On July 10, Zach Altman, David Laufenberg and Anthony Pavkovich set out from their house in Bozeman, Montana. Their goal: run 250 miles across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in one week.
Measuring roughly 18 million acres, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest in-tact ecosystems in the United States. Most of those 18 million acres are designated public lands (including Yellowstone National Park). Accompanied by photographer Seth Langbauer and a cadre of supporters, the trio of runners hoped to use their trip as a call for community engagement to celebrate and protect our nation’s public lands.
Over the past week, Trail Runner has been sharing photos from their journey. In case you missed it, here are a few select moments that capture the vast and diverse beauty of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as well as the simple daily challenges of covering 250 miles on foot.
To people uninitiated in the ultrarunning world, 100-mile runs lie somewhere between incredible and unfathomable. But, when normal people start making the transition to longer days on trails, 100 miles starts to seem less crazy. Eventually, it might even begin to seem normal.
The truth is that it’s not impossible for a normal person to run 100 miles. While an extraordinary achievement, 100-mile finishes are more about strategic training, long-term planning and desire than about genetic talent.
Or, as Leadville 100 founder Ken Chloubler once stated, “You’re better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.”
However, it’s daunting to start the 100-mile journey. Here is one way to approach 100 miles, even if it seems a bit unthinkable when you get started.
From couch to trails to 100-mile breakthroughs
In December 2016, Kyle Fulmer, a 36-year-old logistics and sales manager from Fullerton, California, laid out an audacious goal: he wanted to finish the Angeles Crest 100 in under 24 hours.
Like many trail runners, he had been running seriously for just a few years, averaging 30 to 50 miles per week in training, with peaks above that on key training weeks (sometimes over 100 miles) and race weeks. His training mostly revolved around extra-long runs every other week, sometimes up to 40 miles with local trail groups. He didn’t do too many intense workouts, instead focusing on lots of time on his feet during long runs. His best 100-mile result had been 23:47 at the 2016 San Diego 100. The Angeles Crest 100 is a far more difficult course, with a median finishing time about two hours slower than San Diego. His sub-24 goal would require a different kind of training.
Kyle shares a lot of traits with a lot of other trail runners. He is strong, but not a 120-pound mountain goat (6’3” and 190 pounds). He is talented, but wasn’t winning the mile race in middle school (his flat 50K PR is 4:35, equating to about a 3:40 marathon). Most importantly, he is motivated, but not single-minded (he is a loving husband with a busy job). So we focused on three simple elements in training: weekly workouts, long runs and practice races.
With nine months to build toward Angeles Crest, Kyle first focused on short, fast workouts that would help him improve running economy, or reduce the amount of energy it takes for him to run at a given pace. In addition to twice-weekly strides, he did once-weekly short intervals with long rest. For example: 12 x 1 minute fast (around 5K effort)/2 minutes easy, 10 x 2 minutes fast/90 seconds easy and 8 x 3 minutes fast/2 minute easy. Over time, the workouts built upon each other until Kyle was running 5K and 10K PRs during training tempo runs. While there are 32.18 5Ks in a 100-mile race, that newfound running economy would allow him to run faster for longer during more specific training later.
When you are preparing for ultramarathons, never lose sight of the fact that performance at all distances is built on a foundation of solid running economy (or what many people would call ‘speed’). Improve your 5K with short intervals, and you’ll improve your ultra performances when you add long-run strength to the mix later.
Long runs and races
Since Kyle had already gotten very good at long slogs in his previous training, he deemphasized long runs early on. In addition to the strides and intervals, he capped long runs at 16 miles until training for ultra races formally began in late spring.
Once spring rolled around, his long runs were based on three principles:
1. You don’t need to run really far in training all the time to be ready to run really far on race day.
2. The best extra-long long run is a 50-mile or 100K race six to 12 weeks before a 100 miler.
3. Many normal runners can get the most bang for their buck by doing just three to six runs over 20 miles during training to avoid injuries and burnout.
Kyle’s 16-weekend 100-mile long-run training build looked like this:
Week 16: 16 miles moderate Week 15: 20 miles easy Week 14: 20 miles moderate and 16 miles easy back-to-back Week 13: 25 miles moderate Week 12: 16 miles easy Week 11: 50 mile race Week 10: 6 miles easy Week 9: 20 miles moderate and 13 miles easy Week 8: 20 miles moderate and 20 miles easy Week 7: 12 miles easy Week 6: 20 miles easy and 16 miles easy Week 5: 16 miles easy Week 4: 50K race! Week 3: 30 miles extra easy (pacing a friend at a 100, mostly hiking) Week 2: 25 miles moderate Week 1: 12 miles easy Angeles Crest 100!
The weekdays were filled in with three runs between six-10 miles with a short weekly workout and twice-weekly strides. In sum, Kyle’s average weekly long run was 21 miles, but with peaks for races and valleys for taper and recovery. The variation in long-run stress allowed him to get lots of adaptations with shorter average long runs than he had used in the past. The races were a place to lay it on the line and practice a few steps before the big dance at Angeles Crest.
When you are planning out long runs, you don’t have to run 30-plus miles all the time to be ready for a breakthrough 100. Instead, focus on one longer training race, consistent moderate runs around 20 miles and a few runs over 20 miles where you practice fueling and hydration for race day. A good general rule is to finish most “easy” long runs feeling like you could go do it again and “moderate” long runs feeling like you are ready for a shower beer.
Putting it All Together
On race day, Kyle had been averaging just 40-60 miles per week, but knew he was ready to tackle a mountainous 100 miler. At mile 10, he was in 50th place, at mile 20 he was in 30th place, at mile 50 he was in 25th place and by mile 100 he had moved all the way up to the top-10. He ultimately broke the 24-hour barrier, running 23:37 to finish ninth, executing one of the fastest second halves of any runner in the race.
