The Ultra Buildup: Sometimes Brutal, Always Enticing
Plus, a Q&A with Meghan Hicks on the evolving media coverage of our sport
Welcome back to Colorado Mountain Running & Living, and thank you to those who’ve subscribed. If you choose to subscribe at a supporter level, you’ll receive bonus content and an invitation to a monthly online meetup, which takes place this Sunday afternoon. This week’s post combines a race report with a Q&A. Let’s get to it!
Last Saturday, about three-quarters through Aravaipa Running’s inaugural Durango Skyline 50K, temperatures in the mid-80s baked my skin while my lungs labored and came close to hyperventilating. The heat and hill incline spiked my heart rate, and I struggled to run at all because sizable slanted rocks protruded from the trail, making any steady cadence feel impossible.
I came upon a younger, fitter-looking woman sitting in the shade of scrub oak, her head hanging between her knees.
“You OK? It didn’t look this hard on the course profile, huh?”
She raised her flushed face, her jaw hanging to gulp air. “It’s brutal!”
I had caught up to several runners like her, and my ability to traverse this gnarly section and handle the midday sun boosted my confidence.
I kept going, assured she’d get a second wind. Sure enough, I’d spot her running fast toward me on a short out-and-back to the final aid station, and I pushed my pace in the final two miles to prevent getting passed. I ultimately finished as the 4th woman and midpack overall (results).
This was good practice, I told myself, for the final 25 miles of July 22’s High Lonesome 100, which looks deceptively easy on the course profile but similarly trips up runners with relentless rocks and bumps.
So much of what I do every day now is driven by the 100-miler on calendar in six weeks. Since I finished High Lonesome last year, I know what to expect—and what to fear.
I know the second half will be brutal, like that woman said of this mere 50K. I know I will struggle to keep my eyes open during the pre-dawn hours, and that my posterior chain of muscles, from lower back to butt to hamstring to calves, will tense and twinge with every step. I know my left kneecap will progressively stiffen and shoot pain if I bend it more than 30 degrees. I know my throat will gag when I try to swallow solid food, my fingers will swell sausage-like from water retention caused by electrolyte-hydration imbalance, my entire pinky toe will develop a hood-like blister, and my skin under my pack will sting from chafing unless I cover every potential hot spot with tape. I know lightening and heavy rainfall might take aim when I’m above 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide ridge, and I might need to hunker down to wait out a storm—stop moving, start shivering, with a pathetic poncho covering a soaked rain jacket.
I know and fear all this, and yet I’m excited to put myself through it again.
I can’t tell you why exactly, but it has to do with proving I still can, and for the superhuman moments along the way—moments like last year at sunset, around mile 45, in a drone-worthy beauty shot when I ran through alpine tundra along a ridge line, not a single other person in view, just a landscape ringed by peaks and saturated in pink hues of alpenglow. An overwrought power ballad that my son had recommended, Greta Van Fleet’s Meet on the Ledge, played in my ears and made me feel supercharged with strength and emotion.
Or around mile 96, when the sky produced a deluge with sheets of water that immediately flooded ankle-high, and I found the ability to run as if for life, both scared and ecstatic, laughing and shrieking with my pacer friend Clare.
What if my body gives out, or I get hit by a car or the world ends, and I can’t do this again?
Still, I plan for the coming year, anticipating the desire to do another. More specifically, I’ve set a goal not only to run the Hardrock 100 in my lifetime (which requires finishing certain qualifying races like High Lonesome), but also, I’d like to go back to the storied Western States 100, which I ran once in 2016 and also requires a qualifying race.
I brought it up with Morgan last Sunday, the day after the 50K, as we hiked in the Lizard Head Wilderness near Telluride.
“I’d like to talk to you about my birthday,” which is a whole year away, I said.
“OK,” he said in a drawn-out way, as if bracing for me to tell him something he doesn’t want to hear.
“I want to go to London to run the Thames Path 100 during the first week of May.”
He absorbed this out-of-the-blue but unsurprising news. “But I don’t really want to combine a special trip with you running a hundred.”
“But it’s just 24 hours, then we can have our special trip! Wouldn’t you like to hang out for a day poking around Oxford?”
