Friday, October 28, 2011

Winter and Mountains

The winter is fast-approaching and, for many, it's the time of year to retreat to the indoors and hibernate. Not me! While winter has never been my favorite season, I nonetheless try to embrace and make make the most of this time of year. I usually hold my running mileage to about 70 a week throughout the winter and am out there every day going at it, unless it's icy or below zero, in which case I run on a treadmill. Over the years I've found that proper apparel is critical to enjoying outdoor winter activities. If you wear cotton on a run in January, you're going to be cold and miserable. Especially with winter gear, it's worth it to buy decent stuff.

This winter I really want to enjoy what Colorado has to offer, starting with our mountains. I'm really excited to join a good friend of mine, Matt C., in summiting Quandary Peak, a notable 14,265-foot mountain near Breckenridge, in a few weeks. Matt is a superior skier and has bagged a few 14'ers in his day, so he'll be great company on this winter expedition. We've literally known each other for about 31 years now and we're also both two-time finishers of the Leadville 100.

Anyway, earlier this year a friend sent me a photo of someone he knew summiting Quandary in the winter. I've never forgotten that photo--it really stuck with me and created this burning desire to do a winter summit. Here's the photo:

Those little dots? Those are people. Yes, when you consider that the dots are people, it really puts into perspective how big these mountains in Colorado are. So long as the weather cooperates, that'll be Matt and me in a few weeks!

There's some gear I'm going to need for our Quandary expedition. First off, I'm going to need a pair of serious gloves that are both warm and wind-proof. I'm also going to need some decent winter boots and socks fit for mountaineering. I've looked on and REI and have seen a few I like. Matt's going to loan me a pair of his snow shoes (which boots fit into) so I can get a sense of what I like and don't like before buying some for myself. I've heard there's as much as 60 inches of snow up there right now! I already have trekking poles, a ski mask, a nice coat, plenty of high-quality layers, a day pack and other essentials. Let me know if you have any recommendations. Beyond gear, though, the most important thing I will need I already have--desire and fitness!

There is nothing quite like standing atop a 14,000-foot mountain. You've worked hard to get up there and your reward is a view like no other. You feel like you're on top of the world. This is how I felt for both of my Pikes Peak summits and my Mount Evans summit and I'm sure it's how I'll feel when Matt and I reach the top of Quandary. These 14,000-foot mountains we have here in Colorado are the reason I've always wanted to live here--and a big reason why I wake up every day feeling lucky. My dream is to one day summit all of them...and I will! My greatest dream, though, is to hike these mountains with Anne and Noah. Hopefully next year, when he's old enough, we can all ski (but first I need to learn how!) and then in a few years maybe Noah will be ready for some hikes at altitude. 
Here's to the many joys of Colorado living! And here's to YOU embracing the winter and making the most of the many unique opportunities it offers!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Interview with Phil McCarthy

Phil McCarthy is one of the top time-based runners in the world today. A native Nebraskan now living in New York City, he has run almost 70 ultramarathons since 2002, winning a total of 17 races. In 2009 and again in 2011, Phil won the highly competitive 24-hour national championship, held in Cleveland, Ohio along the banks of Lake Erie. He was named to the US 24-hour team from 2007-2011 and has automatically qualified for the 2012 team. In 2007, Phil became the first American man to place in the top 10 at the 24-hour world championship race, finishing fourth. He has run over 150 miles in three different 24-hour races. In May of 2011, Phil broke the American record for 48 hours, held by John Geesler, logging 257.34 miles. He has also finished twice in the top 10 at the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling 135-mile race across Death Valley held in July. On the trail, Phil has buckled at the Western States and Vermont 100s. Beyond running, he has a strong passion for music and is a classically-trained pianist.

Phil in en route to his 48-hour record in May of 2011.
WH: Phil, thanks for agreeing to this interview. So far I've talked with mountain ultrarunning specialists Karl Meltzer, Nick Clark and Geoff Roes (note to reader: at the time of this interview, I hadn't yet interviewed Mike Morton). It's nice to shift gears and now focus on a guy who has dominated the 24- and 48-hour scene for a few years. On that note, a few weeks ago you ripped off 153.37 miles, winning your second 24-hour national championship in Cleveland at the very competitive North Coast race. What are your thoughts on the race and what does yet another national championship mean to you personally?

