Western States Endurance Run held Saturday: Legendary Cowman returns to Tahoe
July 4, 1976: The North Tahoe-Truckee area is in the midst of its bicentennial festivities. To commemorate our nation’s 200th year of independence a man, wearing nothing but horns on his head, runs naked through the streets of Tahoe City. He says he was inspired by his mother.
“My mother always taught me that we were all born naked, so I thought I’d celebrate the birth of our nation by running naked through town,” says Ken “Cowman” Shirk today.
The “Cowman” is back in the region this summer to attempt the Western States Endurance Run for, what he thinks, will be the 26th time. He’s lost count but he believes he’s only missed it twice. In fact, the Cowman is part of the run’s history. Before it was an official race, when lone runners lined up with the horses on the Tevis Cup Ride, the Cowman ran. That was 1976 as well, and the Cowman became only the third person to run the 100-mile stretch of the Western States Trail, what has become one of the toughest runs in the world.
“I had the attitude at the time,” said Shirk, who spent 20 years in Tahoe before moving to Kona, Hawaii, in 1981. “I used to go up to Squaw and jump off of rocks and I just thought that this was another adventure. I figured if you can’t run you can always walk and if you can’t run or walk you can crawl.”
The Cowman didn’t need to crawl. He finished the course in just over a day, 24:30 to be exact. The Cowman returns to the Western States again this year because he has been unsatisfied with his recent results. He hasn’t finished the race since 1994, but he aims to this year.
“The last couple of years I had been training in Hawaii on asphalt roads,” he said. “And the lifestyle in Hawaii, you kind of get Polynesian paralysis and get spoiled living a softer life. If you’re a mountain person you’re a little bit tougher.”
So the Cowman has returned to Tahoe for the summer – to train on trails, at altitude, in the Sierra – and to catch up with old friends.
“At Pete ‘N Peter’s [25th anniversary party] I was able to see so many people I haven’t seen in years,” said Shirk. “We’ve all aged, we’ve all got a little bit of gray on us, but the spirit and the heart haven’t changed. It all comes down to sharing and Aloha.”
The Cowman uses “Aloha” loosely but the word clearly has a deeper meaning for him. He has trouble defining it, but it is the message he is trying to share with the world. Whether people are hearing the message or not, Shirk is out there spreading it. When a naked cowman first donned his horns on the Fourth of July in 1976 a tradition was born. That tradition, and Shirk’s renown as an Iron Man triathlete and ultra runner have led him all over the world – to Canada, Brazil and Japan numerous times – “spreading Aloha.” In the endurance community, the horns are known.
“[The horns] seem to cause a lot of positive reactions,” he said. “Like the buffalo in American Indian culture, the horns represent the strength of the buffalo. When I run I try to be strong and brave and be humble, like the buffalo.”
As an afterthought he adds, “I would like to do a race some day and have a couple of hundred people all have horns like a big stampede of buffalo.”
Shirk’s sobriquet evolved out of an earlier nickname. When he began skiing Squaw Valley, people called him “Cowboy” because he wore jeans and a cowboy hat. After a while, he says, he simply outgrew the moniker.
“I thought it was time to make a more mature advance in my attitude from a cowboy to a cowman attitude,” he said.
Shirk plans on staying in Tahoe until September when he will return to Kona. Besides running the Western States Endurance Run on Saturday, Shirk will be running a triathlon in Santa Rosa called the Vine Man with Olympic Valley’s 72-year-old “mountain man” Jack Bettencourt. Shirk may also run the Tahoe Rim Trail this summer. How long will that take?
“It’ll take me two days to run the 150 miles,” he says casually.
This year marks the 28th running of the Western States Endurance Run. Around 375 runners will be leaving Olympic Valley at 5 a.m. Saturday bound for Auburn. In the first five miles the course climbs 2,500 feet to the top of Emigrant Pass. Throughout the race runners will climb a total of 18,000 feet and descend a total of 23,000 feet. Temperatures can range from below freezing in the mountains to well over 100 degrees in the canyons of the foothills.
Runners completing the race in less than 24 hours will receive a silver belt buckle commemorating their achievement. Runners completing the course in less than 30 hours receive a brass belt buckle.
The Western States course record was set in 1997 by Mike Morton from Maryland. He completed the 100.2 miles in 15 hours and 40 minutes. Ann Trason of Seattle holds the women’s record with a time of 17 hours and 37 minutes.
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