The everyman ultrarunner

CU grad student runs 12 100-mile races in 12 months

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Courtesy of Greg Salvesen

Greg Salvesen, an astrophysics graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, didn’t compete on his high school track team. His running hobby began in college with a casual exercise routine, generally peaking around eight miles. In 2008, he completed his first half-marathon. After moving to Boulder in 2009, however, Salvesen was quick to discover that there is no reason to stop moving at 13.1 miles, or even close to it.

In January, Salvesen completed a quest of finishing 12 100-mile races in 12 months — a feat that seems to burst through the normal barriers of human convention. The 12 100-milers project was fueled by a love of running and the community that it fosters, and was also a way to cope with the passing of fellow Boulder ultramarathoner, Marcy Servita, who lost a battle with pancreatic cancer last year.

While Salvesen’s running accomplishments seem to place him into a category of the world’s top runners, his humble nature won’t let you make such assumptions so easily.

“I’m not one of these elite runners. I don’t win races, I don’t have a strict training plan or diet, I don’t even think about that stuff. Maybe I should. Really I just like the community. I’m generally pretty social, so it’s just a fun way to see your friends… That’s kind of what it is for me,” says Salvesen, adding, “It just sounds harder than it really is. It’s hard to convey that. People don’t believe that. But really, it’s just another sport.”

So just how does one go from eight-mile exercise runs to casually referring to 100-mile runs as “just another sport”?

“You meet some bad influences and this stuff seems normal,” says Salvesen.

Shortly after moving to Boulder, Salvesen joined a local running group, The Boulder Banditos, from which there was no turning back.

With encouragement from his new running community, Salvesen soon found himself running his first marathon in Estes Park. Not long after that, he was running his second marathon, this one near his hometown in Massachusetts. He managed, however, to hit his first major running roadblock in the Massachusetts marathon — literally. While making a late-race pass, Salvesen ran face-first into a light post.

“I sort of staggered around and fell down and wound up hitting my chin and got up again and staggered into another pole,” he says. “Long story short, somebody saw this happen and I wound up going to the hospital and getting stitches in my face.”

The stitches didn’t hold Salvesen down for long. Since the failed Massachusetts marathon, he estimates that he’s run about 80 races, most of which have been ultramarathons, with his inspiration tracing back to the community that the sport is built around.

It’s what his friends were doing, he says, and just seemed logical. The transition to ultramarathons, and especially 100-mile races, however, wasn’t easy at first.

“The first couple of times were miserable and terrible and you learn a lot of things,” he says.

Some of these lessons included how to take care of your feet and how to deal with nutrition and hydration.

After running a combined eight 100-mile races in 2012 and 2013, in January of 2014 Salvesen registered to run the HURT 100-mile race in Hawaii. This race consists of running a 20-mile loop five times, with a total of 25,000 feet of elevation gain. Even among the select crowd of 100-mile runners, HURT is known to be a grueling event.

The morning after completing HURT, Salvesen received a text from Servita. Servita had just completed her first 100-mile race the previous September, a race in California for which Salvesen flew out to support her. He thought that it may have been a congratulatory text, but when they later spoke on the phone Salvesen learned of the devastating news Servita had to give him — Servita had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

While the news was shocking, Salvesen says that he initially didn’t appreciate how serious the situation was. After returning to Boulder, however, the gravity of the situation began to sink in. Only two weeks later she was noticeably deteriorating, and just two months after the initial phone call, Servita passed away.

After Servita’s memorial service, Salvesen and a couple of friends from the Boulder running community had the urge to leave town. Naturally, they pointed their car in the direction of a 100-mile race happening in Zion National Park in Utah. They soon discovered that the race was completely full, but after explaining their situation to the race organizer, they were allowed to run.

It was around this time that Salvesen decided he would run one 100-mile race every month through January 2015. He didn’t push it as a grand memorial race series for Servita. He just looked at it as “something to do.” Rather than grieving at home, these races gave Salvesen a chance to be outside and clear his mind.

“When you do these runs, you have a lot of time to yourself and it’s a good way to do your own thing,” he says. “You’re in your own head for a long time.”

So the quest was on. It turned out to be as much of a travel quest as it was a running quest. Following the Utah race, Salvesen’s monthly 100-mile race plan wove a path through Vermont, Wyoming, British Columbia, Arizona, Colorado, Alabama and Hawaii.

While Salvesen enjoyed hopping around these various locations, eventually the travel started to wear him down. For three of the four weekends in any given month he was either preparing for a race, racing, or recovering from a race. This schedule often tore him away from the weekend runs that his Boulder running friends were putting together.

But Salvesen stuck to his commitment. As the end of the 2014 calendar year approached, Ryan Smith and Silke Koester, founding members of the Rocky Mountain Runners, decided that the last race of the calendar year ought to be a special one.

Smith and Koester began planning the inaugural “Boulder Badass,” a 106- mile race throughout Boulder that would include no repeating routes and would finish with the completion of the Boulder Skyline Traverse — an infamous route that includes summiting Flagstaff Mountain, Green Mountain, Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak. And in an effort to ensure that the “Badass” factor was emphasized, Smith and Koester’s route included descending the mountain after each peak, whereas the traditional Skyline Traverse remains up on the ridge that connects the peaks. Salvesen estimates that this special route kink tacked about 8,000 feet of climbing to the end of the race.

The “Boulder Badass” turned into a display of Boulder running camaraderie. Friends set up aid stations every eight miles along the route, and at times there would be 30 people waiting at the stations to support Salvesen and the other runners. Erin and Matt Shaw hiked up South Boulder peak at 2 a.m. to provide the runners with down jackets, food and hot soup. Salvesen says that he was never alone during the event.

In total, Salvesen was awake for 48 straight hours during the run, of which he was on his feet for 32. The race was strategically set up to start and finish at Salvesen’s house. Upon finishing, he walked inside, showered and went to bed.

For the final race of the series, Salvesen returned in January 2015 to once more run the HURT race in Hawaii — the same race where he received the news about Servita just one year prior. The completion of HURT marked the end of his quest to complete 12 100-mile races in 12 months.

For the year ahead, Salvesen says he plans to decrease his racing frequency, but by no means does that mean that he’s slowing down. He’s beginning a transition into “multi-day” races. In May, he will be traveling back to Vermont to compete in a 550-mile race with more than 100,000 feet of climbing that has a 10-day time limit.

When asked what his advice would be for any budding runners, whether it be a casual exercise routine or a venture into ultramarathons, Salvesen quotes a brand that has defined running for generations and says, “Just do it.”

“This is something I struggle with in grad school a lot, spending too much time making lists and planning things,” he says. “You put all this effort into a plan and then it never happens … whereas if you just go for it, I think you’ll surprise yourself.”

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