PM: Thank you, Wyatt! I love running the 24-hour national championship. I've run every one since 2006. It's always highly competitive, with the best runners around, and also a great chance to meet up with other 24-hour junkies. Dan Horvath (race director) does a really good job with North Coast. I love the course – 0.9 miles, flat with a couple of gentle hills, and Dan and his team take good care of the runners. I was feeling good going into it, and even though Serge Arbona and Mike Henze and Mark Godale of course have better PR's, I was feeling pretty confident that I had as good a chance to win as anyone. I actually started out shooting for 160 miles and was on pace for quite a while, before slowing down a little as night fell. I didn't reach that goal, and fell about a mile short of a PR, but I stayed in front from start to finish, holding off a strong challenge from Mark in the middle hours, and finished with a good total of 153 miles. 150 miles is a big mark, and I'm not sure, but I think I'm the first American to get 150 miles three different times. But winning the national championship is a huge thing for me—a way to put my name in the books, and not many people have won more than once. That said, big congratulations to Connie Gardner for winning her third! It also gets me on the team to run in the World Championships in Poland next year.

WH: I've found through personal experience that going 24 hours around a 1-mile hard-surface loop is a whole different animal than running 100 miles on a trail. You've done lots of different kinds of ultras, from the Western States 100 and Vermont 100 to many of the big 24-hour races. In your mind, what are the similarities and differences between the two types of events (trail 100s and 24s)?

PM: The similarities are just the basics of running: technique, body position, foot placement, stride, as well as hydration and nutrition, clothing, coping with weather, etc. For the differences, there are two different elements: trail vs. road and fixed-time vs. fixed-distance. I do prefer roads because I can get a smooth, efficient stride going without worrying about the surface. How your foot meets the ground is so important, and on a road you have much more control. The hard surface of pavement doesn't bother me at all – it's possible to develop a technique that minimizes the impact.

Fixed-time races also have a different set of challenges than fixed-distance races, especially point-to-point (Western States) or single loop (Vermont). Running a mile loop over and over can be very tough mentally, for sure, especially when there's no finish line and you're out there indefinitely, as far as distance. But the advantages are that you pass by the aid station and your own supplies every mile, and it eliminates distractions and it's easier to focus in on your own running and what you need to do to keep going. It's something that I've gotten good at, and I guess is well-suited to my personality and way of thinking. Besides that, a lot of the ultras in the New York area are fixed-time or otherwise short-loop repeat courses, which goes back to the beginnings of modern ultrarunning in the 50's and 60's, so I'm very proud to be carrying on that tradition.

I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about 24-hour races or other fixed-time races. Runner's World wrote a very derogatory article a couple years ago, and a lot of people think we have a screw loose. Even other ultrarunners sometimes seem to see it as an eccentric fringe of the sport, but I think it's just that to a lot of people it just doesn't sound fun. But fun is subjective, and in the end, it's all just running.

But I loved running Western States, which was my first 100, back in 2005, and Vermont, and I'd love to run more of the big mountain trail 100-mile races, even though I wouldn't be as competitive in them. (But on the flip side, a lot of the best 100-mile runners have crashed in 24-hour races.) But the costs and logistics of traveling to them make it tough. And my priority has to be where my strength lies, especially for national championships, world championships, or other international races or record attempts.

2011 24-Hour National Championship in Cleveland, Ohio
WH: I remember that Runner’s World feature (read it here)—I agree that it was quite derogatory and I almost canceled my subscription. I do think 24-hour races are fun. There’s a whole mystique about them—the closed loop, the tent city, the little community that forms over the 24 hours.

PM: Absolutely. I was just so shocked to see something like that from a magazine that supposedly promotes the sport of running. I think a lot of people dismiss these kinds of events too quickly. They really are a lot of fun!

WH: Indeed. They are fun...but challenging to say the least. That said, it's hard to imagine running for 48 hours straight...much less at record pace. But that's just what you did earlier this year when you set a new 48-hour record with 257 miles, besting John Geesler's record of 248. How much harder was 48 hours than 24 hours, and did you ever take a rest?

