You probably know an ultrarunner, and not just the ones you read about in Born to Run. The sport has grown significantly in recent years as more marathoners ask what’s beyond 26.2 miles. In D.C., ultrarunners hide in plain sight, working for the government, opening donut shops, or practicing law. They infiltrate your road marathons, casually enjoying a bagel while you’re trying to stomach another gel. They’re your colleagues, your neighbors, your friends. And if you’ve been thinking about taking on these more extreme distances and conditions, they’re your best resource for getting into the sport.
The ultra club
With some 635 members, 20 events, and three major races per year, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club is the hub of ultrarunning in the D.C. region.
“We’ve been here right from the start, sort of being a driving force to have events and runs that appeal to everybody,” said club president Alan Gowan.
The club has grown in the last few years as younger runners join the sport, and the club has adjusted to fit members’ interests. That includes partnering with the D.C. Capital Striders on a weekly trail run in Great Falls Park.
Striders President Rick Amernick has come to admire ultrarunners’ tendency to mentor one another.
“A lot of [Striders] (who) had never thought of doing an ultramarathon caught the bug because you’re running with people that sign up for these races, 50k, 50 miles, even 100 miles,” he said. “Some of our runners have completed those races over the last several years strictly because they were encouraged by the runners who they saw on a regular basis [who] said, ‘Hey, why don’t we train together?’”
Lauren Masterson, president of the Washington Running Club, came out to Great Falls while training for her first 50 miler this year. She turned to ultrarunning as a way to stress less about her road marathon times, but she still felt timid before her first run.
“All these people are gonna be so hardcore and they’re gonna be jumping off rocks and just blazing through these trails,” she remembered worrying. “And a lot of them are,” she added, “but they are so welcoming. They have this great Facebook page where people post questions and you’ll get like 10 responses and it’s just been so informative.”
“It’s a real close-knit group,” agreed Tom Corris, a 15-year VHTRC member, “and it’s cliche to say that we’re all family but yeah, we’re pretty damn close to it.”
More cowbell, please
In April, at the finish line of VHTRC’s Bull Run Run 50-mile race, runners rounded the final turn, greeted by the clatter of a cowbell. Kids toddled alongside their fathers to the finish, where race director Alisa Springman greeted them with a high five, handshake, or hug. Volunteers tugged perforated timing stubs off of race bibs and handed out t-shirts. Two-liter bottles of soda lined a picnic table in the finisher’s chute, but the good grub was up a hill in the Chow Hall, where members of VHTRC dished out chili, brewed coffee and shot the breeze.
“You don’t want to disappoint anyone,” said Springman, who has run the race herself 10 times but was directing it for the first time with her husband. “You know what your experience has been like as a runner and it seems seamless, so you want to provide that for the same reasons, so other runners experience that.”
For 350 runners, she recruited a team of 150 volunteers to support the race in rain and even an unseasonal burst of snow.
Like many others, she called the community “tight-knit” and “family.” In a race like the Bull Run Run, she relies on volunteers to make the event run smoothly, but she also relies on the runners to watch out for one another. “You don’t have to spend weeks and months and days and years with a person on the trail to get to know them very well,” she noted. “Oftentimes, an hour or two on the trail where you’re really open and connected to things emotionally, you share a lot more and you feel much more connected than you would otherwise.” This isn’t just talk for her, either; Springman and her husband met at a trail race. “It took off from there!” she said.
The D.C. Scene
Most people don’t think of major urban areas when they imagine trail or ultrarunning, but the D.C. region does not lack for training routes. In Rock Creek Park, more than 30 miles of paved and unpaved trails wind between commercial and residential neighborhoods of Northwest D.C. Great Falls has another 15 miles in Virginia, and across the river, the C&O Canal Towpath runs past miles of detours on its way to Cumberland. In a relatively short drive, you can reach the Shenandoah or Massanutten mountains, Harper’s Ferry or parts of Pennsylvania.
“You would never know that there’s opportunity for trail running here,” said Larry Huffman, who found VHTRC in early 2010 and ran a 50k within the year. Huffman lives in Tyson’s Corner, the rapidly urbanizing suburb just two miles from Great Falls. He runs to the Wednesday night workouts.
