Ultrarunning—the intense sport in which athletes race great distances (longer than a marathon, and often up to 100 miles)—has grown increasingly popular over the past decade. Races across the world are attracting high-caliber athletes who redefine physical boundaries and endear themselves to wide audiences. And within the ultrarunning community are MUT (mountain/ultra/trail) runners that cover extreme distances in backcountry and rough terrain. The MUT community has taken the already-extreme sport and ratcheted it up a notch. Or two.
It’s no surprise that Coloradans—who tend to enjoy life’s more intense activities— excel at this sport. But in particular, it’s the Colorado women who are making waves in the MUT world. A significant number of local female MUT runners recently won some of the most prestigious races in the sport. These Coloradans are also setting new course records and completing the fastest known times on epic mountain runs all over the world.
Case in point: On September 1, Englewood native Clare Gallagher became the first American woman to win the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix), an internationally acclaimed 63-mile ultramarathon trail race that starts in Italy and traverses through Switzerland and France—plus, she set the new course record. CCC is one of the hardest, most prestigious races in the sport.
“The mountains and the mountain lifestyle cultivate trail-specific running and outdoor skills that are essential to ultrarunning success, while living in high altitude promotes a great level of cardiovascular fitness,” says ultrarunner and coach Sarah Lavender Smith, author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras.
In July, Marble resident Anna Mae Flynn captured the win and CR at the Speedgoat 50K. Two weeks prior, she quietly accomplished a new fastest known time (FKT) on the state’s prized Four Pass Loop route—a 27-mile high-altitude run with 7,700 feet of climbing—in 5 hours, 38 minutes, 29 seconds. Courtney Dauwalter, a school teacher in Denver, wrapped up a second consecutive first-place win at the Run Rabbit Run 100-mile race. Darcy Piceu who lives in Boulder, established the new FKT on the John Muir Trail—a 222-mile run in 3 days, 7 hours, 57 minutes—after she won the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. And Kelly Wolf, who now lives in Silverton, broke the finish ribbon at the 52K Broken Arrow Skyrace in California’s Squaw Valley, despite the course being full of snow from this year’s late winter storms.
Another factor to consider is the cross-training that comes with a seasonal lifestyle. “Many highly successful MUT runners—for example, Salomon-sponsored Stevie Kremer of Crested Butte—take the winter off to do another complementary sport such as ski mountaineering,” Smith says. “I believe this season of winter sports plays a factor in their mountain-running success, because they avoid the pitfalls of overtraining and burnout while maintaining their mountain skills and fitness.”
Over the past decade, the number of ultrarace finishes nearly quadrupled—up to 88,000 in 2016, according to Ultrarunning Magazine. But, the overall percentage of women crossing the finishline is on an upward trend across all distances (100-mile, 100K, 50 mile and 50k) while the percentage of men finishing races is on a decline. Smith has personally seen the trend of more women showing up at the 50K start lines.
“The gender balance at the 50K distance reflects the overall growth in popularity of trail running, and the growing number of trail-running events with shorter distances along with trail marathons and 50Ks,” she says. “Shorter races provide stepping stones to longer distances and make the 50K seem like a more popular, achievable goal.”
Men still outnumber women by a 2-to-1 ratio or greater margin at longer ultras. For instance, when Smith ran Run Rabbit Run 100 miler in September, she was one of 43 female finishers compared to 109 males. But the longer the race—100Ks, 100-milers, and multi-day stage races, and the growing trend of 200-milers—the more tenacity and logistical preparation is needed in addition to physical fitness, Smith explains.
“I think men will continue to dominate in terms of speed because of physiological factors (for example, their ability to process oxygen and their lower body fat). But once you get past the top 10 or so of men at any ultra, the women are racing shoulder to shoulder with the guys, because they possess the strategic and mental skills along with physical prowess to be highly competitive,” she says.
Don’t miss Clare Gallagher, Anna Mae Flynn, and Kelly Wolf race The North Face 50 Mile Endurance Challenge on Saturday, November 18. As a precursor, 5280 caught up with each athlete to learn more about how they got into the sport and their favorite ways to train.
Biggest accomplishment: “Winning the CCC this September…and getting the race’s CR (which might not hold, due to a route variation this year.) That win was bigger than winning the Leadville Trail 100 Run last year, because the race has 2,000 runners on an international stage. To beat Europeans in a race was huge.”
2016 North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Takeaways: “My goal last year was top 10. I went out too fast, bonked, dropped back to 10th place—and then ate a lot of gels and passed five girls in last 15 miles. You have to run fast to get anywhere (the course is relatively flat), and it’s so hard. I got 5th place. This year, I still feel like I’m coming down from CCC, so I’d be lying if my goal was to win or go for the course record. If I can be in the mix of top 10 or top five, I’ll be stoked.”
Sage advice: “Use your smart phone to find new trails. So many trail runners find maybe five or six trails and stick to those. Being a trail runner gives you the authority to constantly explore new places that are outside of your local spot, which will keep the stoke high. To balance the exploration, do speed workouts on pavement at least once a week during your training blocks for a race.”
