From Thru Hiker to Ultra Runner

When I got back from the AT last year in early October, I started looking for something to do in my free time. Something that would challenge me as much as hiking did. Something that would push my mental limits and utilize the condition my body was in after hiking 2,189 miles. I figured running was probably as good as anything, but I knew I didn't enjoy running on road, so I started going to my local Metro Parks here in Columbus to get some miles on the trails. The feeling of running with dirt, roots and rocks beneath my feet rather than asphalt or concrete reminded me of hiking, in turn flipping the switch for my love of running. 

Prior to getting home from the AT, I had never run more than a 5k and definitely didn't enjoy it. Sure, I sometimes ran on the treadmill to get cardio in or something like that, but by no means was it something I wanted to do. I had done a few 30+ mile days, plenty of 25+ mile days, and sustained those miles for days on end, so I figured if I could hike that at 3mph+, I could probably run those distances with some hiking mixed in at a much faster pace. I started looking into some Ultra Marathons (anything over 26.2 miles) in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park area and settled on the Run for Regis 50k that was taking place in early February.

I had around 14 or so weeks to train, so I signed up for it. My motivation went through the roof right off the bat. I picked up a pair of Hoka Challenger ATR 3's, an Ultimate Direction SJ 3.0 running vest, and hit the trails pretty hard for the first few weeks. I put in the work and by the end of December, I had ran my first 10+ mile stretch without any walking. Not only that, but it was at a respectable pace of around 10 min/mi on trail. Not too bad, eh? 

After the honey moon phase wore off and I realized that I was going to be running 31 miles, I began to lose a bit of interest and dialed back my training. Actually, to be quite honest, I went into complete shut down and stopped training all together.

About 3 weeks of absolutely no running led me to the starting line of my first 50k. My brother and his girlfriend drove me up to the Park because honestly I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to use my legs afterwords. We got there in the early part of the morning pre sunrise. The ice formed a layer across the grass and the breath emitted by mouth seemed to linger in the cold air for longer than normal. I went in to get my race packet and jacket and waited. I didn't know a single person that was racing, so I kind of just made small talk with some people that were waiting. 

Going into the race, I felt fairly confident even with my lack of training, but arriving to the starting line and hearing everyone talk about their past races, I immediately felt inexperienced, and truthfully, a little out of my element. 

I chatted with my brother a little bit before they called us to the start, and I can vividly remember him being completely and utterly astonished that I was about to run the race. It was frigidly cold, 31 miles was a long distance, and the thought of running for 7 hours was pretty ridiculous both to him and I, but clearly I couldn't back out at this point. An air horn went off in the distance and that was my signal to head to the starting line. 

As I walked to the start, I wanted to make sure I was in the middle of the pack to get a sense of pace and how the race would go. Again, I had never raced in general, let alone this distance. The first 3 or so miles I ran middle pack, alone with my headphones in. Around that time though the course opened up to a field and the next thing I knew there were a few guys running the same pace as me and we kind of struck up a small conversation. The guys I began talking to were Jeff and Matt, two seasoned Ultra runners who were quick, determined, and out there for the pure joy of it. They both love running and participate pretty heavily in the Ultra Community. We got to talking and I explained to them that this was my first race ever and that I had recently just finished the AT. They both snickered and laughed. It was ironic that I never ran before, but had just hiked the AT. They were as impressed as I was confused about the race up to that point. The next thing I knew, we had arrived at the first aid station, pressed on to the second, and the third. I had spent the last few hours of the race completely lost in thought, conversation, and grit. I was feeling good, fueling even better, and surprising myself with my endurance. Up to that point, my longest run had been the 10 miler that I did. I couldn't believe that I was already 2/3 of the way done with my first ultra. 

Then I hit mile 23. The mile that I couldn't run. The mile that I hiked at a 3mph pace. The mile that Jeff and Matt stuck with me to push me into the next aid station. I was exhausted, sore, ready to be done, and not prepared for the last stretch. I didn't have a specific pain or ache or anything. I was just exhausted and tired. I had never run that far before. I had never pushed my body to that extent. Even on the 30 mile days I pulled on the AT, I was able to rest and take breaks as needed. I was only walking, and let me tell ya, running is much, much different from walking.