Although our mountains are a bit less majestic than the west coast’s, decorated marathoner and ultrarunner Michael Wardian sees a lot of upsides to living here.
“It’s not ideal to live in a major metropolitan area if you want to be really successful (running) in the mountains,” he said. “But it’s possible. You just have to work a little harder.”
Wardian has been known to train with his treadmill at its maximum incline to prepare for races out west, although he regrets that he can’t mimic the brutal descents that follow those climbs.
Like many of us, he stays here to be close to friends and family and the D.C. food scene. When he travels for races, which he does often, he can choose from three airports and virtually every carrier, making his trips more flexible and cost-effective. His friends in Montana don’t have that luxury.
“I feel like it’s worth that kind of tradeoff to be able to get all the perks that we have living in a place like this,” he said.
Wardian has raced around the world and has seen a lot of terrain, but he settled pretty quickly on the destination most like home: Costa Rica, where in 2014, he won the 225k Coastal Challenge Expedition race through the rainforest.
“The climbs aren’t super big and the trails are super duper similar to the U.S. […] That was really neat. I felt really comfortable on those trails,” he said. Most notably, the climate is “kind of like our summer heat. It’s like soupy, hot, humid, which is great for me but a lot of other people from different climates like the Northwest or West Coast kind of suffered. That was something that made me feel at home.” Endlessly optimistic, Wardian has found an upside to some of the worst traits of D.C.’s weather.
VHTRC member Josh Howe of Chantilly gushed about the Instagram photos of a friend who recently moved to Colorado, but he has no plans to leave just yet.
“It may be expensive to live here,” he said. “Traffic may suck awfully bad, but we have some pretty awesome trails around here. Within an hour you can be in the mountains.”
The ultra effect
Even if an ultramarathon doesn’t spark your sense of adventure, ultrarunners generally agree that thinking or training like them can make a difference at shorter distances thanks to the improved endurance, nutrition habits and mental toughness that come from their training regimens.
“You can use that speed that you get in a 5k, 10k, half-marathons, marathons to be able to have a quicker turnover and be a more efficient runner in [ultramarathons],” said Wardian, who turns up for shorter races around the city when he’s in town. “Then you can use that strength and power and discipline that you have from doing the longer stuff to be even that much of a stronger, more competent runner in shorter stuff. I think there’s a nice balance.”
Ultrarunners also develop an ability to eat real food on the run and a highly articulated sense of their nutritional needs. When Josh Lasky started training for his first ultra, he would buy a Chipotle burrito and try to eat it during the workout. “Bit by bit, bite by bite,” he said, “you take that burrito down.” With his stomach acclimated, he can sustain himself on slow-burning whole foods for most of his races, then get a boost from sugar and caffeine to power him to the finish.
“Nutrition is paramount in getting through these things,” Masterson said, who trains mostly on nutritional drinks but likes to grab some potato chips and soda during races. “I’ve seen grilled cheese,” she said of the aid stations, “They have little sandwiches, salted potatoes, french fries; it’s like a junk food fest and it’s awesome.”
If you do decide to take it on, ultrarunning can shake up everything you know about yourself as a runner. “Whatever you run on the roads really doesn’t matter,” Masterson said. Between technical skills, extreme conditions, and the sheer duration of the event, ultrarunning requires a totally new approach to training and racing. You cannot go fast and gut it out. Your GPS probably won’t work; even if it does, your mile splits will be at the whim of the next hill. Your supplies will disappear, your headlamp will die, or your feet will blister; something will go wrong despite your best planning. You will feel soaring highs and profound lows and you will learn to eat when you start crying. If you’re capable, you will keep going, pushing on to find out what physical or emotional boundary you can crack next. This is not a sport people do for fun in the moment; if anything, they do it to feel the pain, to endure it, and to find out who they are on the other side of it.
“[Ultrarunning] brings you to a place of resourcefulness and being uncomfortable in a way that you’re not in your normal, everyday life, where you’re very pampered and everything is accessible and problems are relatively mild and quickly solved,” Springman said. “So a little existential, but there’s something kind of primitive about that, I think, to just get back to something more basic, where the only thing you have to focus on is moving forward and all the other noise and distraction is gone.”
