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You could call David and Megan Roche, of Sunnyvale, California, a trail-running power couple, but that might undersell them.
The husband-and-wife duo toughed out wet, muddy conditions Saturday to win the hyper-competitive Way Too Cool 50K in Cool, California—David in 3:19:43, Megan in 3:42:24. That’s remarkable in itself.
But when you learn how incompatible their work and school schedules are—or should be—with the sort of training and recovery schedule typical of elite runners, their tag-team success becomes even more astounding.
Megan, 25, a third-year medical student at Stanford, often wakes up at 2:45 a.m. to run before all-day clinical rotations in the hospital. In winning Way Too Cool, she overcame a slew of recent injuries and illnesses that might normally sideline a runner for an entire season, and did it all on very little sleep.
Megan Roche at the Way Too Cool 50K on Saturday. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
Their multitasking is so legendary that we have written about it before, back when the Roches were dominating shorter trail races, like the USATF 10K Trail Championship and the La Sportiva Mountain Cup series.
Megan made the successful jump to the 50K distance first. In 2014, she won the Flagline 50K and the USATF 50K Trail Championship (where David was fourth). Last year she won Way Too Cool (where David was sidelined with injury). This year’s Way Too Cool was David’s first 50K win.
Now that the Roches have both successfully moved to ultras, we caught up with them once more to ask about the race, work-life balance and what lies ahead for this seemingly unstoppable duo.
Trail Runner: What is a typical day for each of you? How do you manage your schedules?
Megan: I have two rules for trying to fit it all in.
First, I wake up earlier, rather than go to sleep later. Often, this has meant waking up at 2:45 a.m. to run on the treadmill before a.m. rounds, and getting to sleep as soon as I get home in the evening.
Second, I block off time where I think like a professional athlete. Usually, it’s about 90 minutes starting sometime after 3 AM. During that time, I run, strength train and clean up, before reverting to a medical student and a wife—plus a puppy mom!—for the other 22 hours in the day.
Keeping my focus in silos allows me to give it my all when I am working out and when I am working. David has been so supportive by doing all of the grocery shopping and most of the household duties, while also being my coach.
David Roche at Way Too Cool. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
David: I wake up around 4 a.m. on weekdays and coach until 6 a.m., then run, then work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., then coach until Megan gets home.
On the weekend, I’ll coach and write for Trail Runner. One of the great things about running is that training just 90 minutes a day is enough to reach almost any goal. That leaves so many hours for work I am passionate about.
Plus, it gives me time to train my fetch arm, which our puppy has made really strong by being a constant ball of energetic joy.
TR: Megan, you’ve had quite a few setbacks in the last few months. Can you describe those?
Megan: In July 2015, I was diagnosed with mono, which I quickly learned can be debilitating for a runner over 20 years old. I had to completely hit the brakes, with puppy walks taking the place of training runs.
During that time off, I was trying to scratch my adventure itch, and took a fall while snowboarding in icy early-season conditions. I separated my shoulder and tore my rotator cuff, requiring surgery in Colorado in November.
TR: You seem to have made a speedy recovery. How did you manage training during your rehab to come back so quickly?
Megan: By mid-December, I was back to running in a bulky sling, probably looking like I just escaped an emergency room. As I came back, David and I sat down and planned an aerobic rebuild, which went better than he or I expected. By mid-January, I was able to get back to strides and economy-focused intervals, and by February I was able to do long runs and races.
If you told me in December that I would be back at Way too Cool, I would have thought you were telling a joke. After nine months of obstacles, it was so fun to be healthy enough to toe the start line at such an amazing event.
TR: Did your experience racing—and winning—Way Too Cool last year help you race better this year?
Megan: To be honest, when David asked me about the course, I thought back and couldn’t really remember anything. That forgetfulness is probably lactic-acid-induced!
In some ways, it was good to reset in 2016, since the rain and mud made the course totally different. Last year, it was a speed course, where you could really open up and run fast at times. This year, it was a strength course, where you could make a few fast strides, but would always have to adjust to splash through mud or wade through streams.
TR: David, this was your first win at a 50K. What did you learn from earlier 50Ks that helped you win this weekend?
David: We went into our first 50Ks with complete naivety. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. At the start line, Megan leaned over to me, gave me a big kiss and said, “Just don’t die, please.”
In the year since, I learned a lot more about training for a longer race. Basically, I realized that on race day, you are channeling whatever workouts are most specific for the event. So, for sub-ultra mountain running, I was channeling hill repeats and short FKT attempts. At Way Too Cool, I channeled the long, steady runs, which gave me confidence that I wouldn’t blow up late in the race.
Also, the mud may have been a blessing for me. Megan and I use every rainstorm as a chance to go to the wettest, densest redwood forest we can find to run some miles on soggy trails. By comparison, the Way Too Cool creeks felt like a track.