While Kyle’s training build shows one method for training for a breakthrough 100-mile race, there are many others. The key takeaway is to focus on running economy, and to realize that you don’t have to run crazy long all the time to run crazy long on race day.
In a 100-mile race, the going will always get tough and stuff will always hit the fan. Get ready physically with smart, patient training, and you’ll be ready to put the mental muscle to the test when it counts.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service,Some Work, All Play.
When the blast of a starting gun sent the runners on their way in the first wave of last summer’s Pikes Peak Ascent in the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, Joe Gray was nowhere to be found.
As Andy Wacker, Eric Blake and other top competitors sprung from the starting line of the fast wave, Gray, one of the pre-race favorites, was uncharacteristically scuffling with his bag of gear behind the hundreds of recreational runners preparing to start in the second wave.
One of America’s most iconic trail races, this historic 13.3-mile tussle sends runners up the eastern side of Colorado’s most famous mountain, soaring a leg- and lung-busting 7,815 feet to the lofty finish line at 14,115 feet above sea level. In a race like that, there’s plenty of time to make up ground, but, for an intense runner like Gray, there’s no time to lose either.
As the frontrunners were already speeding up Ruxton Avenue on the way to the Barr Trail, Gray zigzagged through the crowd, hurdled a barrier and crossed the starting line with the final runner at the back of the first wave. His instincts took over and he hammered the significantly uphill first mile on the road in about 5 minutes 30 seconds, dodging runners in pursuit of Wacker, a notorious fire-breather who was off to his typical fast start.
As a runner, the 33-year-old Gray has earned a reputation as being one fierce and focused dude, one of the most relentless competitors on the international trail-running circuit. Starting the race with a 30-second deficit was a fluky hiccup in an otherwise astounding year for Gray—and it proves those things happen even to the best runners—but it only inspired him to go harder.
“He has kind of a Prefontaine mentality about him that says, ‘When you do something, you do it all-out, 100 percent,’” says fellow Colorado Springs trail runner Peter Maksimow, who would go on to finish sixth in the race that day. “He went by me about 90 seconds into the race, and he was just flying. He might have been going too fast at that point, but that’s what Joe is all about.”
It goes without saying that Joe Gray is one of the best trail runners the United States has ever produced. He’s a seven-time recipient of the U.S. Mountain Runner of the Year award and has competed for the U.S. at the World Mountain Running Championships a record nine consecutive years—a still-current streak punctuated last September by winning the individual world title and helping the American men earn their first team gold medal.
Yet, looking at Joe Gray only through the lens of running misses most of what he is all about. The intensity and meticulousness he exhibits in training and racing permeate other aspects of his life. Most notably, he likes spicy food, he loves his Seattle Seahawks, he’s keen on forensic science and he’s a passionate firebrand when it comes to topics he believes strongly in.
He’s not a hothead or an agitator, but he’s not afraid to stir the pot on his social-media channels when something bugs him. He has a graduate degree in criminal justice and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, which explains why he likes to chime in on hot-button issues like performance-enhancing drug use, prize money, runners who chase fame and glory instead of hard-fought victories and, especially in the past year, domestic issues in the U.S.—including racism.
Keep in mind, he’s one of the country’s very few elite-level African-American trail runners and the only athlete of color to represent the U.S. at the World Mountain Running Championships. He’s experienced the sour side of prejudice, both overseas, but especially in the U.S.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve felt that sting,” says Gray, who prefers not to repeat some of the names he’s been called. “We still have issues in this country, more than most people are willing to admit. One of the reasons there aren’t more African-American distance runners or trail runners is because there aren’t as many opportunities. That’s just a fact.”
Gray says African-American distance runners haven’t had the same chances to develop at the high-school, collegiate or pro levels for numerous reasons. He wants to help change that (there’s perhaps a strange bit of irony in the notion that Gray mostly trains with ex-pat Kenyan runners in the American Distance Project in Colorado Springs). But he doesn’t dwell on any of the ugly realities he’s encountered or play the race card; instead he just focuses on living his life to his own extremely high standards—values forged by his dad, Thomas, a career Army man, and mom, Donna, a staff-action control officer—with whom he remains very close. They are like his best friends and talk almost daily.
Intensity aside, those who best know Gray say he’s also as soft and gentle as a teddy bear, a real happy-go-lucky family guy who’s humble and yielding in deference to his strong Christian faith.
Although he’s a physical specimen of an athlete with an imposing look—tall and lean, sinewy and strong, with a starkly shaven head—he mostly conveys a soft, accessible demeanor. His brown eyes appear tenacious and piercing when he’s racing or talking about a serious subject, but soften when his contagious, wide smile lights up his face—which is often among friends and fellow runners. The impression you get when talking to Gray is that he’s unyieldingly authentic.
“He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met,” says Nancy Hobbs, the USA Track & Field Mountain, Ultra & Trail Chairwoman for the past 15 years, who has known Gray since his initial unsuccessful attempt to make the U.S. Mountain Running Team in 2007 not long after getting out of grad school. “I’ve watched him grow up, both as an athlete and as a person. He can be very focused and very intense when it comes to running, but he’s not just focused on running. He’s very opened-minded and is always open to trying new things and learning about things.”
Perhaps what has really rounded him out as an upstanding guy was marrying his longtime sweetheart, Christy Mills, in 2014. They met in high school back in Lakewood, Washington, and remained friends in college while away at different schools, Joe initially at the University of Portland before transferring to Oklahoma State and Christy at Washington State. (Joe was a good basketball player and runner in high school, who became a national-caliber cross-country and track runner in college.)
The longtime attraction—and Joe’s self-admission of finally growing up a bit—eventually led them to start dating in 2010.
Uprooting their lives to move to Colorado and start their married life together away from family and longtime friends has helped forge a special synergy, which Gray admits is another factor to his competitive progression. Christy has played a big role in helping him secure and manage sponsors as he pursues running as a full-time career over the past five years.