PM: This race, Three Days at the Fair, in Sussex County, NJ, was my third 48-hour race, and I was shooting for the record – with John's encouragement – at each one, starting with Surgeres, 2008. I did well there with 235, didn't get the record, but I learned a lot. It was a lot like a 24, but it hurt a lot more afterward, and it was hard to get moving again after a 15 or 30 minute nap. On the upside, I could relax the pace and didn't have to push the speed. My second 48 was Across the Years this past December, and I pulled out halfway through with worries about my Achilles - but I learned from that, too.

So for Three Days at the Fair I was so determined to get the record, I simply put mind over matter and kept my focus on what I needed to do as far as pace, technique, nutrition, all the basics. It took a huge amount of mental energy to stay awake and alert the whole time. I took, I think, four rest breaks when I would lay on the ground (or once on a park bench) for 5-10 minutes with my feet slightly elevated and close my eyes. I didn't dare fall asleep because I didn't have anyone to wake me up, but I just needed to give my feet a rest and to shut my mind down for a little bit. But I came out of each of those rests feeling very refreshed. Other than that, and stopping to put on warmer clothes at night, I didn't stop at all. The best part was it didn't feel hard at all. I was able to even pick up the pace the last couple of hours, and I could've kept going and going! My feet hurt for a while, but joint pain went away quickly and I had almost no muscle soreness at all! I'm very proud of this race, not just because I got the record, but because everything came together, my plan was perfectly-executed, and I came through it not just in one piece but feeling good at the end.

WH: In my only 24-hour race to date (the 2009 North Coast 24, which you won), I saw lots of different strategies. I saw people deploy run/walk strategies. I saw others totally going on feel. A few just wanted to get to 100 miles and then whatever happened beyond that was gravy. When you're in a 24- or 48-hour race, do you have any particular strategies?
PM: I start with a goal mileage that is ambitious but reasonable, for example 160 miles at North Coast. I split that up into 12-hour splits, 85 and 75, then 6-hour and 3-hour splits, measured both in minutes per mile and minutes per lap, taking into account some slowing but trying to keep the middle 12 hours as consistent as possible. For me, the key is to settle into a pace and a routine that I can sustain for the bulk of the race. Of course, once I get off-track and my goal is out of reach, then I go more by feel! I haven't been as disciplined lately about walk breaks, but I think maybe I should get back to that. For the 48-hour, John's record was an even 400K, so I came up with a plan to reach each 50K by a certain time, and I even left an extra hour at the end for safety. That time, everything did work and I broke 400K with about an hour forty to go. Different things work for different people, nothing works all the time, and everyone has different goals, but this gives me a framework to start with at least. It also helps mentally to break it down into recognizable chunks, because if you've been running ten hours and all you can think of is that you have 14 hours to go, it's too overwhelming and you'll drive yourself crazy!

The 2010 US 24-hour team. Phil stands to the far right.
WH: This is great information that I’m sure will be helpful to our readers. When I did the North Coast 24 in 2009, I fell into the trap of drinking every time I went through the aid station, which later caused me to pee an annoyingly high number of times, slowing me down. Big mistake! Do you have a nutrition strategy in time-based races—as far as when, what and how much to eat and drink?
PM: I actually do drink something every lap, at North Coast and at other races with loops of similar length. I think it’s vital to staying hydrated, and I usually require a brief pit stop every three hours when things are running smoothly. But nutrition has been a weak point for me in some races in the past, mostly because I don’t have the appetite for food with enough calories or nutrients to keep me going, all I really want to do is drink. So lately I’m relying more on Hammer drink products and other drinks that give me more liquid nutrition, and that’s helped. I’m also taking a cue from Marshall Ulrich who said that in his cross-country run he didn’t drink any water, only drinks with calories, so I’m moving a little bit in that direction. Basically, nutrition is still something I’m working on and experimenting with.
WH: Does your passion as a musician ever find its way into your running, or are the two pursuits totally separate?
PM: I believe that every aspect of my life finds its way into my running somehow, but my musical training is an especially significant factor I think. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance, so for years I was practicing four hours a day or more, and it required a lot of work that to some might be considered very tedious. But keeping in mind the big picture, what you hope to accomplish, helps give you the patience needed, and when you understand how the long hours of training contribute to your goal, the work is something you’re genuinely happy to do. And the long hours of practicing do require muscle strengthening and pushing beyond a state of muscle exhaustion, just with different muscles. So in many ways it’s a lot like ultrarunning. Besides that, I think the inner, soul-searching nature of creating music has been a big influence on the way I run – more of an inner, soul-searching manner, which could explain why I’m better at short loop or fixed-time races. Or maybe they just both stem from the same part of my personality.
WH: You are on the board of the American Ultrarunning Association. Looking at ultrarunning today and where the sport may be heading—as we see bigger and bigger prize purses, sketchy participation among elites in national championship trail races, the threat of performance-enhancing drugs and other looming factors—is there a role the AUA can play?
PM: Yeah, with prize money I think our top prizes have finally caught up to the sport of competitive eating! Seriously, you’ve brought up a number of important topics. The sport is growing I do think there is a role the AUA can play to help on a number of issues, and we are always evaluating that. I can’t give you any details at this time regarding what we might or might not do. The USATF also has a big role of course, by designating national championship races and selecting teams for world championship races, certifying records, among other things. But you have to remember that a lot of ultrarunners have a very independent spirit and don’t necessarily place a lot of importance on nationwide (or international) institutions. I think a lot of runners don’t even know there is a 100-mile national championship. We can try to do what we can for runners, but we don’t want to squash that spirit either. As the sport grows, I think it will be increasingly necessary to provide a sort of home for ultrarunners and race directors where they can get reliable information, perhaps some guidance, and give them a voice.

