WeRunFar Ben Holmes

WeRunFar Profile: Ben Holmes

Trail Nerds (noun): Persons (or mammals) living within the Kansas City metropolitan area and environs who avoid roads of all kinds. They run throughout the woods, up and down hilly, rocky trails day and night, winter through summer. They run everyday, including weekends, volunteer when they can, and drink beer after every finish line.

They are of the ultrarunning species and their population is growing each year.

The Trail Nerds make up one of the largest trail running groups in the U.S., with more than 4,000 people on their Facebook site. The group originates in 2001, when Bad Ben Holmes trekked into town.

“Back in 2000, I decided to try to get some of my buddies to run trails with me,” Ben said. With a Yahoo site already set up for road running groups, called KC Running, Ben realized he needed one for those interested in the trails.

“Some other people said, ‘Why don’t we call ourselves the Kansas City Metro Area Trail and Ultrarunning Association?’”

“Nah,” Ben shot down quickly. “We are the Trail Nerds.”

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Because Ben was calling the shots, gathering the nerds up for each run, building the Trail Nerds website, and organizing races, he won out on the name. Since then, thousands of runners follow the Trail Nerds group, hundreds run the 20 races put on by the group every year, and a handful of dedicated runners come out for the weekly group runs. The Trail Nerds lead group runs 52 weeks of the year and continuously schedule spur-of-the-moment fat-ass races and long runs, Ben said.

Mud Babe Mondays, the female Trail Nerds version, where women can run together and new runners can be introduced to the sport without any outside pressure, claim Mondays. Occasionally, Tuesday night runners will group together for an unofficial hilly run and Wednesdays, the designated 2.5-, 4.5-, and 9-mile runs meet at the Shawnee Mission Park at 6 p.m. for a well-attended event, Ben said. Pace groups split off so that everyone has people to run with, he added.

Thursday is the popular, never-miss beer appreciation run at Wyandotte County (WyCo) Lake Park at 6:00 p.m. “Matty Mullins heads that up,” Ben said. “There are always 10 or 20 people who show up year round. I went to one once. It was only 15 degrees out so I thought, Eh, there will only be like three to four people. Fifteen people showed up! And two of them showed up on motorcycles. Yeah, Trail Nerds are tough.”

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The week, Monday through Sunday, is full of Trail Nerds running for Ben. Three to four days of leading running groups, weekends of fat-ass races, and the directing of official Trail Nerds races.

“That’s a lot of running,” Ben said, whose official titles are founder of the Trail Nerds group and race director of the events. His girlfriend Coco Tieghi is co-director.

“It is a lot of work,” he said, but the two have the race protocol down to a science.

At each race, the large U-Haul truck, wrapped and decorated in Trail Nerds paraphernalia, is stationed at every finish line. Jammed full with every race-related necessity inside, it acts as both a large organizer and storage unit.

“Once the race is over, I put everything back in it for the next race,” he said. “It’s a labor of love and a lot of work, but I enjoy doing it and we get the most awesome volunteers to help with the races.”

As founder and race director, the biggest duties lay on Ben shoulders. Prior to the start of the new year, about $25,000 is handed to the state parks and other trail officials for permits, port-a-potties, and a weekly shelter fee.

Membership fees are required on a yearly basis or lifetime level, and for those generous types, one can pay an amount when signing up for the year to help with some of the fees, Ben said.

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The fees though, go toward annual costs, rather than race dues.

For instance, Ben describes some recent, late August races, “The Rock Away Night & Day [which consists of a Friday night half marathon and an a Saturday day 50 miler] had a $20 entry fee and you got a really nice trucker hat, free downloadable pictures, beer at the end, and a sticker with the distance on it,” Ben said. “A lot of the races barely cover costs.”

The money instead helps with trail maintenance, another race-director responsibility.

The Kansas City area trails are tread upon by trail shoes and paws, sharing the pack from one trail to the next. The group takes over the parks within the Kansas City Metro area, Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas and everything in between.

The races operate on each trail as well, with the most well-known Trail Nerds race using the WyCo Park for the February Psycho WyCo Run Toto Run, a 50k, 20 miler, and 10 miler, and its summer sister event, the Psycho Psummer Trail Run, which hosts the same distance races.

“We have singletrack trails that are very rocky,” he said. “We help build and maintain trails in the area, like weed whacking. When a storm comes and trees come down, we go out there with chainsaws.”

Ben personally weed whacks 30 miles of trail per year, which equates to about four hours per mile.

The first few days of September were spent hiking the WyCo loop with a few other Trail Nerds with chainsaws, cutting down and clearing the 15 felled trees after a big storm went through, he said.

The Trail Nerds have a great relationship with the county parks and trail managers because of the multitude of races, which bring in revenue to the area.

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“We will have 500 people show up for the Psycho WyCo race in February and people will spend like $200 a day when they stay the night,” he said. “The county sees that. Everyone appreciates the work we do. They see how their bread is buttered and they see us and thank us.”

Many people have Ben to thank when it comes to the sport of ultrarunning. Each year, the Trail Nerds group introduces about 5,000 people to the trails, Ben said, these people are a mixture of young 20-somethings who just started their running career to veteran road runners looking for something new and discovering it on the trails.

Self-proclaimed trail rookie, Dan Savage, said he has Ben and the Trail Nerds to thank for getting him off the roads and onto the trails.

He had two weeks to get ready for his first ultra, the Frisco Railroad Run in Willard, Missouri in April 2016, when Savage said he was getting nervous.

Needing some inspiration, he turned to the Trail Nerds, whose races are just 15 minutes from his front door, he said.

“I initially went out to volunteer with the Trail Nerds to get inspiration from the ultrarunners running that race, which I did in a big way,” Savage said. A big help, he claimed, was the finish of a 73-year-old in the 100k distance.

“As an unexpected side benefit from volunteering, I was able to spend some time with this guy named Ben, [who he learned later was Bad Ben, the race director]. He was giving me little nuggets of advice on running that ultra that helped me greatly.”

Savage has since volunteered at five Trail Nerds events and ran the 10k at Psych Night Trail Run this past August. Each time, he learns a little bit more about ultrarunning, and now knows the importance of owning several headlamps.

The Trail Nerds cover all their bases: Night running with flashlights and headlamps, all-distance races, all-terrain routes, and all-season weather.

The group starts off with a 2.8-mile race for someone’s first introduction to the trails. The distances then climb from there, offering marathons and 50 milers. The longest is the 100k distance during the Free State Trail Runs, also a 40-mile, marathon and half-marathon, all of which takes place at the Clinton State Park in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Ben decided from the beginning he did not want to offer a 100-mile distance, in respect of his own time and efforts and those of his faithful volunteers.

“There are too many damn 100 milers out there. There really are,” he said. “When I started running 100 milers, 1,500 attempted a 100 miler per year and there were only 15 100’s offered. Now, there’s 158 in North America and there’s 4,000 people who enter them.”

It zaps the energy of the volunteers, he added, who man the aid stations and finish lines for races which usually draw up to 50 people in the longer distances. But, he said, if you really want a 100-mile race in the central Midwest, there are six races within a short driving distance of Kansas City.

Instead of the 100 miler, Ben likes to put his energy into perfecting his unique races.

He offers low-key races of all distances, making a family event for every ‘runner’ in the house. When I say runner, I don’t mean those with just two legs. “Most races, except for the hotter summer ones, I allow dogs,” he said. “They get a bib, chip time, and there’s a separate canine division for awards.” For the entry fee, the Dirt Dawgs receive a collapsible doggie bowl, with the only rule being the dog must be able to run efficiently without a leash, and not go bounding off through the woods chasing every deer and turkey they smell. “Dogs love to run on trails and they really get into it,” Ben said. “After a while they get comfortable and really enjoy running on trails. It is a kind of a tribal thing, a really cool thing to see.”

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“Most of our races are 35 to 40% women, 10% kids, and the rest men,” Ben guessed. “Plus dogs! It really is a family affair.”

Savage ran a 10k with his trail dog Sydney, which was her second official trail run ever. “I absolutely love taking Sydney on the trail runs with me, and she loves it too,” he added. “We both have a blast.”

The family running trend relates back to Ben’s own family, how he got started in running, and how he now runs with his own grandson. Before moving to Kansas in 1996, Ben lived in the Pacific Northwest, running in high school until losing the love of the sport for the next few years. He graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in mathematics, landing the next few jobs in the labs of pharmaceutical companies.