I reminded him of our 25th anniversary in New Zealand, when I ran the Tarawera 100K, and then we spent a week hiking around the South Island. I added, “I’d like a shot at running a sub-24-hour 100 once more in my life, and this may be it, because it’s flat and fast. And I love the Thames! Remember the little wooden houseboats?”
We first went to England the spring break of our sophomore year at UCSC, 1988. We carried heavy Let’s Go travel books to figure out how to get around, pitched a tent in a field in the Lake District, and drank “snakebites” at pubs—beer mixed with hard cider.
Then we went back to London in 2006 when the kids were 5 and 8, and I woke up early to run around Hyde Park and along the Thames, and we took the kids to Stonehenge. We returned once more in May of 2010, the last stop on a year-long trip of round-the-world travel, and celebrated our son’s 9th birthday at Legoland.
I suggested I sign up as a placeholder, before the event sells out, and then we can decide on the trip later.
“It would be nice to do one of the big hikes in Ireland,” he said, warming up to the idea.
I told him I have no idea if I’d actually do it, but I’d like to put my money in registering for it, as if placing a bet and hoping it works out. We both yearn to travel again.
“Who knows what will happen next year? We could be in World War 3 or nuclear apocalypse,” I said, more than half serious, because the state of the world fills me with anxiety now. “But planning for travel is the essence of optimism. Let’s try.”
When I got home, I registered for my first race of 2023, hoping to run from London to Oxford along a river path and thereby earn a qualifier for the Western States 100.
Some people annually plant and harvest gardens. Some go on forays to watch birds, checking off the species they spot. Some bag peaks, trying to summit each one in a geographic area. Me, I sign up for and train for ultra-distance trail races, because I remain dependent on—or, to put it more positively, devoted to—this sport and these experiences. There are worse things, including a lack of desire or ability to pursue one’s passion.
A Q&A with Meghan Hicks about our sport’s media
Last week, I featured the first part of a conversation with Meghan Hicks, an accomplished mountain runner, stage racer, fastpacker, sportswriter, and managing editor of iRunFar. I hope you’ll read the intro to our conversation from that post here for context.
I asked Meghan about how she manages her work with her high-volume training as she prepares to race the Hardrock 100 in five weeks. I also asked about the media landscape, which continues to change significantly and unpredictably.
A decade ago, both Meghan and I wrote regularly for a popular print magazine, Trail Runner. I know only a handful of people at the core of the sport who are still in the habit of reading that publication anymore, or any print magazines for that matter, and now Trail Runner (part of Outside Plus) is drastically scaling back its print publication and producing mainly shorter online articles.
Personally, I’m still loyal to UltraRunning print magazine (and I write a column for it), but otherwise, if I’m holding printed paper and reading the traditional way, I’d rather focus on a book (which I try to do at least 20 minutes each morning). When I’m online, I like to read iRunFar, newsletters and blogs (favorites include The Morning Shakeout, CTS’s ultrarunning content, and Semi-Rad), and to watch YouTube channels by creative commentators and storytellers like Jamil Coury and Billy Yang.
What’s more, brands and athletes themselves increasingly produce worthwhile content that vies for our attention. For example, the race reg site UltraSignup.com started putting out a pretty fun and newsy newsletter with a bunch of links to good stories. And top ultrarunner Dylan Bowman is trying to make a living creating a whole new community/content platform called Freetrail.
Given all the writing, podcasting, videography, Reels, apps, live streaming, and more covering our once-obscure subset of running, I’m impressed that iRunFar, under Meghan and her husband Bryon Powell, has weathered the change and continues to grow.
Me: Let’s talk about your work life. You’re gearing up for your busy period covering Western States, Hardrock, and UTMB. How’s it going, and how can you prep for Hardrock at the same time?
Meghan: “It’s a lot of work, and it’s tricky because Western States [June 25-26] is backed up against Hardrock [July 15-16]. We’re trying a few new things this year in terms of organizing our coverage, to take some of the race-week coverage off my shoulders.”
A little over a year ago, iRunFar.com—which has been the leader in trail/ultra coverage for the past decade, and an online publication that you and Bryon managed independently—got bought out by Lola Digital Media. You have a bigger team now. Has that made your job as managing editor easier, or is the workload still as heavy?
