TRUCKEE — In 1974, Gordy Ainsleigh got a wild hair and decided to run in the Tevis Cup trail race, a rugged 100-mile course between Squaw Valley and Auburn.
His competition: 198 horses and their riders.
The Auburn-born horseman had participated in past Tevis Cup rides, but after Ainsleigh’s horse went lame in 1973, he was intrigued to find out if he could complete the 100-mile race all by himself — in other words, on foot.
He did just that, arriving in Auburn in 23 hours, 42 minutes. With that, Ainsleigh’s astounding feat paved the way for what, three years later, became the Western States Endurance Run, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail run.
More than 40 years later, ultrarunning — running any distance longer than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon — has grown in leaps and bounds across the globe, especially in the Truckee-Tahoe region.
Completing 100 ultrarunning races
Truckee resident Betsy Nye laughed when, in 1989, her friend Laura Vaughan told her she was preparing to run the Western States Endurance Run, which by then was considered the crown jewel of ultrarunning races in the U.S.
“I thought, ‘that’s nuts, that can’t be good for you,’” recalled Nye, an avid hiker, climber and skier at the time. “I went, ‘That’s silly, who would want to run 100 miles?’”
Nye would eat her words — many, many times over.
Now a fixture in the Truckee-Tahoe running community for more than 20 years, Nye has completed a staggering 100 ultrarunning races, including multiple Western States, which Nye calls “the Boston Marathon of the ultras.”
The 51-year-old Truckee resident punctuated her century-mark milestone last September by bagging her first 200-mile race: the Tahoe 200. The route, the first 200-mile single loop mountain race in the United States, circumnavigates the clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail and beyond.
Nye conquered the course in 75 hours, 7 minutes and 32 seconds, finishing as the second woman and eighth ultrarunner overall in a field of 60 competitors.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Nye is competing in her 15th Hardrock 100 Endurance Run in Silverton, Colo., on Friday. She’s won the race once and taken runner-up honors a staggering 11 times.
Eunduring a race, not ‘running’ it
Nye is one of a multitude of runners in the region who can be found running the Sierra Nevada trails during the shoulder season, knifing through the wilderness from sun-up to sun-down.
Two years ago, the sport grew so exponentially Nye and a host of others started a grassroots nonprofit running club, Donner Party Mountain Runners. Notably, the club hosted the inaugural Castle Peak 100K last fall.
Though describing what these endurance athletes do as “running” doesn’t quite do them justice.
These ultra outliers bound, climb, conquer mountainous terrain for hours and often days at a time. They travel the kind of distances on foot most people would rather not travel by car.
In other words, if a friend said he or she was preparing to run a 100-mile race, the average person would mirror Nye’s initial head-shaking reaction to her friend Vaughan.
But, there’s a difference between endurance athletes like Nye and your average person, or even your typical athletes.
Despite any knee-jerk guffaws at the notion of running 100 miles, these outdoor enthusiasts can’t help but feel a jolt of intrigue; curious if they’re physically and mentally up to such a challenge.
Not to mention, fully embedding oneself in nature — encompassed by green pines, blue sky and even bluer waters — while getting an extraordinary amount of exercise is a tempting prospect for a certain subset of endurance athletes.
For Helen Pelster, who first started out as a roadrunner in Truckee eight years ago, she had never even considered taking her running shoes off-road into the Tahoe forests.
“I had no idea that one could actually run on the mountainous trails that we had hiked and biked on for many years,” said Pelster, a member of the Donner Party Mountain Runners.
And then Pelster met Nye.
“I began exploring trails with her,” Pelster said. “I eventually got the itch to run longer races. I learned how to train for and run a 100-miler from Betsy.”
She’s come a long way since then. In September, Pelster is planning to complete her fourth 100-miler. Most recently, she finished as the third woman in the Wasatch 100 in Utah. Three weeks later, she ran a podium-earning finish in the 63-mile Ultra Trail Gurara Somontano near her husband Javier’s birthplace in Spain.
“I imagine that I’m part of the evolution of the sport, globally and locally,” Pelster said. “More and more runners are finding the joy and beauty in trail running and want to test themselves at ultra distances … Truckee is the ideal base camp for trail runners.”
Added Nye: “It’s great that people are getting out there and challenging their bodies further and further.”
In fact, according to Ultrarunning Magazine, there were 1,357 ultrarunning races staged in 2014. A decade earlier, in 2004, there were a mere 235 races.
“Once they start,” Nye said of first-time ultra race participants, “they say, ‘Oh, I’d never do that again.’ And then a day later they’re looking up their next race.”
The ultra culture
Michael Tebbutt, a 45-year-old Kings Beach resident, was drawn into the ultrarunning community through sheer happenstance.
Back in 2008, Tebbutt’s catering company, North Tahoe Catering, was called last-minute to provide meals for the runners and attendees of the Western States, which was abruptly canceled that year due to too much smoke in the atmosphere.
Immediately, Tebbutt was roped into the infectiously friendly community of runners that, despite the disappointment of missing out on running the storied Western States race, were in good spirits.
“There are people that travel halfway across the world for Western States,” Tebbutt said. “They were just so appreciative when we showed up and served them dinner.
“After meeting those people, I decided, you know what, I guess I have to run the Western States one of these days. I have to see if I can do it.”
That day came in 2014 when Tebbutt was chosen in the Western States lottery. Though he was unable to finish due to inflammation in his iliotibial band (the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin), Tebbutt gritted out 62 miles with his head held high. “When I realized I was going to drop out, I was like, I’m not going to have a bad attitude about it,” he said. “Be appreciative of everybody out here helping us out and volunteering.”
For Tebbutt, that’s what makes ultrarunning so special. Sure, putting your mind and body to the test for the striking scenery, the grueling challenge and the accompanying milestones is part of it, but it’s the family-like aspect of the sport that puts a hop in Tebbutt’s step.
“The epitome of ultraunning,” Tebbutt said, “is if someone is hurting on the trail, they don’t run past them, they stop to help them. That’s how the ultrarunning community is — we’re all helping each other out there.”