WH: As a former East Coaster who moved out West a few years ago, I’ve experienced two very different ultrarunning cultures. A sport that traces its roots to road races and time-based events now seems dominated by the big mountain ultra races. Is this something you’ve observed as well and, if so, what are your thoughts on the cultural/geographic divide in the sport?

PM: I haven’t spent a whole lot of time out west, but I agree that there seem to be two different cultures, or traditions. If there are more people running the mountain trail races, that’s not a bad thing at all, it’s just the way things developed. But it depends on what you mean by “dominated.” What would be bad is if road running or fixed-time races were neglected or overlooked, especially since that is how our sport began. (That’s why I do get a little defensive about things like the Runner’s World article.) As it is, track ultras, which were once one of the foundations of ultrarunning, are now very rare. I think all ultrarunners, especially serious ultrarunners, should know the history of the sport, they should know about people like Ted Corbitt, and races like London to Brighton, the 50-mile national championships on Staten Island, and check out the Ultrarunning Hall of Fame on the AUA web site. I also think everyone should at least try out a type of race outside of their comfort zone (if you can call any ultra a “comfort zone”). I think they would be better-rounded runners for it, and it could benefit the sport by helping to bridge the cultural/geographic divide. That’s why I’m especially impressed by those runners who have really excelled on both trails and roads, people like Michael Wardian and Scott Jurek, Connie Gardner, Jamie Donaldson and Annette Bednosky, among others.

Generally, regarding the east/west road/trail issue, I’ve recently read blogs and forums where people think there should be two versions of UltraRunning Magazine, two Ultrarunners of the Year, etc. But I disagree. We need more unity - it can only benefit us all. For one thing, the trail/road or east/west distinctions are not always so clear. And let’s not forget about the Midwest, the South, Texas, etc. For another thing, most runners, and every single ultrarunner that I know personally, runs both road and trail races, even if they favor one over the other. But it’s a big continent, it’s not easy for a lot of people to travel across the country, the landscape is different in different areas of the country, and there are cultural and societal differences beyond our sport, so there will be differences. The differences can enrich us, as long as there’s mutual respect.
WH: Earlier you mentioned the 2012 24-hour world championship in Poland. Recently Mike Morton ran 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic and, in an interview I did with him, he seemed to express some interest in being on the US men’s team (if asked and if his schedule allows). You’ll obviously be on the team and I’ve heard Scott Jurek (American record holder for 24 hours) will be, too. That looks like a pretty formidable unit to me. Do you have any ideas who the US will be sending to Poland for the worlds?