At age 23, he picked up the sport again. During the years he wasn’t running, Ben would still enter the Spokane, Washington Lilac Bloomsday Run race, which his grandfather, a runner who logged miles till he was 96 years old, ran in every year.

“I usually trained a week before, which did not do much good, show up, run the 7.4 miles, throw up at the end, and then call it good for another year,” he said, laughing at his former teenage self. “One year, I looked at my time from previous years and looked at his [his grandfather’s] time and I realized I was getting slower and at this rate mathematically, I’m going to be finishing after him in a few years.”

Ben started training more and the next year finished with a decent time, good enough to start training for a spot on his company’s corporate team. Then in 1990, he announced to his team he was going to run a marathon. “A gal at the head of our corporate team said “Uhh, you kinda’ have to train for one,” he remembered. He decided a 15 miler the week before would suffice. “So, I did that and thought, Well, I can do it.” He came in 26 miles later in 3 hours and 46 minutes, saying the one phrase every destined to-be runner says, “I will never do that again.” Of course, six months later, he was in Seattle, Washington running his second one.

He finished 38 road marathons throughout the ‘90s before finally entering a 50k. “I did okay there, about four and a half hours, then decided to do a 50 miler in Texas and I did okay there in 9:07 and I said, “Okay, but I will never run a 100 miler,” he said.

In 2003, Ben ran his first 100 miler, the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile, finishing under 24 hours. At age 59, he has since run the Texas race six times, among other low-key events. His eyes though are now set on the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, after two unsuccessful attempts before.

His training, running about four times a week plus any long runs, is done on his own or with friends and family. Most of his races are unofficial fat-ass events. Every once in awhile, he will call up his high-school-freshman-aged grandson, asking to run the 10-mile WyCo loop. “I call him up during the summer and say, ‘Hey, want to go run a loop?’” Ben said. “Sure, can I grab a couple of soccer buddies?” the young one answers. “They take water and we do a run in the 90-degree heat,” he said, laughing.

Like grandfather, like grandson.

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His nickname, Bad Ben, was earned for having a similar running-focused mindset. Years ago after just moving to Kansas, Ben was taking martial arts, working 60 hours a week, and running ultra after ultra. “A man in his late twenties, a little overweight, worked with me,” Ben said. “I used to go to his house for parties, these 20-something parties that lasted till 3 a.m. and I would get ready to go at 1 a.m.” Ben was asked why he always leaving before the party ended, he recalled.

“Oh, I’ve got a marathon or a 50 miler to run,” he would respond.

“When?” the friend would ask.

“Oh, about five hours till it starts,” Ben told him. “He started calling me Bad Ben.”

Now, the friend is an ultrarunner living in North Carolina and has run a marathon on every continent.

“It feels good to have inspired him to do that,” Ben said.

Inspiration, motivation, and a lot of tough love are what makes Ben a great race director and a great crew member for his friends’ ultras. Though he has never run Western States or Leadville Trail 100 Mile, he has been there through it all, pacing and crewing friends, all with a ‘suck it up and run’ approach. “I really like pacing, but I have never had a pacer for myself,” he said. “I like seeing people develop and pushing people through their first 100 or first sub-24 100 miler is a lot of fun.” He may see it as fun, but his runner may not. “I am pretty tough,” he admitted.

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During one Western States at the Rucky Chucky aid station, Ben was trying to get his runner, who was complaining of stomach issues, back to the trail. “I said, ‘We have been here for nine minutes, either you put your fingers down your throat and throw up or I will put your fingers down your throat!’” he said. “He finally did throw up and said, ‘Hey, I feel better.’”

Ben doesn’t mind if pacing leads him to more than 50 miles on his feet or directing keeps him up till 2 a.m. “I love seeing people get inspired on the trails and start doing ultras,” he said.

The 2016 Western States winner, Kaci Lickteig’s first ultra was the Psycho Wyco in 2012, he said, and she just returned this past summer to win the hot version of the psycho race, the Psycho Psummer 50k.

“My experience was fantastic and one I will never forget,” Lickteig said, remembering her first-ever trail run. “I remember meeting Ben and he welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged.”

Coming back in 2016, she knew another good, crazy time with Ben and the Trail Nerds was in the works.

“The atmosphere of the Trail Nerds events is one of the biggest reasons I love to run them,” she said. “It makes me feel so honored to be a distant part of the Trail Nerds by having that race as my first and by coming back and feeling so welcomed. Ben always goes above and beyond to make me feel special, but he does that with everyone.”

As a race director, pacer, or just fellow group runner, helping people in their own journey of running is his biggest joy, he said. “That is probably why I love to crew and pace and put on races. I love seeing people get into it,” he added.

Lickteig is just one of the runners who honor Ben for helping them take their first step into the trails. “I have to thank Ben for being the one who hooked me to trail running. If my experience had been elsewhere, I may not have fallen in love with trails and never found the passion for them as I do today. He makes it a point to provide everyone something to love about the trails,” Lickteig said. “Thank you Ben for being a great race director and more importantly a great person!”


WeRunFar Merilee Maupin and Ken Chlouber

WeRunFar Profile: Merilee Maupin And Ken Chlouber

It was a town largely built by the ground’s treasures of lead, zinc, silver, and gold. The (mostly) men and machines worked underground, extracting metals worth millions of dollars. Leadville, Colorado was founded in 1877 to help support the massive mining efforts occurring in the vicinity. For decades, men (and a few women) of all backgrounds traveled to Leadville in search of jobs, earning a spot beneath the mountainous ground.

“At that point, Leadville was the place to be,” Merilee Maupin said. “The mine was doing great. It was hard to find housing in the area. It was a major hub.”

“Yeah, life was good here in Leadville in the 1970s,” Ken Chlouber added. “The mine paid very good wages. We were all making good money and paying very few taxes.”

By 1982, the major mining era of Leadville ended, and so did more than 3,000 mining-related jobs. Quickly, a ghost town evolved out of what was once a boom town.

Many trail and ultrarunners have heard how the Leadville Trail 100 Mile came to be. Created to save the tiny town following the mining bust, it is now one of the largest ultramarathons in the U.S. Once you get in, you become a part of the Leadville family. A whole new community today thus revolves around Leadville. But how did this happen? And why? And, who are Ken and Merilee, the race’s founders?

Ken Chlouber came to Leadville looking for employment and finding it as a shift-work miner with his wife and one son in the mid-‘70s. Originally from Oklahoma, Ken had a degree in biology and a post-collegiate job working for the state’s wildlife department, mostly in aquatic environments.

Merilee was born and raised in Texas. She pursued teaching until her marriage to her husband took her from school to Leadville, for his job in the mines. He passed away several years later, but by then Merilee and her daughter had already come to love the small town.

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The closing of the mines were devastating. Not only did many community members lose their jobs, but also the town’s economic web broke down.

“We were losing jobs and the abuses came with it: alcohol, drugs, spouse,” Ken explained. “Basically everybody in the community was out of work. People had nothing to do and they didn’t have any money. Men spent their free time at the bars.”

People flooded Merilee’s office, who worked as the town’s travel agent, looking for one destination: out of Leadville.

The governor at the time told Ken, one of the county commissioners, that they had to find a way to get people to the city and fast. Use the heritage, use the beautiful mountains, whatever it took, he told them. The city needed visitors, and visitors spending money.

“The key is to get people to stay overnight,” Ken said. Ideas of fairs, festivals, and 10k races were thrown out by the remaining townspeople, but Ken knew it wouldn’t be enough. “My bright idea was that if they run 100 miles, they are going to have to stay overnight. That is why we picked the 100-mile distance and since we were both basically out of work, we jumped in and lit the candles.”

“And it worked.”

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Ken and Merilee came together as friends, drawn together by running, and have stayed business partners in the sport for years. They met each other during the burro races. Not riding them, but running alongside the burros–the Spanish name for donkeys–up and down a mountain outside of Leadville to a place called Mosquito Pass. It was an annual tradition, a race Ken says was just too much fun not to join in, and was distanced between 15 and 30 miles. The two ran the race every year, they said.

In that period, ultrarunning was still pretty unknown in the world, Ken said, especially to the duo who have never run longer than those 30-mile races with the animals. However, Merilee said it was not hard to earn the trust of the community.

“Everyone was 100% on board,” she said. From aid-station crews to hospital medics, every volunteer at the first Leadville Trail 100 Mile race came from the town.

