This past Saturday I raced the Speedgoat 50k in Utah. It's a mountain race put on by legendary ultra runner Karl Meltzer. Karl set the fastest known time for a supported Appalachian Trail run. He covered 45 miles a day for 47 days to set the record. The Speedgoat is his idea of a tough race and runs from 8000ft altitude to 11,000ft up mountain passes as steep as 40% grade. Many would agree that it is the toughest 50k in the US. My Speedgoat experience was one of the most successful failures I’ve ever had in running. I succeeded in failing for sure, but I earned an enormous amount of experience and knowledge I would never have gained otherwise. It was a tough call to run a mountain race I knew was going to give me a bad spanking. But, sometimes in life you need a good spanking. Here’s why I decided to run one of the hardest ultra runs in the world for my second ultra and why I think everyone who is capable should run one too.
On July 1st I sent this email out to Karl, Mr. Speedgoat himself who is also the race director for the Speedgoat 50k.
I'm thinking of signing up for Speedgoat. Very close to pulling the trigger. It would be my 2nd 50k. I'm a fan of yours and would love to try yours next.
Two reasons for trying:
1. I've signed up for Run Rabbit 100 and need something at altitude to see how I react. I’ve never raced that high and I'm coming from East coast sea level.
2. My 1st Ultra (50k) was Promise Land in VA David Horton race in April. The course profile is very similar (sans very high altitude) and I want to see how much I've improved since then on a similar course. See if my adjustments are working or if I need to do a lot more work.
Your race says it's the toughest and not to do it as a first 50k. What about 2nd? Am I too ambitious?
Karl’s response was awesome and supportive. My background and intentions for running were clear to him, but Karl’s idea of too ambitious is otherworldly. His resume as a racer and FTK runner had me curious as to what his idea of a tough race would be. Either way he knew what I was after and knew that I’d find out what I needed to know the hard way. Sometimes in life the hard way really is the best way. People are always looking for the smoothest, quickest route to success in life. Most people don’t throw their hat in the ring unless success is a sure thing or they know losing face will be at a minimum. In this case I knew both of these were going to be statistically high on the opposite side of the spectrum. I also knew that fatigue, pain, and danger were highly imminent. Despite this I signed up on the 4th of July and buckled down on training for three weeks.
The drive from SLC to Snowbird resort. High times.
I’m not completely insane, so I purchased an altitude tent and slept in it for eighteen days. I’d like to say it didn’t do shit for me, but I made it to twenty miles in a race that averages above 9000ft. The first lesson I learned this weekend is sleeping in a nitrogen rich, oxygen depleted environment DOES NOT simulate racing at 11,000ft in low pressure air. One must live and TRAIN at altitude to run an altitude race properly. Or at least I do. This was a sentiment shared by the race winner, Jim Walmsley (Hoka racer) who I happened to see at the finish line shortly after I had to drop out at mile twenty. The altitude had hit me hard at mile eight and despite backing off some I was hit with vertigo and had a hard time finding my balance and running in a straight line. It literally brought me to a crawl in places and stifled me enough me to have to stop before the next 11,000ft climb on the last third of the course. Traversing the downhill portions in this state was too dangerous so I dropped and took the tram down to the finish area, laying on the floor to ease the spinning. When I got to the finish line Jim had just finished and had a smile on his face. He would have beaten me by more than an hour if I kept on as he set a course record in 5 hours 4 minutes. I knew about Jim from researching ultra training and racing. I knew that he was an accomplished ultra racer and that he liked to run hard from the start to set course records. I also knew that he too had run Speedgoat as his second ultra race in 2014 and blew up as well. It was a unique feeling to be sitting next to him experiencing what he had felt just three years earlier. Seeing him now so happy and quite frankly self-amazed at what he’d been able to do was reassuring.
Photo credit to Myke Hermsmeyer @mykehphoto
Jim’s transformation as an ultra runner has been amazing. He’s set course records at some of the toughest ultra races and has come close to doing the same at one of the oldest and most prestigious of all ultra runs, the Western States 100. Jim has gone out on course record pace twice at Western States and failed both times. He had to drop out this year at mile 78 on his second attempt. Yet here he was just a month later breaking the course record in this incredibly tough 50k. I have to admit seeing Jim’s trajectory had me suspicious. He had transformed in a very short time. Seeing him up close as we ran the course in a tight pack for the first few miles had me even more surprised. He was relentless in pressure and pacing on the course despite incredibly steep and rugged terrain. His attitude and approach to racing is familiar to me as I prefer front running on the track. Front running on the track against the best in the world is tough, but in Jim’s case this weekend we were pressing up an 11,000ft summit with 40% grades. Jim pressed very hard fully aware of the fact that we had 22 miles still ahead of us with four more climbs of equal or worse ascents. He has a level of courage and recklessness that is astonishing. My attempt to run from sea level mostly unprepared was not dissimilar, but Jim had already done in that in his 2014 Speedgoat too. In 2017 here he was pressing forward again and this time he’d figured out how to keep going beyond his past failures.