PM: Those who have automatically qualified are Connie Gardner and Deb Horn for the women, and Serge Arbona (based on last year’s national championship), myself and Jonathan Savage for the men. The rest of the spots will be filled based on performances from March 2011 to June 2012, so Mike will certainly earn an invitation, but Scott will have to run another race to qualify since his record-setting run was too long ago. Sabrina Moran had an amazing race in Philadelphia this summer, and she’s definitely a young runner to watch. Harvey Lewis and Lisa Bliss had great races at North Coast that might earn them invitations. There are still more races to be run, so we’ll see how it all sorts out. The cancellation of the 2011 world championship was a real travesty and a lot of runners and teams might have missed a golden opportunity. Still, it does look like we’ll have great men’s and women’s teams next year, so I have high hopes.

WH: You’re the American 48-hour record holder. Are you going to gun for the American 24-hour record (currently 165.7 miles)?

PM: Believe it or not, I’ve been gunning for it since 2007! Back then it was “only” 162 and change (Mark Godale’s record), and now Scott put it a little farther out of reach, so I don’t know. I do still think I’ve got a 160 in me, so we’ll try for that. But I seem to do better the longer the distance, so I’ve been giving some thought to the 6-day. That’s another animal altogether, but the Sri Chinmoy race is right in my backyard, so I suppose I’ll have to try that sooner or later.

WH: Phil, thanks again for talking with me!

PM: Thank you, Wyatt!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Random Observations and What I Think about Ultrarunner of the Year

I think it's possible that I'm done with big races for the year. My time off from work for the rest of the year (especially with the holidays approaching) is very limited and so traveling for a key event is going to be tough. Plus, I'm just not motivated to travel right now. I will still do some shorter stuff, such as 5K, 10K and half-marathon races. The only race out there I would drop anything to do is the Across the Years 24-hour, but a scheduling conflict stands in the way.

This video nicely sums out why I love Leadville so much...and why I'll be toeing the line for every LT100 my body lets me run.

Hoka One Ones might be the worst thing that ever happened to me. They're so soft and comfy that they've rendered my other shoes quite uncomfy. So why is that bad? you ask. Well, Hokas go for about $170 a pair. Yikes!

Stay tuned for an interview with Phil McCarthy, who recently won his second 24-hour national championship and is also the owner of the American record for 48 hours.

On Saturday night I paced George Zack for 15 miles at the Boulder 100. This was George's first 100-miler and he did a really nice job, finishing second overall. I had a great time out there and was honored to join many others in helping GZ achieve his goal. The Boulder 100 is a no-fills course that's an out and back along the Boulder Reservoir. The route is a mixture of pavement, dirt and gravel and is pretty flat. I see it as a course built for a fast time. Anyway, the takeaway is this: If you want to do a 100 and have never done one, pace someone before taking the plunge. I had never paced anyone before my first 100 and I wish I had.

Last week I tallied 70.52 miles, including 31 miles on Saturday alone. I'd like to stay right at 70 miles a week for the rest of the year. I'm going to end 2011 with about 3,600 miles--kind of a down year mileage-wise but, then again, my foot injury from last summer and fall had me starting out slow this year.

A few nights ago I dreamed I was in the Western States 100. I've contemplated entering Western for a few years. I knew the itch would eventually need to be scratched and hopefully next June I'll be lining up at Squaw Valley Ski Resort for 100 miles of fun, followed by the Leadville 100 seven weeks later. Unfortunately, the lottery system makes entry in Western pretty difficult, so I'm trying not to get ahead of myself. But right now it's hard not to be giddy by the thought of running in that historic race.

I'm watching the Leadville Race Series website like a hawk, just waiting for LT100 registration to open!

Now for the good stuff.... A lot of people in the blogosphere are talking about Ultrarunner of the Year and who should bring home the honors. This is a North American award, meaning it goes to the top male and female ultrarunners from the US and Canada. Which is to say a guy like Kilian Jornet is ineligible. Whatever. Until the award is expanded to an international athlete base, it is what it is. Looking at the North American ultrarunning landscape, it seems to me Dave Mackey and Ellie Greenwood get major consideration.

In ultrarunning, the one-size-fits-all approach doesn't apply. Would Kilian beat Dave Mackey or Michael Wardian in a 100-mile mountain race with altitude? Probably. Would Dave beat Kilian in a 50-mile or 100K race? Probably. Who would win in a 50K or 100K road race--Kilian, Dave Mackey or Michael Wardian? Easy--Wardian. Would Kilian stand a chance against Max King in a 50K trail race? I'm guessing not. If Kilian were in a 24-hour race against Phil McCarthy, who would win? Probably McCarthy. What I'm getting at is that I don't really think one event is superior to another, regardless of mileage involved. I think a 2:50 50K is just as impressive as a 14-hour 100-miler. In ultras, you have specialties. Rarely can a guy or gal do them all really well.