“The whole community helped us,” Ken said. “All the elected officials, city council, commissioners, even the board of service jumped in. The district ranger rode his horse to Hope Pass, the course’s high point at about 12,500 feet altitude, to volunteer. Everybody was focused on saving Leadville.”

The first race was held in September of 1983 with 45 racers. Those who came to the inaugural run heard about it through word of mouth and flyers tacked up in nearby towns. That year all 45 racers started and finished the race in Leadville, birthing a successful ultramarathon. Over the years, the race has changed to avoid pavement stretches, but overall, Merilee said it has not changed from the first time Ken blew the starting horn. And, according to Ken, the race cannot be made too much tougher.

“I don’t think we can make it any more difficult,” he said. “The key to success of the race is the difficulty. People want to test themselves. They don’t want a cupcake race.”

It is a tough race, it is a bad race, created by the toughest and the baddest, Ken said. From mile one, Ken and Merilee knew this race was going to be directed differently. Ken ran other races to see how other directors did it, which resulted in teaching him a lot about the art of ultrarunning and directing.

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Leadville was more than just putting on a race for Ken and Merilee. Ken described it as a business, one that would do anything for their “customers.”

“I said we were going to treat them good. They are here to spend money, so we are going to treat them like customers. That is just good business,” he said. “But, Merilee said no.”

“She said, ‘No, it was more than that,’” Ken recalled. “’We are going to treat them like family.’ And that’s been a huge key to the success.”

“She has been their momma’ since day one,” Ken said. “Everybody loves the family-friendly perspective and she gets total credit for that.”

The primary purpose was always to create a beneficial economic impact to the town and to keep the race a community-driven event. To do this, the duo crafted cornerstones to adhere to over the years, including that the race would always start and end in the town and no one, including them, would be selfish or self-serving.

Concerning the health and safety of the runners, Ken made sure the course was doable, doing so by the only way he knew how: by running the race himself. As a miner doing shift work, Ken led a group of men deep into the mines to dynamite the big rocks that wouldn’t move easily.

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“It was a part of my make-up. I didn’t want to ask anyone to do what was dangerous and something I wouldn’t do myself,” he said. “It was the same thing with the race.”

Ken has entered the race about 26 times, finishing it 14 times.

“It was a great learning process along the way,” he said. “I found out what people were made out of, what makes them go and not go. I learned about finishing and not finishing.”

Merilee competed and won a 50-mile race in Texas, but when it came to her Leadville race, she was too busy mothering her runners.

In 2001, Ken and Merilee founded the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation. In the early years of the organization, any extra money from the race went to helping the community in anonymous ways. Things like supplying the schools with running shoes and sports equipment or buying groceries for a family in need, Ken said.

Now, the foundation contributes funds to an annual Christmas party for the local children, a near-30-year tradition, which started in the mining days. It also pays every graduate from Lake County High School a $1,000 scholarship if the student chooses to pursue a higher education, whether university or trade school, Merilee said.

Years ago, graduating from high school was the end of the line for the kids. So, both Ken and Merilee talk to the graduating class, telling them about the benefits of a higher education and about the scholarship.

“We had a few of them take us up on it during the first few years,” Ken said. “But we are really proud of the last two years.”

In 2015 and 2016, 100 percent of the students went on to a higher education and this year the 48 graduates earned $48,000 worth of scholarships.

“Every one of those kids earned one,” he said. “We hope we opened a door for them.”

Like the Leadville kids, the Leadville athletes walk into the open doors of the town. In doing so, participants join the Leadville family, opening themselves up in every possible way during the 100-mile journey.

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Since 1982, the race directors have put on a race dedicated to the health and safety of each runner and quality of athletic experience. With a runner limit of less than 1,000, Ken said the race guarantees the alone time every runner in this sport yearns for at one point.

“You need to spend some time by yourself, do a little soul searching,” he said. “How can you be more? Do more? That all requires solitude and digging deep.”

Early on, as the travel agent in the town, Merilee knew personally each runner lined up outside her office with their entry in hand.

“In those early days I typed those names so many times,” she said. “People would come to town and I knew their names, their addresses…

“We knew their kids’ names, their dogs’ names…” Ken added, laughing. “We still do as a matter of fact because we got so acquainted with them in the ‘80s and ‘90s and some of them are still here today or we have their kids in the events.”

In 2014, one possible future Leadville runner crossed the finish line at the age of four months, in the arms of her father Nick Hobbs, of Indianapolis, Indiana. Coming in at 27 hours and 44 minutes, Nick walked over the line with Molly and straight into Merilee’s hugging arms.

“Merilee hugged us both and told me to ‘enjoy these moments,’” Nick said.

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By 1994, Ken and Merilee began adding more races to the Leadville summer calendar, including a 10k race, a half and full marathon, a 50-mile running race, and both a 50- and 100-mile bike race. Today, scores of athletes take on multiple Leadville racing adventures each summer.

Eventually, a venture-capital company offered the founders a significant amount of money to own the races, but according to Ken, the managers were going to get rid of all limits and rules. They were just going to take the money and go, focusing on their own profit instead of the town’s, he said.

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“We met with them face-to-face and told them, ‘No thanks,’” Ken said. “That was… let me tell you… for a couple of kids from Leadville… that was tough. We had to dig deep into our integrity because that was a lot of money.”

However, in 2010, another offer came from sponsor Life Time Fitness, owned by Bahram Akradi, who had been an athlete in the bike races. Was he and the company willing to keep the primary objectives of benefitting the community first, not making money the bottom line, and treating the racers like family?

“’Absolutely, that’s a done deal,’ he said,” Ken recalled. “We went ahead and made the deal and Bahram has so kept his word and beyond that.”

“He has brought a lot of promotion to our community and drawn a lot of people to these races,” Ken said.

Looking over the last 34 years, the race has waxed and waned again and again in its popularity, at times drawing elites and requiring a lottery for entrance. Some of the elites have included the iconic Ann Trason. She ran the race in a little over 18 hours in 1994, a course record which no other woman has yet approached. In 2005, Matt Carpenter, coming into the finish line in 15 hours and 42 minutes, set a positively incredible male’s course record.

Bree Lambert is a distinguished runner from California who came in 14th place last year.

“I definitely loved the race,” she said. “It was hard, but my experience was really good.”

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Bree said running up Hope Pass was amazing, being at 12,000 feet above sea level and knowing there are so many people there to support the race.

“You feel the good energy there for all the runners,” she said.

To say the town has been saved would be an understatement. According to Merilee, an economic study done in 2012 conducted by the local college found the summer of races had a direct benefit to the community of about $15 million. Ken estimates that now the races raise about $20 million, all given back to the community.

“The indirect benefits though, we have had so many,” Merilee added. “People purchase homes, real estate, and businesses and the amount of PR that Leadville has gotten over the years is immeasurable. It’s incredible. If you have a Leadville shirt anywhere, in any airport, people will come up and talk to ya’, ‘Did you do that race?”

Overcrowding? Too many people? According to comments and articles, the 2013 race was overwhelmed with a whopping 946-runner start. Critics said the race was too crowded and had significant negative effects on the environment. Even the Hardrock 100 pulled Leadville’s status as a Hardrock qualifier because of the negative effects of the 2013 edition. Since then, the race organization has limited the race entrants to less than 700.

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But the two don’t look at the race as overcrowding the town. One thing to remember, Ken said, is Leadville itself: it’s the town with one unnecessary stop light at 10,200 feet altitude and snow before and after most other cities in the state. In the winter, the town loses everyone but the residents.

“The overcrowding for a few weeks? Yeah, we just got to love it,” he said.

“For the most part, it is just two weekends in the summer for the two big races,” Merilee added in.

During those two races, the 100-mile run and bike, a family reunion for athletes, directors, and volunteers takes place.

Every year, Ken will be at the starting line and Merilee at the finish, starting them off and welcoming them home. Throughout the race the two are there cheering racers on, mothering and fathering when needed. When Paul Stofko ran Leadville in 2008, the racers were doused in cold rain for hours. Heading up to Hope Pass Ken was standing at the top, and as Paul, a runner from northwest Indiana approached, he yelled, “Do you have a poncho?” Paul said no.

“He stated, ‘You are crazy, you need it,’” Paul recalled. “He took the one he was wearing and gave it to me.”

“As for Merilee, after the finish, she was with my finishing medal,” he said. “She gave me a big hug. A hug like you would receive from your mom congratulating you on a goal you achieved.”

