Four Top Ultrarunners Bare Their Souls

Boulder, Colorado has become somewhat of a mecca for ultra runners in recent times. You can head out for a trail run around Chautauqua Park or Green Mountain and stand a good chance of meeting one of the four top male ultra runners in the USA. The only problem comes that in order to chat to these guys you have to be able to run at their pace, which they may describe as “easy” at the time, but is still likely to be faster than an easy pace for most of us mere mortals! You can imagine the turnout then last Thursday evening, as Boulder Trail Runners, (host Buzz Burrell) had arranged to gather Scott Jurek, Tony Krupicka, Geoff Roes and Dave Mackey in an upstairs room at Sherpas in downtown Boulder for an informal Q&A session – to say the place was packed was an understatement!

Buzz introduced the evening, explaining that the 4 guys would first talk a little about themselves as individuals, then followed by a Q&A session with questions open from the floor. There was huge amount of expectant energy in the room as Scott Jurek was the first to speak.

Buzz introduced Scott as “The King of Pain,” a reference to the Runner’s World article on Scott in April 2010. I had met Scott once before at the tail end of a run back in October in Chautauqua in Boulder – he was running with Tony Krupicka down towards the Ranger Cottage as I was about to head back up on Mesa Trail to pick up the second group in my BOLDRUNNING entourage – at that time I hadn’t realized who the guy was with Tony – Tony introduced him as Scott; it wasn’t until afterward that I by chance came across a picture in a trail running magazine and realized who that guy Scott was! As Scott stood to speak, he was still laughing at Buzz’s words…

“I’ve been running Ultras for 17 years” – Scott reminded everyone in the crowd, as well as maybe himself. There was a short pause as this sank in…then drawing on the experience those 17 years have brought to him, he added: “You need to find something that keeps the fire alive. New training partners (glancing at the other 3 guys at the table with him) – find ways to keep it fresh.” He went on to say that his joy of running has always been there, and that he is exploring ways to keep that joy and passion alive. Scott radiates an energy that is infectious.

Next up was Tony Krupicka. I first met Tony in June 2006 when he came up to run the Estes Park Marathon. I recall looking at the shirtless runner with his cut down shoes at the start and thinking, “this guy is going to do some damage today.” I was at the finish line as Tony came in, running easy and looking very relaxed while also very pleased with his run. Afterward I asked him how the race had gone..”It was a good training run” he answered. He had just run 26.2 miles over a challenging course at altitude (average 7.500 feet) in 2.45. His course record still stands! I knew that day there was something special about this guy. Later that year he acknowledged that the race in Estes Park had given him a big confidence boost – he had used the race as a test for his fitness and race preparation. In August that year he ran Leadville 100 for the first time and won..the rest is history!

Buzz introduced Tony saying that he had come hotfoot from starring in Jesus Christ Superstar…Tony started by talking about what has become a legendary foundation of his training – running Green Mountain. In 2010 Tony ran up Green Mountain 296 times, an incredible record…he then asked the question that most people in the room probably had on their minds…what’s the secret? Tony shared: ‘It’s a sense of place – a relationship develops every day when you run a mountain trail consistently. I can draw on that whenever I need to. I feel comfortable in that environment, and performing becomes first nature. I draw upon my surroundings every day.”

Dave Mackey followed Tony. Dave recently won the USATF 100KM National Trail Championship in style, setting a CR at Bandera. Dave is known for being a mellow guy, and his self introduction followed that style. Dave is 41, so a year or two older than his colleagues around the table , a fact that they light heartedly reminded Dave about on several occasions. He started running trails 20 years ago – trail races at Breck and Leadville, then started running ultras in 2001. His main goal is “to keep it fun.” He enjoys running the occasional shorter races – whatever the distance his main love is being outdoors. Earlier in his life, he loved Nordic skiing and adventure races. An audible gasp went up from the audience when Dave proudly said that he had no injury in 12/13 years apart from a rolled ankle! How many runners, let alone ultrarunners, can say that! His weekly mileage may be half that of TK, Dave indicating that the schedule he follows works for him and allows him to balance training, racing and family!