Races that I really want to do before I'm too old to run:
  • Western States 100 (see above)
  • Hardrock 100
  • Wasatch 100
  • Bear 100
  • HURT 100
  • Across the Years 24-Hour
  • Spartathlon (153-mile race in Greece)
  • Comrades

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Trying to Figure Out the Rest of 2011

I've been so busy lately with "journalistic"-style blogging that I haven't really provided any updates on my own running.

Last week I hit 70 miles for the first time since the Leadville 100. Prior to last week, I was at 60 miles per week and feeling pretty good. I'm doing one tempo run a week and am feeling great. My legs are turning over nicely. The longest run I've done since Leadville is only 16 miles and that was last Saturday.

I'm really stuck in the mud as to what big race I may do in the coming months. I'd like to do the California International Marathon on 12/4, but that would require a day off from work and my vacation time right now is very limited--especially with the holidays approaching. So I don't know what I'm doing. This weekend I'm running in another 5K and, while I like 5Ks (and am pretty good at them), they don't really get my engine going. I thrive on racing 100-milers and marathon PR efforts and everything inbetween!

The problem is that I'm not really motivated to travel for a race right now. Stay tuned for whatever is next for me in 2011. Maybe I'll get the itch to travel for a race, but right now the itch isn't there.


My spring/summer 2012 calendar is still a little fluid--due mainly to upcoming lottery results. Here's my dream/optimal scenario for the spring/summer:

January - Ponderous Posterior FA 50K
February - Training
March - Georgia Marathon
April - Cheyenne Mountain 50K
May - Training
June - Western States 100
July - Training
August - Leadville 100
September - Bear 100
October - ?
November - ?
December - ?

I'm not going to count on getting into Western States, which means this might be the more probable schedule for 2012:

January - Ponderous Posterior FA 50K
February - Training
March - Georgia Marathon
April - Cheyenne Mountain 50K
May - Jemez 50M
June - Mt. Evans Ascent
July - Leadville Trail Marathon
August - Leadville 100
September - Bear 100
October - ?
November - ?
December - ?

I really hope I get into Western States!

You may have already read my interview with Mike Morton. If not, click here to read it. I'm really proud of this interview...maybe because Mike is hugely inspiring to me. I have an eye for a good story and, when I saw what he did at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour, I felt like I'd struck gold.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Interview with Mike Morton

In the film “The Natural,” Roy Hobbs is a baseball prodigy destined for greatness. While en route to his Big League tryouts, Hobbs visits a carnival, where he strikes out a mighty slugger reminiscent of Babe Ruth, shocking onlookers. Roy predicts one day people will pass him on the street and say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best who ever lived.” Tragically, injury shatters Roy’s dreams before he ever got his shot. Years later, he returns to baseball, a no-body his teammates call “gramps,” and leads them to a pennant, capturing the glory that had once slipped through his fingers.

If the cinematic Roy Hobbs tale seems unlikely or even far-fetched, consider the story of ultrarunner Mike Morton—a story of prodigious talent befallen by injury, of disappearance from the sport, of a jaw-dropping comeback.

L-R: Courtney Campbell, Dave Horton and Mike Morton.
Mike and Courtney had many epic battles back in the mid 1990s.
It all started 14 years ago in Northern California.

June 28, 1997. To those closely associated with the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, that day is summed up with one name: Mike Morton.

Going into the ’97 Western States, it didn’t matter how talented this 25-year-old kid was, or even what he’d done back East at races like the Old Dominion, Massanutten and Vermont 100s. This was the Western States 100, where only Californians won. Or so went the conventional wisdom of the day—conventional wisdom Morton, despite a serious hip injury, stomped all over with near-reckless abandon.

As Morton, a Navy diver from Stevensville, Maryland, blazed through the hot, arid canyons, no one thought the 5’4”, 145-pound speedster, who’d dropped from the previous year’s race, could hold his breakneck pace. Morton will be toast on the California Street trail, they said. When that didn’t happen, they said he’d be done by the river crossing. But Morton wasn’t listening to his naysayers—not on California Street, not at the Rucky Chucky River, not anywhere.

