When I think about what it takes to be successful with racing and training for extreme endurance events there are two things that first come to mind: persistence and discipline. These are personality traits yes, but what’s behind that? What drives someone to persistence and discipline? I think it comes from the people you surround yourself with. We are inspired to do great things when we see others do them as well. I am lucky enough to live in an awesome community where I find myself surrounded by these kinds of people everyday. The man I interviewed below for my “Get Inspired” series I have the utmost respect for. He is 50 years old, has been married 31 years, has 3 kids, 1 grandkid and has served as the Galena, KS School District Superintendent for the last 11 years. He is a cancer survivor and an ultra marathoner. His name is Brian Smith. I doubt you will walk away not inspired.
Q.) How long have you been a runner and what made you want to start doing ultra marathons?
A.) I ran track in high school and had some success at the state level, but I did not have a passion for running at that time. My passion began years later after I was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2002. During my two years of treatment for cancer, I made of list of things that I wanted to accomplish in my life time. Facing death has a way of putting life into perspective. One of my goals was to run a marathon. I began running the week after my doctor told me I was in remission in June of 2004. At first, I could not run a mile, but slowly I progressed. By that fall, I ran my first half-marathon, the Lewis and Clark in Saint Charles, Missouri. It was the first race that I had run since high school. Over time, I became more obsessed with running.
After running for several years and eventually running my first marathon, I stumbled on to a book by Dean Karnazes. I was fascinated by the idea of running ultras. I have always liked to push my limits both mentally and physically, and I thought this was a great opportunity to see how far I could push myself. I signed up for the 1st Tatur’s Pumpkin Holler Hunnerd in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and ran the 100K. I have been running ultras ever since.
Q.)How many ultra marathons have you completed?
A.) I can’t remember the exact number of ultras, but I would guess around ten. If you count training, it would be many times more because I have had numerous training runs that would have been more than 26.2 miles. I have ran everything from a 50K to 100 miles. Some of those runs have been on flat trails others have been on more technical courses.
Q.) What are some of your most memorable and favorite races you have done?
A.) My favorite ultra is probably the Flint Hills Trail 40 miles. It has beautiful scenery along the trail, the race is well organized, and the distance is enjoyable. Forty miles is a nice distance. It allows you to push yourself, but it isn’t brutal. I did enjoy running the Prairie Spirit 50 miles in a blizzard several years ago because I have been able to tell stories about it. I actually like running in the cold, but that day definitely made running 50 miles more interesting.
Q.) Tell us a little bit more about this blizzard race. . .
A.) The race was scheduled for the end of March, so I thought the conditions would be great. I was wrong. About one week before the race, the forecast was predicting snow. On the eve of the race, the forecast was for winter storm warnings along with blizzard like conditions and a predicted twelve inches of snow. The forecast was correct. The race director gave all of the 100 mile runners the opportunity to drop down to 50 miles, but I don’t think he had any takers. Ultra-runners are fearless, and I think most of us looked forward to the challenge. The morning of the run it was cold and windy, but the wind was at our backs for the first half of the race, so it was really quite enjoyable. It all changed suddenly as we hit the 25 mile mark and headed north into the wind. At first the freezing rain began, and then it changed to sleet and finally snow. I was running with my cousin Amber Lucian Tyree. The wind was gusting up to 50 miles an hour and the snow stung our faces. We just kept our heads down and tried to cut through the wind and snow. I was wearing shorts, so I started to become concerned about frostbite because the snow was caching on my legs. At about mile 35, I had to stop at the aid station to put on some leggings that my wife Marcia had waiting for me. This is why the crew is so critical in a race. In this instance, my wife was the only crew member for us, and she was dealing with the blizzard while driving between aid stations. As we continued the snow began accumulating. It never let up, and the conditions continued to deteriorate. By the time we reached the finish line, the snow was about five inches deep, and we were soaked. Only six 100 mile runners finished that night before the race was shutdown. Some were stranded at aid stations. Some made it to farm houses along the way. We all new what we in for, but no one complained because we are ultra runners and that is what we do.
