Ultraunning. Is it a hobby? A cult? Or a culture that takes over one’s life? Gary Knipling, from Fairfax City, Virginia is not completely sure. But for the veteran runner of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) who has completed over 30 100 milers and has the highest number of finishes of the local Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Race (MMT) with 17, he believes ultrarunning is a way of life that latches onto people like it latched onto him nearly 22 years ago.
For those who know the always grinning 70 year old, he is the Virginia-trails expert and the go-to guy for advice or a good story. For those who don’t, he’s ‘the guy with the mango panties’ you’ve probably have heard about, chugging sweet tea and pickle juice at aid stations before bounding off toward his next finish-line buckle and bourbon.
Gary’s tweaked version of the quote by John Muir, “Whenever you go on a trail run you find more than seek,” inspires him to push through mile after mile.
“It is a mixture of endorphins, fatigue, and the feeling that your body is spent,” he said, describing his love of the sport. “You get to the finish line, have a post-race bourbon, and swap stories with other runners.”
“Every trail run is an experience,” he added. “And I am never disappointed.”
Gary has lived in Virginia all of his life. He and his wife, Charlotte, reside outside the Washington D.C area in a small, historically rich town on a peninsula of the Potomac River. He has two grown children who also live in Virginia, Kristen and Keith, both of whom have long-distance running experience. Gary attended undergraduate school at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for veterinary medicine. He then graduated in 1969 from the University of Georgia graduate program with a specialization in small-animal, household pets. Now semi-retired, as he calls himself, Gary helps in the administration of his shared ownership of two animal hospitals in Virginia. His decreased hours from work allow him to stay active in the business yet even more active with his running.
His running career actually began in high school by default.
“I loved sports, but was not big enough for football or basketball,” Gary said. “I was set on a varsity letter and the only chance I was going to get one was to run cross country.”
Sliding into the seventh spot on his seven-man cross-country team, Gary claimed the letter his senior year, and started a gradual shift into the life of an ultrarunner. Life became hectic for Gary, whilst balancing college life, a new business, and a growing family, so early on he only dabbled with running to keep fit.
“I came back to running during the early ‘70s marathon craze,” Gary said, believing then that the 26.2-mile race was the ultimate distance. “I thought the world dropped off after that.” But like most ultrarunners soon realize: the longer the distance, the more interesting it gets.
“The marathon is hard, but I’d rather run a 50k than a marathon,” he said. “And I’d rather run a 50 miler than a 50k.”
It is the lack of pressure and speed that Gary appreciates in the longer distances. “A 50 miler, you can do in a day,” he acknowledged. “Get to the finish line, swap stories with the other runners, and be home by midnight.” Yet, the 100-mile race is not an uncommon feat for Gary. On May 18, just about a month ago, Gary completed his 30th 100-mile race and 17th finish of his favorite race, the MMT. The race is run through the George Washington National Forest and is one of the three races put on by the VHTRC, the renowned Virginia trail running club.
The VHTRC was founded in the early 1980s to host its three races: the MMT, the Bull Run Run 50 Miler (BRR), and the VHTRC Women’s Half Marathon. These races intersperse through the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the Appalachian Trail. Training runs for the club also take place on these trails and within the Shenandoah National Park, which helps the Virginia runners experience decent elevation and hill training.
“Because of the existence of the VHTRC, there is a strong nucleus of runners that makes up the [local] ultra community,” Gary said. With a long list of evidence to back him up, he strongly claims Virginia as the best ultra community in the U.S. With over 500 members from the eastern states and from as far away as Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, Gary said the club is active and vibrant with members who both take and give back to the ultrarunning way of life.
“We probably have 100 or more active members coming to the training runs, races, or to volunteer,” he said. “They give back what they take and with a good attitude. They volunteer, not because it is required, but because they want to.”
Six-year VHTRC member Katie Keier first met Gary while volunteering at the Elizabeth Furnace Aid Station during the 2011 MMT.
“One thing I love about Gary is that he always remembers your name and your history,” she said. “He stops to talk with everyone, and makes you feel very special and encouraged. I’ve run several races where I’ve found myself running with Gary, and he is always talking, laughing, and encouraging everyone around him.”
It is this mix of incredible socialization with the magic of a trail that ignites Gary’s passion mile after mile. He calls himself an amateur naturalist—a student of nature—even at age 70.
“I have my soul time and sole time,” he described. “When I am out on a run, I like to socialize, but I also love the nature and beauty of the trails. I watch the birds and look for wildflowers and mushrooms. I am always in anticipation of what is around the trail; maybe a bear, coyote, or snake? I love every aspect of being outdoors.”
“He is a wealth of knowledge with nature,” Keier added. “We always say ‘Where’s Gary?’ when we are wondering what a plant, flower, rock formation, or animal on trail is.”
However, this student of nature is still learning. Once, during a long, evening trail run in the mountains, Gary came upon a small copperhead snake. Picking it up, he decided to show off his wild side. “I was just showing off,” he said, chuckling at the memory. “Well, it then went limp in my hands and I thought I might have hurt it. As I set it down on a rock it flinched and bit me.”
With a pain described as 20 to 30 bee stings all at one time, the fang of the snake caught Gary’s finger, causing his hand to swell up within minutes. Gary decided to forgo the rest of the training run, make his way back to the car, and drive to the local emergency hospital where he was treated with steroids and antibiotics.
“There is still an area the size of a dime on my right middle finger that has no skin sensation, but [everything’s] normal otherwise,” Gary said, recalling the incident. “I have not messed with any venomous snakes since then but have enjoyed seeing many from a safe distance. I’m okay with feeling the beauty and wonder of nonvenomous reptiles and creatures as a bonus gift from being out on nature’s trails.”
