up the challenge.
Two years later, in fact, in 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh tried his luck. He had already completed the distance trail ride several times on horseback and thanks to his familiarity with the route and terrain, he was able to complete the 100 miles in less than 24 hours. In the next two years, numerous runners followed in Ainsleigh’s footsteps. Then in 1977, the growing popularity of the route led to the first ever official Western States Endurance Run − the world’s first 100-mile footrace. A total of 14 runners gathered on the starting line. In the early years of the event, runners and riders started at the same time; later, one event became two. Today this ultramarathon has grown wildly in popularity. The demand for start numbers is so high that qualifying races and a lottery decide which of the world’s best runners will have a chance to participate. In all, some 300 lucky athletes get to take part each year. You could even say that, after the original Gold Rush of the mid-nineteenth century and the trail ride of the 1950s, today’s ultramarathon is a kind of Gold Rush 3.0 – even if there is no real gold at the end of the trail, just ‘silverware’ in the form of trophies...
Even today, the selected participants are encouraged to take a leaf from Ainsleigh’s book and thoroughly familiarize themselves with the untamed topography in advance. The athletes enjoy the thrill of following the historic route along the banks of the American River. But they’re not likely to go prospecting for gold. In any case, the water is much too cold to linger and, depending on the currents, can even be dangerous. Participants cross it by raft shortly before the end of the 100 miles. With half of the race taking place in total darkness, competitors are required to carry two LED lights – one to illuminate their path, and one as a backup for themselves or any other participant whose lamp gives up the ghost. Running the trail alone without a light is strictly forbidden. Large portions of the course are extremely rugged and steep with sharp drop-offs, and even today are only accessible by helicopter. If a runner falls or gets lost, it can be hard for a search-and-rescue team to reach them. Fact is: The Western States 100 continues to be as rough, tough and dangerous as ever.