Brian’s well earned hardware after his adventurous 50 miler.
Q.) What has been your most difficult race and what were some of the challenges you faced during it?
A.) The toughest race I have completed is definitely the Prairie Spirit 100 miles. You can never prepare enough for the brutality of a 100 mile race, and the toll it takes on your body. I was blessed to have Nathan Sicher, Jenna Henry Mutz, and my wife, Marcia, to crew and pace me. I would not have made it without them. The Freeman Train2run program was also an important part of my success. In previous ultras, my core muscles had really given me problems. The strength training helped me become a stronger runner. The first sixty miles of the race was relatively easy because of this training and because my crew took good care of me.
Brian’s support crew during his 100 miler.
My biggest challenges came when the sun set. I don’t know why, but my mind and body started shutting down. That is when your pacers become critical. If I had not had a pacer at this point, I am confident that I would not have finished. Everything that occurred after dark is fuzzy. All I really remember is that I kept praying for the sun to come up and for a cup of coffee.
Brian with one of his pacers, Jenna Mutz, at sunset.
The chafing, bleeding, and blistering are all just part of the race, so I was not impacted by any of that. One thing I do remember well is that I never once considered not finishing. As in all ultras I have run, I have always felt the presence of God with me. That is why running ultras is so spiritual for me. My official time was 26 hours and 14 minutes for the race. I was hoping to be under 24 hours, but I strained my calf with about nine miles left in the race. This can be blamed on my lack of focus on proper stretching. In a 100 mile race, every weakness is exposed.
Q.) What are some of the biggest challenges you have come across with your training?
A.) The greatest challenge is time. To be prepared to run ultras, one must train for many hours. On many weekends, I will run up to 50 miles regardless of the conditions. It becomes a second job. Fortunately, I have really only encountered one injury that has prevented me from running for a prolonged period of time. I had been training for a 100K, and I decided to run a trail race in Tulsa about a month before the event. I broke my foot in the race, and I could not run for about twelve weeks. Unfortunately, I wasted a lot of training time.
Q.) How important is it to pay attention to your nutrition when training and racing ultra distances?
A.) Over the years, I have learned the importance of proper nutrition for peak performance. One of the keys is eliminating as much processed sugar as one can from his or her diets. You can take nutrition as far as you want, but I just try to eat healthily. Ultra races are a little different because you have to be able to eat as you run. It is important for an ultra runner to eat during training runs to find out what does and doesn’t work for him or her. During an ultra, it is critical for one to stay properly hydrated and take in enough calories to maintain one’s energy levels. If a runner fails to do this, he or she will not finish. They also risk a number of serious side effects including death. Ultras are not anything to be taken lightly.
Q.) What attributes should one possess to be successful with this kind of training and what advice to you have for those who aspire to run ultra marathons?
A.)The most important attribute one can possess to be successful in ultra marathon training is persistence. One must be persistent to a fault. To those who aspire to run an ultra, I would say you can’t be to prepared for an ultra. Train harder than your plan tells you. Incorporate strength training and speed work into your training plan. When preparing for race day, prepare a kit that has every possible item that could even be remotely needed during the race. The same goes for food. Sometimes there will be a food item that your system won’t be able to handle, and another item that will meet your needs. Also one needs to be prepared for things that you will not be able to imagine until they happen. Some of them I can’t even write about. With that said, I can’t think of anything I would rather do than run ultras.
Q.) What is the most beneficial thing you have walked away with from all of your training and racing experiences?
A.)It is hard to list just one beneficial thing. I have gained many friends who are always positive and supportive. I would trust them with my life. Probably the most beneficial thing is I have become more spiritual. I have become closer to God than ever before. Dean Karnazes wrote, “I have found my church, and it is at the end of a long trail on a distant mountainship. It is there that I feel most at peace, entirely content and whole.” I believe ultra running has made me a stronger and hopefully a better person. Being out on a trail by yourself seeing God’s work definitely makes you realize that good will always prevail. We have each been given the strength to do far more than we could have ever imagine. One just has to take the first step.
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