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Checking In with Geoff Roes in Juneau

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Why the champion ultrarunner is spending the summer running free rather than racing

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Roes running off trail through a swampy alpine meadow near Juneau. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Lavender Smith)

As several speedy and dramatic ultras unfolded earlier this summer, champion ultra trail-runner Geoff Roes deliberately missed out on the action. Instead of racing with the elite field, he immersed himself in the wilderness around his home in Juneau, Alaska, where he lives when not residing in his other home state of Colorado.

I interviewed Roes, 36, in late July while attending one of the Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps that he and his girlfriend, Corlé LaForce, host for a dozen runners during six-day sessions. (For more on what his camp is like, check the website or this story and photos.)

We sat and talked near the entrance to Rainbow Foods, the natural grocery store where Roes was featured working in a scene from the film Unbreakable: The Western States 100, which documented his course-record-setting win in 15:07 against three other stellar 100-mile runners (Hal Koerner, Anton Krupicka and Kilian Jornet) in the 2010 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Roes’s other achievements include the course record at the 2009 Wasatch 100-Mile Endurance Run and a win at last year’s inaugural Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) 100K. Early this year, he won the men’s foot-race division of the 350-mile Iditarod Invitational in Alaska.

Roes took time to explain what he’s been up to, how he feels these days about racing, and why he’s having one of his best summers ever.

Why do you host these camps?

The answer to that question has evolved a lot. It started out because I thought this was an incredible place to run and train, and it felt like something I wanted to do to some degree almost as a service to the community, just to get people out into such a beautiful place. Then I did the first camp last year, and it was an incredibly enjoyable experience. It was like, “Wow, this is really fun.”

It really doesn’t feel much like work. I get a different perspective from other people and feel like I learn as much doing these camps as anybody.

Where are you at with your running now, and where is your running career heading?

I’m at this place where I have no idea where I’m going to be in six months or a year or two years … especially from a racing standpoint. It’s really exciting to be back into this place because it’s where I was when I started running. I knew I wanted to run a lot and to race, but I didn’t know where it would take me. Ultimately, it took me to three or four years straight of racing almost every month, really consistently. Now, I’ve taken a break and am having a really enjoyable summer just running. I’ve run more hours these last two months than I ever have in my life.

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Roes, second from left, joins some of his camp participants on a peak along Juneau Ridge. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Lavender Smith)

How much has your mind been on the competitions you’re not at?

Previously, if there’s a big event and I’m not there, I’ve always been kind of jealous of the people who are and wanting to know what’s going on. This summer, I’ve found myself paying attention to things going on in the scene and at the races, but more from the standpoint of being friends with those people and wanting to know how they’re doing. I haven’t found myself wishing I were at a particualr race racing against them.

It was funny, both on the day of Western States and of Hardrock this year, I did 10-hour mountain runs here. Actually, the day of Western States, I finished this run with my friend, and he checked his phone, and it was literally about two minutes before we finished that Timmy [Olson] had finished and won the race. There were points during the day when I was like, “Oh, yeah, Western States,” and I knew it was happening, but I didn’t think about it.

But how did you feel when you saw that Tim Olson ran sub-15 [in 14:46, breaking Roes’s record by over 20 minutes]?

Oh, I was so excited!

Really? No pangs?

No, really. I mean, at first I was shocked, like, “That’s gotta be wrong.” I didn’t really believe it. Then I realized that that was definitely the finishing time and I was really excited.

At the end of the long run I did the same day, there was this last 200- or 300-foot climb, and I had felt tired the last few hours, but on that last climb I ran it really hard and suddenly I was like, “Oh, I feel really good!” When we finished at pretty much when Timmy finished Western States, it felt like there was some connection there. I talked to Timmy on the phone a couple of days later, and it was cool to share that story with him.

You were registered for Hardrock and then decided not to do it. What went into that decision?

I just didn’t feel like I was in a place to race it the way I know I’d want to. I think I could’ve gotten myself into a good enough race mindset and physical condition to go there and maybe have a good race, but it felt like that would be very opposite from the type of summer I really wanted to have, where each day we do the most enjoyable run we can that day.

What races do you want to do next?

I may race this September. I’m signed up now for Run Rabbit Run 100 and UROC, which are two weeks apart, which is kind of funny because I’m so far removed from racing in my mind. My plan now is to go out after my last camp [which ends August 9] and do 35 or 40 miles at a decent clip and see how it feels, and if it feels pretty good and I feel like I want to race, I’ll continue to do some long runs and then do a little taper.

How does the landscape here in Juneau shape you as a runner in a way that other places, even Colorado, can’t?

Most importantly it’s that there are so many places to explore right from the center of town. I’ve never enjoyed driving to run; I like to be able to run right from where I am. In most places, that means doing the same runs over and over. Here, I feel like I can run from my doorstep and run a completely different place every single day on super-challenging terrain. It took thinking differently what a run is to come to that. Initially I thought this was a bad place to run because everything is just too steep and you’re hiking the uphills, and it’s so rooty and rocky and muddy. Now, with my change of mindset, I think of running as going out and moving as quickly as I can over the terrain I’m in.

Here in Juneau you run with a group of longtime runners, several of whom are in their 60s and 70s and call themselves “the Geezers.” How much have they influenced your mindset and running?

A lot. It’s allowed me to not take myself or my running too seriously. It reminds me of meeting up with friends when you’re a seven-year-old and going out to play for the whole day, and you don’t really have much of an agenda and you live very much in the moment. Even at times when I’ve been really focused and training really hard, if I get out with the local runners a couple of times a week, then I have a chance to step back and not get too wrapped up in training.

How have you been able to moderate the pressure that can come with being a champion and with the expectations about your running?

In my life in general, I’ve never been one to do things because I’m supposed to. I’ve never really wanted to have a career type of job, so I’ve been completely happy to work odd jobs and do whatever I want to be doing at that time. People have always thought, “Well, eventually you must want to settle down and get a career,” and I’m like, no, I’m settled down and as content as I can be. In terms of running, I’ve never felt I needed or wanted to necessarily fit this mold of what it should be like to be a top-level runner and to have to continue doing it in a really focused and serious way.

Where do you see yourself a decade from now when you’re in your mid-40s?

(Laughs) I have no idea. Until this point in my life I’ve tended to be really involved in something for a given period of time, sometimes numerous things, and then sometimes I end up not even by design completely stopping or quitting them almost cold turkey. I’m not certain that could happen with my running, but I’m absolutely open to the possibility that it could. I might be running as much 10 years from now, or I might not have run a step in five years; I just don’t know. I don’t ever really think about it, actually.

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The author and Roes on the summit of Mount Juneau. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Lavender Smith)

Sarah Lavender Smith blogs about trail running and travel at TheRunnersTrip.com