I got to the aid station at mile 27? and was prepared to stop. With only one loop left, I had done more than a marathon and was satisfied with my effort. I told Jeff and Matt that I didn't want to continue, and they didn't leave until I got up and started running again. 

The community within Ultras is overwhelming. Everyone sticks together and motivates each other. It's a family. I picked up my feet, determined to finish at that point, and crushed the last loop, finishing in just under 7 hours and accomplishing my goal of not only finishing, but finishing sub 7hrs. What a feeling of success and excitement as I crossed that finish line. My brother was waiting for me when I got there, and I honestly couldn't control my emotions. I was exhausted and for the first time since the AT felt content with myself and my effort. Joy, pain, and pure uncontrollable bliss filled my heart and I lost it. That was the closest I've come to feeling the same way as I did when I stood on top of Katahdin. Pure, unadulterated bliss. 

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I was hooked.

Onto the CDT:

From the time I finished my first 50k to when I left for the CDT this year, I ran frequently, but didn't follow any specific training plans as I wasn't prepping for a race. I was doing everything I could to get in shape for the CDT, as big mile days are pretty much needed right out of the gate. I went vegan as far as my diet was concerned. I picked up rock climbing to do on my off days of running, and by the beginning of June, I was feeling pretty ready for big mile days and what the CDT had to offer. 

Fast forward to July 7th of this year. I began my hike in Glacier National Park at the Chief Mtn. Border Crossing area with Lavender and Sonic, two friends I had met through the AT. We had permits for 6 nights in Glacier, and being a National Park, you have to play by their rules. We kept our pace pretty moderate for the first week as we got back into the routine of hiking everyday. By the end of the first full week, we were consistently pulling 20 mile days. Some turned into 25+ mile days, while some even clipped the 30 mile marker. I was in much better shape at the start of this trail than I was last year on the AT, and I immediately recognized that. 

One month and 757 miles later, my average daily mileage was just below a marathon per day. 

The more I hiked this year on the CDT, the more I began to think about actually pursuing some longer distance races in the off season. A lot of the time on trail, I would maintain a 3.5-4mph pace with a bit of jogging here and there, especially on the downhills and flats. The idea of running a 50 mile race, or a 100k for that matter began to probe my thoughts. I wanted to see how far and long I could push my body in the right conditions. Thru Hiking by no means equates to the right conditions to do those giant, sustained mile days, but I figured I'd give it a shot at some point during the hike. 

After we went through the Winds and I recovered from giardia, Mayor and I decided it was time to try a 24 hour push, with a goal of pumping out at least 60+ miles in that time frame. We left town at around 6:30 A.M and hit the trail around 7:00 or so and set off on what would be my longest day on trail, and in general. I wasn't sure what to expect once I passed mile 35, as that was my biggest day up to that point, but I was as ready as I was going to get. 

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From dusk till dark felt like a normal day on trail. We crushed as we normally did, stopping every few hours to rest, eat, and drink as much as possible. I was feeling quite good physically and even better mentally. We hit a water cache that had gatorade in it at mile 35, and continued to press on until around mile 37 when we set up for dinner and to watch the sunset. 

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From mile 37-47 of our push through the Great Basin of Wyoming, things continued as normal. I busted out my headlamp, and stayed pretty steady as far as pace was concerned. Mayor was a bit behind me that stretch and as I came to the next water source, I waited and watched Mayor stroll in with his headlamp illuminating the trail in front of him. When he arrived to the source, we filled up and sat down; our biggest mistake during that night. We immediately began playing out scenarios that involved sleeping and hiking significantly less miles than we wanted. As the plans started to be put into effect, we both realized what was happening and began to hike again. We didn't want to sit still for too long, but we were exhausted at that point. 

