Tomorrow at 5:00 a.m. Pacific Time, the Western States Endurance Run commences. In my estimation and in the opinions of many others, it is the Super Bowl, World Series, or World Cup Finals of ultrarunning. This race is 100 miles through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. While it isn’t the toughest 100 mile ultramarathon in the world, it is a race that’s been around since the mid 70s when there were barely any 100 mile races and it attracts the best athletes from around the globe. For me, as well as many other aspiring ultrarunners, it is the first ultramarathon we read or hear about. It reminds me of my youth when I would hear legendary stories about World Series games with stars like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson.As race day approaches, I have found myself glued to interviews, podcasts, blogs, and magazine articles related to this year’s event. The enthusiasm in which I find myself made me look at the connection between my passion for ultrarunning compared to baseball. Back in 1987-88, I had somewhat of a breakthrough athletically. Prior to that, I wasn’t uncoordinated per se. I was fast and strong but didn’t really stand out in any particular sport. I was decent in basketball as a guard, I was good at soccer as a fullback, but in baseball I was relegated to the dreaded right field position. For those that are unfamiliar with little league baseball, right field is where you would stick your worst players because the frequency of balls going out there was very little. Yet in 1987, my parents had a great idea to send me to a baseball camp in Cocoa Beach, Florida–The Clint Hurdle Baseball Camp. Those 5 days of working with professional baseball players changed my life. By having people work with me and teach me drills, the technique of proper practice, and the repetition necessary to improve, I suddenly gained a level of confidence I never had before. When the next season started for baseball, I went from being a bench warmer to one of the top players in the league. My love for baseball grew exponentially. I watched and listened to as many games as possible (no internet or cable television in those days). I collected baseball cards. I played baseball video games on the Nintendo and my computer. My friends and I played pickup baseball games all year long. When we would play these games, one thing we would do was pretend to be players in the Major Leagues. We would try to emulate their mannerisms, batting stances, and styles. The player I always picked was Eric Davis. He was a center fielder for my beloved Cincinnati Reds.
Quick side note–while I lived in the Washington, D.C. area for most of my life, I did spend 3 years in the suburbs of Cincinnati in a town called Loveland. Because Washington did not have a baseball team during my childhood, I adopted the Reds as my team because I was not from Baltimore. I followed the Baltimore Orioles but I loved the Reds.
As a boy it was common to pick an athlete to idolize and I knew everything about Eric “The Red” Davis. I knew what high school he attended, that one of his friends growing up was Darryl Strawberry, what minor league teams he played for, his birthday…well you get the picture. What I particularly liked about him was that he played the game all out. He gave EVERYTHING he had every single game. He was fast, he could hit homeruns, he made amazing plays as a fielder, and seemed to be an all around good guy. He was never mixed up with drugs, arrests, and other off field shenanigans. I truly idolized him and tried to craft my game after him. Since those times, I have always been known by my teammates as someone who would play at 100%, organize my own practices-even when the teams weren’t practicing, and would sacrifice my body to make a play or win the game. I had coaches tell my father at various times that I should try to relax a little more during practice because of my intensity.
Looking back on those times and comparing it to today, I wondered do I idolize any runners? Is it possible for me, a grown man, to idolize anymore? Do I know enough about the sport of ultrarunning to really speak on the subject? To answer the question about idolizing–I don’t think as a grown man I would idolize anyone. I am content with who I am as an individual and my path in life. However, I do know that finding a few people that represent some of the things I hold important and who have immense experience to share is important if you want to grow. Think of the sensei-student relationship. As for knowing enough to speak about ultrarunning, who knows…I have only been studying the sport for a couple years, have only been running ultra distances since 2013, and only completed my first race 6 weeks ago.
To get straight to the point, I would say that there are some people that I find represent many of the qualities in which I aspire. I don’t know whether it was serendipitous, coincidence, or just plain old dumb luck but the very first two books I bought related to ultrarunning were Finding Ultra by Rich Roll and Eat and Run by Scott Jurek. These two gentlemen seem to embody many of the things that are important to me at this juncture in my life.