“She’s been everything to me,” he says. “She’s rabbited me in workouts, she’s hiked water up the trail for me, been my agent, been a friend and been there when things ain’t so good.”
“Joe is obviously very competitive, but it’s not to the point that he’s annoying to be around. If a race doesn’t go well, he’s not sulking around the whole time,” says Christy, who is a claims adjuster at the United Services Automobile Association in Colorado Springs. “He has a good balance between a very serious athlete and a normal, laid-back person.”
The two love to travel, are sophisticated foodies who are handy in the kitchen and have become passionate gardeners. Joe especially enjoys cooking spicy foods he’s sampled while at different races around the world, often with some of the many varieties of hot peppers from their garden. Christy was a competitive rower in college and for many years afterward, but she’s given that up for cycling races since moving to landlocked Colorado.
Along with his mountain-running team streak, Gray has excelled in many other races in the United States and around the world, for example, a victory in the 21K Iztaccihuatl Skyrace that climbs 15,800 feet in Mexico, a runner-up showing and American record time at the historic Sierre Zinal 31K village-to-village mountain race in Switzerland and, of course, what turned out to be a dominating win at the Pikes Peak Ascent last August.
After starting off the back, Gray caught Wacker in the second mile of the race, and by the 4.3-mile split at No Name Creek had gapped him by nearly two minutes. True to his aggressive racing style, he kept charging and led by more than three-and-a-half minutes near the midway point at Barr Camp and won with an eight-and-a-half-minute margin in 2:05:28—the fastest time in 21 years.
“At Pikes, he went by me and I was like, ‘Yeah, man, go for it,’” says Wacker. “He was in such good uphill shape that I just knew he was gone.”
Although Gray is mostly known for his trail prowess, what makes him special as a runner is that he’s one of the country’s most prolific racers and isn’t afraid to throw down in just about any discipline. His success extends across all types of running—cross country, road running from 5K to the marathon, snowshoe racing and all varieties of trail running, including short and steep mountain races, vertical kilometer uphill courses and even ultra-distance races up to 50K.
“I really admire his versatility,” says Wacker. “It shows that he’s a great athlete and no matter what kind of running obstacles you throw at him—if you put a mountain in front of him or if you put snowhoes on his feet or if you put him on a flat road—he’ll be competitive.”
A look at Gray’s initial 2017 results gives a glimpse at his competitiveness and versatility. In early February, he placed ninth at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Bend, Oregon, covering the muddy 10K course amid a stacked field in 31:04. Later in the month he won the 2017 World Snowshoe Running Championships in Saranac Lake, New York, covering the slippery, slushy 8K course in 28:24. Then, on March 4, while competing in a Team USA jersey, Gray placed third in the 8K North American/Central American/Caribbean (NACAC) Cross Country Championships in Boca Raton, Florida—the 21st time he’s represented the U.S. in international competition.
For Gray, running over hill and dale seems to come naturally. But he also works hard at it and definitely doesn’t take a single step of his progression for granted.
“I always enjoyed playing in the woods as a kid and I like being out in nature, so it makes sense that I found trail running,” says Gray. “But there have been some moments in my career when I’ve been on top of some mountain and it feels very surreal, and I think, ‘Wow, my life could have been so different,’ and, ‘I don’t deserve this; I’m not worthy of this life.’ But in the end, I know I’ve worked as hard as I can for everything I’ve done and am appreciative of where I’ve been.”
In 2013, Joe and Christy decided to move to Colorado Springs so Joe could reap the benefits of living and training at altitude and running a diverse array of trails every week. But perhaps the biggest catalyst for his progression has been the guidance provided by coach Scott Simmons and the opportunity to train with faster runners.
Simmons had guided numerous elite track and road runners through the years from the collegiate to the pro ranks in his American Distance Project (ADP) training group and, since 2010, honed his chops further with famed Italian marathon coach Renato Canova.
But, he had never coached a trail runner before Gray.
“In our first conversation, he made me feel like maybe I wasn’t ready to be coached by him,” Gray recalls, furling his brow and tilting his head. “I felt almost insecure and disappointed and upset at the same time. It hit me personally and I thought, ‘I kind of want to work with this guy and prove him wrong.’”
That initial tension and intrigue, along with the ensuing synergy they built, has helped catapult Gray into another level of fitness, confidence and, ultimately, race results. Simmons challenged Gray to become faster on the track and roads from 5K to the marathon, but, just as importantly, he hammered home the value of rest and recovery, helping to eliminate the detrimental effects of overtraining that had plagued Gray earlier in his career.
Training with the likes of Hillary Bor (the 7th-place finisher in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Rio Olympics), Lawi Lalang (a 13:01 5K runner) and Augustus Maiyo and Sam Chelanga (both 1:01 half-marathoners) has proven to be invaluable. For example, Gray has regularly done 5 x 1-mile repeat workouts with the ADP averaging 4:35 per mile and hard 6 x 5-minute sessions with just two minutes rest.
Under Simmons’ tutelage, Gray has set strong new PRs for the 5K (14:12), 10K (29:03) and the half-marathon (1:03:42, which qualified him for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon). He also won the individual title at the U.S. Club Cross Country Championships 10K race in 2013, set a new American record with his second of three straight wins at the gruelingly steep Mt. Washington Road Race in 2015 and has won three of the past four U.S. Mountain Running Championships.
While the ADP crew keeps adding world-class road and track runners, it’s Gray that is often ending the group’s workout reps with something extra. For example, after finishing each rep of an 8 x 800-meter workout in about 2:10 on a flat dirt loop last fall in a Colorado Springs park, Gray could be seen jetting off into the woods to finish with a stout uphill effort on a singletrack trail.
Plus, he still gets plenty of legit trail running with local mountain stalwarts Maksimow, Zach Miller and Alex Nichols, among others, and also spends some days and nights training in the 8,500-foot environs of the small mountain town of Woodland Park.