Bree also experienced the big hug from both Leadville founders during her race, one that she was thinking about for miles.

“She tells you during her pre-race briefing she will hug you at the end,” Bree said. “There are so many people around you… for half a second you think, Yeah right.”

Bree thought wrong.

“In the last few miles I was thinking, “I wonder if she will be there?” she said. “She was. I got choked up. She gave me a rose and a hug and Ken gave me a huge hug.”

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The two now work with Life Time Fitness as consultants, and they work daily with the Leadville Legacy Foundation. Nevertheless, Ken and Merilee remain the founders of the Leadville Trail 100, inviting and hugging each finisher of the race, whether they cross the line at 17 hours or 28.

“The difference the race has made to the town is important,” Merilee said, adding in one more comment after the end of our interview.

“But I think even more important is the difference we make in the lives of our athletes, in our Leadville Trail 100 family, because to finish this race, you know that you can dig deep, you can make a commitment,” she said. “There is nothing like crossing that finish line.”

“Oh, good point,” agreed Ken. “It adds to your life. It adds to your family life, your business life.”

Before this Saturday’s 100-mile race starts in downtown Leadville, just like every race in the last more than three decades, Ken will address the Leadville athletes.

“This is going to be tough. This is going to hurt. You’ve got to dig deep and go on. You can do this and when you reach those places outside the race, in your regular life, those places when it gets tough, you know that…” he said.

“…You know you’re better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can,” Merilee finished, quoting her co-founder’s well-known statement. “And that is the basis of Leadville.”

WeRunFar Ulli Kamm

WeRunFar Profile: Ulli Kamm

“There is nothing like finishing 100 milers,” Ulli Kamm said. “I’ve done 200-plus miles nonstop…. but there is nothing like coming to a finish line of a 100 miler. I don’t need any awards. I just need my wife standing there and me knowing I finished the 100 miler and am in one piece. I am happy.”

Ulli is a special subject when it comes to the world of ultra races. His name has been appearing in races and results pages for years, but unless you’ve seen him really race, you know there is something more to this guy than competing.

Ulli does not sign up for the glory, the publicity, the belt buckle, or even the camaraderie found in ultra packs. Instead, he is out there to walk. To walk sections with friends. To walk the trails. To walk in whatever weather nature brings him. To walk up and down the mountains. To walk for himself.

Ulli Kamm photo 1

His competition is against his own thoughts and the clock. The red unwavering numbers, counting down the minutes toward each cutoff time.

“For preparing for [a 100 miler], it is more mental than physical,” he said. “I know the day will come when I don’t meet the cutoff and I will be late. I have to prepare mentally for that day.”

Ulli is an ultrawalker. At 69 years old and in his 50th year of ultrawalking, Ulli’s passion for the sport and trails is as alive and fresh as ever. He recently finished a 100 miler on just “training” or walking a total of two to three miles the week leading up to it, and has about four to five more ultra races planned for the rest of the year.

When I say ultrawalking–I mean, and he means–ultrawalking. He is not hiking and jogging. He is not running or taking extra-long walking sections on flat or hilly sections of a trail. He is walking all 100 or 50 or 60 miles or however many miles are in his race and enjoying every minute of it.

As runners get older, the amount of walking they do in races typically increases. And as a runner gets more tired during a long ultra, the same thing can happen. And neither of these situations are on purpose. However, for Ulli, it was always like this. He has always intentionally ultrawalked.

Ulli was born in Germany in 1947 and as a young child, around three years old, was quickly introduced to the mountains. It was in the Alps, climbing one day in the year 1974, when he met his wife Traudl, who shares his love of the mountains and nature and has completed about six ultras herself.

“I just love being out in the mountains and nature,” he said. “I am always hiking. I just enjoy doing it.”

Ulli Kamm photo 2

It was in 1968, still overseas, when he did his first 100 miler. Having already finished a 50k in 1966 in Germany, he knew he was up to walking an ultra and finishing in time. A friend had asked him to join him in a race in Holland and–without knowing the distance ahead of time–Ulli said yes.

It was the toughest finish he’s ever had, he claims, and yet his love of endurance-walking races was born.

“Running requires training,” he stated. “Hiking in the mountains is always training.”

Ulli looks at every hike, walk of the dog, climb of three flights of stairs instead of an elevator as a training session for his next ultra.

The 100-mile distance is preferred, he said, because he can achieve everything he needs to within those miles and relishes in his belief that every 100-mile race is walkable.

He also has competed in two Centurion racewalking events. The Centurion races began in England in 1911 and are still held every year there and in six other countries including the United States. After finishing one you become part of the “Brotherhood of Centurions.” Ulli finished the race, which challenges its participants to walk 100 miles in 24 hours in England and in the Netherlands. Beyond the Centurion races, Ulli has racewalked to the finish of nine 100-mile races in under 24 hours.

Ulli Kamm photo 3

“I never care for records and rank,” he said. “I don’t mind being at the bottom of the pack. I just keep going and keep walking.”

In 50 years of competing, Ulli tributes his nearly injury-proof life to not having the stress of running take a toll on his body. The one injury he claims was not really an injury but painful enough to be forced from the race, was during a 24-hour run when a bone moved, pushing and straining a nerve in his leg.

He added, after a Barkley Marathons one year, his knee was so painful he could not do any ups and downs. He stuck to flat ultras for the next year instead.

He praises his 50 years of ultrawalking with one thing: his health, both mental and physical.

“I have learned how to overcome the challenges of life, the ups and downs, like the ups and downs of a race,” he explained. “My slogan is ‘just keep going,’” he stated.

Another big lesson learned every race? “Learning how fast I am at every moment. That is necessary to avoid missing cutoff times.”

When younger, Ulli said he was a middle-of- the-pack competitor, keeping the same steady pace the entire 100 miles. During his first Leadville Trail 100 Run, he reached the turnaround and passed 94 people on the way back, without anyone passing him. Now, while in the back of the pack of most races, his motivation is still the same as it was 20 years ago.

Ulli Kamm photo 4

“My motivation? I have my schedule and I stick to my schedule no matter what others are doing or saying,” he claims. “People at the aid station say I am not going to make it or other runners say I’m not going to make it, but I say no, I am a few minutes ahead of my schedule, I am going to make it. I trust my schedule and I trust my speed.”

His schedule affirms where he should be at each mile and aid station, based off the approaching cutoff time. Whether he is 10 minutes ahead or just three, he knows he is on track to finish, unless something truly unplanned happens. Coming in minutes before the cutoff? He’s pretty used to that, he said.

He’s also pretty used to his biggest supporter, his wife Traudl.

“She has been with me for 200 of these ultras, going from aid station to aid station, supporting me and cleaning up the mess I make at the aid station,” he said. “There were many races I could not have done without her. She was and still is the best aid-station person someone can have.”

Ulli Kamm photo 5

Nearing 70 though, the types of races he chooses to be involved in has changed. He picks races he knows he has at least a 50-percent chance of finishing and has the possibility of Traudl walking him in at the end.

The Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run, his favorite race and trail course of all, is no longer on that list. However, he will never forget those Silverton, Colorado trails and those who are still directing and racing will never forget him. Ulli is one of the few 10-plus-time finishers of the race. His last finish at the race was in 2004.

“Hardrock is my all-time favorite,” he claimed. “It will be always be my all-time favorite landscape. I like climbing mountains and in Hardrock I get to climb as many mountains as I want.”

When I see pictures of Hardrock, I think this has to be the hardest race in the country, but according to Ulli, it is subjective and depends on the runner. For Hardrock, he said, the challenges comes from the cutoff times and unpredictable weather. The climbing and descending of some 33,000-plus feet is the fun part, well maybe not fun, he said. It is the most enjoyable part for the climbing enthusiast, but the climbs are also the biggest factor in meeting the cutoff times.

Dale Garland, Hardrock’s race director, said when he first met Ulli and learned he was walking he thought, No way. According to Garland, Ulli’s legacy at Hardrock has been a greater self-confidence in people when finishing the race.

“We have people who still finish Hardrock because they learned that you can finish without running,” he said. “He is reserved, but he is a man who loved the mountains, loved the camaraderie of the people who came to share that love.”

His favorite Ulli story is when Ulli would tell him after a race how lonely he was during the part of the race, since everyone ran ahead and left him.