“My previous life was mostly managing words and managing a small team of writers. As we’ve grown, we’ve doubled what we publish, so for me, leading all that has become a process of managing words, people and processes as opposed to mostly words. It’s a fun new challenge—I think I’m one of those people born to grow and learn and stretch—so that’s good for me, but I’m learning as I go, and learning is challenging. Change is good; we’re born to evolve, and I love doing things differently and learning new things.”
We’re talking at a time when the media landscape is going through big changes; for example, Outside is reducing its operations a great deal. I think it speaks to how nobody knows what’s going to work in the next few years in terms of media coverage for our sport specifically and the outdoor industry more generally. How do you navigate this industry, and are you planning any major changes with iRunFar?
“irunFar has always wanted to have writers who are in the core of the sport, on the ground, sharing things from how they see it. …
“Now, we’re part of a parent company that has about 12 websites. Bryon and I still operate iRunFar and have our budget, and we’re the ones responsible for keeping in the black; and in the parent company, we have people who help us get ads and sponsorships for our race coverage. Slow growth is sort of the mentality of iRunFar—we’re given resources to grow ourselves in a slow and hopefully sustainable way. I’m hoping—but I don’t really know, because the landscape is shifting—I’m hoping that if you grow slowly, you hopefully can grown sustainably. We keep our fingers crossed.
“But it’s a difficult world in which to be a website; brands do not advertise in ways they traditionally have. They consider themselves media outlets and produce their own content, as opposed to putting their money behind media entities to produce content, and that’s a super difficult world to live in. If brands cease to support media, then media is not going to exist, and so I can’t help but wonder if what’s happening at Outside magazine is a result of that challenge. Our hope is if you stay the course, keep up the quality, and if you build it, they will come.”
Soon you’ll return to Western States to cover it with pre- and post-race interviews, commentary, and race-day twitter coverage of the male and female leaders. Your iRunFar team dominated and handled the coverage for years. Now, the event is doing live streaming with their own commentators. Does that affect your coverage and audience?
“Bryon and I used to say, at some point races are going to televise themselves. There will be live streams, and race organizations are going to grow the funding themselves, and then we won’t do it anymore. Then we will move on to do some other form of storytelling. If you go back to circa 2014 or 2015, that’s what we said—five years tops, we’re not going to be doing this anymore because all the races will have their own coverage.
“Now we’re in 2022, and some events do, but people have not stopped following iRunFar. In fact, they come to us more. It’s like, the people who follow that content want all of the content. They’ve got the live stream on, they’re refreshing twitter, and engaging with it all. People are more hungry for the random backcountry low data tweet and satellite photos we send now than before, even though there’s the livestream also that they can follow.”
Any recommendations of books you’ve read recently that you liked, or books you’re eager to read this summer?
“I’ve become a terrible reader. I used to always do my long runs with podcasts or audiobooks, but I’ve stopped listening to anything on my long runs now, because I’ve come to a place where I realize I’m so busy, so connected, that I need complete disconnection to tune into nature. My phone goes on airplane mode and do not disturb, and I just run. What I’m currently reading, because there are lessons in there I’d like to grow in myself, is Addie Bracy’s Mental Training for Ultrarunning.”
Last question: So many of us are feeling down now about the political and environmental state of the world, and it sometimes seems beyond repair. Given that, what gives you hope?
“What I see is how healing spending time outdoors, and really integrating yourself into it, can be. For example, during Canyons 100K—the last race we covered—I heard so many more people remarking about the scenery, instead of asking about who’s ahead and who’s behind, and it got me thinking about how perhaps there could or should be more intentionality. For example, what can iRunFar do to help people realize the connection they already have, and have a greater awareness for it, because it’s healing. You go out for a run in nature, and you kind of come back a better human. You come back calmer and better able to engage in a problem, or maybe you solved a problem while out there. Humans are meant to be integrated with the outdoors, and us runners, we have that tool, it’s just how to engage in it.”
Many thanks to Meghan for taking the time to share her perspectives and experiences. I encourage you to read last week’s post with the first part of our conversation.
If you have any curiosity about self-supported stage racing, I got interviewed a few days ago (which is what the photo above shows) by the race director of the Grand to Grand Ultra about my experience there and training tips for participants. The weeklong race starts September 18 and still has spots available.