America’s ultimate ultramarathoner hopes to keep his undefeated streak alive.
Note: This interview first appeared on Competitor.com on July 19, 2010.
In the last four years, Geoff Roes has run seven 100-mile races. He’s won every single one of them.
His most recent victory—perhaps the sweetest of his unbeaten streak—was just last month at the Western States 100. In that race, Roes nearly dropped out at mile 46–but true to his patient, persevering nature, he methodically reeled in his opponents, taking the lead for good with 12 miles to go. His winning time, 15:07:00, smashed Scott Jurek’s course record by over 29 minutes.
Originally from upstate New York, in 2005 Roes moved to Juneau, Alaska, where he now works as a cook at Rainbow Foods. He is currently training for Europe’s most difficult foot race: the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc at the end of August, a 103-mile ultramarathon in the Alps with over 30,000 feet of total elevation gain.
We recently caught up with Roes to see what keeps him going for hours on end.
You are unbeaten in 100-mile races. What is the secret of your success?
I don’t really know. I mean, for a while as I did 100-mile races, I thought that the 100 is really my distance and that I’m just really suited for it for some reason or another. And then in the past year I’ve had some good 50-mile races. I just had a solid run at the Way Too Cool 50K this spring, and so I realized maybe I’m suited for any of these distances more than I thought. But I’ve certainly had the most success in the 100. Probably more than anything, I guess I’m just pretty stubborn and patient.
One of your other strengths is your mental discipline in races to let people go and then reel them back in like you did at Western States. Where does that discipline, that intestinal fortitude, come from? Can you work on that aspect in training or is it just your personality?
I think it’s more likely my personality. I like to think of myself as a pretty patient person in all facets of my life. I’m not one to force myself through any kind of serious suffering in my training. I kind of make my training fun. If I’m not enjoying any aspect of my training, I change it up. I keep it pretty fun. If anything, I’m the opposite as far as training is concerned. I don’t really do a whole lot in my training to prepare for the difficult times and some of the kind of patience and stubbornness that it takes in racing. Through races, I can kind of accept that it is part of the race experience. I’ve done seven 100-mile races now and I’ve had tough patches in every one of them. Each time it is a little bit easier to deal with that. It’s become a consistent thing. It happens in every 100-mile race for me.
So how do you get through these rough patches?
I really focus on just taking care of my body and mind. As soon as I start to struggle in a race, I immediately stop focusing on what everyone else is doing. I just keep eating well and keep hydrating. I try to keep my mind focused on the fact that my race isn’t going to improve at all if I can’t take care of my own body.
Some ultra runners are really hard on themselves in training, putting themselves through certain deprivations, like reducing fluids and fuel during their training runs. Do you subscribe to this deprivation training approach?
I don’t really at all. Just by virtue of where I live I do a lot of running in some pretty crappy weather for sure. But it is more by necessity than by design. I’m more into kind of enjoying my running as a whole. I go out and run what I feel like running each day. I definitely take ample food and water with me on my training runs. I train the same way I race, so race day definitely isn’t any sort of treat. But it’s a different approach. The other approach certainly works for some people.
What is your hydration and fueling like on race day?
Obviously, the hydration depends a lot on the temperature. With hydration, I like to focus a lot on taking in liquids in really steady and small quantities. I take water one ounce at a time. I’ll take anything from 20 to 50 ounces of water an hour depending on temperature. Also, depending on temperature, I have a pretty specific plan for taking in electrolytes. I’ll use Endurolytes or S Caps and try to have a certain amount that I try to take consistently through the race depending on the temperature—somewhere between one and three electrolyte pills an hour. For calories, I keep it simple and use almost entirely gels for all my calories during racing. I try to take in, if I can, 300 calories an hour. Sometimes my stomach doesn’t want that much, but when I’m processing 300 an hour, I know I’m doing well. I know that my energy is going to hold up pretty well. Sometimes I got to cut back to 150 to 200, but Western States went really well for me—hydration and nutrition-wise. I was able to keep up with everything. I kept my body fueled.
You have a big rematch—the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc—coming up at the end of next month. There, you will be facing off against your Western States rival, Kilian Jornet, on his home turf, where he is the defending champion and holds the course record. How are you getting yourself ready for that race?