“Yet, at the finish line,” he said. “Here was Ulli with four, five, six people who he had picked up along the way and who finished because they stuck close to him and walked with him.”

Ulli Kamm photo 6

He believes there are several 100 milers where the course may not be as tough as Hardrock, but the cutoff time is shorter, a difficulty for back-of-the-pack runners.

During his first few times at Hardrock, Ulli thought one section of the race could be improved. In the early days of the race, the route between Silverton and Grant Swamp Pass was routed up the South Mineral Fork Road and the Ice Lake Trail. After looking through maps and even buying a hand-inscribed map from a land surveyor, Ulli tracked down some old mining trails, designed an alternate 14- to 15-mile route for that section, and submitted it to the directors.

It was tested and accepted, and it today remains the standard route connecting Silverton and Grant Swamp Pass. In that section of the course, there is the Kamm Traverse and the KT (Kamm Traverse) Aid Station. As you can imagine, these were named after Ulli.

“Yes that’s cool,” he said, reluctantly responding to my admiration. “But, that’s not why I suggested the change. I don’t like the exposure.”

With more exposure, comes more pressure according to the ultrawalker.

“I want to go into these races without pressure and enjoy doing it. That’s why I’m still here,” he said.

Ulli Kamm photo 7

His race choices are founded on this mentality as well, which explains why Ulli has never been to Western States, a great event he believes, although a bit of a “circus” of a race for his mentality, and only has done Leadville, another type of circus, a few times because it was located near his home when he lived in Colorado.

His preferred races include a lot of nature, whatever nature can give him. The McNaughton Park Trail Run, now called the Potawatomi Trail Run in Illinois, is a good one, along with several others around his current home of Boise, Idaho, he said.

“I really like the nature there,” he said. “[Potowatomi] has three creeks and in the wet years, knee-deep mud, and some vertical up and down. I like tough environments.”

Of course Hardrock is a top one in his books. It has everything–mountains, night running, weather–basically just nature. Finishing within minutes of cutoff times means a lot of night runs and temperature changes. Over the 50 years of ultrawalking, he has run straight through 184 nights without a break or sleep.

“I got used to it,” he said. “The night is beautiful when the moon is showing and animals’ red eyes are looking at you and you hear a lot of noises around you. Night is special. I like being with other people, but I also like being in the quiet, peaceful hours alone through nature.”

Weather is just another aspect of the race.

“I like being a part of nature and rain is a part of nature,” he said. So is snow and cold winds, he added.

“I am not fighting the weather, it is nature,” he said. “It is natural and you have to be prepared for the weather. When the trail gets slippery or the rocks and roots, then that slows you down and then I am worried about cutoff times. That is the only problem I have with the weather.”

Hardrock is not an option anymore, a fact accepted by Ulli, who claims he could still do the race, but he thinks he’d need an extra eight hours or so to get around the loop.

But that still won’t slow him down, race-wise. So far this year he has completed two ultras and will have about three to four more to finish before 2016 comes to an end.

He is aware that in the coming years not meeting cutoff times will begin to get more difficult.

Ulli Kamm photo 8

Until he wants to stop doing such races as often, his plan is to switch to 24-hour races or easier 50ks.

“And that is welcome,” he said. “I’m prepared for that.”

According to his calculations, he usually completed eight to nine (usually 100 milers) races a year and since 1989 has averaged 76 miles a race.

He buys a pair of shorts and one to two pair of shoes a year depending on the wear and tear, he said. He also logs every race, publishing a summary on his website, ultrawalk.com.

The site is a compilation of race results, photos, biographies, and other walkers of ultras. It also lists the numerous names of races he and his wife have directed over the years.

“I don’t remember how many years ago,” he answered, when asked when he began the website. “It was more or less for me to keep track of what I’m doing. How I got into this and my past.”

In the 50th year, the mile doesn’t get shorter and the toll on the body is not getting easier. The weather is never the same and the trails are constantly changing, but the clock never lies. It keeps going. 24 hours. 28 hours. 32 hours. Done. As Ulli gets older his priorities for this sport are becoming more focused.

They won’t include worrying about nutrition, weather, or even the cutoff time soon. It will just be about the relationship between Ulli and nature.

WeRunFar Sunny Blende

WeRunFar Profile: Sunny Blende

For those obsessed with food, this story is for you.

When it comes to fueling for ultra distances–whether it is swimming, rowing, or running–there is a nutritionist who stands out amongst the rest. Sunny Blende is a renowned endurance-sports nutritionist who has gained such a reputation from a combination of her science-based methodologies, her long-term Ultrarunning Magazine nutrition column, and her personal experience living and fueling as an ultra athlete.

I could have spent all day asking Sunny questions. “What carbohydrates are best in a race?” “Should certain people abstain from dairy products?” “What is the real deal with cholesterol?” Like many, I just want to say: “Okay, tell me everything you know. I’ll do it, no questions asked.”

But it is not that simple and Sunny cannot be that easily played. “Many people just want a meal plan, ‘Just give me what to eat and I will eat it,’” she told me. “That is not teaching somebody. I want to teach people things because that is how it becomes a habit.” Nutrition is not taught by saying, “I am not going to eat sugar anymore,” she said. “It has to be a habit.”

Sunny Blende 1 - canyon running

Sunny, age 65, has a lifetime of personal experience in athletics, health, and food, which have molded her habits into a way of life from which she will never fully retire. Though she is now professionally retired, she calls it “semi-retired” because she cannot seem to break the “habit” of publishing articles, traveling the country to speak, and volunteering for organizations and at events.

She attended the University of Southern California for dental school, worked as a dental hygienist for 33 years, and then in 1996 went for a human-nutrition master’s degree from the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

“My hands began to give out,” she said. “Thirty-three years is along time to be a dental hygienist, not many people go that long.” Nutrition seemed like a natural path for her after that. “I was always fascinated by nutrition, partly because of being a dental hygienist,” she said. Most of her fellow nutrition graduates went into working for food companies, but Sunny wanted to be more in the health and sports industries. She decided to open her own sports-nutrition practice.

Sunny Blende 2 - Grete

Sunny expected that she would have masters-age clients who could afford a nutritionist and a trainer, but instead her main athletes have been in high school, college, and ultrarunners of all ages.

She also taught a class at College of Marin in Kentfield, California where she had a slew of students, all interested in sports nutrition for different reasons. “I had a lot of swimmers and runners in the class,” she said. “But I also had a lot of parents of those student athletes who had no idea what to feed their kids.”

Her program with students and non-athletes tended to center around the same structure. She started with basic nutrition–macro and micronutrients–for all-distance athletes–sprint, middle, and ultra–as well for team “start and stop” sports, such as volleyball and baseball. The main thing for everyone was the emphasis on real food and not relying on products made by sport-nutrition companies.

Sunny Blende 3 - Badwater crew

When Sunny began writing for Ultrarunning Magazine in 2006, her career took off within the ultra world. Before then, there was not a lot of education available on fueling for a race longer than a marathon. “Marathon nutrition didn’t work great with ultras,” she said. “You can last two to four hours, but it is not great for 12 to 20 hours.”

Her ability to explain things in a way that everyone can understand, rather than in scientific terms, is something she prides herself in and is a skill for which many commend her. Tia Bodington, a previous iRunFar profilee, the Miwok 100k race director, and a former Ultrarunning Magazine editor, used to edit Sunny’s nutrition column at the magazine. “I was always amazed that she could take such complex topics and explain them in a way that the layperson could understand and implement,” Tia said.

Sunny said that, since she was running ultras by that time as well, she was able to start developing a program specifically for ultra distances based on how she herself felt. However, the biggest thing she has learned from the last 10 years of coaching is that there is no one way when it comes to nutrition. “There are actually many ways that work,” she explained. “You just need to work with the athlete and find out what works and what doesn’t. Some people can eat 24 gels in a 100-mile race and be fine with that. And I have had several runners throw up on me at mile 65 because they could not take another gel.”

It is through trial and error, she reminds everyone, that we navigate ultra nutrition. “I tell people to experiment and what I tell clients who are under-fueling–which is the usual problem since people don’t take in enough calories at the right time–in long training runs, eat till you throw up. Eat till you get sick!” she said. “They are like, ‘What?’” She then explains that perhaps he or she can eat more than they think, allowing them to get in more calories than they originally thought.

“Try something different,” she added. “Really, throwing up–in my definition–is erasing the blackboard and starting over.”