“Joe is the expert on the trails and knows what he has to do to excel out there,” Simmons says. “But training with our guys … he’s not quite on the level they are as far as 5K, 10K or half-marathon times go, but when he does workouts with them, he’s right there in the thick of it. And the faster he’s gotten, the more he’s been able to apply that to uphills and downhills and longer races out on the trails.”
Heading into last year’s World Mountain Running Championships in Albania—which was staged on a grueling 12.5K uphill course with 4,500 feet of elevation gain—Gray was in the shape of his life. Outwardly, he was hoping to improve upon his fifth-place effort at the 2015 championships in Wales, but quietly and inwardly he says he wanted to win. Still, as much as he was laser focused on his own race, he made it a point to keep his younger Team USA teammates motivated, inspired and loose when they arrived in the small mountain hamlet of Sapareva Banya in the days leading up to the race.
“Joe is such a competitor, but he’s such a leader, too,” Wacker says. “He’s been there so many times. He was very confident and had this calm, cool demeanor, and I think that helped everybody get focused on what they had to do.”
When the race started, Gray burst out to the lead and continued to run from the front through the 4K mark. That’s when he noticed teammate Hayden Hawks was just behind him, followed by a slew of other Team USA jerseys. Inspired, Gray pushed harder and gapped the field a bit, holding off a challenge from Mexican runner Israel Morales. Gray was still in the lead with about 3K to go when Ugandan runner Robert Chemonges challenged him on a flatter section just before the final climb.
“I was hurtin’ and riggin’ pretty badly, but I was still confident and knew I could still win at that point,” Gray says.
Gray surged again, but so did Chemonges, this time with a younger Ugandan teammate suddenly running alongside of him and literally pushing him with his hands up the steeper sections. Infuriated, Gray yelled, “You can’t do that,” and looked around to see if anyone else saw what was going on. Determined to outrun the cheater, Gray surged again as they approached the final ascent. But with 200 meters to go, Chemonges, who was still being aided by his pacer, made a push that Gray couldn’t match.
After crossing the finish line in second place, Gray went straight over to confront Chemonges, but the Ugandan tried to play it off like it was no big deal, and so did his coach. Although he was absolutely livid, Gray switched his focus to cheer on his own teammates and then was sequestered to provide urine samples to comply with IAAF drug-testing protocol.
No one among the American contingent ever officially protested—mostly because of a lack of photo or video proof—but fortunately a race marshal and other teams did, and Gray was eventually awarded the win.
What was even more heartening to Gray, though, was hearing the final team standings announced. Thanks to Gray’s victory—as well as strong efforts from Hawks (fourth), Brett Hales (seventh) and Wacker (20th)—the U.S. edged Italy by a single point in the lowest-score-wins standings, 32-33, and earned the Americans their first team title in the 32 years of the event.
“Overall, I was pumped and had the race of my life. I felt that I attacked the course and was able to crush everybody,” Gray says. “The guy’s cheating took a little bit of the sweetness out of it, but I knew I could sleep at night knowing I did what I did with my own strength and integrity. But, honestly, winning the team gold medal is one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
So what’s next for Gray? He’s an odds-on favorite to make his 10th straight U.S. Mountain Running Team on June 3 at the Cranmore Mountain Race in New Hampshire, and that will give him a chance to defend his world championship on July 30 in Premana, Italy. Unlike last year’s uphill races, this year’s championships will both be held on up-and-down courses.
Can he make a serious run at Matt Carpenter’s 24-year-old Pikes Peak Ascent record on August 19? In 2015, he eclipsed Carpenter’s mark on the daunting Manitou Incline—the ungodly steep 0.9-mile converted cog-wheel rail trail up the lower flanks of Pikes Peak—and his effort in winning the Ascent last summer shows he’s got a chance. But the trail has changed a lot since 1993—it’s more rutted and slippery in many places. Gray is the first to admit it’s a stout record, and he’s still four minutes away from getting a sniff at it.
“To me, it’s all about racing and running faster than I did before,” Gray says. “I think the authenticity of racing allows you to have respect for yourself for years and years to come. Whereas if you did it for something really fleeting like fame or money or even going for a record, those things go away, and, in the end, they don’t really have any density. You can tell the guys who love what they do, because they’re consistent.
“I’m not in it for fame. I love what I do.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner at its inception in 1999.
Last weekend, August 6-7, 2017, at the World Mountain Running Championships in Premana, Italy, the U.S. Mountain Running Team took home five medals, the largest haul in the history of U.S. mountain running. The U.S. has medaled before, both as a team and individually, but this was the first year that both men’s, women’s and junior’s teams all medaled in the same year.
The race, which pulls some of the best mountain runners in the world, took place on the cobbled, grassy hills of Premana, a small town in northern Italy.
“People are crazy for mountain running in that part of the world,” says senior women’s team member Allie McLaughlin. “The steepest hill was lined with cheers and cowbells as loud as at the finish.”
International mountain running has traditionally been dominated by European countries, though, with this latest slew of medals, Team U.S.A. is proving that Americans can run with the best.
“It felt very satisfying and encouraging to know that we can compete with the best mountain runners in the world,” says team member Addie Bracy.
An experienced team
Coming off a gold-medal performance at last year’s championships—the men’s team earned gold, and team member Joseph Gray earned the individual gold medal and title of World Mountain Running Champion—U.S. team members knew they had a shot at competing for another title.
The women’s team included Addie Bracy, who was a member of last year’s team, Allie McLaughlin who competed in 2014 and Kasie Enman, who won individual gold in 2011. Caitlin Paterson—who is a professional Nordic ski racer and hopped into the U.S. Mountain Running championships at Cranmore, Vermont, at the last minute—was the lone rookie of the bunch.
