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“Teams,” in trail running, usually refer to shoe sponsorships. One of the top competitors at this Saturday’s Georgia Death Race has a less common affiliation: He’s a member of the first collegiate ultra team in the country.
Almost three weeks ago, Darren Thomas finished first at the Mount Cheaha 50K, a point-to-point trail race in Alabama that crosses the state’s high point of 2,407 feet, which he also won last year.
He’s also finished third at Virginia’s Grindstone 100-miler; fifth at the Pikes Peak Marathon; and second, twice, at Virginia’s Hellgate 100K. Altogether, the 22-year-old’s Ultrasignup page lists 23 trail-race finishes, many of them podium placements and all but three of them ultras.
His next goal is as tough as any of them. The Georgia Death Race, 68 miles long, boasts 40,000 feet of elevation change and, typically, a competitive field.
Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Thomas spent his days running and exploring in the woods with friends before trying out short cross-country races in elementary and middle school.
His dad was a runner; his older brother and mom, avid hikers; and his younger brother, a talented runner and mountain biker. Even the family dog was an athlete, often joining Darren on runs. It was easy for his passion for running to grow.
At age 16, he tried his first half-marathon. It wasn’t just any half, but one of the country’s hardest: the Pikes Peak Ascent, which climbs nearly 8,000 feet straight up the famous Colorado 14er. From that moment, the trails had him hooked.
In 2012, at the age of 18, Thomas left for the East Coast to study geoscience at Virginia Tech, and unexpectedly discovered ultrarunning.
“I first joined the triathlon club in hopes I could continue trail running, but they ran a lot on the roads—and I also kind of suck at swimming,” he says. “A couple of my friends who were on the triathlon club were also on the ultra-trail-running club, and so after going to a couple of their races, I knew I had to try for myself.”
The club, founded in the spring of 2012 by several of the college’s triathletes, was the country’s first collegiate ultra team. It has since competed in races across the region. Thomas, the club’s president, helps to organize races and weekly runs for the group.
While juggling hours of training with part-time work, a full class load and a social life, Thomas found time to talk about goals, trail-running experiences, his love of food and how he manages to fit everything in.
How do you balance vigorous training with academics, a social life and everything else?
I think I’m really good at time management. The best thing to do is just get up and run first thing. That way the day starts off great—I have energy, I go to class, I actually focus in class and I’m not fidgeting and wanting to leave. I also study between classes and don’t have to spend a lot of time on it.
As far as my social life, mostly what I do with my friends is run and camp out, so I can train and hang out at the same time. I need at least nine hours of sleep a night to power up. With four hours working that leaves about 11 hours to run and study. And that’s plenty!
What other hobbies do you like to do, when not running or studying?
I love camping, slacklining, rock climbing, skiing, sitting by lakes and the beach—pretty much anything outdoors.
I also really like cooking and eating—a lot. A lot of us on the ultra team will also volunteer at aid stations and do trail maintenance for ultras around Virginia.
My favorite hobby, though, is foosball. I’m actually insanely good at it; in fact, I spend almost as much time playing it as I do running!
Where is your favorite place to travel and run?
I really enjoy just packing up the car and driving in the mountains all over the West. There are limitless places to camp and limitless trails to run.
One time I was training in the Wet Mountains of Colorado, and ended up spooking a huge herd of elk when I ran into a river plain. For the next quarter mile they pretty much ran right next to me while the sun set behind us. It was one of the most amazing runs.
Any other memorable runs?
The first time I ran the classic Catawba Runaround in Virginia—a 35-mile loop with 8,000 feet of climbing, taking in the best of the Appalachian Trail.
I had just started doing ultras, and was running with my friend Steve. We were doing a bunch of stupid, crazy long runs, and were not prepared. We both ran out of water, bonked so hard and had to death march the last 10 miles.
Those runs are important for learning, and they’re great memories that I like to call “type-two” fun—fun later, but not in the moment.
Looks like your last race, the Mount Cheaha 50K, was a success—you took the title for the second year in a row. What were your thoughts going into the race?
I actually went into it as a training run for the Georgia Death Race, because that’s my main race of the spring. I started out fast, right in the front, and felt strong the whole time, never really slowing down. The course is one of my favorites, with waterfalls and beautiful singletrack, so the trail just pulled me along.
This weekend will be the first time you’ve tackled the Georgia Death Race, and there will be some strong competition. Any specific race strategy?
I’m trying to win, and hopefully come near 11 or 12 hours. The top two get a spot in the Western States 100-miler this year—which is the premier 100 of the sport—and I’m really striving for that. So I’ll go out pretty hard, and hopefully the steep stuff in the first half will give me a lead.
Andrew Miller won the Georgia Death Race last year with a time of 10:27 [on a slightly faster course than this year’s], and he was only 18. I understand he’ll be back to race this year and may prove to be good competition for you. How do you plan to run against him?
I think we’ll be pretty close. I think I’m better at steep up-and-downs and he’s better at fire-road sections. This race has quite a bit of both, so we’ll probably flip flop back and forth. We’ll just have to see how it plays out, but he’ll be good competition for sure.
Speaking of steep ups and downs, how was the adjustment from running in the Rockies to training in the Appalachians?
Don’t get me wrong, the mountains in the West definitely have some gnarly trails. But I actually feel the trails here are even more technical than in Colorado, and I was surprised by that. It’s also a lot more humid and hot here in Virginia. The mountains aren’t as big, though we do have some 2,000-foot climbs.
I noticed on your blog that pepperoni is your go-to race snack. What else do you like to eat before, during and after your runs?
I try to just eat a lot all of the time because I burn a lot of calories. I’m not trying to get to an ideal race weight for these ultras, because I want to be strong and have a lot of energy.
Before races I’ll eat a lot of pasta, meat and something with quite a bit of fat. What I eat during depends on what distance I run. Anywhere from 50K to 50 miles I’ll eat mostly gel, or drink Tailwind, an electrolyte drink with a lot of amino acids.
Anything longer than that—pepperoni. It’s magic. It’s kinda weird, but it hasn’t failed me yet.
What methods of training contribute to your success?
It’s hard to try to train the whole year round, so I use at least one month in the winter to relax from the miles and work out in other ways. I’ll mountain bike once in a while, but I really like to go hiking and skiing. With skiing, you can really conquer downhill fears and practice moving quickly down steep terrain, and that transfers into my running.
What are you hoping to do career-wise after graduation?
I have a job opportunity as a Salomon rep, but I eventually want to work for a geology-consulting company. Specifically, I want to determine the geochemistry of rivers and lakes, and stop companies from dumping waste and stuff.
Do you think you’ll stay out East or move back to the West after graduating?
Definitely out West. I like Virginia, but the West is definitely home for me.
My girlfriend still has one more year in school, and is going to study abroad in Ecuador next fall. She also just started trail running about a year and a half ago, and I like to save one or two runs a week for her. So I may stick around here for one more year, or go check out Ecuador with her. We’ll see!
For those who are new to running ultras—perhaps as young are you were when you started—what is the most important advice you could give?
Have fun with it, and don’t get discouraged. I did so horrible in my first ultra; I had to walk the last eight miles. There’s a steep learning curve, but if you can get through the first one, the others will come easier.