Favorite Colorado run: “I grew up spending time in Summit County, because my family has a house in the area. There’s this 14-mile trail that circumnavigates Buffalo Mountain in Silverthorne, CO. It’s super to easy park, the route is surprisingly simple—there are no diversions where you can get spun around—the route is really hard as it climbs over Eccles Pass. The views are superb with Deming Mountain and the Gore Range: You can’t beat the Colorado alpine! Also, Summit and Eagles counties are really engaged with environmental protection: Locals worked with Representative Jared Polis on a bill called the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act, which would add wilderness and recreation protections to 92,000 acres to this area and surrounding White River National Forest. Call Senator Michael Bennet—I have his number saved in my phone (303-455-7600), and encourage our representatives to push the bill.”
Where she’s running next: “I’m currently on a run trip in southern Arizona, very close to Mexico and in the desert. I’m doing a really small (more unknown) 30K race in Chiricahua National Monument that I found just by googling races in Arizona. I get in shape for goal races by doing tune-up races, and this is the workout of this week. There will be a ton of voodoo rocks—it’ll be sick.”
Long-term run goals: “My goal is to make being an activist cool. Trail runners have a lot of work to do to educate ourselves on having these trails that we use remain protected and free. As the sport evolves, we need to work with the governing organizations who run our trails.”
Anna Mae Flynn
Biggest accomplishment: “The 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 miler. I crossed a threshold of disbelief at being able to accomplish my first 50-mile distance, and I had gathered a lot of advice from different people, which made each moment sentimental. I had done the Way Too Cool 50K (31 miles) the year before, but this was more into the unknown—you never know what can happen during a 50-mile race—and it felt like my first real ultra.”
How she started running: “I started running in 6th grade in the Junior Striders club. Then I ran in high school and college on the cross country and track team.”
Sage advice: “Don’t rush the racing distance. Enjoy the progression in a way that is safe and healthy for your body. Think about longevity. For instance, building up a year’s worth of 50-mile weeks and then tackling a 50-mile race. Some people do 50-mile races each week and others do three races a year: everybody is different. Don’t feel peer pressured to be a part of the 100-mile club.”
Training routine: I’m experimenting a lot right now. Most elite runners aim for 80 miles per week. I’m playing around with consistent 50-mile weeks that all really quality runs including intervals, plus strength and maintenance workouts. And after every race I take an entire week off.
Favorite Colorado run: “My favorite run is an 8-hour adventure from my home in Marble. I bike 15 miles up Lead King Loop road to the trailhead for Snowmass Peak, a 14er. From there, I run up and over Trail Rider Pass—which is part of the Four Pass Loop—and then back the way I came.
Where she’s running next: I’m contemplating doing a tune-up race before TNF 50-mile, to practice my fueling and as a good training motivation. I might jump into one of the Sage Burner Trail Races in Gunnison, CO.
Biggest accomplishment: “Completing the CCC (63-mile) race this September. I thought the San Juan Mountains would be a great training ground. It was exactly double the distance and vertical gain of races I had previously done—100K and 20K of vertical gain—so the distance really pushed me. The race duration and the training needed to complete the distance was outside the box for me. I knew it would be hard and the race was harder than I expected. My goal was just to complete the race, so to finish Top 5 was awesome.”
How she started running: “Growing up, I did dance and gymnastics. In high school, I got into track and cross country for last two years, non-competitively. I wasn’t super fast. In college, I rock climbed, so I did trail running and triathlons to maintain my cardio. The summer before my senior year, I went on a two month rock climbing trip in Europe with five friends. It was amazing, but when I came home I was burned out on climbing. I thought, I’ll just trail run until I want to climb again—and then I met a community of trail runners involved with the Aravaipa Running trail race events, which influenced me. I got more excited and interested in running, so when I graduated, I moved to Silverton, CO: the home of Hardrock Endurance Run 100 Mile.”
Sage advice: “Make sure you continue to enjoy your runs by mixing up your training. Choose fresh, beautiful trails. Diversify your distances like short and fast runs, intervals, or a Farlek workout on trails. And run with the seasons to refresh your body and mind from running. In the winter do other sports like snowshoe running, skinning, winter hiking, or cross country skiing.”
Favorite Colorado run: “Engineer Mountain, which is about 13K. You start at Coalbank Pass and when you get to base of mountain it’s a steep hike. Towards the top, you scramble on big scree dinner-plate rocks and there’s a short technical rock climb that’s optional. At the top, you reach a beautiful ridgeline that you can run along. It has running, rock climbing, scrambling, and hiking—and you can get to the top in less than an hour.”
Where she’s running next: I’m doing the Phoenix Half Marathon, as a fast road tune-up two weeks before TNF 50-mile, because TNF 50-mile will be super fast. My parents also live in Phoenix, so I can visit them for the weekend. I haven’t done a road half marathon in at least a year. I’m excited to get a new PR [personal record] time for the distance. Otherwise, I’m spending half of each week running around Durango to dodge the snow in Telluride. I won’t be training too high up.