For McLaughlin, who suffered a torn labrum (hip cartilage) after the 2014 race, returning to a world-championship race was particularly special. After a surgery in 2016, she healed but “didn’t have any motivation left to come back to running.” Instead she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and turned to dirt biking, filmmaking and, ultimately, skydiving.
“I think that the new hype in Nashville and the highs from skydiving gave me the energy to run,” she says. “Or maybe it was the fact that I was new in [all of these activities], and running was the one part of my day that was familiar.” Whatever the reason, she found herself once again drawn to the trails.
“Being back in an international race still doesn’t feel real,” she says.
All four members of the men’s team were veterans: Andy Wacker, Brett Hales and Gray, who competed together in 2016 and Patrick Smyth, who competed in 2014. Despite last year’s gold medal hanging above their heads, Smyth explains that the team kept expectations low.
“It was an extremely competitive field this year,” he says. “So I knew that the goal of any team medal was lofty.” Competition aside, frontrunner Gray had just sustained a knee injury a few weeks earlier—dodging a surprised hiker—and wasn’t even sure he would compete.
“I almost dropped out, knowing my knee would slow me down,” says Gray. “But as I saw the look in the guys’ eyes as we walked to the start, I just knew I couldn’t drop.”
Medals all around
Fans from all over Italy descended on Premana to cheer on the racers, which made for an atmosphere that Smyth describes as “electric.”
“It was a small town packed with 5,000 rabid fans screaming their faces off,” he says. “It was phenomenal.”
First up were the junior races, which saw both Talon Hull and Lauren Gregory earn bronze medals. “I just wanted to put myself through as much pain as possible and see how I reacted,” says Gregory, who chased down third place in the final meters of the race.
Eleventh- and 16th-place finishes by Quinn McConnell and Soleil Gaylord earned the junior girls’ team enough points for a silver medal. “It is amazing to think that all four of us … were able to compete against so many other really talented runners,” says McConnell.
Next, the senior women took to the start line for two loops on the same 6.5K course. “I knew that we had a podium team,” says Bracy. The four agreed to start out conservatively, with McLaughlin making an early break for the front and the other three team members hanging with the middle of the pack.
The heat quickly began to take its toll. “I took all the water and sponges I could find in an attempt to cool down,” says Patterson. “Considering the circumstances, I was happy with my effort, and happy that I made it to the finish without completely shutting down.”
Both McLaughlin and Bracy found themselves likewise drained by the warm temperatures, dreading the final climb. “I was already feeling pretty spent,” says McLaughlin. “It was warm and the transitions from downhill to uphill were tough.”
But the deafening roar of a thousand screaming, cowbell-wielding fans propelled them upward. McLaughlin ultimately finished in fifth place, with Bracy close behind in eighth, Enman in 13th and Patterson in 23rd. “Having Addie come in eighth, and Kasie close after, it seemed we had medaled,” says McLaughlin. “But we had to wait to find out how high. When we found out for sure it was gold, [we all let out] joyful, excited screams. Inside [I felt a sense of] settling satisfaction.”
The men’s race took off almost as soon as the last women had crossed the line. “We all went out screaming fast,” says Smyth. “I’ve been to World Cross Country Championships, and this was pretty comparable in terms of all-out start.”
With his sore knee, Gray knew he wouldn’t be able to attack the downhills as aggressively as he’d like. “I planned to be top 15,” he says. “And if I could get up higher, that would be great, since I wanted our team to have a chance at medaling.” He tried to keep the lead runners in his sight, racing them hard on the climbs to compensate for the descents.
Meanwhile, farther back, Smyth and Wacker were both struggling to maintain the fast pace they’d been forced to take from the beginning. “I think of myself as a climbing specialist, but I just didn’t have a great uphill day,” says Wacker, who ultimately finished in 30th place. “On the positive side, I kept focused and ran to help displace other runners. I outkicked two runners in the last 200 meters.”
Their efforts were ultimatley good enough for a team bronze medal, behind Uganda and Italy.
“Having the U.S.A. women win gold, and for the first time to have all teams earn medals, made me so proud to be a part of a strong and growing American mountain-running team,” says men’s team member Andy Wacker. “It’s wonderful to see the sport getting more popular worldwide and to see the U.S. rise to the challenge.”
Update: this past weekend, at the World Long-Distance Mountain Running Championships, Enman went on to win a silver medal. Bracy came in sixth. The men’s team also earned a team silver medal, with 20-year-old team member Tayte Pollmann finishing in fourth place.
My body ached with the familiar, satisfying soreness of running up and down a mountain—tight quad, crampy calves and … dry, burning eyes.
I had just finished a run up 12,800-foot Mount Starr in the Eastern Sierras, but figured that the irritation in my eyes was simply a nasty case of pink eye. A few hours later I sat on the patient table as Dr. Pete Clark, M.D. walked into the door, took one look at me and laughed, proclaiming, “You sunburned the crap out of your eyes!”
As it turns out, running at almost 13,000 feet on a snowfield during a sunny day without sunglasses is risky behavior. Despite taking every precaution to protect my feet and summit the mountain safely, I, like most trail runners, had been careless in protecting another part of my body required to navigate the trail.
In addition to his family medicine practice in Mammoth Lakes, California, Dr. Clark is an accomplished trail and mountain runner. “With every thousand feet above sea level, you are exposed to three percent more ultraviolet rays,” he says. “So at an elevation of 8,000 feet there is 24 percent more UV exposure. Wraparound eye protection is essential.”
Trail runners expose themselves to even more potentially damaging eye hazards than the average person simply by being outside more frequently and in conditions that are prone to debris, low-hanging branches and varied weather conditions.
Worse, according to ophthalmologist Dr. Dora Adamopoulos, “The most UV light hits your eyes during early mornings and evenings because of the lower angle of the sun in the sky, which is when most runners hit the trail.”