The goal is to get her athletes to think of fueling as a separate entity from eating. “It is not the same food we enjoy at dinnertime,” she said. Fueling, in Sunny’s terms, is something to help sports performance and something that can be sustainable down the road.

Sunny Blende 4 - GGB row

Over the years of training clients, watching races, and competing herself, Sunny realized the great deficit between the amount of calories we consume and expend during long bouts of endurance exercise. She began closely looking into how our body uses the fuel we put into it. By figuring out how to maximize the greatest number of calories, she stumbled upon the science of metabolic efficiency, or what is commonly referred to as fat burning.

“We all carry some fat no matter how lean we are,” Sunny said. “But how do we tap into it?” In a nutshell, Sunny trains her clients’ bodies to utilize stored fat, rather than just the instant carbohydrates we traditionally consume during exercise. It is a process, unique for every athlete, but one which offers an advantage to many kinds of athletes. She asked her clients to slow down for a period of eight to 10 weeks and told to lose the bad carbs. She hopes she shouldn’t have to say what those bad carbs are, she added.

Sunny says that the system only works with slow running, wherein the body doesn’t have to use many carbs due to the lack of the intensity. Sunny said that since she has begun working with the research, she has noticed more and more people catching on to the low-carb diet. This was especially spurred by the Paleo Diet trend since early 2000.

Sunny Blende 5 - NFEC

The Paleo diet, when revised years later, added in more carbs for athletes and reduced the amount of saturated fat, especially the bacon grease, she said. “Athletes weren’t competing well on just the Paleo Diet,” Sunny said. “My point on all diets is that all diets do have some good points to them, but use your common sense. As for a vegan diet, I have no problem with a vegan diet except that it is harder and you have to watch if you’re getting enough protein and iron.”

Sunny doesn’t tell people to cut out all carbs and run 20 slow miles a day. No, she makes suggestions like upping fruits, veggies, and protein, as well as switching up your regular pasta meal. “Instead of two thirds pasta and one third sauce and veggies, switch it up,” she said. “Do one third pasta and pile on the veggies!”

There is evidence from her everyday life. Fresh-caught fish from her lake-house property in Idaho and an entire head of asparagus, usually meant to feed five or six, split between her and her partner Randy Hixon. “We eat what is available and what is in season,” she explained. “And we use tons of different spices. We went to Morocco and fell in love with the spices, like turmeric and cumin.”

She only drinks water since juice, she claims, is barely a step above Coca-Cola. “Eat the orange and let your gut be the juicer,” she said. “Eat the food as close to the source as possible, like a carrot rather than carrot juice.”

“The only exception is carrot cake,” she added in, laughing. “That’s my favorite.”

Sunny Blende 6 - Alcatraz swim

Another big issue in the diet are dairy products, yet Sunny says, once again, use common sense. “We need to choose dairy wisely,” she said. “Yogurt for instance. I have a big beef with the nonfat flavored yogurt because when you take the fat out, then they up the sugar you are putting in your body, which is inflammatory and spikes your insulin.”

Sugar. The ingredient every nutritionist and dental hygienist loathes to see. When switching over to more fat, protein, and real food during races for herself and her clients, the role of sugar in one’s health was another main factor she kept an eye on.

“Most athletes who are good in their sport don’t have a weight problem and don’t have to worry about eating a lot of carbs and gaining weight,” she said. “But if you ask me, it is the health as well. When you look at a long-term athlete, say 35 years long like me, exercising six or seven days a week for one to two hours a day and taking one to two gels a day, that is a lot of sugar I am putting into my body. And that is very inflammatory.”

Sunny doesn’t just teach these lessons. She tries to live them. Sunny has more than 30 years of single-scull rowing, years of distance swimming, mountain biking, hiking, and trail running. Add in paddleboarding too, another hobby she picked up about three years ago. Sunny is mostly a rower and runner. She grew up and still lives in southern California where she was a part of a very athletic family who traveled and hiked throughout the country.

Sunny Blende 7 - Row Tahoe

As a kid she watched the rowers glide along the bay outside her window and quickly picked up the sport, now having rowed all over the world with Randy, usually in single shells. The two, who are celebrating their 24th non-marital partnership this year, met during a rowing trip and since then, they have rowed to Catalina Island, California, a 32-mile row that takes about six hours to cross. They have also rowed across the Monterey Bay in California and through the Prince William Sound, Alaska–100 miles through glaciers. When the couple traveled to Budapest, Hungary and Australia, they rented boats as well.

If they haven’t rowed on a continent, then they have either hiked or ran on it. “I have been to every continent, even Antarctica,” she said. “I ran there, but there wasn’t an official marathon yet.”

Within the multitude of sports Sunny participated in while growing up, she stumbled across her love of running in 1972, when she was in her early twenties. In 1978, she completed her first marathon and several years after that she even discovered her love for trail running.

It was a decision she made by herself, to run a marathon. In a time of horrible, stormy weather at her home in southern California, Sunny had to drive to Santa Monica to buy roofing supplies to fix a damaged roof. While there and without telling anyone her plan, she parked her car, put a few dollars in her shorts pocket, and ran what she believed was a 20 miler, her longest run ever by 14 miles.

Sunny Blende 8 - LA Marathon Photo

She ran through the town, along the ocean, and through the marina, asking the local sheriff for directions. She bought a Coke at a gas station and continued back toward her Volkswagen van.

“When I got back to the van I couldn’t step into it and I had to pull myself up by the wheel,” she said, laughing at the memory. “I limped into the store, got the roofing materials, drove home, and got into the bathtub, trying to move again. Then I told everyone I was going to train for a marathon and then went through the regular training.”

She had the opportunity to run international races, thanks to a friend who was on the Los Angeles Marathon committee. During one race, the Berlin Marathon, Sunny could only run for three hours, about 20 miles, and then she had to be on a train headed to Moscow, Russia for another appointment with her friend. “They had a cab waiting for me. It was pouring down rain so I was soaking wet and I was changing in the back of the cab and the cab driver was trying to watch me,” she laughed while retelling the story. “We barely made it in time, then they locked us in the cars. So, I didn’t get to cool down or stretch and didn’t get to eat for hours!”

It was back in the States, running a trail marathon in California, when the opportunity to step into the ultrarunning world presented itself.

Sunny Blende 9 - Skyline

Sunny won her age group and received a free entry into the Skyline 50k Endurance Run for her award. “I was like, “Oh my God, I won the prize, now I have to do it!” she exclaimed. “I really enjoyed it and I really liked trail running.”

She’s since completed numerous 50ks and 50 milers all over the country. She’s not run a 100 miler, but more adventure-type races and endeavors have taken her up and down a volcano in Maui, across the Grand Canyon’s Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim twice, and pacing at Western States and the Badwater 135 Mile.

I asked Sunny for her favorite race or destination and received a 10-minute answer with the inclusion of about seven different names. Her all-time favorite–she decided days after our initial interview–is the Run to the Sun in Maui, Hawaii, which is a 34-mile race from sea level to the Haleakalā summit at 10,000 feet. Her longest race was the 54-mile Mountain Masochist in Virginia, which she describes as a “no piece of cake” adventure.

Sunny has run the Dipsea Race, the oldest trail running event in the country, which takes place in California, many times. “I love the Dipsea Race,” she said. “I also love the Catalina Eco-Marathon, that’s a cool one. I think because I have rowed to and from the island in a race and have rowed around it. I know the water and I know the land and the buffalo and the wildlife. It is beautiful, there are no cars, and it takes you out of big-city life.”

She completed the Quad Dipsea in 2008, which is the seven-mile Dipsea Race route repeated a total of four times.

Sunny Blende 10 - Dipsea

Other contenders include Badwater, at which Sunny has paced and crewed friends. One time at Badwater, in 2005, she crewed Mike Sweeney, who led for over 80 miles. “He would not get on the scale for the entire race and when we finally got him to we realized he had gained weight and was hypernatremic, so drinking too much water,” she said. “We brought him back around and focused on getting him up to Whitney Portal, so I took my top off and ran backwards so that he would have something to follow. He followed right up the mountain!”

Badwater holds a special place in Sunny’s heart because crews and pacers have to support their runner so much despite being sleep deprived and running in the over 100-degree Fahrenheit weather, she said. And, the beauty of the desert makes it one of her favorite races.

Sunny Blende 11 - BADWATER BTR

The “different” races, through the desert or before and after the kayak leg of an adventure race, are the types of activities Sunny enjoys.