Last up was Geoff Roes. He was sitting next to Tony at the table, and my mind couldn’t help but go to WS100 last year and the epic battle that had tipped in Geoff’s favor that day. Geoff opened with “this is the most intriguing thing – running is the one of the simplest things we know how to do – one step, followed by another step, followed by another – I think it’s important to keep a perspective on how simple it is.” Geoff also drew reference to TK’s high mileage training, adding that he also runs half the mileage that Tony does. He then went on to add that Tony’s strength is that he is realizing what he really enjoys, a sustainable, healthy relationship with running. Geoff added that there is a huge interconnectedness in the ultra community, with runners being open to learn from others and try new ideas, and then also be willing to let those ideas go if they don’t work for you.

Next came a round from each of the guys on what is next for them. Scott was first up again: “I’d like to see what I can do on the 24 hour world record!” A new challenge after his incredible new US record last year. The World Champs are in limbo – his biggest trail goal is Mont Blanc – itching to race after the cancellation last year. Scott drew huge applause when he declared that he is a Boulder resident, and that he loves training with “these guys” and gave thanks for his welcome to the People’s Republic.

Tony followed…with a wry grin he acknowledged Geoff’s victory at WS100, and then added with an even bigger grin that he would like to rectify that! He too would like to run Mont Blanc, a race that has been on his mind since 2007. He would really like to get over to Europe early, acclimate, really make it happen in 2011. “Euro runners are tough though!” He also wants to finish his degree and his thesis is due in Summer 2011 as well!

Dave Mackey said that his year “was still evolving.” He raced a lot in Winter / Spring. His win at Bandera in the USATF 100KM champs has given him an entry to WS100 in 2011. He then added he may not run, as he acknowledged he’s not a “heat runner.” He may try a 100 miler, Dirty in California – been talking with Geoff.

Geoff is enjoying “down time, “ having run 10 races in 10 months! He dropped out of the USATF 100KM at Bandera at 50K after running for a while with Dave Mackey..He’s been living close to Boulder in Nederland since August 2010 and really enjoys Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. He added there would be no focus on training until next month. Like Scott and Tony, Geoff also declared that he wants to race Mont Blanc, following last year’s cancellation. He’s in the Hardrock lottery – he said the final decision on races would be based on which ones will have the best competition at the head of the pack. Killian wants to come back possibly for WS100 – he thought it would be great to “get all of us on the same page”, something that drew great appreciation from the crowd! He’s also looking forward to spending summer in Alaska.

Then the questions opened up to the floor. The first question was on the Tour de Mont Blanc, and why is it so hard for US men to race there, and not women? Scott replied that we need more N Americans to go over to Europe, explaining that racing in Europe is very tough. European races are very different, with a lead pack of 20-30 runners heading off in a compact group – the level of competition is way higher than in the USA.

Next came a great question on where do you go mentally when you run? Tony opened and said that there is a difference for him personally between training and racing. When he is racing he is completely in the moment, associative, concentrating on his body, and what he needs to be doing. “Focus on pace, fluids, salt and calories – being attentive and adjust accordingly based on feedback.” Dave added that he “tries to think about anything but running – it sucks!” (Laughs from the audience!) He sets short term goals, just get to the next pole ahead – he focuses on whatever he needs to do to get him through.

Next question was a personal one for Tony, asking why he runs shirtless even when it’s cold? Tony answered that it’s only cold at night, and “I don’t run at night at Leadville” (big cheer from the crowd!) He explained that he just goes with whatever is comfortable and natural for him, and that means being shirtless most of the time. Tony also added that NB don’t seem to care!

Mike Sandrock, running author and long time Boulder resident, came up with a topical question – in the old days, races were clamoring to get runners to come and race – these days you often have to enter a lottery for example, just to have a chance to race? Scott answered on this one – “Our sport is growing – we have a sport that may only allow 400 runners in a race – it is very tight for RD’s and they are in a tough situation. It’s unfortunate that races often don’t cater for faster runners.” Scott added that he has to pay to enter the Mont Blanc race! The permit issues keep numbers down, and keep costs down.

Next question from the floor was that European racers are famous for ’shortcutting” – does it still happen? Scott bounced up and was eager to answer this one! He explained that there are key spots where “shortcutting” helped – where it is marshaled and you’re seen, a certain number of points are docked, and this has done away with most of the shortcutting. It’s pretty embedded in the culture in Europe. Personally, Scott said that he decided to “learn from this and come back a wiser racer.” Now the rules are changed. Eurostyle races are a lot steeper, and you run flag to flag, and can run the straightest route to the next flag!