From mile 47 to 63, when we finally called it a day and slept for 3 hours, exhaustion, hallucinations, and just pure insanity took hold. We meandered on throughout the night, no longer needing our headlamps due to the full moon that was overhead lighting up the trail in front of us. We heard coyotes and wolves howling. We stumbled upon a heard of cows that frightened us beyond belief, and hit our last water source of the night at mile 55. The spring was located within a wooden fenced in area, and as we approached we could see our buddy Mousetrap sound asleep in his tent right next to the source. I immediately began to fantasize about sleeping, and before I knew it, I was sitting down with my pack on, in my shorts and rain jacket, slowly dozing off into a deep slumber. With Mayor sitting next to me, he realized that I had literally fallen asleep for a few seconds and somehow managed to motivate me enough to get up and continue on. 

The last 8 miles actually flew by. We ended up passing a power plant in the desert that had a fence around it with horses running wild beyond the fence itself. As we rounded the corner and hit our goal of 63 miles in under 24 hours, we both knew that sleep was around the corner. We found the first flat spot, set up, and fell into a deep slumber. 

3 hours later I was awake, roasting in my tent from the desert heat. My legs worked, but hardly. I was sore, tense, and extremely dehydrated. We gathered our things, packed up, and got to the next water source.  A spring hidden in a pile of cow shit with cows gathered around isn't the most eye catching source, but nonetheless, we filled up, drank, signed the log book that was next to the Batchi Ball set and kept hiking. Over the next day and a half, we hiked another 37 miles with a full nights sleep in the middle. 

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As we pushed into Rawlins the following morning, we were both in disbelief that we had just hiked through the basin in essentially 2 days. 

My thoughts were running wild with anticipation of running another ultra when I got home. Not only was I ecstatic to compete again, I was looking to step up my game and enter a race that was maybe a little out of my league.

Next step:

Enter the Georgia Death Race; probably my most idiotic move to date. I signed up for the lottery, got in, and all of a sudden I had a 68 mile race with 40k of elevation change waiting for me at the end of March 2018. I couldn't believe that I had gotten into the race itself, but also that I was going to attempt such a thing. Sure, I did 63 miles in one go in the desert with a pack on, but the elevation was minuscule compared to the GDR that I was now going to be participating in. 

Along with the GDR, I'll be running the Winter Buckeye 50k here in Ohio at the end of January, the Run for Regis 50k in Feb, and tons of training runs in between. 

My confidence level is far beyond what I initially thought it would be when I started this endeavor a year and a half ago. Personally, I think thru hiking can translate quite well to trail running, and Ultras specifically. The mileage is important, but time on your feet is more important. Thru hiking teaches people to be patient. To listen to your body. To fuel your body as needed. To push your mental, physical, and overall limitations that are probably arbitrary to begin with.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts:

If you can hike 20 miles in a day, you can probably hike 30 miles in a day. If you can hike 30 miles in a day, there is a very HIGH chance that you can run a 50k. 

Think about it, no heavy backpack weighing you down. An aid station that provides drinks and food every 6-10 miles. Other people cheering you on and motivating you to continue. Really, running a 50k which is 31 miles, can be easier than hiking a 31 mile day because of those reasons. I think a lot of people doubt their ability to run because they don't enjoy it. I found joy from running because it was the only thing I felt that pushed me like thru hiking did. It was and still is the only form of exercise that can be attained at home that is as fulfilling as thru hiking. 

I like covering big distances. I like pushing my limits and finding where my boundaries are. I love being on trail, covered in dirt, sweat and grime, and embracing it. I absolutely love being at my breaking point and pushing past it.

For anyone reading this wondering if they can run an ultra, or should, do it. You can and will accomplish your goals if you put the time and effort into it. Thru hiking has led me to places I never thought I'd end up, and at the finish line of a 50k is most certainly one of those places.

Fuel your body correctly, train if you feel the need or want to, but pick up your trail runners, hit your local trails, and hike or run. It's all about being outside and enjoying what nature has to offer anyways, so why not right?