The next big one for her is a three-day run through Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon for the Grand Circle Trailfest this October. Despite now being in her “retirement,” Sunny will be attending the event to present on sports nutrition. It is a weekend she is beyond excited about, she said.

She also continues to work with long-distance swimmers. One, Paul Lundgren, will be attempting his fourth time across the Sea of Cortez, an 82-mile outing.

Her ability to drop and go to any volunteer, pacing, crewing, or teaching opportunity is an amazing attribute of Sunny’s, Tia added, who also mentioned Sunny’s continuous knack for taking on miscellaneous unsung tasks when Tia is directing the Miwok 100k. Sunny has the fun job of manning the Bridge View aid station. “Sunny is a dynamic, inspiring, and giving person who is not afraid to go after many of the amazing, athletic, travel, and volunteer opportunities this world has to offer,” Tia said, summing up her friend in one sentence.

Though Sunny is still hands deep in coaching, she did turn in her final nutrition column for Ultrarunning Magazine in January. “I will still write features and am still the nutrition columnist at Swimmer Magazine,” she said. “I stopped doing dental hygiene because my hands went out, but I loved it and still do and for sports nutrition. I think it is really nice to finish your career when you still really love something.”

Right now, Sunny and Randy have left their California home and relocated for the next few months at her parents’ old cabin in northern Idaho. There are bikes, fish, rowing shells, and trails. And lots of swim goggles, she added. Everything they need to live, until their next out-of-country trip.

Since toning down the workload, Sunny said she has been able to read her first fiction book in “I don’t know how many years.” Usually, she said, the books focus on science or the next trip she is planning.

In addition to the fiction novel, Sunny is nosing through books for her upcoming travel plans. Hiking and eating in France? Rowing and swimming in the Galapagos Islands? Running Italian trails before making her way to the beaches of Mexico and Costa Rica? She’s going to need some fuel for these adventures.

WeRunFar Tim Hewitt

WeRunFar Profile: Tim Hewitt

One of my favorite parts of writing this WeRunFar column is its monthly kick-in-the-butt motivation. I spend hours immersed in the lives of runners of all kinds: Hardrock devotees, Western States veterans, and many others. I relish in the descriptions of the mountains of Colorado, the cheers of the crowds at races around the world, and the passions pouring out of the runner on the other side of the phone.

I always end the call with, “Hey, have a great day and maybe I’ll see you on the trails sometime!” I say this with the hope that one day I will make my way to North Carolina, Colorado, Hawaii, or any of the places from which our interviewees hail, and that I might be able to match a friendly face to the voice on the phone.

But, after talking with Tim Hewitt about his many Alaskan adventures, I think I might rather stay at home in the Midwest.

Tim Hewitt 1 - Knik Musuem

Hewitt, 61, finished his ninth Iditarod Trail Invitational—the 1,000-mile foot-race version of the multi-sport, multi-distance, multi-route event which takes place on the famed Iditarod Trail in Alaska—late on a Friday night of this past March, setting a new course record for the event’s Northern Route in 19 days, 9 hours, and 38 minutes.

Tim himself has called the race “impossible,” but he seemingly lives for the Alaskan event and was, arguably, born to be in the snow. He admits that he also loves to turn on his car’s seat heater when driving to work during the winters of his Pennsylvania home.

He said his doctor recently told him his body naturally stays below what’s normal for an average human. He said, laughing, “I have a low body temp, but I do get cold. I don’t know, maybe that helps me.” This natural physiologic phenomenon may be a small factor in his impressive history with the Iditarod Trail Invitational, but it is more likely his dedication, focus, and practice that have led him so many times to the 1,000-mile marker in Nome, Alaska, where the Iditarod Trail ends.

“I knew as long as I maintained the pace and did the work I would get the record,” he reflected on the March race. “I always felt the Northern Route [of the Iditarod Trail—the Invitational travels the north route on even years and the south route on odd years] could be done in under 20 days. Nobody had done that though and they thought it was impossible.” It was an accomplishment to check off the list, Tim added. “It was a goal I set a long time ago. It may not be meaningful to many people, but I was happy and it was complete satisfaction.”

Over the last 16 years, Tim has completed both the Southern Route and the Northern Route multiple times and holds both records. He has done it unsupported. His wife, Loreen, has also done it multiple times.

So, what next?

Tim Hewitt 2 - Elim

Tim was not a runner in high school, but instead was a wrestler turned gymnast who attended Northern Michigan University on a gymnastics scholarship. He was born in Pennsylvania and continues to live in the area of Greensburg. After graduating from NMU in 1976 with a business degree, he decided to thaw out in Florida for law school.

In 1978, he graduated and returned to Pennsylvania to begin working as an employment lawyer and start a family with Loreen. The couple has four daughters, two who live in San Francisco and two who live within a few hours of the family home.

It was a few years later when he started getting serious about running, since he despised running during high school and only took it up to stay fit while in law school. In 1985, he ran his first Pittsburgh Marathon. The May 2016 edition of the Pittsburgh Marathon was his 27th go at the race, making him one of the few runners to have run every single edition put on. (Some years, the race was not held.)

Tim Hewitt 3 - beach

The first ultra he ran, the Laurel Highlands Ultra, back in the 1990s, was along a 70-mile trail called the Laurel Highlands Trail that cut diagonally across Pennsylvania. “It was very local and I thought I had nothing to lose,” he said. “After I ran it I was hooked.” Now he, Loreen, and another runner, Rick Freeman, have together been the race organizers for many years. The race is a Western States qualifier and is the second-longest running ultra in the U.S.

Tim prefers races that are pure ultrarunning battles. “I enjoy the course at Hardrock, but it is not really a runner’s race, in my opinion,” he stated as an example. “It is more of an adventure race.” The JFK 50 Mile, on the other hand, is favorite for Tim.

Tim Hewitt 4 - Yukon

Additionally, the longer the distance, Tim realized, the better he could perform. In Alaska he found the distance for him, but it took some time and some heat before he realized that.

He completed the Badwater Ultramarathon for the first time in 2000. Ten years later he ran the race again, plus the Furnace Creek 508 [-mile bicycle race], which is now called the Silver State 508. This makes Tim a “Death Valley Cup” finisher, one of those who have completed both desert-based races in one calendar year.

The invite for the bike race came days after Tim crashed his bike during a ride in the Laurel Highlands with his daughter. The chain went through his calf. He couldn’t flex his foot, couldn’t run at all. But he could still bike. “I did fine,” he said, as if he just took stroll down the sidewalk. “I finished about 22nd place so I did well. That race got me kind of addicted to riding bikes, too.”

And that is where the story picks up again. But first, some more history.

It was also in the year 2000 when Tim decided to do the Susitna 100 Mile in Alaska and where he beat the course record by almost four hours. The Iditarod race was still just an idea, but it was in Death Valley during Badwater when it became a reality.

“I was running up that stupid mountain in that 119-degree [Fahrenheit] heat and thinking What am I doing? This is absurd. I can go to Alaska and that would be way more fun than this.

By then, Tim was in the peak of his running and the Alaskan race seemed doable, he said.

In 2001 he signed up and completed his first time in the 1,000-mile race. That’s where it all started, he said. The route for the foot race flip flops between the Northern and Southern Routes, and the mileage is never the same. It is jokingly called the 1,049-mile race since Alaska was the U.S.’s 49th state, Tim added.

Tim Hewitt 5 - Rainy Pass

During 12 attempts and nine finishes of the event, Tim has experienced it all. He certainly has 12 different stories:

2001: On the Southern Route, he finished in 26 days, 20 hours, and 46 days. There were only four finishers: two on bikes and two runners. Tim finished with a tibia stress fracture. “I was in a lot of pain, it was pretty horrible,” he said. “I said I would never do this again. My feet were horrible and a lot of the time I didn’t enjoy it. After the 2001 race I said I should probably do the Northern Route and then be done with this, but I wasn’t ready in 2002 to go back. I was still recovering and still wore out.” So in 2002 and 2003 Tim remained in Pennsylvania, since the 2003 race was another Southern Route, he had no interest in doing it again.

2004: Northern Route. 23 days, 22 hours, and 10 minutes. Tim was the only finisher in any discipline.

Tim Hewitt 6 - family

2008: Northern Route. 24 days, 6 hours, and 28 minutes. Tim was the only foot finisher with five finishers on bikes.