As most runners can agree with, whether it is a snakebite or a DNF, the trail can throw some tough obstacles at even the toughest of runners.
Over the years Gary has had to adjust his trail running habits to accommodate some of the changes. Unable to stomach the sweet taste of energy gels, Gary prefers sweet tea, pickle juice, olives, and bacon for his mid-race fuel. Time limits, once just mere numbers Gary brushed off in previous ultras, now creep up on him, hovering just a little too close for comfort. And the ups and downs of a 100 miler become more constant downs as a result of the little aches and pains a body that has been ultrarunning for the past 22 years is bound to have.
“My age is definitely a weakness,” he said. “I am getting slower yet working just as hard. But I am incredibly lucky to be able to do what I can. I am not complaining!”
Despite these new struggles that Gary runs through each day, one thing has not changed about the positive-thinking, smile-wearing runner: his ability to keep going and have fun while doing it.
Each year, the VHTRC chooses a destination race to experience trails outside the Virginia area. In the past, a typical range of 10 to 15 members have traveled to races such as the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run, the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, and both the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 100 Mile and 50 Mile. This year, the club chose the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run and the Ghosts of Yellowstone 100 Mile of the Mystery Ranch Ultra Challenge, in Pony, Montana.
Being such a celebrity among the trails of Virginia, these destination trips allow Gary to wet his feet on new territory, experience new challenges, and shock his fellow runners and volunteers.
During the race, he looks like every other runner: sweaty hat and shirt, bottles strapped to his hands, and food wrappers peeping out from his pockets. Yet the pair of women’s mango-colored bikini bottoms dangling from his hands and his inquiry, “Hey, have you seen the runner who lost these?” usually makes the white-haired, jolly runner a talked-about subject at aid stations.
“When people don’t know me it is fun to ask and see their expressions,” he said, chuckling at the inside joke shared by his many running friends and acquaintances. “In pictures, I am displaying the panties proudly next to my handheld.”
This famous running-with-the-panties habit originated at the 2004 BRR when ‘Team Mango’ and ‘Team Bananahammock’ battled for the finish line of the 50 miler. The race offers a team category of four runners, either mixed or same gender. Each person runs the entire race, and the winning team is decided by adding each members’ finish time together, producing the fastest total finish time. Wearing nothing but mango-colored two-piece bikinis, Team Mango overcame Gary and the Bananahammocks, finishing with the combined score of about five minutes faster. At the finish line, though, Gary came across a loose pair of the team’s bottoms, and after losing the battle to the Mangos, Gary decided to keep the panties as a memento of the enemy.
“I started carrying them instead of handkerchiefs,” he said laughing. “I have used them in every 100 miler since.”
But of course, the wear and tear of a 100-mile race can pay its toll on the flimsy bottoms, so Gary has back-ups.
“I have been through a couple of pairs now and some have been stolen from me,” he said, without resentment. “I do have one pair of virgin panties that I am saving. For which run I am not sure yet, but I like knowing I have a virgin pair!”
The bottoms were proudly swaying in 2006 when Gary entered the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning with his son, Keith, now age 38, creating what they believe was the first father-and-son team to complete the four ultras in the same year. Because of the altitude, Gary squeaked under the time limit of the Leadville 100 with only 30 minutes to spare. Not taking any chances, Keith then chose to run the next 100 miles of the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run stride for stride with Gary, walking over the finish line together.
“It was a very hot year at Western States,” Keith said. “My dad ended up finishing Western States pretty strong, but it was touch and go for much of the race. One bullet narrowly dodged.
Keith thought Wasatch, the last of the four races in the Slam, was probably the Slam’s hardest 100 miler, but he also thought it was the easiest because of the 36-hour time cutoff. “I don’t think finishing was ever in question,” he said, confident in his father and his own running abilities. “You just lean on all those other 100s leading up to Wasatch, remember all it took to finish those (sometimes barely), and get it done. It seemed fitting to run that one together.”
“I feel blessed and privileged to share the trails with Keith,” Gary said. It took a few years to get Keith running, finally breaking through when Keith thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and was inspired by fellow hikers to delve into the ultra business. He began the trail in Maine on July 1, 1998, finishing in Georgia that on December 15. After feeling like he was in the best shape of his life, Keith ran a New Year’s Day 50k Fat Ass run put on by the VHTRC. He then entered the BRR and MMT immediately following and has been hooked ever since, with 140 completed races on his UltraSignup resume.
“We are really quite different,” Keith added. “He prefers to run with people while I much prefer to run alone. When I was first starting out we ended up running together fairly often during races. I would usually go out too hard and then crash and burn, and he would catch me from behind and we would often finish together.” A member of the VHTRC governance board and a finisher of over 40 100 milers, Keith said he feels the company of his fellow club members and runners even when racing alone.
When browsing through Gary’s personal Facebook page, the feel of the VHTRC family gushes through the posts celebrating his latest feat: his 17th finish of the MMT. The MMT was Gary’s third ultra already this year, and he has planned an aggressive schedule for the rest of 2014. Gary, will race the Vermont 100 in July and the Ghosts of Yellowstone in August. Gary is also aiming for a finish in October at the Grindstone 100 in Swoope, Virginia.
But even with the support of his family, club members, and friends, a 100-mile race requires a little bit more to get through. When alone, in pain, or just feeling a low point, Gary asks himself one thing, What would I rather look back on?
“On Tuesday, when the excitement of the race is gone and I am thinking back over it,” he said, “What would I rather have? Another 100-mile finish or a DNF?” The answer is always another aid station, another end-of-race bourbon, another 100-mile finish.
“This year we will find out if I can keep clicking these things off,” Gary said reservedly. “Only time will tell. Maybe I can get in a few more years of 50ks. I mean, what else would I do?”