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It’s easy to view elite runners as superhuman. When they’re cruising to 100-mile victories or eviscerating speed records, they sure don’t seem like mortals. But the best athletes weren’t always that way. They made mistakes, grew and received guidance from more experienced mentors.
Trail Runner took the opportunity to ask a number of highly accomplished trail runners about the best advice they ever received. We hope you’ll find the result helpful and inspiring—or at least take it as a reminder that we all have to start somewhere.
Magdalena Boulet, 43, Oakland, CA
1st at Western States in 2015; Olympic marathoner
“Rest is part of training, not avoiding training.”
Magdalena Boulet may reach the finish line faster than most of us can imagine, but at least one part of her running experience is familiar to runners of all levels.
“In my early marathon career, I was eager to improve as quickly as possible,” she says, “and often would ask [my coach] Jack [Daniels] if I could train more or train harder.”
Boulet ran on sick days and through minor niggles, needlessly turning small injuries into big ones. Daniels, a legendary running coach, eventually convinced her of the value of rest and began putting complete rest days into her training schedule.
Now, rest and recovery form a core part of Boulet’s philosophy. “I avoid prolonged setback by taking a few days off to recover from an illness or an injury,” she says. “I recover from big workouts better and stay injury free for longer periods of time.”
After all, she adds, “Consistency is what leads to improvements.”
Joe Gray, 33, Colorado Springs, CO
World Mountain Running Champion, 2016
Before he began crushing mountain races left and right, Joe Gray ran competitively for Oklahoma State. At first, he says, “I was under the impression that you could just feel great all the time and run fast solely based on fitness.”
His coach, Dick Weis, disabused him of that notion: “He simply told me, ‘Running hurts. It’s not going to be easy. When you run your best time, you won’t feel great.’”
“I realized at that moment it was not solely about your amazing workouts, talent or past races,” Gray continues. “You had to work hard to reach amazing feats during races. I embrace that today in my professional career. Nine times out of 10, a bad day means you didn’t want it bad enough.”
Meghan Arbogast, 55, Cool, CA
10 Western States 100 finishes (nine of those in the top 10); four-time Olympic Marathon Trails qualifier
“Don’t try to make it happen. Let it happen.”
Meghan Arbogast’s coach through two of her Olympic Trials, Warren Finke, told her this before a marathon.
“The premise was that I had done all the training leading up to the race to make it happen,” Arbogast says, “so now I just needed to relax and let it happen, rather than overthink it and worry about what everyone else around me was doing.”
Or, put simply: “The work is done before the race begins.”
Gina Lucrezi, 33, Boulder, CO
1st at Silver Rush 50-miler in 2014; Mount Whitney FKT holder
“You’ll never know if you don’t try.”
At the start of her collegiate running career, Gina Lucrezi tended to race timidly. “I would often get nervous to take the lead in a race, fearing that I would get passed right before the finish,” she says. So she would hold back.
But her coach at DeSales University, Gordon Hornig, pushed her to take chances and see what she was really capable of. Eventually, she listened.
“I ended up a DIII NCAA 10-time All American, because I ran with purpose as opposed to playing games,” Lucrezi says. “I’ve been carrying this advice with me to every starting line ever since.”
Liza Howard, 45, San Antonio, TX
1st at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2010 and 2015
“Find a comfortable pace—and then go a bit slower.”
Early in her career, Liza Howard received this advice about pacing in the first half of an ultra from her coach, Amanda McIntosh.
It took her years to adopt, but it finally paid off. “My times improved noticeably,” Howard says. “The second halves of races also became a lot more enjoyable, and I didn’t have to use the words ‘the wheels fell off’ or ‘death march’ in race reports anymore.”
Mike Foote, 33, Missoula, MT
1st at the Moab Trail Marathon in 2013; 2nd at the Hardrock 100 in 2015
“Perfection is in the process.”
