Carpe Fortitudo – Seize Strength by Ben Nephew
My college career ended with me on my knees in 12 inches of snow at Saratoga State Park. I had failed to qualify for DIII XC nationals, and I was destroyed. I had worked for 4 years to qualify. I had wanted it so bad I could taste it like a mouthful of pennies. It was especially hard to take as in high school I had been able to qualify for States for the first time my senior year, and I can remember the overwhelming joy of that day like it was yesterday. By the end of college, I was a runner that could not even qualify for XC nationals, in Division III. At that point, I planned to keep running, but never would have expected to wear a USA singlet, much less compete at five international championships. I think one key reason for my success has been race selection.
When I started grad school at Tufts, I was fortunate to connect with the Greater Boston Track Club (GBTC) and several strong DIII runners that had crushed me in college. As I ran in the local Grand Prix road race circuit, I realized I was clearly better at the longer distances. Then I discovered the Western Mass Athletic Club trail race series, and I realized I was far better on the trails than at any road distance. This was underscored when I beat Dave Dunham by 3 seconds at the Merrimack Trail Race in 2000. At that time, Dave was one of the best road racers in New England (often minutes ahead of me in races), one of the best mountain runners in the country, and had just set the CR at Merrimack the year before. It was then when I wondered if I might be able to go somewhere with my running.
As I continued to race on the roads and trails, I definitely had more success on courses with a high degree of climbing and technical trails. I competed well at the US Mountain Running Championships, but just didn’t have the needed top end speed and strength to win a spot on the national team. I could have continued to try to make the mountain running team, or work on my road PR’s, but making the team would have been highly unlikely, and there was not much room for improvement with most of my PR’s after several years of hard training and racing. In addition, I was much more likely to get injured on the road or track than on the trails.
My first major test of this idea that I did better with longer distances was the Headlands 50k, which was the USATF Trail Championship in 2002. I was fifth in a competitive field, and there were some obvious areas I could improve on, like training for extremely fast and hard downhills. In 2003, I took advantage of a fast local road 50k on a loop course to run a 3:14, which was actually the fastest 50k in the US that year. This is crazy considering USATF 50k was just won in 2:48.
In 2004 I was 10th and 11th at USATF 10k Trail Championships and Snowshoe Nationals (10k), then 3rd at the USATF road 50k and 2nd at the USATF Trail Marathon. Much of this racing was thanks to my new team, as your team can have a critical impact on race selection. As I moved away from the roads and more towards trails and ultras, the Central Mass Striders became a better fit than GBTC, especially with many runners on the CMS team becoming involved in ultras. Both of the shorter USATF races were at altitude, where I was putting myself at a handicap coming from sea level. I definitely felt the altitude at the trail race at Vail and decided to try and avoid higher altitude races in the future.
Two years later, I went back to the USATF Trail Marathon in NC and won my only open championship and was a close 2nd (+ :39 seconds) at the 2006 USATF 50k Trail Championships at the Headlands race. For both of these races, I knew the course, they suited my abilities, and I trained specifically for these races for a year, if not more. For the most part, this was just typical training, as my local races covered similar terrain.
In 2009, I was selected for the US team for the IAU World Trail Championship in France, and this was most likely due to both my runs at the 50k road champs as well as my trail racing results, which included a win and CR at a small 50 miler in VT that had about 12k feet of climbing (similar to the IAU course), and races at that point did not often have that much vertical. The IAU race had about 10k of climb over 45 miles, and some of it was at altitude. I ended up 16th at the race, but knew I would have done better if the race had been a bit lower. It was an incredible experience overall, and definitely prepared me for future IAU events. In 2011, the race was in Connemara, Ireland, I trained for the course as much as possible (not many bogs around here), and had the race of my life to finish 6th. In 2013, I was selected for the IAU race again, which was in Wales. There was a good deal of confusion about the course, and while I trained for a race with a great deal of climbing, the actual route was runnable and fast. It also got quite hot during the race, and I don’t like or do well in the heat. I finished 19th, and we just missed out on a team bronze.
During these years while I was mostly focused on trail ultras, I was also regularly running the USATF 50k in Caumsett. Being in March, it was a good early season focus race and I often competed well, even if I was never happy with my time. Two of my runs there earned me spots on the US team for the IAU 50k. At my first IAU 50k in Galway, Ireland in 2010, I set my PR to finish 12th, which I improved to 11th place in 2011 in the Netherlands, finishing as the top American in that race.
Looking back over the years, my IAU races are without a doubt my fondest memories. The trip to France was our most amazing family vacation, I’ve met and competed against dozens of awesome US and international athletes, and wearing USA on your singlet is a type of special that is hard to describe. I’ll never forget getting encouragement and congratulations from the French coaches during and after my race in Connemara (the French teams often dominate the IAU races).
The point of this is that I never would have made a single US team if I had not accepted my weaknesses and embraced my strengths of climbing, endurance, and technical trail running. I’ve given myself the best chance to be competitive by avoiding races at altitude or in extreme heat, and this has also reduced the risks of serious race day complications (heat stroke, rhabdo, edema). In addition to focusing on my trail running strengths and selecting my races accordingly, for the IAU races I’ve taken advantage of local USATF championships and other competitive races of similar terrain to the IAU events to make strong cases for resume based selections, as automatic selections are quite hard to secure.
I’m never going to run a 30 minute 10k, qualify for the Olympic trials in the marathon, or make a US mountain running team. I could have spent the last decade and a half trying to do those things, possibly ending up with a major injury. I’m sure I would have had a great time, and I do miss my traditional running friends and that community, but the trail and ultra community is awesome as well. There is often pressure to run certain races, for example Boston or Western States, and this can cause problems if an athlete is not a good fit for a particular race.
Running for GBTC, I witnessed the pressure to run, and run well, at Boston many times. When optimistic expectations are not met, there is often substantial post-race depression that can affect training and racing for months. With ultra running, there is similar pressure to run longer races, especially 100’s. Longer races are not for everyone, and even if they are, there are recovery costs and risks that have to be considered. While new challenges and working on your weaknesses can be rewarding, there is a certain contented satisfaction in determining what you are good at and working towards mastery.