“I was fortunate enough to watch Mike come through highway 49 and then again at No Hands Bridge,” recalls Craig Thornley, who’s been involved in Western States for several years. “He looked so fresh as he pranced across the bridge in daylight. It was beautiful to watch.”

When Morton ran his victory lap at Placer High School and then blew into the finish line first overall at 8:40 PM that Saturday night, he did so in a most spectacular fashion. Not only had he broken Tom Johnson’s course record by 14 minutes with a stunning 15:40:41, but he became the first non-Californian to win Western States.

Just when it seemed Morton had reached the top of his sport, it all came crashing down.

“Morton would never return to Western States again,” Thornley reflected a few years ago. “Where are you, Mike?”
Morton and Campbell in a race back in their primes.

Last weekend, Mike Morton let the world know where he is--and that he's back and maybe better than ever. Now 40 years-old and 14 years removed from his epic Western States record-setting win, Morton ran 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic, a hilly trail race in North Carolina with 16 bridge crossings. He came within 1.8 miles of the American record, held by Scott Jurek, who set the record on a flat, hard-surface course. Morton battled 90-degree heat and heavy congestion in spots. This wasn't his first big 24-hour performance. Last year, he nailed over 153 miles at Hinson, but it wasn't until last weekend that the ultrarunning world really took notice of his return.

I'm excited to have caught up with Mike for this interview.

WH: Mike, thanks for talking with me. I first heard your name in 2007 or 2008, a few years after I took up ultras. During a Sunday morning run with the Cleveland Southeast Running Club, I remember Mark Godale and Tim Clement talking about your legendary 1997 Western States 100 win. On that day, you not only broke Tom Johnson's record, but also became the first non-Californian to win Western States, a once unthinkable feat. What was that day like, and did you realize at the time the magnitude of what you'd just accomplished?

MM: To be honest, the non-Californian stat was not really something I concerned myself with. I didn’t see how it could be such a large factor. It is not like going to altitude or to run an unmarked course. East coast weather is always very humid so I think going West made it easier really. That was an amazing day--one of the rare times when everything just goes well. I had some great folks crewing me and helping and that made it even more memorable. I’m still very proud of that day and the work that went into making it all come together.

Morton en route to his 163.9-mile performance at the 2011
Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic.
WH: My understanding is that shortly after your Western States course record you experienced some injuries that more or less derailed your career. What happened?

MM: I had been having some hip issues that caused some pain. I dealt with it as long as I could but it became very hard to train. I eventually had a bursectomy of the right hip as a last ditch effort to relieve some of the pressure and hopefully resolve the nerves from being pinched. It didn’t work, and still to this day I have to make sure I warm up and not start out too fast. I have issues when I increase my stride length or run at a faster pace. At the time, I decided to accept an overseas tour (in the Navy) and focus on healing and see what would happen.

WH: Now, 14 years after your historic Western States win and at the age of 40, you've busted out an amazing 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic, a trail loop course with some 16 bridge crossings and more than a few hills. I also heard the heat index was around 90 degrees. Tell me about what went down at Hinson Lake over the weekend--because I think a lot of people are quite interested.
MM: About two years ago I decided I wanted to set a goal for myself and pick a race/run to focus on. About the only thing that lined up with my schedule and was close to home was Hinson Lake. I switched from the Navy to the Army in 2001 and have been very busy. I’m gone a lot and, when I’m home, I don’t have the chance to travel much, so Hinson Lake was the perfect venue for me to focus on. Last year I learned a lot about the miles later in a 24-hour run! This year I was able to be prepared mentally for the challenge of telling myself after 120 miles that I still had 30 more to meet my goal. This year I didn’t focus on what was left to meet my goal; I just focused on what was working and keeping me moving forward. Also last year I was over-trained. I had been running 150-mile weeks for about 5 months. This year I didn’t plan on running anything. I came home from overseas and had the chance to enter Hinson Lake again and I took advantage of it. I had been getting in about 70 to 90 miles a week for the last 5 months. I was in better shape last year but on the fine line of being injured due to overuse. I think the body responded better this year later in the run. I think I could train a bit more if I planned another race. Between the two Hinson Lake runs I have learned a ton. I think it was just one of those days where things go good.

