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History of the Belt Buckle in Ultrarunning

What do belt buckles have to do with ultrarunning? The history of the belt buckle as a reward for completing a 100-miler stems from the horse world.

Jen Sotolongo

June 18th, 2024

8 min read


Running a 100-mile ultramarathon tests athletes both physically and mentally in ways few other pursuits can match. The reward at the end, aside from the accomplishment of putting the mind and body through hours of grueling stress to complete a seemingly insurmountable feat, is the coveted belt buckle. The iconic belt buckle represents not just a finish line crossed, but each also tells the unique story of struggle, self-discovery, and resilience.

Early Belt Rewards for Ultrarunning

But what do belt buckles have to do with ultrarunning?

The history of the belt buckle as a reward for completing a 100-miler stems from the horse world. However, the first buckle to be awarded to the top finishers in an ultramarathon was by Ted Corbitt in 1958. Known as the “father of American ultrarunning,” Corbitt put on a 30-mile race in McCombs Dam Park in the Bronx. 

Even before Corbitt awarded the belt buckle in his race, belts were awarded as far back as 1877. In his 16-part blog series and podcast, ultrarunning historian Davy Crockett stated that Sir John Dugdale Astley, a member of Parliament and elite sprinter, introduced the first known belt as a trophy in ultrarunning. Borrowing the idea from his passion for both boxing and horses, William Gale received the first belt after completing 4,000 quarter miles in 4,000 consecutive periods of 10 minutes over 28 days. 

On March 18, 1878, Astley held the “The Great Six Days’ Tournament,” where the winner would receive a belt valued at £100 pounds. Each participant was allowed one crew member to hand them food and refreshments at designated times during the race.

Defending pedestrianism world champion, Daniel O’Leary won the race after completing 520 ¼ miles in 138 hours, 48 minutes.

From Endurance Horseback Riding to Modern Day 100-Mile Ultras

Jumping ahead to 1955, businessman and outdoorsman, Wendell Robie wanted to prove that a horseback rider could complete 100 miles within 24 hours. Endurance rides had been happening since the early 1800s, but the Western States Trail Ride was the first to set the stage for a 100-mile ride that could take place over 24 hours. 

The route was an historic trail used by miners during the 1800s between Lake Tahoe and Auburn, California. The inaugural ride took place on August 7, 1955 and sterling silver belt buckles were awarded to finishers who came in under 24 hours.

In 1972, a group of soldiers from Fort Riley Kansas wanted to test their endurance in the Western States Trail Ride. Of the 20 that started the race, seven completed the course in over 40 hours. To commemorate their accomplishment, the soldiers received a trophy and other awards at the banquet that evening, but no belt buckle.

Javelina Jundred Belt Buckle
Javelina Jundred sub-24 hour buckle.

The first belt buckle awarded during a 100-mile race was in 1974 to Gordy Ainsleigh who wanted to see if he could complete the Western State Trail Ride in 24 hours.

Ainsleigh had completed the ride several times prior, often running ahead of his horse. Inspired by the soldiers and determined to prove that someone could complete 100 miles in 24 hours on foot, Ainsleigh decided to run the Western States Trail Ride. Already an endurance runner, who had run the Castle Rock 50-mile ride and won the 42-mile Ride & Ties, a leapfrog-style race with a team of two people and one horse, Ainsleigh finished in 23:42, earning a belt buckle.

In 1977, Robie decided to add a 100-mile run to the event, calling the inaugural event the Western States National One Day Run. Runners who finished under 24 hours would receive a belt buckle.

The following year, the run moved to a month before the ride, after participants expressed concerns about sharing the trail, particularly on single-track sections. From that point, the race became known as the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WSER).

Western States Inspires other Endurance Horse Rides to add Running

Ultrarunner with belt buckle
Prospect Park Track Club 50 Miler buckle and UltraSignup Ambassador Etan Levavi.

Soon after, other endurance horse races, including the Old Dominion 100 and Vermont 100 began opening the course to runners, also awarding belt buckles to finishers. 