In the summer of 2006, Mike Foote was leading adventure camps for teenagers when he met a veteran mountain guide in the Tetons of Wyoming. The two got to talking about climbing instruction, and the guide recommended Foote instill this philosophy in his kids.
He’s since applied it to various aspects of life, including running.
“Goals and objectives are important, as a part of the process, but in my mind, they lack value standing alone,” he says. “The closest I will get to perfection lies in the day-to-day training. Prioritizing the entire process, versus a single day of racing, has allowed me to have a much more balanced, resilient, interesting and fulfilling relationship with my running.”
David Horton, 66, Lynchburg, VA
1st at the Hardrock 100 in 1992 and 1993; former Appalachian Trail FKT holder
“It never always gets worse.”
Having run close to 90 ultramarathons over four decades, David Horton has gained some wisdom. He came up with this statement some time ago as a way to get through the low points of long races.
At mile 25 of a 50-miler, he explains, it’s easy to think, “‘If I’m dying now, how’s it gonna be at 40 to 50 miles? It’s gonna be worse.’”
Not necessarily, Horton says. Instead of wallowing in dark thoughts, listen to your body, make adjustments if needed and keep running, knowing that there’s a good chance you’ll come out of your mid-race low.
“You always have to think, ‘It never always gets worse,’” he says. “Sometimes it does, but many times it doesn’t.”
Clare Gallagher, 25, Boulder, CO
1st at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2016
“Take it easy (and 100 variations of the platitude).”
Clare Gallagher ran competitively for Princeton before she burst onto the ultra scene last year, winning the Leadville Trail 100 in the second-best time to date.
In other words, she knows what she’s doing—but that didn’t stop the “hordes of people” who started offering her unsolicited, bite-size advice: Don’t race more than three times per year. Don’t run with people slower than you. Run more mountains. Run more trail. Run more road. Take two tablespoons of coconut oil before every meal. Eat more meat. Don’t eat any meat.
“All of this advice told me, ‘Clare, you cannot turn into these crazy people,’” she adds. “The best advice I’ve ever received is: ‘Chill the F out and have fun.’”
Of course, in addition to fostering a healthy attitude, there’s a training component to that, too. “Since I don’t struggle with motivation to train or to compete, my biggest demons are overtraining and overuse injuries,” Gallagher says. “Taking it easy means a lot of things: prioritizing rest days, getting ample sleep, refueling adequately, resting at the smallest sign of injury.”
Devon Yanko, 34, Marin County, CA
1st at Sean O’Brien 100K in 2016; 3rd at Western States in 2016
“When I first started ultrarunning,” Devon Yanko says, “I discovered that I really liked and thrived getting into one comfortable gear and just going on forever.”
But she had trouble pushing beyond those limits to really test her potential. So her friend and mentor, Hollis Lenderking, gave her this “way of reframing” to help her out of the comfort zone.
“This became a motto for me late in a race when I was trying to push hard and get everything out of my potential, instead of staying safe,” Yanko says.
It worked. Among other things, she qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials, where she set a PR of 2:38.
Mario Mendoza, 31, Bend, OR
1st at Cayuga Trails 50 and Moab Trail Marathon in 2015
“Character over performance.”
Mendoza began competing in trail races in 2010. As a newly signed member of the Salomon athlete team, he was eager to prove himself.
“At the time, I thought everything was about how well I could perform in races,” he says. “I thought winning was the only way to achieve success and acceptance.”
But following an especially disappointing race, Mendoza’s team manager, Adam Chase, told him he cared more about what I could bring to the team through character than what my performances looked like.
“This didn’t take away from my competitiveness—I still race my butt off every time,” Mendoza says. “What it did, though, was give me something I could control each time I put running shoes on.
“The truth is, for most runners the ride is not always smooth. You get injured, you get sick, you mess up on your nutrition during an ultra, you get sent the wrong way in a course, you go out too fast,” he explains. “But the way you react to situations really tests your character. And character is something you can take with you in all aspects of life.”
Paul Cuno-Booth (@paulcunobooth) is a freelance writer based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.