The technical term for my sunburned eyes is photokeratitus: sunburn on the cornea, which can cause temporary blindness or blurred vision and make your eyes burn and feel gritty for two to three days. Other eye conditions of concern for runners include skin cancer on the eyelids (more than 10-percent of skin cancer occurs on the frequently exposed eyelid areas), pingueculum (noncancerous growth of the conjunctiva) and long-term damage that surfaces later in life such as cataracts.
Therefore, a properly selected pair of sunglasses is an absolute essential—here is a check list for scoping out your next pair of shades.
Look for a UVA/UVB label—just like sunscreen! Full-spectrum UV protective lenses will block 100 percent of UV rays and absorb most of the high-energy visible radiation (HEV). Cheap knock-offs may cut down on the sun’s brightness but are actually not offering sun protection.
Polycarbonate lenses. “These lenses help in the case of a fall or getting hit by a branch, because glass will shatter!” explains Dr. Adamopoulos. This material is also more durable.
Polarized lenses reduce glare.
Wraparound lenses. Dr. Clark is a fan of wraparound lenses for maximum coverage.
Match your lens color and type to lighting conditions. Dr. Adamopoulos recommends that trail runners even wear sunglasses at night for protection from low-hanging branches. Look for an amber tint—this is what race-car drivers use for driving at night.
Anti-fog technology is a consideration for trail runners. Some lenses automatically adjust to humidity, to eliminate fogging. Otherwise, pick a fit/lens that offers plenty of ventilation.
Eliminating bounce is perhaps the most critical fit issue. Look for a pair with adjustable or interchangeable components, especially the nose pads. Be sure to actually try on sunglasses and go for a trial jog with them.
While it may be tempting to leave home without sunglasses for all but your longest and sunniest runs, Dr. Adamopoulos emphasizes that eye protection should to be valued the same as training—consistency over time is key because most of the damage to our eyes is done over a cumulative period. Be sure to find a pair that fits well, meets your trail-running needs and (most importantly) looks great.
Filmmaker Billy Yang captured these moments from California’s Western States 100, from the snowy first miles to Jim Walmsley’s decision to drop at Rucky Chucky and Cat Bradley and Ryan Sandes on their way to first-place finishes.
Last weekend saw a showdown on the slopes of Utah’s Snowbird ski resort, with two new course records at the Speedgoat 50K. In what has become a typical performance, Jim Walmsley built an early lead and ran most of the race alone, finishing roughly 18 minutes ahead of second-place finisher Tim Tollefson, breaking the course record by just over three minutes.
Meanwhile, Anna Mae Flynn, 30, of Marble, Colorado, came in with no expectations and ran a gutsy race to finish a mere nine minutes ahead of Kelly Wolf—enough to break the course record by roughly 20 minutes (Wolf also finished under the previous course-record time).
The Speedgoat course has been tweaked several times over the years, due efforts on race director Karl Meltzer’s part to find harder routes, and ensuing Forest-Service permitting issues. The current course, which has only been run once before, “adds about seven minutes to time and 300 feet of vertical climb,” says Meltzer. “And it is a lot steeper.”
Walmsley’s time was faster thanall previous course records, irrespective of course changes. Flynn’s time was the fastest for this particular course. “It’s the toughest route we’ve had so far,” says Meltzer. “So realistically, the record that Anna Mae set is hands down the best women’s time at Speedgoat.”
Walmsley Does it Again
When Jim Walmsley, running under the race alias “the Maricopa Marauder” (through no intention of his own), crossed the finish line first in a course-record time of 5:04:55, it may have been met with a few giggles, but no mistakes—Jim Walmsley rebounded in fine form from his DNF at Western States to definitively win one of the country’s toughest 50K races.
“Once the race went off, there wasn’t ever a moment where I thought I was in any sort of trouble from anyone behind me,” he says. “Things just clicked how I had hoped they would.”
Walmsley attributes his decisive win to the fitness he built in training for Western States. Unlike Western, however, Walmsley’s goal was simply to run comfortable and test his training for UTMB—not to set a course record.
“Around mile 26, Hayden Hawks mentioned I was on course-record pace, but I shrugged it off, since that wasn’t the goal,” he says. “This was a training run for me. I just wanted to stay comfortable, so that is what I focused on.”
His nearest competitors, Tim Tollefson and Sage Canaday (three-time winner of Speedgoat) were also using the race as a tune-up for UTMB. “I really wanted to get a solid effort in without digging a hole that might take too long to recover from,” Tollefson says. “To execute that objective, I knew it’d be important to start slow, build momentum throughout, avoid a blowup and hopefully rip the final descent, much the way I’d love to attack UTMB.”
Canaday admits that he struggled in the last 15 miles, but says that the race, which has almost 12,000 feet of climbing at high altitude, remains one of his favorites. “I think it is the best mountain ultra 50K event in the U.S.,” he says. “There is a mix of everything, from fast and runnable fire roads to power hiking off trail up and down 40-percent slopes.”
Canaday ran ahead of Tollefson for most of the race until the last climb, up to 11,000 feet when Tollefson, surged ahead and built a gap, which he maintained for the rest of the race.
Flynn Goes Big
The women’s race was dominated by Anna Mae Flynn, who came to Speedgoat fresh off a recent Fastest Known Time on the iconic 28-mile Four Pass Loop through the Maroon Bells Wilderness in western Colorado. Flynn, who works during the year as a school teacher, is a relative newcomer to competitive trail running, with podium finishes at the Canyons 50K, Power of Four 50K, Way Too Cool 50K and Lake Sonoma 50 to her name. She entered Speedgoat with the goal of running as hard as she could, taking no note of previous winning times, and simply ran with the mantra, “Go big or go home.”
For Flynn, who considers climbing to be her strong suit, Speedgoat was a natural choice. She surged on the ups, and tried “to keep my distance from the competition” on the downhills. She wound up running most of the race solo.
“I had seen my competition on the out-and-back at the bottom of the first descent off Hidden Peak, and that got me a little nervous,” she says. “From mile 15 or so, I was running scared.” By the midpoint of the race, the urge to hike was starting to kick in. Afraid of being caught, Flynn forced herself to mix running and power hiking, in intervals.
