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The Pioneer Ultra-Athletes : In The World of Personal Endurance Sports, Three Californians Were Among the First to Push Beyond the Outer Limits

June 19, 1988|Lee Green | Lee Green lives in Santa Paula and frequently writes about fitness and outdoor adventure.

THE SPORTING mind has always been seduced by athletic speed, racing, getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Human against human, human against the clock, we are a species of racing and records.

A few years ago, a New Zealand biophysicist plotted the progression of the men's mile record over a 70-year period. Extrapolation then led him to predict that on Aug. 1, 2528, the mile will be run in no time, "a feat," he remarked, "which would presumably ruin athletics as a spectator sport." Within the humor of that comment lies an implacable truth: All speed records are moving toward finite limits.

That's the bad news. The good news is that if we can't go faster, we can always go longer. Speed doesn't become irrelevant--we still race, still keep records--but the sheer distance of the race becomes so great that merely finishing is a formidable challenge. Such is the domain of ultra-sport--beyond long, beyond endurance and, some would say, beyond reason.

Ultra-sport pioneers Tom Warren, Gordon Ainsleigh and John Marino, all of California, have redefined notions of what is possible in the realm of human endurance. Warren's event, the 140.6-mile Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, will be conducted for the 10th time this October. The race was virtually unheard of when Warren won it in 1979. Now there are annual Ironman contests modeled after the Hawaii event in Japan, West Germany, New Zealand and Canada, and the sport in general has erupted: Some 2,000 triathlons will be staged in the United States this year, most consisting of a 1.4-kilometer swim, a 40K cycling leg and a 10K run. The Ironman is considered an "ultra" triathlon, an event in which competitors swim at least 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. Other competitions that fall under the ultra label include cycling events of 200 miles ("double century" rides) or more and running races longer than a standard 26.2-mile marathon.

Ainsleigh ran 100 miles through the Sierra Nevada in 1974, and now hundreds of people want to do it. The organizers of next Saturday's 12th Western States Endurance Run have, as usual, had to stave off would-be participants with an entry lottery. The rejected applicants needn't sit home; they now have four other annual 100-mile trail races to choose from, to say nothing of about 300 other ultra-distance races in the United States this year.

For his part, Marino rode a bicycle across the United States faster than anyone had ever done it and then challenged others to do the same. This morning's start in San Francisco of the 3,100-mile Race Across America marks the seventh staging of the annual ultra-cycling event Marino created in 1982 and has directed ever since. Though the race, which ends at the Washington Monument, is widely regarded as one of the most god-awful crucibles ever devised for purposes other than punishment, a record 320 cyclists vied in grueling 600-mile qualifying races for a spot in this year's field. Forty-four made it.

In following their own passions, Warren, Ainsleigh and Marino have altered the face of participatory sports. in America. Here's how they did it--and why.

GORDON AINSLEIGH WHEN Gordon Ainsleigh competed in the 1974 Western States 100-Mile Ride, a popular horse-and-rider event in California's rugged Sierra Nevada backcountry, he lacked a vital piece of equipment. His prized mare had come up lame six weeks before, and his efforts to find a worthy replacement had proved futile.

The inconvenience of traversing 100 miles of an equestrian mountain route without benefit of a horse wasn't lost on the man. "The hardest thing was when I got out about 15 or 20 miles and realized I was approaching exhaustion," he recalls. A normal fellow would have quit, but then a normal fellow wouldn't have been out there in the first place. It's just that the novelty and challenge appealed to the then-27-year-old woodcutter and juvenile counselor. He plodded on, occasionally telling himself: "Well, I don't have to quit right now. I can still take another few steps, so let's see what happens."

What happened is this: Ainsleigh finished the race and started an era. His seminal run with the horses spawned the annual Western States Endurance Run (a.k.a. the Western States 100), which in turn spawned at least six similar races, four of which are staged annually: the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Run in Virginia; the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run in Colorado; the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run in Utah, and, locally, the Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run from Wrightwood to the Rose Bowl.

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