David Laney and Ryan Ghelfi share their experiences from running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.
Last year, David Laney became the first American male to finish on the podium at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc since the very first running of the race in 2003. Following this performance and a powerful season, David was voted Ultra Runner of the Year by UltraRunning Magazine. He concedes that the hardest part of his training routine is his weekly 12 pushups.
Ryan Ghelfi is an accomplished ultra runner as well as a ski mountaineer and mountain guide in Northern California. He’s placed twice in the top-10 at the North Face Endurance Challenge and holds the fastest known time for an unsupported run of the Timberline trail, a 40 mile traverse of Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Ryan and David both live and train in the Sierra Nevada range of Northern California and run a coaching business, Trails and Tarmac. Their experiences at last year’s UTMB were documented by Billy Yang in his film Mont Blanc. They joined us at Strava HQ to discuss the importance of camaraderie, having the mental fortitude to chill and drinking lots of Coca-Cola.
What do you eat during a race?
David: The aid station fare [in Europe] is totally different than what you have in the states. There’s like bread and cheese and meat and stuff like that. And over here it’s gummy bears and chips and M&Ms. So you carry a little bit with you. But, everyone always has Coca-Cola. So, I just drink Coca-Cola. All the time.
Ryan: It’s not a health food diet. Sometimes you don’t want to eat anything. Sometimes you’re just like, “OK, what can I get down?” You just kinda tunnel vision, look at the table, grab something and try to keep going.
What do you consider to be hard?
Ryan: It’s a giant spectrum really. There are things that are like the hardest thing you’ve ever done and then there’s sitting on the couch. And everything falls somewhere in there. I think any time you go out to race it’s pretty much as hard as you can go.
David: In every race though there are moments or hours or big chunks when you feel like you can’t handle that. You just have to know that it’s gonna go away and it’s gonna get better.
Once a week I try and do like 12 push-ups. That’s a hard day…
What was the hardest part of racing UTMB?
David: I think the hardest part was letting people go in the first half. I like running in the front and by the halfway point I was like an hour behind the lead. And I thought, “they’re running to fast, they’re going to slow down.” But I don’t know, maybe they were just all gonna start running faster. I think a big part of it is being patient, being able to chill.
Having the mental fortitude to just chill with it. Being able to commit to running easy.
If you do things right in the first 30 miles and just kind of keep within yourself, you can do things in the last half that you normally couldn’t do. You can start running way way harder, without falling apart.
Ryan: I don’t think it leads to some some of enlightenment, I don’t think it leads to anywhere in particular. It’s kind of like, you just get hooked on it. You learn all the time. Especially with ultra running more so than maybe a marathon or something shorter you learn that in these really long races you experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. And sometimes when you’re in those lows you think that it’s impossible, that you’re never going to come out of it. There’s no way you could finish there’s no way you could even take another step. And then you make it back. You just have to keep moving forward.
Ryan: I’d like to do the John Muir Trail.
David: Ever since I was a little kid I’ve had this idea that I’d just put my credit card in my pocket and just start running.
What kind of training do you do?
Ryan: 80% of what we do is we run easy. Easy pace running. The truth is you don’t have to run hard, you’re gonna get there. Just start out by running 10 minutes and you should be able to talk the whole time.
David: I didn’t have a GPS watch until, like 2 years ago maybe. So I just ran by miles. I ran the same loops everyday and I knew, this loop was 10 miles. And then once I got a GPS watch I realized, oh I can run a different loop. And then I have this giant realization that there’s this thing called climbing. And like I can find out how much up hill I went during a week. And that that actually means something. I had no concept of what I was doing in a week. There’s so much information and now I use all of it. It’s changed the way I race and how I write workouts. I look at segment explorer and that’s like how I start every morning.
80% of what we do is we run easy.
How much course recon do you do?
Ryan: I went over there [to Chamonix for UTMB] like four weeks early and tried to run the whole course. Like, you know how long it’s gonna take how big the climb is. If you know a course, no matter what it is, it’s a huge advantage. I ran almost all of the course prior to UTMB. I also got injured doing it, hence didn’t finish. So there’s like pluses and minuses. But if you have the opportunity, if you know a course, no matter what it is, it’s a huge advantage.
David: Yeah I agree. I got there not soon enough to do the entire course, but soon enough to do some of the key sections. Getting there and just being familiar with that chunk of trail made a huge difference.
How do you manage the mental side of your running?
David: When it’s going really well, it just feels likes skiing or mountain biking it doesn’t feel like running. And when it’s going bad I think it’s helpful to be able to tell yourself, well it’s hot out and that’s why my body is slowing down. But it’s not that hot and I can deal with this. Just being able to convince yourself that this is why your body is feeling the way it is, but you don’t have to slow down. Like, oh my leg hurts. Well that’s because you just ran 80 miles. But you don’t have to slow down. You just have to tell yourself what’s going on, but you don’t have to respond a certain way. It’s going to go away.
You’ll feel good again eventually. Some day you’ll feel good again.
In what ways has your experience with the running community enhanced your life?
Ryan: Kids that are like 17 or 18 they always ask me, should I run in college? And I always say, unequivocally, yes. All my friends I made in college I made on the cross country team. You wake up you run your morning double. The relationships you build through athletics are pretty strong. You have that shared suffering, you’ve had those shared experiences, you’ve gotten through the fire, so to speak. Having good buddies you can rely on who you can go train with you can just do so much more. If you just lived in your own little island you wouldn’t get as far.
How much time do you spend training?
Ryan: I probably run like 500-600 hours in a year. A lot of weeks are like 15 hours. A lot of ultra runners run a lot more, but I don’t think running 30 hours a week is really good for you.
How do you train for something like the UTMB or CCC that has so many steep and technical climbs and descents?
David: That’s pretty much what I did during the summer, I hiked up big mountains and I’d run down. At altitudes like that with that steep and that technical of terrain you can’t really run, it’s not even efficient to. And running down just being able to navigate the technical terrain and be confident in that I think is the biggest thing. You can go a lot faster then you think you want to. Pretty soon that starts feeling smooth. And then you fall. And then you get used to it and you forget you fell.
Ryan: I think the movie doesn’t really do justice to what we do. Everyone hikes. There are different paces, but everyone’s hiking. You call it running, but you’re moving through the terrain as efficiently as possible.
How does the mental demand of running a marathon compare to running an ultra?
Ryan: It’s a lot different. If someone asked me what’s harder, a trail 50k or a marathon I would say the marathon. You’re kind of doing the same thing the whole time. You don’t get to recover on any of the nice downhills. One thing I will say is in an ultra there are more peaks and valleys. You go through a lot more mental and physical lows and highs. In a marathon you could be feeling good, feeling good, and if things start going downhill at mile 20 you’re probably not coming back. But in ultras you totally do and I think that’s the great life lesson you get. It’s probably a product of the terrain a little bit. Mentally I think it’s easier to get over though. Because you might finish the race feeling great even if you felt terrible at mile 12.
David: A marathon is like a really hard math problem that makes your brain hurt and it’s really acute. An ultra is a lot more like a boxing match that just goes all day. It’s really hard, but you don’t have to think that much. Just keep getting punched in the face and your OK.
Both Ryan and David are planning on returning to Chamonix this August to run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc again. Follow their training on Strava as they prepare for this and other ultra adventures.
All UTMB photos by Matt Trappe.