“I figured it was one strategy to keep a gap on the field until the finish line,” she says.
The toughest part of Flynn’s race came in the final few miles, which are mostly downhill and included talus fields, creek crossings, late-season snow and off-trail steeps. “Bombing downhill as hard as you can for six miles on an almost-empty tank is hard for anyone, I assume—even Walmsley,” Flynn says. By this point, she was just trying to hang on, expecting the rest of the field to catch her at any moment. She had no idea she was on course-record pace.
Meanwhile, a few minutes back, Wolf and Peterson were duking it out for second and third. Wolf, 22, of Arizona, who won California’s Broken Arrow Skyrace 52K just a few weeks ago, was using this race to prepare for UTMB’s sister race CCC. For her, the toughest part of the day was “the second major climb to the top of Baldy. The course gets so steep, and you have already been climbing straight without relief for over eight miles.”
Wolf and Peterson started up the climb together. Quickly realizing her legs were not up to the grade, Wolf decided to abandon shame, drop down on all fours and “bear crawl” up the climb.
“This apparently worked,” she says. “I was able to gain a lead on Brittany, who had previously been ahead for most of the race.” Wolf maintained that lead for the rest of the race, ultimately crossing the finish line nine minutes after Flynn, taking 45 minutes off her time from last year. Both Flynn and Wolf were under the previous course-record time. Peterson followed in 6:48:45.
Says Flynn of her win, “I was overjoyed to see the finish line and kick it in. I truly left it all out there that day, and that was a good feeling.”
“Trail running made me an asshole.” Amid a mindless scroll through my Facebook feed, I braked.
Not because Emelie’s powerful and honest declaration stood out amid a feed full of humble bragging and lookwhere-I-am selfies. Though it certainly did.
I stopped because I knew exactly what she meant.
And that right there is one of the hardest sentences I’ve written this year.
Emelie’s not her real name. I’m not using her actual name because she’s not, in fact, an asshole. (Besides, calling her Emelie is funny, because word on the street is that Emelie Forsberg is anything but an asshole, a fact I intend to confirm once she wises up and dumps Kilian for me.)
I fired off a quick instant message, acting all breezy, as if I hadn’t already learned the same hard lesson. “Hey! Your post caught my attention. Why do you think trail running made you an asshole?”
Her reply compressed a decade into a dozen sentences.
Before running, we all just did stuff for fun. No one cared about pace. Then it became about Strava and podiums. Friends became too slow, or too fast, so we stopped hanging out. We stopped eating for fun, and instead it was all about eating to run. Life became training, and we all got coaches. Friendships became shallow. Then came the Irunfar interview, and the next day I got 50 new friends on Facebook. People liked me until I lost a race. Then I was a has-been. My relationship struggled because I was too slow in the mountains, he was too slow on the road. We fought. It sucked. I’m still not sure if trail running has made my life better or worse.
Trail running can make you an asshole. And you don’t have to run at an elite level, either, like my friend—though maybe it speeds the degenerative process. You can run mid-pack and still be a world-class jerk. I know because I’ve been that person. With a marquee event closing in on the calendar, I’ve run when my recalcitrant body was asking for just one fucking day off, please, and a good night’s rest. With Strava ticking away during a long trail run on an iconic 32-mile course, I’ve casually prodded a friend who was enjoying a refueling break. I’ve thought 30 seconds was enough when I had just arrived at a summit with a 100-mile view that would make others drop to their knees in wonder.
Asshole to yourself, to others, to the cosmos. I’ve even been one to my dog. She’ll take exploring the woods over hauling in more kudos any day of the week, proving for the hundredth time that she is wiser than I am. (Sorry, Sam. On the up side, it still beats the animal shelter, right? Right?)
Along the way, you shed the things you loved, because they’re encumbrances. (Pro tip: The immovable ones will be there when you get back. With others, you’ll beat your fists into the wall for being such a dumbass, and promise yourself it won’t happen again.)
Fortunately, it’s reversible. Vestiges of our old selves remain within us, dormant. Last fall, I gave away my two most prized finisher vests for donations of $5 each to the Junior U.S. Mountain Running Team. It was one of the best transactions I’ve made in a long time and brought back the happiness that flows when you’re caring a little less about things and a little more about people.
Not all of us spiral down into trail-running assholedom, of course. And the ones who dodge it are there to lead the way out. Take David Laney, for example. At last year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, he came in fourth. Laney and I crossed the same finish line—but he ran UTMB five hours faster, and his race was 46 kilometers longer than the one I ran, UTMB’s sister race, TDS. Yet when we met, all he really wanted to hear about was how my run went. Whenever I feel myself getting sucked into the abyss, I think of Laney, as an example and a lifeline.
Doug Mayer lives in Randolph, New Hampshire, and leads the trail-running tour company Run the Alps. He’s pretty sure that his dog, Sam, can vouch that he is not always a jerk.
In the last 50 miles of the 2014 Tahoe 200-Mile Endurance Run, John Burton’s energy levels were sinking. His legs were tired, his feet were failing and he was convinced that there were dozens of smiling otters on the sides of the trail.
He pointed one out to his pacer, who responded, “John, that’s a rock.” Burton, an accomplished ultrarunner with buckles from Western States, Hardrock and the Fat Dog 120, had led the race for over 160 miles. At one point he expanded his lead to over five hours. But after 48 hours without sleep, he was starting to come unglued. With blistered feet, a broken finger (from slipping on a log) and ravaged quadriceps, Burton eventually struggled to just move forward. He ultimately finished third in the reality-bending endurance race.
“Two hundred miles,” Burton says in hindsight, “is a really long way.” Indeed, if there is an endurance frontier remaining in America, it is within the mind and body of a trail runner near the end of a 200-mile footrace. The challenge of a 200 necessarily involves several days of running, tens of thousands of burned calories, extreme vertical gains and heaps of sheer chutzpa.