Lasky has a philosophical take that he’s mulled over the course of many miles. “I think the reason why ultrarunners do what they do is because they don’t have the ability to imagine it and they’re not satisfied with the imagination alone…” he said. “It requires a willingness to come face to face with your own mortality, your own limitations, your own strength.” Lasky took up the sport after several years caring for his disabled father as well as a lengthy recovery from a broken ankle. For him, ultrarunning is a test of his limitations and a display of gratitude for his own mobility.
“You’re gonna be in your head a lot,” Amernick said, “I feel like crap, I can’t believe I’m doing this.” He recalls his first 50-mile race last year; at mile 40, he blurted out to a volunteer, “Why do people do this?!” At the finish line, he announced, “I’m never going to do this again!”
Within a few hours, he was asking, “When’s the next one?”
“And that’s what happens,” he said. “That’s what happens. This experience has basically embraced you. You don’t realize it at the time but maybe a day later, a week later, you can look back and go:
“Oh my god, that was amazing.”
Even after 50 miles of running, Zach Miller was still happy to be out on the JFK 50 Mile course.
For a guy who spends five months at a time at sea, the latest champion of the east coast’s big fall ultramarathon doesn’t take any time on land for granted. Miller, not to be confused with 2003 runner up Zachariah Miller, is based in Columbia, Pa., but that’s just a place his junk mail shows up while he’s on the boat. Results
“It’s good and it’s bad,” Miller said about his job operating printing equipment on cruise ships. “I’ve gotten to run on five continents and I’ll be able to do South America soon, but I really can’t get fast running 10 miles a day on a treadmill.”
That didn’t stop him from pulling away from Ultra Race of Champions winner Rob Krar somewhere between mile 33 and 38 and cruising to victory in 5:38:53, the third fastest time on the course and the youngest, at 25, under 5:40. Krar did not finish the race. Matthew Flaherty of Bloomington, Ind. was second in 5:44:37 and Arlington’s Michael Wardian, he of two marathons in a single day earlier in the week, finished third in 5:55:37.
“When they said I was going to come in under 5:40, I couldn’t believe it,” Miller said. “Only two guys had done that before, and one was Max King (2012 winner and course record holder at 5:34:59).”
Miller’s job affords him months-long vacations, and this one included a road trip to Nevada for the USATF 50k trail championships. A sixth-place finish helped convince JFK race director Mike Spinnler to let Miller into the race, though he didn’t decide on it until a few days before.
“I got the okay but I really had to think about if I really wanted to do it,” he said. “A 50 mile is a lot different from a 50k. I had never run more than 35 miles before.”
Whatever pre-race worries seemed quaint in retrospect of a race that came together “perfectly.” He took the 13 miles of alternating road and technical Appalachian Trail easy, cautiously navigating the rocks.
“I wanted to make sure my ankles came out of it,” he said. “I was falling back, but there was plenty of race left.”
When he and Jason Wolfe hit the C&O Canal Towpath for 26.3 miles, they took down the pace, but Miller considered that he might be running on borrowed time, though it was Wolfe who didn’t finish.
“I thought if we kept sub-6:00 pace up too long, I might blow up by mile 25,” he said. “I was working pretty hard, but once I caught up with Rob (Krar) and found out who he was, I was just happy to be up there with him. I was floored just to be in a position to be second to him.”
Miller didn’t know the kind of lead he had, or that Krar had dropped out, until he hit a tight turn with a little more than eight miles to go. On the rolling hills headed into Williamsport, Md. he tried to reconcile some of the splits he got from escort vehicles, 6:15 for one mile, with the fact that he had never pushed his body that far in a race.
“I was in the great unknown,” he said. “I was just seeing what I could do at that point, it felt like it was all adrenaline. I nailed the nutrition, because you have to take a lot of food to keep going. I think I had a banana at every aid station and my homemade gu.”
Oddly enough, the former Rochester Institute of Technology 10k runner might be well suited for ultra running because of his job situation.
