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“I’ve never been much of a runner,” says Alex Honnold, 37 from Las Vegas, Nevada. But maybe that perspective comes from his frame of reference as a climber, where he is one of the most legendary athletes of all time. While he’s not doing the running equivalent of big wall climbs without ropes, the “not runner” has completed two marathons and two 50k’s.
In November, Honnold ran the Red Rock Canyon 50k, placing as the fifth man in 5:23 The ultra was practically in Honnold’s backyard, and ended at a friend’s house, making it logistically easy to prepare for, especially with a new baby at home.
“Running is so easy,” says Honnold. “Because you cover the distance so quickly, and relatively casually.”
Sure, running is easy. When compared with free-solo-ing one of North America’s premier monoliths, shuffling along some single-track with a vest full of snacks does seem pretty unchallenging in comparison. Personally, my heart rate got higher watching Free Solo than it ever has in an ultra.
In October, Honnold completed the HURT (Honnold Ultimate Red Rock Traverse), a DIY absurdity that combines 35 miles, 23 summits, 14 classic climbs, and more than 24,000 feet of gain in just over 32 hours near Honnold’s home in Vegas. For Honnold, running is much more about efficiency in covering terrain than cross-training for climbing.
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“It’s just not that useful for climbing because it makes you so tired,” says Honnold. “My climbing is crap after I’ve been running.”
I feel better knowing that running also makes Honnold extremely tired. Heroes: they’re just like us!
The Dad Challenge
Honnold’s friend and occasional climbing partner Conrad Anker told Honnold that when he had kids, he made it his personal mission to run an ultramarathon and climb El Capitan (the 3,000-foot big wall in Yosemite National Park) once a year. For Honnold, this watermark is an indicator of “basic fitness” – combining a goal that many climbers train for for years to obtain with a run distance that .03% of the U.S. population ever reaches.
While training for his traverse, he found himself approaching climbs with less gear, more quickly – in a fashion that many would call trail running. Honnold isn’t too concerned with what it’s called and is primarily preoccupied with efficiency.
“I found myself running more just to get home in time for dinner,” says Honnold. Likewise, food has motivated most of my athletic achievements.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for runners and running in general,” says Honnold. Sometimes, he wishes that he’d picked the sport up in high school so that he’d have a greater aerobic base to build on. “It’s such an elemental movement, and I suppose this is my way of making up for it a bit as an adult, and trying to round out my athletic background.”
Honnold’s Casual Approach to Training
When asked, he couldn’t estimate his volume. For someone so calculating when it comes to approaching his climbs, he doesn’t keep a log of his running volume, purely going off feel. The general approach: 3-4 miles a few times a week, and a few double-digit excursions into the mountains. He would occasionally jog on climbing rest days. All of that built on years of non-specific aerobic training around his climbing, from hiking the approaches to going full-squirrel up rock faces.
To train specifically for his 50k, he did “one long run” focusing on flatter terrain. Who needs specificity when you’re a general athletic boss?
“I’ve always had the engine for walking uphill all day long, but actually running really beats me down. Okay, so maybe some specificity would help with that beat-down feeling, but that would risk detracting from his primary sport.
When asked if any of the mental tools he’s employed in climbing translate to running, Honnold succinctly said, not really.
“It’s mostly a matter of just doing it, doing the miles,” says Honnold. Even though running feels relatively easy (compared to risking life and limb thousands of feet in the air), he does admit to low moments during the 50k.
“I definitely don’t feel like I’m flying,” says Honnold. “It’s not as joyful or effortless as I would like it to feel.” I have never identified with a statement as much as that one.
Honnold has learned to appreciate running gear, like gaiters and handheld water bottles. He’s also started using a lightweight running vest for more of his climbing adventures, as well as gels and other endurance snacks often associated with endurance runners. Climbers and trail runners are soulmates when it comes to gear and snacks.
While Honnold does intend to stick to his annual “El Cap and Ultra” challenge a la Conrad Anker, don’t plan on seeing him at the start line of Western States anytime soon.
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“I won’t be running seriously, ever,” says Honnold. He intends to keep running a couple of times a week (max), but your Western States lottery odds are safe for now because Honnold says he’s uninterested in the volume of training required to run further than 50k.
“A bunch of my friends are like, are you going to run a 50-miler?” says Honnold. “And I’m like, ‘No! That’s terrible.’ I’m fine never running more than 50k.”
It’s so exciting to see Honnold take to the trails. I doubt that one of the best athletes in human history is subject to peer pressure from a trail running magazine, but we hope to see him at a 50 miler before he’s 50. Come on, Alex, there will be even more gear and snacks!