“Running these races is not just ‘doubling’ the race experience of a 100-miler,” says Mark Tanaka, a finisher of the 2015 Tahoe 200 and the 2016 Bigfoot 200. “A 200-mile race is a different qualitative experience … it’s overwhelming in both positive and negative ways. In some ways a 200 miler is easier than shorter races. I’ve felt more beat up physically after some 100s than after my 200s, because [in the 200s] I power-hiked a larger portion of the race. At the finishes, I was not terribly sore, just really tired.”
The birth of a phenomenon
Surprisingly, the 200-miler is an outgrowth of local geography, rather than of a desire to double the 100-mile distance. One of the earliest 200-mile races was the Tor des Géants (TdG), which began in 2010, traversing the “High Routes” of mountainous Aosta Valley in the Alps of northwestern Italy. The contingencies of the trail route determined the race’s 205-mile distance and mind-boggling 78,700 feet of elevation gain.
Spearheading the effort to create single-loop 200-milers in the United States has been Candice Burt, whose company Destination Trail now directs three 200-mile races, including the Tahoe 200. But, as with the TdG, Burt did not set out to normalize the 200-mile distance. It just so happened that 200 miles was roughly the distance of the route she designed around Lake Tahoe in California.
“There are not many events out there that allow you four-plus days on the trail, supported by aid stations, course markings, camaraderie and competition,” says Burt. Indeed, before 2014, there were race distances over 100 miles in the U.S., but most of them included continuous repeated loops.
“Organizing 200s is insanely hard,” Burt points out. “In some cases I work with as many as 20 different [trail] permits for one race.”
Her race company is on site for a month prior to each race, to organize supplies and logistics. But this is partly why she chooses scenic, challenging routes: “After all, I have to mark all 200-plus miles with my crew, and I want to enjoy the route, too.”
Says John Burton, “I’m drawn to these longer, grittier races. I’ll never be the fastest guy on the start line of a 50K, but these 200-milers force you to pace tactically, cultivate resilience and dig really, really deep.”
More than a few trail runners share this sentiment. All 150 slots for this September’s Tahoe 200 are already sold out.
Karl Meltzer, who has won more 100-mile races than anyone, thinks that the distance will remain a small niche, likely shielded from the influx of younger ultrarunning talent. “This is mostly because the recovery needed after a 200 is considerable,” says Meltzer. “This means the crowd will be older, more experienced and looking for races where strategic pacing, fueling and rest stops will determine their performance.”
The physical risks remain uncertain. A 2012 study led by Dr. Martin Hoffman and Dr. Julie Ingwerson indicated that finishers at the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run held abnormal creatine kinase values, indicating acute muscle breakdown. While rhabdomyolysis (muscle tissue entering the bloodstream) and renal failure are rare in ultras, doubling the distance means that the kidneys must work harder to filter the residue of muscle-tissue breakdown from the blood.
Sleep is also a problem. Sean Meissner, who has coached several runners for the TdG, explains, “It’s very hard to sleep, once you factor in the pain, adrenaline and caffeine consumption involved in covering the distance.”
To help runners rest during their 200-mile races, Destination Trail sets up several “sleep stations” in addition to full-service aid stations. Medical volunteers are positioned at each aid station to assess runners as they move through the course, and Burt requires runners to wear SPOT tracking devices, which are monitored continually.
“Mitigating the risks of a 200-mile race has everything to do with communication,” she says.
The ultimate sufferfest
In 100-mile races, athletes commonly experience low spells that last a few hours. However, a typical 200-miler has a cut-off time of 100 hours (over three times that of Western States), with a winning finish time of around 60 hours—that’s two and a half days.
Says Ian Sharman, head coach of Sharman Ultra, “In a 200-miler, your low spell could last a couple of days.”
Luckily, the longer cutoff time gives racers more leeway to hike and rest for extended periods. “I try to make sure our athletes are really good at hiking and shifting into a run-walk rhythm,” Sharman says. “If you’ve just trained to run at a steady aerobic pace, you will struggle when the fatigue from the miles and lack of sleep force you to slow.”
Experience, he says, is key. Athletes who have raced multiple 100-mile events with varied terrain and elevation change will know how to handle the inevitable physical pitfalls of a 200-mile race.
“Any small thing—so negligible you can’t even imagine it becoming a problem—can blow up on you after 48 hours of continuous running,” says Burton. During the 2014 Tahoe 200, the liner of his shorts rubbed across the skin of his groin, slowly cutting a quarter-inch groove through his thigh flesh. The blood eventually coagulated, sticking the liner to his skin, which would continually rip open whenever Burton took an awkward step.
“I still have scars,” he says.
The physical suffering doesn’t stop when the race is over. After upwards of four days of continuous movement, the body needs to return to a normal sleep cycle, reset metabolic processes and repair organs.
For several days after his blow-up at the 2014 Tahoe 200, Burton’s body was so worn down that he became physically ill. “I was so feverish that my wife made me sleep on an air mattress for weeks after the race,” says Burton, “because I kept soaking the bed, pillows and sheets in sweat every night.”
This uncertainty and risk, argues Karl Meltzer, is why people run 200s. “It’s like the thrill of your first sky dive or wing-suit jump. People in our sport thrive on a single question: Can I handle it?”
Sam Robinson is a trail runner, finishing his PhD in History at the University of California, Berkeley. You can read more of his writing at his blog, The Gaunt Life.
Episode Three of the six-part series follows the Georgia Death Race, “arguably the hardest ultra-race east of the rockies,” and the only Western States golden-ticket race in the east. The 100K race, which boasts approximately 20,000 feet of elevation gain, was founded just five years ago as an attempt to infuse a new, young energy into the world of 100-mile racing. It’s reputation has grown quickly.