Rich Roll’s story is one of a school athlete who lost his way in college and by the time he was in his 30s was overweight, abusing alcohol and drugs, and unhappy with his life. He had a moment of clarity one night climbing the stairs, finding himself out of breath and realizing that if he continues down this road, he may not see much of his children’s life unfold. By way of reaching out for help, changing his diet, and dedicating his energy to improve his life he turned himself into an incredible ultra athlete who completed the Epic 5–an annual event consisting of 5 Iron Distance Triathlons, on 5 Hawaiian Islands, in 5 Days. He wrote an amazing book chronically his journey, hosts a widely popular podcast “The Rich Roll Podcast” (which I am a dedicated listener), and now has a fabulous cookbook “The Plantpower Way“. Reading his books and listening to him talk to such a diverse array of guests on his podcast has really given me an idea of what the guy represents. His insights, personal successes and failures, and the information that is presented in his podcasts has had such a profound impact on my life.
After I read Rich Roll’s first book, I was thirsty for more. The next recommended book by Amazon after Finding Ultra was Eat and Run. This book by Scott Jurek tells his story starting as a young boy from Minnesota who worked his way up to being one the best, if not the best, ultrarunner in the world for a long stretch of time in the 2000s. Starting in 1999, he went on to win 7 consecutive Western States Endurance Runs, a feat that has never been matched. His story chronicled personal and family struggles as well as his journey to become a fully plant based athlete. Besides his success at the Western States, he went on to set numerous other records during his career.
- United States record for 24 hour distance on all surfaces (165.7 miles/266.01 kilometers).
- Won the Spartathlon 153-mile (246 km) race from Athens to Sparta, Greece three consecutive times (2006–2008).
- Won the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run (2007), and held the record time for one year until Kyle Skaggs set a new record in 2008.
- Won the Western States Endurance Run seven consecutive times (1999–2005), and held the record time (15:36:27 in 2004) until 2010
- Won the Badwater Ultramarathon twice (2005, 2006), and held the course record for two years (2005).
- Finished first three times (2002–2004) and second three times (2001, 2005, 2006) in the Miwok 100K Trail Race.
- Won the Leona Divide 50 Mile Run four times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004).
- Won the Diez Vista 50K Trail Run twice (2000, 2003).
- Won the Montrail Ultra Cup series twice (2002, 2003).
- Selected as UltraRunning Magazine’s North American Male Ultrarunner of the Year in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007.
I would also say that I am impressed with Dean Karnazes. He is a polarizing figure in the ultra community but for me he is a genuine person who has done very well for himself by sharing and marketing his experience. While many athletes are annoyed at the amount of attention he receives stating he was never the best runner in the sport, he has won many prestigious races and has some amazing accomplishments. After reading his books and watching/listening to interviews, he passes my test in terms of guy who is the real deal. Here are some of Dean’s feats:
- Ran 350 miles (560 km) in 80 hours and 44 minutes without sleep in 2005
- Single-handedly completed “The Relay”, a 199-mile (320 km) run from Calistoga to Santa Cruz, eleven times
- Ran a marathon to the South Pole in −13 °F (−25 °C) temperatures without snowshoes in 2002
- Ran a marathon in each of the 50 states in 50 consecutive days in 2006
- Winner, Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles (217 km) across Death Valley in 120 °F (49 °C) temperatures), 2004 (with five other top-10 finishes from 2000-2008)
- Winner, Vermont Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, 2006
- Overall Winner, 4 Deserts Race Series, 2008
- American Ultrarunning Team, World Championships, 2005, 2008
- 148 miles (238 km) in 24 hours on a treadmill, 2004
- Eleven-time 100-Mile/1 Day Silver Buckleholder at the Western States Endurance Run (i.e., better than ten twenty-four-hour finishes), 1995–2006
- Ran 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across the United States from Disneyland to New York City in 75 days, running 40 to 50 miles (65 to 80 km) per day, 2011
What I particularly like about Scott and Rich as well as Dean is they come across as humble yet driven men. They don’t seem cocky or have self-inflated egos. From all accounts, they are down to earth and enjoy sharing their experiences and helping others–qualities that I strive for in my life. While I may not attain such lofty accomplishments as these gentlemen, I draw inspiration and energy from what they have done and represent. What is important to me is that I continue to strive for that which seems beyond my reach, to challenge myself to be better at my life, and to be a father and husband to be proud of. I want my wife and daughters to see me in the light that I saw my idols as a kid and to truly be that person through and through. That is what drives me in life.