2009: Southern Route. 25 days, 9 hours, and 29 minutes. Only Tim and one other racer, Italian, Marco Berni, finished, both runners.

2010: Northern Route. 22 days, 4 hours, and 15 minutes. Three bikers and two runners finished.

2011: Southern Route. Tim set the current Southern Route course record at 20 days, 7 hours, and 17 minutes. Three bikers and two foot racers finished.

2012: Northern Route. The race directors stopped everyone at McGrath, 350 miles into the race, due to inclement weather, so no one finished.

2013: Southern Route. 24 days, 20 hours, and 31 minutes. Five foot finishers, including previous WeRunFar subject Shawn McTaggert who set the women’s record at 30 days, 18 hours, and 10 minutes, and three bikers completed the race. Tim started and raced the entire distance unsupported, meaning he carried everything he needed for the entire 1,000 miles. On the sled every runner drags behind, Tim carried 70 to 80 pounds of food, plus gallons of water, and the necessary items: a sleeping bag, clothes, and other survival gear. Typically, a runner will carry under 50 pounds of material and send packages of food to villages along the way.

“I don’t believe in taking tents and I have streamlined the weight of my food,” he said, something that only thousands of miles in the race can teach somebody. For Tim, his food included things from which you can get the most caloric bang for your buck: freeze-dried food, peanut butter, and jerky. “And a lot of chocolate and candy,” he added. “I eat a lot of candy. Mike and Ikes are a staple for me.”

Tim Hewitt 7 - Trek

2014: Northern Route. 26 days, 6 hours, and 59 minutes. Tim finished the race side by side with Loreen as she set the current women’s course record for the Northern Route. He and Loreen finished with two men ahead of them and one woman, McTaggert, a few days behind. There were 11 bike finishers, making 2014 the year with the most finishers since 2001.

2015: Southern Route. Tim did not finish. Tim decided to attempt the race on a fat-tire bike rather than run. Loreen finished the 350-mile race in 7 days, 10 hours, and 45 minutes and with a case of frostbite that led to the partial amputation of her thumb. “She’s the second woman to ever make it to Nome on foot and still holds the record,” he said. “A couple of times we stayed together for the 350 mile, but the last few times we have said our goodbyes at the start line. She’s fine out there.” Last year, Loreen caught Tim while she was trekking on foot and he was manually pushing his 60-pound bike through deep snow. “It wasn’t going well,” he admitted, trying to heave the bike forward with his chest and arms. “I was going about one tenth of a mile an hour, according to the [GPS] tracker [that participants wear].”

2016: Northern Route. Tim set a new record for this route at 19 days, 9 hours, 38 minutes. There were four runners and 10 bike finishers.

Tim Hewitt 8 - Camp

The 2016 race did not start well for Tim, who spent the first day throwing up and dry heaving everything in his stomach, thanks to some bug he believes he caught. With sickness delaying him, and then a 15-to 20-mile off-course detour about 250 miles in, Tim said he was doing the math in his head for a long time to see if he was still on track.

Then, when he arrived at a small village, he decided to rest at a school for the night. “I went inside and there was a lot of food there,” he said. “I ate like a pig. I had a lot of foot problems to deal with though. I ended up sleeping for six hours and when I got up I ate a lot of food again.” Tim said he felt pretty guilty after the little “vacation,” but after the rest and food, he realized he felt good and he was ready to get back on pace.

Over the years of Iditarod races, Tim has almost everything figured out, from food, to sleeping, to making cold-weather adjustments. While running at night, Tim says he tries to stay awake and keep moving till about 2 a.m., then he stops to sleep and rise again around 6 a.m. This way, he is still sleeping when it is dark, rising with the sun, and able to keep moving during the night when the temperature is at its coldest. Tim assured me the body can handle 20, 30, even 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, if there is no wind.

Tim Hewitt 9 - Joanna

“Wind creates the problem. When it gets to 30 or 40 below with wind, you cannot stop. Period,” he said. “You can’t have any skin showing. It will freeze within a minute.” The ideal temp for Tim is between 10 degrees below and above zero Fahrenheit.

The dryness gets difficult, too, he added. “When it gets that dry, the moisture gets pulled right out of you,” he said. “But when it gets really bad and you’re losing your core body temperature, really the only thing to do is jog. You’re pulling a sled, you will warm-up.”

Managing the cold and sleeping on the trail are the two biggest advantages Tim has learned that have helped him battle through each race. “It really doesn’t matter much to me whether I sleep in a building or out in the snow and I think this has helped me because I sleep when I can’t stay awake anymore,” he said. Tim often continues until he can’t keep his eyes open, and then takes a short, 45-minute nap.

“He doesn’t wait for the villages,” Kathi Merchant said. She and her husband, Bill, are the Iditarod Trail Invitational race directors. “He just goes until he falls asleep on his feet, then gets up and goes non-stop. That’s his style of continuous movement, naps on the trail.”

This past March, Tim was running on four hours of sleep and within the last five days of the race, he only accumulated six hours of sleep total. However, despite the lack of sleep, Tim bounded into Nome with plenty of time.

“I knew I had [the record] at White Mountain,” he said, which is about 77 miles from the finish. With time to spare, Tim said he decided to enjoy himself. Within the last 22 miles of the race there is a little mountain, about an 800-foot climb, which everyone usually goes around since it is nearly the same distance around as up and over it, he said. “I was feeling good so I decided to just go over it,” he said. “I just didn’t want to take any shortcuts. I wanted to get that full experience.”

Another reason to voluntarily hike up a climb so late in a long race? The probability of not doing it again.

Tim Hewitt 10 - Farewell Lake

Tim cannot stay away from the Alaskan race, but his list of ways to run and beat this race is coming to an end.

  • Northern Route record: 19 days and change
  • Southern Route record: 20 days and change
  • Unsupported: 24 some-odd days
  • Loreen: 26 some-odd days

So what exactly is next? Back to the fat-tire bike, he said.

“I don’t think I will go back on foot. I don’t know what else there is to do on foot,” he said. “I love being up there so the next thing there is the bike. I am excited to do it on the bike, but we will see what happens.”

What happens between each year’s Alaskan race is pretty much the same. Recovery, where Tim is now, is just a given: “I’m going to be sore.”

“I have learned from experience. Yeah, I will get sore, my knees will hurt, my hips will hurt, and I will be thankful for the first pain-free steps,” he said. “But I have learned I get stronger during the race. I am always faster in the last part of the race.”

As the pain begins to decrease in the weeks after returning home, Tim acknowledges his less groggy, less sleep-deprived mind and the disappearing soreness of his muscles. Tim also realizes that there is still a lot left to heal. “There’s probably some nerve damage in my feet that will begin to come back eventually, and I have lost every toenail,” he said. Still, the toll on his body is not enough to break his spirit.

“You dive deep in the tank for this race and it takes a long time to recover,” he said. “I would blame it on my age if it wasn’t for the fact I feel like this after every race, even in 2001 when I was at the peak of my running ability. It is just a draining event.” Draining, both physically and mentally. The race tests strength, coordination, direction, and the body and soul of each runner.

Tim Hewitt 11 - Josh

The feet are put through 1,000 miles of snow and cold sweat, eventually leading to blisters. The body is blown headfirst by wind, snow, and ice. Many racers, Tim says, reach McGrath, 350 miles into the event, and cannot force themselves to keep going. Even with hours spent in the months before the race readying themselves with research from documentaries, articles, and reading the Iditarod bible written by Tim himself and co-author, Jill Homer, an Iditarod Trail Invitational 1,000-mile bike finisher, 8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner’s Journeys on the Iditarod Trail.

“The race directors call it gut-check time,” Tim said. “I call it the point of no return.”

“I go out there and do it. I have no concern I am going to die.” Tim is a legend, or a superhuman, according to Kathi and Bill Merchant.

I agree, though I remember one thing he said that made me smile during our phone conversation, which shows me that wrapped around Tim’s muscles and bones isn’t a special form of Iditarod insulation as I imagine there could be, but skin that is just the same as all of us. “I am so not a cold-weather person,” he said, sitting at his desk, while the Pennsylvanian spring weather blew snow flurries past his window. “My wife laughs at me in the winter here.”

The last few minutes of the interview, Tim asked me about my own running, but I knew what the final question would be and I knew I had to tell the truth. “So, have I convinced you yet?” he asked.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational. The “impossible.” Sorry, Tim. No thank you, but good luck next year.

Tim Hewitt 12 - Nome