Leadville 100 founders Ken Chlouber and Marilee Maupin had backgrounds in rodeo and adopted the concept of belt buckles as prizes when they started the race in 1983. Belt buckles in rodeo and agriculture have a long history and symbolize the accomplishment of the sport.

While many classic races like Leadville, WSER, and Hardrock attract runners in pursuit of a specific belt buckle, other ultrarunners look at the belt to remind them of the story of the race.

In Pursuit of the Iconic Belt Buckle

Jenny Arnzen, 47 who comes from a barrel racing background, has earned three belt buckles, two from 100-mile races. 

The self-proclaimed buckle collector said that she enjoys looking back at the stories each buckle tells.

“Every race represents its own set of challenges, and reflecting back on them and what I learned from each one is probably my favorite part,” she said.

In 2024, Arznen ran the Rocky Raccoon 100, touted as a “fast and easy” race, as much as that can mean for a 100-miler. Fast and easy, however, was not her experience.

The region received 25 inches of rain two days prior to the race, resulting in a muddy, wet course, with much of the trail submerged and flooded.

Finisher award belt buckle
Tunnel Hill 100 sub-20 buckle.

“I cannot stand having wet feet so to endure 100 miles of it really showed me that where there’s a will there truly is a way,” she said. “It definitely wasn’t fast, but it made me feel strong for not giving up so looking at that buckle is a reminder of that.

She had also unknowingly broken her leg and ran 18 miles during this race in 2023, and 2024 was meant to be redemption.

For Jen Shetler, 44, of Raleigh, NC, the belt buckle she earned from the Umstead 100 in 2024 represents a failed attempt at the race–her first attempt at the distance–in 2023, learning to navigate having exercised-induced anaphylaxis, and the creation of the TUFF Run Club, a successful running club that brings together runners of all abilities, ages, and paces.

“[The buckle] meant that I am capable of doing hard things that require perseverance, commitment, dedication, motivation, and courage,” she said. “I chose [Umstead] because it was the race that helped me become an ultra runner, as the first ultra at which I volunteered.”

Ultrarunning belt buckles
Buckles proudly displayed from UltraSignup Ambassador Megan Eckert.

The Craft of Designing the Belt Buckle

Belt buckles don’t just carry meaning for runners, but also for the race directors.

Jeremy Long, Race Director and Founder of Daybreak Racing out of Portland, Oregon put thoughtful consideration into the design of the buckle for the upcoming inaugural Hood Hundred race.

“We feel strongly that the logo embodies the spirit and vibe of the course we’ve developed, which covers a vast amount of cool terrain, both up high on the volcano and across some of its scenic and rugged backcountry zones,” said Long. 

While working with his longtime local graphic designer, Johnny Bertram, Long wanted to ensure that the image illustrated the namesake mountain (Mt. Hood) as the dominant feature, while also having the capability to use for standalone promotional assets.

“We’re really excited to reward race finishers with a fresh buckle design that accurately commemorates their accomplishment, particularly in an iconic region that’s never had a 100 miler on it before,” he said.

The thoughtfully designed Hood Hundred belt buckle.

With its origins in equestrian endurance rides and its adoption by early ultramarathon pioneers, the belt buckle has evolved into a cherished symbol of achievement in the ultrarunning community. Whether a symbol of personal achievement, a testament to overcoming challenges, or a representation of community and camaraderie, the belt buckle holds a special place in the hearts of ultrarunners, commemorating the essence of their extraordinary journey.

Jackpot Ultras belt buckle
Jackpot Ultras 100 Miler belt buckle.

2 thoughts on "History of the Belt Buckle in Ultrarunning"

  1. Bill Ramsey says:

    The term “Fast and easy,” and 100 mile endurance ran should never be uttered in the same sentence! There are faster courses and there are slower courses, but make no mistake, every 100 miler exacts its pound of flesh and sometimes more.

  2. Philip Pierce says:

    Thanks for this article. I have 25 belt buckles, including all from the first six races. Great article!!
    Phil Pierce, now 82 years old.

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