Mike Foote’s transformation from average trail runner to elite ultra-distance trail runner happened thanks to the luck of a lottery. He thought ultrarunning sounded “neat” and wanted to check out the Wasatch 100 in Utah in 2009. Turns out, it was the last day to register for the lottery, and Foote decided he should at least throw his name in the hat. He got in. Empowered by the challenge, Foote upped his miles that year, raced the Old Gabe 50K in Bozeman (he got lost for 3.5 hours) and HURL Elkhorn 50-miler in Helena (which he won by nearly 2 hours) to train, posted for Wasatch and finished the grueling course in ninth place. Impressive for anyone, but especially for a kid with decidedly non-outdoor Midwestern roots, who started running a little bit in college just to get in shape.
The 29-year-old’s running résumé now includes setting the course record at Wyoming’s Big Horn 100-miler (18:36:42) in 2012, being the first American finisher at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in France the past two years (third in 2012 and 11th in 2011) and winning the Ultra Marathon de los Andes in Chile last October, just to name a few.
The snapshots of your life can make it sound rather glamorous. Can you shed some light on what it’s really like to be an ultrarunner and what you have to do to make it work?
Wow, to make this work—how long do you want to be on the phone?—it’s so glamorous that I’m currently moving boxes around in the basement of the store (Foote works full time at the Runner’s Edge running store in Missoula, Mont.). Sure, it can be glamorous, sometimes. But a lot of the time, you’re just grinding to a get a paycheck and grinding to get the training done.
For me, I need a home base and it’s essential to have understanding employers. Runner’s Edge is a team-oriented business and completely supportive. I need the flexibility to train and travel. I also coach the Hellgate High School cross country team. Missoula is such a great community, and a grounding place to call home.
You signed on with The NorthFace as a sponsor after your 11th-place finish at UTMB in 2011. You’ve come a long way since the Team Foote T-shirts (Foote sold 100 T-shirts to raise money to travel to UTMB in 2011), what’s it like to be sponsored?
Those shirts were a hit! Missoula is such a tight-knit community, people wanted to support me. I still see people wearing them. And knowing 100 people were sporting those shirts while I was on course during my first UTMB helped me mentally. But, my hope is I don’t have to con my friends into buying T-shirts anymore.
TNF is really invested in trail running and ultrarunning. Their support has opened up more opportunities to travel and run in some of the world’s most competitive races. It’s neat to be part of a team and draw inspiration and energy from my teammates.
Last year was a huge year for you. What made the difference? What do you have scheduled for 2013?
It was the first year I didn’t work as a ski patroller, and went from 120+ ski days a year down to around 30. I prioritized with getting a better base early in the spring on top of the base and volume I’ve been building over the past few years. I was able to put in some of my longest back-to-back weeks and included days with 10-12 hours of running. Running consistently and at a higher level throughout the year made for great overall results, and really helped to build my mental confidence for UTMB. I also started working with a friend who coaches endurance athletes.
I’m still figuring out my 2013 season, but I know I’m going back for UTMB. I’m stubborn and want to run the full course—third time is the charm. [The course was rerouted in 2011 due to a mudslide and shortened in 2012 due to weather.] The Ronda Dels Cims Skyrunner race in Andorra sounds steep and gnarly [which means fun in Foote parlance], with more than 40,000 feet of vertical gain. And I’ll definitely run some of The North Face Endurance Challenge Races.
You’re an athlete plus you coach a high school cross country team. How do your two roles play off each other and what do your students think of your running?
When I started training with a coach, it helped me get more perspective on being a coach. As for the kids, I like seeing them work towards their goals. [Foote just accompanied one of his cross country runners, Adam Peterman, on his quest to travel from the lowest point in the contiguous U.S., Death Valley, to the highest point, 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, under their own power, traveling 155 miles in 31 hours. Read about it on Foote's blog.].
My racing definitely gives me some good street cred with them, although they can’t specifically wrap their heads around it. There are things only an ultrarunner nerd knows, then there are the things only kids with an ultrarunner nerd coach know—they read all the trail running blogs and keep up with races and runners.
The trail racing community is rather close-knit with competitors becoming friends to the point of family and runners pacing and crewing for perceived rivals. How do you explain the bonds?
There’s a saying along the lines of “great relationships are forged in battle,” and that is true in trail running. We have a shared suffering that exists on a whole other level, and it perpetuates the community-oriented sense we all feel. We check up on one another, crew, pace, cheer and then there’s the time spent together on the trail. It fosters something a little different.
About The Author:
Allison Pattillo is a senior contributing editor to competitor.com and Competitor magazine.