“What should we give the guy?”

It was a question on a lot of people’s minds. The year was 1974 and Gordy Ainsleigh had just completed a grueling 100-mile horse race called the Tevis Cup. The only difference with Gordy was that he hadn’t ridden a horse and used his own two legs instead.
The prize for finishing the Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup) was a rodeo-style belt buckle.

“Here,” the race organizers thought, “let’s give him one of these.”

And thus began the tradition of giving belt buckles as prizes for finishing ultramarathons. As other races emerged they stuck with the theme, coming up with their own unique designs and permutations. The Leadville “dinner plate” is a great example. The sub-25 hour finisher buckle is the size of a small country and looks as though there’s a flying saucer attached to your waist. Then there’s the Rocky Raccoon buckle with its prominent five-point Lone Star and colorful state of Texas displayed front and center. Everything is bigger in Texas, especially the buckles.

I don’t think we sign up for 100-milers because of the buckle, but that gleaming mass of hardware is certainly a nice keepsake for the effort. They look impressive in a display case, but personally I think they look better adorning the waist of the finisher. Less for the utilitarian value (honestly, who needs something the size of a frisbee to hold up his trousers) and more for the bravado, “Damn straight I ran 100 miles through the wilderness.” It’s ostentatious and showy, but unapologetically justified. You can’t buy a 100-mile belt buckle because unlike many things these days, it’s got to be earned. And that ain’t easy.

If you’ve ever wondered which race buckles are most coveted, San Francisco Running Company recently conducted a 100 Buckle Project, an effort to have 100 individuals photographed with their favorite buckle. Beyond being a really cool visual display, the data is telling. When looking at the first hundo completed, Western States was at the top of this list with 11 individuals having run this legendary race as their first. Next was Rio Del Lago, with nine people counting it as their first 100-miler. Not far behind was a local favorite, the Headlands Hundred, with eight. And finally was the Javelina Jundred—arguably the most festive of 100-milers—with four individuals listing it as their initial foray into the century footrace distance.

When looking at the “bucket list” of 100 Buckle Project participants and where they were gunning for in the future, Western States was again atop the list with 16 people counting it as their number one pick. Next was Hardrock with nine, and third was UTMB with seven.

As more and more races come back online and buckle fever begins heating up, let us not forget that the tradition began as an act of inspired lunacy when one man decided to run with the horses, and in the process, inspired one of the most quirky and most treasured prizes in all of the sporting world.