WH: You seem to have evolved into a runner who, like Matt Carpenter, excels on just one or two big races a year; whereas many elites are running in six or seven big events annually. Do you plan to stick with this approach or maybe start racing more often?

MM: I would love to make it to races more often! The problem is balancing a military career, a family, and everything else we all deal with. The military has been my priority. It has been a tough decade for our country and that [military service] was and is more important to me. In the near future, my family and I are moving and I will have a more 9-5 job. I think it will give me the chance to look into the future and feel comfortable committing to a race. I dream about doing some of the 100s. I have always loved the challenge of 100-mile trail runs! The guys that are running at the top these days are amazing. I’m always shocked at the depth at races all over and the number of races. Maybe when I retire I will have time to get back into more races, but, until then, I will just take advantage of the chances I do get.

WH: Getting back to your hip injury, was it the result of over-training or an injury?

MM: I fell while at work and that was the start of it all. In hindsight, I should have taken more time to recover from the fall but I got back to running when I thought I was ready. I think there was a lot of compensating going on and it just took its toll.

WH: Were there ever moments when you thought your running career was over? I guess what I’m wondering is if what we’re seeing now is a story about beating the odds.

MM: I never really thought I would come back to a high level. Every time I tried to increase my mileage my hip and back would hurt. I think what helped me was being preoccupied with new challenges and the focus I was giving to the military. I wouldn’t call it beating the odds. I’m at a time in my life when I want to focus on running again. I never thought running would be as fulfilling as it was back in the 90’s, but I now know never to take a run for granted, because you never know when it will be your last run.

WH: If you’re able to at this point, can you tell me where you’re planning to move?

MM: We are moving to Lithia, Florida, which is just east of Tampa. Our plan is for three more years in the Army and then I will retire with 25 or so years of service. We all like the weather there and it is a great place for our daughter to grow up.

WH: Are your best years as an ultrarunner behind you…or ahead of you?

MM: I think it is all relative. It is hard to compare what I did 14 or 15 years ago to anything I’ve done lately. I had it made back then! The Navy was great for having time to train and it was easy to predict when I could go to a race. That is not the case now! I recognize that my obligations to the Army are the priority. So with changes in the near future I think I will have time again and also some control over my schedule. I hope the best years are ahead!

WH: Is a return to Western States on the table? If so, describe what you think it would be like standing on that starting line all these years after the record.

WH: I would love to go back. I can’t tell you how many times I have been overseas in June and tried to convince myself I’m on the course there instead of some .9-mile dirt road or a treadmill. Western States is a special place because it is the father of all the 100’s. I have been trying to work any 100 in but timing has not let it happen yet. The sad thing is I don’t even know what the qualifying requirements are!

WH: All you have to do is just finish a 100 or a 50 to qualify for Western States. With your Hinson Lake time, I would imagine you're qualified! But you have the lottery to deal with--the odds of getting in these days aren't so good! More relevant to your abilities, though: You can also get an automatic bid into Western States through a win at one of the Montrail Ultra Cup races.

Let's talk about racing. When you’re in a big race, what’s going through your head?
MM: I have learned a lot about myself in the last ten years. I know not to focus on the big picture in a race. I focus on what I can affect and control what I can control. Sadly, I have learned to always plan and expect the absolute worst conditions and you will never be disappointed and you will be adequately prepared. I’m sure we all think about the same stuff when we're in the “doldrums”: family, work, guys who have had their last run, politics, humanity….

WH: One last question. Looking at the rest of 2011 and into 2012, what’s your race schedule look like? Would you consider joining Team USA for the 2012 24-Hour World Championship?

MM: I committed to the team last year but the lack of fidelity of when and where brought the support I was getting at work to an end. I’m sure with the position I’m heading to that any opportunity to represent our nation will be embraced. I would make it my mission to prepare for that run. Last year I was very motivated with the idea and that helps when you need to run twice a day and get in 150 miles a week. It is hard to sustain that effort without the motivation of a race, so the two complement each other.

WH: Mike, thanks so much for this opportunity!

MM: I've enjoyed this opportunity. Thanks!

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