So how’s that New Year’s resolution coming along — the one about getting more aerobic exercise by setting aside time for running, jogging, walking or biking on a regular basis? No, me neither. And this winter we can’t even blame our sluggish habits on too much ice or snow clogging local trails and roadways. Maybe what we really need is a bit of homegrown inspiration. How about three Paltzonians who just completed a 100-kilometer ultramarathon in the Texas Hill Country on January 9?
You heard that right: 100 kilometers, or a little over 62 miles, run in a single day with barely a pause to grab a snack or rehydrate. Called the Bandera Endurance Run, the event proudly bills itself as happening on “a trail of rugged and brutal beauty where everything cuts, stings or bites” through the Hill Country State Preserve, near San Antonio.
Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? But Jason Friedman, whose 9:23 finish was fifth overall among the men in the Bandera and second in the Masters’ division, doesn’t even consider himself an “elite” runner. Neither do his friends Philip Vondra and Kali Bird, who both also ran very well. In fact, Bird, who runs an outdoor guide service, had never previously done an ultramarathon in her life. Bandera was the first-ever 100K for all three, and none of them went into it expecting to be among the top finishers.
“Last year Jay twisted my arm to do a 50K,” recalls the London-born Vondra, who commutes to Wall Street to work as a Latin American options broker. His competitive athletic life began with rowing; “I almost made the ’96 Olympics,” he says. After moving to New Paltz in 2003, where his wife Siobhan attended university, he got into trail running and began doing duathlons and marathons. He has run the Survival of the Shawangunks (SOS) triathlon nine times.
The SOS was one of the places where he kept crossing paths with Friedman, a Rockland County native who took up track in high school. Now a Cornell-trained emergency room doctor at Northern Dutchess Hospital, Friedman frequently volunteered at SOS doing “medical stuff” for the triathletes. Eventually figuring out that they lived not far from each other, the pair got into a habit of training together, meeting at the midpoint between their houses where a trail heads up into the Gunks. They did their first 50K race in Hyde Park about a year ago. “Jay won it; I came in second,” says Vondra.
That success whetted their appetites for more ultramarathoning (defined as any run longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon). Long-term, they set their sights on the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which takes place each June in California’s Sierra Nevada, from Squaw Valley to Auburn. “It’s the oldest 100-mile race in the US, and also the most famous,” says Friedman. “It started out as a horserace, the Tevis Cup. In 1974 one of the riders, Gordie Ainsleigh — his horse came up lame and he decided he wanted to do it on foot. Everyone said he was crazy.” But Ainsleigh finished the course in a little under 24 hours, and a mega-footrace was born.
The Western States 100 is now a very prestigious competition, constituting the national championships and one of the four races that make up the US Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. And it’s tough to get in, since it is limited to fewer than 400 participants per year because it passes through federally protected parkland. Some top-ranked runners have guaranteed spots, and coming in first or second in some of the 50K races like Bandera earns a runner a “Golden Ticket.” But 270 slots are handed out by lottery, and to qualify for one of the 3,000 lottery tickets, you need to do well enough in your division in one of those shorter ultramarathons. Bandera is the earliest one is the year that’s a qualifier, so that’s where Friedman, Vondra and Bird all decided to give it a shot.
The Bandera course is mostly desert, with more than 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Friedman says that “the footing is very good,” for the most part, but the trails are often rocky, and runners sometimes have to plunge right on through patches of sotol, a spiny, cactuslike plant in the same family as yucca and agave. But they got lucky with the weather this year — “40 to 60 degrees, pretty much ideal conditions,” according to Vondra — and course records were broken in both the men’s and women’s divisions.
Pacing himself carefully, Friedman overtook many higher-ranked runners as they ran out of steam late in the course, doing well enough in fifth place to qualify for the 2017 Western States lottery. Placing second in the men’s 45-to-49 age group scored Vondra a lottery ticket as well. Bird “finished strong in 13:31, as the 12th-place female” in “her first run ever longer than 31 miles,” according to Friedman.
What did it take to work up to a 100K race in less than a year? Dedication, certainly, but not as singleminded as you might imagine. These are regular folks with full-time jobs and families, not professional athletes with cushy sponsorships from running gear manufacturers. Friedman and Vondra typically meet at 5 or 6 a.m. on weekend mornings for long runs of 15 to 20 miles or more, so that they can spend the afternoons with their young daughters.
“During the week, 45 minutes to an hour is usually enough,” says Friedman, “like a regular hobby.” He usually runs about “ten to 12 miles a day on average,” but worked up to 100 miles and more per week during the months leading up to the Bandera. Vondra says that his weekly training time averaged 75 miles per week and peaked at 95. Makes that New Year’s resolution regimen of regular walks or jogs suddenly seem much more achievable, doesn’t it?
What’s next, while they wait to hear if their numbers get picked in the Western States lottery? Friedman plans to run a 50K race on Long Island in March. Both he and Vondra will compete in the National Trail Championships 50-mile race in Ithaca in June. Expect to hear more in the future from these gung-ho amateur athletes whose solid performances last month in the Texas desert have put them on the national radar of the ultramarathon universe.