I’m going to approach it the way I approach all my races, which is to head over there and try to have fun, run, and let a strategy unfold on race day. I know it’s definitely going to be a super tough race. In my mind, Kilian is the favorite in this race—without a doubt. But even at Western States, my approach was to get prepared physically and mentally, show up at the race, and let it play out. That’s definitely my plan. I’m definitely focusing on running as much vertical as I can for the next month in training. I kind of do a ton of vertical in my training anyway. Kilian is an amazingly strong climber. Climbing and descending he seems really solid, so I’ll try to focus on that. I think I can certainly hold with him on the flat ground. I’ll try to do as much last-minute work that I can do on ups and downs.
Most non-ultra runners do some sort of high-intensity repeat sessions, like quarters or mile repeats in order to prepare for their race. Do you do some sort of repeat workouts to prepare for your 100-mile races, such as hill climb repeats? Or do you just go out and run as far as possible, incorporating climbs as part of those runs?
I just pretty much go out and run. I used to have a lot more structure in my training. I would do various repeats, hills, and tempo workouts. But now, there are some days where I’ll do 8,000-10,000 feet of vertical in a training run a couple times a week, so I don’t really worry about doing hills on a specific days, because I tend to get a ton of vertical in anyway.
How do you go from running all these hours out alone in the wilderness to showing up in a race where all of a sudden you are out there to beat people and win a race?
I think I do so much of my training here in areas where I live right in the middle of Juneau, right in the city. It’s not a major city, but if you go a mile from town, you are in total wilderness. You can be out for a five-hour run and generally not see anybody. I think that by doing so much of my training like that, it helps a lot on race day—especially for 100 milers. I think I alluded to this earlier, but I think it’s not really important to focus on other runners, especially when you are struggling. I think the fact that I’m used to doing so much training off in the mountains by myself makes it easier on race day to focus on my race. And there are times when you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on around you with the other competitors, but I think by nature and instinct, most people are fairly competitive. So you can thrive off like-minded people trying to do the same thing. Sometimes races feel like a treat to me, because it’s cool to share the experience with all the other people. I kind of get excited to be out there with hundreds of people who are trying to get to the same point as I am as fast as they can.
Back to your unbeaten streak in 100-mile races: Are you out to keep the streak alive? Is the streak a negative in any way, where you have pressure to try and keep it going? Or do you not care about it?
I think for the most part it is kind of out there. It’s a fun little fact. I guess at this point running a 100 miler has a little bit more significance with me than a 50 miler does. My success is definitely something I am kind of proud of. I’m certainly kind of aware of it. It makes a 100 miler a little more special than something it already is, and certainly I don’t feel like I need to win every race in order for it to be a successful race. I definitely thrive off the success I’ve had at that distance so far. It certainly gives me some confidence, which is always a nice thing.
There were a lot of course changes in this year’s Western States due to the snow. Because of those changes, some people who know the course really well have suggested that it was faster this year and so you set a different course record. With that in mind, do you have any intentions to return to Western States to run the old course or do you not care?
That’s not really much of a factor for me as far as going back to Western States at some point. I’m likely to run Western States again at some point, because it’s a really exciting race, but I don’t feel at all that I’m motivated specifically to try and run it on the normal course or whatever. I would have rather run the normal course, because the rerouted section of the course was nice, but from what I’ve heard, the normal course has sections of nice ridgeline. Most of the re-route was on gradual downhill double track, which isn’t necessarily my favorite terrain. I was kind of bummed that we needed to end up doing the re-route. But I just ran the course that was out there to run that day. If I run it again, it won’t be because I’m motivated by that at all.
What kind of advice can you offer to someone contemplating running their first ultramarathon?
You have to find a way to make it enjoyable on a day-to-day basis, because it takes so much time training. The races are so long. If it’s not something that you are really enjoying most every day, it’s going to be very difficult. It’s different for everyone. Some people really like the discipline and suffering aspect and other people like it to be more low key.
You run for hours and hours every day. What is going through your head all that time?
Everything. [He laughs.] It’s no different than if you were to go out in your car and drive for 16 hours. Some runs I have more significant-feeling thoughts and other times I’m thinking about what I’m eating for dinner. It’s a little bit of everything. I go through phases where I feel mentally that I’m in this groove for every run. I’m having these deep, meditative thoughts. And then I go through phases where I think about really frivolous, mundane stuff.