“I don’t have the opportunity to train for a fast marathon, but I can get really strong,” he said. “When were at port, I go out and run because that’s my chance to get off the treadmill. If we’re in port for four hours, I’ll go run for four hours. Norway, South Africa, I just go out and run mountains.”
Warren County, Va. native and Flagstaff resident Emily Harrison might not have matched her time from her ultramarathon debut last year, when she dipped under the old course record coming in second to Ellie Greenwood, but she still managed to race with a commanding lead and capture the title that eluded her before.
“I felt a little off from the start,” she said. “Even leading up to the race, I knew I wouldn’t be as fast but (coach and habitual JFK runner) Ian Torrance said I could run in the 6:30s, so I just focused on getting the win.”
Her 6:35:05 was nothing to scoff at, because it was well ahead of Frederick’s Sage Norton‘s 7:14:03 and Boulder’s Kara Henry‘s 7:17:37.
“I just didn’t drop my pace on the canal this year,” she said. “I did get to see my parents and grandparents driving along the canal and thought to myself that I’d get to see them in a few miles.”
Those were just two of the 863 runners to finish the trek between Boonesboro and Williamsport, run the day after the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Erik Price hasn’t had his pick of great days in either of the ultras he’s run this year. The Oakton resident tried his hand at the Northern Virginia North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in June, which saw hot muggy weather demolish the field. At JFK, temperatures in the upper 30s and lower 40s, which took a hit at mid-day were accompanied by a constant headwind. That’s coupled with the long, consistent stretch on the towpath, made Price somewhat wistful for the sweltering North Face conditions.
“Running that far on a flat course, you use the same muscles, make the same motion for so long,” he said. “People told me JFK was a tough race but I didn’t see it, looking at the elevation chart. Now I know.”
The conditions hit Reston’s Andrew Simpson hard, but he managed what he called a “great race” despite all of it.
” I think I was close to hypothermic,” he said after recovering from his 39th place finish in 7:29:32.
“Somehow I sprained my ankle along the way but didn’t notice until I stopped and tried to walk around the gym at the middle school,” he said. “Definitely an epic day for ultra-marathoning. I would think that JFK would have been very proud as the course tests you both mentally and physically.”
Simpson’s Team FeXY finished second in the men’s open category to Pain Train.
Lara Shegoski finished fourth on the women’s side, hundreds of miles away from where her Johns Hopkins University cross country teammates were celebrating their second consecutive Division III women’s cross country national championship. Shegoski spent a week out of training with the flu and getting back into the swing of training wasn’t easy.
“My coach said I could try to get back into shape and run one more race, but I figured it was time to move on,” she said. “I spent the summer not running because of ROTC training, so I wasn’t in shape for college racing.”
The ultra distance, though, worked out quite well. In a race that would make Aristotle proud, she just ran without a strategy or preconceived notion about the race, her mind a blank slate. That led to a surprise midway through the race.
“I thought I’d run nine hours,” she said. “I was running with two other women and one of them mentioned we were on sub-7:30 pace. Once I heard that, I started getting a little worried, so I stopped looking at splits.”
She finished in 7:20:45.
Eugene resident Emily Halnon signed up for the race while living in Washington, D.C., but she found her new training environment rocketed her into an optimistic mindset for the race.
“You have great trails, and great runners of all kinds,” she said. “It’s not just “Track Town.'”
She took the Appalachian Trail section carefully and managed to emerge unscathed.
“I fall in road races, so that was really big,” she said. “But it meant a lot of people passed by me.”
She emerged onto the towpath in 26th place and worked her way up to seventh by the time she turned onto the road, holding that place to the end.
Triathlete Alyssa Godesky of Baltimore had a breakthrough race, running 7:38:20 on her fifth JFK race for sixth place. Her previous best was around 8:05. She was the second woman to reach the towpath but found her pursuers running faster than she thought was sustainable for that long a race.
“I tried to hold on but I saw my Garmin putting us in the low-eights (pacewise) and I knew that wasn’t my plan, so I let them go,” she said. “I know what I’m getting myself into, I guess. I was excited to race an ultra now that I know how to race, triathlon definitely taught me that. I used to do ultras trying to go fast, but I have a different mentality now.”