Adam Chase, Trail Editor from Running Times, and serial adventure racer, asked a question that most runners have thought about at some time – is there already doping in ultraurunning? If not, when will it come? Geoff was the first to answer: “Based on numbers, it must be there. I don’t think it’s a huge thing, and it’s not going to be anytime soon.” The recent North Face 50 had a big purse – as more prize money comes into the sport this may become an issue. Geoff added, “For me – I don’t – I run for me. If others do, then that’s them.” (Big round of applause from the crowd.) Scott added that doping was a big issue in France, at least in terms of testing. He has been tested in 3 or 4 races – they seem to love to look at Americans! Zero prize money and they test. Personally, Scott thought that “until there’s more money, we won’t see it.”

Next came weekly mileage in training, a point that had already been mentioned in the introductions. Not surprisingly, first up was Tony. He said that 150 or 160+ miles was standard for him this time of year. That includes a later run each day that is an hour long and very easy, sometimes barefoot. Geoff said that he doesn’t do a certain mileage any more, he “goes on feel, and with whatever people are doing.” Anything between 60-120 miles per week – some tempo runs thrown in randomly as well. Dave opined that “he rarely does a 100 mile week.” The combination of schedule, kids, wife, life…means he has to achieve a balance. He “likes doing less – I don’t want to get tired.” Last summer (2010) he ran 40 miles per week – 2 out of 3 of those runs were slow. For Scott, this varies from year to year. With a background of Nordic skiing, Scott is used to having everything periodized, and with more structure. He added that he will run more trails now he’s here in Boulder. Peak mileage would be around 150 miles – he said that he has always wanted to run a 200 mile week, but hasn’t achieved that yet! (Maybe training more with TK will help him achieve that goal?) He goes for a peak and then tapers back down to 110 miles. He will “hop on track or roads and also do some quality sessions. Lastly, “he likes to get in a good climb every day! ”

Then followed a question about what are your core motivations – why do you do it – especially ultras – is it an organic expression of being? Tony came with a hilarious answer that had everyone in stitches – “to lose weight mostly!” Then came the serious answer: “Nothing compares to the kinesthetic feeling of running on a trail; it becomes habit and ritual, bound up in my identity. There is a chemical side to this – it feels unbearable when I can’t! Even when I get injured I feel better being outside.” Tony’s response then moved to a typically honest and open exposure of how he feels about racing: “Racing is 90% ego – I wanna beat these guys!” he said as he looked around the table at the other 3 sat with him. “Racing takes you to a different place – it’s not cuthroat with us, it’s a community thing.” Geoff was obviously moved by Tony’s words, and admitted that he “felt kind of lonely after running a chunk of WS100 with Tony to then run the last 8 miles on his own.” The main thing for Geoff is “to get outdoors, for it to become enough of a habit, to move through nature in pleasure. In an 8 hour run, you can get to places where you feel no-one has ever been. for me 80% or more is enjoyment.”

Dave Mackey also acknowledged the role that ego plays in the sport – he saw it as “30% ego, and 60% adventure”. He also added that “there is a dark part of it that I don’t really understand, connected to personal issues. The other 10% come from something that really drives me.” That response brought a follow up question – do you think it’s helping you resolve those issues? Geoff added: “It’s important to understand it, acknowledge it. At the beginning I was really defensive, I didn’t have much of an answer for why I raced.” Scott chimed in: “Straight up ego! I do it for a number of reasons – sometimes to answer questions about myself.”

The next question neatly turned the evening on it’s head – we had all come to listen to these guys that are at the top of their sport, and win races – the question was, has anyone finished last, and what advice do you have? A wry smile came over Dave’s face, and he delivered his response with perfect comic timing: “I finished a triathlon last – my advice is don’t do a triathlon!” Scott added: “I finished dead last at a skiing race once – I think it’s important to be happy wherever you are – to have the right attitude or tools to be able to be flexible and objective about your outcome.” Geoff was grinning broadly and I wondered what his response would be to this one – I wasn’t disappointed: “I finished last in a steeplechase once. I knew I had no chance so I ran the first lap or two at a ridiculously fast pace, blew up, and then got lapped by everyone. I was having fun with the occasion – you need to find a way to have fun.”
(I later found out that Jennifer Cline asked this question. She had heard stories of how Scott waits at the finish line for everyone to come in, and that he suggests a group should go as fast as the slowest runner..)