TR: The mud got the best of you a few times though …
David: Over the first 25 miles, I fell probably 10 times—which, to be fair, is normal for me even on dry days—and yelled “Woohoo!” 100 times.
The best part was the epic stream crossings, which seemed to be every mile. I felt like I was fording the river in the Oregon Trail computer game, hoping I wouldn’t die of dysentery (a.k.a. massively bonk).
Finally, just because I am incessantly clumsy, I took an epic tumble 50 yards from the finish line, and broke the tape covered in mud, looking like a chocolate-covered strawberry.
David’s fall just before the finish line. Courtesy of David Roche
TR: You had the lead early and had a pretty fierce chase pack, replete with other speedsters from the Bay Area, behind you the whole way.
David: At the start, I went to the front and heard the chase group—consisting of a dozen or so studs, any of whom could podium on a good day—chatting. It sounded like a Saturday brunch meet-up back there, and I decided that it was my chance.
About 10 seconds after the start, I went. I told myself I just wouldn’t look back, and I didn’t the entire race.
That never-look-back philosophy was made easier by having to constantly stare at my feet to avoid eating mud too often. The whole race, I was thinking of the beasts that lurked behind me, especially Jorge [Maravilla], D-Bo [Dylan Bowman], and [Alex] Varner.
[Ed. note: Maravilla eventually finished second, Bowman third and Varner fifth.]
Then, at mile 26, Jorge came up on my tail with his megawatt smile, and he passed before I could say, “You’re awfully handsome!” Fortunately for me, the steep climb called “Goat Hill” came right after he passed, and I was able to gain a couple minutes on the last couple miles of climbing.
TR: Megan, you also took the lead pretty early. That’s a bold strategy in a trail 50K, and it looks like it paid off.
Megan: Before the race, David and I talked about the importance of going out relaxed to save energy for the big hills from mile 26 to the finish. Well, we both went out hard, showing a lack of self-restraint that probably formed the basis for our relationship in the first place.
At mile eight, we came through the start-finish area, and I heard over the loudspeaker that I had a two-minute lead. So much for starting easy. I had made my move, and knowing that YiOu [Wang, the eventual second-place finisher] is in awesome shape right now, I had to keep going.
Megan breaking the tape. Photo courtesy of NorCal Ultras
The next 22 miles were spent mostly in the pain cave, with a few trips out when the trail opened up into a wildflower meadow or a canyon vista. But I kept hearing YiOu was close, so I couldn’t admire the sights for long.
After 30 miles, the best sight of the whole race was the finish line. And it was so memorable to emerge from the pain cave to a muddy hug from David.
TR: Given your schedules, do you two train together often?
Megan: The day before the race, I ran outside at 5 a.m., and I told David that I thought it was one of the first times I had run solo outside in six weeks.
I’m on the treadmill at 3 a.m. most weekdays, but we do almost every weekend run together. Some weekends, we’ll run 30 or 40 miles of trails together and be so comfortable with each other that we barely talk the whole time.
Since I am pretty busy right now, trail running is like recess. And recess is always more fun with your best friend.
David: I love running with Megan, and jump at the chance whenever she is not working. For trail-running couples, it’s one of the most intimate and personal things you can do together, aside from organizing smelly trail shoes or doing post-workout laundry.
My only rule is that I always let her lead. I take up the rear and try to make sure she never feels pressure from me. My only role is to be supportive and remember the route directions so she doesn’t end up running to Nevada by accident.
TR: It seems like you usually run the same races, too. Is that on purpose?
David: We only run the same races! For us, it is the best date imaginable. We get to do all of the things we love: (1) wake up early; (2) guzzle coffee; (3) run hard; (4) eat recovery pizza; and (5) fall asleep before 8 p.m.
Plus, I find that I’m way more motivated when I know Megan is on the trails with me. I did three races without her in 2015, and I performed horribly in all of them.
Megan: We race together every few weeks. The only way it could be better is if our puppy Addie was allowed to race, too.
Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
TR: What’s on your race schedule for the rest of this year? Can we expect some more Roche tag-team wins?
Megan: We usually plan ahead about two weeks at most with running. Both of our schedules are busy, and we are never sure if we will be able to make trips. Living in the Bay Area is amazing because many of the best races, like Way Too Cool, are in our backyard.
All I know right now is that I’ll be racing the NACAC [North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association] Mountain Running Championships for Team USA in July. Other than that, we’ll let the adventure winds blow us to cool places in the summer and fall.
David: No races are finalized yet. And regarding the husband-wife tag team, I embrace being the limiting factor in this equation. Megan is just so strong, and it brings me even more happiness to see her win than to win myself.
At Way Too Cool, they asked me to announce her victory over the loudspeaker, which brought me more joy than anything that day—except the post-race hug.