Photo credit to Myke Hermsmeyer @mykehphoto
Jim recognized me as he sat beside me in the finish chute. He asked what happened and why I was there. He was surprised to see me. I explained what happened and he told me about how he suffered on his first attempt to finish in 2014. I shook his hand to congratulate him. But, after congratulating him I didn’t let go of his hand. Prompted by his amazing record finish and my past suspicion I looked him straight in the eye and said, 'Are you cheating?' Jim was stunned to have someone just ask him this question outright in person. He looked back at me as if to read my lips to make sure he had correctly heard what I said. 'What?' He replied. I said it again, 'are you doping?' He looked me straight eye-to-eye and without hesitation, without blinking and completely unflinching Jim gave me the most genuine response with a resounding no. The look on his face was so clear, authentic and adamant. Besides the initial look of shock at the question, there was also a wisp of pride. It’s a look and air that I know because it is one that I felt when I was asked the same question when I started finally having breakthrough performances on the track. It is a feeling of slight joy that you’re running fast enough for someone to ask you this question. I'm glad I had the courage to ask him athlete-to-athlete. Because now I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jim is the real deal. Sitting there person-to-person gave me the opportunity to really see what this guy was about. He had just finished a five hour race, he was exhausted and there was nowhere to hide. Whatever fronts people put up melt away at the finish line of an ultra. This was pure Jim unfiltered and I can say without any doubt that he is a bona fide badass of the highest caliber. I'm writing this because I personally feel the only way to eradicate doping is to generate an atmosphere of real respect and accountability between athletes. From there trust is built and maintained on a very intimate foundation. If you haven't figured it out yet, my respect for Jim now as a runner is second to none.
It didn’t take long for he and I to find common ground as we talked at length about running from the front and pushing the pace. The thing with Jim is he just does it on an entirely new level. It’s one thing to run hard from the front on a flat 5k knowing you only have two miles ahead of you. It’s something else entirely to do it knowing one has 80 or 90 miles ahead on the most challenging mountain courses people can create. Jim is a special type of runner and I think the entire running world should take notice. His skill and attitude is beyond many of the best runners I’ve raced in the world, Kenyan and Ethiopian alike. I believe Jim’s running will change the sport in many ways. For sure he’ll change the record books, but because of him I think other runners with an elite pedigree will give this type of racing a try. I can tell you though from my experience that these runners are in for surprise at how difficult this stuff can be. I actually don’t think it will be all that much of a surprise. I think they already know to some degree and that is why you don’t see them racing as much. It’s easier to save face and pain by not racing, even for elites. In my case I’ve never given a shit about saving face. I’ve cared mostly to find meaning through running. I’ll run whatever terrain or races that draw me in and offer that. Speedgoat has offered up a lot for me. I came in unprepared for the altitude with the intention of racing as a training run. I wanted to expose my weaknesses and find out where I fall against the best at this. To ascend higher you must crush your ego and be willing to fall. I did that at mile 20. Jim has done that time and time again. Falling short of his dream and losing face for it. That is why I love watching this guy race and why I’m a big fan now. He’s 100% legit and he’s pure guts. He’s far beyond a Prefontaine. He’s like Prefontaine’s older brother that used to beat his ass in wrestling matches on the living room carpet to toughen him up. That is if Pre had a brother. I ran faster than Prefontaine at 5k so I feel certified to say that.
I think what makes ultra runners like Jim and Sage Canaday so good is their willingness to fall into the abyss. They push themselves to a place of exhaustion that others can’t will themselves to. They do it enough to build a level of conditioning that seems impossible. You’d think they must be cheating. The amazing thing about ultra running right now is that pretty much all of these guys are the real deal. Hardly anyone is cheating. That’s what I’ve learned from this race. As fit as I am and as hard as I work, I have much more work to do. I’ve found my weaknesses and now I have to fix them before I race a big one again. I was willing to throw myself into the fire to burn away the ego and laziness and see where I need to put in work to be the best version of myself. That is why this failure was a success. You learn so much by pushing through in these races. Win or lose you learn to survive, to keep moving forward and just get over it. You learn to get over the next hill, get around the next turn and get past your last fail.
To have such incredible competition with such high ideals is a gift. It is something real, pure and wonderful to measure yourself against. Top to bottom, first to last, among men and women running it is all the same in this sport. The people are good and the ethic is very high. If you’re running for the same reasons I do, then I think it’s time you start running ultras while these guys and girls are still here. The sport is pure and mostly untainted. It’s time to come be a part of it while it lasts and find the limits of your recklessness. Jim Walmsley has helped extend mine already. Hoka is very lucky to have picked him up and kudos to them for stepping up to do so. They better take good care of him as Reckless Running would love to have him represent one day.
Jim told me post-race his mile PR was 4:04. I was very disappointed in myself that I had to stop on Saturday. So two days after the race I got a checkup with my doctor to look into the vertigo and chest pain I had experienced. He cleared me to run yesterday afternoon, so last night, with two days recovery after the Speedgoat 50k I ran a solo 4:05 mile. I missed Jim’s PR by 1 second. With Speedgoat as a reference for effort I was dissatisfied with my 4:05. So I ran another mile in 4:16 after the 4:05. It still wasn’t even remotely close to how I felt in Speedgoat. You can see the immediate results of how an ultra can change your perspective on your best effort. I’m better for it.
The local Davidson College track is currently blocked by steeple barriers, so I had to run this on the road on the first mile of a marked 5k course. It's my 'get my legs back' mile course. I plan to race a Mile or 5k in the next few weeks and then hit another tough trail race late August.