Honestly, I want people to pursue their passions and find other ways to enjoy trails other than thru hiking them. I want people to get motivated. I personally need to be motivated, and reading and writing my own thoughts and progressions helps with that. Ultra running is truthfully not much different from a huge day on trail during a thru hike. Like I said, if you want it, you can get it. You are capable. 

Gear Review and Advice: Headlamps and Night Hiking

Between the AT, CDT, and Long Trail, I've hiked into or through the night more times than I can count. Last year on the AT, we night hiked to escape the heat of the day in the Mid Atlantic. This year on the CDT, we night hiked to push more miles per day. We night hiked to avoid the impending darkness that was approaching sooner and sooner. Really, I personally night hike because I enjoy it. 

If you night hike, you're gonna need a headlamp, flashlight, or a full moon. That last one works especially well in the Basin of Wyoming when you and your bud are trying to push through the desert as quick as possible and test your limits. (Yeah, I'm looking at you Mayor.) We hiked through the entire night in the Basin during our 63 mile push and maybe only used our headlamps for an hour at most. 

Anyways, a headlamp or flashlight will be necessary, and just like EVERYTHING else, the options are seemingly endless. 

What I've used: 

  • Black Diamond ReVolt Rechargeable Headlamp
  • Black Diamond Spot Headlamp
  • Petzl Tika XP Headlamp

Black Diamond and Petzl are undoubtedly the most popular and well known choices when it comes to headlamps. Last year I used all three headlamps over the course of the AT. This year I strictly used the Petzl Tika XP. I have my gripes with each of them, but truthfully, they're all great headlamps, so here's some thoughts!

Here's a photo of Scooter illuminating the Ski Hut with his headlamp. 

Here's a photo of Scooter illuminating the Ski Hut with his headlamp. 

BD ReVolt: 

I originally bought this headlamp because of its ability to be charged directly from my Anker Battery Pack. I knew that it had the Lumen power I needed, the red lamp that would prevent hikers from getting angry at me at night, and it was fairly light. 

As far as specs are concerned, the ReVolt is 3.4oz fully loaded with batteries. Speaking of those, it runs off of 3 Rechargeable AAA's, lithiums, or gives you the option to charge via USB. The headlamp itself is labeled as waterproof which provides a little bit of comfort for a thru hiker. As far as the light goes, it boasts One Triple Powered LED, and a Double Powered LED, combing for up to 300 Lumens with alkaline batteries. The thing is almost overkill as far as brightness goes, but it really does come in handy in the Green Tunnel at night or anywhere where there is no moon light. The red light is a double powered LED providing more than enough glow when you're packed in a shelter trying to avoid waking everyone up with your bright headlamp. (Don't do that. Use your red light for the love of god.)

The headlamp is easy to use with it's memory lighting allowing for you to turn the light back on to the adjusted brightness without having to cycle through all of its options. It has pretty much everything a thru hiker would need as far as a headlamp, however: the reason I switched last year was because the rechargeable aspect of the headlamp failed not 500 miles into my thru hike. I was left without a headlamp until the next town so I immediately texted my dad and told him to send out my backup, which was the Black Diamond Spot. Enter the time period where I was carrying two headlamps. SO UL of me right?

BD Spot: 

Another formidable headlamp made by BD, the Spot is a lesser expensive option to the ReVolt listed above. For the recent 2017 model, it boasts the same 300 Lumen Power of the ReVolt, but is not rechargeable, making it IMO MUCH more dependable. Last years model only put out 200 Lumens so they've made some adjustments this year. Sure, the rechargeable aspect is nice, but at this point, I prefer batteries. I like knowing that another piece of gear (shouldn't) fail me because of an electronic problem. 

At 3.2oz, its just under the weight of the ReVolt, making it a little more appealing. They also claim that the headlamp was and still is fully waterproof up to 3.3m. The only fault in this design is that sure, the headlamp will operate if water enters the battery compartment, but eventually those batteries will corrode. Kind of pointless right? Nonetheless, it offers the red light that backpackers and thru hikers should have, is light, and was and still is a good headlamp. Along with the power and weight being pretty spot on, it also offers a lock for the light preventing it from turning on in your pack or pocket. It does everything you need it to at a fairly decent price with some fairly decent technical specs. Overall, an awesome and affordable option for lighting. 