Next was a question on training – do the panel recommend hiring a trainer / coach, or just getting out and running? Scott jumped in first on this one: “It varies; if you’re new to running, then hire a trainer. If you just want to learn about the sport, then surround yourself with people you can learn from.” Geoff added: “There is a level you need to get to before you can run further or faster – you can get there quicker if you hire a trainer or coach.” He also backed Scott and said that it was important to surround yourself with like minded people. “Once you have the basics figured, yo can be your best coach.”

I had been wondering what impact training together at times would have on these guys when it came to racing. My question was: When you train together you’re helping each other out – when you race is there a situation where you would stop and help your competitor? Tony fired straight back with, “I just want to beat these guys!” Geoff added: “Competing, and winning, against these guys is most satisfying. I want to beat these guys more than anybody. But then it’s friendly competition – if it was something serious, I would stop and help.” He went on to explain that at Bandera he had been having a tough race, and Dave Mackey put on a surge knowing that, going on to win while Geoff dropped at 50K. Dave had also suggested to Geoff to get some ginger at the next aid station – friendly rivalry!

Next question was, what do you want to be when you grow up? Tony chipped in with “a Geography student. My dream ‘job’ is to work for a non-profit that is saving the world!” Geoff added that he has had no day job since August, and that “he’s figuring it out.” Dave wants to be a physicians assistant. For Scott, it’s a physical therapist. “I want to continue being a student of life, whatever that may be…and be open to change.”

The panel was then asked if there should be a 100 mile championships? Tony thought “it would be great – it’s what the public want, as well as the runners.” Geoff opined that “it was bound to happen eventually.” Scott added: “It is really important; look at what has happened with triathlon as a result of Kona. We need to keep the tradition of Ultras going.”

What is your favorite race? Scott gave 2 answers on very different continents: Hardrock and Mont Blanc. For Tony it was the White River 50; for Dave the Miwok 100K, and for Geoff the Crow Pass in Alaska – a race in the great outdoors with no aid stations.

The last question was who do you see as the next generation of ultra runners in the USA? Scott said that it was Tony. Tony responded that Dakota Jones was definitely a name to watch – he’s already at the top and he’s only 20!

Lastly, each of the 4 runners had a round up on their thoughts about the evening and ultrarunning.
Geoff opened: “It’s been fun to be here. It’s been very cool to share my running with the caliber of runners here.”
Next up was Dave: “Keep it fun. Don’t go too deep into the reasons why – keep focused on the long run, and follow your heart.”
Then Tony: “In the past year I have been more healthy than I’ve ever been. I am in this for life; it is not all that I am though! I draw on the intrinsic motivation I get from running.”
Lastly, Scott: “There is no perfect anything. It is wonderful to explore on trails, and to make it part of your lifestyle. Sometimes fun is working your butt off. Find your passion, latch on to it, and run with it!”

It had been an amazing evening with 4 of the top ultra runners in the USA sat around one table with 200 attentive listeners. It would have been great to have Nick Clark along as well..maybe in 2012? I also had the chance to talk to Scott a little about his planned book that is due in 2012. He said that it would not be a runner’s program kind of book, but that it would include information on his vegan nutritional philosophy and how that has impacted not only his running, his life as well. He described the book as being mainly biographical. I for one am looking forward to the release of Scott’s book – I dare say I won’t be alone…

Many thanks to Buzz and BTR for arranging this incredible evening, and to Pemba and his team at Sherpas for providing a warm and welcoming place to meet, as well as some of the best food in town! Special thanks also to my gorgeous wife Jacqui for taking the pics and for surviving a packed night in a small space!

Footnote – Geoff Roes has just been announced as UltraRunning Magazine’s men’s ultramarathoner of the year. Geoff pipped Tony, with Zach Gingerich edging Nick Clark for 3rd place.
About Terry Chiplin

Terry Chiplin - Owner, Active at Altitude
Terry describes himself when people ask as an athletic experience facilitator.

He has an extensive background stretching back over nearly 20 years as a health and fitness consultant and personal trainer, and more than 15 years as a running coach. He has been a runner and cyclist for >30 years and have encouraged and inspired many people he has been in contact with to become physically active. He has been fortunate to have worked with athletes of all levels, from Olympic competitor to rehabilitation patients. Terry's studies and life experience has given him a unique ability to motivate and inspire athletes of all abilities – he truly believes in the unique incredible potential of each and every athlete that he works with and will be creative in assisting everyone achieve that potential.

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