Black Diamond Spot Headlamp, Black, One Size
$29.96
Black Diamond Equipment LTD

I used it as a backup until I got to an REI in Asheville where I swapped my ReVolt for the Petzl Tika XP and sent the BD Spot home. 

Petzl Tika XP: 

The heaviest option out of all 3 headlamps, the Tika XP is also the most reliable of the three in my opinion. It boasts 180 lumens with 3 options for brightness and a red LED for those shelters and camp scenarios. It doesn't have nearly as many 'features' as the above headlamps, but it is my workhorse for how reliable it is. In the 3,000+ miles I've used this headlamp, I have yet to experience any fault or failure in the product. It's as easy to use as any headlamp out there, but instead of being laden down with tons of features to fail, it presents the most simplistic design out of all of the options. It has one button which controls every aspect of the light, and provides more than enough light and power for any endeavor. 

Honestly, there's not MUCH to say about this headlamp because it's so simple. It takes 3 AAA batteries, gets the job done, and won't fail on you. For that reason, I chose to bring it along with me on the CDT and LT this year as well instead of swapping to a lighter and more 'capable' headlamp that had a bunch of features I really didn't need. I tend to value reliability and design over features/aesthetic/ability. 

Night Hiking:

Night hiking is probably the most underrated type of hiking. The miles seem to fly by due to the lack of light and lack of interest in the time. I've night hiked roughly 300-400 miles over the last two years, and I enjoy it probably more than most. If it's the middle of summer, nap and take a siesta during the day and crunch out some miles when the sun goes down. Click the headlamp on and go. I really enjoy it because it offers a different way to experience the trail. Different animals are active at night. You think differently at night. The trail is completely different without light. The lack of light makes you think more carefully about your steps, in turn paying more attention to the trail and each moment. Although you don't get the views you do during the day, you get something much more. Solitude. Time to think. Time to enjoy the most basic of reasons I and hopefully you hike as well. To do just that; hike. Sure, theres a level of eeriness in the woods at night, especially if you're alone. Sure, it's a bit more dangerous to traverse technical terrain at night when you can't visibly see each and every root and rock. 

Red Bass and I lighting up the sky with our headlamps in the Winds. 

Red Bass and I lighting up the sky with our headlamps in the Winds. 

I night hike and truly enjoy it because of the stillness in the air. It's quite calming when the only thing you can hear is the occasional gust of wind ripping through the trees. I find comfort in making the most of each minute and hour on trail, and that means taking the opportunity to hike as much as possible, even at night. It's not for everyone, but to me it's something that is unavoidable during a thru hike, making it that much easier for me to enjoy. I've had some of the most mind blowing experiences while night hiking.

Mayor and I heard coyotes and wolves howling in the Basin this year on the CDT around hour 5 of hiking through the night. I pushed my limits more than I ever have this year during our night hike through the Basin of Wyoming. Last year on the AT, Shotgun and I night hiked for 9+ miles one night and 2-3 of those miles were spent trying to outrun a Bobcat that was stalking us. 

Conclusion:

There's a lot of headlamps to choose from out there, and these are just the three that I've used in the past, so don't limit yourself to these options. I know plenty of folks who have used headlamps from Walmart, or other off brand lights. Some are more reliable, lighter, and flashier than others, but generally, headlamps all do the same thing. I'm currently looking into some lighter options, specifically a flashlight. There are some sub 1-2oz flashlights out there that are brighter than most of these headlamps. Casting light from the hip rather than the head creates less shadows, allowing for a more clear step while night hiking. I'll be picking up some flashlights later on so keep posted for a review of those when it comes time. Night hiking is fun if you allow it to be. Hike at night to get some extra miles or to find the perfect sunrise spot. Wake up early, click the headlamp on and climb the next mountain to get the perfect sunrise.

It's not for everyone, but dang do I enjoy night hiking!